In 2005, an innovative eye tracking study found that the majority of visibility during a search query happened in a triangle at the top of the Google.com search result page.
Search experts called this area of concentrated interest the "golden triangle," since 100 percent of those searching Google looked at it.
This "golden triangle" is similar to the amount of space a retail store allocates to a product which is known as "shelf space." Shelf space is a scarce resource for a retailer and one of the most important aspects that are used to improve financial performance. Hence, retailers provide profitable items prominent placement and visibility in their store's "shelf space."
Just as visibility is important inside a retail store, the 2005 eye tracking study also revealed the importance of visibility online during a consumer's search. The study exposed that visibility and click-through behavior changed dramatically for items "below the fold," when the user had to scroll down the monitor.
A brand capable of having paid ads on top, and their website as the top organic (free) result, followed by pages from their partners and distributors, would dominate this new "digital shelf space" and push competitors to the bottom of the shelf.
The digital shelf space strategy changed in May of 2007 when Google released their "Universal Search" results with news, videos and even images competing for the top results. Brands had more assets to optimize and more competitors, including results from Wikipedia. We found that social channels could send signals that Google could find, allowing optimization of social assets and the ability to rank on a new "social shelf space." For this reason, in June of 2009 we created SocialShelfspace.com to track this evolution.
With the "Google Instant" update in September of 2010, the search results page changed with every letter the user entered in the search box. Google was able to make predictions and provide instant results before the user was done entering their search query. Brands that could optimize for this prediction were able to intercept the search intent and gather new traffic.
Let us fast forward to 2012, with the abundance of content including 3,000 photo uploads to Flickr and 100,000 new tweets every 60 seconds! Also added during this one minute, were 30 hours of video to YouTube.
Google makes over 500 enhancements to their algorithms each year and continues to look for ways to improve their results to keep up with over two million search queries every minute. On January of 2012, Google's "Search Plus Your World" enhancement provided personalized results with content that has been shared with you privately as well as results from the public Web, including social media sites. Even if you are not logged in to your Google+ account, the search result page will have content from people and business pages on Google+.
Brands need to identify internal advocates with the proper social media channels to participate in the new personalized results pages. Brands also need to understand that influencers play an important role in the social shelf space and can drive traffic to your products or to your competitors' products. Finally, a clear understanding of how potential customers search for your products and services will help brands optimize for the mobile/iPad search intent vs. those that are searching from computers since the results and optimization techniques are different!
First things first. Before you worry about your "Pinterest strategy" or how to leverage the 50 million users on "Draw Something," the biggest mistake you could make is to break what is currently working on your social shelf space. Start with an audit of your site and social accounts. Are the search engines finding your Web pages and social content? What keywords are driving traffic to your site? Who is updating your social accounts? Is a different office, team member, or affiliate competing with your corporate message and sending traffic to old offers?
Once you understand what is working and the areas that need improvement, you are ready for social search engine optimization. Participate in the different communities, and check what assets the search engines are finding before you engage with an agency that recommends a new Web site or to replace your current content management system or adding the latest "app strategy." Continue to create the assets that the community is using, then listen, engage and repeat. You will identify advocates and competitors. If you concentrate on quality content and remove barriers for the engines to find you -- like content protected behind passwords or fancy animations -- the social shelf space will take care of itself.
Follow Julio Fernandez on Twitter: www.twitter.com/SocialJulio