I recently came across a report on Shareaholic about how social media generated almost a third of all website referrals during the last quarter of 2014. I thought the report was interesting primarily because it leads to the following conclusions:
"Social media platforms are eating every other traffic source's lunch."
"Facebook drives 1/4 of overall traffic."
"Pinterest hit its plateau."
"The six remaining platforms make up less than 2% of total web traffic."
After reading this report you, oh serious web marketer, might then adjust your marketing mix to correspond with the conclusions and adopt the following marketing strategy:
Forget about search and focus on social media marketing.
Focus on Facebook; forget everything else.
And you would feel absolutely justified in doing this because, after all, this is what the research says.
However, before you dessert search and hastily throw all your marketing eggs into the Facebook basket, let's take a more careful look at what the data tells us.
The Social Media Market Surge
Sure, social media has grown by leaps and bounds in the marketing arena, and Shareaholic's data and Buzzfeed Insights do reflect this. And this is a good thing because it validates everything that online marketers claim is great about this marketing channel. But does it necessarily spell out the demise of search?
I think not. It just means social media has gotten better at business, but not necessarily better than search. Unfortunately this adds fuel to speculation that SEO is dying, if not dead. But in fact, the data presented by Shareaholic and Buzfeed Insights do not indicate any decrease in the total volume of searches, just an overall increase in social media referrals to web pages.
In his "State of Search for 2015" presentation, digital marketing expert and journalist Danny Sullivan points out that search is alive and kicking, and more so now than ever before. Google itself claims to have "searched trillions of times" in 2014. You read that right; not "a trillion times" but "trillions of times." That sure sounds like a lot of searches to me, presumably by lots of people. It appears that reports of SEO's death have been greatly exaggerated.
Another point to keep in mind is that the report "aggregates data from Shareaholic's network of sites" that "utilize its content marketing and publishing tools." It may be argued that some of these sites get more than a million visitors each month and represent a dozen or so categories. But the bottom line is that all these sites represent a tiny sampling of the entire online landscape and we have no idea what marketing practices and methodologies have been employed to arrive at these results.
As far as we know, the surge in social media marketing described here is an experience unique to Shareaholic's network of sites, and may or may not hold true for the rest of the wild, wide Web.
Look, Ma... Two Hands!
Instead of thinking about search and social media as two distinct choices that need to be made, why not consider them as complementary approaches toward the same goal? Could one approach reinforce the other and result in a synergy whose total effect vastly exceeds the sum of its individual parts? Absolutely!
It helps to think of SEO and social media as two hands of your online marketing strategy. Could you open up a bottle of wine using just one hand? Probably, with some hard work and a lot of creative thinking. But the task gets done much more quickly and with less effort when you have both hands working at it. It's the same with your online marketing. SEO alone or social media by itself helps you build brand awareness and attracts prospects. But when executed together, the results may be even better.
Through a Lens, Clearly
To a hammer everything looks like a nail. If your strength is SEO, then you tend to see things exclusively through an SEO lens. The same is true if your expertise happens to be social media; everything lives and breathes social media. But a hammer does not get everything done, only the parts where a hammer comes in handy, as in driving nails into wood. Everything else requires a specific tool for the corresponding tasks to be completed.
Social media and search optimization have their individual strengths and weaknesses, and it is best to understand what these are and which marketing strategies are best fit for each one.
Speed of Execution. If you are looking to get the word out and obtain responses from people, social media is the way to go, as search generally takes longer to produce equivalent results.
Reach. If you manage to create content that goes viral, then you stand a chance of reaching as many people as there are who have social media accounts. On the other hand, the reach of search is set by the number of people who search for particular keywords.
Type of Content. If you have content that elicits emotions, social media provides the perfect delivery vehicle. Informative content, such as how-to articles and industry research are better served by search.
Content Format. Images and photos are great for social media. Textual content is perfect for search.
Target's Purpose. Social media users are more likely to share but less ready to buy. Searchers, on the other hand, have a specific purpose in mind for searching, and are probably more ready to act on an offer.
Work Required. There is no question that social media takes a lot more work on a constant and consistent basis. Meanwhile, search takes some effort to set up initially, but usually continues to perform even when unattended, requiring little maintenance over time.
Key Performance Indicators. Engagement is the hallmark of social media, while search is more attuned to traffic and clickthrough information.
You can see that one approach does not cover all the bases. You need both channels to work for full marketing coverage. So if you still need to ask which online marketing approach is better, SEO or social media, then you haven't been paying attention, and it will show in your online marketing results (or lack, thereof).
Here's what your online marketing strategy should look like, then, moving forward:
Bring your search marketing "A" game.
Bring your social media marketing "A" game.