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Saturday, June 04, 2005

Does This Make Om Malik the Pat O'Brien of VOIP?

Om Malik likens VOIP to the "It Girl" Lindsay Lohan, saying it gets a disproportionate amount of ink for no apparent reason. Of course he's just kidding. Obviously he knows it's important given how frequently he enlightens readers about it.

I've been getting into the bloggings of subject experts on VOIP and related technologies. There's nothing like a far-reaching technology that is on the cusp of being really useful, trying to fight its way through the entrenched interests and outdated assumptions of powerful old companies and baffled regulators, to get the blood flowing.

Mark Evans (a technology reporter for the National Post), has been pointing out that VOIP seems to get disproportionate ink north of the border, as well. (Disproportionate only because, due to the current state of regulation, there is not much incentive for the bigger telcos to move on it, and not enough room for the upstarts to push forward.... though presumably this will sort itself in a year or two. I see proof on the Bell Canada website, which promises a new VOIP service "coming soon, in Summer 2005." What do you want to bet that gets delayed until December, which really means February if you're talking about corporations making any major switchover decisions?) I join Mark in saluting Telus CEO Darren Entwhistle for slamming the CRTC over its failure to encourage VOIP adoption through regulation. As every Canadian knows, the leading communications firms, Bell and Rogers, love to drag their feet on new ideas... because they can. Soviet-Union-length waits for new installs of business phone lines, at ridiculous prices? Sure. Because they don't have to care.

Bottom line: if you're a small business in Canada, to get VOIP in your office, you need an Internet connection. To get a high-speed connection, you're probably going to wind up going with one of the top two providers, either the cable co, or Bell for DSL. So you can't bypass them entirely. And somewhere along the line, some vested interest in your office building or in the food chain at some point is going to see to it that you are somehow inconvenienced for attempting to circumvent the big guys. It's a regulatory issue, but also a cultural one.

This will someday be mercifully a thing of the past, when truly entrepreneurial companies like Google, Apple, (and yes even) Microsoft, and Skype, have rolled out unique communications solutions. Assuming they have regulatory permission to do so.

Mark Evans, quite possibly, is the Ben Mulroney of Canadian tech reporting. More about that later. But first, an update on Elton John's hair.

Posted by Andrew | | | Permalink

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Friday, June 03, 2005

Google Rolls Out Standardized Sitemap Protocol

Definitely didn't see this one coming.

Google's new SiteMaps offering (not to be confused with the Google Site Map or Google Maps) should be a healthy step towards helping sites communicate the whereabouts of important pages to Googlebot to ensure proper indexing. It strikes me as a sensible standard to adopt. Hopefully there will be not too much confusion out there as to the impact this will have on rankings or traffic. It should just eliminate some of the confusion around hard-to-index sites and pages, whether a site map might help, etc.

I wish this had been around years ago. When they had to ask themselves questions about their hard-to-index sites, three or four years ago the conversation in companies of any size was often about how to completely revamp the website to improve indexability, and which technology or service vendor was the best one for that. It might take six months to come to a decision. (Sure, someone could have just fixed it, but all companies don't work that way.)

Now, with a clear and easy-to-follow site map protocol, the questions are simpler: "who is really in charge of the website at this company anyway?" and "when are they going to deal with the site map issue?" Even these questions will not be answered at all companies. Buck-passers, take note. This stuff needs to be taken care of.

Let's not presume that this means great rankings and traffic for catalog-centric sites. We know that screen real estate in Google results is being taken up by Froogle results as well as Google AdWords ads. And getting your page on the first page depends on how well Google likes your page compared to all of the other relevant pages on the web. Insofar as Google Search has an "information" bias, if you're selling stuff you can't expect great huge bumps in traffic just because you participate in SiteMap. But you're bound to see some improvement. More importantly, since everyone else will be participating, you can't afford not to.

Posted by Andrew | | | Permalink

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Thursday, June 02, 2005

Cookie rejection: who's right?

Webtrends, in response to a growing controversy about cookie rejection affecting online marketers' ability to track user sessions, recently released some statistics of its own based on a sample size of five billion user sessions. The company notes that cookie rejection has increased fourfold in the past sixteen months, to 12.4% across all industries. This is significantly below what a previous Jupiter Research study had shown, but is still cause for concern. It's also below the number cited in the latest study to be released. This one, by Burst Media, says that 30% of users "claim to" delete cookies.

First of all, as Webtrends Director of Product Marketing Jeff Seacrist told me last week, it's important to distinguish between cookie deletion and cookie rejection. In reality, few users wipe cookies off their systems as often as they say they do. And eliminating cookies from one's computer periodically isn't disastrous for ecommerce tracking.

