Is Social Media Taking Over SEO?

Mark Mitchell

Mark is the managing director of MySocialAgency. He is a big traveller, major geek and massive music head. Mark likes to blog about social media strategy, SEO process and life hacking.

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Is Social Media Taking Over SEO?
Photo by Rosaura Ochoa

Last week, UK newspaper The Guardian was the latest to join the ‘SEO is dead’ debate in a scathing article which described SEO as “a flawed concept” which is now dying.

However, this is something that we seem to have heard for many years now, the idea that SEO is dead or dying is almost as old as the discipline itself. The Guardian asserts that these days, businesses would do better to consider social media optimization, rather than SEO. The article insists that focusing on customer-centric interaction will always mean a company fares better than being found on Google.

The Guardian claim that: “a recent Forrester report on how consumers found websites in 2012 shows that social media is catching up with search, accounting for 32% of discoveries“.

According to Martin Macdonald, who wrote a response to the article ‘SEO is not dead, it just got a sibling’, this statement is “taken out of context and highly misleading.” He goes on to make a very good argument to support his case, which is frankly more convincing than that of the Guardian.

Social or SEO?

The fact is that these days, SEO is a broad term which encompasses content creation and off-page work, as well as optimizing website’s themselves. Really, anyone working in the SEO space is working on a number of tactics, all associated with digital marketing.

Recently, it seems that because of social, there is now more of a blurred line between traditional advertising, PR and online marketing. This is due to the nature of social, which means having a more personal, hands-on approach to marketing.

It still doesn’t mean that SEO is dead though. Whilst social is growing at a rapid rate, it can be better seen as a complimentary aspect to an overall marketing plan. According to Macdonald, to say that it’s overtaking SEO is not only misleading, but based on a “pseudo-scientific-assumption that there is only a certain amount of internet traffic to go round.”

Which of course there isn’t. The internet continues to grow at a rapid pace and so the idea that there’s a limited amount of traffic is quite obviously flawed, especially given the rise in devices that access the net.

The below graph from ComScore supports this, search continues to grow at a rapid rate and so to say that SEO is dead seems like something of a wild theory, even when backed up with figures.

(US search query volume carried out between January & March 2013)

Dissecting the figures

The Guardian piece points out that a Forrester report found that in 2012, social media accounted for 32% of website discoveries compared with 54% for search. This, the article say supports the idea that social is quickly catching search up.

However, many of the social discoveries came from mobile, which to me simply illustrates the incredible rise that we’ve seen in mobile internet traffic in recent years. This is more to do with the introduction of 4G around the world, especially when you consider that the data concentrates on the US, which has had 4G technology since 2010.

Whilst mobile access will continue to rise, meaning that social discovery will too, there’s nothing at all to suggest that search won’t too.

Social and the Customer Experience

The Guardian piece puts forward the idea that social will “transform the customer experience” and I can’t help wondering “where have you been for the past few years”. Social has already transformed the customer experience, anyone who works in digital marketing knows this.

In some ways it has transformed all areas of advertising, as there has been a firm power shift from the advertiser to the consumer. This is why, as I said earlier, PR, advertising and digital marketing are starting to overlap, rather than being entirely different disciplines.

As more content is consumed every day, does that mean that it’s all done on social, rather than being searched for? Of course not, as someone pointed out in the comments section of Macdonald’s article, as long as there’s people using search engines, SEO remains valid.

David Taylor of Coffeepot Digital commented that the Guardian piece is: “Lazy, poorly researched linkbait. Social is getting more important but in terms of % of monthly revenue for some clients but it’s not having its not having the impact search is (yet.)”

The Problem With SEO

I certainly agree that the Guardian piece is misleading at best, irresponsible at worst. SEO is one of those things that has been much maligned for years, not least because of the proliferation of black hatters that effectively spammed the net for years.

However, the internet is not only growing, it’s getting better, thanks to the push from the search engines to rid it of spam links and poor content. This means that SEO professionals can now do their job more effectively, if anything, as competition from less scrupulous individuals lessens.

Any business reading the Guardian article wouldn’t know that though and so may decide against hiring a SEO firm, thinking a social presence will be enough when it won’t.

As the internet has grown and become faster, the more information has and is being consumed. At the moment, this shows no sign of abating and you have to wonder, if the Guardian is to be believed, how people are finding this content.

It seems rather obvious that search is playing a large part in the hunt for content, so no, SEO is not dead, or dying, it simply is evolving alongside other digital marketing resources to compliment them.

Social is certainly an important aspect to any campaign, but to say it’s taking over from search is just inaccurate.

Guardian Responds

The Guardian this week responded to the piece, following a “robust” reaction from the SEO community. The newspaper printed a number of replies from various SEO agencies around the UK.

"Social traffic is awesome for product discovery. It's not awesome at targeting people at the point in which they want to make a purchase," said Martin Macdonald, at Expedia Affiliate Network.

Further comments went on to say that social media transforms the way that businesses engage and that it’s not all about marketing, further supporting my earlier statements surrounding social and PR.

The general consensus from digital marketers and SEO experts online strongly refute what the Guardian’s Tim Anderson had to say, citing the fact that SEO is a growing discipline, rather than one that’s dead and buried.