The personalization of search results has made the practice of public relations (and any type of digital marketing, for that matter) more difficult, because individuals are now seeing more content recommended by their friends and colleagues in the social layer, and because the increasingly fine-tuned search engine filters are taking into account searchers’ personal behavior when selecting content for that user.
This poses a problem for all of us – not just the PR profession – and is summed up nicely in the book “The Filter Bubble,” by Eli Pariser, which warns that social networks (and now by extension, search engines) are narrowing the information we see, in effect, telling us only what we want to hear.
How search engines are personalizing search results:
Both Google and Bing use your past search behavior, web sites you’ve visited, location and signals from your social network to shape the search results you see. So, for example: if you’ve shown a decided preference for a specific brand in the past, the search engines will put that brand’s content at the top of the search engine results page (“SERP”) generated when you enter a query. You may be disenchanted with the brand and seeking a change, but because of your past affinity for that brand, or you may be trying to explore options in a different local – either way, you’ll need to look a little harder to find information from other brands in that space.
As a result, it’s very unlikely that you and I (or anyone else) would ever see the exact same search results for a keyword.
Those wishing for a pure, unobstructed view of the world not shaped by their past behavior, location or friends’ opinions have their work cut out for them. As SEOmoz noted last week, turning off personalized search results totally is hard. However, individual searches are easily managed by adding “&pws=0” to the end of each query, and a plugin from Yoast can automatically append the &pws=0 to all search queries.
The new basis for attention: self-selection
Before we start thinking about content strategies, we should think a little more about audience behavior and where they are devoting their attention.
Without a doubt, people are interested in information pertaining to their interests. And, increasingly, people self-select the groups with which they associate. This self-selecting behavior is an important factor for communicators to consider, because ultimately, it forms the basis of our audiences’ attention.
Today, as we all know, the information universe has exploded. Many social interactions now take place online. And this is where the self-selection piece comes in, because in addition to the social networks we’ve cultivated, many of us rely upon favorite online channels for news, and we’ve gravitated to discussion groups and forums, finding like-minded people with whom to connect. We can (and do) actively select our sources of news and the groups in which we participate.
We end up devoting a lot of our attention to these favored information channels, groups and networks, spending hours conversing, commenting, consuming and sharing information. And as a result, our online behaviors shape the search results we see and the information we access daily basis. Statisticians have long understood the self-selection bias inherent in a group. One can argue similar biases are created in terms of information sharing among a social network or group. Herein is the challenge for communicators.
Penetrating the bubbles and navigating the filters: relevance, signals and atomization
If the members of our collective audiences are comfortably encased in their own individual bubbles and hanging out with their self-selected online peers, how do we reach them with our messages? As we plan our campaigns and draft messages, we need to be thinking about developing content that will make it through the myriad filters standing between our brands and our audiences. And, furthermore, we should also be focused on the role of social sharing and content consumption, and specifically crafting content that is attractive and easy to share, because social channels offer direct access to audiences – but to gain access, you have to first garner their attention.
After giving this some thought, my own opinion that ultimately relevance is the key to getting (and keeping) audience attention. We need to focus more on the content, and perhaps less on the tactics, when it comes to mapping plans for our PR and content campaigns.
Relevance is truly now an imperative, because getting your audience’s attention and triggering social shares (and the exponential visibility effects in social networks and search engines such sharing delivers) depends first and foremost on developing content that is interesting and useful to the audience. Certainly, key brand messages can be couched within that context, but the content needs to primarily serve the audience if it’s going to be successful.
Building credible presences in social networks is another imperative for brands, because brands need the ability to broadcast a signal against the noise of social networks. However, developing a brand signal means a lot more than simply hanging out your shingle on Twitter. The brands that are generating business results from social media are those that have devoted time, energy and resource to cultivating and listening to interactions with their audiences and have built the social layer into their workflows and operations.
Atomizing content – the art of disseminating interesting pieces of content across social networks and web sites – is another component of acquiring audience attention. Think of the ocean of information available, and think of your audiences as schools of fish swimming around. You’re not sure where they are. Atomizing content is like putting bait in the water – you scatter attractive bits around in likely places to attract attention and you attach it to the “hook” that that will reel your fish in.
Tactically, atomization can be simple – syndicating news and thoughtfully tweeting press releases, for examples, are two ways to start. However, there are lots of ways to seed social channels with content – but it has to be done in a relevant way. Some good tactics include:
- Keeping an eye on discussions occurring on forums and sites like Quora and LinkedIn, and find opportunities to help others by answering their questions. If appropriate and relevant, you can attach a related link to your answer.
- Blog comments are another opportunity to atomize content – however, like the tactic noted above, your commentary needs to be about 99% focused on being relevant to the discussion at hand. Yes, you can suggest a related link but you must couch that link in some relevant discussion.
- Find the subtext and different angles within your content, and exploit them. The different messages found within your press release, white paper or video will appeal to different audiences, enabling you to tweet the content with different hashtags and tell different aspects of the story to potentially interested audiences.
- Expand upon background or secondary story lines in blog posts or a vlog, and post to appropriate channels.
- Rich presentations of information – such as white papers and microsites – can easily give rise to a host of different content. Graphics can be distributed on photo sites like Flickr. An abstract or slide deck can find an audience on SlideShare. The experts quoted may make a fantastic webinar panel, which opens up a slew of new content possibilities.
Search engines change up their algorithms constantly, and social networks continue to acquire new audiences and develop new features. Along the way, new networks rise and less successful platforms fail. Brands that develop the ability to broadcast clear signals and have developed expertise in creating and distributing relevant and interesting content will be well positioned for the inevitable changes to the information and attention markets we’re sure to encounter.
Author Sarah Skerik is PR Newswire’s vice president of social media.