We’ve all heard of SEO or Search Engine Optimization, but these days SMO or Social Media Optimization is just as important. Social media plays an important role in marketing a business online. The best part is that it’s free!

You’ll want to start with joining a social media site. LinkedIn, Facebook and groups on Ning.com are where you will find your target audience. Look for a group that has a lot of members and open forums or groups to join.

Once you have joined a group, take the time to set up your profile with any pertinent information about your business. This should include your website address or business location, contact info and a description of your services or products. Some groups allow you to write your own blog. Ning.com groups usually have a blog that goes along with your profile. On LinkedIn you can add a widget that links to your blog. This will automatically update your profile page with your most recent blog entries.

The second step of joining a social site is to get involved. You cannot just build a profile and expect to connect with people. You need to start conversations and ask questions.

Starting a conversation is easy. Many times there will already be a discussion going on that you can join. You can also start a discussion about current business news, ask for advice, events, webinars or share free information that helped your business. Approach people you admire and either leave a comment or ask to connect. Not everyone will connect with you, but most are more than willing. A great way to let someone know you are genuine is to tell them why you want to connect when you send a request.

Be careful of spamming a forum or discussion area with posts that are only ads about your business. There are certain times when you can write about your business. Look for an “Introduce Your Business” discussion where you can write about your business. Another time to post about your business is when someone is looking for a service/product that you offer. You can always advertise your business by adding a signature with your name and website link at the end of any discussion you post.

Continue to make connections, build your network and find ways to work with other business owners. After you have mastered one group, join another. Join as many groups as you can without becoming overwhelmed about adding content and making new connections.

Blogs are still a viable way to spread word of mouth and build your brand. I recommend using a free blog host through WordPress or Blogger. Your first blog post should introduce your business. Your blog will have a sidebar area that you can add links to your site, product photos, your logo and reciprocal links. Reciprocal links with other blogs is a great way to reach a new audience. You can go a step further and post reciprocal entries on each others blog about the others business.

Post entries to your blog on a regular basis, either daily or weekly. This way people can see that you are reliable and it will fill your blog up with great content. You can post about your services and products. Each entry can showcase a different product or service you offer. Adding commentary on relevant news about your industry makes for great content. You can subscribe to a free service, Google Alerts on specific subjects that are sent your email address. Use this service to learn about news around the world.

Writing articles about subjects within your industry is a way to show off your expertise and advertise your business. You can submit articles to article banks such as Ezine or Hub pages.

Once you have published an article, you still need to market it. Add a link to your article on your site and blog. There are several free services that will allow you to share articles with the public. Popular sites include Twitter, Digg and LinkedIn. On LinkedIn groups you can submit articles to the news section of any group you have joined. You can also start a discussion about your article by asking what others think about that subject and referencing your article via a link to where it is located.

These are the basics of social media optimization or SMO. The longer you’re online the more you will learn. You can use the internet to build lasting relationships with customers and other entrepreneurs.