FEATURE: “Search and Social” Love Connection with Rob Garner

by Virginia Nussey, February 21, 2013

Audience: SEOs, social media marketers and marketing managers

Estimated reading time:  10 minutes


  • Rob Garner’s book covers the why and how of search optimization plus social marketing.
  • Search and social must cooperate and complement the other for maximum results and efficiencies.

In Rob Garner’s book Search and Social: The Definitive Guide to Real-Time Content Marketing, he tackles the coalescing marketing practice that is search and social.

No longer able to be delegated into silos, the practice, tactics, research and strategies of SEO and SMM must be aligned and integrated for the full realization of a business’s brand and bottom line.

Rob Garner is the VP of SEMPO Board of Directors, formerly VP of mega marketing outfit iCrossing, and a columnist for Media Post. In this interview, we tap into his expertise on search and social, the upshot of the hybridization of two previously siloed marketing practices, and where businesses can use the interaction of search, social and other channels to work to their advantage.

Virginia Nussey: What will businesses lose by keeping SEO and social media marketing separate? For organizations that currently have separate search and social marketing departments, how can the merge be best transitioned?

Rob Garner: Many businesses with siloed practices are running a huge risk of losing out in the disciplines they may be currently winning in. SEO has shifted to include more social signals, and social has become more algorithmic. So typical “social” things of the past like connections and sharing are now a search signal used in a myriad of ways, and typical “SEO” considerations of the past like “reverse engineering” are now a social thing as well.

Rob Garner
Rob Garner, author of Search and Social: The Definitive Guide to Real-Time Content Marketing

The first risk for businesses is in losing what they have and what they have earned to this point; the second risk is losing share to a more nimble direct or indirect competitor who gets it, and does not operate in silos.

Fundamentally, businesses need to get their siloed teams in the same room and talking to one another. They need to share data and learnings from the campaigns, and they must also look at their analytics together. If skill sets are not up-to-speed on integrated search and social, then businesses should also invest in training and conferences as well.

One of the important areas of overlap between search and social is the content happening in real-time. What other important intersections of search and social are there, and are there any that you think are too often overlooked by members of either search and social marketing teams? In other words – are there missed opportunities for marketing and visibility where search and social meet?

The biggest missed opportunity is in the area of shared natural language. Natural language is the most fundamental tie that binds search and social together, and the implications go across an entire business. Search pros are often concerned with the historical language lexicon of the audience, while social marketers are stewards of the more real-time and evolving language.

Language connects marketers with new like-minded audiences and customers. When marketers begin to understand that language is not static, and actually alive and constantly evolving, then they begin to see the bigger picture for their marketing strategy. Search providers simply have more robust technology to process natural across the entire Web in real-time, and social marketers need to embrace these technologies for better understanding their audiences. “Traditional” human social activities are also needed to capture language as it evolves as well.

Other areas involve simply being present in your marketing efforts, whether it is through social conversation, real-time content development, or active listening. Real-time activities push content and conversation into real-time social and search streams in a number of ways, and right now a lot companies are winning simply by showing up to the game on a frequent or 24/7 basis.

One of the areas where search overlaps with social is SERP real estate and reputation management. If a business has an unfavorable results coming up in a SERP, an SEO can deploy social media campaigns to push down that content with favorable social and real-time content. Is that a prudent route for businesses?

Pushing results down is the most difficult type of optimization in my opinion. The first question about reputation management is whether the results are true or not. If not, then many times the untrue or damaging results can be addressed directly through the site that hosts them. If they are true, then no amount of optimization will help that company. I think that a company is better off addressing the negative business practices and making a change for the better if they are unhappy with the truth, or what their audience perceives is the truth.

The search results are just like a mirror in that sense. A business can try to broadcast a different message to their audience and customers, but if the audience doesn’t agree, they are just going to give right back to them in social and search content, and they are going to redefine that company however they see fit. The best approach is communicating your true message in both search content, and through social engagement, and if the audience agrees, then your search results will many times change as well.

