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Search Engine Strategies Conference 2009

PT thanks New York–based marketing consultant Rich Kelley [1] for his reporting.

Social media and search had quite a mashup at this year’s Search Engine Strategies Conference [2]. For three days, 5500 attendees alternated between panels on social media optimization strategies, talks on Google [3]’s new AdWords [4] interface, tuning websites for search, and much more. For its opening keynote, SES turned to author/entrepreneur Guy Kawasaki [5], who explained why he believes Twitter [6] is the most powerful marketing tool since TV. For him it’s all about the numbers: “Get as many followers as you can (he has 96,228 [7], #76 among Twitter users).” But he doesn’t read his followers’ tweets. All he cares about are @ and direct messages, because, he says, “what you want are followers who will carry your message. What’s important is how much you are retweeted.” Using an array of tools (some, like TwitterHawk [8], bordering on spam), Kawasaki tweets more than 100 times a day (which helps him stay among the top 5 retweeted). He thinks good Twitter marketers are Comcast [9], JetBlue [10], and Amazon [11]. His recommended tools? Adjix [12] to shorten URLs because it also tracks and reports on clicks, and CoTweet [13] for companies who want to assign multiple users to one account.

In February, Google accounted for 72% of search results. Yahoo! [14], MSN/Live.com [15], and Ask.com [16] compete most aggressively in universal or blended search, the results pages that include images, video, audio, and slides. These multimedia search pages are changing how people react to search. Enquiro Research [17] developed an eye-tracking heat graph that shows text results pages being read top down. But in blended results, eyes are drawn to the images first, then to the text surrounding them. This could change the dynamics of search rankings. And other results are changing. Search for a restaurant on Yahoo! and its SearchMonkey [18] technology will deliver not just the address and phone number but also the Yelp [19] rating and links to reviews. You’ll find a media player at the bottom of the Yahoo results page, and you can display PowerPoint slides without leaving the page. Ask.com competes by using semantic web technology to analyze queries and deliver answers from structured databases. Query “interviews on TV now” from Google and Ask. Ask delivers actual listings of interviewee, time, and channel. Ask also now has a new Q&A Channel that draws specifically from FAQ pages. If you’re a publisher with lots of content, Ask wants to explore how to deliver blended results using your content (contact Keith Hogan, khogan [at] ask.com). Another player, Farecast [20] (recently purchased by Microsoft), includes directional arrows showing whether prices for items you’re searching are going up or down.

Search is no less critical within a publisher’s site. As Google’s Alex Torres noted, visitors usually decide whether to stay on a site within eight seconds. When navigation fails, 50% resort to search, but 80% of the time search results do not meet their expectations. The solution is to optimize your site, both to draw traffic from search engines and for searching within your site. Several “Extreme Makeover” panels offered live demonstrations of how experts critique home pages and site navigation—and revealed how seasoned experts vehemently disagree on best practices. A site’s needs vary depending on the target audience and what you want them to do, but the experts agree that whatever you ask should benefit the customer. “You can increase conversions 12–15% simply by reducing the amount of information you request from a customer,” according to Tim Ash of SiteTuners [21], “and don’t double stack on a form. Better to go down than to go left to right.” Only testing proves what works. Ethan Griffin of Groove Commerce [22] offered an example: “On one site, a tabbed home page tested worse than one long page of continuous content.” The average conversion rate for an e-commerce site is between 2–3%, but according to Jeffrey Eisenberg of Future Now [23], if you keep testing and optimizing your site, “your conversion rate should be at least 10%.” Separate panels focused on the best free tool available: Google’s Website Optimizer [24].

While search has surged, click-throughs on display ads have dropped. Marketers like Jonathan Melendez at RAMP [25] and Amit Kumar at Dapper [26] believe the solution is to make display ads behave more like search. After search engines, publishers are the best source for data, and a new generation of display ads allows a user to search through an advertiser’s database and self-select a product before clicking through for a purchase.

Kevin Cobb of Embarq [27] showed how marketers can bring search and social media together. “Most people aren’t aware that one in four searches happen on YouTube,” noted Cobb. Tech people frequently turn to YouTube for product reviews and demos. And 27% think more favorably about a product after seeing it on YouTube. Embarq’s video contest “What can you do in 48 seconds?” (the time you save by using Embarq’s faster-loading pages) is practically a case study in effective use of social media: 281 videos were submitted, user videos were viewed almost 400,000 times and Embarq’s own how-to videos viewed 112,000 times, and more than 1800 orders were placed. See www.youtube.com/embarq [28].

Social media marketing needn’t be mysterious. Chris Winfield of 10e20 [29] recommends looking at your logs to see where your customers are coming from. “Ask them what social media they use and where they make their buying decisions. Forums are social media—not as sexy as Facebook or MySpace but probably more effective. . . If I had only an hour a week to spend on my business, I’d spend it in Yahoo! Answers [30].” Jennifer Laycock of SiteLogic [31] had a similar “start with what you know” recommendation: “There are far more marketing opportunities with blogs than with Twitter.” Blogs are where you get the conversation started. Christina Kerley of ckEpiphany [32] highlighted the power of social media for B2B. “Look at what American Express has done with its forum [33]. Start a group on LinkedIn [34] if one doesn’t already exist or look at the specialized minisites on Alltop [35]. Professionals typically congregate around shared interests. Focus on pain points.”

Winfield echoed her in his listing of the less well-known social media sites. In business, these include Tip’d [36], Feed the Bull [37], Motley Fool CAPS [38], Value Investing News [39], PFbuzz [40], Sphinn [41], and Killer Startups [42]. In products and commerce: dealspl.us [43], iliketotallyloveit [44], Dealigg [45], and ThisNext [46]. Lost in all the controversy over its recent interface change, according to Facebook’s Tim Kendall, is the increased flexibility of the Facebook fan pages companies can create. Fan pages can now deliver different messages to new and returning customers and any update to the fan pages is immediately delivered as a status update to all registered fans.