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SearchTHIS: MSN Gets a Facelift

SearchTHIS: MSN Gets a Facelift Kevin Ryan
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Late last week, as we were all planning our holiday weekend exit strategies (Vegas anyone?), MSN floated a search marketing air biscuit our way with a much needed "new and improved" look and feel for search results. MSN search had become infamous for search listing multiplicity offering many sources of information -- and a seeming total disregard for search users' declared or otherwise brainwashed needs.


The new MSN search page is perfect for our light and lean, low-carb, crazy society with a less cluttered appearance, fewer ads and a fresh approach to search. The new look is sans Yahoo! paid inclusion and MSN's own paid listings which is great news for users but not so great news for Yahoo! paid inclusion advertisers.


So what's all the hubbub? Despite research showing a big chunk of audience taking its leave of MSN search in the past year, MSN is still an online marketing powerhouse with strong content, a big audience, and lots of targeted ad opportunities. The network has, in fact, made great strides of late toward delivering a better overall experience for both users and advertisers. While this change might seem a bit small in the grand scheme of search, it makes sense to keep on eye on MSN search activity.


Here's a look at the who, what, where, and why of MSN search.


The whydunnit


MSN search hasn't exactly been known for being search friendly. The search area was a great case study in how to confuse both users and search marketers. In the iMediaLearning search marketing road show, we had a great graphic depicting search results from MSN that pretty much said it all.




Courtesy of iMediaLearning


A user search for a "digital camera" found a loosely organized mishmash (think Powell Motors' "The Homer") of search listings. There were featured sites sold by MSN in a "measurement-challenged" format, since keywords had to be bucketed and listing performance could not be measured independently. An advertiser had to test keywords in Overture's paid listings (found immediately below the featured sites) before contemplating a purchase in the featured area.


The bottom listings, if the user could find them, contained listings categorized as natural or organic, which also had some paid inclusion listings in them -- and therein lies a small problem. Users have now have a sense of empowered entitlement when it comes to being "in the know" as to what's paid and what isn't, thanks to special interest groups like Ralph Nader's, which led the charge for paid listings to be labeled "sponsored" in the first place.


Many searchers and search marketers began to feel paid inclusion listings misled users by not being labeled as such. The Sword of Damocles (sword of Nadercles?) is currently dangling above the head of all forms of paid inclusion. It's waiting for the next Nader-instigated FTC letter to providers demanding their listings be labeled "advertising" in the same way pay-per-click listings were forced to be labeled "sponsored."


The future of paid inclusion is uncertain, but it is clear that MSN has chosen to opt- out of having to deal with the paid inclusion debate.


The whodunnit


Without getting into the politics surrounding inclusion from the advertiser perspective, said listing format is a very effective way to get catalogs online, feed hundreds of location-specific content pages, and reduce the amount of spammed clutter in search results. Yahoo!'s highly publicized and successful content acquisition program (CAP) is going to take a traffic hit without MSN's eyeballs, but we as marketers hope that Yahoo! maintains its staunch commitment to the program.


The new look is cleaner and certainly more forthcoming with the who and what of paid listings, but MSN still doesn't own any of the search results it serves. Yahoo's Slurp and Yahoo! subsidiary Overture's paid listings provide their results. According to MSN accounts published in CNET, Microsoft expects the new search experience will improve search results by 50 percent.


Wow! I love it when people make blind bold statements like that because is next to impossible to disprove them given that so many factors can be labeled success criteria. Look everyone, we did a user study and half of our respondents said our search result is better. That's a 50 percent improvement.


Replication is the sincerest form of flattery, a thought I often have to keep in mind when reading other search marketing articles around the Web (thanks, guys!) and MSN search is no exception. The battle for search dominance continues and Google's uncluttered paid and unpaid sans inclusion format is a clear-cut winner, judging by audience growth over the past year or so. So, if you can't beat 'em (yet), might as well join 'em.


The wheredunnit


Google, Yahoo!, and MSN own the biggest chunk of search audience in the United States. Nielsen Net//Ratings data indicate the top three providers all own in the neighborhood of 30-40percent of search visitors with Google in the lead. Recent Hitwise research painted a nasty picture of MSN audience abandonment over the course of last year to the tune of 15 percent.


