What Is Social Media’s Purpose? Honestly, It’s Not About Links

By Li Evans

What do you use social media for?

Do you use it to gain links? How about power? Maybe to trick people into thinking you are someone else? Perhaps as leverage to con someone into doing something on another social media site for you?

HonestyAt SES Toronto I was on the Social Media Success panel. I took this panel very seriously, I wanted to demonstrate how companies are using social media and creating their own success stories. The companies I chose to highlight wanted active conversation, true audience engagements and honest reviews and because they took that approach they had incredible success. I believe with every ounce of my being, social media is about conversations and sharing. I have a huge issue with applying shady link acquisition tactics, power manipulation and common trickery to social media.

There are people in the search industry that think social media is a numbers game, a numbers game that involves links. On the panel there were things presented that made my jaw drop, basically “shady” techniques, things like adding friends just for the numbers, creating multiple profiles, vanity baiting, and using your power on one social media site to gain something on another. To my colleagues on the panel, social media was all about the links and perceived power. Success to them in social media seemed to be about how many links you acquired, and what seemed to be cheap and fast tricks to get them.

I wasn’t alone in my dismay, Rahaf Harfoush expressed her shock at the lack of ethics presented.

People in the search industry wonder why SEO gets the stigma of being the “snake oil salesmen”. People in the search industry wonder why big companies are snubbing SEO, and don’t even look to SEO practitioners for Social Media assistance. Well when you try to apply SEO practices to social media wherein you are using it to gain links alone, or try to manipulate people into thinking things are true that aren’t, that’s how that reputation emerges, and the snubbing occurs.

Social Media is not about links.

Honesty is the Best PolicySocial Media is about conversations and the opportunity to share experiences through those conversations. Links are merely a by-product of a great social media campaign, and search engine rankings are merely a by-product as well. If you are measuring success in social media by the number of links you’ve acquired, you are really and truly missing out on what social media is all about.

What’s going to happen when Google finally devalues links from websites and looks more and puts more weight into what’s going on in social media? Social media offers so much more opportunity for the general public to voice their opinions about brands, products, companies and their opinion of what is really relevant, more so than a meager link from a website. Think of it this way, more people on the internet today participate in social media, than own a website. Guess what? These people are actively telling Google, Yahoo and MSN what they think is relevant by rating, commenting and participating in social media.

No fake profile, or adding friends, or using your “perceived power” is going to be able to easily change this, once it comes.

Remember, those discussions that are happening in social media channels, happen whether you are actively engaged in that conversation or not. So wouldn’t your time be better spent involving yourself with those conversations actively? Or would it be better spent adding a ton of fake friends to MySpace, conning a top Digg user into submitting your link for exchange of Wikipedia article help, or creating fake profiles on StumbleUpon?

Use social media for true customer engagements, be transparent, be honest, be who you are. People want to interact with real people from companies, they want Truth in Marketing. They want to tell stories about how great your employees are, what kind of heart you have and how you care about your customers and audience. The audiences couldn’t give a damn about your links, or how many sock puppet accounts you have.

Maybe when the search industry stops thinking of links first with social media, they will be taken a bit more seriously in the online marketing arena.

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18 thoughts on “What Is Social Media’s Purpose? Honestly, It’s Not About Links

  1. Great post Li!

    One cause of this mismatch between what SM is really about and reality goes back to what can be measured fairly accurately: we can measure the number of links, we can measure rankings, but how on earth can we measure conversations? Heck, how do we define a conversation? I think there is a very simple definition that we can use: conversations are two-way communication events, and so if you the marketing company talk about something and someone replies, you have a conversation. Otherwise, it’s an ad (which we define as one-way communication).

    A while back I hinted to this in my guest post at http://www.techipedia.com/2008/social-media-frontier-marketing/ and the ensuing comments really explored this area, especially Brian Solis’s reply post: http://www.briansolis.com/2008/02/social-media-is-not-final-frontier-of.html . Fundamentally, I think us three agree to a large extent (it’s funamentally about conversations!), but differ on some details.


  2. Great post Li. I actually agree with your outlook nearly entirely. and folks in social communities DO feel gamed and cheated, which is sometimes the appropriate response to manipulation.(Does Gaming Social Sites Ruin Lives?)

    To be fair, I’ve been going to search marketing conferences for YEARS and the industry has been preaching “It’s ALL about the links,” a position with which I do not personally agree. There’s a lot much more to conversational marketing.

    That said if HONEST and AUTHENTIC social media participation results in links I sure don’t have a problem with that. 50years ago in ad agency board rooms (before all of this) big brands were fleshing out “avatars” for mainstream media campaigns in the form of radio voices, television actors, articles, etc.. None of this is new. It does not need to be nefarious.

    My personal value is that it’s essential that social media marketers only manipulate to serve

    The problem is not “fake” avatars…the problem is fake avatars who are not authentic to SERVE the community in his/her meanderings.

