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Social Media Marketing Doesn't Replace SEO

August 11, 2010

Looking at the latest search marketing conference agendas, articles, and online news in the SEM space, it certainly appears that social media marketing and networking are the wave of the future.
Photo Credit: webtreats
To a certain extent, they are.

Social media, and social networking in particular, create a back-and-forth conversation with your target audience, so you can virally market your website through the "buzz" that can be created. When something interesting, cool, or unique is being talked about in "all the right places," it can certainly provide a boost in website traffic.

We search marketers tend to hang out in numerous online and offline communities where it's easy to promote our own products and services, yet I can't help wondering if our view of Web marketing is skewed because of this.

Are potential B2B clients and even B2C customers spending time at Digg? Do they attend SEM conferences in order to hire a company, or are they just trying to learn to do it themselves? And what about other industries? Is there a Sphinn equivalent for developers of product lifecycle management software? Are there groups of people online comparing the various brands of auto parts? Are there really people seeking out articles on these topics?


And if so, we'd be remiss not to promote our clients' websites in those spaces. But is this search marketing? Or is it simply online marketing? Arguably, it becomes search marketing when it increases link popularity, but surely that should be the secondary goal of this type of marketing campaign. True link popularity comes from having something worth linking to, not something you've asked your insulated group of cronies to link to.

Certainly, the boost in direct traffic that a site can gain when it is being discussed in all the right places online is not to be taken lightly – and that alone is reason enough to try to be found in all the right places. Yet how much of that traffic actually converts into anything good, and how much does it help your organic search rankings?

More important – how does it increase your bottom line?

For instance, I've written a few articles that received upward of 1,000 visitors a day from StumbleUpon alone. The spike in traffic was nice, and the slight increase in newsletter subscribers was certainly welcome, but for the most part, those StumbleUpon visitors spent just a few minutes on our site, and only a small percentage signed up for our free newsletter. None of them were interested in using our services. They read the article and then stumbled their way to the next site of potential interest.

Isn't participation in social media really just preaching to the choir?

You reach your peers, not the people who will buy your product or service. Sure, it's a nice ego stroke to have others in your industry tell you how cool you are, and there's something to be said for building credibility within your own community. I'm certainly not knocking that, and have built my own credibility via various online communities in which I've participated over the past decade.

But how does it sell your products and services?

Do you gain customers and sales from your social media marketing and/or your participation in social networks? Does it increase your rankings for the keyword phrases your actual target audience is typing into the search engines? If your business model depends on traffic for traffic's sake, or on how many ad impressions your site generates, then there's an obvious value. But if you sell a product or a service – then not so much.

My fear with all the hype about social media marketing is that people new to search marketing will believe it's what SEO demands and what SEO is all about.

It isn't. Not by a long shot.

Social media marketing is a great addition to any traditional SEO work that you do, but it's not a substitute. It's more akin to hiring a PR firm once you've launched your already-SEO'd website. On-page SEO is definitely not as sexy as social media marketing, but it is still the most important investment in your website that you can make. Period.

So, go to all your social media conferences, and Digg your way to increased traffic. But first learn exactly who your target audience is, what they're searching for in the search engines, and how your website can solve their problems. Then make sure your website does exactly that. All the social media buzz and traffic won't amount to anything if your target audience isn't already part of the online conversation.

Be sure to have your own house in order before you give social media marketing a try.

And don't be surprised if it doesn't actually provide you with the ROI you hoped it would. In most cases it will depend on who your target audience is, where they hang out, the types of services or products you offer, and whether your website truly provides people with what they're looking for.

Getting back to SEO basics – that is, creating a crawler-friendly website that is built around the keyword phrases people use at the search engines to find what you offer – is the first and most important thing you can do for your website and your business. Yeah, it's not as fun and exciting as social media marketing, but skip this step at your own peril!



Jill Whalen is CEO of High Rankings an SEO consulting company in the Boston, MA area.

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Post Comment

 David Fischer said:
Jill, another great post. So true! Also to note is that social media involvement takes a lot of ongoing time from clients. For smaller companies this may be impossible. Strong search rankings pull in business with no requirement to constantly digg and tweet and blog. We have a client who obtained a #1 Google ranking for their key search term four years ago and has sustained it with almost zero ongoing expenditure of time or cash. Over that span the #1 ranking has pulled in millions of business for them.
 Reid Neubert said:
Jill, so happy to hear this coming from an authority like you. It's what I've been telling clients as well. Well said!
 A Toman said:
Yes. I hear a million times a day how social media marketing is the way to success. Here is what I discovered:

1) I challenge any common unknown business person, let's say, small engine repair website by Joe, to show me how their "tweet" turned a ROI.
No one has taken up that challenge.

2) Funny! All my followers are "web" people. No small engine repair website Joes!?!

3) I offered to those who tell me that social media marketing is hot, hot, hot a whole penny per tweet and if it turned out a profit, they get half.

Mmmm!?1 All of a sudden tweeting ain't worth a bloody wooden nickel. Mmmm!?! It must be that all those followers of mine know better then to believe what they say, hey!?!

Not a SINGLE individual has come across with the numbers as of this date about this social media marketing.

Business accounting is very simple; income less than outgo spells failure.

So, once again, I challenge social media marketing gurus to show me the business accounting aspect of their claim.

My clients will adore you.

