Is Social Media Marketing a New Requirement of SEO?

Here’s an interesting question worth a minute of pondering for any SEO practitioner:

“[I]s it now a necessity for an SEO to have practical social media skills?”

The question came out of discussions he’s had with other members of the Internet marketing community, and he and his friends aren’t the only ones thinking it over and forming their opinions. So since James has opened the discussion up to everyone, I’m gonna go ahead and share my answer to the question.

question mark
CC BY 2.0

James Duthie posed the head tickler in a post on SEO Scoop last week called “Is social now a compulsory SEO skill?

I say no.

One of the most important qualities of a successful SEO is a drive and ability to keep up with the ever-changing search space. Knowing the guidelines set by the engines, the technologies available, and searchers’ changing behaviors requires that the search marketing professional update their understanding on a regular basis.

Accepting that an SEO’s knowledge base is constantly growing translates to keeping up with new trends, technologies and opportunities. So when social media marketing came along, it was easily rolled in to the domain of search engine optimization. And maybe, unhelpfully so.

Adding to the confusion, the distinction between search and social media marketing is further blurred by the search engines’ mad rush to become the social search destination. (In case you’re wondering, Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan spells out what Google Social Search and Bing Twitter Search are in necessary detail.)

But when it comes down to it, despite any overlap, the needs and goals of search engine optimization are different than the needs and goals of social media marketing. One can effectively perform both SMM and SEO, and most of us do both daily, though there’s a difference in how each is approached. So here’s a breakdown of how they differ and distinct the needs of each.

Unique Audiences

audience at a theater
CC BY-SA 2.0

If you look at the intended audience of SEO and SMM efforts, you’ll find a pretty clear difference. As James points out, “One aims to satisfy robots (SEO). The other aims to satisfy humans (social).”

Step one of content development and design: know your audience. If your primary audience is Googlebot, get to know Googlebot and his likes and dislikes inside and out. Have an audience of middle school teachers in the American Midwest? Know their needs, the issues on their plates, and what pushes their buttons.

Similar rules for very different audiences. Keeping search and social separate helps professionals focus their efforts on the right audience.

Unique Environments

Of course, all audiences have their unique preferences, and when it comes to search marketing and social marketing, some of these preferences are clearly spelled out in the form of terms of service. A marketer must remain familiar with the terms of service for the stated marketing platform, be aware of any updates or changes to policy, and learn how to achieve success with their goals while staying true to the rules set by the platform. Additionally, a marketer must be aware of the risks involved in marketing through those platforms.

Unique Goals

The goal of social media marketing is to communicate with a community of humans. Indirectly, the goal of SEO is the same. But with SEO the attention is focused at the search engines with the assumption that humans will be reached through the engines. So while the eventual goal is the same, the initial one is not and, as marketers know, that makes a difference when it comes to strategy and tactics.

Unique Tactics

Social media marketing dictates a familiar tone, a multi-directional conversation, quick response times, and a constant stream of content. The approach for social media marketing is to build community through genuine conversation.

Search engine marketing requires a character of authority, in-depth technical knowledge of how the Web works and renders, and heavy analytical monitoring. The approach for search engine marketing is to gain high search engine rankings through perceived Web site relevance and code crawlability.

The Intersection

Of course, there are a number of commonalities and complementary aspects of search engine marketing and social media marketing. Social media can be used as a tool to achieve a goal of search engine optimization, and vice versa. Regardless of who is in charge, the two must go hand in hand. This is true of all marketing mediums — from traditional print ads or radio spots, to the latest opportunities for video overlays and social media contests.

Cooperation and communication are key to a holistic marketing strategy, but with differentiated and critical tasks occurring in both the search and social spaces, I say search marketing and social marketing are both worth representation, resources and responsibilities all their own.

Virginia Nussey is the director of content marketing at MobileMonkey. Prior to joining this startup in 2018, Virginia was the operations and content manager at Bruce Clay Inc., having joined the company in 2008 as a writer and blogger.

