Don’t Let Social Media Marketers Turn You into a Newt

Sir Bedevere: What makes you think she’s a witch?
Peasant 3: Well, she turned me into a newt!
Sir Bedevere: A newt?
Peasant 3: [meekly after a long pause] … I got better.
Crowd: [shouts] Burn her anyway!

From the color-me-unsurprised department comes news from Time Magazine’s Techland that 92% of Newt Gingrich’s Twitter Followers Aren’t Real. I’m not making a statement with this post about the politician’s politics, or his character, or even an indictment of social media itself. Mainly because I think far too many people are guilty of the same thing – trying to use inflated social media stats to prove their social worth.

I discussed this with keynote marketing speaker David Dalka this morning, and he shared his thoughts in Twitter Gate – Buy More Twitter Followers Free Instantly – Business Marketing Strategy Implications?, digging into some of the business issues involved surrounding social media and pursuing followers on social networks:

It makes one wonder where all these non-real followers are coming from and more than a few CEOs are likely reading this article and asking the question, “Is all this investment in social media justified and an activity that will grow my business and improve the bottom line or are there wiser investments to be made?”

So where did Newt’s followers come from?

The Techland article points to a report from people search engine PeekYou, which attempted to identify some demographics about Twitter followers for all of the 2012 Republican candidates. The idea was to try to ascertain how many followers might actually be human beings, and how many might be businesses or anonymous accounts or spambots.

The Atlantic, in Did Newt Gingrich Buy His Twitter Followers?,interviewed a former Gingrich staffer, who tells us that approximately 80 percent of Gingrich’s followers are inactive or dummy accounts created by agencies.

Ok, so I get spambots following me on a regular basis all the time. I signed into twitter a couple of days ago and blocked 15 new followers with default avatars, no tweets, little to no followers, and a pattern to the way they were named that included numbers within them. So, why be concerned about how many fake followers Newt Gingrich might have?

In an interview (via Gawker) with the Marietta Daily Journal, Gingrich pointed to the number of followers he had on Twitter as validation for his legitimacy as a candidate for President:

“And it says, ‘now it’s true that Gingrich has 1.3 million followers and (Michele) Bachmann only has 59,000, but she’s getting more new people every week.’ It turned out I have six times as many Twitter followers as all the other candidates combined, but it didn’t count because if it counted I’d still be a candidate; since I can’t be a candidate that can’t count. So we’ve been a little bit like a sailing ship in the middle of a hurricane in which we are sailing straight into the teeth of the media, and that slowed us down.”

Unfortunately, there are agencies that will sell Twitter followers to people who pay for them. You can buy Facebook Fans, Friends, and Likes as well. Want some Google Plus One’s added to your website, you can get 1,000 for $250.

Social media can be a great channel to use to reach out to real people, to build relationships, to engage in conversations and keep people informed of what you’re up to and what you’re thinking as a person, as a business, as a politician.

Actual engagement with others is much more meaningful than how many followers you might have, and there are even some people thinking seriously about how to measure that kind of influence.

Another question that David raised was if there were wiser investments to be made.

A figure that sent me into sticker shock when I came across it last month was that Newt Gingrich supposedly spent $800,000 on his website and a mass email system. A couple of minutes looking around the site reveals that optimizing the site for search engines wasn’t included in that hefty price tag. For example, the site’s use of a 302 redirect from “http://newt.org/” to “http://www.newt.org/” instead of a 301 redirect.

As Google tells us on their help page about 301 redirects, the best approach is to use a permanent (301) redirect rather than a temporary (302) redirect:

301 redirects are particularly useful in the following circumstances:

People access your site through several different URLs. If, for example, your home page can be reached in multiple ways – for instance, http://example.com/home, http://home.example.com, or http://www.example.com – it’s a good idea to pick one of those URLs as your preferred (canonical) destination, and use 301 redirects to send traffic from the other URLs to your preferred URL.

PageRank from any links pointing to “http://newt.org” would be lost rather than being sent to the “http://www.newt.org” version of the homepage because the site uses a 302 redirect, which won’t pass along PageRank, instead of a 301 redirect which will.

