We've been talking about social media for what seems like ages now. However, unless you've seen it grow from the ground up, it's not an immediately clear concept – you and your clients may not be on the same wavelength.
One concept that can still confuse the heck out of clients is social media link building. So let's dig into why social media matters, which networks/platforms have value and which don't, and methods of using social for your own link efforts.
Why Does Social Media Matter?
One huge reason that social media matters right now is, simply, because everyone likes it. Even if you detest some (or all) of the platforms, using the big ones is almost mandatory at this point.
Nearly everyone is on Facebook. Lots of people are on Twitter. A good number of people are on LinkedIn. Some people are on Pinterest. And SEOs are on Google+.
Social media is all about relationship building, and the more recent lines of thinking about link building involve (guess what?) relationships. Just as you have to earn the trust of a friend, you have to earn good links these days.
With trust being such a good thing, using trusted sites is a critical way that you can show your community that you are legitimate. Many things are easy to automate and fake, but doing social media well? That's difficult.
Sites like Twitter and Facebook are seriously trusted sites, and a profile link there is obviously going to be a good link, but the interaction there is also a good source of trust for a brand. Tons of spammy template sites are built in order to capture rankings and traffic and send it elsewhere, for example, but the chances of those types of sites having a Facebook page with 1,000 fans who actually comment and interact is pretty slim.
Social matters because everyone uses it, basically, and because it's a seriously efficient way of promoting your site, your brand, and your personal voice. We used to comment on blog posts and in forums mainly, but now we have all these other ways of expressing our opinions, bonding with others, and promoting ourselves.
How to Build Links Socially
Promoting a site through social media can also help to build links. A key point to remember here is that there are many ways to build links.
Social media links are difficult to measure much of the time. Many links generated through social are indirect ones, being placed down the road.
Sometimes you don't actually generate links. Sometimes you generate straight conversions, which is fantastic.
Sometimes all the social activity helps you rise in the SERPs, hopefully leading to more links/clicks/conversions. The links that you insert into your profiles can certainly help you, and you can build links to those profiles to boost their visibility. Sounds almost like magic doesn't it?
The Benefits of Social Links
The main benefit, as mentioned earlier, comes from the visibility that social promotion gives your brand. Social signals are a factor in Google's algorithm and can cause your results to appear higher in searches at times.
Having great social sites encourages people to interact with your brand and have it on their minds, thus (hopefully) encouraging more conversions and links.
Popular social networks also give you a good link to your main site from your profile, which carries the very real benefit of any great link. If it's a followed link, it will help you rank higher, which is a good direct SEO value.
Not all profile links are followed, and those that aren't are still good for traffic, but if you can grab the followed ones? That's fantastic for SEO purposes.
Pinterest and Google+ profile links are followed for now. Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn profile links are nofollowed.
Don't ignore a site that's big just because you can't get a followed profile link though, as the benefits are still there.
The Major Social Networks
Facebook has been around since early 2004 and has more than 1 billion active users.
We constantly fuss about privacy issues and being served ads on Facebook yet we're still using it to show off our kids' latest photos, tell everyone about our amazing vacation, inspire jealousy about how awesome our lives are, spout off about politics and religion, and annoy everyone with our game requests and group invitations.
Facebook has a lot of problems and a lot of intricate settings that you need to pay attention to, but it has some fantastic benefits too, most importantly (for marketing purposes) the Facebook Page. A brand can post photos, videos, status updates, information about upcoming events/sales, contests, etc. You can communicate with a brand and its users on a Page, and some brands give you special information if you "Like" them.
Just to give you an example of the potential of a big brand engaging its users, check the Starbucks stats below:
What about a small brand? My daughter takes ballet classes at a local dance school that has 469 likes. That's a far cry from Starbucks but for them, it's a nice amount. They can promote upcoming dance shows, post photos in hopes of getting more parents to sign their kids up, offer special rates for signing up before a certain date, give parents information about rehearsals and extra practices, etc.
In their case, maybe they don't generate actual links to either their Facebook page or their website, but they can generate signups. If the goal of a link is to increase brand visibility and generate more converting traffic, then anything else that functions in that same way can easily be regarded as just as important as a link.
Last example: My agency runs a local news site and we've relied heavily on Facebook to promote its articles. In fact, in all of 2012, our number one referral was Facebook, sending us 8,321 visitors who averaged over 3 pages per visit and over 3 minutes per visit. For a small local site run totally through volunteers those numbers aren't bad at all. That's great visibility for us and it's translated into advertising requests, guest post inquiries, and new non-agency volunteer staff.
And personally on your own account, you can always promote whatever you like. I sometimes post my articles there but don't always because I use the account for more personal than business reasons.
