I just got back from MozCon, where I learned the world is changing.
MozCon was a fascinating conference this year. In addition to lots of good food, nice moz swag, and generally spending time with one of the nicest companies in the search space, chatter between attendees showed some deep and fundamental changes in our world.
Old SEO tricks are less effective and even reliable channels like email marketing are being made more difficult by changes taking place in both user and robot behavior. It’s as if the long, idyllic childhood of online marketing is over, and…
Online Marketing Stops Being Nice and Starts Being Real
What was once a simple game of “Rank -> Traffic -> Convert -> Profit” has become exponentially more complicated.
3 Mega-trends – alluded to either directly or indirectly by many presentations – underlie major changes in the online marketing landscape.
These three fundamental shifts – new form factors, less data, and fundamentally smarter search – all change the game in massive ways. These changes will leave the marketers that refuse to adapt behind, while reaping huge rewards for those who embrace the new reality of digital marketing.
Let’s take a deeper look at each of these:
Fragmentation in Device Type and Use Cases
With the incredible adoption and growth of mobile and tablet devices, form factors have rapidly expanded into a menagerie of different device types and use cases. Moreover, this growth shows nothing resembling a sign of slowing down. What was once optimizing for one form factor and smaller range of use cases blossomed to include a variety of scenarios, devices, for factors, and use cases.
Let’s go to the numbers on this one:
(Here I turn to both the wonderful Internet Trends slides of eminent VC firm Kleiner Perkins Caulfield Byer’s Mary Meeker, and the deeply insightful annual report from enterprise search marketing firm Rimm-Kaufmann Group. The RKG report requires an opt-in, while the Mary Meeker slides do not.)
Tablet adoption, for example, is best described as “Off the Chain.”
In the last quarter of 2012, tablet shipments exceeded notebook and desktop shipments. This is less than 3 years from the introduction of modern tablet. The growth rates on iPad shipments are almost unbelievable, even as compared to a solid gold hit of a product like the iPhone:
These changes aren’t simply in devices shipped – they’ve made their way down through the funnel, into consumer use, search, and shopping behavior. According to the RKG Study, Paid Search clicks and spend on mobile and tablets are growing at a tremendous rate:
In addition to a growing share of the online marketing pie, these devices have fundamentally different user behavior.
While the percentage of transactions on mobile/tablet for many merchants is increasing:
This is not widely distributed. Many businesses are still struggling to convert mobile phone visitors effectively.
While the revenue per click and average order value on tablets has grown (at least in most conventional ecommerce businesses), often the mobile phone clicks and revenue haven’t kept pace:
All of these changes present unprecedented challenges for marketers:
- Cross-Device Usage and Difficulties with Attribution (particularly before adding some sort of customer ID you can bind cookie activity to)
- Responsive Design, and Optimizing for a Wide Variety of Screen Sizes and Interfaces
- Limited Distribution Options on Mobile as a Whole, with a Dependence on the App Store Channel
- Obfuscation of Data (like iOS 6 Search Referrers) By Platform Providers.
That last point brings us to our next challenge:
Upstream Data Providers Cut Downstream Data Off
If Data is the New Oil, what happens when the upstream provider cuts off the flow?
In this case, working with that platform provider becomes very difficult. And conventional marketing attribution becomes nigh-on impossible.
Rand Fishkin pointed out this global trend:
- The unceasing growth of (not provided)
- Sites like HackerNews switching to HTTPS and accordingly not passing referral data
- Secure Search in New Builds of Firefox and Google Chrome
This means marketers have a far less granular view of conversion by traffic source than they ever did before. Marketers are forced to lump all sorts of traffic into a ‘direct’ bucket, which complexifies attribution and justifying further marketing investment.
This is an unsettling trend, but you can take some solace in the fact that your competition is dealing with this too.
Search Engine Get Smarter and Fold in Usage and Semantic Data
In addition to providing marketers less downstream data, search engines (and some social networks) are increasingly getting ‘smarter’ about the data shown to users. Often this takes the form of answers or other product insertions directly into search results.
While this is great for users, it shrinks the total search traffic volume available dramatically. It creates search terms with a very low click-thru rate. (And in fairness, I’m not sure how helpful I find a Google-branded credit card comparison thin affiliate site.)
As the inestimable Dr. Pete Meyers showed in his presentation Beyond 10 Blue Links (or why you should learn to make hand-crafted mustard in your basement and prepare for the apocalypse), Google is putting everything from pictures to commercial results to videos directly in SERPs:
It’s now increasingly common for Google to place answers to questions themselves in SERPs – which doubtlessly sends far less traffic to downstream sites:
(In fairness, if your business model was “Tell People When Mother’s Day Is -> Profit”, you probably weren’t caught by surprise when that became less effective.)
While, as a user, this is a great experience (I saved a whole click finding out when Mother’s Day is – Thanks Big G!), for publishers of online utility content, this is less than positive.
Many online businesses – particularly those that monetized from page views or contextual ad clicks – will be under increasing pressure as search engines move down the stack.
