The SEO vs. social media debate is one that has been going on for a number of years now, and it hasn’t abated.
A recent guest post here on ProBlogger titled Why Social Media is a Better Investment than SEO sparked some interesting commentary on Twitter after going live.
Social media fans spread it like crazy (with over 1000 ReTweets in less than 24 hours), and a number of SEO forums picked it up as an example of the closed-mindedness of social media proponents. There were also some good blog responses on the topic.
A number of readers asked for my own opinion: which camp do I stand in?
I’m going to annoy some people with this but the reality is that I’ve got a foot in both camps. Let me throw a few random thoughts out there in the hope that it’ll show why I’m a fan of both social media and SEO.
There’s a lot of traffic to be had on both search engines and social media.
As bloggers we’re all interested in being read. Traffic is important for most of us and, at a most basic level, it can be generated using both SEO and social media.
Alexa ranks Google #1 in terms of size, and puts Facebook at #2. Look at similar sites, and you’ll find similar rankings. It makes sense to me to put some effort into being a part of both efforts.
What type of traffic are you after?
For me, the answer to where you should direct your focus largely comes down to what you’re trying to achieve.
Not all traffic is the same and, depending upon your goals, you might want to look at different sources of traffic.
Example 1: on my first photography site (which is no longer active) I relied much more heavily upon search engine traffic than social media traffic to achieve my goals.
- The site aggregated reviews of cameras from around the web.
- Readers were there to research cameras that they were purchasing and rarely commented (so there was little community).
- The site was monetized largely with ads and affiliate programs (tied to camera purchases).
- Readers were very transient—they didn’t come back after they made their camera purchase.
The site wasn’t overly social (although I did try at times to make it more social). Readers simply weren’t there to belong or interact—they visited with a different intent. As a result, social media traffic didn’t really convert or make sense—but Google traffic did. People use Google to research purchases a lot! They also conduct research using social media (I think this will happen increasingly) but at the time, search traffic was converting at a much, much higher rate.
As a result, it made a lot of sense to invest quite a bit of time into learning about and implementing SEO. I dabbled with some social media stuff too (it was embryonic back then) but it was never going to be a major focus of the site as it just didn’t connect with reader intent.
These days, if I was still operating a review-type site, I’d certainly be trying to capitalize on the trend towards people researching purchases on social media, but I suspect I’d also be primarily focused upon search traffic.
Example 2: on my second photography site (and my main blog today), things are remarkably different. I started it from day one with the idea of community and belonging in mind. It was always going to be more social and interactive, and attract repeat visitors.
- People come to dPS to connect with others with a similar passion.
- Readers like to show off their work and have it seen by others.
- The site aims to create a community for learning.
- The site builds trust with readers and aims to hook them into coming back time and time again.
- The site is monetized largely with the sale of ebooks, which do best with repeat visitors/loyal readers.
As a result, dPS is much better placed to benefit from social media. Our Facebook page continues to grow fast and our interactions on Twitter have driven a lot of traffic to the site.
Having said that, I still set the site up with sound SEO principles in mind as search traffic is important to the site. In fact, Google traffic is still the #1 source of traffic on the site—although I have to say that that traffic doesn’t convert anywhere near as well when it comes to selling products to readers. The good thing about search traffic on dPS is that a certain percentage of those who arrive that way do become regular readers down the track.
Ultimately, whether you direct your focus toward SEO or social media, or both, will depend upon the goals you have and the type of traffic you’re after. In the case of dPS it is both SEO and social media, but there was more, too…
Email vs. the rest
If I had to identify the single best source of traffic on dPS, it wouldn’t be search traffic or social media traffic. It’d be email.
Search and social media have been important elements in the mix, but truth be told, our biggest days of traffic occur when we send our emails out each week. The biggest days of discussion in our forums are newsletter days. The biggest days for ebook sales, ad revenue, voting in polls, retweets on articles, Likes on Facebook, and comments on blog posts are all newsletter days.
The reality is that with dPS I spend more time on email than I do on either SEO or social media.
They all feed each other.
As I look at dPS today it’s difficult to really split the different activities that I do into neat, discrete tasks. One thing tends to feed and grow the other.
- Search traffic grows our newsletter list.
- The newsletter promotes our Twitter and Facebook accounts.
