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The Future of Search: An Interview with Google’s Sam Sebastian

Sam Sebastian, director of local and B2B markets for Google, answers questions about the future of search.

Marketers have long been told by SEO consultants that long-tail search was ‘where it’s at’. What is your take on the quality of content vs. quantity of content—especially as it pertains to B2B and local business content marketers?

Both are important and can vary by the type of content considered.  An industrial distributor may have a massive catalog of SKUs with related content (pricing, specs, etc.) and should allow as many of those SKUs to be indexed for purchase-oriented searching. For professionals seeking knowledge, original/quality content such as research, in-depth reports, thoughtful analysis and so on will go a long way in achieving better ranking.

In your opinion, what are the fundamental SEO initiatives B2B marketers should be undertaking?

  • Do something cool: Make sure your site stands out from the competition in a good way.  For example, more professionals are looking for rich content online, so make sure your library of amazing video content is indexed using Rich Snippets.
  • Include relevant words in your copy: Try to put yourself in the shoes of searchers. What would they query to find you? Your business name, location, products, etc., are important. It’s also helpful to use the same terms in your site that your users might type (e.g., you might offer “next-generation marketing tools” but most searchers might type “marketing automation software”), and to answer the questions they might have. It helps to know your customers.
  • Be smart about your tags and site architecture: Create unique title tags and meta descriptions; include Rich Snippets markup from where appropriate. Have intuitive navigation and good internal links.
  • Sign up for email forwarding in Webmaster Tools: Help us communicate with you, especially when we notice something awry with your site.
  • Attract buzz: Natural links, +1s, likes, follows … In every business there’s something compelling, interesting, entertaining or surprising that you can offer or share with your audience. Provide a helpful service, educate people, be a thought leader and users will share and reshare your content.
  • Stay fresh and relevant: Keep content up to date and consider options such as building a social media presence (if that’s where a potential audience exists) or creating an ideal mobile experience if your users are often on the go.
  • Go mobile: Mobile searching and browsing in B2B is growing rapidly due to the adoption of high-end mobile devices.  Make sure you have a mobile-optimized site/content and that it is getting indexed accordingly.

We’ve seen Google search results start to show “latest posts” at the top of the list — but there’s some confusion about which posts will show up there.

So, to start, it sounds like you are referring to “Search Plus Your World” (see screenshot below), which as I’m sure you know, was Google’s latest update to the search results to make them more “social.”

  1. Personal Results – Pictures/posts relevant to your search, which are your own OR have been shared with you via a circle.
  2. Profiles in Search – People in your circles OR people we think you might be interested in following.
  3. People and Pages – Any brand or people pages related to your search query that we think you might be interested in based on your search query. It sounds like this is the focus of the question and we’ve been seeing a lot of this lately with advertisers concerned that they see their competitors in this space and want to know how they can show. You have to meet a certain, undisclosed, threshold number of +1s in order to be eligible to show in this spot.

For Google+ posts, is it just publicly shared posts or will it show up for those in my circles?  And does this also affect Brand pages?

Both. It is any post shared publicly OR shared with you specifically by someone in your circle.  Yes, posts by Brand pages can also be included in this space.

How important is social for B2B and local?

I’d say it’s becoming more and more important. Two themes stand out with Local/B2B and social:

  • Users trust recommendations – Personal recommendations are trusted more than any other source–90 percent trust these. Also, 77 percent of brand content is created by consumers – if people feel connected to a brand, they share that. So people want recommendations and we know they’re looking online. We also know now that this certainly includes B2B and Local. (Quick Plug: Google+ and “Search Plus Your World” are designed to share those recommendations with your potential customer at the right time.)
  • Market via conversation – A Public Storage or an Orkin will probably never have tons of Google+ or Twitter followers but those who are looking for that service and click through to their Facebook page or Google+ page can get an idea for the company’s identity and how it does business. Do they have good ratings? How are they engaging their customers? How are they handling complaints? Are most posts positive or negative?

What are some of the challenges you see marketers tackling in “closing the loop” between their Google-based marketing and their ROI from customer sales?

We are seeing progress.  This is probably the first thing we push with customers –  tracking.  We don’t want them to invest with us unless they have a sense of what traffic is worth to them.  Once they’ve built out a value model, any digital advertising can be compared to the expectations and then a customer can double down or pull back accordingly.  I’d say customers are getting better in this area, but it’s still the early days. Most of the issues are on the sales fulfillment process at a customer.  Once a digital lead is generated, how are they tracking it internally, how are sales people compensated, how do they round robin a lead, how do they pre-qualify a lead, etc.

The pace of innovation in digital marketing vehicles — from Google alone, but then multiplied by all the other growing channels and services out there — is truly dizzying. How do you suggest that regular marketers keep up?

Keep it simple and focus on the big impact areas first.  Define your marketing or customer acquisition model for online or offline and then test certain platforms and determine how they work.  But try to compare all platforms on an apples-to-apples comparison as much as possible.  Then slowly build out your marketing mix focusing on the biggest impact components.  I have many customers asking me all about social, or advertising on Pinterest or Pandora, but they still don’t have a basic search engine marketing campaign built out or they don’t have the basic tracking in place.  Start with the basics, master the components that can have the biggest impact, define your value model, then test new areas once you have the fundamentals in place.

What’s your favorite perk working at Google?

The people.  I think we hire the best people in the world and it’s a privilege working alongside smart, dedicated, disciplined and fun people, who always try to do the right thing.


ABOUT SAM SEBASTIAN: For six years, Sam has been responsible for leading Google’s Local and Government Markets sales and operations organizations in North America. Sebastian’s Local Markets team helps locally driven marketers – such as real estate, coupon, legal and home services firms – utilize Google’s ad platform to realize greater efficiencies and returns from local advertising. Sebastian’s Government, Politics & Non Profit team helps the federal government, non profits and advocacy organizations, political candidates and causes execute multiplatform digital engagement strategies. Sam is also a keynote speaker at Content Marketing World 2012.

This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of Chief Content Officer. Sign up to receive your free print subscription.