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Spotlight on Search Strategy

August 2023
 by Barry Smith

Spotlight on Search Strategy

August 2023
 By Barry Smith

As the online search world continues to evolve rapidly with the rise of AI chatbots and social media search tools, our Search Strategy team has the task of ensuring we at Digitalis understand the changes and the potential effects on our clients. Our Head of Search Strategy, Barry Smith, discusses the new opportunities and threats created by changes in online search, and how we work with our clients to ensure they continue to make the best impression online.

  1. Setting the scene for how the Search Strategy team works, what changes to the online search landscape are affecting your clients today?

In search, things never stay static for long. The days when Google’s search results page constituted 10 blue links are long gone – results are now presented with a mix of answer boxes, questions, factsheets of individuals and companies, images, videos, and news. For our clients, each of these content elements are potential transmitters of negative (or even false) information about them or their business.

But Google is not the only search engine, and social media and AI-powered search tools are now also in increasing use for search, bringing new challenges. Whatever search mechanism is being used, the best strategy for us and our clients is tackling the information at source. If our clients have a strong digital profile consisting of accurate and up-to-date information, then the datasets that the search tools are trained on are more likely to return positive search results about them.

  • What kind of clients do you work with in the Search Strategy team, and why do they come to you?

Our clients can be anybody from political leaders to niche or boutique businesses, not forgetting high street brands and even internationally-renowned celebrities. The core management service we offer is to help our clients develop their online profiles, ensuring search engine users find the most up-to-date and relevant information front and centre when they conduct an online search.

While our work can be reactive following a particular event or issue that threatens to damage a client’s reputation, we also offer proactive management, helping ensure search results are resilient to the emergence of negative or harmful content.

Clients who want to ensure that particular messaging is discoverable online can come to us to help them identify strong platforms to publish that message on, and we can help optimise, promote, and amplify the message to reach the right audience. We do this using our own technology that monitors and tracks huge numbers of results daily, while identifying changes to the factors used by search engines to inform their ranking algorithms. In this way, our actions and recommendations are based on quantifiable data and have maximum impact.

  • What skills and backgrounds do you have in the Search Strategy team, and how do you bring these together to provide the best solutions for your clients’ needs?

Because our work at Digitalis is global, languages are a cornerstone of our team. Speakers of European, Asian, African, Arabic, and other languages allow us to quickly understand the landscapes we are looking at – not just on Google, but also on platforms used across diverse countries and continents including Yandex, Naver, Baidu, and Seznam.

For the SERP (search engine results page) team in particular, those languages extend to coding languages including HTML, CSS, JavaScript and Python, as our tech is integrated into everything that we do. The team also includes data analysts and scientists, and technical specialists in different marketing disciplines.

Backgrounds for the team vary, as diversity is important in a team that requires strong critical thinking skills, but most of us come from either computer science or digital marketing backgrounds. Several members of the team have learned and developed from entry level through our in-house training and development programmes.

  • How will AI change search, how are you responding to the new wave of AI chatbots, and what are the implications for the way clients should approach their online profile?

It’s important to note that in its current form, AI is unlikely to significantly change how people search. Several chatbot platforms are even adding disclaimers stating that people should independently verify the information they give. Although it is becoming more accurate and sophisticated all the time, we are still some way from AI being a replacement to how people discover information.

However, it is a vital part of our work at Digitalis to ensure we understand any changes to online landscapes and how users interact with those changes. Before the recent arrival of AI chatbots, we were already aware of how younger audiences are turning to sources other than search engines for news and information. TikTok is particularly popular, and the increasing appetite for information from its platform is something that TikTok is increasingly facilitating, offering incentives to content creators who produce longer, more informative, videos.

While OpenAI’s ChatGPT has catapulted chatbots into the limelight, search engines have been using AI for long time. Google has been using its machine learning technology, RankBrain, for nearly 10 years as part of its ranking algorithm to determine what results it prioritises and displays. Since the advent of large language models (LLMs) in 2017, Google has made advancements in natural language processing (NLP) thanks to the abundance of training data available: first with BERT (Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers), which could better understand user inputs in context, and more recently with MUM (Multitask Unified Model), which can incorporate other media types such as images and video, and is 1,000 times more powerful than BERT.

ChatGPT’s answer engine does signal a potential change in the way people will search for information online. Users can type in a question and be given a single answer, without having to sift out ads or spam to find relevant content. This type of interaction has existed for a long time with virtual assistants (VAs) such as Siri and Alexa, and has not had a major impact on how people search – though these older VAs are not as powerful as the new wave, and the new search platforms offer a more direct replacement to online search, as queries and results are text-based rather than voice-based.

However, AI chatbots are only as good as the data they are trained on, and often the source data is either inaccurate or biased. And if a user is served with misinformation about you or your company, there is little opportunity to rebut it, which is why it is important to control the information at source. With the rise of AI chatbots, ensuring the content about your brand that is available online is accurate and unambiguous is more critical than ever.

  • Finally, what would your advice be to people looking to ensure they are making the best impression when somebody searches for them online?

We have long said that if you don’t control your results, somebody else will – and that is true today more than ever. One negative story could be the only thing people ever learn about you, so understanding how to make platforms work to gain visibility of your own messaging is the key to managing your online reputation.

Make sure you have quality online content about you and your business to give online searchers a complete and accurate picture of who you are. Provide information that enables people to find out what you stand for, how to contact you, and what your current initiatives are. Obtain external validation and make sure your social media presence is well-managed. Being discussed in a positive way on a number of platforms and domains will help ensure quality content about you fills a SERP when people search online for you. It takes time to develop your online content, so ensure you think ahead and start to develop resilience now.

The Search Strategy team at Digitalis can help you to understand what is required to develop a strong digital profile, and, using our proprietary technology combined with our expertise on search, we work toward the creation, development, and promotion of online content to ensure you always put your best foot forward online.

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