In response to a recent email around objections to doing SEO like the high amount of uncertainty or not having the resources, Bob Lalasz of Science+Story shared another common objection he hears from clients:
“Search is over — everybody I care about is on Twitter and I can reach them that way.”
For context, Bob’s audience is research organizations seeking to develop thought leadership as a means to increasing impact around their research.
There are a couple ways to look at this: search versus social and Twitter versus Google.
Let’s start with search versus social. It’s a conversation I’ve had with a lot of clients over the years and I have a bit more confidence generalizing on this one.
- The classic search vs social debate
- User context matters
- The risk of building your home on someone else’s land
- Where social shines
- Leverage works differently on search and social
- What do search and social algorithms optimize for?
The classic search vs social debate
Your goals as an audience-builder for each
If we assume the ultimate goal for both search and social is the same, to accomplish a business or organizational goal like generating leads, sales, or spreading an important message, then we can compare them in that context.
The difference then lies in the mechanism and where the risk and complexity exists for accomplishing that goal.
You rely on search to drive relevant traffic to content on which you want to increase visibility, typically on your own website but often on other properties as well including Google search results pages themselves.
The approach on social is more varied.
Let’s use Twitter again as our example. You may want to:
- network and build relationships with other experts by commenting on news or others’ content
- build a following to better disseminate and amplify your own content,
- develop authority/thought leadership/a voice contributing thinking to a community
The top of the funnel here has a lot of moving parts, which follow a sort of waterfall. You have to:
- get others to engage with you and build up some social capital to help you build a following > then >
- amplify your content effectively to that group (not a given) > then >
- move your audience to consume your content > then >
- solve for your business or organizational goal, typically on your website, assuming there was an underlying reason for creating your content
In social, the point of sharing content is to move those who see that post or tweet to interact with and consume that content. Each and every post sharing content has that one job. We’ll get into how this incentive can compromise your content in a bit.
In search, you have to rank your site in Google/Bing to drive traffic to your content (also not a given with rankings).
The top of funnel prerequisites here also have a lot of moving parts.
Those humps share some overlap with social, but are ultimately different:
- instead of getting other thought leaders to share on social, you want them to link to your content, requiring a more concerted effort around creating mutually beneficial relationships with those running other sites
- The constraints on your content are different: whether your content has preexisting demand, what search intent it should satisfy, how your content is structured.
With both search and social, when someone reaches your site, you control the experience, but you then still have to move your audience to some action.
With search, you are constrained by how pages are structured in optimizing for search, but you know that if done well, you are drawing relevant traffic because you specifically built the content for those users. You are saying, “hi there, you’re already looking for this thing so I made this thing for you.”
With social, as mentioned, the point of sharing content is to move those who see your linked content to click and consume. The incentives then are harder to balance.
On one hand, the better the click bait, the more the clicks.
On the other hand, take that too far and you end up with sensational, manipulative headlines and links, trading down traffic relevancy and overall trust over time.
User context matters
Who you want to reach is worth considering here. Would you rather a click from social or a click from search?
In comparing social channels, your market may be more likely to be active on a specific network like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram.
But they’re certainly on Google.
Let’s say for sake of argument your market or audience is conveniently all on one social channel most of the time. Then the idea that they’re both on Twitter and Google makes that a wash as well.
At that point it comes down to context.
With search, they’re looking for something, ideally something you have. On social, the pretext is different. It can be browsing to catch up on news, stave off boredom, socialize, engage in discussion.
Of the 24 hours in the day, when is someone most alert, engaged, receptive, and attentive to your message?
When they’re flipping through their newsfeed for something interesting? Or when they’re searching for the answer you have?
It’s not a rhetorical question. They both have a place. I can think of lots of products that do better on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram than they likely do on Google.
The point is that the psychographics matter and the timing matters.
I would rather be sold on donating to a cause at a fundraiser than someone going door-to-door when I’m having dinner. But I might be more inclined to donate to a cause if someone came to my door and put me on the spot.
Consider when someone will be more likely to give you attention or be most qualified for your goal.
In social, as long as your content consistently delivers, you get to help your audience build the habit of interacting with and consuming your content.
In search, that’s harder.
You have to get someone to your site a few times to start benefiting from the momentum that is personalization (where Google will serve your content higher in results to past users than to new users).
The risk of building your home on someone else’s land
I’ve always had a problem with this approach of building an audience on a social channel. If you aren’t treating social as a top of funnel source of traffic to your site, then you’re building your home on someone else’s land. They dictate the terms and they change those terms at will.
You don’t own the channel. Or your following. Or often, even your content. Look at Quora. They have deals to syndicate your content on Huffpo, Forbes, and other (I think) spammy sites without your permission. They take a cut and you “get that visibility.”
The most commonly cited cautionary tale for building something on someone else’s land is Facebook pages. Businesses spent billions to get more likes on their pages for years. When Facebook updated its newsfeed algorithm, their ability to “reach” their own audiences was either removed over night or they slow-boiled over a period of years with diminishing reach.
I had a similar experience.
A Facebook group (this is a decade ago now) I started with 18k members and pretty high engagement was shut down when Facebook revamped how groups are structured. They did this to increase overall groups engagement and pageviews to ultimately increase ad revenue. They were not at all transparent in how they chose which groups got members and content migrated.
Typically, the bigger your audience gets on social, the less access you have
To take my Facebook group example, as we grew it, Facebook took more and more functionality away. At 1,000 members we lost the ability to make announcements to the whole group. Around 5k to 10k members our posts wouldn’t always be shown in the newsfeed.
