Monday, 16 January 2017 23:33

How Changes To the Way We Search Will Affect Small Business


For years, one of the main goals of any marketing campaign for businesses has been to increase their search ranking in engines, like Google, through “search engine optimization” or SEO. But the changing face of search means that small businesses will have to reevaluate how they create content or face virtual elimination from this avenue of discovery.

Due to Google’s oft-shifting and oft-secret algorithms, it’s nearly impossible to guarantee high placement of a website in search results, but some important factors for doing so are generally known. A few good SEO practices include getting other websites to link to your page, integrating important search terms in the opening paragraph of your articles and using title and/or keyword tags on the back end. While some big companies have entire departments devoted to making sure their website is search optimized, small business owners can and do optimize themselves and make their page more readily available to people searching for information, content or products.

How we get information

There are changes afoot to the way we search the web, however. You may have noticed even now that searching Google can bring up a featured answer snippet of sorts — one that is likely taken from Wikipedia, or another reputable source. Users tend to trust these answers and care little to investigate the source, as long as the fact or figure proves (or even just appears) true. Another popular way to receive these featured answers are through conversational interfaces like Siri, Alexa and Cortana. These friendly conduits give us what we want — an answer — rather than a list of the ten websites most likely to have that answer.

What does this mean for small businesses? As with most advice about SEO, the truth is, we can’t say for sure. It also depends on what kind of small business you own (restaurants and retail stores may still appear in list format in a highly localized search). But suffice it to say, it will be harder to gain ground against businesses with greater resources than ever before, especially if you aren’t conducting your SEO practices to Google’s liking.

At the moment, that probably strikes many business owners as just fine. According to Wasp Barcode’s 2016 State of Small Business Report, SEO is ninth on the list of Top 10 Marketing Tools Used by Small Businesses, lagging markedly behind direct mail, word of mouth and the king of marketing tools, email. In all, just 25 percent of the businesses surveyed focused on SEO; more than twice that number had a website, but it appears half of those with a site weren’t doing what they could to ensure the site ranked near the top of search results.

Currently, a website that appears beyond the first page of results might as well not show up at all. The advent of Siri-delivered search results means that perhaps only the top spot in those results will be worth occupying. Woods sees this playing out in one of two ways for content creators (such as the blogs of small businesses that deliver information to potential customers and drive them towards the main site for further engagement):

  1. This will make the path forward simpler — right now, SEO is an imperfect science, or perhaps an art. It involves navigating ambiguous rules that if broken can lead to severe punishment, and doing it right usually means hiring expert professionals. A knowledge graph-based search means the rules to success will be better defined, and the most important things will be whether an answer is right and if it’s presented in the right way.
  2. It will reduce the number of clicks into the actual websites providing the answers, as sites like Google and Facebook simply house the information on their platform. This means reduced profits and engagement for the sites that are actually creating the content, an untenable outcome for many small businesses.

What it means for your business

Does this mean that small businesses should become more interested in optimizing their websites and associated blogs? In a world where everyone has an unlimited marketing budget, the answer would be yes. But since it’s unclear where the future of search is going (and, also, unlimited marketing budgets are often not a thing), we’ll have to see how this new era of information retrieval evolves. One thing is certain: Content, especially well-written and accurate content that appeases both the current iteration of Google and the outlets of the future (namely Siri, Alexa, Cortana and platforms like Facebook), is still an important part of creating an online presence. It may just have to be presented in different formats and narratives, adding to the complexity and nuance of the endeavor.

Some businesses are seeing good success with direct mail and word of mouth as their primary modes of marketing — but in an increasingly digitized world, that can’t last forever. The sooner small businesses turn their gaze towards this future (however uncertain it may be) and consider what it will bring, the better they’ll be in the long run.

Author : Brian Sutter

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