Lee Odden

3 Phases of Social Media SEO – Where Are You At?

Lee Odden     Online Marketing, SEO, Social Media

Social SEO PhasesAs Google puts the squeeze on traditional ranking signals and subsequently, Search Engine Optimization tactics, the growing emphasis on social signals has many SEO practitioners getting more serious about social engagement.

While search marketing has been a key part of our consulting practice since 2001, our Online Marketing agency’s work with Public Relations and blogging since 2003 has helped us develop an appreciation of the influence and engagement outcomes possible with social media pretty quickly, vs. solely as a promotion channel for links. That sentiment is growing rapidly as of late with many traditional SEOs.

You too, may have noticed an increase in SEO practitioners (both agency and client side) singing the song of Content Marketing and Social Media. As this shift has occurred over the past few years, I’ve observed a series of phases of approach. According to your situation and market, your mileage may vary with these characterizations, but maybe you’ll see something familiar and get a clearer picture of where your SEO and Social Media integration is headed.

Phase 1: SEO With Social Profiles, Sharing Widgets & Blogs

Many Search Engine Optimization pros started their social media adventures with bookmarking and news services like Digg, StumbleUpon, Delicious and Reddit.  Promoting content to these channels, especially through “power users” could inspire content to go hot, hit the home page and attract spikes of traffic. The increased exposure attracts more links and subscribers.

Social bookmarking services and profiles within social networking sites allow for users to include links back to their own websites creating a potential source of link traffic and light signal for search engines. Many of those links were subsequently made “nofollow”.  Such links are simply a matter of filling out forms and ultimately no more impactful than directory submissions.

Blogs are used to publish content in a more search engine friendly way than most CMS are capable of and commenting on other blogs provided great links until they too, were made “nofollow” by most bloggers and blog CMS.

Success is measured in SEO terms: links, rankings and traffic.

Phase 2: Social Media Optimization

Coined by Rohit Bhargava, SMO has had different meanings for different people.  Marketers develop the social profiles they’ve created into more robust sources of information with some building out of social networks. Developing social channels helps to create an audience to promote content to in the hopes of attracting links.

Blogs are often the hub to the social media spokes for optimized content promotion for traffic and link acquisition. Attention to building blog subscribers and email lists is stressed.  There’s an honest appreciation for creating useful content for specific audience segments and a developed skill in the art/science of content formats, types and writing headlines that inspire sharing.

Success is measured primarily as SEO outcomes like links, traffic and conversions. Social KPIs like fans, friends & followers are monitored as well as basic engagement metrics like comments and interactions. But those metrics are more about “social proof” than social ROI.

Phase 3: Integrated Content, SEO & Social Media Plan

By now,  SEOs are more likely to identify as Online Marketers and understand the key to a killer social SEO strategy is content.  Audience categorization becomes persona development which guides content marketing strategy.  The keyword research expertise from SEO is factored into Editorial Planning of web and social content.

While content is planned for certain outcomes with segments of the community, it’s an adaptable online marketing strategy that allows for opportunistic content marketing and social promotion based on social media monitoring and trends. Social media savvy isn’t just for Marketing and Public Relations, but as much of the organization as possible.

Anyone in a position to create content, engage with customers and prospects online has basic skills with search and social keyword glossaries, social search and social networking on behalf of the brand.

To maximize the relevance of the Content Marketing Plan, search keywords and social topics representative of customer interests are factored into scheduled editorial for web, social and mobile content.  Content creation and promotion is coordinated across functional areas like Advertising, Public Relations and Marketing as possible.

The findability of content is improved through keyword and social topic optimization. Social content that is easy to find through search can help grow the social network.  As the network grows, so does word of mouth for inherent promotion of useful content that attracts links, shares and comments. Those social signals can be gauged by Google in combination with other SEO ranking factors to improve search visibility of brand web properties.

It would be realistic to add other phases, but I’m trying to be more practical with this post. I think this approach of an adaptable, customer-centric and content focused strategy that leverages topic optimization for both search findability and social engagement is where many online marketers will find themselves sooner than later.

