Martech Interview with Matt Colebourne, CEO of Searchmetrics

Market Intelligence supports businesses to gain momentum in the market. Matt Colebourne, CEO of Searchmetrics shines a light on market research and its importance for businesses.

Keep in mind that the expression of demand represented by search comes from a massive user base (millions of daily searches). It’s up to date and it is largely truthful – if you don’t search for what you want, then you won’t find what you need, so people tend to be honest with search engines.

1. Could you tell us more about your role at Searchmetrics and your day-to-day responsibilities?
I’m the CEO at Searchmetrics. There’s a lot of variety in what I do given we are a growing organization. That means I have a mix of strategic and operational responsibilities. One day, I might be speaking at events to explain the importance of Organic Search to digital marketing, focusing on the ROI it delivers and another working directly with our customers and prospects to ensure we’re delivering exactly what they need.

In all of these, my role is as a player/coach and I work closely with the team. A key aspect of my role is acting as a sounding board and advisor to my team and making sure that they have the resources, authority, and ability to act. It’s very easy to create a company structure where everyone is required to seek a lot of approvals. However, I have found that this really slows the growth, and the best way to avoid it is to make sure that everyone has a clear remit to act which requires little further authorization – but they are encouraged to consult. My job as CEO is to make sure that everyone is clear about that, and then to help them in their roles. So, there is no normal day-to-day; every day is different.

2. How can brands leverage search data as a source of market intelligence?
Search data is very different from a lot of digital marketing because it’s a clear, active expression of intent, need or desire. Other forms of digital marketing that are delivered alongside content (such as display ads on a newspaper website), by contrast, seek to gain attention and distract. For example, a user went to a particular site to read an article or visited Facebook to check what’s happening with their contacts, and now you’re trying to divert them away from that and into engaging with your marketing.

Keep in mind that the expression of demand represented by search comes from a massive user base (millions of daily searches). It’s up to date and it is largely truthful – if you don’t search for what you want, then you won’t find what you need, so people tend to be honest with search engines.

This is not always the case with traditional market research such as surveys, where you can’t always guarantee that people are answering honestly and openly. All of this means that if you know how to use it, the search can tell you a lot about the trends, market size, seasonality, nature of demand (interaction, research, purchase etc.) in your market as well as your relative position within it. In that sense, it is arguably the best source of market intelligence.

However, to use search data as a source of market intelligence, it has to be transformed so that it is usable. There are billions of keywords and the path to purchase can be complex, meaning you need to be able to turn all this data into useful metrics that represent market segments, product taxonomies, and geographies. That allows you to ask questions such as “what’s the seasonality of swimwear purchases?” or “when do people buy power tools by market and does it differ between different types?” or, more basically, “where do I sit in the overall market?”.

3. What are your favorite tips for effective market research?
Well, clearly, my favorite tip is to use data and to make sure that this data is sufficiently large, representative of the market, transformed to be relevant to your market approach/segment and is up to date.
When I say transformed to be relevant to your market approach, I mean that the data has been put into your taxonomy so that you are comparing correctly.
That’s because a lot of generic market data can have limited value to individual companies because it is too broad and non-specific. If you are selling to a highly specialist segment, then you clearly need data that relates to only that segment because, otherwise, you have no real idea of the size of YOUR market, its growth, and your relative position within it. For example, if you are selling pro-level running shoes and address only the pro-athlete market, it makes no sense to look at the total sports shoe market.

This is where collecting and analyzing the data based on the transactional searches that people make related to your specific product category can really help. It can give you a reliable approximation of the current market demand and how it is evolving, together with seasonal ups and downs. So, when are people searching for pro-level running shoes, where are they located, and how many searches are being made? You can even use search to track interest and potential demand for specific brands or features within pro running shoes for example.

4. Should organizations place a bigger bet on digital transformation programs?
Of course. eCommerce continues to grow at a far higher rate than brick and mortar, it is inherently international and therefore gives access to a far larger target market (within reason of course). And, done well, it can give a better return on investment.
In a sense, the pandemic has let the genie out of the box and we have all become so accustomed to living our lives digitally, whether it’s working from home, interacting with our energy supplier or municipality, socializing with friends via Zoom, or organizing Netflix watch parties. There’s no going back now. All companies must now wholeheartedly embrace digital.
Focusing on data is essential to digital transformation – and that means being able to harness, understand and share insights from sources such as search data so that businesses can ensure they are structured to act on customer needs effectively and efficiently.

5. What are the best ways to turn search data into unique insights?
Once you have collected search data then transform it into your taxonomy (i.e. how you define your products and services and categorize them). You can wrangle a few billion keywords into that taxonomy so that you can get an accurate, constantly up-to-date perspective. This is a process that sounds simple but when you get into the details it gets rather trickier. If, for example, you sell soccer sportswear and equipment you need to clearly distinguish between searches for kit as opposed to searches about matches, team performance, TV broadcasts, and other unrelated footballing terms if you wish to use this data to give a true and clear picture.

Once you have the data in your taxonomy, you can mine it for insights into search behavior that then underpin decision making – everything from what content to provide on your website to when to launch new products.

6. How has the pandemic changed consumer search behavior?
Well, how long have I got? I could write an essay or thesis on that! I think the biggest change it has produced is in the speed with which trends rise and fall. When we look at the trend data for many product categories, what we now see is the development from interest to research and to purchase is over much shorter timescales than previously.

