Monday, October 31, 2005
Along with a stellar cast of dozens of online advertising's best and brightest, I'll be offering about 62 seconds' worth of wisdom in the upcoming "Damn, I Wish I'd Thought of That" panel at ad:tech new york as the conference winds down on Wednesday Nov. 9.
The title of my minute will be "Gibberish Doesn't Sell." You'll have to attend the session to learn exactly what I'm going on about, but it's inspired by experiences with a certain type of ad copywriting.
The reason I'm cryptically blogging this in advance is to stake my claim to this phrase. If you look it up right away (searching with the quotation marks included), you'll find zero Google results for this phrase. In a day or two, one result should be visible. Next year, I expect this search to be right up there in the Google Zeitgeist. :)
I kiss you,
Sunday, October 30, 2005
Craigslist wants us to know that their traffic far outstrips the leading job boards, and guess what, they also come up on top in terms of job search effectiveness, according to a Forrester Research study. (All the boards seem pretty effective. Craigslist gets the nod slightly ahead of Careerbuilder. It's not clear from the summary how many of the top 25 or so job boards were included in the study.)
I guess the next question for anyone in that business, and anyone interested in the rapid growth of sites like Craigslist, is "why."
A cursory sift through the company's history gives us a clue as to why. In 1995, when the "company" was founded, they weren't in a hurry to make money. The idea was to make something useful, and democratic, and community oriented. A list, basically. The "company" didn't lose the quotation marks until its incorporation in 1999. At that point, and again if you check in with snapshots of Craiglist in 2001, there was still no rush to make money. By 2005, they had mega-popular sites for many cities around the world, and still only 18 employees. By late 2005, they're 25% owned by eBay, and the world's largest job board. It looks like there's plenty of room for growth in their concept, too -- capturing odd, category-defying requests and queries from either buyers and sellers (no problem too small, no Long Tail query too obscure) -- and putting them together.
Might even be that Google's new auction concept, Google Base (however it may turn out), owes a lot to the Craiglist ethos.
Are you thinking your online startup needs to be more "businessy"? To make money sooner? To ramp up to 50 employees by 2007? Maybe you're looking at the wrong things.
Friday, October 28, 2005
The always-interesting TechCrunch blog has a profile of Shadows, yet another social bookmarking service that's getting rave reviews. Except this one is different (honest!) because it creates what it calls "shadows."
A shadow is a "collection of metadata gathered from user bookmarks." I would explain more, but just know that it combines bookmarks, tagging, community and all kinds of other buzzwords.
Call me cynical, but it seems that every new player in this space is sort of the same, but different.
It's exciting to see all the innovation in the Web 2.0 world we live in, but let's all be realistic. Most of these startups are solutions looking for a problem. I agree that managing browser bookmarks is very tough when you're a regular web user. There has been virtually zero innovation in bookmark management in the past five yeras, and perhaps the time is coming when we'll have viable options to manage our bookmarks.
But the only solution that will work is one that integrates tightly with the browser. Not a toolbar, not an add-on, not a standalone site, but a complete solution that fits the browser like a glove.
So far, the only thing I see that comes close is Flock.
Flock is essentially Firefox with other goodies, and my test drive so far says to me that Flock has a future if it plays its cards right.
With Flock you can view your recently added favorites, frequently visited favorites, view favorites by tags... you get the picture. I think this feature alone may be what causes many users to make the switch.
So, good luck Shadows. I hope you don't end up fading into them.
So LookSmart's creating content now, to ensure itself a higher-quality distribution network for the pay-per-click ads it sells.
Makes sense. It's the type of on-topic, informative material that the original investors in the original highly granular directory thought would find an audience in the first place.
The next logical step would be to partner with Yahoo, Google, Quigo, etc. to actually serve (at least some of) the ads on those pages. LookSmart built a pretty robust platform for paid search, but the leaders in the field may well have larger advertiser networks and more importantly, advertisers willing and able to take the trouble to fund and maintain their contextual ad accounts.
I'd rather tweak my Google AdWords account to take account of (eg.) LookSmart's new inventory than to have to open up a LookSmart account to get at it.
Thursday, October 27, 2005
As Matt Cutts sadly points out, David Karandish, a young online marketing whiz, just got cut from his Martha Stewart Apprentice team. What's more, according to the only person in my household who watches reality shows, during the episode he was dissed by none other than Merv Griffin himself. Apparently, Merv was ticked when David was tapping away on his laptop during a meeting (taking notes, apparently). "What are you, in a chat room?," Griffin reportedly chided him.
It must be tough to be sitting there realizing you're jumping the shark before your very eyes. David's probably never going to replace Pat Sajak as the host of Wheel of Fortune now. But if you're going to go down, it might as well be in culturally significant fashion. And it doesn't get any more culturally significant than Martha and Merv.
Now it's back to working for a living like the rest of us SEM schlubs. :)
Wednesday, October 26, 2005
Ryze, an online networking service, sends weekly updates on account activity. Individual Ryze profiles are visited an average of 92 times per week, in total. Ryze profiles with a photo attached, 390 times a week. Hmm. Business networking?
When you leak news of further diversification, the market often punishes. After record earnings, though, this news of Google's development of an auction service pushes the stock up another six bucks. I suppose that's a buy on rumor reaction.
One observer noted in the AP story that when you start competing with the very people you're indexing, as Google plans to do, it changes the whole dynamic.
Well, hello. Google has been in that position for quite some time, and so has any large search site that reaches portal or destination status. In Google's case, it becomes an issue that the algorithmic tweaks that govern what users see may determine whether, say, Shopping.com, EBay, Amazon, Kelkoo, LookSmart, About.com and other internal pages of companies that compete or have alliances with Google (sometimes both) are or are not ranked well in the index.
That's power, baby. But when there are so many such alliances and competitors -- thousands, in fact -- the power is potentially more diffuse. Sure, Google may build in a bias against shopping and auction results in general, and then promote its own services. I'm sure that if, say, a Craigslist or a Shopping.com became the world's biggest destination site, they'd do the same.
