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Social Media, Search Trends and the "Findability" of Your Business

By Julie King |

With over 200 million websites online and an estimated 1.7 billion Internet users, getting found is a critical issue for many small businesses.

With social media sites like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter taking centre stage in how people access content online, getting found is becoming much more intricate. Then there are other question, like how local search will impact the visibility of Canadian businesses online.

These topics and many others will take centre stage from June 9-11, 2010 in Toronto when the Search Engine Strategies conference returns for its 7th year. We caught up with Ian McAnerin, a search optimization specialist who will present at the SES conference, to learn about the latest issues and trends in online search.

CO: Please tell our readers a bit about yourself and your experience with SEO.

IM: I've been doing SEO and PPC since 1999, and full time since 2001, when I formed my company, McAnerin International Inc. Our clients have included both the Canadian and Chinese governments, Dell, Thomson-Reuters, and many other well known companies. Recently, we were responsible for all the online SEM for the Canadian Olympics for the Canadian Tourism Commission. Our specialty is international (multiple language, multiple country) SEO and SEM [search engine marketing].

CO: For a business looking to improve its organic search placement on Google, what are some of the new factors that are important for optimization?

IM: It's not so much new factors, as it is a new focus on certain areas.

In general, Google tries to collect as much information as it can from as many different sources as it can, to make good decisions. This means that a business should try to "get the word out" in as many different channels and venues as possible, from old fashioned directories and website links to Twitter, YouTube and local business listings.

There does appear to be a stronger focus on location and geography, regarding businesses - for example, in the old days, a link was a link, for the most part. Relevance was judged mostly by whether it was on topic or not. Now, a link from a local business resource or the same country will often help far more than you would expect traditionally, because the local directory is not only topically relevant, but also geographically relevant.

CO: What can you tell us about Google Wave and Google Buzz, in terms of what these tools do and how they are going to impact search in the future?

IM: Google Wave is kind of like what you'd get if you crossed a Facebook page with Twitter. It's a place where you can create a page that you can put almost anything into, from videos and documents to polls, then the people you invite can go in and change things or make comments on them in real time. You can actually watch them type.

It's aimed at discussions groups who are planning or editing something, and tries to replicate the experience of sitting at a table with each other while you make or suggest changes. The SEO benefits are currently not clear, since the real-time, highly changeable nature of the data makes it hard to index, not to mention the privacy issues involved. I suspect that links, tools and videos that get used a lot during waves would been seen by Google as more helpful and therefore more worthy of ranking, that that's about it, so far.

Google Buzz has a much more clear SEO connection. It's kind of like Twitter for GMail. You post interesting comments, links, photos or videos within GMail and invite friends to comment on, like, or dislike them without needing to send emails to everyone to do it, avoiding the problem of multiple email threads that get out of sync.

It's expected that since this is intended to help people share new content quickly, that Google will use it to discover that same content quickly, rather than waiting for the standard indexing process. It's also good for personal branding, though it's strong connection to your Google profile may cause some people to be concerned about privacy. Buzz doesn't do anything that other programs don't already do, but it does offer a quick and convenient way to do it.

CO: There is a lot of confusion about how a blog can help a company's organic search placement. Can you explain how blogs affect the search placement of a website?

IM: First and foremost, a blog is just another website, just easier to update than tradition designs. The magic isn't in the technology, but rather in how you use it.

Search engines value two types of information: relevant, and timely. It's not useful to have relevant but out of date information. Since many business sites (especially small business sites) are relatively static, a blog is a way to easily add fresh information and content to your site without messing with the overall design or experiencing the delays that updating traditional sites can cause.

The important thing to keep in mind is that it's about fresh information, not the blog. Having a blog that doesn't get updated frequently won't help you much.

If you want to have a blog, you need to make sure you can do three things:

  1. update it frequently (at least once per week),
  2. promote it, and
  3. have a conversation with the visitors.

