Ask the expert: Digitalis’s Head of Search, Barry Smith, discusses online search

February 2022
 by Digitalis

Ask the expert: Digitalis’s Head of Search, Barry Smith, discusses online search

February 2022
 By Digitalis

Online search has evolved enormously over the past 10 years, and Digitalis’s Search Strategy team has helped hundreds of clients navigate these changes to ensure they make the best first impression when people search for them online. Our Head of Search Strategy, Barry Smith, takes a few minutes to discuss the ever-changing world of online search, and how companies and individuals can navigate it to ensure they put their best foot forward online.

  • Tell us about your background and area of expertise, how you came to join Digitalis, and how your role has changed over time.

Recently I celebrated 10 years of working with Digitalis, and much of my career in digital marketing has been with the company. While I always had an interest in computers generally (having been online for well over 25 years now), it was through my interest in online gaming (particularly gambling) that I originally began to develop an understanding of how search engines work and the opportunities provided by being easily discoverable online.

I came to London 15 years ago to work with Gaming Media Group, an online poker, casino, and television company, where I helped develop websites, increase traffic, improve conversion rates, and create promotions for our customers. After this I moved to Betfair to work exclusively on their poker offering.

I joined Digitalis as they were beginning to focus more heavily on online reputation management, and I was energised by the opportunities that were opening up in this space. Digitalis had developed a market-leading software package, Redbox, to identify market gaps, and along with the skills and experience of the team, this provided new ways to help clients protect their reputation online. While my previous work had been focused on marketing activities to elevate search engine rankings, at Digitalis the focus was on the reputational threats that the internet posed, which was a new and fascinating way for me to think about search engines.

Fast-forward to today, and our understanding of those threats and how to deal with them has evolved enormously, as the digital landscape itself has changed and new challenges for reputation management have emerged.

  • What does the Search Strategy team at Digitalis do?

When discussing what the team does, it is important to understand the goals of our clients. Most clients come to us with the aim of making the best first impression when somebody searches for them online.

While most people reading this may consider Google the first port of call when making an online search, our clients work internationally, and many countries have search engines whose popularity far exceeds that of Google locally. Naver (South Korea), Baidu (China), and Yandex (Russia) are just some of the ‘local’ search engines we work with.

Although 10 years ago it was possible to be invisible online, that is almost impossible now. People expect to find information about your company (or you as an individual) by searching, and to see a packaged overview that they can easily digest. This means ensuring information about you or your company is front and centre, that people can contact or connect with you socially, the most recent updates are prominent, and third-party validation and social proof exist to support your content.

Search engines often collate this information on a single page of their results, which is partly why so few people continue to page two. However, the content displayed on a search engine results page (SERP) may not be representative of the brand, with outdated news, namesake profiles, incorrect information, or even targeted harassment appearing to those conducting an online search.

The Search Strategy team’s role at Digitalis is to understand what is required to develop a good-looking and strong digital profile, and, by using our technology to understand what a SERP should look like, we work towards the creation, development, and promotion of assets (online content) to ensure our clients always put their best foot forward online.

  • How have you seen online search change during your 10 years with Digitalis? What challenges and opportunities have arisen as a result, and how has your team responded?

Changes occur daily when dealing with search engines. While most changes are minor and may not affect our clients, Google updates multiple times per day, making changes to the algorithm (how Google decides where sites rank) or the interface (how the results are displayed). The pace of change has increased over time: during 2009 Google made around 350-400 changes, but in 2020 that number rose to over 4,500. We endeavour to ensure that the work we do is resilient to many of these changes, and I’m happy to say that the SERPs we’ve helped to secure easily outperform the variations seen on SERPs we’ve not worked on.

Today’s Google page is almost unrecognisable to that of 10 years ago. Gone are the ’10 blue links’ to different websites, with no media and little additional information – today’s SERPs contain everything from simply-stated answers to a question, to news, images, videos, and tweets.

While universal search (results with multiple types of listings) existed when I first started at Digitalis, one of the first big changes was the addition of the Knowledge Graph: the box with information about a person, company, or topic that appears to the right of the standard results. The last decade has also seen a huge rise in the number of people searching from mobile devices and tablets, which fundamentally changes how results are displayed and how users interact with search.

Such changes have introduced additional vectors from which negative content can originate and display in the results, and adapting to understand these changes and evolve our response accordingly is a constant challenge that forms an important part of our role in the Search Strategy team.

  • What tips can you give to people who are looking to make sure their intended content is seen by those searching for them online?

Think about the above points on what people expect to see when they search for you or your company, and consider whether you have enough quality content to fill a SERP. If you don’t ensure you have enough content, other people may control what is being said about your brand. Ask yourself these questions:

Do you have the assets and content required to give searchers a complete picture of who you or your business are? Have you provided information that enables people to find out what you stand for, how to contact you, and what your current initiatives are? Are you engaged in social media, obtaining external validation, and being discussed on enough platforms and domains to fill an entire SERP?

Be aware that it can take time to develop your content online. Think ahead, and start to develop resilience to future threats now.

  • What do you think lies ahead in the online search space? How could this affect the way internet users find information and what kind of information people see?

It is difficult to predict which technologies and interfaces will capture public interest enough to fundamentally change how people interact with search. However, there is a very clear move from search engines towards being more proactive in determining what users want, along with significant developments in AI and machine learning algorithms that can help to determine what people actually mean when searching, particularly when they use ambiguous language.

One area we have investigated is voice search, with a lens on how its use could become reputationally damaging for a client. We have examined the search results for voice searches through virtual assistants (e.g. Google Home, Alexa, and Siri), and looked at factors that might determine what results are provided. For now, the number of voice searches is still relatively small, particularly for questions that don’t have specific and definitive answers, but it’s an area that we will continue to monitor as behaviour and interactions change over time.

We are also investigating what the development of the metaverse (an immersive virtual world made up of networks of connected spaces) will mean for brands and how they interact with others. With new technology comes new opportunities and risks for those online, and we are considering how companies and individuals can be best placed to make a good impression, while protecting themselves from reputational damage, going into the future.

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