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Friday, October 28, 2005

On the Spate of Social Bookmarking Sites

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.

Posted by Cory | | | Permalink

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LookSmart Builds Spider Bait

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.

Posted by Andrew | | | Permalink

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Thursday, October 27, 2005

End of the Road for SEO on Apprentice


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. :)

Posted by Andrew | | | Permalink

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Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Business Networking vs. "Business Networking"

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?

Posted by Andrew | | | Permalink

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Google's Future in Auctions -- And Everything Else?

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.

  1. 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.
  2. "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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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. :)
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.

Posted by Andrew | | | Permalink

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Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The search that's better than search?

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. :)

Posted by Andrew | | | Permalink

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Monday, October 24, 2005

Was $1.00, Now Only $0.25!

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.

Posted by Andrew | | | Permalink

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Sunday, October 23, 2005

Where's the spam?

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.)

Posted by Andrew | | | Permalink

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Search Companies: Scrape Your Leftovers Into the Compost Pile

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.

Posted by Andrew | | | Permalink

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Speaking Engagement

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