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Humans Vs. Robots: The Need for a Robust Search Strategy

Submitted by on February 16, 2014 – 7:45 amNo Comment

Someone once defined a “robust” strategy to me as a model which will continue to perform without failure under a variety of changing conditions. (paraphrasing here).  As we watch the recent upheaval within Google’s method for delivering search results I am advising businesses to consider a robust search strategy.   Here is why:

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Recently Google made substantive changes to the algorithm that determines search results.  This is big news since roughly 86% of people begin their journey online through search.  There are untold millions of dollars at stake in appearing (or not appearing)  on the first page of results.   There are hundreds of agencies dedicated to Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) that have plied the waters with their trade… trying to peer into the black box that is Google’s algorithm and reverse engineer tactics to win visibility.  Some of these are “white hat” (proper tagging , keywords etc.) and some are “black hat” (spoofing pages, link farming etc.).

Winning in search is coming to resemble a circular battle that looks like this:
Robots (i.e. algorithms) get smarter at trying to understand a human searcher’s intent and context
SEO experts respond with a torrent of operational tactics to try and game the robots
Robots shift the rules to bypass these tactics
It is an arms-race that most companies don’t have the will to win.  The numberless businesses trying to win in search are in a vicious cycle – gaming the system only to be outflanked by the robots and need to start over.   For a business there is both inefficiency (we are now being punished for our previous approach to search so we need to start over..) and serious reputation risk when it gets carried too far (as JC Penney discovered).

What is clear is that robots (i.e. algorithms) are getting smarter at figuring out the intent and context of a query.   For example if you type in “nearest Starbucks” Google will apply knowledge of where you are when making this query and it’s knowledge that “Starbucks” is a reference to the business.  Google will then present the answer – along with a map of directions (see this post for more specifics) What this means for businesses is that focus on keywords and inbound links (earlier tactics) are diminishing.

Luckily the robots are converging on a timeless truth; make it interesting, authentic, and worthy of attention and you will be rewarded.

So here is my advice (granted I am NOT an SEO expert).

  • Centralise your technical search operations.  Hygiene is still a good thing but it is too complex an issue to be distributed across a broad set of actors.    Focus all other attention on creating quality content that is authentic to your business (what you offer) and designed to travel across formats (site and social).   Here is what that means in more detail:
  • Have a point of view.  So often any opinion within an organisation passes through the corporate digestive tract only to emerge as… well… you get the metaphor.   Content that makes a difference IS different.  It stands out and reflects a company’s best self.  It is opinionated.
  • Make sure your content bears a meaningful relation to your business model. In the age of self-actualising branding (see Dove et al) this might be a bit controversial but branded content that has no relationship to what you sell will likely not be deemed as relevant.  Google now knows what business you are in and is likely not to reward your coat hangar business for its content on better male grooming.
  • Be timely, brief and omnipresent.  Content has a shelf life.   For example, rather than a single annual report in a PDF to communicate with investors (who, after all are constantly making investment choices) consider how you create a drumbeat of good content across formats on the core  topics that your audience will care about.  This is a new publishing rhythm that isn’t just about more content (though in most cases companies need that too).
  • Focus on depth not width. 4 themes that are explored in depth will likely beat out 20 themes that are published across a series of topics.   Google will be looking for authority in a given area and this means more than farming inbound links to do it.
  • Be social.   The more seamlessly your content allows sharing and exchange (whether that be through  “share this” buttons, allowing direct commentary etc.) the more the robots will see social signals credentialing your content.

A robust search strategy is one where the content you produce and the social profile you cultivate represent the authentic ambition and point-of-view that your company has.  As Google et al. continually refine their robots seek to deliver relevance to a human being you will do better by the robots by doing better by the human reader.

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