In the case of networks of vertical sites like About -- and other specialized vertical portals in both B2C and B2B realms -- Google has a huge interest in not competing with them, since they either serve AdSense ads on their pages, or pay Google high ad rates to attract targeted visitors. Let's hope Google recognizes that there need to be some limits to how they behave in relation to partners and competitors alike. They may well rock the world of some travel portals with, say, their new meta travel lookup tool (that could eventually require participating vendors to pay a fee to be part of the referral pipeline), but that's a high-value category that Google is virtually giving away to certain aggregators and resellers today. As long as they don't start trying to grab a bigger chunk of every transaction, the EQ (Evil Quotient) may be held in check.
Whether or not you assign EP's (Evil Points) to any of these initiatives, those in Google's ecosystem -- large companies and small -- need to take away clear lessons from this, I think.
I'll be covering all of 1 through 4 above, and more besides, in my talk on November 13, in London, for Nielsen Norman User Experience. The title of the day-long seminar is "Search Engine Marketing: Free Prize Inside." If you're in the area or able to get to London at that time, check it out.
- Consumers go directly to Google, Yahoo, and other top search destinations for information of both a commercial and non-commercial nature, because they have become global, beloved brands. Consumers don't have time to research search per se, so they go for the defaults. Because the defaults make a lot of money from this, they can then improve their ability to discern searcher intent, improving the search experience, so it's a potentially self-reinforcing cycle.
- "Florida" and subsequent algorithm tweaks by Google have established that the company is capable of downgrading whole classes of information (some types of commercial pages might lose out in favor of informational, for example). "Organic" traffic can continue to help users and businesses connect, but not to the extent they once could. Also, more screen real estate (up to three big sponsored listings) will be taken up by paid results above the fold. When you're the pre-eminent global brand for information, you have power with a big P. All this talk of general search losing to specialized search and vertical sites misses the fact that to establish a presencek, those specialized sites must get noticed in the first place. For those who don't catch the wave of great PR or happy word-of-mouth, the cost of getting noticed is rising. Those vertical companies that do particularly well might get acquired by the majors (don't forget IAC in this picture), so again, the cycle can be self-reinforcing. This is a continued effort at the sort of monopoly power that induced us to start writing about this industry in 1999.
- Essentially, for businesses seeking to acquire customers at reasonable cost or even to establish their own global, local, topical, or "micro" brands, time is of the essence. Customer acquisition costs are rising in the search space. Buy exposure on the major engines now before they decide to extract an even larger referral fee (on average) from you. They have that option. Remember, they are the known, global brands in search, and you're not. Search is not a public service offered to you for free, as nice as that might be.
- If you are indeed looking at search engine optimization tactics to get your share of unpaid search referrals, again, time may be of the essence. But also, those tactics must be appropriate to today's complex algorithmic realities (it ain't what you think) and must tie in with the user experience and your own goals as to credibility and image. White hat? Black hat? Grey hat? I have a strong opinion here. :)
Tuesday, October 25, 2005
Every so often, it dawns on you that the whole Internet environment has traveled too far from that quiet, information-oriented era that got you so interested in the medium in the first place.
Attendees at my Nielsen Norman User Experience seminar in Boston on Sunday (including a number of "old hands" in Internet years, many of them web developers) expressed sentiments that (in spite of me showing slides outlining the obvious dominance of the leading SE's) seemed to say "I try to find search sites where it's uncluttered and quiet, away from the crowd." The cluttered look of SERP's with 10 ads on them (3 of those on top), among other things, was cited as a reason why a small core of power users will seek more low-key venues.
But it isn't just ad clutter, is it? On some of your favorite search queries, you've probably been disappointed by the general indexes.
For example, look at the regular search results for this new-product query in the automotive world. You see the usual ads and the usual list of "car info portals."
But for vibrant, current commentary, you want to know what's going on in the blogosphere, and in the news. At first, when I found it difficult to get the right info from a search of the Google index, I started doing the same query in Google News. Then they released Google blog search, and it was something else! A new way to look at the world, and also, for now anyway, a weird flashback to the days when no ads were shown next to SERP's on Google.
Yahoo's new "blogs and news" search is another totally useful entry into this realm. Notice how much better the info is in this search for the same car query as above, if you were a certain kind of searcher who is looking for recent articles and buzz, rather than the "same old same old" canned information on the usual car portal sites. It does look like Google blog search is a bit better on this query, though.
One thing is for sure: when it comes to the latest automotive technology, it's a very cheap thrill to read about it. The problem starts when you act on it. :)
Monday, October 24, 2005
Apparently, CPM rates aren't what they used to be, especially on crap sites.
To recap: Google came out with the new Site Targeting content targeting option, allowing advertisers to show ads on specific sites. Cool program, but the minimum bid was $2 CPM. Unfortunately, for my clients who are succeeding with the traditional content program, we are enjoying effective CPM's of below $1, and often around 25 cents.
The next thing Google did, as outlined here, was to drop the price to $1.00. A bit later they allowed advertisers to specify sections of sites, or specific pages, even.
But they weren't done! Today I'm seeing the minimum bid has been slashed to $0.25 CPM.
Because this is finally low enough to give advertisers the chance to experiment, they may be able to enjoy a few bargains now. (As long as you're tracking), go for it! Buy some extra exposure for cheap. If you're not tracking, you might still be getting a brand lift. I suspect more so if you're using larger graphical creative.
Speaking of which, an attendee at SES Stockholm asked -- in a session about Creating Compelling Ad Copy for paid search campaigns -- about banner design. Her complaint is that there really aren't any good books available on that subject. Whether that's true or not, all this talk of banner campaigns and $0.25 CPM's is giving me that "2000 all over again" feeling.
