The Transformation of Search Marketing: Semantics, Social Media and Brand Building

June 25, 2014 - Digital State Marketing

Since its inception, Google has had an unprecedented influence on global marketing. Its authority over the internet is unmatched and it has almost single-handedly revolutionised the world of online search.

In 1998, Larry Page and Sergey Brin launched Google seeking to organise the world’s information and make it useful, relevant and universally accessible.  Google constantly updates its search engine to try to offer the best experience for both businesses and browsers and, while its concepts of value, relevancy and delivery have never wavered, the tools used by businesses and marketers to get to the top of the search rankings have changed significantly.

A flexible web is at the heart of search marketing's growth

A flexible web is at the heart of search marketing’s growth

The web is fluid and dynamic, so change is inevitable 

In this paper, we’re looking at the dramatic transformation of search engine marketing (SEM). We’ll examine how different search engine iterations have demanded a more holistic understanding of search marketing – with particular focus on Google. We’ll examine the shift from “black hat” to “white hat” SEO tactics; discuss how and why search marketing has become more grown up and, also, emphasise the importance of brand development, content and articulation.

Google opened up whole new worlds of potential for businesses. With the adoption of online technology businesses have become universally accessible at the click of a mouse and, therefore, less defined by territory. The simplicity of online search, for instance, has fuelled the advent of ecommerce and a notable shift away from traditional bricks-and-motor sales.

In the past, SEO schemes tended to stress the importance of web traffic, rather than user experience. Search marketers were obsessed with tactics, and their main jobs were to adapt websites to make them more search engine friendly, which included the acquisition of lots of inbound links.

So, what has changed?

First, and arguably foremost, the new face of SEO has provided a new commercial context for brands and consumers. Google – and, indeed, other search engine providers – are constantly making changes to their search algorithms to reward the websites that provide the best user experience and weed out those which try to cheat the system. Semantic search is at the heart of this and, last autumn, Google released its new Hummingbird algorithm to meet the new demands of conversational and voice search.  Hummingbird was designed to improve search accuracy by enhancing Google’s understanding of the intent and context of search requests.

Google is, essentially, a search match-maker but has always had a challenging job. It is imprecise and, in the past, businesses could only guess their most suitable keywords because buyers and sellers inevitably describe (and conceive of) products differently. Semantic search, however, changed the playing field. It seeks to understand the content of a website, the intent behind a search query and, then, explicitly match the two together.

Google has access to personal profiles, search histories and social connections, helping it to better understand user preferences. And, in order to better understand a website, Google maps the relational connections of its webpages throughout the web.

The Exponential Growth of the Digital Brain

The Exponential Growth of the Digital Brain

“Google’s technology has got smarter”, says Ian Duncan, a digital marketer at MediaCo. “Previously, SEO was about building links and about putting pages up with keywords so you can rank. Now it is about content that is engaging, great site design, pages that load fast. The old-fashioned and dishonest methods are starting to die away. It is becoming much more difficult for people to get any sort of results doing that, which is good for the industry.”

Search engines have continually sought to provide users with a better online experience by updating and refining their search algorithms. It is (arguably) impossible for businesses to react to all search engine modifications, but their influence on the trajectory of search marketing cannot be underestimated. In February 2009, for instance, Google released its Vince update which seemed to strongly favour major brands, underlining the importance of online brand building and cross channel marketing. In February 2011, Google released the first in a series of incremental updates – known as Panda – cracking down on poor quality content, content farms and webpages with a high advert to content ratio. In February 2012, the Venice algorithm integrated more locally relevant results, heightening the importance of localised SEO plans. And, in April 2012, Google released the first instalment of Penguin – which targeted “black hat” tactics such as keyword stuffing, unnatural link profiles and poor quality content.

Indeed, Google’s algorithm is now so sophisticated that good “traditional” marketing is fairly indistinguishable from good “digital” marketing. The gap between the search engine and us – as humans – has narrowed which is good news for “honest” websites.

A shift away from “black hat” to “white hat” SEO tactics has been necessary. In other words, there is less value in unethically cheating Google’s algorithm and more long term merit in creating the best possible user experience. There may still be quick short term results in using black hat SEO. However, unethical tactics such as keyword stuffing, spamdexing, invisible text, doorway pages and link farming might prompt Google to demote, penalise or completely de-index websites from SERPs.  Google, rightly, encourages business to adopt white hat marketing strategies and rewards ethical practices including strong authoritative content, suitable keywords, clear social signals, quality inbound links and responsive easy-to-use websites.

Following last year’s Hummingbird algorithm and the explosion of semantic search, it is now more important for a website to promote itself beyond the narrow band of keywords.

Content is, of course, king.

Written content should clarify the fundamentals of a product or service. However, it’s also crucial that businesses create some kind of conversation – or buzz – around their brand. One of the best ways is to launch a strong social media campaign through Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+.

In the semantic web of today, well-articulated social signals, high quality content and sustained interaction with consumers by way of comments, “likes” and “shares” helps to create a network of online connections. Establishing a social media footprint enables users to, essentially, peer recommend and promote a brand with a seal of approval.