Some people have their Twitter and Facebook connected so whatever they post on one gets posted on the other. Although I'm not a fan of that usually, it certainly does provide efficiency.
Twitter has been around since 2006 and currently has about 500 million users, half that of Facebook.
If I had to pick a favorite network, it would be Twitter. The 140 character limit fits my attention span and lets me scan loads more information than I could get if I had to read 15 articles.
The ease of interaction on Twitter makes it a very accessible network. You don't have to do any more than "tweet" something. There's no pressure for video or photos, and there are a host of applications that you can use to make Twitter work better for you. I use web Twitter because I am a Luddite but for the serious social media power user, you'd probably be better off exploring a proper Twitter application.
Where people fail the most on Twitter is in tweeting links only, or tweeting only their own posts. No one wants to deal with a one-sided tweeter.
Some of the best promotional efforts on Twitter will come about through influential people who follow you or see your tweets, and if you've never interacted with them or anyone else, they may be less likely to help you out.
Some people believe that you should respond to everyone who tweets to you, no matter what, and there are those who disagree. I tend to side with the "respond to everyone" group but I don't think you need to thank every single one of the 500 people who retweets your article or says "nice writeup" because that can get silly.
Brands being addressed should always respond, though, big or small. If someone is complaining on Twitter, that's worth an extremely quick response.
Just like other networks, Twitter can help you build links by getting your content in front of people who may link to it. While Facebook sent my news site the most referrals, Twitter tends to be the biggest social referrer for both my agency site and most of the sites for which I have Google Analytics access. With that being the case, I don't think most people can afford to ignore the power of Twitter for getting people to your site, hopefully leading to links and conversions.
LinkedIn was launched in 2003 and is considered to be a social network for people who have a professional job or are looking for one. It currently has 200 million users, around a third of what Twitter shows. You can have a personal and/or a business page so it's definitely a good profile to have, and if you're job-hunting, in some industries it may be critical.
However, just because it's considered to be a professional networking site doesn't mean that it's not full of spam. Chances are that if you have more than a few connections, you'll be besieged by connection requests from people that you have never met.
That being said, for professional purposes like networking and keeping up with industry news, it's quite nice. You can see content pushed by people in your network and it tends to be more industry-relevant than what's promoted on Facebook certainly, and Twitter occasionally.
People don't tend to use LinkedIn to argue about the latest election or show photos of their latest latte. If you have a relevant professional piece of content to share, this is a great place to do it that should get you some nice visibility.
Interesting note: LinkedIn sends my site zero traffic. However, my profile gets plenty of visibility and I don't promote articles here, but considering I'm advising you to do so, I should probably start, right?
Google+ came out in 2011 and, like most Google offerings, was (and still is) disliked and ignored by a lot of anti-Google types. This network uses circles that you can create and share content with, and you can create lots of different circles to share certain types of content so if you want something that can be promoted in a tailor-made way, this is a great option.
Google+ is also tied to Google Authorship which is becoming a more important factor in search results for Google. If you aren't signed up and you write any content anywhere, you should get on the ball and get yourself an account here.
From what I can tell, most of the people in my contact list who use G+ are other SEOs. Obviously any success will depend on the demographic of the network because if you're writing about organic gardening and no one in your circles gives a flip about organic gardening, your content probably won't get shared as much and it won't draw conversions.
Basically, though, Google+ works like the others: you promote content and others can share it, like it (by +1'ing it), or comment on it. It may not be as important as the other networks just yet, but it seems to be getting there.
Pinterest is personally the network that I like the least although I'm not a big fan of images or video anyway, as I'd rather read words. It's huge with many people though.
Launched in beta in 2010, it became seriously popular in 2011 and suddenly everyone was on Pinterest, whether they actively used it or not. The last number of users I can find referenced is 40 million.
From my perspective, lots of people in my Facebook friends group who were not present on Twitter or Google+ were on Pinterest when I joined. For certain industries it's probably the best way to market, but for others, not so great.
Like other networks, Pinterest is plagued by spam and fake accounts, but after the links from pins were nofollowed things calmed down a bit. Pinterest does not send any decent traffic to any of the sites that I have Google Anaytics access to unfortunately, even though a few of those sites do have accounts.
"Why Your SEO & Social Strategy Should Include Pinterest" points out the awesome benefit of any good network: "Does Google like fresh content from social sharing? Yes." The author goes on to list examples of brands doing well on Pinterest so if you're interested in how to do it right, definitely check those out.
Other Social Networks To Pursue
Foursquare is useful for many businesses, especially if they can attract customers through discount codes or anything else related to checkins. Bruegger's Bagels has used Foursquare to give customers a free bagel on every 5th checkin. That's pretty awesome stuff to inspire loyalty.
Foursquare can be an awesome asset for local search as well. Recently people have started predicted that this network will be dead by the year's end, but I thought that it would be years ago and it's kept going strong.
