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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Social Tweeting Outstrips Social Linking 100-1

If you're a blogger like me, you may subscribe to something like Google Alerts or use another simple tool to see how many folks have recently linked to an article or blog post. With our friend Rich Skrenta of Blekko fame, our observation is that genuine social linking as a means of recommending an article or post is for all intents and purposes dead.

Likely it was Digg, Stumble, and Sphinn, that sort of kicked off the trend. Social "bookmarking" and "recommending" was no longer about the ol' "link from another part of the web, from your pages on your site" routine. It was now a quick flip, a quick reputation bump, go-see-this cue - using a third-party service.

Mike Grehan has for some time referred to the death of social linking in terms of a "haves vs. have nots" problem for search algorithms that rely on link analysis. For the few that have authoritative sites, they can confer their authority by linking. The vast majority have recommendation juice inside their heads, but don't own any website, let alone an authoritative one.

Or you could express it in other terms: some people still have remnants of any inclination whatsoever to engage in 1998-era social linking, taking the trouble to wrap a relevant link around anchor text in a post like this. The vast majority have no such inclination. They prefer something quick and easy, like a tweet or any number of other forms of social behavior across different digital venues.

So only old school, super-conscientious sorts of bloggers, and SEO's and spammers, do "proper linking". Hmmm.

Twitter is taking off as the social recommending tool of choice, hand in hand with the requisite link shortening toolsets to help people squeeze comments and links into 140 characters.

Comparing old time linking to new-school tweeting, recent posts we've made here have been spontaneously tweeted and retweeted all over the place; a 100-1 ratio of tweets to regular links is roughly in the ballpark. No going around asking people to do it. Just the Twitter community and typical code of behavior working its magic. Here on Backtweets you can see hundreds of recent tweets for a couple of our posts. By comparison, only old schoolers like Danny at Search Engine Land can be counted on to regularly link to stuff that's relevant. A handful of ordinary backlinks from folks like him turn up in our reports every week.

PageRank dead? Certainly, PageRank as we know it is dead as any kind of reliable measure of what it was formerly supposed to measure.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Attaboy Giffer!

Every so often, I run across a book that I've not only found interesting, but happens to have been worked on by my old university friend Jim "Giffer" Gifford in his editorial capacity at HarperCollins. Jim is proof that you can, indeed, do something with a B.A. in English.

The latest one of these is Joseph Heath's Filthy Lucre, which provided intellectual fodder for my recent SEL column, Geekynomics? Finding the Hidden Government Within Google's Magic Money Machine.

It being my birthday, I know you don't mind if I go hog wild off topic to thank my friend for working on that book.

Hey Jim, do you guys want to publish my next book? It's gonna be a lulu!

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




I, For One, Welcome Our New #2 Ad Platform Overlords

Today's 10-year alliance between Microsoft and Yahoo to combine forces on search and search advertising - mostly, having Microsoft supply Yahoo with search and ad platform - is a deal I've supported over the past couple of years (examples, here and here).

At the end of the day the deal is pragmatic. Many third parties have seen the advantages of scale in a Google-dominated world. One strong competitor is, in this world, more competitive than multiple ineffectual competitors.

The fact that it finally moved ahead and got done swiftly once things were back in discussions says a lot about the Level 5 leadership of a Carol Bartz: submerging the ego to move on with business. Nothing personal.

That is how we advertisers have felt. We know the power of the search ad platforms, and we know they'll work better for us with two main ones to deal with, not three. It isn't too much more complicated than that!

It's also better for automation vendors who have to work through the API's, I imagine.

One wrinkle is that Microsoft seemingly ended its bid to create a full analytics platform (Gatineau). Will this be revived? Will everyone just keep using GA? We'll post more on detailed marketing questions as we learn more.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Contrarian Canada? 2008 Digital Ad Revenues Grew 26%

Nearly four months after their U.S. counterparts released the figures, the IAB Canada announces that Internet advertising revenues in 2008 grew at a blistering 29% pace, to $1.6 billion.

Even as a proportion of population and the size of the economy, this is below where it should be relative to the U.S. figure of $23.4 billion (up 10.6%), but the rapid growth is encouraging.

2009 has posed challenges in all sectors of the economy thus far, but both IAB announcements point to digital advertising as a mainstay of the economy, with their respective spokespersons highlighting the ongoing secular shift to online that drives growth even through a recession.

In the U.S., Search and Classified combined make up 59% of total digital spend with display placing second at 33%; in Canada the figure clocks in at 68% for Search and Classified combined, with display coming second at 31%. Curious about email? While still an important customer relationship medium, it's only at 2% of overall digital marketing spend as a prospecting method. In Canada that business is nearly dead with it making up less than 0.2%.

