People have varying opinions about when exactly social media began to take over the Internet — some would say Friendster or Myspace started it, others would claim it started even before then, during the height of geocities — but one thing’s for sure: social media is now everywhere. In our industry of Internet marketing, social media is its own field that spills over to others, including website content strategy, copywriting, and even search engine optimisation (SEO).
While there is yet to be a well-formed sub-categorical field called social SEO, there is definitely a motion towards it, what with social signals being increasingly used in ranking search results.
The Buzz over Social Media
Social media simply exploded over the past half-decade, with Facebook, the still-leading social network, recently gaining its billionth member. In 2011, social networks and blogs took up a quarter of the time of most active Internet users and were the top destinations in the web. Today, the statistics are merely increasing and further solidifying the trend. Social media has invaded such sectors as smartphones, video games, and of course, marketing.
At first, search engines took notice of the emerging importance of “social validation” — a much more empathic and immediately influential sales factor compared to professional validation — and started looking into incorporating social signals into their ranking algorithms. Today, even the largest and leading search engine Google has its own search function that prioritizes social signals. Indeed, its universal search is undoubtedly affected by social factors.
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The collective social factors that can potentially impact relevance and authority in search results are referred to as social signals. Their most important facet is their capacity as social validators. If many people indicate in any social way that they endorse a webpage (through a Like, a Share, a Tweet, or anything else), these are all social signals that can, in retrospect, mean that said webpage endorsed must be doing something right. When social signals in search first came to light, this truth was a realization that was difficult to translate into a ranking factor. After all, what social signals should be included? How should these varying signals be considered? Which bears more importance? Can this system be secured to circumvent abuse?
Yahoo and Microsoft’s Bing both incorporate different social signals within their universal search functions, and also have special filters that allow for the prioritization of social factors for results. Google, on the other hand, took a similar, but radical route: the +1 button, Search Plus Your World, and Google+.
Google’s version of Facebook’s “like” is the +1 button. It is the only social signal that Google uses in ranking its universal search results as well as its Search Plus Your World function which takes into account your social graph (via Google+ and Google account holders) and shows your results prioritizing those webpages that your contacts have +1’d. Today, while Google does not publicly divulge details of how they prioritize social signals over other ranking factors, it is generally accepted that +1’s and Google+ accounts help in organic SEO for Google.
Aside from social signals in the form of social recommendations, another significant factor in the rise of social media in Internet marketing is social content. Sound content strategy entails that specific content types are used for particular mediums, and it is indeed best practice to repurpose content into several versions to suit their purposes: blog posts, press releases, sales copy, etc. When it comes to social networks, this simply means that content needs to suit their “social” purposes.
Of course, social content can further be sub categorized into specific content types associated to social networks themselves. Social content types can include Tweets, Pins, slide shows, and so on. As each has different forms, they also require different content styles. On the other end of the spectrum is user-generated content (UGC), something social networks are rife with.
Where specific social content types are the responsibility of the businesses or marketers using social media as marketing vehicles, UGC are the contents that users of social media and networking sites create for themselves or for the business or brands that they interact with. In a sense, blog posts in personal blogs are UGC, but for our purposes, we will narrow it down to social UGC, which includes comments, reviews, and ratings.
Social UGC in these three forms are powerful word of mouth marketing tools as well as social validation factors. A review from a friend you know about a product you want to buy will influence your buying decision — that is the power of social validation. While professional validation from professional reviews and ratings also account for something as they are often included in pre-purchase research, it is the input from your social graph that can really make a difference when it is time to purchase. Luckily, social UGC in your e-commerce website can be leveraged for SEO as well as inbound marketing, and interacting with commenters and reviewers — especially for negative feedback — can help establish your brand; if you handle it successfully.
Social media has indeed gone from merely an emerging trend to a dominant one that has penetrated and now encompasses several established industries. It has disrupted sectors such as the video game industry and Internet marketing, and is currently still growing in scale as well as development. What all of this means is that while it is yet to be a solid, well-defined, and refined field, social media in all facets of Internet marketing cannot be ignored. Ideally, you should leverage what you can out of such fields as social signals in SEO and UGC for better marketing and search optimisation efforts.
It is without a doubt that soon, we will be seeing social media become more dominant and all-pervasive than it already is. If you have yet to adopt social media and its many facets in at least some of your ventures in both e-commerce and marketing, it is time you did so. You can start with tweaking your organic SEO to take advantage of social signals, and leveraging your UGC for better marketing and branding.