Friday, April 10, 2009

SEO Strategies in the Age of Social Media

As the popularity of social media increases, how must we adapt to capture a greater share of today's online audience? In the age of social media, focusing on "inbound links" as a SEO strategy is more important than ever. Today's online users increasingly rely on their networks and peers (vs search engines) through blogs and social networks (which are free and easy to setup) as filters of valuable information. As online users become increasingly social and prone to sharing valuable content, search engine optimization strategies must adapt by focusing on content that is updated, relevant and valuable in order to increase inbound links.

Below I explain four general strategies which increase inbound links.

1. Update your site with quality content.

If you have a website or blog, update it with fresh content so that users have a reason to return and be enthusiastic about sharing it with others with a link from their own websites or through a social network. Blogs in particular drive traffic in a number of additional ways. First of all, setting up a blog implies that it will be updated in the near future. Secondly, blogs potentially create many sets of unique "keyword phrases" (examples: climate change solutions, social media strategist blog) which are often picked up by the people who search for them. Blogs also allow visitors to subscribe to it through a RSS feed, which is a very convenient way for people to bookmark it for future reference.

However, don't just produce new content on your website or blog for the sake of it. You want quality not quanity. Ideally, those who post content on your website should already have some experience or passion on the subjects they are writing about. Web users today are smarter than ever and will be drawn to a site which has strong and focused content. If visitors don't like the way you setup your site or get annoyed you could lose their trust, and won't return or link it from their own website or blog (because it reflects on their own reputation). Again, it's important to focus on value and quality, not junk/filler and quantity. You only have one first impression.

2. Research relevant and popular keywords, and integrate them into your site.

Have you read something lately (perhaps a new product, news headline, event, website, etc.) that has been grabbing other people's attention? If it's relevant to your blog, it might be wise to blog about it - soon. You'll fill a niche demand and capture a crowd which found nowhere else to go to. However, search phrases can have immense popularity one day and lose most of it within a few days or weeks, because people have shifted their interest towards the "next big thing" which they are reading about on their RSS feed, Digg account, Google Reader, Twitter account, Facebook, etc.

If you setup a web alert (for ex: Google Alerts) you'll be able to stay updated on the latest relevant news or news sources or bloggers who are writing about similar topics (or the work of your organization/company). You can also study your analytics and determine the most popular phrases which people are using to find your site. If it's appropriate, continue using those keywords in your web content, press releases, etc.

However it might not be wise to just "write for search engines". There is a balance to it all. If you want people to return to your site, your content needs to stand out, have some personality, and provide strong value - you don't want to overwhelm your visitors with content that isn't relevant to them.

3. Develop offline relationships.

You could be the greatest expert on any subject, or provide an amazing service or product, or spend hours producing valuable content, but could be overshadowed by others who have developed a personal connection with their site visitors, while you did NOT. Many celebrities, authors, public figures or popular organizations have huge online audiences because of their real-life relationships and reputations, not because their content is more inherently interesting or useful, or because they hired a SEO expert for their website. Part of a SEO strategy must take place offsite or offline. This offsite/offline work will translate into online activity and inbound links.

If people link to your site or leave a comment on your website, they probably do so because they trust and like the people behind it. Introducing yourself to others or sending an e-mail are also basic things you can do to reach out and connect with someone. Your network of friends or readers will also help you to develop a better website, because they might the first to offer constructive feedback, or relevant content.

I highly recommend using twitter, as it's a great way to network and share your website with others. Twitter is a powerful micro-blogging tool because it has a real-time search engine and allows you to connect quickly and easily with people relevant to your field or interests. But don't just use twitter to blog or advertise yourself. Who wants to connect someone who just wants to talk about themselves? Follow some basic everyday communication guidelines: respond to others, share the content of other users, give credit when its due, ask questions, and consider answering them when asked.

Other strategies: video blogging, podcasting, social networking/media.

4. Show off your best content.

Many websites overflow with content and links, without providing an easy way for people to find out what's most worthy of a few minutes of their time. The amount of choices can be overwhelming for visitors. By creating a layout for people to easily discover your best content, you can increase the chances that they'll return to your site. You can determine your most popular content through your site analytics or through feedback from your visitors or close friends (who might be more honest). Consider placing the best content on front page or the very top of your page, or where visitors are most likely to look at. If you impress them, it's likely they'll continue exploring. If they are bored or turned off, you might be out of luck. If you have a blog, consider adding a section which generates a list of your "Most popular/read" posts, and make it easy for readers to read past content.

