Interview with SEW’s Jonathan Allen/2: A Search Manifesto

Today we make good on our promise and post part 2 of our interview with SEW’s Jonathan Allen.

In this second half of the interview, “The Englishman in New York” and Search Engine Watch Director shares with us his thoughts on Google’s Search Plus and social (G+) networking ambitions, as well as where he sees the search marketing industry going with his self-described “manifesto on search.”

This year has been a tumultuous one with Google’s string of search & social initiatives and algorithm updates. What do you make of Google’s ambitions with Google Plus Search, Google+, and its Panda/Penguin algorithms?

In my view, Blekko has a lot to answer for in terms of the direction Google has taken in the last two years. By highlighting the problem of webspam, they whipped up a frenzy of pressure on Google.

To its credit, Google responded incredibly fast and seemed to fast-track a lot of features that were probably already in development. Larry Page taking the throne probably has a lot to do with this too, as what we have seen is a return to Google’s roots with a scrappier more reactive company. They are operating more like a startup.

I think it is important to ‘get’ that most of the features and updates we see today such as Search Plus Your World and Panda/Penguin were inevitable developments for search engines – and in particular, Google.

Whilst the link graph was already democratizing the distribution of information, people still needed to have the ability to actually code up a link. With the advent of social, the social networks have democratized information sharing even further, so that anyone can share from any device at the click of a Like or RT button – no coding required.

Even Google knew it was inevitable that links couldn’t be a ‘search signal’ forever, and that their algorithm first favored a kind of technical elite.

Replacing linking signals with social signals

Despite all reports to the contrary, Google still has not cracked social signals either.

Whatever role social signals do play in search is currently miniscule, and they are certainly no closer to a true concept of author rank. There are attempts at it, but in my opinion our industry overplays the importance of it.

Google is still trying to get a social graph, let alone analyze it. Proof of that is in the fact that Panda and Penguin are both algorithm updates that attempt to fight automation and reward the people who are content creators.

If Google did have a social graph already, they wouldn’t need a manual or algorithmic intervention. The very nature of social media is that it is self-policing and weeds out spam.

And this is where the rub is for search marketers.

As Google relentlessly pursues the goal of becoming a social platform (and cloud OS for their users), rather than just an interpreter for the web, search marketers are going to have to become self-policing too. And that is a huge threat to the relative anonymity we have been enjoying.

We either have to embrace the panopticon of Google+ or revise our understanding of the web and return to fundamentals that leave Google out of the equation.

Both positions are valid and ultimately imply the same thing – you have to think about your online marketing in terms of the true information needs of your potential customers and not the information needs of Google’s algorithm.

Google’s search rankings & illusions of absolutes in quality and relevance

The only reason Google delivers results in a ranked format is because that is the only possible way to manufacture the most important search signal there is – end user data.

Rank lists are just a byproduct of semiotic analysis – within one list of 10 results Google is showing all possible “Paradigms” (categories of information) and “Syntagms” (sets of information) that are present in the concept of the search query.

Put another way, paradigms and syntagms represent “all possible worlds” of the information need the user might have. It’s not until the user selects a result that Google can calculate relevance – namely, “meaningfulness” to the user. Everything before the click is just an estimate.

Google’s brand of relevance is little more than a Turing test because there is simply no such thing as absolute relevance – only the semblance of it. The less the results resemble a computer-generated list, the more confidence we have in the result and believe they are relevant.

But it’s an illusion to think that Google has any essential concept of quality or relevance.

Outputs, rather than inputs, are more important to Google – I cannot stress this enough – and chasing the input is a losing game.

You can analyze links and social shares as much as you like to get a sense of why things are ranking, but it is still just incidental data. For Google, the rank list is only the beginning of the journey to determine relevance.

The click that occurs after the rank list is the most important signal – the vital data – by which time all factors controlled by the machine and our SEO strategy are out of our control and the chaotic order of culture simply takes over.