New studies need to be added to this mix to account for the full infrastructure costs of developing website technology, testing response, creating content, etc. How big is the investment "gap" in this area? Do companies plan to budget sufficiently in these areas? Those are open questions as larger companies make plans to redeploy the savings realized by reducing inefficient traditional ad spends.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Sunday, July 26, 2009

Most of SEO a Boondoggle? Jill Whalen Sticks to Her Guns

After sending a congratulatory email to longtime SEO voice of reason Jill Whalen, for her plucky article Is Most of SEO Just a Boondoggle?, I sent a few followup questions, hoping for elaboration.

As typically ensues in this seemingly perennial debate, some of those who disagreed with Jill in comments took to personal attacks. Other raised specific technical points. All in all, the debate highlights the need to take the open questions more seriously: in what direction is the measurement of relevance going, and what should companies *really* be doing to improve their search visibility?

Unsurprisingly if you know her, far from backing down in response to detailed questions, Jill kicked it up a notch! Sit back and enjoy an entertaining and informative interview.


Traffick: So you've associated much of the SEO industry with "boondoggle," defined as "work of little or no value, done merely to look busy." Reminds me of unnecessary road paving projects! So are you saying that we should maybe pull a few hundred thousand unemployed folks into no-account SEO service, just to give them some work and self-respect, and to stimulate the economy, like a white collar version of the New Deal? Why didn't Bernanke et al. think of that?

JW: This may already be happening, judging by the fact that many of the larger SEO companies are hiring even though the rest of the world is laying folks off.


Traffick: Seriously: there are still SEO companies offering to fix meta keyword tags, and do URL "submissions"? Yikes! But isn't that because there are tons of uninformed clients out there (who will say flat out to you with some pride that they know "just enough to be dangerous") asking specifically for those functions? So why not give them what they want, seems to be the response of some shady operators. In this equation, how far does the client's responsibility go to be educated enough to ask roughly for the right services, or to do a good job selecting a vendor? How can they go about getting that type of education?

Whalen: It absolutely does fall on the client's shoulders to get themselves educated about SEO. Which is a lot easier said than done because no two SEOs agree on what's helpful and not helpful. Plus, of course, every website is different and has different needs. That's actually one of the most important things that clients need to understand. We often see SEO RFPs that ask for all this boondoggle crap and when we tell them, "no, we won't do that, but we'll do this" they're not interested. You can't really answer an RFP if it doesn't address the actual website's needs. This is why it's critical that when a client is looking for SEO services, they don't send out RFPs, but instead, talk to a variety of SEO companies and find out if they feel they can increase your targeted search engine traffic. Different clients will be a good fit for different SEOs.


Traffick: You imply that some SEO knowledge "expires" but on your website you also make the point that classic fundamental SEO techniques don't require much by way of constant change - it's only tricks that make you have to change tacks every year. What, in a nutshell, is classic fundamental SEO?

Whalen: I don't think I meant to imply that some SEO knowledge expires. What expires is the propaganda that Google throws out to SEOs like bones to a dog. Many SEOs, especially those that weren't in biz before search engines started throwing out bones, are all too eager to believe anything Google says. Be it via Matt Cutts or their Webmaster Guidelines, they seem to think that the information will help them perform SEO. It won't; It's just a smokescreen. Pretty much anything Matt says has to be taken with a grain of salt, imo, as his objective is to keep the Google results free from spam. That said, I agree with most of what he says, as I too want to keep Google free from spam. But it doesn't mean it's really the way Google does stuff.

In a nutshell, fundamental SEO is what my High Rankings tagline says, "making sites be the best they can be." I know it sounds cliche now, but I'm happy to say that through the 10 or so years I've been using that tagline, more and more SEO consultants have come to the same conclusion. (Usually after chasing their tails on SEO tricks for so many years.) SEO has always been--and will always be--providing the best, most relevant page to the searcher who's at the other end of Google looking to solve some sort of problem or answer some sort of question. It's nothing more, nothing less. It's not H tags, sitemaps, submissions, or Meta tags.


Traffick: What do you say to the rapid-tactic-shifting SEO's who define SEO as pretty much just that? That if you don't do "SEO" the way they define it, you're lazy, or living in the past? Does "classic fundamental SEO" also evolve? What have been some of the main areas where evolution has been rapid?

Whalen: First I ask the rapid-tactic-shifting SEO if they have their house completely in order. In other words, is their website in perfect shape with all the fundamentals? If it is (and most company website's never are) then go ahead and experiment with whatever little trick you may have thought up. There's certainly no reason to just sit on your hands and do nothing. I have nothing against experimenting, or even with pushing the envelope a bit to see what can give you that little bit of extra edge. But not until you have already exhausted all the other important items on your to-do list. That's where my beef lies. People are pushing the envelope instead of fixing stuff that's actually broken.

