Viral Marketing

This series of articles is designed to give you enough information to at least determine where I’m coming from, and what you might expect from my professional search engine optimisation services and/or my SEO seminar and workshop. For those who have certain skills (e.g. copywriting, marketing, web development) and/or relatively modest goals, they may be all you need to move forward on your own. If you quote (or benefit) from any of the following, I request only that you reward the content with a link. Cheers all.

Contrary to popular belief, a virus does not have to infect bodies at an exponential rate to be worthy of the name. If this were the case, we’d all be dead by now (or eating McDonalds Burger King and drinking Coke Pepsi all day, which amounts to much the same thing).

Plenty of viruses succeed without spreading beyond a single community, and in terms of viral marketing and how it can work in conjunction with search engine optimisation, sometimes a single community is all it takes to initiate a high search result. Once it is accessible via top search results for a popular/relevant search query, a page/site hosting a commanding idea (i.e. a virus targeting the mind) can be very difficult to shift, as it quickly becomes self-reinforcing.

Starting with an imperfect example (a famous Google bomb that started here at Bloggerheads), the following short list should help you to grasp this concept very quickly. I’ve chosen older mechanisms mainly to show off the sustained effect, because what I’m trying to get across here is the potential of a long term gain from what is typically a short-term exercise (most viral marketing mechanisms on the internets especially come and go very quickly).

  • In early 2005, I deliberately linked to Tony Blair’s biography on the Downing Street website using the single word ‘liar’, prompting maybe a dozen bloggers to do the same. Very shortly after that, Tony Blair was the top search result for ‘liar’ for UK users of Google. This quickly gained media attention, which led to many others either referencing the Google bomb (helping to further associate Tony Blair with the dreaded word) or actively participating (reinforcing the search result). Soon, Tony Blair was moving from 5th to 3rd globally for ‘liar’, leading to further mentions in international media… and so on and so forth.

  • Also in early 2005, I created a Flash music video for a song about the London underground system, titled The London Underground Song, which was a smash hit (in online terms) for a few short weeks. But five years later, my Flash video still hovers between 5th to 7th place for the generic query ‘london underground’, which helps it to reach over a hundred new fans every day. A small percentage of those fans then go on to link to the video, which further reinforces its importance in the eyes of Google… and so on and so forth.
  • One of my most efficient viral mechanisms in terms of return against time/resources has been the ‘Teen’s page on Tom Watson’s site, which is a ‘mere’ 220 words of text. No pictures, no animation, no games, no video, no nothing… just a very effective in-joke. Anyone who’s engaged online to any serious degree would recognise the many clues that it’s a joke, which is what made it even funnier when it was unleashed in 2003 and Tom was approached by several ‘experts’ seeking to advise him on how to best communicate with the younglings on this fresh new internets thingamabob. The page went on to gain widespread mainstream attention, fooling even the mugs at Private Eye into believing it was real. Tom Watson began with the problem of not even appearing in the top search results for his own name (thanks to a famous golfer getting most of the attention) but within a fortnight he was in the top spot for his name, and for many years afterwards he was the highest search result for ‘labour mp’ (currently 7th). The page that did the damage was even a top 5 search result for ‘teens’ for 3 years, and for reasons that should be obvious, that takes some doing. (Heh. Maybe next time I will use pictures.) After all that fuss with another Tom Watson in the way, it’s refreshing to note that our Tom Watson is at present 9th for ‘Tom’ (and ‘Tom’ alone) in Google UK. But before he gets too full of himself, I should point out that I’m 4th for ‘Tim… right behind Tim Berners-Lee.
  • Private Eye scan

    Combining Viral Marketing with SEO

    In these examples, a relatively small audience helped to secure a high search position that went on to reach an entirely different – and much larger – audience.

    This is what is unique about my approach to viral marketing; if the concept is properly integrated into a search engine optimisation strategy, this can help you to get far more bang for your buck, possibly long after your attention-getting device has peaked (if you have the relevance to back it up).

    To better visualise this, it helps to think of SEO and coordinating your keyword relevance as an effort to become aerodynamic (i.e. shaping and streamlining to increase lift), while the viral marketing mechanism acts as thrust;

  • Alone, keyword relevance has you sitting in a grounded glider, going nowhere.
  • Using only a viral marketing mechanism (i.e. without keyword relevance to back it up) is like nailing a propeller to a brick, or strapping a jet engine to a cow; you may well get airborne, but the moment the thrust cuts out, you’re on your way down… fast.
  • But when these two forces act in unison, a viral marketing mechanism can within days (and sometimes hours) elevate you to heady heights of visibility, allowing you to glide forward and stay aloft on your keyword relevance for years.
  • Continuing the metaphor, and returning to the Tony Blair ‘liar’ example, the very best viral marketing mechanisms (see also: memes) are less about thrust and more about taking advantage of massive thermal updrafts; the ‘liar’ Google bomb worked as spectacularly as it did because an election was looming and at the time 44% of voters agreed that Blair had (at least) misled Parliament about Iraq. Whatever you believe personally, that’s a heck of a lot of updraft.

    It should also be noted that Tom Watson especially owes a lot of his success to his willingness to engage openly and honestly with the electorate via his weblog (and more recently on Twitter), and it is on that note I would recommend you read Relevance #2 if you haven’t already.

    If you’d care to learn more, I use these case studies and others to explain in more detail how this method works (and why) in my search engine seminar.

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    (Psst! This is also one of the few situations in which I would readily advise limited use of AdWords. If you have a link generating device that could easily hold its own once it earned a high position and/or reached enough people to keep the inbound links ticking over, it might be possible or even advisable to use AdWords as a first-stage booster rocket.)