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Friday, July 08, 2005

Want Your Page to be Popular? Just Add Water. (Or, 1997 Wine, New Bottles)

Danny offers a detailed explanation of how search marketers are probably going to try to exploit Yahoo's My Web 2.0. OK, I admit it, I'm a bit confused. Luckily, Danny sums it up by suggesting that what Yahoo appears to have (for all intents and purposes) accomplished is to create a newer-generation "FFA" (free for all) pages system... where a page gets to be deemed popular for awhile until other stuff pushes it down.

What would have helped me understand this brave new world a little better would have been some additional context comparing Yahoo's new product with some of the failed "P2P search" experiments such as OpenCola... or the shared bookmarking services (like Jonathan Abrams' HotLinks) that had the potential to make a real contribution to search in general, by offering a mechanism for those sharing similar interests to highlight and share useful content.

One thing's for sure, social networking and search already do overlap and can work in harmony. But the characteristics of the social networks themselves are going to be paramount in determining how well it all works.

If we're going to be following users around and basing "you might also be interested in" search results on what content some users seem to find useful, I think there is still something to be said for the idea for creating a slight departure from the quasi-democratic culture of the web, & enrol/enlist celebrities and topic experts (columnists, authors, etc.) to somehow participate as "more equal than others" content taggers. As some experts have long argued, metadata schemes are only as good, as trustworthy, or as coherent as the operators entering the categorizations and recommendations.

Either way (friends & citizens, vs. experts & celebs), featuring user-recommended content can work. You might go to a restaurant because a friend recommended it, or because a critic raved about it. On the other hand, you don't care what a friend of a friend of a friend thinks. Nor do you care what some random person thinks just because a machine identified them as a person with similar interests as yours.

Amazon's recommendation system, incidentally, is much less gameable... the notion that "people who bought this book also bought...." rests on purchase behavior, which cannot be cheaply faked.

Because friends' recommendations or habits can be helpful guides to helping users find useful content, it is tempting just to make the peer recommendation system stronger, to prevent glitches and gaming. However, the incentive to screw around with results is high, and with an expert-driven system, it would be more accountable and less open to manipulation. As often as not, what you get with "democratically-driven" search suggestions is bias under the guise of science. But isn't that what the search engine industry has been all about since 1995? Creating a system to "calculate" what results should be seen by the user... that's science. Expert recommendations are interesting... but they're not science and they don't justify multibillion dollar valuations.

The need for search to be grounded in "science" and complex calculations is a good story, so I wouldn't expect the SE companies to deviate from it anytime soon.

Yahoo's experiment should be hailed for what it is: an experiment that, while flawed, will help search get to the next level (whatever that is).

Back in the real world, though, we're just hoping we can convince the local bike shop to put their address on their website, and get rid of those frames.

And I hope this doesn't make me sound too clueless, but while we're racing ahead talking about the semantic web and peer networking and all, what are we actually accomplishing here for the serious business user, say, who is looking for new and important content to help them do their jobs? We cannot all play "search junkie" and "community enthusiast" for a living. So wouldn't it make sense to talk about latest-generation "clipping services" such as the corporate services side of companies like Moreover, etc.? Is the cool factor of file sharing (in the musical sense) beginning to trivialize the task of helping the average working person discover relevant content, do research, etc.? Those who are most likely to benefit from advanced systems to discover material on highly specific topics seem least likely to play around with the latest dot-com experiment.

Posted by Andrew | | | Permalink

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Channel-Based Wholesale PPC Still on a Roll

A number of companies have been vying to help publishers run their own PPC auctions. MyGeek and Quigo have been a couple leaders in this area. This was largely pioneered by Sprinks content match, which operated on a "channel" basis allowing advertisers to place ads, mostly on About.com. (We can't call that one "wholesale," since Sprinks was owned outright by About.)

Some of these players have eschewed keyword bidding entirely, helping publishers sell ads to advertisers who simply want their targeted ads to show up in certain channels.

In Canada, Bell Virtual Marketplace is promoting a PPC program for advertisers wanting to appear on channels at the portal sympatico.MSN.ca. After signing up for an account, I discovered the campaign management interface is operated by BidClix, so count BidClix as another important player in this quiet little field. They aren't making as much noise as Quigo, and probably don't have the same technology, but it goes to show there are a lot of diverse online advertising deals out there, and a bit of room for companies like BidClix to do some solid business behind the scenes.

