It’s hard to find a business today that doesn’t have a social media presence, whether it’s a food truck or financial planning service. With social media now connecting more than one in five of the world’s population, it’s a key step to building awareness of your brand.

Social media can also be an important tool in your search engine optimization (SEO) efforts.  Earning high-quality links to your site provides a strong signal to search engines that it’s a useful and valuable resource. Of course, the focus here is on the word “quality”. Recent updates to Google’s algorithms have cracked down on aggressive link-building strategies, and poor quality links can do your site more harm than good. In contrast, social media provides a way of earning natural links, by bringing your content to a wider audience and encouraging them to interact with it.

There’s been plenty of debate lately about whether Google takes “social signals” into account when it comes to ranking sites. Google’s Head of Web Spam, Matt Cutts, has said the answer is no in a recent video, and your number of “likes” and “followers” doesn’t directly boost your ranking. However he does say that Facebook, Twitter and similar sites are a “fantastic avenue” for driving traffic to your site, and building up your personal, or company, brand.

Here are three steps to using the power of social media to add value to your site:

Create shareable content
Of course, this is easier said than done! The days of posting as many guest blogs as possible, in an effort to win links, are over. But creating interesting, useful, or entertaining content, on your own blog or other sites, will always help you appeal to a wider audience.

Consider your readers and the key groups you wish to reach. Follow relevant industry news sites and blogs and try to find new angles. Consider what expertise you already have within your business, and how it could benefit readers. This could be anything from a video demonstration of your favourite recipe to a step-by-step guide to designing a website.

Well-researched posts, that are backed up with data or personal experience, will help establish you as an authority in your field. Infographics and videos can be particularly popular (and shareable). It’s almost impossible to predict which content will go viral. But if you concentrate on producing helpful, entertaining information in your field, you will gradually start to build a following and encourage people to link back to it.

And needless to say, make it easy to share your content by adding Twitter, Google+ and Facebook buttons to your blog posts.

Find key influencers    
Many of us follow other social media users in an ad-hoc fashion, simply following those we know or who follow us. There are a limited number of hours in the day, and social media can easily take up an increasing share of your time.

The good news is, there are a number of helpful tools, such as Followerwonk, Fresh Web Explorer and SoDash, that can help you identify influencers in your field, and target your efforts effectively. These can help your find people who have a shared interest, and monitor social media for relevant topics or discussions.

Don’t be shy about contacting people, sharing interesting content or joining conversations on Twitter.  Once you’ve started to build up relationships with influencers, it’s more likely they’ll share, re-post, or link to your content.

Be engaging and responsive
You’re probably already following a number of blogs, Twitter feeds and other social platforms related to your industry. Social media is meant to be more than a one-way conversation, so start interacting as much as you can. Add comments to blogs you find useful, share content from influencers, and join in relevant discussions.

While the quality of response is more important than the quantity, it helps to get in quickly when it comes to responding. Readers are most likely to pay attention to the first few responses, rather than scroll through pages of comments.

Aim to add value to a conversation. While you might have loved a particular post, try to go beyond simply praising it. Try to share your own insights or experience, or suggest a helpful resource, to make your comments stand out from the crowd.

The aim is to build a buzz around your company, expand your reach and earn natural links from followers and fans. Social media does require a considerable amount of time and effort, and  you’ll need patience before you see results. But it is becoming an increasingly important tool for online marketers, and can bring significant benefits in the longer run.