Rewarding New Facebook Fans: Good Business Or "Black Hat" SEO Tactic?

Rewarding people for "liking" a brand on Facebook has created some eye-popping headlines.  Bing offered FarmVille players three units of "Farm Cash" for friending the search engine on Facebook, and the outcome was 400,000 new fans in a day.  Einstein Bagels offered a free bagel to new fans and increased its fan count from 4,700 to near 350,000 in three days.  It's hard to argue with success, but could tactics like these come back to haunt brands as the next generation of search evolves in the coming years?  

Bing recently launched a new social feature on its search engine.  If you're logged into Facebook when you conduct a search on Bing, you will see specially highlighted search results of links or brands that your Facebook friends have liked.  The "Liked Results" feature makes sense--it's as if your friends are beside you as you search and chiming in with their personal recommendations.

But what happens when your friends "like" things for reasons other than genuine affinity?  Will those "Liked Results" still be relevant?  An ExactTarget study found that 39% of people friend a brand "to show support for the company to others."  But 40% do so to receive discounts and promotions and 36% to get a “freebie.” There is a worthwhile question that we could probe as to whether rewarding people with freebies for the purpose of gaining followers is authentic in the age of social media, but instead I'd like to ask a different question:  Might compensating people to follow a brand be the "Black Hat" SEO tactic that comes back to bite the company in years to come? 

For those unfamiliar with the term, "Black Hat" search engine optimization (SEO) tactics are high-risk activities designed to get better search rankings in an unethical manner. They are high risk because being caught can result in search engine relevance decreasing rather than increasing. Search engines have a compelling reason to provide the most accurate and authentic results to searchers, so when a site is caught keyword stuffing, using invisible text, buying into link farms or otherwise circumventing search engines' evaluation of genuine interest and activity, the ramifications can be substantial. Sites that run afoul of search engine rules can sink ever lower in search results or end up banned from a search engine's pages altogether.  

In the early days of search, many Black Hat SEO tactics didn't violate search engines rules and didn't seem like such a bad idea for popular brand sites trying to get on the first page of results.  In fact, Black Hat SEO tactics worked — for a while.  But as search engines matured, earning consumer trust required they find ways to end the manipulation of search results, and some brands got caught as the rules for the game changed.  Tactics that once seemed effective were suddenly hurting instead of helping.

Which brings me back to the state of social search today. It's so new, it's hard to even say social search is in its infancy; its more of a late-stage embryo right now.  Much will change in the next few years, and we cannot know what will happen as social search grows or how search engine algorithms will separate the winners from the losers.  But if buying links was considered to be an inauthentic way of increasing inbound links and improving search engine traffic, it's hard for me to imagine that compensating new fans for doing something they wouldn't otherwise do absent the reward will be treated any differently.

Gaining an army of Facebook fans will be a huge competitive advantage in the coming era of social search, but brands should be cautious how they recruit that army.  Tactics that seem smart and easy today could turn out to be dumb and too easy tomorrow.  

In fact, "too easy" should be the clue.  It was too easy to buy links or create fake doorway pages, so today Web site owners have to earn their way to the first page of Google the hard way — by genuinely being worthy of being there.  Brands hoping to help their social search engine relevance by amassing fans should take heed — the easy way may work for a while, but the authentic and hard way always wins in the end.  

(Note: I am not unaware of the irony that Bing is both an example of a brand that rewarded people for following and also a search engine that will live or die on the authenticity of the social search results it furnishes in the future. Now that social search is a part of Bing, I'm curious to see if it repeats the pay-for-like tactic that it used in the past.)

Comments

either search engines or us-one will mature

An insightful post..thanks for sharing.
.this is the malpractice in SEO and as search engines grow/mature further they will have to find a way. how bing does it would be interesting to watch.
But on the other hand do people actually search for brand directly - I think we still bing/google more for information which is rare to be a like from a friend rather than a coffee shop in the area...
and also if its for a new coffee shop and if I get to a place which has high likes and dont find it upto mark I will stop trusting these Liked results OR friends :)
It will be my training..
So we will have to wait and watch do the search engines train themselves or we do!

Thanks, Artee

Appreciate the feedback and input. Certainly both we AND search engines will improve! (Well, I may not mature, but I certainly will grow older.)

Augie, Interesting question.

Augie,

Interesting question. Been having similar thoughts about user management systems that "invite" you to sign into a destination website with your social networking credentails, only to realize you've followed or friended to gain access. Do you think those platforms are black hat too?

