The first question that you need to ask yourself when building a website is:

What does this do for users?

Not:

What does this do for me?

The reason for this is that if a website is solely about the publisher, rather than an end user, there is no valid use case for anyone actually visiting.  Consider a retail website.  If the purpose is to provide convenient access to products that are otherwise hard to find, then it has a purpose.  Similarly, for a financial comparison website that allows users to find the best price for their product has a user centric purpose.  A website where the only proposition is to add a (paid) click into the user journey has little value for the user, and as such, adds no value.

Although the level of success they have seen has been variable, Google have long sought to improve the user experience that their search results provide.  For a long time, the most famous example of this was the Florida Update, which downweighted a lot of thin (read “spammy”) affiliate websites in favour of unique content.  The Vince / Brand update in 2009 served a similar purpose, bringing users closer to the originator of content.

The more recent announcement of an algorithm change based on reducing the number of content farms in the top positions serves a similar function – shortening the user journey.

Essentially, Google want the site that you click on in the result to represent the end of your journey. This is what users want, because this means that the site they arrive at is the one which adds the most value to their experience.

So What About Social?

Probably 90% of the things that frustrate social networks users boil down to the use of cynical marketing strategies that disrupt user experience.  Spamming followers with constant promotional messages, requesting friendships with people where there is no direct relationship, and constant excessive linking are the kind of tactics that get used, and each one of these is frustrating and ineffective in equal measure.

The point about social networking websites like Facebook is that the vast majority of people using the service are their for leisure, rather than work.  They do face some advertising, but this is controlled, and most importantly, targeted.  Also, Facebook’s advertising is pretty unobtrusive – no worse than a commercial break during a TV show, so it does not do as much to undermine user experience.

A thin social profile on any network, where the only function is to disrupt the user experience of that network is bound to failure.  On the other hand, a profile that adds value to the user experience on that network will be successful.  Would you rather follow someone who simply linked to the same content again and again, or someone who gave advice about a subject, and interacted with their followers, rather than using them cynically as a source of traffic.

Back in 2007, Twitter added the nofollow attribute to all links from their website.  This riled the SEO community, who had historically build links using Twitter – and other social media websites.  It was seen as something of a betrayal because the SEO community saw themselves as early adopters who had helped to promote the service, and who had added value to the content available on Twitter.

Despite the competition from Facebook Places, Foursquare is still growing pretty fast, and one of the opportunities that it provides marketers is the ability to link a website to a location.  Recently, we had a discussion in the office about the value of links from Foursquare’s location pages to a client’s website.

The client wanted to add a link to a product page from a specific location, but this would not have added any user value, and as such would not have provided an acceptable user experience.  What was better, and what we ultimately recommended was that rather than linking to a product that may or may not have been of interest, we created a piece of content themed around a set of challenges that a user could do at that location.

This approach added value to the user at their location, and also added value to the client’s website – a win/win situation.

A key theme of social marketing needs to be a user focus that recognises that direct sales are not always the goal of activity – social needs to be about brand too.

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