I recently had a chance to catch up with Mark Traphagen, a guru when it comes to Google+. If you haven’t had a chance to interact with or read any of Mark’s ramblings online, you are missing out. Mark is currently the Director of Digital Outreach at Virante. I thought it would be a great chance to hear some of Mark’s insights on what he’s seen with Google+.
Q. When many in the industry think about Google+ they can’t help but think of Mark Traphagen. What is it about Google+ that got you hooked?
A: I’m always fascinated by anything Google does. I jumped right on Buzz and Wave, and even though they both failed, I still enjoyed the brief ride. It’s just fun to watch Google experiment, innovate, shake and re-bake. But when Google+ showed up, I knew this was something different. We had been hearing rumors going back a year before the Google+ rollout of a Google social network that would be fully integrated into all of Google. When I actually saw Google+ (I got a beta invite on its third day) I knew they had something different.
I suppose the reason I “got” Google+ from the beginning when so many other social media experts were writing it off as a Facebook wannabe is that I cut my social media marketing teeth at Virante, an SEO agency. So I was able to see that Google+ had a powerful potential to affect Google search. Knowing how important search is to business bottom lines, I just figured that if the world’s largest search engine invites you inside and gives you a free tool to grow your search presence, being there is a no-brainer.
Beyond that, I think the clean interface and circles to manage your contacts were the biggest “plusses” as a user at the beginning.
Q. Google+ officially launched on June 28th 2011, how have they done and where did you expect them to be at this point?
I believe them when they say that they are farther along than they themselves expected to be by this point. My friends and I who were active on Google+ from early on were always left scratching our heads when all those “Google+ is a ghost town” articles were being published. We had more engagement and more follower growth than we could handle! I’ve grown to 32,000 followers in just 18 months, 16 times the followers I have on Twitter after three years.
And Google+ has opened opportunities for me in “real life” like nothing I’ve ever seen. You opened this interview by saying, “When many in the industry think about Google+ they can’t help but think of Mark Traphagen.” That just blows my mind. Eighteen months ago I couldn’t imagine that I’d be an industry thought leader in anything. Now I’m getting invited to speak at national conferences, I’m working on a Google Authorship book with a major social media star. Believe me when I tell you that Google+ may be the most powerful networking tool ever devised.
Q. While Facebook is still the leader among the social networks, Google+ is growing fast. Do you ever see Facebook disappearing or will both networks co-exist?
I think they will coexist for a long time to come. Facebook just has so much momentum, and of course it’s hard to argue with the guy who has the most chips on his end of the poker table. For many people, Facebook is the Internet, and I get that. It’s easy to connect with people you already know there, and Facebook deserves a lot of credit for that, for bringing together families and long-lost friends.
But I think Facebook’s biggest challenge is the very thing that Facebook probably thinks is its strength: it’s walled garden mentality. Because Facebook keeps all of its data and activity inside, and does everything possible to keep people from jumping out of Facebook, they have to live or die on their own platform. This is why we keep seeing more and more ads and promotions on Facebook’s interface. They have nowhere else to monetize. The one exception to that is Facebook Exchange, which allows advertisers to use Facebook data while tracking users outside of Facebook and then serving them targeted ads on other sites. But Exchange may run into regulatory problems because of privacy concerns.
Google+ on the other hand has no pressure to monetize on its own platform. That’s because Google+ enhances Google’s bottom line by using user data to enhance the search experience (via Search Plus Your World personalized search) and better target ads on the portions of Google where we’re already used to seeing ads. When users like their search results more, they keep coming back, and that’s where Google shows them relevant ads and makes its money. It’s so brilliant it makes me smile to think of it. I think it’s entirely possible that there will never be paid ads on the Google+ platform, which gives it a big competitive advantage as people get more and more disgusted by ever-increasing ads on Facebook.
Q. Many businesses still look at Google+ and feel it’s not worth the effort to invest in. What are your main selling points when convincing a business to get active on Google+?
Two words: Google Search. As I said earlier, if Google says, “Jump and we’ll rank you higher,” the sane response is: “How high?” We’ve seen dramatic effects on organic search traffic for ourselves and for clients making strategic use of Google+. My favorite example is the day after we rolled out our new RemoveEm tool (which automates much of the process of cleaning up spammy backlink profiles for sites penalized by Google). We launched a micro site and immediately shared it on Google+. The next day 8 of the 10 first page results for our most important keyword were references to RemoveEm! 4 of those 8 were Google+ posts; two by me and two reshares of my posts by influential friends. Now that didn’t last forever (although we still have three top spots for that keyword), but it shows off rather dramatically what Google+ can do.
But I’ll hasten to add that such results aren’t automatic. You’ve got to learn to work Google+ and build a good network there. Too many businesses have heard “Google+ is good for SEO” and just show up, build a page, and then leave disappointed shortly thereafter when they don’t see their organic traffic go up. It doesn’t work that way. But for those who put in the effort and use the tested methods we’ve developed to build influential networks on Google+, the results can be astounding.
