Climbing the Slippery Slopes of Mount White Hat

First published August 30, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

On Monday of this week, fellow Search Insider Ryan DeShazer bravely threw his hat back in the ring regarding this question: Is Google better or worse off because of SEO?

DeShazer confessed to being vilified after a previous column indicated that Google owed us something. I admit I have a column penned but never submitted that Ryan could have added to the “vilify” side of that particular tally. But in his Monday column, Ryan touches on a very relevant point: “What is the thin line between White Hat and Black Hat SEO?” For as long as I’ve been in this industry (which is pushing 17 years now) I’ve heard that same debate. I’ve been at conference sessions where white hats and black hats went head to head on the question. It’s one of those discussions that most sane people in the world could care less about, but we in the search biz can’t seem to let go.

Ryan stirs the pot again by indicating that Google may be working on an SEO “Penalty Box”: a temporary holding pen for sites that are using “rank modifying spammers” where results will fluctuate more than in the standard index. The high degree of flux should lead to further modifications by the “spammers” that will help Google identify them and theoretically penalize them. DeShazer’s concern is the use of the word “spammers” in the wording of the patent application, which seems to include any “webmasters who attempt to modify their search engine ranking.”

I personally think it’s dangerous to try to apply wording used in a patent application (the source for this speculation) arbitrarily against what will become a business practice. Wording in a patent is intended to help convey the concept of the intellectual property as quickly and concisely as possible to a patent review bureaucrat. The wording deals in concepts that are (ironically) pretty black and white. It has little to no relationship to how that IP will be used in the real world, which tends to be colored in various shades of gray. But let’s put that aside for a moment.

Alan Perkins, an SEO I would call vociferously “white hat,” some years ago came up with what I believe is the quintessential difference here. Black hats optimize for a search engine. White hats optimize for humans.  When I make site recommendations, they are to help people find better content faster and act on it. I believe, along with Perkins, that this approach will also do good things for your search visibility.

But that also runs the danger of being an oversimplification. The picture is muddied by clients who measure our success as SEO agencies by their position relative to their competitors on a keyword-by-keyword level. This is the bed the SEO industry has built for itself, and now we’re forced to sleep in it. I’m as guilty as the next guy of cranking out competitive ranking reports, which have conditioned this behavior over the past decade and a half.

The big problem, and one continually pointed out by vocal grey/black hats, is that you can’t keep up with competition who are using methods more black than white by staying with white-hat tactics alone. The fact is, black hat works, for a while. And if I’m the snow-white SEO practitioner whose clients are repeatedly trounced by those using a black hat consultant, I’d better expect some client churn. Ethics and profitably don’t always go together in this industry.

To be honest, over the past five years, I’ve largely stopped worrying about the whole white hat/black hat thing. We’ve lost some clients because we weren’t aggressive enough, but the ones who stayed were largely untouched by the string of recent Google updates targeting spammers. Most benefited from the house cleaning of the index. I’ve also spent the last five years focused a lot more on people and good experiences than on algorithms and link juice, or whatever the SEO flavor du jour is.

I think Alan Perkins nailed it way back in 2007. Optimize for humans. Aim for the long haul. And try to be ethical. Follow those principles, and I find it hard to imagine that Google would ever tag you with the label of “spammer.”

The Virtuous Cycle of SEO

First published August 9, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Virtuous cycles are anomalies. They fight the universal law of entropy, and for that reason alone, they are worth investigation. Rather than a gradual slide toward dissipation and equilibrium, virtuous cycles build upon themselves, yielding self-sustaining returns cycle after cycle.

In marketing, there are not a lot of virtuous cycles. Most marketing efforts need to be constantly fueled by a steady stream of dollars. The minute the budget tap is closed, so is the marketing program. But there are a few, and SEO is one of them, if done correctly. Let’s take a quick look at the elements required to build a truly virtuous cycle.