As far as classic SEO evolving, it's hard for me to recognize the evolution because it happens so incrementally and I barely notice it. But it certainly does, or maybe it doesn't, but we just figure more stuff out? For instance, having the appropriate site architecture that is most valuable to the search engines is something I never knew about in the mid-90's. Does that mean it wasn't important to search engines back then? I don't really know if it was or it wasn't. It was just something I realized at one point many years ago and so I began to recommend it to my clients once it was apparent how important it was. So the question is really does SEO evolve or does our knowledge evolve?


Traffick: By pointing factually to detail SEO techniques that have little or no real-world impact today, you leave some tantalizing questions open. For example - H1 tags have no special merit. I believe you. But is there a deeper principle at work here? Since on-page SEO is keyword-oriented, we can agree that keywords are still important. Why not so much in H1 tags? If not there, in what page elements (other than the obvious, title tags)?

Jill: H1's have always been a point of contention between me and most other SEOs. Back in the 90's they were already thought to be of significance by everyone in the industry. I was on the bandwagon then too. But then I had a number of client's whose website backends just didn't support the addition of H1's. So we did without. We still had great keyword rich headlines and the like, they just weren't wrapped in H tags. To my surprise it didn't seem to matter at all. Now, of course, it's impossible to say for sure for those websites that if we had used an H tag instead whether that would have pulled them up a notch. But many years later, I did do some experimenting where I could and still could not find any verifiable differences between using an H tag for a headline or simply a B tag or any others.

As to what page elements really do matter, yes, definitely the obvious Title tag (although you'd be surprised how many still don't use those correctly!) but it's also just within the content in general. It doesn't matter what tags you use, as long as you talk about your product or service on the page that you want to rank for that product or service! The other extremely important element for keywords is within anchor text. Many have still not come round to the importance of your internal labeling of your links. Basically, using your keywords in a way that makes the page more understandable to the reader of that page, is good for SEO as well. You have to imagine the person at the other end (or the search engine) knows nothing about you or what you offer and describe it at that level. While a person is apt to be able to figure out what you're all about even if you're not all that clear by using visual cues, the search engines aren't that smart (yet).


Traffick: What about keyword density!? Hehe.

Whalen: Blech


Traffick: If XML Sitemaps are relatively useless, why do you think we collectively headed down this path?

Whalen: Because Google told us to. 'nuff said.


Traffick: Has it ever occurred to you that certain vehicles, like XML Sitemaps or wikified SERP's, have unintentionally morphed into great ways for search engines to study spammer behavior, and maybe even to triangulate who the most vigorous spammers are and what they tend to get up to? Like the Wile E. Coyote putting out "Free Bird Feed."

Whalen: It most certainly has occurred to me. Although, where you say "unintentionally" I am more jaded and would say "intentionally."

This is the main reason why I never did an XML sitemap when they first came out (still haven't actually). Remember all those poor saps who as soon as they'd submit an XML sitemap in the early days suddenly found their sites missing from Google SERPs? Coincidence? It seemed to happen way too often, imo. Who even knew about XML sitemaps at the time? Only those interested in SEO for the most part.


Traffick: That brings up the whole evolving puzzle of SEO ranking factors. We can all agree that life has become more complicated with SERP's being personalized to user histories, geography, and keyword intent. We can agree that universal and blended search, as well as paid search, have changed what people see on the page. But for what's left, as far as SEO ranking factors goes, is that an incredibly complex puzzle in your view, or less complicated than people let on?

Whalen: It became more complicated when Google became the only engine worth caring about. It used to be if you couldn't get rankings in one engine, it didn't matter too much because the other 4 or 5 were fine and brought you tons of traffic. Now it's rank in big G or bust!

And yes, the fact that rankings can no long be accurately used as a measure of success does suck. I used to long for the old days when our job was to just get rankings and whether or not that brought in traffic or conversions wasn't our job or our concern. Rankings are easy. Traffic and conversions, not so much. Why do you think most SEO companies are holding onto their rankings boondoggle?


Traffick: What do you think of the expert surveys, such as the one put together by SEOmoz, that aggregate SEO expert opinion on what are the most salient ranking factors? Do they give SEO's any kind of blueprint to work from? Like you, I participated in the survey. Did you understand all the questions? Most?

Whalen: The SEOmoz ranking factors survey was the most ridiculous thing I ever read. Seriously. It might as well have been written in Latin (was it?). Where they ever dreamed some of the crazy theories asked about in that survey I'll never know. Much of it had no resemblance to SEO as I've ever known it. I just hope that clients aren't actually paying to do some of the things that were being asked about in the survey.


Traffick: If working on stupid stuff is boondoggle, then do we need to change how SEO's are perceived? Compensated? What do you think of the proposals put forth by Richard Zwicky and others to place more weight on performance (increased traffic or revenue) in SEO compensation?