Sunday, October 23, 2005
This interesting post by a GMail engineer reminded me: I'm not getting any spam at all in my GMail accounts! When it started out, it was pretty clean, but then the spam started trickling in, and it was like "oh no, here we go again." But now, there is pretty much none, and I don't seem to miss messages either.
Yahoo seems to be doing a really good job on the email spam problem, too.
Not so for one of my legacy company email accounts. :( Perhaps Google will be nice and acquire a few web hosting companies and teach them how to do their jobs better. There does seem to be some variation in the competency of various web hosts in their treatment of email, as we've recently found. One of my clients, Domain Direct, has been better about email than other web hosts we've been through. (Disclaimer: they're a client, so I like them.)
Doing some review tonight of the search engines' various offerings.
For advertisers alone, especially on the Yahoo side, there is such a confusing array of product options and features that it is in fact becoming difficult to know how to spend.
Then there's the search side. Here, "legacy" products are lying around like a kitchen full of Thanksgiving leftovers, as everyone at these companies hopes "someone else" will take the tough decision to clear them away so the festivities can continue.
Here are two offerings, in particular, that need to die:
1. Google "Directory." Although not featured anymore, it's not gone, either. Like keyword metatags, the Google "directory" using the ODP RDF dumps lingers in the search marketing community's mind, taking up two or three valuable brain cells that could be better used for something else. More broadly speaking, of course, the ODP itself needs to be shut down. It has little clout or respect among users anymore, yet seedy little games continue to be played, including editors joking about taking bribes, and for all I know, even taking them. Our time could be better spent on listening to funnier jokes. R.I.P. ODP. The legacy of organized information may be somewhat valuable; this could be archived while the organization itself is closed.
2. Yahoo! Paid Inclusion. So once I warmed you up with an easy one that was really yesterday's news, I hit you with this! Being critical of paid inclusion and suggesting it's time to just give up on it are two different things. I'll put it this way: the increasing proliferation of Yahoo! paid search products facing advertisers is making it tougher for them to make rational decisions. Agency people are starting to feel silly because it sounds like they are recommending everything -- yes you should be in the directory, yes you should look at this aspect and that aspect of Yahoo Precision and Content match in these three countries, and so on and so forth. When you start saying yes, you should do everything, the advertiser starts to feels a kind of paralysis, or at least scepticism. For Yahoo and its partners and largest advertisers, relationships and money are at stake if they phase out paid inclusion. But doing this would allow the community/marketplace to focus its energies on the remaining paid search options. Meanwhile, Yahoo reaffirming the unbiased nature of their organic index would lead to a boost in legitimacy, and force them to keep spam off page #1 of SERP's through algorithmic excellence alone. Paid inclusion is not the answer to better search or higher revenues, long term. Better search and a better ad program are. So the status quo is kept for inertia's sake. Having a completely unpaid-for index would be something to boast about, even more than having a really big index. And we know how search engines like to boast.
Are you with me? For Goodbye Google Directory, I propose a deadline of Thanksgiving 2005. For Goodbye Yahoo Paid Inclusion, mark it down for Canadian Thanksgiving 2006. Let's kiss these turkeys goodbye. These two companies have reached the stage where they need to begin paring obsolete clutter.
Friday, October 21, 2005
To be clear, Google's great Q3 result keeps them on the same track that they've been on since they designed a great search engine that the world wanted to use, and a better ad program that screamed scalability. What they've done is realize the full extent of that earnings potential quickly, meaning, in essence, that the company's performance will allow it to "grow into" its stock price more quickly than expected.
So for now, exceeding expectations is still within the realm of the expected, since we're still talking about advertising revenues.
Nonetheless, many continue to underestimate the company, not even factoring in future projects.
What will Q4 bring? I'm guessing more of the same. Let's hope it's that, and more.
Wednesday, October 19, 2005
I'm at Search Engine Strategies in Stockholm today. One of a number of points I put forward in the Ad Forum session today was jumping off yesterday's Yahoo earnings announcement. The company's flat profit for the quarter surpassed estimates.
A bit of background on that: I tuned into CNBC to hear the comments of an analyst from a firm that owns sizeable stakes in both Yahoo and Google. When the initial question was put to him point blank, "what do you think of these results? are you encouraged or disappointed?"
"I'm encouraged," came the response out of a face that wore a scowl that could only be caused by a four-alarm headache, or perhaps not really feeling encouraged, but needing to stay upbeat for the cameras, but also needing to avoid sounding like he's shilling for the stock, since analysts never shill, right?
Another telling point was in attempting to explain the different P/E revenues of Yahoo and Google. "I think they're appropriately valued relative to each other," was the ultimate conclusion. He really emphasized that last point.
The thing that really amazed me, though, was when the host asked "what do you think is more important to Yahoo, and which do you think is more important... the banners, or the, if you will, companies that pay to be seen in the search results, over to the right hand side of the page, if you will?"
The answer was banners.
Why? Perhaps (indirectly) because top management at Yahoo (not those in the Overture division, clearly) believe the company's future lies in the whole media package. Perhaps so. Perhaps also because the stock market is likely to reward a company with a big fuzzy upside, and Yahoo can't create the perception of big fuzzy upsides solely through search (at least not in North America, where it's harder to induce investors to lap up the Kool-Aid of trends like mobile search).
But search saved the whole company and is funding a lot of the current growth. Where's the love, if you will? Why is search still the ugly cousin? Perhaps it's a simple as this: the long tail of user search behavior, and all that entails, isn't really amenable to a five-second sound bite. In that long tail lurks all the upside anyone could ever need or want.
Tuesday, October 18, 2005
So the personalized home page offering from Google is now in "full product release," which may surprise those of you who have been using other Google products heavily for a long time without them coming out of beta. Actually, if you take the time to try it out, you'll be pleased by some of the innovative, clean functionality. Still, it does make you wonder what the difference is between a "full product release" and a "beta" in Google's world.