    It was awesome being on a panel with you Li.

  3. Pierre –
    thanks for commenting. some great insights you’ve included here.

    as for the measuring, I think its more about establishing what the “R” of the ROI is when you start a social media strategy. it can be comments left, it can be friends (true/active ones) attained, it could be # of times a video has been watched, or how many times a photo or video has been favorited. social media can be measured, it just depends on what you really would consider success.


  4. Marty –
    although advertisers have been throwing crap at the public for years, with the dawn of the internet and the rapid adopting of social media, its is starting to make advertisers realize that have to be truthful in their efforts. anything fake will be sniffed out, found, captured, decapitated and its head placed on a spike at the castle walls for all to see (so to speak).

    i guess my point is the way that SEO’s approach social media, is more about how they can manipulate it to get links. they never see the true value of it, to some SEO’s it’s about what’s fast, what’s easy, and what will get them the links.

    nothing about social media is fast and easy if you want to use it as a medium to advertise, and advertise is not really a good word to use with social media. advertising is such a one way conversation, there’s no engagement, there’s no conversation. that’s why traditional advertising agencies are scratching their heads at social media, as well.

    SEO is a one way conversation, thus it’s a lot like advertising in this. You optimized the page, it appears in the search results and that’s it. no conversation, no engagement.

    it was great being on the panel with you too marty. I mostly had issues with the other presentation and what it contained. but we are all humans and we can disagree, and still have respect for one another, that’s the wonder of this world.

    Thanks for commenting

  5. By social media, you are including sites like Digg and Fark, etc., right? People who frequent such sites tend to have the attention span of a hammer, so how do you engage in a conversation with someone like that? I know those sites are a subset of social media in general, but I’m still new to this field and don’t quite have a good grasp. Specifically, what ‘vehicles’ of social media do you see as being the most useful (i.e. are there particular sites that you’d cite here)?


  6. noraki –
    great question, and yes, Digg is included in there.

    Digg though, isn’t the best use of social media unless you have a product (comic books, accessory for an Apple/iPod or Iphone, sell I hate George Bush T-shirts) that appeals to that crowd. Social news itself is a tough place to hold a conversation, but it can be done in the comments, or in your blog.

    What I find most successful is blogs, video sharing and photosharing, as well as forums/message board, for sharing and conversing. Twitter and Plurk are also great for conversing.

    SEO’s tend to want to make things quick & easy, social media is really neither. Social media needs more cultivating and care, where SEO is change this title tag, add this piece of code and you’re done. Social Media takes time to hold a conversation, it take time to build trust, it takes time to listen to what your customers are saying. Most SEO’s don’t really want to “listen” they just really want change/tweak a page and then see it rise in the search engine results, thus why the tactics discussed above were mentioned.

    hope that helps!

  7. Nice synopsis there 😉 This goes nicely with a recent article which highlighted the value of building relationships when it comes to in-bound links. Instead of trying to get links quickly through a controversial or shocking article on Reddit, get to know people in your industry, or those with similar interests. That way, you come away with a better understanding of your target audience, and the links will come as a bonus 🙂

  8. Internet Marketing Joe –
    Thanks for stopping by. Glad you agree, relationship building and conversations that build those relationships – much more important than links! 🙂


  9. Noraki –

    thanks again! that’s a great example. just using social news sites to garner your links is actually silly, because in the long run you are not building a relationship, or bringing in quality traffic. most of it is just “hit and run” – they come, they see the title of the post, they leave. sad but true about most social news strategies that are just looking for links.


  10. Li,

    I’m in total agreement that being disingenuous and conning people in social media venues is unethical, it’s bad business, and it will come back to haunt you. In case you hadn’t seen my comments on Rahaf’s post, I’ll repost them here as I think you might appreciate the additional context:

    First let me explain why you didn’t hear me talk about the ethical must-haves of social media interaction (meaningful conversation, trust, etc.). We’re not supposed to overlap in content between panelists, My presentation was built to be the last one of the session. My topic was power user tips that augment or supplement the necessary prerequisites of creating great content, being a valuable member of the social site/community, and being authentic your interactions (rather than deceitful or dishonest). Unfortunately that’s not how the flow went. Not only were we a panelist short at the last minute (so some essential material didn’t get covered), but also Li requested she go last because her camera guy wasn’t available to record her presentation until the very end of the session. I think we’d all agree that it would have been better if Li’s presentation preceded mine. As it was, it left the cornerstones of social media interaction unsaid until the very end. That was unfortunate as it probably gave folks such as yourself the wrong impression of where the focus lies. I’d never purport that social media marketing is all about tricks and shortcuts, it’s mostly about being adding value in a real way, with the tricks and shortcuts added on to give you that little edge over your competition.