- The sharing of our content on Twitter and Facebook accounts often generate links from other sites.
- The links on other sites send traffic which grows our SEO and newsletter signups.
- I suspect the search engines are paying more attention to what’s being shared on social media in the way they rank sites.
This list could go on—every day, I see the pay off of all of our promotional and community-building activities in making other efforts more effective.
This will only get more and more important: with Google now indexing tweets and presenting them in search results, we’re seeing social and search merging more and more. I can’t imagine that this trend will decline; increasingly we’ll probably see efforts in social media helping SEO.
Personality and style matters.
Something that struck me at an SEO conference that I attended last year was that a number of the people I met seemed a little different to the people I’d met at a Social Media conference the week before.
I don’t want that to sound offensive. To be fair, there was an overlap between people at both conferences (including me), but what I noticed was that quite a few of the SEOs I met that day were people who obviously paid a lot of attention to detail and really enjoyed the process of analyzing numbers of links, strategizing about keywords, and watching the impact that small changes in content and code have on search rankings.
A number of times that day I felt my eyes glazing over at some of the presentations that were being lapped up by others. It struck me that perhaps some of us are hardwired to be SEOs, rather than social media types.
I’m sure some people are wired for a bit of both, but perhaps one’s personality type and style lends itself more to one discipline than others? I’m not saying that SEOs are anti-social or incapable of holding a conversation, nor that social media folk have no ability to think analytically (although that would have made for an attention-grabbing headline), but perhaps there’s something there for a psychologist to do some research into!
Do what suits your situation, but don’t be closed off.
Let me sum up by saying that I think there’s plenty of room to move in thinking about this topic. Your situation, your style, and your goals will no doubt lead you to a unique mix of promotional activities.
It’s okay to focus upon one above the others, however, in my opinion, you’d be something of a fool to completely close yourself off to the possibility that there might be potential in those things that you’re not doing.
Those that claim SEO is dead are just as deluded as those who claim social media will never convert—but that doesn’t mean we all need to take exactly the same approach.
With Bike198.com I run into the same thing. With reviews and product releases, they are naturally SEO friendly but my biggest interaction days on social media, my forum and the rest of the site are on newsletter days.
When I saw that trend happening, I switched that focus and it has paid huge dividends.
What a beautiful interpretation of a situation that confronts us all on a daily basis. And what a great dissection of the vaguaries of both social media and SEO.
Darren, your views resonate and align closely with mine. As I said way back this year, social media is but an outpost in the challenge to attract members of the Word And Mouth community who want to take action, rather than simply consume the content we create.
Social media to me feels passive, like meeting someone in a nightclub and spending some time sharing ideas, then moving on. Transience.
SEO feels a bit like having that same conversation in a members’ club. Sometimes you hit the nail on the head – someone hears about you, finds your business card in a phone box, whatever. And the chances of having a meaningful conversation and transaction are greatly increased. It’s less chancey, and offers more robust opportunities to develop relationships.
But ultimately as you say, the newsletter often trumps all that. Because by that point, you already have the interest of your counterpart. That’s like meeting at a speed dating event, or even down the aisle with the other person having already donned a veil.
Love the distinctions. Thanks for the insights as ever, Darren.
I think at times SEO is more of a long term thing and takes longer to set up but social media is more short term and might send you traffic at the click of a button
I try to just optimize everything (always) for SEO. When writing a post, I keep SEO in mind. But it isn’t my main focus. I try to write compelling, sincere content with which I can engage with my readers.
So I would say I try to focus on building a community, building a reader base around my site (also with FB and Twitter), but I always keep SEO in mind.
You hit the nail in the head! I like your summary of
“Your situation, your style, and your goals will no doubt lead you to a unique mix of promotional activities.” I am naturally inclined to use Social Media than SEO to promote my blog. It worked well for me. But I know that some of my potential advertisers always asks about my page view count etc etc which I do not pay attention to. My blog “A Maui Blog” is number 1 (or 2 sometimes) when you google the word Maui Blog. I do not use much SEO optimization except for that that comes organically with the use of social media.
Great post (as usual) I tweeting anf FB’ing (liking and sharing) this for sure :)
I agree- it doesn’t have to be an either-or situation.
I’m slowly making progress on both fronts. Or trying to anyways. . . .
SEO and social are great.
