By Dana Todd, Vice President of Performance Innovation at Performics
In “ancient” times (circa 1999-2009), traditional search engines were a one-stop shop for people to search, find, consider, and purchase things online. Then social media emerged. Facebook—with the help of Twitter, Foursquare, and others—enabled people to search, find, consider, and purchase things online with a little help from their friends. Now people spend more time on Facebook than on Google. According to comScore, Facebook drove ten percent of all Internet pageviews in 2010.
Google and Bing are keenly aware of this new reality. To keep their users, they’ve recently adapted by layering social on search. And to stay relevant, they must continue to make search engine results pages (SERPs) more social. Google and Bing have started by incorporating various social aspects into their SERPs—from reviews in Google Place pages to tweets in real-time search to embedded user-generated YouTube videos. Google’s new +1 button enables searchers to “+1″ (or “like”) search results, so that other searchers, like their friends, can see that a result was helpful. Similarly, Microsoft has partnered with Facebook to incorporate Facebook “likes” into Bing SERPs.
The effort to socialize search has resulted in SERPs that are controlled by 1) the brand owners and 2) the consumers—more appropriately called the “participants”—and by extension, their networks. In ancient times, brand owners exercised the most control over their brand’s SERP goodwill. Today, brand owners still control the SERP’s paid search ads (“paid content”) and can employ SEO tactics to boost digital asset visibility (“owned content”). But the participant has the most control over the SERP’s “earned content”—opinions, reviews, recommendations, social chatter, and videos.
There’s no doubt that the social SERP complicates search engine marketing (SEM); it requires brands to take a grassroots approach to reputation management—one that starts on the social networks. And brands must accept that their SERP goodwill is built with their customers’ participation and collaboration. When a person searches for a brand, they now see results potentially influenced by friends’ opinions, links, and experiences. Search engine marketing thus becomes word-of-mouth marketing.
The good news is, word of mouth can be influenced at its source—the social networks:
- The first challenge is building and organizing a meaningful number of participants (i.e., building the fan base). Twitter Promoted Accounts and Facebook Engagement Ads provide a creative platform to gain fans/followers through guaranteed reach. For instance, Redbox gained 269,000 Facebook fans in ten days using Facebook Engagement Ads (counting direct ad impacts only; nearly twice that number joined during the period measured, above normal baseline, which appears to have been influenced from seeing their friends join). Redbox incentivized people with ad copy that offered a free video rental to anyone who “liked” its brand.
- Once a fan base is established, the second challenge is mobilizing those fans/followers to talk positively about the brand—ideally in venues or channels that are indexed by search engines. This can be accomplished through incentives, promotions, polls, questions, or by creating highly sharable content. For instance, Baskin Robbins mobilized its 18,000+ Twitter followers on April 27th through its 31-cent scoop night promotion, which included a charity campaign partner. On April 27th, so many people were tweeting about the promotion that a Google search for “Baskin Robbins” showed a first-page link to 300+ real-time results.
- Third, keep it up. Sometimes the most difficult part of marketing is consistency and long-term commitment. Given that digital marketers consistently complain of being overworked and under resourced, it’s no wonder there are so many “ghosts of social media campaigns past” floating around out there. The companies that are succeeding the most in harnessing the powers of social media are distributing the workload between various departments (e.g., customer service, HR, PR, and marketing) and regularly inserting highly creative campaigns to keep the momentum going.
Of course, there’s the other side of the coin—the negative social media conversations that can make their way to the SERPs. Once again, these conversations can be influenced at their source. Savvy brands today employ social listening tools to uncover what people are saying and quickly address customer issues/gripes before a negative conversation spirals out of control. In many cases, these “fixes” become part of the social SERPs and can help offset any negativity. This becomes important in presenting balanced information for consumers and search engines. (Recently, there’s evidence that Google is using sentiment analysis that may weigh against a site or asset based on negative reviews).
As search becomes more social—and social drives more search—influencing participants to engage in positive social media conversations around brands is fast becoming the most important tactic to fund. Social media itself links customer experiences seamlessly from device to device, and it is thus of significant value as consumers move through the screens of their lives and express their intent through more search tools than just Google and Bing. Winners in social media can more easily be winners in mobile search and barcode/QR code search, Internet television, news search, and beyond.