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Amid the pandemic, search is going local, vocal and future-proof

Miracle Inameti-Archibong, head of SEO at search agency Erudite, is chair of the jury at The Drum Awards for Search this year. Here she explains how brands can help customers find what they’re looking for, and the importance of long-term thinking in the pandemic.

The Drum: SEO marketing has faced its own set of unique challenges this year. How have you helped Erudite overcome the biggest hurdles?

Miracle Inameti-Archibong: It has been an interesting year because we’re all in the same river, but every client is on a different boat. It has helped that we’re a boutique agency. We’re a small team, we’re really agile, and we can respond quickly – adapting to our clients’ needs, being able to shift budgets to different channels where the need arises.

We’ve had to step in for some clients because they couldn’t get online in time, some had to pause entirely due to government guidelines. We’ve been understanding with them, not thinking about profit right now but rather about how we can build relationships for the future and our long-term goals.

TD: And for your staff?

MI-A: We’ve always had flexible working hours, but we can’t always operate a nine to five anymore. We’re focusing on delivering our work – it doesn't matter what time of day we are delivering.

We provide mental health support that everyone can access privately, and we find ways to socialise when everyone's so cut off. We've tried working with cameras on, lunch chats, things to make sure that we are still in contact with each other.

TD: What do you think the biggest challenge has been for the industry as a whole?

MI-A: Client flexibility – some clients wanted to pause their services – and education. There are clients that have benefited from lockdown, because everyone’s ordering online now, so demand has skyrocketed. One of the questions that we were asked constantly is, how do we sustain this growth?

We had to take our clients through an educational process, explaining that SEO can’t happen in a silo. You have to engage your email marketing, your reward system. Understanding how to convert customers into returning customers and building loyalty. That’s what we’ve been trying to teach our clients.

TD: A lot of people have fallen into that trap of short-termism. Have you seen a change in the way clients think about their long-term investments versus short term returns?

MI-A: Yes, especially clients that have both online stores and brick-and-mortars. They used to prioritise the latter, because it was easy – people went out to shops every day. When those companies were established, traditional marketing was at its peak. So you have top stakeholders who don’t understand SEO. I guess we are in part to blame because traditionally we haven’t reported on metrics that chief executives and stakeholders find interesting. But with the current trend of people shopping online, they have seen the value of that digital asset, not just as a traffic value, but as a brand value.

TD: There’s been a focus on two things for search marketers. One is content, updating things in real time for customers. But another has been a focus on the local. People aren’t permitted to travel very far so they’ve turned to local businesses. Do you think this will continue, and how does that affect search?

MI-A: It’s difficult to predict user behavior. With local search, it’s all about making sure your GMB is set up and your customers have that information so they don’t drive or walk a long way on their one trip out to find they can’t get what they want. Google has made it easy with so many labels, just set up your GMB and make sure that you’re setting up all of those things.

TD: It’s hard for smaller, local businesses to manage this sort of thing.

MI-A: It is, but there are many free resources on Google. I would say to local businesses, there are so many snake oil SEO agencies out there. If you start with Google My Business, they’ve made it easy to integrate analytics. So you can monitor things on your site – find out when it's busiest, what’s converting better – so you can offer deals.

Because if you want people to keep shopping local, you need to incentivise them. It’s the same tactics as big business. You’ve seen a surge in local. Now you have to keep them committed. You find out what they buy often, then you give them discounts. It’s so easy to set up a website. You continue to provide an excellent service and keep them informed.

TD: I personally find I’m speaking to Alexa a lot more these days. How do you think voice and AI will evolve this year, will Covid-19 hold back progress there, and how will technology affect marketers?

MI-A: I don’t think it’s going to hold back progress, because the search industry just responds to what Google is doing. It’s not slowing down in this aspect, so neither will marketers.

On voice search, I think we still have maybe two or three years before it’s the thing that everyone's doing. I see it integrated to a lot of systems now, and it’s the way my children search, so I know it is the future. When it hits, everyone will be optimizing for it with featured snippets because that's what gets pulled into voice search.

If you’re offering instant value, then you’re futureproof. Nobody wants to read a long blog post to find out if your shop is open. Think about your user, how they use your site. People want to reduce the time to task completion.

TD: So is that trade-off then between driving traffic to your own site and ease of use?

MI-A: Whether you drive the traffic to your site or not, it’s a brand exercise. Customers see your brand and know it's there.

It’s about getting as much of that digital landscape as you can, because the search landscape is so crowded: there’s paid search, then there’s Google shopping. Whichever way you can make a name for your website, take the opportunity.

TD: Coming on to the awards, what are you looking for in the submissions this year?

I’m looking for a team or a submission that has considered the overall goal of the client. Often we see people going after tactics like they’re using a checklist. We did this, implemented this, and we got this result. I want to see a compelling story of the client’s objective and how SEO was used to aid that, and this is the impact it had.

SEO can no longer afford to work in a silo. We want to see how it’s integrating, and how people are using data insight. With the growth of AI and machine learning, we have so much data at our fingertips. I want to see it used to inform strategy. I’m interested in the innovative things people are using and how they are tying them into the overall company goals.

TD: If there were one piece of SEO or search advice you could give our readers, what would it be?

MI-A: Focus on your user. It’s not rocket science. Sometimes we veer towards what Google wants and forget about the user. If you look at recent algorithm updates they’re all about relevancy and authority. Google is trying to combat misinformation, so they are trying to rank the most authoritative site for every query. And if you focus on your user, focus on your USP, then you’re naturally going to be an authority on the thing that you're selling.

So focus on providing them the best service and answering questions about your product before you start venturing out into things like broad keyword searches. How do they use your product? How can they benefit from your product? If you focus on optimizing all of these things, making sure you have a clear journey, you can't go wrong.

To enter The Drum Awards for Search, visit the website.

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