SEARCH: Quirk Insights


As part of the ongoing education process of trying to truly understand SEARCH online BizRadio took this opportunity to ask other industry players their thoughts on the topic. Tim Withers – Head of SEO – Quirk | @quirkagency

Search Origins? Where did it all begin?

The first search engine actually went live before the World Wide Web did. Alan Emtage, a computer science student at Quebec’s McGill University, invented the Archie Query Form as a way to search for FTP servers. Prior to this, the only way to discover FTP (file transfer protocol) servers was to have someone share the address with you, which, as you can imagine, made it really difficult to find what you were looking for.

When the Internet went online in 1991, users once again had to rely on word of mouth. This necessitated the development of web directories, and it wasn’t long before these web directories were joined by the first rudimentary HTTP search engines, such as the World Wide Web Wanderer, that weren’t too dissimilar from what we have today.

Google’s dominance

In many consumers’ minds, search is synonymous with Google – how did Google become so dominant?

Google’s early dominance can be traced back to a couple of key factors; the first of which is the nature of its offering. At the time of Google’s launch in 1997, there were a lot of web directories, but relatively few search engines that were actually capable of crawling the web. Google has always been a search engine by the modern definition of the term; it was never a web directory that relied on users to submit links, which meant that before too long it boasted an index larger than many of its competitors’. This was a big selling point for Google during its formative years, and you may recall that until fairly recently they advertised the number of pages in their index on their homepage.

Another reason for Google’s early dominance was that its method for determining the authority of sites within its index was revolutionary. Existing search engines – even those that could crawl the web – had no way of gauging the popularity of a particular site. Google was able to tally links to and from sites and it used these as citations when evaluating a domain’s relevance (a model that is still used today). This, combined with an ever-expanding index, meant that it was able to provide results that better fulfilled users’ needs. In fact, it wasn’t long before AOL and Yahoo! recognised the strength of Google’s algorithm and penned deals to have it power their search engines; further entrenching the brand. In short, Google was always two or three steps ahead of the competition, and consumers recognised this.

Where was Microsoft during this period?

Microsoft was primarily invested in the development of Windows, Office and Internet Explorer. MSN Search (now Bing) was launched approximately a year after Google, and was powered by Inktomi’s algorithm which wasn’t as capable as Google’s; too little too late.

Why has it been so difficult for challengers to compete?

I think I’ve essentially answered this with the above, but in a nutshell, there was a window during the late 90s/early 2000s where a rival may have been able to usurp Google had they offered a superior service. No one was able to do this, and the brand has since become so firmly entrenched that it is incredibly hard to see it losing significant market share any time soon.

Why has it been so difficult for challengers to compete?

How important is search within the marketers mix today?

I don’t think the importance of search can be stressed enough. As many as a billion people visit Google each month, and as much as Social Media has changed patterns of behaviour online, search is still the number one stop for information of virtually any kind. If you don’t have any presence in search, you’re leaving the door wide open to your competitors.

Search Components. PPC, SEO, Natural search – to the ordinary marketer, this can be quite confusing, can you explain what PPC and SEO are and how they differ?

PPC (pay per click) is an online advertising model that allows marketers to drive visits to their sites by running ads that are charged to them on a per click basis.

These ads are Google’s main source of revenue, and advertisers can pay to have their sites listed on its search engine results pages. These ads are served to users when they search for a keyword (e.g. “buy summer dress”) the advertiser has targeted in one of their campaigns. If a user clicks on an ad, the advertiser pays for that click; the amount they pay is based on how much they bid for the keyword in question.

SEO is the practice of optimising sites for natural (organic) search. This is a with a view to attracting qualified traffic from search engines that will drive engagement, conversions and sales. You don’t pay for visits derived from organic search.

Organic search listings in Google appear in the middle pane of its search results pages. Paid listings appear at the top of the middle pane, above the first organic results, with additional ads situated in the right-hand pane.

The process of optimising for organic search is entirely different to that of running a paid search campaign, but there are numerous ways in which the two mediums complement each other.

We have heard rumors that SEO is dying, is this true?

People have been predicting the death of search engine optimisation for as long as I can remember, and time and time again, this has proved to be sensationalist nonsense. These false prophecies can be traced back to pretty much the same individuals and they will continue to play devil’s advocate as long as it brings them publicity. Ironically, by creating content aimed at attracting links, they’re practicing link building which is one of the cornerstones of the profession they’re dismissing.

There are far too many facets to SEO for any one development to spell its death. Just last year, there were several pronouncements of impending doom, but in spite of these the industry is stronger than it has ever been, and has the potential to deliver huge value. It may not be as easy to “game” the system as it used to be, but that was never the M.O. of legitimate SEOs anyway.

