As near as I can tell, the term “social media optimization” first hit the Internet on August 10, 2006, when Rohit Bhargava, vice president of Interactive Marketing for Ogilvy Public Relations, coined the term in his blog. The original post now has more than 80 links, translations into four languages, a Wikipedia entry (as does social media marketing), a new blog devoted entirely to SMO, and more. So what is it, and why are so many SEOs and marketers taking notice?
Rohit Bhargava explains in his original post that those engaging in SMO “implement changes to optimize a site so that it is more easily linked to, more highly visible in social media searches on custom search engines (such as Technorati), and more frequently included in relevant posts on blogs, podcasts and vlogs.” I have even seen one commenter on the phenomenon (thankfully only one) refer to it as Marketing 2.0. There’s more truth there than you might think, because many of the rules for SMO sound very much like the guidelines for good SEO – or even good marketing before the advent of the Internet.
I don’t say this to put down Bhargava or any of the other people who have posted online about SMO. There are many of those, by the way: performing Google searches on the terms “social media optimization” and “social media marketing,” with quotes, yields more than 100,000 for the former and more than 80,000 for the latter. Rather, I think it’s useful to look at the principles of SMO and see in what ways it is an extension of what many site owners and marketers have already been doing.
It also lets us look at what aspects of SMO are genuinely new. That should help those trying to understand the new model avoid the kind of missteps made by Wal-mart. In case you missed that story, a couple was supposedly writing a blog about their travels across America in an RV. They stayed each night in a Wal-mart parking lot, and usually said something positive about the company or its employees. In mid-October, it was revealed that the blog was part of a Wal-mart public relations campaign, and the couple’s expenses (including the RV) were paid for at least indirectly by Wal-mart. Readers of the blog felt duped, many in the blogosphere felt outraged at the publicity stunt, and Wal-mart suffered a serious loss of goodwill.
Bhargava’s original post included five rules that his company uses when conducting SMO for a client’s web site. Other posters subsequently added more; the current list includes 17 guidelines. In this section I’m going to look at those first five and see what we can learn.
Increase your linkability. This really means making your web site less static. If you want visitors to link to your site, it needs to contain information that makes them want to link to it: white papers, thought pieces, news, or even tools that let users handle information in ways that are useful to them. This rule is an extension of the most important principle behind regular SEO: content is king.
Make tagging and bookmarking easy. You can see that we follow that principle on SEO Chat, with buttons to easily link articles to a variety of social sites. Bhargava recommends going further, by including a helpful list of relevant tags for the page, and tagging your pages first on popular social bookmarking sites (not just the home page, but other parts of your site as well). This rule is a mashup of word-of-mouth advertising with that old marketing principle: make it easy for your customer to do what you want them to do.
Reward inbound links. This encourages site visitors to link to you. In the case of a blog, you want to set up a permalink to each entry (to make it easy to find again). Many blogs reward those who link to them by listing such links in their comments section, thus giving the linker visibility on their site. This raises both your profile and theirs in the various online social communities. This is, in effect, similar to the “customer testimonials” from old school marketing – except it’s usually about your content rather than your product. As with testimonials, though, the best ones are unsolicited.
Help your content travel. SEO is about making changes to your site, with an implicit assumption that your content will stay on your site. That’s not true today. You can generate buzz by submitting videos to YouTube and related sites, for instance – and you can figure that users might want to link your content to such sites. Before you get panicky and discourage this kind of copyright infringement, consider how much traffic it might be driving back to your site. Think of it as spreading tons of business cards – only with modern technology, you can spread a lot more information than can fit on a card, and make it more entertaining to boot.
Encourage the mashup. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then wanting to use your content in an original creation (within reason) is high praise indeed. Why do you think Google isn’t upset with all the mashups of Google Maps? Users are finding ways to make that content more useful to more people. If you allow users to augment your content in some way, or use it elsewhere (think of the way YouTube provides code to let visitors embed the videos into their own sites), you will get them more involved – and more interested in what you have to offer.
Jeremiah Owyang came up with the sixth and seventh rules. Here again, you’ll find some familiar ground.
Be a user resource, even if it doesn’t help you. Think about Google and authority sites. Remember, if you help users find what they’re looking for, even if you aren’t the source of the product, they’ll tell other people by posting a link to their social site(s) and tagging you as being helpful in your field. This is another case where content is king, and rules that hold for SEO also help for SMO.
