Your company is no longer what you say it is, but rather what Google says it is – that’s what marketing gurus have been telling us over the past two years. The year 2011 will go down in history as the time the prophecy came true, as the global search giant made people’s comments about a company as visible as the brand’s content.
As ever with Google, which is reluctant to comment in detail over changes in its algorithm, there has not been a single switch-on date for this change, but rather several developments.
These small refinements happen all the time and when they are significant enough to bring in a noticeable impact on search results, they are often given a nickname. Hence from last June, Google Caffeine increased the engine’s rate of indexing the web by 50%, which means recent content is found more quickly. Meanwhile, the Mayday update prioritised looking for recent information deeper within sites, not just on the home page.
Before Mayday, large companies with huge volumes of traffic could rely on the sheer weight of numbers to make subsets of their operation, with which they had done little online, appear on page one of organic search results. For example, a store could rate well for kettles even though it had only a single page of brochureware untouched for years, while a start-up selling kettles with daily reviews and videos would fare less well. Mayday has reversed this and now big brands have to show they are passionate about every section of their site with appropriate, regularly refreshed multimedia content.
At the same time, Google has begun to look at social media sites (Twitter is particularly Google-friendly) to include posts in search results, and the same goes for pictures and videos. Now, far more so than in the past, a search for a brand is likely to bring up not only its official home page but also comments on Twitter and pictures and videos posted on Flickr and (Google-owned) YouTube.
We were near the top of the page one search results for a satnav because we reviewed it in a blog
Then, at the end of October, Google Places started to prioritise listings from its own Places directory, so searches for a brand or a type of business will increasingly show local results on a Google map which appears far larger and more prominently than in the past.
There may have been a lot of publicity arising from the US about how Google, since October, is now being rivalled by the coming together of Yahoo! and Bing, but this move won’t be replicated in the UK until Q2 2011. Here the two rivals have a lower share of the search market, at 13% combined, according to the latest figures from Efficient Frontier, leaving Google with a market-dominating 87% share of search. Hence, despite the rhetoric, for the time being at least Google remains the de facto search engine UK marketers will prioritise their natural search efforts towards.
A simple example of how a specialist brand can use detailed, refreshed content to stack the odds in its favour against a larger, more general high street chain came recently from Evans Cycles. Online marketing manager Will Lockie explains the chain of cycle stores has worked on a strategy (developed with its search agency, iCrossing) of combining blogging on the site with opening up a presence on Facebook, Twitter and Flickr, a strategy that has already started to pay dividends.
Lockie says/ “We were towards the top of the page one search results for a Garmin sat nav for cycles because we reviewed it in a blog and got lots of interest from people reposting it on their Twitter or Facebook accounts, as well as pre-ordering it on the site. It’s this mix of editorial and social media that made that great result possible.”
This is also the case at TalkSport, which relaunched its site this summer with the help of its digital agency, Guava. The radio station claims traffic has since leapt from 250,000 unique monthly users to 900,000 within just three months, largely due to Google, its second highest source of traffic (after direct visits). A highlight, according to the station’s head of digital, Ben Martin, is the site’s ability to maintain a page one listing for the important “transfer rumours” football search.
“We’ve done all the search engine optimisation (SEO) work of making sure our site’s architecture is good for Google, which has helped, but we’ve also been more active in feeding our content out to Facebook and Twitter,” Martin says.
“We’ve also been putting out videos of interviews with sports stars because we know Google is now looking to get video into its results. That’s worked for us and we expect it will continue to do so following the launch of Google TV, so we’ve now got an in-house video team to get the content up for us.”
Indeed providing multimedia content to try to improve search rankings with Google has proved so tempting for high street retailer Debenhams that it launched its Debenhams TV on its site in October. This runs alongside an image feed through which it offers Google pictures of items to exhibit in product search results, as Miki Clarke, its SEO manager reveals.
“Google returning more video results in searches was certainly one consideration for launching Debenhams TV and clearly the success of YouTube cannot go unnoticed,” she explains.
“The main driver was to make our site more dynamic and engaging. Now Debenhams TV is live we have plans to develop our YouTube channel. In addition we have a Google product feed that enables product images to be shown in paid and natural search listings.”
Providing relevant, continually updated content is clearly more important than ever, particularly for brands vying with larger names for audience share, but so too is getting your brand talked about and referenced in social media.
Financial services provider LV has long known this is the best way to get on page one of Google results but has been constrained by its home page being highly regulated. Hence it has opened a social media website of its own, LV Grapevine. With the news that Google is now far more concertedly looking for comments in social network sites, Grapevine has been relaunched so more of its content is viewable by the public, and hence Google, without the need for a profile and password. The tactic has already paid off for a very major keyword, according to LV e-commerce executive Nick Joy.
“We’re getting really good search results by allowing people to discuss current issues around the economy and personal finance and take part in surveys and polls,” he says. “It’s certainly helped us get on page one for ’home insurance’ which has been a really big positive for us.”
