Social media may grab all the headlines, but search engine optimization (SEO) is still quietly powering the way companies reach their customers, according to industry executives gathered at the C3 search industry conference in NYC this week.
Organic search continues to be the number one way that people find content and websites, according to conference host company, Conductor. “When Google went down for three minutes recently, 50 percent of Internet traffic came to a halt,” said the SEO platform’s chief executive, Seth Besmertnik.
And John Shehata, executive director of search & social media at ABCNews.com, made it clear that his job is changing, not dying. “SEO is not dead,” says Shehata. “Social and mobile will only help SEO. We are no longer simply SEO experts, we are content strategists who are thinking bigger.”
One sign of the times, according to Conductor, is that the number of professionals on LinkedIn that incorporate SEO in their job descriptions has mushroomed from 750,000 six months ago to more than one million today. Content strategists are also in high demand, but the two jobs are merging, according to Besmertnik.
“If your content is beautiful but no one can find it, you fail. And alternatively, if you optimize SEO, but your content sucks, you also fail. We need to go beyond these silos, and think about making great content that has search built into it,” he says.
While SEO is not always considered the sexiest part of the business, success stories like the one relayed by John Loken, senior vice president of Marketing and Distribution at Ticketmaster, speak strongly to the power of SEO.
Music events company Live Nation merged with Ticketmaster, one of the nation’s top ticket selling sites with some 40 million monthly visitors on desktop and mobile, in 2010.
But both companies were, by Loken’s account, laggards in their SEO efforts. “When the merger happened no one had thought about SEO at the company,” he admits. Live Nation had a decent SEO effort, he says, but its technology needed serious updating, while Ticketmaster wasn’t as easily found by potential ticket purchasers as it should have been.
One problem was that although music fans often provided links to the Ticketmaster site associated with their favorite bands, these links were not crawlable by Google’s search engines and thus essentially useless. “People were just window shopping, because they couldn’t get to content,” says Patricia Atrian, Ticketmaster’s SEO director.
Atrian, whom Loken calls Ticketmaster’s “secret weapon” implemented changes to address that, some of them quite basic. That included adding better search keywords and implementing schema, a structured data markup system supported by Google, Bing and Yahoo to help search engines understand the information on web pages and provide richer results. Ticketmaster also implemented Rich Snippets, a special page mark-up designed to give users a summary of what’s on the page and why it’s relevant to their query.
In doing so, Atrian also helped convinced Google to create a rich snippet tester, so companies can see results of their efforts. Building up this relationship with Google is also helping Ticketmaster efforts going forward, such as email tagging, Atrian says. But most important for top executives were the results she could show: since the revamp, Ticketmaster has increased its traffic by 54 percent year-on-year and now returns $243 for every dollar it puts into organic search.
“Do the embarrassing projects first that drive big numbers,” Loken concludes, which helps in getting an increased SEO budget going forward. “When numbers move quickly, top executives want to know how you did it. When you tell them how, you are the smart one in the room.”