Search Engine Optimization Vs. Social Media Optimization

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"You don’t control your homepage… Google does."

Avinash Kaushik (Analytics Evangelist at Google, author of Web Analytics – An Hour A Day and Web Analytics 2.0, and Blogger over at Occam’s Razor) said this to me a few years back. His comment is still an integral part of my presentations, and it’s an important point for brands to remember when it comes to usability, functionality and how consumers find out about your brand and work their way through your online experiences.

Most people don’t go through websites the way we want or expect them to.

Some people don’t even bother with websites all that much anymore. They do a simple search, see the results and make a decision, or they do a similar search on their mobile device and are able to pull enough information from that channel to make a choice. As if that isn’t confusing enough for brands trying to create some semblance of an online experience, the way in which consumers first find out about brands is shifting and moving away from the search engines.

"Screw Google!"

In fact, that verbiage is a slightly refined quote (remove "screw" and replace it with the f-word) taken from Gary Vaynerchuk (the Internet celebrity, guy behind Wine Library TV and the author of the best-selling business book, Crush It), after hearing me use that quote during a live presentation at Gulltaggen (The Golden Tag) in Oslo, Norway where we both spoke a couple of weeks ago (and shared the stage with Richard Branson and Guy Kawasaki). Vaynerchuk (who was a guest on episode #200 of Six Pixels of Separation – The Twist Image Podcast) went on a rant about how the search engines are losing their traction online and that the real search engine optimization of the future is not about how well you can configure your website for keywords or optimize your pages to rank higher on Google, Yahoo and/or Bing, but rather how many people you are connected to in online social networks and how the search engines in places like Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare are the new (and more powerful) way of finding out everything you need to know.

What is the world like when real human beings can replace the best in search engine optimization?

I’ve Blogged about this notion more than a few times. If you were looking for the best Thai restaurant in New York City, would you ask Google or your friends and followers in places like Twitter and Facebook? Whose response would you trust more? Where is there more value in terms of both relationship and community building? Search engines are still hugely important in today’s world, but will their primary function shift because of Social Media and how well connected we are all becoming. We are moving ever closer to what James Surowiecki described as "The Wisdom of Crowds" (also the name of his best-selling business book).

At what point will your search engine habits shift from Google, Yahoo and Bing to Twitter, Facebook and your other Social Media platforms?


  1. First off id like to thank you for coming and speaking to us today in SLC, at #broganUT.
    It was great to hear all your insight and wisdom on these subjects.
    I look forward to reading your book, and using it to grow and Accel in my community.
    I started using Twitter/Facebook a few months ago, and have not had to much luck with it so far, but i know what i am doing wrong now, and look forward to improving my footprint, and gaining enough trust to convert a fan/follower to a customer.
    Once again thanks for joining us in Salt lake.

  2. Why is it versus? I thought everything was with, not instead of? 🙂
    Tthere’s a difference between the behaviour of search results, and the behaviour of people who run sites. If the person creating content for a website is engaged, consistent and public, then social media can be fairly powerful. However, if even your blog views like brochureware, what benefit is the social side?
    I can’t help but see optimization as a good indicator for site quality. It’s all well and good to have great content. But does it fit in a site snippet on Google? Are the titles inviting?
    Social media’s a full on pitch and proposal. SEO is the all-important 30-second elevator speech. One works without the other – in both directions – but having both means being far better prepared for the long-game side of marketing.

  3. If you’re looking for a restaurant recommendation, friends are absolutely the way to go. Unfortunately, recommendation-based information is a tiny subset of the gamut of info people typically search for during their day. No one will ever survey their peers for how many litres are in a gallon, how old Nelson Mandela is, or the mailing address for traffic offences at city hall.
    Search engines will very much dominate information searches for the forseeable future, and play a major role well beyond that.

  4. Mitch, I believe what you are saying… I see it in the way I do my own searches. Very often I will add the word twitter in my search , just to see what is being said on twitter about what I’m searching for.
    But we’re the type of people who are so connected to social media and it’s a huge part of our lives, our business and we’re all into where this is all going, more so than the average person I believe. But they’ll catch up…

  5. I think it has to do with critical mass. Not everyone knows about Yelp. In fact most people still don’t. Not everyone is using FB’s new ‘like’ system. I like the new system (from a social media ‘gitty’ perspective), but I don’t even use it most the time.
    And to be more specific, when I say critical mass, I mean ‘when does it become socially normal and expected to tell the world where we are and what we’re doing?’ Foursquare is taking a stab at it but are they going to cause the tipping point? Will facebook be the one?
    I think it’s possible, buy I like you don’t have an ETA, but I do definitively think we’re going in that direction with velocity. What’s still slowing it down if anything? People’s resistance to living a life of full transparency. That’s scary stuff for our ego. 😉

  6. One thing also – Social Media Optimization IS Search Engine Optimization. For instance my Twitter Profile page has a PR of 6. When links are shared on twitter / facebook that’s picked up in search engines as well.
    It makes sense having a large network – means when you post a stellar blog post – it’s going to get passed around a lot more, talked about, blogged about, dugg, stumbled, social bookmarked, and more… All of these actions equate to higher search engine ranking.
    So the point is – by learning social media – you can rank higher than those who only know SEO. Social media is a major game changer for seo and seo marketers who don’t embrace that change are going to be out on the street panhandling one day soon.

