Is There a Link Between SEO and Social?

After a short break to the U.K. shores, I’m back in my office on the 55th floor of the Empire State Building in NYC. I tend to walk around my office a lot. This is usually a clear signal to all around that “Mike is thinking.” And as I stand looking out the window I’m thinking: “Why would you go to an SEO (define) firm for the execution of a social campaign?”

As you may be able to tell, I’m also trying very hard not to use the term “social media.” That term hardly reflects what is essentially modern public relations. Generally speaking, the average SEO shop is a technical resource helping clients to develop or reengineer Web pages to make them more crawler friendly. In my experience, the majority of SEO shops rarely even provide link-building services. Having said that, I’ve always believed that link building is more of a public relations and marketing exercise than it is an SEO one.

Back to my question: if your SEO firm doesn’t even provide fundamental PR and marketing services, such as directory listings and link building, why would you choose it to help with social?

OK, let’s strip this to the bone immediately. Many SEO shops see the application of some kind of social campaign as a novelty method of getting links for their clients. And this is where you should stop and think before you reach out to an SEO shop for social, or before it comes to try and sell it to you.

Understanding how a search engine Web crawler works and optimizing Web pages has nothing to do with PR and marketing. And the idea that the big connection between search and social is based on so-called link bait (define) is a short-lived notion.

Online social elements will have a huge impact on search in the future. And it will have little to do with simply attracting links.

At this time, I’m working on another thought paper, this one based on how collective intelligence will enhance information retrieval online. Just as the research community became hugely active in information retrieval on the Web during the late ’90s and early 2000s, so it is again. But this time it’s not all about hyperlink-based ranking algorithms; it’s more about information-seeking support systems (ISSS). These systems are being designed to meet information seekers’ broader requirements.

Information retrieval researchers usually depict information seeking on the Web as a solitary activity of a single person. Yet this view is beginning to change as more evidence of collaborative search and social bookmarking emerges.

And this means search marketers will need to change strategies in the future, from simply making Web pages visible above the fold at search engines to becoming engaged with opinion leaders in Web communities. Two kinds of social search systems are at the forefront of research: social answering and social feedback.

Social answering systems are based on people with expertise in specific fields providing opinion and answers to particular questions. Some systems tap into social networks to get information from friends and friends of friends, such as Mechanical Zoo’s Aardvark and ChaCha for mobile information seekers.

These systems prove to be extremely useful for getting answers that are hard to find using the more common keyword-based systems, such as Google and other major search engines. Of course, the idea of social answering systems has been around for quite some time. You can track Mark Ackerman’s “Answer Garden” back to the early ’90s. But it’s only now that they’re beginning to see some real traction.

The effectiveness of these systems will depend on their efficiency in utilizing search and recommendation algorithms to return the most relevant past answers and further develop the knowledge base.

Social feedback systems are based on social attention data to rank search results or information items. This data can be acquired both implicitly and explicitly, depending on the system. Search engines can derive this information from usage logs or you can elicit information by providing voting mechanisms for Web site visitors, such as tags, bookmarks, and rating systems.

For sure, right now there’s a whole lot of noise in what are generally referred to as social media sites, such as Digg and Delicious, where tagging abounds. Interestingly, Ma.gnolia closed down earlier this year and is now being rebuilt as a invitation-only community bookmarking service due to launch this summer.

Scientists at the Palo Alto Research Center have been working on a prototype cross between a search engine and a recommendation engine. The experiment is aimed at leveraging the knowledge contained in tags, reducing the noise, and amplifying the information signal.

An algorithm called TagSearch has been developed by researchers in the center’s Augmented Social Cognition (ASC) group. And its prototype is called…MrTaggy! Come on guys, you’re scientists. You could have come up with a better name than that! But, hey, if something called Twitter can grab the attention of the entire planet…

The group recently completed a 30-subject study of MrTaggy and analyzed interaction and user interface design. The findings seem to be quite promising. The empirical results show that users can effectively use data generated by social tagging as navigational advice. The results also suggest that the opportunity for interactive feedback and the recommendations offered by the related tags supported users in exploring unfamiliar topic areas.

There’s not enough room in this column to go into further detail. But hopefully you’ll get the gist of the social networking connection to search. What does it mean for search marketers? It means that, in the future, the new signals will require new skills well beyond those required for SEO.

Already I’m working with my colleagues to develop a new business area specializing in researching the social search activity space. Then we can develop methodology for marketing into networks of networks of people to ensure our clients are pulled through social into search.

Join us for a one-day Online Marketing Summit in a city near you from May 5, 2009, to July 1, 2009. Choose from one of 16 events designed to help interactive marketers do their jobs more effectively. All sessions are new this year and cover such topics as social media, e-mail marketing, search, and integrated marketing.

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