SEM remains influential

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Search marketing may be flying under the radar these days, but it is still an essential channel for b-to-b marketers.

While recent chatter has focused on social media and analytics, search remains the prime mechanism for marketers to exploit these and other emerging channels and techniques, according to industry experts.

“Search is not the new and sexy topic, but it's still the critical vehicle for businesses to be found,” said Geoff Stevens, exec VP-business development and marketing at local online advertising company WebVisible.

Stevens considers local search just as cutting-edge as other digital channels as small businesses explore new ways to reach customers.

“The key theme about local search is you have to demonstrate online your offline conversations,” Stevens said. Here, he said, marketing integration is essential, as phone calls, map directions and email clicks all contribute to fine-tuning search.

Search's integration with social media is also key, experts say, for companies to rank highly in new universal search results being provided by major search engines.

“We've seen a lot of anecdotal evidence that collaboration with social campaigns helps search rankings,” said Jeff MacGurn, director-search engine optimization (SEO) services at Covario Inc.

MacGurn said that popular sentiment and the “virality” of a campaign can help gain social media traction, via Facebook with “likes,” retweets via Twitter, or social bookmarking sites getting lots of “up” votes. But companies must participate actively in order to make this magic happen, he said.

“Real-time search results can now be influenced pretty directly ... how often you're making contributions and updates, and how people are following you,” said Brian Goffman, CEO of SEO company Optify Inc.

Goffman said that the integration of social media only helps clarify the SEO process. “Here, the marketer has more direct control and can influence how often comments are updated,” he said.

Further reinforcing the link between social and search was the deal announced last fall between Microsoft's Bing and Facebook. The partnership brings “like” data and profile search to Microsoft's Bing, which drives search on Yahoo as well. Bing results now feature a Facebook module that shows what your friends have liked in relation to a search.

“Facebook has 600 million users, and it's likely that a search on Facebook returns results closer to your query than Google,” said Horst Joepen, CEO of search analytics company Searchmetrics. “Bing has a powerful potential here [that] could be a game changer, and very soon,” he said.

Of course, search leader Google isn't standing still. It blends social results, video, images and other elements into its universal results at the top of query pages. Further, Google's recent modification of its search algorithm, the Panda update, still has marketers uncertain about how to adjust.

The initiative, undertaken in February, is aimed primarily at so-called “content farms” that aggregate low-quality information to gain clicks. But the program also is directed at certain “black hat” practices designed to exploit Google's query formulas.

“Google is sending clear messages,” MacGurn said. “Don't engage in link purchasing, and content farms aren't useful.” According to Covario, Google's algorithm change is impacting 11% to 12% of search query results, with some companies rising in the rankings and others falling.

According to Eric Enge, president of search optimization company Stone Temple Consulting, Google is creating an environment that enforces, sometimes brutally, what marketers should be doing already: offering relevant, rich content on their websites.

“Before, the talk was of what the page was about, with inbound links added to it,” said Enge, co-author of “The Art of SEO: Mastering Search Engine Optimization” (O'Reilly Media, October 2009). “Now, we have a whole other layer of measuring content quality by a variety of metrics.”

Enge views the changes as having a potentially less severe impact on b-to-b companies. While, by their nature, they see less robust inbound linking from other sites, they generally strive to provide rich, relevant and distinct content.

“If you're the 45th site in your business selling a particular product, there's a "me-tooish' quality that tends to produce low engagement,” he said. “But if you're unique in content, and few other companies compare to you, you're probably OK.”

While still an emerging field, mobile computing also offers a potentially profound impact on search, according to a recent study by Performics, a search engine marketing company owned by Publicis Groupe.

The company's “2011 Mobile Search Insights Study” (based on an online survey of 502 mobile Web users in February) revealed that 57% access the Internet more than once a day, with 32% utilizing mobile search over search engines on their computers.

Eighty-one percent of respondents also reported accessing the Web via smartphone during the evening, with 80% reporting weekend use and 59% using before work.

Also influencing today's search marketing is the use of video. Stevens estimated its use on landing pages has increased more than 25% the past year, saying “customers viewing video is probably the second most popular action after clicking on your website.”

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