Old-hat Internet marketers have been through their paces. They’ve seen the Dot-com bubble inflate and burst; they’ve watched the fallout of Google algorithm updates that killed websites and launched others into power. They’ve seen the frenzied mobile marketing fever of the Post-PC generation, changing web conventions in the wake of HTML5, and they’ve even watched entire business models fall to the whims of change and chance.
Throughout the turmoil, one aspect of online marketing seemed like it would never change: to find websites, you have to type stuff into a search engine. To rank high on a Search Engine Results Page (SERP), your website needs good Search Engine Optimization (SEO) techniques.
But even while SEO remains a cornerstone of online marketing strategies, the importance of SEO is quickly becoming less of a centerpiece, and more of a cog in one complex machine with many different parts.
Perhaps for the first time in forever, it is technically possible for an online business to survive without a website, or without any SEO work at all. As Internet users increasingly rely on smartphone apps, voice search and third party vendors (such as Amazon or Etsy), eCommerce businesses can live entirely on the buzz generated by social media platforms like Facebook, Google or Twitter.
But how does this work?
The suggestion that a business can survive on social media alone without a website or SEO strategy may raise incredulous stares. But it’s absolutely possible, as demonstrated by the numerous businesses who actually do it. In 2014, recruitment agency andSoMe took down its site and switched to a purely social media based business strategy.
Likewise, entrepreneurs in various service industries can make a living off of social media, and contacts nurtured through email campaigns, in addition to contracts generated by freelancing sites which provide intra-platform ways of connecting professionals to clients.
For many local businesses throughout the world, it’s enough to engage traditional marketing strategies to bring in local consumers, and nurture their brand loyalty through social media engagement and – you guessed it – email campaigns.
Even eCommerce business models can thrive without a dedicated website, using the marketing tools increasingly offered by social media providers, such as Facebook Shop. Facebook knows what it’s doing: by offering the space for dedicated business pages, a tremendously successful targeted advertising system, payment processing features and even virtual assistants, the world’s largest social media site is deliberately aiming to become a one-stop solution for online business needs.
Throwing Away Websites: Neither Necessary, nor Smart
As scientist Ian Malcolm famously quips in Jurassic Park,
Many commentators have noted that while website-centrism is on the decline, trying to go it alone without a website or SEO strategy isn’t a smart business move. Search engines remain an integral part of the online economy, to the degree that even businesses without a site depend on SEO to turn a profit.
There are several reasons for this:
- Even local businesses without any web presence at all – including websites or social media – depend on search engines to send foot traffic their way. According to a recent survey, 85% of all consumers searched online before finding a local business. This implies (at minimum) that the businesses in question had a Google My Business profile to augment Internet visibility.
- Social media destinations not only generate attention through shares and engagements on-site, but get picked up by search crawlers that monitor social media posts. As I will later demonstrate, this fact is important for both SEO marketers and social media marketers alike.
- The majority of social media marketers do not thrive by exclusively focusing on social media, but do so by integrating social media with site-based content, information campaigns and sales’ funnels.
In the end, while an online business can be built entirely on the foundation of a single strategy, this is never the best decision. The most successful online marketing strategies are always built by integrating different tools together in a complementary way.
In 2018, and for the foreseeable future, social media strategies work best in tandem with a solid website that is supported by a concrete SEO campaign. And in case you represent one of the many holdout businesses who stalwartly refuse to build a site, the rest of this article will show you exactly how SEO can benefit you in the age of social media.
Google and The Social Media Signal Debate
At this point it’s natural to ask “how does social media affect SEO in the first place?”
But raise this seemingly innocent question, and you may be surprised by the amount of heated debate it sparks. That’s because officially speaking, the success of a social media page does not affect how high a brand’s site will appear on SERPs.
This ostensible fact has been independently verified by Matt Cutts and Gary Illyes, both high ranking Google employees at the time of their statements.
Since the Google gods have spoken, why is there any argument at all? There are two simple reasons:
- In the past, Google maintained that social media signals did affect site rankings.
- Because multiple independent studies have shown that high social signals invariably correlate with high search results, especially after 2015, when this correlation skyrocketed.
This doesn’t prove that anyone at Google was lying when they said the algorithm doesn’t take social signals into account when determining search rankings; but it does prove that for some reason or another, doing well in one area will help you to do well in the other.
At the end of the day it doesn’t really matter what Google says. It only matters what Google does. No single person in the entire company actually knows how their algorithm works…
…but that’s a topic for another day.
For now, let’s consider what this correlation means for you.
Four Ways to Look At Social Media and SEO
Looking at the data, there are four equally valid ways to interpret the relationship between SEO and social media. We’ll take a careful look at each one.
1. There are hidden variables connecting the two
Definition time: a “hidden variable” is any potential secondary factor connecting two seemingly unrelated phenomena. A plain English analogy: two people have never met, but they know about each other through a mutual friend. That mutual friend is the hidden variable.
There are a few mutual friends that social media platforms might share with search engines –
Backlinks and Embedded Content
High-performing social media pages generally share interesting content (that’s why they’re high-performing). This may be in the form of a video, an article, or even a long rant. When followers become interested in this content, they will often share it on other social media sites.
Facebook, Twitter, and every other major social platform has an embedding feature for this purpose. When Google sees these social links floating around the web, it will not only boost the natural SEO results for your social platforms, but trickle down to your site as well (assuming you have one).
Sharing and Engagement
In his own Moz study, influential marketer Larry Kim speculated on the correlation between high social shares and higher search engine rankings, and came to a very simple conclusion: search engines do not directly gauge how often your content is shared, but how often your content is shared is a good measure of how interesting it is.
