For some time now, social has been all the rage. Yet, many people are still trying to figure out exactly how social plays into their search strategy.
Where are things headed? What rightful place does social has in the search marketing mix? What are some tactical considerations you may want to incorporate into your plans?
For some insights on those questions, as well as how to attain search and social synergy, I interviewed my friend Rob Garner, former VP of strategy at iCrossing, member of the board of directors and vice president at SEMPO, and author of "Search & Social", published by Wiley.
Mark Jackson: What do you think are some of the most important elements of synergizing social and SEO efforts?
Rob Garner: First, leverage natural language for both search and social. Language is the tie that binds search and social together. Language informs content, dictates keyword theme, and sets the tone for social conversation. Study the language of your audience through keyword research and social listening to create solid strategies that will resonate in these channels.
Second, remember that without content, search engines and social networks do not exist. If your strategy leads with meaningful content, then you are on the right track. Content strategy that links between search and social channels is the key to overall success.
Third, get your search and social teams to work together, and not separately. This may not be much of a problem with individual practitioners who understand the nuances of both, but it is a big issue for business that operates these channels in silos. Get them together to understand how each of them can benefit the other to get more out of your overall efforts.
MJ: Do you believe that tweets (and specifically retweets) are "counted" in search engine algorithms?
RG: Yes, particularly in Bing. In Google+, their own version of the retweet is the share, and is used for personalized and G+ search.
MJ: Google's Matt Cutts has said that links are still "the" metric. In your book, you mention that Bing uses Facebook Likes to rank content. Where do you think we are with Likes being the new links?
RG: Likes are being used as links in different forms of Facebook and Bing social search, but they are very weak in terms of forming a direct intent signal toward many types of content. The main reason is that a Like only represents one feeling, and therefore as a signal it has no range of feelings at all.
People use the same Like button for a picture of a kitten in the same way as they do about a story on serious local crime stories. People Like things that they truly don’t like, and this muddies it up as a search signal.
Facebook has a lot of work to do on leveraging the Like as a true link, and true signal of intent. They could start with a Dislike button to disambiguate intentions.
MJ: What are your thoughts on where Facebook is with respect to Graph Search? How do you see this impacting, if at all, market share of search with traditional search providers, Google and Bing?
RG: For many years now, I have written that the game to watch in modern search is to find out which entity has both the best crawler-based engine technology, combined with the best human social layer. Neither Google nor Facebook are there yet.
Facebook search and Google search are apples and oranges, and always will be to some degree. What I do like about Graph Search is that it has the potential to be a true social search engine, or in other words, a search engine about people, rather than topics, shopping, or websites.
Overall, it is a vertical play within the overall definition of search engines as we know them, though there is potential to take some market share, and it is in single digits percentages at best.
If Facebook wants to get serious, they will need a full crawler based engine to complement their social layer. This will happen through deeper integration of Bing, or who knows – maybe an acquisition of Bing at some point.
MJ: When drafting an editorial calendar for a corporate blog, do you focus more on viral-ability or keywords?
RG: The short answer is "both". Planning is certainly important, but "planning for the moment" is also a key consideration.
Turning on a dime with good content is critical, and simply being fluid in social monitoring and content response are the key considerations here.
There are essentially two types of real time content. One is "planned," and anticipates seasonal or predictable events. The other is "unplanned" or more serendipitous content that comes up in social conversation or topical events. Both require being present in social spaces, good keyword research, having a nimble place to publish your content, as well as have a quick process for approval
MJ: When it comes to pushing content, which social sharing platforms do you believe carry the most "juice" for search engines?
RG: For Bing, the social platforms with the most juice are Twitter and Facebook, because they have direct integration with both of those properties.
Google uses a myriad number of social signals, especially if you have a wide definition of the term "social." So this includes quantity and quality of comments, voting, shares, etc. Of course, Google uses Google+ signals.
MJ: Do you find that social activity increases brand awareness or otherwise increases the number of searches for a brand/company name?
RG: There is no question that search and social are in complete balance in the Internet universe. I can’t recall anyone I’ve met who only uses social networks, but does not use a search engine.
The people who use search engines and social are the same people. This seems very basic, but it is worth repeating over and over, because I believe many marketers miss out on this point.
The bottom line is that social interest drives search interest, and vice versa. People seek answers, content, and conversation in both search engines and social networks, so marketers need to be in both places where these conversations and searches are occurring.
