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This shift has spawned a whole new discipline – social media optimisation (SMO). Here are a few simple steps to help ensure your site is well-positioned to reap that link love.
Step 1: Get SEO right
No, that’s not a spelling mistake. The heart of SEO is about making it as easy as possible for machines – ie search engines – to understand your site. The same principle applies to social sites because they use the same methods for automatically understanding and interacting with your site.
Here’s a practical example:
When a user posts a link to Facebook, their cunning system goes and sniffs around the page (the technical term is “parsing”) and fetches back the most relevant snippet it can find about that page.
If the site has good SEO, the user is likely to get something like this back:
A post like this makes it instantly clear to a user’s friends what they are trying to share, where it is from, and why it is relevant. All that makes it much more likely to be clicked on, and you have a happy user and a happy spike in referrals.
If the SEO is poor or nonexistent, the link is more likely to come back like this:
A post like this will frustrate a user because it does not properly express what they are trying to share. It’s also much less likely to be clicked on, because it lacks a description and an image. Welcome to irrelevance.
While it’s often seen as some kind of dark and mystical art, most SEO is really quite simple. This is particularly true of “on-page” SEO, which is the area of SEO that applies most closely to SMO. There are a lot of good guides to SEO out there, but Google provides one of the clearest and most unbiased guides out there. And if you choose a platform like WordPress or Drupal for your site, SEO is that much easier.
Step 2: RSS should be really standard, silly
RSS and its cousin Atom are the de facto plumbing of the web. Some of the coolest and most useful functions social sites rely on your site having well put together and frequently updated feeds.
A practical example:
You want to use Hootsuite (a truly fantastic Twitter client) to tweet every time there’s a new article on your site.
If you’ve got an RSS or Atom feed for your site’s front page, you just click on “Settings”, then “RSS/Atom”, click on the “Add Feed” button, tweak a couple of settings and boom – you’re done. Every new article will automatically appear on Twitter seconds after you post it.
If you don’t have a feed for your front page, then you need to open up Hootsuite every time you post an article and cut and paste the headline and the link into the update field and “Send Now”. Sounds a bit mind-numbing doesn’t it?
There’s really no excuse for not having RSS. All the major CMS engines support it, and implementing it on a custom CMS is as simple as writing another page that queries the same database in a slightly different way.
Also be sure to make your feed URLs as obvious as possible. Mysite.com/rss is going to be a lot easier for parsers (and people) to find than mysite.com/syndication?feedID=123
Step 3: Add social hooks and social context
If you want your site to be as widely exposed to the social web as possible, then you need to make it quick and easy for people to share your content on the major channels. You also need to harness conversations, and give your pages social context.
This is a lot easier than it sounds. With a couple of lines of free code you can add dynamic buttons from all the major social mediums to your site. To see some of these in action, just scroll to the top of the page and look at the Facebook, Tweetmeme and Buzz buttons just below the headline.
Facebook have recently launched an entire suite of social plugins to pump up the social context of your site. All of the code is cut and paste stuff, very easy to implement and completely free.
The great thing about these plugins is that they accomplish both our needs – they enable sharing from your site to Facebook, and they tell users what their Facebook friends are interacting with on your site (AKA social context).
The same applies to both Tweetmeme and Retweet, two services competing to aggregate all the links shared on Twitter. The prize at stake for them is the world’s best collection of topical links, but as far as you’re concerned it’s just an easy way for people to add your content to their conversation on Twitter.
Another great way to quickly and easily add social context is with a system like Backtype, which pulls a list of tweets related to any article, and displays them below that article. Conversation tends to be self-reinforcing and peer-pressured – if you show readers that other people are already discussing a topic, they are more likely to chip in themselves.
And let’s not forget the humble comment area. But rather than clinging to those old fashioned islands of conversation, consider diving into the sea of interrelated debate offered by a system like Disqus.
They do all the heavy lifting for you, integrating comments on your site with everything from Facebook to Twitter to WordPress. Memeburn.com uses it – just scroll down a bit to see it in action. And Diqus integrates Backtype automatically, so there’s no need to install both.
Step 4: Make it mobile friendly
Around 10% of social media traffic is via mobile phones, and this percentage is growing rapidly. Link sharing is one of the most common user interactions on most social sites, particularly Twitter. So users are increasingly likely to be clicking through to your site on their phones.
So do you need to frantically rush out and commission a WAP site? Definitely not. Most of the major open-source CMSes offer plugins that detect when your site is being viewed via a phone and reformat it accordingly.
These automated mobile versions are simpler than your full site, so if you want all your bells and whistles then some custom development will be required. But if you just want your site to be reachable, readable and relevant, then there’s no need to spend a fortune.
Step 5: Track those links
If you’re running a blog or a site, you’re probably your own biggest social media cheerleader (I know I am). The problem is, how do you separate the traffic you’re attracting with your own tweets and posts from the stream of referrals flowing your way?
The easiest and most effective way to do this is to use a link tracking system like Bit.ly or Ow.ly. Both of these started out life as link shorteners for Twitter, but they have grown into powerful tracking tools.
A practical example:
I want to post my latest article on Twitter, but I want to be able to compare how many clicks it gets to how many clicks my post yesterday attracted. So instead of just bunging the link into Twitter, I run it through Bit.ly (making sure I am logged in) and then post the new shortened and tracked link on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn (just for good measure).
Within a few minutes I can see exactly how many clicks my post has already attracted, where in the world those clicks came from, and which sites sent me the clicks (Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn). I can also see a history of the other links I have posted using Bit.ly and compare their performance.
Bit.ly or Ow.ly?
Both link trackers are excellent, and both are free, so the choice depends entirely on your own needs and preferences.
Ow.ly is completely integrated with Hootsuite, and so there is no need to remember to shorten the link and check back on the stats, Hootsuite handles all of that for you neatly and elegantly. However Ow.ly is very Twitter-focussed and doesn’t work anywhere near as well on Facebook or other social sites.
Bit.ly is a lot more independent and works well for all the social sites, and anywhere else you might need to track the clicks on a link (including SMS). It’s a lot more manual though, and the stats are less elegant and automagic than Ow.ly. Bit.ly works best with Tweetdeck, which has a solid integration with their API.