What do you think about these phases? Phase 3 is a tall order to fill and I think many marketers will see a blend as their reality. If you have an appreciation for the impact coordinated Social SEO & Content can have, how would you characterize your organization’s approach?

I’ll be elaborating on these phases and more later this morning at OMS Minneapolis in a session called “Develop a Killer Social SEO Strategy“. I hope to see you there.

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Lee Odden About Lee Odden

@LeeOdden is the CEO of TopRank Marketing and editor of Online Marketing Blog. Cited for his expertise by The Economist, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal, he's the author of the book Optimize and presents internationally on B2B marketing topics including content, search, social media and influencer marketing. When not at conferences, consulting, or working with his talented team, he's likely running, traveling or cooking up something new.


  1. Unfortunately I’m still on number 1, but working on number 2 now, still a little bit away from setting up an actual plan and stuff, but I plan on getting there, thanks for sharing.

  2. Avatar Anonymous says


    There is so much great information in this blog. Thank you for sharing. I foresee the next big signal in social media optimization as social media engagement. Search engines already consider how people engage with one another. Though, this will become a greater determinate.

    To determine the value of a tweet search engines will consider how many followers a person has, how active those followers are on Twitter, whether they click on links or interact with the Tweeter, and how they engage with the information offered in those links will become a larger determinate in search engine’s social media signals. Facebook interactions will be judged similarly.

    So, my suggestion would be to any person or company not to buy Twitter followers or Facebook fans. First, this is against Twitter’s and Facebook’s TOS (Facebook does not blatantly state it, yet they will ban users who grow their friends and fans list too rapidly). Second, companies that sell fans and followers do not guarantee how often or well those people interact. So, you might get 10,000 fans or followers overnight; though, their profiles may be little more than social media wastelands. Third, inflated fans or followers that know they didn’t follow or “Like” you may mark you as spam.

    Yes, search engines have been considering the values of social engagement; though with the Google buyout of Klout social media engagement will become a greater determinate in these social media signals. I’d also suggest people go to Klout and read what social signals they use to rank people. Those will be the social signals Google will use.


    • Thank you Erick, your feedback is very much appreciated. I’m not sure where the notion of buying fans & followers comes from (at least in regard to the blog post) but it’s great advice to readers on not going down that path.

  3. Integrated content is a really nice way to attract followers to something that is useful for them while enabling great opportunities for marketing.
    I think it’s great you have that on your list.

  4. Nice article. We have been trying to stress this with all of our clients as well. Providing value to people’s social networks is going to be one of the best ways to help businesses climb the Google SEO ladders. Check out our blog which has been highlighting some of the more successful social media campaigns on the  web http://bit.ly/mUOXp4

  5. Wow, this is the exact set I phases I went through in my SEO career. I am so glad it has moved on from just tediously filling out endless web forms to producing really interesting content and connecting with actual people in promoting the content.

  6. I think your stages are right on and continue to embrace the idea of a content strategy. Solid thinking there. Based on our discussion at BlogWorld, your presentation there and reading posts like this one, I am starting to see a gap that almost every company has. Tell me if you agree.

    So there are two types of employee training that need to take place. First is training employees about social media and how to use this technology to share the company story. Second is a more in-depth content analysis, including sharing of the personas and content strategy. Because the “anyone” you reference who is in a position to create content — well, that’s everyone at any company in today’s digital world. Right?

    I know of very few companies that are doing the second type of training and no companies that are tying both types together. Do you?

    • Much appreciated Justin. Yes, anyone is pretty much “all hands” for many companies, but not all.

      Essentially, the type of corporate communications that articulate vision and leadership for the brand in the industry should also talk about key principles for the company as it relates to the social web. I see social evangelism as an extension of that kind of communications.

      Then there is the functional training of how staff can understand and use social applications including guidelines for social communications.

      The second type of training, dealing with personas and content strategy is, to me, a marketing & PR function. There are applications for recruiting and customer service too – but I wouldn’t necessarily find a need to get into personas with a admin assistant or an accountant. At least in terms of formal education required for staff.

