Friday, July 30, 2004
Here I've been napping through the production of The Missing Manual, this many-titled series from O'Reilly. The idea is that software companies don't always do a great job of documentation, so the books by these authors on subjects like "Dreamweaver MX 2004: The Missing Manual," fills a much-needed gap.
A post on Slashdot tonight reviewed a new one called Google: The Missing Manual. As I've become more of a marketing weasel, I have become a search dummy, so any kind of refresher course as to how to improve one's ability to find stuff using Google is welcome. Sounds like a good read, so it's off to Amazon to order a copy.
In a related development, Overture -- evidently growing impatient with the idea that some enterprising third party might someday create a 'missing manual' for advertising on the service -- have finally released their own 110-page "advertiser workbook."
(Where's the payoff, Andrew? What are you getting at? C'mon, just say it.)
Glad you asked. Having looked closely at this type of stuff to try to understand how it fits together, it looks like there are about three levels to this:
1. The actual how-to, tutorials, FAQ's, workbooks, etc. that are produced by the software company or services themselves. These will teach you how to play, but won't tell you how to win.
2. Books by tech publishers and how-to publishers that offer much the same as "1," but go beyond the basics in some way. They might not teach you how to compete in a tough marketplace or offer unusual or cutting-edge insights, but they'll help you make the most of the technology or service in question. They also make good books for people who don't like reading FAQ's and manuals. Best of all though they offer an unbiased third-party perspective, filtered through a quality editorial process. This type of communication usually isn't in the DNA of software companies.
3. Original books on a topic that discuss new and unusual techniques, make risky assertions, describe more real-world cases in detail, and change the way at least some of the world thinks about a topic. In investing, for example, you might cite Peter Lynch's Beating the Street, or books by William O'Neill or Benjamin Graham.
It's clearly a shame that many technology companies release sophisticated products without giving much thought to the communication methods that would improve customers' abilities to get the most out of them. At the same time, that does provide publishers like O'Reilly and scores of others with an opportunity, fueled by us, the public, who are equally willing to be either engaged or bored by a topic depending on the way it's presented. Tell me how often you read the owner's manual for your car. But I'd be willing to bet that the "missing manual" concept (and more) could catch on. Car lovers might just get off on a book like "1001 things you didn't know about your Acura."
An even greater shame, though, would be the belief that once the "missing manual" is discovered, that's all you need. To develop an edge, and to truly live, one must also read challenging, personable, groundbreaking, or even downright maddening books on a topic, be it usability, child-rearing, or the discovery of DNA.
Malcolm Gladwell spun a case study of erasing subway graffiti into a fascinating study called The Tipping Point; it was wildly influential. Michael Lewis' Moneyball turned the arcane subject of sabermetrics into a trend that has started to change the way baseball teams are managed; such trends may bear a striking resemblance to trends that may eventually transform your business. When James Fallows wrote about word processing eons ago, he made all writers feel like their involvement in this new technology put them on the frontier of a brave new world. "Now that," as the saying goes, "is interesting writing!"
Tuesday, July 27, 2004
Seems there are too many web hosting companies. Anyone who's ever tried to bid on those keywords knows that.
But does this convince them to leave the business? Apparently not. They keep trying new ways of outdoing one another, and the result of too many chasing after this commodity business is a race to the bottom. We see free hosting giveaways, companies charging too little per month and then making it up on confusing additional fees, business models that assume massive lifetime value from a customer, etc.
Great for consumers, except for anyone wanting good service. Seems that many web hosts gravitated to this business by default because they were technically inclined and understand how servers work. With a few exceptions, many hosting providers lack a commitment to service. Thus, margins stay razor thin unless they figure out a way to deceive the customer.
In some businesses, overcrowding creates a shakeout. People leave. The hosting business reminds me of acting or grad school. There will always be some folks who won't take a hint and move on, because they can't imagine anything else. Maybe, though, if the customer turns up the heat and begins demanding service instead of just the lowest price, the bargain-basement $4.95/mo. wannabe hosts will see their incomes drop so low that they really will be squeezed out.
But wait, there's more. Even at $4.95, web hosting could be too expensive in a world where larger companies like Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo are figuring out ways of offering massive amounts of storage space to users of their various services for pennies. If web hosting as a commodity is actually overpriced even at the low, low prices that some hosts now charge, this emphasizes even more that service, not "low overhead" or "better technology," is the real reason companies pay what they do for a bit of storage space on a server.
For really reliable service -- and what business, however small, does not rely totally on their website? -- hosting customers will be willing to pay a bit more. If hosting companies don't deliver that, well... why not just go and find a better deal, like maybe a company that would show some ads on your site in exchange for giving the hosting to you for free? Can you say "Hosted by Google"?
