Mumbai: As OTT video streaming takes India and the world by storm, so too has the competition among content owners to acquire and retain viewers' eyeballs. To grab a slice of what is set to be a Rs 12,000 crore industry by end-2023, OTT brands are investing heavily on marketing – estimates range between Rs 30 to 50 crore per brand. These budgets constitute a high entry barrier, especially since OTT platforms also have to simultaneously invest in creating attractive content for a demanding audience.
Faced with this daunting prospect, OTT platforms have a smart way out – going back to the basics. In this case, it means revisiting the humble yet ubiquitous search engine. And making sure that when a viewer decides to watch a piece of content, your platform comes up as one of the top hits.
Organic search is still the main engine of growth
Despite the rise of social media and huge spends on advertising, search engines are very much alive and kicking. 68 per cent of all online experiences still begin with a search engine, and 53.3 per cent of all website traffic still arises from organic search. The trend is much the same in the OTT space. Organic search consistently constitutes platforms’ main marketing channel and the source of direct visitors, outstripping paid search, display advertising, social media and referrals. JioCinema, which is hosting IPL's latest edition, gets 41.25 per cent of its traffic from organic search. In AltBalaji’s case, organic search brings in 66.09 per cent of its traffic, with direct visits a distant second at 31.13 per cent. These numbers become especially critical in regions and markets where viewers are using more handheld devices to consume content and smart TV numbers remain low.
What's more interesting is that direct traffic on OTT platforms is largely composed of repeat customers. Viewers who find a platform via search engines, on the other hand, are usually first-time visitors. And, they are the ones who actually signal how much a platform is growing, as a good experience is likely to turn them into loyal customers.
With many sports among other content owners sharing their media rights with multiple platforms, being right on top of the search results for a trending sporting event, for example, means grabbing viewers ahead of competing platforms showing the same content. That’s a significant edge that no OTT platform can ignore.
SEO cuts customer acquisition costs
Besides bringing in results in terms of actual viewers, Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is also a cost-effective marketing tool. For one, the money spent on SEO is an investment that never ages, as it continues to bring a steady stream of new and existing traffic to the platform. By adopting a consistent SEO strategy, each incremental investment builds upon previous efforts, unlike advertising, which stops yielding results once a campaign stops running.
The other great benefit of a well-planned SEO strategy is that it helps OTT platforms target viewers with razor-sharp accuracy. Using the right keywords and phrases ensures that a platform ranks higher for searches that match its target demographics. So, instead of targeting a large audience, of whom only a few may be interested in a piece of content, SEO can ensure that no one who is looking for that content misses out visiting the platform. This is a great opportunity for new OTT entrants to level the playing field and remain visible against their larger competitors.
SEO doesn’t stop at search engine listings
While there’s no denying that a high Google ranking is the Holy Grail of any digital marketer, a good SEO strategy doesn’t stop there. That’s because, while a public search engine can improve a platform’s discoverability, SEO can also allow a viewer already on the platform to find relevant content much more easily.
So, the use of appropriate keywords, representative thumbnails and onsite content descriptors also keeps viewers engaged and on the platform for longer. Another intelligent use of SEO is to promote upcoming events and populating relevant keywords. In this way, anyone searching for a much-anticipated game knows well in advance which platform is going to play it, adding buzz to the content even before it is broadcast.
Local language search also adds to discoverability. OTT platforms, by their very nature, have broken down geographical barriers to accessing content. As audiences become more diverse, OTT platforms have widened their audience base by offering content in different languages. But, unless a platform’s SEO strategy takes local language search into account, it may miss out on this critical audience, simply because they don’t appear in search results. That’s especially important in hugely multilingual markets like India, where local content has a significant audience.
There are also simple yet effective SEO techniques that OTT platforms can use to make themselves more discoverable. A sitemap, for example, ensures that search engines are pointed towards the most important sections of your platform. It also lets users understand your platform’s structure, making it easier for them to navigate through it. Given that video content is hugely important in the OTT context, having a video sitemap in addition to a general sitemap helps immensely. A video sitemap provides additional information about videos hosted on your platform, helping search engines find and understand the video content on your platform. This is especially important for recently-added content that search engines’ crawling mechanisms may miss. Drilling down even further, every video page you host should also be optimized with all the relevant metadata, concise descriptive text and a highly relevant thumbnail.
AI: the elephant in the room
Google had 26 million indexed pages in 1998. Today, that number is 130 trillion. To cope with this huge expansion, search engines have long since gone beyond brute-force crawling, indexing and ranking. Instead, they detect patterns and intent through algorithms and neural networks that run through millions of data points, making the search results they throw up even more intuitive and accurate.
But even these advanced capabilities are becoming passé. Microsoft Bing and Google’s Bard are now making intuitive responses to conversational search a reality. This increases the pressure on marketers to adapt to the AI era – 40 per cent already use AI to analyze data at scale, and 36 per cent say that it has helped them improve site accessibility. A new race is being run in the SEO arena, and the winners will be those platforms that partner with technology companies to keep us with the evolution of organic search and the seismic changes it is in for.
The author of this article is ViewLift senior manager-digital marketing Mahesh Kumar.