“The increasing overlap between search and social means it is very easy for people to have a conversation about a brand on a social platform which could potentially negatively impact search results,” warns Andy Mihalop, head of digital at MoneySupermarket.com. Search is growing ever more complex, and with it, marketers face the challenge of managing their brands’ reputations online, particularly with the rapid rise of social media and the emergence of Google+. All publicity is not good publicity, so how can brands ensure they combine prominence with positive sentiment?
Paid or natural?
Carphone Warehouse recently carried out testing to see what would happen if it stopped bidding on its own brand terms and was exposed to just natural listngs.
Gareth Jones, the retailer’s head of online marketing, says: “We wanted to see what would happen to the traffic and overall conversions. Would competitors suddenly flood into the space at the top of the page that we no longer occupied from a sponsored ad perspective?”
Competitors did flood in but Jones says the overall conversion remained pretty consistent. However, Jones says paid search is still valuable. “Paid activity allows you to be very specific about what propositions you want to include. it gives you a lot more nimbleness in terms of the propositions consumers see. You can’t do that through natural listings.”
MoneySupermarket’s Mihalop agrees that dominating brand terms in paid and natural search fulfil very different roles. “Often, someone may not start on a brand search – they may search on ‘car insurance’, for example; so what experience do you provide to the consumer at that point? It is about tailoring great, high-quality content in all its forms to dominate the search results and connect with that user at that point in time.”
Make content king
Content is also at the heart of the search strategy for boutique hotels guide, Mr & Mrs Smith, says Tamara Lohan, co-founder and chief technology officer. She says: “We’ve developed an in-house editorial team of journalists who obsess about what we present our customers with – they ensure we only give them information they can really use. We don’t create content solely for search engines: everything has to help our customers find what they’re looking for. And, in terms of rankings, this policy can only benefit us in the long run: search engines are interested in giving people what they’re after – so are we.”
The effect of social sharing
Only 14% of brands have social in their search results, according to iProspect’s research, yet this can be an effective means of ensuring a brand dominates the natural search rankings. Aside from the corporate website, brands should ensure their Twitter presence, Facebook page and corporate blog, for example, rank highly because it allows them to assert control over where consumers are directed – and ensure competitors don’t capture traffic.
Mihalop says: “Word-of-mouth marketing is a great way to protect brand space within the search results. It is also about thinking beyond written content – if we rank number one in paid and in natural, we might then have YouTube content and other social content.”
A news flash
Kyocera Document Solutions, a document output management group, uses news as a means of improving its search ranking in a positive way in the UK. “A lot of our comment is syndicated from our European marketing centre, which tends to rank less well for us. So we create local content, keep it updated and add to it frequently,” says Rob Attryde, marketing communications manager.
Video results are also growing in importance – iProspect’s research shows this is a strategy for 15% of brands. Carphone Warehouse is one company investing heavily in this area, says Jones.
“We will post video through platforms such as Google+, and we also have our Eye Openers channel on YouTube – bite-sized videos that help people use their phone functions to the full.
“We’ve had over 8 million views on our Eye Opener channel, and this starts to percolate through the natural listings.”
O2 also has an active YouTube channel called Guru TV, which has attracted more than 4 million views. O2’s Taylor says: “Video allows deeper and richer engagement and an additional element in ranking on relevant terms.” The channel gets strong support through paid search.
Good content can also help brands assert greater control over negative brand comment, in particular complaints. As Jones explains, a Google search on ‘Carphone Warehouse complaints’ is likely to bring up a paid ad that reads ‘We’re sorry if you’re not happy – here’s how to contact us!’, and a top-ranking natural search result that directs users to the company’s complaints policy page. “We have bundled all the query variations into a portfolio, and essentially we now have a slick customer service process that enables people to contact us through multiple access points. It also means we can respond much more quickly.”
“A lot of forums pop up that some people would be quite hesitant about visiting. But if we have user-generated assistance on our site addressing these types of issues, our brand will appear at the top of the listings, and like a brand beacon, people will be confident visiting.”