  7. Hi Mitch… long time I didn’t add a comment here 🙂
    Why not SEO+SMO instead of SEO vs SMO? Sometimes you can’t expect your contacts in a social network platform give you the answers to everything and other times, you can’t trust every search result on Google, Yahoo! or Bing (or any other engine).
    I’ll also add website optimization to the sum because many times, from search engines and from social media platforms, we bring visitors to our websites and there we have another chance to begin or develop a relationship.
    Thanks for sharing your thougts…

  8. This supposes that the hypothetical user has a big network to survey. Most don’t have such a big network, and frankly, my Twitter following comprises many marketers who don’t even know who I am. Even if the hypothetical user has a large enough following on Twitter, are their followers online at the time they ask where the best restaurant in Georgia is?
    And I agree with Ian and Hebert about the ‘vs’ aspect. It isn’t an either/or situation. Both are important.

  9. The “with, not instead of” comments are all valid, there isn’t any reason to ditch SEO (the old version), but I’m more inclined to agree with Patrick. The two practices have converged into Social-Search Optimization, and any social media optimization efforts from brands will have great SEO value. Begin to do both and quickly realize that you will be arriving at the same destination.

  10. I liked your comment, Herbert… so true 🙂 I have to agree that SEO is not out yet… plenty of us still ‘google’ for search results.
    There are sure ways to have SEO and SMO work together, and for a growing number organizations, the SMO will certainly be more important. For those of us that work with organizations and business planning, the challenge here is helping business leaders to see the importance of creating a social media presence and building that SMO through consistant use. In our smaller town areas of the country… this is still a very new concept.

  11. I like GV but shockingly Gary Vaynerchuk might be a little prone to hyperbole. F google, a quick check of his sites shows well marked up pages. good job f-ing them gary. In it’s core marking up your pages properly for spiderability is not only good practice but makes your pages better. better accessibility, better layout and better organization.
    As for search engines losing their traction, i probably run 10 google searches to each time i check FB. I seriously doubt social media will crush the search engine any time soon.

  12. First, I think “search engine optimization” isn’t being used clearly in this question:
    “What is the world like when real human beings can replace the best in search engine optimization?”
    Google, Yahoo and Bing do “search engine optimization” in that they look to provide relevant results to users by optimizing their search engines for better results. But what they are concerned with is a fundamental aspect of our internet experience – Search, with a big “s.”
    I think this is what the article is about generally not SEO, as it appears to be used in the question: the process of improving rankings within what Google, Yahoo and Bing are doing. What goes on within SEO is only going to be as good as what Google, Yahoo and Bing are able to do at the macro level – Search.
    I think it’s important this distinction be made since it impacts the answer – that answer being one of “with” rather than “versus.” Like others have already mentioned, you use Search along with social to find answers to your questions based on the type of answer you’re looking for (liters in a gallon, directions, addresses, business related information like finding an email marketing provider), the reliability of an answer (search engines = wisdom of the crowds, social = wisdom of whoever you’re connected to), the time it takes to get an answer (search engines = instant, social = whenever people feel like replying).
    I don’t think a single company will ever do both the social and Search sides so well that they are the only destination for socializing and finding answers. Search is too fundamental.

  13. As much as I liked Gary V, I disagree with him on that Search Engines aren’t the future. As Social Media Optimization and Search Engine Optimization are both part of Internet Marketing they got hand by hand in your strategy. Building your network is great but without good value in it, all the recommendations are going to be irrelevant to you.

  14. I’m the first person in the “everything is ‘with’ not ‘instead of'” line, but let’s be honest here: the more people who start searching on Twitter, Facebook, etc… for answers to whatever, the lower the search volume becomes on traditional search engines. So yes, they will use both, but the tides of how we search still shift and this does make it that much more competitive.

  15. I just sat through a really interesting free webinar on just this topic (with Mike Volpe at Hubspot) – and the evolution of search is certainly fascinating. I particularly liked it because Mike goes through what’s still relevant in terms of search, and what’s evolved and evolving.
    I tend to agree with those of you who said… it’s “and” not “instead of”… clearly you’ve got us well trained, Mitch. 🙂
    Here’s a link to the webinar if anyone’s interested. It’s about an hour long.