The Power of Positive Feedback

Positive feedback is the engine of a virtuous cycle. It’s what drives sustainable growth. Think of it as the compound interest paid on your marketing efforts.

In an SEO program, positive feedback comes in the form of the algorithmic love shown to you by the search engines, dragging in an ever-increasing number of eyeballs. These eyeballs also contribute to the feedback loop, creating new links, new user-generated content, new activity, all of which continue to drive rankings, up, which drives new eyeballs, which… well, you get the idea. And the cycle continues.

Investment Required

Virtuous cycles require an upfront investment, and it’s usually a significant one. You can’t collect compound interest on a zero balance. Cycles don’t start from scratch.

In SEO, the investments required come in the form of content and an engaging user experience. You have to give a user a reason to come, to engage and to evangelize to really leverage the benefits of SEO. You can evaluate if you have the makings of a virtuous cycle by asking yourself the following questions:

–      What are my users coming for?

–      What will they do?

–      How can they engage?

–      Why will they care?

–      Will their expectations be exceeded?

If you have a less than satisfactory answer to any of these questions, you don’t have what it takes to create a virtuous cycle.

Appealing to Human Nature

If your cycle depends on human behavior, as most do, you have to appeal to one of the basic tenets of human nature. As complicated as we can be, we are generally driven by a surprisingly small number of basic needs. Harvard professors Nitin Nohria and Paul Lawrence, in their book “Driven,” identified four fundamental human drives: We need to acquire, to learn, to bond and to defend. Examine any virtuous cycle, and you’ll always find at least one of these drives at the heart of it.

Ask yourself how your online presence contributes to these drives. Remember, for a cycle to begin, positive feedback is required. And positive feedback depends on engagement from your visitors.

Universally Beneficial

Finally, a virtuous cycle needs to benefit all parties in order for it to be sustainable. It needs to be a win/win/win. If, somewhere along the line, someone gets screwed, the cycle will ultimately fall apart.

In SEO, this means you must play along with the algorithm rather than try to beat it. Short-term thinking and virtuous cycles never go well together. One algorithmic update to crack down on a SEO loophole will shut down your cycle in a heartbeat. But if you work with a search engine to make a great user experience discoverable, the cycle will begin.

Search and the Age of “Usefulness”

First published April 19, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

There has been a lot of digital ink spilled over the recent changes to Google’s algorithm and what it means for the SEO industry. This is not the first time the death knell has been rung for SEO. It seems to have more lives than your average barnyard cat. But there’s no doubt that Google’s recent changes throws a rather large wrench in the industry as a whole. In my view, that’s a good thing.

First of all, from the perspective of the user, Google’s changes mark an evolution of search beyond a tool used to search for information to one used by us to do the things we want to do. It’s moving from using relevance as the sole measure of success to incorporating usefulness.

The algorithm is changing to keep pace with the changes in the Web as a whole. No longer is it just the world’s biggest repository of text-based information; it’s now a living, interactive, functional network of apps, data and information, extending our capabilities through a variety of connected devices.

Google had to introduce these back-end changes. Not to do so would have guaranteed the company would have soon become irrelevant in the online world.

As Google succeeds in consistently interpreting more and more signals of user intent, it can become more confident in presenting a differentiated user experience. It can serve a different type of results set to a query that’s obviously initiated by someone looking for information than it does to the user who’s looking to do something online.

We’ve been talking about the death of the monolithic set of search results for years now. In truth, it never died; it just faded away, pixel by pixel. The change has been gradual, but for the first time in several years of observing search, I can truthfully say that my search experience (whether on Google, Bing or the other competitors) looks significantly different today than it did three years ago.

As search changes, so do the expectations of users. And that affects the “use case” of search. In its previous incarnation, we accepted that search was one of a number of necessary intermediate steps between our intent and our ultimate action. If we wanted to do something, we accepted the fact that we would search for information, find the information, evaluate the information and then, eventually, take the information and do something with it. The limitations of the Web forced us to take several steps to get us where we wanted to go.

