Most digital marketing professionals have, at some point, heard conflicting theories about social media’s impact on organic search rankings. Just like everything else in the industry, there are competing opinions on both sides of the argument, with only minimal correlational evidence either way.
There are certain elements of social engagement that would logically have an impact on SEO value. When users share content, it can lead to increased page visits and more links pointing back to the article.
With this in mind, we decided to test the effect of social promotion on organic visibility in search rankings. In order to do this, we started researching around what types of topics are inherently shareable, or in other words, what people are sharing on social media and how can we tap into that market, essentially having real people market for us across social media.
Our initial research into social media’s impact on organic search rankings led us to an experiment on Hootsuite called “Project Elephant” that aimed to answer that question. In their experiment, the researchers promoted content on social media that had been published previously and measured the impact on rankings for those specific articles.
The Project Elephant experiment used a control group of articles that received no promotion, a test group of articles that received only organic social promotion, and a third group of articles that received paid promotion on social media.
Their results showed a strong correlation between social engagement and increased organic rankings in the search results. Specifically, the articles that were promoted through paid ads on social media saw the largest gains in organic results, which makes sense logically because the ads have the potential to reach a much larger audience than organic social posts.
The results of this experiment convinced us that it would be worth testing on one of our own clients.
SEO & Paid Social Collaboration
This experiment allowed our team to bring our strongest skill sets to the table and leverage our expertise in cross-channel digital marketing to provide added value for one of our clients. By creating compelling content that could be valuable for our client’s organic search presence, we could also develop an informational piece that could be shared across social media.
While providing added value for our client, this also presented an opportunity for our team to expand our knowledge of other digital marketing channels and the effect each can have on the other. By engaging in this experiment, we can gain more in-depth insight into the SEO benefits of promoting informational content across social media, while at the same time producing great material for social engagement.
This led us to discover additional opportunities in other channels. We could leverage the same piece of content through a traditional PR campaign and use the creative pieces from our social posts in search ads.
Designing Our Own Test
Step 1 of test design; identify a suitable client. Initially, we searched through clients that we knew had SEO, Paid Social, and Content Marketing in their portfolio of services. However, it occurred to us that having SEO and Paid Social was most important, and that the results of this test could serve as justification to bring on Content as a value-added service.
Thus, our search pivoted to finding opportunities for a client who needed help with their SEO presence and could benefit from a well-crafted piece of content that was in line with their brand voice. We narrowed our search down to ten potential suitors, and then again down to three.
Each of the final three belonged to (very) different verticals. So we asked ourselves, which client would most benefit from “value” content that could be shared across social platforms and ultimately gain virality? We felt that a client in the beauty industry was our best route to serve as a thought-leader and provide emotionally valuable information to the client’s audience.
Finding a Highly Shareable Topic
As part of our team’s project, we researched what types of content people share commonly on social media. This led us to a book called Contagious; Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger, a Marketing Professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. As the name may suggest, this book looks into why things are shared and what about them makes them so shareable.
Among many other qualities that can make something shareable is a concept called social currency. At its simplest, social currency is essentially the value of being the first to know about something and the first to share it with your friends and family.
Another related topic from the book is virality or the ability of something to “go viral.” Social currency is just one of the many elements of virality, but for the purposes of our experiment, we decided that it was the one that we could focus on. If we could come up with a content topic that people would feel compelled to share, we could create social currency and have a valuable piece of content for our client.
How are People Searching
Once we decided on a good topic that we were convinced people would share across social media platforms, we started doing keyword research to discover the way people were searching for this type of content. Power Digital’s keyword mapping process takes many aspects into account, including keyword relevance, search intent, and ability to rank well in the search results for a given term. This gave us our baseline and our group of keywords that we would be targeting with our article.
In addition to finding relevant keywords that we had the ability to rank for, we also wanted to target search terms that had a relatively high degree of difficulty, so that we could measure the organic search ranking results based on our social engagement.
Crafting Compelling Content
One of the most important pieces of our entire strategy was to develop an article that was so compelling, people inherently wanted to share it when they read about it. For anyone who has ever written anything, you know this is a lot easier said than done.
Compelling content is not only important for the virality of the piece, but also for SEO, the brand voice, and to entice people to take an action once they have finished reading the article. This is why we spent so much time researching trends in the beauty and skin care industry, how people are searching, and what types of articles are being shared across social. We needed our article to evoke emotion from people so that they were moved to send it to their networks.
We wanted to create something that spoke to the unique selling points of our client’s products, but we were not looking to create a sales ad. We wanted to create an informational piece that also promoted our client in the right way. Again, we were going after the emotional response of our readers.
Our team first crafted a Video Sales Letter (VSL) so that we could identify with the customer journey and speak to emotions at different stages. We knew that our topic had the potential to reach people, we just needed to get the messaging right so that social users would promote it for us. We took elements from the VSL and created content around the motivations of our customers, but did not push them to make a purchase. Instead, the action we wanted them to take was to share our story and introduce the brand to more people.
Controlling Our Experiment
In order to (somewhat) accurately measure the results of our experiment, we needed to have a control. We decided that we did not have the resources to create additional content that would act as a control group, so instead, we chose to craft our article with solid writing but held back on some of the other SEO initiatives that would help drive us higher in the search rankings. This served as a different form of control; the only initiatives pushing our article higher in the search rankings would be our engagement on social media.
Typically after writing and publishing an article, we would look at various technical aspects of the page to identify any areas where we could improve. We would also reach out to publications within the industry and see if they were interested in promoting our content (if it was a good fit with their audience). Our team would also employ an internal linking strategy and many other on-page SEO efforts to increase the article’s rankings.
This article, however, would be different. Any rankings’ increases that we saw would be a result of the push we made on social media. We know this is not a perfect experiment and that there are other factors involved, but we felt that any significant movement in rankings would be a signal that this strategy was a viable option.
Creative for Social Ads
After publishing our content, the final step was implementing across social channels. Circling back to Berger’s concept of social currency, our post copy needed to be compelling. We needed to provide enough information to users that would entice them to share with their friends and family.
A key indicator to us of successful messaging was whether or not the post picked up organic virality through shares and engagements, ultimately expanding our reach even further. After a short period of the ad being promoted, we were able to garner 4 shares, 3 saves, and 55 total post engagements. This was a big win when compared against some of our other posts, especially in such a short window of time.
Interestingly, although the main drivers of success for our experiment were engagement and virality, the content on the site proved to be even more valuable. Being an e-commerce client, we saw 81 product views and 21 adds to cart after users read the article that we had written. This was not the direct, intended goal with this experiment, but our main objective is to always drive results for our clients, so we saw this as proof of concept for the strategy beyond what we were testing.
Our experiment, by nature, needed to be completed within a short window of time. There are so many variables in organic search that factors outside of social engagement would begin to affect our rankings. When we first published our article, it debuted on page 8 of the search results for our primary target keyword. We felt that if we could see it move up to page 6 within the first few days of running social ads, we had a viable strategy that could provide added value for our clients.
After 5 days of running social ads, we had gained 13 new keywords for our article. Our primary targeted keyword moved up 42 positions on to the bottom of page 4 of the search results. While page 4 results are not what we would target with a full strategy, the upward momentum that we saw represents a viable piece of SEO strategy. Again, knowing that this is not a perfect experiment, we can confidently say that social engagement metrics had a correlation with increasing search results.
After running our experiment in such a short window of time, we know that this can be an added-value piece of the strategy for all of our clients. By crafting compelling content that people will resonate with emotionally and promoting through social media to reach a larger audience, we can provide a boost in organic search rankings and social engagement.