Could it be that "beta" is code for "full product release," and vice-versa? That still means they don't unleash alphas on the public. Nor do they tell you whether they consider a product 2.0, 2.1, 3.0, 2.11, etc. And when you sense a 2.5 happening in January, they might tell you it never happened, but then admit to a 3.0 in August...
This gratuitous babbling brought to you by the letter "Beta" and my Yahoo! homepage...
Monday, October 17, 2005
On the one-word query [skol], typed into Google Search, the usual results appear at the top, but then below that, the user is prompted to extend their query to [skol beer] or view the first three results for that longer phrase. That's a nice bonus for the top-ranking pages on the two-word phrase -- they actually get 'upgraded' to the first page of results.
Attempts to replicate this experiment with beer and liquor brands such as Corona (I got a regional listings prompt for Corona, CA), Export, Canadian (at the bottom of the SERP, prompted to view Google Groups threads), and Johnny Walker proved fruitless.
I'm guessing, then, that this is driven by deeper studies of user behavior. 'Skol' happens to be one of those one-word queries where the two-word phrase is often the user's true intent. Increasingly, then, what appears on the page is going to be situational, even if personalization and the user's search history, preferences, etc. are not taken into account.
Prompting users to enter two-word phrases instead of one-word phrases can be a subtle way of training users to be better searchers, too. Beware, though. It sometimes pays off just to use the one-word search. Multiple-word searches in Google Images, for example, could be too restrictive, whereas just entering a person's name or first name or last name might give you a lucky find if that person's name turns up in the filename, for example.
Supposedly the top search scientists feel that search is a problem that is "about 5% solved." It sure is fun to watch them on the way towards solving it. As users, we're part of that quest.
In related news, John Battelle finds something I'm sure you're seeing now too: a promo for the Google toolbar is now often appearing at the bottom of the Google home page or at the end of a page of results. I've also noticed they continue to frequently use a red "new!" notation next to the Google Local link on the home page. If you need to know what's important to them, these little attempts to drive users to their featured properties will give you a clue. (Remember, Google doesn't advertise.) Of note is a recent Hitwise report that shows Yahoo leading Google in local search. These little prompts are no coincidence. Google, believe it or not, is playing catchup in a few areas. Because of their massive traffic flows, a couple of subtle prompts can help them play that game skilfully. As GMail continues to lag its competitors, I expect they'll turn on the jets there in six months or so.
Friday, October 14, 2005
Remember Steve Case's famous thought after a meeting with Time Warner execs: "you're going to work for us someday"?
Just in: Yahoo! brings to three the list of portals (all of the top three) vying for a piece of the purported former #1, AOL.
For portal watching people this is something like "coming full circle" - or is it full helix?
Speaking of which - it's Friday night. Don't I have an 80's Hair Band Cover Night to get to, or something?
Somebody's going to work for somebody else, soon. Not that it affects Mr. Case all that much.
Every five years, I get my passport photo taken. The rule is, you're not allowed to smile. I come off looking like a rather grumpy psycho each time (in this case, a grumpy psycho who was 48 hours to the good side of potentially screwing up a trip to Sweden). So as I sit there preparing for the inevitable digital full-color hatchet job, I want to scream: get that camera away from me! No photos allowed! This, however, would be counterproductive.
It seems that impulse to scream "no photos" at the paparazzi has spread to many misguided souls beyond your major celebs. There is this fascination with image management, and avoiding embarrassing situations, in the corporate world. However, if you look like you're managing your image and chasing away the paparazzi, you come off looking doubly suspicious, so part of image management has to be looking relaxed when the cameras are rolling or hovering nearby. (In the case of my passport photo, this ain't gonna happen. There is nothing like a nearly-expired passport to put you on edge.)
Here's the main thought I want to convey in this post: the "search" metaphor is seeping into all walks of life. And it goes beyond text, of course, to the visual and physical worlds. Tapping into the average person's want or need to know (more precisely, their expectation that they can know) is a growing imperative for any business that wants to maintain credibility. As one far-out example of this general trend, I mentioned (in Winning Results with Google AdWords) the botched coverage of the final round of the Masters golf tournament. Due to a rain delay, the penultimate round concluded for some players in the morning before the final round got going. Tiger Woods reeled off an unprecedented string of birdies to overtake Chris DiMarco that morning, but no one but the patrons at Augusta saw it live. The talking heads at CBS and the Golf Channel tried to spin it by saying it's "impossible to show every hole of every tournament." In so doing (Tiger birdieing seven straight holes down the stretch is pretty much prime time viewing, not "just any hole" in "any tournament"), they came off looking like dinosaurs - and in golf, that's tough to do.
In an age when I can see a closeup of my street (or any street) in seconds using Google Maps, absolutely free, it's going to seem pretty silly if you're on the wrong side of some debate about what consumers can see, know, show, find, etc. It might be awhile before we'll have bootleg full coverage of the tournaments (even minor players' fairway irons) by virtue of "patron-cams," but even that last bastion -- Augusta National -- is eventually going to open up to (or is it fall victim to?) greater visibility.
By next year, using Google Earth, you'll be able to walk alongside John Daly for all 18 holes (including smoke breaks) at the John Deere Chrysler Classic, or watch Woody Austin grimace close-up, as he snaps a putter over his knee. (OK, maybe not next year, but you get the idea.)
Another funny illustration of this theme: some Flickr photo-sharing aficionados are discussing a weird policy that barred visitors to Tim Hortons coffee shop from having cameras! A minor hue and cry ensued that seems to have culminated in a response from management confirming that there is no chainwide policy against taking pictures. I mean what did Tim's have to hide anyway? Can the camera see that one of the eclairs is stale? Was someone having a bad hair day?
"Please, no photos" is going to ring pretty hollow when everyone's outfitted with concealed cameras that not long ago were the stuff of Bond movies. As with any kind of technology and any kind of light being shone in places it wasn't allowed to go before, it's mostly good, but sure, there is also a dark side to privacy invasion and excessive surveillance. But if you're in business, demands for transparency can be persistent, and resisting them can have serious consequences.
