Social Search: Changing the Game on Search Engine Rankings
A recent report from comScore's qSearch 2.0 service indicated that more than 750 million people conducted online searches during the month of August 2007, and that amounts to 95 percent of the world's Internet audience.
These days, no one questions the value of search engine marketing - but there remains uncertainty about specific search marketing strategies and tactics. Increasingly, marketers are hearing about - and are being compelled to evaluate - social search. Should companies be paying attention, or is this just a phenomenon that will pass?
Since its inception in the mid-1990s, search engine optimization has been a necessary marketing practice for winning brands. Although the process is technical, and often affected by IT decisions relating to Web site development, the intent of search engine optimization always has been about marketing. The benefits of a company's Web site appearing near the top of search results might still be unclear to some marketing practitioners, but most companies that rely on the Web for leads or sales immediately understand the value of ongoing SEO evaluation and refinement.
Meanwhile, the Web has not stood still over the years, waiting for everyone to catch up. Increasingly, users are taking control of the content, whether through blogs or sites that encourage participation. Wikipedia is one of the best examples. The "wisdom of crowds" often makes Wikipedia a source of information regarded by its users as delivering a higher degree of accuracy than many other places online. On Wikipedia, users are able to contribute content to subject categories and can edit content submitted by others. The result is content that is agreed upon by the online community at large. And through its search-friendly architecture and volume of content, Wikipedia often is listed among top natural search results.
Social media affects much of what is seen online today. Sites such as Digg, Twitter, YouTube and others are becoming part of how media and content are viewed. Sites such as MySpace, Facebook, Second Life and LinkedIn are creating relationships in cyberspace that can affect offline relationships as well.
The concept of "social search" is providing the means for users to influence search results, either for themselves or for others. Sites such as del.icio.us and Yahoo! Bookmarks enable visitors to create their own sharable bookmarks and tag Web sites with keywords. The tags that are used are based on the user's perception of the site. Similar to product review sites, users influence other users by sharing their opinions.
Search engine optimizers are able to adjust the content on Web pages to favor one keyword over another, build Web sites that focus on primary keywords and phrases through architecture, and use meta tags to inform the search engines as to what a Web page is about. The ultimate goal is to have the site positioned for the keywords and phrases that marketers expect will result in their targeted customers finding the site.
While this process is still required, outside influences have started to erode positioning. Google's universal search (search results that include Web sites, blogs, video, music, books and other indexed content) already is affecting positioning of many sites on its search engine. When a search on Google yields listings that include many media types, companies might find that they have lost top positioning, in many cases, hurting traffic that is generated from search engines.
User-generated content such as blogs and wikis also influence search results. Blogs, which often appear in the top search results, are naturally search-engine-friendly; content owners often write using keywords associated with links to Web sites. Since links coming into a Web site with keywords associated with them have become part of many search engines' algorithms, blogs have become part of another component of natural search now being influenced by users rather than marketers.
The advent of social search changes the game for marketers. If in the future Web users, not just site owners, are able to associate keywords with a site and influence its position on the major search engines, how can search engine marketing be successful? Here are some steps to take now:
1) Evaluate as a marketer.
The first step is to determine how social search is affecting the company today. Visit Web sites that use tagging and perform searches to see how people are tagging the site. If the keywords are off-base, it might be just one visitor's perspective. But it also could be that the Web site is failing to provide relevant content for a given keyword from the user's perspective. Perform searches on Google and Yahoo! for blogs that are associated with the company or products, and once in those blogs, gauge how visitors feel about the company, Web site or products.
2) Participate as a user.
Join some of the sites that use social bookmarking and tags, and experience the process firsthand. Create a set of bookmarks and tag some sites to understand the experience. Try out Wikipedia, blog sites and other media that are relevant to the industry.
3) Translate findings and observations back to the site.
Evaluate the company Web site and make sure that the current user experience is a good one. Remembering that users already are discussing a marketer's site and those of its competitors, consider the insight gained through the evaluation given on social sites, and then apply that knowledge and insight to the site. Perform usability and user testing to make sure that processes on the site such as checkout, registration or content accessibility are easy for visitors.
Marketers should keep in mind the basics of search engine optimization and social search, monitor industry developments to understand search influences, and provide a good Web site user experience to help deliver excellent user reviews. These principles together will help move a company in the right direction as social search gains ground.
Jeannette Kocsis is vice president, digital marketing, for San Antonio-based Harte-Hanks Inc., a worldwide, direct and targeted marketing company. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.