I’ll just mention here Google Authorship as well, which I think is going to turn content marketing upside down in the years to come. I run a very active and helpful Google Authorship and Author Rank Community on Google+ where anyone can learn more about it. Just search that title in Google+ search and you’ll find us. Of course, did you think I wouldn’t know how to rank at the top for it?
Q. How did you get started in the industry? You attended Westminster Theological Seminary, not the typical university a tech/marketing nerd would attend.
Yeah, shouldn’t all online marketers have a Master’s degree in biblical studies?
Seriously, I’ve been an active users of the social web since before the term was invented. I went from bulletin boards to forums to blogging to social networks, all along the way learning to build communities and make valuable connections. But the marketing bug really bit when I went to work for the seminary bookstore. The store was dying because of competition from Amazon. The manager challenged me to help take the store online and try to market to the niche community for academic-level theological books. I started an outreach campaign to influential bloggers, set up incentives for them to review books and link to us, and in two years returned the store to profitability. I decided this was way more fun than theology, and have never looked back.
Q. You’ve been a big advocate of the new Google+ Communities. What can businesses do to take advantage of these communities?
Communities are exciting because they allow Google+ to finally be approached topically. That was always the promise of Circles, but Circles didn’t pan out that way. I might circle you because you are in Internet marketing, but inevitably you post about a lot of other things too, like your family photos or hobbies you have. Communities allow me to connect with people just around a shared interest with no interrupting “fluff.” And that’s important for Google+, because the networks great advantage is in how easy it makes it to find people and conversations about things that interest you.
One of the first things that made a lot of us excited about Communities from a marketing standpoint was the fact that brand pages could create, run and participate in Communities from day one. This has proven to be a much better market segmentation device than Circles were. If you put people in targeted circles for certain messaging, only the people in those circles ever see those messages. But if you build a targeted public community, you can still target your messages topically, but others can see them and be drawn into the conversations as well.
I have a lot of tips for building great communities, but I’ll just drop two here. First, at this point it’s best to go after longer tail niche communities. You aren’t going to build the great “Photography” community; there’s already too much competition for that. But you might be able to own “Black & White Photography.” Also, the most important thing you can do in your Communities is to recruit good co-moderators. If you don’t keep out the spam and off-topic posts, no one will want to join.
Q. Word on the street is you are big into Legos. What gives?
Who isn’t into Lego? My passion is secondary to that of my wife, though. She runs a major science organization, yet collects a rare offshoot of Lego called Modulex and builds complex Lego robots with our grandkids. My real non-marketing passion is competitive story slams. I was a Grand Slampion finalist in The Monit, a Triangle area storytelling event.
Q. Many are saying that Bing has really been leading the search industry as far as integrating social media into their search. Do you see Google integrating social in their search more in the near future?
I have to say that question amuses me. I don’t mean at all to be insulting, but the very question reflects how much people don’t understand what Google+ really is. Bing is bolting on a social network onto its existing search. Google is Google+ in very real ways. Google+ is not a side product of Google; it is fully integrated into all things Google, including search.
Q. What is your favorite thing about the digital marketing industry?
The sense of camaraderie and community among the professionals in the industry. There’s so much business to go around we don’t have to feel like we’re in competition. Information and tips are freely shared, and everyone helps float everyone else’s boat. So we can lose Colby Almond, one of the most talented viral marketing experts anywhere, have him end up with you guys at 97th floor, and instead of hard feelings, it only further cements our relationship. I love that!
Q. Least favorite thing?
That you guys have Colby Almond. No, seriously, I’d have to say all the misinformation and bad reputation spread by non-professionals or less-than-ethical marketers. Anyone can set up a web site or start a Twitter account and proclaim themselves an SEO or social media guru. And we see a lot of bad practices and wrong information out there because of that. Just means that those of us who take this as a serious and honorable profession have to step up our game.
Q. What advice would you give to those who are just now getting their feet wet in the world of digital marketing?
Read, read, read. There is so much content available out there, that there is no excuse for not self-educating. But you have to learn the reliable sources, the trusted writers. Aggregation sites like Inbound.org are very helpful, along with trusted industry leaders like SEOMoz, or the 97th Floor and Virante blogs.
Second would be to find a great mentor. One of the things that excites me most at Virante these days is we’ve been able to hire a lot of very bright young people in entry level positions, then put the best of those under our best experienced people who mentor them into higher skills. Books and blog posts are great, but no substitute for what you can learn working side by side with an SEO master.
Q. I have to ask this question to everyone who lives in Durham. Duke or North Carolina?
And there’s the other dreaded question! I’m not a big sports guy, so it doesn’t matter to me that much. But the funny thing is that that was the only question I failed in my Virante interview. CTO Russ Jones asked it as the last question, and being new to the Triangle, and not a sports guy, I panicked and said Duke, just because my daughter did graduate studies there. Turned out Russ and Ryan Allis, who founded Virante, are both UNC grads. I was hired anyway, over Russ’s strong objections.