Whalen: The problem with performance based SEO is that it has to be tracked through the SEOs own server, rather than the client's. And typically when the contract is up, the client is left with their pants down and no traffic or sales. It's a great business model for the SEO of course, but if I were a client I wouldn't want to do it as it doesn't address any fundamental problems you may have with your website. Of course, if it makes the client more than they're paying, and they don't mind paying forever, then there's certainly nothing wrong with it if that's how they prefer things to operate.


Traffick: What do you say to the legions of SEO's who will no doubt reply to you with case studies proving their "boondoggles" provided a lift?

Jill: If it works for you, then keep doing it. But don't assume it will work for every site, and don't assume it was just that one thing that provided the lift. Also, I'd suggest testing specific elements in isolation as much as possible as that's the only way of really know what works and what doesn't. But if the only thing you offer to do for a company put their headlines in H1 tags, then you're ripping them off. (I don't actually know any companies who would only do that, thankfully!)


Traffick: I notice from your website that you offer an array of SEO services from full service, to lite or full audits, to various coaching and teaching types of offerings. Regarding the latter, do companies typically follow through once they're introduced to the key SEO techniques and concepts, or is there still a wide chasm between awareness and implementation?

Whalen: [Big Sigh] Unfortunately, many companies do not follow through. Many don't ever implement even one thing. Not even the easy things. Honestly, I don't understand it. The ironic thing is that it seems that the more a company spends on SEO, the less they implement. I don't let it bother me anymore and still make myself crazy by making sure I don't miss even one little thing that might help them when I'm writing my reports. I do often wonder why I work so hard at it knowing deep down there's a good chance it will never even be read.

Some of my best and favorite clients were ones that chose lower priced options because they actually performed most of the suggestions and then realized amazing results. Those type often come back later and spend a little more to learn more and gain additional results!


Traffick: If the chasm is often wide, does that mean companies are essentially "not doing SEO" after being introduced to it and getting a partial start? Shouldn't they scour the planet for a quality in house SEO, or quality agency, to go deep and stick with the project through to something closer to completion?

Jill: Yeah, of course they should. I think perhaps part of the problem is that they go into SEO thinking it's one thing (H1's and sitemaps perhaps?) only to find out that it's actually a huge amount of work. I guess they get discouraged by that so they do nothing. But those who do follow through as always amazed at how much more their phone rings and how much more qualified traffic they receive. SEO is still amazing that way when done well. We have one client who never quite understood what we were doing or why, but still let us do whatever we wanted. She told us recently on the phone that she's completely booked up now and can't even take anymore customers. Not only that, but those who call her are ready to sign on the dotted line and don't need to be sold to because her website now explains very clearly exactly what her company is all about. It's so cool when that happens!


Traffick: What's on the horizon for you and High Rankings?

Whalen: Well, right now we're just trying to make it through the recession. We're always testing different SEO consulting options and educational opportunities to find what best fits the current market. So far so good, but it's certainly scary out there! It seems to me this should be the time to increase SEO budgets not decrease them, but I'm not sure if that's what's happening.

We're continuing with our very customized in-person SEO training classes, and we're also working on some online SEO training, which I will have more info on in the Fall.


T: Thanks for speaking with us! Have a great summer, Jill!

J: No problem, you too!

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Long Live Zappos

Zappos is a great company. I know folks in ecommerce who model their very own "customer obsession" after Zappos'. So as for the Amazon acquisition: it couldn't have happened to a nicer company.

And you just have to love Tony Hsieh's "CEO letter". Especially the part at the end where he models a typical question:

"Q: I'm a business/financial reporter. Can you talk like a banker and use fancy-sounding language that we can print in a business publication?"

The answer, of course, is less interesting:

"Zappos is an online footwear category leader and Amazon believes Zappos is the right team with a unique culture, proven track record, and the experience to become a leading soft goods company; Zappos' customer service obsession reinforces Amazon’s mission to be the earth's most customer-centric company; Great brand, strong vendor relationships, broad selection, large active and repeat customer base; Amazon believes Zappos is a great business -- growing, profitable and positive cash flow; Accelerate combined companies' scale and growth trajectory in the shoe, apparel and accessories space; Significant synergy opportunities, including technology, marketing, and possible international expansion."

And he goes on:

"Q. Can you talk like a laywer now?"

A unique culture, indeed.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Struggling to Make Sense of Google Earnings

In the wake of Google's recent earnings release there are few surprises. Financial analysts had a few takes on things to try to lend insight. But beyond that, I've been struggling with coming up with something interesting to say. Especially when you look at the bar graph of the last six quarters of revenues (from the slide show).

The word that fits all of it for the past six quarters is, pretty much: flat.

