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Wednesday, March 31, 2004

A Good Gig if You Can Get It: Google to Launch Web-Based Email

Yahoo! dumps Google. MSN guns for Google. So... Google launches a service that directly competes with those two companies' wildly popular Yahoo! Mail and Hotmail services. The gloves are off.

According to tonight's press release and several breaking news items, Google's long-rumored email service is being tested tonight by 1,000 users. You knew that Google wouldn't enter this space without making plans to do something a little different. True to form, they've kicked it up a notch, reportedly offering a gigabyte's worth of storage. That's ten times more storage than the largest premium Yahoo Mail inbox, which costs $59.99 a year. I'll be one of Google's first customers. With my storage needs and lazy "archive everything" policy -- and I suspect many others are in the same position -- Yahoo's 100MB just isn't enough (seems like just a few months ago I was saying the same thing about the 50MB).

Along with offering tens of millions of web-based email users a potentially better, cheaper, faster product, this will provide Google advertisers with a fairly sizeable additional channel for targeted keyword ads as users flock to sign up for "GMail."

Like the established players, Google also promises that Gmail will help users fight spam. Time will tell if they've come up with any new wrinkles here beyond the usual Bayesian filters, challenge-response, and related anti-spam methods.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




ClickTracks 5.0 Makes Quick Work of 'Stat Soup'

Last week I had the opportunity to see a demo of the latest version of ClickTracks Professional, released today.

The highly customizable product, as before, does most of what the "big iron era" metrics software can do, at a fraction of the price.

Among the recent improvements includes a "What's Changed" report. If there are major changes in traffic patterns -- let's say a new keyword or a new source starts sending you a lot of traffic -- this will appear in the report, which is modeled on reports like the "Google Zeitgeist" and Alexa "Movers & Shakers" report. While this sounds straightforward, try to get any of that info in easily digestible form with any other logfile analysis software.

What ClickTracks is doing, perhaps more so than any other company in the industry, is taking information that marketing managers and consultants typically must piece together by hand by poring through the "stat soup" provided by their existing metrics package, and offering ways of creating custom reports with less effort. In short, the product feels like it's been designed with marketers' jobs in mind, rather than for the convenience of programmers. The old days of the IT head taking a huge file of raw data and handing it over to marketing and saying "here you go" or "looks like traffic is up this month," we hope, are long gone.

Another nifty feature that gets the thumbs-up from us is the ClickTracks Way, a new approach to contextual help files. If you happen to be using a certain feature of the software, the idea here is that some insight would be provided as to what steps to take to generate a useful report that could be used for a concrete purpose. (The beauty of Internet metrics is, for all the complexity, it's a narrow enough field that it's worth an analytics firm's time to suggest specific ways of using the product instead of throwing their customers to the dogs.)

Perhaps the best way to get a feel for ClickTracks is to see a demo in person. They'll be exhibiting at Search Engine Strategies in Toronto in May. Maybe a good opportunity to meet up with some fellow stats wonks who "get it"!

According to the website, ClickTracks Professional pricing starts at $2,995. The product is worthy of its accolades. Rather than a bland broth of numbers, ClickTracks gives today's marketers the chunky functionality they need to analyze the performance of their campaigns.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




Google's Web Alerts a Threat to Other API Tools?

The Register points out something I hadn't thought about: Google's newly announceed beta Web Alerts, while still rudimentary, are squarely taking aim at the small cottage industry of Google API tools like Google Alert that provide ranking-monitoring features.

Gideon Greenspan, the creator of Google Alert, says he isn't worried about Google's own alert system, and says his forthcoming premium service will offer much more than Google's basic service. Since Google really isn't in the business of providing a robust alert service, I tend to doubt their fledgling service will ever truly compete with third-party tools.

Can't wait to see your premium service Gideon! :)

Posted by Cory Kleinschmidt




Cliche Watch

Every time a search engine releases a personalization feature, the PR makes the rounds and we're forced to consume dozens of headlines about Google (or whoever) "getting personal." What does that even mean? Stop!

And while we're at it, a plea to journalists to stop using the empty phrase "pay-to-play" or "pay-for-play" when describing paid inclusion, pay-for-placement, paid listings, or whatever you might see fit to call them. Play? Do I look like Alex Rodriguez to you?

Traffick apologizes in advance for our own past and future contributions to the global cliche-flow. We'll try harder, promise.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




Monday, March 29, 2004

New Traffick Article:
Make Your Own Pie: Google's Personalization Merely a Taste of Things to Come

By Andrew Goodman - 3/29/2004

Personalization is one of those hip online topics like weblogs, RSS, and streaming music that no commentator has felt the power to resist over the past couple of years.