See Virginia's author page for links to connect on social media.

Comments (30)
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30 Replies to “Is Social Media Marketing a New Requirement of SEO?”

Even today Google continues to evolve. But Social is here to stay.

It used to be that achieving high organic rankings was the singular holy grail for SEO’s and search marketers. However, I believe that also being able to attract those who will contribute robust, relevant and interesting user-generated content within trusted forums can ALSO support your high organic rankings – and furthermore, I think this is a must in today’s crowded digital landscape. Relevant and trustworthy UGC not only serves to achieve additional organic links for a longer-tail keyword strategy, but also might validate your SEO prominence with relatable “human” commentary from customers, or peers, or professionals that searchers can identify with. Ultimately, it’s this UGC content that could persuade searchers to engage more deeply with your brand.

Have to disagree and side with Lisa Barone and Seo Service above. In competing for a competing digital marketing spend, the lines between SEO and Social are getting less distinct, as the data keeps rolling in..see Five slides here here Guess I’m just falling more in the camp of Gigya: Social is the New Search – when it comes to drawing referral traffic.

I think RWW’s Marshall Kirpatrick summed up the important points best: “What would it mean if social networking over-took search in terms of sheer visits online? It would mark a sea-change on the internet. No longer would our dominant use of the web be seeking out web-pages built by HTML web-masters! Now we would all be publishing tiny little updates that perhaps only our friends and family care about. We’d be subscribing, more than we ever did by RSS, to syndicated updates from organizations of interest, large and small.” And the recent data is just moving in that direction…

Virginia Nussey

Thanks, Lisa Thorell. I don’t disagree with you that the audience is moving to social. What I’m saying is that the tasks of SEO and the tasks of SMM are each demanding and abundant enough to warrant a separation of duties. I don’t want to see an organization dumping social media marketing onto the SEO because management thinks all the organization’s Web responsibilities can be lumped together.

Hi Virginia. Got ya and that’s a good point on these being very different skill sets. It’ll be interesting to see how this divides in the digital marketing budget and how SMOs and SEOs can collaborate through this transition.

BTW- thanks for tending & keeping your great conversation alive! (Can’t imagine doting on a tortoise though..;-))

Virginia Nussey

But Lisa, look at that face! :D

Okay- you’re an E.T. kinda way. ;-)

The two basically go hand-and-hand. A good SEO guy knows how to successfully wage a social media campaign, or will learn so very quickly because they value the amount of in-bound links they’ll receive as a result.

Such companies have a right to promote their company online through a web presence, and thus a right to be found in the search engines within their given field of expertise.In both cases, you’d be hard pressed to get an attorney or financial adviser to spend time in the social realm discussing anything that even remotely sniffs of “advice”.

One aims to satisfy robots (SEO). The other aims to satisfy humans (social).” In terms using this explanation whether it is true, we should ask: what should be the expected result of SEO? what should be the expected result of SMM? the answers of these questions should be completely different. As a result both succeeded results bring traffic to the customer. SEO needs backlinks so of course SEO needs social media sites, social platforms, social bookmarkings, bla bla… Google says: It’s all about results. We’re saying: The reality is the result. So why are we discussing, what are we discussing? SEO Portal

And I agree here totally, especially “up” here in Canada…we’re still behind the curve for much of the social stratosphere that the US holds so dear, and for us and our clients, an SEO Campaign does not include social media marketing yet. It might, mind you…but not yet at least….so spot-on Virginia!

I agree to this ” One of the most important qualities of a successful SEO is a drive and ability to keep up with the ever-changing search space. ” So my answer to the question: Is it now a necessity for an SEO to have practical social media skills? Is simply NO
seo service

In my opinion, social media marketing is started with the purpose of publishing something publicly. It’s aim was not to become a part of SEO but it was for those who don’t know how to do SEO but want to bring traffic to their sites. But the increased popularity of SMM & search engine friendliness towards SMO, made SMM more popular..

