Brands participating in social media often evoke images of reluctant dancers at an exuberant wedding disco. They know they don't want to get too involved, but after a certain point, they begin to wonder if they don't look more foolish sitting on the sidelines. Once they have shuffled out onto the floor, some of them enjoy it more than they thought they would; others, meanwhile, end up embarrassing themselves. However, what choice did they really have?
According to many digital professionals, brands are now forced to dance to social media's tune, because of its significant and growing influence on natural search results.
Brands that take a healthy role in online conversations that concern them will be repaid in better natural search rankings for their sites and social-media pages; by contrast, those that ignore them may find their search results dominated by negative comments and unanswered issues.
‘At a corporate level, social media has a drastic impact on our search,' says Greg Assemat-Tessandier, Bacardi's global head of digital. ‘If you are running a campaign to maximise the efficiency of your search engine optimisation, and something comes up in the social media space that isn't the message you want to put out, it can have massive consequences. It can be an opportunity or a problem.'
Already, the standard SEO brief has become a multipurpose, trouble-shooting job, dragging customer services and public relations into the frame. Now that Google and Microsoft have concluded deals to include real-time content from Twitter in their search results, social networking has an even greater potential to throw a spanner in the works of carefully-laid search plans.
However, this also presents more possibilities for clever marketers, as brands begin to appreciate the possible halo effect of positive social-media engagement on their search profile and their image in general.
‘If someone were to do a brand search within Google, you as a brand would want to own as much of that first page as possible,' says Doug Platts, head of natural search at iCrossing.
Nigel Muir, managing director of search specialist DBD Media, agrees that social media is an essential element of any SEO activity. ‘It is absolutely clear that anyone with a decent social-media strategy is gaining natural rankings very, very quickly,' he says. ‘If you search for Zappos, the shoes and clothing retailer, you get their site, and then underneath you get the Wikipedia entry and then the Twitter entry.
‘In terms of taking share of real estate on page one of the Google results, it undoubtedly helps,' adds Muir.
Owning the online space
Of course, it is unrealistic to expect all potential customers to flock straight to a brand's controlled web spaces when they are searching for its name online. It is just as likely that the first page they will visit is a third-party site, such as a comparison engine, a blog or a forum post.
This presents an even more critical reason for brands to ensure they have a voice in the social areas of the web.
‘None of those types of site are online presences that are controlled by the b rand,' says Ivan Croxford, BT's general manager of digital marketing services. ‘This makes it even more important to engage beyond your own website. All of that third-party content is going to be indexed and, actually, a lot of it will rank very, very highly for relevant keywords.'
For brands seeking to ingratiate themselves with the social web, optimising their own sites and setting up social-media pages are just the first steps. The next few will be to build traffic and encourage links from other influential sites - which is where blogs and other social networking real estate come into the equation.
Pages rise in natural-search rankings by having numerous high-quality links, as well as attracting heavy traffic. Those brands attempting to draw users to their own sites particularly value coverage and links on influential blogs, as they are rated highly by search engines and distribute ‘link equity' - in effect, search-ranking points - when they link back to your site.
Nick Jones, managing director at SEO and social-media agency I Spy, describes direct engagement with bloggers as ‘the point at which social media and SEO meet'. He cites Waterstone's strategy as a successful example (see case study).
Brands with content such as video, compelling advertising clips, games, widgets or information are in the best position to create this kind of natural buzz among bloggers and the so-called internet ‘linkerati' in general.
‘You have to be good, funny, entertaining and controversial,' says Richard Astley, SEO account manager at digital agency LBi.
Rhys Williams, managing partner at digital media outfit Agenda21, points to sports broadcaster ESPN as an example of a client making the most of its existing assets to succeed in social media.
‘It has been particularly good, because it has great online content,' he says. ‘Some of our clients with active social-media programmes have about 25% of their most influential natural-search links delivered by social-media sites. It is growing all the time, in terms of importance.'
Social networks first caught the attention of SEO specialists several years ago, when marketers realised that high visibility on bookmarking and networking sites could help send people back to their web pages.
