Search marketing evolves into a multichannel play

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The modern era of Internet search marketing is about 15 years old—long enough for it to be considered almost a legacy channel, with not much else required of marketers. But that's not so. There have been dramatic changes in how marketers have to address search—changes that transcend marketing channels and technological disciplines. Search remains at the core of how prospects research, find and interact with companies today. And marketers that want to reach them need to integrate search marketing with a number of other activities.

"Today it's pretty much about being logged into a Google property; but it also has a correlation to social signals, which are important for organic search," said Mike Gullaksen, co-CEO at search engine agency Covario Inc. "Marketers need to think about customer behavior and know those customers' needs and wants about content. And it also means understanding how to use that content to create relationships, driving social signals to customers." "Search today is about thinking bigger," Gullaksen said. It may also be about marketers having to pay to get stronger search results.

Last summer Google began encrypting the data of all search activity except clicks on paid search ads, thus preventing marketers from gaining insight into the search terms they painstakingly crafted to enhance organic search results. "It's a bald move to push marketers into paid ads," said Rich Dettmer, director-digital strategy at b-to-b agency Slack and Co., Chicago. Since keyword analytics are now only available for paid search campaigns, "Google has made it harder and harder for organic search to work," he said. Dettmer said the Google ecosystem is helping drive that.

For example, in September Google said it would require viewers of YouTube to have an account on its social network, Google+, if they wished to post a comment on the videos they watch. Beyond integration with YouTube, the association of Google+ with its search parent giant allows for better visibility in searches for verified content, which includes pictures right on the search page. Then there's the social component to the huge universe of Google properties, such as the Chrome browser; Google Maps; Google Now, the "intelligent personal assistant" for Android devices; and the opportunity to create closer relationships through the various Google+ circles.

Dettmer said marketers can still get a "pretty good idea" of the performance of their organic keywords, depending on which landing pages website visitors came to, because "if your organic program is structured well, you have an entry page for each keyword set." "The changes in search don't really change the value of search itself," Dettmer said. "It's still a core, foundational activity. The only thing that's changed is the true integration between search and other digital channels and platforms.

"Beyond keyword sets, the two main drivers of search marketing today are content marketing and social media. Content itself shows up in search results, and when crafted toward specific market segments will appear high in search queries. Social, meanwhile, is a driver of product sentiment and content sharing, both of which in turn appear in search results. "Social is the prime content distribution opportunity when you are able to get to influencers and they validate your content and distribute it to their followers," said Scott Gillum, channel marketing practice leader at gyro, Washington, D.C. Gillum said that when he researches companies, he first goes directly to the websites of up to three brands.

Then he goes to social sites to get a feel for reputation, customers and services. "Content marketing activities are critically important for search marketing," Gillum said. "And it's not as simple as adding a few keywords in the content. It's about trying to understand your audience and the way they look for information. It's about knowing how to work content together in a way that it's easy to be found." Among other recent changes from Google, the company in September upgraded its natural language search capabilities to respond to more complex, conversational queries.

The new search algorithm, dubbed Hummingbird by Google, is built on the company's Knowledge Graph technology that shows more intuitive query results. The technology displays or vocalizes results based on natural language and crowdsourcing, and is driven by voice as well as keyed-in queries. "I do believe search is going in the direction of voice," Covario's Gullaksen said. "I don't think that diminishes the idea of keyword sets, but there will be less focus on keyword optimization and more on the needs and wants of customers built around themes. Thus, brands have to focus on these needs and wants, as customers ask questions."

"Yes, keywords will remain the easiest means to address needs and wants," he said. "But the future of search will be more about themes, as Google anticipates what the meaning is behind a customer's search."

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