But now, as we can do more of what we want to online, the steps are being eliminated. Information and functionality are often seamlessly integrated in a single destination. So we have less patience with seemingly superfluous steps between us and our destination. That includes search.

Soon, we will no longer be content with considering the search results page as a sort of index to online content. We will want the functionality we know exists served to us via the shortest possible path. We see this beginning as answers to common information requests are pushed to the top of the search results page.

What this does, in terms of user experience, is make the transition from search page to destination more critical than ever. As long as search was a reference index, the user expected to bounce back and forth between potential destinations, deciding which was the best match. But as search gets better at unearthing useful destinations, our “post-click” expectations will rise accordingly.  Whatever lies on the other side of that search click better be good. The changes in Google’s algorithm are the first step (of several yet to come) to ensure that it is.

What this does for SEO specialists is to suddenly push them toward considering a much bigger picture than they previously had to worry about. They have to think in terms of a search user’s unique intent and expectations. They have to understand the importance of the transition from a search page to a landing page and the functionality that has to offer. And, most of all, they have to counsel their clients on the increasing importance of “usefulness” — and how potential customers will use online to seek and connect to that usefulness.  If the SEO community can transition to that role, there will always be a need for them.

The SEO industry and the Google search quality team have been playing a game of cat and mouse for several years now. It’s been more “hacking” than “marketing” as SEO practitioners prod for loopholes in the Google algorithm. All too often, a top ranking was the end goal, with no thought to what that actually meant for true connections with prospects.

In my mind, if that changes, it’s perhaps the best thing to ever happen in the SEO business.

Reinventing AIDA

First published April 5, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Last week, my column was about how branding differs between search and more traditional brand channels like TV and print. It came from a recent client conversation I had. Rob Schmults from Intent Media added a well-thought-out, on-the-mark comment that deserves a follow-up. There are three points in particular I want to dive deeper into.

“ I think part of the problem in attempting to do so is that branding is all too often an end in and of itself rather than a means.”

Absolutely. Most sales and marketing happens in dozens of disconnected siloes, with little thought about how the actions of one silo affect all the others. Each silo measures progress by its own metric and set its own agenda. The problem is that all these different initiatives are aimed at the same target, but there is little thought as to how each initiative can impact the prospect.

For the past year, I’ve been thinking about how to approach marketing by starting first with creating a common understanding of the buyer’s motivations and behaviors, and then mapping a decision landscape so we can begin to understand the path the buyer takes through it. Much of my writing over the past two years has explored various aspects of this landscape: things like the role of risk and reward, and how they affect the emotions drive our buying decisions.

If branding becomes disconnected and “an end in and of itself,” it starts to lose touch with the chain of “means” that translates brand awareness into action. I saw a particularly acute example of this in a recent meeting: a brand agency presented research showing each point of movement in its unaided brand awareness metric translated into X of additional revenue. I didn’t dispute the finding, as I believed it to be true. What was missing was the long chain of interdependent “means” taking us from there to here. It was like saying that each inch of rain translated into X increase of revenue at the local farmer’s market. We’re jumping from “A” to “Z” without worrying about the 24 intervening letters.

“SEM is clearly a means — it’s a step to driving a conversion event (typically a sale).”

As I mentioned last week, presence on the search page is very often a critical intermediate step between the lofty heights of brand-building and the nitty-gritty of bringing cash in the door. In fact, if you take the time to understand how search is typically used in the purchase process with your typical buyer, it typically falls into the “no-brainer” category, because the prospect has intent and is completely open to being persuaded. Which brings me to Rob’s next point:

“Branding has value, so the war Gordon describes doesn’t have to end with total victory and branding’s extinction.”

