The ABC's of SEO
by: Christy Belden
What is Search?
Search marketing is one of the most powerful promotional tools in the modern business arsenal. Use it well, and it will help your company grow and prosper. Ignore it, and your company will be left in the digital dark.
25 years ago, most consumers had one option when looking for a product or service; the Yellow Pages. This was pretty limiting for consumers, but made life simple for businesses. Being found was a simple matter of buying an ad in the right section of the Yellow Pages. Sell used auto parts? Buy an ad under the section “Auto Parts-used.” Done. In 2012 things are a little more complicated.
And turning up in the top of search engine results isn’t as simple as placing a Yellow Pages ad. It takes a well-implemented, effective search marketing strategy. That’s why whether your company is a local restaurant or international conglomerate, understanding search is essential to your future success. This article will help you gain that knowledge. We’ll examine the history of search, the different types of search used today, the future of search and even why people search in the first place.
History of Search
What we know and think of as online search began long before most Americans even owned a computer. Informational retrieval systems, computer programs that sift through large amounts of data to find information requested by an end user, were first developed back in the 1960s. The 1990s were truly the birth of search engines and an era of massive growth within the industry. Archie was the first search engine created in 1990. It was followed closely by the launch of Veronica and Jughead in 1991. By 1993, Excite was released under the assumption that analysis of word relationships would help make searching more relevant and thus more efficient. Web directories became a large source of searchable content in 1994. Web directories are designed to categorize content into a tree of content. For example: History -> 1800s -> Civil War -> Gettysburg -> Gettysburg Address. By placing content in these searchable hierarchies, you could move through the content much faster.
The mid-1990s saw a spike in new search engines including Lycos, Infoseek, AltaVista, Inktomi, Ask.com and AllTheWeb. But it was Google’s emergence in 1996 that transformed the industry. Google’s founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page realized that it was not only word associations and content hierarchies that were important, but also how relevant the content found by the search was to users. Among the more than 200 factors Google uses to determine a search result is PageRank – a gauge of how many links were coming to a website. The more links, the more popular the website. And the more popular a website, the more often the website will be found in search.
By the end of the 90s the search engines had improved dramatically, yet still hadn’t figured out one important aspect of their busines model—how to make money. That soon changed at the turn of the century with the introduction of paid search – a placement on the search results page based on how much you are willing to spend and relevancy to the search term. Google launched AdWords in 2000, which at the time were sold on a cost per thousand basis. A model that didn’t generate much revenue. Then in 2002, Google adopted an auction model developed by Overture, a company that powered PPC advertising for other sites before it was bought by Yahoo and transformed into Yahoo Search Marketing.
In the auction model, advertisers bid on how much they will pay per click, with the highest bid receiving the most exposure. Since switching to the auction model, Adwords have become Google’s largest source of income, netting an estimated $28 billion in 2010 alone. Google’s success eventually led to the launch of paid search engines by Yahoo! and Bing in 2006.
Today’s Search Landscape
Google is the dominant player in Internet search, maintaining an approximate 65% of the organic market share. Google’s algorithm, the code that powers the search engine and determines its methodology, is a closely guarded trade secret. It is also constantly evolving, with Google making more than 500 changes to their algorithm each year.
As the dominant player, Google’s algorithm changes keeps other search engines playing catch up. This allows Google to hold on to its position as the most relevant search engine, and the one most trusted by paid users.
In the paid search realm, Google holds a more commanding 80% market share. It is buoyed by the organic search results and the ease of use of their ad platform, AdWords. Once a static medium, Google has made great strides to improve the visibility and performance of the ads. Improvements include the ability to add a business’ address and phone number, site links and product photos. Google’s aim is for the paid search ad to stand out more on the page and perform better for the client.
In 2010, Bing and Yahoo! merged their search operations and now run off the Bing platform. Still Bing and Yahoo! searches account for only 30% of organic search traffic . However, Bing is on the offensive. Recently it has developed strategic partnerships, which will allow Bing to be the default search engine on certain Internet browsers.
Bing and Yahoo! are in worse shape in terms of paid search with only 8% of the market share. However, the performance of paid search on the Bing network is improving – helped along by lower keyword cost and higher click-throughs on ads.
Social media is also affecting the world of search. Many users are turning to social media networks to find answers instead of typing a query into a search engine. Search engines have followed this shift in user behavior. Bing has integrated its search engine into Facebook and allows some profile data to be found in its search results.
Google has by far been the most aggressive in the search space in regard to social media. They allow Twitter profiles and popular tweets on particular topics to enter the search results. Facebook profiles, not content, are also available. The biggest inroad Google has made is creating its own social media platform, Google+. A combination of Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, Google+ syncs all of your properties to become a hub for all of your social media and content distribution. They have also launched Google+ pages for businesses. Google+ page profiles appear in search results for brand names. Google has also implemented the “+1 button” for content, search results and ads. If you want to promote or share content, a website or an ad you felt met your needs, you can “+1” the content and it is shared amongst your friends.
