I'm not the first, nor will I be the last to speculate on Google's colossal impact on web surfing behavior. It's a fact: online behavior has been indelibly altered by Google. The very word "Google" is synonymous with "Search" (as in, "Did you Google it?").
But this is more than a brand observation. Google is a staple for good reason: the web's simply too big. We must organize it in order to use it, and right now that organizing mechanism is search. And logically, as the web continues to grow, search will be increasingly more important and will only get better, simpler, and more visual (check out www.alexa.com and www.tiltomo.com).
Some stats: according to a report released jointly by the Pew Internet & American Life Project and comScore, 90 percent of all internet users use search. Fifty-nine million Americans use search daily. Simply stated, they're finding news, bargains and entertainment-- all through the lens of search.
What does this mean for you?
- For starters, when you're designing your website and/or making your marketing plan, you can no longer consider your site an entity unto itself. You need to design for Google. You need to design for a world where some users come in through the front door and some come in through the side door, the back door, or even over the transom.
- Next, you need to consider Google your friend, a friend who regularly sends you a customer. You need to listen to your friend so you can plan for your new customer's arrival.
- Last, this type of planning must become a standard part of your marketing communications planning.
Here's my list of five ways to Google-ize your site:
- Do the basics. I would never over-simplify Search Engine Optimization (SEO), but at this point it better be a key component of your website development and maintenance efforts. If not, you need to call in the experts. If you're not using alt tags, if you don't know the power of title tags, if you don't know how Google interprets dynamic pages, if you don't know the basics of what drives up your search ranking… you should hire people who do. They come in all shapes, sizes and levels of diligence.
- Know your list of search terms. Creating a list of search terms that you want to own, whether through natural search, paid search or both must become a standard step in your marketing planning efforts. When you create a new TV, radio or print ad, make sure you consider any new terms that should be added to the list. Google is now the way that consumers look for you when they can't recall all of the details.
When creating your list, apply an ROI-driven approach. Consider which keywords will bring value to your business and ignore the rest, but don't forget the long tail. We have found that some of the less sought-after keywords may not get as many clicks, but the ROI is compelling. And, don't forget to learn the language of your customers. We marketers would think that "Diabetes Recipes" would be more prevalent than "Diabetic Recipes," but it turns out that the latter gets 10 times the number of searches.
- Make every page a home page. Recently, we were doing work for a major publisher with a strong brand. Despite their monolithic brand, somewhere close to 50 percent of their traffic comes in through search, and it comes in through lower level pages (a.k.a., "over the transom"). There was a time when the majority of traffic came into this site through the front door, but the trend for readers to come in through search will only continue. While the site needs to provide the user with the details they're looking for (an article in the instance of the publisher), it also needs to give them an easy way to further refine their search and/or reasons to stick around. Make sure each page stacks the deck and gives the customer reasons to continue the dialogue with you.
- Put yourself in the searcher's shoes. Here's an idea: use scenarios to develop on-the-fly merchandising. What if you typed in a keyword and the link you select took you to a site that gave you all of the information you needed? It included the information you asked for, as well as related links and the ability to further refine your search from there. You, or at least I, would be a happy customer. I call this "on the fly merchandising," but it goes beyond retail to travel, publishing, entertainment, financial services, and more.
As an example, type "blue jeans" into the Google search box. None of the links on the first page take you to a place where you can actually buy jeans online. One is a low-fi discounter that provides an 800 number for ordering, but I'm not sure how many web savvy consumers would go that route. Considering how many different flavors of blue jeans I see in Manhattan every day, it's hard to believe that no one is pushing to improve their ranking in this category. Beyond just improving your ranking and/or buying the right key words, the next step is to make sure that the site that greets the user lines up with the term they searched. Most, but not all, of the sponsored links related to this search on Google passed this test. I was particularly impressed by some of the department stores. JCPenney bought both "boxers" and "little black dress" and the sponsored links take you to the related category level pages.
To accomplish on the fly merchandising, you need to consider the mindset of the person searching against those terms and make sure you send them to the right place. Ideally you can send them to an existing page, but you might need to create some landing pages (just like you would for your online advertising creative). Tip: the first place to start for scenarios is your target customers.
- Think beyond search. Though search is king today, it's not the only killer app changing the way people interact with the web. RSS (Real Simple Syndication) is making a similar play. RSS is a standard way for sites to make their content available to anyone who wants it, and is using an RSS reader. While RSS is only used by about five percent of the internet population, it's a sign of things to come. If you have valuable content, you need to start offering it. For marketers, it's another sign that push marketing is going to be less easy, and this is a great way to start testing out your pull strategies and tactics.
Back in 1997 a programmer that I used to work with loved to say that we don't need "browse." He'd say, "We should just dump everything into files and let search find what we're looking for." I'm glad to say that browsing is alive and well, but the case for search is mighty strong in 2006.
Pete Stein is senior vice president and general manager of Avenue A | Razorfish, the largest interactive marketing and technology services firm.