Optimizing for Content Embargoes

One of the largest beneficiaries of search engine traffic is the rumor industry. People instantly try to confirm hearsay with a quick search engine query. And while “I read it on the Internet” is less authoritative than it used to be, if people read the same thing a few different places, it becomes the de facto truth.

Rumors often remain rumors because business rules frequently demand tightly held secrecy around product launches and model makeovers. Consequently, several rounds of rumors spread long before the official word of a product launch is announced. What’s worse, companies rarely spend time commenting on rumors, which can inadvertently lend them credibility.

Consumers Start Sooner, But Companies (Usually) Can’t

Among other topics, I spend a lot of time analyzing the automotive and medicine markets. What I’ve noticed over the last five or six years in these verticals is the gradual process of consumers turning to the Web to become better informed. And not only do more people turn to search engines to find information on new products (and new versions of old products), but over time they’ve come to do so earlier and earlier in the development cycle.

Four or five years ago, for example, we would see a spike in search traffic for an upcoming year’s model release (such as “2004 ford explorer”) about six to nine months prior to the model’s release.

Within the last year or two, however, consumers create that search spike much earlier, frequently 12 to 18 months before release, even earlier if the manufacturer is planning a large update.

The rumor timeline is important to watch because algorithmically, the early bird still gets the worm. And if you think it takes a while to supplant the rankings of a rumor site that began discussing your product six months before you did, it’s much harder when that site has an 18-month head start of gathering comments and incoming links.

What Brand Managers Can Do

If you feel hamstrung by your company’s positions on releasing new model information, the first thing to do is make sure the rules can’t budge. You might find that rules exist only because of tradition and that your recommendations for openness might be a welcome change.

I know; that’s not too likely. Instead, try to find a middle ground, starting with your site architecture.

If your product has URLs for each version, such as /product-4/, /product-5/, and so on, don’t be shy about creating a page called /product-6/, even if you can’t discuss much about product version 6 for several months. At this early point, it’s often a good first step simply to get the URL crawled, so your eventual content has a home waiting for it. But all the links in the world (usually) won’t help a blank page rank for anything, so you must add some content. When faced with a content embargo, what can you put on the page? Following are some ideas:

  • A signup for more information as it’s released. A 302 redirect to one of your press releases, even if it only hints at the future release of the product. When it comes time to show actual content on the page, simply remove the 302.

  • An RSS aggregator that gathers and lists all unofficial discussion of your product, culled from across the Web (along with all the necessary disclaimers about how nothing presented should be considered authoritative).

Of course if you have the time (and no one seems to), this is a great opportunity to discuss the importance and potential SEO (define) benefits of having an actual human (or humans) engaging with the people out in the wilderness who are discussing your future products. Some companies feel (and rightly so, as they’ve measured it) that rumors about a product are good, even if they’re wrong, because it ultimately builds interest. But if you believe the opposite, dispatch a few people and give them a few hours a week to take part in the conversations. (Better yet, host the conversations on your own site.) It doesn’t divulge massive corporate secrets to say simply, “No, that feature isn’t on our list of improvements for version 6,” and the openness will win points with people truly searching for real information.

Conclusion

Anyone waist-deep in an SEM (define) campaign knows what slaves we are to user behavior, specifically keyword demand trends.. In short, there’s no use ranking for terms unless someone actually searches for them. In addition to what I’ve suggested here, ClickZ columnist P.J. Fusco has a significant library of keyword research columns, such as how to create a keyword master list. Consider these columns to be required reading.

Join us for SES Toronto, June 16-18 at Metro Toronto Convention Centre (South Bldg.).

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