Ultimately it is culture that dictates what ranks on the web – not links, not shares.

Google’s “semantic data” & culture

Despite announcements to the contrary from Amit Singhal, I would assert that Google is no closer to semantic data than anyone else because the principles of semantic data are fundamentally simple.

All you need is a reliable set of classifications, which pretty much anyone can create.

What is actually difficult is leveraging a training set for semantic data and apply that at web scale. Google has the best chance of all, given their super computing power, but that only serves to elevate the importance of end user data.

And end user data is simply a reflection of the cultural climate. At best, search can only reflect the status quo, which is simply the relationship of all “things” (web objects) to each other. To change the status quo online you actually have to transform the underlying relationships.

So “what is old is new again” 

So all in all, my sense of the latest round of Google changes is simply that “what is old is new again.” You need to market a business, not a search engine.

Your market for your business is people’s requirement for information they can trust. Therefore the only strategic difference between marketing in general and marketing on Google is that to succeed in the latter, your best chance of success is to adopt a “Googley business model” which offers freemium services.

The freemium offer you must make must be to freely offer the most important and useful information to help your potential customer make the right decision for their life, not your profits.

And if readers are looking for SEO tactics, then throw yourself at the opportunity that is Google Search Plus Your World – for the first time ever you can be on top of the pile for a generic term with relatively little work. Search results are going to be distributed and ranked according to your Google+ social graph, so grow that as fast and as quickly as possible.

Aim to tune into the real information needs of that subset of Google+ users because they are going to dictate the “relevance” of your site. As long as Twitter and Facebook lock their doors to Google, the Google+ social graph is the next training set of semantic data that Google is chasing.

And where do you see the search engine marketing industry going?  (a.k.a., Jonathan’s Search Manifesto)

The search engine marketing industry has matured.

To some degree, we’ve lost the cool factor to ‘social’ (whatever that really means), but what ‘search’ has gained is a huge amount of business and recognition that it is a required component in marketing.

However, the wider trend is that actual online advertising platforms are emulating search to take advantage of the search marketers’ skill set, whilst ironically, Google is starting to look less like a search engine everyday and seems to be utterly dismantling the search marketers’ toolset.

Simultaneously, as big brands have got smarter about online marketing, they have hit upon the realization that search only plays a certain role in the entire marketing equation.

Brands need a multiplicity of skills to tackle an end-to-end online marketing strategy. The problem is that in our industry, regardless of whether we are talking about SEO or PPC, or whatever satellite skills our industry implies, we tend to get pigeon-holed for working only in search, which is often seen as a closing tactic at the end of the customer purchase journey rather than the beginning.

So we get targeted and paid according to our ability to be efficient rather than on our ability to generate demand.

This attitudinal shift has also been a threat to Google as brands are asking, “how do we create demand in search engines?” Previously brands were concerned with just meeting demand via search and only a few were leading the pack with these “more essential” questions.

“These companies are now, quite literally, eating our lunch”

On the face of it (please excuse the pun), Facebook seems to offer ‘brand marketers’ something more ‘essential’ in terms of traditional marketing metrics: A closed network of “real people” (rather than queries) who spend a lot of their time in that environment.

The opportunity is closer to TV, which has traditionally been a good means for building awareness and brand recognition, and that is seen to ultimately drive demand.

But this is just Facebook mastering mystique in the market.

Facebook is actually more complicated than any media platform preceding it and its hidden complexities are a useful foil to Google’s “straight man in the market.” Brands have to go direct to really succeed – or invest heavily in tools.

In response we see that Google is leaning more heavily on YouTube as their brand-building opportunity to advertisers, whilst simultaneously gaining the social data they need to match Facebook via Google+.

In seeking to solve the problem of demand generation for brands, Google can match Facebook’s apparent dominance of the web – and ultimately forge deals directly with the brands by leveraging their market share.

