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How Search and Social are Interdependent

December 16, 2012

I recently had the following conversation on Twitter:

Twitter_conv_1

A screen capture of a twitter conversation.

I feel I owe my followers an explanation, which requires an order of magnitude more characters than Twitter allows. Hence this blog post.

When I say that search and social are interdependent, I don’t just mean that any effective digital strategy ensures that you do both well. Of course, they are both strong drivers of relevant traffic to your sites. But I also mean that they are interrelated. That is, you can’t do search effectively without an effective social strategy and you can’t do social effectively without an effective search strategy. Since this is a controversial position, allow me to e’splain sum up now and explain after the jump.

In brief, social content is findable: It is built to demonstrate relevance and to provide context for the audience, where search engines are a proxy for the audience. When you jump into the middle of a conversation, it can seem confusing. You understand the full conversation by searching for content related to it. Building findable content begins with keyword research, which is a form of audience analysis. Building social campaigns also begins with keyword research, which gives you a cue into the conversations your audience engages in. Building shareable content depends on understanding those conversations.

Findable content is shareable: It is parsed into modular chunks that can be easily shared from within pages. Pages are just carriers of shareable content that demonstrate relevance and provide context for the audience. Pages full of relevant, shareable content become link bait, which then rank better over time in search engines because the audience is effectively voting for the content by sharing it and otherwise building links into it from external sources.

It all fits together. But I admit the summary view might be a bit dense for those who have not read our book Audience, Relevance and Search: Targeting Web Audiences with Relevant Content. If you need further explanation, please read the example after the jump.

You’re doing it wrong: How not to build a socially aware microsite

I recently engaged in a conference call that took at least a year off my life. I was asked to join the call because the site designer wouldn’t listen to the designated search consultant. So we were both on the call, attempting to play bad cop/worse cop with this obstinate and arrogant designer.

The designer presented a page that was simply a set of tiles, four wide and four deep. Some tiles were videos. Some tiles were screen captures of tweets. Some tiles were thumbnails of infographics. There was no original content on the page at all. Everything was curated from some other social source. There was nothing on the page that indicated the context of these items, either to each other or to the larger set of conversations. The page was entirely devoid of text of any kind to help build that context. And none of the items was shareable, either in the sense that you could click a share button near them or in the sense that anyone would want to share them (in the unlikely event they stayed on the page long enough to try to share them).

The first question I asked him was what the purpose of the page was supposed to be. He said the point of the experience was to foster social conversations around the products owned by the stakeholders sponsoring the work. I tried to explain to him that the page as designed would not accomplish the goal because:

  1. The page would not be findable in search: Without any discernible message, there is no way search engines would ever rank the page anywhere near the top page in rankings (after which, pages are functionally irrelevant). Ranking on the first page in Google gives you a shot at the credibility you need to gain the trust of the audience. For anonymous experiences, it is the only way to have a chance. From there, perhaps you could develop trust and loyalty over time, if you include sharable content and highlight the work of a few relevant experts.
  2. The page did not contain shareable assets: It’s a simple thing to add share buttons to the assets on the page, but nobody shares anything if they don’t know the context of the item. In social settings, such as Twitter, the context is partly determined by the Twitter handle of the person sharing the piece. This signal is only as strong as the credibility of the one sharing the item. Not only was the page itself anonymous, but it would not be given credibility simply because it was on the web. In short, shareability is not just about the message, it’s about the messenger. There was nothing on the page itself that gave the user a sense of the credibility of the messenger.

When I say that the designer was obstinate, I mean that he would not listen to all the evidence we provided that this design was DOA. We provided data point after data point of designs like his that had failed, and how they evolved to be more effective through agile iterations. Invariably, these evolutions involved adding some static text to the upper left portion of the white space, which explained what the page was about and why the audience should pay attention to it, in plain language.

The experiences were optimized when the other pieces of content for which the pages acted as carriers were ever more tightly relevant to the pain points or top tasks of the target audience for the defined context. We presented dozens of examples of pages that get tens of thousands of search referrals and hundreds of downloads, shares and conversions per month after similar evolutions. The designer would not be convinced.

When I say that the designer was arrogant, I will give you his own words: “You brought me in to create a next-generation experience…. Your experiences are tired and boring.” The gist was that his design was web 3.0, whereas our UX best practice is so web 2.0, and including static text on the page is so web 1.0. Meanwhile, the collective web effectiveness wisdom on the call, between the two search SMEs and the product owner,  was 45 years. He was fresh out of college with a degree in web design. One wonders what they teach aspiring web designers in college if this is what they learn.

As an aside, see my blog post about the sorry state of web development skills. One of the contributing factors seems to be that colleges are not teaching what works in actual cases, but what looks really cool and what might work. I have worked with many designers right out of college who had similar attitudes to this designer, but perhaps not to this degree. Those who succeeded quickly learned to be more pragmatic and less dogmatic. When they do, they learn to design their pages to be findable and the content on the page to be shareable. As long as they do that, they can do all the cool stuff they want to make the site look good.

To his credit, the designer eventually agreed to go back to the drawing board, after several rounds of bad cop/worse cop. I told the product owner after the call that I was pleased to get some blog fodder for my time and trouble, because “blogging is better than therapy or alcoholism.”

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. December 17, 2012 12:31 pm

    I feel your pain. Too, bad you couldn’t have had an A-B test or something to show him real world. So his block images merely had alt tagging? That would have been brutal to understand even if you would have been lucky to discover the page. You could have also taken a screenshot and added it to a usability site like 5 second test. That might have opened his eyes.

    • jamesmathewson permalink
      December 17, 2012 8:08 pm

      I talked about an A-B test, but the stakeholders had been through similar things for years and didn’t feel the need to prove something that was already evident. There wasn’t even any alt tagging. The only text on the page was in the footer. Seriously. When he started to thaw to our critique, his suggestion was to move the (minimal) footer text up into the body of the page. What is with designers who think that text is poison to users?

  2. December 19, 2012 8:13 am

    James, good post very interesting read, well return. Sometimes hard to find the right web designer.

  3. March 19, 2014 6:32 am

    Spot on with this write-up, I honestly feel this web site needs far more attention.
    I’ll probably be back again to read more, thanks for the info!

  4. August 27, 2014 2:13 am

    Hi! Do you know if they make any plugins to help with
    Search Engine Optimization? I’m trying to get my blog to rank for
    some targeted keywords but I’m not seeing very good gains.

    If you know of any please share. Appreciate
    it!

  5. September 2, 2014 2:04 am

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  6. September 21, 2014 10:51 am

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