Darwinian chase through search? marketing

Marketers’ search programs must be laser-focused but nimble to keep up with algorithm tweaks and social and mobile while not neglecting the essentials of SEO that can organically propel brands to the top.

When Taco Bell was sued this January over the quality of its beef, issuing a press release was not enough of a response. Neither was taking out full-page ads in several national and local newspapers. Neither was creating a YouTube video featuring Greg Creed, the company’s CEO, addressing the lawsuit, or a Facebook campaign. ?

A day after Taco Bell received the lawsuit — and a day after “Taco Bell Meat” was the tenth most searched term on Google — the fast food chain launched a search campaign “to get the facts in front of a lean-forward audience who was proactively searching for information,” says Juliet Corsinita, Taco Bell’s senior director of media services, via e-mail. ?

“We wanted to make sure that our official statement was the first thing our audience saw when searching about the beef lawsuit and to ensure that ?the real facts were shared,” Corsinita adds. ?

To position the company’s viewpoint in the search rankings, Taco Bell threaded relevant keywords throughout its “news releases, the website and ?video descriptions to increase organic search,” says Corsinita. The company centered its paid search ?campaign, conducted by Draftfcb Chicago, around several keywords, including “taco bell lawsuit,” “tb lawsuit,” “Taco Bell,” “Taco Bell menu,” “seasoned beef” and “taco meat.” ?

Fine-tune search data analysis

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Taco Bell created a new landing page dedicated to the lawsuit that “featured Taco Bell’s official statement, the print ad and the video from Creed,” says Corsinita. ?

“We used this landing page to update with new information as it became available. We also ?optimized our mobile site at m.tacobell.com so that ?users could access the information from their phones.”?

Taco Bell understood the centrality of search to the success of all other marketing efforts. Search engine marketing (SEM, or paid search) has come a long way since the first ad — for live mail-order lobster — ?appeared to the right of Google’s search results in 2000, and search engine optimization (SEO, or organic search) has come a long way from ensuring a keyword appears frequently on a Web page. Topping a search results page is no longer so simple. ?

Effective search marketing still revolves around thinking like a customer — Google advises as much for those who employ its AdWords offering. With the increasing personalization of search through the introduction of tools such as social search, instant search and location-based search, how does a marketer think like a customer when that customer has so ?many disparate thoughts??

“Now we’re shooting with a laser where years ago we had the opportunity to just use the shotgun and spread that really wide buckshot,” says Paul Elliott, ?partner in consumer products and retail at interactive marketing agency Rosetta. ?

The growing precision of search has forced large national retailers like Walgreens to completely ?rethink their paid and organic search marketing ?efforts. “Walgreens campaigns have changed pretty much 180 degrees,” says Vural Cifci, the director of search and acquisition marketing for Walgreens. “When I took over the [Walgreens] program, we decided to take a look at what has been done and first fill ?the gaps, and then tackle the entire SEM and SEO ?program from scratch.” (Editor’s note: Direct Marketing News interviewed Cifci in February when he had been leading Walgreens’ search marketing for nearly a year. He was expected to move to Travelocity as director of acquisition in March.)?

Cifci and his team first looked at “how search marketing played a role in the overall marketing mix,” he says. They sifted through the search data to identify areas of strength and weakness. His team’s response was to build from the backbone of search marketing and to layer on it newer search features. ?

“The first initiative was getting 100% presence of all brands that Walgreens sells in our campaigns. The second initiative was making sure the product ads are utilized,” says Cifci. “The third initiative was trying to take advantage of the reviews and star ratings in the ads. The fourth initiative was to have a very accurate representation of our locations in various Google products, including Google Maps.”?

Walgreens relies on iProspect for campaign execution and Kenshoo for search software, while handling ?software in-house.?

It’s notable that Walgreens’ first two initiatives ?focused on traditional SEO and SEM. Since revisiting the company’s search marketing efforts, “the paid search campaign has generated about 39% more ?revenue year-over-year with a flat budget,” says Cifci. ?

He allots partial credit to the adoption of interactive ad features such as location and product images, but also credits the creation of dedicated product ?landing pages. Just as an athlete has no business bench-pressing 300 pounds if they’re not even able to perform a push-up, a search marketing campaign that chases ?after optimizing for search engines’ newer complexities is doomed if the search engine cannot effectively crawl a company’s landing pages.?

In the maelstrom of interactive features, marketers must not forget about the basics, says Elliott. “Just because things are changing over time doesn’t mean you can completely abandon the factors that go into good SEO health or proper management of your ?paid search campaigns.”?

