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Thursday, July 31, 2008

YouTube and Speech Recognition

The digital world will take a step towards being even more searchable when YouTube videos are annotated with metadata pulled out of speech with the aid of speech-to-text technology.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Wednesday, July 30, 2008

With Friends Like Sarah Lacy, Cuill Needs No Enemies

Sarah Lacy's defense of Cuill suggests that the story they came out with should have been three of their main strengths (as opposed to "superior relevancy"). (Maybe it's just me not being knee-deep in relationships with VC-funded search startup pitchmen in the Valley, but the story that refuses to refer to the major user benefit - relevancy - is one that sounds like it's already grooming itself for acquisition.)

The story purportedly should have revolved around three Cuill strengths:
  • indexing more cheaply
  • the UI
  • privacy
Last things first. Privacy, as in destroying or not collecting user information, isn't a valuable innovation in "the Valley." It is a feature that any major search engine could (but won't) enable overnight. I salute Ixquick for being a major European-based metasearch engine for doing this. But it is a non-story in terms of search technology. A pretty minor attempt at differentiation, is all. Post acquisition, bye bye privacy.

Regarding the UI. A Valley insider recently expressed his frustration to me that search startups are still playing around with that layer. Although this type of tinkering takes longer to do than the privacy piece, it's another area any larger media company including a search company could tinker with. Users will benefit most from fundamental advances in relevancy technology, not UI presentation.

Cheaper indexing sounds like an interesting story. It's interesting basic research that could lend itself to tons of applications. It's too bad that to gain attention and funding for that type of basic research, Cuill had to go through the charade of a public launch of a new search engine that ordinary people were going to use.

The degree of difficulty of achieving even that innovative UI piece has proven to be very high, and Cuill has on its hands what looks like a public relations disaster. That's probably because too many of the insiders in the Valley were willing to give them encouragement and high fives, and the founders faced little or none of the withering criticism less connected entrepreneurs face in the chase for funding and first customers. At the very least the project should have stayed in private beta for a longer period of time. And maybe that "story" could have been ironed out better. Depending on how you interpret this relevant commentary from Mitch Joel, Cuill was either a victim of too much exuberant "Google killer" framing in mainstream press and blogs, or they actually encouraged it. Who knew that so much of the success of a new search engine is riding on public relations. Turns out less is more.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Gen-X'ers Bowling Alone?

When MySpace and Facebook started taking off, it was common knowledge that online social networking was a frivolous young person's activity.

But as the technologies and audiences evolved, the stereotype melted away entirely. We got used to thinking of non-adopters as strangely stubborn or churlish. People of all ages, it seemed, were equally likely to have a large friend list. Social media accounts were becoming like a cellphone - yes, teenage girls still ran up ridiculously high bills and/or exposed themselves to brain cancer - but everyone was getting on board, in a general sense.

Whoops, not quite. A new demographic study of social media shows that across all the social networks -- even on LinkedIn -- the number of people with accounts drops sharply when you hit the 35-44 demographic. The number of women using LinkedIn, almost equal to men in the 25-34, drops particularly sharply in the next age bracket.

If adoption patterns don't change, this only sorts itself out eventually over time - a very long, slow time - in the sense that those early-30-somethings will eventually be 40-something. But it points to a potentially big problem on an individual career level for many Gen-Xers and boomers, groups that have long thought of themselves as connected, hip, and in control of their destinies.

Interpretation 1: Exchanging monkey doodles with acquaintances falls into "Level 4 activity" as defined by Stephen Covey. Neither urgent nor important, it's a pure distraction and subtracts time spent working, and isn't even real leisure. Gen X figured this out long ago and are busy beavers avoiding distractions. There is a lot of merit in this interpretation, I think. 13-24's have lots of time to waste which explains their chatting behavior; 25-34's still haven't outgrown their youthful habits. On that interpretation, Facebook is like XBox. Or going to a lot of "stags" and "stagettes." *Not* doing something isn't proof you aren't savvy; it means you no longer need all these distractions as a crutch. You have a "life" - a busy job, a family, and active leisure pursuits. You don't live in someone else's house. For a network, the old-school email address book, etc., works just fine.

Interpretation 2: By shunning connectedness, workers in mid-career set themselves up for a trap should they ever need to change jobs or progress through the ranks. The lack of a handy network also makes it harder to reach out and get a quick answer to a question, or to remind someone of your presence. You lose your sharpness. You have one less tool in your arsenal to tap into the global "brain," since the social graph can augment "mere" research. Relative isolation moves you closer to the camp of The Rooted as described by Prof. Richard Florida in his latest (Who's Your City?, Chapter 5, "The Mobile and the Rooted"). If your virtual city is as unfashionable or as tucked away as an economically-unfavorable real physical location (you've gotta read Florida to get this), you wind up with lower ("rooted") status than those who are connected and mobile (even if only virtually in this case).

