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Thursday, February 28, 2008

Canada, It's Time to Beat London! (SES Toronto is Coming, Part I)

I'd like to congratulate my friend Mike Grehan on hosting a successful SES London conference.

With that perfunctory collegiality out of the way, it's time to get those polite but increasingly competitive Canadian juices flowing.

Canada, it's high time we outflanked London on the world map of search marketing.

Sure, the old country has its advantages: a pleasingly inflated currency unit, Leicester Square, green grass in February, and those fabulous accents. They've had their share of technological innovation, most of it concentrated in the 18th century. James Watt, improver of the steam engine, was actually Scottish. Depending on who you ask, the English can't even claim him for their own.

Canada stacks up great on many fronts. Sure, the British more or less invented humour, but who is flexible enough to spell it humor on demand, and to export our best to the lucrative US market? Canada, of course! Who's laughing now?

Consider Toronto! Can you go on a Great Lakes boat cruise in mid-June in short sleeves in London? How about getting a four-star meal for something less than the price of a new home? Does London have an American League baseball franchise? Is it within driving distance of Cleveland, OH?

Canada is also the home of much innovation in telecommunications and media. Think "Marshall McLuhan". Think Blackberry. Early search engine ARCHIE - invented at McGill University. The first company to experiment with paid search: Open Text, a Canadian-born search engine. eBay cofounder? Canadian. Need I go on?

My projections for SES Toronto attendance have us tying with London this year, and blowing by them in 2009. But to achieve this, dear Canadian digital marketer, we need your help. Your company's showing up and be counted, I promise, will lead to wonderful results such as (in order of likelihood):

  • Your company dispelling myths about search visibility and achieving laser focus and efficiency in new customer acquisition this year
  • Your employees developing deep expertise in emerging areas of online marketing through attendance of in-depth SES Training Day sessions
  • Toronto overtaking Reykjavik and Shanghai as the latest "it spot" for global marketing savvy
  • Londoners conceding Toronto's superiority and as a gesture of goodwill, sending their cabbies to train our cabbies in the navigational arts
  • "Linkbaiting" being added to the official list of sports for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver
Part 2 of this post will follow shortly. I'll also be posting information about speaking opportunities here and elsewhere shortly. The planning for the program is underway, but far from finalized.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Google Wins at Trivia, Too

All search engines but Google were, true to form, only moderately competent in last night's Search Bowl trivia game, hosted by Danny Sullivan, who quaffed "girly drinks" while making loud sarcastic comments throughout. Alex Trebek's job is not in jeopardy.

Yahoo seemed savviest, but they had a penchant for losing points after winning them. Two steps forward... one step back... etc.

The search marketers team had the loudest cheering section, but the most woeful performance. Todd Friesen seemed to be cheerfully swimming over his head in a pool made up largely of draft beer. His teammate Ian Lurie made frequent biting references to the quality of Todd's answers, to say nothing of the quality of Danny's questions.

The contest was full of trick questions. For example, Derrick Wheeler of Microsoft more-or-less-correctly identified The Open Directory Project's original name as Newhoo. But asked to spell it, he failed to identify the real answer - Gnuhoo. They changed it to Newhoo after the open source community complained. Eventually Yahoo bitched too and they moved onto ODP/dmoz.

Now yours truly was nominated for the team, but conveniently, I placed third, sneaking strategically (thanks chums!) one vote behind Todd. Ian won the gently-rigged popularity contest with a lurid 51 votes. This means my perfect record remains intact and I can smugly say "I coulda done better." Especially at rigging votes in Diebold-like fashion, which I am starting to enjoy.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Yahoo Changes Minimum Bids to Follow Google's Method

I just learned that Yahoo Search Marketing is introducing reserve pricing in their keyword auction. Although the Panama system already included a quality index, this was for ranking purposes only. Now, similar to Google's auction, Yahoo can raise minimum bids to dissuade low-quality advertisers further. It can also, presumably (like Google) use this system to optimize (i.e. increase) its own revenues, concurrent with improving the user experience. Win-win, n'est-ce pas?

