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Saturday, October 04, 2003

R.I.P. PageRank?

A lot of noise has been made recently about the state of Google’s PageRank technology. PageRank is dated, critics say. PageRank is useless. PageRank is dead.

There are obviously flaws in the technology, and yes, I have a bone or ten to pick with Google about the way a page’s PR is calculated – particularly in recent months (but hey, that’s a different story). PageRank is a key component of Google’s search technology (actually, Google refers to it as the “heart” of their software), and to remove it completely would obviously be difficult and silly.

One easy way to silence PageRank’s critics would be to remove the PR display function from the Google Toolbar. This would remove a significant chunk of the webmasters who judge their site’s success in Google strictly by PR – a very bad habit to develop. PageRank is important, but is it everything? No. Regardless, the topic of PR has become a much hotter one ever since Google started providing ranking information via its Toolbar.

Of course, it would also be silly for Google to sit on PageRank at it exists today and believe they will be safe from competition for the next few years. Web searchers and webmasters are a fickle bunch, which is obviously the reason Google became so popular in the first place.

Posted by Adam
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Ye Gods: Finally got that Darn Site Submitted to the ODP

I've complained in this space many times before about how much the Open Directory Project stinks. But, for webmasters and marketers, it's a necessary evil because Google uses it as the basis for the Google Directory. And, a listing in dmoz.org seems to aid in achieving higher rankings in Google, thus submitting to the ODP is an essential part of search engine marketing.

So, for the past two months, I've been trying to submit a client site called MDSearch.com, a free physician job board, with absolutely no success. I couldn't even get the "submit URL" page to open. And when I did, I would get a server error message every single time. Needless to say, the client wasn't happy, and I sure as hell wasn't.

Half the time, I couldn't even get dmoz.org to work at all! I'd try to bring up the home page... timeout. Searching the directory and... "The Open Directory is under a heavy load right now." Yeah right.

Surely the time has come when Google should drop the notoriously unreliable ODP from its Directory? Couldn't Google build a much better directory anyway? Since Google's in the start-up-acquiring mode rignt now, why not snap up another directory provider like GoGuides or someone like that?

I can't believe AOL has done nothing with the ODP since it acquired it along with Netscape, and I can't believe they're letting it die such a slow, painful death. It really coulda been somebody.

Posted by Cory
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Thursday, October 02, 2003

LookSmart Bets the Company (Again)

If it were a biz school case study, I'm sure LookSmart would look like roadkill. What else could you say about a company that kept changing its core product to something different, and when it wasn't doing that, it was changing its pricing scheme in ways that confused current clients?

All that being said, if you ask me what I think of LookSmart's announcement that it's moving into "sponsored listings," I have to give it an unequivocal thumbs-up. Without knowing about their plans, I concluded that this is exactly what they should do when I sat down to write a review of their service recently. (Unfortunately, that review will now have to be rewritten!)

Their paid inclusion offering as currently structured is just too confusing and offers too little control. Ultimately it doesn't treat advertisers as advertisers, even though they wind up paying by the click. It's a hybrid that made apples-to-apples comparisons difficult (is LookSmart as good as another pay-per-click provider, or should we even compare them?) and didn't allow the keyword auction market to set prices (flat pricing of fifteen cents, and later, tiered pricing which charged up to 75 cents for some keywords).

So the move to offer a "pure" pay-per-click sponsored listing service that competes directly with Google AdWords and Overture will be welcomed by many advertisers. LookSmart will maintain its paid inclusion LookListings program, for now, and indeed it is not going to be showing sponsored listings on MSN Search, since MSN is still using Overture for these. It's fair to say, though, that LookSmart's product development was largely driven by a need to please MSN in case MSN chose to terminate its search listings partnership with LookSmart.

For the time being, then, LookSmart Sponsored Listings will have modest distribution in spite of what looks like a solid product. It's easy to get set up with in a minute or two, and the pricing scheme is easy to understand. The big task now, as they told the press today, is to convince large portal partners that they are the new Switzerland in the space now that Overture is owned by Yahoo and now that Google is seen as a dangerous frontrunner.

