December 4, 2009, 12:00 AM

How social network investments can boost natural search results

Although it only accounts for 7% of search listings, social media offers an opportunity to lift brands’ prominence in natural search.

While social media results currently account for only about 7% of the search engine listings of 1,000 branded keywords reviewed in a recent study, that percentage is likely to grow significantly in 2010, making social media a significant opportunity for brands seeking to show up more prominently in search results, according to the study, “The State of Search,” from digital marketing agency 360i.

That opportunity stems from the fact that most current search results listings draw from social media venues that are not controlled by the brand, according to 360i. The report found that 77% of the YouTube, Twitter and Facebook listings that appeared for brand searches in a cross-industry review of the top 100 U.S. brand advertisers were controlled by a party other than the marketer.

The report didn’t disclose the branded keywords studied. But hypothetically, for example, according to 360’s chief operating officer Jon Ragals, search results for a branded term such as “Whopper” might include Facebook brand pages actually operated by Burger King-as well as links to YouTube videos put up by others to spoof the brand, or Twitter or Facebook pages about the brand maintained by competitors or detractors.

Even though user-generated content about a brand isn’t necessarily negative, marketers that pay attention to social media listings in natural searches for their brand terms can better protect themselves from results that are unflattering, or simply off-message. They can do so, for example, by claiming the most relevant social URLs or destination addresses that they don’t already manage for their brands, such as a brand-labeled Twitter account. Monitoring social media results in searches for their brand also opens up opportunities for brands to build relationships with online influencers, the report said.

The report also studied the frequency of listings in Google universal searches that present results gathered from Google’s news, video, image, local and book search engines along with its Google’s main index.

The report found that universal listings appear more frequently in search results for non-branded terms. It compared results for 50,000 non-branded keyword terms to results for the 1,000 branded terms and determined that 57% of results in the first three pages of Google for non-branded keywords displayed universal search listings, compared to only 8% of all results analyzed for branded keywords.

That spells another opportunity for brand marketers not currently taking advantage of universal search, according to 360i. They can publish elements like maps, photos and videos on their own web sites or on Facebook and Twitter pages to claim more real estate in search results listings. “You want to embody the universal search aspect as part of your strategy to claim that shelf space,” says John Ragals, 360i chief operating officer.

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