Climbing the Search Engine Rankings Ladder

The way people share and consume information online is changing rapidly. This creates both a challenge and an opportunity for marketers as they strive to keep their brands top of mind for consumers. The challenge is that consumers now not only influence brand awareness and perception, but they also affect brand search engine rankings.

The increasing amount of online sharing gives marketers a way to harness the power of consumers. They can encourage them to create and share content that can improve brand awareness and perception, as well as search engine result placement (SERP). Keeping this in mind, marketers must build strategies that drive the creation and sharing of consumer-generated content about their brands and the products and services they sell.

Over the past year, search engine giants Google and Bing have been rolling out updates to their search engine algorithms. Most notably, both began pulling in social content to their rankings and personalizing searches. For example, Google's Panda update reduced rankings for low-quality sites and improved rankings for high-quality sites (those with content and information driven by consumers). Bing released its Tiger updates, improving the accuracy and relevancy of SERP.

Bing first announced personalized search results last year, serving results that include information or "likes" users' friends have shared on Facebook. Google began personalizing its results in January with its "Search Plus Your World" feature, which finds both content that has been shared privately along with matches from the public Web, giving consumers the option to search via their personal connections and the social Web simultaneously. The personal results are showcased at the top of the page and are based on consumers' own behavior and their social connections, but only include content from Google+.

These changes reflect the shift in online consumer behavior, as consumer-generated content has exploded across Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and other channels. Consumers share four billion things on Facebook, 200 million things on Twitter, and 1 billion things on Google+ every day, and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg predicts that, every year, consumers will share twice as much as the year before. What's more, data now shows that between 75 and 90 percent of the top 10 search results on any given SERP have at least one Facebook like or Twitter tweet.

In addition to consumers sharing more each day, we also know that consumers now rely on their peers—friends, and even strangers—for recommendations and information on brands and products. According to Nielsen, 90 percent of consumers trust recommendations from their friends and 70 percent trust opinions posted online. Brands must take into consideration the effect consumer-generated content has not only on their SERP, but also their bottom line.

While we can't predict the future, we can predict that social and search will continue to converge. Marketers must implement social initiatives that drive consumer-generated content, as it will become instrumental to a brand's overall marketing strategy. Social referral programs are a best practice for marketers, as they are a natural way to foster consumer-generated content.

Social referral programs, by nature, tap into consumers' need and desire to share information and content with their peers, resulting in consumer-to-consumer (C2C) marketing. C2C marketing influences the creation and sharing of consumer-generated content (such as updates, conversations, recommendations, photos, videos, tweets, posts, shares, or +1s) by incentivizing fans of the brands (advocates) to refer their friends. The resulting referrals are picked up by the search engines and are included in their algorithms. Since consumers generate the content, it ranks higher and improves SERP.

When implementing social referral programs, it is important to consider the structure of the program and the key elements that can effectively foster consumer-generated content to help drive improved SERP.

1. Offer incentives. Give customer advocates compelling reasons to share with their friends. This could be internal offers (free goods, discounts, or loyalty points), gift cards, or charitable donations. Make sure there is an incentive for their friends to make sharing more attractive. When you create a balanced offer structure, advocates and their friends will continue to share with their social graphs throughout the life of the program.

2.Make referring easy. Make it easy for customers to share about brands with their friends. Include relevant sharing options (email, Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc.). Each sharing channel sees some level of amplification based on how many emails sent, friends on Facebook, followers on Twitter, etc. Default messaging that advocates can customize helps increase sharing and the effectiveness of the messages, as the brand name will always be included.

3. Add recognition and gamification. Tap into human desires and behavior to compete, achieve, and be recognized in comparison to others. Add leaderboards and scoring to the referral program to foster participation and additional sharing.

By harnessing the power of their advocates and implementing social referral programs that encourage the creation and sharing of consumer-generated content, brands can improve and influence their SERP. The shifting of the search engine plates gives more and more power to consumers, making one thing abundantly clear for marketers—consumer-generated content about their brand, products, and services is an increasingly critical element of their marketing strategy.

Angela Bandlow is vice president of marketing at Extole, where she is responsible for its marketing strategy, including brand management, corporate marketing, demand generation, and product marketing. She has more than 20 years of experience in enterprise and SaaS software, driving successful market and product strategies. Most recently, she was the chief marketing officer for Lavante, a provider of SaaS Supplier Management solutions.

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