One of the most common realities we see in the enterprise-size companies we work with is the almost total separation of organic SEO and social media within marketing departments.
This is tragic because social media marketing should be one of the most valued allies of SEO.
Below are three ways social media can help SEO.
But first, if your business is big enough to have separate people (or even teams) working on search and social, do everything you can to get them working cooperatively.
The strategies below will work best in that environment.
Before we dive into those strategies, though, let’s clear up one myth about social media.
Does Social Media Directly Boost SEO?
OK, I guess I should do a little to defend that, but I’m confident enough of the truth of this by now to just give that one-word response.
When most people ask the above question what they likely have in mind is one of two possible effects:
- The links in social posts send ranking signals to the pages to which they link.
- The amount of social mentions and/or engagement for a content piece or a brand is a search ranking factor.
Let’s deal with the latter one first, as I think it might have some (small) merit, although still not in a “direct” manner.
Social Mentions/Engagement & SEO
First, it is highly unlikely that the major search engines currently use mentions or amount of engagement around a brand or piece of content as a direct ranking signal.
Years ago they may have experimented with it, but all indications point that such experiments have been abandoned.
Because social media is a weak and unreliable signal for search engines.
Back in 2014, Matt Cutts (at the time head of Google’s webspam team) explained this in this Google Webmasters videos.
One reason he stated was that it is an incomplete signal.
Many people are surprised when they hear this, but it’s true! Even Google doesn’t have unlimited resources.
Google doesn’t attempt to crawl or index all of the millions of social posts created each day.
More importantly, it is difficult for a search engine to reliably assess the authority of a given post, or even a social profile. Cutts said this is because:
- It’s hard to pin down the true identity behind many social profiles.
- Signals such as engagement have proven to be an unreliable measure of authority.
(As corroboration, think about how radically Facebook has backed away from “likes” as reliable indicators of content that should be pushed out more.)
So is there any indirect way in which search engines might make use of social mentions?
See my second strategy below.
Social Media Links & SEO
Because a great deal of social media consists of links to external sites, it’s worth asking whether those links contribute to the ranking power of the pages to which they link.
The fundamental principle for answering this is also found in the same Cutts video.
Cutts stated that Google treats social media sites the same as any other sites on the web. That means the same rules apply for links from social media sites as for any other site.
These days, that makes the question of the SEO value of links on social media networks easy to answer.
Almost all social networks, and certainly all the major ones, nofollow all external links. So these links pass no SEO equity to the target pages.
However, even if the links were followed links, it’s unlikely search engines would give them page ranking value. Why?
- It’s difficult for search engines to assess the true identity and authority of social profiles, so it’s difficult for them to know what value to give a link.
- Because they treat social networks like any other website, they would view a link posted on those networks as a link from the site. Search engines are smart enough to know that a link posted by a user is not a link endorsed by Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. So it would make no sense to pass on the authority of that site to the link target.
If it’s unlikely that social media directly affects search rankings, what is the value of social media for SEO?
Let’s now turn to the three strategies that I believe create the best opportunities for social media to help your organic search efforts.
1. Create Link Opportunities
The number one opportunity for social media to help boost SEO is also the hardest.
It isn’t particularly hard to implement, but its difficulty is on the recipient side.
That is, it is passive, and depends on action from a third party without any direct pitch or prompting from you.
Put simply, this is using social media to promote your content.
Site owners and content creators can’t link to content they don’t know about. I never cease to be amazed by all the great content that obviously took many hours to produce that gets little or no social promotion.
Organic and paid social promotions are not the only ways to promote content, but they should always be in the mix.
On countless occasions, a piece of content linked in a social post made enough of an impression on me that I saved it for later reference.
Quite often that means I’ll be citing it and linking to it in one of my blog posts or columns.
The basic principle here is that people can’t link to something they don’t know about, and social media is still an important way to let content creators know what you’ve got that’s link-worthy.
- Create a strategy for social promotion of your content. Include where you share (which might vary with the type of content).