It is an elegant solution for Google, because it solves the problem of complexity for brand advertisers, whilst they can quietly continue to dismantle a lot of the tools and tactics search marketers used to rely on.

These companies are now, quite literally, eating our lunch.

It’s on us, the SEO/search marketing specialists

The losers in this equation are SEO/search marketing specialists. By becoming a “no-brainer” strategy for brands to execute, it’s dropping down on the agenda amongst campaign planners in the boardroom – as its PPC and SEO are just naturally factored in.

It’s ironic that the increasing complexity of leveraging digital media for marketing is through generating demand to work directly with Google and Facebook rather than through agencies and specialists.

However, these step changes are natural and the fault lies with us as much as our ‘overlords.’

The online market has not fundamentally transformed, just accelerated. As an industry we have not been claiming the wins, and specifically the impact, that we as a marketing community have had on every aspect of digital marketing.

We don’t trump the good as much as the bad. Yes, few businesses were first built on search – they built a great product first – but search was key to their long-term growth.

Search marketers are naturally anti-authoritarian yet we don’t stand for something and so fall for anything.

Generally speaking, every practitioner still gets tarred with the ‘spammers’ brush and yet, every single digital marketing platform is to play more fluidly with the search marketing skill set – namely bidding, keyword/market research, relationship building and interoperability.

All of these skills are rooted in sourcing demand online, rather than in search engines per se. To drive our careers forward we need to recognize that we all have more essential skills.

Demand generation plays nicely with ‘ethical’ SEO tactics such as content marketing. Whilst I do not want to discount the importance of link building in SEO, as an industry we need to understand the actual, natural behavior behind link building. Most of the time it is a by-product of good marketing, good content and good relationships.

So what do we, as search/SEO marketers, stand for anyway?

The problem I see is that by obsessing too much about search algorithms and being too Google-centric, search marketers are losing touch with some of the genius that got us to where we are in the first place.

As an industry we are at risk of not owning our role in the web eco-system and we are becoming increasingly split over “what we should call ourselves” rather than who we should be.

To me, it makes no difference whether you call yourself an SEO guru, PPC expert, social media ninja, digital, connected or inbound marketer. What all of those titles lack is any kind of manifesto as to what we really do and what values we stand for.

Redefining the role of ‘search/SEO marketer’

There is an urge for us to redefine the role ‘search marketers’ play in the web, but rather than pulling together we are pulling in different directions. It might be time to drop ‘search’ from the equation and become just ‘marketers’ – namely, generalists rather than specialists.If we must remain specialists, then let’s specialize in what we actually do and not in Google.

Namely, meeting the average web users’ information needs.

We are the original relationship builders and tacticians of the web!

Online marketing success has always been dependent on relationship building, regardless of whether we are talking about links, video channel subscribers, or social shares.

This is what we know best.

For search to be sexy we have to position ourselves at the top of the customer food chain rather than the bottom.

Therefore, I believe that all search marketers and search marketing agencies should drop keywords, rankings, social media and conversion optimization as the starting point for discussions with their customers.

Instead strike at the heart of the matter: raise the question of how to generate demand, because if demand-generated, it will ultimately be reflected in search. This is our strength!

Tell your customer that their product exists in a market in which their customer can ask any question, any time, on any device, and receive an answer anywhere, at any time from anyone. Then ask them, “what are the long term information needs of your target audience?”

Search or social, inbound or outbound, every subsequent strategy, tactic or action flows down from the question of how you will fulfill the challenge of what your customer needs to know.

 

Our heartfelt thanks to Jonathan Allen for this most honest, thorough, and candid interview, as he honored us last Thursday with part 1 and with this eloquent, closing “search manifesto”! He’s now doing his thing at SES Toronto this week, but we’re sure he’d love to hear from you!

You can connect with Jonathan on Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube, all via  jc1000000 <that’s 6 zero’s> You can also find him hanging about SES Conferences & Search Engine Watch :)