Back to basics

?Although Seattle-based Fierce, Inc. has been around since 1999, the leadership training and development company is in the early stages of using search marketing to develop leads, says president and CEO Halley Bock. The primary challenge Fierce faced was ?differentiating itself from its competitors in a saturated space. In addition to “leadership,” the company’s top-tier terms also include “development” and “training.” To help Fierce rank higher on the results page for such broad keywords, the company began to focus its content around the terms. It has adjusted its blog ?categories to line up with the keywords, developed landing pages specific to the keywords and also made sure to feature these head terms in its whitepaper and press release boilerplates.?

“After nailing down our keywords, we’re now in the process of optimizing the structure of our website, its content and its links, so that in about 30 days we can turn around and start looking at results. At that point, I feel like we’ll be very agile because we’ll have that backbone created,” says Bock, who uses online marketing platform Optify’s keyword marketing tools.?

According to Brian Goffman, the CEO and cofounder of Optify, the integration of keywords and content is vital. “If you want your content to be discovered, you have to write it in a way that uses words and concepts that people are actually searching for,” says Goffman. ?

The Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts recently discovered that importance. The nonprofit corporation runs a news page on its site that curates content relevant to Western Massachusetts businesses via marketing software company HiveFire’s Curata tool. Mike Graney, SVP of business development at the nonprofit, says he had been searching for a news story on a CEO in the region. ?

The story didn’t pop up anywhere “it typically would show up — the local paper, The Wall Street Journal, etc.,” says Graney. He then did a Google search of the CEO’s name “and the top page that came up was his page on our Curata site. What we found from the analytics is that if somebody’s searching for an entity in Western Massachusetts, the site that pops up really high on Google is our news site. It was even higher than his page on his company’s website.”?

Recent developments in search are likely to complicate such success stories. In late February, Google announced that it had updated its algorithm to reduce rankings for sites that copy content from other sites, in addition to other criteria. The change is intended to target websites that produce multitudes of low-quality content solely to improve search rankings. Google calculates the change will impact only 12% of search queries, but others aren’t so sure. ?

Geoffrey Shenk, managing director of search marketing platform Kenshoo’s North America division, says it could hamper the rankings of newer sites that do not have the same domain authority of large sites that have been in existence for years. ?

Nonetheless, other recent algorithm additions could help startups and new businesses to offset that impact. In fact, new features including social search, local search and instant search have the potential to upend the existing search hierarchy by removing the ability of large companies’ to control their ranking.?

Search Darwinism?

Google has said that its search algorithm uses more than 200 signals, each with up to 50 variations, to ?determine a website’s ranking and that this algorithm is updated weekly. Bing has said that its search algorithm looks at more than 1,000 signals. The introduction and emphasis on newer signals, such as social ?networking sites and location, have really raised the stakes for search marketers.?

In February, Google said it would begin integrating information from social networking sites such as Twitter and Quora into a search algorithm. If enough of a user’s Twitter followers have publicly shared a link — and the user has linked his Twitter feed to his Google Account — the link will rank higher in that user’s ?relevant search results. Bing also said it will tie Facebook “likes” into the rankings for all URLs.?

From a search marketer’s perspective, the introduction of social content into search rankings steals marketers’ abilities to control their message and their brand reputation. From the search engine’s perspective, social search reinforces the Darwinistic qualities that have made Google the dominant search engine. ?

“You can’t cheat to get to the top of the Darwin period. You have to actually go through the natural selection process,” says Craig Macdonald, SVP and CMO at ?Covario. “The search engine’s market is relevant ?content, and they want that relevant content to be ?voted on by the population.” ?

Macdonald pointed to a recent campaign Covario created for Web and e-mail hosting company Rackspace that succeeded because of its search and social integration. The agency built an infographic on the ?history of e-mail and its new capabilities that Rackspace customers could use in PowerPoint presentations to justify their e-mail budgets. ?

Meanwhile, local search, which is closely tied with mobile search, also presents a new opening for search marketers. These days, smartphone users can ?enter “mascara” in a search, retrieve results based on their location and then confirm the identified retailer ?carries the product via Google’s Click-to-Call feature, which is also enabled on non-mobile browsers. Google has reported a 400% increase in searches from mobile phones in 2010 — one in five of which were local-related. Additionally, comScore found that four out of every five phones purchased in 2010 were smartphones. James Beveridge, a senior analyst at the former Google-owned search agency Performics, which was acquired by Publicis Groupe in 2008, found that year-over-year paid search mobile impressions have increased 238%, compared with a 13% increase from computers. ?

