By Eric Enge
Apr. 24, 2007
One of this things that struck me (again) while I was at Search Engine Strategies in New York earlier this month was that the world of search marketing, and Web marketing in general, is becoming more and more like old-fashioned marketing.
A few years ago, when I thought about Web marketing, I thought about buying links (yes, I used to buy links), swapping links en masse, and building massively optimized Web pages. This, of course, does not sound like conventional marketing at all, and it wasn't. Web marketers all had our own little esoteric roles, as if we were living in a remote cave in Borneo.
We were our own animals. Other people could not relate to us, because we were so different, and our work existed in a vacuum. But we were all happy because there were piles of money to be made, and we were living on a Wild West frontier where the rules you lived by were the rules you made yourself.
What made all of this possible was an audience (the Web surfing audience) that was pretty naive, and search engine algorithms that were pretty naive too. But both of these things are changing. The search engines are getting smarter, but quite honestly, there are serious limitations to how smart they can get. Algorithms are algorithms, and anything that can be programmed can be reverse-engineered through testing and experimentation.
The problem is the people. They are getting really, really smart. They are no longer going to stand for a Web site cluttered with overly optimized pages that just don't look right. The rise of social media has also made it exceedingly simple for a visitor to your Web site to find out if anyone ever complained about you online.
Another way that Web promotion has become tougher is that webmasters are much more savvy about their outbound links now. One example of this is that the U.S. government now urges all of its webmasters to have a posted link policy. I would imagine that this is the product of a few million requests over the past few years.
But this problem is not limited to the government. More and more webmasters are getting smarter about their outbound links. Mind you, there will always people who don't understand that they have value, but fewer and fewer of these webmasters are working at the really high-quality sites where you want to get your links from.
One cool thing about high-value, authoritative sites is that they got that way because they delivered a high degree of consistent value to their users. They have done this because they care about their users. So if you create something that they don't have on their site, but that is very much on-topic with their site, they just might link to it.
The punch line to this linkbuilding digression is that in many cases, you also need to earn the trust of that webmaster to get a link. There are some obvious exceptions to this. For example, if you get an article on the front page of Digg, you can get some really good links from authoritative sites.
But how do you get on the front page of Digg? Here comes that trust word again. Digg is a community. For most people, getting on the front page of Digg requires an endorsement (a digg) by one or more top users. There are people who make it to the front page of Digg once or twice without such a top user backing them, but to do it consistently, you need to understand that Digg is a community.
If someone engages in constant self-promotion, the community gets wise to it, and then the person who is doing the self-promotion, and their site, is doomed in Digg from that time forward. So how do you win in Digg? You join the community. You contribute to it, especially with material that is primarily non-promotional. You develop relationships with many users, including top users.
You build a relationship and you build trust. It's pretty much the only way to win here, because Digg is a very intolerant community. They don't like to be gamed. This is at the source of their passionate hatred of SEOs, because too many SEOs have tried to game the system. Too bad, because most SEOs don't deserve that rap.
And how do you convert an educated user to a customer on your site? Here it comes ... TRUST. You do things to build trust on your site. You give away great free content and/or tools. You get endorsements from other trusted people and businesses that you can post on your site. For e-tailers and selected other sites, you can even use a service like Hacker Safe that tells users that their personal information is safe from hackers when they give it to you.
There are so many different things you can do. The best way to decide what to do is to think long and hard about what your customer wants. Think about the unique value you can bring them, and then give it to them. Another place to get great ideas is from Bryan and Jeffrey Eisenberg's GrokDotCom blog, or from Bryan's ClickZ column.
But ultimately, we are talking about old-fashioned branding here (you though I'd lost the thread I started this article with, didn't you?). You are building a brand. You are building an image. You are building relationships.
So search engines may contribute to these changes, but the driving force is the educated Web surfer – your customer. Trying to figure out how to design your site, or what content to put on it? Look to your customers for the answer.
Once again, let me remind you that you are building a relationship.