Twitter's importance to SEO seen as growing

Speaking at SMX in Seattle, SEO experts talked about ways they've successfully used Twitter

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Twitter is becoming an increasingly important tool for marketing and search optimization and experts are learning more about how to best use the service, they said Tuesday during a panel at Search Marketing Expo in Seattle.

Using social networking tools like Twitter will become as important as search engine optimization in the future, predicted Elle Shelley, vice president of social media for Zog Media, a company that offers search engine optimization and other services.

The Four Seasons Hotel chain is one company that has experimented with and found success using Twitter for marketing, search optimization and to drive traffic to a website, said Mike Hayward, who is now CEO of ROI Labs but previously worked for Four Seasons.

Once the company decided it wanted to use Twitter, it worked to develop a strategy for it. Because many hotels want to attract customers early on in their vacation planning process, Four Seasons began by looking for people on Twitter saying they were thinking of taking a vacation to a certain town. Four Seasons would respond suggesting its hotel.

"This didn't scale well," Hayward admitted. "We would have to create a team bigger than our customer service call center to answer all those messages."

It then tried to improve customer service by responding to complaints on Twitter. But it found that the vast majority of complaints were already being dealt with through other channels and this application had a similar scale problem as the first experiment.

Four Seasons tried other approaches like reputation management and promotions but neither had much of an impact.

At the same time it was trying to develop a Twitter strategy, Four Seasons was also grappling with taking its magazine, available in guest rooms, online. Advertisers were demanding the magazine move online but Four Seasons discovered it would be severely challenged to drive traffic to what would be considered a niche site, Hayward said.

Four Seasons decided to look outside the company for help with both its Twitter strategy and online magazine conundrum. Finding advice from a brand agency was too pricey, it turned to a search marketing team, which quickly noticed that the magazine was full of destination oriented content -- exactly the kind of information that people want at the very early stages of planning a vacation.

They suggested that Four Seasons build an online magazine with destination content and use tools like Twitter to point to the stories to drive traffic. Around the same time, Google started showing Twitter messages in search results, furthering Four Season's ability to drive traffic to the new site.

The company now integrates its Twitter account with the magazine's editorial calendar and writes the Twitter messages months in advance, timing them to appear automatically when articles appear in the magazine.

Integrating Twitter into an overall marketing strategy in such a way is key, said Shelley. "It's obvious but obviously overlooked," she said. She advises her customers to look a month ahead to time Twitter posts with other company events. She also recommends using a company's existing SEO keywords in Twitter messages.

Four Seasons now has a brand account plus an account for each of 85 hotels, he said. All the accounts follow each other and repost Twitter messages when appropriate. "So we have a built in network of retweets," Hayward said.

The company is very specific about words that go into Twitter messages as well. For instance, the word "concierge" appears often since concierge services are a determining factor for people choosing hotels, he said.

It also created its own custom link shortener at fshr.com. That gives it flexibility in exactly what the links look like, he said.

Traffic to the Four Season's magazine site from search grew by more than 50% and much of that originates with Twitter, Hayward said.

There are a number of tools available to help companies manage such a Twitter strategy.

MySpace uses a tool from Social Flow that examines data to determine when is the optimal time for individual Twitter accounts to tweet. It looks at how many people are retweeting and clicking on links and will automatically adjust the timing for users, said Sean Percival, vice president of online marketing for MySpace.

Social Flow also tells users what keywords result in the best response, he said.

Timing is very important, even for more manual uses of Twitter, the experts say. Jen Lopez, community manager at SEOmoz was watching the SEOmoz Twitter feed and noticed a webchat happening. After she commented as part of it, the organization asked if SEOmoz's CEO would speak at an upcoming event. "It's all about being there and being able to jump in right away," she said.

Nancy Gohring covers mobile phones and cloud computing for The IDG News Service. Follow Nancy on Twitter at @idgnancy. Nancy's e-mail address is Nancy_Gohring@idg.com

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