A similar experience beset an enthusiast who snapped the photo of the Pop Shoppe display (above left). He countered that he wasn't in the store, he was on the sidewalk. I wonder what the problem could possibly be. Seeing that pic makes me want a bottle of that purple carbonated goop.
These don't-show-my-logo people would have seriously cramped Andy Warhol's style.
There. I made it through that one without using the words "naked" or "buff".
Thursday, October 13, 2005
In the rush towards agency consolidation, big-buck conferences (checked out the cost of a night at the New York Hilton in the height of tourist season *and* when they know ad:tech is coming? yikes! ok... I won't make you guess... right now it's $485 and up), and buzzwords like "engagement," the small business is too often overlooked when it comes to developing an effective search marketing strategy for the long term.
If your "small" business expects to rake in $100k, $1 mil, or $20 mil in online revenues this year and the year after that, you know that a lot is at stake. But you also know that professional development is something you won't take time out for unless you book the time off, and make a day or two of it.
Jill Whalen is leading a two-day seminar at the Philadelphia Crowne Plaza Valley Forge (King of Prussia, PA), November 3-4. It's focused on the smaller business wanting to "take control" of their web marketing. A few other good friends like Scottie Claiborne, Karon Thackston, Debra Mastaler, Christine Churchill, and Matt Bailey, will also be presenting.
No buzzwords, no fluff, no CEO's of major car companies. Just solid how-to by leading SEM pros who have been doing this stuff for real, for real people, for a long time now. If the ad:tech crowd were really smart and thrifty, they'd stop in for this one before carrying onto the big show in New York. (For one thing, the hotel rooms are priced so even a small biz can afford them.)
For more detail, check out the seminar info page. Readers of Traffick (that's you) will qualify for a further 25% discount by entering TRAFFICK in the registration field where it offers a discount code.
I'm getting no compensation for mentioning the seminar, of course. I just think it's a good idea. It's rare that you can get such hands-on help from real insiders in the biz in a small-group setting.
One catch, though. Nothing in life is free; certainly not a 25% discount offer. :) So, as mandated by the Oval Office, I'm going to assign each of the presenters a nickname which I insist you call out during sessions: Queen of Prussia, Easy Lover, Scottie, Not That One, Link, and Copy (in no particular order). Just don't shout "Scottie" at Matt... it will confuse him.
It's natural to speculate on the bigger implications of talks between Microsoft and AOL, on one hand, and Google + Comcast and AOL, on the other. On this front, and Google's potential to enter into the business strategy chess game (or poker game, if you wish) it's previously shunned in favor of building better products, John Battelle has it about right.
Once again, though, it's useful to point out that until the future falls into place, Google's an advertising-driven company with specific problems it would like to solve. One of those problems is with the extent of geotargeting and behavioral targeting that are possible with its current user base. Gaining more direct access to users (via AOL and a friendship with a company like Comcast) cannot be a bad thing for such a company. It also must think about global expansion and the way that assets are arranged in various international markets. AOL has a decent footprint internationally. (It's not like Google can buy MSN or Yahoo.)
I speculate on a couple of other reasons Google might be interested in AOL in a post I just sent to Detlev Johnson's new SearchReturn newsletter. (If Detlev publishes the post, it will be Tuesday, so I guess it could look silly by then!) This is an email-based discussion forum that looks and feels exactly like the old I-Search Digest, the one moderated by (in turn) Marshall Simmonds, Detlev, and yours truly. Many readers will recall that I recently revived the spirit of now-defunct I-Search in a new platform at Google Groups, in a discussion forum called SEM 2.0, which is percolating along nicely. I also like SearchReturn, with its old-school look and feel, and the intelligent posts (thus far). So for the few and the proud, the diehard SEM fanatics who have intelligent thoughts but don't usually share them... I recommend SearchReturn. Great job Detlev, it's looking like happy days are here again!
...in blog form. Apparently, teens dislike the Yahoo home page. Too much clutter.
In other news, a panel of 12 college students said search is more trustworthy than TV.
What is the world coming to?
Wednesday, October 12, 2005
Morningstar has an interview with an analyst who sees Google primarily as an advertising company that should be valued on that basis. So who's right? Someone who sees Google as an advertising-driven company and only sees that value as germane to the stock price? Or the crowd who see all the other things Google's doing, and have drunk at least a few sips of Upside Kool-Aid?
They're both right -- it just depends what actually happens. If Google can grow to dominate other markets, the stock today is worth what it is now, or much more. If not, it's worth $200, or $100 as the shine wears off. No one can know which is true, because the extent of Google's development of new products, the soundness of their strategies, the quality of those products, competitors' responses, and consumers' embrace of those yet-to-be-released products, are all unknown to us.
Me, I'd pay some attention to the contrarian simply because an awful lot of Google's eggs are in one basket revenue-wise, but so diversified resource-wise. In other words, Google has a lot of projects (and thus growing costs), but just one (very big, potentially vulnerable) revenue stream.
Working on so many different things, and shifting gears often, can carry with it significant costs. Google's investments in thousands of smart humans looks great until it reaches the point of unsustainability. Perhaps, then, the future of this currently-profitable company depends on how units are managed and held to account. And speaking of unknowns, we as outsiders have little idea of the extent to which claims about Google's culture of innovation are exaggerated. If it's always about solving the next problem, then it can be difficult to keep the eye on the ball to continue dealing with mundane everyday operational (already solved) problems. But it's quite possible that this is something of a fiction and that internally, mundane problems also receive considerable attention. It's quite possible that a company where the CEO muses about not wanting to solve already-solved problems, and where a chef plays a starring role in a quarterly earnings announcement, is actually just playing possum, secretly working with more traditional management paradigms, as well.
Geez, make that Wednesday. A tribute to a few worthwhile causes.