For example, in 2020, game producers suddenly found a spike in demand for adult jigsaw puzzles over 2000 pieces in several European countries. This was a result of the pandemic and lockdowns, of course, but also a trend is driven by a number of individuals promoting puzzling as a good distraction activity. Predicting this in advance would have been difficult but the trend was detectable via search queries early on and those that used this to their advantage profited. However, as trends like these don’t last for long, you need to spot them and act fast.

Overall, we’ve seen the changes you’d expect in behavior, with a focus on wellbeing, home exercise, activities, and distractions. But there have also been some rather less obvious ones such as a rise in greeting cards and flower delivery as people changed how they interacted during lockdowns. However, again, these trends have in many cases been short-lived and quickly replaced by others.
The most worrying trend for marketers has been a significant increase in search volume coupled with a decrease in purchase intent. With more people spending more time in front of screens they are, naturally, searching more but with more research or informational intent. Marketers have, in some cases, been caught out because they’ve invested in optimizing for broad match search traffic or bought search ads, but found that, as a result of this trend, the conversion rate has fallen precipitously, leading to a far higher cost per sale.

7. What are the SEO trends to watch out for in 2022?
I think one of the biggest trends is going to be a growing focus on Demand Optimization rather than just Search Engine Optimization. This is about using search data not just for optimizing website search performance, but also to drive a better understanding of customer needs and demands so that it can be used to make decisions about how to optimize product offerings and the timing of such offerings.
I also expect to see a broadening of what we think of as search sources, because search doesn’t just happen on search engines anymore, but on sites as varied as eCommerce marketplaces and social media.
I think the coming restrictions on third-party cookies are also going to have a significant and positive impact on SEO. If, as seems likely, it will become much harder to track multi-site behavior and to gather demographic data, then the obvious, available way to effectively target users is going to be through their stated intent as entered into a search.

8. Do you think businesses should still predominantly focus on organic rankings?
No, that’s far too simplistic. They should focus on key marketing metrics such as awareness, consideration, traffic, conversions, and sales. What’s the point in having a great ranking for keywords that are irrelevant?

When we work with a customer, we tend to firstly look at traffic and conversions as the primary metrics because these also apply to other digital marketing channels, so it lets you compare apples with apples. For a digital marketer what’s really critical is ensuring they have an overall view of all their digital marketing channels and can really compare them with each other.

To be candid, I think this is an area where SEO has hampered itself over the years. Essentially, if we focus on metrics that don’t relate to what a business is trying to achieve, then this tends to downplay the impact of SEO and therefore it’s important in the wider digital marketing mix. SEO is, probably, a marketing channel that delivers excellent ROI – we need to focus on that ROI rather than metrics that can confuse and mislead.

9. What role does intelligent search play in today’s marketing environment?
A huge one. I don’t want to repeat the points already made, but I think search provides an excellent foundation that allows marketers to understand the demand trends in their sector and the new ways in which people are expressing that demand. It can help businesses identify new markets for existing products and additional demands within existing markets.
I also think that intelligent search, on individual sites, is going to become increasingly important. Bringing together a mix of behavioral, transactional, intentional and, if you have it, demographic data will allow marketers to use data from site search to become much more sophisticated in leading users to the right products or content.

10. Search will be experience-led and more personal in the coming days. How can Searchmetrics help brands achieve that?
The big search engines such as Google are looking much more closely at the experience that websites and web pages deliver, including elements such as page speed and mobile usability. They’re making these a factor in how high pages rank in search results and at Searchmetrics we provide data and consultancy to help brands analyze and optimize these aspects of their sites.

At the same time, search results are becoming more personalized to the individual and this trend is likely to continue. Google’s use of AI and semantic technology is helping it to better understand the specific intent behind individual search queries and it rewards content that most closely addresses them. For example, if I’m searching for information about exercise and fitness, then Google is more likely to deliver web pages with video because it’s learned that video often satisfies these kinds of searches. It’s therefore vital for a company to identify the type of content that is likely to connect with customers and we allow them to do that.

We are very much focused on delivering a complete solution that allows, as much as possible, a marketer to manage their Organic Search activities in the same way as they would other major digital marketing channels. If needed, we can bring in partners to generate content, partners to revise and update websites, and we both import and export data to other reporting systems to permit marketers to manage digital marketing in the round.

We also, as I hope I’ve already made clear, focus very heavily on using search data as a source of market intelligence. That means that the changes we make to our platform are no longer just for SEO specialists but are aimed more generally at a strategic business level; what to sell, to whom, when, and how to reach the target audience.

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Internationally minded, with experience of working in Europe and Asia as well as the US, Matt has extensive experience within the digital marketing sector. He was European VP International for DoubleClick (part of the team responsible for growing the business prior to its sale to Google). And he’s held senior leadership positions at a paid search company, eSpotting, and video marketing platform, Innovid.

Searchmetrics is a global provider of search data, software and consulting solutions. Its innovative approach ensures household names like AXA, Lowes and McKinsey & Company thrive in the hyper-competitive search landscape.

Searchmetrics enterprise offerings turn data from search into unique business insights that fuel clients’ continued growth.

Searchmetrics Suite delivers data-driven insights to maximize search and content performance. Its four modules: Research Cloud, Content Experience, Search Experience and Site Experience contain the tools SEO professionals, content marketers and digital specialists need to grow their organic search into a major driver of revenue.

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