A few months ago I had a long conversation with a producer of a popular podcast. They get about 6 million downloads a month and are still seeing MoM growth.
When I asked if he could wave a magic wand and change anything, it was their ability to reach their own audience on social without having to learn how to manipulate algorithms.
People “like” their page to get updates of new episodes or join their Facebook group. Depending on how “click-friendly” their shared episode post is, Facebook may or may not show it or add it to audience members’ notifications.
This happens all the time. Again, I’m picking on Facebook but the pattern holds. The bigger the audience, the less relevant your content is. In general, audience engagement decays. The lower the engagement, the lower your power to generate visibility in a newsfeed.
Facebook owns Facebook. Twitter owns Twitter. You are just a visitor.
That being said, something similar could be said for Google.
They have been getting better at siphoning traffic from the rest of the web and keeping users on Google properties. Almost half of searches don’t result in a click.
From that link, Rand Fishkin, one of, if not the most, influential thought leader in search, summarizes:
Search still drives over half of all web traffic to all websites (and another 30%+ is direct/type-in/dark traffic, probably a lot of which is search influenced).Rand Fishkin
If the end goal of these top of funnel channels is to get someone to your site, whether you build momentum over time should be one of the most important considerations.
Where social shines
“You heard it here first.”
Without always intending to, most people get their news from social channels. You aren’t searching for a specific story until you’ve been made aware of it.
Cutting edge fields, industries, and technologies don’t see a lot of search volume on high complexity ides they would care most about generating visibility for.
Why? A majority of search volume on topics you care about comes from beginners.
Whether people are searching for answers, services, or whatever, the very nature of search implies a lack of knowledge about something.
This is great if you are an expert looking for clients or customers who are hiring you because they don’t understand how to solve problems you specialize in.
This is great if you are trying to disseminate a message about a common misconception to a large group that can be identified based on their search patterns.
But it’s not so great when you’re looking for eyeballs from top tier people in your field.
You can see lost rankings or inability to rank on topics often being a function of not satisfying that beginner’s search intent.
I just talked to a client who lost ranking on the keyword “ACT Percentiles” but when you look at there content it’s too advanced for what that user wants – the user wants a basic definition etc, their content didn’t offer that.@dan_shure tweet
Dan is a top-notch SEO. And hearing him say this, I now see this happening everywhere.
As you build an audience, you graduate from serving beginners because that’s the nature of expertise and moving up the value chain. But in search, you are often restricted to managing the tension between serving up beginner content to get more traffic and serving up highly specialized content to get less, albeit more qualified, long-tail traffic.
Leverage works differently on search and social
I think of optimizing for both as creating some sort of primary leverage, with secondary leverage benefits.
Social feeds are streams of data. You post something, it gets engagement, and then it’s quickly buried by the next day. You can, of course, repost, but reposts can get suppressed.
The leverage created is in branding, relationships, community, developing a following. It’s just very different.
On social, you can network with a lot of people in your field and ultimately fail at building an audience. But you still strengthened those relationships.
On search, you can build lots of links to your content from other sites and not rank for that piece of content the way you had hoped. But you’ll still get referral traffic from those links and, again, have strengthened the relationships with those site owners.
There are still benefits if your ultimate business goal fails for both. Depending on your situation, it’s worth weighing those secondary benefits.
The risk, then, is what happens when you take both to the extreme. So let’s look at how each work from an algorithmic standpoint.
What do search and social algorithms optimize for?
Wherever you choose to focus energy, you need to understand the basics of what the algorithms optimize for.
Google optimizes for indicators of expertise, authority, trust, relevance. Sometimes it gets this wrong. It often weights signals in what feels like unfair ways.
For example, people trust large brands so when they see a brand they recognize, they’re often more likely to click on that result. The net effect? Google will prioritize big recognizable brands unless you really stack other important signals on your content.
Meanwhile, newsfeed and recommendation algorithms optimize for clicks, shares, likes, basically engagement.
Take optimizing for Google to the extreme and if done perfectly, you end up with near monopolization on a given topic. Done poorly, and you’re left with over-optimization and penalties, leading to a major drop in traffic for months or possibly years.
Take optimizing for Facebook/Twitter to the extreme and on the positive end, you end up with a massive audience, strong brand recognition, and an ability to move that audience to your goal at command.
On the flip side, social algorithms manipulate users’ neurochemistry by rewarding you for high-jacking their attention in some measurable way (engagement).
As an aside, many social algorithms also optimize for content shared within the channel. If you link out to your own page, some news feeds devalue that and become less likely to serve that post. This is fine if you’re having a conversation, but ultimately limits your ability to draw traffic.
Predominantly though, social newsfeeds reward the high-jacking of people’s attention. People typically click on and share things they already agree with, which encourages groupthink.
Ultimately, this can result in an echo chamber effect. Social newsfeed algorithms take your audience members’ behavior, it holds up a mirror, and serves them more of what they want at an impulse level.
If “everyone you need to reach” is on x social channel, it’s important that they generally already agree with you.
So if you’re trying to turn a tide on an issue, or inform people of something they’ve already made their mind up about, it’s an uphill battle to get them to consistently engage with your content and join your audience. To do that, refer back to what amplifies content on social: sensationalism, polarization, click-bait, curiosity.
I’m incredibly biased here, but I’d personally rather do things that search engines are seeking to reward than things social news feeds are trying to reward.
Next in this line of thinking, Twitter versus Google.
Update: I published a post looking at Twitter.