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Why search is the new advertising June 30, 2007

Posted by Steve Field in Search.

“If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?”
— Philosophical question

In class, we have spent a good amount of time talking about the way that media is changing. The public is spending more time consuming media, but less time focusing on it. We live in an age of continuous partial attention. Because people are inundated with media, they are quickly shifting from being passive consumers of media to active seekers of information.

This means that in order to get your message out, you can’t just buy an advertisement anymore. You need to make sure that people can discover you through search. It shouldn’t be surprising that the top three visited Web sites in the world — Yahoo!, Google and MSN.com — all are major search engines, according to data from Quantcast. If they can’t you might as well be that tree falling in the woods with no one to hear you.

Communicators in an age of digital influence need to know how search engines work and why they are important. For beginners, the book The Search does a great job of explaining how one of the most popular search engines, Google, works. Googleguide.com also explains the three parts of search pretty effectively (and in fewer words):

  1. The Crawler. These are also known as “spiders.” They are essentially the robots that traverse the Web and gather information about every page in existence.
  2. The Index. The index is where the crawlers send information about specific sites. It is a massive warehouse of information that catalogues sites by search terms
  3. The Interface. This is the front end — or the user experience — of a search engine. This is where the user enters his search term and how the results are displayed after the search is conducted.

Armed with knowledge of how search works is the critical foundation. The next step is to know how to leverage the way search works to get the information you want to appear in top results. Even though searches can often turn up tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of results, most users don’t go beyond the first twenty or thirty results to find what they are looking for. The process of creating your site to be discovered in search is called Search Engine Optimization, or SEO.

Rohit Bhargava takes the concept of SEO one step further. He notes that blogs and other social media generally score well in Google ranks because the number of links to a site is one of the criteria used in ranking algorithm, and blogs tend to trade links with one another. By making a site social media friendly, he argues, you not only help yourself in the social media sphere, but in the search realm as well.

He is spot on.

To crib his recommendations, try some of the following steps to make your blog or Web site not only sharable, but more discoverable:

  1. Increase your linkability – This is the first and most important priority for websites. Many sites are “static” – meaning they are rarely updated and used simply for a storefront. To optimize a site for social media, we need to increase the linkability of the content. Adding a blog is a great step, however there are many other ways such as creating white papers and thought pieces, or even simply aggregating content that exists elsewhere into a useful format.
  2. Make tagging and bookmarking easy – Adding content features like quick buttons to “add to del.icio.us” are one way to make the process of tagging pages easier, but we go beyond this, making sure pages include a list of relevant tags, suggested notes for a link (which come up automatically when you go to tag a site), and making sure to tag our pages first on popular social bookmarking sites (including more than just the homepage).
  3. Reward inbound links – Often used as a barometer for success of a blog (as well as a website), inbound links are paramount to rising in search results and overall rankings. To encourage more of them, we need to make it easy and provide clear rewards. From using Permalinks to recreating Similarly, listing recent linking blogs on your site provides the reward of visibility for those who link to you
  4. Help your content travel – Unlike much of SEO, SMO is not just about making changes to a site. When you have content that can be portable (such as PDFs, video files and audio files), submitting them to relevant sites will help your content travel further, and ultimately drive links back to your site.
  5. Encourage the mashup – In a world of co-creation, it pays to be more open about letting others use your content (within reason). YouTube’s idea of providing code to cut and paste so you can imbed videos from their site has fueled their growth. Syndicating your content through RSS also makes it easy for others to create mashups that can drive traffic or augment your content.

Building online communities June 23, 2007

Posted by Steve Field in Communities.
1 comment so far

Having already read and written about Naked Conversations (which, for anyone interested in how digital technologies are changing the way that businesses need to talk with their customers, is a must read), I thought I would delve into the topic of community, which is the subject of the supplemental readings this week.

The interesting thing about communities in an Internet age is the collections of people are no longer restricted by geography. Traditional communities were based around location — one could not reasonably build relationships with other people who lived a significant distance because it was difficult to interact on a regular basis.

This is not true today.

Online, geography is not the only factor that shapes community. Just as important (and often more important) in shaping community online is shared interest. Wikipedia notes that the fact that geography is not the sole determining factor in the definition of community has made the idea of a virtual community a contentious one.

The fact that geography does not limit online community means that niche communities that can’t exist in the real world (because the people interested in such a community live too far apart from each other) can evolve. It also means that professional communicators who want to have “naked conversations” with their customers can build communities online for them.

