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Search is changing. What do brands need to know?

Yesterday, Google publicly acknowledged that, when it comes to determining the relevance of information on the web, there is a challenger to its famous PageRank algorithm.

Please take a bow, for the challenger is … you and me.

That’s right. Google has finally recognised that people’s recommendations are potentially just as powerful as its algorithm for indicating relevance. That’s why the search giant has taken the plunge and launched social search, something it first mooted in 2009.

As well as delivering information in the search engine results pages (SERPs) based on PageRank, Google will from now on show information based on how much it has been recommended by your friends. In its first iteration, when you search, Google will return web pages and information shared by people in your Circles on Google+ as well as pictures shared by those people on Picasa, Google’s picture sharing service. Later iterations, you can be sure, will include search results based on social hints such as mentions in other Google services, such as Gmail and Docs, and eventually perhaps, non-Google services, such as Twitter. Or maybe not.

One area Google will struggle to integrate into its social search is Facebook. The biggest social network already has a strong partnership with Microsoft. These two are still working on powering Bing social search results with Facebook’s Instant Personalisation. What this means is that, much as Google does with Google+, Bing results will include web pages and information deemed relevant to your search based on sharing activity by your Facebook friends. This is a powerful combination, and we can’t wait to see how the partnership, first announced in 2010, pans out when it becomes fully operative.

How it affects brands and companies

Once social search becomes the norm, it will render traditional SEO an anachronism. Don’t worry, SEO companies have been changing their approach for years, so this will not render their advice worthless.

But there are broader lessons here for brands and companies wanting to connect with people via search. Here are three things you need to consider if you’re a brand with an online presence:

1. Social signals such as shares and likes are now a central element in search. The more you can enable visitors to your website – or visitors to your offline venues – to like, share, +1 or otherwise recommend your products, services or venues, the more visible you will be. So if you aren’t yet using sharing buttons on your website, or registering your business with Google Places, Facebook Places, Foursquare, get on it. A side-effect of this is that you’ll immediately become more visible through your fans than through more generic use of keywords on your website. So if you’re not targeting your fans and online influencers as part of your marketing outreach, it would be a good idea to factor this into your 2012 plans.

2. Internal comms is becoming important for external comms. When it became a mainstream activity, the rules of search made online marketing teams focus on inbound links and keywords. These are still important, but human activity is far less predictable than affiliate linking or writing web copy and tags. With that in mind, you need to generate as much sharing activity around your brand or online content as you can, as often as you can. One of the biggest assets you have is your people. If you’re a multinational company, you probably have tens or hundreds of thousands of potential online advocates on your payroll. The days of banning Facebook in the workplace are well and truly over. You now need to find ways to harness the power of your people. Internal comms has never been so important for external communications.

3. Content is beyond king. One of the oldest adages in marketing, that content is king, has now been given a shot of extremely powerful steroids. The power of content for search can no longer be overlooked. One of the main reasons for this is that the sharing actions you need to move up the search rankings tend to take place in the short period after information is published. So the moment you tweet or post to Facebook, you have a matter of hours until that content is old and will no longer be actively shared or recommended. Therefore, publishing a steady stream of easily sharable and well-targeted content is crucial to your online visibility both on social media, and now increasingly on search. It explains why organisations have been hiring journalists to manage their web presence.

We’re excited by the changes, but they will mean different things to different brands or businesses. If you’d like to discuss how these changes will affect you, please get in touch.

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Peter Sigrist wrote this on January 11, 2012
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