Feeling the force of peer pressure
Social media are making an impact on listings. Brands must learn to adapt in an environment where search is everything, says Martin Croft
Google recently set the cat among the pigeons in search marketing – again – by starting to downgrade search results from websites that it thought were buying or selling links. As a result, a significant number of sites saw their Google PageRank score drop, which in plain language means they will appear lower down the Google search results.
Significantly, many of the sites that were hit were social media sites – in particular, sites that were members of blog networks, linked together by a cat’s cradle of reciprocal relationships. Amanda Davie, head of search at agency i-level, says the search engines have been “playing around with getting the balance right for some time – when social media first exploded onto the scene, you did see too many results from social sites appearing in the rankings”. Other social media sites, however, seem to have benefited from the changes, with many experts believing Google has started giving free links from social network sites more weight. Links are hugely important to how well a website performs in Google’s PageRank scoring system, and therefore are hugely important in determining where a website appears in Google’s natural search results listings. While the secret algorithm that Google uses to generate its natural search listings is believed to include more than 100 different variables, it is known that the PageRank rating is a very important factor in determining the final position. Google argues that what it was trying to do with the changes relating to buying or selling links was to provide ordinary Web searchers with a better-quality service, by filtering out overly commercial sites and effectively upgrading sites that were more “trustworthy”.
I-level’s Davie says that there certainly have been attempts to influence natural search rankings: “Companies realised that they could raise their search profile by buying links. It got to the point where some digital agencies were even offering it as a kind of media buy. The search engines have been trying to balance that.” Of course, Google is not the only search engine in the online space. Other major players include Yahoo!, Microsoft/MSN and Ask.com, while there are now a couple of hundred smaller search engines, mostly operating in vertical markets. Where Google leads, in terms of how it treats social media for search results, others are more than likely to follow.
There is another aspect to the relationship between search engines and social media, however. As Lucy Allen, managing director of search agency Netrank points out, increasing numbers of consumers are choosing to look for information from other consumers who they contact through social networking sites and other social media sites, bypassing search engines altogether. Allen says: “Social networks are starting to rival traditional search engines as more and more users opt for bookmarks and recommendations from fellow community members as a way to gather information. An algorithm can never recognise spam as well as a human can, and many users are recognising the benefits of social search.
“The major search players are already incorporating democratic social elements into their offerings. Yahoo! has increased its emphasis on social search with Yahoo! Answers and has bought both del.icio.us and Flickr recently,” she adds. “Their published goal is ‘to change the game of search’ and ‘tap the untapped authority’ of users.”
Social media could potentially be a threat to search engines, then. Alternatively, they could be an enormous opportunity for them. However, search engines actually treat social media in technical terms; it has become obvious
to all that search engines and social media have an enormously close, perhaps even symbiotic, relationship.
Neil Jackson, search director at search agency Tamar says: “Social media is a key consumer influencer, so having an official presence on social networks can improve your brand’s halo effect. Brands should be looking at using social media as an added bonus to boost search rankings, and not the main focus.
Indeed, figures from Web traffic analysis company Hitwise UK show search engines generated 4.7% of UK traffic to the top 20 social network sites in October 2007, more than double the 2% recorded a year earlier. In turn, 7.1% of the traffic to sites in the shopping and classified category came from the top 20 social network sites.
Traffic is a part of the journey
Arjo Ghosh, founder and chief executive of digital marketing agency Spannerworks, argues that such an analysis – focusing on how traffic moves around the Web – is how marketers should be assessing their online performance. He says: “Too many marketers think that their website is the end result. That’s wrong. A website is part of a journey, not a destination. It’s a journey of attraction. And as part of this journey, the consumer will move in and out of social media sites before they make a final decision.” The general consensus of opinion seems to be that marketers should be trying to engage with social networking sites as much as possible, but not by engaging in overtly commercial transactions. Grant Whiteside, technical director of search agency Ambergreen, points out that social network sites will be indexed faster than most other sites on the Web, because their content will be changing so rapidly.
