Marketers at product and services companies fail with first-party data, yet it could be their biggest contributor to growth in the coming year.
Do you know who doesn’t fail at first-party data? Media companies. But I’ll come back to that.
It’s coming on five years since the EU’s GDPR privacy legislation put the proverbial content, marketing, and first-party data soup on the heated stove. Next month is the third anniversary of Google announcing, and subsequently punting many times, the death of the third-party cookie. (It’s currently set to die in 2024.)
Oh, you know these challenges have something to do with privacy, personally identifiable information (PII), and how businesses use that data to optimize their marketing.
But what is anyone doing about it? In 2018 and 2019, most marketing organizations – thinking they should do at least something about visitor data – leaned on their legal and technology teams to help deal with privacy compliance. The conversation went something like this:
Marketing: Help. We need to comply with first-party data acquisition and cookie notices.
Legal: OK, can you identify all the places where we store customer data?
Marketing: Are you kidding me? We don’t even have logins for most of those systems.
Legal: Uh, OK. What about all the cookies we set for tracking and analytics?
Marketing: Hey, tech team, what’s up with all that?
Tech: Theoretically, we could tell you. But that will take A LOT of time.
Legal: Great, here’s what we’ll do. We’ll create a big legal pop-up that says we track you. It also will say that by using any of our sites, the visitor agrees to be tracked, that we may or may not give this data to other people, and that if they want a copy of their data, they have to stuff a physical letter typed on pink notecards into some post office box or something.
Marketing: What happens if they don’t accept? Can we NOT track them?
Tech: Theoretically, we could do that … But that will take A LOT of time.
Legal: Don’t worry; we’ll word it so that it doesn’t matter what they do; we’re covered legally.
And that conclusion is where marketers still stand in 2023. Now, to be clear, I’m not smart enough to know what constitutes legal “consent” and whether you really need it. Nor can I advise whether that should be a pop-up window or a thin banner at the bottom, or even if you should have one (though I have strong opinions about all of them).
Most pop-ups are nonsense. They literally load the page and set (usually) multiple cookies on the user’s browser, and then present the visitor with their “consent form.” In other words, you probably ran afoul of your policy before asking for consent.
But that’s only a small piece of a first-party data approach.
Stuck in data status quo
Despite the volume of digital ink spilled in the name of data acquisition, marketers mostly operate as they have for the last decade. First-party data – the data given directly by audiences – sits siloed in different systems like marketing automation, CRM, and custom databases. Separate teams manage it.
Marketers still acquire second-party data – data obtained from partnerships, such as events and webinars. Sure, they signed the I-promise-we-won’t-add-this-to-our-database agreement, but they did it with a wink and a nod. Then, they added the data tagged as “leads” to their email marketing database (which often also has first-party data). And marketers still purchase data streams from third-party providers to “triangulate” or enhance the data they have.
Now, if all that sounds relatively complex, it’s because it is. It’s not that marketers don’t know how to improvise in a clever way. Quite the opposite. Because you have goals to meet, content to target, and leads to generate, you’ve literally become the professor from the 1960s sitcom Gilligan’s Island. You’ve built electric generators, sewing machines, and even lie detectors with coconuts and twine. But, somehow, you’ve not thought about building a boat.
You’re still stranded on the island.
Some perceive all the increases in privacy innovation, legislation, and policy make it harder for marketers to do their job. The narrative says these things are designed to protect the public’s safety because businesses can’t be trusted to do it.
But that’s not necessarily true. None of the fundamental activities I mentioned – storing and using first-party data, leveraging second-party data, and even triangulating third-party data – are inherently evil.
In fact, leaning into first-party data acquisition should be a defining, differentiating marketing approach in 2023. It isn’t a conflict. Just take a lesson, once again, from media companies. They have a different approach to data acquisition.