Today, only an inexperienced search marketer would imagine that indiscriminately scattering links across the social web will fool the search engines into believing that their site is frequently discussed. Many sites, including Facebook, Wikipedia, Digg, YouTube and most UK national newspapers, now use the so-called ‘no-follow' attribute, an anti-spam tool that allows sites to tag pages so that any links they contain will not contribute to search rankings.
‘You might think you are doing lots of good by linking to your site from Facebook, but it will not help at all,' warns Astley.
Consequently, the influence of social media on search is not always a very direct one. ‘You can't get deep links within the social-media space, but what you can do in Facebook is, where you have prominent groups, you can encourage those to appear in search rankings,' says Williams.
Those with intimate knowledge of social media may have already spotted one of the potential problems with the wholesale integration of social and search. There is a lot of ephemeral material floating around the social areas of the web these days, and most of it is not particularly worth searching through.
This is the concern of Greenlight chief executive Warren Cowan. ‘Search engines are in the business of information,' he says. ‘How does the noise of the social sphere assist them in mining and representing what is relevant?'
The motivation of Google and Bing in drawing Twitter into their rankings may have more to do with timely pragmatism than the pursuit of essential nuggets of wisdom and meaning, he suggests.
‘Search engines need to fill that void of being able to find real-time information on a topic, and they acknowledge that,' says Cowan. ‘I think the social sphere is a very good barometer of what is popular, but popularity is very transient. When it comes to commercial searches, people want to know about things like car insurance. Are people talking about their car insurer on Twitter?'
Others, including Craig Broadbent, SEO account manager at digital agency Fusion Unlimited, are far more comprehensively convinced.
‘Social networking isn't going away, and its crossover with SEO will continue to strengthen,' he predicts.
Broadbent points to social applications introduced by Google over the last year, including SearchWiki, a Digg-style system that allows users to ‘vote' sites up the rankings, and Google Labs experiment Social Search, which allows users to search for results within their online social circle.
If we could poll our friends and acquaintances for advice and recommendations at the touch of a button, would we use the big search engines nearly as much as we do? When viewed from this perspective, perhaps the future of search is within social media, rather than the other way round.
Case study: Toyota Prius
There are cars people tend to talk about in online forums, and there are others that rarely get a mention. Toyota's Prius falls categorically in the former camp.
As with Toyota's recent UK launch of its iQ city car, social media, particularly blogs, were a key focus of the marketing of the recent Prius update.
The first objective of iCrossing's campaign for the model was to tap into conversations about the Prius across Toyota's online networks, and engage with and influence those conversations. The second was to increase the visibility of information about the Prius in the results of major search engines through links and traffic back to the Prius blog at blog.toyota.co.uk.
‘Toyota has progressively moved toward a social-savvy web structure in the past two years,' says Toyota's head of digital, Simon Rutherford. ‘The hope is that by transparently encouraging discussion and debate, the qualities of the Prius are amplified.'
Model previews, Toyota global news stories, a Q&A, videos and other content were seeded to social media, while a tour of the UK took the car to eight consumers who had discussed it online.
Online buzz surrounding the car translated into strong search results for official sites. Toyota has since announced further activity in its blog, and comments there have led to changes to the car's specifications.
Case study: Waterstone's
High-street bookseller Waterstone's has a better chance of making credible use of social media than many brands, given its ability to engage with consumers on a variety of subjects and authors they are passionate about.
In the past year, the retailer has been active in the social space, with a particular aim of increasing links to Waterstones.com and driving traffic.
Waterstone's handed digital agency I Spy its social media brief last year, and a rash of activity soon followed.
These included several blogger outreach promotions, a Twitter ‘twinterview' with TV stars Ant and Dec to promote the launch of their latest book, and a Flickr-driven search for an unpublished illustrator to work with best-selling picture-book author Julia Donaldson.
While not quite on the Stephen Fry scale, Waterstone's Twitter activity was highly successful, increasing its number of followers by 44% to 6493. The brand's gains on Facebook were a little more modest, up 32%, with 760 members joining, but the hidden gain was in the link equity, especially from blogs.
‘We know that Google rates these sites highly, and if we interact with them and do it well, they become high-value potential advocates,' says I Spy managing director Nick Jones. ‘It is a good example of how social media can work well - not trying to control everything, but interacting in the space.'