Chris Pitt on why search data is a marketer’s biggest asset

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We chat to Vertical Leap’s Managing Director, Chris Pitt, to discuss why search data is the most important asset for today’s marketers and businesses. 

Search data isn’t only for SEO and PPC; it’s the most valuable source of business intelligence data, providing real-time insights from every target audience. 

In this expert interview, our own Chris Pitt explains why search engines are the most reliable source of consumer data, how you can use this data to inform key business decisions, and the processes we use to turn these insights into powerful business decisions for our customers. 

Vertical Leap's Managing Director, Chris Pitt
Vertical Leap’s Managing Director, Chris Pitt

Q1: Why is search data the most important asset to marketers and businesses? 

“The thing with search data is that it’s unbiased and real-time. Although there’s a bit of a lag with Search Console, for example, Google Ads data is instantaneous which means that you can find out what people care about today, what really matters to them right now and see what will be important to them in the future. 

“I think there’s still this misconception that search data or people on search are different from everybody else. That there’s a pool of people that search online to look for things and then there’s a pool of people that come into shops to look for things – and those two don’t cross over – when, in fact, these are the same people. 

Yes, in many ways search could be considered a lagging indicator, in that you could argue above the line campaigns drive awareness and demand that leads to search. I’d agree with that to a point.  But with such a varied mix of marketing channels, multi-screening and the luxury of curiosity that search offers, we collect our information, opinions and tastes in a much more varied way; and the research into what we might be interested in typically starts with search. 

“And this real-time data also helps you spot future trends before they start affecting consumer behaviour.” 

Q2: What kind of business decisions can search data inform? 

“It’s about not only making decisions today – about which ads to show, which conversion goals to complete etc. – but also about moving businesses in the right direction for the future. 

“That might be a grand trend like veganism, which we’ve seen growing for many years now. But what’s interesting is that, if you go to Google Trends, Google knew that this was going to be important many, many years ago. So, if you were looking at that data six years ago, you would have been able to predict this trend and start developing products ahead of the curve, instead of racing alongside everyone else. 

“It could also be a more specific trend. So, for example, a company that sells a lot of running shoes might see a growing interest in a product they don’t sell – let’s say hiking boots – or it could be a product you never knew existed, like a new kind of insole. You can prepare for this new interest because search data shows this trend in real-time. 

“You could even start running ads with landing pages that say, “coming soon” and taking pre-orders to test whether this interest is worth investing in. The point is you’ve got this data helping you to make important business decisions.” 

Q3: What makes search data, specifically, such a strong asset compared to other sources? 

First of all, there’s little bias in this data because it’s anonymous and people show their true selves when they turn to search. They’re not influenced by questions, polls or content that pops up in feeds. And it’s not like social media where people are using this public profile where they only ever present the best version of themselves or how they want people to see them. 

“The other consideration is that everyone uses search; so, you’re not getting data from studies that only ask a few hundred people or social networks that have niche audiences of different age groups and demographics. 

“Different people might prefer Instagram or Twitter or iOS or Android, but they’re all using search – and most of them are using Google. 

“The other important thing is that search data is real-time, so you’re getting live insights, at scale, that reveal shifts in consumer habits faster than any other data source.” 

Q4: Did Covid-19 made it harder to predict trends? 

“In many ways, yes, but it also made search data all the more important because it’s the only reliable data source that shows how consumer behaviours are changing day-to-day. 

“For example, last year we saw that demand for garden furniture was trending upwards before sales started hitting the tills. Without leading data like this, companies have to wait until they see products selling at a higher frequency before they can order in more stock, place those products to the front of their store or increase their ad budget to capitalise on demand – and, by this time, you’ve already missed out on so much. 

“For a lot of industries, Google is the first source to show rising interest and it revealed those trends before purchases reached the checkout, meaning we can inform our customers and adapt together to take full advantage of the opportunity.  

“The thing about Covid is that it exaggerated everything, but there are always economic and market disruptions to deal with. For example, I was just looking at some of our travel customer accounts and many of them were having their best day in a long time after the government’s lockdown easing announcements. Some were seeing more bookings than they’ve ever had in a single day before! 

“So, they’re seeing an immediate impact from a surge in bookings and transactions, which shows how volatile the market is right now – and search data has shown this throughout the pandemic. But these bookings are an extreme whereas market shifts are normally less so -we would usually see interest rising days or weeks before any bookings are made, giving us time to put our customers in the best position to capture those sales.” 

Q5: What is it you’re looking for in search data to inform these decisions? 

“We’re looking for frequency of occurrence, which simply means how often people are searching for something. So maybe we see something more often than we were previously seeing it or we might be seeing something significant for the first time. 

“If we go back to veganism as an example, we might be seeing searches for ‘vegan chocolate’, ‘vegan clothes’ or ‘vegan shoes’, but the recurring theme here is veganism and by detecting this increased occurrence we can identify trends before they emerge. And we might see something today that’s not going to gain velocity for a couple of years but we’re aware of it and, because of that, we’re able to adapt and plan for it. 