LookSmart's shown great tenacity in the face of much adversity in the search and directory (and now, paid search) business, and they will offer credible competition to the industry leaders in pay-per-click. It's not out of line to imagine them powering MSN's sponsored listings in Overture's place. They'll also be serenading AOL Search to see if they can't dislodge Google, but that will be a tougher sell.

For seasoned PPC advertisers, a couple of features are notable. First, the minimum bid is fifteen cents, three times what Google charges. This won't be appreciated by smaller advertisers, but since the trend in average costs per click is upwards, it may not be a huge issue in the near future. (We would prefer that everyone go down to one cent, but I guess that isn't in the cards.)

But the really intriguing thing is that they've emulated Google in factoring clickthrough rates along with bid amounts into the formula that determines how prominently one's ad is displayed in the listings. This makes economic sense for the publisher, when you really think about it. Imagine a cost-per-click banner ad deal that kept running forever with very few people clicking on that particular ad. The publisher gets no money, yet the advertiser gets to clog up the space with their message.

The trend of factoring CTR's into the formula for CPC auctions, and indeed into all CPC advertising deals, is likely to continue. Competitors like Overture and FindWhat may need to sharpen their attention to this issue.

Moving into sponsored listings could be a rude awakening for LookSmart in some ways. After all, it's no fun dealing with click fraud and editorial policy issues. But then again, LookSmart has some of the deepest experience in the business when it comes to editorial control. They are at least as likely to succeed in this field as anyone else, and frankly, it's high time they stopped taking a back seat to their competitors by clinging to a convoluted product mix and awkward pricing scheme.

Posted by Andrew
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Wednesday, October 01, 2003

Advanced SM (Search Marketing) Technique,"Shoehorning"

[MarketingWonk via MarketingProfs:]

Writing for search engines is a delicate task, say some battle-hardened optimizers. (Personally, I just don't do it for this site -- write for search engines, that is -- and our rankings haven't suffered, so take away from that what you will. I'm sure I'm doing it unconsciously from time to time, but unless you're being paid to shoehorn good keywords into, say, a lingerie retailer's site, it can make Jack a dull writer. Too much "shoehorning" will reduce the creativity and variety of writing, so if your writing is judged on its quality and spark, shoving popular search words in there constantly is going to make a discerning reader go "yeccch.")

The most interesting example of shoehorning I've come across was some time ago in the writing of two well-known search marketing experts, who started to sneakily shoehorn "sex words" like "tied up" (and worse) into their weekly column. I'm sure a select few SEO slaves were quietly aware of the naked truth lurking beneath otherwise mild-mannered marketing tips, but few were bold enough to make note of the tactic.

Posted by Andrew
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Back from the Dead and Better than Ever

Our humble web site was offline for most of the past 24 hours due to a server glitch at web host Interland, which has proved to be somewhat unreliable. We apologize for the down time. But don't blame us, blame Interland!

Posted by Cory
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Tuesday, September 30, 2003

...and then, pass the Advil

I defy Google AdSense to match the content on this page with their exclusive ad-serving technology. Well, bless 'em for trying, anyway.

Posted by Andrew
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This "Do Not Call" Thing May Not Fly

I just got a call from the 902 area code (which includes scenic Nova Scotia, Canada). Hoping it was Register.com calling me to apologize profusely (they list a 902 number on their site for callers from outside North America who can't access the 877 number), I did the naive thing and actually answered my phone.

Unfortunately it was just a telemarketer (no doubt sitting a couple of rows down from the Register.com phone support folks in the same call center) trying to push a credit card on me.

This got me to thinking about the current legal skirmishes around "do not call" legislation. It's likely that telemarketing companies in the US are already plotting ways of getting around any legislation that comes out. This might include moving operations offshore, or at least to Canada.

Sure, the underlying companies who hire the telemarketers are no doubt still liable, but I imagine they'll be trying to shade every gray area to the max, and working on any loophole they can, even if it means setting up foreign subsidiaries or... ok, I'm getting ahead of myself, maybe... but I'm sure they'll think of something.

One way or another, telemarketers are going to be about as easy to stop as the tobacco companies. Maybe the bigger ones would let themselves get bought out by huge telcos, then let the telco lobbyists do their thing, if the courts don't overrule the legislation, that is. Too many gray areas, too much of a restriction on free speech. If the suit salesman, stockbroker, or insurance rep you deal with doesn't ask for your permission to "phone you occasionally" in just the right way, are their companies liable? It creates a huge quagmire.

