Book Review: Marketing in the Age of Google

April 27, 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?

Marketing in the Age of Google by Vanessa FoxThat’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.

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6 Responses

  1. Thanks for the review! And I’m so so gratified to read this: “deftly navigating between being too superficial to add value and too technical for her executive business audience.” I spent a bunch of time trying to get the right balance with that, so it’s really great to hear that’s how it came across.

    As for the percentage of traffic from search — my concern with it being used as a primary KPI (without looking at the backup data) is that it’s very easy for that metric to be misleading.

    For example, I have been working with a large company who has decided to use % of traffic from organic search as the key metric for monitoring their SEO efforts. Someone within the company rightly noted that they could just stop doing paid search or remove the links to his property from other owned sites. With those two moves, he would easily increase the percentage of traffic from organic search (but the company would not actually be making any more money).

    You could go one step farther and look at total traffic from organic search, but that still can give you misleading data. You can easily get unqualified traffic that will never convert. Add some Lady Gaga videos or porn to the site and your traffic will likely go way up. But that might not improve the bottom line.

    I guess my key point is that it’s not that these metrics are bad. It’s just that you have to understand more about the underlying data and ensure that it’s actually moving your business forward.


  2. Tom 

    Vanessa – you’re welcome. Hey, you earned it, I just wrote it. :-)

    I understand what you’re getting at. My point with regard to metrics was simply that input A should produce result B. So, heavy AdWords spending should produce more paid search clicks. Heavy PR spending should produce more referral clicks from news sites, more direct visits (due to increased name recognition), and increased branded search.

    But all other things being equal, an increased SEO effort should lead to a greater % of visits from generic (non-branded) organic search. You’re absolutely spot-on about the importance of understanding “more about the underlying data.” The true value in any type of web analytics is what they say about what to do more of (because it’s working), what to do less of, and what to do differently.

    Again, I think your book is most valuable to execs and marketers who want to understand the business impact of search but don’t necessarily want to become practitioners. Nicely done!


  3. Dave 

    Now,this looks like a great read! It’s nice to have someone who really understands the dynamics of how Google works, take the time to write a book about it.

    I know their are tons of people who would like more insight as to how Google’s search algorithm works.

    Great review!

    P.S. Great to see the author chime in too.

  4. Excellent review, really liked the stats you have covered above (quite enticing).

    And I believe that they have covered a good angle of search, as algorithm’s consistently change, but the understanding of its core principles as well as its effects on businesses might still be very efficient for the next 5 years or so.

  5. This is so true and anyone who doesn’t value online search marketing is missing out on a huge part of the market. I have tried so many different marketing techniques for my landscaping company using door to door flyers and home shows with limited success. No hardly do any offline marketing and allow my website to generate most of my customers for me.

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