  • Total revenues are flat.
  • International revenues are flat, though slight trends upwards have been noted.
  • Revenues from search ads are flat.
  • Revenues from the content network are flat.
  • The stock price is basically flat (down 8.9%) over the past year. Then again, it depends on your perspective. It's up 40.9% over the past six months.
  • Over the past one month and over the past five days, the stock is within 1% of where it traded at the beginning of the period. Can you say flat?
Some things have to be up a bit (total paid search clicks for example), so that these other numbers can actually be flat, because some other things are down.

Down:
  • CPC's, especially in some competitive bid-war-driven areas
  • Your mileage, however, may vary.
Also down:
Which means that:
  • Profit is up.
So:
  • It's business as usual with an ever-growing cash pile at Google. The company has added over $3 billion to its cash on hand over the past 6 months.
  • World domination is still on the agenda.
Maybe Google's world isn't as flat as it looks.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Google Doesn't Lack for Transparency for Individual Tentacles, But the Whole Octopus Scares Us

I just wanted to clarify the previous post, given that blog tone can sometimes be as brittle as email.

Compared with the 'typical' company, Google has shone far more light on advertising performance than any company that has come before it. If all it had done was to come out with Google Analytics, advanced segmentation, free to everyone, that would have been enough. But in addition -- save for a few quibbles -- the advertiser has pretty much gotten their wish on all kinds of disclosure points. Running a placement performance report in the AdWords back end, for example, gives you minute information about the click and conversion performance of publisher partners. While such info may be too strict for those seeking reach and frequency to build their brands, it is surely nice (more than nice) that it is offered.

In releasing Google Webmaster Tools on the organic side, Google also took a major stride forward in communicating with site owners about their page indexing status, the true status of inbound linking, etc.

It's not like we haven't been noticing this stuff. It is worth noting though that such disclosure and communications have been hard-won. Folks on the outside needed to clamor for them, and there needed to be advocates inside Google willing to spearhead those initiatives.

We've written about Google's transparency previously, here and here. This transparency has been insufficient to convince some analysts, however.


Exceptions:

  • We don't know the exact specifics of how the AdWords ranking algorithm works, especially on landing page and website quality and anomalous words like trademarks or just weird stuff that seems to get you into more trouble. That said, Google publishes a lot about the Quality Score recipe, publicly (anyone who says they don't is blowing smoke). And spokespersons, primary among them Nick Fox, Frederick Vallaeys, and Hal Varian, have always been extremely forthcoming about details. Nick in particular has helped to combat common myths, including some I tried to dispel here in a Landing Page and Quality Score Refresher over at SEL. In hindsight, it was quite a bit easier to overcome snake oil stories about the ranking formula back when it was essentially CTR X Max Bid. The funny thing is, that's pretty much how it still works, outside of a few quirks and exceptions. But by making the algorithm sound so sneaky, Google has opened the door to an endless procession of seminars by "experts" (mea culpa on this also), and has indirectly allowed old-school SEO companies to re-enter paid search as the kinds of "experts" who never feel like they're delivering a service properly unless their spreading FUD and doing a number on their clients' brains. Quality Score Fascination has risen from its opacity, and has indirectly distracted some marketers from marketing. For example, you really should test landing pages for your users and for business results -- not to make Quality Score happy!
  • Disclosure is relatively poor to AdSense publishers;
  • Search partner traffic still performs worse than Google Search traffic, but you can't bid it lower (though you can opt out). This makes it actually worse than content targeting (placements) today.

Flies in the ointment:

The many products Google has now developed fall under the broad heading of "free" stuff that comes with hidden strings attached, as addressed in Chris Anderson's new book. Google is a Super Funnel (or perhaps Mega Octopus is a better term) that actually relies on the fact that the terms and conditions of engagement with any given tentacle don't adequately capture the reality of the fuller relationship you're developing with the company as a whole. In that sense: you cannot criticize great, free products like Google Maps integrations and GMail... you just can't! After all, they're great, and they're free. So why is it that at some point, these wonderful gifts start to make everyone feel just a little bit uneasy?

Maybe that's why I like to focus on their advertising program. You pay. I can wrap my head around that.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Monday, July 13, 2009

Google's Products Seem Designed to Make "Criticism" Beside the Point

Google's Matt Cutts generously admits that Googlers are too defensive when it comes to criticism nowadays. On further reflection, though, it will take a lot more than an attitudinal shift to change that state of affairs. Google, it turns out, is now a very large business that has designed so many of its products with the façade of "automated and therefore uncontroversial," those few years of entrenched anti-institutionalism will take many years to undo, if the problem is even recognized.