There is considerable food for thought in Interpretation 2. Weighing some of the evidence and looking at a list of the most successful folks I know, my sense is that churlish non-adopters may need to take a second look at the benefits of the social graph. While Facebook may be akin to XBox, in other ways, professionals should be wary of involuntary dropping out of a race they didn't even know was being run.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Too Cuil for its own good?

Unless you’ve been living under a gargantuan rock, Cuil needs no introduction. If you don’t know what Cuil is, look it up. But I recommend Googling it, not “Cuiling” it, if you want accurate results.

The Cuil (of course, we all know now that it’s pronounced “cool”) buzz was everywhere yesterday, which was understandable given that an ex-Google employee, Anna Patterson, led the innovation process. The debut was rocky; the site was down early in the day, presumably because of a larger-than-predicted influx of curious searchers (or experimenters like me) and, once the site was operational, complaints galore piled in regarding Cuil’s speed, efficiency and accuracy.

This morning, with the URL finally working for me, I set out to really give Cuil a chance. All the negative press out there gave me the impression that everyone wants to hate Cuil for whatever reason; countless writers testing Cuil seem to be molding every experimental search so that it “confirms” their gravest fears.

For example, this reporter claimed that (a) Cuil was slow as molasses and (b) he couldn’t even find Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper on a search. Well, said reporter may need to try “search engines 101 seminars” on his next query. Not only was Cuil lightning-fast on my relatively old and slow computer, it found Prime Minister Harper for me via drop-down menu before I even finished typing his name.

Determined to give Cuil a fair trial, I set out on my own experimental search. The results were mixed – not as resoundingly negative as some pundits would have us believe, but certainly loaded with, er, kinks.

As anyone working anywhere near the industry knows, Cuil’s hanging its hat on the fact that its index is “three times the size of Google’s,” letting it kitchen-sink its users with an unprecedented amount of results.

Cuil, Cuil, Cuil. Do you really think Google became what is today without exploring the search volume topic along the way? Do you really think the most powerful search engine in the world couldn’t dwarf your search index if it wanted to? Google understands the law of diminishing returns; once an index reaches a certain level, additional results don’t necessarily help anymore. They become redundant, cause clutter, and may even lead to red herrings. Danny Sullivan’s analogy was bang on; how can you find a needle in a haystack when someone takes the haystack principle to new level and dumps the entire haystack on you?

Case in point: Cuil struggled to give me credible results on the simplest of queries. Being the sports fan that I am, I searched “MLB single season records.” Cuil brought back:

- two different pages devoted to retired first baseman John Olerud

- a site claiming to be associated with the Sporting News that turned out to be a broken link

Consequently, the same search on Google brought the following top-two results

- “MLB single season records” – Wikipedia

- “MLB single season records” – Majorleaguebaseball.com

Cuil’s “trillion-site index” dumped a haystack of meaningless sites on me, whereas Google retrieved the most credible pro baseball site of all – the official pro baseball site, to be exact.

Such a search raises another one of Cuil’s supposed sources of pride – its uber-relevant search. I can’t begin to comment on whether or not it’s just the PageRank principle masquerading as something else, and there’s enough literature on the subject already. But I can illustrate a major oversight by Cuil. Assuming Anna Patterson and her cronies are right – assuming Cuil’s search does explore new places and doesn’t just retrieve the most popular results – is that necessarily what we want? Often, the most credible source is the most popular source. After all, why did it become popular in the first place? Industries that require lots of research and fact checking – namely, journalism and academics – need authoritative sites on which to rely. In this case, if Joe Journalist needs to check baseball records for a story, which search will satisfy him more – Cuil’s avalanche of John Olerud sites or Google’s quick retrieval of MLB.com?

Cuil’s other major claim to fame is its new search results interface, which divides results into thirds and displays pictures with the results. Having a look at it first-hand, it’s more impressive than I expected. The images aren’t too big and the tabs that pop up with results are usually relevant. Overall, though, I’m not crazy about the idea. For one, the photo-centric layout squashes a potentially lucrative advertising opportunity. All the photo-oriented, pop-up loving advertisers tired of being shut out by Google’s rigid standards could’ve flocked to Cuil’s space. But if Cuil’s results are loaded with photos and clutter, what impact will a flashy ad have on the page? Will it not just blend in?

The bigger problem with Cuil’s interface: the results page doesn’t look like a results page. It looks like a home page. Think about the average bounce rate of a given website’s home page vs. the average bounce rate of a results page. The results page obviously keeps users’ attention longer, as it displays what they’re seeking. In theory, the Cuil page should do the same, but anything that looks like a home page – full of pictures and links spread horizontally across the screen – could potentially confuse and turn off a reader.