If your content is interesting, people will click on it a lot. When they click on it, they will spend a lot of time on the final page. Google knows this: it measures click-through rate (CTR) and bounce rate (the amount of people who leave a site after getting bored). The algorithm brings interesting stuff to the top of SERPs, and hey presto – your social performance impacts your search engine performance.
Targeted Audience Engagement
If Larry Kim’s theory has one problem, it’s this: not everyone finds the same content interesting. There isn’t a one-size fits all solution for links that earn clicks or maintain a low bounce rate. Some people really prefer “YOU’LL NEVER BELIEVE WHAT SHE DOES NEXT…” to “Woman Slaps Burglar Who Swipes Her Purse,” and some people prefer the opposite.
Social media takes out the guesswork by providing a brand with a devoted audience who is already predisposed to like the content it posts (they wouldn’t have liked it otherwise). Hence while an article would have performed poorly if it was floated out onto the Internet alone, it performs very well when it is warmly received by a niche demographic.
2. Social analytics and SEO analytics overlap
Life doesn’t give anyone free lunches, and starting a successful marketing strategy is never as simple as showing up to the game. To effectively target search engines, marketers have to collect information about their target market.
Guess who else needs to collect information about their target market? That’s right: social media marketers. The tools provided by major platforms like Facebook are some of the best in the world for analyzing the interests of prospects or potential leads.
Ever wondered what sports your prospects like to play? What books they enjoy reading? How they spend their downtime? Facebook knows, and Facebook will tell you.
This theory is pretty simple: marketers who judiciously use both SEO and social media marketing techniques are able to crossbreed information they get from analytics to better segment their target audiences, raise engagement, and increase rankings across the board.
When SEO experts see a lot of Badminton fans joining their Facebook page, they know to target their search engine ads for Badminton fans.
When social media marketers see high CTRs from Australian surfer dudes on their Google AdWords campaigns, they know to target Australian surfer dudes on social media.
It is an endless cycle of feedback and refinement.
3. Social Media is SEO
This entire article I’ve been talking about “search engines” and “SEO”. I’ve also been talking about “Google,” and you probably didn’t notice that I never mentioned “Bing,” “Yahoo” or “Ecosia”.
Because in search engine marketing, Google is basically synonymous with search engines. It dominates the market, and leaves all of its competitors in the dust. At this point, only a few niche marketers take Google’s competition seriously.
Don’t even be fooled by the 22% which Bing takes in this graph. Research suggests that Bing’s success rate is artificially inflated because it’s the default engine on all devices running a version of Windows.
You get the point. Google is doing really well, and other search engines aren’t worth thinking about.
That was true until recently. But graphs like the one posted above only measure companies in the search industry. They don’t measure companies that have search engines as an incidental feature of their main product.
Check this out:
The first and most obvious fact about these recent statistics is that Google is still dominating search (surprise, surprise). Slowly but surely, however, competition for web searches is slowly encroaching on Google from social media sites, propelling YouTube to the second largest search engine in the world.
There are two very simple implications about the growth of intra-platform search volume:
- More and more prospects will come to you directly via social search, and not through search engines. They will find you on social media, and stay on social media to learn about you.
- To stay competitive on social media platforms, attention must be given to SEO on your page. How social networks rank their results has not been studied nearly as much as the big ‘G’; but at a minimum, this means applying common sense SEO practices to your profile descriptions, products, page layout, posts, etc.
4. What’s good for the goose…
…is good for the gander. This is the fourth and most mundane theory about the relationship between social media marketing and SEO best practices. According to this line of thought, success on social media and success on SERPs is correlated because the same techniques that work on one kind of platform work well on the other.
There’s some plain common sense behind this. If you produce a bang-up article, reason suggests it will always perform better than some fluff generated by a bot. Likewise, if you put out a rich infographic that’s nice to look at, it doesn’t really matter whether Internet users find it on Facebook, Twitter or Google: people know what they want to see.
Some qualities are universally appealing, and some are universally repulsive.
If this is true, a company that has high social media engagement will also have good search rankings because of the organic attention it achieves through generally good sales copy, customer support, appealing aesthetics, etc.
The trick is to maintain consistent quality wherever you advertise your business.
What to Do Right Now
As mentioned in the beginning, none of the interpretations just mentioned contradict each other. If experience and research is anything to go by, they all have some truth to them.
- Sometimes social media engagement will indirectly raise your search rankings.
- Sometimes the analytics you gather on one platform can help you on another platform.
- Sometimes you will gain more social media followers by applying SEO techniques to intra-platform search features.
- And sometimes, just being a competent marketer will make you better at everything you do.
Bearing all that in mind, here are a few tips you can use right now to improve your SEO strategy in the age of social media:
- Have a website, and have a social media presence. Know how these two entities fit together. You won’t benefit from any of the “cross-pollination” between high search rankings and social media engagement unless you maintain both. Share links from your website on social media, and invite your site visitors to visit your social pages.
- Have a solid content strategy. All of the theories described agree on one thing: high quality content will attract clicks and lower bounce rates. This will raise your SEO every time. Invest in high quality writing, infographics, video content, and other supplemental resources to keep your audience happy and engaged.
- Track analytics carefully across platforms. You can manually keep track of your user demographics and apply that knowledge to future campaigns. You can also use automated A/B testing software to try different approaches, and gradually “evolve” the ones that work best.
- Keep improving, and keep trying new strategies. If success in one area predicts success in another area, then the most fundamental skill to learn is perfecting your techniques by keeping up-to-date with new information and applying what you discover. By reading this article, you’ve already begun to take this step: are you prepared to take the next?