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Back to Basics: SMX West 2011 Takeaways - The Changing Face of Online Marketing

by Jessica Lee, March 17, 2011

Last year at SMX West, it was all about site speed, the Microsoft-Yahoo! merger and new platforms for online advertisers, including Facebook and mobile. Looking back, it's no surprise that site speed was a major topic of conversation in 2010, as it led up to the launch of Google Instant last year.

This year at SMX West, attendees saw just how much search is changing. From local and social influences on the search engine results pages (SERPs), to mobile search and applications to location check-in services, SMX West speakers talked about new and emerging platforms that presented more opportunities for businesses and advertisers online.

Additionally, there was significant focus on spam and recent Google algorithm updates, discussions on social media, its role in search and how to measure its ROI -- speakers even talked about the aftermath of Google Instant and its impact on search.

Emerging Platforms: Video and Mobile Apps

Video Search and Optimization

YouTube is the second largest search engine aside from its parent company, Google. In fact, 27 percent of YouTube sessions contain searches, according to one SMX West panelist at the New Tools and Techniques for YouTube Success session.

Camera operator setting up the video camera

More stats from that session showed YouTube as the No. 1 video destination for mobile (mobile Web users are a large growing segment, as outlined in the following section). Additionally, video thumbnails garner 40 percent more click-throughs than links in the SERPs.

And even though the platform offers new opportunities for businesses to rank in Universal Search and target very specific audiences through ads, it's still such a new venture that many have not yet begun to use video as part of the Internet marketing plan.

This presents both problems and opportunities. Because a majority of businesses aren't capitalizing on video, it gives those that are, an edge; however, creating videos for business and optimizing videos is so new that potential problems exist.

Even though it's an exciting time for videos, said a Google representative, it's still a bit chaotic with regards on how to optimize them. One speaker in the YouTube session brought to attention the legal issues that are occurring for users of YouTube, due to unfamiliarity with guidelines and regulations.

Mobile Search, Applications and Marketing

Another growing platform in search is mobile. One stat shared at an SMX West session showed 76 percent of people searched by PC, with mobile trailing closely behind at 61 percent.

My Android Phone

But it's not just mobile Web that's changing the way people search; mobile apps are becoming a popular way to complete tasks and retrieve information. In the session, Mobile Apps and How They're Revolutionizing Search, one panelist revealed 38 percent of smartphone users say an integrated apps store is a must-have.

In that same session, data showed mobile users are utilizing browsers and apps almost at the same rate when looking to complete a task, and that mobile apps even allow users to complete a task faster than if they were to perform it via mobile browser.

Stats show that mobile ads also perform two to five times better than display ads. Mobile also presents opportunities for merchants to offer coupons; one speaker shared that 40 percent of merchants will launch mobile coupons in the next 12 months.

For businesses looking to get into the mobile apps service, think about quality in design and user experience as a driving factor.

One unique way to market via mobile apps is through the barcode. Barcodes, or QR codes, can be integrated into offline display and advertising, and scanned by a person via smartphone.

Mobile barcode scanning is becoming an increasingly popular way to engage interaction between a brand and its audience. A stat from the session showed mobile barcode scanning was up more than 1,000 percent than in years past. But to many, there's still quite a bit of mystery surrounding how to best use it for marketing.

Keep in mind that mobile barcodes create an additional opportunity or experience for the people who engage with them. It allows users to access unique information or content the mobile user wouldn't find elsewhere. This presents a myriad of ways to promote your business and offer value-add content to consumers.

And it's not just a nifty way to market. One case study presented in the session showed a direct correlation between a barcode campaign and the bottom line. With the right tools and ideas, a QR code campaign can show a significant return on marketing investment.

Fighting Low-Quality Content and Spam

Spam and how to fight it has been a particularly hot topic in 2011 -- not only in the search industry, but also mainstream media. Exposés on Web spam have been appearing in well-known publications like the The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

Spam

Recently, Google made several algorithm changes to address spam, one of which was considered to be one of the most impactful changes in years, dubbed the Farmer/Panda algorithm update.

This algorithm targets low-quality sites, often those with "thin" or low-quality content. This led the search industry to dub the algorithm change, "farmer," as it was suspected it was geared towards content farm-type sites - those sites that don't uphold quality content guidelines. Later, Google said the update was code-named "panda" internally.

SMX West this year echoed the idea that quality content is hard to define, although it's easy to identify it when you see it. Bruce Clay, Inc.'s February SEO Newsletter featured an article that attempted to define quality content and how to uphold it. Why is this important? Low-quality content is at risk of being dubbed as spam by major search engines like Google, and many websites now face penalization from the new algorithm. A primary takeaway this year at SMX West was that spam, whether it's content-related or not, is in the spotlight and a target by many search engines, not just Google. Bing and new-search-engine-on-the-scene, Blekko, continue to take measures to eradicate it from the results.