Another thing on the Newt Gringrich site that made me cringe was the use of a “revisit” meta element as follows:

<meta name=”Revisit-after” content=”1 Day”>

The revisit meta tag has never been used by any of the major commercial search engines ever. It was developed by the British Columbia directory SearchBC in the mid 90s for use by the directory for businesses within British Columbia only, and was only used for a couple of years. The developer behind the directory set up a meta tag generator on the site to help site owners create meta tags for their sites, and the meta tag generator become more popular than the directory. If you search on Google for [meta tag generator] (without the brackets), you’ll see other meta tag generators, some of which still include that revisit tag.

The purpose behind the revist tag was to tell the SearchBC robot how frequently content might change on one of the sites in the directory, so that it would return and capture new content. It never really worked out well, which is why SearchBC abandoned it.

These days, when I see a revisit tag in the head section of the HTML for a site, it’s a sign that the people developing that site know very little about SEO. The tag does appear in places that you might not expect it, like on one of the Websites of the top Fortune 50 businesses for 2010. I suspect it’s possible that they paid even more than $800.000 for their website.

It’s not a surprise that Newt Gingrich’s website ranks well in search engines for his name. That’s true with many businesses online that focus upon their trademarks. An intelligent search strategy would also explore ranking for terms that don’t include names or trademarks, such as “2012 presidential candidate.”

Given that, I was a little surprised that the word “president” didn’t appear a single time on the home page of his site, as in “Newt for President 2012″ or “presidential candidate” or in any other format that might make it more likely that his pages might show up in a searches other than those that include his name.

We don’t know for certain whether or not Newt paid for followers on Twitter, but it doesn’t seem like he paid for help related to optimizing his site for search.

Regardless of my political views, I think that’s a shame.

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37 thoughts on “Don’t Let Social Media Marketers Turn You into a Newt”

  1. Hi Mark,

    I’ll sometimes tweet about something that I wrote here, or more frequently something that I read somewhere else that I think people following me might be interested in.

    I’ll also sometimes tweet something about SEO or design or usability that I’ve been thinking about, to see if I get some reactions or input from people. Much less frequently I might tweet about something like tornado warnings in my area, or even more rarely what I had for lunch (but only if it was really good).

    Sometimes I’ll see a tweet from someone else that I’ll respond to, in the hopes of starting a conversation.

    With my facebook fan page, I tend to use it as a mini link blog, where I post a link that I’ve found somewhere that I thought was pretty interesting, and add a sentence or two of commentary with it.

  2. I wouldn’t be surprised if 90% of social media accounts period were fake much less NG’s.

    I have a Twitter and Facebook account, but I never use them.

    Twitter especially just seems like a bunch of bots having conversations with each other.

    I am sure some people can really leverage it, but I just don’t have much interest in it.

    Do you use it Bill?

    Mark

  3. “I wouldn’t be surprised if 90% of social media accounts period were fake much less NG’s.” I have thought for some time (based on the amount of garbage I see) that there are many junk accounts that are created simply for syndication of content or to build follower counts.

    Have any thoughts about how twitter might combat this, or if they would even want to do something like validation through cell phone or other methods?

    This could tank their numbers if it was found out that most tweets were automated to accounts that were not “real”.

    Thoughts Bill or Mark?

  4. Hi Bill,

    I suspect that a large percentage of Twitter users and other social media accounts are fake as well.

    I can’t begin to tell you the number of times I’ve looked at new followers and seen them with the exact same set of tweets syndicated from multiple accounts. Twitter could likely do some datamining and pattern analysis to identify a good percentage of fake accounts out there. I’m not sure that they would try to do some kind of validation, but I suspect that they might not.

    There is some potential to hurt their numbers of they started removing fake accounts, but if they continue to let those accounts grow, ultimately that could hurt them as well if it impacts the experience of people who actually use Twitter. When I signed in a couple of days ago and found that the last 15 people who followed me were most likely fake, it impacted my enjoyment of twitter.

  5. Well, Bill I think if someone should be criticism for the flood of fake or useless users on the social networks than they would be the internet marketers like SEOz and social media marketers. According to my point of view this things is caused by the lack of knowledge. Most of the companies owners who are interested in social media marketing of their business they usually contact some agency or outsource their task, now the agency or person which they contact them you can measure the scale of success by counting the fans or followers and business owners believe that as a result we saw a new business of creating fake followers and fans and selling them

  6. Bill – there are some charlatans out there laying claim to things they simply shouldn’t be.

    I worked for a large American bank based in London’s Canary Wharf district and some of the decision made there were shocking.