- Establish a set of procedures to make sure the sharing strategy is carried out for each new piece of content.
- Keep an updated list of your best evergreen content and schedule it to be reshared regularly. Remember that on social networks today any individual post is seen by only a small portion of your potential audience.
- See strategies two and three below for tips on building a more valuable social audience that will increase your earned-link opportunities.
2. Increase Positive Brand Mentions
In an on-stage conversation with Eric Enge of Stone Temple Consulting (now part of Perficient Digital) at Pubcon Pro 2017, Google’s Gary Illyes talked about how Google might use online mentions of a brand. (Disclosure: I work for Perficient Digital.)
He said if a particular brand currently unrecognized by Google starts getting a lot of mentions online, it could cause Google to view them as an “entity” (a unique person/place/thing/concept that deserves attention).
He went on to tell us that “…the context in which you engage online, and how people talk about you online, actually can impact what you rank for. ”
Notice the key phrase there: not how high you rank for something, but “what you rank for.”
In other words, there might be queries for which you don’t currently rank, but via online mentions, Google realizes people see you as relevant for those queries.
Do what you can to help “fan the flames” of positive mentions of your brand on social media (as well as other places such as public forums).
The best way to do this is by:
- Working to build a growing audience of true brand fans on social media.
- Encouraging them with positive reinforcement when they do talk about your brand online.
This is one of the many benefits of social listening and monitoring.
3. Build Partnerships
In our own social media strategy, while we still use strategy one (systematically sharing our content on social media), I’ve been shifting more or our time toward using social to build strategic relationships leading to potential partnerships.
The fact that it’s become much more difficult to reach an audience organically these days means we should concentrate on the one thing social media does better than almost any other marketing channels: fostering relationships.
I think there are three levels of relationship-building you should concentrate on with your social media:
- Brand fans. This works in tandem with both of the previous strategies since it will increase exposure of your content and build more positive brand mentions on social media. Active social media users who love your brand are unpaid advocates who multiply your effectiveness for free.
- Organic influencers. I use the term “organic influencer” to differentiate from paid influencers, which is what most brands mean when they talk about influencer marketing. Organic influencers are social media accounts that have influence relevant to your brand earned because of genuine expertise, authority, and trustworthiness (Google’s famous E-A-T formula). They are valuable on social for your brand because any positive endorsement they share about you or your products/services will have weight with their audiences.
- Strategic partners. Strategic partners are accounts for non-competitive businesses or influential people in your industry with whom you can co-create valuable content and experiences that leverage both of your social audiences.
While I work on all three, using social to foster relationships with potential strategic partners has been the most valuable of late.
Here’s an example of the kind of value that can provide:
Over the past several years I had cultivated a relationship with Steve Rayson of BuzzSumo. I regularly interacted with his posts, shared his content, and on several occasions offered help or insights that were useful to him.
Then early in 2018, he sent me an advance copy of a blockbuster report he had authored for BuzzSumo about some massive shifts in social engagement over the past few years.
Because of our relationship, I was able to ask him if I could write up a summary of the report for Search Engine Journal to be published the moment it was released to the public.
Rayson cheerfully gave permission, and so my post New Content Trends Report: Social Sharing Down 50% Since 2015 on this publication was the first announcement most of the public saw about the report. The post got 3,000 reads and over 1,000 shares.
My point is that these partnerships can lead to opportunities that expand your brand’s reach and therefore link opportunities far beyond what you could do by yourself.
- Consider switching much (or even most) of your social media efforts to relationship building in the three levels noted above.
- For each level, create an evolving list of the accounts you most want to target for relationship building. Make sure each of those gets regular attention.
- Remember your goal here is to build real relationships with your top fans, organic influencers, and potential partners. You have to go beyond robo-liking their posts. You’ll only get the benefit of those relationships if you’ve managed to become someone valued by those people. The best engagement you can give is helping them answer questions they have or providing useful help for a project they talk about.