In light of these sophisticated systems, talk of a fresh comScore report that shows Google's total US paid clicks have leveled off seems like just noise, although the stock market seems to take it quite seriously. When you sharply raise minimum bids on many keyword buys, as part of a quality initiative, it only makes sense that click volume will take a hit. But will Google's short and long term profit benefit? That's the real question.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Why Microsoft Will Press On

I'm taking in Danny Sullivan's keynote at SMX West right now.

He's talking about social search and the as-yet-unrealized potential of communities like Facebook to influence search results in deep ways.

Although this will raise privacy issues, it underscores the value of Facebook right now. It's leveled off slightly, maybe, but it hasn't backed off by much. MySpace, on the other hand, seems increasingly like the trailer park of social media.

That means someone's going to want a deeper partnership with Facebook, if not outright acquisition.

The only major search company that has a piece of Facebook, of course, is Microsoft.

To achieve big goals like increasing its stake in Facebook and incorporating data into a better overall experience, Microsoft needs to get other ducks in a row first, including consolidating forces with Yahoo. Hence, the resolve they are showing to push the acquisition through no matter what Yahoo wants. For the record, Danny wound up his keynote by expressing a hope that Yahoo can remain independent.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Sunday, February 24, 2008

Mad Men Reference Explained

In an SES London session on Click Fraud I had made a reference to the fantastic series Mad Men, using a thought bubble over Don Draper's head that said "Baby, our whole industry is a fraud!" Mad Men were Madison Avenue ad execs, and the series is set in the very early 1960's.

Few of my American and Canadian colleagues have watched the show, so I shouldn't have been surprised when no one in the UK audience admitted to ever having heard of it. Help is at hand: the series debuts on BBC Four on Sunday, March 2.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Interesting SES NY 2008 Session…

If you’re going to SES NY, make room in your schedule for this cool session – SES Super Session: How to Train Your Pets to Search. Here’s the session description…

Time is a limited commodity in the digital age. Gone are the days when pets were only considered faithful companions. In this session learn how you can get the most from your relationship with your dog, cat or bird (sorry there is currently no curriculum for fish or reptiles.) Kevin Ryan and special guest, Ceasar Milan will show you how you can use your pet's down-time to search the web and check your email. This session is not to be missed.

This is a restricted session and you must register separately to attend. Click here for additional information (and to see where I’m going with this!).

Posted by Mona Elesseily




Saturday, February 23, 2008

Rubel Takes "SEO Shenanigans" to Task

Phew. I was getting worried Danny Sullivan would run out of material soon. Luckily the attacks on SEO never cease -- this one by popular PR guru Steve Rubel, in connection with social media marketing.

And so it goes within the part of the world of search visibility that calls itself the "SEO industry."

Wandering around in London Thursday with Anne Kennedy and Mona Elesseily, prior to catching Spamalot (irony unintentional), someone remarked that sessions on "linkbaiting" have become increasingly popular.

My ever-unanswered question was: "how about the sessions on creating something fundamentally worthwhile, worth linking to or remarkable in some way beyond just a slight diversion, etc.?" Actually Steve, we're getting there. Don't sell the "SEO industry" short. They talk about those things too.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Friday, February 22, 2008

Sergey: I Know You Are, But What am I

Sergey Brin finds a potential Microsoft Yahoo deal "unnerving" because of the control that a big corp like Microsoft might exert on the "open" Internet in part by "tying up" top sites.

Sergey, this is just unbelievable! Where to start?

Perhaps with a reality check as to the power you have when you have these market share numbers in search. Or that "tying up" (acquiring) one of the top 10 sites in the world, YouTube, actually gives you a material boost to overall search queries (just for baby step starters).

Posted by Andrew Goodman




Wednesday, February 20, 2008

SES Audience: Pro-Merger

I'm fresh from moderating a very useful Fundamentals session on "Ad Program Strategies: Compare and Contrast" with Thomas Bindl, Steven Kaufman, and Richard Gregory. After the presentations I polled the audience: "from your standpoint as a marketer using these ad platforms: would you prefer that Yahoo remain an independent company, or that Microsoft and Yahoo merge to form a single #2 vendor in the space?"