Reward helpful and valuable users. Owyang thinks this might not be strictly SMO, but it’s a great way to “keep the most valuable members of a community closer to your site.” This is an old school marketing tactic – it isn’t even limited to marketing, actually. The principle is to reward the behavior you want to encourage. Only the rewards are a little different. You reward users with thank you notes, visibility on your web site, increases in their ratings, and similar incentives. For example, social search engine Searchles, among others, rewards active users and groups by linking to them on its home page. Our own SEO Chat forums reward moderators, top posters, and spam reporters by giving them a temporary virtual badge acknowledging their efforts.
Cameron Olthuis came up with the next four rules (and coined the term “Marketing 2.0,” as well as the more useful term “pull marketing”). He recognized that SMO “includes all the new marketing techniques that are becoming popular rolled into one…” His suggestions ring with truth for anyone who has been actively involved in social media for awhile.
Participate – Join the conversation. If you’re trying to reach the community of people involved in social media, you can’t talk AT them as you would when advertising in traditional media. You can’t even really talk TO them. You have to talk WITH them. If you belong to any kind of social group, especially one centered on a passionate hobby, you’ll understand this instinctively. Think about how you feel when someone who really isn’t familiar with the hobby tries to sell you something. You create the same impression – or worse – if you try to plaster your message around without really participating.
Know how to target your audience. No, your product or service does NOT appeal to everyone – and even if it does, there are going to be certain groups of people who are more interested in it than others. I’d like to think my articles appeal to everyone, but realistically, I know my audience for the articles I write on SEO Chat is SEO professionals, so I write with them in mind. Likewise, find out who is most interested in your product, and where and how to reach them. That’s not just SMO; that’s good marketing sense that goes back to the days before the press release.
Create content. Maybe you make the most boring product or service in the world. There is some way to jazz it up, make it funny, write a white paper about it, or otherwise make it of interest. Then you can use social media to spread that content and drive traffic back to your web site. You may have to experiment to find out what kind of content works best – but you should be used to this idea. It’s another variation on the SEO insistence that “content is king.” And don’t be so sure that there isn’t some kind of humor in or about your field; even one of the grimmest jobs in the world (mortician) yielded more than 59,000 hits in Google when paired with the word “jokes.”
Be real. Remember the Wal-mart fake bloggers? Enough said. Or as Olthuis bluntly put it, “The community does not reward fakers.”
Loren Baker added a couple of rules that help to put the rest in perspective.
Don’t forget your roots, be humble. If you do get to the point of becoming some kind of social media star, don’t forget the folks who helped you get there. A little respect for them goes a long way. I’m not even going to point to marketing parallels when a large percentage of Hollywood movies have this as their theme.
Don’t be afraid to try new things, stay fresh. Your need to try something new may have attracted you to the social media space in the first place. Like everything else on the Internet, you can bet that it isn’t going to stay the same. The Internet itself was around for quite some time before the World Wide Web came along; the Web existed for a long time with mostly static web sites before blogging came along; and even then, blogging was around for at least a couple of years before someone came up with the technology to make podcasts practical. When you see something new, don’t run from it; think about how you can use it. Sure, there’s risk – but there’s also a huge risk in standing still.
Lee Odden contributed the next three rules. You could literally substitute “SEO” or “marketing” everywhere he used the term “SMO” and his rules would still read the same. That’s not a bad thing; it simply shows the general principles that tie SMO to other forms of promotion.
Develop a SMO strategy. It’s all well and good to get into SMO, but you have to do it for a reason. Know what your goals are; define them, and keep them in mind as you engage in SMO. Do you want to increase your sales? Reputation? Traffic?
Choose your SMO tactics wisely. Once again, the Wal-mart fiasco is worth pointing out. Odden points out something he learned at a “Marketing and Social Media” session at a Search Engine Strategies that’s worth noting: one percent of those involved in social media will create content, 9 percent will enrich that content, and the other 90 percent will just consume it. That’s a lot of influence wielded by relatively few.
Make SMO part of your process and best practices. This actually goes back to the first five rules. “Find ways to incorporate SMO tactics at the ‘template’ level of document creation and as part of information distribution,” Odden explains. Don’t make SMO an afterthought.
Rohit Bhargava gives the seventeenth rule of social media optimization. In fact, when he opened up his blog post to suggestions for other rules after the first five, he showed that rule in action: don’t be afraid to let go of a message or idea and let others own it. While consumers have been "owning" marketing messages for years (just think about how long parodies of various kinds have been around), many if not most companies have not been comfortable with it. Fumble this and you will lose a lot of credibility and goodwill among the very community you’re trying to reach.