“What we find with a lot of marketers and businesses is they use a tool like Google Trends but only once they’re conscious of something and it’s already reached national or general awareness. And the real opportunity, especially for big brands, is to spot trends before they become widely known so they can proactively plan before their competitors do. 

“This is what we’re looking for in search data.” 

Q6: How does Vertical Leap capture this data from search engines? 

“The first thing we want to get is the most complete dataset available. So, if we’re talking about SEO, there are lots of tools on the market, including Google tools and products like SEMrush and Majestic, and for most businesses, the total cost and volume of data from all of these tools is too much. 

“But we’ve got our own platform called Apollo Insights that pulls in data from all of these sources, cleans it up and applies intelligent automation to spot correlations, gaps and opportunities. 

Apollo Insights dashboard on screens used to analyse search marketing data

“What you find is that, when you start putting these different datasets together that you wouldn’t normally combine, you start to see things that wouldn’t normally be visible. Your insights are then more reliable because they’re backed up by multiple data sources. 

“Then it’s a case of how we algorithmically analyse that data and automate it. 

“For example, we have algorithms that spot new occurrences of search terms or trends that are growing, week on week – as well as the reverse of that where terms are declining. 

“We also bring in non-search data to spot patterns outside of Google. For example, we use a form of modelling that’s used in financial trading to predict market shifts. We then apply this to search data to see how this will impact trends. 

“We’re centralising all this data from multiple sources and then using intelligent automation to gain insights at a much greater scale than we could ever achieve manually” 

Q7: Can you tell us more about how intelligent automation improves business intelligence? 

“Marketers and businesses have the things they need to do now, which tends to be the highly transactional stuff that gets customers through the door and sells products today, but we’ve also got the question of what’s around the corner and what’s coming next that we need to prepare for. And it’s so easy, in this busy world, to keep your head down and focus on the task at hand without looking at what’s ahead. 

“But we can automate a lot of the tasks we need to do today, which frees up time to start looking at tomorrow and means we can get more done with the resources we already have. 

“There are three stages to intelligent automation. First, there’s robotic process automation, which is automating the processes that people do. Then there’s data and insight, the identification of threats and opportunities. Lastly, there’s artificial intelligence, which is where we can start to identify the unknowns and automate thinking. 

“This can help us automate everyday tasks, not only in marketing but, say, accounting or admin, which frees up time to look ahead and enables us to do more for our customers, at scale. 

“We’ve built intelligent automation into Apollo because, otherwise, there’s just too much data in too many places to manage. It’s Apollo’s job to automate as much of the manual work that comes with handling data so that we can spend our time turning insights into marketing and business actions. 

“At the end of the day, why should our customers be paying an agency to download spreadsheets or perform the same analysis every week when this can be automated?” 

Q8: What entry barriers are there for companies not making full use of search data? 

“I think the first thing is: if you’re not collecting data, why aren’t you? 

“We’ve got 15 years’ worth of data for our customers that we can go back to and the more data you have, the more refined your analysis will be and the more informed your decisions are. 

“And it’s not enough to just collect that data, you need to be looking after and warehousing it properly. This is another barrier where businesses might have access to data but they’re not warehousing, cleaning or visualising it in ways that produce the most valuable insights. 

“One thing that’s really interesting is that, over the past 12 months, we’ve seen a dramatic rise in businesses that want to do SEO. This is something we’ve been doing for 20-plus years now and, in 2021, it’s hard to believe there are any businesses left that aren’t doing SEO. 

“But, then again, the pandemic forced a lot of businesses to move online or move more of their business online and adopt organic search as a primary channel and these companies might not understand the importance of collecting data yet or how to handle it.” 

Q9: Are there any misconceptions about search data you would like to address? 

“One thing people in the industry are talking about a lot at the moment is share of search as an indicator of your overall market share. And this concept is gaining a lot of traction as if it’s a new idea – and I’m not disagreeing with it – but the search industry has been saying this kind of thing for years. 

“And it seems to me that a lot of people are looking at this too narrowly. 

“It goes back to separating that online and offline activity again where people are saying search volume is representative of the market share when, actually, it is your market share. So why separate the two and then try to put them back together again? 

“And the other problem is that people are talking about this concept with a very now-focused mindset. If you’ve got more searches for Coca-Cola than Pepsi, then that shows there’s currently more market share for Coca-Cola. But companies – especially rival companies and companies of this size – need to be looking at search data to increase their future market share by spotting trends first and reacting to them before their rivals. 

“So this brings us back to search data as being a canary in the mine where it can tell us about what we should or shouldn’t care about in the future, not only in terms of alerting us to new opportunities but also helping us to deal with challenges and market disruptions. 

“If you’re not doing this, then you’re not making full use of the search data available to you.” 

Got a question you would like to ask Chris? 

If you’ve got a question you’d like to ask Chris about making the most of search data, email us at [email protected]

Michelle Hill profile picture
Michelle Hill

Michelle joined Vertical Leap in 2011 as Marketing Manager, having spent the previous 15 years of her marketing career in the recruitment, leisure and printing industries. Her passions include dogs, yoga, walking, cycling, the beach, mountains and tapas.

More articles by Michelle
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