Blackhat and Social Media Signals

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About two weeks ago Joe Hall ¬†gave a talk at Pubcon titled, “Global Social Media Signals For SEO“.

In it, he covers some blackhat methods for using social media signals in SEO.

Take it away Joe!

Why should anyone try to game social media signals?

If you are a giant dork (like moi), then gaming social media signals can be fun! However, if you have friends in the real world then I would suggest you try and identify actionable goals with the signals you are gaming, otherwise this might turn into a waste of time. Some actionable goals would be to push content with in networks, increase user “authority”, or even game outside channels like search results.

Quick note about, gaming search results with social signals: Social media signals for search are still in its infancy. Over the last several years we have seen the engines employ a variety of different techniques to integrate social signals. However, each of these have had fluctuating significance. Therefore, I would advise that you integrate social signals as a part of a much larger marketing plan that also includes all of the fundamentals of SEO. Social media is not replacing SEO, it’s making it better.


Get Inside Your Target’s Head (psychology)

Your target here is your audience, and it’s important that you understand what they are motivated by to get them to act. Most economists will call these “incentives”. However, most of the time we aren’t using direct calls to action in social media, so these are more likely akin to dangling a worm in-front of a fish. We aren’t telling the fish to bite; we are hoping that the worm looks good enough for the fish to bite on its own.

One of the most well known psychologists of the 20th century on the topic of motivation was Abraham Maslow. Maslow is widely known for his “hierarchy of needs” which he first published in a paper in 1943. Here you can see that Maslow has classified needs into 5 sections: Physiological, Safety, Love/belonging, Esteem, and Self-actualization. Despite the fact that each of these sections clearly articulate an individual need within the human experience, I tend to disagree with the concept a hierarchy because it implies that each are separate of the others. For example I might want self-actualization and crave a cheeseburger at the same time. However, understanding Maslow’s theory can help you position your content and your sharing strategy in a way that aligns with an individual’s basic needs.

A much more recent study [PDF] published by the Journal of Marketing Research looked at what types of content are more likely to go “viral”. They concluded that content that invoked high physiological arousal was more likely to be shared or engaged.


Leveraging The Right Content

Recently Matt McGee showed us data that reveals that images draw more Facebook interactions than any other posting type. Remember that interactions aren’t the same as content consumption. For example Its clear that video consumption on the web is constantly rising. But the nature of social media relies on metrics that tend to have quick shelf life. In other words, users might watch a video or read a blog post, but when done they are ready to move on to the next piece of content, not click “like” or +1. Images are quick and can be consumed without a click through, which keeps the user close to the “share”, “retweet”, “like” buttons.

While images are ruling Facebook, animated images are killing it on Google+. Some of you might find them annoying, but it has become increasingly apparent that these zany GIFs are very popular with “shares” and “+1″‘s. Just a few days ago I got over 200 shares in less than 12 hours with an animated GIF. Check out GIFBin and browse the top rated or top tagged for animated GIFs that will work well with in Google+.

If blog posts are your cup of tea, you should learn to embed viral factors to increase on page sharing. Things like uniform image sizes and emphasizing white space can motivate more social clicks.

Images (both animated and not) can get a lot of traction, but other content types can be just as successful. The trick is finding (or creating) what works. What I typically do is troll other networks like reddit or digg looking for content that is already trending. Then I re-post on other networks. I used to call this “Retweet Bait”, but it can be applied anywhere that inner-network sharing is available.


Identifying The Right Signals

Share/Spread Signals:

  • Retweets
  • Facebook shares
  • Google+ shares

Authority Signals:

  • Relationship ratios.
  • Mentions
  • Inbound activity

Simple Quantitative Signals:

  • Google +1
  • Facebook likes.
  • “Up/Down votes”

Discussion Signals:

  • Comment threads
  • In stream mentions.

