For marketers, the promise of the web is data, and whoever owns the most (and best) data wins.
Facebook and Twitter have been moving quickly to offer advertisers tools and targeting options that leverage first-party data, and Google is now aggressively following suit with its Customer Match abilities. These have been written about quite extensively here on Search Engine Land and elsewhere. The purpose of this piece is to explore what it means for SEO.
For consumers, the promise of organic search, with Google as the preeminent example, is to offer quality, unbiased, highly relevant search results for a given query. Pretty basic on the face of it, right? But behind the scenes are myriad algorithms and even manual editorial choices that curate, organize and assemble the organic results we enjoy every second of the day.
This leads to an essential quandary for SEO (and for search engines like Google). Data-driven marketers are driving incessantly towards personalized digital experiences, achieved by truly understanding what an audience wants. Data and technology enable ever more targeting options and reporting capabilities, which result in improved return on investment.
In this ecosystem, organic search is beginning to look a bit limited, even dated. Will marketing addressability leave SEO behind?
The paradox here is that organic search results are the bread and butter of Google’s economic model. Without credible, trustworthy and relevant organic options, search engines cannot effectively monetize their results.
For future-looking SEO agencies like mine, this means understanding where and how we can apply data-driven marketing decisions to SEO in order to leverage it in the same ways we’re leveraging other marketing platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Google paid search. There are three parts to this problem:
- We need to understand how we can make personalized, addressable (at scale) digital experiences that rank well — and ideally, out-perform “standard” results.
- Google and other search engines need to give us the tools necessary to apply this targeting to organic results.
- We need those tools to govern when and how organic search results are delivered to our audiences, in a similar way to Customer Match for paid ads.
We can already apply data-driven principles to content strategy, contextualizing (for example) search query behavior with specific segments of the audience. In this way, we can understand and inform what types of content should exist on a website in order to capture the most revenue from organic search, and we can map the most relevant queries to its pages.
But we can’t manipulate what snippet of text appears for a specific result for a given audience, or if it appears at all. We can do that in paid search.
The golden rule of SEO is that there is a single authoritative and canonical version of a piece of content. Creating multiple personalized versions based on a targeted customer segment seems to go against this principle, and, in fact, would lead to techniques such as cloaking (which could be another article unto itself, but the crib note version is: it’s not black and white).
If Google and other engines are to improve the quality of their search results and lead SEO into the Promised Land, they need to create personalized experiences in organic search. And they already are doing that, but marketers have no say in the matter.
If you’ve been paying attention, you know that it’s been happening for some time already. Localized, personalized, experimental and individual search results can be found on Google every second of the day. What’s missing is the ability for marketers to “turn the dials” on the results, based on their unique marketing goals, audience segments and customer lists. To do that, you have to pay up.
Brands need a first-party data solution for SEO. We’re accelerating in this area in digital marketing, and you can bet smart organic search marketers will be moving there, too. I know we are.