In this article, I’ll focus on the convergence of search engine optimization (SEO) and social media. Whether you’re just getting started, or you’ve been a digital marketer for some time, I hope you’ll find something useful in the ideas below.
How to Think About SEO Today
SEO: the term evokes many thoughts and feelings in marketers who want to rank well in Google — everything from confusion and dismay when things don’t go as expected, to feelings of expertise when something successful happens. The field of SEO has changed as much as the Internet itself has over the past 15 years (find an excellent beginner’s guide here), and it’s important to constantly re-evaluate how we think about it.
The pace of change at Google means the “cat and mouse” days of SEO are officially over.
To rank well today requires marketers to reinvent how they think of SEO. Here are 3 things to keep in mind:
- People are getting better at searching for stuff. We’ve known for some time how our search habits have been changing: our search queries are getting dramatically longer, we’re refining in real-time what we are searching for, we’re asking things in the form of a question, we’re using voice search, and we’re demanding that results are good enough to reflect what we are thinking, where we are searching from, and what is going on at that moment.
- Google is learning faster than you can keep up. In 2012 alone, Google conducted about 19 experiments per day (7,018 total) and launched about 2 new improvements to search results per day (665 total). With this pace of learning and change, magnified by the improvements made to crawling, indexing, and machine learning, it’s impossible to “keep up” with all the changes. It also means the days of major algorithm updates are largely gone too, if favor of these small, incremental, constant changes. This means it can be even harder to determine the cause and effect of Google changes, your changes, and your rankings.
- The pace of change means the SEO “cat and mouse game” is over. In the past, there was a never-ending contest between the people who thought they could exploit Google and Google’s webspam team. Today, your time is best spent implementing Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, instead of chasing glory by exploiting a short-lived trick, that may come back to haunt you later. Sure, it’s not the sexy way to do it, but it works.
When Your Reputation and Your Search Results Intersect
Google wants to have fair discussions about brands and businesses, so reputable sites with reviews are a key component of their search results. Updates to algorithms over the past 3 years have ensured more of the reputable sites rise to the top of rankings, while less legitimate sites are pushed lower and lower (or dropped entirely) in rank.
Remember the wise words of Billy Ocean: When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
To help protect your online reputation, there are several things you can do. Here are 3 that work well:
- Report websites with Google violations. If they demonstrate spam, malware, or objectionable content, report them to Google. Google takes these things extremely seriously, and while they will not tell you what they are doing as corrective action, if the reported site is violating, something will likely happen. It’s a good idea to report sites with paid links as well.
- Tell Google about websites with violations that link to you. Sometimes you cannot get other sites to take down their links to you. It’s time-consuming, but you can use Google Webmaster Tools to manually review all the websites linking to your site, and disavow sites linking to yours. By disavowing them, you are asking Google not to take these websites into account when evaluating your website. This won’t necessarily hurt the sites that were disavowed, but it will distance you from them, since their links to you should no longer impact your rankings.
- Shut down content thieves. You can leverage the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 to send warnings directly to websites that infringe on your copyrights, as well as file a formal, legal takedown request with Google. Google will remove search listings, but generally only if there is a court order to support that content was stolen. This doesn’t remove the offending content from the web, just from Google. While the act is a great way to protect your copyright, remember that it does have nuances and is open to interpretation by the courts. Be sure to consult your legal counsel for the appropriate steps for your unique situation.
SEO Gets Personal…Thanks to Social Media
Until the past 15 years, for thousands of years information was largely tied to people. People know a lot of stuff about certain topics. Experts write things down and others read it. People do things that other people admire. And, people follow other people.
With the advent of social media, this “people-based” context to information has now appeared online. Google is using signals from social media to better understand the information available. If content and links are shared and liked, and Google can determine the relationship between them and the people sharing them, they can deliver better search results to all of us.
People follow other people, not companies.
I know that may be a controversial statement, but except for the most extreme brand-loyalists out there, largely we follow other people, and not companies. So, if you are a company, how to do you leverage the people-based aspect of social media to help send Google signals that you are worthy of attention? Here are 3 ideas to help:
- Build and demonstrate your expertise in something by creating tremendously useful content. It’s important to have a content strategy for your organization that targets broad, but related, categories to your business. For example, if you are a lighting company, you may develop content around office design, interior design, and lighting’s effects on health.