MJ: What are you favorite tools to find social influencers?
RG: I like to use my brain, and I believe that smart people are the most overlooked tool of all. I manually view networks and look for influencers who are active, authoritative, and responsive. No tool can do this as fast as a knowledgeable person. One hour of manual review can save you weeks of headaches.
If most marketers would open their eyes, they would find more than enough key influencers to work with for a very long time. If you don’t have knowledgeable people indentifying influencers "manually" or using tools, your influencer outreach strategy is screwed.
MJ: There’s no doubt that social "works." But, in what capacity would you say it "works"? How should one set expectations for the CEO?
RG: The key for readers of this interview is be sure and carefully define what you mean by "social", and what your CEO understands the meaning of "social" to be, before you start to qualify and quantify it for them.
MJ: You mention that traditional SEO and social signals are very much alike, in your book. I have often said that until social figures out "spam" (fake profiles/automation, etc.) the way that search engines have figured out link spam, social signals can’t be as relevant as we might like. What are your thoughts on this?
RG: This is one of the reasons that social networks are becoming more algorithmic, and more like search engines. As they get bigger, they must deal with a tsunami of spam to maintain a good experience for the user.
Those of us in search know that Google has been fighting this battle since its beginnings, and they are the experts. As social networks become more algorithmic, you will see more social media marketers reverse engineering their presence (some are already doing this for EdgeRank).
It is also fair to provide a definition of the word "social" here. Because the term "social" is used to mean almost everything on the web these days, I would posit that that any signal that shows true human activity is a social signal, as opposed to robots and scripts, and can potentially be used as a signal.
The implication for sustainable social marketing strategy is to keep everything clean, and maintain your social presence just as cleanly as you maintain your website presence for SEO.
MJ: There has been a lot of chatter about "real time marketing" recently in the context of the Oreo ad during the Super Bowl blackout. Is this really what "real time marketing" is all about?
RG: The Oreo ad created by 360i during the Super Bowl blackout was a great example of spontaneous real-time marketing, but it was only one small slice of what true real time content marketing entails.
RTCM does not have to happen during a major media event, and the truth is that successful RTCM requires a marketer being present during many other smaller events and topics that are relevant to their business. It is the sum of these events, along with a fluid real time content presence that makes them successful.
There are some companies that actually produced ads during the Supreme Court hearing on DOMA, and also on the naming of the new pope, and this is a total misrepresentation of true real time marketing. Real time marketing is a philosophy that affects all parts of a business, not just on-the-fly creative.
The foundation for RTM was created by Regis McKenna back in 1995, and while his original writings are nuanced to the time, I believe his work foreshadowed modern Internet marketing, and also what we now call social media.
MJ: How does social relevancy compare to search relevancy?
RG: Social relevancy and trust is measured on the same model that search engines use to measure the authority and trust of websites, as well as the linked connections between them.
Every social media presence has a domain or user ID, and smart social networks apply the same principles as search engines. So your likes can infer intent, your connections like followers and friends infer a link, and the language used in your streams infers a theme and keyword relevancy.
MJ: "The more you give, the more you get" is a philosophy that I have believed in. What are your thoughts?
RG: All successful Internet publishers operate this way to some degree. This philosophy is the foundation of original Internet culture. Open source, GNU, and Creative Commons licensing are all based in this spirit.
The bottom line is that marketers need to apply this line of thinking in the way they produce content and publish commercially on the web. So if the "business as publisher" is going to be successful in a similar way, they need to understand this culture and rapidly adopt it.
I rarely send out a proposal for search engine optimization services without mentioning, sometimes heavily, the need to incorporate social. Everything from the power to write content that is "human friendly" on a corporate blog, to promoting content to followers/influencers so that you can earn the "buzz" and – yes – generate some natural links to the website and what impact all of this activity can have on growing your "brand" online…all of these things, we know, aid in building up your presence in the SERPS.
While some will call this "content marketing", others call it "social media marketing", and still others (such as I) will just say that search engine optimization is (as it always has been) evolving to include these methods of marketing the business and generating natural presence across a multitude of channels.
Social channels have a way to go to perfect their algorithms so that they can, as the search engines have before them, account for spam. Additionally, many companies are still struggling with their "voice" and how they might create engagement with their target audience in a more "human" way.
The key here is to get started. And, try and have a plan for how social works with other things that you’re doing, from PR, to web design, to promotional marketing and – yes – to search engine optimization.