I, for one, prefer the simple, clean Google format. Even if my desired result appears on page two, it’s still quicker to scroll down the page than it is to wander through Cuil’s vast swamp of pictures and maybe-relevant, maybe-not results.

An example of how the pictures can create confusion: I searched “Sopranos complete series box set” and was pleased to find lots of relevant results detailing where I can buy the product. However, the pictures associated with each result were not of Sopranos box sets! They showed other television shows like Heroes or ones I’d never heard of. How can users trust a source if they query apples and find articles of apples next to pictures of oranges?

I’ve tried my absolute best to give Cuil a fair shot. And it isn’t all bad – it looks pretty enough, it’s speedy, and it does have a few features that better the search experience, such as the tabs that accompany search results. Overall, though, it serves as yet another example of the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” paradigm. If one business intentionally departs from a massively successful competitor’s system to be “different,” odds are it will be hard to be “different” without just being “worse.”

Anna Patterson says Google “has looked the same for 10 years and will look the same in a year.” So what? The hammer hasn’t changed much in the last century, and no one’s demanding a new, less boring way to drive nails into drywall.

Posted by Matt Larkin




Saturday, July 26, 2008

Digg Deal's Dead

TechCrunch reports that at the 11th hour, Google walked away from a deal to acquire Digg. Given the perfectly good news-recommendation features being used by more and more users at sites like Yahoo already, it looks like it may not be a great fit for anyone; thus, Digg might indeed have to raise more capital and go it alone. It would be overzealous of Microsoft to acquire it, IMHO, but maybe a strengthened partnership is in the cards.

I would think that for the money (a lot less), Pligg would be a much savvier acquisition.

Like this post? You can always Digg it or Sphinn it. :)

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Thursday, July 24, 2008

"Candy Ass Social Media Goody 2 Shoes"?

It's right in the middle of the official Dog Days of Summer. As a result, people in the search marketing and social media promotion business have found the time to attack each other personally. Barry Schwartz posted that in general, the attack culture was "sad," but didn't really take sides. That's a side in itself, though, and worth noting. We have to remember to treat people with respect - it's OK to disagree.

Still though, what about taking a side?

I was gobsmacked to find Marty Weintraub prefacing his disagreement with Li Evans on social media tactics by (playfully?) calling her a "candy ass social media goody 2 shoes." (Another blogger called it "Slagbait," and I guess it works, since I just linked to SEOmoz and not the guy from Cornwall who called it Slagbait.) I guess that now becomes a badge of honor for Li (I'm not sure if "candy ass social media goody 2 shoes" will fit as a title on a business card -- might need to shorten it to "candyass social media goody2shoes") -- as much as in an unrelated kerfuffle this week, one Edward Lewis can now boast of being "terminated" from a social media brothel called Sphinn, by an evilgreenmonkey. Yeesh!!!

To be clear, I felt privileged to meet Marty recently and found him to be an engaging and accomplished marketer. We sell different things, I think, and we don't agree on marketing tactics and evidently, on how to argue with people.

Professionally speaking, I am with Li on this issue. I try to connect with businesses and help them to acquire new customers online in a measurable way. When they ask "what else can we do?," it's usually in a fairly practical sense. The managers at these companies are professionals - they aren't necessarily greedy (they're paid a salary) or ego-driven or thinking about short term expediency. For every customer you gain through sneaky tactics, you have to think about how many you'll subtract if your reputation is harmed in the process.

To put this another way. Marty reported that Matt Cutts, attempting a euphemism, assessed phony social media profiles as a kind of "social engineering." Marty played wounded, saying that Matt associated the tactic with something the Nazis would do. Marty, what do you think "propaganda tactics" are? They are wartime tactics and most of what we know about propaganda up to at least 1950 came straight from warmongering. So out of the gate, as "brand ambassadors," we're probably not going to be winning any Nobel Peace Prizes (or other moral pats on the back at the end of the day) anytime soon. As the overtired animal butlers on The Flintstones would say: "It's a living."

Unfortunately for the spectacle aspect of it, the nuances here start to come out in debate - Stephan Spencer clarifies that his MySpace friend-building tactics are only a small part of his universe - so we may not be able to go away all hating one another. My biggest takeaway of course is that as usual real debates came out in a session at an SES conference. In that regard, attendees didn't just get a warmed-over list of best practices -- they got something they were unlikely to forget soon.

