The Rise of “The Human Algorithm”: A New Approach to Search Marketing

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The Rise of “The Human Algorithm”: A New Approach to Search Marketing


Participants are moving beyond traditional search results to discover alternative (human!) authority for crowd-sourced decision making.  What’s a marketer to do? INTRODUCTION Traditionally, search engine marketing has been about algorithms.  Organic search marketers focus on structuring content to please the algorithms to win high rankings.  Paid search marketers focus on creating relevant keywords, copy and landing pages to drive high quality scores to realize efficiencies.  The algorithms may be fickle, but—for the most part—marketers have control.  Make the effort to optimize, and you’ll see results. But what happens if the traditional notion of search marketing is flipped on its head?  What if marketers lost control and searchers moved from marketer-influenced results to people (participant)-influenced results?  We’re calling this trend “The Human Algorithm,” and it’s happening right now.  Search marketing is fundamentally different in this new era—success depends on pleasing algorithms and on pleasing and inspiring participants.  This CMO Briefing chronicles the rise of The Human Algorithm and offers a new, participant-centered approach to search marketing. THE PARTICIPANT Search is ubiquitous; it’s everywhere.  In many instances, participants may not even realize they’re searching.  We’re constantly gathering information from various sources to inform decision making.  And, a lot of the time, the most valuable information comes from our peers, not from advertisers.  Consider today’s typical participant purchase journey:

  1. Participant needs a new pair of bike shorts (you know, the really tight ones)
  2. Participant searches Google for “bike shorts” and sees a highly relevant, top-sponsored paid search ad from Bike Shorts Brand.  Participant also sees a perfectly optimized top-ranked organic listing from Bike Shorts Brand.  Through one of these listings, Participant learns about Bike Shorts Brand’s product, which peaks his interest.
  3. Participant starts to engage with Bike Shorts Brand and signs up for its newsletter.  He later receives some valuable content from Bike Short Brand in his email box and is pleased with the brand.
  4. Bike Shorts Brand retargets Participant in display and social, reminding him that he still needs some of those really tight bike shorts.  Bike Shorts Brand is now at the top of Participant’s consideration set.
  5. Participant is ready to buy.  Except, there’s one last thing.  Participant goes to Amazon to search for reviews and finds that other participants aren’t particularly fond of Bike Shorts Brand.  The deal is dead.

In this example, Bike Shorts Brand did a lot of things right—it effectively captured searcher demand for its product and then built a relationship with the participant.  But despite these efforts, Bike Shorts Brand forgot about The Human Algorithm, which made the big difference in the end. Today, participants are increasingly dependent on people-powered search results and answer platforms that feature context-rich human opinions—Amazon, TripAdvisor, Yelp, Quora, Twitter and Facebook.  Whether a brand makes a sale often comes down to what people are saying on these platforms: human algo 1human algo 2 human algo 3 THE ENGINES Social networks are clearly capitalizing on The Human Algorithm trend.  In January 2013, Facebook rolled out Graph Search.  Graph Search results are influenced by humans; they include information that the searcher’s friends have shared (people, photos, interests, places, “Likes”).  To illustrate, a user can search “NY restaurants my friends like” to see results for restaurants in NY liked by their Facebook friends: human algo 4 Additionally, Twitter rolled out the Twitter Human Computation Engine in January 2013, which puts a human layer on Twitter Search to increase accuracy.  Contributors look at trending queries and evaluate them for relevancy, effectively annotating Twitter’s search algorithm.  Twitter stated, “How would you know that #bindersfullofwomen refers to politics, and not office accessories? . . . [W]e need to teach our systems what these queries mean as quickly as we can [by sending them] to real humans to be judged.” How are the traditional engines embracing The Human Algorithm?  They’re continuing to expand social integrations to bring more human into their algorithms.  Bing revealed major social integration in 2012—the right-hand “sidebar” column that displays recommendations/advice related to the searcher’s query from friends, experts and enthusiasts, with emphasis on Facebook and Twitter.  Sidebar also features a box for searchers to pose questions to their Facebook friends.  In January 2013, Bing announced a five-fold increase in Facebook-influenced results: human algo 5 The challenge for the traditional engines is that Facebook, Amazon and Twitter “own” all the participant data that enables The Human Algorithm.  However, Microsoft has the Facebook partnership, and Google will continue to build social data of its own through Google+.  The main point is that participants want this content, and—whether they’re on a search engine, social site, answer platform or shopping engine—sites are working harder to deliver it to them. THE MARKETER As people-influenced content continues to influence the search results, search marketing success hinges on activating participants to create favorable content for your brand.  Consider Facebook Graph Search, which uses social signals to rank results.  Your brand will not appear in Graph Search results unless people are talking about you on Facebook.  Furthermore, the chatter about your brand must be positive; if it’s not, you risk appearing in Graph Search for all the wrong reasons. So what does the rise of The Human Algorithm mean for marketers?  As you may have guessed, going forward, all marketing campaigns must be squarely focused on spurring participants to create positive content about your brand (e.g. earned content) in order to positively influence search results.  Paid media—TV, out-of-home, email, paid search, display, paid social ads—is key to encouraging the creation of this earned content. This is certainly easier said than done.  However, some brands excel at encouraging participation.  Consider Cabela’s recent “In Your Nature” campaign.  The paid media (TV campaign) featured country singer Luke Bryan and the participant-centered tag line, “It’s In Your Nature” which conjures your passion and your bond with the outdoors: human algo 6 The campaign gave Cabela’s participants a platform to share their love for the outdoors.  These participants mobilized by creating earned content like tweets, Instagram photos, Facebook posts and user-generated YouTube videos—all about how Cabela’s is “in their nature,” just like it’s in Luke Bryan’s nature.  Via The Human Algorithm, this highly relevant, on-brand, earned content spirals to Facebook Graph Search, Twitter Search, Bing, Yahoo!, Google, etc. Word-of-mouth has always been the best marketing tool.  But word-of-mouth has never been more accessible than it is today.  And participants—with content creation machines like phones, tablets, social networks and video/photo-sharing platforms—have never been more empowered to create and spread word-of-mouth.  People-influenced search results will only grow.  This certainly complicates search marketing; things were much easier when marketers had all the control.  But, by focusing on inspiring participants to advocate for your brand, you can achieve greater search marketing success than ever in the era of The Human Algorithm.


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