Serving updates from the likes of Twitter in a search engine’s results may help the user, but by pushing other results down the page, what does it mean for brands’ approach to search marketing?
- Last October Twitter signed deals with Google, Bing and Yahoo to include updates within their search results
- In December Google integrated real-time results from Twitter
- The long-term effect on SEO as unclear, but brands are keen to utilise the opportunity to come high up in Google rankings
- Traditional search agencies are evolving to become social media specialists
- Google Buzz is further evidence of search results being focused towards ’authority’ sources
In December Google integrated real-time search results into its main results page, aggregating updates from a number of social media sites including Facebook, MySpace and Twitter. These are now served within a scrolling box at the top of the page in what Google claims is the most comprehensive real-time search service from any of the major search engines.
Two months earlier the search giant announced an aggregation deal with Twitter. While Microsoft and Yahoo have similar deals, Google’s rollout displayed the results more prominently than its rivals did. Marissa Mayer, Google’s VP of search products and user experience, said at the rollout of real-time results, “I’d say real-time search is the natural evolution of universal search.”
It’s no surprise Twitter updates dominate Google’s real-time results, given the exponential growth the platform has seen in the past year. Almost overnight Twitter has become the de facto real-time search service, with all engines clamouring to partner with it.
Currently the integration is ad-free. By clicking an ’updates’ tab within Google’s results options, a user can search for instant Twitter updates on a specific topic, but the returned results have no AdWords ads served against them. As such, the brand impact is purely on natural search results. The real-time results come within the first natural listings on Google and therefore take up valuable space on the most sought after real estate on the web.
The move throws up more questions for search specialists about how to optimise content, as well as for brands about who should be managing their Twitter feed - themselves, PRs or search agencies? But although it’s still early days for comprehensive real-time search, brands have already identified it as a further opportunity for them to gain share of voice.
Paola Lopez, senior digital marketing manager for channel integration at the Central Office of Information (COI), says, “Matching real-time results with sponsored listings is an opportunity to deliver topical messages when they’re most relevant. From a government communications perspective, it’s an interesting way to develop advocacy and response.”
Likewise, Tom Morphy, responsible for European search marketing at Coca-Cola, says, “One opportunity from Twitter’s inclusion in results is the ability to gain visibility of your own point of view very quickly. Before, if a very popular topic trended, it was tricky to gain visibility on the natural search results pages because of the time it takes Google to index and display. The inclusion of Twitter allows a brand to add input into a discussion so more people can respond and be heard.”
The user experience clearly benefits, according to search specialists. Neil Jackson, director of search at digital marketing agency Tamar, says real-time results provide consumers with a far greater content proposition for a brand than before. “Searching on Google is a narrowing and personalisation process, and one of the plus sides of this move is that it opens up access to thought, comment, people and companies you may not have heard of before,” he says.I
t also allows brands to manage the engagement process effectively. “A brand may choose not to respond directly through Twitter but instead to write a blog or an article about the points raised in tweets, which they can then push out through the usual channels,” Jackson says. “That way, brands can respond quickly and create content that’s relevant, which it knows people are searching for.”
Google’s Twitter results aren’t quite as comprehensive as they initially seem. The fun of seeing tweets appear among hotly contested search results could easily be abused by spammers. However, only a selected number of keywords deliver real-time results, based on a combination of trending topics on Twitter and Google’s algorithm. Therefore, it remains too early to see the true effects of the move on search optimisation, according to specialists.
Grant Muckle, head of SEO at agency I-Spy Marketing, says, “At the moment its hard to say what impact it’ll have because it’s only on trending topics or what Google determines as popular. What it does show is that social media is becoming a central part of search.”
Tamar’s Jackson agrees. “Feeds only get triggered when Google deems it a hot topic, so drier topics are unaffected,” he says. “If the feeds aren’t detracting from click-throughs or diverting people’s attention away from the regular results, then there’s little effect.”
But what it does provide, he says, is a crucial platform for building word of mouth ahead of a product launch. Queries for ’Apple tablet’ ahead of the company’s iPad announcement last month, and those for ’Google Buzz’ ahead of its rollout last week, saw Twitter updates frequently served in Google results pages.
“If you’re launching a product, real-time results enable you to see what people are saying and this gives you an opportunity to respond in different ways and gain exposure accordingly,” says Jackson. “You can respond directly to the tweets and that will allow you to manage the situation, whether it’s negative or positive.”
The most pressing concern for search marketers is how to deal with another instance of Google marginalising natural results within its search pages. This has been a situation they’ve had to deal with ever since Google began introducing OneBox results (see box, right) and Universal Search results from early 2007.