    A leading search agency won a pitch by presenting a presentation downloaded from SEOMoz – pretty shocking stuff.

    We certainly never paid for followers on though – but despite having ten’s of millions of customers our content was so un-engaging we only managed to achieve a total of 300 before i left. We even had to give away an iPad before we could achieve that too!

    on a different note – it might be just me but I can’t find a link to your twitter account from the seobythesea.com page…

    Tom

  7. Bill,

    Amazing the story and content that you had to devise just to justify the use of a Holy Grail quote! I’m no SEO expert, but what I tell my clients, what I have learned from my SEO friends is that it is not a simple one time thing. It seems there are some things that a novice can do to help, but if being found on the web is a big part of a your marketing plan, you better find an expert.

    You mentioned that some are starting to measure social media influence – are you talking about companies like Klout? Does the number of friends or followers you have impact you SEO rankings directly?

    Thanks,
    Jamie

  8. Hi Stephen,

    The most useful approach to social media for most businesses is to use it to help build relationships, and to create the opportunity to interact with an audience that’s actually interested in what you have to say. If you want to buy fake followers, that’s your perogative, but it’s not something that I’m personally going to suggest that you do. The followers that you buy aren’t likely to be very interested in your tweets.

    If you’re not measuring the impact of your social efforts by things like how much new business it brings to you, or whether or not the ideas that you tweet are being shared or discussed or spread to others who might be interested in your thoughts, then it really doesn’t matter how many followers you have. If an agency suggests that you buy a few thousand followers to create the perception that it’s worth following you, that’s not going to make up for the fact that it might not be worth following you if your tweets provide little to no value to those who might.

  9. Hi Tom,

    There are con men and scammers everywhere, and when it comes to social media many of them are trying to cash in on shortcuts that aren’t worth taking, like the sale of twitter followers.

    It’s hard to fathom some of the decisions that businesses make when they attempt to do things like engage in social media. If you have that many customers and that slim of a following on Twitter, it’s a clear sign that you’re not doing something right.

    I do have a small section of my blogroll that links to my profile pages at places like twitter and LinkedIn, but you’re right. It doesn’t stand out. After reading your comment, I added a couple of colorful buttons to those in a more prominent place on my sidebar. Thanks.

  10. Hi Alan,

    In some ways, I think that may be true that CEOs don’t understand the value of social media and may rubberstamp its use without thinking about the implications behind it.

    When a business develops a presence on Twitter or Facebook or some other social network, they are putting themselves out there for the rest of the world to see, to interact with, and to learn more about. Those interactions can create an impression about a company in the minds of very large numbers of people, and if handled incorrectly can create public relations nightmares. For example, you don’t want someone tweeting through the Ford Twitter account that it’s ironic that people living in Detroit don’t know how to drive.

    It’s important and essential to come up with an actual marketing strategy behind your tweets, status updates, and so on. How do you present yourself on those sites? What kinds of things might you tweet that may engage an audience? How do you respond to questions or comments, especially those that might be critical in some way? What types of criticisms might you expect to see, and what’s the best way to avoid them or respond to them?

  11. Many CEOS just invest in social media because it is in fashion.They do not devote even two minutes to think if it serves to any strategky for theri company.

  12. Hi Jamie,

    I debated with myself on the use of the Monty Python quote, and while its use does verge on the side of cliche, I think it’s a great example of when the wisdom of crowds goes very wrong, which seemed appropriate for a post on the use and misuse of social media.

    SEO is not a one time thing, but when you spend $800,000 for a website, and the developers of that site exhibit a clear lack of understanding of SEO, that’s a problem. SEO should be something that is considered when a site is built, and not something tacked on after the fact. SEO is a marketing effort, and like all marketing efforts should be ongoing, but you want to create a marketing plan for your business or political campaign and your website before you start, and not after you launch your website.

    If there was an SEO involved in the development of newt.org, and they though that using a revisit tag was something that they should do, if they didn’t understand how to correctly redirect the non-www version of the site to the www version, and if they didn’t consider non-trademark and non namebased keywords for the site, then they don’t know much about SEO at all. If you’re paying that kind of money to have a site built, the people building it should be experts.

