Monday, July 26, 2010
SEO and Social Media Search: Two Different Animals
It's about 9 years ago and I am sitting in a cataloging class, part of my journey towards pursuing my Masters in Library Science. The professor has posed the question above. As one might expect, a heated debate followed.
In the world of Library and Information Science, catalogers are like a hybrid mix of website developers and SEO experts. Their job is to enter data about books, documents, videos, and the like so that people who would want those items can actually find them. The trick is that you have to guess what kinds of people would want those things and more to the point, how they would go about looking. In the case above, the issue was complicated because the choices were so similar, yet a wrong categorization could mean that one group of searchers would not be able to find the information they needed. For example, if the book was categorized as a "pet care" book, a person interested in just cats or just dogs might think it's too general. Naturally, categorizing it as a cat book would leave out the dog people.
Back then, the stakes weren't very high. It was a hypothetical situation, after all, and no money was on the table. But in the marketing world, these kinds of questions prevail, and there is a lot on the line. That's why I find the recent trend of grouping SEO and Social Media search functions together very disconcerting.
Search Engine Optimization
There are two games at play when optimizing a website. First, you have the fun task of trying to win at the game of algorithms, especially with Google. That feat must be balanced with the equally important task of making sure you are in a place where your customers and prospects would expect to see you. There are lots of ways to reach both goals simultaneously, but it takes some careful crafting and a lot of research, not to mention a fair amount of due diligence and a willingness to update copy as needed.
When people search using Google, Yahoo, or Bing, they tend to want information or answers. You need to figure out what answers your company can provide. If you manufacture pet food, what questions would your existing or potential customers ask? "Which food is more nutritious?" "Is this food safe?" By carefully analyzing how words that drive traffic to your website intersect with words that show high prevalence in the search engine, you can usually get a pretty good read on how to position your company.
Social Media: Aka, the conversational crapshoot
In the ever-growing world of Social Media, the main thing that can be predicted is that things will be unpredictable. This is because rather than being based on just algorithms or link quality, Social Media search functions are contingent on what people are actually conversing about. On Facebook, you aren't likely to see a status update that reads, "I have pain and pressure in the occipital region of my cranium. How can I relieve these symptoms?" You're going to see updates that say, "Man, my head is killing me." Going back to our hypothetical pet food manufacturer, it's possible that someone might ask questions about nutrition or safety. However, it's also possible that someone might just say, "I need to remember to go to the store to get Pickles more food." Is your website optimized for the word "food?" Probably. How about "Pickles?" Probably not.
Is it impossible to place well in Social Media search functions if you're a company? No. But it's a very different process from optimizing a company's website for search engines. People think and research one way. They talk and share in another way. A company must be ready for both.
Getting Found in Social Media
In order to get found in the world of Social Media, you need to become a bit less scientific and a bit more, well, yourself. What words do you use when you describe your job or your company to a friend who isn't in the business but seems interested? What kinds of questions does your customer service department or sales team get on the phone? What words do people use in conversation when they are talking to you in real time?
The best way to get found in Social Media is to go out there and join the conversation wherever it is happening. Look for groups, forums, people, chats, or blogs that talk about things related to what you do. Become a part of those communities. Learn to talk to your existing and potential customers in the ways that they define. And don't depend on sites like technorati or Google Alerts to do all of the hard work for you. These sites are based on single words or phrases. Often the context is lost and the use of a word that happens to be important to you is completely irrelevant. Talk to people. Listen. It isn't called Social Media for the fun of it.
Research Before Search
Whether you are engaging in Social Media, SEO, or both, research is the key and mantra. Google might tell you that a certain word is off the charts in traffic, but if it doesn't have anything to do with your company, does it matter? You might be first on the Search Results page based on the keywords you used in your site, but if no one is using those words on Facebook or Twitter, you won't get very far in those search results.
For SEO, make sure that the words you are using to optimize your website reflect how you want to be found. For Social Media search, make sure that you are using words that will help you find your customers.
It's a subtle difference, perhaps. But then scientists say there is only a subtle difference between human and chicken DNA. Two different animals indeed.