    Secondly, and in line with that thought, one needs to exercise restraint and good judgment in the use of guerrilla tactics. One shouldn’t just go hog wild and use every “trick in the book” and do it to excess. For example, sending a good friend a site with the StumbleUpon toolbar is totally acceptable, but sending an army of “friends” that you don’t know a truckload of URLs to sift through is spammy, unethical and reckless. I never proposed in my session that anyone do the latter. Another example… hopefully you can get to a critical mass of friends on MySpace without adding low-value friends (low value as in not likely to have meaningful interactions with you and not in your target market) such as all the bands and musicians that you like. But if you are at only a handful of friends and can’t seem to get over the hump, it’s nice to know that there’s something you can do besides just sit and wait for people to friend you; you can proactively friend bands that you like. Granted an artist like Weird Al Yankovic isn’t going to be terribly interactive with you, so at some point in the future you’re likely to remove that friend from your ranks. Incidentally, that particular tip of friending bands came from a jewelry retailer I interviewed for an article I wrote for MarketingProfs last year ( http://www.marketingprofs.com/6/spencer29.asp). Here’s the quote:

    …when starting off, you need to get Friends. It’s kind of a bragging right on MySpace. If you have too few friends, it’ll be tough to get the good ones—the ones who will end up buying from you. So, before you go after those, get a few hundred “bad” friends—bands are the easiest. They’ll give you a respectable number on your Friends list, and will leave comments on your page—giving a little realism boost to your profile—making the addition of friends of the “good” type that much easier.

    One last thing I forgot to mention in my last comment… the focus on gaining links through social media was because my topic was around the intersection of social media and SEO. For a search engine conference like Search Engine Strategies Toronto, a social media session really does need to have a tie-in somewhere to the main conference topic. I never said in my presentation that your main driver for participating in social media is the links. My apologies if I gave you that impression. Indeed the links are mainly a byproduct of being a good social citizen, but they’re still an essential byproduct nonetheless if you are an SEO.

    So yes, it’s the ethical considerations and the value-add that are paramount in any social media campaign, not the links, as I reiterated not only in the above-mentioned comments but also in my post “The Danger of Overusing Social Media Guerrilla Tactics. Have a look at the post and let me know what you think.

  11. Wow, this is a lively discussion. It sounds like the Social Media panel was perhaps the most exciting session at SES Toronto. I was speaking on another session at the same time so I unfortunately missed it.

    In reading this discourse, it is clear to me that Social Media marketing is much like SEO was 10 years ago – we are still finding our feet as to what is considered acceptable, above board, and ethical.

    Social media encompasses many areas including branding, reputation building, marketing, and a dozen other things. However, let’s be honest here, we all enjoy the links by-product of social media and encourage them when we can. The key point is not to confuse the by-product with the true goal of creating a two-way conversation with our customers/fans/colleagues/etc.

    The rules for social media are still being defined. Going forward I think it’s important that we all think about how we practice social media marketing. Let’s start mentioning some guidelines for good practices so people coming into the industry know what is proper behavior. In the early days of SEO, some site owners out of ignorance did all kinds of tactics that are now considered ugly, ham-fisted, and devious. We as an industry will need to discuss what works and what is acceptable (just because it works [today] doesn’t mean we _should_ be doing it).

    I’d also like to warn against over-generalizing that all SEOs are looking for the quick and easy. There are many SEOs, myself included, who believe good holistic SEO DOES consider conversions and engagements, not just traffic. Proper SEO takes time and finesse – just like social media work.

  12. “The rules for social media are still being defined.”

    Agree completely. Personally, I go by one rule:

    Always try to create more value for others, than they give you.

    That’s the amazing thing about social media, the more you give, the more you get back. Seriously.

    The more time I spend commenting on other blogs, the more those bloggers and their readers comment on my blogs.

    The more I share valuable links with my friends on Twitter, the more my friends link to my posts on Twitter.

    Social media isn’t about extracting value for yourself, it’s about creating value for others. When you start asking yourself ‘Ok, what do I get out of this?’, then you’re already in trouble.

  13. Mack – great comment, and I couldn’t agree more. The sad thing is that isn’t how a lot of search marketing folks look at it. It’s always about the value you can extract for yourself (i.e. links & traffic).

    Thanks for commenting.


  14. Lyndon –
    thanks for stopping by to comment.

    funny thing is, there are no rules. not in SEO not in Social Media.

    that stated, we all have moral compasses, we all have ethics, and that’s what I’m questioning here, does the SEO industry have one set of ethics when dealing with SEO and another for social media. certainly seems that way by what was presented here.


  15. Great post. I was attending SES as a bit of a newbie to Search. I would say I am far more involved in Social Media – for work and for pleasure. So needless to say I was shocked to hear some of the dishonest trickery that people on the panel and otherwise were suggesting to the audience. As you said Li; links are a by-product of great conversations in social media. I would hate to see Google de-value these links due to shady SEOs.

    The value of this seminar should have been around Social Media concepts and how to use it within the ethical compounds of search…unfortunately I felt that at least one panelist didn’t understand the importance of transparency, and honesty in this arena.

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