SEO used to be a dark world. Brands, in their race to climb the search rankings ladder, used all sorts of nefarious strategies to boost their sites’ rankings.
E-commerce site Overstock.com, for instance, went so far as to create fake, valueless websites just to link back to its page. It paid for hundreds of links to its product pages, and it even offered product discounts to government and educational entities in exchange for links from .gov and .edu domains.
But Google inevitably got wind of Overstock’s SEO shenanigans. Overstock’s activities weren’t illegal, of course, but they were “Google illegal,” leading the search provider to de-list Overstock from page rankings for its own name.
What does this mean for marketers? Well, thanks to widespread abuse of Google’s search algorithms, the old SEO tricks no longer work. Or, if they do, they don’t work for long. That’s because Google and other search engines now prioritize human signals and social proof over sheer quantity of backlinks and keywords.
These algorithmic changes made social shares the new link building, and the internet should be grateful. It’s led to a more authentic web, full of creative, compelling content rather than empty shells of websites. When that content is shared across the internet, it leaves a link trail in its wake. That link litter, in turn, helps search engines learn how content should rank for related keywords.
Now, today’s social influencers often hold more social authority than brands themselves. So if your brand wants to rise in the search rankings, it needs influencers creating authentic content that followers want to share, tossing SEO seeds across the internet's landscape.
The Great Race Toward Social Content
Here’s how influencer marketing can bolster your brand’s SEO efforts:
1. Crowdsource authentic, shareable content.
Search engines’ algorithmic shifts toward social shares have meant that brands need entertaining content. But even the most creative marketers can’t come up with fresh content ideas every day for years on end.
However, with influencer marketing, brands can effectively crowdsource creativity from individuals who spend their free time producing captivating content. What’s more, influencers’ content is impactful because they’re perceived as both experts and impartial third parties.
Red Bull leads the way with its branded content hub, which houses thousands of compelling stories, videos, and photographs. The energy drink company’s Content Pool showcases sports, pop culture, and adventure stories that capture the daring essence of the brand.
The hub is not intended to sell product — not directly, anyway — but to continuously associate the brand with stories of courage, innovation and inspiration. Because readers love Red Bull’s stories, this content is shared across the web organically, not spun into a spiderweb of artificial links.
2. Get heard over the buzz.
It’s difficult to market when your target audience isn’t even hearing you, and most brands produce content that gets lost in the sea of online media. Even the biggest, most famous brands like Coca Cola and Lady Gaga have social engagement rates hovering around 1 percent.
Influencers, however, add credibility and amplify your content. When an influencer shares branded content, it’s like shouting the brand’s message through a megaphone. Even Jimmy Fallon, the most popular talk show host in the country, can’t engage followers like lifestyle vlogger Connor Franta. Fallon has more than twice the social reach of Franta, but Franta still engages about 800,000 more people per post than Fallon does.
When small-scale influencers post content – even if it isn’t their own – their followers listen. These loyal, engaged audiences create a chain reaction of conversation and sharing. Search engines take notice and, after enough shares, they prioritize content in search engine results pages that otherwise would have slipped into obscurity.
3. Generate better backlinks.
SEO today is all about natural links, and those can only be earned. When an influencer shares a link, it’s shared by others, and those others share the content even further. Each share earns a new link, and if content is popular enough, chances increase that it will get picked up by a higher authority, yielding even higher quality links.
For example, when Jack Bonneau and his dad started a small lemonade stand in Broomfield, Colorado, word began to spread on social media. But unlike most corner lemonade stands, content about Jack’s Stands went viral and got picked up by several outlets, including The New York Times. Imagine if Jack and his dad had tried to buy links or force a link on NYT: It simply wouldn’t have happened.
Bring Influencers Onboard for Better SEO
Influencers are a boon to brands’ SEO efforts. Here’s how you can find and retain influencers who’ll create SEO-boosting content for years to come:
1. Identify and vet your influencers.
Sure, plenty of influencers will write about your brand if you pay them. But to be effective, a company must pair with influencers that align with the brand’s own identity.
Think about the leading voices in your space. Do their values and personalities align with your business? Put together a rubric or influencer checklist to compare against your candidate influencers. If you’re a fun-loving food brand, for instance, you might put Hannah Hart of “My Drunk Kitchen” on your short list.
2. Court influencers before extending an offer.
Have you ever cold-called a prospective employer? If so, you know it’s a poor way to get a job. Influencer marketing works much the same way: Don’t just contact an influencer out of the blue and ask for a partnership.
Instead, build a relationship before you ask to team up. Share the influencer’s content, mention her on your company’s social feeds, and write content that might resonate with her. After you’ve put yourself on her radar, reach out. The worst she can say is “no.”
3. Think win-win-win.
Influencer marketing is a two-way street, and your relationship, like all others, must be mutually beneficial if it is to work. You’ll need to pay your influencers, of course, but also offer sign-on bonuses to get them in the door. Incentives like exposure, product samples, or airline tickets might do the trick.
Solidify your relationship by explaining how the influencer’s audience will benefit from the partnership, which they have probably built through organic reach-building. Describe how the content can inform readers about upcoming deals, events, and even free sample opportunities.
4. Build relationships for the long haul.
A one-off post from an influencer about your brand is more likely to confuse readers than to convert them. But when done authentically, regular mentions convince audience members that the influencer truly loves your brand.
Keeping influencers in your back pocket is also great for launching new products and campaigns. There’s no need to reeducate long-standing influencers about your brand, and content quality will improve with each subsequent post about your products. Plus, you never know what other opportunities or partnerships might unfold from long-term influencer relationships.
For the foreseeable future, search algorithms will continue to prioritize signals of human engagement, like social sharing. But brands can’t force consumers to share, and consumers aren’t keen on promoting brands’ products for them.
To create quality content that encourages social sharing – which, in turn, generates SEO value – search engine marketers must learn to work with influencers. But that doesn’t mean one-time shoutouts from random Joes online: It requires strategic selection of influencers, authentic relationship building, and long-term influencer partnerships.