A look back at search, social media and mobile in 2013

The end of the year is a great time to recap and look at the ever-evolving landscape of online marketing. Changes are inevitable and in the business world, adaptation to these changes is crucial. So what happened in 2013 that was worth noting?

Search

google
Google’s changes are aimed at better quality results

There’s no doubt that in 2013 ‘search’ changed forever with a distinct shift towards returning better quality results for searchers.
Google has been at the forefront of these changes, as it so often is, with many adjustments to its algorithm that made SEOs everywhere tap their screen with a middle knuckle just to make sure everything was still working properly.
The search giant is on a mission to outdate old-school techniques and make search marketing easier for business owners to embrace and harder for practitioners to fool the engines (and often their own customers) by unfairly manipulating results.
Significantly it has removed much of the information from analytics that helped report which keywords and phrases were sending people to your website.

Focus on content not keywords

Commonly referred to as ‘(not provided)’ the information now hidden from analytics was used by business owners and SEOs alike to weight content on websites. Using keywords and phrases has been fair game for many years, and there was indeed a rumble of thunder when Google first announced is was killing off what many thought was its most valuable piece of collected data. But it has removed it in the hope that websites will adhere more closely to its content guidelines rather than rearrange words and phrases to get higher, often resulting in poor grammar.
It’s also made incremental changes to its content algorithm in general, and these are also likely to penalise keyword stuffing and reward good copywriting. Equally, changes to its backlink algorithm have made spammy links much more likely to harm your website than benefit it, and the watchword here is ‘natural’.
If your links are natural you have nothing to worry about. Generally, natural means they are placed to assist the user in his or her purpose. If they are contrived as likely to being unnatural, linking to websites for search engine, not human, benefits, it will penalise your site, either automatically during its regular ‘crawls’, or manually when it suspects something more manipulative is afoot. Large sites suffered as a consequence of this last year.

Conversational search

Later on in the year, Google introduced another process it calls Hummingbird. This algorithm seeks to make searches more ‘conversational’ and uses the structure of a sentence to better understand user intent.

salad
You don’t need Google to help you find a salad in Edinburgh. Photo: Laurel Fan/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

I decided to put this to the test when I wanted to buy a salad in Edinburgh. Not a difficult task as most of the capital’s workforce is as likely to have its lunch ‘with a salad’ as another city is as likely to have it ‘with chips’.
Assuming Google would know my location (My phone’s location service is turned on), I asked big G to: ‘find me a salad nearby’.
I had hoped that ‘find me’ would suggest my intent, and ‘nearby’ would be enough to trigger the location aspect of the search. Well, unless the New York Flat Iron Deli is just around the corner, the results it gave me were diabolical.However, I do think conversational search will improve rapidly and my search was not particularly scientific.
In case you’re wondering, I did find a salad, but it was no thanks to Google’s new bird.

Social media

Also in the news this year was Facebook. It became a publicly listed company with shareholders, and an attached obligation to return a healthy profit for them.
In many ways, Facebook has become the bane of marketers’ lives, due to the seemingly simple way it hopes to get you to cough up – by hiding your updates.
In reality, it’s just doing what newspapers have been doing for years – charging you accordingly for better visibility.

The Facebook ‘ransom’

The fact it’s been free for so many years is the gripe, but it’s also bad timing for Facebook because many small business are just beginning to realise that even without a financial investment, it’s a difficult medium for small businesses to master. What now seems like a ‘ransom’ is just the last straw for businesses who struggled to make it pay.
The gurus are loving it, because while Facebook are being quite honest they’re after your dosh, business owners are still looking to claw back the effort, if not the cash, they’ve put into Mark Zuckerberg’s project-turned-business, and they’re starting to distrust the social network. Of course there is no shortage of unscrupulous gurus, exclaiming their ‘independence’ just peddling the news of Facebook’s changes and charging you for a solution, which is basically to pay up, and with Facebook advertising is refreshingly inexpensive, all seems well, until the guru’s invoice comes in, then it all seems a bit… Facebook!

