Meet The Search Engineers

by Jon Fortgang Branded3

Tim Grice, CEO at Branded3, explains why content and engagement are the real engines driving SEO

Every month Google handles more than 100 billion search requests and in October 2015 Google’s Senior Vice President of Search Amit Singhal finally confirmed what many already assumed: a higher proportion of those search queries are now being tapped out (or spoken into) mobile devices than desktop computers.

Tim Grice

As Google comes to understand users better, so marketers need to refine their understanding of Google. “We make significant investment in understanding Google and the way search as an industry is developing,” says CEO Tim Grice (pictured). “This gives us great insight and allows us to stay ahead of the curve, delivering strategies that provide businesses with long term growth.”

An engaging proposition

Founded in 2003 by Vin Chinnaraja, Branded3’s early work focused on digital production. With the arrival in 2008 of Director of Strategy Patrick Altoft, the agency emphasised its search offering. Rapid growth followed. In 2010, when Grice joined, there were 10 staff on the books. Now there are 70 working in the agency’s Leeds and London offices and 80 per cent of the agency’s business is focused on search.

“In 2011 we were appointed as Money Supermarket’s search agency without a pitch,” says Grice. “It was this key win that allowed us to invest further and generate rapid progression. Our approach has been to drive inbound leads through thought-leadership; every member of the team is given access to the training and opportunities to become experts in their field and to contribute to the industry through blogging and speaking.”

With a 40-strong client roster drawn from finance, retail, automotive, i-gaming and travel, Branded3’s current clients include Virgin Holidays, First Direct, Vue, Ladbrokes and First4Lawyers. So how does Grice define the agency’s approach?

“Our key proposition is engagement. Whether through SEO, UX, PR or content strategy, we have to aim to understand and engage the user.

“There are many challenges facing marketers, particularly in the shifting digital landscape. Some in-house teams can struggle with internal silos which make it difficult to get campaigns signed off. We believe that the only way around this is education. Agencies need to bring together the different in-house teams and show clients how a joined-up approach can deliver on all business objectives.

“Businesses need to be more agile; things generally take far too long to get done, leaving those businesses behind the curve. Those that invest in improving on this will be the ones that win in years to come.

“Lastly, digital services are overlapping, not only in terms of specific skills but in terms of benefits and results. Online PR, for example, is an activity that usually needs input from content, SEO and development. The benefits aren’t just column inches. They’re traffic, ranking and even sales. Understanding how all these areas work together is critical, but it’s also key to have a robust attribution model that allows for smart investment decisions to be made.”

Most marketers worth their salt are familiar now with the interdependence of previously distinct disciplines. Content drives ranking; ranking drives awareness; awareness elevates trust; trust drives purchase consideration. How does Grice view the relationship between those different digital strands and how can marketers tie them together more effectively?

“Google wants to organise the world’s information, delivering results that are genuinely useful to a searcher,” he says. “When someone enters a keyword into Google they’ll have a direct intention. Someone searching for credit cards is likely to be looking to apply for one, but may also have passive intentions, such as air miles, interest rates and rewards. Google wants to fully answer the user intention, rather than serving an organic result that only deals with the application.

“Content is used to answer the intention, whether the result is long form, video, imagery, or dynamic. In order to succeed, your content has to deliver against the user’s intention. Google uses multiple signals to measure how engaging a website is; click-through rates, dwell time and even manual reviews are all factors in increasing or decreasing your visibility in Google.”

As an example of that strategy in action, Grice points to Branded3’s award-winning recent work with Virgin Holidays which demonstrates, he says, how powerful a content strategy can be when it comes to increasing search visibility.

“The project started with in-depth research into the cruise market, digging out all the questions and queries a customer may have before committing to a cruise. This research was then used to formulate a content strategy, for which a new section of the website was designed to deliver the most comprehensive answers to customers as quickly as possible. The impact on search visibility and overall sales was profound. The savings in PPC alone halved the cost of acquisition.”

Keeping it real-time

Search agencies, of course, are nothing if they’re not adaptable. In the wake of the shift to mobile comes a new challenge in the form of wearable technology and the internet of things. How does Grice see new devices and smaller screens impacting on search marketing?

“I think we’ll see significant growth within the industry,” he says. “Search marketers will need to understand where wearable search fits into the user journey in order to tailor their content and experiences. Mobile is heavily focussed on ‘real time’ with users looking for locations and even product information whilst they are physically shopping, and I would imagine wearable tech will play a similar role, ultimately infringing on mobile search. As part of this, voice search will play a major role, and I can see search data being split into desktop, mobile and eventually voice so that SEOs can better optimise.”

More broadly, says Grice, the search market has matured and results are now grounded in collaboration.

“We need to be involved with multiple stakeholders within a business in order to be effective, agreeing strategy and sign off. I think the biggest challenges for businesses lie in how they deal with internal communication and how quickly they can adapt to change. Delivering in search and digital requires combined expertise and slick processes which allow changes to be made quickly.

“Since a big part of our proposition is education, we’re eager to help our clients understand the changes that need to be made by running regular seminars and roundtable discussions. We’ve even been involved in the recruitment process, helping to shape new teams and departments. Businesses that don’t address this will find themselves falling further behind, leaving gaps for new players to enter and take market share.”

Words: Jon Fortgang