Share/Spread Signals - Gaming these signals can help not only distribute content to the widest audience, but will also put your name in-front of other users, increasing relationship metrics and improving authority. If you are a “breaking” news publisher you are going to want to focus on these metrics to influence Google’s recent freshness update and trip the query deserves freshness signal. For best results you are going to want to use clear straightforward calls to action like, please retweet, “please share”, or any other appropriate variant.

Simple Quantitative Signals – These have got to be the simplest social signals available. They are great for measuring content quality and act as a baseline for other metrics. You can easily game these by including clear straight forward calls to action. “Please support us by liking this post!” If you are using WordPress, you are going to want to check out the WP Greet Box it allows you to include a custom call to action above or below the post based on the referring URL. So if a user comes to your blog from Google+ you can include a call to action similar to: “Hey there! If you enjoy this post please +1 it!”

Authority Signals – Search engines and social networks are constantly trying to judge authority. These signals are vital to having strength in social media. The most obvious authority metric is relationship ratios on asymmetrical networks like Twitter. With asymmetrical networks we can judge authority [PDF via] by looking at the ratio to following and followers. Facebook recently added the subscribe feature which will give the ability to use this same type of analysis. Authority can also be weighted by inter-network mentions and even inbound activity.

Discussion Signals – When users comment on your content they are effectively sending a signal that your content holds value. Content that starts dialog generally also gets shared. To game this signal you are going to want to ask open-ended questions that inspire debate or dialog.


Make The Signals Pop

Getting a handful of Facebook likes or +1′s can be a good start. But to see real traction you have to make the signals “pop”. It’s hard to tell exactly what is needed to get each signal to register on the various networks, but one starting place is taking a second look at Facebook’s EdgeRank. EdgeRank is responsible for pushing the most popular content with in each Facebook social stream. From what we know, Facebook is using three main factors to influence EdgeRank:

  • Affinity Score – This is a relationship metric that measures how close you are to others. If a user visits another’s page often, or sends them multiple messages the score is higher. If a user has a high affinity score with another they are more likely to show up in their social stream. You can game this score by getting users to regularly visit your Facebook page.
  • Edge weight – Every time a user engages content with in the social stream, the content is given an “edge” over other less popular content. Comments, likes, and shares all count towards “edge”. You can game this metric [PDF] by asking open ended questions with an inherent bias. Here’s an example: “How badly do you think the republicans will do in this election?” Democrats will “like” (or +1) this question because of the inherent bias. Republicans will comment on it, because of the inherent bias. As a result we are gaming two of the needed metrics to influence Edge weight.
  • Time decay – Fresher content is more likely to be included in the social stream. The best way to game this metric is to develop evergreen content that you can re-share periodically.

While EdgeRank is exclusive to Facebook, other networks have similar systems of ranking internal content. It is clear that Google+ is using something analogous to EdgeRank, but with two main differences: Google+ doesn’t filter content in the social stream, it just reorders it. Also, it appears that Google+ doesn’t put as much weight on affinity as Facebook does.


Kitchen Sink Strategy

In marketing (and life) I often execute what I call the kitchen sink strategy. Basically this entails throwing “everything but the kitchen sink” at a problem and seeing what works. Gaming social signals are no different. Which is why when I promote content I try to include as many of the tactics described above as possible.

For example, not long ago we launched a small site to test various marketing strategies. When it came time to test Google+ I wanted to attack the signals from all corners. Therefore, I embedded the OpenGraph image meta tag to pull a large version of our logo into the social stream. Then I designed a question with direct calls to action embedded into multiple choice answers. Coaxing the user to engage with multiple choice questions is an example of manipulating inherent cognitive biases. The result? We get basic feedback about a design and gamed Google+’s social stream with all the elements needed to make the signals “pop”.


Keep Pushing The Limits

Social media signals are gaining significance every day. However, as information sharing changes and the various social channels rise and fall in popularity, there is no set methodology you should follow now or in the future. Instead, it is important to constantly test new strategies and ideas. Good luck gaming!

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