Lawrence Cole of Google: Machine Learning Taking SEO Out of Black Box, Giving SMBs More Access to Insights


Last year at Nextiva’s NextCon event, one of the featured presentations was from Lawrence Cole, the Head of Mid-Market, U.S. West for Google. It was such a good session that I’ve been wanting to have him join me for a conversation for this series ever since.



2018 Search Marketing Trends

And this week I was able to talk with him and get his take on a number of themes around search, SEO, conversion rate optimization and how machine learning is democratizing the availability of insights in all these areas.

Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.  To hear the full interview,  watch the video below, or click on the embedded SoundCloud player.

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Lawrence Cole of Google Discusses 2018 Search Marketing Trends

Small Business Trends:  Maybe you can give us a little of your personal background.

Lawrence Cole: I was a software engineer for EarthLink at the start of my career, back when they were, I guess you could say cresting in their trajectory some years ago.



I spent a lot of time in the logistics industry. I worked across several different departments, and functions.

I also spent a great deal of my time in the small business space. Starting small companies, working for small companies, so I spent a great deal of time developing an understanding for what small companies go through. Even some of the initial digital marketing skills that I’m now able to apply in leading teams in a large tech company, they really began with me being a person who, either from my own, or someone else’s small businesses, figuring out things such as search engine optimization, email marketing, digital marketing. Even before we had social media, and Google Adwords, and these sorts of platforms. I’ve had a mix of large company engagement, and small company engagement. Even now, a lot of the teams that I lead deal primarily with small companies, and start-ups. Sometimes starting as small companies. And now they scale into half a billion, or a couple of billion dollars in revenue.

Small Business Trends:  How has search engine optimization changed over the last couple of years or so, and is it as important, or is it more important today than it was a couple years ago?

Lawrence Cole: I think that search engine optimization has become a little more commoditized than it used to be, which I think makes it a little more equitable of an opportunity. I can remember when  doing well in search engines had a lot to do with you being in a certain loop of people who had figured out some things, and they were way ahead of everyone else. Now, with all the information it is much less of a black box. It’s available for everyone, but it also makes it a lot more competitive as well, because the tools for success are more common in knowledge than they used to be. But, like I said, it’s always a worthy investment.



I think that you should look at a marketing and customer acquisition strategy very holistically, as opposed to hanging your hat on any one thing by search engine optimization, or social media, or ads spend, to look at it in its totality, and to figure out, more important than anything else, where your perfect customer lives. One of the best platforms, and method is to reach out to them.

Small Business Trends:  There’s a lot of emphasis on CRO, conversion rate optimization. It seems like there’s so much coming at people. They’re looking for information. They’re making quick decisions. They’re also making quick decisions as to where do they spend that little piece of time that they have to try to figure out the challenge that you’re trying to solve. Maybe you could talk a little about the urgency of trying to get that person’s attentions that’s doing a search, and converting that attention into an actual interaction opportunity.

Lawrence Cole: I think one of the distinctions about customer acquisition as things have changed over the years is that focusing on urgency is not necessarily the way you want to go. For one, it is very difficult to influence consumers to do anything they don’t want to do in this economy. There are so many choices… There are so many [people] that are educated on what their choices are, and their habits have changed. They spend a lot more time researching, because they can [do so] on their phone at their fingertips. Typically, when someone’s seriously considering what we have to offer, they probably already determined that they want what you have. They’re just trying to decide who to get it from.

In terms of optimizing for conversions, my advice is to focus on being as frictionless as possible. Making it simple and seamless as possible. Reducing the number of steps that it takes to be able to get to whatever it is you have to offer. I can’t tell you how many time that I, as a consumer, have been on the way to buying something from a company, and they ended up losing my money, because it just took me too many steps, or I had to wait too long, or something would not load. I just went elsewhere, and bought the exact same thing from someone else.



So, I think making your process as friction free as possible. Looking at things like the speed of your site, the number of steps that it takes to get to your shopping cart, the number of different types of payment that you take … Do you even take PayPal?

You need to think about mobile, because more and more people are not just researching on mobile, but being very comfortable at purchasing on mobile, as well. Especially for things that are not huge, major purchases. I think that all of those things should be considerations, but the bottom line focus really should be on how frictionless as possible can you make your customer acquisition process.

Small Business Trends:  It’s been months, but I remember in your presentation you talked about how Google has about seven properties that have over a billion active users. An incredible amount of interactions that Google has an opportunity to look at. How could a small business, how could any kind of business who’s looking to build relationships, look at any of the ways that Google, and the data that Google has to help them, leverage that data and be more strategic with the way that they interact, or try to get the attention of somebody they’re trying to do business with?