The votes in favor of merger ran 7:1 (that's the ratio - actual vote about 21-3 among the subset who bothered to raise their hands).

Users are king, but advertisers pay for all this stuff.

Microsoft already knows the right answer. Yahoo, I hope you do.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Tuesday, February 19, 2008

SES London, Near-Live Blogging (I)

I just got out of one of the main panels of the day - the "All-Star Analytics Team" Orion Panel (get it, they're stars), which included Bryan Eisenberg and Jim Sterne and several other distinguished voices in the field of "Measuring Success."

Chatting with our multiloquous co-chair Kevin Ryan (and moderator of the session) afterwards I sensed that he is concerned about the entertainment value of SES sessions, especially the big ones held in the Auditorium here at the Business Design Centre in Islington. Analytics... entertainment... tall order. Still, he gave it a mighty shot with an initial reference to deal: he'll go back to America and convince Britney to stop speaking in a fake British accent when in shops, if London folks will stop the terrible fixation with 80's fashion on today's runways. Kevin, might I add, you might want to add a sweetener: talk that PBS-tote-bag carrying "Britophile" from the midwest out of crazy conversations with owners of local laundromats (viz. June 2007, Keswick) -- "Do you still serve teeeaaa? Isn't that graaand!!!" (Imagine this in a Chicago accent, at the top of her lungs.)

Anyway, off topic, as they say on the Internet.

The analytics all-star squad made a number of interesting points.

On accuracy: (In the sense of getting your ad network stats to match your analytics reports exactly, etc.) The consensus around the table (at least, in the easy chairs) was that "total accuracy can't happen." A range of user issues, including increasing privacy concerns (users deleting cookies, for example), drives difficulty in measurement. Beyond this, panelists (particularly Eisenberg) added later that the problem is a "lack of standards about what constitutes a session," or a click, or a visit.

On action: After all these years, corporations are stuck in the "collecting a lot of data, but not acting on it" mode. This theme came out repeatedly. Eisenberg made the point that if he were made to choose only one tool - Google Website Optimizer or Google Analytics - he'd choose Optimizer, because it means you're actively doing something to improve the user experience on the site. I share Bryan's enthusiasm for Optimizer.

On the whole: I have to say it doesn't look too good for third-party analytics providers. All panelists made polite noises that there is still a role for more costly analytics tools, but doing the obvious math, most weren't shying away from the conclusion -- derived from the triple whammy of Google & Microsoft offering a free product, typical users not coming close to using the full feature sets of advanced products, and anecdotal comments about the lack of support from third-party vendors -- that your "dollars" are best spent with a free product.

On social media measurement: This was a highly prosaic conversation, repeatedly returning to the nitty gritty of how to measure the traffic and sales impact of mentions in social media. In the midst of a discussion of tools that can measure the influence of key bloggers, even to the extent of their highly-trafficked discussions creating more discussions, a panelist interjected "What's the dollar value of a discussion?" Perhaps reinforcing the point, probably agreeing with the question, the panel went silent on this point.

However, another argument was made that companies need to start doing a better job of tracking their online reputations - figuring out whether what's being said about them online is positive or negative. Eisenberg wisely argued: "This is not about measurement but about organizations and their capacity to manage this changing realm of reputation. They find it hard to do this because they're stuck in an old-world broadcast model."

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Monday, February 18, 2008

Speaking of metadata...

I have a pet peeve with Basecamp.

If you use this app, you know that when you create a message, you are automatically going to slot it into a "category". This works like tagging - all messages in a category are grouped for future reference. Things are also findable by project and chronologically.

But the default is that you MUST enter a category, and although you can make your own categories, the one that's alphabetically first and always staring you in the face is the oddly-named "Assets." What lazy people do on my teams (including me) is leave a bunch of stuff in "assets." I also created my own custom category called "blah."

Of course, the default category should be "None." Or at the very least, "Miscellaneous."