Cookie rejection is actually quite common, given the proliferation of anti-spyware software that is set on high alert to reject all third-party cookies. Amazingly, some browser versions, such as IE XP SP2, default to rejecting third-party cookies.

To recap Webtrends' breakdown of cookie rejection as it affects marketers in key verticals:

  • Retail: 16.9%
  • Telecommunications: 15.4%
  • Healthcare: 14.7%
  • Manufacturing: 13.3%
  • Transportation: 13.0%
  • Media/entertainment: 12.0%
Five billion user sessions don't lie. In terms of who seems to have the most accurate stats about cookie rejection rates, I'm going with Webtrends' numbers.

More controversial, perhaps, is the needed response to this trend as Webtrends sees it. Webtrends is promoting its ability to help its clients install first-party-cookie based tracking. Good idea, but Webtrends doesn't have a monopoly on it.

Seacrist makes a number of compelling points, though. Analytics solutions vary in their ability to employ "backup sessionization methods" to analyze user behavior. Again, here, Webtrends seems to be doing a great job of that, but some vendors of low-cost analytics solutions also work on this. Kent Davidson, CEO of ConversionRuler, mentioned to me that this is part of his product's mix but it isn't touted, probably because it would confuse many customers who assume that tracking is tracking. And there are other analytics solutions which do not need to set a cookie to work. These range from advanced logfile analyzers to "rogue" methods such as installing tiny flash graphics files on a site. Seacrist points out that unusual methods such as the latter pose a danger insofar as they seem roguish enough to attract the attention of anti-spyware software. The clear message is that analytics are so important to web marketers, if there is any doubt about the accuracy of the stats, it can lead to paralysis. It makes sense to go with established analytics vendors who have a long history of working through measurement issues.

Bryan Eisenberg of Future Now Inc. and author of Call to Action: Secret Formulas to Improve Online Results, seemed to agree with the general thrust of the Webtrends news release. One key point he reminded me of is that simple tracking solutions provided by companies like Google (Google's free Conversion Tracker for AdWords advertisers) are susceptible to cookie rejection because they place a third-party cookie.

All in all, marketers should expect some inaccuracy in their conversion data. However, if they adopt a reasonably good analytics solution that includes backup sessionization methods, the distortion should not be severe in most cases. But for those who take their numbers very seriously, it's worth taking a second look at the top-tier vendors with the deepest expertise in the field. "If people start believing their site stats aren't accurate, that becomes the biggest barrier to adoption [of analytics solutions in the enterprise]," says Seacrist.

He might have added: "Just because a lot of people say they delete cookies, doesn't mean your site stats are necessarily inaccurate."

Posted by Andrew | | | Permalink

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eBay Diversification Continues

eBay has announced that is acquiring Shopping.com in an all-cash transaction. Only five months ago, in the wake of one analyst initiating coverage on the company with a "sell," we opined that Shopping.com was basically built to be acquired. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Rationale: in spite of the success of shopping search as a category, and its advantages for retailers, consumers need to decide to use the engine in the first place. A similar rationale, I suppose, to the battle that was faced by nascent pay-per-click search engine GoTo.com a few years ago. Great idea for advertisers, but no one was really using the engine. That changed when they made deals with Microsoft bCentral, Netscape, and finally, AOL and MSN, before allowing themselves to be acquired by Yahoo.

A certain number of people use shopping engines. The category had good initial growth. But it's safe to say it was getting to be an uphill battle competing against eBay, Amazon, Yahoo, and Google's Froogle threat.

That being said, unique third-party shopping review sites (those remaining, and those yet to be invented) play an important role. And portals like Yahoo and Google can play an important role too, if they aggregate third-party results and reviews instead of simply directing users to their own shopping sites.

Posted by Andrew | | | Permalink

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Wednesday, June 01, 2005

The Portal-Ization of My Inbox?

In Yahoo Mail today I notice a module for "top stories," a list of today's headlines. Why?

At least it's not as bad as the diabolical Bell 390 phone here on my desk. Somewhere along the line someone at Bell Canada decided that it would be OK to run ads on the screen of the $200 phone you paid for (not to mention the phone service you're paying for). "Are you a lotto 6/49 millionaire?" And it has horoscopes, too. Talk about a bizarre concept from some legacy "Internet services menu" plan from about ten years ago. I wouldn't say it's interrupting me, exactly, but I do have a hankering to smash the screen with a large rock. Except I find the call display handy for screening out telemarketers.

GMail also has introduced headlines, in a couple of different ways, not to mention ads.

When is enough enough?

Posted by Andrew | | | Permalink

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Monday, May 30, 2005

Welcome to the Society for Unintended Consequences

This site now ranks #5 on Google for the query "the the."

The band "The The" is still nowhere in sight.

Posted by Andrew | | | Permalink

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