SEO vs. SMO: Why Google may favor social media optimization

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Google has been a traffic bellwether for more than a decade, enabling those who embraced search engine optimization (SEO) to disrupt those who didn't. Now, Google seems to be turning on SEO in favor of social media optimization (SMO), launching several initiatives that directly disrupt those who have been able to game their algorithm.

Sites like Huffington Post and Gawker, who recognize this sea change, stand to benefit greatly from Google's moves while content farms like Demand Media, Associated Content and even hybrid sites like About.com are already suffering. Where do magazine and newspaper sites fit in the spectrum of winners and losers? We'll look at today's winners and losers later in this post.

Four signs of that SMO will overtake SEO

As Google became the only player that mattered in search, SEO's began to dilute the quality of its search results by achieving high rankings for low-quality content. Content farms like Demand Media and Associated Content began to brag about their content creation algorithms and their ability to predictably rank in Google. The search engine giant has responded in four significant ways:

  1. Panda: Google's Panda algorithm change was one of the more significant moves in the past five years. Its focus was to make search results much harder to game, and its impact on content farms was tremendous. Demand Media and NYT's About.com have both reported significant traffic drops since Panda. How significant? Here's a chart of Demand Media's eHow.com:
  2. PostRank acquisition: In June 2011, Google acquired PostRank, a social media analytics company. The underlying technology measures how well-liked content is, by looking at tweets, likes and links. This is a clear sign that "social signals" may be emphasized at the expense of traditional SEO signals.
  3. Google+ and its upcoming 100+ social launches: Google recognizes the threat of Facebook and wants its users logged in all the time. The fact that Google is planning more than 100 launches further advocates social media optimization and investment.
  4. Blocking keyword data: In a move that was promoted as privacy protection, Google is now blocking keyword data for all logged-in users. While Google engineer Matt Cutts estimates the number of searches affected to be in the single digits, two sources have told us that the number is closer to 20%. Farenheit Marketing goes so far to put the number of blocked keyword searches at 37%. As more social tools launch from Google, more users will be logged-in, pushing this number higher until internal analytics will no longer be useful for SEO.

Getting traffic in a post-SEO world

While I'm not saying SEO is dead (just like print isn't dead), it is my belief that social media will be the transformative agent of this decade, just as search was for the last decade. Social is inherently a mobile medium, and as smartphone and tablet sales grow, so does the amount of time spent with social media. This means that socializing your content and engaging with your community are paramount now. History shows that the early adopters of SEO benefited greatly while the laggards suffered, and the same will hold true for SMO.

Get in the game, optimize your site for SMO

The mistake many publishers make is that they hire a social media editor and think that they are all set (some don't even to that, and they are really in for a rude awakening). The fact is that you need to get your readers/visitors/users to share your content in order to achieve scale. That means optimizing your page layout to reinforce social media widgets. Certain placements will improve article likes, tweets and +1's while others will help you acquire social media subscribers (fans, circle members and followers).

SEO vs. SMO winners

Mashable is the king of SMO site optimization. There are two above-the-fold placements to acquire social media subscribers: the bar at the top of the site and the right-column placement above the 300x250 ad unit. Notice that they prioritize their social media widget placements over ad placements. Why? Because growing their influence in the marketplace matters more than a slight increase in ad click-through. Ad dollars flow to eyeballs, influence and market-leaders. Article likes and tweets on the left and the bottom of pages act as a constant reminder to share content.

Huffington Post prioritizes social media first and foremost, putting Facebook "Like" and Twitter "Follow" buttons in the upper left of their page design, the hotspot of eyetracking studies. They also heavily promote social subscriptions to their authors, putting widgets next to their author headshots. "Share this story" widgets appear on the left and at the bottom of articles as well, and "Like" counts appear next to headlines on the most popular section. They also feature separate "Hot on Facebook" and "Hot on Twitter" sections.

SEO vs. SMO losers

We've already covered how eHow.com and About.com got clobbered by Panda, but who else stands to lose from these changes?

Sports Illustrated buries their social media at bottom of their homepage and fails to place social media subscription widgets on their article pages. While they do have Facebook and Twitter widgets on their article pages, print and email are prioritized higher, and they fail to place the widgets at the bottom of articles, where they could remind users who have actually read the article to share it with their friends. SI may have developed a cool iPad app, but what good is that if no one uses it?

The New York Times is shockingly bad at SMO. The homepage has the smallest of placements for Facebook and Twitter, while their article pages have two poorly chosen social media widgets. The article-focused social media tools are place inline at the right side of articles, not a hot-spot with an ad next to them. Nothing like an ad to get users not to look at something. The "Log in With Facebook"widget is promoted prominently, but the first thing I see on it is "Privacy Policy" which makes me wonder what I'm getting myself into. Why can't I just "Like" nytimes.com like every other site? The New York Times has 1.7MM fans and almost 4MM Twitter followers. Imagine what they would be if they tried a little harder?

Think it's a crock to call a site with that many fans and followers an SMO loser? Well compare Huffington Post's topic followers to The New York Times' topic followers. Somebody's getting outflanked. It turns out that I'm not the only one who think so, as Poynter's Jeff Sonderman reports that The New York Times is preparing to launch a set of tweaks designed with SMO in mind.

For more social media optimization tips, check out our social media section.

Disclosure: I worked at About.com from 1999 until 2001. During that time, was publicly traded (BOUT) and later owned by PRIMEDIA (PRIM). I had no association with the company while it has been owned by The New York Times.

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