How to adapt to the evolving search landscape

There is increasing talk among digital media pundits that the end of search as we know it is near. It is true -- search is at something of a crossroads. Video, images, and social media are invading the results pages. Local proximity and freshness of content increasingly drive organic rank. Bridges between display and offline are being built. And online reputation increasingly drives clicks. But this is not necessarily a bad thing. Search is evolving and getting more complex. However, what search lacks in ease of implementation, it most assuredly makes up for in user engagement, optimization, consumer targeting and, most importantly, its ability to drive growth and profitability. The hallmark of any successful, forward-thinking search program is its ability to create value. However, maximizing that value is possible only when search expertise and experience are effectively leveraged. Without the right expertise, your next search campaign could involve searching for massive amounts of lost opportunity.

Here is a fact that those of us in the online performance game have understood for some time: Search is no longer "bid right for the big keywords or bust." Search, like every channel within digital marketing, is about driving results and maximizing ROI. While that certainly involves cost-efficient keyword bidding and placement, delivering optimized results requires more sophisticated practices. For optimal paid search marketing, that means incorporating the right website content for targeting and responsiveness; strategic link acquisition; integrating search engine optimization (SEO), local search, and social media efforts; and online reputation management to create a robust search program. Moreover, the new complexities also demand technological advancements for tracking and optimizing results as well as outside-the-box thought leadership to manage emerging trends.

At its most basic, search is about engaging prospective consumers at the "moment of relevance." This is the moment when in-market consumers are actively seeking information on a brand, product, or service. Advertisers want to be what the consumer finds when they go to Google, Yahoo, or Bing to search for solutions to a specific need. Like the visibility and sales provided by prominent shelf space in a store, building and buying prominence on search engine results pages (SERPs) has been a winning formula for driving relevant traffic, establishing client trust, and improving sales and profits. But as search evolves, achieving prominence on SERPs will require broader thinking.

Take social media and online reputation management as an example. According to an Opinion Research survey conducted in April, 20 percent of those polled used social media to speak negatively about a brand, product, or service. The surprising part of the survey was the underwhelming corporate response. Sixty-four percent of companies confessed to not having a social media policy or structure in place to combat such negative commentary.

Why is this important to search? Because search results are open to all comers. A negative Facebook post can sit right next to your links on the SERP, imperiling your message and lowering your user engagement (i.e., click rates). Digital marketers and search professionals understand that sales growth and marketing efficiency from search requires controlling the brand message, generating positive buzz around a product or service, monitoring user postings, improving visibility, and enhancing page one search engine position. Facebook's "like" function and mass tweets on Twitter can be felt across the entire search landscape in near real-time. Winning search programs demand an integrated and successful social media strategy.

The complexities of the evolving search market demand savvy online performance marketers to continually improve their programs. Search thought leaders are always trying to stay one step ahead of evolving trends because the market is changing rapidly and the competition doesn't sleep. Staying ahead means understanding how things like social media impact search. Online consumers tweeting about a less than satisfactory experience with your product or service could negate all the hard work you have done to reach page one of a search result. Conversely, YouTube, with highly impactful video images, can be an excellent vehicle for both brand promotion and search authority. To be successful, one needs to be, or buy, a search thought leader capable of integrating all the online efforts, like social media, that impact search.

Utilizing social media isn't the only way to effectively manage the rapidly evolving search market. If you want users to be "fans" of your product or service, a solid social media program will build awareness and improve your search efforts. But there is more to do. Optimizing ad and site creative to drive more responses from users makes all marketing more efficient. Building offline and online tracking abilities (for example, tracking inbound calls by keyword or search-driven store visits) provides important data that can be used to maximize the effectiveness of SEO and pay-per-click campaigns.

Gathering the analytics needed to continuously improve online campaigns requires deploying advanced tracking technologies that are able to optimize and monitor offline and online data while simultaneously closing the sales loop in search space. Ultimately, having the technology, processes, and expertise to measure integrated marketing efforts is the best way to manage the evolving search landscape.

Search is changing, but for the better. It's adapting to the rising expectations of consumers in the digital age. It is time for companies to meet this challenge, alter their mindsets, and move forward with constantly improving search programs that integrate and optimize all online efforts. The continuing profitability of marketing campaigns depends on it.

Jonathan Shapiro is CEO of MediaWhiz.

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