O’Reilly offers great foundational principles for PR practitioners who are interested in building a community for a client:

  • Exist for a reason. This is foundation to any business decision. You should never make a community just because it is “cool” or because it is “what people are doing now.” There should be a practical purpose for existence, and the community should fill a need of the members.
  • Users draw in other users. Communities are organic. They form on their own through word of mouth of members. PR practitioners can help increase awareness of the existence of a community, but members must make conscious decisions to join themselves. Current community members are the best recruitment tools for community.
  • Mischief is inevitable. There are bullies and mean people in real-world communities. These people exist online as well. Also, be wary that those who might not have the courage to be bullies in real-world communities might feel emboldened to be pushy by the anonymity and distance that the online community offers. Robin Miller makes a good suggestion for dealing with these people: let the community police itself.

Overall, community is a good thing and can be a powerful way for professional communicators to create meaningful engagements with their audiences.

People aren’t messages June 16, 2007

Posted by Steve Field in Citizen Marketers.

Last week, I took exception to Jackie Huba and Mitch McConnell’s assertion that in an age of citizen marketers, “the people are the message,” as they articulate in their latest book Citizen Marketers.

After reading the rest of the book, I renew my criticism.

They keep revisiting the statement that people are the message (which, while rhetorically pleasant, is never actually proven by Huba and McConnell). In chapter five, they cite a man name Winter (yes, he has apparently changed his name legally to Winter. I even checked out his Web site to see for myself.) Winter is so passionate about Starbucks that he has made it his personal mission to visit every Starbucks on the planet and write about it.

After telling his story, Huba and McConnell say that (surprise!) Winter is the message.

Except he isn’t. He is a person who is sharing his experience of a brand with others. What he is saying about Starbucks, and perhaps the fact that he is so passionate about the coffee that he has embarked on this quest to visit every Starbucks in existence, are messages. Words and actions can be messages. The man himself is not.

Perhaps a better way to articulate what I think McConnell and Huba are saying is that in an age of citizen marketers, the people control your message. I don’t think the important point is that people are messages. I think it is quite important that citizen marketers are out there and that these influential consumer/evangelists have an increasing impact on brand perception when compared to traditional forms of brand marketing, such as advertising.

This point about the citizen marketer having increased influence is echoed by this year’s Edelman Trust Barometer. Each year, Edelman (my employer) publishes a survey indicating different levels of trust among social institutions. For a second year, the most trusted spokesperson, as indicated by the survey, is “a person like me.” Businesses with powerful brands can no longer ignore that people are talking to one another about those brands and influencing how those brands are perceived.

People are not messages — but they sure are shaping brand messages in a way never before seen.

Citizen Marketers and other reading June 8, 2007

Posted by Steve Field in Citizen Marketers.

I’m back from a month-long hiatus!

After starting this blog for my Introduction to the Digital Age class at Johns Hopkins University with Nicco Mele, I am now reviving it for my Public Relations in an Age of Digital Influence course with John Bell.

I have already written about one of the assigned readings on this blog, so today, I will be focusing on a book that I have not yet had the opportunity to review — Citizen Marketers by Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba.

There are three key points in the opening three chapters:

  1. Empowered customers absorb brands into their personal identities and become part of the brand experience as filters, fanatics, facilitators or firecrackers.
  2. A small — yet powerful group of people (about one percent of customers) take action to share their connection to a brand with others. These people are instrumental in passing along word of mouth about a product.
  3. The advancement of technology allows for the democratization of market forces that impact brands.

McConnell and Huba are right on with all of these points. Web 2.0 has fundamentally changed the way that people and products are related. The collection of tools broadly referred to as social media allow every person to share with others his or her opinion about a product or idea. No longer are the media and the companies themselves the only ones who are able to communicate about a product with others on a broad level. Blogs, message boards and social networks are connecting people across space and time.

Despite all of this, I am not sure I agree with the author’s assertion that we live in an age where the “people are the message.”

There are four parts essential to communication — a sender, a message, a mode of communication and a receiver. Without any one of these, communication cannot exist. It seems that on every occasion where McConnell and Huba argue that the people are the message, they are still saying that people are the sender. Consider the examples they give in chapter one:

People are the message when people say “word of mouth” is the most influential form of media on their decision making. […]

People are the message when the excessive number of advertising messages creates demand for products to block them. […]

People are the message when their intent is authentic. […]

People are the message when they have roots of credibility.

In each of these cases, people are not a message. They are either senders or receivers or both. The content of the word of mouth that they pass along or receive is the message.

Maybe the point isn’t that people are the message, but that corporations no longer control the message.