Making Social Media Optimization Work for You

Social media optimization is the art of using social web sites to promote your business or organization. If you do it right, you can attract thousands of visitors to your web site, to say nothing of the number of links. This article will explain SMO and offer some tips.

Social media optimization, sometimes called “social media marketing,” was first discussed online on August 10, 2006, by Rohit Bhargava, vice president of Interactive Marketing for Ogilvy Public Relations. He posited five rules of social media optimization; his original blog post has expanded to encompass 17 rules, which I’ve written about previously.

It was in 2007 however, that social media optimization really began to hit its stride. In the past year I’ve seen at least as many articles about SMO as I have about more traditional SEO. Additionally, many SEO articles that describe the variety of things you can do to promote your web site will include a section that covers social media optimization. They may not use that name, or even any particular name, but what they describe is taking advantage of social media sites to generate buzz, visits, links and hopefully conversions.

In short, SMO is becoming a mainstream part of SEO. That became pretty clear when The Wall Street Journal ran an article in February 2007 about the “hidden influencers” that post links to web sites such as Digg that become popular and generate traffic for those sites. These people aren’t in it for the money – but even then, the article noted that some were trying to cash in on the trend with services that offered to generate traffic for web sites by paying people to “vote up” posts.

You shouldn’t resort to those kinds of practices. They’re generally frowned on – or worse – in online social communities. But you do need to know what you’re dealing with. Start by getting the target audience for your offering firmly in mind; if you’re on the top of your game, you should know who these people are anyway. Knowing who your audience is will help give you some idea of where to go to find them.

There are several different kinds of social sites. Not all of them will be conducive to your purposes. Even the ones that are will be structured in a number of different ways, which means you’ll need to approach them differently. I have seen people claim that there are only two types of social sites, but I think there are at least three and maybe more. Feel free to disagree!

The first kind of social site I think of as a social networking site. These are the kinds of sites where users usually have profiles (such as LinkedIn) and sometimes have blogs as part of those profiles (such as Zude, MySpace, and other sites). You could become known on such a site by building a profile for yourself and/or your company, writing a blog, commenting on the blogs of other users, and so forth. Becoming part of such a site means becoming part of a community.

The second kind of social site is also community-based. You become noticed mainly by posting links, voting on links, and making comments on links other people have posted. Typically these are sites like Digg, Reddit, Slashdot, Fark, and many others. You need to spend some time reading these sites to get a feel for their quirks and what interests their readers. You wouldn’t post a story on home decorating to Digg, except possibly if the home decorating article talked about someone who made their apartment over into a reproduction of the U.S.S. Enterprise (and even then you’re likely to get a yawn and an “it’s been done.”). These communities are usually hypersensitive to spam, so you want to be really careful about what you post. As you would with an online forum, you want to get a feel for how they work before you put up your first link. It’s usually a good idea to lurk for a while with these sites before posting.

The third kind of social site is similar to the second kind, but the focus is a little different. Users post links as bookmarks for themselves and to share with others; these sites may be a little less news-focused than the second kind of site. Often the site is built around a search engine that is fed by the bookmarks. Users tag their bookmarks with keywords to help the search engine determine the relevance of particular links. As with the second kind of social site, you’re likely to see users voting and making comments on particular links. Good examples of these kinds of sites include del.icio.us and Searchles.

I think it’s worth noting that many sites are a “mix” of these kinds. And if you ask someone else, they might divide social media sites into different categories. For example, some will split them up by genre, into news, media, wiki, networking, and bookmarking sites. However you want to split it up, the key thing is to understand the site’s purpose (and no, it isn’t to make you rich by bringing you traffic!). Work with that purpose, rather than subverting it, and you stand to profit.

As with anything else, there are things you should do and things you should avoid doing if you’re going to promote your business through social media. I’ve already explained the first one: know your audience, know where they’re likely to hang out, and know the terrain on which you plan to do your promoting. So let’s move to a short list of things you should avoid doing. I owe thanks to Eric Ward over at LinkMoses for posting these at the end of 2006. They’re still relevant today.

First, don’t create a bunch of “sock puppet” accounts at sites that allow voting just so you can vote your submissions to the top. Yes, you get more traffic if your post reaches the top of the first page and stays there for a while. But the practice reeks of spam. I’m not a practicing SEO, but if I were, I’d probably think of it as a black hat technique. There are sites that will delete your posts for doing something like that, which is counterproductive. So don’t do it.

In the same vein, don’t try to get tons of other people to vote your submissions to the top. In this case, it’s more a matter of degree. As an example, when I post a link to Searchles I’ll sometimes send it to one or two site members that I think might be interested in its content. One or two is fine; four or five is probably fine too. When you start getting into double and triple digits, however, you’re “stuffing the ballot box,” as Eric Ward would put it. That’s an abuse of the system.

Finally, when you decide upon tags for a link, more specific is better than less specific. Remember everything you’ve learned about the “long tail” of keywords – fewer people search for them and fewer companies compete for them, but they bring in higher conversion rates. The same thing holds true for tags on links. Ward uses the example of a dermatologist who specializes in treating acne scars. “There are 37,000 posts tagged Acne over at Technorati, but only 356 tagged Acne scars,” he notes. Offer real content in a smaller niche and you stand a better chance of being heard above the noise.

Dan Zarella wrote nine tips for SEO Scoop to help readers get the most benefit out of a linkbaiting campaign conducted through social media. He covered a number of themes that stand out. Once you’ve created content that is worth linking to, you’ll want to keep these points in mind as you post links.

Most social media sites let users submit a particular link only once. That means you need to submit something you think will catch on the first time you try it. With that in mind, look at your home page. Honestly, do you think someone in the mood to read an interesting article or a funny story or similar item is going to like your home page? The vast majority of home pages do not make good linkbait. So never submit your home page to a social media site.

Focus on your keywords. Social media optimization is still a form of SEO, so keywords are still important. They belong in the title of your link as well as its description. Remember, this text will be used by the major search engines when they pick up the link; anyone who blogs about the link will also use the link’s title as anchor text.

Speaking of blogging, you want to encourage others to blog about your link. You can do this by asking for opinions or asking an open-ended question as part of your comment/description when you post the link. Think of your link and the content it leads to as a way to start a conversation.  

In fact, encouraging a conversation was a major theme I noticed in Zarrella’s tips. You may even think of it as encouraging multiple conversations in different locations. You want visitors to comment on the link in the social media site. You also want them to take the topic back to their own blogs to talk about. And if you have a blog with comment functionality on your own site, it would be great to see comments about the link there, too. The more places you encourage a conversation, the greater the chance that someone will see it, wonder what the buzz is all about, and maybe even join the conversation. Think of it as electronically harnessing word of mouth. Create the right kind of buzz, and you will see your reward in greater traffic. Good luck!

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