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Search Engine Marketing: I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

I occasionally post subjects with the subtitle, “I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means.”  The subtitle pays homage to one of my favorite sources of movie quotes, The Princess Bride (you can view this particular quote on YouTube).

I’ll be conducting an inbound marketing workshop at the ISA Marketing & Sales Summit in a couple of weeks. We’ve just launched a blogging contest that is giving away an iPod Touch. Although I’m judging and not eligible to win, I’m linking this article to help spread the word.

Long Live the Internet

Browser content (i.e. HTML on port 80) now accounts for less than 25% of all Internet traffic.

Your entire Internet marketing strategy may be based on a mirage. Many companies are focused on search engine optimization and pay per click campaigns. This is all well and good as long as Google remains the gatekeeper of the Internet. But here’s the thing; there’s a new sheriff in town and the entire 18 year old ecosystem of the world wide web is in danger. This is according to Wired Magazine who today published “The Web Is Dead. Long Live the Internet.”

The premise of this article is that we are willingly giving up the freedom and openness of the traditional world wide web in favor of a more closed, less free version; apps. Wired argues that like the rail system and electrical grid before it, the Internet is entering a period of consolidation and domination by a few power brokers.

Over the past few years, one of the most important shifts in the digital world has been the move from the wide-open Web to semiclosed platforms that use the Internet for transport but not the browser for display. It’s driven primarily by the rise of the iPhone model of mobile computing, and it’s a world Google can’t crawl, one where HTML doesn’t rule. And it’s the world that consumers are increasingly choosing, not because they’re rejecting the idea of the Web but because these dedicated platforms often just work better or fit better into their lives (the screen comes to them, they don’t have to go to the screen).

Now. let’s keep in mind that Wired is not entirely unbiased in this debate. They and their publisher, Condé Nast , have put a large portion of their eggs into Steve Jobs’ basket. But to paraphrase the late Kurt Cobain, “Just because you’re biased doesn’t mean they’re not right.”

Tilting at Windmills

Don QuixoteWe laughed at Prince when he said it, but this article should make every marketer’s blood run cold. If our usage of the Internet is indeed moving from open, HTML-based web sites to the walled gardens of applications and streaming content, it means that search engines are indexing an increasingly small piece of the pie. They simply aren’t the ubiquitous arbiter they once were, since much of the Internet’s activity is happening outside of their field of view. Basing an entire Internet marketing strategy on search engines is like looking at a windmill and seeing a dragon.

That doesn’t mean that you should halt your search engine marketing tactics. It does, however, mean that it should be a shrinking share of your overall marketing strategy. The question then becomes, “What fills that vacuum?”

Gift Marketing

Moore’s Law has resulted in bandwidth and storage costs that are becoming too cheap to meter. This enabled the Web 2.0 sites we’re all using today and led to the emergence of social networking. Consequently, we’re able to scale our peer groups and get increasing amounts of information and recommendations from trusted sources instead of advertisements and algorithms. The problem for marketers is that much of this takes place inside the walled gardens of Facebook. As the old saying goes, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

And so we have brands jumping into social media. However, one of the problems they’re grappling with is the juxtaposition of norms; economic versus social. They’re not used to this whole social thing and many of them are trying to transplant the old advertising models that were based on economic norms into the world of social networking.

Used Car SalesmanThink of it this way…  You’re having a dinner party and invite some close friends. Your doorbell rings and it’s a smarmy, uninvited used car salesman. He lets himself in and starts denigrating the car in your driveway and listing all of the special deals they have. While this behavior may have been tolerated on his lot, it certainly doesn’t belong at a dinner party and you kick him out. Imagine, instead, your best friends call ahead of time and ask if they can bring this really cool guy who was great fun at their last barbecue. He shows up and in the course of normal conversation finds out you’re having trouble with your headlights. He takes a look and shows you how to adjust their alignment and fixes the problem. You find out later (from your friends, not him) that he works at a car dealership and you commit to visiting him when it comes time for you to upgrade your vehicle.

In this new trust economy, companies are going to have to start thinking much more in terms of social norms. Even though the name of the game is making money, they are going to have to follow a different set of rules than they’re used to following. The first rule of inbound marketing is creating compelling content that people want to share. The secret to creating this content is thinking of it as a gift.

Is repackaging your brochure into a blog post a gift? Not so much.
Is showing up unannounced polite? Definitely not.
Do gratuitous, insincere compliments build trust? Not exactly.

Search engine optimization is certainly not dead. But as Hans and Fanz said, “Hear me now und believe me later,” that giant sucking sound you hear in your marketing strategy is the vacuum being created as search shrinks. You need to be prepared to fill it with content marketing that focuses on building new customer relationships socially.

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  • Eric Goldman

    It’s seldom that I read a post which really makes me think and this is one of them. Thank you for your insight. As part of our Inbound Marketing Automation services package, we offer SEO consulting and I’ve noticed that as our own site’s organic traffic increases – it seems to do so for mostly the “right” reasons, but also some which have had me scratching my head. The right reasons obviously means visitors showing up on the site in response to our SEO campaign.
    And the ones that have puzzled me well be explained by your theory. Some visitors land on our site as a result of a pretty random searches: ROMI calculations, for example, are one tiny aspect of what we do – yet it draws a disproportionate share of visitors. And they don’t bounce much, either, as they want to know how to calculate ROMI, but at the same time, they are hardly likely to take on the implementation of an Inbound Marketing Automation system just to be able to calculate ROMI. And your post has me wondering if they are reading our posts on the subject because in a sense its a walled garden area. A discussion forum on one subject. Maybe a stretch?
    Thanks for a great read.

  • Jon DiPietro

    Hi Eric,
    Thanks for the great comment. I think you’re right; this behavior is indicative of “gift marketing.” These visitors aren’t looking for your product per se. They’re interested in something you’re talking about, which means they are indirectly interested in you. While those visitors may never “convert” to customers, they are building trust and authority. In the old economy of SEO, links were the currency. In these new walled gardens, trust will be the coin of the realm.

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  • Kyle Clouse

    To many want a quick fix in increasing their ROI in search engine marketing.  They fail to understand that two elements are key.  Time and consistency.  Break up your marketing into small chunks of manageable time.  This keeps you on task.  Great post.  Thanks for sharing.   

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