When brands first poured their marketing budgets into search, it was a virtual land rush. Each digital settler vied for a lucrative claim on the highest ranked spots for the top producing keywords.
Just as land is a finite commodity, so too the web soon ran out of digital real-estate. Sure, you could always launch a new website and maybe even come up with a catchy domain name, but first place in search became about as legendary as a US$300 a month rent controlled apartment in New York City.
Closing search’s first frontier
As with any frontier, there has been a lot of snake oil changing hands. A real-estate brokerage might be persuaded to invest in a search phrase containing the word “homes,” only to learn that most sellers use “house” in a search, and most buyers use “listings.” Likewise, you could see yourself on the first page, only to discover that Google searches produce different results for people that have already visited your site than for those who never have. A little motivation and too little strategy can have brands plowing an online fairy field in someone else’s digital dust.
It gets worse, before it gets better. Maybe you hire a team of technicians any day of the week to advise you as to how to improve your site. They might hand you a $1,500 SEO report card that took a $100 computer program 10 minutes to run. Then you give over more money to fix the “problems,” without knowing whether curing them will result in one lick of added business. All you’re assured of is a pat on the back and a better report card next time.
By contrast, if you try to focus on gaining ground cheaply, any number of firms will offer nebulous “content marketing and social” solutions that they’re marking up 2000% from the dregs of various freelance markets and, if there’s enough movement to count, you’re likely to get dinged by Google for OVER-optimizing your site or spamming the web with poor quality links.
Opening new territory in search
Now for the good news. It’s not a new land run, it’s just new land. There’s a whole new territory for brands to nurture and farm. What’s more, a lot of those early claims to search fame aren’t being honored anymore. Search doesn’t want to be grabbed, bought, or tricked into handing out the best spots. That means freshly vacated frontier.
It get’s better. The tricksters and takers are being run out of Dodge. Search is no longer technical, so brands don’t have to trust their digital existence to a posse of geeks anymore. Any brand willing to do honest work can grow as rapidly in search as it wants to. Here are the new territorial markers:
Frontier 1: social shares that drive search results
Prize position goes to any business that can get into the heads of its desired audience, identify what brand-related content its constituents are most likely to love, and commit to consistently producing it for a social audience. Search engines take notice as enthusiastic followers amplify great content to a wider audience and that audience follows and shares in turn. Social has opened up a new frontier, and search is following.
Frontier 2: brand mentions as implied links
Up until 2014, search dominance still went to whoever could get the most inbound links from the most authoritative sites. That locked out brands with less PR klout, so many did an end run by putting out endless link-laden press releases. Google responded by punishing link-driven content and, more recently, has leveled the playing field by making mere mentions of a brand count as links to the brand, then measuring activity around brand mentions. Along with the explosion of reputable digital content markets, this makes PR far more accessible. Brands with something substantive to say, that people actually want to read, can stake out significant spots in search, with social pushing that even farther.
Frontier 3: the face that’s as good as a handshake
The consensus is: we like video. In a purely virtual world, once driven mainly by text and still graphics, the rise of ubiquitous broadband has increased our desire for face-to-face contact. You trust what and who you can see. It’s no secret that YouTube accounts for most of the social media usage. It’s the second largest search engine, and video of one kind or another represents most of any given day’s digital traffic. Video features heavily in organic search results and drives engagement higher in Facebook and Twitter, which again cues Google. With good video equipment fitting most budgets (or even free), and Youtube providing free hosting, running your marketing like a TV show can make anyone a search engine star. If lip syncing penguins can do it, so can we all.
Frontier 4: real reviews as ranking indicators
Consumers want peer input to support buying decisions, and the gold stars next to Yelp reviews gleam just as brightly in Google results. To make it work, savvy brands will partner together to encourage clients’ general use of review platforms. If a reviewer hardly uses Yelp, a review might not count. When people give reviews regularly, their reviews count more. That reduces fakes but, for customers enthusiastic about giving feedback, it’s become just about the service you provide. Excite an audience with shareable content, get it some ‘plain clothes’ PR and create a visually enriched experience, and reviewers will love you with search-friendly ratings. Nurturing an enthusiastic and loyal client base has become a mainstay of better search results.
The Boundless New West that Beckons for Brands
In the glory days of the Old West, you marked off your plot of ground and went to the claims office to declare ownership of your little slice of Mother Earth. We treated the first frontier of search the same way; you chose your keywords, paid your fee, and hoped the claim would stick. Then we realized it wasn’t sustainable. There are just too many of us and too few spots to occupy.
There’s still gold in those hills, but now it goes to brands that continually create great experiences, and do so in a public way. Search rewards us in the plain light of day, not the back rooms of technical claims offices. Search is more democratized than ever, and that means fresh and, perhaps, limitless territory just waiting for any adventurous brand to carve out a spot.