      Who offers this type of training? We provide a certain level of training with our consulting engagements that covers both areas. The more informed and empowered our clients are, the more effectively they implement our strategic recommendations. The depth and formality of the training really depends on the engagement.

  7. Hi Lee

    Thanks for a great article.  We are a small digital marketing agency in North East England.  Having spent 11 years working with clients on their website development and search engine marketing, we have spent the last 18 months researching and understanding the potential and opportunity for social media marketing and have worked through Phases 1 and 2. 

    We definitely agree with the approach of Phase 3, we have always believed that content is king, and this is the case even more so now.  The challenge for us is in convincing our SME clients to spend the time (and budget) with us in planning a great social media strategy and content optimisation by understanding their buyer personas in order to reach and engage with relevant customers.

    • That’s great to hear Maureen. One thing you might do to persuade clients on budget is to create a model to forecast costs/benefit for Phase 3 as well as the cost of “not” making the investment.

  8. I think i am on the first phase and a little bit of the last two…this article is like a format for a SEO consultant path..thanks for sharing 

  9. I apreciate your straightforward way of explaining SEO for social . Thank You

  10. Avatar Laura Greeno says

    Another great article Lee. I appreciate the time you take to write about what you’re doing for the benefit of us all.  I plan to incorporate a similar regimen into my weekly activities (super smart…thanks).

    I recently sat down with a client and his sales team to train them on these issues:
    1. what are keyword phrases and how can they use them in the different social platforms (since I’m not an old-school blogger…I consider blogs to fall under two-way marketing and they get lumped into “social media” for my explanation purposes – if you HAD to categorize blogs within the realm of online mktg…where would you put them?)
    2. we discussed the different audiences on each network, target market personas within each network, who/what/how to connect/share
    3. we discussed an editorial plan (the sales team would not be able to work cohesively toward a common goal without it and were very appreciative of even a simple “weekly theme” direction from management)
    4. we discussed online reputation management (from the social side~what they can control and monitor anyway)
    5. we discussed social policy for the company, it’s overall direction and shared the goals of social for this specific company (main goal happened to be lead generation)
    6. we talked about what to measure and why
    6. we discussed ideas for content and what you’ve just called social topic optimization (I think anyway), etc. etc.

    The point is…in a relatively short time, this team of social novices were armed with “all” they needed to really make a big difference in the results and effectiveness of what they were already fumbling around with…spending time on (wasting some)…and testing.  Of course, “all” is a relative term here ~I’m saying that basic social communications effectiveness can be taught and learned pretty quickly and should be a part of all customr-facing employee training. I can’t wait for more questions from the team…then I’ll know they’re really “getting it”…or at least trying to.

    • Thanks Laura – I’m definitely a fan of characterizing blogs as a social media asset. You’ve provided a great framework and I’m a firm believer that empowering the human assets of a company is really the only way to scale and compete on the social web. Especially now in competitive markets and definitely in the future for all.

  11. Avatar Lionel Bachmann says

    Great article.  When starting out in my small business, everyone was talking about Phase 1 being the thing to do, but it quickly moved to Phase 3 with in a couple of years.  Phase 3 to me is the best approach, yes it take a lot more time and resources, but the benefits far outweigh the cost.  It makes you stop thinking about getting arbitrary links, and focus on being involved with your customers, and using social media for what it was designed for.  Once you do that, the links will come, and keep coming, naturally like they are supposed to.

  12. I think I am on the first phase and on the last two as well >.<

  13. This is one thing I need to learn about SEO. You categorize SEO on a very specific areas that every SEO needs to learn this field. 

  14. Avatar Guyinhua says

    This article good! Solve the problems I encountered! Thank you!

  15. Avatar Stephenie Stratus says

    is really informative and way of describing is really unique and appreciate



  16. Avatar Touchcommerce says

    I think your post is dead-on, Lee. Today, increasing online conversion means putting the focus on customer engagement rather than technology. A lot of SEO gurus I know are falling behind in this aspect.

    • Everyone is so focused on keywords, they don’t bother to look behind what’s motivating the use of those words. That’s OK – it means a competitive advantage for consultants that know the difference. 🙂