Due to a slight temporary glitch at Amazon.co.uk, I've been conflated with a distinguished gentleman named Lord Goodman.
I might take this as good luck, or as a manifestation of a particularly ungrokkable type of British humour.
I can't quite decide how to celebrate. Take up port and cigars? Litigate? Buy some nice horses and dogs? Or perhaps move to the country, as local celebrity Leah McLaren has just done. The possibilities are endless, but as sure as my name is Lord Goodman, I pledge not to do evil.
Tuesday, July 20, 2004
When Seth Godin decided to cast the professional "search engine optimizer" in a less-than-flattering light, it reminded me a bit of the time I naively decided to critique the Open Directory Project. Silly me. I assumed the audience reading would be sympathetic to a conceptual argument drawn (at least to some extent) from the sociology literature on "degree of professionalism."
Organic search ain't all that, you know.
I can attest to having been extremely frustrated doing web searches trying to find things like software, templates, standard documents, and legal agreements to help me grow my business.
But when advertisers of such services start to put their little classified ads up next to those keywords, the process gets a lot faster. I still use PDF Factory Pro, for example, because I saw their ad on Google next to a jumble of useless results for my web searches on PDF publishing.
Finding boilerplate legal agreements has always been hit-and-miss. Now that advertisers understand that they need to put their products out into the marketplace with very granular keyword ads, it's getting easier to find exactly what you need, though, not just something vaguely similar. Most of us don't want to buy "something vaguely similar."
Someone asked me about a standard noncompete agreement in an email (GMail) today, and the contextual AdWords ads that appeared next to the conversation were for exactly that type of standard agreement! In the past, I would have said to myself "I wonder where I find that," and probably would have stumbled on a bunch of slightly-off, not-quite-right pages that somehow ranked high in the search results.
And advertisers -- AllBusiness.com in this case -- even know how to take you to exactly the correct landing page. They're even selling a practical guide to the correct uses of confidentiality agreements! Packaged information for the busy executive. What a concept. How far businesses have come from just blindly trusting "search" to do its thing and for visitors to "just find us." And how much better for the researcher to be able to pick up a practical guide by a trusted authority, as opposed to spending a week "reading up on a subject."
A critical mass of advertisers actually means an evolution towards improved search relevance, at least on commercial offshoots of common subject areas. Who would have seen that coming?
Meanwhile, back offline, the dreaded uber-offensive print ad for the Mercedes C230 coupe is back in today's The Globe and Mail: "Careful not to wet your lederhosen." Don't try this online, people. We're actually looking for stuff here.
Friday, July 16, 2004
I wanted to send a gift to a friend. Football jersey. A guy thing.
I didn't think it would be too difficult to pay a major US-based apparel retailer with a credit card online, since the item was being shipped to a friend who lives within the US. I happen to live in Canada, as does the Bank of Montreal that issued the Mastercard.
The first problem was that the item was "out of stock" in several popular online stores. Since the item is in stock *generally*, it makes no sense that a particular outlet, like the online proshop of a major-league team, would allow itself to be out of stock. (Whatever that even means.) The "stock" thing is the first reason Amazon's kicking everyone's butt, including your local bookstore.
Amazingly, the website at Fogdog, which did have the item, wouldn't allow me to enter the country for my billing address, nor a Canadian province, even though the field was labelled "state or province."
So I called the 800 number hoping to place the order over the phone. I got a lovely woman named Sarah, who informed me (in a British accent) that she's afraid they cannot accept "international credit cards." Now hang on a cotton-pickin' minute. I've been reading my card number over the phone to stores like J.Crew for like the past 15 years. At wine.com, it's not a problem for anyone from any country to ship wine within the US as a gift (to the states that allow it). "International credit card," indeed. The irony is, nice support rep Sarah is probably working out of a call center in New Brunswick.
In online retail at this scale, you're basically an order taker. One of the few things you can add to the process, as Jeff Bezos believed from Day One, is to build a checkout process that works! Designing a form that doesn't break, or understanding that users need to be flexible with payment, billing, and shipping options, is vitally important work that becomes incredibly scalable once it's done. And compared to building malls, ditches, and skyscrapers, or sewing shirts for that matter, it ain't all that hard to do. What is FogDog or any other big-name retailer doing not being able to accept various payment methods, using broken online forms that would be inexcusable today even at mom & pop storefronts?
Amazon sells the jersey for $7 cheaper than anyone else, too.
Thursday, July 15, 2004
Buying or optimizing for prominent text listings on search results pages in the hopes of increasing brand impact isn't a fool's errand, concludes an IAB-commissioned study.
It's always been a bit too pat to equate PPC advertising and SEO to direct marketing. There are similarities, but that's not all it is. Are billboards direct marketing? No.