Marty speaks of respect for communities, so probably, the philosophical gulf isn't as wide as he lets on. We all like to have fun, and the personas available to us as individuals or marketers have been making the Internet all the fun we can handle, way before "social media" got invented. But as a "for hire" marketer, I rely on clients' appetite for risk as a guide to the desired "envelope pushing power." And past Category Three Envelope Hurricane level, I won't push it, and will be happy to tell the client they'll need to find another guerrilla.

So no doubt, if I were partnering with or hiring a social media expert, I'd be looking for someone similar to Li Evans. Among other things, in her public presence she has shown courage, because we all know in this business that taking a stand on ethics will often get you branded as tactically naive. Untrue, and sad.

Peace out.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Wednesday, July 23, 2008

eFront is Back: Well, Sort Of

Through the magic of contextuality I ran across an ad for a software outfit called eFront.

Not the same as the fraudulent content rollup from the dot com boom #1 era. That fiasco is all nicely packaged up for your inspection here on Wikipedia.

Sure... maybe it was eight years ago, but that wouldn't be my favorite choice for a brand name!

Posted by Andrew Goodman




Did Google Use Ad Planner to Gauge Digg Acquisition Value?

There is some discussion right now as to why Google would acquire Digg when they could "just build one" like AOL or Yahoo did. Sure, but Digg is also a brand, and as a result, it has users and traffic.

Plain and simple: Digg represents ad inventory. Google's business decision could largely be based on whether Digg funnels in well to Google's core economic engine. It's a lot easier to negotiate an ad placement scheme when you, um, own the site.

I checked out what Google Ad Planner had to say about Digg. (Talk about Google eating their own dog food... wonder if they looked at this too... :) ). With 65 million impressions a month, for the moment let's assume that Google could find buyers for this ad inventory even if it is seen as low value. At a $4 effective total CPM rate per page, that comes to $260,000/mo. or $3.1 million a year in ad revenue. Well, that would value Digg at 60 plus times revenues if it sold for $200 million.

Then again, at a $12 eCPM, assuming 100% growth in the year post acquisition, we'd be down to 10X revenues if Digg sold for $200 million - getting closer to sanity.

Perhaps Digg has some additional assets and value that make it worth $50+ million outside of pure revenue potential, but given the current revenue potential, you can see why most buyers would have needed to bargain the price down to the $100 million range, which is why a deal has not been done. Even Google would be doing Digg a favor shelling out $200 million, and they have plenty of leverage to whittle that down a bit, I would think.

Another motivator for Google, of course, would be to drive another small nail in the Microsoft online ads coffin, who have a current advertising arrangement with Digg. But making unprofitable acquisitions to spite each other is one of those things that is likely to put continued downward pressure on Microsoft's or Google's stock prices.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Google's Keyword Tool With Volume Numbers: Useful or Ho-Hum?

The sequence of events unfolded approximately as follows: Google upgraded their AdWords keyword research tool to show search volumes.

I was already a big fan of Google's keyword tool. I had traveled the globe trying to dispel the myth that there really wasn't much to see there. I'd open up the tool and prove to people that you could do a bunch more with it than the touters of third-party solutions let on. And then I'd watch incredulous seminar attendees mentally downgrade my speaker grade because after all, what the heck is this lunatic going on about? It definitely conflicts with the sales pitch they just got down at the Trellian booth. Everyone knows you can't do anything with a free tool! Sigh.

The tool has taken many steps forward over the years, though some backpedals too (the dedicated "suggested negative keywords" function would be nice to bring back, but I have a handle on why Google may prefer not to show this).

When the raw volume numbers were added, that sealed the deal for me. No longer would I have to apologize for my love of Google's keyword tool! The world would finally see it my way.

Oops. Nope. I forgot. Some SEO person was going to have to come along and claim that "the Google keyword tool is useless for SEO, even with exact numbers." I had considerable trouble following the tortured logic, but in any case, the point wasn't lost on me that Google didn't design the tool so SEO's could do keyword research! They designed it so we could build good-quality paid search campaigns! Like any tool... it's how you use it.

I considered a rebuttal, but figured trying to Outspinn an SEO with 69 Sphinns would be like beating my head against the wall. And besides, the very first comment summed up my sentiments anyway: "I don't think that KD, WT or WordZe are anywhere near as accurate or up-to-date as the Google tool or the MSN Ad Intelligence for Excel Beta. Nice affiliate link drops, though."

A completely opposite viewpoint to the skeptical SEO just crossed my desk. Perry Marshall walks us through some examples to show just how useful Google's keyword tool is. OK, I can stop questioning my sanity again. Perry falls into the category of someone that actually uses keyword research tools for paid search and teaches thousands of others how to improve their keyword marketing (rather than talking smack, writing lists, etc.)... so I'll go with his take.