As effective as search is, it’s a channel with built-in limitations, including available inventory. If there is no awareness, there is no inventory. People can’t search for something they don’t know exists (at least, not yet). Branding creates awareness, which, if the dots are connected properly, eventually turns into intent. And when intent is present, search is very effective at converting that intent into action. The chain then is Awareness – Intent – Action, which is a variation on the venerable AIDA branding model: Attention – Interest – Desire – Action. If you combine the two you end up with Awareness – Interest – Desire – Intent – Action, or AIDIA. You need branding at the front end, to create awareness, spark interest and create desire. You need search at the back end to allow prospects to act on their intent and discover how to take action.

It’s interesting to note that the original AIDA model jumped all the way from desire to action without much explanation on how to get there. Given that two of the steps –“interest” and “desire” — seem pretty similar, it’s odd that there is such a huge chasm between the domain of branding and the ultimate transaction itself. The AIDA model was definitely biased towards the front end of the marketing process.

I think what digital has done, especially through search, is to provide much more granularity and clarity on the many steps you can take to get from desire to action. But, as Mr. Schmults reminds us, none of these steps is “an end unto itself.” They’re part of a journey. They depend on each other. And each is passed through by your prospects as they travel down the path of purchase.

To come full circle, that was my original point. I’m not calling for the abolition of branding. I’m just asking that we take the time to understand the journey our customers take, and be there at each step.

 

There is No Floor on Search Spending

First published March 29, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

I was asked an interesting question by a client the other day:  “What is the minimum spending threshold for paid search? Below what level does it not make sense to invest anything?”

A little context is in order here. This same client had been through a vigorous round of budget discussions, where the digital and branding teams were fighting for the same bucket of dollars. They were trying, with almost no success, to compare effectiveness of digital and branding on a dollar-for-dollar basis. The brand team’s tactic was that they couldn’t give up any budget because they were already at minimum spending levels. Even a dollar less would drop them below the level required to hit the reach/frequency minimums dictated by the agency handling the media buys.

The answer, of course, is that there is no minimum when it comes to paid search. Each click you buy generates a potential lead. But the reasoning behind that answer speaks to the unique nature of search, when compared to traditional brand-building channels.

Online Branding is a Different Beast

Search vendors have been trying to prove the brand-building effects of search for years now. I’ve been personally involved in some of the earliest of these studies. And I’m here to tell you, branding is much different in an online environment than it is in the traditional worlds of print and electronic media.

When you use research to create a direct comparison between two different alternatives, you have to control for variables. If you don’t, the results are meaningless. If you’re trying to measure the brand lift of search, you have to use traditional brand awareness metrics — which, as I said, have significant methodological challenges.

The biggest challenge, identified by more sophisticated research approaches such as neuroscanning, is that most market research doesn’t really take into account how the brain works. And it’s here where the brand impact of search really can leave its more traditional counterparts in the dust.

The brain can interact with potential marketing messages in two different modes – a “bottom up” mode or a “top down” mode. The “bottom up” mode is how most traditional advertising works. It interrupts the brain, whatever it’s engaged with, and temporarily sidetracks the brain long enough to hopefully leave a “brand imprint” that will stick in long-term memory. Often, this is done at a subconscious level.

And therein lies the problem with most brand-awareness metrics. By their very nature, they have to engage the conscious brain and suddenly you’ve muddied the mental waters to such an extent that it’s almost impossible to get a true picture of the impression the brand left. Traditional brand impact research is a crapshoot, at best.

It’s this subconscious impact that has created the “minimum buy” hypothesis. If you don’t hit a potential target with enough impressions to make even a slight ding in their mental armor, you have wasted your entire budget. It’s the “Chinese water torture” approach to advertising.

But search engages the brain in a “top down” mode. We’re actively engaged with the task at hand, which means that no interruption is required to implant the brand impression. It’s immediately loaded into working memory, and we’re ready to act on it. That’s why there is no such thing as a minimum search spend. Each click bought has the potential to work, because there are no mental barriers to break down or attention to grab.

