Archive for April, 2011
There’s no question that search has dramatically altered the marketing landscape; the traditional yellow pages are now viewed as a colossal waste of paper as 70% (and climbing) of consumers go online to find local businesses and more than 90% of B2B purchase cycles start on the web. But is it reasonable to say that search has changed everything?
That’s the contention of Marketing in the Age of Google: Your Online Strategy IS Your Business Strategy by Vanessa Fox, formerly Google’s search engine spokesperson responsible for communicating how Google’s search algorithm works to website owners.
This is not just another “how to do SEO” book for practitioners. (There are plenty of excellent works in that category, including Website Optimization by Andrew King and The Truth About Search Engine Optimization by Rebecca Lieb.) Rather, this is highly informative, strategic overview of search written for executives who need to understand the business impact of search without unnecessary detail about the mechanics.
Fox makes a strong, meticulously researched case for the centrality of search to business strategy right out of the gate, noting that:
- • “86% of searchers start at a major search engine when shopping and 70% of those product-related queries are for categories, such as digital cameras.”
- • “Online advertising triggers $6 to be spent offline for every dollar spent online and the in-store sales boost from search is three times greater than online display advertising.”
- • “In a WebVisible/Nielson survey, 82% of respondents said that they’ve used the internet to find local businesses; 80% say they’ve researched a product or service online before buying it locally. Yet, only 44% of small businesses even have a website.” (!) While those figures are now a couple of years old, it’s astounding that as recently as early 2009, more than half of small businesses still lacked a basic web presence.
- • “Most prepurchase activity involves generic terms and…brand searches tend to happen only close to purchase.”
Fox also makes a compelling case for using paid search (PPC advertising) and organic SEO in tandem:
- • “56% of Google queries show no paid ads at all, so if you’re counting on paid search to provide all of your visibility in searches, you could be missing half your audience.”
- • “When a brand appears in both the organic and paid results, the searcher clicked on that brand 92% of the time, compared to 60% of clicks when the brand appeared in only one location.” That’s why it’s important to buy branded terms in PPC campaigns—it increases clicks, plus the cost is generally low and the conversion rate high.
She points out that the largest expense associated with organic search is in developing original, relevant and useful content for your customers and prospects. This of course is not only helpful for increasing search traffic, but also helps your site visitors, builds your credibility as an industry expert, and ultimately increases sales.
Fox is a noted speaker and expert on the strategic use of search, and provides a wealth of insights in this book such as an outstanding taxonomy of search types (navigational, commercial/transactional, informational/research, prepurchase research and action); how smaller companies can capitalize on the use of Google Search Suggest to find popular but less competitive search phrases for targeting SEO efforts; how search engine users process search results (and why a well-written meta description tag is critical); and, quantitatively, how important first-page rankings are to driving search traffic.
Beyond making the business case for search, Fox explains—in high-level, non-nerdy terms—how to implement a search strategy, how to get your business strategy and SEO technology in sync, how to separate actionable information from the mass of search and web traffic data generated by analytics tools, how social media marketing affects search results, and key search trends on the horizon.
Her writing style is straightforward but engaging; there’s no flowery prose or cutesyness. Fox keeps the narrative moving along briskly, deftly navigating between being too superficial to add value and too technical for her executive business audience. She explains how search engines rank results, without getting too geeky about algorithms. She warns against black-hat SEO “professionals” who try to use manipulative tactics to game search results (as sites like J.C. Penny and wiseGEEK have recently discovered). She emphasizes the role of high-quality, original content for search success and how to evaluate searcher behavior and goals in order to develop valuable content.
Fox notes that “Marketing, social media and public relations can help your link profile considerably,” which is a core tenet of web presence optimization (and our agency’s approach to SEO and online marketing). Her clecklists for hiring SEO talent, whether in-house or through an agency, are helpful guides to the key criteria to consider (and what to avoid, such as “guarantees”). Her take on which metrics are unimportant in SEO reporting is questionable (the percentage of overall site traffic driven by search isn’t important?!), but what’s more critical is simply doing actionable reporting: according to Fox, “only 23% of sites have an analytics package installed, and only 1% are doing A/B or multivariate testing.”