Small kindnesses: The Gmail "autosave" feature. Oh my did I type a long email about the ins and outs of business to my friend John K... but I decided to install a critical update to Firefox at the same time (duh). That wanted me to shut down Firefox... the very browser I was using to type the email! That's perfect irony! Now that's interesting writing, Elaine!
Big kindness: CNN story about a school started by Texas educators for displaced kids from New Orleans.
Nothing to sneeze at: ConversionRuler.com's free tools, including a keyword concatenator and tracking code generator that makes a seemingly difficult task easy. I cling to my dream of a world where many businesses can rely on low-cost, unbiased, third-party web analytics. I'd link to the tools but it appears you have to be a client, and logged in, to access the gizmos. They also offer fun stuff like email address encryptors for people who get spammed too much but would like to publish their email on their web pages.
Trademark, schmademark...: A useful post on Mac Observer about Apple apparently loosening (slightly yet nearly imperceptibly) their stance on advertisers' use of trademarked terms like "Mac" and "Macintosh." Clearly, they want their retailers to be able to offer their products by advertising on Google (!) , but they still maintain a long list of banned terms. Google typically upholds requests from such large companies to block advertisers from using those terms in their AdWords accounts. Google's partial policing of trademark is not so much a matter of law as a matter of practical seat-of-the-pants management of a complex set of business relationships. The fact remains that phrases containing trademarked terms often provide excellent and interesting organic search results, and a perfect backdrop for relevant, but not confusing, ads. Trademark holders tend not to agree. None of this'll be resolved very soon, unfortunately for people who love clarity.
"Mashup fun": Speaking of my friend John K., and legal issues, and tidbits... remember when everyone used to debate whether metasearch is legal? Is that, too, a matter that has proven to be more a matter of compromise amongst interests as opposed to one that gets solved in court? And how about all the metasearch tools that have come and gone? Some of them came and went due to lack of consumer interest. Some of them went away because they did indeed get threatened by the sources they were metasearching. So what happened to AuctionRover.com, anyway? Why did GoTo.com acquire them in the first place way back in the day? Who knows. The site now redirects to our good friends at ChannelAdvisor.com, which means there's probably a long story there, which I hope someone else will research. :) So anyway, John K. has created aytozon.com, which is in beta but will give you a comparative look at items available on Amazon vs. the same on eBay. Will legal threats be forthcoming? Will the story make it into the WSJ? Will John parlay his bad boy image into fame and riches of Napster-like proportions? It was just Canadian Thanksgiving, and we have leftovers. I'm pulling the wishbone for you, John.
Sunday, October 09, 2005
Flock, the Web 2.0 browser sensation that hasn't even shipped its flagship browser to the public yet, got still more golden PR from another big media outlet, this time from Business Week.
The buzz surrounding Flock seems to be reaching a fever pitch, and we common folk can only wonder whether all the hype is justified. I'm starting to think Flock will either be the biggest thing ever to happen to web browsing or the biggest flop.
The internet desperately needs true browser innovation. As good as Firefox is, it's really not that much better than IE. In general, we're still trapped in the dark ages when it comes to content publishing, information retrieval and collaboration. I do think the best is yet to come. Getting there won't be easy.
It's one thing to aim for the best browser ever (with only 12 developers to boot), and another thing entirely to deliver the goods. Here, as always, execution is everything. I'm hoping Flock can pull it off.
Friday, October 07, 2005
Apparently Terry Semel of Yahoo! had some not-so-flattering things to say as a wannabe portal, while acknowledging its leadership in search.
Google's PR response was bemusing -- they thanked Semel for the compliment and noted that competition would be healthy for the user.
No matter busy life gets, I simply must not miss next year's Web 2.0! It's become the talk of the industry.
The presence of localized free hotspots threatens, among other companies, newspapers, who would have to contend with online rivals who would have the ability to serve localized ads targeted even by neighbourhood.
Does this explain the ridiculous coverage and sly digs in newspaper articles about, say, initiatives like Google + Wifi?
One major newspaper last week (in the business pages - the business pages!) began such a story by describing the Internet - the Internet! - as a system that has been used to "peddle" everything from "Pez dispensers to porn."
What about "small pieces loosely joined"? A reduction in economic friction? Rising productivity? "Always On?"
Online companies' old media rivals find it terribly easy to contain their enthusiasm about this particular revolution in global (and local) communications.
Don't believe everything you read.
Thursday, October 06, 2005
Matt Cutts of Google posted:
By the way, there’s another quote from me in that Red Herring story: “If you view ads as a necessary evil, it will color the experience.” What I was trying to say is that Google doesn’t view ads as a necessary evil to make money. We view showing ads as another type of search–one in which relevancy is just as important as web search. To me, ads shouldn’t be this unwanted thing you have to show on the side of your site; for many searches, the ads can be just as helpful as organic search results, and we should always try to make ads a useful service to our users, not just a “necessary evil.”
Interesting. It's been obvious for a long time that ads are just another type of search in Google's mind, and perhaps more so lately. Rarely has anyone gone on record wording it quite like this, though.
I've been beating this drum for some time, challenging those random Adbusters and critics of the hidden persuaders I meet from time to time on street corners. The numbers -- user behavior -- tell us that many people consistently see the ads to be relevant to their search. Not always, but sometimes.
I'd elaborate a bit more (see elsewhere, in the Winning Results book) that the fact that Google didn't merely roll over and serve the wishes of advertisers waving fistfuls of cash was actually -- whether accidentally or not -- the reason they ended up making so much cash from the very advertisers they took a "tough stance" with as far as relevancy is concerned.
Cutts' statement is at once commonplace yet startling. Commonplace, because Google has built some kind of relevancy criteria (particularly clickthrough rates) into its ad program since version 2 of it was launched three-and-a-half years ago. But startling to advertisers grappling with the new ad ranking formula, because they are after all paying to show up in the ad space, and their positioning is increasingly determined by relevancy factors they don't understand or even know about. (Yes, of course the advertiser's bid does influence the position, but sometimes it takes an awful lot of money to show an ad that Google's system has deemed irrelevant to the user's query.)
