Search marketing, once the preserve of technical specialists, is merging with social media and PR as content becomes ever more integral to the success of a brand’s search strategy. Katie McQuater takes a look.
The blurring of lines between search, social and PR is due in part to the increased sophistication of Google’s algorithms. The search engine is now able to mimic signals that humans consider trustworthy, making it able to distinguish between content that is useful and content that is optimised for Google alone.
Consumers’ increasing trend towards using social media to find information (people trust recommendations from friends over traditional advertising) is also playing a part in the convergence of disciplines. Social search is becoming a stronger consideration for digital marketers.
The question of whether or not ‘SEO is dead’ causes consternation from many corners of the industry, but perhaps the argument is not that SEO is dead, but that it is becoming unrecognisable as the lines blur between search, social and PR.
Rhys Williams, managing partner at Agenda21, argues that SEO in its current form is “dead and buried” because it is becoming “impossible to game the system”. He explains that SEO now involves a more complex skillset.
“No longer can you simply implement tactics such as link-buying, content distribution or buying low quality content and expect them to deliver results. Google has put an end to that, which means that many companies are struggling to adapt,” he adds.
Williams points to the example of the keyword ‘car insurance’, a term whose search visibility has, for years, been dominated by what he refers to as “aggressive aggregators” who employ link-buying and content distribution tactics. Now these tactics are failing as Google rewards quality, engaging content that offers value to the end user.
“Producing content simply for SEO value is pointless and you just end up with low quality content that does more harm than good,” explains Williams, adding that brands must focus on converging traditionally separate teams of creative, PR, social and SEO in order to build sustainable long term strategies. This approach benefits smaller teams, according to Williams.
“Traditionally these teams or companies have worked in splendid isolation and even now they are all trying to claim they are the answer – when it is in fact them working towards a overall SEO strategy. It’s not easy but brands have to get their heads around it quickly, and it does give the advantage to smaller, more nimble, ‘hands on’ marketing teams.”
The integration of SEO with social and PR has other implications from brands in terms of how they operate internally, explains CEO of Immediate Future Katy Howell.
“Every digital output needs to have a search element, from blog posts to video, through to apps and tweets. Now, brands must think carefully about their content. It goes beyond considering how to tag, name and write descriptions for all types of content from visuals to white papers. It is also about using search demand insight and trends to inform the content in the first place.”
House of Fraser’s SEO manager, Hanna Zimmermann-Downs, explains the impact that integration of SEO with social and PR has had on the brand internally.
“Channel specific SEO courses and detailed KPI reports are crucial to prove positive change. Enforcement of strategic, rather than tactical, approaches to include SEO in the strategies of channels such as PR and social media, have been key.
“The introduction to and understanding of great SEO practices are a big step for an offline company – one that opens the door to unforeseen potential. The willingness to adapt every aspect around such a theory not only requires bravery and trust, but commitment to stop, rearrange and start over in order to take the best next step.”
The brand works with Search Laboratory on its organic search strategies, and the agency’s head of SEO Jimmy McCann offers up his thoughts on the question of search merging with social and PR, suggesting the change is “less of a merger, and more like a convergence”. McCann argues that SEO has been “forced down this road as technology evolves and the market matures”, adding that the days of “hawkers and shady manipulation” are over.
Smirnoff is another brand fully aware of the importance of integrating search. Hayden Abercrombie, Smirnoff brand manager for Western Europe, explains that “SEO plays a significant part of Smirnoff’s digital marketing strategy and wider media plan."
He adds: “We know that 80 per cent of consumers’ online journeys start with search. If a brand wants their content to be discoverable online in the most credible way, then optimising your owned platforms for search is a no brainer. Simply by improving your ranking position against key search terms can mean hundreds of thousands of additional traffic to your site each year.
“To truly achieve scale for online activity no one channel can sit in isolation to the others. SEO is the glue that links them all together. If brands deliver a clear consistent message across all consumer touch points the scale potential markedly increases.”
It’s not just the lines between SEO and social that are becoming increasingly blurred, explains Jon Myers, VP and managing director EMEA for Marin Software, who cites Facebook advertising platform as an example of the merging of social with PPC.
“When you look at how much social advertising is sold on a biddable CPC basis, you start to realise the lines between PPC and social media are also blurring. Much of Facebook’s recent success with its advertising platform has been as a result of creating ad formats which appeal to PPC marketers and more broadly performance marketers. They’re starting to build ad formats which are bought in an auction model but which are also driving a direct response. This makes Facebook an attractive addition to any PPC strategy.”
The convergence of channels not only has implications for the future of search marketing, but represents a shift in digital marketing as a whole. As silos disappear and consumer touch points become more varied, the digital industry is shifting towards a more holistic approach.
Tom Salmon, group director of marketing at Epiphany, summarises this seismic movement: “We’re seeing the confusing mess of different digital silos being pulled back together. The merging of SEO, social and PR is a symptom of that shift and represents a really fundamental thing; putting the consumer back at the heart of digital marketing.”
This feature is published as part of The Drum's latest Search supplement. The supplement is available for purchase or as a download for subscribers of The Drum.