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Real-Time Search Results and the Myth of Top Ranking

Real-time search is one of the most important developments in online marketing.  Much has been written about Google’s inclusion of breaking news and latest updates from micro-blogs such as Twitter and FriendFeed into its default SERP.  Like any major innovation, real-time search has had its proponents and critics, and my colleague Ted Ives has provided a great overview along with a real-time improvement [1] to the current algorithm.

Deciphering the algorithm, or how Google actually selects what content to include within the “News Results” or “Latest Results” section is a topic for another post.  As a marketer, I’m equally interested in where Google is choosing to place the block of real-time results within the standard SERP.

When I first read about “Relevance Meets the Real-time Web [2]”, I assumed that Google would blend the real-time results somewhere in the middle of the first page, just as they had with video results and local business results when appropriate.

But then I happened to search for [Goldman Sachs] after hearing about their CEO testifying in front of Congress.

buy generic viagra [3]

I was surprised to see what showed up at the top of the page:

Goldman [4]

I had taken it for granted that a search for [Goldman Sachs] would produce goldmansachs.com as the top result.  But with so much being written about the congressional testimony, Google must have presumed I was more interested in reading the latest news on Goldman Sachs than I was in reaching their official corporate web site.

I tested this with a few other companies and products (AOL, Toyota, Netflix) and  couldn’t replicate the result.  That was until I came across a story about a number of U.S. airlines raising the fees for checked luggage.  I ran a search for [United Airlines] and sure enough, Google had placed the news results at the top, and the fee increase was the lead story:

United Airlines [5]

I wanted to see if top billing for news results would also be applied to specific brands (rather than companies).  And just to see how Google treats its own company news, I ran a search for [Nexus One] – Google’s recently-launched android smartphone.   Once again, Google has placed the “News Results” at the top of the page, but also included the “Latest Results” just below:

Nexus One [6]

In addition to the more prominent placement of “Latest Results,” there was one other important difference between the [Nexus One] SERP and those of [United Airlines] and [Goldman Sachs]:

Google ran a paid search ad for Nexus One. United Airlines and Goldman Sachs did not.

There has been some debate in the search marketing world about the need to bid on your own brand terms.  On the one hand, you may end up paying for traffic that, in all likelihood, you would have captured with your organic listing.  On the other hand, bidding on your brand terms keeps your competitors from assuming the top position in the paid listing and gives you a vehicle to deliver timely messages and promotions.

Either way, most marketers had taken it for granted that with a decent amount of SEO effort, you should expect to see your own site listed as the top result for your brand keywords.

When I searched for these brands, UAL and Goldman had elected not to run PPC ads.  And with Google’s decision to lead with News Results, their official website was pushed down the page, below the negative headlines about their brand.  Google, on the other hand did include a sponsored result for Nexus One, and earned itself the top spot on the page, above the latest headlines and buzz.

If your company has any chance of becoming “newsworthy” and you believe it’s a good idea to have your web site show up #1 on a search for your brand term, bidding on your brand keywords has gone from being an accepted best practice to a virtual imperative.

Real-time search also heightens the importance of reputation management.  With the addition of tweets into the standard SERP, a search for [United Airlines] not only brings up Untied Airlines [7] – a site dedicated to customer complaints about UAL and its customer service, but also a 140-character performance assessment from “tbutler” six minutes ago:

United Still the Worst [8]

I recognize that United Airlines is an extreme example.  Virtually all the news about the airline industry is negative and even the most loyal of frequent flyers will rarely tweet anything close to:

“Just had an awesome flight on United Airlines. Thanks for the smooth landing and getting us to the gate 10 minutes early!”

But the lesson still applies.  Every business has to expect customer complaints and the backlash from public missteps.  Even the best customer service or PR effort cannot eliminate negative or slanderous messages about your brand.  By actively engaging in social media and taking a proactive approach to reputation management, a brand can reach something close to fair balance.

What’s most concerning is that real-time search brings the unvarnished truth from the outer reaches of the web (blogs, forums, the  twitter page of “tbutler”) to the first page of the Google search results.  And if these examples from United, Goldman, and Nexus One are any indication, the real-time results can even appear above the #1 organic search result.

Though you cannot control everything that’s written or tweeted about your brand, running a paid search campaign on your brand keywords at least gives you the power to control whose message appears at the top of the page.  And perhaps that’s exactly where this is going.  For many searches, the latest news stories or personal updates will in fact be the most relevant results.  So good for the user — they now have a far richer variety of information and sources from which to begin their navigation.   But what’s the impact to the marketer?  Apparently those in charge at United Airlines and Goldman Sachs had not thought it was necessary to bid on their own brand.   Maybe, like me, they had taken it for granted that the company site would always show up in first position.  Now these companies, and any others that are “in the news,” have no choice but to run a paid search campaign on their brand terms to secure their spot at the top of the page.

About Alec Green

Alec serves as Mother Hen of The Search Agents, making sure contributors mind their P's and Q's and never write the seven words you can't say on television. He's been called a "social media hater" who longs for the days of door-to-door selling and advertising in the phone book.