Tweets, blogs and the like can influence a company's search engine ranking and drive up sales.
Social media helped consultant Deborah Dolan, owner of Senior Life Transitions, more than double her business last year.
The key was using social media to establish herself as a credible resource -- a social authority -- on aging issues, through a blog, a new Advocate on Aging podcast and other social and search marketing efforts.
The social authority push improved her position in search engine rankings and drove more visitors to her company website. It offers business-to-business and business-to-consumer consulting and advocacy on planning and caring for aging family members.
"I was very excited to have that happen," said Dolan, who founded her company in 2002 after leaving a corporate position. "The only change that I made in my plan for 2010 was adding the social media component. Never did I think my revenue would increase so dramatically, or my visibility. Never in my wildest dreams did I think about podcasting or even know what that was."
Dolan's case exemplifies how even small and medium-sized companies can use the emerging social authority strategy to influence their search engine rankings, increase awareness and help retain existing customers and attract new customers.
Dolan developed the strategy with Cindy Leines, founder and CEO of C.E.L. Public Relations in Minneapolis, and Caroline Melberg, the firm's search engine optimization and social authority expert.
Leines, referring to social media as "real-time PR," worked with Melberg to launch a Social Media Incubator at C.E.L. in 2009. Through the incubator, the firm helps clients develop strategic social media plans to maximize returns on social media sites and profiles that the firm can establish and manage for them. The firm also works with clients to draft social media policies to set out company and employee guidelines for using social media.
Nextstar Network, a Little Canada-based business development and training organization for plumbing, heating, cooling and electrical contractors nationally, has worked with C.E.L. on social media strategy and a policy to formalize and unify its use.
"It shows the culture we have and reinforces who we are,'' said Greg Niemi, president of Nexstar Network. "It's a great vehicle to help give information to the public. I have [network] members and my board of directors who are curious to learn how they can apply this to their business."
The social authority concept gained momentum in December, when search engine and search marketing website Search Engine Land reported that Google and Bing had begun using a company's "social signals" as a factor in determining rankings. Search engines previously focused primarily on incoming links in determining where a site would rank.
"Search engines now look at what you do on your website and what you do everywhere on the Web to determine your relevance, which is what they look at to determine your search ranking," Melberg said.
In particular, a company's Twitter stature could help influence how a site ranks in a Web search, according to the report by Search Engine Land editor Danny Sullivan. Search engines now take into consideration how often a link is tweeted or retweeted, as well as the authority of the Twitter users who share the link, Sullivan reported. They also look at how many people follow a Twitter user, and the authority of those followers as well as how many the user follows.
Critical to establishing social authority -- and building Twitter followers and Web links to your site -- is offering online content that is authentic and transparent, Leines said.
"It's imperative for businesses to look at this, so they get the benefits," Leines said. "It's going to continue to evolve but it's not going to go away."
The expert says: Jared Roy, who leads social media divisions at Risdall Marketing Group in New Brighton, agreed with Leines that content is essential to establishing social authority.
"If you're going to get people to tweet your stuff and like it on Facebook and such, you're going to have to create good content that people find useful and want to share," Roy said. As opposed, he said, to "content farms" that try to game the algorithms that search engines use to determine rankings.
"Ultimately it's going to create greater results, based on people actually finding and touching the content," Roy said. "We're seeing how social media and search engine optimization can work together. It's really driving the point home that consumers have control over content based on influence, people spreading your news and your information. That's going to affect how you're showing up on Google and Bing."