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Back in the days of dial-up, "You've Got Mail," Yahoo, and Ask Jeeves, when I went to the Internet to look for something, I would usually have to dig through page after page of search results in order to find what I was after. When I search for something now, I head straight for Google on my desktop, laptop, tablet, or phone, and usually find exactly what I'm looking for on the first page. I rarely dig any deeper than the second page.
The reason for this shift is that the search algorithm has gotten more sophisticated over time. Thanks to updates like Panda and Penguin, the system can evaluate whether a link is there just for the sake of the link, or whether a human being has shared a link with another human being based on a shared topic of interest (the social signal). Search is continually taking in the context of who we are and how we relate to information. We are constantly feeding indicators about relevance back into the system.
Social media has played a large role in how we search. By the time we intend to look for something, we most likely have seen several references made to it by friends, colleagues, mentors, and other influencers. We are far better informed before we ever go searching.
So, as marketers and SEOs, how can we maximize the impact of all of our digital efforts? Let's review how social can boost search and how tried-and-true search practices can enhance social.
Search success requires not only links and keywords, but also relevance, authenticity, and trust. All of the content directly associated with your URL - whether it's product descriptions, company bios, or your branded blog - has to be readable and engaging enough to win a social share. It won't matter that your text is full of relevant keywords if no one reads the page. Your page will be penalized if the human being who lands there doesn't find any real value and quickly clicks away to something else.
The first step to better search performance for your website is creating content that people enjoy reading. When people find helpful, intelligible information, they are more likely to click a social sharing button and pass on the link to someone else. When visitors to your blog read a compelling story, they're more likely to copy that link and share it with friends. Not only are these links natural and valuable, but they are also created in a way that signals to search that a human authenticated the relevance of that content. That signal will raise the level of trust and boost the page's visibility in search.
Once the on-page content is really rockin', make sure that sharing is simple and easy. Include the most frequently used social network buttons on your pages. Don't fall into the kitchen-sink trap and include every network known to man. Too many buttons will require too much decision-making and hinder a reader's inclination to share.
Finally, take heed of Google's use of its identity engine, Google+. When search users are logged into their G+, Google fine-tunes the results it receives based on who they are and whom they are associated with. Google also determines page rankings based partially on the authority of the content writer with Authorship. When people can put a face with possible content options, they are more likely to click links of the faces they know and trust. Google+ is not going away, and it will give a search edge to those brands that adopt it now.
It's search engine optimization, not just Google optimization. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, and Pinterest all have search built into their networks, and all provide lots of opportunities to optimize the content you produce for these networks.
I'm sure that many of you bypass Google for YouTube to find product reviews and instructions on how to do something. YouTube is still the second most popular search engine. Your video content can and should be optimized for YouTube search. Using well-crafted categories, titles, and descriptions, you can tell the system about the content of your newly uploaded video. SEO savvy can help you improve the performance of your video content.
Pinterest is searchable, too. Pinners can search for other pinners, boards full of pins related to a specific topic, and individual pins. Profile information, titles, and descriptions of both pins and boards, and use of broad categories, are opportunities to make your images of food, products, and places rise to the top and get the attention they deserve.
Facebook is slowly rolling out Graph Search. Of all the search options out there, Graph Search is the most likely to take relationships into account when a user is looking for something. For instance, Graph Search doesn't just search for local restaurants; it looks for restaurants that a user's friends like. Facebook updated the look of personal timelines in order to encourage users to share more information about what they do, where they've been, and what they like. For brand pages, it is important to make sure that all of the basic company information is available and accurate. Better Graph Search visibility will also require more connections and better photo tagging.
Sophisticated search algorithms mean that search and social strategies will have to be integrated. Teams of search and social specialists need to work together in order to maximize the impact of the entire branded presence online.
Image on home page via Shutterstock.
This column was originally published in SES Magazine, Toronto, 2013.
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Michelle Stinson Ross is the founder and CEO of Firestarter Social Media. She is the co-host of #SocialChat, a Twitter-based live chat about social media marketing.
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