I was in the audience on Monday when Bing’s Duane Forrester delivered the closing keynote at the State of Search conference in Dallas. Forrester spoke about feature updates in Bing Webmaster Tools that will allow users to track website traffic from their own social media profiles, a step forward in expanding the notion of online presence beyond the dated, though still significant, nexus of the website (something I discussed in my last column). Alongside this news, Forrester offered some interesting anecdotal tidbits about his own social media strategies, and one of these in particular caught my attention.
A strong proponent of HootSuite, Forrester drives a steady stream of content to Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and LinkedIn by connecting RSS feeds within the HootSuite platform to scheduled posts that are syndicated to all of his social profiles. These feeds are restricted to what Forrester called “trusted sources” — he mentioned Search Engine Land — and are scheduled to go out at a rate of no more than one post per hour, so as not to become annoying to followers. Though the output is passive on his part, he will respond to any feedback from followers by reading the article he’s posted and engaging in a conversation. Thus Forrester’s social profiles become a source of curated content about the search industry and a means to connect with members of that industry, all with very little effort exerted on his part. Or rather, his effort is conserved and concentrated on those who seek him out, even though they are doing so in response to something his HootSuite account has posted on his behalf.
It’s a smart strategy, and yet the approach plays against the boundaries of what we might call “botlike” behavior. If the content posted were not relevant to Forrester’s readership; if the posting rate were turned up to a pestering frequency; if it were a one-way channel with no hope of a response to questions and feedback — then this strategy would backfire.
We live in a post-Panda world where relevance is the new byword, a fact that comes with challenges even for the best intentioned. It’s simple enough to say that creating great content or a great platform should be enough to bring users to your door; but if they have no idea you exist, getting the word out effectively is both a matter of reaching your intended user base and staying within the confines of an algorithmically defined concept of quality content.
In local search, online portals offering little in the way of strongly differentiated content are suffering a demotion in search ranking and user traffic. As Myles Anderson of BrightLocal has pointed out, traditional directories that compete primarily with dominant services like Google Maps and Bing Local, such as YP.com, Superpages, and Citysearch, have seen user traffic decrease by a significant degree in the last twelve months – the average decrease among these three is 2.8 million people per month. At the same time, sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor that provide and promote unique, engaging content remain strong. The local search landscape is changing as a result, in ways we have probably only begun to perceive. Already YP is racing to embrace a mobile-first strategy based on improving its usefulness across platforms.
For small and medium-sized businesses, the challenge is to be present and available to customers and potential customers in multiple online venues, including many of the same social channels Forrester concentrates his energies on, in a way that conserves effort while remaining effective. In the worst-case scenario, businesses turn to content farms, paid follower schemes, and fake reviews — strategies that artificially create buzz but are conspicuous to most savvy consumers and likely to get the business outed as a spammer. In the best case, the business has the time, energy, and manpower to devote to concentrated efforts on authentic and useful forms of social sharing.
But the best case is rare, and businesses — especially high-competition consumer-facing businesses in highly populated areas — can ill afford to ignore online networking as a means of attracting and retaining customers. Small business owners need tools and services that can help them leverage the power of these channels while minimizing time commitment and maintaining a focus on engagement and quality.
Damian Rollison is vice president of product and technology at Universal Business Listing, a company dedicated to promoting online visibility for local businesses. He holds degrees from University of California, Berkeley and the University of Virginia, where he worked at the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. He can be reached via Twitter.