Microsoft is going to have to work to get those users back. Study after study shows users remaining loyal to search sites with specific purposes in mind. Another recent study from the search marketing firm iProspect about user attitudes showed, among other things, the largest portion of Google (60.8 percent) and Yahoo! users (72.3 percent) found natural results most relevant to searches, while users on MSN (71.2 percent) found paid search to be most relevant. While the "which is more important" debate when discussing natural and paid search is still left unanswered, it is clear that MSN searchers didn't rely on natural listings, assuming again they knew the difference.


The final doughnut


In the end, MSN's minor nip and tuck is a good baby step forward. The MSN crawler for natural search is expected to be released later this year, but if MSN chooses to learn from the past, we know that users prefer a clean looking search experience with advertising clearly separated from the perceived, naturally occurring listings. Though MSN search has suffered a bit in the last year, the Internet powerhouse can still use its search experience as an advertising loss leader until the big moment arrives when Longhorn will change our world. Caesar's Palace wasn't built in a day, and, if nothing else, this latest little move says "we came to play and we're to stay."


iMedia columnist Kevin Ryan's current and former client roster reads like a "who's who" in big brands: Rolex Watch, USA, State Farm Insurance, Farmers Insurance, Minolta Corporation, Samsung Electronics America, Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Panasonic Services, and the Hilton Hotels brands, to name a few. Ryan believes in sound guidance, creative thought, accountable actions and collaborative execution as applied to search, or any form of marketing. His principled approach and staunch commitment to the industry have made him one of the most sought after personalities in online marketing. Ryan volunteers his time with the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization and several regional non-profit organizations. Meet Kevin Ryan at Ad:Tech, July 12-13.

Is your brand even welcome on Twitter?
Ask a Twitter user if brands are welcome on Twitter, and you're bound to get responses ranging from an emphatic "No," to "Maybe, if they're offering something useful," to "Why wouldn't they be?"


The truth is, brands are welcome. Or at least, they are as welcome as any Twitter user who is good at tweeting. Nobody likes bad messaging, whether you're talking about friends who can't resist sharing nonsensical tidbits in their Facebook feeds, or brands that saturate the airwaves with crude, obnoxious commercials. But that may be where most brands run into trouble -- they're too cultured in the ways of one-way messaging to, shall we say, play nicely with others on a platform like Twitter.


"Typical brand blast-broadcasting simply will not work in this space," Banks says. "Users demand personal, relevant, and useful information -- or they stop following. Unless it is a stream focused on opt-in unique deals and offers (like the highly successful @delloutlet), users expect insightful two-way dialogue that reveals some of the personality of the tweeter."


That's not a limitation of Twitter per se (in fact, it could be an asset for some brands), but if your brand is still getting acquainted with interactive (and many still are), Twitter might be just a tad too advanced for now. And even the brands that are a little more advanced in the digital space may have a tough time adapting to Twitter, says Paul Ratzky, interactive director at OLSON.


"For some select brands, actual brand or product info may be enough (think Disney or Apple)," says Ratzky. "But for most, a higher purpose must be in play that offers an immediate and emotional benefit. The right answer is likely different for every brand and category. [But] brands that haven't landed on this answer [and made certain that the answer is authentic] might [do] best to avoid the space for now."


The world's smallest creative
Twitter may be a boon for copywriters blessed with succinct prose and a penchant for shooting from the hip, but the reality is that microblogging is probably too small for engaging creative, says Daniel Stein, CEO and founder of Evolution Bureau.


"It's not a very good advertising vehicle in a traditional sense," Stein says. "It's difficult to create an engaging brand story and build any sort of lasting emotion behind that story."


Click Here's John Keehler seconds that point, saying that making brand clients aware of the 140-character limit is critical because anything beyond the most basic messages requires the support of outside channels such as email, other social networks, or a full-blown website.


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Is time really on your side?
If you've read even the most basic article about Twitter, you've probably heard a little bit about the kind of time commitment that the platform requires.


