Social Media’s Impact on Search and why SMO strategy is important

Social Media ServicesAs most people who are involved in the Search Marketing industry will know, SEOmoz have just released the results of their latest search ranking factors survey. It will come as no surprise that social metrics are reported to play such a significant role in the determination of the overall ranking of a page. Indeed, their impact will only increase as social media continues to play an increasing role in the way users choose to spend their time on the Internet.

As the detailed explanations of the social metrics ranking data show, Twitter is identified as the most important social signal, but not unsurprisingly the data also shows a correlation between Facebook metrics such as shares and comments with high-ranking sites.

SEOmoz run this survey once every two years and when comparing this latest data to their last survey in 2009, there have been some slight changes particularly concerning social metrics.

SEOmoz 2011 SEO Ranking Factors

Overview - SEOmoz 2011 SEO Ranking Factors

Although there is no concrete rule book that defines all the factors that Google or Bing make use of in their search engine algorithms – in fact  Google claims to have more than 200 parts to its algorithm (which of course they don’t share) – there are still however many good resources out there that provide insights into which factors are important. SEOmoz’s survey being one and SEJ have also written a good article that is worth reading.

Much can be determined however from testing, testing, testing, and of course listening when the search engines do come out and make public statements. In his interview 6 months ago with both companies, Danny Sullivan managed to get confirmation and some answers around how and which social signals impact organic search listings.

This is really just an extension of how search has being working for a while: authority. One of Google’s primary metrics is PageRank, a factor which categorises the authority of a particular page. If a web page has a number of backlinks pointing to it from authoritative pages (i.e. ones with a high PageRank) then this is one of the many factors – and in fact one of the most important as we can see in the chart – that helps determine ranking.

That’s Web Authority. The use of social metrics brings into play human authority. If many people ‘like’ a page or tweet a URL, it shows in some fashion that the page is popular.

After all, the ultimate goal for a search engine is to show a user the most relevant results based on the search they make. So what better way is there to determine relevancy for users than to measure and assess how, and how many other users, are rating and voting a page.

As of the end of last year, Bing (in the US) started to incorporate Facebook ‘like’ information directly into their search results. If a user is logged in to Facebook or has linked their Facebook account to Bing then they might see personalised results based on what the friends in their network have liked. Given Bing’s (aka Microsoft) close relationship with Facebook, Google have decided to launch their own social rating service in the form of Google +1. In a similar fashion to Facebook ‘liking’, anyone with a Google profile can +1 a page essentially voting for that site or article which will then impact both their, and the people in their contact network’s, search results.

Facebook plugins (to facilitate commenting, sharing, likes etc) and the Google +1 button can be added to sites by webmasters, so given their obvious impact on potential search traffic and indeed other benefits such as visibility in Facebook News Feeds, it’s a given that marketers and site owners should be looking at the best ways to incorporate sharing functionality into their content.

Search Personalisation

Lets take some time here to look at things from an end-user’s point of view. How else are social factors being incorporated into our searches? Well, the people and networks that you are connected to have an impact on the search results you see. As mentioned above, Bing’s tie up with Facebook means that it may now offer search results that include page results that have been ‘liked’ by people in your social graph. Google also gets data from Facebook and Twitter but almost certainly in the case of the Facebook data, in a much less timely/useable fashion – insert your own appropriate word here that implies it’s far easier for Bing, given Microsoft’s investment in Facebook.

Google +1 ButtonAnd now, as of a couple of months ago we have the Google +1 button, Google’s attempt to create a Facebook ‘like’ equivalent and provide users with their own social share metric. Where the Google +1 button is more useful is that not only will a user see pages that their friends have found useful but Google will also use the information to learn what a user does and doesn’t like and then provide more relevant, personalised search results.

How to engage Consumers and get Content Shared

So the million $ question. How does a brand/site owner get their content shared or liked within the social media-scape. What is the motivation for a user to interact with your content and share it with their network of friends and contacts? Well the old maxims still apply here. Users are going to share content if something’s interesting, unique, entertaining or just plain useful.

Blendtec’s ‘Will It Blend?’ viral campaign is a great example of marketing for what is essentially an everyday boring household item. What they’ve managed to do is create a cult following around the demonstration of Blendtec’s line of blenders.

On the Will It Blend site, Tom Dickson, Blendtec’s founder, can be seen in various infomercials blending all sorts of different gadgetry with the aim of showing off the power of the Blendtec blenders.

