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Over the past couple of years, social media has become the hottest buzzword in digital marketing. The emergence of Facebook as the top medium for connecting with friends online, and Twitter for microblogging, has caused marketers to descend upon social media websites in hopes of reaching their target audiences as cost-effectively as possible.

The rise of the social medium has affected a lot of marketing fields, especially public relations and search marketing. In fact, a whole lot of search engine optimization (SEO) agencies are now offering social media services.

Search Meets Social Media

Search and social media have become closer siblings in recent years. Ten years ago, SEO professionals would say organic rankings were all about optimizing page-level elements, such as title tags and on-page copy. Five years ago, SEO strategists were probably harping on the importance of inbound links pointing to your website.

Those things are still important today, but getting real SEO results these days requires not only a technically optimized website and relevant inbound links but also a strong, vibrant Web presence that supports your overall brand. Which is where social media comes in.

Engines React to Social Media

Because of the exponential growth of social networking sites over the past few years, search engines have had to make major adjustments.

For example, when people first started hearing about Twitter, the question often heard was, "What is a tweet, and why would I want to do that?" But as the site grew and more people were tweeting, from Washington DC to Tehran, users began to realize that they could find out about the most recent events by searching tweets. Twitter had morphed into a real-time search engine before our very eyes.

Search engines (especially Google) had to respond quickly. As the demand for real-time search results increased, it became clear that users would no longer be constrained by the limitations of search engines, which have to index sites on the Web before displaying them on their results pages. In December 2009, Google introduced real-time search, which incorporates news results and Twitter updates into search results. Google's universal search (which displays content from YouTube and other networks) is another way social media content has been brought into search results.

Apart from the incorporation of social media content into search results, social networking sites affect search engine rankings in other ways. On his blog, search marketing guru Danny Sullivan recently posted some interesting answers (from Google and Bing) on this subject. Among the important things to note:

  • Both search engines count referencing of a given piece of content via Twitter as an indicator of authority (apart from the links coming from those references).
  • Both search engines attempt to compute the authority and quality of an author and give that author's tweets preferential treatment.
  • Both track links shared within Facebook.

What these results suggest is simple. If your SEO strategist is not bringing up the issue of social media, you have good reason to worry. Any good search strategy is focused on relevance, and social media is becoming one of the major indicators of relevance.

Effective Off-Site SEO Using Social Media

Any SEO agency worth its salt will tell you that off-site optimization is just as important as on-site SEO tactics, especially in competitive verticals. SEO professionals provide off-site optimization services to help signal the relevance of certain sites to search engines. Such services include link research and link building, blogging, article writing/submission, and so on.

The ultimate goal of your SEO strategist is to maximize the quality and quantity of inbound links pointing to your website, which is a huge factor in your site's ability to rank well on your target keywords. The effect of social media initiatives on inbound links cannot be underestimated. Blogging, engagement via Facebook/Twitter, and other social media activities have a direct impact on the quantity and quality of editorially awarded links that your site can benefit from.

Here are two steps you can take to increase the impact of social media on your organic rankings:

  1. Make sure you are marketing your articles and blog posts using the major social media outlets. The major search engines have indicated that they now factor "shares" (Facebook) and tweets (Twitter) into the degree of importance they attribute to a piece of content. Did you write a new how-to article for your customers? Post that content to Facebook and Twitter. Post pictures to Flickr. Ensure that you are getting your content out via the major social networking sites.
  2. Make a dedicated effort to develop a solid presence on the major social networks and niche sites that may fit your particular industry. Marketing your content is directly dependent on how much of a presence you have on the social Web. If you don't have many engaged followers on these social media sites, there won't be anyone to help promote your content via shares and re-tweets. One simple way to begin improving your social media presence is to have links to your Facebook and Twitter pages on your website. Let your customers know they can engage with your brand via social media.

Search Driving Social Media Engagement

In turn, search can be used to drive social media success. Keyword insights can help set the direction of social media initiatives. Keyword search-volume trend analysis remains one of the more effective ways of gauging interest about a subject. Therefore, insights from search marketing campaigns can help drive fruitful, engaging conversations with your target audience.

Here are three ways to use search insights to drive social media engagement:

  1. Use keyword search volume insights to drive content development. To maintain a vibrant blog, for example, one must have compelling, high-quality content; it's important to conduct keyword research on a subject and use insights from that research to develop blog content and titles. Look for areas of high search volume, and develop content around those subjects. Remember, your blog post cannot get "liked" on Facebook unless someone sees it first. Keywords with high search volume can also guide the subjects you bring up in social media. Keyword themes with higher search volume should, generally (though not always), be your subject-matter priority on Facebook, Twitter, and other sites.
  2. Look to paid search insights from search query reports. Most people running pay-per-click (PPC) campaigns begin with Google AdWords. You can run a search query report on a particular campaign to identify keywords you had not thought about. Sure, some of those keywords will not make it into your PPC campaign (for ROI reasons), but there is no reason not to create content around some of those subjects. For example, if you sell men's neckties, you may not want to bid on the term "how to tie a necktie." But there is no reason not to create content that has a chance of ranking organically on that term and therefore introducing more users to your brand.
  3. Use historical keyword trend data to help you stay ahead of the curve. This step is especially important for businesses with seasonality. But even businesses that experience limited seasonality may find that certain subjects come up at certain points in the year. For example, my team once noticed a spike in the term "motorcycle safety" in May. It turned out that May is Motorcycle Safety Awareness Month, and even though we weren't going to build an elaborate SEO strategy or buy paid ads around the term, we were able to develop content ahead of May that our client ranked well on.

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Both search and social media are here to stay, and the ever-increasing interdependence between these channels should be seen as an opportunity rather than a threat. The strategic use of both channels can result in increased marketing effectiveness.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jonathan Lawoyin is the director of search engine marketing and social media at eWayDirect Inc. and co-founder of Rotomania.com, an online community for fantasy sports fans. Reach him via Twitter @eWayDirect.