Lawrence Cole:  One of the perennial challenges with small businesses, Brent, is a lack of access to leverage; Not having the financial resources, not having the headcount to compete with larger concerns in the same space. One of the things that is going to democratize that is machine learning; and how Google, in particular is leveraging machine learning in our products is to look at a innumerable number of signals across those several properties. To be able to collect smart data that can help small businesses to optimize the return they’re getting from what they’re investing.



When I began managing paid advertising, your results had a lot to do with the skill of the person who was managing your account. What machine learning is doing is taking the focus of optimization away from human knowledge, and it’s shifting it over to machine knowledge, so that even a small business can compete very well if they can be smart about how they’re leveraging automation. Then they can do things like remarketing, and some of the audience-based targeting options like customer matching – matching for similar audiences- that Google has available to everyone on its platform.

Small Business Trends:  Talk a little about video. It captures people’s attention in a way that text just doesn’t. When you look at the opportunity that video presents for engagement from a customer-vendor perspective, what do you think small businesses need to know, and maybe they just don’t seem to be embracing well enough?

Lawrence Cole:  I believe that one of the misnomers is that a small business can’t compete in video, because they don’t have access to large scale production, equipment, or talent, to write, et cetera. The reality is that there are many ways to skin that cat. For instance, I think the most important thing is to understand how ubiquitous video is becoming. By 2020, something like 90% of the time people spend online will be watching videos. A lot of it is understanding what the folks that you are looking to target see is important. What are they watching? You can leverage that without a video. You can place an ad next to a video, or on a video, and be able to leverage that without any production at all. Or, you can produce things very cheaply, or pay to get them produced very cheaply.

Let’s say you don’t have a big budget to spend on marketing that video. Producing something as simple as a how-to, can be very powerful, because people forget that YouTube, which is a part of the Google family, is the number two search engine in the world, next to Google search. They usually go to YouTube to look up how. So, if I had a haven’t tie a bow tie, like two years, I can relearn how to do it, I go to YouTube to do that. If I forget how to,  YouTube tells me how to do that.



You have this type of powerful service that leads to needing to tell a story about it, or show someone how to do it, how to use it. You can do it very well for free, by just simply putting a YouTube video up that helps to drive traffic to your site, or your app based on the quality of your content, and also how good of a job you do at targeting. Those are two options. That will allow small business to be able to answer in that space with the goal, of course, of scaling.

Small Business Trends:  One last question, before we search, what do small business need to know about voice search, and how quickly do they need to start thinking about it being a need to be prepared, versus nice to be prepared for it?

Lawrence Cole:  One of the things about a small business is that it’s so much more nimble than larger competitors, and that allowed the companies that I’ve worked with to become large, who have become companies that drive hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars in revenue. It’s because they entered a market as a small competitor, and they got ahead of the curve on a trend. In terms of any trend that we know is going to become fairly ubiquitous, whether it’s mobile, video, voice, those are all things that a small business person should be looking at, and relentlessly thinking about ways that they can cut some of the larger competitors off at the pass by being a fast mover in new trends, and being able to use that to siphon some of the market share.

The thing about larger companies is that they typically take a longer time, and to be able to catch on to trend, they have a lot more loops, and they often wait, and look at the market, and see how things shift first, before they invest.  Small companies, they absolutely need to be at the forefront of any trend that comes out. At the very least being educated on it, and maybe doing some light, and extensive testing to see if it works for you.



Small Business Trends:  Lawrence, this has been great. I really appreciate the time. Where can people learn a little bit more about some of the things that we just talked about?

Lawrence Cole:  One of the places that I would send people to is actually  Google Adwords Academy. That’s free. It’s a wealth of information. It’s kind of a gateway to a lot of the tools and resources that we have to offer. To begin to develop a general acumen around some of the best practices.

Again, when I started doing digital marketing, all of this stuff was a black box. You had to find someone, or pay someone who was willing to give you the secret sauce, if you will, of how to be successful online. Now, it’s all free information that’s just out there for everyone. I would definitely start there.

This is part of the One-on-One Interview series with thought leaders. The transcript has been edited for publication. If it's an audio or video interview, click on the embedded player above, or subscribe via iTunes or via Stitcher.

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Brent Leary


Brent Leary Brent Leary is the host of the Small Business Trends One-on-One interview series. He is a Partner at CRM Essentials and organizer of the Social Business Atlanta conference. Brent serves on the advisory board of The University of Toronto CRM Center of Excellence, writes the Social CRM column for Inc.com's technology site, and blogs at Brent's Social CRM Blog.

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