Sometimes the Truth Hurts

Ironically, in this particular budget discussion, the effectiveness of search turned out to be its downfall. We didn’t have the same “minimum spend” argument as the branding agency when it came to moving ad dollars from one budget to the other. But, when the dust settled, I took some solace in knowing that while we may have lost the battle, the effectiveness of search will eventually prove triumphant in the war.

Behind Every Search There’s a Story

First published February 23, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

This week, I was reminded why I got into this business. The timing was good, because to be honest, after being involved in too many discussions revolving around search budgets and cross-channel attribution models, I had lost touch with what I’d found so magical about online marketing in the first place. But Tim and Daniel reminded me. It’s a story worth repeating.

About a week ago, I was sitting in a boardroom trying to find an “apples-to-apples” comparison for a CMO of a huge company to help validate moving money from traditional brand-building channels into search. We had run dozens of models, compiled multiple spreadsheets, and put together at least six different slide decks. In the process we did our level best to suck all the life out of the exercise, reducing it to a colorless discussion based solely on numbers. We were trying to find that elusive formula that would allow us to compare the impact of a dollar spent on search vs. a dollar spent on TV.

This was a variation of a conversation that I’m sure we’ve all had multiple times in the last year. I guess it was a sign that digital has come of age. We were trying to subject it to the same BS that had propped up TV and print for decades.

However, in the process, we were missing something critical. And I found that something critical on the streets of San Francisco.

When I started in search, I used to get a kick from the fact that thanks to what we did, a small Mustang after-market parts retailer could outrank Ford for keywords like “Mustang parts” and increase its online business by 10 times in under a year, eventually outstripping its traditional brick- and-mortar business, which had been around for decades. Or that a small boat manufacturer in Kelowna, B.C. could rank No. 1 for “boats” and suddenly start getting inquiries from around the world. Online made things possible that had never been possible before. And that was pretty cool.

Those stories are still happening and being talked about. It’s just that they’re not happening at the boardroom tables where I’ve been hanging out lately. But then I ran into Tim and Daniel, and their story restored my faith in online marketing.

Tim and Daniel are just a couple of guys who happen to love their city (San Francisco) and wanted to find a way to afford their sky-rocketing rent so they could continue to live there.  A little over a year ago, they started a bike tour company that takes tourists through the streets of San Francisco, pointing out the little nooks and crannies that give the city its color. They’re both pretty personable guys and the tours benefit from their obvious passion for their subject. They can bring Haight-Ashbury or the Castro to life in a way that no tour book or bus tour ever could. They reduce San Francisco to a street-level, intimate love affair, exactly the way the city should be seen.

Now, as cool as that is, the story wouldn’t be worth telling unless people actually discovered the tour, allowing Tim and Daniel to keep their jobs as guides.

And that’s where the Internet comes in. Right now, their tour is the No. 1 ranked tour on Trip Advisor, with 145 reviews, all of them “excellent.” And so, because of this feedback, they top a very long list of things to do in San Francisco. They probably won’t get rich, but they will keep the business rolling and keep paying the rent. And that’s not a bad outcome for being able to do the thing you love.

I asked Daniel what the impact of the positive ranking on Trip Advisor had been, and he was positive but realistic, “It’s been pretty awesome, but as I keep telling my mom, it’s an algorithm and it might be gone tomorrow. But we’re enjoying it while we can.”

Excellent advice. Enjoy it while you can. And when the big business of search seems to suck all the fun out of life, remember that guys like Tim and Daniel are still stoked about what it can do for them.

That’s why I got into the biz.

The Challenge of Social

First published December 1, 2011 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Every quarter, I fill out an online survey about digital marketing trends. One question always shows up: “Are you looking at social as a replacement for search in your online marketing strategy?” I always answer no, and to myself, comment that it’s a stupid question asked by someone who obviously doesn’t know much about online marketing. But now I wonder  — is it really such a stupid question? Aren’t many experienced marketers asking themselves exactly the same question?