Posted by Andrew | | | Permalink

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Thursday, July 07, 2005

Google in Your Walls

Google, Goldman Sachs, and Hearst Media have invested in Current Communications Group, which provides access to the Internet over power lines.

It's becoming increasingly evident that Google will need some leverage in the telecommunications sphere if it isn't to be out-gamed by more established competitors, such as Microsoft, who have strategic investments around the globe.

With a pipeline like that, could Google become your new phone company? Why not?

Posted by Andrew | | | Permalink

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Tuesday, July 05, 2005

More on Click Fraud Lawsuits

Eric Goldman takes the position that "click fraud should and will be solved through business dealings rather than in a court of law."

Posted by Andrew | | | Permalink

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Sunday, July 03, 2005

Yahoo Paid Inclusion: Is this Story Authentic?

One reason many in the SEM business have been skeptics when it comes to paid inclusion is that it was that the claims made for it lacked credibility. Has anything changed?

I just saw the Yahoo Search Marketing (formerly Overture) newsletter, and the lead article talks about your "click shortfall." They ask: "Not getting the traffic you're expecting from standard web listings?" And then proceed to sell you Yahoo Paid inclusion, as if that will be the answer to getting more organic traffic. I would say "more organic free traffic," but of course, if it's paid, it isn't free. So scratch that benefit.

Yahoo lists features and benefits of the offering. Allow me to provide a reality check as well. As usual this is not me talking but the collective voices of generations of hardened SEM professionals and sceptical search engine lovers everywhere.

Benefit: "Fast and easy submission into the database that powers search results for popular search sites such as Yahoo!, AltaVista, AlltheWeb and others."

Reality: Yahoo also owns AltaVista and AlltheWeb and "others." [But no one searches on them.] And if you have to submit to it to be found, it isn't a quality search engine. They should discover you. In fact, Yahoo regularly states that its goal is to discover as much valuable web content as possible for inclusion in the index, submission or no submission.

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Benefit: Regular refreshes ensure that advertisers' most current pages are reflected in the database.

Reality: Any search engine that fails to keep its index fresh will lose market share. But should index freshness initiatives be funded out of your pocket?

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Benefit: "Quality review of submitted URLs ensures quality search experience for users and more targeted customer sales leads."

Reality: Ambiguity in policy created by potential ranking boost for paid submissions could land Yahoo in hot water with FTC.

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Benefit: CPC model provides high ROI.

Reality: Not as high as it would if the traffic were free. Yahoo's CPC pricing is arbitrarily set, meaning some companies will do wonderfully, and others poorly.

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Benefit: Larger companies spending $5,000 or more per month on paid inclusion get their own account manager.

Reality: We've already suggested that paid inclusion likely provides a ranking boost to participants as compared with non-participants, all else being equal. Now, preferred status with an account manager likely provides a further ranking boost and special advice on how to crowd out competitors, all else being equal, meaning that paying a little helps a little, and paying a lot helps more than a little. This doesn't sound like it dovetails very well with the purpose of organic rankings, especially given Yahoo's weak disclosure of the paid nature of results. On the other hand, if paying for inclusion doesn't improve rankings, then what was the point of it from the marketer's standpoint?

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There must be something good to say about paid inclusion, though, one hopes? Yes, to a degree, it actually seems to improve search quality, as Inktomi found when they went to the model in a move that basically admitted they couldn't weed out spam without this paid filter. As long as the commitment is strong to boost public-interest content such as relevant government pages or public radio transcripts on a query like "colorado housing," search quality isn't harmed by paid inclusion. In fact, paid inclusion helps Yahoo to pay for the cost of reviewing commercial sites and public-interest sites alike, keeping the really junky material out of the user's face most of the time.

At the end of the day, then, the user experience might be boosted by the adoption of a paid inclusion scheme. The only problem is, as a marketer, you probably won't get much out of it unless you're one of the big guys who can pull a few strings. What you're basically doing is helping Yahoo fund the human review effort that will lead to increased search quality, which means Yahoo's reported profit margins go up and their stock value stays high. Sound familiar? And doesn't that make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside?

Posted by Andrew | | | Permalink

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