“Search doesn’t work in a vacuum,” Whiteside explains: what he means by that is that search marketing needs fresh content to function, and currently it is the social media sites that are carrying the greatest amount of new, unique content. Search engines, he says, will send their automated indexing software (known to many as “spiders”) to sites that change content more often than they will to sites that have static content.
Searching for social media
Whiteside says: “We’ve been experimenting with the time it takes to get content [placed on social networking sites] listed on search engines. The fastest we’ve ever managed was 17 minutes. A lot of that was luck, but it shows you how close an eye the search engines are keeping on social networks and other social media.” Tino Triste, social marketing consultant at search consultancy Just Search, reinforces this point: “Some of the most popular social networking sites are ‘spidered’ by search engines constantly and their pages are indexed almost immediately. Based on several tests, Just Search’s Social Media Optimisation (SMO) team demonstrated that new pages were indexed by Google within 48 hours, for newly registered domains, and for established domains new pages were indexed within two or three hours.” James Keehan, commercial product director at The Search Works, observes: “The integration between search and social media will continue to increase. The development of social media sites, particularly those involving usergenerated content, will continue to have an impact on natural search results.”
It is only natural that marketers will look for every opportunity to exploit the links between social media and search, Keehan argues. After all, as he points out, the natural results listings page “has elements of retail space about it – it’s a shop window. You want your brand to occupy as much of the retail space at the top of the page as possible.” He warns, however, that “it is difficult to do that successfully. Some aspects of social media are as difficult to control as viral media was when it started. And nobody has yet completely nailed total accountability, in terms of measuring return on investment.”
Keehan finds it surprising that “a lot of brands have yet to engage in search marketing, yet those same brands have jumped onto the social media bandwagon. I think that could be potentially very damaging.” Search and social media should be treated as two inter-related aspects of how brands appear in the online landscape, he believes.
One name, many guises
Marketers who are not completely familiar with the digital landscape are in danger of making a basic mistake, according to Warren Cowan, chief executive of search marketing consultancy Greenlight. Social media covers a wide range of sites and online activities, including social networking sites, social bookmarking sites, blogging and podcasting. Cowan believes that “social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace have to be treated differently to social bookmarking sites like Digg and de.licio.us. I’m not sure that people bitching about you on Facebook will have that much impact on your brand. But if you get listed on a social bookmarking site, then that can have a lot of impact.”
Jackson of Tamar says that “to be successful in social media, brands need to offer something genuinely useful to the user.” For instance, “creating applications, news stories and information pieces can help drive not only traffic, but also great links coming into your site”.
Some brands are going a stage further, however, and adopting what Jackson warns could be a very risky strategy: “While nobody wants negative comment, there is an emerging train of thought on link building that says brands can deliberately create controversial content in order to get people to post against you and then link to your site, improving your overall rankings. It is a risky strategy and executing it depends very much on how thick skinned you’re prepared to be.”
Jeff Revoy, vice-president for search and social media at Yahoo! Europe, says: “There are three key rules for marketers wanting to get involved with social media: add value to the experience; be true to yourself and know what
you’re getting into.”
He observes: “Social Media users are hugely sensitive about advertisers invading what they perceive to be ‘their’ space. It’s not the ads per se that upset users, more the authenticity of the communication. If brands are entering this world, then honesty and integrity are paramount. Needless to say what is the case for one brand is not the same for another. There’s really no reason to be ashamed of who you are. Consumers trust brands in their area of expertise.” Revoy agrees with Cowan’s warning about how marketers need to understand social media if they are to use it successfully. He contends: “Marketers should know what they’re getting into. Social media is very different to other online advertising, let alone press, television and radio. Advertisers should be aware that they’re letting their brand out into the open – that what happens next is out of their control. And also, there’s nothing more likely to create a nasty backlash than by trying to control what the users say and do with your brand.”