The Impact of Social Media on SEO

By Al Kao, Natural Search Supervisor, Content Solutions

Social media and social media marketing is all the rage. It's no longer within the confines of the SEO world - it's all over the advertising, marketing, and sales industry. AdAge has articles, daily, that discuss social media whether it’s Twitter, Facebook, or something else. CRM Magazine and SellinPower, industry trade publications, both have regular columns that deal with social media marketing.

As a marketer, the social media channel is fascinating. As an "old school" SEO, this stuff is vile. Why? Because there is incredible disorder and chaos in social media marketing. From a marketing point of view, social media is still difficult to measure. Each social media channel has different measurement tools.

Facebook has its own "insight" dashboard. Twitter displays number of followers - with the caveat that the more followers you have the better. (I hold the view that the real measure for Twitter is the number of "retweets" or "RT" as that signals followers are actually paying attention to your tweets and therefore, retweeting to share with others). Do these metrics really mean anything? It's different for everyone.

From an SEO point of view, social media channels don't provide a lot of direct SEO value. The links from social media channels are almost always "nofollow" meaning no page authority (i.e. PageRank) passes from site to site. That means link-building with social media channels is not very strong. But this is at a surface level.

More than Links: Traffic & Link-baiting

While social media channels' backlinks are "poor" for SEO, social media website traffic is not. Twitter and Facebook, for example, drive traffic to websites, and by some accounts, LOTS of traffic. For these social media sites, existing branding and popularity of the brand seems to be important. Known brands enjoy Twitter followers and Facebook fans, for instance, more than unknown brands. But social media sites are still, nonetheless, good traffic drivers.

This screen shots of my personal site shows that Twitter and Facebook are part of my top traffic referral sources.

Click to view larger image.
Traffic Referral Sources

Likewise, a friend of mine with a start up recently disclosed to me that his company, which specializes in aerial photography, recently won a client after one of his Twitter tweets.

To benefit SEO, social media is a channel to promote content and hopefully attract quality inbound links. This is called "link-baiting". Previous link-baiting was almost exclusively through directories, blogs, and press releases. Social media channels allow for greater, faster, and often more cost-effect channels for promoting link-bait.

The added benefit is that there is a little bit more "transparency". Similar to how blogs allowed for a bit more casual engagement between company and customers, social media takes it to another level and makes it more candid, even fun. When well executed, this added transparency and candidness helps to generate more inbound links and deep-linking (links to interior pages of a site which helps to strengthen the overall link popularity of a site).

Is Social Media Sustainable?

As an SEO, I'm inclined to think social media is NOT sustainable. For all the potential with social media, it is yet to prove its sustainability. A few years ago, the rage in social media was MySpace and MySpace marketing. Ruper Murdoch and News Corp bought MySpace at the height of its popularity in 2005. Since then it has ceded ground to Facebook. A recent study demonstrated the rise and fall of different social media sites.

However, to an extent, social media is helpful in a niche specialty of SEO known as "reputation management". Even before the rise of MySpace and Twitter, companies that experimented with blogs faced spectacular successes and colossal failures.

Five years ago, Mazda received backlash over a failed viral video and blog that it tried to promote. The apparent lack of transparency came off as thinly veiled chicanery which drew the ire of the intended audience. The blog and video was eventually pulled.

Similarly, last year, Motrin suffered the ire of moms on Twitter over a marketing video that portrayed wearing babies as fashion. The ire of moms using Twitter (also blogs) to spread the message eventually forced Johnson & Johnson to pull the video.

Social media helps to generate negative buzz but also is part of the solution in cleaning up and maintaining a good corporate reputation.

Real-Time Search

But the real interesting development for SEO is "real time search". Real-time search is being pioneered by Twitter - and perhaps not intentionally. Google has taken notice.

The Twitter episode with Motrin was a prelude to the power of real time search. Recent current events, however, put real time search on notice. Both the Iranian election and death of Michael Jackson generated huge responses on Twitter. In fact right after the confirmation of Michael Jackson's death, articles quickly appeared discussing how users on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites spread the news even before news media outlets.

Real-time search brings a new dynamic to search engine optimization. Old school SEO says that proper search engine optimization takes a long time and is an on-going effort. But with real-time search, SEO may take on a new dimension to include "instant SEO".

SEO, after all, is increasing visibility during search queries. SEO may need to change to include "foundational SEO" (read: old, traditional SEO) and "real-time" SEO (or "instant" SEO).

It is difficult to say what new developments will come, but just as Twitter took everyone by surprise and inadvertently pioneered real-time search, its maturation and how it changes search will be interesting to see.


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