Book cover "Search & Social".

The TV advertisements during the Super Bowl are a prime example of social media integration in traditional marketing and advertising platforms. We primarily saw Twitter as the social channel viewers were pushed to interact with after viewing the TV spots. What about Twitter makes it the right channel for that kind of engagement transfer? Are there other Internet mediums (whether another social network or search or ads, etc.) that might have a synergy with television that is underutilized?

A lot of the engagement transfer has to do with the process of multi-tasking, and with its wide audience and limited character range, Twitter is ideal for sharing quick thoughts while doing something else, in this case, watching TV. For this reason, any network with status updates is a great place to research for corresponding thoughts related to televised media, but most activity is going to be on the major networks like Facebook, G+ and Twitter. Niche forums are also good as well for more developed conversations.

Paid search is also underutilized, and is very much a real-time marketing medium. Time and time again, data shows that search queries spike along with spikes in trends in social, and there is an opportunity for mass exposure. The marketer just has to be nimble enough to get their ads running as search interest spikes.

Do you have advice for integrating and leveraging search and social with other marketing channels? How can a business discover the right synergies to boost their current marketing efforts?

Yes, there are a few key things that come to mind here. First, it is critical not to view search as only a direct ROI channel, and not to relegate social as simply a touchy-feely extension of a business. Search and social channels can effect every part of a business, including hiring, product development, time-to-market, time-to-acceptance, and market research.

There is definitely a sweet spot for each business, and they must try and fail, and try again to keep learning what is the best fit. They can start by getting search and social teams together to figure out how they can better work together. Search and social data provides business intelligence, and it can be leveraged in many other ways beyond direct revenue alone.

It almost feels like picking the social networks to participate in and build a community on is an art in itself. LinkedIn? Google+? Twitter? Facebook? Email? Where does my content belong? Which audience is the best investment as far as future profits are concerned? It’s impossible to give one-size-fits-all advice on this issue, but what signs should a business look for when deciding which social channels to invest in?

It is definitely an art unto itself, and there is a great opportunity for most businesses to redefine what they perceive as “social,” as it relates to their business. Each business should thoroughly review the big networks and the keyword language within those networks, but they should also look beyond them as well. Google Discussions search provides a gateway to finding new social networks where people may already be talking about a company or its generic service offering, and this needs to be evaluated carefully to determine what opportunities exist.

I also like to use Google Ad Planner to compare other site where an audience may be spending time as well. The outcome may involve participating as a valued community member, providing customer service without being sales-y, or even starting a social community of their own, whether it is a blog, a forum, a wiki, or even an answer site.

[Editor’s note: Find the Google Discussions search under the “More” tab of search options.]

As it is, search and social incorporate so many different marketing specialties: content, platform, and community management. How do you recommend a small business become proficient in all necessary areas? Is the search and social manager excellent at all areas or is a team with members for each specialty? What do you think the hybrid search-and-social professional looks like for the average small to mid-size business?

A small business or individual proprietor must answer a few questions first, in terms of how much they can actually do while running a business. Fundamentally, they must make sure they are in the game by having their profiles up, setting up dashboards to monitor conversations when they have time, looking for where real-time opportunities where business occurs such as a forum or on Twitter, answer email, and even post content from time to time.

All of this alone takes some time to establish, but can be managed efficiently once it is up and running. If a small business wants to scale, then they need to plan and ramp accordingly. For example, if a hotel or bed-and-breakfast marketer wanted to expand with a search and social content strategy, then they should increase content to match the keyword interests of their prospective customers, and they should be proactive in seeking out people who are looking for information in their area of conversation.

They could answer 10 questions, or 10,000 questions, depending how big they want to go, and they will leave a footprint that matches their effort. They could write 10 blog posts, or 1,000 over time, depending on how they scaled up their resources.

