Interview With Rob Garner: Search, Social, And Real-Time Marketing

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Synopsis — Rob Garner, VP of Strategy at iCrossing, talks to SMS about recent changes to SEO, real-time marketing and how businesses can be more successful in their online marketing endeavors. Rob answers a number of questions about recent changes such as Google+ and Google Search Plus Your World, and talks about designing a website for search visibility. He also explains the relational approach to website architecture. Garner is currently writing a book for Wiley / Sybex on the topic of search, social, and real-time marketing, which is scheduled for release in November 2012. He is a long-time expert in developing strategies that drive visibility, engagement and results.

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Interview With Rob Garner: Search, Social, And Real-Time Marketing

SMS: Rob, thanks for agreeing to talk about recent changes to the search environment and the user experience, especially relating to real-time marketing. As VP Strategy of iCrossing, you are in a great position to provide concrete advice on how our readers can take advantage of these changes and be more successful in their online marketing endeavors.

Fundamental changes are occurring in the practice of traditional SEO and paid search. Indeed, the very phraseology is in flux, with the term “inbound marketer” becoming more popular to identify someone who works not only in SEO and paid search, but social media, content marketing, blogging, web analytics, usability, etc. What do you think is the most important attribute that the traditional SEO practitioner needs to focus on to successfully move into these new phases of search marketing?

Rob: The terms “Internet marketing” and “online marketing” are still valid. It seems that “inbound” is a semantic reworking of the same umbrella terms we already have, and doesn’t quite cover the full scope and potential of the online channel in its current form.

Basically, SEO practitioners need to be more “search and social,” rather than just “search.” I am a huge proponent of real-time marketing, which has been around since the dawn of the commercial Internet. It is only in the last 3-4 years that companies can justify the expense and philosophical shift of the approach, due to the fact that most people in the US have now adopted the Internet as a daily part of their lives.

In the book that I’m currently writing for Wiley / Sybex, I make the case that the crux of real-time is in search and social together. Search or social marketers who lack knowledge or balance in their approach will never fully understand the total picture for Internet marketing, period. Fortunately for search marketers, they are generally ahead in understanding search and social together, more than the social-only practitioners who don’t know search or have an aversion to it.

SMS: Social signals are clearly becoming more of a part of the overall algorithm for Google. How can SEO practitioners use social networks to help their sites rank better?

Rob: The bar has been lowered for creating optimized links and pages on the Internet, much more so than 5-10 years ago, in the sense that link and page building has been democratized through less technical creation methods. So engaging those people who are sharers and content creators will have some of the greatest impact on your search visibility. Of course, you have to build up your networks with the right individuals and groups in order to get your content shared and to inspire content creators.

Also at the basis of the shift is creating content on a major scale. More than any other division of Internet marketing, search marketers have long been evangelizing on the benefits of content strategy, but we have reached a stage where content has become the connective touchpoint between the marketer and the audience of consumers.

SMS: Do you think that Google+ can be called a success so far? Or is it too soon to judge?

Rob: Google+ is still in its early stages of development, but it has changed the game for social networks in proving that robust technology focusing on relevancy can create a better social user experience. The story is not just about social, but search and social together. The question used to be “how is Google going to become social,” where now the pressure is more on the social networks to become more algorithmically relevant.

In the combined search and social sense, Google is winning the game. Google+ will still need to gain more users, and they continue to grow, but the bottom line is that marketers who care about their search program and their audience should get involved and active with Google+ in a big way. I have talked with many people at Google, and Google+ is part of the future strategy of the company. They have a 10-year vision for Google+ at the very least.

SMS: Google recently announced a change called Search Plus Your World. In your opinion, how will the addition of more personalized data (Google+ data, Google profiles, etc.) into the SERPs change how practitioners approach optimization? Do you think there will be privacy ramifications for Google?

Rob: Users are either complacent or livid about privacy changes that expose their data. Users will leave if they don’t like it, but it is likely that the FTC is going to add this to their investigation, though I think Google is within their rights to take this approach. For SEOs, it all comes back to building up relevant network connections and engaging their audience through content, which really gets back to making SEO more of a search and social thing.

SMS: Now let’s talk about the user experience in search, for which you’ve been an advocate for many years. What three changes over the past few years have most affected how designers need to approach website architecture?

Rob: First, the rise in rich Internet applications has had a tremendous impact, but it still has to be tempered with portable design, which fundamentally means making a site crawlable. User experience advocates should be reinforcing the fact that their audience doesn’t consume their site content in a bubble, but rather they come in from outside sources. In the case of many of my clients, this experience starts in a search engine anywhere from 10%-40% of the time.

Second, there is a greater need to be more push-focused, which means moving the experience out to the user wherever they may be, relating to their user from both “outside in” and “inside out.” Third, using search technology to identify a query or problem in real time. This needs to be enabled with a human touch, even off of owned website assets. So it is about applying search principles to open networks in terms of engaging with an audience.

SMS: Can you briefly summarize the relational approach to website design and architecture and why it is so important to include search as a component?

