How Many Social Media Icons Is Too Many?

As some of you know I’m working on a redesign of my site. Part of the reason for the new design is optimizing the site more for social media, including the use of bookmarklets at the bottom of posts. This afternoon I did some searching to find some icons I could grab and use in Photoshop to see how they fit with the design. I found the images I was looking for, but I also found a lot of negative sentiment about sites that use social media icons.

I know there are plenty of sites that take the icons too far and add them for every possible social media repository under the sun, but I was surprised to find some people so against seeing any at all.

Of the articles I came across that were against the use of social media bookmarklets the earliest complaints were from Chris Pirillo’s post Social Bookmarking Button Madness.

These buttons are annoying more than anything else, serving to show the world just how unpopular your content really is – and I believe that there’s no direct correlation between the number of social bookmarking buttons you place on your page(s) has any direct impact on the number of times those page(s) have been stored in the respective services.

Chris also mentions that most content isn’t really worth making the Digg front page or being bookmarked at del.icio.us and I agree. Most pages don’t deserve it, but you can’t always tell which ones do deserve it or which ones will make it regardless of their worthiness. And I do find irony in the fact that Chris has three blocks of AdSense on a page where he talks about social media icons being annoying.

I also came across a post on 37signals, It’s the content, not the icons, which makes the argument

The reason posts wind up at Digg, Delicious, or elsewhere isn’t because the authors made it easier to vote for them (it’s already easy). A post winds up at these sites because people respond to its content and quality.

Again I agree. If your content is going to make it to the front page of any social media site it has to be good content. But it also needs to be submitted in the first place. And I know most people who are familiar with social media probably know how to submit your posts, but why not help them along by making it easier for them. Isn’t that one of the first rules of social media optimization.

The 37signals post also argues that none of the Technorati 100 are using them. I only checked three of the 100 and while none had an abundance of icons I did find two of the three sites I looked at with a link to Digg and one with icon asking me to ‘Sphere It.” The links may not have been there when the 37signals post was written, but they are there as I’m writing this one.

Even if we assume there are no icons on the top 100 blogs I think there’s a flaw in the argument. Most of those sites get enough traffic that someone will submit the better content regardless of how easy it may or may not be. That’s not the case for most of us. If you accept the argument then you could also argue there’s no reason to provide an RSS icon or a link to subscribe. The latest browsers alert you when there’s a feed available and can subscribe to the feed without the link. Those of us who do subscribe to feeds already know how to do it and don’t need the help. And why ask someone to “Tell a Friend” since everyone knows how to use email?

Most of the other articles I came across were along the same lines. Mainly annoyance at seeing the icons and arguments that they don’t work to increase how often your page gets submitted and only serve to cheapen your site.

I also came across this post from Darren Rowse, Social Bookmarking Icons – Are they Worth it?, which takes a mixed view. I’ll let you read the post for the details, but for the gist

I guess what I’m saying is that on the majority of my blog posts the icon doesn’t do anything (in fact some would say it might cheapen the look of the site – especially when the counter is low) – however on the occasional post the icon might just give a quality post that doesn’t quite have the legs to go viral a lift that creates a digg-a-lanche.

At the moment I’m only seeing a single unobtrusive link for digging posts on Darren’s digital photography site.

Arguing for the icons was Tan Kian Ann in his post Social Bookmarking Icons.

Do I find those little icons useful? For me, yes, I’m a lazy blogger remember? Well, I like these cute little icons at the bottom because they help me do my stuff a little faster. When I like an article I read, this is a good and easy way to recommend it to the world. Also, they spice up the page a little.

Tan does go on to say that he hasn’t seen them help bring traffic so I assume people aren’t using the bookmarklets in great numbers on his site. He applauds Matt of 37signals for what he said about the icons looking cheap and not being effective, but Tan is also still including them on his posts.

My last stop was Pronet Advertising. Neil, Cameron, Ryan, and Muhammad know quite a lot about social media and I thought at least one would have something to say about the icons and I found two posts by Neil on the subject. The first, Don’t forget your bookmarks, argues for adding the icons to both your posts and your feeds.

The key here is to make it really easy for your readers to submit your blog entries. There are two main ways you can do this, the first would be through your blog and the second would be through your RSS feed.

From the title of the second post, Why too many little icons can easily distract your visitors, it should be clear where Neil now stands on the subject. This post is from last week and is easily the most recent of any I came across.

Neil’s argument is not due to any annoyance factor, however, but rather that having too many links or icons to social media sites dilutes the effect of each of them.

By giving your visitors too many options you may end up getting 1 bookmark on 10 different social sites instead of 10 bookmarks on 1 social site, which can hurt the amount of traffic you get from these sites.

After reading through all of the posts I can’t say my mind was really changed from where it was before I began reading. I still plan on using the icons (or links) and I do plan on keeping them to a few of the social media sites instead of all of them. Maybe at most I’ll only link to sites I’ve at least visited or have an account with. I hadn’t thought of the diluting effect so I did learn something (Thanks Neil).

But I still wonder how many is too many. Is four too many? Six? Ten? And once you’ve picked a number, which are the sites you should link to? Sure it seems obvious, but if you limit the amount a couple of popular ones won’t make the cut. And while adding an icon for Digg seems the most obvious what are your odds of making the home page? Maybe you’d have more success with one of the less popular social media communities. Perhaps in this case it’s best to be a big fish in a small pond than be a guppy lost at sea.

So what do you think? How many social media bookmarklets is too many? And which icons are the ones you would definitely include and which would you have to think twice about before including?

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4 comments

  1. Too many buttons could definately have a detrimental effect. I use a plugin for wordpress on the kbox blog which has the option to use a dropdown box instead of buttons or links.
    The dropdown box means you are able to include a lot of bookmarking services but not clutter the page with icons.

  2. I noticed the SEOmoz blog using a drop down too and thought it looked nice. I’ll have to consider that. Do you know the name of the plugin? Feel free to link to it.

    What’s your experience so far with the plugin? Are you finding it gets used? Are you seeing any more traffic? I know you use the icons on Pro-SEO. Do you know how often the icons are used on the Pro-SEO site?

  3. I enjoyed your article, Steven, and you’ve prompted me to add my own 2 cent’s worth (see http://is.gd/hYu2). You’ll notice that I referenced and quoted your article.

    To answer your question, I think more than half a dozen social media icons is starting to get a bit excessive. I would probably Google the Top 5 most popular ones, though I would think twice about any that I wasn’t familiar with.

    Incidentally, I’d probably shy away from MySpace (for example), simply because it doesn’t match my target demographic.

    Having said that, I actually use AddThis (http://www.addthis.com) as a catch-all icon. It allows me to provide access to dozens of popular social media sites without having to list each and every one up front. (No, I don’t get commission from AddThis!)

    All up, I’d say what is required is a balance: Yes, use social media icons because they’re useful, but don’t pollute your site with too many of them.

    • Thanks Ryan.

      I agree that a half dozen starts to get excessive. I’m not really sure how many or even if people use the icons to submit content. I find some like the Sphinn and Digg buttons an easy way to submit or vote, but otherwise I’ll just use whatever I normally use.

      I do think the icons can be a nice reminder to people and just in case someone does want to use the icons I’ve added the drop down. I’m sure it needs updating this point.

      Balance is a good concept to follow. A few is good, but too many detracts more than anything. And when choosing the few you should probably base it on sites where you do well and your content is a good match.

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