By now, everyone in marketing and PR knows that search is important. But to give you some of idea of how important it has become, let’s look at some recent statistics:
- A recent study from Forrester Research reports that 70% of US consumers trust brand and product recommendations from friends and relatives, but only 10% trust online advertising. In Europe, advertising came out even worse, at 8%. The study was based on responses from 58,000 respondents in the US and 15,000 in the EU. This is more than a little disturbing for advertising professionals.
- But what’s more interesting are the numbers for search engine results: organic search results on Google, Bing, and Yahoo, are trusted by 43% of respondents. Sponsored searches – the paid ads at the top and right side of a Google search results page – are trusted by 27% of Forrester’s US respondents.
- In a joint study conducted last year by Nielsen and the U.K.’s GroupM, measuring more than 1.4 billion web searches, subjects clicked on organic search results 94% of the time – compared to just 6% for sponsored results. And of those organic clicks, 68% went to one of the top three results.
Search beats traditional advertising. Organic search beats sponsored search. And top of organic search is the new holy grail of marketing.
Being on the upper half of the first page of results when someone searches for “fireproof pants” isn’t just helpful for a company making fireproof pants these days – it’s imperative. But just how you get there remains as much of a mystery as ever. Which is exactly the way Google wants it. The day when search engine marketers are able to say, “Do A, then do B, then do C and you’ll be at the top of organic search” is the day that Google’s $50 billion in annual revenue disappears. So they never reveal the actual formula of their search algorithms – which they change 500 to 600 times per year to prevent marketers from gaming their system.
Just to be clear – though Yahoo and Bing have been part of the search landscape for years, the reality is, search is ALL about Google. Though Bing has made gains in the search engine market, they’ve come almost exclusively at the expense of partner company Yahoo. Google controls more than two-thirds of the search engine market, so when we talk about SEO, the conversation starts and ends with Google. And being an informed marketer these days requires an understanding of what’s going on inside the Google machinery.
Since Google’s inception in 1996, the company’s search algorithm has rewarded popularity – sites with the most traffic and “back links”, or links from other sites, have consistently ranked at the top of Google search results. This is still true today. But it’s become more complex and more subtle. Along with popularity, Google also rewards what it determines to be fresh, high quality content and information. Since 2011, the technicians at Google have created algorithms based on their observations as to whether a landing page is “thin” or “substantial.” Substantial pages receive a higher “quality score”, a large part of how Google determines a website’s rank in organic search results. Other items that contribute to a site’s quality score include searched keywords listed in specific page title tags, meta descriptions, and image URLs. And Google has recently announced that they will soon start counting social media statistics in their quality score, including the number of Facebook “likes” and Twitter followers.
As in anything where money is the ultimate reward for performance, many people endeavor to get around the system and find a shortcut to high rankings. The Google gods have evaluated thousands of websites in order to identify a list of questionable practices and subsequently created a series of algorithms referred to as “Panda” and “Penguin” designed to discourage these practices.
Panda was first introduced in 2011 and used to identify websites that were composed of “thin content” in which designers offered little in the way of original and useful information and incorporated stuffed keywords, invisible text, doorway pages, and material poached from other websites, often overshadowing the original author’s content. If a website was flagged by Panda, it resulted in repercussions that would have an impact on the site’s page ranking in the course of an organic search.
Recently, a number of what Google refers to as “black hat” techniques have emerged, prompting Google to unleash Google “Penguin 2.0” an algorithm designed primarily to recognize and penalize webmasters who engage in such practices that are deceptive to users and otherwise misrepresent the content of a particular website. Though Penguin is primarily a link quality filter that sits on top of the core algorithm, it is a key part of Google’s strategy to take out sites that use manipulative techniques to improve search visibility.
Some of these techniques include:
- Link Spam is a practice of buying links, directories, blog content, foreign links and others pages conveying the latest information on a particular subject. While this is not an especially new technique, the Penguin algorithm has become far more effective at recognizing Link Spam.
- Link Farming. A link farm is any group of web sites that all hyperlink to every other site in the group. Although some link farms can be created by hand, most are created through automated programs and services. A link farm is a website (or a group of websites) created only for the purpose of increasing the link popularity of another site by increasing the number of incoming links. A link farm usually looks like a regular web page, but the majority of the content is hyperlinks — often random and unrelated — to other websites.
- Hacked sites is a practice used to “hack”, or infiltrate and appropriate, sites and information without the knowledge of the original author. Penguin 2.0 has become more adept at determining the authentic author of page content and penalize the poachers.
- Advertorial Content – the Google objective of presenting original, informative and useful content of the pages posted is contradicted by the increasing practice of buying links, blog posts and any other paid advertisements that make claim to a product or service without guarantee or substantiation.
As Google search matures, it’s growing increasingly difficult to outsmart its search algorithms. The moment marketers devise a way past Google’s algorithmic sentries, its army of computer scientists work to plug the gap. That’s why, says Search Engine Optimization (SEO) whizz David Cato, the best long-term SEO strategy should be an integrated, cross-channel marketing drive that gets all of a company’s marketing and communications departments pulling in the same direction. That means SEO working with the social team, working with public relations, working with PPC, and working with offline media buys.
At the core of this strategy is a master keyword list; keywords are the words and phrases web users search to find specific information. PR professionals need to have access to and incorporate the client’s master keyword list so that their online promotional articles and press releases are found during web searches, which hopefully either directly or indirectly link back to the client’s website. When you are obtaining references (and links) from a variety of sources all linked to your other marketing channels, while creating interesting and meaningful content, that goes beyond just good SEO. It’s also good marketing.
Search marketing is a complex issue, but the answer can be simple: content really is king. While the changes Google continues to implement in its algorithm will force nefarious marketers to change tactics, they will also reward businesses whose sites feature organic, relevant and informative content. Hopefully, this describes your clients. If your clients’ blog posts, news releases, and media and social-media hits are generating quality links to their sites, Google’s new search bots will reward them with good traffic – and a higher quality score which leads to improved search ranking.
Matt Cutts, Google’s enforcer and the head of Google’s Webspam team, suggests the following practices for composing and posting a website which is likely to achieve favorable page positions:
- Write quality content
- Attract natural (not paid) links to the content
- Encourage engagement and sharing on the site
- Build your Page Rank using quality criteria
- Attract mentions and links from other legitimate and relevant web sties
- Develop a content strategy that generates engagement and regular interaction (as opposed to paid media)
Finally, don’t just try to sell visitors who come to your or your client’s site. Educate them. Engage them. Google is truly interested and seriously invested in providing people who use their search with results that deliver what they are looking for quickly. Provide a good user experience while you do that and your visitors will backlink your site and tell other people about it. Which then improves your ranking. It’s a slow but reliable path to the top of search. And search is everything.