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Local businesses get a lesson in digital marketing

Danny Sullivan, founding editor of Search Engine Land, describes how Google's "conversational search" allows users to ask the popular search engine questions and get real-time answers. Sullivan was speaking at Zenith Duluth SocialCon Thursday morning at the Greysolon Ballroom. (Photo by Tom Olsen)

If you use Google's voice search to ask "How old is Barack Obama?" a box will pop up telling you that he is 51.

If you follow up by asking "How tall is he?" the search engine will answer with "6 feet 1 inch." Ask who he is married to, and it will tell you "Michelle Obama" and that they married in 1992.

It might seem like a remarkable level of conversation from a search engine, but it's really just technology catching up to real-life interaction, Danny Sullivan, a national social media marketing expert, recently told a Duluth audience.

"Search and social have always been together," he said. "Before Google, when we needed to know a fact, we'd go to the library and talk to a librarian. When we needed a plumber, we didn't go to Angie's List. We asked a neighbor."

The search engine revolutionized the search process overnight, he said, but the social aspect has never been removed.

"We continued to have this relationship with someone we trusted, but this person we trusted turned out to be Google," Sullivan told the audience. "We'll ask Google things we wouldn't ask our best friends."

Sullivan, the founding editor of the website Search Engine Land, spoke in front of several hundred businesspeople during Zenith Duluth SocialCon, a regional social media marketing conference, held Thursday at the Greysolon Ballroom.

Touting more than 318,000 Twitter followers, Sullivan offered advice for attendees to make sure their businesses are reaching their full potential on search engines such as Google and Bing.

Google Plus is the most underutilized way to reach an audience on the world's leading search engine, Sullivan said. The social media site, launched in 2011, has yet to reach Facebook's level of popularity, but brands that use the service get an info box that pops up on related Google searches -- essentially free advertising, Sullivan said.

"If you're a brand and you're not on Google Plus right now, you are an idiot," he said. "Take the big space they're giving you."

Google Plus also has the advantage of ranking brands that friends like higher on search results, making social connections that much more important, Sullivan said. Similarly, Facebook recently launched its Graph Search, which uses an algorithm to find search information from the user's network of friends.

By simply liking businesses -- from restaurants to doctors -- social media users are now influencing their friends' choices more than ever before, Sullivan said.

"Searching is a natural social activity," he said. "Searching and social interaction have always gone together. Now they're just reuniting once again in the digital world."

Attendees of the event said they were surprised to hear about some of

the ways they're missing out on social media marketing.

Ashlee Hartwig, a communications associate for the University of Minnesota Duluth Alumni Association, describes herself as a "social media junkie," but said she's always looking for new tips on marketing.

"When you think of the alumni association, we have to be able to reach a lot of people," she said. "We have alumni living all over the world, and all different ages, so it's important to do everything we can to reach people."

Her friend, Ashley Klatte, does marketing for Healthland in the Twin Cities. The health care company primarily does work in rural communities. Klatte said there is one point that stuck out to her.

"I'm one of the idiots without Google Plus," she said. "I wrote a big note -- "Google Plus" -- on my agenda for tomorrow."

Cassandra Roemhildt of Duluth recently started a job in marketing and research for the University of Wisconsin-Superior's Transportation and Logistics Research Center. She said she came to the conference to learn how the center could do more with social media.

"It would be nice to be able to get information out to students and prospective students," she said. "I learned a lot here about how Google is really transforming to real life and just how far we've come."

Joyce Mireault is the Duluth-based director of client services for the Flint Group, an advertising agency that does business worldwide. Sullivan's presentation reinforced her company's commitment to social media marketing, she said.

"It confirmed the way our agency looks at strategies for social media and searching," she said. "At this point, it's just become mainstream consideration for our clients."