Instagram is insanely popular with many people (not me…yet) and again, depending upon your niche, it can be a great marketing tool. Considering the new apps that are being developed to help you analyze your results there, it's probably not going away anytime soon. As with Pinterest, visuals are amazing marketing tools for certain niches.
StumbleUpon can be fantastic for sending traffic, and if your site happens to resonate with the stumblers who find it, you definitely have a good chance of conversions and links, just like you do with anything else.
MySpace seems to still hold value for certain niches, like new music for example. In my opinion though, I wouldn't create a MySpace profile for a professional business unless your target market is teenagers who talk a lot.
A few other good social sites:
There are many other ones of course, and just because they aren't major (yet) and may never be giant sources of referrals doesn't mean that you should ignore or discount them.
One great way to get profiles on all the big networks (and to see a good list of all the sites) is to use KnowEm, which is a service that can grab all your usernames and/or (depending upon the price) fill out profile bios for you. If you're thinking of social profiles in terms of getting links to your site, this is a great option.
Networks To Avoid
In terms of which social networks to avoid, a lot of that depends upon your industry and your target market. I wouldn't put a massive effort into a social site that wasn't popular in general, but I also wouldn't put a huge effort into a popular site where my customers can't be found.
As I mentioned above, MySpace really doesn't have the professional credibility to be used for a lot of brands and small businesses. I don't necessarily think that it's harmful, but considering some of the MySpace profiles that rank, you'd probably be much better off having another social site show up in the SERPs, rather than MySpace (unless it really, really fits your target audience).
A couple others that might be best avoided if you're using them for professional purposes are Bebo and Friendster.
Some Good Social Examples
As mentioned above, Bruegger's Bagels has given out a free bagel on every 5th Foursquare checkin. (Note: I'm not sure they do this currently, or constantly.) I was just thinking "well how does that get them a link?" but as you can see, they just got a link from me because of it. The promise of getting something free for your loyalty inspires many of us.
Marmite is something you either love or hate, and I happen to love it. Their Facebook page has almost a million likes.
As I'm looking at the page, there are close to 13,000 people talking about the brand. They can ask "what's for breakfast this morning?" and get 300 comments in an hour. People obviously like to interact with this brand here.
Interestingly, Marmite's Facebook page only has 54 referring domains in its link profile. Their page encourages engagement but you can't see the benefits just by looking at the links it generates.
The links don't look overly fantastic either, but they help rank the site of course, and they probably send traffic to it. You just can't measure the value of this page in terms of the links it generates, but I do wonder how many extra jars of Marmite were consumed because of this page.
How Can You Use Social?
Obviously social media isn't going to be right for everyone. There are considerations like embarrassment factor (most people aren't going to be excited to seriously and publicly discuss their erectile issues on Twitter, for example).
However, many brands that sell the types of products that you'd try and hide beneath the paper towels in your grocery basket are actually using social very well, and with a healthy dose of humor. They may offer coupons to anyone who likes them on Facebook or they may promote special deals to their fans, but the legitimate involvement of a community like that does still seem to be somewhat limited.
Some target audiences just aren't currently participating in great numbers on social sites, either. If you sell vitamins for women over 75, a MySpace page isn't the smartest idea. A Facebook page may be, but it still may not work for you.
Not every product or service needs a social media presence, and it's important to remember that just because you read tips about how to do social well, it doesn't mean that you're required to set up and maintain presences on the big sites or you'll soon be out of business, as that simply isn't true.
I think the best way for anyone to use social media is to realize that it's not just a matter of throwing content all over the place and expecting people to eat it up. You need to see what other people in your niche or local area are doing with it and really dig in to good examples when you find them. Obviously you shouldn't copy what someone else is doing, but you can use these examples to help you see what works and what doesn't.
Whereas one site will work for one company, it may not for another, so don't assume that you immediately need to invest hours a day in Facebook just because Pepsi uses it. You do need to invest time and energy to see results though.
I mostly use Twitter to promote content and it works well for me, but I don't invest the same energy into building up a community on Facebook or Google+, for example, and that shows. When I do promote anything there, the rewards are much, much less than they are when I do it on Twitter.
Like many things, social media is trial and error to some extent. What many people forget (or ignore) is that social media isn't one-sided, and these sites don't exist solely for you to throw out links to your site.
Social media can help you build links but those links tend to be difficult to measure. One of your Twitter followers may read your content in January and remember it in March when she's writing a related article, and you'll get a link without being able to immediately trace it back to its source.
I've gotten some amazing links from people that I've interacted with on Twitter and who later asked me to be a part of a crowdsourced post or be interviewed. I know those links came from the interaction, and that's enough for me to realize how valuable social media link building can be.