Many professional internet users know: looking at the algorithms from search engines - especially those of Google, but not only those – is like looking at a black box. You know they are key for your operation, but their exact workings are a well-hidden secret.
To see how all those changes have an impact in the past few years, I have been looking at the effects on my business operation, and the result is mixed, but slightly positive, and suggesting the coming years could become even better.
I have been looking at how traffic and my internet operation has changed over the past few years. So, this is no scientific exercise. Even worse, my b2b business has some characteristics other business do not share. So, my conclusions focus on my business, but some might be useful for others too.
I’m helping to run the China Speakers Bureau and have a few supporting websites, like the China Herald. We position high-profile speakers on China in a global market, and earn a commission on the fees of our speakers. Most of our clients are typically corporations and business-focused organizations in Europe and the US. Because we are – unlike most speakers’ agencies who have a regional focus – a global operation, we depend for our leads mostly on the internet.
We are pretty much content driven. The advice “content is king”, we have taken pretty serious from the start. We provide daily updates of appearances of our speakers in mainstream media, on their own weblogs and last year we started to included also video clips and whatever we could find about our speakers. The digital footprint or our speakers has become a key selection criteria before we admit them to our service. In the end, we depend fo our marketing on the traffic they generate themselves.
So, it was with some concern I followed the complaints of many other internet related companies who saw their traffic drop, as algorithms changed, jeopardizing their livelihood. Not only did income drop, some companies reportedly went down because of those drops in traffic. Traffic to the sites is affected by changes in algorithms at search engines, and the explosion of competing content. There is very little those companies said they could do.
We saw a severe drop in traffic too. Over the past three years traffic to our sites has dropped by about 70 percent. While that looks dramatic, for us it was not really that bad. The amount of requests for speakers actually remained pretty stable. My lay view on this effect: yes, traffic is down, but our clients can find us better than in the past. So, at the end of the equation, the result seems mildly positive, unlike the devastating effects on other online operations. (Or in SEO lingo: conversion has remained stable.)
Since we are no b2c firm, and do not make a living from the ads on our websites, traffic is not that important. In the past, I was already often amazed how people got to our websites; anything related to sex or otherwise titillating caused spikes in traffic but drew not really our clients. Skipping that kind of traffic is not a huge loss. In a lot of cases, traffic today seems more focused, and that is a huge plus.
Another interesting change supports this viewpoint. In our business some people ask directly for a specific speaker, others ask our advice who could support their meeting best. About three years ago, the balance between the two was 50/50; now it is 90/10. That means potential clients increasingly find us through our daily news output, and fewer compared to three years ago find our home pages.
For our speakers’ business that has pros and cons. If a clients asks for a specific speaker, they will typically get that speaker. Sometimes we have serious doubts whether they made the right choice, and subtly try to suggest other possibilities. But that is easier when they have not yet made up their mind, and changing their course during the discussions. That makes life harder, but we can live with that.
This change in the way search engines work, has a profound effect on a larger number of our speakers. When a speaker has no or a marginal digital footprint, and does not contribute on a regular basis to the public domain, they can forget the internet as a marketing tool. For some that is a reality check, and we have seen often speakers disappear into the digital dungeons of our databases for that reason.
A small group among our 300+ speakers is doing very fine in the media or generating publicity we can use to put them into the market. A larger number does not, and we see a firm number of excellent speakers sink away in online oblivity. As a speakers’ bureau we have limited resources to promote speakers, but we have started to deploy a few tools to help them to increase their online exposure.
Google Hangouts-on-air is going to be a key feature on our new marketing efforts. (One of our early efforts with Ben Cavender is included in this post) It is an effort marred with other challenges, as few of our speakers are already active on Google+. Most of our speakers tend to be rather traditional in their publicity approach, take off half a year to write a book, and do not accept our insistence on a frequent appearance on the internet. Just writing a book once a year does not make a difference anymore. Google Hangouts potentially offer an affordable and time-effective tool to serve as a marketing tool.
Hangouts give also a pretty fast way for our speakers to react on current affairs. Normally, they have to get in touch with one of their media contacts, write an article and see it published a week later, if they are lucky. Hangouts you can do on the spot, helping speakers to unleash their well-founded comments, even when people are waiting for their plane to catch, over a mobile device and publish it ten minutes later.
I’m also pretty positive about the way Google+ is working out on our search results. While initially having some misgiving in the way they mix up generic and personal search results, the effect is working for me and could work for others as they take up Google+ as a part of their publicity mix.
It might all be a psychological effect on me, but it seems to work out pretty nicely. Links to our posts show up very often in the first results, when people look up our speakers. As a speakers’ bureau we are in the luck position that we have decided for a content-driven approach, even before Google+ showed up. Of course, if you are geographically more confined to a region or focus on a specific industry, other approaches might work too.
We cannot do anything about the twists and turn algorithms in search engines are going to take. But the effects on our performance have been moderately positive, that is, if my analysis is already.