Following a period that generated vast expectations for search engines (and an Internet in general) that will do a better job of giving you exactly what you want, personalization-punditry finally fell on hard times. Today, Google has released a modest attempt to show how personalization might work for a search engine user. Read more...

Posted by Cory Kleinschmidt




Google's New Look

Judging by the scope of Google's PR for the upgraded look and new features today, it doesn't appear that it's a random test. :)

Since my colleagues and I are most attuned to the impact the new look might have on our advertising clients, "but we're also loyal Google users!," -- our initial reactions reflect those (multiple) biases.

Here were a few of the knee-jerk reactions from here:


  • A couple of us noted with interest Google beginning to ease out of its relationship with the Open Directory Project, dmoz.org. Since the dmoz founders and most of the key volunteers have also largely distanced themselves from it, what's propping this thing up, we wonder?
  • The fact that the ads on the right-hand side aren't colored, and look more like listings (in spite of being labeled as sponsored links) is a major change. The new look is cleaner, and the old "fruit loops" look had perhaps run its course. But is it just me or does this new layout appear to jut the ads farther out into the user's field of view? Also, at the same time, aren't the search results awfully far over to the left-hand side of the page, almost "behind" where the eye begins to look? We don't know if this will increase clickthrough rates on the ads just yet, but it seems that the ads are subtly given more prominence.
  • The two ads appearing in premium position at the top of the page are blended together now, because the backgrounds are the same color. This could result in users clicking the wrong ad. We don't like the looks of this.
  • Froogle is being promoted more obviously now, but it's still in "beta." They're nothing if not cagey, these Google people! Right, and this site is under construction.
  • Continuity is the order of the day. That home page is still nice and clean. It would be pretty tough to go around telling people that Google's so dominant because of their clean-looking pages if they turned around and cluttered 'em up.


Now I just hope Google doesn't keep changing the look of its SERP's, since I'm taking screen shots of examples for the section about "how your ads will look on Google" for this book I'm now writing, and I'll now have to replace the first batch of images...

Posted by Andrew Goodman




Google Unveils Updated Interface, Users Cheer

I'm not sure if this is a random test that I'm seeing, but it appears that Google has finally updated its interface sitewide this morning. Rumors of this have been circulating for months, and it seems to be official now.

Gone are the tabs above the search box on the Google home page that launched a thousand imitators, in favor of plain text links, and a new "invisible" tab (to borrow from Danny Sullivan) called "more >>" that links to a page of all the Google services and tools (and neat, new icons, to boot!).

Do a web search, and this is what you'll see now:



(Click the screenshot above to perform this search for "wine reviews" and see it up close)

At first glance, it's a bit tough to pick out the changes, but here's what I can discern:

  • There's a new page header for the type of search, in this case it's "Web". A quick glance indicates this new layout is consistent for other search types, such as Images and Groups.
  • Search term is more clearly linked to a definition of the term.
  • If the search term matches text in the URL, it is now highlighted in bold, green text.
  • AdWords has gotten an extreme makeover. The "interest" bar meter is toast, and the font is larger. There's also a dividing vertical line between the natural, organic search results and the sponsored links. Also, the border around the ads is now but a memory.

My take? I like it. I like it uh lawt. With all the fancy interfaces cropping up at competing search engines, it was high time Google updated their venerable look and feel to keep up, and to facilitate easier searching. I think this change also highlights other search options better, which was something Google seemed to struggle with, as it continued to integrate new features into its toolset.

I'll let Andrew talk about the AdWords changes, but my guess is that it will help increase clickthrough rates a bit, since the ads now look more like search results, in my mind.

Google may take its time when it makes changes, but when it finally unveils such changes, it does a first-class job. Perhaps this will hush the critics in the media who constantly speculate about Google's rein as king of the search engines coming to an end soon. But, probably not.

Posted by Cory Kleinschmidt




Saturday, March 27, 2004

The Case for Infospace + Google

Infospace's seemingly innocuous acquisition of a local online search provider called Switchboard for $160 million in cash may be a harbinger of an impending domino sequence in the local search market and the search engine industry in general.

Along with CitySearch, MSN, AOL, Yahoo, Google, various yellow-pages companies (plus some hangers-on and wannabes), Infospace is one of a short list of real powers in local search. That its recent acquisition was for cash suggests that Infospace believes its stock to be currently undervalued, something you couldn't say for too many Internet companies today.

Google is an emerging player in local search and is attempting to hang on to its status as the #1 search provider in the world. But meanwhile, companies like Yahoo are bulking up and waging battle; and one of the biggest economic powers in the world, Microsoft, is getting ready with its own strategy. There is going to be no tougher area to consolidate than local search; it will likely remain a fractured affair. But the company that sees the opportunity to roll up undervalued properties in this area will reap significant capital gains in the future. Thus far, Google's main idea seems to be to build their own products and expect that users will like them and growth will ensue. Maybe so, but going up against major competition, it probably wouldn't hurt to buy a little insurance.

