SEO Isn't What You Think It Is

Updates to Google's algorithms mean that social engagement, rather than search engine trickery, yields top results.

Marketers are buzzing from the aftershocks of Google's recent most updates, code-named Panda and Penguin.

Panda, which launched around February of 2011, started using artificial intelligence in new ways to enforce the best practices guidelines Google had long provided to those seeking to optimize their websites.

If Panda was a wrist slap, Penguin, launched in last April, was a body slam to websites still trying to "trick" the search engines into ranking them ahead of their competition. The update emphasized the importance of quality content, originality, and overall user experience.

Both the Panda and Penguin updates contained very clear messages for marketers: stop focusing on technology and tricks and start focusing on people. If your website appeals to people, it will appeal to Google's algorithms too.

But the Panda and Penguin messages go deeper. With them, the search engines are openly acknowledging that a website isn't the only place on the Web that a brand needs to maintain a strong presence. The interactive exchanges that people have with each other and with the brand—online—are happening in the social media channel, and the search engines are placing an increasing importance on how these conversations influence their views on brands and how their websites should rank.

This means that a brand can no longer rely on a well-optimized website to earn Google's attention. A brand must be a conversationalist, going where the people are and engaging them in discussion, and by doing that earn a wonderful reputation.

Smart brands are doing this by fully leveraging each social channels particular properties.

Facilitate conversations with fans on your Facebook page.
Simply announcing what your company is up to isn't going to get fans engaging with your brand. Post information that is relevant to your brand and of interest to your stakeholders. Invite questions, suggest other reading, provide links, curate other content. The point is to have dynamic conversations between your brand and your fans.
Parmesan is a delicious example.

Share tweets about topics of interest (again—not self-serving announcements but follower-serving news) via Twitter.
The search engines are all looking at Twitter activity, at the keyword and brand-name level, as signals for which brands deserve top rankings. No one is going to be interested in miles and miles of one-way tweets about how great your brand is. Know your stakeholders: provide information that will be of use to them and they will not only follow you, they'll retweet what you share.
Whole Foods gets it.

Uploading shareable videos to your YouTube channel optimizes your brand as well as your website.
How? When the content is engaging, people what to share it. When they share it, they often add a link to your website. Encourage more sharing and engagement with people who leave comments by responding to their comments. Remember, Google owns YouTube. Enough said.
Home Depot has a quality YouTube channel.

Pin and Repin interesting visuals on Pinterest.
Pinterest may not be right for every brand, but if you market to consumers and have a brand with visual attributes or messaging that can be supported by photos, images, and infographics, Pinterest is another option to leverage for brand optimization.
Real Simple and West Elm pin well.

Participate in groups, answer questions, and post company updates on LinkedIn.
This is less about SEO and more about putting your brand where the buyers are. Whether you are a B2B or B2C marketer, having a strong LinkedIn profile for your company, complete with referrals from customers and strategic partners, is a strong component in the brand optimization mix. While LinkedIn groups tend to be "closed" and therefore not accessible to the search engines, some are public, and therefore search engine crawlable and the conversations in those groups where your brand is referenced with links to your website can help with SEO and brand optimization too. And don't forget, Company Pages are public and now feature status updates.
Voices.com is a resource on LinkedIn.

Share information on Google+.
There is widespread belief that as Google+ gains in popularity, the conversations there will help with brand and search engine optimization. People have been somewhat slow to add yet another social media profile to their online presence, and brands have been slow to adopt Google+ too, but some brands are making smart use of Google+ now.
See what the New York Times is doing with it.

All of this social media activity works to create engagement around the brand by what has always mattered to the search engines most: people.

So rather than asking yourself, "How do I optimize my website to better rank with search engines?" ask, "How can I optimize my brand so that it's a sought-after participant in relevant conversations?" Answering that will bring you top rankings on the search engines and much, much more.

Veronica Fielding is the CEO of Digital Brand Expressions, a trailblazing digital marketing agency that specializes in building audiences and connecting buyers and brands through context marketing solutions.

Follow Veronica on Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user Lali Masriera]

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114 Comments

  • Lloyd G Robinson

    This information is priceless.Great Article very helpful to me and i am sure other small business will find it very helpful.Thanks and please do continue to write informational articles.

  • Earl

    Internet technology is always changing. Sure, some ideas here can work, but that doesn't mean one can settle on "absolute" rules. Yes, social engagement is a rising trend, but there are still those who adapt their search engine trickeries to the current situation. 

    And I have no idea what the dog picture is for.

  • Karen W.

    I am already inundated with social media buzz. I don't care if something has been "liked" or "Pinned" or "tweeted". Viral videos are the lowest common denominator. (Don't get me wrong. I love cat videos.) The fact that people are buzzing about a product or website doesn't mean it will match my taste or my needs. There's got to be a better way to search than one based on popularity.