SMO is different from SEO in that it introduces interaction with customers. And it can help SEO especially for link building.

In some sectors, the nature of the work and services provided is deemed such that anything more than an informational one-way communicating web site that has been thoroughly vetted would trigger oversight committee review.
In companies like that, any relevant two way communication not held in private typically only takes place in extremely controlled and very limited ways. Most definitely NOT online where it will be recorded for all time.
Such companies have a right to promote their company online through a web presence, and thus a right to be found in the search engines within their given field of expertise. Any other web exposure is off limits. Are such companies rare? Sure, compared to consumer-facing companies, yeah – like a needle in a haystack. But within their own arena, thousands exist. At 10 per page in the SERPs, good old on-site SEO is the only thing.
Private Equity can be a similar hornets nest with similar constraints. Many private equity companies are constrained legally from communicating anything relevant about what they do, where they invest or how they operate.
Then there’s companies that cater to the uber-wealthy. People who demand the utmost of privacy and discretion.
They expect the company they hire to keep themselves and their clients out of the limelight, but again, those companies have a right to be found through the search engines. They need to avoid anything social online like the plague. They don’t WANT to be linked to or talked about online. Sure, they monitor reputation, and immediately jump on it like it’s the H1N1 of bad publicity. But they have in-house people who handle it, and not by flooding the SERPs with more content.
When their SEO is handled properly, typically including copy editing and high quality content development, they show up at the top of the organic results. No other social indicators needed.
That niche alone is a multi-billion dollar economy.
Most people don’t know about it because they don’t WANT it to become widely visible. Yet if you know anything about that sector, you know what to search for and what to look for in the results to determine if a company provides the specific services you’re looking for.
While my team focuses on main-stream consumer-facing social media needing clients, I prefer to focus much of my time on the uber-discreet market. I enjoy that part of my business because of how much they appreciate the understanding I have regarding their need for discretion. It’s the lion’s share of our revenue.
Is it sexy? probably not to social media mavens. The rates I charge in that arena make it pretty steamy though. And their houses have really neat kitchens.

I sure hope we do away with the social media guru labels. This issue has always reminded me of people trying to classify music. Is it rock or dance or BritPop. Is classic rock now pop?

Ultimately, YouTube is searched for information a lot every day. Stumble shows no signs of letting up, and we know about the big sites.

I read a number recently that showed Facebook had more search queries than Ask last month. Yes, Ask is broad and Facebook is narrow, but my job as a search marketer is go go where the millions of searches happen. If Facebook and Twitter marginalize Ask and AOL, that’s merely channels shifting over time.

The part that continues to surprise me is why we keep trying to thin-slice our function. People pay us to get found on the Internet, usually for branding or sales purposes. That means we go where the search queries are — no matter what form they take.

And I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that Facebook is trying really hard to make the latest version of their ad platform even more user-friendly with action-based items. That’s advertising, not SEO, but we’ve mashed up advertising and SEO for years when they were served by the engines.

Unfortunately for Alan, we also have clients that dabble in the law space and I will tell you, we’ve built social into their sites and it’s been highly effective. So your example is moot with me. We’ve already found ways to crack through that.
I’m not saying one person needs to know everything, I’m saying that if I’m a client, I’m damn well going to go with a firm that can provide me with everything — because that’s how I’m going to be most competitive. If you’re an SEO who’s just focusing on technical SEO — enjoy that. Rack up a few law firms who don’t want to be anything special and you can probably make a decent living off of that. You’ll just never be special and neither will your clients.
And just because there’s no blog or forum or community, doesn’t mean there aren’t any “social factors” the engines are looking at. That doesn’t define what social is. You also can’t pick one industry that’s known for being less socially-oriented and make a case that SEOs don’t need to have that in their arsenal. Well, I mean, you can — it’s just a bad argument. :p

It’s amazing how people (Hey LISA) put so much emphasis on sites having to be part of the social realm, that it’s all about community. While there are many millions of sites that fit this, not every site on the web is going to. In fact, there are entire sectors of society where it’s probably highly unlikely.

