marketing to algorithms

it’s funny – you play around with an amorphous idea for a while and then you come across an article that eloquently and succinctly sums up that idea. the idea in question being marketing to algorithms.

the idea is simple – as more and more of our commercial life is lived online, we use filters and searches to to help fulfill our needs. and we leave a measurable digital trail behind us.

for instance, we may search the Opodo database for the cheapest flight, or use recommendations in iTunes to help decide our next download. for marketers, this offers two distinct possibilities:

  1. to find out as much as we can about how the algorithms work and use that information to give our products and services the greatest placement. ie. make sure the flight we are promoting comes up first in Opodo.
  2. to tap into (monitor) the trail and find out exactly what it is people are looking for. that might be to use yahoo’s keyword selection tool to pick the best term to describe our ‘flights to san francisco’ to ensure that we get the best coverage.

the second point seems to be the hardest to communicate internally, but the easiest to put into practice: that marketers can know more about their audience than ever before and use this in shaping their products and the way they communicate them. ie. bear in mind the top search terms when writing copy – these are the trigger words that will link our products/services to potential users’ intent.

the first point, the studying of algorithms has been the mainstay of fields such as SEO for a long time now. although to maintain the integrity of the information they provide, most website publishers won’t let marketers know how their algorithms work. what do you do? resort to black-box science experiments – changing possible criteria and looking at what comes out. for SEO’s this could be changing title tags on a page, and watching the effect on rankings. where this gets interesting is when you look at the algorithm as a proxy for the masses that lay behind it. the black box will always have one common objective – to provide the users with the most useful information. what i’m suggesting is that we use the digital trail to find out as much about our audience as possible, but then use traditional techniques (like well-written customer-focused copy, as opposed to over-optimized SEO-heavy copy) to attract the crowds, and hence the algorithm.

in the SEO world, this is called employing ‘white hat’ techniques, ie. spending less time looking at every possible factor in the search engine’s algorithm, and more looking at what the search engine’s visitors might need. after all, the black box is just the proxy.

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