To take advantage of interactive, mobile-enabled features like Click-to-Call and location-based results, marketers should optimize their results entry information specific to mobile, says Daina Middleton, CEO of Performics. Rosetta’s Elliott adds that, as with social search, local search “is a leveling of the playing field for smaller business owners or single-location business owners,” which means added competition for large businesses such as Walgreens.?

Cifci says that Walgreens has tripled the mobile portion of its search budget. “If you were to look at our search clicks that we receive, mobile accounts for 20% to 25% of our campaigns, depending on the month.” As many companies have begun to do, Cifci says that Walgreens will be launching a mobile site by the end of April that will optimize the delivery of location-related information to users.?

Walgreens is also optimizing for the increased adoption of instant search, says Cifci. He said that the feature, which Google launched last September, has had “no impact that we can speak of right now” but that he expects that to change. ?

By updating the results page as a user types, a user who intends to search for “Sears” could type “sea” and be presented with a page in which SeaWorld tops the results rankings, potentially redirecting the user away from their initial search. Adam Bunn, SEO director at search marketing agency Greenlight, says that instant search forces advertisers to “think what are the stages that people are going to do an instant search for within a keyword. It’s still the same SEO tactic or bidding ?approach, but it broadens what you need to be focusing on into a big basket of keywords.”?

At a more tangible level, instant search affects the way that Google measures impressions for advertisers. Now, impressions are counted if a user clicks on instant search results or if instant results are displayed for a minimum of three seconds. This impacts advertisers who employ AdWords on a pay-per-impression scale. ?

It also impacts marketers who have yet to navigate their focus to optimizing instant search. Tim Holstein, director of sales and marketing at software developer SalesPad Solutions which uses Acxiom’s analytics services, says that instant search has indirectly increased the traffic driven to the company’s site. ?

“It used to be the only way you would have been ?presented with an offer from our site was to type ‘salespad’ exactly,” says Holstein, whose company’s software specializes in enhancing business tool Microsoft ?Dynamics GP, formerly known as Great Plains. ?

Although marketers such as SalesPad Solutions may indirectly benefit from search engines’ newest features, they are best served by engaging and integrating the latest technologies as marketing tools. ?

“I think that the search marketer should definitely be thinking about how can I get found in all the paths ?that my users might be taking around the Web,” ?says Shar VanBoskirk, VP and principal analyst at ?Forrester Research. ?

Volkswagen represents one such marketer. The car company leaked its “The Force” commercial online before February’s Super Bowl and used search, social media and YouTube to generate buzz around the ad — as well as 13.7 million views prior to kickoff. ?

Volkswagen, which worked with its global media AOR MediaCom, monitored that pregame buzz via social channels, such as Facebook and Twitter to ?optimize the campaign’s search marketing component by owning keywords associated with the effort.?

Searching for what’s next?

The search engines trade on their ability to deliver relevant information to users. The evolution of the results page from 10 blue links to entries augmented with multimedia, maps, “likes” and tweets has challenged marketers to engage consumers on a more personalized level. Unlike a decade ago when most could not imagine the rise of universal search, the next evolution of search may be even more immediate, more interactive and more integrated. ?

According to Elliott, Google is currently beta-testing the ability to check a single store’s inventory via a search engine. Cifci says that Walgreens is “discussing providing local inventory pricing information” to the search engines. This development does not seem altogether inventive as many e-commerce sites feature the ability to search a local store’s inventory. What would be inventive, however, is the ability to conduct those searches without keywords.?

“I do believe that Yahoo, Bing and Google are heading down that path of creating a mobile search experience where users potentially won’t be typing. They’ll be talking or taking videos or taking pictures of [objects] and getting results back in a fairly real-time environment,” says Shenk. ?

Existing augmented reality applications like Google Goggles and Bing Vision offer mobile users the ability to conduct searches via their phones’ camera. Currently, the apps primarily handle searches related to physical landmarks or scan barcodes and cover jackets for books, CDs, DVDs and video games. ?

However, Shenk imagines a near future in which those apps will also be able to identify a pair of sneakers someone is wearing and render a results page that also maps local stores that carry the product. That will rely on backend development requiring precision correlation between images and exact products. Then again, only a few years ago social search still required a friend to be in the room.

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