  • jpbrody

    Weeelll . . . speaking as a newbie, I thought it was a great introductory article.  Introduced you to the subject . . . gave concrete illustrations so you could see the point . . . and covered (with some tips and insights) a very dynamic field.  

    I don't pretend to know anything about algorithms that anyone uses, however, this article makes an excellent point:  Write meaningful content for people and they'll like you!  Write meaningful content for yourself and only you will like you.

    Just sayin' . . . as a newbie, of course.

  • Natalie Weaving

    This is brilliant and what I have been telling my clients.  I will be sharing this with them in our next newsletter. Thank you!

  • FocusSearchMelb

    Your claim that social media is the be all and end all for impressive SEO results is wrong and misleading. This is just a glorified social media article i could find 1000's just like it. Secondly and most importantly, "updates to Google's algorithms mean that social engagement rather than social media trickery yields top results" incorrect. At this present time a well optimised website with no social media presence can still get great results in the search engines. I agree that social is becoming increasingly more important but it will be some time before it's the be all and end all as claimed in this article. 

     

  • Adam

    This isn't true at all. Google DOES NOT count social engagement toward search ranking. They count backlinks.

    People did some flawed studies that showed a correlation between social media metrics and SERPs, but they had a chicken vs. Egg problem. The social engagements are high because the content was higher in the SERPs, not the other way around.

  • FocusSearchMelb

    Julian I can see why you think that way however one of the benefits of freedom of speech is that it inspires conversations and without conversations we are less effective at what we do. 

    We have set up SEO TV http://focussearch.com.au to inspire conversation. 

  • veronicafielding

    There seems to be some confusion about Matt Cutts of Google and his comments about how Google uses social factors in its natural search algorithm.  He did not
    say social signals aren’t used by Google.  He said they don’t outweigh the
    importance of links.  He said he expects social to influence natural
    search more over time.  In my follow-up note on 8/19, I clarified that I
    wasn't suggesting links weren't important and also that social commentary often
    includes links.  

     

    In addition, there are clips on
    YouTube going back to 2010 where Matt says Google does factor in social.

     

    Our clients that are integrating
    social with SEO are seeing significant increases in natural search
    traffic compared with those that are relying on traditional link building
    without social.  Time will show that this (adding in social) is just
    another component in the evolution of SEO.

  • NoH8

    Methinks all the negative comments are from those unethical SEO types that promise clients the sky and then fail to deliver, or duck responsibility when their shenanigans don't pay off. Just sayin'.

  • Electrum Marketing

    While I completely agree with your article, it's so hard to convince certain heavily regulated -compliance focused businesses to sip their toe in the social media pool.  They also fail to see the benefits of blogging.  I will keep this article as a reference to share with them.  Thank you.

  • Brian

    Just must have missed the part in this article that had a study or factual representation behind this theorem.
    Where by chance do you get this information? Opinion? Where are the scientific studies with many sites isolated and observed with controls that show and prove that social signals boost rankings?
    None. At least not in this article.

  • Neo

    Particularly when there is a link in the article cited by the author as proof... that leads straight to an article where Matt Cutts puts no credibility in Social whatsoever.
    http://searchenginewatch.com/a...  ..."Google Leery of Social Signals"

    All I know is GM decided to make a blog one day to see what the public thought about them. The resulting Sh*t Storm was a phenomenally expensive disaster. Anyone that has any kind of large business realized then that unless you want to be paying for Reputation Management for the rest of your life, stay the heck away from social media!

    It's predominantly filled with bitter out-of-work individuals out to vent their frustrations on whatever large company gives them a soapbox.

  • Kgal1298

    These are marketing tactics to drive sales. Google doesn't really count Pinterest because of the ability to replicate links. At first you could get your boards ranked in the algorithm, but it seems they blocked that now. Same for Tumblr. As for FB those links don't count as much and no one has a huge clear take on the effect of Twitter, but this is far from SEO this is just good marketing that newbies should be going. 

  • insectg

    I say break all the rules and advice because that is how you become break-away.

  • Adam Lee

    This article isn't about 'SEO' its about attention which relates back to SEO but isn't correct in the way it is written. It makes out as if Google is actively interested in conversations on FB, Linkedin, Twitter etc. when we know they aren't. Its correct in the idea but doesn't explain it clearly enough.
    Google is interested in a general concept of attention or 'PR' and 'brand'. As such - more attention = more links & more brand mentions  - thus giving Google what it wants for SEO rankings. This articles doesn't explain that clearly enough and makes out as if Social Media has replaced SEO, which it hasn't.

  • Web Retail Group

     Focus on content.  This is what Google has been saying all along.  Of course Google would try to find a fix so that people who are using black hat SEO techniques don't get high ranking.  We should expect nothing less from Google.