MoneySupermarket’s Mihalop agrees that online communities offer benefits, including having a positive impact on search – but only if they are well managed. “Having forum content that is indexed by search engines is great because a lot of that content would perhaps appear in midand long-tail searches. But, equally, if you have forum content on your site you have to be very committed to managing that community. If you allow all forum content to be indexed then negative comments could potentially appear on search listings.”
Google+ joins the fray
Yet it is a place brands feel they have to be. Even bands are getting in on the act. The Irish pop rock band The Script has implemented a Google+ strategy (see case study, below).
Meanwhile, Attryde says Kyocera has embraced Google+ as an interesting opportunity, though it has failed to see much potential so far. “We’ve used Hangouts for meetings and it seems to crash, so we end up resorting to Skype. We are building company pages, but for all the members apparently signed up there doesn’t seem to be much ‘noise’ going on within it.”
Carphone Warehouse has also just launched a Google+ page, but Jones is honest about the brand’s intentions. “It is not because we expect to get 250,000 fans [as it has on Facebook] but because we know that Google, through its natural listings, disproportionately rewards social signals if they come from Google+. Our thinking is that if we have lots of fresh content going into Google+, that content will be beneficial for us in terms of the search listings.”
MoneySupermarket, which works with Yahoo! and is another early adopter of Google+, has similar aims. “As soon as Google+ made company profile pages available, we set that up,” says Mihalop. “How it is weighted we don’t know, but I think in future we can foresee that +1 in Google is going to carry some weight. So the more we can build our community on Google+ and be able to leverage it to try to social share, the more we should receive a higher weight within algorithms. It is part of our future-proofing strategy.”
With Google’s weight, brands would be foolish not to at least keep a close eye on Google+ as – successful or not – it is the first step towards the future of search: personalisation. As Mr & Mrs Smith’s Lohan says, Google+ is a sign that search is moving towards “totally bespoke search results ranked according to your interests, your previous search behaviour, the strength and nature of your social connections – ultimately to your own personal psychology.”
Managing reputation through search is undoubtedly getting more complicated and will continue to require more resources, but brands certainly can’t afford to just ignore the issue.
Case study: The Script
Irish pop rock band The Script has been working with Essence Digital to launch its Google+ page and ensure it is optimised across all search touchpoints. The Script’s guitarist Mark Sheehan says: “It’s really important for bands to connect directly with their audiences in social. We understand Google+ is another important player in the market and wanted to ensure we had every touchpoint covered.”
When the campaign began, Essence monitored the organic growth on the Google+ network. To do this, they did not drive any traffic from The Script’s existing social properties. After a number of weeks The Script page had 160 fans. The agency then began +1-ing all its own content, fan posts and comments, and within a week fan numbers had shot up to 47,000, although average length of engagement isn’t yet as high as on other social platforms.
There are opportunities on Google+ beyond getting fans to +1 content. Essence Digital suggests that music artists could use it for live web ‘jams’. Ultimately, the search engine’s social site could be used to engage with new fans and boost page rankings in search.
Top tips for leveraging Google+
The first step to improving your visibility is to claim your listings. The process is very simple and can be done in less than a day.
Google allows you to directly connect up your Google+ brand page with your main website. This makes it appear for brand searches and will massively increase your ‘followship’ as people find out that you have a Google+ page.
If you create a Google+ page and leave it, people aren’t going to engage with your brand. Ensure you have a content strategy for your page, filled with lots of interesting information to help get more people to share your brand.
If you have a strong presence in another channel, such as a strong email database or Twitter account, leverage them to drive existing fans of your brand to the Google site.
Increasing your followers will give your visibility authority, but you will need to improve your page optimisation to increase that visibility. Consider adding keywords to your description and linking to your main site from the profile information page.
NMA explains: Social media
Search marketing continues to evolve at an ever-increasing pace, becoming more aligned with social platforms to deliver more personal results. Google is leading the charge and is throwing its weight behind personalised search and driving Google+ adoption.
Seeding quality video content across social platforms will become increasingly important as search engines pull in more data from social networks within their listings. Tied to this is Google’s plan to develop new forms of semantic search, which will enable it to base search results on a user’s intent rather than provide lists of links. All these changes are coming and brands must be ready to meet the changes ahead.