SMBs – It’s Time to Rethink Your Social Media Strategy (Or Get One)

In my digital marketing consulting work with small businesses, I always try to identify the tactics that will deliver the most bang for their buck. As a small business owner myself, I know it’s difficult to keep all the plates spinning at once, so I appreciate that these clients have a limited budget in terms of finances AND in terms of time.

That’s why, in the past, I’ve actually recommended that certain clients NOT start down the path of using social media for their business. Even if they go the (financially) ‘free’ route with social media, there’s still an investment of time that I know they just don’t have.

But I fear that we’re reaching a point where they’re just going to have to find the time.

Why Now?
This isn’t going to be one of those ‘you-have-to-do-social-media-because-everyone-else-does’ or ‘everyone-will-love-you-and-your-life-will-be-all-unicorns-and-rainbows’ kind of posts. Not saying that there isn’t real value in social media for many businesses, but what I’m talking about today is how social may impact how (or if) people find you online.

Some Background
Let’s say I want to get my carpets cleaned. I can go to Google, type ‘orlando carpet cleaner’ into the search box and get back the millions of results that the search engine deemed most relevant. But how is the search engine deciding relevance? The answer, of course, is ‘it’s complicated,’ but in a very basic way search engine algorithms are looking at hundreds of factors, then trying to rank sites by the likelihood that they have what the searcher is looking for. (This is not considering the paid links, of course.)

The problem is that doesn’t mean that the BEST carpet cleaner is ranked number one, but (theoretically, at least) that the best carpet cleaner SITE is ranked at the top. You could be the world’s best carpet cleaner but still be outranked online by competitors with better (more optimized) sites.

As a potential customer, is this really the ideal way for me to find a carpet cleaner? Probably not.

What about asking a friend for a recommendation? That way, I’d be getting a referral from someone I know and trust, who is telling me about someone they know and trust.

But calling all my friends to ask for a referral is cumbersome and time-consuming. Perhaps, instead of calling them all to ask their opinions, I just post the question to Facebook. “Does anyone know a good carpet cleaner in Orlando?” Voila! People whose opinions I value giving me real suggestions, with no more work on my part than going to a search engine. (Though, admittedly, a bit of a time lag to get the answer; fortunately, dirty carpets aren’t life-threatening.)

What Does This Have To Do With SMBs Needing a Social Media Strategy?
For a while now, search engines have been trying to incorporate ‘social signals’ into the search results. Google and Bing (and all the rest of ’em) know that getting information from people you actually know might sometimes be preferable to getting results that a complicated algorithm decided were the best. And they really don’t want you finding what you need on Facebook or somewhere else because that’s lost potential revenue for them.

So the search engines are looking for ways to give you the best of both worlds, the ‘traditional’ search results plus results generated by those in your social circle.

Initially, they showed some results from your social circle on the first results page, and they’ve tweaked the placement along the way.

The more impactful change happened in February, when Google started showing social results mixed in with the ‘regular’ results. (Search Engine Land has a great article on Google’s inclusion of your social circle in search results.)

Beyond showing social signals in the results, both Google and Bing have said they’re using social signals, at least a bit, to influence the results. So being Tweeted about or shared on Facebook might mean that you rank better. That’s different than just showing when someone in your social circle shared something that was ranking well anyway.

Facebook Like and Google +1
Now that the Facebook ‘Like’ button can be found (literally) all over the web, individuals have a very easy way to share with their social circle the things they like. Think of how useful that information would be to a search engine, which could use it as a factor in its algorithm. If more people ‘Like’ a page, that’s a pretty good signal for the search engine.

Over at Google, the +1 button, which allows users to ‘plus-one’ links right on the search results page, was just rolled out. (Who came up with that name, really? I get that ‘like’ was already taken, but it’s a little like ‘the artist formerly known as Prince’.)

Google has said that it plans to make the button available for websites, so you might find it right there by the Facebook Like button in the near future. Google appears very keen on getting into the social sphere in a bigger way, going so far as to recently tie ALL employees’ bonuses to the success of their social strategy. Big G has numerous failed attempts at getting into social under its belt thus far, and not everyone agrees that Google +1 is a big deal, but for the moment it’s worth keeping a careful eye on.

And This Is Where It Starts to Get Worrisome
Going back to my search for a carpet cleaner, let’s say that I now know that Google will show me not only the results THEY deem the best, but also results that people in my social circle have shared in social media. So, I actually do the search on Google and see what my friends have recommended.

But if your business isn’t doing social media, it’s not going to get that added ‘recognition’ in the results.

And More Worrisome…
Here’s a worst-case scenario: Maybe you’ve been working really hard at optimizing your site and you show up near the top of the results when someone does a search. Great job!

But now, your link may be pushed down the page to make room for those social results. Despite optimizing successfully, you find yourself losing ground.

Can It Get Worse?
Given the inherent ‘personalized recommendations’ value of using social signals to influence the search results, it seems very likely that the search engines will continue to use them and probably even rely more heavily on them in the future.

Without social media, your business isn’t going to get any of that positive boost from social signals, so for nearly all businesses – even those too financially strapped or too busy – it’s time to really get involved in social media.

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