Even further, many SEO- and social-only roles will have to incorporate a more hybrid approach. This means digging deeper into keyword language, and creating content on a more frequent and fluid basis. For SEOs, this means being more active and quicker with production, and for social marketers, this means leveraging more SEO tools to better understand content and social performance.

In our industry we talk a lot about establishing a transparent brand personality. Do you think all businesses today need to develop a brand personality to be successful? If a business is in the process of establishing a brand personality, do you recommend that market research guide them or should they use cues from the personalities already within the organization?

I do think a brand should have a personality, and furthermore, it must have personas of the people on the front lines of its business that also reflect their key audience. It may be more than just be one persona. The sum of the personas on the forefront of content and social communication will define the brand or business to a very large degree. Market research and audience research will help define this.

Sometimes personalities emerge on their own, with their own blogs or by establishing expertise in forums, and they make great candidates for hire, or for working as a community representative or content creator. Other personas already exist within a company, and need to be promoted accordingly.

SMM plus SEO.jpg

“Social relevancy” covers relevance, authority and velocity as one signal. It takes search and social signals into account, along with other key parts of real-time marketing, to provide a more relevant result. Social relevancy applies traditional search algorithm methods to fast-moving world of social media. Can you explain more about social relevancy and how to calculate it and optimize for it?

Social relevancy also looks at theme, speed and frequency of activity, and analysis of one’s network and “networks of networks”. It is the social and network view of what search engines have historically used to measure search results, in terms of the eb graph, link networks, and natural language.

In addition to the aspects of relevance, authority, and velocity, I also view social relevancy as the sort human version of SEO, where people are nodes and actions are edges, instead of websites forming a node, and links providing the edges. So to be socially relevant in a sustainable way, you have to be true to yourself and true to your business to succeed.

What guidelines can you share for brands online looking to keep their community free of spam. A lot of edge-cases that come up, where there’s some value, but obvious self-serving motivation. How does a business strike a balance, policing the grey areas and encouraging valuable engagement?

Dealing with spam comes with the territory in real-time content marketing. Many community contributors are borderline between providing great content and also self-promotional content. I would view those people more as potential valuable long-term community members rather than spammers.

The best way is to take the discussion to a private message or private email and kindly and diplomatically restate and policies against self promotion. Let them know that you value their contribution, and that you want them to be a key part of the community. But it also helps to explain how establishing oneself as an expert lends itself to respect within the community, and later, meeting of business goals through awareness. Once the spam-borderline posters understand this, they see more value in what you are trying to do, and can also help you manage the community in a similar way to keep other borderline spam out. And the true spammers will just go somewhere else.

Discussion groups are seeing renewed interest by brands in part because of the gaining popularity of question-and-answer sites, but of course, this utility goes back to the original forums and BBSs of the Internet’s early history.

While clearly there’s benefit to establishing your authority among communities by sharing your expertise, there’s a high level of effort required to build up and maintain a presence on a Q&A site or other kind of discussion group. When does it make sense for a business to make this investment and is there a level of less intense involvement that can also seed benefits?

The short answer is to start by answering questions that are directly related to your company specifically, or your direct service. When businesses fail to do this, they allow anyone to control the business’s messaging and professional answers, simply by omission.

They are – or should be – the authority on their own business, and they should answer those questions and not expect that everyone is going to call their 1-800 number or go to their own website, simply because they have one. With discussion groups and Q&A sites, it is like the phone is always ringing somewhere, and marketers need to use their search chops and social listening tools to find them, wherever they are.

Another way to look at an answer marketing strategy is to remember that a business is not just answering a question for a single person, but also for the multitudes that see the answers directly, or may find that Q&A in a search engine. So one answer may effectively answer hundreds or even thousands of people over time. This gives the marketer a solid presence for the questions that matter the most to their audience. And it is the epitome of social search, because a person asks a question, and a knowledgeable human provides the answer, as opposed to a crawl, index, and retrieval method of a search engine.

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