Example – law firms and private equity firms. Of course I bring this up because I’ve got several law firm clients and several private equity firm clients. In both cases, you’d be hard pressed to get an attorney or financial adviser to spend time in the social realm discussing anything that even remotely sniffs of “advice”. Any who do spend time in social media, are really doing so at their own peril legally. “Customer Service” would NEVER be discussed in public in either of these sectors either. The reason? Government regulation, lawsuits and a whole badass can of whoopass to any lawyer or adviser who engaged in anyhthing more than idle chit-chat in many sectors of both professions.

Sure, there’s some limited opportunity for both to be on LinkedIn or to have a blog. And some attorneys can take advantage of it. But not the entire legal profession, nor the entire private equity sector.

That’s just an off-the-cuff example, yet it’s an initial insight into the fact that the search engines have to still count other factors in ALL Markets, and can NOT rely at ALL on social media in some.

So It really depends on the market as much as anything.

Then there’s the issue of “how much can one individual know or be an expert at?” Lisa’s point, if it is true, means that someone who knows SEO should really also be a developer, database engineer, graphic designer… I mean – hey – what good is keyword selection if a site is broken? Or an internal site search fails? Or if the site is covered in puke? Uh, I mean – “built in Flash”?

Where is the line drawn as to who does what?

No. Even with Lisa’s extremely persuasive take on things (and I RARELY disagree with The Lisa), in this case, I’d say that Social Media is NOT a requirement in the SEO tool box. And I stick to the position that Social Media is most definitely something that needs to be DISCUSSED with clients, and ENCOURAGED, yet can definitely be left to niche market experts.

Like Lisa.

Search Engines are always trying to emulate real life popularity. The original function of the algorithm was to calculate the most relevant + most popular content. What we consider SEO usually deals with relevance, but social media deals with popularity. After a successful social media campaign, you see an increase in branded kw searches and in-linking domains. Its the natural behavior of the internet community. IMHO Combining social media and SEO into one practice can deliver far greater results than if you separated the two.

Virginia Nussey

James, Nick and Tessa, we see eye to eye on this one. SEO and SMM are definitely complementary and one can enhance the other. There’s intersect and similar goals, but the distinction is a useful one. Of course, next year we could be singing another tune. Enough to make a girl dizzy, I tell you. And thanks, James, for your post! Definitely made me think.

Chiropractic and Todd, you bring up a good point. Even if an SEO isn’t professionally engaged in SMM, the proximity and overlap of the two means an SEO needs to know about basic goals and strategies of SMM and what it offers a business. Since SMM and SEO work hand in hand, communication and understanding is a must.

Kevin and Joe, the link building benefits of SMM were glossed over but the connection is too important to miss. The SEO need for links is clearly supported by social media’s ability to spread content, garner interest and gain links. I think SMM can be used to support SEO in this way, but I think the disciplines are separate.

Alan, I’ll forgive you this time. Because you agree with me. Oh, and maybe all those good points you made. ;)

Okay, so I’m gonna try and keep this short, but I could really go on for hours in my own post. Basically, I just disagree. :)
I think the idea that there are “unique audiences” and “unique goals” aren’t really true, at least from my perspective. You have one audience — your customers and the people likely to become your customers (is that two? I’m lumping them together.). A spider is not an audience. Your site is not designed to satisfy a robot. If it is…trouble. And we’re all just trying to get that audience to convert with the site – whatever that conversion is. There’s a common goal.
But even if the goals and audiences were vastly different, you’d still have to be able to do both as an SEO, because the engines are going social. As you mentioned above, Google Social Search is now using network and community cues to serve results. That’s on top of all the community and engagement signals they’re already using (time on site, bookmarking, site activity) for rankings.
As an SEO, I think you need to be able to build communities on sites. I think that’s how you survive. It’s similar to the post on how to survive the affiliate evolution that Rae wrote a few years back. An SEO from 1999 can build a site that addresses all the technical elements that the engines are looking for. But an SEO in 2009 needs to build a site that’s not only technically sound but that has been proven to add value by the community that rests around it. Those social elements are definitely a requirement of the new form of SEO. Those sites are going to rank far better than the “just SEO’d” site because the house is stronger. Social is absolutely a new requirement for SEOs. Without it, you’re not able to compete as strongly.
Sorry for the ramble. I’m on my lunch break. And yes, it is 3pm.