The disadvantages of Google's slow march to an IPO, coupled with an understandable "we'd rather build than buy" mentality (though Google has certainly snapped up some cool assets for cheap), may now be growing more apparent. Every time Yahoo takes another key revenue generator off the table, such as Kelkoo, it consolidates its position. This month's issue of Fortune magazine cites Yahoo as #831 on the Fortune list, but with just one or two more Kelkoo-scale acquisitions, and continued growth, it will crack #500 far ahead of the schedule Fortune projects.

Google, therefore, needs to consider whether size does indeed matter, particularly in the hotly contested local search market. Infospace could offer some insurance. Instead of Google (post-IPO) acquiring small pieces of Infospace (unlikely since it is going to be difficult to pry prime local listings assets from any of their owners, Infospace included), Google could acquire the whole company. Infospace has an impressive list of valuable assets in search and other areas, some of them arguably underutilized or forgotten. These include, of course, popular metasearch properties which could potentially be reinvigorated under Google's watch. (There are also wireless technologies and lines of business that could be either deemed valuable to the business of a global search leader, or simply sold off.)

Consider Metacrawler and Dogpile. Currently, these metasearch properties are significant sources of revenue for several of Google's competitors, including LookSmart, FindWhat, and Overture. By acquiring these, Google could reduce the number of paid links in Metacrawler results, especially those emanating from competitors' keyword ad networks, while taking out a bigger share of that ad revenue pie for itself. This was the same strategy used when Google acquired Applied Semantics, whose DomainSense keyword listings were a major source of revenue for Overture and FindWhat.

If ballpark valuations of Google in the range of $14 billion are accurate, then Google is worth about a dozen times more than Infospace, at least on paper. Sure, Google could raise some IPO cash and then offer Infospace a cash-plus-stock deal they couldn't refuse. But I like the idea of Google and Infospace throwing us a curveball and cooking up a reverse-takeover scheme, leaving Infospace shareholders with a fair but relatively small proportion of shares in a new public company called Google. I'm not sure a reverse takeover on that scale is even legal. But Google taking the back-door route to going public would certainly confound and infuriate the bankers, the press, and the public, who have already speculated to the nth degree about a traditional IPO for Google. Some have even dreamt up bizarro scenarios such as a "Dutch auction."

The suspense is killing me.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




Friday, March 26, 2004

Yahoo Continues Acquisition Blitz, Gobbles Up Kelkoo

European shopping comparison site Kelkoo has been acquired by Yahoo for $575 million.

We won't say the purchase was "long-rumored," but it doesn't come as a massive surprise, either. A recent email exchange with a person close to Kelkoo, in which I speculated that Kelkoo was going to have to partner with a company such as Google or Yahoo, was deemed "interesting."

A possible part of the reason Kelkoo needed to sell to the highest bidder now is that they've relied significantly on organic Google traffic in the past. With Google likely only too happy to 86 competitors' shopping-oriented pages from its index (or at least play God with their rankings), and Yahoo ending its search partnership with Google, a Kelkoo might have faced rising marketing costs if it wanted to gain exposure on a major portal.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




Thursday, March 25, 2004

Microsoft Regrets Outsourcing Search

CEO Steve Ballmer admits they wish they had done it all in-house, reports ClickZ news.

"People say Microsoft wants to do it all -- we outsourced this, and shoot, I wish we had done it all," he said, drawing a burst of laughter from the crowd.

Although it's tempting to believe that Microsoft has something incredible up it's sleeve, a more sober analysis of the search sector, including observation of the recent Yahoo Search rollout, suggests that in the grand scheme of things, bringing yet another search product into the world is really no big deal. Hundreds of search-focused companies operating today (or is it closer to thousands?) use search and navigation technology to accomplish various goals for the enterprise, for researchers, or for consumers.

MSN is a big-market player, and is search engine will be widely used. But one gets the sense that no one, including Microsoft itself, is going to be too excited on launch day. To most users, it'll be just another day.

A much larger battle than one over market share by the major "search engines" or "search products" may eventually be a battle over navigational and metadata standards. Here, Microsoft will be planted right in the middle. And that's as much about politics and position as it is about technology or consumer demand.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Click Fraudsters: Be Very, Very Careful

ClickZ reports on what one hopes is just the first in a spate arrests for "click fraud." Numerous clubs, bots, and incentive schemes are out there today with the intent of bilking advertisers.