What's really interesting, if you look at Perry's walk-through, is that you can comb through the list with match type set to "negative." That's not really a "suggested negative keyword list," in my view, but it does facilitate adding negatives to a campaign.

Verdict: Google's tool provides insightful keyword information, no matter how you Sphinn it!!

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Saturday, July 19, 2008

Not Getting the $50,000 Startup Thing

If you're like me, you've worked with or in a startup or two. My consulting company was a startup, I'm a co-founder of HomeStars, the home improvement startup, and quite a number of our consulting clients have been startups. "Startups" as I define them are either bootstrapped on a shoestring (the little consulting shingle), or funded by angels, family and friends, or VC's.

When it comes to the latter - funded startups - most raise anywhere between half a million to $10 million from all sources.

So what is with these Cambrian House, Y Combinator, et al. bootstrapping support concepts that seed promising young ventures with $50,000?

My gut tells me that if you have no money and you don't have the ingenuity enough to sell your car, beggar thy neighbor, go nuts on your credit cards, or just moonlight and grind, maybe $50,000 isn't going to help you launch a successful business. Stories abound of entrepreneurs who have scraped and fibbed their way into the needed bootstrap capital.

Hiring a single person other than yourself: $50,000. Have any other expenses at all? Now what?

I can see how $50,000 could help
  • Fund an already successful employee's 20% time to work on an idea;
  • Me start a cool blog or two and compensate one other person but me to spend their 20% time on it
  • Any number of other growth initiatives, such as funding the hire of one new person, or giving someone leave to work on a book, that might boost the long term growth prospects of an existing, successful business.
  • Buy some bandwidth, or something
My point isn't that it's a bad idea to fund promising ideas, and to come up with innovative ways of sparking growth. My point is pretty simple, though. First, for a true startup, $50,000 either isn't enough or is so close to zero that the failure of the entrepreneur themselves to go out and raise it doesn't bode well for their use of funds later, when they have access to more capital. Second, while they're less sexy and don't get as much ink, those little $50,000 decisions in small to mid-sized growth companies are probably where the money really gets applied (with a high percentage of success) to scaling growth hurdles in an operating business. Maybe there's a lesson in there - those of us who run existing companies should assign interns to go after $50k micro-funds.

I recognize that in the flip-it-fast world of technology venture capital, anything goes, including micro-funding phantom startups with partially completed features that you can put a $200k valuation on and flip for 10X that. These are definitions of a "company" that no one taught us in school.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




Friday, July 18, 2008

The Iron Cage of Mediocrity

Allow me a totally off-topic Friday Rant.

My sources tell me the beloved "Ice... Cold ... Beer" vendor at the Rogers Centre Blue Jays games has been unceremoniously fired from his position, ostensibly for not following the policy of ID'ing anyone who "appears under 30." Interesting policy. Pretty wide cushion they leave between 30 and the legal drinking age. CTV News has more on the story. The Globe and Mail has an article, too.



What's the real story? Since the firing was likely based on a pretext for other reasons, I can only assume that this "character" (who truly livens up games, to the delight of fans and out-of-town visitors alike) wasn't to the liking of some officious twit who works for the food services company.

In the mind of anyone who thinks twice at shelling out $50 for a simple baseball game or for that matter, $9 for a Budweiser Tall Boy, is that the characters make it. It's the characters that keep you coming back. The forces that conspire to vacuum out every scrap of personality in any consumer experience seem to want to turn us all into automatons.

Aramark, bring back the Ice Cold Beer guy, or fire all of the rest of your staff, to be consistent. They don't always ID everybody who "appears under 30," and most of them frankly have way too much personality for your tastes, too.

From the standpoint of any consumer experience you can name - homogenized mediocrity sucks. Who *are* these people who think they're doing the world a favor by taking all the fun out if it?

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Google Diggs it, but should we?

We all love Digg, right? It’s pure online democracy, letting us choose what constitutes news in the world today. It creates an alternative to the big story sources followed by the masses, right?

But what happens when one of those “big sources” swipes Digg’s idea?

Check out what Google is up to. It’s currently bucket testing a new search feature that lets users decide which results they “like” and “dislike.” Tired of Perez Hilton showing up when you’re seeking news on Paris? No problem – you can relegate Perez to the bottom of your search results at the click of a button. Users can just as easily arrange for their preferred sites to appear first in results. They can also write miniature reviews – positive or negative comments on a given source in addition to the “yay” or “nay” marker they assign. Quite Diggish in its flavor, don’t you think?

The immediate reaction may to be celebrate anything remotely resembling Digg’s concept. Letting users prioritize their Google searches obviously has major benefits; searches could become far more efficient, particularly for users in industries that require lots of research via a select group of databases. A sports columnist, for example, may have a few trusted sources for his or her big stories – say, Sports Illustrated and ESPN. The feature would be especially useful in this field since alternative sources – bloggers or upstart sites – may have false or unreliable information.