Search engines are also getting better at semantic recognition – fundamentally moving from matching keywords to searching for entities. This creates whole new results types, ranking factors, and opportunities.
As search marketers, we’re dealing with search engines that are both smarter and hungrier.
But What Does This Mean?
When big changes in technologies and the distribution landscape occur, the agile, adaptive marketers separate themselves from the copyists following the last decade’s playbook.
While these may sound like big and fundamental problems, your competitors are also facing these same issues of more devices, less data, and smarter searching.
Instead of say, abandoning search to work on that artisan mustard business, you can view these changes as opportunities to lap your competitors, and break new ground in marketing that delivers both superior customer experience and return on investment.
How to Up Your Game in 2013
Find The Global Maxima, Not the Local One
One key takeaway both Avinash Kaushik and Rand Fishkin talked about was the idea of optimizing for a global maxima, rather than a local maxima.
There are things you can focus on – non-branded search traffic, email sign-ups, conversions – that fundamentally represent local maxima. Then there are real metrics, like customer lifetime value, (if you’re SaaS), CLTV/CPA repayment rates, Average Order Value, and the like. Growing these fundamental business metrics (especially the compound ones) mean real growth.
Optimize for business metrics – not just vanity metrics like non-branded traffic. As more online marketing data becomes obfuscated, it’s more important to measure real business metrics – because vanity metrics are vanishing rapidly.
In many ways, this shift – to driving real business metrics and value instead of ‘hits’, ‘rankings’ ‘non-branded organic’, ‘shares and likes’, and other metrics that non-marketing executives generally think are on par with ‘number of angels that dance on our website simultaneously’ may dramatically improve the status of marketing in the C-suite.
Deliver a Good Experience, Regardless of the Device Used
Back to our discussion on mobile – marketers now have to deliver great experiences across not just channels but whole devices. While the exact use cases and techincal strategies will vary wildly from business to business, there are amazing rewards for marketers that can cater to a variety of form factors.
Additionally, remember context and usage are different on mobile. Someone might flip through catalog pages on an iPad for fun, while looking for something specific on a desktop, while using a Galaxy S to look up items in a store or while watching television.
Remember to Optimize for Humans
For too long as search marketers, we’ve been one-trick ponies. Deliver rankings and traffic, convert 2% of them, profit, and then scale that.
Increasingly, with data obfuscation, different use cases, and smarter search engines, search engine marketers need to become more aware of branding, user experience, and other human factors.
Remember to optimize for humans – while you need to feed various search and social robots to get in front of real people, increasingly human preferences around brand and trust are the difference between successful and unsuccessful search campaigns.
At MozCon, Kelsey Liebert of Fractl presented some fascinating research on the emotional engagement of highly viral content.
After a mechanical turk-driven emotion coding of popular of images from Reddit, the Fractl team found content creating amusement, interest, and suprise had the most intrinsic ability for viral spread. They also found content with contrasting emotional impact – negative emotions with empathy and self-identification and positive emotions with suprisse and amusement – performed very well.
(In case you’re wondering about the validity of using mTurk workers to do behavioral psychology experiments, the academic community in psychology, political science, and behavioral economics has embraced this method and find they get similar results from Turk panels as they’ve gotten historically from student and community panels.)
Remember to optimize for humans and their emotions. Branding is becoming a bigger and bigger part of getting clicks from search, so marketers will have to optimize for people as well as robots.
Adopt a Portfolio Approach to Marketing
“The Best SEOs Make a Lot of Little Bets.” – Matthew J Brown
In a rapidly changing environment, little bets are a great strategy.
Be it trying schema, improving UX, going international, developing data-driven content, or more, start by making a lot of small bets and see what you get back.
In a portfolio of search activities, you’ll have a lot of different levels of pay-off, time investment, and certainty. RKG’s Adam Audette explains it like this:
Include high risk, low risk, and medium risk activities, balance them, and expect that some things won’t work out. If you look at your marketing investments like a portfolio manager, you’ll see better results and fewer surprises.
Move Customers Up the Ladder of Loyalty
One of the best ways to improve the effectiveness of your marketing is to improve customer loyalty and retention – CLTV goes up, word of mouth improves, and everything generally gets much, much easier.
If you’re a search marketer, you may think you’re far aware from loyalty marketing. But how often do people find what they’re looking for in your help knowledgebase? Can you optimize that? Are there ‘help-oriented’ queries you can construct landing pages for? These are some of the highest ROI search activities you can engage in, and provide you a great way to drive real value beyond being the guy/gal that writes the titles and meta descriptions.
Conclusion: Get Busy Adapting, or Get Busy Dying
This is both an exciting and scary time to be a search and digital marketer. As all marketing becomes digital experiences and digital becomes ubiquitous, we can either adopt and deliver outsized results, or cling to old ways and be left behind. Spend some time thinking about how to adopt to more devices, less data, and smarter search engines, or prepare to be left behind.