How people search for and find information has changed entirely. And that has a fundamental impact on marketing and communication. Since ages, search engine optimization plays a dominant role in the digital marketing mix. Companies try to optimize their sites for keywords that are relevant for their business – and if they are good this means relevant for the quest of the search engine user.

The focus is clearly shifting in that regard: from the techie and keyword stuff to intent and relevance. Changes in the buying process and the rise of social media play a crucial role in this evolution but there is more. The shift goes hand in hand with the shift from selling to buying, push to pull and the sheer abundance of content sources people can chose from.

All the stages in the pre-sales information and content gathering steps and buying journey that people go through, increasingly happen online. People collect information in the pre-sales cycle themselves and are less receptive to information businesses provide them. They look for information via search engines, use peer review sites and more information and interaction options with other people, as they are possible in social networks and media. As you know, there is a clear shift from “selling to buying”.

As many studies have indicated, this evolution is visible with consumers as well as in B2B. One study (How Customers Choose Study, 2009) conducted by ITSMA (a professional organization of technology businesses) at the end of 2009 indicated that 27% of professional IT buyers search blogs, social networks or online chat boards in at least one of the phases of the process of acquiring information prior to a purchase, when searching for another solution.

Regarding the social media channels that are used, the study revealed that LinkedIn is used by 58% (!) of the respondents to find information or to talk to colleagues about solutions in the context of a purchase. Blogs represent 50%, Facebook 47% and even Twitter scores 41%. Three quarters of the questioned buyers use a social media channel at some point in the information cycle.

The same study indicated that 39% searches online on company websites as well as other online sources like webcasts for example. But the most important source appeared to be conversations with colleagues, looking for referrals. All of this at the end of 2009.

Exactly the same evolution can be seen in B2C: people tend to make increasingly more use of advice from friends, family members, acquaintances and “connections” they deem trustworthy: online and definitely also offline. In fact, people often trust their social circle more for purchase information than marketing messages from businesses. And when they enter the influence sphere of a company, they still want to pull the communication strings themselves.

The offline aspect of the pre-sales cycles largely escapes the ability of businesses to measure and monitor. But all other steps, from search, over social media to looking for relevant information – and therefore content – on websites, blogs and other online properties, is where today’s marketers should pay attention to. Listening is a crucial first step.

The end of the search monopoly and the privacy challenge

In the past, search engines had the monopoly of searching for information on the Internet. Naturally there was already a lot of word-of-mouth and other people were asked for information or experiences via fora for example, before social media came along.

Now social media are there and they are increasingly used for information gathering and search, as indicated by the above quoted study and numerous other studies that indicate online properties such as Facebook or Twitter and of course the blogosphere are being use more and more for search. The details don’t really matter now.

Search engines, with Google as the eternal leader (although Bing is progressing), are still used frequently, but the information is being found increasingly elsewhere. The search engines react by adding a social and real-time dimension to their technologies, but at the same time the social networks work more intensive than ever on information models where people, location, networks and behavior are central in a new search experience.

Despite all the improvements in the technology, search engines are still relatively dumb. The relevance of content plays a crucial role, as it should, and the quoted social dimensions are added to add some form of social context to content. But we are still a long way off from a search engine that understands the significance and purpose of our searches in a semantic and self-educative manner. There is also a price to pay for making the search engines increasingly smarter in function of our individual needs. That price is privacy.

People – and therefore prospects and buyers – are prepared, in exchange for relevant information, to trade in a part of their privacy. In the end that is where an email marketing relationship is built on. A piece of privacy has to be earned, that is part of what permission marketing is all about. Naturally this is different in search, where there is no real “relationship”. The privacy, just as in social media, is threatened much more. There are also limits to the “quid pro quo’. And the most important question is whether search engine companies and social networks offer enough relevance for the mass of data they already posses. I leave that question open.

How useful are Google Instant and adding social to search?

Anyway, companies have to continue focusing on creating content and offer information that is relevant and optimized for search engines. SEO techniques that are purely aimed at having sites score well, even if the content is less relevant for the search engine user, should be given less attention.

After all, relevance is all about the “user”. And it is up to search engines to ensure that the links with the most relevant content score highest, even if this content is not optimized from the strict SEO-viewpoint. The “searcher” is entitled to get what he expects when clicking on a link.

Recent innovations such as Google Instant and the option to search within Google for content in the social sphere, don’t really make the search engine experience much more relevant (at the most faster and “more fun”). I am personally less interested in searching for information via a search engine in my “social network”, even if it is useful now and then. The social dimension does not fit within a search engine environment and one of the benefits of a search engine is that you can or should be able to basically find “everything”. Today, the social dimension of search is too restricted and irrelevant and it might remain that way.

I wonder, by the way, why the default links that are placed at the top of the Google homepage are still “Web”, “Images”, “Videos”, “Maps”, “News”, “Shopping” etc. Where are “Blogs”, “Social”, “Papers”, etc…? These are much more relevant and Blog Search and Social do after all exist? But search is not ‘social’. Neither is content. Only people and relevance. and that’s the reason why content marketing inevitably will play a larger role in search that, in the end, remains a primary source of information and isn’t information in the form of an answer essentially part of what content marketing is about?

The interaction with content: look at email marketing

Maybe Google and co should look more closely at the email marketing industry where the interaction with the content and thus the recipient’s appreciation of it becomes increasingly important from the deliverability viewpoint. The position of content (and therefore links) in search engines shouldn’t only depend on SEO and the content itself, but also on the interaction with and appreciation of the content. There is a somewhat ‘human’ control on the quality of links and naturally there are all kinds of “mechanisms”, but these aren’t very mature. Otherwise links that have expired would, for example, no longer appear (and sometimes they rank high and for a relative long time). Today we simply have to search to find what we seek. Period.

Obviously, the question is also how to develop something like this in a waterproof and efficient manner. Content that is appreciated most by the “masses” is not per definition the most relevant for the individual. Personalization is therefore a challenge for search engines as well, both on a technological and privacy level. Once again a parallel with email marketing.

Content and context, namely who, what, when and why we search, must become much more important. And SEM professionals have to be even more aware of that, both in SEO and in SEA. Today, many search engine marketing agencies are becoming social media optimization and search engine marketing agencies. Or they focus on conversion marketing. But without content you get nowhere and search engines should do even more efforts to emphasize it. Social signals (as tokens of expressed relevance) and content marketing (emphasizing relevant answers to the quests of people) are what search will be more and more about.

Undoubtedly Google AdWords users will find this to be ludicrous, but in my opinion Google may refuse advertisements where the link between the search engine ad and the content and “user experience” of the landing page is not relevant and optimal for the Internet user. But in that case the company could undoubtedly close its doors.

Relevance is the only way to go and it is in the content, context and customer experience. What do you think? JZ3FUXS5SJGJ