Search combines the prominence of a billboard with ultra-targeting and uber-trackability. It's only a matter of time before the big guys figure it out.
Did somebody say McDonald's?
Someday, you'll see the suddenly-successful purveyor of healthy drive-thru salads' ad when you type the phrase "salads" or "supersize me." But as Zentropy Partners media director Joe Germscheid pointed out in the ClickZ article on this subject, "until the measurement catches up with the marketplace, search may remain a direct-marketer-controlled strategy."
Monday, July 12, 2004
This excellent case study by MarketingSherpa describes how Edmunds, the automotive info site, built its Overture and Google AdWords keyword advertising campaigns to a level where they're spending $400,000+ per month.
The VP responsible for the project notes that the initiative has had a multimillion dollar impact on their business and that they wish they'd started sooner.
This seems to be a trend. I've run across businesses that would have to be counted as amongst the elite of advertisers who are already "fanatical" about pay-per-click... only to find that shortly thereafter that they have grown from relative obscurity to become industry leaders (or going from industry leader to true powerhouse). Coincidence?
Companies that are making heavy use of pay-per-click today are creating the kind of top-line revenue growth and bottom-line profitability that makes investors sit up and take notice. By adding paid search to their marketing mix, companies are accelerating their growth curves, landing venture funding, achieving favorable buyout terms, and even going public. As a privately-held company with well-connected investors, news of an Edmunds.com IPO wouldn't come as a shock.
Now as long as no one tells my car that I was lurking on this page doing research for this comment, we won't have a messy situation on our hands.
Friday, July 02, 2004
Maybe it's a function of growing up and watching my cat approach adolescence, but I'm beginning to agree with Bob Garfield. A sizeable portion of today's print and TV ads don't just do a poor job of selling the product, they needlessly offend potential customers. And any other poor sap who might be caught in the crossfire.
Have you seen the latest TV ad from Pepto Bismal? Gross.
While writing a chapter on "Writing Winning Ads" for my forthcoming book Winning Results with Google AdWords, I had cause to reflect on how straightforward and scientific the process can be for creating effective advertising copy online. And by contrast, how superfluous much of the mainstream advertising biz seems to be. In the medium you're reading right now, small text ads may be shown to people doing a search. No hype, just an introductory message that acts as a sorting mechanism to identify potential prospects. The real persuasion can take place on the website itself. No pushy salepeople! Buyer nirvana, if you offer them the right experience.
That's nothing like the offline world.
Just what were the folks at the agency thinking when they wrote "Hang onto Your Lederhosen" in a newspaper ad selling the 2005 Mercedes C230 Coupe? I just saw a fiftyish woman driving a new one of those, obviously pleased to get a sporty car that would have been out of her price range back in the hazy long-forgotten days when juvenile humor seemed funny. (Hey, I love immature jokes, but only when I pay good money to see them in the theatre, a la Dodgeball.) I can't see her reading that ad and saying "right on man! hang on ta yer frickin Lederhosen, LOL!" and rushing down to the dealership and buying the car.
A second print ad referred glowingly not to the car, but to, uh, something to do with needing a change of underwear. Just the kind of prestige the ol' Mercedes badge needed at this juncture, I suppose? Fortunately, a lot of people are probably just going to do an online search for "2005 mercedes c230 coupe" and wind up on the appropriate page at the mbusa.com web site. No Lederhosen here, just specs and photos.
I don't create newspaper ad campaigns for major brands, so I don't really claim to know what goes into them, other than reading critiques from the likes of Bob Garfield. But it's interesting to see what happens in the online environment when you measure results. "Hang onto your Lederhosen"-style ads almost always tank.
Thursday, July 01, 2004
Apparently, MSN's new algorithmic search is available to the public for "feedback." Then it will go away and come back, better than before, they say.
I tried a wide variety of queries. The result - though not horrible - was unexciting and unimpressive.
On some queries, results were just weird and random. In other cases, goofy (Yahoo and Dmoz categories as results on MSN Search?) and possibly insincere. Having no apparently consistently methodology and bending over backward to be even-handed, is how I'd characterize this effort.
This might be a good way of mitigating spam, but does it lead in the direction of relevancy or special insight? Nope, but the blah-ness and inconsistency of the algorithmic results will certainly make the paid-for listings, when those are rolled out, look good by comparison. Perhaps that's the point.
To be fair, trying the same dozen-or-so searches (eg. "Montreal Canadiens logo") on Google and Yahoo yields a similarly capricious set of results. On my totally subjective assessment, though, at least on some queries, Yahoo's top couple of results feel a bit more definitive and relevant to me. Maybe part of the reason is the strength of Yahoo's proprietary, categorized directory -- much like the rover in hockey, the "forgotten man" in search.
Happy Canada Day!
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