Consider this, dear reader: maybe Google does offer "paid inclusion" after all. It's called AdWords.
Your participation in the auction, even with fistfuls of cash, is in and of itself no guarantee of any particular ad position.
As on the organic side, Mr. Cutts' little asides about ads seem to be worth their weight in gold to any site owner who cares to listen closely.
Wednesday, October 05, 2005
There's lots of search engine and advertising news this week, but this trumps all.
Barry Schwartz proposed to his girlfriend through Ask.com, via a special placement set up by the company. Ain't this the cutest?
I can't remember anything so exciting happening to me in cyberspace. Not so long ago, through GMail, someone asked me to meet them "uptown for drinks at 5 p.m.," but it turns out the email was for one of the seventeen other Andrew Goodmans whose emails sometimes come to my Gmail box.
A memorable day in search engine history. And no doubt to be cherished forever by the happy couple. All the best!
Early feedback on Google's fledgling Site Targeting initiative suggested that much of the inventory might even be overpriced at the $2.00 CPM minimum. Google subsequently dropped the minimum bid price to $1.00 CPM ($1.25 if you're scoring from Canada).
That's the current status quo, but yes, Virginia, smart pricing seems to be in effect in this program, too, as I've been seeing effective CPM's of below $1.00 in my actual stats. The lowest I've seen so far is 50 cents. That's getting close to the effective CPM I've calculated for one of my most successful conventional content targeting (or CCT, for those scoring from Planet Arcania): 25 cents.
This might not reflect the norm, since I'm looking at an experiment with a few mass-market "imacheapskate.com" type sites.
But it goes to show that no matter whether you're Doubleclick, Google, or a circus performer, you're going to have a hard time taming the content tiger. Performance and price seem to be under perpetual pressure when it comes to run-of-network content ads priced on a CPM basis.
Which, once again, proves that Google really did have a point when it came out with the original content targeting premise that computers might be able to do a better job of matching ads to content than humans can.
It also proves there are a lot of rotten sites in the network. Pricing it right is a start, but if the appropriate price is close enough to zero, it might be time to purge those sites entirely so Google advertisers can cut through the clutter.
Earlier I posted the following mind-bending quiz for any readers who wanted to win a free book.
One writer from Argentina has already won a book plus a bonus prize for getting the RIM question. (Nice going!)
But we didn't get enough responses because our contact form was broken last time around. Now it's fixed. Here you go again... I've reworded some questions. Good luck!
EASY QUESTIONS (general search oughta do it):
1. Before it was called Google, what did Page and Brin call the prototype of their search engine?
2. A British fashion site spent far more on launch parties, site design, and marketing than it could possibly have expected to recoup in sales. Bankruptcy came next. What was the name of the site? (Hint: not hiss.com.)
3. "I kiss you," or "all your base are belong to us" - which phrase has more mentions on the web? Why do you think this is?
4. Co-founder of Excite Joe Kraus. What's his latest gig? Does he have a blog?
5. What did Nick Denton do before Gawker Media? What about before that?
6. (Search recent Traffick.com posts): What might a clever expression be for “The original incarnation of Business 2.0 Magazine”?
7. What search guru has the domain name calafia.com? Which former Google employee wishes he did?
BONUS (even harder) QUESTION:
8. Abba and Research in Motion have what in common? (you’re allowed to miss this one, but the correspondent from Argentina got it no sweat)
Now how exactly will the winners be determined?
We’ll use a proprietary scoring algorithm that includes the following factors: accuracy; rightness; randomness; obsequiousness; timeliness. We can’t reveal the exact formula. But at the end of it all, the two (or three, depending on user testing) best answers will get a lovely high-quality book.
One additional bonus prize will be awarded if anyone gets (what our algorithm deems to be) an A+ result.
Shoot me your best try at my GMail account [username is agoodman] or use the contact form. We'll keep this running for awhile, until we get answers, people!
Tuesday, October 04, 2005
[photo credit: "Bling Keyboard," Graham Anderson, via Flickr]
You've got to admire ClickTracks. Lately, the idea that the workplace is actually more productive when right-brained, visual, creative folks are involved is getting its due -- to wit, Dan Pink's recent book A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age.
I'm sure other analytics vendors have sometimes talked a good game when it comes to making reporting more intuitive and setup routines less onerous, but it was ClickTracks that made everyone pay so much attention to usability and presentation design in the current generation of web marketing consoles. They initially burst on the scene with a fervor perhaps matched only by Brett Favre staging an improbable touchdown drive.
From the demo I saw (of the Pro version), ClickTracks has found the endzone with the 6.0 release, and they've done it with style. (The "blue man" icon in the demo was sporting a big bling-y gold six-shaped medallion, and the title of the presentation was cheeky: "The Best Six You'll Ever Have.")
Substantively, I am impressed with a number of features. For marketers seeking to conduct A/B testing of landing page performance, an easy wizard facilitates setup of the test. Asked why the analytics firm didn't go farther to integrate the actual page creation aspects of A/B testing (a la Offermatica), CEO John Marshall wouldn't rule out either a future merger or future in-house development, but wouldn't go on record as saying the company would proceed on this front. It sounds to us like (if they do anything, that is) they'd prefer to buy, rather than build, this feature - I think such an acquisition would make sense because the acquired company would also deliver new potential customers to ClickTracks.
Many features are enhanced with helpful visuals. Mouse over a link in a report about page performance, and get a thumbnail of the page (so you remember which one it is). A/B test results can be packaged into a PDF overview to send onto skeptics in upper management. Segments of traffic are clearly demarcated by color bars and icons, and so on.
Minor, but still significant, improvements, include an enhanced "What's Changed" report, allowing better control over time periods.
A key improvement is the ability to achieve "dashboard-style reports" without being reliant on a proprietary Windows-based interface. ClickTracks 6.0 allows more to be done with a standard web browser.
