16 June 2010 | Tanya Goodin

Brand lessons from the history of search

There’s little point in looking back unless you can learn something so I wanted to use today’s birthday retrospective to pull out some useful, relevant and fresh understanding for brands engaging in SEO.

I was only a one-year-old, in Tamar terms, when the Big Bang happened (I joined the team in 1998). That’s when Google exploded into the Internet and since then we’ve been using our own, slightly less expensive, versions of the Large Hadron Collider to measure its impact, the effects on every object in the Websphere and to predict what might happen next.

As a ‘Tamar teenager’, 12 years on, I can draw on a substantial body of knowledge that the company has amassed to offer some insights into Search – then, now and in the future. I hope that you will find this ‘backlink bulletin’ useful.

When I started, SEO was an addendum to web design and build – remember this was a time before broadband, modems still squawked the land, and there was a multiplicity of browsers, all behaving differently. It was about what happened when people got to the website. How they got there was not so high on the agenda.

The true value of SEO has developed as the return on investment has become clearer over the past decade as this adjunct work proved its worth and became a standalone product. In the early days, being visible on the search returns was a vanity exercise; first position on page one of the SERPs conferred bragging rights but was not seen as crucial to marketing strategy.

Tamar’s first SEO reports covered 26 search engines/portals, all with very similar search terms and we were discussing Alta Vista, Northern Light, Inktomi . . .then the Big Bang.

We registered the explosion and focussed most of our SEO attention on what the effects would be. By 2002, Google was pretty much the only star left in Search and the verb “to Google” was a part of the online language. By 2005-06, Google was overwhelmingly the dominant force in the sector.

Google’s trajectory continues to move very fast; innovation remains at its heart and so we have also had to keep pace with that to deliver the results our clients have come to expect. While it remains a company that rightly keeps its secret sauce hidden, it has reached out with tools and knowledge to help brands achieve their online marketing goals.

We’ve moved a long way from Web 1.0, where directories, portals and simple search engines attempted to curate the internet – and companies struggled for visibility, let alone relevance. Web 2.0 (and Google) opened the road to a newer form of marketing, while at the same time changing the relationship forever between brand and consumer.

In a word, all brands lost control. That is the key lesson looking back – online users are now more knowledgeable about marketing and the web has educated them. They can read the messages more clearly, and then talk about them with trusted contacts and friends. Google has become the trusted third party and “natural search” the preferred route to information. Brands no longer control but are a part of the global conversation.

These conversations have been noisily playing out in the social spaces while Google (who else?) has been busy in the kitchen. It delivered the Webmaster Tools and then marked its territory with milestone advances: Florida, Caffeine, May Day.

All of these have focussed on what we can see is the goal, the “now-ness and right-ness” of Search. For brands, this means that online strategies should be long-term and at the same time extremely agile. Google now values, above all else, freshness, relevance and speed. Brands may have lost control of the message, but Google has given them a raft of ways to connect, engage and convert.

While Search = Google, Bing and other search challengers are probing for ways to gain a foothold on the North Face of Google Mountain. Bing’s Facebook tie-in looks potentially productive and its mobile search default move with Apple might be a game-changer. But any search engine challenger comes up against Google’s history, massive knowledge store and innovation written into its DNA.

With Web 3.0, the move towards natural language search is now accelerating. We’re at the very start of this next big stage where “personalisation, freshness” are all-important. User intent is the biggest challenge for the Semantic Web: when someone types in “Apple”, what do they want? Responding to user intent will be a fascinating development, and will be here sooner rather than later. Natural Language search, as colleague Henry Elliss says in his post, is where our specialism is heading.

Tamar’s Search journey has also taken it South – to Cape Town . We could have outsourced but that option clashed with principle. Sure, business is about containing costs, but not at the expense of the service culture we’d worked hard to build. The South African staffers are as much a part of Tamar as their counterparts in London – it works … very well.

In Cape Town we’ve found skilled, educated people, with English as the business language, cultural similarities and a time zone that matches ours. Tamar’s company culture has been enriched by the move and we’re looking forward to adding more people to our top 20 SA squad.

We’ve travelled quite a distance along Holistic Search Road and there’s still some ground to cover before everything is integrated. The online marketing journey with our clients has not reached the end by any means yet.

Tanya Goodin

Tanya Goodin

Founder of Tamar