"Twitter creates an expectation of immediacy," says Cheryl Harrison, marketing and PR specialist at Sync Creative. "A brand must be willing to monitor Twitter and respond when necessary on a consistent basis. A few months ago, a potential crisis for an airline was created after passengers on the plane began tweeting that they had been stuck on plane awaiting takeoff for over eight hours. Local media outlets that use Twitter tried to contact the airline via Twitter and never received a response."


Such a scenario can be a disaster for any brand. But one key detail is that the media tried to contact the brand through Twitter. That's a telling fact because the brand obviously put itself on Twitter by creating an account and a point of contact on the platform. But the real-world analog to an unchecked Twitter account isn't an email gone unanswered, it's more like a wide-open storefront without the staff to respond to the customer.


No company would do that in real space. But do a search for 10 of your favorite brands on Twitter, and it's likely that you'll find an under-staffed and under-used Twitter profile. While those profiles may not cost the brand much to set up, the price of leaving them dormant could be catastrophic in a crisis.


That's not to say that a brand shouldn't be on Twitter, but if time and resources are at a premium, Twitter might do more harm than good.


Metrics, metrics, metrics
What does it mean to say that there are 10,000 people following your brand on Twitter? Is that good? Are they really engaged? Will that number translate into a verifiable marketing goal?


These are all important questions, and unfortunately, it's a little too early to get answers from Twitter.


"We hypothesize that people with high social capital (high numbers of followers) have influence over the people that follow them, and we are working on metrics that quantify the ability to resonate with followers," says Mike Schneider of Allen Gerritsen. "The value of a relationship with an elite member is still difficult to quantify, but data visualization, workflow, and CRM interfaces are constantly being fine tuned, so we are getting closer every day. In the meantime, we have excellent tools to get a macro view of important communication streams and analysts who dive into conversations to make recommendations on how to engage."


But despite improving metrics, Eric Anderson, VP of emerging media at White Horse, cautions that Twitter may never be able to deliver the metrics marketers demand, at least as those metrics apply to a typical advertising campaign.


"When the brand uses Twitter on a campaign basis, they're fulfilling that content expectation only temporarily, and usually in a pretty mercenary way: They tend to be laser-focused on whether the Twitter campaign drives hard metrics," Anderson explains. "That can work OK for the brand in the short term -- they get a more successful campaign and a case study that says that Twitter drove results. But then what? They stop contributing new content, and their followers stop following them. And they'll have a much tougher time reengaging that audience after that breach. Unlike email, where most consumers passively stay subscribed even when the content is sporadic or poor, people are much more vigilant about their social media relationships, because it's simultaneously more public and personal, and the emotional stake is higher."


Michael Estrin is a freelance writer.


On Twitter? Follow iMedia at @iMediaTweet.

Throw the pitch


The pitch is a virtual introduction and a first impression. There is an overwhelming amount of articles on how to pitch to a blogger. Just Google it, and you'll find the same 500 word articles containing the same five tips said 100 different ways. I'm going to seriously condense the gist down because I have faith in your intelligence:



  • Keep it short. Bloggers have limited time and will delete a lengthy pitch.

  • You have five seconds to make them care, so start your pitch with a lead.

  • Never make it one sided. Offer something to the blogger, whether it is information their readers want or a chance for them to benefit from your social media presence.

  • For goodness sake, edit your pitch. It shows off your writing ability.

  • Personalize it. Bloggers know cookie-cutter pitches. They want to feel singled out for a good reason. This is why you did your homework.

Engagement


Just like other humans, bloggers like validation and ego boosts. Retweet their words, "like" their posts on Facebook, comment on their blog posts, and email them praise for articles that you find unique or intriguing.


After sending a pitch, it's always best practice to tweet that you "sent them a great idea and to check your inbox" because bloggers often have overloaded inboxes and delete pitches by mistake or pitches end up in the spam folder. With that said, if you don't hear back in a few days from a blogger you really want to work with, it can't hurt to send a quick follow-up email. If there is still nothing, throw in the towel.


Post outreach organization


What could be worse than spending a ton of time on an outreach campaign and then having no idea how successful it was?


Therefore, you need identify and fill in target metrics. This is often done in two stages. The first stage is where you keep track of who you pitched to and what you pitched. The second stage should include only the bloggers who responded and agreed to work with you. Popular metrics include:



  • Traffic each blogger brought to your site

  • Number of social media shares

  • Unique visitors to the site

  • Bounce rate

Don't forget to maintain a relationship with your bloggers like you would uphold other important relationships in your life -- with reciprocation and continued communication.


