#SESNY: Activating the Social Search Dynamic

Brands that want to rank higher in search results must deepen and scale their online relationships. They should also try to cut through online noise with genuine conversation. That’s according to speakers in the Activating the Social Search Dynamic panel on Day Three of SES NY.

Dan Cristo, director of SEO innovation at Catalyst Online, an SEO and PPC marketing agency, says brands should be asking, “How can social help me rank for competitive terms?”

Using the example of toothpaste in a search for competitive key words, he says when personalization in Google is turned off, Burt’s Bee’s is ranked highest. Crest, however, shoots up the rankings when personalization is turned on. That’s because the actions and interactions of friends impact Crest in the search results.

That brings Cristo to his first Tweetable Tip: Want to sell SEO? Take a screenshot of a competitive keyword, +1 it, share it and take another screenshot. Present findings.

Google has a patent that determines who has the right to answer online search queries — to Google, it’s the relationship of the person to whoever asks the question that determines who has the right to answer it.

That yields Cristo’s next tip: You can boil SEO down to relevancy and trust.

In other words, rankings are based on relevancy and trust. Trust is based on intimacy. Intimacy is based on engagement. And to engage brands must create, deepen and scale relationships.

Trust is based on how closely connected you are, Cristo says. Not surprisingly, people in inner circles like family and friends have more trust than those further out like coworkers or friends of friends.

Cristo says Google created its Circles to graph these relationships so that when users have questions, the relationship impacts the answers it displays. In other words, it’s your friends’ content, +1s and shares that determine what you see.

Another Cristo Tip: Every strategy has three elements — goals, objectives and tactics.

Cristo points to men’s care brand Axe, which has 4 million fans on Facebook.

A post asking fans to weigh in on their celebrity dream girls yielded 12,000 likes. In addition, the post is attributed to “Law with Axe,” which Cristo says creates character. I.e., Axe is being human to connect in the social space.

He compares this to Coca-Cola, which has 62 million fans, but typically shares Coke-related imagery and does not get as many likes per post.

Axe’s audience is more engaged than Coke because Axe is engaging on a different level. It incorporates lots of social gaming elements and is creating and sharing stories, he says.

There are also smaller examples, such as the teen who asked Kate Upton to prom. A number of brands jumped into the conversation, such as Men’s Wearhouse, which offered to give the prom-goer a suit. Cristo says this is a good example of brands engaging in a personal way.

Another Cristo tip? Employees are at the heart of scaling social. An example: ESPN employees actually have “ESPN” in their Twitter handles.

Brands can also scale content into different mediums. That means one piece of content that starts out as a blog post can become a video about the post and then an article about the post/video and then a podcast about the post/video/article. Each successive post/medium means more eyeballs.

What’s more, when users like and follow a brand, they become initial sharers in its content distribution tribe. There’s a cyclical nature there: a brand’s followers, consumers and employees constantly push out content and help grow the tribe, which, in turn, pushes out future content and helps further additional growth.

For his part, Duane Forrester, senior program manager at Bing, focuses on social, search and how they are evolving.

Forrester defines a “query” as a single search action and a “session” as a collection of those related actions over time. Forrester gives the example of making an online purchase — all the research and decision points that go into making the decision to buy a particular product online describe a person’s session.

Search engines try to determine what a searcher wants to accomplish by looking at the pattern of behavior to get a glimpse into the person’s mind and to help business decisions, he says.

According to Forrester, Bing creates personas like “Linda” who are searching for “home gym” to help understand who its customers really are, which is something other brands can do.

Social data also helps understand these customers better, such as what else Linda is searching for and who she is connected to.

Social also helps show search what’s important. Forrester uses the example of a crowd gathering in an event space and attention growing from newcomers who want to see what all the fuss is about. If there is a crowd gathering around a user in the social space, a search engine will ask what it is the user is doing that is attracting so much attention.

It’s like auto-follow tools on Twitter — if you use a feature like auto follow, sure, you get a lot of followers. But it’s not possible to consume content from 10,000 users in your home feed in a meaningful way, Forrester says. As far as a search engine is concerned, a better scenario is when a user has 10,000 followers but follows just 250 Twitter users — a situation in which the aforementioned crowd effect is clearly taking place.

But search is also still a work in progress, Forrester says. Take a query like, “What is there to do in NYC right now?” Searchers are inundated with content, but it is not necessarily useful content.

According to Forrester, this content includes billions of tweets and the 65+ hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute.

As a result, it’s important for brands to take the time to connect to customers with genuine conversation. For better or worse, examples include airlines, which engage customers in conversation, but may not necessarily solve problems.

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