The shift in SEO practices – and how it affects small businesses

The worlds of SEO, content marketing and PR are learning from each other - and these skills have been instrumental in the ongoing success and development of each sector, says Kath Dawson.

Any business owner whose livelihood depends on healthy web traffic and search returns – and let’s face it, that applies to most businesses these days – will have been aware of a shift from technical link-building SEO practices to more of a focus on content.

But how and why has this shift occurred and what value does it add to businesses and their customers? The answer is that the worlds of SEO, content marketing, direct marketing and PR are all borrowing techniques from each other and becoming increasingly intertwined and as a result the information and content reaching the customer is more useful on a number of levels.

Essentially the buying process today is about so much more than the product on offer. The saying goes that people buy from people, and never has this been truer than with online purchasing.  Even in today’s internet dominated economy, where a quarter of the UK’s retail sales are predicted to be online by 2016 with a revenue totalling £114.6 billion), consumers and clients want to gain a sense of trust, authority and personality from a retailer before they hit ‘complete purchase’.

The more authoritative information about the topic or product in question, alongside reviews and endorsements from others – including via social media – the more trust is accumulated towards that brand.

Professional tactics

When you look at the bigger picture, these tactics echo (and now complement and work alongside) those used by public relations and marketing professionals. Take for example the opinion piece or thought leadership feature – now echoed by editorial found on websites and company blogs – which is a public relations staple reinforcing the authoritative knowledge of a brand spokesperson, in turn improving that brand’s perception.

Google’s algorithm updates, Panda, Penguin and Hummingbird changed the game for SEO professionals, favouring ‘quality’ content over spammy and link laden content. ‘Quality’ in this context refers to helpful ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ or information documents which provide useful information around the product or service topic – a technique used by PRs at press conferences and product launches to show in-depth knowledge of the sector or area they are working in and its target audience.

Know your audience

The websites that receive the best search returns, ranking highly, will have effectively segmented their audience of potential customers into ‘buying personas’, researching and understanding the interests, behaviours and preferences of those personas. In a technique central to any marketing strategy, examining the route potential customers will take to reach their purchasing decision is deemed as vital to maximising conversions and profit margins.

In marketing, audience segmentation is defined as the process of dividing people into more similar subgroups using varying criteria such as demographics, communication behaviours and media use, so advertisers can tailor products and services that satisfy the targeted groups. The benefit of providing digital content tailored to these audience groups and communicating with them in a more personalised way – just in the same way as marketers segment audiences – is that a brand affinity is created as the customer feels understood and listened to.

It’s a two-way thing

Two-way communication is one of the most effective ways to gauge and improve the reputation of a brand, through listening to what clients and customers have to say and incorporating their feedback into improving that product or service, as well as garnering more information about that customer base; who exactly they are, what are their personal behaviours, likes and dislikes etc.

For years, marketing professionals have been using direct marketing tactics which employ data-capture, allowing them to build a picture of their customer and potential customer base, segmenting it by socio-demographic factors, influences and buying attitudes. This segmentation has also allowed for the diversification of product ranges to fill any gaps in the market, maximising profits.

Digital marketers create much of their content with well-researched buyer personas in mind, and also to be sharable among potential and existing customers. Social media is crucial for doing this effectively, and any strong digital content strategy will also include details of how interactive content can be shared, creating an online conversation and collecting useful data and feedback.  PR and marketing professionals also frequently include social media strategies within their activity plans, and for some time have been working alongside SEO, content marketing and social media consultants to enhance the offering they are providing to their clients. The social media marketplace is evolving all the time, and with its inherent links to Google tools and platforms, there is no doubt that Google+ will play a major role in the effective sharing and evolution of digital content in 2014 and beyond.

Devised for devices

Ever since the mass adoption of smartphones nearly ten years ago, and latterly of tablets – with an estimated 20 million now owned in the UK, the marketing and communications industries have ensured their content is optimised to create the maximum impact across all platforms. Recent statistics also show that sales made on phones have experienced a 2,000 per cent growth in three years, an exponential demonstration of the changing habits of consumers, and the importance of a website that works beautifully and with agility across all platforms.

Equally, content marketers understand that smartphones and tablets have completely different possibilities in terms of the way content is presented and accessed, and also, that many users partake in ‘multi-screening’, for example searching for a product on their laptop they have just seen advertised on television. They also know that Google is less likely to serve up sites if they don’t appear well on those devices, so will work to ensure their clients’ sites are ‘multi-platform friendly’ with responsive design.

Marketers have been using location-based marketing techniques with success for some years, and Google’s Hummingbird algorithm, designed to improve its interpretation of search context and intent, also uses searcher’s locations to serve up relevant results in their locality. 

Without a doubt purely national promotion of a brand or business is a waste if its target market is local, and PR and marketing professionals understand this, incorporating regional strategies into their planned activity. Likewise digital content is optimised by professionals to ensure it is being returned in search results to people looking for businesses located in the relevant area. 

When worlds collide

There is no doubt in my mind that the worlds of marketing, PR and digital content are borrowing techniques from each other and are increasingly becoming one and the same thing, in a multi-platform world of 24 hour communication, commerce and content – with successful results and a move to even better quality content online.

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