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How Search and Social are Interdependent

December 16, 2012

I recently had the following conversation on Twitter:

Twitter_conv_1

A screen capture of a twitter conversation.

I feel I owe my followers an explanation, which requires an order of magnitude more characters than Twitter allows. Hence this blog post.

When I say that search and social are interdependent, I don’t just mean that any effective digital strategy ensures that you do both well. Of course, they are both strong drivers of relevant traffic to your sites. But I also mean that they are interrelated. That is, you can’t do search effectively without an effective social strategy and you can’t do social effectively without an effective search strategy. Since this is a controversial position, allow me to e’splain sum up now and explain after the jump.

In brief, social content is findable: It is built to demonstrate relevance and to provide context for the audience, where search engines are a proxy for the audience. When you jump into the middle of a conversation, it can seem confusing. You understand the full conversation by searching for content related to it. Building findable content begins with keyword research, which is a form of audience analysis. Building social campaigns also begins with keyword research, which gives you a cue into the conversations your audience engages in. Building shareable content depends on understanding those conversations.

Findable content is shareable: It is parsed into modular chunks that can be easily shared from within pages. Pages are just carriers of shareable content that demonstrate relevance and provide context for the audience. Pages full of relevant, shareable content become link bait, which then rank better over time in search engines because the audience is effectively voting for the content by sharing it and otherwise building links into it from external sources.

It all fits together. But I admit the summary view might be a bit dense for those who have not read our book Audience, Relevance and Search: Targeting Web Audiences with Relevant Content. If you need further explanation, please read the example after the jump.

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How Nate Silver Could Help Digital Marketing

November 14, 2012

You know I am passionate about digital marketing. But you might not know that I am also a baseball blogger. I am cmathewson at the Minnesota Twins blog Twinkie Town, one of the SB Nation sites that recently went through an unfortunate redesign. I don’t write there very often anymore, in part because of the redesign. But at one time, I was one of its most prolific contributors, when the baseball world was going through a controversial culture clash between insular scouting paradigm to one based on math. In the center of that controversy was Nate Silver.

A photo of Nate SIlver

Nate Silver at SXSW
Photo credit: Wikipedia

I have been a Nate Silver fan for almost 10 years, when he developed PECOTA, a system that uses statistical analysis to forecast the performance of baseball players based on their past performance. At the time, what passed for baseball analysis was performed by “baseball men,” scouts who had grown up around the game and learned its nuances. Most of their insights were based on what they saw with their own eyes and their gut feelings. Silver was one of the young Turks of a sabermetric revolution among baseball analysts, people who used math to analyze players and predict their future performance, often more accurately than the baseball men.

Eventually, sabermetriccs became an established practice in baseball. Every team uses methods developed by Silver and others at least as a check against the errors of their scouts. Most rely more heavily on math, using scouts to fill in the blanks. Billy Bean of Moneyball fame is one such baseball executive.

Apparently, Silver loves controversy. When sabermetrics became an established practice, he set out to do to political analysis what he helped do to baseball analysis, with his fivethirtyeight blog in The New York Times. Political analysis has long been ruled by the scouts of the politics world, aka pundits–highly educated men (mostly) who glance at polling data and form intuitive opinions about them. Until the 2012 elections, pundits ruled. But in this election, Silver ruled, correctly calling all 50 states a week before the election and getting very close on the popular vote. According to Silver, the electoral vote would be a landslide for the President. The pundits called it a “tossup” using such mixed metaphors as “razor tight.” More pundits predicted a Romney win than an Obama win.

Some say there was one true winner in the 2012 election and it was Silver. No pundit in the history of political commentary was as accurate as Silver was on that night. I don’t recall an election in which the old guard pundits were so far off, either. The contrast was stark. He was so good, he managed to make his brand of analysis an established practice in less than half the time it took him to do the same thing for baseball. In fact, Silver’s success in the 2008 election influenced enough people that his models were in wide use behind the scenes in the Obama campaign. Future campaigns will take notice, and ignore the kind of analysis Silver performs at their peril.