In the past year, I've been asked at seminars and in interviews what can be "done" about the problem of bogus clicks. In those instances where I just came right out and said what needs to happen is that the perpetrators need to be arrested, I've noticed the interviewer would often go very quiet and change the subject.

Folks, we're here to sell the steak, not just the sizzle. Confronting fraud head on now, even if it means using uncomfortable words like "arrest" and "jail," is the best thing for the long-term health of online advertising.

One bit of advice for the hapless perpetrator of this particular scheme, dubbed "Google Clique": if you plan to extort money from someone, next time don't meet with them in their corporate offices while U.S. Secret Service agents watch and listen from the next room.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




Citizen MSN

According to CBS Marketwatch, Microsoft has just announced that it's going to decrease the prominence of Overture sponsored links on MSN Search beginning July 1. Could it be that they've now taken seriously Jakob Nielsen's concern that text links could fall victim to the same "banner blindness" that afflicted other forms of online advertising?

The principle is fairly simple: in an online setting, messages get taken more seriously when they're inobtrusive, respectful, and targeted. In other words, when they aren't aimed at users' foreheads with all the precision of a 16-ton anvil.

Ad agency types may now respectfully disagree.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




Overture's Site Match is a Bit Too Revealing

In the spirit of a benevolent hacker searching for flaws in software so the bad guys don't find it first, I report the following.

Yahoo has goofed. Anyone using the new Yahoo Search can easily tell which sites are paying for inclusion and, thus, can drain their accounts dry, if they wish. Too see who has paid for inclusion, simply point your cursor over links in the Yahoo Search results pages, and you'll see a long URL string of alpha-numeric characters. Right there in the middle of the URL string, you'll see text that says "MI=sitematch".

I noticed this while checking on the status of a Site Match account for a client and was appalled to find that anyone can easily tell who's paying for inclusion. Thanks to the dubious cost-per-click fee Yahoo has adopted for each paid inclusion clickthrough, no site is safe from malfeasance by competitors.

Therefore, we at Traffick call upon Yahoo to mask the URLs of pay-for-inclusion sites immediately to avoid abusive click charges from competitors and anyone else wanting to cause mischief.

Posted by Cory Kleinschmidt




Sunday, March 21, 2004

Newsweek Gets Google Happy

I used to get a bit annoyed by the omnipresent media coverage of Google, with all its standard cliches about two geeky Stanford graduate students turning a sleepy research project into a multi-billion dollar information storehouse that could one day become The Most Important Company in the World (if it hasn't already). But, with this week's Newsweek cover story on Google, "All Eyes on Google," I've changed my tune.

Yes, it does become rather tedious to read basically the same story over and over. The media frenzy that attends every cover story on Google is like a combination of information infection spreading from one company to another, and partly a panic about being the last media company in the country to worship the king of search. It's not all bad, though.

Brin and Page surely must tire of the incessant interview requests, but there's no doubt they recognize the immense value of such news coverage as they feverishly work to fend off Microsoft and Yahoo. The "Search Engine Wars," as they are called somewhat naively, are indeed some of the most fascinating skirmishes in the world today. (Sure beats that miserable one in Mess o' potamia!) At issue is truly nothing short of an information revolution that shows no signs of abating, as Newsweek rightfully points out.

The Newsweek article doesn't really raise any new interesting points in my mind, and, at times it gets the story wrong, if ever so slightly, but let's not split hairs, eh? I still recommend that everyone read the article. It's a good reminder that a) this is a pretty darn neat field to "be in" b) we've come a long way, baby c) you ain't seen n-n-n-nothin' yet!

Posted by Cory Kleinschmidt




Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Google Local is Shear Inspiration

Looks like Google is going the "build in-house" route when it comes to local search listings, currently in beta. The first query I tried,

barber [san francisco],

worked like a charm.

What is it about cutting hair that inspires all those awful puns? Anyway, hair's to you, Google! Keep up the good work!

Posted by Andrew Goodman




Tuesday, March 16, 2004

See No Evil: Norton Blocking Paid Search Ads

I love the McAfee personal firewall product. No more invaders probing my computer's hard drive. A side benefit is that I can block certain types of pop-up ads. Pop-ups interfere with my life and contravene what I see as browsing convention. So if an advertiser has to endure the ignominy of having its pop-up blocked from my screen, I figure, too bad. Annoy someone else.

Keyword-based search ads are another matter entirely. They've single-handedly revived interest in online advertising, because they're so relevant and seem like such a good compromise. Instead of going out of business or turning into annoying also-ran VC-greedy portals (as AltaVista and the like felt forced to do), second-movers like Google and Overture (and their partners) have managed to be profitable while serving users at the same time!