In the über-popular SMX West session, The Spam Police, representatives from search engines such as Google, Bing and Blekko defined spam, and the tactics that may cost sites their rankings. This session generated an extra awareness of how the search engines are targeting spam, and helped audiences to understand what low-quality sites are so they can avoid penalties.

While each search engine had a slightly different approach to tackling spam (with Blekko being the most unique), the definition of spam was pretty much the same: those tactics that work to inflate rankings while at the same time providing little to no value to the user. (In the aforementioned YouTube session, it was confirmed by a Google employee that Universal Search, including videos, is also affected by the algorithm aimed at quality.)

The moderator of The Spam Police session reminded us that if a person has to ask if a site is spamming Google, it's probably not spamming Google (meaning spam tactics are usually very deliberate and obvious); however, at Bruce Clay Inc., we believe it's important to remember some spam tactics aren't always so evident.

In fact recently, more than one BCI client was presented with business agreements for paid links that would have almost positively been viewed as spam by Google, had it been implemented and identified by the search engine.

Social and Local Search: Location Check-In Services and More

The social and local results that increasingly appear on the SERPs are a result of search engines factoring certain cues into their algorithms. One example of this is how Google now automatically registers a location and serves up local results based on what it believes a person is looking for (e.g., local merchants). And, social elements like Twitter news feeds are now showing up in the SERPs.

Here's how I did in Austin / @ SXSW these past few days (well, according to foursquare).  Not pictured:  the "Crazy Bird Flu Cough" badge I feel like foursquare now owes me.

But that's just scratching the surface. Not too long ago, Bruce Clay wrote an article on likes being the new links, and how social platforms like Facebook will be influencing our SERPs as search engines like Google move more towards personalized and social search.

This was another primary focus at SMX West this year. Many sessions focused on the phenomenon of local and social search, and how to address it. But local and social isn't just for the SERPs anymore. Local search with a social influence is very much alive in location check-in services such as Foursquare; savvy businesses are jumping on the opportunities that presents.

An SMX West keynote discussion with Foursquare covered the many ways businesses are taking advantage of location check-in services for marketing. In another session, Location Services: The New Local Search, survey data showed more than 55 percent of location-service users find new businesses through these platforms.

Additionally, Google and Bing both index business information from places like Foursquare for organic search results. What that means to businesses is an added location online that websites can be found. Location check-in services also offer additional chances to market to an audience in real-time, by presenting special offers once people "check-in" to a location.

A representative of Google gave some insider insight on how Google views the influence local is having on search. He revealed that it's less about just location and more about how location is enhancing everything that someone is trying to accomplish online.

Outside of location check-in services, optimizing for local search was a hot topic. In the Up Close with Google Place Pages and Local Search Tactics sessions (even in the aforementioned location services session), attendees were given the same piece of advice: Ensure your business listings are accurate and consistent across important directories. This helps the search engines to verify local merchants' presence and in turn, helps those businesses rank online.

It's said that local search has its own algorithm. One presenter called this "PlaceRank," and likened it to PageRank in organic search. While there are approximately 22 major online sources that Google pulls from to verify business data and serve up results (among other factors in the algorithm), Bruce Clay reported in the Local Search Tactics session that more than 200 verification source are taken into account.

Managing these business listings has become a challenge for many, so tools are cropping up to help streamline the process including Bruce Clay's LocalPack service.

Social Media, Search and Measuring ROI

The social conversation this year at SMX West focused on how to become an authority in many of the popular social networks that are influencing not only search engines, but a business' brand awareness, revenue and more.

Sessions such as How to Be a Twitter Authority and Building Buzz on Facebook shared tips and strategies to market using these platforms. And while many great ideas were shared, the resounding theme was that there's really no "right" way to do social media.

Of course there are guidelines and certain tactics businesses should probably avoid, but in the end, businesses have to use their social media in a way that works for their companies and their audiences.

Beyond just learning how to use social media for marketing, the focus this year was how to measure efforts. Now that businesses are becoming more comfortable executing social media campaigns, the question remains: How can businesses track return on investment with their social media?

The answer is: It's not an easy task; there are plenty of intangibles with social media campaigns. However, panelists gave ways to quantify social this year in the Analytics for Social Media session.

All in all, SMX West 2011 was an intriguing look into the way search is changing and how businesses can get ahead of the game by using innovative online marketing tactics. Stay tuned for live coverage of Search Engine Strategies (SES) in New York City beginning March 22 for more insight into cutting-edge Internet marketing.


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