Kristen Matthews is the marketing and community manager for GroupHigh.


On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.


"Blog, social media concept with bright electric lamp" image via Shutterstock.

Take a (keyboard) shortcut


By using one of Twitter's several keyboard shortcuts, you can quickly perform some commonly used actions by simply pressing one or two keys on your keyboard. This can come in handy by preventing you from having to navigate Twitter's interface.


Let's start with the basics. From the Twitter home page, hit the "n" key and you'll see the "Compose New Tweet" window pop up. In this case, "n" stands for "new tweet."


Want to see all of them quickly? Just go to Twitter.com and press "?" and the following will appear:



(This keyboard shortcuts list is available any time you are on Twitter.com by simply pressing the "?" key.)

Choose your timing wisely


Did you know that you can actually schedule when your tweets will go out through Twitter.com, similar to Hootsuite or other tools? Just go to the Twitter Ads page and click the "compose tweet" button. You'll see the following:



(The Twitter scheduling tool is helpful for advertisers and non-advertisers alike, and offers a simple calendar tool that ensures your posts are viewed at the optimal times.)


This tool that was created primarily for those advertising with promoted posts on Twitter, is actually available to all registered users whether you are a paying customer or not. Start using this feature to make sure that your posts fall within optimal times for you. While the generally recommended times to tweet are between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. EST, Monday through Thursday, make sure that you measure and analyze your unique set of followers' usage and habits.

Measure twice, tweet once


Speaking of measurement, did you know that Twitter also gives you access to analytics on the last several months of your tweet history? You can view your most popular tweets, demographic information about your followers, and a lot more by going to Twitter's Analytics page.


This tool can help you learn more about your followers' interests, locations, and who they follow. You can also get more insights into what tweets your followers find the most helpful, engaging, or thought-provoking.



(Twitter's analytics tool provides helpful information about specific tweets, engagement, and followers over time, and demographic information on your followers.)


You can also get reports for the last 28 days or choose statistics by month for the last five months. With this view of analytics on Twitter, you can start making better decisions about what, how, and when you tweet, as well as what your followers find interesting.

Advanced: Twitter life hacks


All of the previous examples are available right on Twitter.com. This next example is a little more advanced, but those of you willing to experiment a little more will find this one pretty interesting.


If you're ready to move to the next level, get ready to use Twitter to perform real-world tasks. Whether you want it to make a pot of coffee or operate a remote dog feeder, working with Twitter's API opens up a whole new world of possibilities. By using a technology called Arduino and Twitter's API, you can get pretty creative and innovative.


For instance, the Twitter coffee maker starts brewing coffee when you send a tweet to a specific handle. A switch on a computer hooked up to the coffee machine receives the tweet and turns the coffeemaker on. If you don't think that's handy, perhaps you don't drink as much coffee as I do!



While these tasks take a little more effort than simply going to Twitter.com, you can see that there is almost no limit to what you can to with a tweet once you are able to connect it to real-world devices.


Conclusion


As you can see, there is a lot available through Twitter.com and the various interfaces provided within. By using some of these Twitter hacks effectively, you can learn more about your audiences, find things easier, and perform commonly-used actions much quicker. It might even make you reconsider some of the third-party tools you are using to interact with Twitter.


If you are feeling a bit more adventurous and want to break out your soldering iron, there are even some real-world actions you can perform using Twitter's API.


With these hacks and a strong content strategy, you'll be unstoppable in your efforts to dominate Twitter. Happy tweeting!


Greg Kihlstrom is the founder and CEO of Carousel30.


On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.



"close up hands multitasking man using laptop connecting wifi" image via Shutterstock.

Keywords are key


Strong, optimized written copy is the most critical part of any SEO initiative. But before the first sentence, tagline, or headline is written, first venture into the heart of search optimization by identifying those keywords and key phrases your target audience are likely to use when searching for your website, articles, blog entries, or other content initiatives, as well as for individual pages or specific pieces of content within a website or blog.


