They are both key channels for content marketers. They’re both inbound traffic sources. But social media and SEO are very different. In fact, they’re opposites.
Here’s the side-by-side breakdown of the differences (and similarities) between social media and SEO.
First, here’s the big picture:
Go one level deeper and you’ll find that the audiences, the actions and the outcomes are all very different.
Let’s take a close look at the opposite natures of social and search. This post will help you answer the search vs. social question for yourself, decide which content to promote in which channel, how to spend your time and where to set your expectations.
Different context. Different mindset. Different intent.
The reasons people go to a search engine and open up a social media app are completely opposite. This is a useful way to think about it.
In other words, no one goes to Google to browse. And no one goes to social media with a plan. With this in mind content strategists need to find the fit between our topics and our promotion channels.
“But I heard that kids are using TikTok to search for stuff.” Probably, you’re referring to this quote from this article.
“In our studies, something like almost 40 percent of young people, when they’re looking for a place for lunch, they don’t go to Google Maps or Search. They go to TikTok or Instagram.”
Prabhakar Raghavan, Senior VP, Google
That quote is referring to a very narrow use case: lunch. TikTok (and social media more generally) is a terrible place to search for answers to questions. Try checking tomorrow’s weather on Instagram. Open TikTok and tell me Tom Hanks’ age. Try using Facebook to see how much Tylenol a 6 year-old can take.
First, the need or curiosity appears, then we select the place to satisfy that information need. In other words, we have channel preferences, but information needs.
Social pro, Adrienne Sheares, looked into this and summarized it nicely…
With the psychology of users in mind, we can quickly see why certain content, topics and headlines perform better in search. Other topics and headlines perform better in social media.
Consider the following headlines. These are actual articles we’ve published and promoted, so we’re able to report on which channel worked well for each. It’s a social media vs. SEO showdown…
Example: 7 Habits of Highly Effective Content Marketers
This article/headline performed better in… social media
Why did it perform better in social media?
Notice that I’m specifically talking about the performance of the headline. That’s because it’s really the headline that performs in social media. No one shares an entire article. We only share the headline.
Example: Web Design Standards: The 10 Best Practices from the Top 50 Websites
This article/headline performed better in… search!
Why did it perform better in search?
Example: 27 Picture of Desks – Top Marketers Share Tips for Cameras, Mics, Lights and Hamsters
Performed better in… social media!
Why did this perform in social media?
Example: How to Design a Better FAQ Page
Performed better in… search!
Why did this work so well in search?
So we see that topics have channel-specific strengths and weaknesses, but what about formats?
Content marketing formats are the types of media in which the content is published. From the tiny tweet to the printed book, from the lean-back-and-watch video to the lean-in-and-read article, from the podcast in your ears to the live event in your town.
Here’s a quick list of popular formats. For a fun guide, check out the Periodic Table of Content.
Some formats have natural advantages in some channels, search and social.
Of course, Google also knows how compelling visuals can be. Search results are getting more visual all the time. Beyond your traditional organic rankings, YouTube videos are appearing in search results everywhere.
We almost never mention paid marketing on this blog but it’s so interesting, let’s touch on it. And it perfectly highlights the social vs. search differences.
In social, you target the audience based on their demographics and behavior. In search, you target the audience based on what they typed.
Of course, paid social and paid search can work for all kinds of offers, topics and audiences. The examples above simply highlight the differences.
Every piece of content is an opportunity to collaborate. Invite someone to cameo in your next video or contribute a quote for your next article. Better yet, use one of the intrinsically collaborative formats, such as roundups and interviews.
But different influencer collaborations have different advantages in different channels.
Of course some potential collaborators are a mix of both, blending style with substance to create deep insights with wide social reach.
If everything goes well, what’s the upside? How much success is possible? Again, these two channels, social media and SEO, offer opposite opportunities.
The efforts in search and social are totally different. And the longevity of the results is different. The element of time for both cost and benefit are complete opposites.
But when competition is fierce, it may take years of content updates and link building. But once a page is ranking, it may have durable visibility, creating an ongoing, passive source of visitors. Depending on the phrase and the page, high rankings may endure for weeks or months.
We can go back to our boat analogy from this post about website traffic sources. Every search optimized page can catch traffic, like a sail catches wind, creating an almost passive source of traffic over long periods of time. But social media is like oars on the boat. If you stop rowing, you stop getting results.
When the intent is different, the conversion rates are different. Visitors who used a keyboard to get here are more likely to act than visitors who tapped on a piece of glass.
There are a lot of variables, of course, but check the data for yourself.
In Universal Analytics (UA) check the conversion rates at the far right of the Acquisition > All traffic > Channels. Conversion rates are over on the right.
In the new version of Analytics (GA4) check the Acquisition > Traffic acquisition report. Here I’ve moved the Conversion column over to the left. And because “conversion rates” aren’t yet part of GA4, you need to do the math yourself. Divide conversions by users (or sessions, really) and you’ll have your conversion rate.
If those numbers look abysmally low, keep in mind that there are a lot of high-traffic articles in this account. That traffic pushes down conversion rates, especially for the lead generation goal.
Beyond conversion rates, we use two sets of metrics for our two channels. Search metrics are more accurate because search traffic comes mostly from one website. Social media traffic is harder to measure because social traffic comes to us from a wide range of websites and apps.
But you can use Analytics to track the changes in search traffic to your pages over time. Use the Engagement > Pages and screens report. Here’s what it will look like, with all of the little configurations highlighted.
This is one of several ways to track social media traffic. This video gives you a more complete rundown.
“You can’t do SEO without using social media.”
“You need to use search to do social media right.”
These might be overstatements, but they’re common. If you watch a social media pro at work, they’re doing research in Google. The reverse is also true. SEOs dig through social media while researching topics and collaborators.
So the final two bullets in our social media vs. SEO comparison show how the two channels work together.