June 8, 2010 – Twitter attracts 190 million visitors per month generating over 65 million tweets
July 21, 2010 – Facebook officially hits 500 million users
October 22, 2010 – FourSquare tops the 4 million user mark.  They hit 1 million user mark just 7 months earlier in March of 2010.

I could go on and on with these little stats, but the overwhelming theme here is the day YouTube became one of the popular search engines there was a paradigm shift in the world of Internet marketing.  This shift signals that user-generated content has undeniably become a tool for search engine marketing that we all better be using.

You may not understand or even care to appreciate the culture of what is “Social Media”, but the data doesn’t lie.  It can’t be ignored that being active in social networks and communities increases a brand’s search engine ranking.  There are some instances where this increase is quite dramatic.  For this reason, social media engagement should be at or near the top of your Small Business “To Do List.”

Before we get into optimization techniques for Social Media, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some basic “rules” or Social Media Etiquette.  If you’re like me at all, the professional and the personal all start to meld together in the social media world.  Most of us are pretty versed at living online.  However, living online often leads some of us to feeling not necessarily “connected” and we forget some of the rules from communicating in the “real” world.  Remember that you are interacting with realpeople.  Join in conversations, don’t blast your message!  I had a professor in acting school tell me “being an adult in society is just like reading a review of yourself in the New York Times, don’t do anything you wouldn’t want to see in print!”  The same idea applies in the social media world.  Nothing is ever really gone once you put it out there.

When beginning to engage in Social Media:
1.  Offer something valuable
Before you just post something on your business’s Twitter account (or where ever), ask yourself  “Is this USEFUL?”  Th old adage is that content is king, however content by itself isn’t enough.  Your content must be interesting, engaging and valuable or why would your audience care.

2.  Use compelling headlines or titles
Whether in your blog or your Facebook or wherever you play, your headline must grab people’s attention.  Think of being in line at the grocery store.  You’re scanning all the dirt mags, passing time.  Cosmo does it best.  Their headlines without fail, grab you.  Headline writer’s make lots of money writing those.  They typical aren’t written by the author of the article!  Borrow inspiration from them when creating your content.

3.  Observe others in the social media space before interacting with them
We never want to assume what is important or essential to our lives won’t be a distraction to others.  The best analogy to the social space I heard was from Laura Fitton (@Pistachio) for those on Twitter.  She’s an amazing businesswoman and a Twitter Guru.  She likened the social media engagement world to a cocktail party.  We’ve all been to them and have been witness to “that guy!”  The one who peacock’s around the room barking at everyone how good he is and what he’s accomplished.  Don’t Be That Guy!  Observe what people do in the social space, where they go and how they interact.  Then when you have something to say, you’re not just barking!

4.  Be Cautious When Complaining
Your mother’s words of wisdom – “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” – aren’t necessarily true.  Complaining can be a great way to let off some steam or to engage with a company that has demonstrated poor customer service.  Just be aware that you your posts become your own personal stream of consciousness.  If you have something negative to say, think about it.  Step away from it, formulate it and come back to it.  Make sure you’re not just being impulsive.  If in doubt, don’t say it!

5.  Be Thoughtful before responding to criticism
In conjunction with #4, if your business receives complaints, be thoughtful as to how yo respond.  Don’t be impulsive.  Certainly respond and quickly if possible, but make sure your response is thought out and apologetic.  Remember that once it’s out there, it’s there for good.  Others will read complaints and bad reviews about you and how you respond is the key to whether or not someone new will choose to engage with you.

6.  Make your style obvious
I have my iPhone glued to m hand and it seems as though I am always plugged into the Matrix.  Others, however, may look at their social media once a day.  Create a clear style and consistent message of what to expect from you.  This way others know how and when to best engage with you or your business.

Now that we got that out of the way, let’s move on to how you can leverage social media in your SEO efforts.  There are many out there who argue you can’t optimize Social Media for search engine ranking because most social platforms apply no-follow tags.  Although this is true, there are ways you can customize your brand or company’s social media coding to facilitate higher search engine ranking.

1.  Tweak your Twitter
By now you have undoubtedly heard some web professional talk about description and title tags.  Your description tag is a few lines of text in sentence format Well, on Twitter, your name and your user name become the title of your page and the bio becomes the description. The bottom line is you can tweak both your username and your bio on Twitter to optimize your search engine experience.  Also, good to note is that when you reach a certain threshold in followers on Twitter, Google begins to include some of your Tweets on the search results pages. The benefit being, if someone searches for your brand, they can see that your brand is on Twitter and engage with you on that platform.  As if there weren’t enough of a search engine marketing benefit to being active on Twitter.

2.  Optimize updates   Most of us know by now that, on Twitter, you only have 140 characters to get your point across.  You can write optimized Tweets, wherein your Tweets are keyword rich.  Now, this is where I think brands get a bit off course if they’re not careful.  If you can do this without changing the conversational tone of your brand’s updates and without sounding like you’re trying to keyword cram, then go for it.  If not, leave it alone and let nature take its course.  The search engine rankings will come – there’s no need to force it.  Not the least of which, forcing it can really backfire on your brand’s reputation.  No one likes an SEO opportunist. This where writing great blog titles comes into play.  If you can’t make them keyword rich without sacrificing the message, then follow Cosmo’s lead and write remarkable, interesting titles!

3.  Link leverage    Blog content used to get indexed quite quickly and for some well-trafficked, popular blogs it still does, but it’s not a given anymore and new blogs need that much more of an extra push to get content indexed quickly.  The best thing to remedy this situation is to craft well-written blog posts and once they are published, share the links via social media platforms.  This will increase the number of links directed to your content and thereby raise your search engine rankings.  Doing so also means that more people will visit your brand’s blog and website.  The up tick in traffic improves your search engine marketing results, too.

4.  Rank by association    In addition to eating text, search engines also eat clout.  Simply put, the more friends, followers, Tweeters and Fans you have, the more cache the search engines see you as having.  And, the brains of the search engines think, “Well, if there’s a lot of action going on around this company on Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn, they must be doing something right, so we’re going to rank them higher.”  (It’s not really as simple as that, but you get the point.)  Additionally, if the people to whom your brand is connected have high social traction, your brand benefits from that association as well.  It’s similar to getting into the hottest nightclub because you have a cool friend.  Resist the temptation to use tools that artificially inflate your brand’s Twitter followers or Facebook friends  (how sad is it that these tools even exist?).  Take the time to grow your following organically.  You’ll maintain your rankings longer because the people to whom your brand is connected will be interested in similar pursuits and that translates to more clout. For example, I am a search marketing and social media consultant and as a result, many of the people who follow me on Twitter are marketers, too.

A word of caution, you want to use these tools only after your company/brand has a complete grasp on social media and social networking culture.  Trying to optimize too soon can be perceived as trying to “game the system” and could corrupt your strategic foundation.  Take it slow and know that the more honest and “real” your company shows up, the more people will resonate and engage with your brand. And, isn’t that the point?   

No matter how you get involved, Join The Conversation!