Microsoft's search guru on SEO, digital marketing trends

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Duane Forrester is senior program manager of search engine optimization with Microsoft Corp., sits on the board of the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization, and blogs about all things search at BtoB recently asked Forrester about trends in digital marketing.

BtoB: By all accounts, digital marketing continues to hold up even in a down economy. What accounts for the continued strength of the Internet and search as key marketing tools?

Forrester: Its strength is nicely summed up in Chris Anderson's book, "The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More" (Hyperion, 2006). I call it a seminal book, but it's what we who work online for a living have always known about. The concept is that there's a market for everything, and even if it's small there's no end to it. And there's no physical retailer that can hope to keep up.

In addition, there's its speed in adapting to the marketplace. Online, you can put up a Web site and products and see if it works. If it doesn't work, you change it. This way, you can do away with SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis, because if you see success you wash, rinse and repeat.

As for paid search marketing, the ability to fine tune things exists nowhere else as it does here. You change or move one word in an ad, and you can see a 30% increase in click-throughs and sales as a result. I've seen it range up to multiples of 100%, and there's no limit when you get it right. Your limit is the volume of humans on the Internet.

BtoB: I would think an inherent strength of digital marketing is that you have readymade communities of interest.

Forrester: Absolutely. What you're talking about is the “nichefication” (spur of the moment word; feel free to trademark it) of the world. Here, people can be voracious consumers of everything in their spaces. It's about things people want to do, not have to do. So when you have the scale of the Internet, access to specific areas of interest can be powerful.

BtoB: An economic recovery on a national or global scale may be quite a ways off. How do you see this impacting digital marketing budgets?

Forrester: For paid search, there will be a slight degradation of budgets. That's a natural reaction of downturns, as people restrict their discretionary spending. But you'll see a lot of companies coming out of this recession having weathered it as a result of the effective people they have who are marketing online.

BtoB: What about the role of social media as digital marketing matures?

Forrester: Blogs, discussion forums, social spaces – these are in the vanguard of the niche revolution that is happening online. And these are areas where the big customers reside. These are the long-tail areas where your constituents live for your products. Businesses really need to zone in on these. I've already seen some big brands turning to blogging communities.

The challenge for businesses, however, is to develop their goals around the ethics of something that isn't about making money. Yes, there's an audience, but it's tough to figure out how a business should show up and ask to be friendly without coming across as greedy. But having said that, I would advise companies to just go and become part of the community. It's really about credibility. If you come across as honest and providing good value, and your opinions are thoughtful and insightful, you'll build an audience. That's all there is to it. I think sales people should spend 10% to 15% of their time actively online, building their presence as trusted members of their targeted communities.

BtoB: What other trends do you see on the horizon?

Forrester: The way the Internet is progressing right now, businesses have to think seriously about investing money in rich media, Flash or Silverlight applications, actual video production that showcases a product. The consumption of video keeps increasing.

Here's one final thought: There is a direct cost to paid search, but thinking organic search is free marketing is misleading. Businesses need to hire experts here, and that isn't inexpensive. But the long-term costs aren't high when you consider the ROI of organic search marketing. Search needs to be at the core of any marketing plan moving forward. If it's not right now, you should start making sure it is.

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