There’s much more, on how to use social media effectively, how to use articles and forums to expand you web presence beyond your website, how online video affects search results, and Google’s plans for the future of search.
Fox has written a highly readable and informative book that can benefit several different audiences. SEO practitioners will gain strategic business perspective on the importance of their work. Marketers not directly involved in search will understand how they can contribute to the firm’s online visibility. Executives will find logical arguments and sound data on the importance of understanding search, at a high level, as a key component of overall business direction. To return to Vanessa’s contention on the book’s cover: has search really changed everything? Read Marketing in the Age of Google: Your Online Strategy IS Your Business Strategy and decide for yourself.
The SeoQuake team, the group behind the SEMRush tools for SEO and keyword research, recently released a new tool to help SEM consultants and agencies find local clients. SEMRush Geo displays Google AdWords advertisers on a Google Maps background, enabling users to identify the businesses within any geographic area who are running AdWords campaigns.
Clicking on any businesses opens a small pop-out with additional information (which is also displayed in the left sidebar). Clicking the SEMRush icon within the pop-out or sidebar opens a new window displaying the keywords bid on by that company, and for each keyword the average cost per click, destination URL, percentage of AdWords traffic driven, percentage of AdWords costs and more. The free link displays only partial data; a Pro subscription to SEMRush (at $50 per month) is required to view all of the AdWords data, plus organic keywords, history and export capabilities.
For companies using AdWords, it may seem almost a bit creepy that there is this level of detail about their SEM activities available publicly. But it’s a good reminder for all of us that what we online is, usually, there for the world to see if one knows where to look. For SEM agencies and consultants, the SEMRush Geo tool is a prospecting goldmine. Used properly, the tool can help agencies generate new business and advertisers improve the effectiveness of their AdWords campaigns. For consultants and agencies that provide SEM services, this is definitely worth checking out.
FTC Disclosure: SEMRush provided access to their tools to assist in conducting this evaluation but did not provide any direct compensation for writing this post.
There have been numerous posts written about the pitfalls of social media marketing (including helpful pieces from Online Social Networking, Sysomos, and one I wrote for HubSpot). But the list below is a summary of the most common mistakes based on both my client experience and research for this recent presentation:
Avoid these dirty dozen of the most common social media marketing mistakes and you’ll be well on your way making social media not just an effective vehicle for marketing and PR, but a productive tool across your organization.
Failing to LISTEN. Social media is about having a conversati0n with your prospects, not broadcasting to them. You can’t have a conversation without listening. Trying to treat social media like the old world of interruption-based advertising won’t work. It will backfire.
Assigning it to an intern. Your social media presence is, for many of the people you’re trying to reach, now the public face of your company. Your social media strategist is your public spokesperson. It takes business savvy and years of industry experience to do this well. It’s far easier to teach a subject matter expert in your company how to use social media tools than it is to try to magically impart product, company, industry and business knowledge to a social media intern.
Failing to plan. Social media efforts should be based on understanding of which tools to use (based on where your customers, partners and industry influencers congregate), who will be responsible for what tasks, what your objectives are, and how you will measure success. Otherwise, you’re flailing.
Using social media as a direct response vehicle. Except in rare cases (e.g., a restaurant tweeting out lunch specials to area businesses at late morning) social media is just not effective as a direct marketing / direct response tool. Particularly in the b2b world, your fans, followers and connections are looking for helpful information and interaction; blatant promotion is more likely to turn them away than to turn them into customers.
Trying to automate interaction. Conversations can’t be automated. Automated welcome DMs on Twitter and the like are obnoxious. While there are places for automation in social media (such as monitoring and automatically submitting blog posts to various social networking and bookmarking sites), it’s best used carefully and sparingly.
Expecting instant results. Social media success is based on content and trust. It takes time to build a critical mass of both. Search traffic to blogs increases over time as the blog establishes authority and amasses content. Followers, fans and connections increase as trust and dialog are developed. By all means, expect and measure results from social media. Just don’t have unrealistic expectations of achieving those results overnight.