Http://twitter.com/ericschwartzman

Any examples?

Eric,

I'd definitely be concerned about a brand equating a login using social network credentials as the same as a "like" on that social network. Do you have any examples you could share?

Rewarding fans is different than buying links

I see where you're taking this, but I wouldn't go so far as to paint rewarding fans for liking a brand as a Black Hat SEO tactic. Though Bing is now depending on the likes of your friends to provide those social search, the resulting outcome may be that they need to do more analysis of which brands are "truly" liked by friends - looking at activity and engagement with those brands by friends instead of just whether they've clicked the "Like" button.

This is just the first iteration of social search and companies WILL have to get better. Also, I imagine the inclusion of "liked" results in search is still such a new concept that no one is looking at rewarding fans as a tactic to increase SEO relevancy. Even so, the commerce exchange in this situation is so much different than buying inbound links, I don't think we can compare the two.

Evolving Social Search

Mike,

Thanks for the input. You're absolutely right--social search will evolve and will get better at intuiting friends' real likes from their less-authentic likes. I still question if rewarding new fans won't still hurt in some way, but perhaps this concern will go away as social search tech improves.

Many brands are dying for an

Many brands are dying for an army of likes, most of the times just because to outperform their competitors.

I'm constantly trying to convince my clients that with followers it's more about quality than quantity. I rather have a small group of followers that are really engaged with my brand, than a big group of followers that are just in for the discounts. Brands should understand that social media marketing is about long term, building valuable relationships with their target audience. Even big brands like Dell, Coca Cola or Starbucks started with a small group of fans, when they started selling their products.

Brands should act in social more like as if they are opening their very first store, targeting at a small group of loyal followers. These loyal followers eventually will be the hard-core customers that will help spreading your message, reaching a much wider audience.

It will take much more time in order to create a big group of followers. As a brand, I would rather earn the attention then just buying the attention, don't you agree?

I agree!

Thanks Laurens,

I certainly do agree: I would rather earn the attention then just buying the attention.

I once heard of a TV show that paid a blogger to host tweetchats during the show. For the life of me, I couldn't figure out why they didn't take that money and sponsor a contest for fans of the show to sponsor a tweetchat each week. One way is buying attention; the other is earning it, and earning it always wins.

Learn about Black Hat

First, Black Hat SEO still works. Can google bots stop indexing you? Yes. Sites are de-indexed for several reasons.. learn more about SEO. Having follow through links from a known pay site can do this. YES. Can you fix it Yes. Do you know how many high page ranked sites have paid links on them? If I am a paid advertising and get an alt text back link.. i will get banned? No. Do social media sites allowed follow through links for SEO... No. Does this author have a clue about SEO other the he googled Black Hat SEO? No. Rewarding customers to fill out CRM data at a POS or online for a purchase or on a social media site have and will not have any barring or will Google have a way of figuring a lucrative algorithm for people who care to give back to their customers? No. As far as bing pulling in what your friend "like" into search, the date being pulled from your networks reliability is only as pure as the friends you keep. It will be a suppliment. Your telling me that 120% of people will like something.. not sure your poling methods and the questions you have asked.. though things do not ad up. So 39% of people will unlike me if I give them a coupon, discount or special? If you are worried about "paying" for fans by giving things away, Facebook will have to shut down because the 300-400 million in annual revenue is based heavily on people buying ads to promote their fan page and website (with no follow links). So with your current rational, your paying to earn fans to your page.

B2B Marketing

I find that most discussions regarding social media are focused on consumer driven marketing.I am currently manning a booth at a virtual trade show. I have designed a promotion for attendees visiting the booth that register with us and then become a fan of our Facebook page.
In my field of B2B digital marketing, I need to let a specific demographic of technologists know that we exist and are available to connect with on Facebook.
Ultimately this will drive traffic to our web site.
This was discussed at the Executive Marketing Summit hosted by the NYSE Euronext and the WSJ recently. Some notable comments from Ben Edwards, IBM, were regarding the longer sales cycle for businesses like ours and how difficult it is to quantify social media efforts and that Google Analytics only captures the last 2% of the transaction.
I agree that we are all in the same boat with predicting how this turns out.
Thanks for the topic!

What once was white becomes black...

Hey Augie,

Thoughtful and suggestive piece of marketing analysis.

I was there in the early days of search when the guys around me were creatively trying to out-guess the algo. So much of what they did then which was white or shading gray hat has now faded to black, as you note.