    Measuring the influence of social media is hard because it’s more than just looking at the number of followers someone might have. I linked to Daniel Tunkelang’s post about what he referred to as “A Twitter Analog to PageRank” in my post because he’s actually trying to come up with a way to measure influence. One of the people who commented on that post came up with a measure of influence on twitter based upon the algorithm in that post that he referred to as Tunkrank.

    Klout is another attempt to try to understand the influence that you might have over your “engaged” audience. On their page about the Klout score, they do note that they don’t look at the total number of friends or followers that you have, but rather those who might actually be real people:

    True Reach is the size of your engaged audience. We eliminate inactive and spam accounts, and only include accounts that you influence. To do this we calculate influence for each individual relationship taking into account factors such as whether an individual has shared or acted upon your content and the likelihood that they saw it.

    As far as I can tell, social media efforts don’t necessarily directly influence your rankings with the search engines at this point in time. It’s possible that they might have an impact at some point in the future, but on a much more sophisticated level than just counting the number of fans or friends or followers that you might have.

    Links from sources like twitter and Facebook are nofollowed by those sources, so there’s no passage of PageRank from them. Traffic that might come to your pages might play some role in influencing rankings for your site based upon usage information that a search engine may collect, but that would potentially be only one set of signals amongst a much larger set.

    If your social activities such as tweets, status updates, and other social content can help create a buzz around a new idea or topic, and result in searches that finds content that you’ve created on that topic, you could potentially generate traffic from search engines in an indirect manner.

    Earlier this month, I wrote How Google Might Rank User Generated Web Content in Google + and Other Social Networks, which describes how Google might create credential scores for people who post or comment or reply in social networks, which would be based upon the quality of their contributions and their interactions with others. Being followed by someone who never tweets, never interacts with anyone else, or who adds low value contributions to a network likely wouldn’t help in your credential score. Your tweets or status updates or questions or responses in a social network may show up in search results based upon a combination of how relevant they might be for a certain query and what your credential score might be.

  13. Hi Bill -

    Thanks for another great post! …and I loved the Monty Python quote. :-)

    The Daily Show has been making comedy hay out of Newt’s twitter trouble’s (among other things) this week and it got me thinking just how wrong most folks are in their approach to social media. Spam first and *possibly* measure later appears to be the prevailing attitude. I’ve built my social media footprint over facebook, linkedin, twitter, etc very carefully over the past few years to maintain credibility. I have less than 800 followers – I follow slightly more than follow me – and have just under 1,000 tweets. I use Twitter much like you use facebook – sort of like a swipe list of interesting things that I like and hope to generate conversation with others about.

    Social media, IMHO is all about the conversation… otherwise you’re just part of the noise. It’s where the conversation happens that creates social magic – kinda like in real life. Most still view social as a broadcast medium and I think that is a real shame.

  14. “92% of Newt Gingrich’s Twitter Followers Aren’t Real”
    How can it be??It seems like we live in unreal robot’s world…we don’t know if we communicate with real person or not….it’s really unpleasant…..

  15. Hey Bill,

    Another solid read from SEO by the Sea. Wanted to say – I find it ridiculous that some marketers are already putting a price tag on +1s and selling them in bulk – we, as an SEO community, still have no real idea of the value +1s provide for a site. I try and steer all of my clients towards focusing on conversions and analytics, but many of them seem to be way more interested in social media these days. I guess because most people are users of social media they think they can intuitively pick it up for marketing purposes with ease. Social media has never been my favorite channel for marketing, but now that it is merging with SEO, we, as an industry, are forced to incorporate it into our work. That isn’t to say the social media isn’t valuable. It is great for branding and reputation management – it certainly has its place. However, if a tactic) doesn’t have clear & tangible ROI – I am wary… and I just don’t see ROI in selling +1′s to clients.

  16. Hi Bill, all very interesting. It appears that Gingrich has takena note from Obama’s book. It was only recently that there was a story going around that Obama was spamming his Twitter account.

    It must be all the rage on the Hill at the moment.

  17. Hi Bill, thanks for posting this. I would agree on what you replied about dealing or having SEO being planned before even launching the a site. Most people I know would get an SEO in panic because they realize that they’re really not making any buzz on the internet. Your post is definitely high recommended! Keep it up!