The third item is important. Although you can have a one-way blog that just announces news, you can do that in a website without needing a blog. The magic of a blog is that your customers can leave you feedback, ask questions, and yes, even complain. If you consider this to be a bad thing, then you should probably avoid blogs. If you are willing to engage your customers though, it can be very rewarding both from an SEO and a customer satisfaction standpoint.

CO: When it comes to blog software, there are a number of choices. Will choosing one tool over another, say Word Press as opposed to Blogger, have an impact on search ranking?

IM: I'd like to say it doesn't matter, but some older blog software isn't that SEO friendly. Most modern blogging software is, though. Word Press is very popular, though it takes some tweaking for it to be SEO friendly. Most platforms have add-ons and extensions that enhance SEO, and it's really important to make sure those are installed.

One of the most common complaints I get from business people about their sites is that when they pay for a site or blog, they automatically expect it to be SEO friendly, but it turns out that many programmers and designers don't make things SEO friendly unless you specifically specify it as a customer. You should never assume that your blog software is SEO friendly - always check it. Sometimes it's advertised as SEO friendly, but it turns out it's not unless you go into the settings and manually turn on the SEO friendly options!

Once it's SEO friendly, then the actual brand of blog software you have doesn't matter to the search engines. At that point, it's more about personal preference.

CO: As the web increases in size and scope, local content seems to be increasingly important. What trends should Canadian businesses be aware of?

IM: Canada counts. Canadian content counts. Google and the other search engines are well aware that the majority of business related searches have a local component to them, and people prefer to deal with local businesses, everything else being equal. This effect is known as the "brethren benefit", where people prefer to deal with those that are more similar to them.

I'd advise your readers to spend extra time looking at the resources Google and the other search providers offer to find local businesses. Google and Yahoo maps allows you to add your business, will rank you better if you are hosted in Canada or a dot "CA". Go to Google Places right now and make sure your site is added.

In the old days, everyone wanted to look big and international, in order to appear more prestigious, and therefore trustworthy. Now, trust comes from being local and easily accessible. If you are not the kind of business that has local offices, then at least you should make sure that you offer local content, such as shipping information to Canadian addresses.

CO: We have seen a lot of community-based websites become popular over the last few years, from Facebook and Twitter to sites like YouTube and Flikr. What impact are these sites having on how people search for information online?

IM: There is a concept called "crowdsourcing", where people will often get information from others online before checking a search engine. For one thing, search engines are not very good at dealing with real-time information, for another, humans can often not only answer the question you are asking, but figure out why you are asking and even come back with a completely different answer that actually deals with your underlying concern better.

For example, to a human, the best answer to "how do I commit suicide?" is not necessarily details on various methods, but rather concern for the well being of the asker. This happened recently on a forum I monitor (yes, it all worked out, and the asker got the help she really needed).

Search engines are trying to address this, but it's not that easy to program. For this reason, although computers may be better at providing information, humans are often better at providing answers and advice. Social media addresses this, and is likely to become more integral to personal searches in the future. Businesses can monitor social sites for the kind of questions that they offer services for and engage with people that way.

Do you know what the number two search engine is? Not Yahoo or Bing - it's YouTube!

Humans are very visual, and sites like Flickr, Image search and YouTube fill that need well. Sometimes, it's hard to understand something until you see it. Since this is based on who we are as people, and not some learned behaviour, I think we'll be seeing a lot more of these visual searches in the future. Businesses can do things like place product tutorials on YouTube to capitalize on this trend.

CO: What are the most important things a business should do today to increase its visibility online?

IM: Cast a wide net, particularly in the direction of your customers. If your customers use YouTube, figure out how to leverage that. If they get their information in online forums, then you may want to create an account and answer questions in that forum. If they tweet, then you should Twitter.

The important thing is to not just get a bunch of links and then think you are all set.

Search is way better than it ever has been, but it's not the only place people get information. If Google is looking at maps, Twitter, YouTube and blogs for more content, then that should be a hint that you should put your content in those places for Google (and more importantly, your customers) to find, as well.

Having said all of this, don't forget that for any of it to work, you need to make sure you have the basics in place first. If your website is hard to use, then all the tweets and links in the world won't fix that bad experience.

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