However, once we venture outside fields like journalism, I’m not so sure search has changed for the better here. No-name news generators are less trustworthy, yes, but sometimes they do provide valuable information that can’t be found elsewhere. Which site is more likely to help you fix your Xbox 360 console at home, without paying a dime for repairs – the blog Xbox 360 3 Red Lights Fix or xBox.com? And which is more likely to get “Dugg” and pushed to the top of the search results?

The kneejerk reaction may be to say “Matt, you’ve got it all wrong. The whole point of the Digg system is to help get the little guys higher in the results. We have the power to do it.” But I’m not sure how true that is in the case of search, for two reasons.

For one, the Digg/new Google search process is incestuous; like blogging and twittering, it’s all too often – even primarily – an echo-chamber activity. It favours the savviest, most socially connected users. People in computer-oriented fields may thrive in this arena, having their friends give them glowing search-result reviews, but big-company employees can do the same. Also, the more naďve users who don’t know much about networking will likely have their voices squashed, buried in the depths of search results. So-called “peer to peer” search isn’t new; perhaps these realities are why it foundered in its first wave years ago.

Secondly, and importantly, the new Google system would have a crucial difference from Digg: it would be more oriented toward the masses and less toward the Internet-savvy types – the types who know about Digg. In theory, the Google rating system gives people the power to boost whatever sources they find relevant. That’s true but, for the masses, the big companies are what’s relevant. Will most of the people who get ahold of the rating system be more likely to boost the big, obvious choices like CNN.com? Especially if small armies of fake enthusiasts are busily seeding the heck out of the comments? Depending on how it plays out, the self-applied moniker “the most trusted name in news” becomes self-reinforcing, fueled by the budget it takes to have the chutzpah to keep repeating that first-party pat on the back every day.

I should stop before I venture into Chicken Little territory. Clearly, applying the Digg formula to Google search has its benefits. It’s not so much that I worry about too many people using closed minds to rate things, but about the potential for gamesmanship to keep quality niche sources as buried as ever, unless they get involved in the same time-consuming game of creating ersatz cheering sections. In other words, what looks like democracy and the opportunity for undiscovered long tail stuff to bubble up to the fore, isn’t, necessarily. And the drawbacks that come with that promise on Digg itself may be magnified on a mass market site like Google.

Posted by Matt Larkin




Thursday, July 17, 2008

Google Earnings Still Incredible

A couple of major announcements have come down the pike from Google on the product side. We'll get to those shortly.

But first, the earnings. Google shares (GOOG) are down about 8% in after-hours trading based on them missing Wall Street estimates, whatever that means. By all accounts they continue to rake it in in remarkably robust fashion across all sectors.

Absolutely, this thing will slow sharply soon. It has to. If Google winds up the year with $21 billion or so in revenues, it's hard to see how any company like Google could get much past $50 billion in revenues from advertising, ever. They can't keep growing at 50% a year forever unless they start invading nations and colonizing other galaxies (which, I understand, they're working on). Google has shown no propensity to make money in other lines of business, either. They are good at creating massive value to funnel users back into the same economic engine. When they eventually move into revenue-generating new fields like telecommunications, they can keep growth moving that way - but again, the profit margins and overall financial outcome is bound to "disappoint Wall Street."

The final growth slower for Google is the people equation. To continue growing at a breakneck pace without slackening their headcount increases is near impossible: they'd have to start hiring dumb people. They're sort of averse to that.

For now, even Google economist Hal Varian's confident statement that Google is benefiting from a "Wal-Mart effect" in that this highly targeted advertising is the "last thing" companies want to cut in this weak economy, is tilted a bit conservatively. The reality is that many brands with big kitties of cash remain skittish, and have barely migrated any of their wasteful offline spends to online channels. The migration is ongoing. As such, Google will get to that $50 billion top-line number before you know it. That's going to be disappointing only if your "estimate" says $53 billion.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Snap! to 'Social Media Experts'

In a piece entitled Social Media Experts Are the New Webmasters, Louis Gray writes uncharitably: Saying one is an expert in utilizing social media sites is akin to brand one's self [sic] as a "Web browsing expert", an "e-mail expert", or a "telephone specialist".

More constructively, he adds: While some will capitalize on the technophobes and newbies who don't know the difference between MySpace and NASA, or Hotmail and Hot Pockets, I believe it makes more sense that social media is spread thinly across all aspects of activity, be it a company's marketing activities, human resources, communications, and business development. Pretty soon, with any luck, social media won't be any scarier than opening a Web browser or writing a simple blog post.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Search Technology Assumes There's Something to Search

This very timely post by Google Fellow Amit Singhal gives us a brilliant capsule summary of past and present trends in information retrieval. Most of those who pay close attention will be familiar with the high level trends, as well as some of the bells and whistles that search engines have added that do a great job of guessing at user intent.

