The economic downturn of recent years has inevitably led brands and online retailers to scrutinise every pound spent on marketing. In some cases, brands have concluded that it is more cost effective and efficient to manage their search marketing activity in-house. Although I have always worked agency-side, I have no problem with this and see it as inevitable for certain businesses as they scale up their operations.
However, recent Google updates, Panda for example, represent perhaps Google’s most aggressive attempt to clean up its search results and in turn, this is having a significant impact on the skill sets required to deliver an effective natural search strategy--also known as SEO if you prefer.
Essentially, Panda targets those websites creating and hosting poor quality content. In other words, content that is usually created purely for the purposes of gaming search engines. We’ve all seen this type of content: pretty pointless, keyword-stuffed articles that too often find their way into prominent search engine positions impacting the quality and relevancy of search results.
Google has been hammering well-known article-sharing sites, as well as blog networks in recent months, which in turn has impacted search results for businesses overly reliant on links from these sites.
Continuing the animal theme, we’ve also seen the Penguin update, focused specifically on targeting web spam, as well as the introduction of “overoptimisation” penalties, which look for sites where the content isn’t great but search-engine rankings are high due to optimisation tactics.
What impact have these updates had on natural search?
The extent to which your natural search strategy needs to adapt as a result of these updates will very much depend on how you have historically approached the discipline.
Here at Leapfrogg, we’ve always lived by the mantra “users first, search engines second”. In other words, we don’t subscribe to adopting any technique that is purely about garnering a search engine ranking. Instead, we ask the question; “will this benefit the target audience?” As such, we have never bought links, subscribed to blog networks or “spun” poor quality content because we deem these as techniques that offer no benefit to the target audience of a particular client. Therefore, we have seen very little, if any, of our clients negatively impacted by these updates.
But of course if you have subscribed to these techniques (and any others that go against Google’s published quality guidelines), then, in all likelihood, you are having to make significant changes to how your approach natural search and may even have found your website negatively impacted by these algorithm changes—a drop in rankings impacting traffic and sales.
Post-Panda, today’s natural search strategies need to be underpinned by genuinely engaging and useful content and supported by social media and PR activity to deliver a sustainable and reputable search engine presence. As such, natural search, in the traditional sense, is not the standalone discipline it perhaps was once. The winners will ultimately be those that can join the dots between search, social media, content strategy and PR.
How have these updates impacted the skills required to deliver an effective natural search strategy?
In years gone by, it is fair to say you could probably hire one person to look after your natural search activity in-house. In all likelihood they probably came from a technical background and could do a pretty decent job in improving your search-engine rankings.
However, in light of how search has evolved in the last couple of years, one person is no longer equipped to manage a highly effective search strategy on his own. While there remains a technical aspect to search, there is now a multitude of other skill sets that have heightened in importance following the recent Google updates described above, for example:
• Customer insight, analysis, segmentation and persona development
• Online PR and brand building
• Content strategy and execution
• Social media
The freelance world might disagree with me but I simply cannot see how one person can be an expert in all of the above areas, not to mention those disciplines that haven’t been cited above, such as conversion optimisation and data analysis. Quite simply, the complexity of today’s search engines, along with ever-increasing competition, requires a skillset which is beyond the ability of one person alone.
What does this mean for a retailer considering managing its search strategy in-house?
It means you will need to build a team probably consisting of at least four or five people. Broadly speaking, this might include a website optimisation expert, covering everything from keyword strategy through to testing. It would require a content strategist covering content creation, optimisation and an ability to market that content effectively using online PR skills. A social media expert would be integral to the team, not just because of the “social search” angle—that posits that brands with a strong Google+ presence will receive higher visibility in the search engine results pages (SERPs), but also to develop a community around the brand and products, while using social tools to communicate with customers at every stage of their buying journey from promotions to customer service. I’d also argue an analyst would be needed who can interrogate tools such as Google Analytics to understand the buying journey of customers and make informed decisions on how to optimise marketing channels and drive efficiency.
It will also need one of those people, or somebody senior to them, to have the expertise and vision to develop the strategy and ensure it is working in unison with offline marketing and PR activity. Nothing can work in a silo.
Of course, the specific skills required will differ from business to business and will be dependent on the sector but the point I seek to make here is that both in terms of skill and man hours, it is simply impossible for one person to deliver an effective search strategy on their own.
Inevitably, this means that the cost of taking search in-house is much higher than might be initially anticipated. Hiring a team of four or five is a very different proposition to hiring one person, not just in terms of salary but also the many other costs associated with recruitment and the wellbeing of staff. More often than not, it simply does not make commercial sense to build an in-house team. At least the same level of expertise and experience can be bought in at a significantly lower rate by partnering with an agency.
Another issue to consider when it comes to resourcing is the availability of skilled staff. In a recent industry buyers’ guide, one of the key issues cited by agencies was the shortage of skilled and experienced workers. In short, there are just not enough digital marketers to satisfy a growing agency market. Therefore, brands will often find themselves competing with agencies for staff. Yet agencies can offer something that many brands cannot; the opportunity to work across a wide variety of clients and campaigns which adds greatly to the experience an employee can gain. So while it is by no means impossible to attract the best talent to work client-side, it is by no means easy and will require a competitive package to do so.
As the recession continues to bite, brands will rightly question the value they receive from agencies and whether costs can be cut and efficiency improved by managing their search strategy in-house.
But to do so, requires a greater investment than many brands may plan for. Natural search has evolved greatly in recent years to require a broad range of skills that, in turn, impact the resource required to deliver an effective strategy. This needs to be carefully considered before brands make the decision to manage search marketing in-house.
Ben Potter is commercial director at Leapfrogg, a specialist digital marketing agency.
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