These are the words and phrases searchers use, not necessarily the ones you use back at the office when you're talking with colleagues. Perhaps you're a medical professional who bandies about terms such as "myocardial infraction." The average web searcher is more likely to seek information on "heart attack."


The first step in the keyword research process is simply to brainstorm a list of the words and phrases a searcher might use to find your site or business. The trick here is to be specific. Forget broad terms like "shoes." Focus instead on "running shoes" or "wedding shoes" or "Nike running shoes" or "black patent leather high-heeled pumps." It can be helpful to ask outsiders such as friends, family, clients, or colleagues what terms come to mind.


Once the initial list is in hand, the next step is to determine how useful these terms really are. That's where keyword research tools come in handy. (Both Google and Bing offer free keyword research tools. They require you to first sign up for an advertiser account, but no worries -- they don't compel you to run ads to use the free tools.) By running the list of proposed keywords through a keyword research tool, you'll learn how many searchers are actually conducting searches for a given word or term every day, how many of those searches actually converted, and other analytical information. These tools can also make you aware of words not on the list, or synonyms.


This information should narrow down the selections to a final list of keywords. Plug these into a spreadsheet that helps you to visualize at a glance each word or phrase's conversion rate, search volume, and competition. This list helps narrow your focus and concentrate on the most important terms for your content. Don't completely eliminate very broad terms such as "shoes" -- this helps searchers get a general feel for the content. But it's the very specific, targeted terms ("pink suede ballerina flats") that attract the targeted traffic at the bottom of the purchase or conversion funnel.


The best keywords have:



  • Strong relevance: terms for which you have content to support

  • Relatively high search volume: terms people actually search for

  • Relatively low competition: terms with a small number of search results

Once you've determined which keywords to target, both for an overall content marketing initiative as well as for specific, smaller campaigns, it's time to build content around those terms. Bear in mind that search engines reward high-quality, original content more than virtually anything else out there. This is why content aggregation is fine (and relevant), but also why aggregation should almost always be regularly supplemented with well written and researched original content.


A major way that search engine algorithms determine quality content is by examining how many links there are to specific pieces of content. Links can almost be considered "votes" vouching for quality content. As far as search engines are concerned, this isn't the most democratic process in the world: A link from a major metropolitan daily such as The New York Times is a higher-ranking vote than one from, say, a random tweet on Twitter. And links from sites that are semantically similar obviously make more sense -- and therefore count more -- than a link from something willy-nilly, say a site about politics linking to a page about Christmas cookie recipes.


One of the best strategies for getting people to link to you is, of course, to link to them. Another approach is to follow relevant sites, blogs, online video channels, and social networking presences in your particular vertical and to comment on them, with appropriate and relevant links back to your own content. Authoring articles and other types of content for third-party sites is also a valuable link strategy. Most of these will have an "about the author" blurb that creates a link back to your own site or blog. Internal links are also highly valuable, as links are what search engine spiders follow to find content in the first place. This is where site maps, tags, category pages, and well-considered taxonomies come in handy. They not only help visitors find relevant content, but help search engines find it, too.


Making content as sharable as possible is another valuable link building strategy. It's why so many sites contain those small icons encouraging visitors to share on Facebook, LinkedIn, Digg, Delicious, or Twitter. Individually, social media links might not be as valuable as a citation from The New York Times, but many sites are seeing highly significant portions of their traffic originating from social media sites thanks to such efforts.


To this end, content authors should also be regarded as important link-building sources, particularly guest or third-party content contributors who can leverage links through their own websites or social networks to build links that benefit both parties.

Optimize images and multimedia content


As stated in the opening of this article, search engines can't "read" anything other than plain old text. They can't "watch" a video, "listen" to an audio file, or assign a thousand words to a picture. So in order to optimize images and multimedia content for search, you have to create the words for the search engines.


What all these files types have in common is a need for clear, descriptive names, or titles. These are not by all means the default name spit out by audio, video, or image software (e.g., img230769.jpg). File names should be as descriptive as possible and match what the file represents.


If you've got a shot of an apple, for example, call it a "New York State Macintosh Apple," or "Ripe Harvest Orchard's Macoun Apple," not just plain old "apple." For all a search engine knows, that "apple" could be a computer, or even a mobile phone.