I'd also note that in addition to the future damage in page rank such faulty bought cred buys now for seeming popularity, any smart marketer is already massively discounting the "friends/likes" number of any FB fan page - today.

It's really - really - hard for a brand to get a human to "like" them for authentically true, brand loving reasons. Like most of us, I'm sure, when I look at a fan page number I'm already knocking 50% off for quality or age points.

As ever, the search engines are just mimicking what humans do, but with superhuman speed, efficiency & accuracy.

@tkennon | bigevidence.blogspot.com

Discounting fan quality

Your comment about discounting the quality of likes is pretty telling. Social search won't be worth anything if brands, social nets and/or search engines don't find a better way to separate affinity from likes for other reasons. I "like" Disney World because I'm an authentic fan, but I've also liked brands for far less authentic reasons.

Black Hat?

Social Media Users are pretty savvy, and can tell the difference between a "like" and a recommendation, with their thoughts and experiences included. Those companies that truly do good CRM will shine in social media, as their users will report their good experiences. Conversely, the users with bad experiences will be very vocal, and they must be given attention to address their problems, and it must be seen by other users for the company to get credit to their successful resolutions.
Garde Bien, is the message

Ideally, you want people to

Ideally, you want people to become fans of your brand for pure and altruistic reasons. But incentivizing people to give them that extra push to "like" you is not a new tactic. Augie, I'm sure at some point early in your relationship with Geri you bought her roses or took her out on a "special" date. Does that imply that your motives were somehow not sincere? Hardly. In marketing terms. you were just offering a little extra "something" to reinforce your brand.

Spam, Black Hat SEO and other tricks are about large numbers. Social Media is still about relationships. While a list of 300,000 fans will give you bragging rights, unless you're actively building and nurturing those relationships, that number probably will translate to a meager return per fan. Incentives won't have a long-lasting impact if the relationship itself isn't rewarding.

It wasn't the roses "way back when" that got Geri to leave Wisconsin and come all the way to California with you. But they may have just created enough of a spark of interest for her to discover all the other qualities about you that would make her follow you to the moon if you asked her to.

Sure, there are brands who offer huge promotional incentives to create an army of fans. Others, like our client Mitchell International Airport which is offering a shot at free airfare and certificates for eateries in the terminal, are trying to gain a respectable fan base of 1,000. But, big or small, if you are a firm believer in your brand's value proposition, there is nothing wrong with finding creative ways to get more folks to discover and appreciate what you offer...just so long as you're willing to do the hard work of maintaining the value of that relationship.

You don't bring me roses...

Tom,

As you saying that it was not just my studly good looks and charm that won Geri over!?!

The roses analogy is a sound one, but I also think we need to consider incentives not just from a one-to-one basis but also a one-to-many. Back in the old days, I'd get coupons or discounts to join a snail mail list, and that was just between me and the brand. But today, "likes" are more than that--if I 'like' a brand, then others can know this, friends who visit the brand web site can see my "endorsement" and now Bing results will tell my friends that I've liked the brand.

Providing compensation for this sort of advocacy is an entirely different thing than giving me a discount for subscribing to a list (or providing flowers on a date.) I honestly believe that as social media matures, the act of paying someone to follow you (even if it is just with a bagel or Farmville bucks) will have the same stigma as paying for links. (And as Facebook 'likes' continue creeping across sites and search engines, I wonder how long it will be before the FTC steps in with another "sponsored conversation" update.)

A Contrasting Example

Rather than point out the flaws of simply buying "likes" with rewards, I'm going to use an example that is the "White Hat" version that actually WILL build loyalty, yet still offers compensation for the fan's efforts.

Enter: Blizzard's "Recruit a Friend" campaign for "World of Warcraft".

Blizzard knows the most successful element of social media is community. They know the best gaming experiences are SHARED with FRIENDS. Thus, the point of their campaign isn't just to get new users, but new users who will stay because of a shared experience with a friend.

Thus, their recruit a friend campaign didn't just give the recruiter a reward. No, both fan and new user BOTH were rewarded with an enhanced game experience. They set up the campaign so that recruiters would earn rewards based on how much they helped their new recruits. Special options were included to ensure that the recruit and recruiter could connect easier. Most of the campaign was focused on helping a recruiter make the new recruit's experience the most enjoyable possible by playing together.

At the end of the trial, if the new recruit stayed, then the recruiter earned a reward. But Blizzard went out of their way to make the recruiting process as enjoyable as possible for all involved, and to reward their loyal fans -- both new and old.