Virginia, The Lisa was kind enough to inform me that I called you Susan in my comment – while I have nothing against Susan, if I do that again, just slap me upside the head!

Do I agree? Nope. SEO’s need a strong awareness of social media even if it’s not their focus because social media does impact the SEO process.

For me the hardest part of SEO is link building. Its ongoing and some times tedious. Social media for me, makes link building 130,000% easier. But in the end is it really link building or SEO that I am doing in Social Media, no its relationship building that in turn reaps huge HUGE benefits. One of which happens to be links.

Susan, I agree with you on this one.
I think it comes down to how much of a roll the SEO professional plays in the greater marketing tasks for a client. And while I as a business owner want to be able to offer a variety of services, that’s not enough to say social media has to be part of an SEO menu of services.
Social Media has been around forever in various forms – threaded discussion forums, “ask the expert” components of web sites, etc. and while I’ve always advocated that my clients participate in those, (and thus build inbound links when it’s reasonable and allowed), it’s only an adjunct to SEO for the most part.
Just like taking out a billboard on the highway helps bring traffic to a local roadside eatery, while PPC does what that billboard does, PPC isn’t even SEO, nor is securing banner ads.
While I’m on a rant, content writing, I feel, is about the closest thing to questionable – should the SEO professional be a professional content developer? Ultimately, they don’t have to be if they can collaborate with someone who is more skilled at the content aspects.
If a small business client can not afford to pay X number of people, each an expert in their own marketing niche, it sure can is helpful to win the contract when I can step into those rolls and get a fee that’s more than I would have if I had just done the pure SEO work. But because I answer my own phone, does that mean that secretarial skills are SEO? :-)

It’s not a requirement by any means, but social media sure can be an easy way to build a lot of relevant links with relatively little effort if you’re in the right niche. For others, it’s a complete waste of time.

For instance, if I had an affiliate site for televisions, I wouldn’t waste my time building a SM reputation/profile for that site. Spamming might work, depending on the execution and whether you want to bring that kind of attention to this particular site given your interlinking. But if I was a television engineer promoting some industry insider’s forum, it might make sense to use these tools in the more traditional fashion.

Maybe not social media skills, but it makes sense to me to have knowledge of how activity on social media sites may affect keyword rankings, increases of inbound links, etc.
So rather than a communication with a community of humans, there would be a benefit in understanding how search engine results are affected due to that communication.

Great insight, Virginia. SEO and SMM are two very different edges on the same sword. In order to successfully manage any internet marketing strategy, you must be able to employ both. You must communicate with the bots and the humans and know how to properly manage these relationships separately. Sure, there may be some intersection here and there, but in the end both SEO and SMM activities need to be treated differently because they are totally unique.

Tessa Carroll
VBP OutSourcing.

I think it is a very important ingredient of SEO. The search engines need to see you are a real person or business truly trying to build a brand online. If anything it helps to stimulate the SEO efforts.

Thanks for extending the discussion Virginia. Excellent post and I do tend to agree with your assessment. At the end of the day, while social proficiency gives an SEO a considerable advantage, it’s not fundamental to the core task.

Of course, as you mentioned, the field is ever evolving. And Google Social Search could change all that in the future. But for now, I believe we still have two interrelated, but distinct disciplines.


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