In spite of this, Norton couldn't leave well enough alone. As Kevin Lee reports, their new personal firewall apparently attempts to block pay-per-click search ads, those unobtrusive, relevant messages beside search results that help advertisers, Google (and to be sure, Kevin and I) pay our bills. Come on, Norton. You didn't have to do that.

For one thing, on many non-commercial inquiries, there won't be any ads anyway. And Google won't let ads appear unless there is user interest (a high enough click rate). To block this type of legitimate targeted content is intrusive and irresponsible, and probably illegal.

Just imagine the hue and cry if Microsoft were to release a browser or operating system "feature" like this.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




Friday, March 12, 2004

Want to Add Your URL to Yahoo?

As promised, Yahoo has made available a free Add URL page that may or may not help you get your site spidered by Yahoo's new bot, Slurp.

And although it's basically the company line, this Q&A with a Yahoo Search rep on JimWorld does cover a lot of commonly-asked questions about Overture Site Match, the new program that allows you to buy paid inclusion in the new Yahoo Search index (confused yet?).

What needs to be emphasized for those weighing the pros and cons of the new service is (1) that the program is expensive for many small business owners; and (2) that the use of tracking URL's in conjunction with a third-party conversion tracking service is a must to calculate ROI from paid inclusion campaigns.

(So instead of submitting http://www.magenta-pixie-dust.com, you'd submit http://www.magenta-pixie-dust.com?source=osm1_obsessed_with_tracking, or whatever tracking nomenclature fits well with the conversion tracking software you're using.)

Experience with Inktomi and LookSmart show that certain types of campaigns -- retailers with big catalogs, for example -- can perform well with paid inclusion. Others have more trouble.

One major drawback is the "pay, pay again, and now, optimize" complexity of this form of paid inclusion. Bad enough that you pay twice. But the worst part is, those who also hire an optimizer to game the algo (tweaking pages until they are satisfied they're ranked well enough, possible since Yahoo will refresh the index every 48 hours) so they actually get ranked well might hog the lion's share of the fifteen cent traffic whereas less "gamey" competitors won't get the visibility or volume they're seeking. In other words, not only are you doing paid inclusion and PPC, but SEO, too! Is that good for businesses? It's certainly good for third-party consultants.

Slightly more esoterically, it's worth continuing to point out that a flat (15 or 30 cents) price per click is a flawed pricing model, as I told Mark Evans from the National Post this week (the March 11 article, "Search War: Rivals Nip at Heels of Google" is not available online due to the Post's tough subscriber-only model). LookSmart already proved to us that the flat click pricing is less advertiser-friendly than the auction model -- and insofar as it limits their upside, it doesn't do Yahoo any favors either. As a result, we'll probably see Yahoo repricing clicks next year, and inventing more "tiers" that warrant higher per-click charges.

In the same article, leading search marketer Andy Beal was a little more soft-core, stating that Yahoo's program is good because "business owners will have viable options as to where to spend money. If they are not getting value from Google, they have Yahoo or Ask Jeeves."

Maybe so. My personal view is that if you're doing search marketing and you're not getting value from Google, yikes! Putting your bucks elsewhere is cold comfort. You need to solve Google, which is, after all, where people are actually searching.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




Monday, March 08, 2004

SES World Tour Notes

ClickZ Executive Editor Rebecca Lieb provides this interesting overview of the Search Engine Strategies conference from a semi-outsider's perspective. Next stop: Tokyo.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




Friday, March 05, 2004

Rising Search Tide Lifting Several Boats

In the wake of its $343 million acquisition of Interactive Search Holdings, which includes Excite and iWon, Ask Jeeves' Steve Berkowitz astutely notes that although the company is "still a little fish in a big pond," it is after all "a big pond."

The value of this acquisition certainly bears that out. Even tiny fish like Mamma.com have polished themselves up and changed their ticker symbols to try to take advantage of the growth of search at this time. Part of what's creating higher valuations is sheer metrics (real revenues, real profits), but it's hard not to notice the inflated stock values of companies like Yahoo and Ask Jeeves, too. As the sector heats up, the paper of smaller players like Mamma.com inflates based mostly on speculators' hopes that they'll be acquired for the rather more liquid paper of a Yahoo or an Infospace.

It would be easy to scoff at the Jeeves acquisition as minor, but for the fact that it doubles its market share in a hot and growing market, seeming to guarantee continued profitability while allowing it to take the albeit belated step of eliminating paid inclusion for its Teoma/Ask.com search property.

This sort of stability, I believe, buys Jeeves the time and comfort needed to assess not just survival or divestiture of curiosities like Excite and iWon, but actual growth strategies for these properties. When the consortium that owned it decided to keep the Excite brand alive in the first place, they made some audacious-sounding and half-tongue-in-cheek claim that their ultimate goal was to restore the Excite brand to its "former glory."