What’s particularly amazing is that this campaign first aired at the end of 2006, and now in its 5th year, has amassed over 100 different infomercials to date, which together have collected over 161 million views on YouTube!

So did it work? Well apparently so. Econsultancy reported that after only a year, traffic to the company’s website had increased by 650% and sales to the tune of 500%, all apparently started with a mere $50 marketing budget. Pretty staggering.

Determining Social Media ROI

ROI and being able to determine it, has always been one of the major benefits of digital marketing when compared to other traditional marketing channels such as TV, Radio or Press. With the rise in social media activity of the last few years, initially it was just a race to get involved and catch the speeding train, then it became more about understanding how to use it properly and now in 2011 it’s about justifying its existence within a brand’s marketing strategy. Indeed , two recent reports, one from the Altimeter Group and one from eMarketer indicate that developing ROI measurements will be a primary focus for businesses this year.

Unlike Search which is far more intent driven, social media activity is more interest driven and might not drive a conversion on the first interaction. However that does not mean the benefits of the activity are not there, it just means they are not necessarily readily identifiable. Given the standard setup of most analytics platforms of last click attribution, social activity will rarely get the full credit it might deserve.

However, help is at hand. Google Analytics’s new Multi-Channel Funnel reports (although still only in limited release) will allow marketers to identify all the channel interactions a visitor has with a site leading up to a conversion or purchase. So no more simple last click attribution, these reports will now help marketers identify all the different interactions that lead to the conversion.

Google Analytics has its standard channels, Paid Search, Organic, Campaigns, Referrals etc but these new reports will allow site owners to create custom channels. As Nathan Linnell explains: ‘You could create a custom channel that combines all social referred visits that aren’t directly attributed to your efforts; another that combines all the visits that can be attributed directly to your non-paid social efforts; and yet another that combines the visits from your paid social campaigns.’

Then with the Top Conversion Path report a site owner will be able to see the complete path a user has taken prior to converting and thus see how their social activity might be supporting other channels. As Nathan points out at the end of his article, although these reports are a very nice addition, they won’t quite give the full picture. Unless, a user comes to a site via one of the social channels i.e. clicks on a link in a tweet, you won’t be able to tell what the impact of their interaction with your brand has been if they simply follow you on Twitter or watch a video you’ve posted on YouTube and then at some other point in time choose to search for you and click-through on a paid or organic search listing. In that case all the credit would go to your Paid or SEO activity. Some further nifty customisations of your e-commerce tracking code would be required to get that as well. One little postscript to this: Google has recently purchased PostRank, an aggregation platform that will allow a publisher or site owner to measure and track all social engagement with a brand across multiple social channels. It will be interesting to see how this progresses.

When struggling to justify a social media budgetary allocation it’s always worth keeping in mind that there are many other benefits of social media that may not directly impact your bottom line. For example, Branding, PR and Customer Service  – something which I addressed in an early article.

Why a Social Media Strategy is Important

Since the term ‘Social Media Optimisation’ (SMO) was first coined back in 2006 by internet strategist Rohit Bhargava in his blog post ‘The 5 Rules of Social Media Optimization’, we have seen huge growth in this area of the Internet. With more and more people using social media sites and services than ever before, marketers have a prime opportunity to reach their target audiences through effective social media marketing strategies.

Search engines are no longer the only large traffic drivers, with social media channels clearly offering huge opportunities for site owners to achieve increases in traffic and reach new customers.

One thing is clear however, SMO and SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) are complimentary. SMO does not replace SEO but significantly enhances it. A well planned and executed SMO strategy will not only provide increased opportunities for a business to be discovered but also the benefit of improved rankings in search engine results.

As with SEO, social media initiatives need to be integrated into an organisation’s digital marketing strategy so that they become part of its processes and best practices. SMO should not be silo-ed or marginalised but clearly deserves investment and should be welcomed as part of both a holistic SEO strategy and as a major component of overall marketing strategy.

How content is being spread online

A good snapshot included in an article by Paul Braat (@Braat) that shows what tools are being employed to distribute content on the web. Unsurprisingly it shows Facebook and Twitter have the potential to be significant traffic drivers. Given the cost of marketing on Facebook and Twitter, it makes it hard to find reasons why they shouldn’t be part any business’s marketing strategy.

How People Share Content on the Web

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