What is the most expensive paid search term?

Globally, insurance and loans search terms are the most expensive to bid on. When I last checked the Adwords Keyword Tool, the most expensive terms in these categories were “online auto insurance rate” at as much as R723.56 per click, and “settlement loans” at as much as R387.57. This makes good SEO especially valuable in these niches, especially when you consider that optimising a site doesn’t just improve its organic rankings; it can also lower the cost of PPC by making it more relevant to paid terms.

Common Misconceptions. What are some of the common misconceptions when it comes to search with marketers?

“I’ve achieved my goals, now I can stop SEO entirely.”

You can do this, but if your competitors keep up their efforts, it will almost certainly result in your site slipping down the rankings. Ongoing SEO is never a bad idea.

“My really pretty website is brand new, and really pretty, so it must be SEO-friendly”

Most really pretty websites aren’t SEO-friendly (especially if your really pretty site was built in Flash). Creating stylish, SEO-friendly sites is an art, and most design houses don’t have a clue how to do it.

“I spoke to another guy who guaranteed me he could get my site to number one in search.”

Anyone who says they can guarantee you a top ranking in search is a liar. It’s very feasible to project where you might be able to get a site to rank, but there are far too many variables at play to make such lofty promises.

International search trends. How important is search within the marketers mix today?

I don’t think the importance of search can be stressed enough. As many as a billion people visit Google each month, and as much as Social Media has changed patterns of behaviour online, search is still the number one stop for information of virtually any kind. If you don’t have any presence in search, you’re leaving the door wide open to your competitors.

What are some of the key trends globally?

  • Mobile search just keeps growing. Brands can no longer afford to ignore either mobile search or mobile commerce, and they need to develop an understanding of how both can fit into their overall mix. The modern consumer uses a variety of devices (and consults any number of resources) during the conversion process and it is imperative to have presence on as many of these as possible.
  • Voice search is set to take off, particularly on mobile devices. How this affects search marketers in the long run will depend on how Google, and other platforms, develop their implementation of it (i.e. will Google serve traditional results pages for voice search, or will it be more advanced than that?).
  • It is becoming increasingly important for brands to have presence on Google+ (more on that below).

What are you excited about in 2012? Can we expect any surprises?

I know we’re only a few weeks into the year, but I think we’ve already seen 2012’s big change with Google’s launch of “Search plus Your World” on January 10th. Search plus Your World blends private Social results, public social results and traditional organic results all into one.

I’ve always been an advocate of integrating social into traditional search, but Google and Bing’s efforts to date have been seriously underwhelming. Search plus Your World is in many ways a step in the right direction – it makes it a lot easier to segment social and organic results, for one –  but it’s got a long way to go if it’s to truly revolutionise search. It still operates on many of the same linear principles as previous iterations of social search, and for social to drive search forward it needs to become much more varied and predictive.

Presently it’s a glorified Google+ aggregator, but I’m really excited to see how it evolves. What’s clear is that with the lines between search and social becoming increasing blurred, brands can no longer ignore one in favour of the other.

Local Market – How big is search locally? Why is this significant?

There are six million users in South Africa (expected to hit 22.8 million by 2015) and these users are affluent, with a typical income of between R12, 000 and R70, 000+ per month. They expect brands to have presence online, and this represents a huge opportunity to market products and increase awareness; an opportunity your competitors will seize if you don’t.

What advice would you give marketers today?

Don’t ignore any of the online channels. Understand how they interplay and complement one another.

I see a lot of brands with only a Facebook page because they think that’s sufficient. In some instances it may be, but in the majority it’s not.  A website fulfils a different purpose to a fan page or Twitter account, and your online profile will be stronger if you have both. Also bear in mind that while you can own a website, you can never truly own your Social Media presence; its destiny is essentially out of your hands.

On the flipside, if you’re ignoring Social Media, you’re being blinkered. Social Media doesn’t just have massive potential in terms of CRM and brand management; more and more it’s going to become a place where users go to shop, and will play an increasing role in search engine optimisation too.

Looking Ahead. So what can we expect in the next 3 – 5 years? Will someone challenge Google?

At this point, I can’t see anyone making serious inroads into Google’s market share.

There’s been talk of Facebook posing a threat if they furthered their relationship with Microsoft and really pushed social search on Bing, but if there’s real potential there why don’t more people search the web from within Facebook already?

Internet users are creatures of habit. We’ve pointed our browsers to for years, and as long as it provides the results we’re looking for, we’ll continue that pattern of behaviour.

In order for anyone to compete, they’ll have to come to market with something that Google simply can’t match. Given that search is Google’s primary focus, and considering the monstrous resources they have to work with, that’s very hard to envision.

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