In nearly every bullet point though, there is an unspoken assumption that is at odds with the thinking of at least half the "folks new to search" I encounter - those just now thinking about beefing up their business' visibility on search engines. Namely: Singhal's post assumes that the search technology has something substantive to index, consider, and rank for the benefit of those seeking information. Today's search engines could care less about ranking "sites," "pages," and "companies," outside of any context like "there is something textual on that site, page, and to do with that company that we can search for."

In other words, doing better in search isn't primarily about labeling, it's about substance, and most of that substance - this is what Singhal's bullet points merely assume, but do not spell out in the painfully scolding type of language that will be needed to get the message to sink in for those seeking magic ranking elixirs - is text.

Yes, we can specifically find images, videos, and yadda yadda yadda, if they are indeed helpfully labeled and we go looking for them. Universal and blended search will include these in results, too.

That being said, newbies to search still overfocus on the zen of labeling and ranking, even when it comes to pages, sites, and presences which are a largely empty vessels.

For search engines to find and rank and care about you - you've got to have a strategy to go ahead and create that (still largely textual, written, compelling, relevant, useful) content. Seems obvious, right? Apparently, not to everyone.

This reminds me of the very recent post by Vanessa Fox where she expresses skepticism about Google being "better" at "crawling Flash." Tain't nothin' wrong with animations, and someday heck yeah, wouldn't it be nice if the technology got better at OCR, image recognition, and mind-reading. But for now, all you're doing is sort of better-labeling and better-handling what is really, in the end, still an empty vessel when it comes to the core rank-and-feature-textual-content ethos of search engines as narrated by Singhal. The indignation expressed by some of the commenters on Fox's post indicates that the message hasn't really sunk in. People like to think, hope -- even demand! -- that search engines should care about empty pages that people merely label. (Sorry for calling all your ponderous Flash introduction homepages "empty." That's just the way I feel. Hoping that'll get noticed on search engines because you spent a bunch of cash making an animation... well, that's just a cop-out. Is it really content?)

Now, as before, first-party-metadata-only reasons to rank and feature pages and sites are weak: it comes back to the fact that people lie about the value and relevancy of their own pages, and everyone wants to "rank high." Slightly better handling of non-textual content doesn't change that. The shortage of compelling textual content continues, in spite of a sea of tens of billions of thin, uninteresting pages; that shortage is especially acute among companies just beginning to dip toes in the water of "how am I going to rank on the search engines,"and those revisiting how to "spruce up" their flagging rankings. Would that there were a quick fix.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




AdSense for Domains Target of Lawsuit

So a man got 668 clicks on his ads through one portion of his Google AdWords, and zero conversions. And for that, it's seen as good enough reason for a lawsuit. Ever heard of testing?

I'm no lawyer, but it looks like the complaint is shoddily written and inaccurate.

The thinking here is that the suit has limited merit because:

  • There is little truth to the claim that the ads had "little or no chance of converting." Since Google made breakdowns of parked domain clicks available in a specific reporting feature, although it's certainly uneven, I've seen evidence that these channels convert about as well as other content.
  • Google, unlike their competitors, reports separately on the performance of this inventory. And allows advertisers an opt-out of whole categories or channels of content.
  • Google also allows you to "negative out" undesirable sites and IP addresses. It is taking what I see as reasonable measures to offer more control to advertisers.
No, the program isn't perfect. Among other things, some of the ambiguous inventory is stuck in the "search partner" network where breakdowns and opt-outs aren't readily available (but just contact your Google rep and you can work around the problem, likely). A Googler recently told me that better reporting and opt-outs for the "search partner" network is forthcoming in the next few quarters.

Further reading: Revisiting Content-Phobia in Paid Search

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Sunday, July 13, 2008

Piecemeal Microsoft Offer Unhelpful

Just a summer-vacationy thought off the top of the head as to why Yahoo might reject Microsoft's offer to buy only its core search business for a relatively trifling sum: because that's about as friendly and helpful to Yahoo as an ice pick in the spleen?

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Friday, July 04, 2008

New Online Phenomenon: The Review Farm

Those well versed in the search game can easily chronicle how the act of social linking gave way to the link economy. When Google gave quality links value, the game was all about how to get them. Can't get favorable external mentions? Swap links. Google discounting reciprocal linking? Join up in a large, elaborate interlinking scheme that passes PageRank to members. Oh, but you knew Google would get wise to that too, didn't you? And that they would introduce Other Ranking Factors and spam tests to try to get the real good stuff to bubble back up to the top again?

