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Social Search and Social ROI, Part 1: SEO and Social Media Strategies Converge

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As search engines get more social, demonstrating social media return on investment (ROI) should get easier. Integrating social search optimization into your digital marketing plans is essential to social media ROI.

In these trying economic times, digital projects simply do not get funded unless there is demonstrable return on investment (ROI). If you manage to convince your executives to fund social media projects, count on needing to prove the ROI at the end of the fiscal year. Fortunately, as search engines become more social, social search is a viable option in proving social media ROI.

In my experience, because much of the social media activity happens on someone else’s property, it is tough to get numbers. How do you measure the influence of one of your prized subject matter experts (SMEs)? There are metrics, such as Twitter Klout, but there are few industry standards. How does SME influence result in business growth? That’s largely uncharted territory.

My experience is backed by formidable research. Forrester recently issued a bearish report on the value of marketing in Facebook, in which it drew much more sweeping conclusions about social media marketing in general:

[S]ocial networks overall trail far behind other customer acquisition and retention tactics like paid search and email in generating a return on investment.

Not all the news is bad for social media marketing. The same report indicated that Facebook can be a treasure trove of information about your customers. If a lot of customers “Like” a product or service, this can be powerful evidence of brand loyalty.

Most of the business cases I see supporting investment in social media enablement focus on branding. There is no question that the influence of your SMEs strengthens your brand, especially in the social settings your clients frequent. Long term, however, branding by itself is not enough. Sooner or later, social media marketing will have to provide demonstrated business results.

Even if you can measure the brand value of your social media campaigns, how do you net out these numbers in terms of qualified leads or sales? Now that is a question. Influence is fleeting. I often say marketing on Twitter is like buying billboards on the Autobahn. Facebook and LinkedIn offer a bit more permanence (like billboards on the Interstate), but how do you get your target audience to pay close attention to groups and other social spaces when they can barely keep up with the deluge of feeds?

Mining Search for Social Value

As in all questions in the digital space, I look to search to find the answers. The primary way your target audience finds information in the rising information flood waters is through search. Search is also the easiest and most effective way to measure results.

How do you do this? In our book, Audience, Relevance and Search: Targeting Web Audiences with Relevant Content, we explain it in detail. But a quick summary might help you:

  • You can learn what keywords your target audience uses with readily available and free tools
  • When you build the page around those words, you measure the search ranking for a piece of content
  • If your content ranks well, you can expect traffic based on keyword demand for the content in the form of search referrals from that ranking
  • You then measure these referrals against the keyword demand to determine how well optimized your listing in the search engine results page is
  • You also measure bounces and engagements on those referrals to determine how well optimized your content is for the audience you attract from the search engine
  • If your tools allow, you can track your audience until they ultimately convert

That, in a nutshell is how you measure search effectiveness. But how does that help with social media effectiveness? The primary way to connect social media activity to search is through link building. As I mentioned in the previous column, we don’t recommend building links artificially, as J.C. Penney did, but naturally. External links happen naturally when you create great content and promote it to the media. Traditionally, that meant creating optimized press releases. And it still does. But more and more it also includes enlisting your SMEs to promote your content in the social spaces they frequent.

Social media influence increases link sharing, which ultimately results in better search ranking for your corporate portals. Every link into your portal improves your chances of ranking well in Google and other search engines. If every social media campaign has a destination page on your primary domain, you can measure social and search referrals, engagement and conversions resulting from the campaign on the destination page.

That’s the theory anyway, but what about the practice? Jim Tobin of Ignite Social Media demonstrates this in a column called Case Study: Social Media Campaigns Outperform Banner Ads for Driving Quality Web Traffic. In the cases he outlined, both the cost per visitor and the quality of the visitor was between 6 and 10 times greater with social media than banner ads.

Tobin’s study needs a lot of follow-on research to validate it, however. All kinds of variables might contribute to the success of a social media campaign, or the failure of a banner ad. Perhaps Tobin’s case study was particularly well run. Also, he did not distinguish between the traffic from referrals directly from the temporary social media mentions and those from the more permanent search ranking. That kind of segmentation is invaluable in assessing the short- and long-term effectiveness of a social media campaign.

In short, more research is needed to prove social media’s value in terms of driving qualified leads into the sales pipeline. But the theory can help you build your own experiment. Whatever data you gather can help you demonstrate ROI.

Also the theory is limited to more traditional social media campaigns. The Bing/Facebook integration and Google’s responses to it—+1 and +Like—point the way to even tighter integration between search and social media. Among other things, this integration might allow you to tie the brand loyalty you can measure from your Facebook Like integration to the affects of that branding on search referrals and leads.

Bing and Google: Who Will Win the Social Search Race?

A recent post by Frank Reed on Marketing Pilgrim cites Experieon Hitwise data to show that Bing-powered search (including Yahoo) is above 30 percent market share for the first time, pushing Google down to just over two thirds of the market. For the first time in almost a decade, Google appears to have real competition.

Though no one knows the reason why Google’s share is slipping, one likely candidate is the lack of social integration in Google. Google’s biggest challenge right now is its inability to crawl Facebook for information such as friends and posts related to people of note. Because Facebook is the 800-pound gorilla of social media, integrating with Facebook would seem a necessary condition for social integration.

Last October, Bing announced an alliance with Facebook that enables Bing users to see whether their friends like certain pages in the search engine results page. If your friends allow external applications to use their data, you might see their “likes” associated with the results and be more apt to click them. This is an added incentive of sites to use Facebook’s Open Graph technology to integrate the Like function into their product and offering pages. They’ll get more search referrals and, in theory, will be able to associate the increase in referrals with the “likes” related to social media campaigns.

Google has responded to this challenge with a host of social technologies, most notably, the Social Graph API, +1 feature and +Like browser extension. Social Graph is an open API that enables users to join social sites using existing data from other sites. If your SMEs build Social Graph data, this can enable you to build social spaces within your site to enhance the connections they make with their external networks. For example, if an SME has a blog on your site, you can use Social Graph to build links to the SME’s other social presences, which might include all of her publically available friends and follower data. This can be a way to enhance her connections and automatically build links to the blog from her friend and follower pages.

The downside is that Facebook data is not typically publically available, so it cannot be included in the Social Graph function. If it could, you could also include “likes” and other aspects of the SME’s public social profile. Here, the lack of an alliance between Google and Facebook is limiting Google’s ability to better integrate search and social.

Google tried to do something about this with its recent announcement of the +1 button. +1 allows users to say they like certain pages by clicking +1 next to a search engine result. Then, when their friends or followers see the same result, it will be listed as recommended. The problem is, Facebook is again absent from this, so +1 is limited to data available through Social Graph from sites such as Twitter.

Recently, an independent developer announced the Google +Like browser extension, which plugs into Chrome, Firefox and Internet Explorer to give users a similar Facebook experience on Google as the Bing Like experience. This might fill the gap temporarily until Google develops something in its search experience that gives users a Bing-like experience. Given Facebook’s dominance and Bing’s ascendance, it is only a matter of time.

Tying It All Together

Integrating Open Graph, Social Graph, Like and +1 into your pages for better search and social integration will be the subject of my next column. In the meantime, start thinking about a measurement plan that uses search and social integration to demonstrate social media ROI.

James Mathewson is co-author of Audience, Relevance and Search: Targeting Web Audience with Relevant Content. He is also the Global Search Strategy Lead for IBM Marketing. The views expressed here are his own and not IBM’s.

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