Guess that means you shouldn't get rid of your call display just yet. Eventually, we'll have special "no call numbers" that we'll be able to buy for a premium, that will be listed but off limits to telemarketers. Advantage, phone company (again).

Posted by Andrew
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One of the Most Egregious Opt-Outs of All Time

A pox on Register.com.

I got an email from them today, inviting me to renew my domain names, and indicating that if I didn't take specific action, not to worry, I was included in their SafeRenew service that would renew those domain names for one year using my existing credit card info.

That's funny. I don't keep my domains registered with Register.com. I use NameBargain.com.

Now that's not to say I didn't know that NameBargain is owned by Register.com. I'm aware of the connection. But I had assumed that one would stay distinct from the other when it came to the issue of renewals. That's a fairly important point, especially if you own, say, 20 domain names. NameBargain's $8.88 a year. Register.com soaks you for $35. That's a difference of $234/yr. just for some silly addresses, which are, of course a commodity. That doesn't come with storage space or anything else, including integrity, apparently. I sure as heck didn't sign up with NameBargain for the cute name, or for my health. I signed up with them, because, like the rest of you, it will be a cold day in hell before I hand $35 to Verisign or Register.com for a domain.

So anyway, there's a link in Register.com's email to opt out of the SafeRenew service. Unfortunately, when you click it, the website tells you that the request can't be processed at this time. That means you have to phone customer service.

That's one weird opt-in, I'll tell you. I register domains with one service, and now find that their parent company is going to use the credit card information I trustingly provided to automatically renew me in a different service class costing nearly four times as much!

Even if NameBargain had opted me into the SafeRenew thing without my permission, it would have been wrong. But to opt me into it and have me leap over the fence to a whole new premium pricing scheme is just outrageous. There ought to be a law. Hopefully there is.

It's a bit like your Toyota dealer dropping you a line (by email) telling you that when it comes time to trade in your Corolla, you'll be opted into a nice new Lexus, and "by the way, you'll be billed for it." For shame. I might just as well have had my credit card stolen by some joy-riding street thug.

Posted by Andrew
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Monday, September 29, 2003

"Me-tooism" Causes Amazon to Jump into Search Fray

Here we go again. Why is it that every Tom, Dick and Harry must go where the money is? Probably because that's where the money is.

Last week, Amazon.com announced plans for a new company called A9.com. The premise of the new company is intriguing, but the details are sketchy. It seems to be a shot across the bow of Google's new Froogle shopping search engine, and a serious threat to DealTime's relaunch as Shopping.com, and Yahoo's recently unveiled plans for a comparison shopping engine.

"A9.com is a new, separately branded and operated company to create the best e-commerce search technology available to Amazon and third-party Web sites," said Alison Diboll, an A9 spokeswoman who would not provide any specifics on the services.

You may also recall that Amazon earlier this year hinted at a new, quasi-search engine that would look through all the books in its extensive catalog. I'm more jazzed about that service than yet another shopping search engine, probably because I never feel the need to comparison shop for products online. I guess I'm just not interested in being a smart shopper!

Posted by Cory
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Sunday, September 28, 2003

ASPs Off Life Support!

This isn't new news, but it's still a positive message worth sharing: It appears that application service providers (ASPs) are not only surviving, but thriving, to boot.

Isn't it nice to hear refreshing stories about Internet-based companies instead of the same old rehashed junk about dot-com doom and gloom? It's amazing how reporters relentlessly hammered away on the same message that the dot-com boom was a temporary moment in time whose golden age has passed? It's as if they were trying to atone for their "irrational exuberance" over the boom. Today, however, most analysts finally agree that it's a matter of when, not if, Internet-based companies start showing huge profits thanks to their inherent advantages over shrink-wrapped software providers. Salesforce.com, the poster child of healthy ASPs, might even go public next year! How '90s of them.

And when Google finally IPOs, the lid will undoubtedly come off of this burgeoning retro trend. You can just feel it, can't you? Let's hope this time, however, investors and analysts are a bit more restrained in their proclamations of the next big thing.

Posted by Cory
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