SEO vs. SMO: How to Get Your Content Found and Shared Better 

 March 11, 2021

Which is better: SEO or SMO? Which do you need? And what about SEM? Or SMM?

Confused yet?

Then you’re in the right place.

As I’ve detailed in other posts, your content doesn’t have an effect unless it’s both found and acted upon. The acronyms help it do that.

In this post I’ll explain these fraternal-twin acronyms and why you need to know them to write more engaging blog and social media content.

We’ll focus on the two that are fundamental: Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Social Media Optimization (SMO). In particular, this post will cover:

  • the difference between SEO and SMO
  • how SMO affects SEO
  • why you need to optimize them differently
  • some simple, free tools to get you better results

SEO vs. SMO vs. SEM vs. SMM: What the heck is the difference?

Let’s start with some definitions:

SEO: Search Engine Optimization

This is probably the term you’re most familiar with. In short, it’s how you make it easier for search engines to find and recommend web content such as blogs, product pages, or any static page on a website.

The holy grail of SEO is getting your content displayed on the first page of search engine results pages (SERP), where its chances of being clicked are vastly greater, because very few people visit page 2.

Your web platform doesn’t matter

This is a good place to erase a common misunderstanding.

The truth is, search engines do not rank your site any worse just because it’s on SquareSpace, Weebly, Shopify, or other platforms rather than WordPress. (Consider for a moment how unfair that would be.)

The difference is these platforms provide less ability for users to optimize or customize their SEO settings. By contrast, WordPress plugins like Yoast and Rank Math give a great deal of control for those who want or need it. That’s the only difference.

However, optimizing your content for search (and social media) doesn’t depend primarily on settings. It has always depended on the quality of your content, and that’s true no matter where you build your website.

SEM: Search Engine Marketing

“SEM (Search Engine Marketing) is the process of gaining website traffic by purchasing ads on search engines,” is how Search Engine Land bluntly defines it, noting that its meaning has changed:

“[SEM] was once used as an umbrella term to encompass both SEO (search engine optimization) and paid search activities. Over time, the industry has adopted the SEM acronym to refer solely to paid search.”

SEM includes pay-per-click (PPC) programs like Google AdSense. I don’t work with paid advertising, so I won’t cover it here. But it’s an option. I mention it just so you won’t confuse it with SEO.

In sum:

  • SEO = optimizing for unpaid organic search
  • SEM = marketing through paid search engine advertising

SMM: Social Media Marketing

Social media marketing is a strategy for getting web traffic through social media.

Paid advertising and unpaid optimizing both belong to SMM. Ads and boosted posts are a staple of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social channels, and even a small budget can yield big results. But as with search, paid social media is beyond our scope.

Again, what’s important for us is optimizing.

SMO: Social Media Optimization

Social media has always been important for driving traffic to your website. And the dramatic growth of mobile browsing has only increased the need to write more engaging social media content. That’s what SMO is for.

Social Media Optimization (SMO) is related to SEO, but they’re not the same. Like many relationships, it’s a bit complicated.

That’s the subject of the next section. Understanding their relationship is key to optimizing your content for both the web and social media.

How SMO affects SEO

Here’s a simple way to think about SEO:

  • On-page SEO tells search engines what a website is about. 
  • Off-page SEO tells them if it’s relevant and useful.
  • Technical SEO tells them how to read it.

On-page SEO is what you as a blogger have complete control over when you’re writing.

You control technical SEO too but mostly not while you’re writing; best leave this to your website developer unless you’re pretty technical yourself.

Off-page SEO includes social media optimization among other strategies. SMO doesn’t affect SERP rankings directly, but it can have a large cumulative effect.

That’s because Google and Bing now take social media into account. Their public guidelines hint at this more than state it, but SEO industry researchers are good at figuring things out.

Here are the most important ways that SMO affects SEO:

SMO helps content E-A-T well

Off-page SEO refers to strategies that are not on your website at all, like guest posting and backlinking. Backlinking — getting other websites to link to yours — is one of Google’s most important ranking factors.

Unfortunately you have little control over these, because you can’t make someone link to you or give you a guest blogging spot.

What guest posting, backlinking, and SMO have in common is that they boost your site’s authority. But SMO you can control.

Google and Bing may be cagey about social media, but they’re totally clear on this: Authority and credibility are important SERP ranking factors, and they are largely conferred by other people.

Google calls them the “E-A-T” factors: Expertise, Authority, and Trust.

Its 2013 Hummingbird algorithm put a clear emphasis on “high quality content” — content that’s relevant, authoritative, readable, and shareable. Expert content people can trust. Remember, its real mission is not to find keywords, but to find you answers.

Sharing your content on social media is an important way people confer authority upon you. But you have to write content worth sharing.

Shareability builds authority

Shares help people discover content that can turn into backlinks, and both shares and backlinks improve your E-A-T score.

In effect, shares and backlinks are testimonials to the value of your content. They tell the algorithms that it’s worth sharing and saving.

Social shares are testimonials for your content. They tell search engines it's worth sharing.Click To Tweet

But to get those shares, your social media posts need to be optimized for sharing. More on this below.

Social search is important too

This is where SEO and SMO overlap a little. Social media channels all have an internal search function, which makes them search engines for social media content.

So you modify some on-page SEO practices. For instance, instead of blog keywords, social media content should include hashtags, usernames, service categories, and other content that people type into social search bars.

People often wonder if social media posts factor into search engine rankings. In a word: No. But search bots do scan social profiles, which may show up on SERPs.

