The more time I spend with clients analyzing their needs and making recommendations in the Internet marketing realm, the more I’m convinced that search is of utmost importance. And no, it’s not because I’m an Owyang lemming and he said so. It’s because ranking high in search is the ultimate reason I wind up giving for almost every recommendation I make. Whether it’s participating in social media, rebuilding a client’s website in a certain content management system or pushing for lighter motion techniques in lieu of the irrelevant-to-search Flash-heavy designs, I normally end up with, “and it can boost your search engine results.”
But while I consider myself to be fairly well learned in the ways of SEO (thank you to the wisdom of Aaron Wall, Lee Odden and Ryan Deshazer), the more I understand about search strategies and techniques the more I’m convinced that there exists a continental divide between the skills that make a good search engine optimization specialist and those which are the fundamental qualities of a strong social media marketing practitioner.
Though the end result of successful execution in each is similar — good SEO gets you more traffic, good SMM gets you more exposure, which actually supplements good SEO — the two practices are as fundamentally different as science and art, math and verbal.
Search engine optimization is the scientific application of keyword and link strategies to manipulate a given website’s algorithmic score as determined by a given search engine (Google, Yahoo, Live, etc.) The higher the algorithmic score in comparison to other websites ranking for the search term, the better the ranking of that website in results. SEO detractors would say that the practice is fundamentally unethical because that manipulation results in a website having a higher score than it perhaps should. But websites are no longer entities that benefit from the, “If you build it, they will come,” mentality. Telling someone about your website to drive them there would technically qualify as “manipulating” the search results if you listen to the SEO-haters.
SEO practitioners have, however, developed their own term and practice, “SMO,” or “Social Media Optimization,” which takes on the mindset that you participate in social media to drive traffic, in-bound links and other search benefits to a given website. This is essentially the same as SEO. lt is focused on manipulating the search engine result. SMO’s core objective is not about social media, but about search results.
Social media marketing, however, is the practice of engaging audiences in conversations about a given subject to foster greater volume, better sentiment or to gather intelligence from the participants about that subject. Certainly, a claim could be made that participating in social media marketing is also about manipulating something — in this case the tone of the conversation — but my point is not to say that one is better or more ethical than the other. My point is to say the two practices require extremely different skill sets.
SEO skills revolve around the mathematical manipulation of an equation. Put more keywords in the first paragraph. Add ALT and TITLE tags to images and links. While yes, the good search professional has copywriting skills, they have to only be polished enough to insert the keyword into a sentence or phrase that doesn’t read awkwardly to the search engine’s natural language processor.
SMM skills revolve around communicating with people and not just in a short fashion so the language processor doesn’t flag it as unnatural. Social media professionals must be friendly, sensitive, tactful, interesting and interested. They must have the natural charisma to inject themselves into conversations to which they were not perhaps invited, but not intrude. They must have the diplomatic ability to listen to a detractor’s concerns, acknowledge his or her frustrations and engage them in a solution-finding mission all while keeping their ego, intellect and factual knowledge in check.
While it would be incorrect and irresponsible of me to say there’s no such thing as a person with strengths on both sides of the aisle, my gut, not to mention my experience in engaging people in conversation, tells me for the most part, ne’er the twain shall meet. Still, there are hundreds of social media practitioners who claim SEO as one of their skills. There are as many, if not more, SEO specialists that say they also offer social media expertise.
But the fundamental personality and skill disparities lead me to say you shouldn’t trust social media to an SEO consultant. Their “social media” practice is probably more along the lines of SMO and is less about conversation, more about pushing inbound links. Their engagement with your audience is driven by those links and keywords and not by genuine information and opinion mining from your customers.
The issue has been debated before (see relevant links below) and this tome will certainly not put an end to the discourse. In fact, it should start a healthy discussion on the topic. While I do want your opinion in the comments, I’d like to take the opportunity to carry forward Len Kendall’s Blargument concept presented recently and ask Lee Odden of TopRankBlog.com, in particular, to respond. As one of the top search experts in the world, but also a mighty smart social media thinker, my guess is that his response will be thoroughly enjoyable.
Okay search fiends … tell me I’m wrong.
Follow Up Note (Added 3/10/09): It occurred to me after diving into the contents that the snappy headline’s insinuation, coupled with me asking Lee Odden to respond may have been misconstrued by some. Lee Odden is one person who proves the theory I’ve presented wrong. He is an SEO expert who is also a social media expert and knows better than most how they intertwine. There are a number of others out there I would consider similarly qualified – Chris Winfield and Andy Beal are two of which who have even commented here. My hope is that the discussion started leads us to a better understanding. There was no inference intended to say that you shouldn’t hire uniquely qualified people to perform both tasks. My apologies to anyone who might have read the post/headline that way.
IMAGE: “Beware of Teeter-Totters” by CarolinaChronicles on Flickr.
Related articles by Jason Falls (and Zemanta)
- Comparing SEO, SMM and PR Tactics Is Pure Poppycock (Micro Persuasion)
- SEO Consultant Required Skill Set (SEOPros.org)
- SEO vs. SMM Fight (Philly Marketing Blog)
- SMM vs. SEO (MoonLoh.com)
- Skill Sets For Social Media (Strike A Chord)