The Social Graph (or Network, or whatever you want to call it) should be the single biggest opportunity in marketing history. But marketers are stubbing their toes by the millions in trying to step over the threshold into the golden glow of the online social party. It seems it’s incredibly difficult to figure out.

Search, on the other hand, was easily pigeonholed as a direct-marketing channel. Search was so easy to “get” for marketers that Google turned it into a self-serve model and became the fastest growing company in history as a result.

For marketers, I suspect, the very ease of search has caused it to be considered a limited opportunity. Social, on the other hand, seems virtually limitless. It expands into hundreds and thousands of fascinating, if somewhat cloudy, opportunities to connect with customers. As I said, in theory, social seems like a marketer’s dream come true. But in practice, it’s an unwieldy animal to wrestle to the ground.

Here’s just one example of the challenges inherent in mapping the online social landscape.  Pitney Bowes felt there was tremendous potential in social to foster deeper engagements with its customers, building long-term loyalty. But rather than jump headlong into it, Pitney Bowes decided to test its assumptions through a survey of those customers first. The result? Social may not be all it’s cracked up to be:

“These findings will give decision-makers pause for thought,” the report (from the survey) stated. “Businesses can be forgiven for getting swept away by the hype of surrounding social media and wanting to invest in such activity as soon as possible. … But results show that those businesses tempted to lead with such techniques will quickly find themselves out of step with customer thinking.”

So why is social so awkward to leverage effectively? I suspect it’s because the exact same things that make social so promising also make it incredibly unwieldy to manage.  It’s part of our lives, which means we’re engaged, but what we’re engaged with is rarely what an advertiser wants to talk to us about.

Marketers get caught up in the concept of participation rates and usage. Facebook has one of the highest reaches of any online property, second only to Google. Alexa estimates that almost half of the total Internet user population (about 49%) uses Google regularly. Facebook is just behind at 43%. But if we look at time spent on site, Facebook comes it an about 25 minutes a day, compared to 13 minutes a day for Google. If we were using engagement as an indicator of marketing potential, this would have us salivating like a St. Bernard over a fresh bowl of kibble.

But the reason I don’t trust engagement as a metric is that it doesn’t consider intent. And intent is the key difference between social and search. The reason search excels in marketing is that it’s all about intent, and what’s even better, it’s about identified intent, neatly labeled by the search query. In the history of marketing, it’s never been easier than this to intercept a motivated buyer.

I don’t mean to minimize the value of a well-managed search campaign, but compared to other channels, it’s pretty difficult to completely flop on a search campaign. The same is not true for social. To illustrate, let’s step back and look at this from another point of view, one that removes some of the hyperbole that surrounds online social.

Let’s say you’ve just decided to sell your 2007 Honda Civic. As you’re backing out of your driveway, your neighbor flags you down and asks you how you like your Honda, and if you know where she could buy a good used one? From your perspective, this aligning of the planets seems too good to be true, but it’s similar to what happens on a search engine millions of time every day. It’s the power of alignment with purchase intent.

But let’s take a different tack. Let’s imagine that as you drive down the street, you see that one of your neighbors is having a party. In front of their house, there are at least 12 cars parked, including four Hondas. “A-hah, “ you say, “a perfect gathering of potential Honda buyers, with at least 33% of them showing a preference for Hondas” (note: if this is what your internal dialogue actually sounds like, you should consider an extended leave from work). You ring the doorbell and begin to work the crowd. The only problem is, no one came to the party to buy a Honda. Not to mention the obvious question on everyone’s mind: “Who the hell invited you?”

If your goal is to unload your Honda, I know what scenario I’d be betting on. It almost seems ludicrous that we’re even considering Scenario B as a substitute for Scenario A. Yet, every three months, I get that survey asking me if I’m thinking about it.

I know — it doesn’t make any sense to me, either.