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What is “Social Media Optimization” ?

For over a year maybe two I’ve seen “social media” highlighted in search marketing land, as if it were the next stage of SEO or SEM. Some called themselves “social media optimizers” and some tried to coin the term “SMO” for “Social Media Optimization”. Lately my impression is those selling their services as social media experts are simply calling themselves “social media consultants” and “social media experts” these days. Fine enough, but what exactly do they do for a living?

A long time ago we called such people “social butterflies”, because they flittered from place to place trying to basically know everyone and have everyone know them. They relied upon a base of social support for their success. “It’s not what you know, but who you know” applied, but so did the old adage that you would could replace 200 of these people with one person who actually knew how to do something and had the attention span required to actually do it. Sometimes I think that is the fuel of the disruptive technology startup – displace the slow incumbents, who not coincidentally employ most of the social butterfly employees. More than one person has pointed out that social media traffic has little value.

Opinion aside, what exactly is it that Social Media Experts do? Today, courtesy of TheNextWeb, we see that some sly trickery exploits a flaw in Feedburner, and enables you to inflate your subscriber counts quickly and easily for free. People are reporting going from 43 to 2500 subscribers overnight via this cheat. Is this a service offered by Social Media Optimizers? Is this what was behind the veil of secrecy for SMO… pay my fee and I’ll get you subscribers? Obviously subscriber counts are success metrics for online marketers. How many companies have paid for such services, and admired the resulting “success” as reflected by Feedburner subscriber counts which were actually scammed?

The cool part of this story is that … you got it… this can be checked retroactively. Companies that paid for such trickery without a clear stated understanding that it was a scam, can expect to see those inflated subscriber counts vanish as Google fixes the loophole. Will lawsuits ensue? I don’t see why not… a scam is a scam. If a consultant hacked a service to achieve metrics which she then sold as performance metrics to justify a client fee, she’s..well… a thief, basically. I suppose terms of engagement included disclaimers and acknowledgements that the web is fluid and backlinks (and subscribers) are not glued in place and can change at any time, but since this exploit is traceable I doubt those are valid excuses for scamming the client.

Good luck collecting a judgement, however. From what I have seen, many of these “social media experts” openly acknowledge they can’t afford $1000 registration fees for industry conferences, pimp their websites in the brokered paid links marketplace, and monetize their pages with aggressively plastered Google ads — arguably the lowest paying monetization plan on the planet. If they are willing to do so much for so little, they obviously don’t have deep pockets.

It’s not all bad for social media people. I think this is an excellent time for the real social media experts to state their value propositions… demonstrate their true value as consultants by responding to this industry event with details of what they actually do besides exploiting loopholes and gaming popularity rating systems like Digg. I have no doubt the good guys will shine once they present their valid cases for engagement. I’m also pretty sure we’re going to see a whole bunch of “experts” go back to their nanny jobs, their real estate associate positions, and their work-at-home article writing enterprises.

If you feel this post of mine was a call to action, please defend your position in the comments. I’d love to hear some quality discussion from people in the social media space. If you do, please remember I already know you can write well and are good at participating in “the conversation”, so please refrain from just responding for the sake of responding and try to actually say something meaningful, ok?


  1. NannyMouse wrote:

    Haha you nailed it John. And before any one cites the Imposter Syndrome again, please remember that sometimes it is not a distortion, you really do suck, and you’re not fooling anybody.

    I love your blog by the way. You deserve to be more famous ;-)

    Monday, August 4, 2008 at 2:38 pm | Permalink
  2. That system for inflating feedburner is childs play. I’ve seen a system that increases a feedburnder count on a sliding scale daily. Starts our adding a couple a day and ramps up to adding hundreds of day over a number of months. So the feed count growth looks natural and it is all automated. The subscriptions are filtered across many different sources so it’s next to impossible to detect.

    Monday, August 4, 2008 at 4:38 pm | Permalink
  3. Well you can start by just going to wikipedia and look up the word Social Media Optimization. It’s a fairly new business that revolves around online viral marketing.

    @dstt: I know better than trust wikipedia, and this is a typical case. The wikipedia article is nothing but a promotional vehicle for a few players, linking their names to the buzzword. TheĀ  actual article assigns a PR/publicity function to the tasks, in conradition to the title (“social media optimization“).

    Friday, August 8, 2008 at 3:19 am | Permalink
  4. Eric Ward wrote:

    You go John! SMO an oxymoron. Everything new is old again. Inflated and fake subscriber schemes can trace their family tree back to a pre-feed world when people subscribed to “e-zines” web-zines, newsletters, etc. The delivery was via email, and “expert” consultants promised they could increase email subscriber counts. Those experts then created hundreds and hundreds of fake email accounts at any of several (then) new free email services.

    Sunday, August 10, 2008 at 6:54 pm | Permalink
  5. Part of the problem is that the term ‘Social Media Optimisation’ sounds so complicated and makes so little sense to anyone not deeply involved with Web 2.0, that it lends itself to the above abuse. In fact any advisory activity in this area should be really about educating companies of the need to assign effort to getting involved in social conversations on the web that are relevant to their business.

    Leveraging social media is as simple as putting effort (assigning resource) into creating informational value for your audience via social (collaborative, subscribable) text (blogs, wikis, articles, news), visual (slidecasts, presentations, images), audio (podcasts, audiobooks) and video (vidcasts, informational movies, virals) channels and taking time to engage with your audience’s comments, discussion, content and aggregation spaces (sharing sites).

    Driving traffic is easier than maintaining traffic. I try and tell people there’s no easy fix. If they put effort into engaging with their audience, they’ll get results back!

    Monday, September 1, 2008 at 4:12 am | Permalink