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Time to rethink search engine optimization?

May 21, 2013

We hardly need tell you that the web is becoming an increasingly noisy place. Developing a compelling web presence to make your customers come back is one thing: ensuring they can find you in the first place is quite another. This is why search engine optimization (SEO) has become so important.  But things may be changing.  Enter Facebook, whose Graph Search function – announced in January – aims to redefine the rules for internet search. Users will be able to enter much more specific information – ‘restaurants in Madrid liked by my friends’, perhaps – and will receive results that draw on the information shared by their friend network.

A two-way street?

This has a number of implications for business. Businesses will need to earn all-important ‘likes’ and ‘check-ins’ through cultivating a more interactive relationship with customers, rather than just broadcasting messages. In addition, social media content must be fresh and relevant, to keep those ‘likes’.

Perhaps most intriguingly, this turns large-scale, targeted data search into a two-way street. Traditional SEO is ultimately a one-way process of helping people to find you. The rise of social media brought with it, at least, the obligation for companies to engage in dialogue with a subset of their customers. But social search could additionally help companies to renew the ways in which they interact with their customers and their competitors.

Finding potential targets for marketing could be greatly simplified by identifying individuals who have endorsed your competitors, and then marketing to them. What’s more, your competitors also gain from ensuring that customers share data – data which then proves as valuable for identifying new customers as for engaging existing ones.

When the data just isn’t there…

As things stand, of course, social search is a long way from maturity. It relies entirely on the data that social network users are willing to put in.  It’s unlikely you could find much information to help identify, say, potential targets for energy providers simply by searching Facebook data.

The challenge then is to use analytical techniques to find proxy measures. Low engagement is not necessarily such a problem if you can demonstrate that a certain age of consumer in a certain postcode area, with a particular taste in music, is statistically more likely to consider switching their energy provider.

Getting out the consumer vote

Micro-targeting is a feature of political campaigns and has been for some time.  Increasingly, researchers are looking at how purchase patterns relate to voting intention. The ultimate goal is to find people who might vote for your candidate but are less likely to turn up at the polls. Many credit the sophistication of Barack Obama’s ‘Get out the Vote’ campaign as one of the key reasons he was able to secure a second term as President. The challenge for marketers is to adapt these techniques to expand and broaden their customer base. Once promoters of a company’s products or services are identified among its customer base, similar types of customer who are also likely to promote the company can be identified and targeted.

The same holds true in social search. Finding a few promoters gives clues as to where and who the other promoters might be. And with Facebook’s vast reach, a customer base for nearly everyone is in there somewhere.

Macro and micro

This presents a paradox for the marketer. To keep a step ahead, companies will need to divert marketing budgets to engagement with social search, and develop algorithms to identify targets among existing and prospective customers. But to persuade customers to share, they will have to redouble their efforts to engage them on a personal level. Finding that balance between the macro and the micro-level promises to be one of the key challenges of this new age of search.

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