Since Silver likes controversy so much, perhaps his next challenge can be digital marketing. Digital marketing is in the throes of the same kind of conflict baseball and politics have gone through. Mad Men on one side, geeks on the other. The Mad Men flaunt their experience using their particular brand of creativity to develop and  push content on unwilling masses, hoping for a small percentage of them to engage. Geeks work to learn the willing audience in detail and target them with content that helps them make smarter decisions. I fall firmly in the geek camp. But I struggle to convince the Mad Men. Enter Silver, who could cut through their BS and transform digital marketing.

If you’re interested in how, please read on.

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Book Review: Marketing in the Age of Google

October 12, 2012

I told Kristina Halvorson on her 5 by 5 talk that our book is the only search book that emphasizes using keyword data from the very inception of content efforts. Now that I’ve read the second edition of Marketing in the Age of Google by Vanessa Fox, I can say our book is one of two that promote this approach.

Though the books complement one another, they have distinct points and purposes. Our book is more about search-first content strategy. Fox’s book is more about search-first business strategy. Our book has more keyword research and writing advice. Her book has more webmaster and development advice.

Rather than going into a detailed account, let me just point out what I like about her book and why I consider it a must read for digital marketing strategists. No book is perfect, however. By her own admission, her book leaves a lot of room for others to fill in the gaps left by its scope.

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6 Ways Google Killed SEO And What to Do About It

August 22, 2012

If I seem absent from this site, it is only because most of my work is published now by Biznology. In that blog, I am following a long thread about how to optimize digital experiences for Google post SEO. SEO as we know it is dead. But attracting an audience through Google is not optional. So how do we do it in that age post SEO? That is the point of my monthly posts at Biznology.

Occasionally, I find myself with fresh insights that don’t quite fit into the flow of that blog. So I will write them here. This is one such post. This one came about when I was in residence for a week at the IBM Design Lab in New York. In the course of my discussions with key collaborators there, I came to realize that the Biznology thread is a bit too narrow. There I have mostly focused on how Panda and Penguin have killed SEO. But these algorithm adjustments are only two of the six seismic changes in Mountain View that adjust the algorithm in ways one cannot reverse engineer. I’d like to highlight all six in this post.

First a bit of terminology. By “SEO” I mean the attempt to reverse engineer Google’s algorithm and build pages that will tend to rank well on that basis. Traditionally, this has been about learning the rules Google used to rank one page higher than another, all things considered, and trying to follow those rules. SEOs chased the algorithm by keeping up with how the rules changed–either new rules were added or existing rules were given different weight or, etc.

Well, in the last several years, Google has added other factors and filters that are not rules-based at all. It was never a good idea to chase the algorithm when it was rules-based. Now that it is ever less rules-based, chasing the algorithm is a fools errand. But as I say, ranking well in Google for the words your target audience cares about is not optional. So how do you do it post SEO?

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3 Ways to Build Brain Power

June 18, 2012

Bless me readers for I have sinned. It has been four months since my last blog post. In that time, I posted three times on Biznology. I spoke at OMMA Global, Confab 2012, and SMX Advanced. And I have not blogged about any of those activities in this space.  Quite frankly, the experiences left me so drained of fresh ideas for this blog, I couldn’t bring myself to write about them here.

Every time I sat down to write, it seemed more like a laundry list of experiences than anything worth publishing. The question that naturally arose at these times: How do I cultivate fresh ideas even when my life and work is so frenetic, it precludes fresh ideas? I don’t have any easy answers to that question. But I do have a simplistic one: I need to build a more effective brain.

Book cover: The Brain that Changes Itself

I know that sounds ridiculous. We have the brain God gave us and all we can do is make the best use of it, right? Well, no, actually. I have done a lot of reading on airplanes and in hotel rooms, trying to learn how to overcome my writers’ block, for lack of a better phrase. In the course of that reading, I have learned that we can build stronger, more powerful brains just as we build stronger, healthier bodies–through exercise. I have begun doing some of these exercises and, I must say, it is starting to pay off. Consider this blog post the first fruits of this exercise. If you are interested in learning these exercises, please read on.

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The Beatitudes of Digital

February 2, 2012

Navigating the collaborative culture is one of the most difficult challenges for digital creatives–designers, UX people, content strategists, coders, etc. We care about doing good work. We are passionate about it. This passion can clash with the passions of other creatives, resulting in a lot of conflict. This conflict can be heightened if we collaborate remotely. Isolation often amplifies rather than pacifies conflict. And we are not just judged by our teammates. We are judged by the results of our work. Results can be our harshest critics.

