What's Your Definition of Social Media?
What is frequently referred to as "social" is a universe of activities covering anything from user-generated content and blogs on your site, to blogger outreach and social networking, bookmarking, sharing, and back scratching (OK, that last one's made up, but I hold that it can't be too far behind). You may as well say that SEO and the tax code naturally go together.
Social media is about interacting with your target audience, creating bonds with your brand, and then giving your audience outlets to exercise those bonds, either directly with your brand (e.g., purchases, signups) or spreading the word to others. To focus on mere content and links is not only missing the point of participation, but is probably setting you up for PR headaches.
Speaking of PR, the symbiosis between social media and SEO is a lot like the leverage between public relations and SEO. The ultimate goal of PR is to grow the brand: To put a human face on your brand, to draw people into conversations, and to encourage interaction outside of typical mercantile settings through content of many varieties.
Can you use PR to grow your search engine rankings? Sure. Can you use it purely as a means to that end? Technically.
Article submission and press releases are a tried and true method for building links -- but if performed solely to win authority with search engines, you miss out on winning authority with the people you're ultimately looking to influence much more than search engines.
A well-written release, a well-executed video, or a well-done publicity move that's performed with SEO value included -- but not as the primary goal -- will gain you more link value to your site than the link value you get from a dozen spammed-out releases that you spent five minutes on.
A good PR execution should be designed to get people to interact with your creation by sharing it with friends, followers, and readers across a range of channels. This expands the resulting inbound links from your efforts, and also draws more people to your site, giving you the opportunity to earn links, subscriptions and purchase from visitors. Can you say the same of an article that you randomly threw together, added links to, and posted somewhere?
Focus on Interaction, Engagement
In much the same way, your social engagements offer you the opportunity to pick up significant SEO value -- especially if you're talking about on-site user-generated content, blogging, and interacting with bloggers, and (to a degree) social bookmarking sites like Digg and StumbleUpon.
These sources, in addition to being a great way for people to hear about or get a little closer to your brand, also produce content on your site or generate valuable backlinks to your site and its actionable pages. But if they're approached with the priorities reversed, not only are you missing out on tremendous value, you can (read: you will) wind up with a negative perception of your brand as it'll be associated with that horrible online boondoggle: Spam.
Most links within social networks are re-directed out of value, and while the right URL shortener will re-direct Twitter links in an SEO-friendly manner, even a widely re-tweeted post won't equate to a ton of link value. But a gang of friends and followers who hang on your every word because you're producing value certainly will.
Don't get me wrong -- as an SEO guy, I can tell you that any natural search value you can squeeze out of a channel is yours for the taking. But, much like building a site solely for SEO value without concern for user experience, without a focus first on interaction and engagement in your social media efforts, you may win the battle but you're sure to lose the war. Take on social media with your brand and your loyal customers and fans in mind, and the SEO benefits are sure to follow.
Join Herndon Hasty for a Webinar on the SEO value of user-generated content and how best to leverage it at your Web site on August 27 at 1 p.m. CST for what should be a fun and informative session.