That's actually not as crazy as it sounds.

Recent developments seem to have shown that the portal space still has legs -- that consumers are now searching out improved news search, email, social networking, and various other daily navigation and workflow functions that were being sought by early adopters back in 1999. Savvier users, meanwhile, would never be caught dead using the lowest-common-denominator offerings of MSN and AOL.

That essentially leaves but one major portal in operation: Yahoo. The dearth of portalness has been so unexpected and so incremental that we woke up one day and found Google tacitly admitting that it has grown and gravitated towards being a portal almost by default. If you're big and you're about navigation, and you have ambitious plans to grow with online consumers' needs to find things and interact with one another, it's portal city.

In our minds, Excite was for quite some time the potential Pepsi to Yahoo's Coke in the portal space. Although none of what they did had staying power mainly due to the clumsy way the @Home merger came off, and also due to outrageously wasteful acquisitions (Blue Mountain Arts greeting cards for $750+ million), Excite's features were never developed or promoted long enough to find a stable consumer base. But they did, at certain points, offer high-quality search, e-mail, and various other features like an Intranet-like function called Excite Communities that was better than comparable offerings from competitors. Plus, they built a strong brand that faced little marketplace resistance. With relative ease, Excite was able to gain a wide footprint in the UK by partnering with the government to offer email in schools.

It's easy to forget that in many ways, Excite was the real #2 portal. Insofar as a company like Ask Jeeves can stay independent long enough to allow the development of search tech like Teoma's and breathe life into alternative portal brands like iWon, MyWay, and Excite, I can only cheer them on. No doubt much of what's happening here is pragmatic positioning for more favorable terms in negotiations with potential partners and suitors like Google. But there may be more to this than meets the eye. If all goes well, consumers may soon enjoy a wider diversity of search and portal options. One can hope that a wider range of "cool functionality" will be made available to today's more sophisticated online user -- not for free, but at a reasonable fee or in the context of a sensible, nonintrusive, highly targeted ad model.

In a climate of growth, we can once again dream.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




Thursday, March 04, 2004

Would You Like Some Hypocrisy with your Tea, Good Chap?

So now that Yahoo has made a pay-for-inclusion / pay-per-click deal with the devil (and thus bedeviling all pious, god-fearing marketers everywhere), scrappy search engine Ask Jeeves has upped the ante of righteousness by shedding its PFI program, sacrificing millions in revenue for the search industry's PFI sins.

From CNET: "After much testing of paid inclusion the company found that it can negatively sway search results -- producing more commercial and irrelevant lists of Web sites, [Jim] Lanzone said. Ultimately, that hampers the search experience, he said.

"We're never going to mix church and state again," Lanzone said.


Now, don't get me wrong. I've spoken to Jim, and he's a really great guy. But, this is a bit hypocritical, I think. I don't blame Jeeves for taking advantage of the market timing to make their announcement. But come on! If they were making tons of cash with their PFI program, as Yahoo likely will, do you really think they would dump it?

The only revenue Jeeves has now is the cash they split with Google for partnering on Google's wildly successful AdWords PPC program. Just imagine if Google decides to pull out of Jeeves. Oh, good heavens, no revenue!

Posted by Cory Kleinschmidt




Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Contextual Ads, Bidding, and Market Inefficiency


Open Letter to Tim Armstrong, VP of Advertising, Google:

Dear Tim,

Yesterday, at a session at SES, you reportedly claimed that Google has been studying conversion rates on contextual ads for over a year, that they are "about the same" as search ads, and that you have no plans to change the bidding process to allow advertisers to bid separately on the content targeting.

With all due respect, your research is wrong, but more to the point, your principle is wrong. We and our clients know that we want the contextual inventory. We also know that, on average, we can afford to bid only 20-30% as high on these ads. That's simple economics based on *our* conversion data. Until we can bid separately, we either lose money or we shut the ads off. It's unsatisfying and runs counter our usual way of running campaigns. Campaigns that run on the "spend too much, then freak out and turn off" model do not run as well as the "happy consistent spend" sorts of campaigns. What I'm telling you is that we can't get any good momentum going with this program, as much as we'd love to use it more often.

If this is a feature (bidding differently on content targeting) that advertisers shouldn't bother with, then why would your competitor, Overture, have gone ahead and offered it? Because it's what advertisers want, of course. And it's what the market dictates. The market always tells us what to bid. That's why we love AdWords.

I might be just the "bad boy of search" howling in the wilderness, but the other chaps mentioned in the article, my friends Nate Elliott, Brad Byrd, Joshua Stylman, Lance Podell, and audiences full of murmuring SES attendees, seem to agree. Sounds like an advertiser consensus to me.

