For some crazy reason, marketers, and others tasked with the decision to elevate awareness of the brand, have come to believe that investments in search engine optimization (SEO), public relations (PR), outbound marketing, or advertising, are independent functions. In fact, a surprising number of brands manage these functions without the benefit of integrated planning and execution. As a result, enormous opportunities to effectively orchestrate these efforts for maximum impact are lost, most especially organic search.
The data supporting organic search as the most effective way to reach new audiences is compelling.
The introduction of digital mediums seems to have diluted the integrated approach that has proven to deliver the best results long before the Internet became part of the marketing mix.
Because studies show the effectiveness of organic search in reaching new audiences, many will forgo the integrated approach in order to put all their eggs in the SEO basket, missing out on the most effective way to leverage that investment – integrating owned, earned and paid media to support organic search.
The Marketing Mix and Search
I have referenced the Owned, Earned and Paid Media grid many times since Forrester presented it in 2009 to demonstrate how integrated search, social media, the website, PR, content and advertising relate to the brand.
Image Credit: Forrester
Chances are very good that you've heard discussion about owned, earned, and paid media. You may have even seen this grid before. Now, let's look at how owned, earned, and paid can, and should be, leveraged to support SEO for performance in organic search.
Owned Media and SEO
Owned media includes the many assets the brand maintains control and management of. The website, blog/RSS feeds, social media profiles, updates, mobile apps, guest blogs, etc. Just about anything you can "put out there" without paying for eyeballs qualifies as owned media.
Optimization of Owned Media is Vital
If every one of these assets isn't optimized for search, you're missing the boat. Why? Internet users (your customers) conduct searches in places beyond the ever-changing environment of search engines Google, Yahoo and Bing, where the brand competes for visibility. They also search on Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, Pinterest, etc., where your brand should be engaged in topics relevant to your unique selling proposition.
Bottom line: The more places the search engines see your brand legitimately engaged, the more authority you earn, which contributes to visibility and search engine rank.
The Quality Website
Google's Webmaster Central Blog has expanded the definition of search engine optimization to include marketing:
Good search engine optimization can also mean good marketing: thinking about creative ways to make a site more compelling, which can help with search engines as well as social media. The net result of making a great site is often greater awareness of that site on the web, which can translate into more people linking to or visiting a site".
Note the mention of social media as a means to gain "greater awareness of that on the web, which can translate into more people link to or visiting a site". These are the links Google is really looking for. We are led to believe that the prolific a brand's reach and engagement is on the web, the more authority the brand is expected to yield in search.
Social Media and Search
Social plays an indisputable role in search. For those stubbornly challenging this connection because search engines haven't come out and provided a definitive statement or hardline policy to validate haven't been in the search game long enough.
Search engines, especially Google, have a history of not disclosing exactly what queues their algorithms take from various factors. It is no longer about reading tea leaves to determine whether an integrated approach to social media and SEO will pay off. The best SEO professionals are continually testing, observing, and validating to form proactive search engine optimization methods, not just taking a page from everyone else's book.
Google, Yahoo and Bing have each published enough about how they view the "quality website", social media and content to justify an integrated approach, rather than the disjointed effort of SEO, social media and other digital efforts independently. We can then take queues from entities heavily invested in search.
For example, recently AOL (parent of TechCrunch, Huffington Post, MapQuest and other digital environments) morphed the role of Simon Heseltine, Director of SEO to "AOL Audience Development (SEO & Social)". Not to mention, SES, one of the marketing industry's leading search and social conferences, has revamped its SES San Francisco 2013 conference tracks to focus on owned, earned, and paid media. Coincidence?
Be a Leader Not a Follower
In search, it pays to be a leader, rather than a follower. Those actively pursuing opportunities in search as they emerge will always be ahead of the game when it comes to search.
If you aren't in the business of developing, testing, and analyzing performance trends of various SEO methods, aligning yourself with those on the leading edge of the industry will likely be worth any extra investment required to engage them.
You will have to determine whether you will color inside the lines, by abiding to practices recommended by the search engines with white hat SEO, or take risks for short-term rewards by ignoring the lines (as laid out by the webmaster guidelines published by search engines) with black hat SEO.
Either way, the umbrella of search has, and will continue to expand to include all digital assets and behavior.
Optimizing for Search
Those stuck in the outdated view of SEO as metadata and keywords with no relationship to social media are wasting money and not achieving optimum ROI from SEO as a best case scenario, or being left behind, unable to compete and losing new visitors and customers to competitors as a worst-case scenario.
A recent study by Searchmetrics illustrates qualities of well-ranking pages, validating a positive rank correlation between social and search, validating the requirement for sharing from an ownership perspective, and from an "earned media" perspective.
Note the high incidents of social interaction, compared to on-page, website SEO factors such as keywords in URL, domain, keywords in body content, etc. This data is compelling in supporting of the argument for social media as a vital aspect of SEO.
In addition to establishing quality profiles on dominant social platforms, now is the time for brands to "stake their claim" and establish a presence on as many social media platforms as possible, even if they invest the bulk of brand social media marketing and engagement. This prevents squatters (or competitors) from seizing brand-related profile names and URLs, provides the brand to at least appear on the platform, and preserve the destination for engagement, should the brand decide to leverage that platform in the future.
