Leveraging Social Media for SEO

Now that Facebook.com has overtaken Google.com as the most used website on the Internet, some are questioning whether search engine optimization is still relevant. Won’t Internet users just turn to their social networks for answers to their questions?

As long as Google remains the fastest route from point A to B, it will be the operating system of the web, and the need for SEO will continue. The social networks offer just another venue within which searchers can conduct their queries.

That makes the large social networks like Facebook search engines. YouTube is the #2 search engine; after all, there are more search queries on YouTube than on Yahoo. So optimizing for better visibility in search engines, whether Google or Facebook, isn’t going away.

Not only does social media provide another venue for searching, it serves as an invaluable tool to the SEO practitioner for acquiring links. Specifically, social media provides a venue to virally promote what is called “link bait” — highly linkworthy content.

Link baiting is link building on steroids, and social media plays a critical role in the success of this type of link building campaign. The secret sauce of link baiting is seeding that content into the social news and social bookmarking sites such as Digg, StumbleUpon,= and Delicious.

For example, if you make it to the front page of Digg, the visibility you get in front of the “linkerati” (e.g., bloggers and journalists) can be huge. A word of caution: Be respectful of the social community. Don’t submit junk, don’t spam your friends with vote requests, and don’t bait-and-switch.


Of the three pillars of SEO — content, architecture, and links — it’s the “link authority” pillar that’s usually the weakest. Looking at sites individually, formulating your approach, sending personalized emails, picking up the phone to speak to the webmasters — it’s a hard slog.

Yet without high quality, relevant links, you won’t be able to earn the trust, authority and importance required to rank, and your optimization efforts will fall short.

There is another approach employed by the SEO elite, one that’s scalable, efficient and has high impact. It starts with viral content that is irresistible to link to, or “link bait.” But link bait by itself isn’t sufficient. You need to “seed” this link bait into social media such as Digg and StumbleUpon using power user accounts within those communities.

In other words, you need to be (or be in good with) a social media insider who has wide-reaching influence within that site’s social community. Without a bevy of friends, followers and fans, it’s much harder to reach “escape velocity” quick enough.

That’s because the algorithms for “what’s new and hot” within social news/bookmarking sites take into account the time span within which the positive votes are acquired: 1,000 Diggs over a year is a far different thing from 1,000 Diggs over 24 hours.

The “secret formula” really is a formula. Think of it as an assembly line process: Viral ideas are generated. The chosen ideas are researched and written up as articles (or produced as videos), and then published to your website.

Next, the articles are seeded into appropriate social sites by influentials within those sites’ communities. The point is to reach that small percentage of the stampede to your site who are journalists or bloggers — and who will write about and link to your viral content.

Let’s take a look at this process in greater depth.

  • Ideation: It all starts with a great idea — and this step is key: Your content/angle must be more than just clever to go viral. Gather a team of your most creative and knowledgeable SEOs and marketers (and/or your outside SEO firm) to brainstorm possible ideas for link bait that is likely to resonate within social media. Develop a list of ideas; you can start with a handful and save the others for future use.

  • Selection and prioritization: Once you have a solid list, prioritize and select the top three or four ideas to develop into articles or blog posts.

    Be forewarned: You will have to stretch outside of your comfort zone; the edgier (or geekier) the article, the more it will resonate with the 16-year-old alpha geeks on Digg.

  • Content creation: Flesh out the chosen ideas into full-blown articles/blog posts, starting with the research. For example, a topic of “Top 100 Beers from Around the World” will likely require many pages of information to be collected — from each beer’s history, to photos of the bottle/label, to nutrition information.

    Make sure to craft a killer headline. For example, take a number plus an adjective plus a key phrase — e.g., “13 Most Chilling Haunted Hotels” or “16 Incredibly Unconventional Hotel Rooms.”

    You want a catchy title that will reel people in; you may want to develop video or other visuals to help support your idea. But you really need a “hook” to turn an article idea into something that will have legs in the social sphere. A clever contest, for instance, can work well.

  • Website prep: Prep your site for a social push. Get it “social media ready,” making the site as palatable as possible to social media users.

    For example, if the content you are promoting is on your blog, make your blog less “bloggy.” Why? Blogs are old and tired and not popular with Digg users anymore. So use a magazine-style theme and remove the bloggy references, such as date-based archives links and permalinks verbiage.

    Also, make sure your site can handle the anticipated traffic. If your server buckles under the load and the site goes dark, your submission isn’t just pulled from Digg’s home page, it is removed from the site altogether. With Digg, hitting the front page will generate a traffic spike that will quickly dissipate and then disappear almost completely after 24 to 48 hours.

  • Publishing: You will need a place to host your link bait. This really should be on your own site, if possible, since using a third-party website to host the article will result in subpar performance.

    Remember that you don’t have to link to the article from your navigation or sitemap or from anywhere else on your site. And be cognizant of the time and day you publish it. Publishing on Saturday night is not be a good idea.

  • Social media seeding: Right after you publish the viral content, submit it to the appropriate social media sites. These may include social news sites, such as Digg, or social bookmarking sites such as Delicious.

As discussed, the submitter should be a power user within these social networks to maximize the chances of hitting the front page or “popular” page. A Digg submission from the great unwashed just won’t get the same traction from the social media community.

Social news power users spend day and night monitoring various oddball news RSS feeds and other social sites for content. Once they find something, they quickly submit the URL along with a killer title and description — before anyone else can. This is how users move up in the pecking order within these social sites. The more stories they can get to the front page, the higher their status.

Nearly everything that a top-ranked user touches turns to gold; it’s not atypical for the majority of a top user’s submissions to hit the site’s home page.

Not a power user and don’t know any? Consider hiring a top SEO and social media agency. If the firm doesn’t have such power users on staff, it should know the right people to ask for favors. For a list of the top 100 Diggers, visit http://socialblade.com/digg/topusers.html. Note that real names are rarely attached to these power user accounts.

Now let’s talk results: An ideal result is your link bait hitting the front page of Digg and accumulating 1,000-plus links over the following three to six months. Why does it take so long when a Digg spike is so immediate?

Because bloggers don’t blog about your link bait right away. They may keep it in the hopper and not get to it for weeks or even months.

Also, that blogger’s readership will include other bloggers who will eventually blog about and link to the article too. What would be the yield of really “hitting it out of the park” in terms of this sort of link building?

Potentially more than 5,000 links, with perhaps 100 of those being PageRank 7 and a half dozen being PageRank 8 (hypothetically). That’s a solid investment.

Stephan Spencer is co-author of the O’Reilly book The Art of SEO and founder of Netconcepts (acquired by Covario).