As a business owner seeking to transact with Google, your sense of puzzlement may only grow if you're brutally analytical about what drives Google's economic engine. Isn't Google, at the end of the day, a classified advertising company like Craigslist or Yellow Pages, making money from highly targeted advertising? And don't those companies basically explain how their products work, and have clear mechanisms, rules, customer support protocols, and yep, in some cases, sales forces, to work in a relatively ingratiating fashion with the relevant customers and suppliers? Some of Google works in this way. Most of it does not. And most of us are still having difficulty grasping how we're supposed to interact with the 95% of Google that doesn't operate in this fashion.

This isn't primarily an issue of Google not taking input into the design of its products. It's particularly good at that. It now uses beta councils to take expert input into many products, and of course it's got the world's biggest user community to help it refine everything.

No, it's a deeper issue of how Google interacts in the transaction of business when it comes to a wide variety of products and how they will affect customers and partners. The informality of the thinking here was appropriate to a much younger company, but is bewildering as the company reaches maturity. They're not alone here. The bizarre amateur hours, arbitrary decisions, and laid-back communications that Facebook and Twitter users and partners are subject to are easily enough explained away by those companies' youth. Google is of course going to be held to a higher standard given the privileges they've enjoyed with growth, including enormous material gain in a competitive landscape.

My awareness of this broad issue began growing when I began to piece together the shift from older generations of the advertising rules and algorithms to the newer generation, dubbed Quality-Based Bidding. Don't get me wrong: as an advertiser, technologist, economist, and user advocate, I love the elegance of Quality Score. But it twigged me to a deep shift that was incorporated into algorithmic changes. A host of editorial rules and policy discussions could be baked into what was now referred to an "algorithm," not editorial policies. While Google kept its published guidelines for landing page and website quality (and indeed beefed them up), it's safe to say the theoretical need for human explanations, interactions and appeals was reduced greatly; it could, if Google wanted, approach zero. To the average observer with a background in placing advertisements in classified media, that looks like one introverted company! Especially one taking in $21 billion a year from that very revenue stream.

I had become more dimly aware of this issue when shifts occurred in how Google administered their AdSense advertising program from the publisher side, introducing Smart Pricing on clicks, so that an actuarial-style system determined how much less than the market bid price any given publisher should receive for a click, in order to reduce advertiser disgruntlement. That shift, too, had reduced the need for open policing of publisher partners, and over time advertiser satisfaction indeed went up. Efficiency triumphed, and the thing Google fears the most -- people in positions of authority taking responsibility for editorial judgments -- was submerged.

If these two highly public and highly controversial revenue generators were reduced to mostly algorithmic formality, just imagine how easy it would be for this company to tell that same story about all of its other products. Thus delaying, possibly forever, the need to develop old-fashioned institutional means and published rules for how the company accepts content and money from the many businesses and consumers attempting to interact with Google.

I dedicated Winning Results with Google AdWords (2nd ed.) to Bill Gates, perhaps as another small cry in the wilderness stating essentially this: It was pretty easy for Google to make decisions to avoid "being evil," and to look a lot less evil than Microsoft, back when it was an an apples-and-oranges case; Google small (as Matt Cutts points out, "many Googlers, especially old-timers, still think of Google from early days, when we were the underdogs in search"), Microsoft incredibly large and successful in its goal to lock users into its workflow environment. Things are now moving closer to apples and apples, or should we say oranges and oranges given that there's an Apple in this mix too. In releasing an OS, Anil Dash judges Google to be stepping into its "Microsoft moment." He doesn't say that is evil per se, but the primary accelerator of Microsoftishness (whatever it means, it was a moment/character that, for Microsoft, began as early as 18 years ago) is insularity.

Controlling for degree of difficulty (company size, global domination, etc.), it's quite possible that Bill Gates will ultimately be judged less evil than Google's founders. By dedicating a book about Google's main revenue stream to Gates, I guess I was just saying: let's hope it doesn't become so. Let's hope Google starts to recognize when they're competing too hard, too aggressively, too selfishly against all and sundry (including, sometimes, valued partners and allies). Anil Dash's analysis suggests cheekily that this will require the company to acquire Theory of Mind (something a two-year-old doesn't yet have).

One of the biggest tests of whether Google has the capacity to continue living up to their early ideals is precisely in the company's ability to accept constructive criticism. It's perfectly understandable for ordinary people to be a bit touchy in response to criticism. But when you're an entity worth over $100 billion that last time we checked wasn't formally in the business of eradicating diseases or helping old ladies across the street, thicker skin is going to have to come with the territory. This is what folks like Danny Sullivan (in The Google Hive Mind) and Anil Dash have been alluding to; and it's great to see yet another example of Matt Cutts' legendary openness.

I guess people like me and a few others (including Google "oldtimers," some of whom have moved onto places like Facebook, and Danny) feel a certain stake in the outcome, in the sense that over the years, much of what we've written has been accused of being too pro-Google. That's never been true, but we've certainly got a responsibility to be even-handed and to serve our own customers and readers - not Google's PR objectives (whatever we might guess them to be). I suppose Google may just have to get used to it.

