The very title of this article would probably make most non-masochist digital strategists cringe. Changes in Google’s or Facebook’s algorithms, procedures, and policies are downright frightening because they are very hard to plan for. However, there are a few key learnings that can be helpful to keep in mind to be better prepared for these updates, which will affect your day-to-day marketing tactics.

Historically, search and social algorithms are constantly in flux. There have been more updates, adjustments, and evolutions than there are Mothman prophecies. Some of these larger updates have had a particularly significant impact on how to market in the digital space. Here are a few examples that have had notable effect on brand and digital tactics and are important lessons on preparing for future search and social media behaviors.

Some Big Shifts From the Past

The words you are not really using: Meta Keywords. Remember how much fun it used to be to put meta tag keywords all over the sites you built, regardless of what you were actually talking about? Brands and properties would put every word under the sun to help increase clicks to their sites. The brand site could have been about hypertension but because you had “Loch Ness Monster” in the meta data, you were getting tons of clicks and looking like the most popular site on earth. Google slowly relied less on meta tag keywords in code and officially put the kybosh on indexing for them around 2009. That was a big change because marketers had to quickly adapt. You could no longer grab a site visit from someone searching for something that wasn’t really what you were talking about with your property. It was long overdue and the change made sense. Marketers refined how they looked at keyword trends.

Good keyword research is still crucial, but you have to actually find a way to make those keywords relevant to your site copy, not just hidden code. It was a big step, with Google providing a better search experience for their customers, and it greatly changed the way marketers approached content strategy and copywriting. There are a few copywriters still out there who list “keywords” in the header of their manuscripts. But they are not doing it directionally for programmers to meta tag; instead they use them as a reference to help them remember what to leverage in the body copy. It also is useful for developers using certain Content Management Systems (CMS) platforms.

The Mobile Revolution: Responsive Design

After the iPhone debuted and changed the world, finding someone who regularly viewed websites on a desktop computer was harder than capturing Bigfoot. This behavioral change regarding the way material is viewed has greatly impacted digital development and the pharmaceutical marketing industry as a whole. Agencies increased their scopes of work by hundreds of hours to prepare for multiple layout submissions, reviews, development, and more—because Google no longer cared about non-mobile-friendly sites.

Google was once again ensuring that their users would be provided the best possible search experience. The marketing industry adapted to this change slower than the Mongolian Death Worm in the desert. However, CMSs and Software as a Service (SaaS) companies did adjust. Now, most of the sites built within the industry usually utilize some form of a templated code that responds to multiple devices in a fairly painless manner.

Tricked Ya: Display URLs

You see an ad, it’s about a health condition you might be experiencing, and it promises to tell you more. You are lured to it like a Kraken to a distressed ship but when you arrive…surprise—it’s trying to sell you a new medication. Marketers used to do this all of the time. An unbranded ad would be created under the guise of providing altruistic disease information with a catchy domain name that sounds like it will answer all your questions, but really it’s just trying to sell you a drug for that disease. When you actually click on the ad, you are redirected to a pharmaceutical drug website with maybe two lines of copy about your dreaded disease.

Granted, Google was making (and still does in non-pharma) tons of money off of these ads, however Google soon realized this was another flawed experience for the end user. The brand Google connotes a true knowledge acquisition experience. People would search on Google to get the most accurate result, but the paid ads that brands created were more deceptive than a stuffed jackalope. So, changes and policies were implemented to ensure end users would know their ultimate destination.

Social media soon followed. After all the instances of fake ads and news on Facebook during the last presidential election, social media platforms had to adapt to become more strict about how marketers were using redirects, vanity URLs, and more.

Both of these are lessons about how important it is for properties such as Facebook and Google to be true to their users and provide a trusted experience despite the money that the companies may have been making on these ads. Even with these adjustments, it’s still a profitable approach because they provide their user base with a worthwhile experience. Marketers still need to reach those users, so they work to adapt to and incorporate most of the recommended procedural changes.

So, What Can You Learn From All These Changes?

There have been countless updates, changes, and procedural revisions—particularly within healthcare marketing—that have caused marketers to reassess, scramble, and adapt. However, there is a common theme and an important strategic attribute to Google, Facebook, and other search and social platforms that those responsible for the marketing are reminded of with each change. They are in the business of providing customers with an honest, clean user experience. With that in mind, naturally any future updates will continue to reflect that strategy. While appealing to marketers and businesses with ad services will also be important, it will not be a priority. If it was, they’d risk alienating the huge consumer customer base they have worked so diligently to maintain. That experience will likely continue to evolve, and it’s incumbent upon marketers to continually remind themselves when playing in Google’s space, as well as on social media, that their efforts also play a significant role in providing users with a satisfying experience while still finding a way to market their products.

If users are searching and interacting with key themes and conversations, brands should try to be part of those very conversations and topics. Marketers can incorporate these themes into their own content and tie in subtle connections to a brand without the user feeling they’ve been force-fed a diet of “pick me” and “ask your doctor about this.”

As search and social continue to evolve and shape the digital experience, even greater changes are most likely on the near horizon, given the historical evolution of their supporting algorithms. This raises an important question: Are those who are responsible for marketing healthcare brands prepared not just for today, but for the evolving search requirements and promotional and educational opportunities of the future?

Predictions for Future Updates

Let’s close out with some predictions of what future changes may be ahead.

Answers Without Clicking: The Knowledge Card (that little tidbit of information you see on the right when you search) and Google Answers will likely become more prominent in that users may end up not being routed to a brand destination at all. Perhaps it’s time for brands to examine what their Wikipedia entry says, because that forum is often served up as the “objective” source. Search engines will undoubtedly continue to vet the quality and authority of their content, similar to the way SPAM filters are used by Gmail and Thunderbird.

Voice and Visual Search: Expect more emphasis on speech to search and using photos to instantly search something within Google or social media channels. Pinterest in the social sphere has already begun addressing this with Pinterest Lens, which searches items based on the photo you provide.

Further Transparency: In the wake of fake news scandals, there is an extra effort by social media platforms to vet their sources. Social media marketing is filled with brands accessing “influencers” to organically promote a brand, but what if social media platforms began to evaluate and provide guidance about how much that influencer should reveal about paid endorsements?

The way marketers have to plan for future search and social media algorithms is no different than the way they’ve adapted to the ways meta data changed, indexing for mobile sites, and more by continuing to evolve brand properties to deliver the easiest and most reliable search and social media experience for the user.

  • Gene Fitzpatrick

    Gene Fitzpatrick is SVP, Engagement Strategist at Ogilvy Health. Gene is also the co-creator and host of Hometown Tales, a podcast about urban legends. He has placed several cryptozoological references throughout this article to honor that show. See how many you can find. 

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