Now, word's out that Yelp management won't take such schemes lying down when it comes to local business owners banding together to write positive reviews in order to boost each others' reputations and rankings in category listings. The business owners protest; Yelp sticks to its guns. Is it Orwellian? Consumer friendly? Or should anyone get their shorts in a knot about a few glowing reviews of the local pull-taffy-and-bubble-tea emporium? I mean, who doesn't like taffy?

Well, maybe it's a bit of both. Google's practices and philosophy are very similar. To paraphrase: "We reserve the right to torch your rankings if we suspect any shenanigans. Sorry."

It all boils down to the fact that neither Google nor Yelp ratings are literally "correct." Both are open to interpretation and game-playing. However, in a more comprehensive sense, businesses can develop strong reputations by being visible on these properties, and they can do so without cheating. For now, the publishers' attempt to stem cheating will be tinged with arbitrariness. Some howls of protest might be legit. Longer term, these sites will allow for deeper probing into claims: peers will be able to find peers and get a better sense of what's real.

Make no mistake about it, though: relevancy rankings, and business ratings and reviews, are serious business. Consumers depend on them. Businesses with strong ratings often deserve them. It would be a huge shame if the Googles and Yelps of the world were forced to give into scaremongering about their imperfect technology; perhaps left to plaster For Entertainment Value Only across their pages, like some cheap carnival psychic.

In case you missed it: National Taffy Day

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Thursday, July 03, 2008

Stunning Court Decision Hands Private Viewing Habits Over to Viacom

Danny's trenchant analysis of this recent court order to Google starts by playing the WTF card, but does much, much more. In this detailed post, he cogently argues for a savvy national Internet privacy act. Absolutely. We cannot endure repeated episodes of clumsy application of outdated law, with judges spinning theories about cookies and IP addresses, sometimes ignoring real privacy concerns, sometimes overzealously protecting users by deriding innocuous practices at the expense of legitimate new economy companies that are the driving force of US productivity.

Physically, my reaction was exactly the same. Reading that Google might have been conciliatory enough to allow that user logins are basically anonymous pseudonyms, my jaw, too, literally dropped.

Will Google refuse to hand this information over? Surely they will fight with every legal means available. Similar to their response to the DOJ, an important principle is at stake. I'm not the legal expert you're looking for, but the legal requirement to hand over private information needs to meet strict tests. The most classic case would be an episodic criminal act where particular information relevant to a particular case is given up by court order. "Fishing expeditions" that allow lawmakers or complainants to see large amounts of data from millions of users is a huge violation of business privacy and individual privacy. Let's hope this putrid decision does not stand.

In whatever legal system, online platforms that do a poor job of preventing harm to companies in a variety of ways - be that stolen content, counterfeit goods being sold as in the recent French case against eBay - are liable to sanctions and fines, and should basically "clean up their acts." How that equates to allowing the legal system and a plaintiff to engage in a full audit of massive amounts of private data is something best left to a legal expert to explain... and, I hope, for Google's legal counsel to argue vigorously against. Decisions like this trend towards the state of affairs private companies and free market advocates have always feared the most: an arbitrary state where "they" can shut you down out of fear, prejudice, or misunderstanding. What national political candidate will now get up to the podium and intone: "America. Deserves. Better."?

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Scent Killer 4,486

Through the magic of dynamic keyword insertion in title, GM's AdWords ad serves up the headline "2009 Chevy Cobalt" when you type "2009 Chevy Cobalt SS". When you click, you're taken to the page for the 2008 Chevy Cobalt, of course, since they're still trying to clear those out. Time to back button: less than a second.

General Motors can sort of afford the lost click (for about $2-3) misleadingly applied to their own brand term, but for advertisers who can't afford this type of waste, the reasons for poor conversion and high bounce rates are often just as simple as that.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Google PPA Switched Over to Performics Product

Presumably to stem the flow of unnecessary duplication, Google has announced the retirement of its homegrown pay-per-action beta. Now, advertisers and publishers will be able to sign up through something called the Google Affiliate Network (formerly branded Performics).

Google aptly points out that this service has been in operation since 1998. That this project is ready to go so soon indicates a significant degree of value lurking inside DoubleClick that may not have been readily apparent to us observers looking at the hefty acquisition pricetag.

A postscript on Google's post clarifies that the service is only available for US advertisers and publishers. As with similar exciting services like AdWords geotargeting options, Yahoo Panama, and so on, the rest of the planet will just have to wait (or set up a US address).

Google seems like it's ready to take another swipe at competitors like Commission Junction and Amazon Associates: this time with a product that went prime-time years ago.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




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