I have found in my long career that high functioning creative teams have an essential trait: Their members have a high emotional quotient (EQ). They are able to give and take constructive criticism in style. They are able to state their views without digging in. They are able to see others’ perspectives and sacrifice their own for the good of the team. They pick their battles. They don’t get mired in their own turf. They don’t hold grudges or carry prejudices. They give their team mates the benefit of the doubt.

I can think of no better source of  the attitudes that lead to higher EQ than the Beatitudes. This might seem strange to you, especially if you are not Christian. But I am not writing this to evangelize. I think the Beatitudes have universal appeal regardless of your religion, or lack thereof. They transcend faith and reason, appealing to the way we respond to the challenges in life in our guts. To me, the Beatitudes are an approach to the visceral reactions that affect behavior more than we might want to admit.

There’s perhaps no better proving ground for them than in digital. Digital is ripe for emotional meltdowns that can scuttle a team or a project. I hope you find it as helpful as I do. If you’re interested, please read on.

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Siri is the Killer App

January 28, 2012

Last year at this time, I wrote the following post entitled 4 Ways to Avoid Chasing the Algorithm on this blog:

Years down the road, Google might not even be the search leader. But search will be the preferred way to find information for a large and growing majority of users. Sooner than you might think, users will have a Watson in their pockets: A computer that has the best available answer for every question. As search engines approach the Watson ideal, and more users access the web through mobile devices, we think users will ever more prefer to search for information rather than browse or navigate.

Little did I know just how soon that would happen. Apple Acquired Siri, a program that would do just what I predicted in this quote, three months later, and incorporated it (her?) into the iPhone 4S (the S is for Siri) in November of 2011. I never dreamed that a product would come out within the same year of that prediction, which is a pretty good facsimile of what I predicted.

I was actually doubtful that Siri did what I had predicted until recently, when Apple released its Q4 results, including this quote:

The Company sold 17.07 million iPhones in the quarter, representing 21 percent unit growth over the year-ago quarter.

Apple stock took a hit when it released the iPhone 4S rather than something more ambitious. Little did investors know just how ambitious putting a Watson in users’ pockets would be. And little did investors know that having a Watson in your pocket is a killer app. Now they do. In less than two thirds of a quarter, Apple sold more iPhones than it had in the full quarter the year before. It will be interesting to see how many more people buy iPhones in Q1 2012 than Q1 2011. I’m predicting a huge increase.

Futurists have long predicted a voice-activated computer, fueled in part by Star Trek. What gives Siri so much appeal is that voice is the preferred interface into a phone. Typing has always been challenging on smart phones. Also, screen real estate severely limits navigation and point-and-click UI. So it makes sense that the technology would appear first on the phone. I expect it to migrate to iPads and other tablet devices before taking hold in PCs as well. The appeal goes well beyond Internet search: The ability to find files, run programs, and execute common commands with your voice is a big time saver.

Of course, Google will not take this news lying down. It has been widely rumored that it will incorporate a similar feature into Android. Not only does it need a voice app to compete with Apple for its smart phone business, but Google needs voice-activated search. Most of the growth in search is in mobile search. Reading between the lines, this is at least a contributing factor in its aggressive strategy with Panda and semantic search, Google + and Search Plus Your World. They don’t want a Siri clone, they want something that beats Siri, by delivering better, more personalized mobile search results through a voice interface, exclusively on Android.

All this is good news for users, and a cautionary tale for SEOs and content strategists. We should be asking ourselves how our content works on mobile devices and in mobile use cases, particularly how it is accessible through a voice interface. We should be asking ourselves how our content sounds, not just how it looks. We should be asking ourselves how queries change when spoken rather than typed. We should be asking ourselves how our content is shareable (i.e. people will want to share it) when Twitter and Google + are the primary ways they do this.

These are huge questions that crack the very foundations of digital media, which, until now, was primarily about parsing text through visual interfaces. I won’t provide the answers in this post. Just know that I will begin exploring these questions in future posts. Stay tuned.

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