The state of search in social media times: the contextual prehistory

Last Sunday I posted an article about the state of both search engines and search engine marketing, from a personal perspective on my personal blog. It’s a bit provocative but, again, it’s my opinion and so I invite you to add yours. I think search is still in a very premature stage despite recent innovations such as Google Instant. All these tools are very nifty and some might find them cool, that’s OK.

Regarding the impact of them on search engine marketing, the jury is still out. But what matters most to me is that search is not relevant enough in these social media times from a user viewpoint. On top of that, I strongly feel the importance of content and context in search engine optimization and in the way search engines work should be much more prominent.

Since the original post was a bit long, I left out some paragraphs and research data to support my views on how social networks are increasingly becoming important in search from the buying and pre-sales perspective. If you have the energy, you can read and watch them here. In this post, I summarize some key elements (and it’s still long, sorry).

How people search for and find information has changed entirely. And that has a fundamental impact on marketing and communication. Since ages, search engine marketing pays a dominant role in the interactive marketing mix. Companies try to optimize their sites for keywords that are relevant to their business (and if they are good also relevant for the search engine user).

And the focus is shifting. The Internet user and relevance increasingly are key. Changes in the buying process and the rise of social media play a crucial role in this evolution but there is more.

All the stages in the pre-sales information gathering and buying journey that people go through, increasingly happen online and via sources that are often invisible to marketers and businesses. 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”.

Search is not about search engines alone anymore

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.

Naturally 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 improve 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 e-mail 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.

Content and context

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.

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.

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.

What do you think?