Social media. It’s a term we hear a lot these days, particularly in business where social media appears to be more important than ever in engaging audiences and shaping the personality of the brand. But in an article published yesterday in The Guardian, there is a suggestion that social media optimisation, the process of making social media an integral part of a business, will lead to the demise of SEO.

You can’t blame the newspaper for picking up on this theme. A couple of weeks ago, Dan Graziano caused a stir with his claims that Google search displays only 13% organic results with the rest being ‘ads and junk’. But like Dan, whose calculations were based on above-the-fold content and a missed appreciation for the user experience benefits of localised search results, The Guardian appears to have missed a trick too. Social media and SEO work hand in hand and neither one will usurp the other.

Here’s why social media does not spell the end for SEO, and how to make the most of social media for your business:

1) Google uses social media to guide search results

Far from Tim Anderson’s suggestion that ‘SEO was always a flawed concept‘, now as much as ever Google continues to strive to deliver the best possible search results for every user’s query. And this means taking into account all of the clues which help it to identify which web content best serves the user’s needs – including social media and the role of social interaction. Particularly since Google’s Penguin update, Google is looking at how much a piece of content is shared, commented on, liked and saying ‘if people engage with it, it must be good’.

What this means for businesses using social media is that they must still, as always, create high quality content and they must always have an eye on how sharable and likeable the content is – which helps it to succeed on social media and on Google’s search results.

2) Changes in discovery behaviour online do not disqualify Google as a prime provider of web traffic

A recent Forrester report on how users find websites has been cited for its finding that social media is a growing discovery method. There is a clear rise in the percentage of web users who find websites via social media platforms, proving once again that social media is a valuable source of web traffic. The graph below is really useful in showing the change, but also the consistent value of SEO (as shown on Search Engine Land):

forrester value of social media


As the graph shows, social networks are growing as a referrer of traffic but search engines still refer the most traffic, according to Forrester Research.

3) Social Media is a tool in our marketing toolbox

One of the main problems clients and delegates at training sessions I’ve delivered have told me is that they simply don’t have the time to manage their social media. The idea of social media optimisation may well lead to the belief that a business should be utilising all available social media and spending a fortune on doing so. But I’d argue that social media doesn’t have a formula for success and that there is no ‘Facebook plus Twitter plus Pinterest equals success’ style quick win.

Rather, social media should be used as a tool in our marketing toolbox, with each of the different media providing a different use and meeting a different need. As an example, we at Hallam do not spend an awful lot of time on our Facebook page, simply because it’s not where our audience in active. So we don’t use it simply because it’s available, and nor should any business. Social media should be the medium through which we engage our audience and show the personality behind our brand – and that engagement comes from high quality content being shared in the places our audience is already active online.

It’s also a fantastic tool for SEO link building – take a look at my tips for using social media as part of your link building strategy in my recent blog.

Social Media and SEO

The ongoing rise of social media is a really good thing. Its focus on engagement and conversation is so valuable, for businesses but predominantly for the user experience of our audiences. If a business can do social media well, it stands a very good chance of achieving high quality traffic with a good propensity to convert.

But this rise does not indicate an end to the value of SEO, in my opinion. Instead, it pushes Google to continually refine its algorithms to include social – something which it has done for a long time, and will continue to do. As Tim Anderson says, SEO is ‘following best practice in creating clear, accessible web sites with intelligible content, meaningful titles, descriptive “alt” attributes for image, no broken links, and the rest of what makes for a high-quality web destination’ – and unless user experience is something we’re willing to compromise, that’s not a practice that’s going to disappear any time soon.

5 responses to “Social Media Optimisation: The End for SEO?”

  1. Some very strong opinions to The Guardian’s article on Twitter – take a look @timanderson to see some of them. Lots of SEOs out there agreeing that social and SEO work hand in hand.

  2. Ash @ madlemmings says:

    It is amazing how suddenly something gets into “the media” and it is “true”. But as you have clearly explained, Social Media is a tool, and a supplement to SEO. I can clearly see from my traffic (although a newish site) that the majority comes from direct or search, followed by social media (although each network is a lot less than search). Perhaps this split of traffic will change with time, as things like Google+ become “one” with Google and so on, but ultimately people will still search for stuff.

  3. Thanks for sharing Ash. Yes definitely, it’s one of a range of tools and neither one will usurp the other. Good to hear you’re working on your SEO and search from early on in your site’s life, and that you’re seeing results.

    I think you make an interesting point about social media in that the research does not show which social media refers the most traffic – whereas a split of the different search engines still clearly shows Google as the highest referrer. When different businesses use social media so differently, it’s so difficult to say which one work ‘the best’.

  4. Mike Hunter says:

    Hi Laura, I think the original Guardian article is typical good journalism on this issue, its certainly stirred up a debate! The problem is that the premise of the original article is clearly wrong, SEO is by no means dead. Where we rank in the organic results, we also get social media traffic, supporting the view that the two streams are complimentary. I do think that some types of business are more suited to one form rather than another, for example my son Ande’s Hunting Helen band page on Facebook is brilliant for getting followers and raising awareness, he can give status updates, offers, links to latest music etc. Would it be worth him shelling out on a traditional website? I don’t think so, his target market is all on Facebook and Twitter. In contrast, as a translation company, our target audience is more likely to be looking using their favoured search engine, and will be looking for a professional website, and ideally want highly relevant, high quality informative content. The element of the Guardian article I most dispute is the association of SEO equalling robot friendly, and not human reader friendly. If human readers hate a page they will go somewhere else, and bounce rates, quality scores and conversions will plummet.

  5. Absolutely Mike – and thanks for your comment!

    I often refer to the ‘marketing toolkit’ and I would suggest there are ‘right tools for the right job’, and that there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

    That said, I think there are very few businesses which wouldn’t benefit from at least a basic understanding of search engine optimisation.

    Aside from anything else, as you suggest Mike, SEO is very much about human experience and even The Guardian article states that SEO is ‘following best practice in creating clear, accessible web sites with intelligible content, meaningful titles, descriptive “alt” attributes for image, no broken links, and the rest of what makes for a high-quality web destination’. The practice of SEO is heavily rooted in user experience and user satisfaction, including social cues, and I don’t see it meeting its demise any time soon.

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