Such descriptive names are not only found by search engine spiders, but often have the added advantage of appearing above, below, or by the image itself, enhancing the user experience as well. Beyond any other optimization tactics, file names are accorded the most weight by search engines when it comes to ranking.


It should therefore come as no surprise that websites that regularly use multiple media files require a naming strategy or protocol to ensure consistency in the names used for graphics, audio, or video.


After giving media files clear, descriptive names, don't forget to add more descriptive text (or meta data) to the "alt" attribute in the file's tag. Make it short and to the point, like the file name. This is an opportunity to go a little bit broader. That New York State apple, for example, might be from Olsen's Orchards, or have been a product of the 2011 harvest, or perhaps this is the place to indicate it's a sweet, crisp, delicious, and nutritious apple. Online merchants might want to use this field to add information, such as a manufacturer, product category, or UPC code. Let's say you sell DVDs online. The name of the media file, in this case a photo of the cover art, would obviously be the title of the film. The "alt" attribute might include the names of the actors, director, studio, genre, release year, and any miscellaneous information, such as "Academy Award nominee."


Perhaps the media file in question is named "Lady Gaga on American Idol." The meta data might refer to the specific contestant in the competition, the names of other judges, or list some of the singer's credits so the video show up on more general searches by her fans.


Keyword strategy, combined with content marketing goals, will inform what type additional data are added in this section.


A caption adjacent to an image or media file helps search engines to "understand" what the file is about, because adjacent text helps search engines contextualize what they've found and determine relevancy. The goal here is to function much like a newspaper or a magazine by adding keyword-rich captions to files. This way, even if someone's been careless and named an image file "Bass.jpg," the adjacent text and caption can help a search engine understand if the image depicts a fish, a musical instrument, or a particular brand of shoe. This approach can be broadened to optimizing the entire page the media file resides on to further increase the depth of context and relevancy.


In the case of images, file type matters. Photos should be rendered in JPEG format, logos should be GIF files. The reason is simply that these are standard formats that search engines "expect" to find. Search engines assume a GIF file has 256 colors, standard for rendering graphics such as logos, while photos are rendered in millions of colors. And when using logo files, it's all-important that the file be named with whatever's in that logo. No search engine is smart enough to deduce that a simple GIF file represents the logo for Bank of America, or Ikea, or for Acme Exterminating.


While it can be labor intensive, posting an HTML transcript of the dialogue in an audio or video file goes extraordinarily far in terms of optimizing the actual content of these media files. Given the nature of the medium, it's best to keep these files short, optimally five minutes or less (particularly in the case of video). Cutting longer media files into shorter segments not only eases viewing, but also affords additional opportunities to optimize the content and to provide extra, spider-able links between episodes or installments. This is particularly helpful in the case of episodic videos or podcasts.

Quality matters. So does specificity.


It's not just content that reigns supreme in SEO; it's quality content. Google's own published guidelines on the topic say, in essence, that anyone hoping to rank well in search should write for their own visitors and users, not for the search engines themselves. The company is putting its algorithms solidly behind this recommendation. In recent years we've seen "content farms," websites that churn out mountains of garbage content to game the search engines and rise to the top of organic search results, plummet, and in many cases even disappear from search rankings.


Creating a lot of garbage is, of course, cheap and easy. Creating -- and sustaining the creation of -- high-quality content requires thought and investment (particularly when everyone else is trying to do it, too).


There are plenty of good reasons to keep content interesting, informative, entertaining, engaging, witty, useful, well-written, and well-presented. Dozens of reasons to have a strong taxonomy, descriptive and compelling headlines, tags and other organizational attributes. Now you can add search engine optimization to that list, too.


You may be creating and publishing the best content on the web -- but what does that matter if no one can find it?


Rebecca Lieb is an analyst, digital advertising/media, for Altimeter Group.


On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.


"Strong Superhero Businessman SEO Concepts" image via Shutterstock.


 

Kevin Ryan founded the strategic consulting firm Motivity Marketing in April 2007. Ryan is known throughout the world as an interactive marketing thought leader, particularly in the search marketing arena. Today's Motivity is a group of...

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