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Social Media Marketing Doesn't Replace SEO

Looking at the latest search marketing conference agendas, articles, and online news in the SEM space, it certainly appears that social media marketing and networking are the wave of the future.

To a certain extent, they are.

Social media, and social networking in particular, create a back-and-forth conversation with your target audience, so you can virally market your website through the “buzz” that can be created. When something interesting, cool, or unique is being talked about in “all the right places,” it can certainly provide a boost in website traffic.

We search marketers tend to hang out in numerous online and offline communities where it’s easy to promote our own products and services, yet I can’t help wondering if our view of Web marketing is skewed because of this.

Are potential B2B clients and even B2C customers spending time at Digg? Do they attend SEM conferences in order to hire a company, or are they just trying to learn to do it themselves? And what about other industries? Is there a Sphinn equivalent for developers of product lifecycle management software? Are there groups of people online comparing the various brands of auto parts? Are there really people seeking out articles on these topics?

Perhaps.

And if so, we’d be remiss not to promote our clients’ websites in those spaces. But is this search marketing? Or is it simply marketing? Arguably, it becomes search marketing when it increases link popularity, but surely that should be the secondary goal of this type of marketing campaign. True link popularity comes from having something worth linking to, not something you’ve asked your insulated circle of cronies to link to.

Certainly, the boost in direct traffic that a site can gain when it is being discussed in all the right places online is not to be taken lightly – and that alone is reason enough to try to be found in all the right places. Yet how much of that traffic actually converts into anything good, and how much does it help your organic search rankings?

More important – how does it incréase your bottom line?

For instance, I’ve written a few articles that receíved upward of 1,000 visitors a day from StumbleUpon alone. The spike in traffic was nice, and the slight addition in newsletter subscribers was certainly welcome, but for the most part, those StumbleUpon visitors spent just a few minutes on our site, and only a small percentage signed up for our free newsletter. None of them were interested in using our services. They read the article and then stumbled their way to the next site of potential interest.

Isn’t participation in social media really just preaching to the choir?

You reach your peers, not the people who will purchase your product or service. Sure, it’s a nice ego stroke to have others in your industry tell you how cool you are, and there’s something to be said for building credibility within your community. I’m certainly not knocking that, and have built my own credibility via various online communities in which I’ve participated over the past decade.

But how does it sell your products and services?

Do you gain customers and sales from your social media marketing and/or your participation in social networks? Does it increase your rankings for the keyword phrases your actual target audience is typing into the search engines? If your business model depends on traffic for traffic’s sake, or on how many ad impressions your site generates, then there’s an obvious value. But if you sell a product or a service – then not so much.

My fear with all the hype about social media marketing is that people new to search marketing will believe it’s what SEO demands and what SEO is all about.

It isn’t. Not by a long shot.

Social media marketing is a great addition to any traditional SEO work that you do, but it’s not a substitute. It’s more akin to hiring a PR firm once you’ve launched your already-SEO’d website. On-page SEO is definitely not as sexy as social media marketing, but it is still the most important investment in your website that you can make. Period.

So, go to all your social media conferences, and Digg your way to increased traffic. But first learn exactly who your target audience is, what they’re searching for in the search engines, and how your website can solve their problems. Then make sure your website does exactly that. All the social media buzz and traffic won’t amount to anything if your target audience isn’t already part of the online conversation.

Be sure to have your house in order before you give social media marketing a try.

And don’t be surprised if it doesn’t actually provide you with the ROI you hoped it would. In most cases it will depend on who your target audience is, where they hang out, the types of services or products you provide, and whether your website truly provides people with what they’re looking for.

Getting back to SEO basics – that is, creating a crawler-friendly website that is built around the keyword phrases people use at the search engines to find what you offer – is the first and most important thing you can do for your website and your business. Yeah, it’s not as fun and exciting as social media marketing, but skip this step at yóur own peril!

About The Author: Jill Whalen, CEO of High Rankings and co-founder of SEMNE, has been performing SEO services since 1995. Jill is the host of the High Rankings Advisor newsletter and the High Rankings SEO forum.