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Quote of the Month

On the general concept of metadata, Steve Yegge: "Metadata is any kind of description or model of something else. The comments in your code are just a a natural-language description of the computation. What makes metadata meta-data is that it's not strictly necessary. If I have a dog with some pedigree paperwork, and I lose the paperwork, I still have a perfectly valid dog."

Woof!

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Friday, February 08, 2008

YHOO Taking the Opportunity to Squeeze Price Higher?

Some of Yahoo's shareholders are trying to figure out if they can get Microsoft to bid just a teeny bit higher. Amazingly, the New York Post has that scoop.

All signs point to a deal. But we're still waiting...

Posted by Andrew Goodman




Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Quote of the Week

"Black eyes aren't necessarily bad as long as you can still see out of 'em."

- MattKeegan, commenter on yet another story about bad PR for SEO

Indeed. Stiff upper (fat) lip, all you 21st-century used car salesmen!

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Monday, February 04, 2008

SES Paris 2008 – Interesting Observation…

On January 15 and 16, 2008, I spoke on a panel called Diriger une campagne et un projet SEM (How to run a SEM campaign & project). I spoke about multivariate testing (ad copy and landing pages). Before I spoke, I polled the audience to see how many advertisers used multivariate testing. Much to my surprise, I got the big goose egg. I talked to a couple of other European agencies and they confirmed for me that multivariate testing (and actually testing in general) is new to Europeans. A woman from Omniture said the French are constantly surprised at the type of testing they find out they can do. It was nice to be reminded that all of the fierce, cut-throat competition in North America does give us one major advantage: lots of new material we can share with global audiences! (A brainy export we can be proud of – as opposed to, say, Rambo.)

During our Q&A session, a response from one of the panelists surprised me. He said testing would cost a client more for R&D because his company didn’t have experience with multivariate testing. This threw me for a loop (or une boucle en Francais!) Was I not in Paris, ready to take on new accounts and had no R&D overhead? Maybe there’s something about the French market I don’t get? Do Europeans have more money to burn?

Anyway, I’m glad I could share some advanced concepts in France! But I’m not thrilled about being in North America again after all the fabulous French restaurants and company. Oh well, I can always get me some bangers and mash at SES London 2008 (starts on February 19 2008).

Posted by Mona Elesseily




Internet Freedom Fighters: Remember Us?

So on the heels of news of a war of words between Google and Microsoft (complete with counter-punch)...

It's evident that "what's good for consumers" is trotted out constantly as the justification for big companies' new initiatives, including M&A's or complaints against them. A lot of those platitudes, I agree with. Google, in particular, has been a revolutionary company. But their very might is starting to blind them to their own possible role in creating an arbitrary economy that is increasingly set up to benefit Google first.

Behind in a vertical like email? Worried that your two biggest competitors, if combined, could be "uncompetitively competing" in that vertical? Why should regulators or consumers care? Nothing stops anyone currently from using GMail, and it's unlikely their competitors are going to obliterate the open Internet anytime soon. It would appear that being the leader in online advertising and still feeling like an underdog leads to a complete loss of perspective on the whole evil-not-evil question. Has it just come down to: "if not invented (or assimilated, aggregated, or ripped off) here, it's evil"?

As search engine companies with huge power, companies like Google have made strides towards gaining that worldly perspective, through initiatives in reaching out to the interested community (not only users). They've put together things like the Sitemaps protocol, webmaster tools, and the like. Many of those initiatives would never have happened without goodwill and hard work on the part of identifiable Googlers. And they definitely would never have happened without concerted pressure and cohesive arguments coming from the interested community - in particular, vocal advocates such as Danny Sullivan. Maybe that's the takeaway here. Forgive me for being vocal, but if everyone just shuts up, we tend to be forgotten.

It's that goodwill - that stuff that can only come from individuals and their sense of community, as opposed to an algorithm or a balance sheet - that threatens to be forgotten as these companies grow in size and become more concerned about bashing each other than behaving in civilized fashion.