Here’s a novel way to get people to come back to your site again and again: create great content.
We sometimes forget that little detail.
I would like to have a better Search ranking rather than Social Media rankings. It’s always a good practice to build up links & bring in organic traffic rather than getting less organic traffic & more people visiting ur site using Social Media.
This week we started running a sweepstakes where you give me you Thanksgiving menu, which will enter you to win a $20 gift card from Winco Foods, a local grocery chain store.
The promotion was released first on a radio station and blog. Then the next day on Facebook. The following day on Twitter. As of right now the largest response was through Facebook.
The hidden goal behind the sweepstakes was to start building an emailing list. We have a growing traffic. The stats show we have repeat visitors. But we don’t know who.
I am one of those where if I could build traffic just of SEO, I would.
Could not agree more with you that in this day in age on the web that a person trying to drive traffic to a website should only rely on 1 single method. SEO, social media, email marketing, news letters, are all tools to drive traffic. Used together as you articulated and have done it works! I am a student of yours :) and really appreciate your point of view.
Interesting and succinct post on the differences between SEO and SM; I’ve recently revived my online presence after a 4-year hiatus, and found this to be a well-written and gracefully objective opinion piece that certainly improved upon my perception of the current state of affairs.
On a more general note, it’s amazing (and sometimes exhausting) how quickly the rules of the game are bent, broken and rebuilt on the net – yet it’s also part of what makes it so thrilling.
Thanks for the insight.
You make some good points, and each blogger has to find his way, which is always kind of way in the middle. Social media makes it easy to kick-start a blog, gain an initial audience. SEO requires more time.
IMHO, e-mail will always be on top because it allows bloggers to somehow “ping” their readers. All other ways require the reader to take some action. Search, read tweets, whatever. But with a mailing list, the blogger can send information to his readers directly. Obviously some won’t read it, but it’s a great way to start the interaction on publisher’s side, and not on reader’s side.
Excellent points about the different types of traffic involved in each strategy. A large percentage of my blog traffic comes from Search because of the “evergreen” nature of the tutorials and also because of my SEO-mindedness. These visitors only stay long enough to find an answer with the occasional “thank you” via a comment or Twitter follow.
Twitter and Facebook users stay longer, read more pages, and share posts more than any other source.
Email blog subscribers tend to stay the longest. I wasn’t measuring Email traffic until recently when I added a Google Analytics tracking parameter to my Feedburner emails. Before I did that, these important friends and visitors were showing up in the large “no referrer” pile.
It’s good to measure what happens per traffic source so long as the measurement process doesn’t take over writing great content and aligning with the blog’s goals (which may include monetization).
I try to make good use of them both. I don’t see why they should exclude each other, so I try to make the most of any of them, even if it means learning new tricks.
For my personal site, SEO doesn’t convert near as well. I do get some search traffic, but it varies wildly.
On my other sites, since they are hobby and product based, SEO makes a lot of sense and really works, but I am still making the effort to create community, so I don’t neglect social.
Thanks for the thoughts.
When are are first starting out with your blog, you will see a much better return on your time spent on social media then you will for SEO.
There is an element to SEO that a blogger just has no control over. I feel that with social, the blogger is in the driver seat.
I also both are important. Search engine visitors also become regular visitors. they can click on Ads.
Social visitors are more likely to associate as they want to engage in certain activities/events. If I am not putting any event/activity to engage user then they are not likely to join. Social is social and this can be good for creating loyal community, friends and network.
Promoting your business by creating relationships is fine. That’s what social media is all about after all.
The problem is that when starting out, betting everything on social media is likely to make people fail as they still haven’t built an audience.
And that’s where SEO and other traffic methods kick in.
SEO has been the biggest traffic driver for us and converts unbelievably well. That said, social media does have its place and goes a long way to build community. Like you have already said.
Thanks for going to the details and giving this thoughtfully written post, Darren. I really don’t know if social media types can’t think analytically or SEO types are anti-social. Like you’ve said, there’s plenty there for a psychologist.
I have (at the last count) front page Google results for 28 completely separate keyword searches, which do not include my personal or brand name, and 18 of those results rank #1.
To achieve those results didn’t use any SEO tricks, Social Media, Email lists, offline media, or anything paid, advert, affiliate, referred, sponsored or leverage any online or offline networks.
