Customers Have a Search Reflex. Will Your Brand Get a Second Look? You can't game the system. You can only feed it.

By Aaron Dubois

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Your brand has a new moment of truth. Are you making the most of it?

I'm talking about the second someone who could be your customer speaks or types a search command into a smartphone or computer. How you show up in that moment is your brand.

As smartphones become an extension of who we are, we operate more unconsciously on a search reflex. We see, think or feel something and ask a question, then click on the answers that compel us. And we end up buying from one, whether immediately or because retargeting ads keep the product in front of us.

Related: 10 Tweaks That Can Boost Lagging Articles Onto Google's First Page

In a fundamental sense, your brand lives in the metadata that determines which products come up first when I ask, based on how relevant they are to my specific request. When all that matters to me is meeting my need instantly and accurately, I'm not having a brand exchange as much as a utility exchange.

That's a real threat to most businesses. To survive it, marketing teams need to develop a new expertise.

Start by becoming students of how people search for things now. Understand what kinds of information they look for, how they ask questions, what search engine they're using, and generally what they're thinking when they do. Google Analytics, Search Console and an impressive array of tools for data visualization (e.g., Datarama, Power BI) allow you to examine the entire path people follow to your site -- the user journey, in marketing speak -- not just the last link they clicked on.

Are people entering sentences or strings of keywords? Are they using some terms and not others? How specific are they about location (zip code, city, cross street)? When they visit your site, do they make decisions before reading a story all the way through, or do they wait until they finish it?

Knowing this lets you speak the searcher's language on your site, to meet them where they are with what they need. And knowing how they behave on your site continually shows what content and structure needs to be tweaked. Pay attention to what pages they're viewing, in what order, and when and where they're jumping off. Are they making a request for information, setting an appointment, or purchasing something before they reach the end of a piece? Visibility into these behaviors helps to identify transactional customers, unlikely to make your site a destination, versus the people who read everything and then act, who are potential long-term advocates for your brand.

Related: How Google Stacks the Deck Against Startups and Small Businesses

This isn't just common sense; it's the key to rankings. Google ranks websites based on how their content fits the way people search for information, from the specific questions they pose to the needs their questions reveal. You need to feed the search beast consciously and continually with all the forms of advertising and content it now requires. Advertising helps train people to use terms, so think of it as establishing a brand vernacular for the internet.

But all content counts, because people are searching on every available platform and search engines are now indexing that activity. So, pay for ads on search engines in addition to posting articles, photos and videos that correspond to search topics on your own site, blogs and social media platforms. Keep it short, simple and useful.

The other part is how we code that content. How a brand's content is coded effectively determines how it operates in search. Essentially, a search engine is a giant data processor that sorts based on the code behind the content you see on a site.

You can't game this system; you can only feed it. Search engines reward specific coding practices that specify the purpose of site content. For example, your site will rank higher in search listings if you create an intuitive URL taxonomy, so page addresses spell out the route someone would follow to that location -- home page, then each section, then title of the piece. Also, your pages will come up higher if your tags simply classify the content of a page or image rather than try to sell it (e.g., an executive's bio is tagged as name/title/specialty, not something like "healthcare pioneer").

Related: 4 Keyword Search Strategies to Grow Your Business

While these rules are simple to follow, they often go overlooked. And, you have to keep on top of them because the search engines constantly change their algorithms and only give occasional hints on the new rules. So, monitor search blogs and publications (e.g., Moz.com, Searchengineland.com) for updates.

You still need to remind people who you are in all the ways we've long affiliated with advertising. But increasingly, a brand strategy that doesn't account for the search reflex is destined to fail because the answers to a search query set brand relationships in motion. It's not only the new trial; it's often the new discovery and the new first spontaneous date. As many as 70 percent of your new customers will discover you this way.

Aaron Dubois

Digital Strategy lead at Phelps, a partner in The Company collective

Aaron Dubois serves as vice president and Lead Digital Strategist at Phelps, a 37-year-old marketing communications agency located in Playa Vista, Calif. He is also a partner in The Company collective.

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