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May 18, 2009

The real value of social media

In his article for SitePro News Lauren Hobson, claimed that twitter “can help create additional high-value, on-target inbound links that are essential to achieving top placements in the search engines.” Sadly this is not the case, there are two problems with this that Lauren has missed, one is unique to twitter, the other exists for all social media outlets.

Firstly the problem specific to Twitter is that all twitter messages are limited to 160 characters in length. The address of Lauren’s article (http://www.sitepronews.com/2009/05/13/using-social-media-to-boost-search-engine-results/ ) is its self 88 characters long, leaving just 72 characters for any other message. This has lead most twitter users to use URL shortening services such as TinyURL.com and bit.ly to reduce URL’s they post to a much more compact size, for example Lauren’s article reduces with bit.ly to just 19 characters ( http://bit.ly/EO8Yv ) a lot when your pitch has to be less than 160.

This not only hides your URL, all traffic that flows from such links gets there via a third party (tinyurl.com, bit.ly etc.) so any search engine ranking for inbound links will not head to your site but to that of the third party. Worse still, some of these shortening services add a bar to the top of your browser window, keeping the visitor not on your site but that of the shortening service.

This however just affects twitter; the more fundamental problem with Lauren’s article affects all social media sites. Even if you post the full address of your site to Twitter, Facebook, myspace, linkedin or any number of the other social network sites, Google won’t rank them any way. All social media sites, in an effort to prevent spam, add rel=”nofollow” to the outbound links they don’t control. When search engines come across such links they don’t follow them, meaning they don’t rank the sites any higher than if the link hadn’t been there in the first place.

Lauren claims that “The Proof is in the Rankings” because a survey conducted by Website Magazine shows that the twitter pages for it and its sister publications rank highly in Google. While it is true that twitter screen names do rank highly on Google searches, this has nothing to do with out-bound links, in fact if it did you would expect tinyURL.com to rank highly, since the Chicago Tribune’s twitter page makes heavy use of the address shortening service.

The Chicago Tribune’s twitter page is ranked so highly partly because of twitters SEO (for example it’s use of the twitter users name in the title tag) and partly, and for our understanding of how social media can help us, the fact that 11,380 twitter users follow the Chicago Tribune’s twitter timeline. You see the twitter profile (user timeline) page has a link to up to 36 people that person is following,  and throes links, being internal twitter links, do not have rel=”nofollow” on them. Of course the fact every other link on that page does have a nofollow tag connected to it prevents popular users from increasing the inbound links.
So is social media useless to website owners?

No, far from it, it may not improve your search engine ranking directly, but social media can be highly useful, while the Chicago Tribune’s twitter timeline may not improve its search engine ranking, it does have 11,000 followers, and that begs the question why are 11,000 following the Chicago Tribune’s twitter timeline?

The answer to that are content, and an effective social media strategy. The Chicago Tribune’s followers have actively chosen to receive updates; these aren’t 11,000 passive names on an e-mail list. They receive between about 3 and 6 re-tweets, their followers passing re-posting the Chicago tribune content to others. Because, the Chicago tribune produces content others want to be associated with. And that’s how social media can help direct traffic to your site which then becomes sales. Effectively produce great content build up a loyal following, and your followers will promote your content.

Lastly Lauren is right when she says “Social media is here to stay” and that it’s a great opportunity for businesses of all sizes if used effectively, however sadly inbound links are not one of throes ways.

Scott Herbert, has been involved in internet based products and services for over 10 years, he currently runs our-party.org.uk, a small design and development agency based in England. Follow him on twitter at http://twitter.com/Scott_Herbert

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