How brands can adapt to search on a user driven internet

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Just two internet behemoths now command one-fifth of the global advertising market. Search results, and the ads that come along with them, matter for everyone: from loud, fast, uninhibited Silicon Valley companies like Uber, to humbler local businesses. The results platforms like Google and Facebook offer consumers are gaining trust, and often provide the final word. Whether or not those results accurately reflect reality, of course, is another question.

Google results have long provided the final word for the average internet citizen. But now that Google is confronting new editorial challenges and Facebook is crowdsourcing its own reporting of “fake news” and other misinformation campaigns, advertisers and brands are facing new challenges in managing their search ranking, reputation, and even basic factual information about themselves.

Compounding the challenge, the entire internet economy is increasingly tied up in the ongoing personalization of the web. The mining of personal data may deliver us more efficient or relevant results, but it also means that not everyone is served the same results for the same queries anymore.

The New Results Page
You may have noticed just how crowded your search results are today. You’re served not just the “organic” results you were looking for, but news stories, videos, tweets, advertisements, and, via tools like Google’s “Knowledge Graph,” definitive-looking, thesaurus-like information and “related queries.”

Search engines used to provide a useful and relatively simple service: they indexed web pages. A company like Google or Yahoo combed a website’s text and metadata (the behind-the-scenes, descriptive copy) to determine its ranking and relevance. In a media environment where breaking events are reported, dissected and debated immediately, these services have adapted to roles their engineers never anticipated. If search engines started out as libraries, they’re now newsrooms, marketplaces, billboards, and public squares. They’re not just repositories of information anymore, but the source of that information.

Despite the conventional wisdom that Facebook and Google are completely changing the course of the world and human civilization, they still operate, fundamentally, on an business model ripped from yesterday’s print media: advertising revenue. It’s natural that they should run into the same basic problems, namely the “church and state” firewall separating editorial and business concerns within the platform.

Jesse Boskoff is COO at Status Labs, a firm that specializes in digital reputation management. He offers some insight into how he and his colleagues are approaching the shifting sands of the search world. “A lot of the bad news about companies rises to the top,” he says. He’s seen old news stories and years-old complaints affecting a company’s bottom line. In the past, Google relied on backlinking, that is, simply the amount of times a keyword appeared on your page. That frequency-based indexing offered companies control of their own image, including the language their consumers use to find them. But the game has changed. “It makes it way more complex,” Boskoff says. “It definitely makes our approach and our thought process way more holistic.”

Part of that complexity comes from Google’s recent application of of AI and machine learning, Boskoff says. Google’s proprietary “RankBrain” algorithm has been piecing together the context and meaning of our keywords for a few years now, and since it does this based on massive user data collection, it’s bound to develop some incomplete or inaccurate conclusions. RankBrain, like so many other emerging intelligent technologies, is simply a very good, very speedy word associator. It is literal minded in the way that all technology is literal minded, and learns to associate a word like “iPhone” with words like “repair,” or “announcement,” or the word “Samsung” with “Galaxy.” The song remains the same: monitor your brand’s associations, its watchwords, its knee-jerk responses in users. Ultimately technologies like RankBrain are designed to satisfy their users, and users reward efficiency, relevance, and in a perfect world, accuracy.

But as CIO reported, RankBrain is weighted and dynamic in a way that standard SEO strategies could never have anticipated. It accustoms itself to something more like the news cycle than the quarterly corporate calendar. This means that marketers have to attend to the way their terms are deployed and contested among customers, even the public at large. There are commercial, technological fixes that promise predictivity by offering data-driven statistical modeling. Third parties create a generic search engine and model it like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration might model a hurricane. But a more long-term strategy may mean devoting and training in-house resources in careful and continuous monitoring of the web.

Even if Google is getting smarter and more adaptive, Terminator-style, its users are all too human. Misinformation travels fast, and when a search engine confirms a suspicion, no matter how far-fetched, it is in part endorsing the validity of the claim to other human users, creating a bizarre and often disastrous feedback loop. These search results can stretch far beyond SEO marketing issues and determine the narrative and public image around the company at large.

At the time of this writing, searching for “Delta Airlines,” for example, surfaces a few ads, and then a battery of negative news stories from the BBC, NPR, and the Washington Post about the airline’s booting of a couple and their infant off of a redeye Maui to Los Angeles flight, not to mention a slew of outraged tweets from the general public. A search for “Theranos,” the scandal-ridden health technology company once valued at $9 billion, surfaces the company’s website and social profiles, its Wikipedia article, and then a litany of detailed exposes and negative press. All on the first page. There are cases where such social media scorn isn’t deserved, or even factually correct, of course. PepsiCo had to dispel a “fake news” style rumor just before the U.S. presidential election that its CEO had made remarks critical of Donald Trump. Both Trump supporters and Trump haters have generated lengthy lists of companies to boycott, including large retail operations like Amazon or Target, “sharing economy” apps like Uber and Seamless, and even film franchises like Star Wars or Marvel.

Building More Meaningful Pages
According to Boskoff, “keyword intent,” or the style of query users are putting into their searches, drives search today. It’s one thing to search “Cavs score,” or casually browse flu symptoms on WebMD, but another to find the best value kitchen mixer for an emergency wedding present purchase on Amazon. Marketers focus on “high-intent” searches (like the Amazon one), where searchers are often looking for the shortest possible route to the “buy” button. But even “informational” search intent (queries like “Is Uber safe?” or “How much is Amazon Prime?”) return paid search ads and informational snippets that Google pulls and displays for high-profile searches. In this sense, large companies are able to own not just their own image, but the entire discourse around a public query or concern.

So do clients have more or less control over their online image now? “It depends on the situation,” Boskoff says. We tend to focus on scandal or crisis, but the hardest job may simply be creating products and web presences that customers want to engage with.

Offering an easy, relatively frictionless path to purchase is priority number one for ecommerce companies, for example. But other value-adds can help, too, and these don’t have to be large undertakings. Solutions range all the way from the shrewd placement of a post-purchase social media call to action (“Tell your friends about your purchase”) to the construction of entire in-house editorial shops. All of this creates more metadata calories to fuel the search engines. Boskoff encourages clients to “get creative” because “all the SEO in the world won’t be enough to drive users to more meaningful pages.” In a Huffington Post editorial confronting Status Labs’ own image problem, CEO Darius Fisher says that “ultimately, a change in behavior is the only way to ensure a lasting change in reputation.” The best advice might be the simplest: the easiest way to avoid bad press or a bad search engine reputation is to avoid bad behavior.

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