- Meet your customers where they are, and speak their language. Your customers are on social media, so use it to get others talking about you. By doing so, you can leverage the “people follow people” concept, increase awareness, and develop new customers. As Gary Vee says in Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook, How to Tell Your Story in a Noisy Social World: “Today, getting people to hear your story on social media, and then act on it, requires using a platform’s native language, paying attention to context, understanding the nuances and subtle differences that make each platform unique, and adapting your content to match.”
- Get others talking about you. Try to encourage your customers to review you online. Simply ask for reviews after a “sale” and see how it goes. By doing this consistently, and asking your customers to do this on different review sites, you can build up a good deal of content about your organization. Bonus: people frequently see the reviews of friends they follow, and Google now includes review site’s star ratings in several types of organic search results for brands. While you can pay for reviews, it’s not advised due to the necessary FTC disclaimers that must be a part of the review.
Why Google+ is Crucial for SEO
Google+ is really more of a sharing platform that spans Google’s products than a social network unto itself. We all know that other social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest are more popular. However, Google+ represents Google’s most unrestricted source of social data. Where this matters most for SEO is in how people use Google+ today, and how that usage shows up in search results.
Even if your audience isn’t using Google+, they are using Google.
- Google’s products and search results continue to become more integrated. Google has done a lot of work to integrate their online tools with Google+. For example, when people comment on YouTube, those comments show up on Google+ as well. Those comments I’ve made on YouTube are now visible when you search for me on Google. This type of integration between Google properties, Google+, and Google search results will likely expand even more in the future.
- You can customize what Google knows about you. Google+ is integrated with Google’s Knowledge Graph, the way Google is organizing the world’s information to make it more usable. By having a presence on Google+, and by telling Google you are an author (if, in fact you are), you provide information for you and your company’s knowledge graph info. Knowledge graph info is these typically shown above, and to the right, of search results, as well as in individual results as well.
- Google+ sends signals and gives context to Google. While many folks who think about SEO will argue about the specific impacts of Google+ on ranking, it is logical that Google+ helps the search engine understand content in increasingly faster and more complex ways as it matures. This means it’s imperative for you and your organization to have a presence and share content on Google+, even if participation by your followers is low. To be clear however, success on Google+ does not equal success with SEO — it simply provides Google with additional opportunities to find, index, and understand what your site offers.
Why “Paid-Organic” Content Distribution is Essential for SEO
Since Google uses social signals to help with ranking, it’s clear that driving more social signals is key. This means experimenting with the multitude of options for targeting, promoting, and amplifying your content is key. Here are 2 ways to do just that:
If you create an ad on Facebook, and it drives significant likes, shares, and links to your amazing content, is that SEO?
- Distribute your content to people who will care. By amplifying your great content using social ads with psychographic targeting to key audiences, you can drive sharing and earn links that will send positive signals to Google from authoritative sources. Links are still gold, especially credible ones. That means that while social media indicators are great for understanding content, the barrier to earning them is still rather low, compared to earning a great link to your site.
- Get more juice from your email list. By using Facebook Custom Audiences and (ideally) segmented email lists that you own (past customers, past sweepstakes entrants, etc.), you can also amplify content or trigger desired behaviors like signing up for a sweepstakes or writing a review that can have a side-effect of sending social signals to Google.
SEO and The Butterfly Effect
In the theory known as the butterfly effect, we learned that small, seemingly unrelated events can have large, widespread consequences. While we have embraced that as a way to determine cause and effect in daily life, the theory also goes on to say that it is extremely hard to calculate such things with certainty. In fact, certain things may simply be unpredictable. Sound familiar? It’s exactly what’s happening online, as what we knew of as “SEO” get constantly redefined by the dizzying pace of change in the technology surrounding and interpreting the Internet at Google.
If a butterfly flaps it’s wings in a video on YouTube, can it create higher rankings in Google?
I’ve seen major investments like sponsorships, specific national ad campaigns, and large increases in advertising have positive, unintended “side-effects” in Google. I’ve also seen how an organization’s search results can change as it grows, evolves, and emerges as a national, household name brand. These experiences tell me that Google will continue to become adept at reflecting what is happening in the real world, instead of simply trying to report on what it finds.
So, what does it all mean?
Personally, I believe that if you conduct your business with integrity, deliver exceptional value to your customers, and do some of the things I’ve mentioned above, Google will know it, and ranking well and appearing often won’t be far behind.
Special thanks to Joseph Carroll and Matt Cardwell for their input and review of this article!
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