I did not use any dynamic interactive sharing content or link to the site from comments I leave on other peoples blogs (ie: this one). Nor did I work for Google or have any knowledge of Googles search algorithm. For 18 months I refused to update the site content or fuel any conversation and neglected the entire space with no effect on my search rankings. My website to this day, has no community to maintain and has a high volume of unique traffic to this day.
There is a third way & there appears to be a gap in your knowledge.
hello, you have just met Mark Mapstone and we need to have a conversation.
It’s a tough call and I think it comes down to what drives business to a particular site. Seeing as Bing is still only a tiny competitor to Google I’m glad to see some alternative avenues opening.
I find the Facebook advertising system to be cumbersome right now. It’s slow, they’re slow to approve ads which makes it nearly a full time job to maintain. At the same time out of 300 friends about 20% are online at any one time, so it’s a valuable tool. The targeting is phenomenal.
Good points, when reading a post like this I always get ready to get my claws out… however this time your points had the opposite affect.
I like your comment about being in both camps, its something consistently fight for. I know tones of SEO & Social guys and it is really frustrating that they rarely work together to develop the “killer” strategy.
The fact is Social Media guys are SEO’s without even realising it. Social is now more powerful in the Google ranking algorithm than it has ever been.
If you are doing SEO your doing Social and visa versa….
Being a novice at this, I can’t see why a foot in both camps wouldn’t work.
I’ve only recently found out was SEO is and have just paid to have some work done on my site to optimise it. Having said that – I don’t see much of an increase in traffic from it.
The whole social media thingy seems to have a much more immediate payoff.
Hi Darren, thanks for a thoughtful and detailed post. Many people – myself included – are guilty of obsessing over tactics (SEO, social media) vs strategy (site goals, audience, etc). I think that your post is a great example of choosing the right tactics for the strategy. Also, I better get started building my list..
It’s important to have a mix of activities bringing traffic to a blog and SEO and SMM (social media marketing) can be complimentary to this end.
I believe that SMM will build SEO as more and more people “pick up” on your post and blog about it personally – providing a valuable link to your site/post.
I definitely agree. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. SEO and Social Media both work better when you use them in tandem. I actually just did a webinar on thins subject.
One thing we really need to be aware of is what the major players of both sides are up to. Both Google and Bing have made deals with both Facebook and Twitter. Clearly they believe that they need to work together and that translates down to the marketing level as well.
Totally agree with this post. I feel that the playing field has been levelled, to a certain extent, by social media in that smaller businesses can generate just as much traction as the larger ones who have more budget for SEO.
I do feel that there is a place for SEO still, but clearly the advent of SMO (Social Media Optimisation) should be taken very seriously.
My feeling is that it depends on your audience. I can see why SEO would work for sites in photography or bikes or baby items but for community building around a personality it is much harder. Social media is stronger there.
Also, I see there’s a gender or product/service type divide. My blog, which attracts women, gets a few tweets but can get as many facebook shares as a blog with a ‘000’s more readers but focused, say, on the Thesis theme.
I am trying Scribe SEO at the moment and while I think the intellectual exercise of optimizing for SEO is fascinating, I don’t see it generating much traffic for me at this point. I get far more from building relationships through commenting and guest posting.
I think Darren’s observation about email newsletters is extremely interesting.
Interesting thoughts – I’m trying to figure out whether I’m hardwired for social or SEO – or more of a generalist. As a start up I’m certainly seeing more interest through social channels – but strategically I know I need to drive SEO.
Ultimately the right mix needs to be driven by a coherent strategy for your site and your audience. As a newbie here I’ll be back – and it was social media (Twitter) that got me here.
I well remember your Livingroom site from 2006 or so…I was doing something remarkably similar! :)
And nowadays, I do think that social search is ‘way ‘way WAY more important than SEO. SEO can change with Google’s whim…social search…not so fickle.
It horrifies me whenever I hear that email is STILL the most “convertive” form of marketing. It says to me that we have only just inched away from Direct Mail. That the time and effort we are all spending developing other channels to put the experience more in the consumer’s control is like laying track for an engine that won’t be used for another generation.
Yet, perhaps the key here is the circle you create of each tool feeding another, so that no matter which tool it is that your individual customer’s tolerance for marketing allows them to trust most, they still wind up in the same place, doing the same action… exchanging your product or service for money.