Media companies provide a path forward
The first-party data challenge placed existential pressure on digital media companies in the last few years. Many stepped up to the challenge. They invested in the people, processes, and technologies to get a better handle on audience-centric services built from the acquired data:
Vox Media developed a centralized view of its audiences across its publications, including New York Magazine, Vulture, The Strategist, and Grub Street. Reports say the company recently expanded its use of first-party data to drive personalized experiences and provide a unified experience across its newsletters, websites, and social media profiles.
The New York Times developed a first-party data analytics solution to serve better advertising without using third-party data or cookies. It helps them support audience targeting and inform the content and ads served across websites and mobile apps.
Trusted Media Brands, the publisher of Reader’s Digest and smaller publications, built first-party data tools for cohort analysis. The valuable insight into their audience led the media company to double its average ad deal size.
It’s time for you, as marketers, to step up. Strategic management of first-party data is a content, design, and marketing challenge. It is not a legal or technological challenge. Media companies see how they use first-party data as a business investment, not just a way to comply with a law or become more efficient.
In 2023, you can tackle this challenge head-on, and it may provide the leverage for growth in a year where uncertainty abounds.
It’s about trust
Taking a different and thoughtful approach to first-party data acquisition should top your data concerns. I’ll leave with these random ideas on how to do that:
Connect subscription experiences
If a visitor has to sign up for your blog, then sign up for your email newsletter, then register for your resource center, and then give their email address again to download a second white paper from your resource center, you have a data project to tackle.
Imagine the more powerful insight you could draw if a central dashboard lets you see your audiences tagged with relevant attributes, such as “subscriber,” “lead,” “webinar attendee,” and “customer.”
Ask what you really want to know
Too often, marketers default to “identity” when gating a blog, learning library, or some other content. You point every single audience member to the same registration page and ask for their name, email, address, etc.
What if you asked what you really wanted to know? In other words, you weren’t going to treat someone accessing that visionary white paper as a lead. So, why not ask, “Why do you want this white paper?” in the registration form. Their answers will provide more valuable insight than their email address ever could.
Reflect on why – not how – your audience gives their data
Some people claim “zero-party data” is the new gold standard – data shared intentionally by the consumer. But zero-party data isn’t a thing. It’s just first-party data given with a different motivation. Media companies continue to thrive because their business is built upon audiences providing data willingly and trustingly, with the expectation that, in return, they get a valuable experience.
If your continued expectation is to ask for data with the implied expectation that any data given will be used to “sell,” don’t be surprised when the data is inaccurate. Count the number of [email protected] in your database to get an idea of just how prevalent that is.
Only one thing is worse than getting no data – getting inaccurate data.
Most marketers sit on the sidelines as media companies evolve and lament the difficulty of placing paid media bets that work. You continue to rent the markets of others and use third parties to measure yourselves by how successful you make them.
Media companies quickly figured out that content-as-product output can be an extraordinary marketing vehicle to help them become product companies. Some product-forward-leaning companies, like Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, Nike, and others, made this same discovery.
As my good friend and CMI founder Joe Pulizzi says: “Today, the media business model and the product business model are exactly the same.” I would change that only slightly. Neither media nor product companies are in the media business. We’re all in the audience business, and first-party data acts as the engine that powers it.
These are the engines you want to give extra consideration if you intend to expand internationally. They all have their own unique search algorithms that are in many ways as complex and developed as Google’s.
Why they matter and how to rank on them
If you’re like me a few years ago, a die-hard Apple fan remarkably repulsed by Microsoft’s products (I’ve now converted to the seamless team of PC), you might think prioritizing resources to optimize content for Bing or other engines is a waste of time. What I failed to consider then, and what you might be overlooking, is geographic segmentation.
Do you want to reach the American audience using voice search? Consider Bing.
Are you expanding into China? Check out Baidu.
Each search engine matters because of its unique user types. Regardless of how small that market share might look on a global scale, if there’s regional search volume from your target audience, it’s worth the optimization.
Bing Search, in combination with Yahoo, is without a doubt the strongest player after Google. Together, they have more than 10% of the global market share for desktop.