Instagram icon
Facebook bought Instagram, but muddied it’s hashtags

In other news, Facebook used the cash it has in the bank to buy Instagram, which in turn became bigger than Twitter (in numbers) apparently, but who cares. Twitter and Instagram aren’t trying to do the same thing, so comparing numbers is academic.
The photo-sharing service being largely devoid of words, relies heavily on hashtags to establish communities. In fact, to be quite honest, apart from Twitter, Instagram aces the hashtag system.
But when Facebook also introduced hashtags later in the year, it all went a bit pear-shaped, because when Instagram’s beautifully-formed hashtags were shared on their mothership timelines, they were converted to Facebook’s sore-thumb, uninspiring, dullard hashtags.
This year we also saw Vine, and shortly afterwards, Instagram, both launch a six-second and 15-second (respectively) video blogging platform.
Vine as a standalone service from the Twitter stable, and Instagram as part of the existing photo-sharing service, both romped along battling for users without either setting the heather alight. Well not yet anyway, and if they do, let’s hope somebody’s there to capture it on Vine or Instagram and hashtagged appropriately.

Mobile

Mobiles and tablets
We are all using tablets, mobiles and desktops in a much more seamless way

The ‘mobile web’ bandwagon continued apace with most of the British population now accessing the internet more on our phones and tablets than we do on desktops.
Distinctive differences between these two markets (tablets/smartphones) emerged telling an interesting tale about website usage, ecommerce and their lifestyle applications (TV, shopping, etc).
But what is the ‘mobile web’? Is it a thing at all? What does it look like? Who cleans it?
Somebody once said, “There is no Mobile Web. There is only The Web, which we view in different ways. There is also no Desktop Web. Or Tablet Web.”
That somebody was right. Some people get too fixated on a buzzword that seeks to differentiate an emerging ‘thing’.
Let’s not put ‘mobile’ on a pedestal. Your customers are using mobiles and tablets. Full stop. Where that fits in with your online and indeed offline marketing is where you should be looking for results.
As Jack Jones of Dad’s Army would say, ‘Don’t panic!’.
Look at your stats, analyse your traffic, understand your mobile audience and what they use your site for.
Rather predictably, the mobile trend has moved towards a technique called ‘responsive’. You may have seen this in your Twitter stream as desperate web designers clamour to use hip and trendy buzzwords while website owners were still getting to grips with a smartphone.
Ignore it. Not because it’s bad, it isn’t, it’s a good way to design websites. We use the technique ourselves, Google likes it, it’s future-proof and it’s inherently usable. But you should ignore it for the reason that, like everything, there is good responsive design and there is bad. The technique designers use isn’t a measure of whether they can help you keep your audience captivated as they move from device to device. Choose for strategic business reasons.

And finally… a bit about us

December is the anniversary of our first year on the high street. And what a super year it has been.

Canary Dwarf, Forres
If you want to see how transparent we are, come and look through our window

It’s not the usual place to find a web design or marketing agency, but we wanted to bring ourselves out into the open, be transparent and to ‘be there’ for customers when they needed us.
We also wanted to provide a venue for training, and that area of our work has shown tremendous growth. For the last two months of the year, we were fully booked with full-day and half-day Sitebuilder workshops right up to our last trading day of the year on 20 December.
Training has always been an important part of our ethos as we aim to empower business owners to handle many of the tasks within their capability.
In our eighth year (Canary Dwarf was founded in 2005) we have also taken on three part-time members of staff.
Craig Simpson joined us in May as a WordPress designer and developer, and has worked on some of our most exciting projects to date, including inKeith, a community website launched to high acclaim, Highland Wildcats, supporting the coaching development of players through a backend extranet, and Nomads Tent, a custom ecommerce site for one of Scotland’s oldest established tribal rug vendors in collaboration with an Edinburgh designer, to name a few.
Claire Doughty joined us in July to help with an increasing PR workload, and has been responsible for getting many of our clients in to local newspapers, on local radio and is already working on some national campaigns for next year. We also welcomed Andrew Logie, an IT expert who has been invaluable in the maintenance and repair of hardware and software for our broad range of clients.
In November, we made our second acquisition, and took over the assets of a local web design business adding 40 new clients to our portfolio and taking our total number of active customers to over 200.
And to finish the year, we’re now working with one of the world’s largest digital marketing agencies to provide services locally to their customers in Scotland.
It’s been an incredible year, and we’re looking forward to 2014 with great anticipation.