  18. @Vincent ==>I’m not interested in turning this into a political debate but in the case of Obama – they weren’t actually spamming twitter (unless you’re watching Fox News, of course :-) but were tweeting information for the public to contact Republican and Tea Party members in the House of Representatives to break the stalemate on the debt ceiling/budget negotiations. The tactic was so effective that the Republicans started the “spam” narrative which, of course, took root in conservative media channels. The White House has actually been quite adept at using Twitter to its advantage. (unlike Anthony Weiner :-)

  19. “92% of Newt Gingrich’s Twitter Followers Aren’t Real”

    I cannot believe that a politician would resort to faking his “friends”. I imagine it is the fault of an intern, because we all know that they have the power. Or perhaps Newt hired some folks from Acorn to give him the “hook up”.

    Personally, I am not a fan of Twitter. I don’t need to know about anyones lunch… even if it is really awesome! :)

  20. From a political standpoint it can be all about your perceived power, having a lot of existing followers will make it easier for someone real to follow you too. Its obviously not the best tactic to use, and in this case it seems Newt has gone well overboard with inflating his followers.

    I dont see why people cant be happy with 1,000 quality followers who are real and responsive, than 100,000 who just ignore you.

  21. Great stuff man, this really brings up a bigger question – is social media manipulation worth paying for? In my opinion it never is worth it, mostly because social media is suppose to connect actual users to your content/website. A million twitter followers aren’t worth a thing if they are accounts that never are used. Having an active community on sites like Twitter with only a 100 followers will always be better than 10,000 fake accounts. Thanks again Bill!

  22. Hi Antony,

    Thanks. Good to hear that you liked the Monty Python quote.

    The Daily Show’s take on social media was pretty fun. Many people do try to use social media in a broadcast manner, and that’s definitely missing the point. The real benefits are in finding ways to start conversations and interacting with others.

  23. Hi Alex,

    You do have some control over who you follow, and who you might block. When someone adds you on Google Plus or Facebook or Twitter, rather than just following them back, it doesn’t hurt to look at their previous posts or tweets, and to learn a little more about them.

  24. Hi John-Henry

    Thank you.

    Social media does seem to get a lot of attention these days; perhaps more that it should even with the potential future tie-in to search rankings.

    It doesn’t hurt to help people understand how to use social media in a positive manner, like for reputation management or branding as you’ve noted. But I don’t see a lot of value in buying followers to create the perception that you have lots of followers.

  25. Hi Vincent and Antony,

    I missed out on the use of twitter to reach out to the public on issues involving the budget issue, but that sounds like a smart use of twitter – to spur people to reasonable actions that might make a difference.

  26. Hi Leah,

    We don’t know the whole story behind Newt’s followers, and I suspect that we may never. He was added to Twitter’s list of suggested people to follow, and claims that many of the followers that he has were because of that.

    I don’t think his messages telling us that he went to the Pizza Shack for lunch are the kind of things that would get me to follow him. But I see some pretty interesting things tweeted by other people.

  27. Hi Bill
    Unfortunately they are all at it. Anyone who has more that 10.000 followers it is most likely some of the account will be just a set up by the agencies. But 80% is madness!

  28. Hi John,

    I suspect that you’re right. I’m going to go see if there are some papers describing detailed studies of followers on twitter. I suspect that there are. It might be a nice followup to this post to write about them.

    Thanks.

  29. I think Twitter is an interesting case. I see an increasingly polarised view with strong supporters on one side and complete ‘antis’ on the other. I have a huge interest in travel and its an increasingly useful way of keeping an eye on ‘hotspots’. Its use during the London riots of this week was phenomenal and some of the most insightful tweets came from people with relatively low levels of followers – indicating perhaps greater credibility given what we hear about Mr Gingrich!

  30. Best repurposing of a Holy Grail quote EVER :) Summed up the entire situation in a nutshell.

  31. Hi Suzy,

    One of the really great things about Twitter is its simplicity. It gives people a chance to focus upon the content that they provide, without distracting them with games or many of the other features that are continuously being added to social networks like Facebook. One of the most interesting things about it is being able to hear from and communicate with people who are located near things like the London riots. It’s like getting real news and opinions from real people.

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