One of the phrases that’s been used to describe the current phase of online media is "the link economy." The basic concept is that for any content on a Web site to have economic value, it needs to have links pointing at it. As Jeff Jarvis says, content without links is "valueless."

Many real estate professionals (at least the ones reading Inman) are familiar with this in terms of search-engine optimization: links to content on your Web site increase the likelihood of your site rising in the battle for position No. 1 on Google. This is the SEO value of links to your content.

One of the phrases that’s been used to describe the current phase of online media is "the link economy." The basic concept is that for any content on a Web site to have economic value, it needs to have links pointing at it. As Jeff Jarvis says, content without links is "valueless."

Many real estate professionals (at least the ones reading Inman) are familiar with this in terms of search-engine optimization: links to content on your Web site increase the likelihood of your site rising in the battle for position No. 1 on Google. This is the SEO value of links to your content.

As more and more real estate marketing activity moves into social media, how do you recognize the value of links? How can you observe the link economy in social media and orient that information with other business initiatives?

I’ve been meaning to write this column forever: Here’s how you track and understand if there’s value in all those links you’re spreading around in social media land.

The challenge: finding the value in social media links

You’re out there sharing links via the big three social media sites: LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. Hopefully you’re also sharing links on forums and networks that are closely aligned with the region where you work and the types of customers you serve.

People are following those links to your Web site and then doing stuff. Hopefully they’re doing stuff like looking at property and scheduling appointments to work with you.

The first tool you have to understand what people are doing is your Web traffic report that segments your visitors based on "source." This is just Web analytics "geek speak" for "place they were right before they came to your site."

This is one of the most useful reports in your Web analytics package. But it’s not enough for social media. You see, as the bits of content we spread around the Web get shorter and easier to spread, it gets trickier to figure out what we can to do to increase our chances of having a message spread.

Imagine a situation where you have a Facebook friend who is more influential on Twitter than you are:

  • You write/commission a great blog post about a neighborhood you work in and the architecture of the houses there.
  • You share that link on Facebook and Twitter.
  • For some reason, none of your followers click on the link you posted via Twitter.
  • Then your Facebook friend copies the link out of Facebook and posts it to Twitter, where a lot of people click on it.

In this situation, if you looked at your "Source" report you’d see a lot of traffic coming in from Twitter. You might believe that it was your own Twitter post that was bringing that traffic.

While it’s true that the traffic is indeed coming from Twitter, none of that traffic would have come to your site if you hadn’t posted the link to Facebook: where your influential friend saw it. You weren’t in control of the traffic coming from Twitter, your friend was. …CONTINUED

This is important because if you want to improve your marketing, you need to know which actions that are within your control are working best. How do you know where to spread your links?

Step 1: campaign tagging

If you want to know where to spread your links, you’ll need to be able to track them based on where you first posted them. My favorite way of doing this is called "campaign tagging." Basically, you add some code to the very end of the URL you’re sharing and your Web analytics report will start tracking the extra information.

I use the Google URL Builder to campaign tag any link I share via social media. In fact, I keep a bookmark to that page on the browser toolbar so it’s ready and easy to use. The URL Builder wants a little information and it will make the special campaign-tagged URL for you:

  • Web site URL: that’s the original link to the content you’re spreading.
  • Campaign Source: this is just like source. I use it to note where I’m posting the link, such as Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, as examples.
  • Campaign Medium: this is the kind of link. For the short-form social media things I use "status," and for links in profile pages I use "profile."
  • Campaign Term: Leave this blank for social-media marketing. This is relevant only for search-engine marketing.
  • Campaign Content: This is where I put in a reference to the topic or message accompanying the link. In the example above I might use "neighborhood-architecture."
  • Campaign Name: For this I use "social-media" for my somewhat generic campaign. You can, too.

As you might have noticed, filling this stuff in isn’t too hard. Thinking of what to put in, though, is the hard part. It’s worth taking a moment and deciding up front what your default entries might be — especially for Campaign Name. It’s also good to revisit how you fill these out after you’ve been doing it for awhile, to see if you can make it better.

Remember the objective of this step is to help you observe what happens after you share a link.

Step 2: Shorten that link

The URL you generate using the URL Builder is really long. Like crazy long. Way longer than you can fit in your status updates. You need to shorten it.

Many link-shorteners come with some sort of built-in analytics to help you track clicks on your links. You will be tempted to just use these analytics. And for traffic that isn’t going to your own site, this is fine.

But for traffic coming to your site, where you can use your awesome Web traffic analytics package, you want to use the full process. If you don’t go through the campaign tagging step, then you won’t be able to correlate where you shared the link with how much traffic you got and whether that traffic engaged with your content (or filled out your lead-gen form).

So shorten the campaign tagged link. Smarty-pants tip: If you have your full-size long link in your Web browser address bar and type "bit.ly" in front of it, Bit.ly will make a shortened link in one step for you. For example, put this in your address bar and see what happens: "bit.ly/http://thoughtfaucet.com." …CONTINUED

Step 3: Share the link

Now that you are armed with a shortened link (and really, it only takes an extra 45 seconds to do steps one and two so don’t be frightened off), go share it somewhere — ideally, the site you entered as your Campaign Source in the first step.

Step 4: Read the reports

You can continue to use your Traffic Source reports to see traffic based on what you entered into Campaign Source back in Step 1. But you can also use the Campaign reports to get drill down information. This is what I recommend. Using the campaign report in conjunction with URL tagging, you can learn things like:

  • What content brought the best traffic, regardless of the social network source it was posted to.
  • What social network source brought the best traffic, regardless of content.
  • How visitors behave differently when they come via status links or profile links.

In the example at the beginning of all of this, you’d learn that you got a ton of traffic that was connected to the link you shared on Facebook, so you’d know that this was an activity that was working for you.

Step 5: Make things people like

Now that you know what people who come from shared links are doing on your site, make more content and share more links that more people like. Make less content and links that people don’t like. And try new content and links all the time to see what else you can learn.

Remember that this is just a way for you to listen to your customers. In fact, it’s pretty much the only way to listen to your customers online.

A last note

In SEO, the value of the link economy is established by Google: authoritative links to your content make your site more likely to show up on the first page of a relevant search term. The theory is that this is better for your Web marketing because you’ll get more organic traffic.

The impact of your SEO link economy may take a long time to realize.

For social media, the value of your link economy is established by the quality of your traffic: what people do on your site once they get there.

You’re going to want to understand how this works just as clearly as you understand the value of being on page 1 of Google. I hope the process outlined here gets you started.

Gahlord Dewald is the president and janitor of Thoughtfaucet, a strategic creative services company in Burlington, Vt. He’s a frequent speaker on applying analytics and data to creative marketing endeavors.

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