As consultants, resellers, advocates, authors, and agencies, we feel like no matter how much we try to understand and even advocate complex things like Quality Scores on keywords, we're treated to arbitrariness and large variances in the human interventions that can make or break the not-entirely-automated process. In other words, there is a growing suspicion by agencies and advertisers that a lot of your dealings with Google - especially around questions of website and landing page quality - revolve around how much someone over there likes you. Public releases like the one I commented on here, about "business models that tend to get bad quality scores," do nothing to assuage such concerns. We're left to wonder whether even worse arbitrariness lurks beneath that not-altogether-shiny veneer: whether random likes and dislikes are being invoked to harm particular, identifiable companies.

So it's fair enough to say that consumers have benefited from many of the giants' well-priced services, but it's also the question that a huge middle swath, of suppliers, partners, agencies, and related vendors, out there in the ecosystem, are impacted by the industry giants.

It's like yoo hoo, we're out here too. Remember?

On that front, no one's going to call Microsoft an angel. But what they do have in terms of grassroots reseller relationships and partnerships is decades of experience. If they weren't doing something right, they would have been chased out of all those countries they successfully operate in, years ago.

In response to such concerns - they began to be expressed 3-4 years ago - Google has spent some time building partnerships with agencies and resellers. For example, newly-developing products like Google Analytics and Google Website Optimizer have reseller programs (even though the products are, um, free). Google recommends companies who produce radio ad content. And so on. Relationships are beginning to be forged.

In other areas of course, these companies move to aggressively consolidate verticals, and disintermediate stray dogs in the marketplace. On some of their websites, Google steps beyond just aggregating information, to competing directly with perfectly good content creators (knol's just a recent high-profile example - do you want the full list?). They can use confidential information in many ways, to compete with other large entities in the ecosystem. And the smaller players are little more than an afterthought in some cases. When Google or Yahoo "knock off" someone's third party products, publications, services, etc. - which happens, luckily not all the time - where does that stand on the "freedom and responsibility" meter? Can I get access to that algorithm?

Isolated practices at these giant ("Internet freedom fighting") companies still need work, in other words. We're grateful for the strides they've made - not so crazy about the times when loyal third parties are treated as afterthoughts, or worse, enemies to be crushed. Beyond platitudes about consumer choice, respect for channels seems to be still in the somewhat nascent stages.

If the Big Merger goes through, the online advertising ecosystem will need to band together and chant the lyrics that most memorable hit from Scottish crooners Simple Minds: "Don't You Forget About Me."

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Saturday, February 02, 2008

News Corp. Said to Be Considering Yahoo Bid

According to a source at Techcrunch, News Corp. is trying to put together a syndicate to launch a bid for Yahoo. But I tend to agree with Paul Kedrosky's and Mathew Ingram's take, that Microsoft's high bid means it's already headed off potential rival bids. Yahoo is worth more to Microsoft than to any other company, and especially to hostile bids by opportunistic hedge funds.

Yesterday, I reminded you that I advocated a News Corp. bid for Yahoo in 2001. Back then, it would have been cheaper -- YHOO traded at a split-adjusted $9-10, in the depths of the dot com bust.

In related news, I agree with Louise Story's take in the NYT -- this deal would create more, not less, competition in search and display advertising. Recently, Google had been enjoying a situation whereby it had no serious competition. A Canadian ad buyer quoted in this Globe and Mail story, implying that three players currently makes it an ad buyer's market, is missing the point, which is that two players would be more competitive than three in this case, particularly given that Google is set to become even more powerful with the acquisition of DoubleClick.

Finally: check out the great piece in SEL where we get words right out of the MSFT horse's mouth as to the benefits of scale in this industry.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Friday, February 01, 2008

This Just In: Broadband Good

Wow, I just received email from a PR person acting on behalf of some broadband Internet buying guide website, that referenced "The On Ramps to Info Superhighway" [sic].

It's a series of tubes, people, and there are some real smart folks out there who just invented slipperier ones. Get to it!