Google has a million things going for it, but it's become a puzzle for those running businesses that are directly impacted by its decisions. That now numbers in the millions of businesses.

Mature companies develop institutional frameworks and transparent processes that manage their various lines of business. For the past few years, Google has made sometimes halting starts, other times major strides along these lines. But to take just its core area of search, Google today is now a patchwork of aggregation products -- news, real estate, reviews, video, product search etc. -- that have no common framework for submissions or membership. Communications and criteria often seem to be afterthoughts, and the community around Google (often supplying either content or dollars to Google) is left to scratch its head and wonder what the rules really are.

Looking at it in the context of the history of search, Google's many search products today stack up as similar to directories, classifieds, or paid inclusion schemes from the past, but without clear explanations of the role of editorial, without the explicitly paid parts, and without stated rules or expectations for what next year's rules might look like. For why Google is to its own core products as 1896 was to public administration, see The Progressive Era.

(AdWords, for all of its complexity and layers, is in fact a major institutional force at Google and its main cash cow, so is largely an exception to this rule.)

Over the years I've met more than a few Googlers who haven't felt the need to check every statement against the formal public relations protocol. Let's hope their light is never extinguished.

But it will likely take more than some frank commentary or a different attitude to reduce the ecosystem's growing bewilderment with Google. There are too many products -- even counting only search-related ones -- that face towards the legitimate, earnest, content-producing, advertising-dollar-spending community with a set of coded, impenetrable, quasi-rules. Will a new generation of Googlers be empowered to create relationships with affected businesses in a framework of institutional transparency and consistency, or will we continue to experience a "hey, we're just little guys from Mountain View" culture that spits out a confusing array of search "products" with the claim that their conception and impact is entirely scientific and that there is no editorial function or implicit, shifting rule set lurking underneath, just daring you to try to figure out what they are? In that kind of culture, you can't blame Google PR for being tentative and difficult to communicate with. In many cases, they wouldn't know what to say unless given a script; any more than you or I would.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Wednesday, July 08, 2009

How to Increase Browser Market Share: Release an OS

Wow. A Google Operating System. We all knew it was coming, but it still feels weird to talk about it. It's a major departure from Google's humble roots... but it's a departure that left the station years ago, of course. Where better to read about it first than from Danny at Search Engine Land, though (wait for it) the very first mention of today's news item that I ran across happened to be by a fashion and entertainment reporter I happen to follow on Twitter. Hmmm.

The #1 browser in the market, IE, has long been buttressed by its integration with the world's #1 selling computer operating system. The ever-stronger #2 browser, Firefox, is not similarly blessed, making its rise even more impressive. The #3 browser, Safari, also has tight OS integration as its main beneficiary.

Google's browser, Chrome, is still languishing in fourth spot with 2-3% market share. I predicted they'd reach 7.5% share at least by 2010, and no more than 16%. Their chances of reaching 7.5% increase significantly if netbooks are sold containing the Chrome OS, but there's still a long ways to go. Inertia rules.

One open question facing all of this is: what's the business model with a free OS? Most of Google's lines of business outside of the ad-supported media continue to be cost centers. As the company grows, its profit margins continue to shrink. But perhaps taking over the world -- to say nothing of releasing cheaper, better software -- is more interesting than fat margins.

First dismissive mention of a potential Google OS on Traffick: November, 2003.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Google, The Portal, in New Land Grab

The portal wars are back! This time around, perennial winner Google isn't battling it out with Yahoo, AOL, Microsoft, and, er, Excite and Snap.

Rather, it's left with the rather easier task of sucking the oxygen out of the rooms vertical players like Zillow try to breathe in, and then battling any potential public image drawbacks to its growing status as a vertical-devouring meanie.

In the wake of Google's entry into the aggregation of property listings, Hitwise's Heather Hopkins notes the importance of the vertical: last week, 2% of Google traffic was sent off to listings in the real estate industry.

This brings up the potential contradictions and disingenuousness of the search engines' efforts to tout the merits of what's being called Universal or Blended search. The "death of the ten blue links" is a sexy way of dismissing clunky old search results pages and opening the door to a new age of more context-sensitive search results, to be sure. But when directly asked if the strategy isn't a way to keep more users on their own properties rather than sending them to those "downstream" sites Hopkins et al. spend their careers following, the search engines generally indicate something to the effect that they would never contemplate such a thing, or would "weigh these decisions in light of what's best for the user." Perhaps. But as predicted, Google's moves into blended search have done little to increase traffic (for example) for any video streaming site but YouTube. You can often extend that principle to other elements of these blends.