Google understandably says the reason for the inclusion of new content that might push down natural results is to help users get to what they want more quickly. After all, this is the company that always stresses you’re only one click away from leaving its site. But with brands scrabbling for the limited, high-value real estate on page one of a results page, real-time results present another hurdle for them to overcome.
Doug Platts, head of natural search at agency iCrossing, says, “The immediate thing we’ve seen is another example of the cannibalisation of the Google results page. If this is happening for a brand’s core terms, if their website results sit below the integrated feed, it could easily affect the click-through rate to that site.”
Beyond that are wider implications for brands, he adds. While search, and especially pay-per-click, has long had proven ROI for brands, social media has still to convince many. Integration of real-time results changes that.
“Its an opportunity for brands to gain exposure by incorporating social media into their overall marketing strategy,” says Platts. “Brands need to more closely monitor where their target audiences are, whether that’s on Twitter, Facebook or wherever, in order to understand the conversation. More than ever, they need a connected online strategy. Whereas people haven’t previously understood the value of social media, doing this is a way of saying that if you don’t engage with social media then you’ll be missing out on the chance to gain that visibility on the front page of search engines.”
The question then becomes who should manage that connected online strategy. Many brands, including Kellogg’s and ASOS, have their Twitter profiles managed by an in-house communications team. But the vast majority will outsource their search.
As the two become more closely entwined, will a brand be happy for a search specialist to be closely involved in its Twitter profile? It’s not surprising that in the past few months countless agencies have launched social media arms, such as Profero’s Yabber, and start-ups have entered the fray, all claiming to closely monitor and manage buzz marketing and SEO.
The traditional search agencies have also evolved. Both iCrossing and Tamar have moved on from being known as search agencies. Even i-Spy Marketing, an agency whose senior team has a very strong paid-search background, is positioning itself as an ’uptimisation’ agency which can work on multiple search and social touchpoints.
“We’ve recognised for the past year and a half that you can’t do good search without understanding or running social media activity as they’re so closely linked,” says I-Spy’s Muckle. “You need to use social media to get links, which then have an impact on natural result rankings.”
Search agencies will have to get better at the social media game, he adds, understanding how it can positively or negatively affect the clients they work with.
“We’re telling our clients they need to be tweeting more often, to have an active Facebook page, to react to topics that might impact on their area of business,” Muckle says. “They should tweet their opinion on the matter so that they have a share of voice on the first page of Google.”
Platts at iCrossing adds, “One of the reasons we became a full service agency, but with social media at the core, is because of the two channels coming together.”
Hearing the Buzz
Already the rules have changed again, with the launch of Google Buzz. It’s a social platform that allows users to post status updates and share content through Gmail. It goes beyond Twitter’s 140-character update premise, with users able to drag images, links and videos into their updates.
Andrew Girdwood, head of search at agency Bigmouthmedia, says if Buzz takes off in the way Google hopes, then it could have a major impact on search listings and especially real-time results. “It’s all too likely that in the future these real-time streams will link to Google Buzz pages,” he says. “This is a content play by Google. Searches take searchers back to Google.”
Girdwood says all moves indicate the shift in how search engines rank content. “If the 1990s was about search engines sorting out relevancy algorithms and the 2000s where about them sorting out trust algorithms, then the 2010s are about authority,” he says.
When faced with two equally relevant sites, both of which it trusts, Google will more likely pick the more authoritative. “Google Buzz helps Google determine which sites are the authority as it gives the engine an insight into what people are talking about, which sites real people recommend to one another, which news events inspire the most interest in people, how people tend to describe things, and so on,” Girdwood says.
What’s clear is that the ever-shifting search landscape has moved again. Real-time search provides a chance for brands and agencies that are social media-savvy, rather than having an immediate negative impact.
Google’s OneBox tries to answer users’ queries directly, with results separated from the rest of the page, usually immediately ahead of the first natural ranking. It was introduced at the start of 2006, covering subjects including news, definitions, film listings and stock prices.
Queries such as ’weather London’, for example, would show the current conditions in the city, as well as over the next few days. Initially these results were based on Google’s own interpretation of sites it spidered, breaking out content for a OneBox result where it felt it was appropriate. However, more recently it has struck deals with third parties to include their content in OneBox results. In October it partnered with music services iLike and Lala to split out music tracks in its results (nma.co.uk 29 October 2009).
The service, only available in North America at present, serves text links and artwork of tracks related to a search query at the top of results. Google says it’s intended to help music fans find legitimate download sources rather than rely on torrents.