Best wishes,

Andrew

Posted by Andrew Goodman




Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Portals Big & Important, Claims Forrester

Today's commentary ("Google's Soft Spot") by Charlene Li of Forrester Research suggests that Yahoo and MSN are about to eat Google's lunch.

Not so fast, says Traffick Research. While we certainly feel vindicated in finally having convinced someone that portal power is a force to be reckoned with, Li makes a few points we'd dispute.

Li outlines various search features that Google is supposedly ill-suited to offer. It may be true that portals have considerable data that will help them research things like user intent, but Google, too, has heaps of user data at its disposal.

In case someone forgot, Google's search market share -- the number of search queries it processes in a day -- still outstrips the portals by a significant margin. In terms of discerning user intent, all search engines are working on such problems. Arguably Google is doing more advanced research on semantic technology (behind the scenes) than the portals are. Who's to say? In rolling out Orkut social networking, and perhaps free email, Google may be able to gather even more information about its users. Perhaps, as some have suggested, Google is turning into a bit of a, well, portal.

And then there is Li's comment that Google has some work to do to "overcome a deep-seated cultural focus on search." Wha-? Fortunately for Google, the planet has a deep-seated cultural focus on search. And in spite of their grandeur, clever use of punctuation, and recent profitability, the public has retained a deep-seated suspicion of portals while being quite happy to make use of the portal services that prove most useful. Like e-mail. The portal service that is going to lose big market share to Google next quarter.

And in other breaking news, the Thai premier has eaten an entire bucket of chicken.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




More on the Yahoo and Overture Developments: It's Almost All Good?

After hearing a fuller briefing, it sounds as it Yahoo's new initiative has a lot going for it. Consider:


  • For advertisers (what Yahoo calls "commercial content providers"), the process of paying to be included in the index has become both more streamlined and fuller-featured. By dealing with only one provider, Overture (the Overture brand supersedes Inktomi), advertisers aka commercial content providers aka listing clients no longer need to worry about paying to be included in disparate indexes such as AlltheWeb, AltaVista, Inktomi, and FAST. They get pretty much what they need with one provider. Moreover, the degree of customer service that can be offered by a company the size of Overture (under the auspices of Yahoo) is probably going to be higher. Overture also promises better reporting, and more "transparency and structure" to the listing relationship, which, as always, makes it easier for commercial sites to be refreshed frequently in the index even if they have dynamic URL's.

  • Yahoo's index aims to be as comprehensive as possible. The claim is that 99% of the pages in the index will be from the free crawler. As such, the noncommercial sites that take advantage of special status in Overture's Content Acquisition Program are just "icing on the cake" providing additional convenience to these content providers. Yahoo is still, they say, strongly committed to spidering the whole web, although they emphasize that fewer quality checks can be made on all pages in the larger index.

  • There will be continuity and useful overlap for advertisers who use Overture to buy sponsored listings, as well.


At a certain point, of course, there remain unanswered questions. The fact that Yahoo is supposedly aggressively spidering the web may bear little relationship to how prominently these "free crawl" pages will be displayed. Perhaps many such pages will only be there in spirit.

The other possibility is that spammy sites will make short work of Yahoo's algo so that unusual queries display spammy results. The implicit message sent to users may be that if you type in common commercial search queries, you'll get high-quality, quality-tested results from advertisers who are paying to be listed, but if you type in strange and unusual queries, it might be a crapshoot.

On the whole, Yahoo's initiative offers clarity and convenience to advertisers, which might be enough to offset the higher prices many will now be paying for visibility in Yahoo's index (15 or 30 cents per click after the initial inclusion fee). As for how well the user performing non-commercial searches will fare here, we'll just have to wait and see. We've heard this tune before, notably from MSN, and for many users, the "heavily-managed" style of big-portal search has worked out OK. "OK" doesn't seem interesting enough to grab significant market share away from Google, but it does seem likely to provide a decent user experience, make plenty of money for Yahoo, and above all, sharply reduce the number of uncertainties and headaches that have thus far faced content providers, advertisers, and the agencies that serve them when it comes to the index inclusion relationship.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




Completely Uncalled-For SES Free Stuff Dig [see also: Gift Horse, Mouth]

Got a cute round mouse pad in my goodie bag: "Lycos Insite: Search Marketing Made Easy." Hmm, I could swear that my mouse worked better just a minute ago when I was using it on a bare desk. Sometimes you can't win for losing.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




Yahoo/Overture's New Initiative Largely as Expected; Holes Remain in the Story

The official press release on Yahoo's Content Acquisition and Site Match programs, looking very much like yesterday's CNET story, is out.