As Hopkins notes astutely: "The real question for Real Estate websites is whether (and when) property listings will be included in the search engine results page on Google.com." The search engines have plenty of alibis handy for their land grab behaviors -- for example, they've built out a variety of metasearch and aggregation models (such as Google Video and Yahoo Video) that offer due credit to a variety of third party providers. But the real power comes from that first page of SERP's -- the ones we keep such close watch on with heat maps and Google Analytics referral statistics (when they do refer traffic downstream, that is). Google isn't sending you from Google.com to some other provider of news headlines; it's sending you to Google News.

The powerful utility of the new tools tends to soften the fact that the major search engines are essentially moving back to a walled garden concept reminiscent of the old AOL, minus the wall and the subscription fee.

In the meantime, data providers are left with difficult choices: do I give all of this data/power to large centralized players with little hope of a formal agreement, let alone any explicit conversation or setting of positive expectations about outcomes? (In the tradition of Google Base and the public relations strategy around that: "Here it is. It's really important. Go nuts.") It's this ambiguity that has led more observers to refer to Google as little more than another "scraper site".

Ironically, such accusations are sometimes levelled by the purveyors of similar quasi-scraper schemes. It takes one to know one. In real estate as in so many verticals, any land grab is going to be reminiscent of a scene from Goodfellas. Arguably, though, sites like Zillow have made great headway in connecting personably and directly with homeowners; encouraging them to voluntarily join in an information exchange and convincing them persuasively of that benefit. Google has done nothing of the sort.

At the end of the day, I think (hope?) the search engines recognize the dangers inherent in leaving originating data sources and content providers devoid of traffic and income, so it is a matter of how much traffic they continue to send along to third party vertical players, rather than being an all-or-nothing scenario. Taken too far, companies that purport to be dialed into their core competency in "search" -- the implied mission being to send traffic downstream to originating content providers who've made heavy investments in content and community -- would morph back into walled-garden, AOL-thinking portals.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Friday, July 03, 2009

Gian Fulgoni, Where Have You Been?

Really, it's not becoming my favorite thing to name names in headlines. But in light of Mr. Fulgoni's deliberate (if lighthearted) provocations of online "direct response" lovers, we must fight fire with fire. Or at least, on this statutory holiday, fireworks with fireworks.

When I read that comScore founder Gian Fulgoni yesterday told eMarketer that the "preoccupation with direct response" is "partly a response to so many young people being involved in Internet advertising," I nearly fell off my Big Wheel.

I suggest a different reason for clicks and sales conversions as key metrics in the marketing and advertising industry: they're objective. Much like:

  • The radar gun that tells the police officer you've been driving 20mph over the limit, in response to your opening salvo: "...but I was just having a nice, zippy day."
  • The 7.5 second time in the 40-metre dash that tells the college coaches that your son has zero chance to become a wide receiver at that level, let alone the pros, as opposed to "my boy has a big heart -- as big as they come!";
  • The growth in net profit that helps investors decide whether or not to buy Comscore (SCOR) stock;
  • The thermometer and hygrometer that tell your furnace, air conditioner, and dehumidifier/humidifier when to turn on and off;
  • Countless other measures of obvious stuff.
If measures of "brand lift" also prove useful, then so be it. But the interest in measuring the more obvious stuff didn't get dreamt up by some imaginary cabal of literal-minded rave-going Youth. Rather, it appears to be an unholy alliance among people called Clients (the ones with the dollars to spend on more measurable digital media channels, who by the way got burned by brand-speak in Bubble I in 1998-2000); Web Analysts and the inventors of tracking methods, software, etc.; and Customers (who often use online tools like search and classifieds to avoid being bombarded with off-topic commercial messages). The Designers of the Medium Itself (eg. Tim Berners-Lee) and the surfing tools people use to access the medium (eg. Lynx, Netscape) created something called Standards and Conventions that created Expectations in Users, later codified and explicated by the Usability Gods.

Performance-based media? Clients ask for it by name. Customers don't shrink from it. Perhaps that's why upwards of 60% of online ad spend goes to the combination of search and classifieds/local.

If we're going to tout the benefits of "all of the other media that impact a person's psyche," then shouldn't we hold them to account as well as singing their praises -- specifically pointing to their enormous cost, and at least attempting to measure the benefit?

On a serious note: online, there is still a shortage of the types of quality places to engage customers, to start conversations, and to (without making them rebel) place decent "demand creation" messages. Then again, are we conceiving of "online" too narrowly? A celebrity touting a hot new camera will find herself on TV ads and billboards at the ball park. But in my mind, those are all potentially "digital, measurable, targeted, and auction-efficient" media channels.

Creating new kinds of (digital and measurable) demand-creation media spaces isn't as easy as it looks, perhaps because of the conventions and expectations cited above. Nor is it impossible. The Internet isn't TV. It really isn't. That does not, of course, mean that we should close off innovative conversations about what digital might become.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




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