Universal Search: The (War) Elephant in the Room

In 218 B.C., the Carthaginian military commander Hannibal, entrenched in the Second Punic War between Rome and Carthage, trekked across the Alps into northern Italy in, perhaps, the most brutal military maneuver of the time. Hannibal brought with him massive war elephants that devastated all they encountered. The whole ordeal begs an intriguing tactical question: when armed with spears and swords, just how does one stop a rampaging elephant?

While search marketers aren’t at war, nor are we locked in earth-shaking combat, we face our own leviathans. And we’re armed only with technical know-how and command of a QWERTY keyboard.

Our elephants are verticals — Web sites, images, videos, news, local listings, and the like — and our playing field is universal search. We must approach these search listings the same way the Romans did when staring down the trunk of a stampeding gray beast — by working collectively.

An integrated approach across multiple disciplines is the only way to address the diverse nuances of the new SERPs. We can tame universal search if we address it from all fronts: SEO, paid search, social media, Web development and user experience design.

The Old Way

About nine to 12 months ago, it was acceptable for an agency to compartmentalize its search practice. You had your page-based optimization team, feeds management team, and paid search team all working independently for the client.

Even if it seems a bit disjointed, it worked at the time. If each practice were a faction of Roman soldiers, think of the marketing playing out as mercenaries fighting only other mercenaries, legionnaires battling only other legionnaires, archers volleying against other archers.

Each of these disciplines could go about doing what they do best without worrying about how the other factions operated. But no single soldier can take on a war elephant alone, which became the problem for the different disciplines when confronted with universal search.

Working as One

Agencies need to throw the old model out the window. Rather than addressing only our own discipline, we need to look at the playing field as a whole. Focusing all efforts in harmony is the only way to properly address the challenges of universal search.

Today’s search strategy requires optimization of all of the client’s assets, not just their Web site. This means press releases, images, videos, and even brick-and-mortar locations to take full advantage of all that universal search has to offer.

Included in this is the paid search team, not only for the promotional opportunities provided by paid search but also for how they must work in conjunction with feeds management.

Take the new Google feature being tested called the Plus Box. Clients can’t take advantage of this new feature without having the paid search team and the feeds management team working together. The paid team needs to ensure the bidding strategy meets the needs of the user, and the feeds management team must provide a feed of the appropriately bid upon terms to Google Base in order to populate the Plus Box. One needs the other to function.

Most News is Good News for Search

News results commonly appear in universal search, and news releases also provide wonderful opportunities for link building and online reputation management. The functional benefit of news articles creates a demand for a new relationship: one between the SEO team and the client’s public relations department.

Press releases must be fully optimized for search to work online. There must be a clear, constant channel of communication between the SEO and public relations teams, as well as a relationship with a SEO-savvy news distributor. Ultimately, we’d like the client’s release to be the main news result, but working with outside vendors and in-house communicators increases the reach of important client content.

Video, as Viewed by the Client and its Lawyers

Perhaps the most talked about component of universal search, video results create the most substantial need for conversation between search marketers and the client.

On the agency side, you may have a team getting involved in video promotion that includes SEO, creative, and Web development. On the client side, the contacts may be sitting on a wealth of video content, but saddled by legal restrictions. Television commercials being repurposed as online content sometimes create such headaches.

Having a set outline for video channel development, distribution, and appropriate content is vital to uniting all of these teams. Once content is available online, it’s up to SEO to lay the foundation for its promotion in search.

Real World Impact on the Virtual World

Sometimes brick-and-mortar locations can have an impact on search. Multiple locations can be used as part of a local feed, creating another universal listing. Location Web sites can also create additional listings.

However, brick-and-mortar locations sometimes create unintentional competition for the main corporate Web site. This happens most often in social media.

In Facebook, for instance, a brick-and-mortar location may have its own Facebook page, which competes with corporate. If it becomes more popular than the main Facebook page, it may funnel traffic to the wrong Web site.

The client needs to mandate appropriate online guidelines to its affiliates, franchises and locations to maintain a unified front. Working with brand management, community, and SEO teams can help identify and remediate the unintentional online consequences of success in the real world.

A United Front

The advent of universal search is a game changer for the user and the agencies that provide search related services. We’re no longer engaged in hand-to-hand combat at the service level; we must work in unison to take on challenges bigger than one service.

Just having the ability to do page-based optimization, feeds management, and paid search are the price of entry into the search space. The real value that agencies bring to their clients is how they mix all of these elements together in concert, providing maximum exposure and share of voice in the SERPs.

We see the elephant that is universal search in front of us, and working together we can win the day.

Join us for Search Engine Strategies Chicago December 8-12 at the Chicago Hilton. The only major search marketing conference and expo in the Midwest will be packed with 60-plus sessions, multiple keynotes and Orion Strategy sessions, exhibitors, networking events, and more.

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