So optimize your social profiles for search, almost like a blog post. Make sure they include your main business keywords and a backlink to your website.

Social bookmarking and discussion sites like Reddit, StumbleUpon, and Digg can be valuable backlink sources too. I’ve often found Reddit and Quora threads on page 1 of my search results.

Mobile content rules

Smartphones and tablets now comprise a majority of web and social media traffic, and mobile-friendliness has become one of the most important SEO ranking factors.

Website themes routinely employ “responsive design” nowadays to ensure your site appears properly on all devices. But if your website has been around for awhile, it may need an upgrade. Take care of this immediately; you’re losing valuable SEO ground until you do.

My point: Our increasing reliance on mobile devices means it’s necessary to think of optimizing your website, blog, and social media as a whole.

Optimize differently for search and social

At heart, SEO and SMO have the same goal: to circulate your content by giving people good reason to engage with it.

SEO and SMO have the same goal: Give people good reason to engage with your content.Click To Tweet

But they’re viewed in different ways, appear in different places, meet different needs, and may call for different actions. So you don’t optimize for social media the same way you optimize blog posts for search engines. But a little the same.

The chart below highlights some of the key differences. Each item deserves its own blog post, and I’ll get to them. (Get my blog updates to be notified when they’re published.)

  1. SEO: Entirely on-page (the part of SEO we’re concerned with)
  2. SMO: Entirely off-page
  1. SEO: Titles, descriptions, and URLs must include keywords and accurate descriptions of the content.
  2. SMO: Titles and descriptions must be intriguing, engaging, and inspire action.
  1. SEO: Image file names and alt tags are important and must, as above, include keywords and accurate descriptions.
  2. SMO: File names and alt tags don’t matter.
  1. SEO: Featured/banner images don’t need text on them.
  2. SMO: Sharing images can benefit from containing text.
  1. SEO: Images make your content more readable, especially infographics.
  2. SMO: Images make your content more shareable, especially infographics.

Your Optimization Toolkit

So how do you do all this?

  1. You can spend a lot of money on advanced, enterprise-class SEO/SMO tools like BuzzSumo, Moz, Ahrefs, Alexa, or SEMrush. They’re worth it, just pricey.
  2. You can use free, simple tools that pack most (if not all) of the punch you need for small business blogging.

Here are some of the best free tools I use myself:

Google Trends

There are many clever ways to use search engine results pages (SERPs) for free keyword research, but Google Trends takes you right to it.

Colorful charts display the search volumes and other tracking data for up to five keywords at a time so you can compare. It just skims the surface of possibilities, but it’s an excellent and easy place to start.


It’s from Amazon, but not the silver-tongued little box. Alexa belongs with the expensive toys but offers some handy free tools that show you website traffic statistics and trending topics to inspire your own content ideas. There’s also a Chrome browser toolbar giving you fingertip access to these data and more.

CoSchedule Social Message Optimizer

I’m a huge fan of CoSchedule, in no small part for its very useful free tools for writing better headlines, email subject lines, and social media posts.

The Social Message Optimizer shows how your post would likely perform across the most popular social channels, ranking it for the most influential factors: character count, sentiment, message type (text, image, video, link), and hashtags.

Moz free tools

Moz is another industry-class SEO platform with a great set of free tools for keyword research, link building, competitive analysis, top pages, and more. Like Alexa’s extension, the MozBar shows basic metrics for sites you visit in a pop-up bar that runs across your Chrome browser window.

Help readers help you

Just as you optimize social posts to get more website clicks, you can optimize your blog posts to encourage sharing. Like I’ve been saying, SEO and SMO are intertwined.

Many WordPress social sharing plugins contain a virtual arsenal of tools and tricks you can employ:

Sharing icons

This is the core function: Add colorful, stand-out icons above and/or below your posts and pages so that readers can easily share them to their favorite social networks. Even free plugins offer great basic options, and man themes include sharing icons that match the site design.

Floating icons

Floating icons stay on-screen as you scroll down. They can appear above, below, or beside the scrolling text. Keeping them in view allows readers to share at any time before reaching the bottom, thus increasing the likelihood they will, according to research.

Customizable tweets and posts

When someone clicks a sharing icon, the pop-up window is often populated by default with the title, first paragraph, and featured image of your content. But those may not be the most clickable when someone else reads your reader’s share.

Some plugins enable you to set sharing titles, descriptions, and images that are different from what appears on the actual post. I’m going to cover this exact topic in my next post.

Click to Tweet

The sharing plugin on this site is Social Warfare (affiliate link), which includes all three of the above plus a feature to highlight texts that readers can click to tweet immediately. They’re the gray/red boxes you see in this post and others.

SEO and SMO are not separate from content. They’re how you write it. Or they should be.Click To Tweet

Like the floating icons, click-to-tweet provides yet more opportunity to share. The built-in Gutenberg editor for WordPress includes a click-to-tweet block, so that’s an easy basic option.

Highlight to Share

In the same vein, some plugins allow readers to highlight the text they want to share. Again, yet more opportunities.

Optimize your writing process

SMO and on-page SEO are not separate from your content. They’re in your content. They’re part of the way you write your content. Or should be.

That’s why it’s important to understand them, how they work together, and how to implement them in your blogging and content marketing.

And it’s why with this post I’m just getting started on the topic of optimizing your content for search engines and social media.

The best way to get notified when I publish more is through my bi-weekly blog updates.

To subscribe, fill out the form below this post or the one right here and I’ll also send you my free worksheet Find Time to Write Your Blog. It’s got my best practical tips to help you find the blogging time you probably think you don’t have.

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