Allocating insufficient time and resources. Some marketers (and even CFOs) mistakenly view social media as “free.” While it’s true you don’t have to pay a fee to put up a Facebook page or start tweeting, there is nothing free about successfully using social media to reach and engage with customers and prospects. It takes time and effort to create content, promote it, monitor social media conversations, and participate in dialog. Social media marketing requires adequate allocation of time and budget just like any other tactic; the specific line items are just different.
Sending mixed signals or messages. Virtually every organization that has employees is already participating in social media, whether “officially” or not. With three-quarters of Internet users now using social media, your employees are already out there. And just as almost everyone talks about work about work outside the workplace, most people will tweet or post about their employment from time to time as well. It’s critical to communicate your social media objectives and messages to employees, establish and communicate a social media policy, and train them in the proper business use of social networks. Proper training dramatically reduces the risk of an employee releasing sensitive information, inappropriate comments or just plain muddled messages (e.g. Kmart as the place for fashion, or Oracle as ideal for small business) to the market.
Being dishonest or misrepresenting the facts. As noted above, social media success requires building trust with your audience; nothing shatters that trust like being untruthful or even less than transparent in social media. The Walmart blogging scandal is a classic case study in what not to do, but the problem isn’t limited to big companies or to the b2c world. A blog represented as being by the CEO better contain the CEO’s words. Corporate Twitter accounts should reveal who’s behind them whenever possible. It’s far easier to just do the right thing from the start than to try to repair a damaged reputation later.
Failing to provide fresh, relevant and valued content. In less than two decades, we’ve gone from a world of information scarcity to information overload. To stand out and make an impact, your content needs to be both original and helpful to your audience. Traditional marketing materials (e.g. product brochures and case studies) are not content; they still have their place, but that is later in the sales cycle after a sales dialog has been established, not at the exploration and initial interest stage where much social media interaction occurs.
Being negative. On the Internet, your words live forever. There’s rarely any benefit from making enemies, and prospective customers respond far more positively to constructive information than to trash talk. That’s not to say of course that you can’t objectively describe a disappointment with a vendor or be a bit controversial at times, but personal attacks and derogatory statements about competitors are more likely to damage the source than the target.
Treating social media as a silo. Social media is, ultimately, a sophisticated communications tool; it’s utility extends far beyond marketing and PR to product development, HR, customer service and other groups. In the most advanced stage of social media adoption, companies truly integrate the use of social media across the organization. For those organizations in earlier stages, the key is to train your marketers and subject matter experts on the proper use of social media tools, not to treat social media as a distinct function separated from business knowledge or function.
I had lunch recently with a long-time friend who’s a top-notch financial planner. He said something about achieving investment success that, it struck me, really applies to the SEO world as well.
“I encourage clients to invest for the long term. Trying to time the market just doesn’t work. If you’d been out of the market and missed just the ten best trading days over the past 20 years, you’d have given up half of the total return. I recommend buying and holding quality funds. I know I’m not smarter than the market.”
It was that last sentence that seemed applicable to SEO; the problem with any type of black hat, manipulative, bad SEO practice is that the practitioner believes he or she is can outwit the search engines. While your SEO consultant should be smarter than a 5th grader, don’t ever hire one who isn’t willing to acknowledge: “I am not smarter than Google.”
The history of black hat SEO is littered with tactics created by people who lacked the humility to make such admissions. Keyword stuffing, link farms, cloaking, “white text”–all of these tactics worked for a time, before drawing the fire and the ire of search engines, leading to penalties and blacklisting in many cases for site owners.
More recently, J.C. Penney saw its rankings plummet on Google after the retailer, or its SEO firm, or some mysterious force (no one seems to want to take “credit” for the tactics of course) was discovered using link spam and link buying techniques to artificially inflate search results. Google also released the Farmer Update to its search engine algorithm in February, designed to degrade results for content farming (which is a tactic, not strictly a type of site; there are SEO “experts” who apply the technique of generating a large amount of keyword-rich but low quality content to commercial websites in order to manipulate search results).
Google employs thousands of top-notch engineers, including a significant number devoted to search quality. No SEO is going to outsmart this team–at least not for long. The experience of sites like J.C. Penney, wiseGEEK and HubPages demonstrates the risk of SEO hubris.
The best SEO consultants are smart enough to know how to apply Google-recommended best practices effectively, while remaining modest enough to accept that they aren’t smarter than Google.