Mirroring the experience outside the realm of games will take some creativity, but as more businesses really embrace the idea of community, the opportunities to truly welcome people (instead of just buying them off) will become more clear.

A lot to learn from gaming

Scott,

I absolutely agree that there's a lot we can learn from the gaming experiencing. And I don't object to the case study you shared, but I'm also curious about the level of disclosure that was involved. If a person is compensated for bringing another customer, further compensated for facilitating the onboarding process and compensated again when the new customer stays, that would create a material relationship per FTC guidelines. Nothing wrong with that, provided disclosure is transparent.

Thanks for sharing the example.

Blizzard's Campaign

Heh, the actual campaign spelling out everything from the get go. It was directed at existing players, explaining everything they and the person they recruited would benefit from. It came about before the FTC regulations, but even then it gave full disclosure -- it wasn't just being honest, they were considered selling points.

Rewarding someone financially

Rewarding someone financially (either directly or indirectly) for giving their 'like' to a site or brand is absolutely Black Hat. It's also BS - totally voiding any legitimacy these buttons might have as popularity metrics.

'Like' buying is no different from 'link' buying. Just another way the crap sometimes manages to rise to the top.

Not sure if the companies using this will suffer much (when people catch on to the fallacy of these types of recommendations) - not more than Facebook has for any of it's stunts anyway.

"(T)he authentic and hard way always wins in the end."
Let's hope.

Thanks, Jill

Thanks for the input, Jill. I appreciate the passionate dialog!

Buying Likes Short-Sighted

Buying likes is indeed black hat and short-sighted. What good is a single like? Let me tell you: NOTHING. Sure, looks good in the short term. In the long term, it's just a bunch of meaningless clicks.

In my Blizzard example, the recruiter was given tools and motivation to ensure the new person was welcomed into the community. It's more like getting a gift basket when moving into a new apartment. It's a little extra "welcome!" to try to make the person feel good.

Facebook apparently already has a system in place to deal with this. See, the top news posts use a strange sort of algorithm that at least partially depends on interaction. So that single "Like"? Yeah, doesn't do much if the person really doesn't care. Multiple interactions though? Different story entirely, but that's community action!

Self-respect in "liking"

Thanks Augie! Very interesting post!

And thanks to all the guys posted their comments to complement the whole picture of this issue.

I just wanted to add my 2c to this discussion as what I see now is people don't really respect their "likes" if they are ready to trade them for some lousy units in FarmVille. From one hand, users must breed at least some respect to their recommendations, which is rather irrational and is much correlated with the general trend is getting more reasonable in the social web. On the other hand, a careless inclusion of the "like" indicator in the search engine ranking calculation will definitely drive to the depreciation of results relevance and trust to search engines. At the same time it is no longer possible just to skip the social dimension of the information value and search engines will have to develop a new approach for website assessment. A possible way out could be assessment of the _users_ who cast their likes and ranging individual "likes" to keep up with search relevancy challenge.

Respecting your Likes

Denis,

Very interesting perspective. When you say people do not respect their "likes," it's interesting to consider that people don't recognize the power they actually possess. They "like" for a free bagel, but is their "like" worth more than that? Would those people really accept an offer to get a bagel in return for sending all their friends an email extolling the virtues of the bagel company?

My guess is they wouldn't--people would intrinsically understand that spamming friends in email is bad, but don't see indiscriminate liking as the same thing. And maybe they aren't the same thing, but they're close. Will our attitudes toward "liking" change as Facebook matures and the power of "likes" becomes more understood?

Facebook could have implemented two different relationships with Fan Pages--"Like" and "Follow"--to better mirror the real world (where some people merely shop at Target while others are true advocates for Target), but I suspect doing so would so decrease the appearance of advocacy that it would not be in Facebook's best interests.

Thanks for the dialog!

Thanks for your reply. The

Thanks for your reply. The social media landscape is changing rapidly I trust the short-perm perspective will bring us lots of surprises in merging this technology with other, especially search engines. And I am pretty sure the industry find the proper solution considering a compromise between SM advocacy and data discovery relevance.

At the same time I would argue the bagel example in your reply. In fact they already do so, but in this case e-mail is replaced with search engine results. Instead of getting an e-mail message their friends get irrelevant results in search engines. Pretty sophisticated approach but it works. And the most important thing is that users really wouldn't do the e-mail thing but reach the same result with careless "liking" and/or "following". The users simply do not understand this is the same thing.