A nice post. Both SEO, and SM are great in terms of traffic and public awareness. Being an online marketer, I realized getting traffic never means ranking top but also present in SM. As you mentioned, yes Search Engine spiders always look out in SM like what is most talked, most liked, most shared and do their ranking process based on that.
And from my personal experience, SEO’s are always interested in learning SM and do achieve actually whereas SMO’s never show interest towards SEO.
Funny we were only discussing the balances of email, social media and search engine optimisation and marketing today and came up with a very similar conclusion. Not one platform will being you the results required. As always a good mix of all will bring about a quality community. Great post, thanks.
Very interesting comparison. I think any serious blogger or online entrepreneur should experiment with both.
Over the past couple of weeks I have been more active on Twitter and I’ve definitely seen a spike in traffic and participation.
I’ve also just recently started to do SEO research using Market Samurai. I haven’t yet seen the pay-offs with this, but I expect that having more SEO friendly posts and topic titles will definitely help me.
However, when it comes down to it: I think building relationships through social media is more important than tweaking to get every bit of SEO on your page. At least that is the case if you want to sell REAL products and not just get foreigners to click on Google Ads.
One thing you nailed is that they all feed into each other.
I actually recently heard from Leo at Zen Habits say that he doesn’t write for SEO and he has been in the top 50 blogs. I tend to believe it. Write for your readers, provide great content and get people reading and talking about it.
I really enjoyed reading this post. It is actually accurate to think of a business in terms of personality and what suits the individual based on what they are trying to achieve, I like that SEO is about statistics and I enjoy seeing what I do working and having an effect on the listings. I also like SMO because of its more creative nature and it is people based.
Me and my friends had talked about this SEO vs Social Media thing the other day. It was kinda heated debate.
As for me, I do both, however, I focus more on SEO. I prefer traffic coming from search engines.
I think do not think that you should ever disregard SEO or social media. However, I agree that the type of website you have may change the strategy and focus. For a blog, you may gain a readership faster creating results from Digg, Stumbleupon, and Reddit. Where an ecommerce website might be better served by focusing on the search engines. But in either case, I think you should be creative and find other strategies that will bring traffic to the website.
I am a fan of both, you have to have a presence in Social Media in this day and age, because that is where your potential customers spend much of their online hours, however without good SEO, your visibility in the search engines, when people are searching for your niche counts on it. In essence, Social Media is a piece to the SEO puzzle, because one affects the other.
SEO has been around for much longer than social media so most people, and certainly businesses, are still probably investing heavily in the first and testing their waters with the latter. The balance is somewhat shifting but I think everyone needs to do a bit of both while concentrating on a single approach that best works for them!
When I first started out on SEO, I thought this was a good way to build traffic without interacting with people too much. But as time goes on, I discover that building relationships does help indirectly while doing SEO. So can’t really ignore social media in our strategy mix.
I do spend more time working on SEO rather than social media, I do admit. As a new news-themed related site, I feel it’s more important at the moment
Great post with good examples of your own sites. We use both on our discount code site but mainly search converts best at the moment as we can target the visitor at the end of the buying chain. The social side just helps with the extre exposure.
Thanks for sharing this valuable insight. I completely agree it is always the right mix that gets the “right” result.. and the “right” isn’t the same for everyone ..Also I agree on what you say here for the newsletters being one of the best action initiators, I read your newsletters almost every time and clicks result often each time! Thanks for your thoughts on this topic!
I don’t understand why you term this article as “Social Media Marketing vs. Seo”? I thought they were one in the same. We use social media as a method of seo right? I do understand that by social media marketing is a second method of marketing, behind the method of using great seo to optimize a website.
I think maybe the title is to distinguish that Social Media Marketing is an advertising strategy whereas SEO is a technique to make your website easier to find in search engines, if that makes sense.
Both are VERY important for small business.
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Using social media for SEO is free as well but need to put more effort because the result may seen with easy than posting article. Social Media take large part in SEO nowadays especially in Philippines.
You said it. Both are very important to small business. Using social media for seo is good but there is a lot of other interesting bits that go together to form a solid seo strategy.
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How social can you be about cleaning carpets? And what kind of a network would you have to set up increase the sells of your traditional products? Social media are very important, no doubt, but only for things that people like to talk about.