Don’t bother trying to game Google — your time and energy is better spent generating quality online content.
That’s according to Vanessa Fox, and she should know. Fox spent two years building tools for Web site owners while employed at online search giant Google. She left in 2007 to take a job at Zillow.
"I think that spending all of your time trying to figure out the algorithms and what’s changed the algorithms, that ultimately will not provide long-term value," said Fox, who will deliver a keynote address titled "What does the role of ‘Googling’ Play in Your 2010 Marketing Plan?" at the upcoming Real Estate Connect conference in New York City, which runs from Jan. 13-15 in New York City.
"The Web has evolved to the point — you don’t necessarily have to be a techie if you want to do well." So online marketers don’t necessarily need to be privy to insider search-engine-optimization (SEO) tips to succeed, she said — instead, the easier road to success is to provide meaningful content.
Fox, 38, a Seattle resident, left Zillow after a five-month stint, and now she divides her time, attention and expertise among several enterprises, which are all connected in some way to the business of online search. Her first book, "Marketing in the Age of Google: Your Online Strategy is Your Business Strategy," is due out in May.
Fox serves as a contributing editor at Search Engine Land, an online news and information source that covers the search-engine industry and related issues, such as search-engine marketing.
She also serves as an adviser to Jane and Robot, a site that offers technical advice to Web developers. And she is the creator of Nine By Blue, a site that goes beyond SEO to focus on broader online strategies for businesses to attract and engage customers.
Many real estate industry participants realized, early on, the potential for online technologies to change their business, Fox said.
"A large subset of the industry realized, maybe earlier than (other industries), that online was important," she said. But some industry participants may have been led astray in their marketing efforts, she added, as it can be difficult to determine bad advice from good advice in the world of online marketing.
And marketing must change to match consumer behavior.
"Real estate is one of those industries … customer behavior has really evolved over time. A lot of potential customers are now starting their research online. The traditional entryways of marketing may not be there anymore. Understanding not only the search environment, but even understanding how your customer behavior may have shifted from what you’ve expected" is important, she said. "The way they operate online is maybe different from how they’ve historically operated."
Some professionals have veered into the "spammy space," she said, resorting to more of a big stick and wide net approach to online marketing. …CONTINUED
There were those who "set up crazy ‘link farms’ trying to manipulate Google’s algorithms," she said. But the problem with trying to second-guess Google is that Google’s algorithms are constantly changing.
During the time she worked at Google, the company changed its algorithms about 400 times a year, she said. "You could spend all your time going after that, and it’s not really worth your time."
So what is worth your time if you’d like your site to get higher placement in Google’s search results?
Fox advocates the basics: Start a blog, generate some relevant content. "From the content perspective, it’s all about understanding the audience."
Real estate firms with more resources can find some definite value making the architecture of their Web sites more friendly to search engines, Fox said, and it may make good business sense to hire an SEO firm to ensure there is a "solid fundamental" approach to gaining more Web traffic.
Seeing Google from the inside hasn’t colored her perspective that much about online marketing, she said, though, "I do understand a bit more why people think that Google is a black box."
And that, perhaps, has made some professionals in the real estate industry and in other industries more gullible to snake-oil-salesmen SEO pitches.
"If you look for information, it’s really difficult to tell what’s really the good information," she said.
And that was impetus for her book project, she said. She sought in the book to explain how Google crawls Web sites and indexes information, for example — and "even that is really hard to find good, authoritative information about."
There is an imbalance between the money that is spent on search-engine ads vs. the volume of clicks to nonpaid or "organic" search results, Fox noted.
"People need to invest more in organic: 85 percent of clicks are to organic (results)," she said, while an equivalent majority of online marketing dollars are spent on keyword advertising. "There is certainly an opportunity there in organic."
And despite the economic downturn, Fox still sees ample opportunity these days for innovation, too.
Through her work as an "entrepreneur in residence" at Ignition Partners, a Seattle-based venture capital firm, Fox hears the latest, greatest pitches from a range of companies seeking money from investors. …CONTINUED
Success in the current economic environment — and given the phenomenal speed of technological change — has a lot to do with social dynamics, she said, and the ability of the innovators to collaborate and adapt to change at a rapid rate.
Successful innovators are "able to evolve … (and are) open to the feedback of others." And Web 2.0 technology lends itself to this adaptability. "It’s such a low-cost, evolving thing. Get stuff out there, and iterate as you go."
Those innovators who are stuck in a single paradigm, wearing blinders to business-model tweaks and overhauls, may be ultimately doomed.
Another key change from the days of the dot-com boom and burst: "It is not only important to have a good idea and a good audience, but to have a revenue model," Fox said.
"It’s amazing to me still how many … fledgling companies that have no idea how they’re going to make money."
But don’t expect a massive Web 2.0 crash of Web 1.0 proportions, Fox said. "There hasn’t been the investment that there was then."
Another leg up for this latest wave of innovation is the online-offline convergence, Fox said.
"There isn’t as much of a distinction of online and offline," she said, so it’s no longer such a stretch for consumers to spend money to pay for music online, or to pay to watch a movie online.
"It used to be online was a separate thing from everything else. It seems like once we’ve hit this point that it’s all just this one big thing, it’s easier for consumes to think about spending money for things they do online because it’s exactly the same as they do offline," she said.
Mobile technology is a part of this convergence, she noted, and is bringing the power of the Internet to house hunters as they are driving around a neighborhood looking at homes, as an example.
Fox has dabbled in online technologies for her personal real estate transactions. When she bought a home in 2005 she searched for properties online and handed her agent some printouts of homes on her wish list.
And when she was selling her home at the end of 2007, she posted it on Zillow.com and built her own Web site to advertise the property.
Watch Vanessa Fox deliver a keynote address, "What does the role of ‘Googling’ Play in Your 2010 Marketing Plan?" during the Real Estate Connect conference in New York City, which runs from Jan. 13-15. Click here for details.
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