What IT pros need to know about search engine strategies

If you’re managing a data centre, so you really have time to worry about where your company Web site ranks in Google?

This is among the questions that comes to mind as the stage is set for Search Engine Strategies Torontoon June 8-10. Though it’s an obvious marketing exec Mecca, I think it’ssafe to say that reputation management, e-commerce and otherinitiatives have forced technology professionals to get more educatedabout how people find information online.

With that in mind, I recently interviewed Andrew Goodman, programmerfor SES Toronto, about what the future holds for those who care aboutkeywords, anchor text and more.

How would you evaluate the awareness of SEO fundamentals among the audience you’re expecting at SES Toronto 2009?

The first thing to note is that no matter what one’s level on eitherorganic or paid search fundamentals, the purpose of the conference isto kind of grab people and point them to the fundamentals in a “nobones about it” kind of way. SES speakers aren’t randomly selected “yetanother opinion” types – they’re the networked, seasoned,held-to-account, personality-plus types of folks that make the SEStradition so rich.

From there it’s key to also convey to our attendees the fast-moving,fast-changing factors to be aware of. Some say SEO hasn’t changed. Iagree that the general principles haven’t changed, but the searchengines have to become increasingly sophisticated in truly reflectingwhat’s most valuable and relevant on any given query, in the face of anexplosion of available content to say nothing of spammy stuff. Thatmeans the details are fast-changing. Search engines are measuringreputation factors in increasingly sophisticated ways.

Awareness of both fundamentals and the fast-changing fluid parts ofthe field is generally confined to a super-savvy group of 10 per centof marketers. The remainder can use a refresher course. A smallminority of those, about five per cent, will be completely overwhelmedunless they do a little homework before they come out.

This looks primarily like an event for marketers, but are welearning anything as an industry about how IT departments can assistmarketing groups with their search engine marketing efforts?

Certainly. Just to zoom in on one example, the panel on InformationArchitecture and Site Performance is a chance for marketers and IT todiscuss common fundamental Web site planning issues that correlate withcreating an environment that not only helps users, but leads to bettersearch rankings (indirectly). The problem is silos, of course, andmarketers and IT people sometimes thinking they should be solelyresponsible for a certain area. That’s outmoded thinking. Companiesneed to have great teams of people (even if it’s two people or oneperson and an outside agency) willing to share ownership of issues thataffect the user experience, and on issues that search engines demand wepay attention to.

By the way, it’s my personal opinion that large teams fail to creategreat Web sites. Design and information architecture doesn’t happen bycommittee. Input has to come through a process, and most of the keyinput should be coming from users or user-facing best practices, and toput those into practice a process is needed. Creativity isn’t somethingthat works best in a committee either. Beyond a certain backgroundusefulness, I’m not a fan of the concept of “brainstorming.” Expertiseand user bases alike get undervalued when processes turn to inexpertbrainstorming.

With the explosion of Twitter, Facebook and other socialmedia, how will search engine strategies within corporate enterpriseshave to change?

Companies will need to expand their view of online reputation. ThatGoogle forced this issue long ago with their popularization of thePageRank algorithm – that rewarded quality external links (positingthem as “votes for” a page) – makes search campaign implementation agreat place to learn the basics of online reputation.

What happened in the wake of PageRank’s ascendance – predictably -was the degeneration of common sense campaign strategies, into anarrowly tactical discourse. Everyone suddenly began talking about“getting links, buying links, measuring links,” and so on. But peoplelike Eric Ward actually hadsuccess with link campaigns even before the search engines rewardedlinks! (Starting back in 1994 Eric ran the first world-class linkingcampaign – for Amazon.com.)

That same messy proliferation of short term tactics is growing today- with companies bolting social media gimmicks onto their existingculture, rather than understanding how to become more thoroughlycommunicative and comfortable with the medium. Seth Godin calls this a Meatball Sundae.

Anytime you “tack stuff on” because someone pushing a certainprefabricated marketing methodology thinks you need a shot of it, yourisk hurting your brand. Companies will need to hire great people andtrain their public-facing people to adopt the right tone in theirsocial media interactions. And at the same time, they’ll need to trusttheir people to make regular use of these communication tools withouthaving to go through an extensive training process.

We truly are in uncharted territory and yet it’s not all newanymore. This has all been debated extensively as blogs grew rapidly.Companies have definitely proven that there is a comfortable range ofblogging styles, for example, and yet most have remained perhaps toocautious. And what that seems to create is a lot of free-spiritedemployees who don’t feel they have enough of an outlet for their newcommunications skills and networking instincts, so they leave for acompany that supports that.

Companies are faced with difficult choices for sure. I wish we couldhave five panels on this issue, but we are lucky enough to have Mark Evans speakingon the panel Social Media: Do Big Companies Get It? – and he shouldhave some wise insights. I think we are about 10 per cent into a verylong and possibly endless conversation that began with the great Cluetrain Manifesto. Tenet #1: Markets Are Conversations.

How much search engine expertise needs to be developedin-house, and to what extent do you see this function being outsourcedto third parties?

In-house is certainly growing, but third parties remain strong for awhole range of reasons. A key issue is that in-house marketers can getup to about an intermediate level on certain issues, but don’t have theperspective of agencies that have seen every situation over the years.Some agencies can help with genuinely advanced technical problems oradvanced tactical chess games in marketing. Their bench strength cansupport an understaffed in-house team.

Another tendency in the in-house game is that very specializedpositions in search may only last 18-24 months. High salary positionsare cut, and the company now needs to buy specific services orexpertise but doesn’t want to go through another hiring situation. Soyou buy, not build. Outsourcing is a universal need in any industry sothe parameters will always shift but it will never go away.

What aren’t our analytics tools telling us today that you think the audience at SES Toronto would like to see in the future?

High on the list is fuller attribution of influence on buyingbehaviour, beyond the “last click.” We hear more talk of “keywordassists” today, but beyond that, sophisticated attribution models areexciting. I do worry about snake oil, though. All marketers in nichesare competing for credit for the sale. We need unbiased folks to buildthe models.

There are a lot of new reports inside the paid search platforms thatpeople aren’t even aware of. So that’s the first challenge. Oftentimesaudiences are being introduced to easy-to-read reports inside a GoogleAdWords for the first time, and they’d been led to believe that was afunction that required a PhD in math and an expensive third-party tool.

So the ego factor is in play here to a degree. People leap ahead andwant to be seen to be discussing what’s way down the road, and shrugtheir shoulders when you go over the amazing things you can do in theavailable platforms, at no cost. Yet how many of them have even heardof those features when first introduced to them? More marketers need todo basic homework. It’s a work function, not something you impresspeople with at cocktail parties.

As you implied in your initial question, there is too much posturingout there (people pretending to be too advanced to learn from certainpanels or events), but limited adoption of the available tools andreports, which are, in fact, very sophisticated.

A lot of what we’ll be looking for in the future, I think, is verypractical, in the realm of soft innovation. Drawing conclusions fromhighly granular campaigns is difficult for example, so we need tools tohelp us visualize performance coming from ad copy themes account-wideeven where data is too limited in individual ad groups. Companies likeGoogle are developing clever means of helping us to do better at usingpredictive behaviour to drive things like bidding decisions, but outhere we want more transparent ways of doing this, not just black boxtools.

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