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




MSN/Yahoo! Merger – Next Steps…

As you’ve probably heard by now, things are getting quite interesting in terms of the search engine wars. Today’s offer by MSN to purchase Yahoo! for 44.6 billion is no stretch of the imagination as there have been rumors about this for quite some time. If the deal goes through, it will be interesting to see which of the advertising platforms MSN/Yahoo will adopt. Here are some scenarios:

1) Yahoo Platform with MSN Tools

I like some of the cool MSN lab tools that I touched on in this article. I also like MSN’s demographic targeting capabilities and the option to laser focus keywords, ad copy (on landing pages and in ad copy) and destination URLs with “parameters”. There’s lots of neat innovation in the MSN camp that would certainly benefit the Yahoo! platform.

With Yahoo!, one of the downsides would be capacity. Recently, there were a couple of Y!SM platform issues with content advertising. At one point, if you made changes to the content side of your account or if you were trying to set up a new content campaign there were delays in getting ads online. The issue seems to have been fixed now but, on Tuesday, a Yahoo! rep said that it may take up to two weeks for the issue to be resolved. With additional volume, issues like these can have huge repercussions on advertisers' campaigns. Such considerations will need to be carefully considered.

2) MSN Platform

In my experience, conversion figures in MSN are good. One reason could have to do with the limited use of broad matching in MSN AdCenter. This obviously means that a search for “red stilettos” in fact leads to results for specifically for “red stilettos” and not all sorts of other variations that could result from broad match features on the Yahoo! platform.

I’m thinking with Microsoft’s technological know-how and deep-pockets, they’d be able to whip their platform into shape to accommodate a merger.

Branding is another interesting question. Which brand will they go with? I’d vote Yahoo! given their reputation in the online advertising space.

Could there be other offers in the wings for Yahoo (AOL, IAC or maybe even Google)? I guess we’ll have to wait and see… I sure can’t wait to see how this one plays out.

Posted by Mona Elesseily




Microsoft + Yahoo: The Deal Everybody Says They Saw Coming

Microsoft has offered to take over Yahoo again, a year after being quietly rebuffed. This time around, the very public offer comes in a context of swirling turmoil around the big Y!.

Of course, most pundits saw this deal coming, or at least have figured they have known what Yahoo should do next. We're all so smart! I've personally been telling Yahoo what to do for years. The advice changes from year to year.

My most recent attempts (the open letter to Jerry Yang, and followup) to advise the big Y! brought up the M-word, advising a partnership with Microsoft in search advertising and search generally, did not go so far as to advocate a merger (as some did). I think I just assumed Yahoo was strong enough not to need to merge entirely, and there are issues of cultural fit between Y and M. However, in a context of an unraveling financial picture and the imminent loss of (even more) Yahoos through departures and job cuts, suddenly, niceties like "fit" seem less germane.

Last night, a group of us Toronto-based search marketing folks had another informal social gathering. There was considerable talk about Google's power, but other than this, mostly small talk. The flipside of "what can competitors and players in the ecosystem do to survive in the context of Google's dominance" got lost in anecdotes about road rage and Caribbean vacations. But what should have been the next logical topic for discussion would have been to inquire if there was anything Microsoft might do in this regard. That hasn't been a common theme among the technorati, because many have spent years trashing Microsoft's products - and hoping for better.

My knee-jerk response so far to reports of this deal is, at first, "holy crap," quickly followed by the obligatory "yeah, I thought so," and then, "well, they don't have to accept the offer."

If the deal does go through, one clear wish will likely come true: no need to plumb the depths of two competing ad platforms to Google's. Yahoo can keep Panama, and borrow all kinds of little Microsoft innovations and advantages to build into the next version of the platform (such as MSN adLabs tools, demographic bid boosting, a robust new analytics platform that will give Google Analytics a run for its money, etc.). That, and the opportunity to buy more ads, more quickly, for less money, and with less overhead costs for the ad platform providers, is pretty much a win for all concerned; it's the kind of consolidation that makes (check that -- would make) sense, even if also there is some sadness and some potential disadvantages to subtracting players from the competitive landscape in search and online advertising.

On a concluding note, before I get back to the mundane details of the day, I'd like to thank Steve Ballmer for making this Friday a little more interesting for all!

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




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