The BeanCast

Has SEO Made Search Less Relevant

There's an undeniable trend out there. As much as the naysayers dismiss Twitter and Facebook for having aspirations toward leveraging social search, people are clearly moving toward this behavior. Whether Twitter and/or Facebook are successful in being the source for such searching is irrelevant. The genie is out of the bottle. People simply find asking for advice from their self-built networks of associates to be more valuable than searching the brand-managed results ofGoogle.

Ben Kunz offers a great examination of this trend on Thought Gadgets this week and I won't attempt to repeat his arguments, which are very sound. But his second point I think deserves a bit more attention.

"SEO Experts Have Killed Their Own Game"

To be honest, it's unfair to totally blame SEO for "killing" search relevancy. And Ben's statement used in the subhead here is intended to be inflammatory. Search has never trumped personal recommendations, so the advent of social networks and the rise of more trusted online advisers was bound to cut into search volume eventually. But it is fair to say that SEO methods have stacked results to the point that we assume a certain level of bias.

For instance, when I search for "Cars," I am greeted with all the top sites that either sell or talk about cars. But the bias is on giving me results that match what most people are looking to find when searching my term. So all I see are traditional vehicles and traditional modes of transportation. I see what I expected to see.

Now, what happens when I pose this same question to my network of friends? I'm greeted with a much more dynamic response. Some might tell me about a new electric car they just read about. Some might tell me about bio-diesel. Some might try to convince me to use public transportation. Some might just offer me a ride.

Essentially, in a well-intentioned effort to match buyers to products and reduce noise, SEO is slowly reducing alternatives to my searches and creating increasing skepticism about the legitimacy of the results. And now it's to the point that when I search Google I have to always wonder if I'm seeing what's most relevant to my needs or the result of a company that has a great search consultant and is after my dollar.

Not A Numbers Game, But A People Game

Direct marketing of every stripe has always come down to the dilemma of managing the impact of good results. The whole purpose of direct is to generate a measurable response and improve that number with each promotion. But like I said in a recent post, "numbers make lousy storytellers," and good results can sometimes rob from your future brand value to deliver results today.

This is just an outsider's perspective (I am not an SEO consultant), but it seems to me that most (not all, but most) of the search experts I know are focused entirely on delivering clicks. There's talk about the impact of search on total brand value, etc., but it all comes back to raw numbers. And if the customer is mentioned, it's in terms of aligning the customer's search desire to the business' offering.

I would argue that while this approach will work well for relevancy a good percentage of the time, in many cases it's only creating "artificial relevancy." And unless the searcher has a strong understanding of Boolean logic and how to get the most from the search engine, the results presented will have only cursory context to what the true needs are.

In short, we end up talking to the percentages more than talking to actual people.

What Needs To Change?

Now to this point, I'm sure all my SEO friends are chaffing at the collar, ready to tear in with a response. But let me first say that I wouldn't suggest that SEO needs to radically change at all. I mean certainly it would behoove them to work more closely with behavioral specialists and account planners to increase the relevancy of the results and raise the subsequent value of the leads generated, but by and large search isn't the broken component. What's broken are the results they are pointing toward.

Brands are typically focused on "push selling" across the board. They're also focused on positioning their offerings to align with customer desires as closely as possible. What they generally are not interested in is change.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with having the number one search result for "shoes" be an open forum on which your shoe brand participates. Certainly the competition will be talking there. Certainly you need a better product to compete. But in doing this you achieve two things that having your sales page alone will never get: Honest dialog and personal connections.

It's a longer sell-cycle, but making interactions the focus of your SEO efforts, rather than simply your product, is the only way that traditional search can ever hope to come close to matching the long-term value of a social recommendations. Because a focus on interactions is your opportunity to hear your customers, you chance to make necessary changes or improvements to your offerings and your public showcase of how confident you are that your brand holds up against the competition -- even in a public venue. I won't go so far as to say you will become a BFF with your customers. But certainly it's miles better than just being a keyword.

And let's face facts: Even if completely disagree with me, what's the risk of testing this? What monetary risk is there to spend a year or two letting one (just one) of you treasured keywords be redirected to your social efforts, then compare the long-term value of customers acquired through one approach vs. the other? A few thousand dollars? Even $100,000 wouldn't be a huge financial risk for most companies. So why aren't more companies doing this?

Something to think about.

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