I'm waiting ...
... and waiting ...
... and waiting ...
 Mary Kay Lofurno said:
I agree. Great article Jill.

I look at social media as 'a' tactic in link building strategy. I started with social media back in 2006 and I still have the same opinion today.
 giles shepherd said:

I am in broad agreement with you; you have to SEO your site to ensure you are getting all those searching for an answer to a problem.

However social media marketing for can build presence and reputation that converts people into customers without taking up huge resources (sadly i can't claim a solid ROI model yet), but even in the small island of Guernsey (60k popn 9 x 5 miles big) in the Channel Islands I have seen customers, particularly in the B2C channel make small volumes of sales online that they don't believe would have been captured by traditional methods and also they are recruiting/reaching out to a new audience, often younger than their traditional customers.

B2B is definately more challenging and i have been experimenting with how to make it work for the print broking side of my business (I sell print across the channel islands and UK)....currently I am at 0% useful conversion via social media sites, but it is early days.
 Jill Whalen said:
@Giles absolutely. And I believe I said that in the article. Social media is a great form of internet marketing. My point was simply that it's not a substitute for SEO.
 Stephen Marks said:
Hi Jill,
It's my first visit to your website and I found this article very interesting but perhaps not in the way it was intended. I must admit that my particular business model may not be representative but I actually found the article made a very compelling case for spending more time networking and less time with SEO.
In our business it is essential that we attract a very specific demographic because we only have the resources to cater for a limited customer base. In my experience it has been far more fruitful to have more influence on the customers who approach us rather than highly optimising our website so that more people can find us and inundate us with enquiries. I guess you could say that this is the downside of being more exclusive but for us to expand would certainly change the identity of the business.
Please do understand though that I by no means dispute that SEO is important for us but only in so much as to make our website easy for our customers to use. However, given limited time we have always been better served by networking to find prospects (not suspects) than by devoting that extra time to additional SEO.
 James Howard said:

I actually know Stephen Marks (who left the previous comment) and I'm sure he won't mind me saying so but he made a good point but in a rather long winded manner. I would simplify by drawing attention to your good observation that more visitors doesn't neccesarily translate into equally more sales. However, it is arguable whether SEO rather than social marketing is always the better at achieving the loyal paying customers we all strive for. A highly SEO'd site doesn't guarantee you less purely browsing visitors than social marketing done well.

Oh and regarding your response to Giles where you state that your point was merely social media is not a substitute for SEO. It is a good point but it is also painfully stating the obvious as it is very rare for any method to totally replace another in marketing. Clearly, Giles acknowledged that both are required and I suspect his issue was over the splitting of attention between each.

Lastly, an extreme example I know, but I've seen some Flash based websites which had mediocre SEO at best but they perfectly conveyed the look and feel of the product or service to those people who wanted to spend money. Obviously in this case it is all about getting the right people to view those pages be it through SEO, SEM, or social media. So perhaps, under certain circumstances, you do want to concentrate on the PR first and then the SEO second depending on your needs...... just a thought.
 Jill Whalen said:
Thanks Stephen and James for contributing here!

I agree with you both, but again it seems like you may be trying to say that one (social media) is more important than another (SEO).

Where I'm just saying that they're both important and neither should be neglected in favor of the other. (Again, stating the obvious!)

I suppose in certain markets one may be more important than another, but for nearly all sites, both are likely to be equally important. And since SEO should be built into a site from the start, I would suggest to most that they do that aspect, and when the site is a beautiful on-page SEO machine, then social media is in order. :)
 James Howard said:
Only too happy to contribute Jill, you make us all feel very welcome, even when we do have challenging points of view :)

Just to clarify, in your previous post you suspect that I may be, as you say, "trying to say that one (social media) is more important than another (SEO)". Well, I was indeed saying this but if you read my original post I qualified it with that all important phrase "depending on your needs".

This "depending on your needs" phrase is the balance that I felt your article lacked.

Your statement of, "On-page SEO is definitely not as sexy as social media marketing, but it is still the most important investment in your website that you can make. Period." just seemed a little bit one size fits all in favor of SEO and that's really what I was trying to address.

However, you certainly made amends for this in your last post in saying, "I suppose in certain markets one may be more important than another, but for nearly all sites, both are likely to be equally important".This statement seems much more accomodating of different business needs.

To summarize, it makes sense to me that there will be times when SEO is more important, times when social is more important, and times when they are roughly equally important.

Finding out which approach provides the best fit is part of the whole process of getting to know one's own business and "its needs". This exercise in itself won't only be useful for deciding the allocation to SEO or social but provides insight for the whole marketing strategy. Surely this is healthier than blindly following advice to always prioritize SEO at all costs (which I completely acknowledge you didn't say).
 Jill Whalen said:
James I would be interested in hearing what types of websites or businesses you think would need social media and not SEO. I can't think of one off the top of my head. I think Jennifer Laycock may have had an article recently that discussed this but I can't remember exactly what she concluded.

Obviously as an SEO I'm biased towards that!
 James Howard said:
With all due respect, if you look at my post I did not suggest there are ANY types of websites or businesses that would need social media but not need any SEO. That is much too extreme!

Regarding being biased as an SEO, absolutely you are an SEO and a great one at that! That's why it's fantastic that your site allows non-SEOs like myself are able to help the balance by putting forward our comments. Keep up the good work!