As the buzz around social media gets even noisier, it has been fascinating to watch search agencies stake a claim to this territory and reposition themselves accordingly. But how closely do SEO and social media really fit together? We spoke to several leading search agency figures to get their perspective.

Does social media activity really help SEO?With the likes of bigmouthmedia, iCrossing and Guava promoting the marriage of social media and SEO, and running integrated campaigns for their clients, I was interested to hear Warren Cowan, CEO of Greenlight, another leading search agency, singing from a different hymn sheet.

Cowan, with some carefully considered arguments, plays down the importance of social media for search engine optimisation, and makes it clear that his agency will stay focused on what might be termed “traditional SEO”.

He is dubious as to whether, as many other search agencies claim, social media can currently make more than a negligible difference in improving natural search visibility (and, more crucially, driving high volumes of traffic and more sales at a lower cost) for Greenlight clients.

I do think social sites have some shoulder-brushing with SEO,” he says. “But they are part of a mix of social and non-social elements that help make up a search strategy; they’re not a search strategy in themselves. On that basis I suggest social media’s ability to drive SEO should not be a topic of excitement. We should not all down tools and get behind social media as the next best way to achieve killer SEO.”

Contrast this approach with Guava, who currently promote social media services as part of SEO, or iCrossing and bigmouthmedia, who also now push a more integrated approach to digital marketing which includes paid search, SEO and social media.

Andrew Girdwood, head of search at bigmouthmedia, says: “Search and social are joined at the hip. They represent two of the main fuel cells in a digital campaign. Search and Social aid one another, boosting one another, while each being an independent entity in its own right. It’s a healthy relationship.”

Teddie Cowell, SEO director at Guava, adds: “There is a very strong relationship between search engine marketing and social media. Anything that raises awareness of a brand or particular website, such that it encourages people to search specifically for the brand or website, or increases the probability that a searcher might select that brand or particular website over another within a search engine results page (SERP), is always good for search engine marketing.

“There is also a very positive effect in terms of reaching large numbers of people and therefore gaining more links, which is one of the key factors search engines such as Google look at when ranking web pages.”

As Cowan points out, it is important to identify two areas where social media impact SEO in order to understand properly how the former might drive the latter. 

The first, says Cowan, relates to Google’s “universal search” updates which means that there is increased prominence in the SERPs (search engine results pages) for “non-core” listings such as images, blogs, news, maps and shopping listings.

Some of these elements fit into the “social” category and some do not. Blogging, for example, is very much in the realms of social media but influencing bloggers is more the domain of online PR rather than traditional SEO, argues Cowan.

(Of course, the lines between SEO and online PR are increasingly blurred. According to the recent Econsultancy / Guava UK Search Engine Marketing Benchmark Report, two thirds (64%) of search agencies are now offering “online PR” services.)

A second pillar of the SEO and social media marriage is how activity on social media sites can help drive an improvement in the core search listings (i.e. excluding the universal search listings such as images, blogs and maps).
 
Asked about the importance of social media for improving natural search visibility, bigmouthmedia’s Girdwood is in no doubt: “Trust and authority are key attributes sites need to earn in Google’s eyes before they will begin to perform well in natural search. A social media campaign can help encourage both those attributes. As a result elements of social media are essential for a natural search campaign.”
 
As with Guava, this prevailing wisdom has impacted how bigmouthmedia manage their client activity: “Bigmouthmedia’s most basic search engine optimisation campaigns for clients include degrees of social media. Advanced campaigns involve managers from Search and Social departments.”

But Cowan is not convinced that social media activity really does significantly help with SEO, primarily because of doubts about whether it can drive valuable link equity. He cites the difficulty in getting people in the social media arena to link en masse to a site in the first place, the random nature of such links and the difficulty in systematically driving links to the right page on a website. 

He also points out that the shortened URLs which are prevalent on Twitter undermine the anchor text benefit of a link and reduce the ability to rank for anything specific. Moreover, he says, many social media websites are not spidered by search engine bots or only partially spider-able.

His final argument against the value of social media for search engine optimisation is the ephemeral nature of this kind of visibility.

 “Twittering (or any other form of social media activity) happens so fast and with such regularity that posts are pushed down and off the page often in a matter of days. Most of the time this means Google doesn’t even get a chance to index the entry, giving it even less value.”

But, beyond driving traditional SEO, I asked Cowan about the inherent value of being very visible on Twitter and similar sites. I pointed out that Econsultancy now gets a not inconsiderable proportion of its traffic from its extended reach on Twitter via its 6,000+ followers. Should Twitter be seen as a search engine and therefore part of the SEO strategy per se?

In summary, Cowan readily agrees that Twitter and social media generally have an important role for Greenlight’s clients across a range of sectors including travel and financial services, and that such campaigns can help drive awareness. But he doesn’t think such social media activity is as intertwined with SEO as others maintain.

Cowan says: “Right now and for the foreseeable future, Twitter and Facebook are limited sources of authority on where I should book my family holiday, insure my car or compare the prices on that Blu-ray player I’ve had my eye on. Until it can act as a useful and comprehensive oracle on anything other than chat, people will continue to search for what they want on Google. If that ever changes, don’t worry, I’ll be first in there waving a flag, but until that point, social media is not setting me on fire in terms of meeting my clients’ current SEO demands.”