The opportunities offered by social media are manifold, but it is important for businesses to interact with audiences by replying to users, rather than simply posting messages.  “If you are a brand and you are just listening, you are not dealing with any issues or any problems that may arise. You don’t really have a voice – you are not engaging with the customer,” comments Ian Duncan from MediaCo. Social media allows businesses to respond to negative feedback – which they can’t do through SERPs – helping them manage real-time crises. Indeed, an active and engaging social media presence can demonstrates that a business cares about customer satisfaction.

Consumers are interacting more closely with the web and brands have to meet their growing expectations. Businesses can use tools such as Facebook Advertising to broadcast their brand to the ever-growing social media audience, for example, which is a great way of generating more traffic to websites. However, marketers should not regard social media and online search as separate entities. Our online experience is multi-channelled, so businesses need to create cross-functional processes to integrate media. Companies should share keywords, user behaviours, user decision-making processes and social conversations between the two to help optimise their marketing campaigns.

Nowadays, brands are creating full online experiences because simple answers to search requests are no longer enough. Customisation is important. Firstly, marketers need to recognise how users engage with individual brands. Statistics and data gathering have become an integral part of search marketing. Analytical statistics, competitive tracking figures, offline sources and social commentaries help to illustrate user needs and preferences.

However, marketers still need to engage with specific customers to gain trust and loyalty. For example, brands should target different demographics differently – teenagers, young professionals, new mums, retirees – and try to create richer media and unique search experience for each user. “Infotaining” and “brand storytelling” have become popular. “Far from being idle fun, stories act like cultural DNA – tiny packets of information that build tribes and societies. The stories we love most tell us what people like us value, what they don’t, and what they want for the future”, writes Jonah Sachs in the Guardian. “Telling powerful stories calls for deeper authenticity from brands…and this journey to deeper authenticity…makes for great viral story fodder and has built sensational amounts of loyalty for brands such as Patagonia.”

Fully optimised, socialised and paid media are used to target specific users and create, corresponding (unique) experiences for different demographics. And relevant experiences fuel positive marketing spirals. For instance, a positive brand experience might result in a social share; while a negative experience might generate undesirable feedback – particularly important if SERPs incorporate more social media results.

As a society, we rely on the internet more than ever which means that traditional marketing approaches – ads in newspapers, on the TV, on radio, on public transport and in phone directories – have become somewhat more redundant. But is digital marketing closing the door on traditional methods?

The marketing landscape has experienced profound change over the past decade. Today, online search is massive. However, basic marketing tactics have remained the same. Marketers still promote the best brands, products and services to the most suitable consumers.

Online Marketing versus Traditional Marketing: Where's the Fight?

Big Fight Or a Tag Team?

Well, in short, “traditional” marketing is not out of a job

Nowadays, we’re faced with more and more strategies, tactics and channels to work with. In our increasingly competitive marketplace, it is essential to market brands online – and adopt all possible channels. Consumers have embraced the world of online search and now, arguably, depend on online media more than other traditional forms, but it is still necessary to integrate offline and online marketing plans to maximise brand exposure and improve return on investment.

It has never been easier to build a fully optimised, multi-dimensional, marketing strategy

There’s still lots of marketing potential offline. Marketers need to be aware of consumer habits and decision making processes. Television, radio, newspaper, magazine adverts are still useful methods of raising brand awareness and educating potential customers about services and products.

Initial interest then needs to be channelled online. Firstly, it is necessary to provide consumers with an incentive to visit a website. Providing a web address on a TV ad, or a Quick Response (QR) code on a promotional poster, can work effectively.

Once a customer has been drawn online, then marketers are on the right tracks and more direct strategies can be used to encourage potential purchases. For example, a direct mailer scheme can help to further educate consumers and specific targeted landing pages help to stimulate engagement and trustworthiness. In other words, a properly optimised online presence can help to capture traffic downstream, after garnering initial interest through upstream offline campaigns.

Naturally, it works the other way around too. Brands can use online tactics to publicise, and popularise, offline activities. Social media is a great tool for circulating information about events, and target-specific paid ads can help to direct customers towards bricks-and-mortar experiences, which means more in-store conversions.

Consumers inhibit both online and offline worlds. Therefore, to get the best out of a brand, to maximise customer numbers and increase sales marketers need to interact with both – it’s a multi-channel, multi-faceted marketing world.

A Brave New World?

Search, or digital, marketing no longer exists in isolation from “traditional” marketing. With the advent of semantic and multi-platform search, as well as the huge proliferation of digital devices, it has become an integral component of the marketing domain. And, as our techno world evolves, it will probably eclipse methods such as TV and radio ads in importance.

To optimise their websites, and offer the best customer experience, businesses should be using professional marketing agencies. Irrespective of business models or whether a company engages with online sales or not, companies need to embrace search marketing and realise the potential of SEO to maximise market potential. Even if a website is essentially just a digital business card, it should be as impressive as it can be. As marketers ourselves, we still focus on value, productivity and relevance, and even though the digital and human “worlds” continue to intertwine, we’ll continue to champion the best marketing practices.

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