Getting ready for Google Places is a search-friendly task that can be started today, will cost nothing yet will give better search results. As Rishi Lakhani, online marketing manager for Ann Summers, points out, the search engine’s decision at the end of October to prioritise results from its Google Places listings marks a major change for any brand that operates out of multiple locations.
“A lot of brands would have relied on being listed in local directories to get local searches for their brand on page one of a Google result,” he says. “Google’s basically relegating directories by prioritising the results in its own Google Places listings. This means it’s more important than ever that every brand registers every location it operates from.”
While this will make an impact on search results it cannot be done in isolation. Now that Google has ensured it is as interested in what people say about a brand as what the brand says about itself, and has the power to crawl the web faster than before to look for social media references, pictures and videos, the challenge to marketers is clear. Thinking beyond one’s own home page and embracing social media and distributing images and video, as well as text and links, is now more important than ever.
Judging by those brands that have already taken the leap and secured front-page results for hugely valuable terms, the work required can seem huge, but so too are the rewards.
Alex Pearmain, head of social media, O2
Social media is more important now than ever because when Google is looking for references to what people are saying about you, it will put out the good with the bad. This is something everybody has be aware of and so it makes Twitter, in particular, an essential service that you monitor and as soon as a complaint or issue arises, you deal with it. Twitter is as important for customer service as it is for putting out marketing announcements.
If someone’s doing a brand search for you, the last thing you want is for them to see a complaint. So you need to act on issues as soon as you see them because the flipside is if a customer sees an issue that’s been resolved on Twitter through page one of Google, then it’s something that will attract them.
We’re suspecting social media will only become increasingly popular, particularly if the merger of Bing and Yahoo! gives Bing more users because, in our experience, of all the search engines it’s the one which seems to prioritise social search the most.
David Brosse, head of digital marketing, David Lloyd Leisure
Search accounts for around 60% of our traffic and so it’s hugely important to us.
The most recent big task we’ve undertaken is to get ready for Google Instant, the update through which you get search results instantly appearing below the search box as you type in the query. We’ve made sure our site is working really quickly by working on our servers getting more bandwidth and setting them up with better load balancing to improve our rankings in Google.
We’ve also started to open up our content to the public and not just our members on our own site as well as across Facebook. This move into social media is something we’re going to be working really hard on throughout 2011 with our agency, Make It Rain, because we know that to do well in Google you’ve got to have your content out there and being talked about.
We’ve got more than 100 tennis coaching videos and more than 100 fitness videos which we’re going to make available to the public, although some will be kept password-protected for members. We’re releasing the video because it’s great content that will prove very popular on the site and Facebook, and should get us good search results now that Google is increasingly looking for video results on its front page as well as text.
Emma McLaughlin, customer acquisition and retention manager, John Lewis
We understand that social media is a vital way of communicating with our customers. We have recently launched our Facebook, Twitter and YouTube channels, which will all be central to our customer communication strategy. If we focus on providing content that our customers value, in turn it will benefit us. On www.johnlewis.com for example, our What’s New section is full of useful information such as buying guides and videos.
Our online content generation team liaises closely with the search team to align and prioritise our focus. It is the customer that defines our strategy, their need is also defining the search engines’ movements.
Ed Stevenson, managing director, Europe, Marin Software
Although the changes to Google’s algorithm are creating new opportunities for marketers to get their brands to the top of the organic listings, the amount of work involved in meeting all those changes once again proves that the old assumption that organic results are free is far from true.
They also aren’t risk-free. The turnarounds described in this article as a result of changes to the algorithm show how unstable natural search results can be. For a long time people used to describe natural search results as owned real-estate, compared with the rented real-estate that is the paid listings. But we’ve seen that one change to the algorithm can change those so-called owned results instantly.
In fact, pay per click (PPC) has emerged as a low-risk strategy. For a start, while the addition of all the social results has reduced the number of organic results that appear on the first page, the paid-for results have stayed in the same place. And PPC allows you to say what you want and have it appear at the top of the page, without having to rely on what the general social space is saying about you.
PPC also gives you the ability to respond instantly when something happens, for example, if the meanings behind your keywords change. We saw this earlier this year when the volcano exploded and searches for Iceland went from people looking for the supermarket to people searching for travel information.
The fact is PPC, SEO and social search should all work together. For example, although TalkSport is using video to push its content up the natural rankings, it has also used PPC to drive traffic to the video clips when they are posted online.
The other big change about to happen in the PPC space is Bing’s deal with Yahoo! coming into effect in the UK. For advertisers, this means one fewer interface to deal with. But because between 80% and 90% of the advertisers on Yahoo! were also on Bing, CPC rates should stay about the same. An increase in search queries is what will make campaigns more competitive on the Bing platform.
What Bing needs to crack is stopping people typing Google into Bing and then using Google to do their searches. It needs more investment in advertising, and Microsoft has seen that deliver results in the US, but really what it shows is just how dominant Google is.