Search Shifts Mean Visibility Must Be Earned, Not Paid

Steve Rubel on Digital Communications

By Published on .

For the past 10 years, virtually everyone has become a believer in the power of search-engine marketing. We plow millions -- billions, even -- into paid search and optimized search (i.e. SEO), all with the intention of generating lots of traffic to our sites.

But the search-engine landscape is shifting. Today consumers are far more likely to seek out and, what's more, trust what they read on other sites rather than anything we put out. The reasons are both technological and sociological.

Steve Rubel
Photo: JC Bourcart
Steve Rubel is a marketing strategist and blogger. He is senior VP-director of insights at Edelman Digital.
First, search-engine algorithms increasingly favor reputable media sites, blogs and social networks that pump out high-quality content on a regular basis. But the changes go deeper.

We're also becoming far more savvy searchers. According to Hitwise, eight-word search queries are up 34,000% since 2004. In addition, the most sophisticated users are turning to real-time tools such as Twitter Search, which saw 2.7 million unique visitors in April, according to

The end result is that online visibility is becoming intertwined with reputation. Google, like Santa Claus, knows if you've been bad or good. Such goodwill cannot be purchased. It must be increasingly earned.

While paid and optimized search will continue to attract the most dollars, my colleagues and I see two new visibility disciplines emerging. (We have published a white paper on this subject.)

The first is reputational search. The premise and promise here is that any company, nongovernmental organization or brand can apply a search mindset to tried-and-true PR tactics and, in the process, influence the results around certain keywords.

The second is social search. As more searches take place inside social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, brands that are early adopters in building out "embassies" will be more visible.

There's no doubt that brand reputation today is increasingly shaped by sites we don't control. This means that even a nascent field such as search-engine marketing must change in order to survive and thrive.

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