  16. “Losing” is not spelled “loosing.” Lose, as in “lost.” Loose, as in “not tight.” Losing, as in what those who lost did. Loosing in fact is not even a word

  17. I think there’s a bit of a false dichotomy being discussed here. I think it’s fairly simple:
    * Search engines push the most linked-to content to the top
    * Facebook, Twitter etc. are ways for people to share links
    * Stuff that’s popular and interesting will get pushed to the top of your Facebook newsfeed AND your Google search — stuff that isn’t, won’t
    Cory and others here have already alluded to this idea – looking at SEO can be a great reality check in your content creation. For example, we were recently discussing the use of some different industry terms to include in an article. Someone suggested “hey, let’s check the Google Keyword Tool.” We found there was a much greater search volume for one term over the other, so we used that term. But the point wasn’t just to pick the best term for SEO, the point was to pick the term that would best resonate with the potential customer. And I think that will ultimately help our SEO AND will help with the general spreadability of the article in social media.

  18. Word of mouth within our social networks drives everything. It doesn’t matter if it’s online or offline, we’re going to reach out to our networks. And while a friend may offer up a restaurant recommendation when asked, I also put trust in restaurant reviewers and guides and people I’ve never met who’ve left tips on foursquare.
    The search engines never owned trust per se. They may have laid some claim to trustworthy information, but that’s different than human trust.
    As you’ve said, this will all be complementary. Google’s indexing of Twitter and Facebook is just the beginning of them adapting search for the new reality of socially-connected online trust relationships between people vs their old model of displaying the most trustworthy content.

  19. Seems to be a “search evolution” taking place. Observing my own behavior, and that of clients – I think Google still rank on topical single word search. But as the world becomes flatter – one wonders. Being connected with bloggers in my field of work life culture.. I always head to them first for breaking news. Actually -they find me first on my social networks of Twitter, FB and LinkedIn. As we evolve as a culture – it’s less about search than being there in whatever form the reader needs – 24/7.

  20. I find that social media has prodded me to utililze search engines more than ever. For me, social media is great for aggregating news, bloggers, interest groups, commercial likes, and an occasional recommendation from “friends” (Facebook “likes ” is a subset of Windows Favorites folders for me), but overall, research and education+Google is the majority of my time online and increasing due to social media opening more doors to learning and exploring.

  21. I agree with the “with” perspective over the “vs.” Though with social networks attracting more communities of users, there’s still a time and place for static websites. Instead of search engines ranking websites strictly on the standard tactics of SEO and social sites being entirely different results, I see them adapting social sites and networks into the overall SEO strategy.
    After all, one of the biggest factors in SEO is quality one-way backlinks, and with social sites like Facebook,Twitter, etc linking back, it only makes sense that this would just fit into the equation rather then oppose it. The biggest question, however, is what becomes more trustworthy, websites who claim their info is legit, or just anyone and everyone’s opinion; and how do you determine which is more credible.
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  22. I read a post on the similar issue somewhere: that “Who is the competitor of Google? And this competitor will defeat Google one day…
    It’s not Bing, its not Yahoo! …its you…!!!!
    Yes…tomorrow people will be so much connected socially that they won’t be needing Google to Google any information, rather they would ask people connected in their network.

  23. I think both search engines and social media sites have value to add.
    While my connections give me validated reference, and more credible answer (at least to me), there is still a lot of value in expanding my reach beyond my immediate networks. And that’s what search engines offer.

  24. Honestly I think it’s both.
    I mean, people use keywords, so do search engines. I think if you’re using SEO best practices with your social objects than you’re more likely to be found, and your content to be shared with and by people who are interested.
    “Fuck Google” is a bit extreme only because people are still using it to actively search what they are looking for.
    Here’s my philosophy on the whole thing. Make sure your website is search engine friendly, use best practices on creating SEO friendly content, and actively use the same keywords that you’re looking to target and find new people to talk to and really engage in conversation with them.
    I think that using social media as a link-building strategy is far more effective than traditional “send an email-request a link” method. Come to think of it… wasn’t that really just social media 1.0?

  25. You have said what I was thinking. I’ve been in the internet marketing world observing and going through trial and error. I would always hear about SEO this and keywords that. I have tried that. I found something that works better for me and that is social networking. I comment in discussions and participate in communities. I find it to be at least as effective as my best day on search engines.

  26. sat through a really interesting free webinar on just this topic (with Mike Volpe at Hubspot) – and the evolution of search is certainly fascinating. I particularly liked it because Mike goes through what’s still relevant in terms of search, and what’s evolved and evolving.

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