Take the time to make sure your site is worthy of a second visit before you begin inviting people to check it out. Again, you might not get a second chance!

While an amazing website design might capture the attention of a first-time visitor, the excitement will gradually wear down if you cannot provide interesting content on your site. Some of the most popular websites that exist today have the most basic designs, yet maintain their popularity because they provide updated, relevant and valuable content.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

5 Best Practices for Online Community Building

1. Start small. Small is beautiful.

I believe that an online community should start small. Having thousands of users sign up for your community doesn't necessarily mean many active users. But there's a greater chance for many previously passive users (a.k.a lurkers) to convert into active users if they see that there's already a foundation of leadership and active users who are communicating with each other.

If you reach out to other networks who you think might be interested in your commuinty, your first impression should give them some reasons to come back. Show that there is activity on the site early-on by starting conversations and producing content.

So how do you start small? One way, is to invite a limited set of users to your community, who you trust could provide relevant discussion, content and expertise. These initial users also help to set the tone and direction for the future of your community. After a foundation has been set, the next step is to gradually engage other networks and the smaller niche communities on different websites (Facebook, Myspace, Ning, etc.) who will now be impressed by the activity already taking place in your community.

Examples: Technology forums like slashdot (attract the super nerds first!), online dating communities like okcupid (attract the beauties, or at least those with clear headshots)

2. Develop a thorough understanding of your community's goals.

There is no shortage of "online community building" strategies online. But not all of the pointers out there might apply to your commuity. For example, there are some strategies that are focused on growth or functionalities. But many communities are perfectly happy with a smaller, tight-knit, yet highly dynamic community that focuses on a unique and niche subject. Others might just need more time to develop a foundation.

So before you begin an aggressive marketing campaign, you have to know, "What's important for my community to have?"

Other questions you might want to ask yourself include:

"Does my community need a strong profile-functionality?"
"Does my community need a discussion forum?"
"Does my comunity need a blogging system?"
"Does my community need a rating system?"

By understanding your goals, you can develop the optimal community that matches your needs. Don't just copy the model of other "successful online communities". Too many functions can confuse or overwhelm new users, and dillute the effectiveness of features that DO work.

Examples of fast-growth: Dell, Verizon
Examples of slow-growth: Communities for nonprofits, community groups, student organizations
Example of a low-functionality, yet effective community: Craigslist

3. Allow the community to run itself.

Whether you’re a corporation , small business or a nonprofit, you want community members to be engaged in discussions, sharing expertise or producing content without having to pay anyone. To an extent, you will probably want someone who can be responsible for moderating discussions, checking for abuse, and updating the community, but you want to be able to let others share the spotlight. This will allow the community to run on its own with little-to-none supervision, and develop the community's quality of interaction and content.

Examples: Twitter communities, Yahoo Answers, YouTube

4. Identify the “power users”.

After a while, it’s important to ask, who are the most active members of your site? These are the users you probably want to focus on getting to know because they are the users who are investing time in your community. If you give them your attention and your ears, it is more likely they’ll return the favor. If you’re a large business, your power/super users will offer peer-to-peer support, normally the role of a paid customer service employee. In other cases, your power users will produce the most content and be strong voices and influencers in your community.

However, you might find over time that some users are not actually representative of the needs of most community members. At this point, you have to think about whether you are spending too much time with a user. You should ask yourself, “Does this power user increase the quality of our community or does he/she do more harm?” If a power user is too visible or holds too much influence, they could set the tone of the community in the wrong direction.

5. Recognize top contributors.

Everybody likes recognition for the work they do. It gives people a sense of permanence within the community and a way to make themselves stand out a bit. Communities recognize contributions in different ways; the methods you choose depends on the needs of your community. For example, some sites reward frequent contributors with a "point system" or rankings based on their activity or popularity. Some might provide special site privileges. Some might invite contributors to special events. And some might provide more tangible rewards such as a featured blogger position, or staff role.

By recognizing contributors (however you decide to do it), you're also setting the stage for meeting some of them in person and further increasing the value of the community.

Examples: Yelp, Huffington Post, Slashdot