Now, some say that Bing’s market share will increase due to mergers and acquisitions, while others argue for its decline due to the death of Internet Explorer.
Still, all Microsoft browsers, such as Microsoft Edge Legacy and Chromium-based Microsoft Edge, have Bing as the default search engine, making Bing Search the natural choice for Microsoft product users. Yahoo, which is powered by Bing Search, is the default search engine for Mozilla’s browser Firefox, adding billions of impressions to Bing’s search results each year.
Although the algorithms differ, optimizing for Bing search results is not much different than optimizing for Google. With a bit of fine tuning, it’s more than possible to come up with a strategy that allows for high rankings on both.
To rank on Bing, and thus Yahoo, make sure to do the following:
1. List your business on Bing Places
Bing Places is the equivalent of Google My Business and is the fastest way to get your business ranking for local seo. Many even consider Bing Places to favor small business owners as Bing puts their information more prominently on display.
2. Upload an XML Sitemap using Bing’s Webmaster Tools
While the debate on how much sitemaps really do matter for Google SEO continues, uploading one with Bing’s Webmaster Tool for XML Sitemaps allows the algorithm to better categorize and manage your content, making it more visible and relevant to the search audience.
3. Match keywords in your content
Check that the exact keyword match can be found in your page titles, meta descriptions and overall content. It’s known that the impact of on-page tactics as a ranking factor is much greater in Bing than Google.
4. Keep your social media profiles up to date
Go social! Bing considers your social media presence more than any other search engine. The Webmaster Guidelines specifically states that Bing considers social signals from third-party platforms to rank your content. Bing might even extract certain information directly from your Facebook company page to your Bing Places display.
5. Use high-quality images to enhance your content
Bing’s image search is much more advanced than Google’s. If you want your landing page to rank, add high-quality design assets to showcase your offerings. If you want your blog to rank, attach too-long-to-read infographics to highlight your points. Like the one above.
While it looks a lot like Google, its algorithm is different in many ways. Most prominent is the way Yandex indexes pages. Unlike Google’s almost continuous indexation, Yandex indexes pages sporadically. That means that you might have to wait around for a while before your site shows up on Yandex.
Despite this, it is still possible to rank on Yandex. You just need to have a bit more patience.
While waiting for your site to be indexed, take a look at the following:
1. Focus on tags over internal site structure
According to The Ultimate Guide to Yandex SEO, your header tag, title tag and slug are way more important than your internal site structure. In fact, it was only recently that Yandex started to support hreflang tags. Before that, Yandex only allowed the <head> hreflang implementation.
2. Consider search intent to rank
Some argue that Yandex meets search intent better than Google. The modern ICS score, which replaced the Thematic Index Citation, is determined by how relevant a site is to the query. Yandex uses its own version of expertise, authoritativeness and trustworthiness (E-A-T) test to determine relevance.
3. Eliminate toxic links
Many do not know this, but Yandex was actually the first search engine to roll out a link-based algorithm. Already in 2005, 7 years before Google’s Penguin algorithm, Yandex introduced the Nepot filter, which specifically looked at the impact of toxic link exchanges and spam links.
While the site is available worldwide, the site predominantly favors simplified Chinese. So before taking any other steps, hire a native speaker to help you along the way. To win at global, you have to ditch translations.
Here’s a few steps to get your content ranking.
1. Localize your keywords and content appropriately
As with all multilingual SEO, you need to work with a native language expert to ensure proper keyword localization and content optimization. If your site experiences high bounce rates, Baidu will tank your rankings immediately. As with any search experience, localization matters.
2. Position relevant content and keywords to the top of the page
Baidu favors a completely opposite layout than the Westernized one. The sooner you get to the point the better. Therefore, it is important to position your keywords as early as possible in the text and introduce all relevant content already in the top of the page to rank.