Mobile is one of the more exciting areas of search. Not only can you search via a web browser on the phone, but you can also search via an app. The way users search on a phone is significantly different from traditional search. If searching through a web browser, search engines automatically optimize for mobile devices. And, due to space limitations, smaller one-to two-word search terms are favored by users over long-tail or question searches.
The very nature of mobile also changes how and what users search for. Often users are looking online for brick and mortar stores near their physical location. This makes geo modifiers extremely important. Mobile search also has an element of immediacy. Mobile searches tend to be more utilitarian. Users are much more likely to search for information they intend to immediately act upon when searching on their mobile device, as opposed to a desktop search, in which performing research is the du jour.
Another interesting area of mobile is voice search. Android phones have had voice search for quite some time, but Apple’s Siri has propelled the technology forward. It is changing the way users interact with their phones – instead of relying on keystrokes, they can quickly dictate their search query. As this technology evolves, it could have a profound impact on how we search.
Mobile is one of the more exciting areas of search. Not only can you search via a web browser on the phone, but you can also search via an app.
Why People Search
All people have an innate curiosity. It’s why 4-year-old kids can’t stop asking “why.” We all have a desire for knowledge that we never outgrow. We also never outgrow our need to have fun and own cool toys. That is why when we search the Web, we are typically looking for one of three things: knowledge, entertainment, or products.
The Internet is the vastest source of information the world has ever known. Pretty much anything you want to know can be found on the Internet from meatloaf recipes to the latest breaking news, to the entire film catalog of Peewee Herman.
The Web provides endless ways to waste time. Before the Internet, an office worker who wanted to share cute cat videos with coworkers would have had to hand out VHS tapes. Unless the office worker had a cold, these videos had no chance of going viral.
People love stuff. And online there is an unlimited amount of stuff for people to buy, and nearly as many ways to buy them. The Internet is also a great way to learn about products, not only branded information from manufacturers, but ratings and reviews from consumers themselves.
The desire for knowledge, entertainment and/or products drives not only search queries, but is also a major force in the world’s economy. We need to know. We need to be entertained. And we need stuff. Lots of it.
How People Search
Even when people have similar motivations for searching the web, the specific topic they are searching for can have a dramatic effect on the type of query they perform. A person looking for a quick simple fact, such as who directed Pulp Fiction, is going to use a much shorter and more direct query than someone who is trying to learn more complicated information like the economic factors of the Revolutionary War.
If people are looking for simple well-known facts they are likely to use short very direct queries. For example if someone is looking for the 23rd president of the United States, the search terms “president” and “23” will suffice. However, if that person is looking for a good restaurant in Chicago, their search will be much different. That person isn’t hunting for facts, they are exploring. Such open-ended search requires a very different strategy than those who are looking for simple answers.
This type of open-ended, exploratory search is called an educational query. Educational queries typically involve long chains of multiple keywords, as well as multiple rounds of searches in which keywords are continuously refined based on the results of previous attempts. A common use of educational queries is to explore products and services. Before making a purchase consumers browse the Internet for pictures, ratings and reviews so they can make informed decisions on what to buy.
A search in which a consumer is not simply seeking product information, but actually intends on buying a product is called a purchase query. A purchase query will usually begin with search terms such as “buy,” “sale,” or “cost” alongside the item the user wants to purchase. The time dedicated to such searches depends on the product. As a rule, the more expensive a product is, or the more distinguishing features it has, the longer search time it will require. Looking for a house may take months whereas finding the cheapest gas in a certain zip code should take a few minutes at most.
Future of Search
As long as people seek answers, search will exist. The way we search will continue to evolve as new technology provides us with more tools to solve our search needs. Local search has been important for several years but is evolving due to the increase in mobile search. Substantial investments will be made to ensure that you can find a product or service nearest to you. Search and display advertising are no longer distant relatives. Display ads can now be targeted based on search terms you have entered into the search engine. For example, if I type ‘gray boots’ into a search engine, UGG can serve up an ad to me as I view content on the Internet. Preliminary performance on search retargeting shows a fifty percent click-through rate on retargeted ads.
The largest changes to search will come from the impact of social media. User behavior dictates search and search must go where users are seeking answers. This will require search marketers to become savvy social media marketers. Thus, content will not only have to be optimized for search results but it also must be engaging enough so it “is liked,” followed and passed along amongst friends. Paid search will also be impacted by social. The more users “like” or follow your ads, the greater performance those ads will have.
New technology, new devices, user behavior and changes to algorithms will continue to impact search and the field of search marketing. The challenge is to stay abreast of these changes and make strategic decisions as to how to fully utilize them for your business.