In the ever-changing landscape of social platforms, you never know whether that lesser-known environment could be acquired by a larger entity (as in the case of Facebook's acquisition of Instagram). The creation, and acquisition of, social media environments and tools is extremely active, as SocialNetworkingWatch.com reveals in its continual listing of social platform acquisitions.
Ninety-two percent of consumers around the world say they trust earned media, such as recommendations from friends and family, above all other forms of advertising, according to the Global Trust in Advertising report by Nielsen.
Earned media = love. The more love and attention you can attract from your customers (consumers, employees, media, partners, investors, etc.) the more authoritative the brand becomes to consumers and to search engines.
Take Google Maps for example. Google accepts reviews directly from users on Google Maps, which are then ranked automatically as demonstrated in the screen shot below:
Google Maps listings typically include reviews and a link to the brands Google+ Page. Conversely, those who fail to create that all-important Google Maps listing or Google+ Page lose the opportunity to appear twice at the top of the search engine results page, as demonstrated below:
Social Sentiment is Serious Business
You've likely hear the old adage, "It doesn't matter what they say as long as they spell my name right." This may be true in the world of public relations if all you want to do is gain notoriety or eyeballs. And at one time, it was even true in search. But times have changed when it comes to reputation as it relates to search.
What your audiences say about the brand is as important as who is saying it. How search engines leverage sentiment in search remains vague. However, we can be assured that sentiment matters.
In 2010 Google Fellow Amit Singhal explained that Google's "world-class sentiment analysis system" identifies negative sentiment, such as reviews, even if it may not effectively demote those results in SERPs. He goes on to explain that:
We cannot reveal the details of our solution—the underlying signals, data sources, and how we combined them to improve our rankings… We can say with reasonable confidence that being bad to customers is bad for business on Google. And we will continue to work hard towards a better search.
This is quite a validation that sentiment has, and will have on social media and search.
Because a good read on social sentiment is sought by brands committed to identifying brand-related social activity and managing reputation, social media monitoring tools become valuable from a social perspective, as well as an SEO perspective. Sentiment140 provides a list of Twitter sentiment monitoring tools.
When it comes to monitoring the comprehensive social landscape, there are many solutions to choose from. Marketing professional Pam Dyer offers a list of 50 social monitoring tools that cover various aspects of the earned media landscape.
For optimum performance, those responsible for SEO should have an awareness and/or involvement in evaluating earned media to define action that can be taken, such as content development, social media, and website optimization to positively influence the impact of earned media on search engine performance.
Owned and Earned are Connected
Social media may be considered to be the most effective channel to earn favor with audiences. However, the connection between social media and owned assets impacts search the most.
On-site reviews, comments, photo sharing, conversations as well as Facebook Likes, Google +1's, and bookmarking of the website and its content (owned media) will most directly impact the quality of a website in the eyes of search engines.
The distribution, discussion, and reaction to that online content off-site, on social platforms, must be earned, requiring the creation of quality content. It all must be tightly integrated and planned strategically to gain full benefit and achieve that all-important top position in search.
Optimization is Key
One of the most overlooked aspects of social media is SMO (social media optimization). Most marketers are either un-informed, or un-interested in leveraging social to build qualified audiences. This requires the social media marketer to think like an SEO and use keywords and phrases that put the brand and the conversations in which the brand engages, in the path of target audiences. Since most marketers have not fully mastered SEO, they miss this opportunity and often result to direct mail, media campaigns, paid search or other costly programs.
Optimization is a vital part of each social media profile (an owned asset) as well as the updates, posts and comments posted on social platforms. The ability to execute social media at this level is what separates the pros from those who simply want to play on Facebook or tweet about random thoughts all day.
It is incumbent upon the brand to define the conversation and tone, leading audiences to the content that sparks engagement, favorable reaction and sharing. This is where the love is – not just from the marketplace, but from search engines.
Paid media (sponsored links, banner ads, paid directory listings, etc.) have less impact on organic search results than owned and earned media, so this discussion is slightly different.
More importantly, Technographics data from Forrester Research shows that digital ads such as banner ads, text, and mobile apps are the least trusted form of advertising communications.
Owned and Earned Outperform Paid Media in Influence of Organic Search
Organic search can't be influenced by paid or sponsored search campaigns. Industry data demonstrates that SEO delivers better results than paid search.
This is more than theory. Some organizations have abandoned paid search completely for social media with measurable results.
"With nearly seven-figures invested in paid search media over the years, we netted nearly zero measurable results. However, our social media efforts always return on the order of 15 to 1 (and that is just the results we can measure)," said Brett Tabke, CEO of Pubcon
However, paid does have a place in the conversation. For years I have emphasized that paid search is most effective when used in promotional context that is highly targeted with strategic intent, rather than a primary traffic source. This can also be said in the context of supporting strategies to differentiate, compete or promote special offers that have yet to achieve visibility through other channels. This should always be planned and executed in the context of data to define and measure performance that supports the overall brand strategy and competitive position in the marketplace.
Organic, Authentic & Engaged
Essentially, when it comes to search, the more organic, real, authentic, and engaged the brand is, the better they will fare in search over the test of time.