Small businesses just got the latest in a string of "uh oh" moments from Yahoo! The beginning of the end, as many small businesses see it, was when Yahoo began charging a one-time-only fee to list in the directory. The second major "uh oh" was when Yahoo de-emphasized their directory in the listings, even though advertisers were now paying $299/yr. to be listed. The latest is a multi-faceted "uh-oh." Yahoo's index may de-emphasize commercial content on terms deemed to be non-commercial, while forcing small businesses to pay twice (once for inclusion, then per click) to generate customers on their core business terms. Meanwhile, the worry that there are different classes of inclusion has come to pass with the "Site Match Xchange" program, dubbed "a full-service program for larger commercial content providers." If you like, you can also buy visibility by buying Overture sponsored listings, which is probably going to be the best deal for many. What you won't be enjoying anytime soon is any free traffic from Yahoo, unless you work for NPR.

The public/educational component of Yahoo's announcement is a bit baffling, too, seeming to go against the concept of what the Internet (and indexing it) really is all about.

Check out this excerpt from the release:

"Yahoo! is thinking innovatively about how to bring content to the broader Web search audience while changing and improving the way search engines interact with content providers," said Maria Thomas, vice president and general manager for NPR Online. "Through Yahoo!'s CAP program, NPR's daily news, information and entertainment content will be searchable by and accessible to audiences we might not otherwise reach."

By picking and choosing which info providers to make "deals" with, Yahoo forgoes an alternative path, which could have been to, well, index the web. We know there is a high degree of difficulty to this, which is why Inktomi (and now Yahoo) make no promises that they can accomplish the task.

In the NPR example, then, what seems to be a helpful contribution to public life may just contribute to more confusion. Other public bodies and quasi-educational sites will be hoping that they, too, could get their stuff included in Yahoo's index as opposed to just optimizing the site and waiting for the spider. But surely Yahoo won't be able to accommodate them all.

This, then, is what we are really holding our breath waiting for: what is this new spider, Yahoo Slurp, going to be doing, and what will become of the many pages it adds to the Yahoo Index? I'll try to get some answers today.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




Self-Referential Post About Nothing -- Unless You Want to Try the New Yahoo Search, in Which Case...

Say, see that cool Yahoo! banner up there at the top of the page? It seems to be advertising of some sort. We're being paid to run it, but not by the click. Therefore I have no ethical or moral problem with urging you to actually use that thingy (type in a query if you like) to give the new Yahoo Search a test-drive. Is it old wine in new bottles? Does it kick Google's butt? You be the judge. And remember, all proceeds from running intrusive banner advertising help to defray the cost of me sitting around thinking about the titles of these blogs. (Hmm, there's got to be a better way.)

Posted by Andrew Goodman




SES Scoop #1: Yahoo Paid Inclusion

Placing a drinking cup on a random door at the New York Hilton has resulted in our first Search Engine Strategies conference scoop today. OK, actually, I read it on CNET. If you can manage to steer past the announcement of a new version of WordPerfect (and Quattro Pro!), there is a story on something called the Content Aggregation Program as well as an apparently pricy new paid inclusion program called Site Match. Similar to a model that LookSmart tried in the past, Site Match will ask webmasters to pay for inclusion of each individual URL ($49, $29, then $10 depending on how many included), and then also on a per-click basis.

Emails are circulating and posts are speculating about various pieces of news possibly coming down from Yahoo/Overture, but what precisely is it? Or is is several announcements?

At this point it looks like Yahoo may not be done with its announcement flurry and that Overture will have separate news of its own to share.

Back to the CNET item, though: interesting how Yahoo has chosen to couple the announcement of a "deeper inclusion" of disparate sources of content (including so-called 'invisible web' material) with the paid inclusion announcement. So what's the real story here? That depends on who you are. Do users win? It certainly sounds like they do on the surface, but it remains to be seen whether the public will appreciate the inclusion of material from NPR and the Library of Congress, or whether the user's search for a good experience will be overshadowed by the suspicion that the inclusion program privileges paying advertisers.

For in-house search marketers, it's a potential nightmare: pay three or four different ways to appear on Yahoo, and then you might still need to agonize over how to optimize your pages to outdo others in the rankings. It's a byzantine system that will probably leave a lot of work for SEM specialists, especially those who specialize in paid inclusion and optimizing pages within a paid-inclusion environment. (Did someone say byzantine? Did someone say 'the rebirth of a metatag'? Did someone say "Bruce Clay looks really good in this month's issue of Wired"?)

Enough of this nonsense, it's back to checking up on some good old pay-per-click accounts. Only a googolplex of permutations to ponder there... phew.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




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