Rob: The relational approach is something we created at iCrossing to reconsider the user experience in site design or redesign. Before, web design and information architecture would follow a top-down method, and build under the assumption that all users would be directed to the homepage or other entry page. Their experience and path would then continue within the context of the top-tier levels, and trickle down in a sort of funnel or other defined pathway. But external search experiences, off-site content consumption, and conversation changes the top-down approach into something entirely different. As soon as a page deep within that website would get indexed in a search engine, users were not going to the front door anymore, and instead began drilling deep into the site. The page designed for top-down experience is suddenly without context or can be confusing to the user.

In the relational sense, you consider if the user can complete the task from both top-down and also drilling into any part of the site where a user has direct access via search, bookmark, or link. The architectural map begins to look less like a pyramid and more nucleic. It is nucleic not just from the search sense, but also from the greater social and network sense as well.

SMS: If you had to choose the top three considerations for designing a website for search engine visibility, what would those be?

Rob: First would be portability of data, because the bottom line is that if a search engine can’t grab your content, then you’ve got nothing going at all. Second would be depth of content, because if you are doing the basics of SEO right, then what you get from search is directly proportional to the amount of content you have, and the relative popularity of that content at the keyword level. This also means that content should be engaging, unique, or differentiated in some way. Third would be the big world of linking touchpoints. Basic linking, social signals, and all of the other myriad way that engines pick up links ultimately contribute to whether your site is highly visible or not.

SMS: Have the extensive changes in search resulting from the growth of social media affected your opinion of what is important for the user experience? In what ways?

Rob: Absolutely. Ultimately, it makes it imperative to be more connected through content, but to another degree, you also need to be connected to your audience. This is not just some kind of marketing jargon — you need to literally be connected to your like-minded audience in the networks in which they participate, or connected to people who are highly connected.

SMS: You speak about “engagement through optimization” in relation to the user experience – can you explain this?

Rob: Engagement through optimization is fundamentally about taking the typical data that we consider to be search research and applying it as a qualitative and quantitative vote for what your audience seeks. This involves reinforcing the living language of your target audience, advocating for users through search data as market research, reinforcing your architecture as a reflection of your audience, and allowing portability through the channels in which they seek information. If there is an experience outside of your site, then you can be participatory and take the relevant experience directly to the user through engagement.

SMS: How has the rise of social media changed how website designers should view this process?

Rob: It fundamentally requires that as a marketer, you can’t just “build it and they will come.” Yes, you build it and some people will come, but you also need to use search and social strategy principles to find your fragmented audience outside of your website and owned assets. You can then take that experience directly to your audience through participation and human interaction. Designers need to start thinking about portable architecture and experiences in a highly sophisticated way, in addition to website architecture, and that involves enabling a lot of give and take between the two, rather than just trying to pull your audience directly to your owned website assets.

SMS: How are real-time search queries different from traditional queries?

Rob: The ongoing search and social query lexicon is not static, but rather a living language process. So there will always be head terms that are popular and may remain consistent, but there is a part of the user language that is constantly changing, in terms of the way searchers perceive things, and in the way that they seek out new information. Google Web Search lead Udi Manber provided a remarkable statistic in 2007 that 20%-25% of all queries entered into a search box every day at Google have never been searched before. These new queries may be variations on existing themes, typos, or entirely new language altogether.

SMS: What kind of implications does the rise of real-time search have for keyword research? How do SEOs need to adjust their thinking about keywords in this changing environment?

Rob: Marketers are good at finding the static historical keywords and phrases, but they are not as good at identifying new language, especially in real-time. We will never be able to fully predict real-time queries because it involves this evolving user language, and events and thoughts that occur in the future.

The best way to optimize for real-time queries is to stay topical, maintain evergreen and seasonal content, anticipate traffic spikes using trend tools, and most importantly, enable content communities that allow users to generate trusted content in real-time. It is fair to say that a lot of these queries are rooted in news, entertainment, and events, but there are always topical discussions in just about every vertical, and it is the job of a good online marketer who knows their space to go in and crack it from a keyword level.

SMS: And a final question about mobile search. It is becoming clear that the device you use (mobile or not) seems to be showing the same SERPs. Given this, how important is it that SEO practitioners implement a specific mobile SEO strategy?

Rob: The best optimization you can do for a mobile searcher is to make that experience usable once they get to your site through a mobile device. While the mobile results are generally the same as wireline search, the ability to digest that content is another story. Getting a mobile site with parallel functionality of your main website is a good first start.

SMS: Thanks so much, Rob, for these insights into various aspects of the rapidly changing search environment!

About the Author

In his role as VP of Strategy at iCrossing, Rob works to develop search and social marketing strategies that drive visibility, engagement, and results. He currently serves as an officer on the SEMPO board of directors and was president of the Dallas-Ft. Worth Search Engine Marketing Association from 2006-2008. Rob is currently writing a book for Wiley / Sybex on the topic of search, social, and real-time marketing, scheduled for release in November 2012.

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