Could Social Media Make Search Irrelevant?

Guest Post by Jim Dougherty. Jim is an expert on social media and technology who blogs at Leaders West.

Once upon a time there was search engine optimization (SEO), a discipline dedicated to optimizing websites to the rules that governed the order of things (for search engines at least). But the rules perpetually changed. Pandas and Penguins drastically altered the search landscape and SEO became a perpetual task to chase a moving target.

More or less at the same time, social networks grew in scale and were quite simple in their promise: armed with moxy, time and determination, anyone can build an “earned media” empire and leverage it for their whims. As Facebook grew massive and Twitter grew to be a solid tertiary network, some people wondered aloud if search optimization was necessary.

Can a business thrive with social alone?

Developing content explicitly for social sharing, rather than search, would mean to ignore the basic content guidelines for SEO.

These would include choosing appropriate keywords, keyword density, keyword convention in different parts of the post, post length, on and on down a list of common recommendations. The premise being that you could write about whatever you want, however you want and could rely upon your social media fans to consume and distribute your content.

Depending upon the size of your network, this could be plausible. But you need a BIG network. Facebook says that average organic reach is about 16%, though independent analyses like those conducted by We Are Social have estimated that lower. AdAge reports that engagement on posts is about 1.4% (friends plus their extended networks).

Using my site as an example, 640 people have liked my Page on Facebook. This means that 90 of them may see a Facebook post and 7 people total might read or comment on it. Sharing is quite inefficient on Facebook, and the scale necessary to drive traffic to your site is significant. Which is not to say that it’s impossible, simply that you need a lot more Facebook fans than I have to make it work.

Consider also that organic search queries are increasing. In January 2010, ComScore reported 15 billion total queries on traditional search engines (in the U.S.). In January 2013, ComScore reported 19.5 billion total queries. Social sharing is increasing, but so is search.

Will search become irrelevant? Unlikely, says Jim

The lines are blurred

Here’s the reality: you can’t isolate search from social. The same things that interest your social communities are topics that people will organically search for. If you’re developing great content for your community and not optimizing it for search, you’re overlooking an easy source of additional audience. But I’ll caveat that by saying that you’re probably not creating great content.

Consider keyword density, which is the number of times your keyword (or phrase) is used as a percentage of total words. If you’re not mentioning a keyword in 2% of your article, odds are you probably aren’t being as clear about your intended topic as you may think. In a 300 word essay for example, can you talk clearly about a topic that you mention five times or less? Probably not.

Leveraging search tools is a great way to find topical content for your social audience as well. Jason Konopinski wrote a great post last week about using Google’s Keyword Tool to generate content ideas, and the Vocus marketing suite has a sophisticated discovery tool to find relevant topics for content as well. The point being that relevance in a social community and search aren’t mutually exclusive.

This month my site received ten times as much traffic from search as it did from Facebook. The two biggest search-referred posts are about a year old: one details how fake Twitter bots work and one details how to customize YouTube embeds for your website. I mention this to point out another beneficial aspect of search which is persistence. In social channels you may be able to share a post a few times, but search doesn’t share the same convention. So long as your content is relevant to users and accessible by Google or Bing it has a chance to be seen.

The idea that search could be replaced by social media ignores how they complement each other. Well-developed content will make an impact in either channel. With the emergence of Facebook’s Graph Search, the Google Plus +1, and other social signals contributing to search algorithms, it’s necessary to optimize content for both.

Some resources to get started

Here are some basic resources that might help you to develop relevant content and optimize it for search and social:

Google Analytics - This is a free site from Google that gives you a very detailed analysis of how many users are visiting your site, what they’re looking at, where they’re coming from, how long they’re staying, et cetera. Because it’s integrated with Google, you have detailed Google Plus social data available in this tool as well. Despite the fact that Google doesn’t play nice with Facebook and Twitter, you do received referral data from these sites. You can also add analytics to a Facebook tab.

Google Webmaster Tools – This is a free site from Google that gives you an analysis of how well Google is crawling your content. If there are any issues with indexing your site, these tools will identify them.

Google Structured Data Testing Tool (formerly Rich Snippets) – This is a free tool that allows you to see how any URL will appear in search. It also shows author and publisher attribution (discussed in more detail below).

Google Keyword Generator – This is a free tool discussed by Jason Konopinski in his piece (mentioned above). It is actually an AdWords tool, and is as useful for content creation as it is for creating AdWords campaigns.

Google Alerts - This is a free tool from Google that will alert you to the latest search results for any particular keyword or phrase.

Google Authorship – Also known as “author attribution,” this Google tool allows for authors to attribute their posts to their Google Plus profiles. This is thought by many people to be one of the emerging trends in search and social. Note that there is also publisher attribution that works more or less the same way.

Bing Webmaster Tools – Similar to the Google Webmaster Tools, these give you analysis of how well Bing is crawling your content. A note about Bing: search results are somewhat anemic compared to Google, but in the Northwest U.S. Bing has a much higher share of search than anywhere else.

Yoast WordPress SEO Plugin – For companies running a WordPress site, this free tool is the gold standard for SEO compliance. The plugin gives a thorough analysis of content on a number of factors and gives authors a “green light” when their post is optimized.

Google Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide – This is Google’s primer on SEO.

SEOMoz Beginner’s Guide to SEO - SEOMoz is a Seattle-based company that is a thought-leader in the industry. This is a great SEO primer from them and offers some important insight that Google does not.

SEOMoz Blog - The SEOMoz blog offers a lot of small-scale data presented by in-house SEOs and guests. The vast majority of the posts are based on data, and many deal with both search and social.

Facebook Insights Dashboard – This a free dashboard organic to all Facebook Pages.

IFTTT (If-this-then-that) - This is a free tool that can automate a portion of your social sharing. When an action happens in one channel, a subsequent action is triggered in another. For example, when your post hits an RSS feed it could trigger a Twitter post. One note about using Facebook with third-party apps: there is evidence that Facebook imposes an additional reach penalty on posts originating from third-party apps.

Zapier – This is a freemium action/trigger service similar to IFTTT with a different complement of networks.

For more marketing insight from Jim Dougherty, click here.


Image: Jan Krömer (Creative Commons)



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