As authors like Pink would likely argue, what starts out as a belief that better design helps us think about relationships in new ways, actually gives way to an understanding that right-brained thinking helps analytical folks to be more scientific, period. For example, rather than releasing a "sales funnel reporting" feature similar to that offered by competing vendors, ClickTracks chose to rethink the basic premises of how to look at the funnel. By not presupposing a typical, linear funnel pattern on the part of users, ClickTracks created a simpler form of funnel report that appears not to fixate on the entire funnel but rather offers an overview of what proportion of users tend to advance to a more advanced stage of the funnel from any given page or group of pages. While that still rests on a normative assumption about what it means to the marketer that the user "advanced" to a more advanced stage in the buying process, it doesn't assume a single path. Many users actually exit or back up from the funnel at different points; such that there are in fact many little funnels. Rather than giving up on the potential to achieve insight, Clicktracks designed their report to help marketers achieve comparative insights about the persuasiveness of certain pages, without them needing to wring their hands about "shopping cart abandonment." (Which, according to the Eisenbergs' recent book, is "not the real problem" anyway.)
In web behavior, the data are never simple, because user behavior isn't. So under the guise of simplicity and elegance in design -- Marshall says "we consider ourselves to be the iPod of analytics" -- ClickTracks actually allows marketers to look at the real complexity of their user behavior without feeling like the process is cumbersome. He claims that their funnel report would take two or three minutes to configure, compared with "maybe a day" for some competing products.
This is the apparent paradox of incorporating right-brained thinking into analysis: what looks and feels "easier" is in fact more penetrating. To go from mere "information" to "actionable concepts" requires more data, not less. An indifferent reporting package would make the task of organizing that data too daunting for anyone but maybe a fictional computer-brained blue man wearing a big gold medallion.
Segmenting users and avoiding aggregate data is one way to develop more actionable insight when it comes to web traffic. "There is no 'average visitor'," advises Marshall. "Segment as much as possible." For example, funnel reports broken down by new vs. returning visitors would show that different classes of users have "distinct ways of interacting with the funnel." That kind of data would inform and influence further site development and usability testing, for example, as well as landing page testing.
The "time split" feature is also a useful one, allowing an analyst to create a report to prove up the ROI impact of, say, a site redesign. A site archiving feature is included for companies that wish to keep copies of old pages on file to organize their thinking about the causal effect of "before and after."
The iPod of analytics? Taking a niche, geeky, difficult-to-use, data-intensive task and making it stylish, simple, and powerful? It's a no-brainer... or should I say, a right-brainer.
As for whether stylish CEO Marshall will have a 16-bit color Sharpie on hand to autograph your custom funnel report at the next trade show, I can't guarantee anything, but I wouldn't bet against it.
Version 6.0 of ClickTracks Professional, Optimizer, and Analyzer will be available to the public October 12, 2005.
John wonders why Google would want to "directly poke Microsoft in the eye" by teaming up with Sun on a software alliance that would offer Java-based products competing with Microsoft Office.
As enthusiasts, we've been yakking about the notion of a Java-based alternative portable office suite since we founded this site in 1999. But as a business owner it becomes even more obvious what the benefit is. The phrase "free productivity suite" fairly jumps out at you when you analyze the benefit to your bottom line that might be coming as Microsoft's monopoly erodes. Nothing in life is free, but a 75% price drop in cost in this sector would be huge.
Why would Google want to help users lower their computing costs? Is that a poke in Microsoft's eye? Hasn't Microsoft been poking us all in the eye for too long?
As to why this makes Google money, or whether it will awake a sleeping giant, it's clear the sleeping giant has been awake for some time, trying to stomp on Google. Google's no longer tiptoeing around, it's trying to weaken the giant by lacing its main meal of the day with something toxic -- in this case, the toxicity of price competition.
Microsoft had a monopoly, which is why they could charge so much for Office.
It's not clear how any of this benefits Google, but it's clear that it will benefit the marketplace. And isn't it all about fighting evil, "and the money will come"?
The giant isn't dead. His software led to huge gains in global productivity, for a time. But he'll have to cut prices if he wants to live.
Major changes are coming. They stem from one thing: money. And the ability of a monopolist to extract too much of it from customers... but not for much longer.
Yahoo and others have announced a plan to digitize and make accessible library materials; a plan similar to the controversial Google Print initiative.
What's different about this plan appears to be a subtle difference in tone and pacing. The project starts with public domain material and material that authors and copyright holders "opt in" to making available. Google's plan was "opt out."
Perhaps it's now clear why recently I read two quite equivocal pieces on this general topic; one in the University of Toronto alumni magazine and another on the editorial page of the Monday Globe and Mail. The "on one hand, but on the other" treatment wasn't far off, now that we see where things are headed.
The University of Toronto is a major founding member of the OCA. With a few subtle tweaks, the idea of making information accessible now looks slightly more respectful of authors' rights. Yahoo comes off looking like "Mr. Nice Guy."
Monday, October 03, 2005
Interesting offering from Toronto-based Inoventiv. It allows advertisers to create a searchable ad unit, facilitating a "navigational" style interaction between the user and the site rather than forcing them to click through to an offer site unseen. (Example: dating site Lavalife.com would show an interactive creative inviting users to "search for local singles".)
(1) It sounds like it will be effective for certain kinds of advertisers.
(2) Inoventiv isn't the first company to realize that users respond better to content ads when they seem "navigational," but their presence is possibly giving a wake-up call to some major players which could continue to shape the design of online ad units.
One imagines that other interactive features could be incorporated into ads, too. A search is a type of quest for info, so what about the other staples of the buying process such as mortgage calculators, car lease calculators, and other such gizmos? Depending on whether they're proven effective, they could find their way into more ads. It's like taking an effective part of your website and moving it one step forward in the buying cycle. Intriguing.
Maybe eBay could run ads highlighting products and their current bid amounts, and time remaining in the auction...
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