3. Obtain a verification level and get certified
By registering and paying a small fee you can obtain a verification level to improve your domain authority and rankings on Baidu. If you want to secure top ratings, you can get certified and obtain an ICP license, which is much more difficult than getting verified.
Top alternative search engines by data privacy
While most of the search engines mentioned above are tied to big corporations or political forces, global initiatives are setting the stage for more privacy-focused search engines. Among these is DuckDuckGo, the forefront runner with over 130 billion searches processed since launch.
Why they matter and how to rank on them
In many ways, the movement is a response to Google’s invasiveness on privacy. Many are fed up with how they are capitalizing on personal data and controlling the narrative with targeted search.
Consequently, this attracts tech-savvy experts with a lower bounce rate. Once they commit to a search, they stay.
Here’s how to optimize for it:
1. Sharpen Your User Experience
UX continues to make an impact on SEO, not to mention for DuckDuckGo. Make your content easily scannable and stay away from intrusive pop ups that harm your users’ experience and ease of navigation.
2. Focus on High-Quality Backlinks
As with any SEO, high-quality backlinks play a huge role for ranking. If you already have a solid backlink profile from your Google strategy, you should be good to go. If your backlink profile has a high level of toxicity, do some cleansing.
3. Rethink Local SEO
Since there’s no location tracking available for searches, location-specific searches such as “services near me” don’t work. If you like to rank for these types of searches, include a specific location in your keyword strategy. Otherwise, you won’t be able to optimize for local seo.
Startpage could be my personal favorite among the alternative search engines. It basically is Google without the tracking.
And while many consider DuckDuckGo to be the forefront runner of the privacy-focused search movement, many forget how Startpage ‘blazed the trail in 2006’. Offering a search experience without IP recording or tracking back when it was more or less unheard of. Now, it is the common denominator among all privacy-safe search engines.
So, how do you rank in Startpage? Simple. You rank in Google.
There are many more privacy-safe alternatives to search engines than the two mentioned above. Perhaps one without equal is SwissCows – a search engine that prides itself on being the only family-friendly, privacy-safe semantic search engine available on the web.
This means that any intrusive search results, like adult entertainment or offensive content, is naturally censored from the search results. At the same time, they never store any data nor track user specific information.
SwissCows SERPs bring up organic results and paid ads directly from Bing so in order to rank in SwissCows, you need to rank in Bing. Just make sure to omit any content that’s not PG-13.
What do they all have in common?
In the end, none of these alternative search engines can replace Google. As an SEO, I’ll never advise starting out with anything other than a Google strategy.
But when you are ready to branch out and extend your reach, give these alternatives a try. Analyze where your target audience hangs out and optimize thereafter.
Many of the privacy-focused search engines require little optimization as they pull their search results directly from other sources anyways. Simply do a quick check to see how you rank on each one.
And who knows, perhaps Microsoft will continue to steal more of the global search landscape. If that happens, you’ll be there — ranking in first position, ready to reap the rewards of your diversified efforts in an ever-changing search landscape.
For your team, screen recorders can be used for several reasons — from creating tutorials for your website to recording a recurring tech issue to sending your marketing team a quick note instead of an email.
Looking ahead to 2023 and beyond, businesses worldwide face lots of uncertainty.
One thing will remain constant throughout this period — customers expect excellent experiences when interacting with a brand. According to Acquia’s latest CX Report, businesses plan to prioritize customer retention over the next 12 months: 56% plan to improve customer experience, and 58% will focus more on customer service.
This should be a common goal. To weather a potential storm, businesses must keep customers by meeting and exceeding customer expectations.
Cynthia Ramsaran is director of custom content at Third Door Media, publishers of Search Engine Land and MarTech. A multi-channel storyteller with over two decades of editorial/content marketing experience, Cynthia’s expertise spans the marketing, technology, finance, manufacturing and gaming industries. She was a writer/producer for CNBC.com and produced thought leadership for KPMG. Cynthia hails from Queens, NY and earned her Bachelor’s and MBA from St. John’s University.