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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

What About Getting Me More Leads? Tangential vs. Tactical Conference Topics

I'm trying to get into the heads of business owners. Specifically, those who come to marketing conferences to learn how to get more business, tomorrow, at a lower cost of acquisition. But I'm thinking about the needs of all growing businesses, in the end. Those who do not attend events may not attend because it doesn't seem to sync with their immediate priorities. That's important information in itself.

So I just went through a major conference agenda with a scoring system in hand. The criterion is simple. I ask if each session satisfies this condition: "Talks about how my company can get more leads or sales."

The way that's worded, it will certainly assign a lower score to sessions that could be characterized as "Important, but not Urgent," and may overrate some sessions that focus on "quick tips" that make people money fast (supposedly) while neglecting to situate those tactics in the context of priority-setting and overall grounding.

Still, as brutal as this scoring system is, I think it's a good way to identify session material that may only be there because of a sense that the topic might be hot. Or material that found its way up there because insiders debate it a lot to show off.

The scoring system goes from 0 to 4.

0= not at all.
1= very indirectly.
2= somewhat.
3= pretty well indeed.
4= yes, entirely. this session totally talks about how my company can get more leads or sales.

At a high level, the first thing you notice is that sessions that discuss industry politics, tugs of war in and across organizations, vendor priorities, etc. are going to score low. Sessions about the state of the law in some aspect of marketing are going to score low on this scale as well. Surprisingly, "advanced" and "technical" tracks also often score low. "Advanced" shouldn't just be used as a cover for someone getting up on stage and showing off. (We're all guilty at times.)

There is no doubt that many business owners need and want their people to be attending a diversity of sessions. But I certainly hope that this isn't to the exclusion of the low hanging fruit stuff that really makes people money.

In the end, both sides are important. If you don't understand search algorithms and fundamentals, you are completely out to lunch. But for conference organizers, if you start stacking the program with sessions that seem of merely academic interest, you risk turning it into a whole different type of event. Some attendees, unfortunately, will take that as a cue that the show's really about a few days off work, instead of about optimizing business when they get back.


Findings

Are you kidding? I don't think I want to get into trouble today. It's just too nice out. Here's a few thoughts though - consider them to be based a composite sketch of search marketing conferences.

Sessions that rank 0-2 on my scoring system, but people need to go despite that:

  • Anything about information architecture or search engine friendly site design
  • Universal & blended search
  • Quality Score
  • A limited selection of SEO topics that address technical issues like 301's and major no-no's that could haunt your organic presence for months or years to come
Sessions that rank 0-2 that frankly may bore you, and often bore me, at least if I'm trying to figure out how my clients are going to increase their bottom line tomorrow:

  • Anything about agency politics, organizational process, etc. Oh, it matters. But then again, if it doesn't apply to you, it really, really doesn't matter.
  • Squabbling about attribution and getting "credit" for sales
  • Meeting the vendors, especially from second and third tier traffic sources
  • Um, I'll just come out and say it. PageRank Sculpting.
  • Arcane legal debates
  • Debates about what color someone's hat is
At the other extreme, sessions about conversions, actionable insights from analytics data, specific tactics (especially when labeled "amazing"), and pretty much anything with "ecommerce" in the title ranks closer to the "4" end of the scale. Take that for what it's worth. No matter what the session is called, chances are they aren't handing out money in the aisles (with the exception of Tim Ash). When they are, you should take it.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Monday, August 24, 2009

Canpages Acquires Gigpark

As an avid watcher and sometimes participant in the Toronto startup scene, I was excited to hear today's announcement that local search provider Canpages acquired Gigpark, a social networking platform that helps consumers recommend service businesses to like-minded friends. Canpages has been on the acquisition trail, making other small acquisitions of late, including what was left of Ziplocal after it ran short of cash.

Gigpark's traffic numbers are currently dismal, ranking it only 139th on the Techvibes Canada Startup index, so the acquisition must be motivated more by the quality of the platform and the team than by current user numbers.

There are several oddballs on the Techvibes list, in any case (several mature companies, standalone utilities like AjaxWhois, etc.), and it's fair to say that its compilation of numbers from Alexa, Compete, etc. offers only a very rough guide to user growth and startup potential. Some sites listed fairly far down the list have sound business models (software, ecommerce, dating) and are known quantities (Acquisio, Well.ca, Freshbooks, PlentyofFish, RedFlagDeals); others are growing but may still not be getting nearly enough traffic to be profitable yet (NowPublic); and some rank quite high but still not good enough to be considered anything but also-rans or pleasant hangouts that have lingered on past their "hot company" expiry dates (Suite101.com). (Disclaimer: I'll keep it to no comment about HomeStars, a company I am associated with.)

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Cheering Section Grows for Bing, The Little Microsoft Engine That Could

Naoise Osborne packs a lot of insight into this column "Bad Decision, Engine: The Problems with Marketing Search (and why Bing needs the tech vote to survive."

Osborne's key premise is that Bing is a pretty good search engine, and a healthy cross-section of users are already delighted by it. But the marketing positioning about it being a "Decision Engine" is potentially running at cross-purposes with the simple flow of communications.

It's true - for most people a search engine is a way to look stuff up on the Internet. So it's a search engine. The details may delight, but that's not something you put in the ads. New categories confuse people.

Cars have been around a very long time. And for many decades, all anyone needed to know was that Jack had just bought himself a beautiful car. The latest model. Better than last year's "car."

After 80 years of mainstream consumer acceptance of the concept of building a better car, sure, you can invent a whole new category - the "minivan," the "SUV," and reinvent that industry.

Similarly, brooms and mops are so familiar to people that a Swiffer sweeper can actually invent its own category. That type of thing's a longshot, but in the Swiffer case it worked. I'm not sure Microsoft is looking to take a longshot style bet here, though.

People have only been "searching" for 15, 10, or 5 years. Mainstream products should have mainstream positioning. So "search engine" it is.

I find this a bit strange, almost as if people's curiosity has gone in reverse as Google's product has gotten better. A pretty sizable portion of the search audience in 1996-2000 was interested in the differences between search engines. The Ask Jeeves (if it really were natural language search) technology. Metasearch so you can "search all the engines." Proportionally fewer people have time or patience for these things anymore. But that's a function of the fact that the search audience is much bigger now, and much more dependent on search and navigation, than it was in 1998.

Osborne seems to contradict himself by looking for geek acceptance of Bing, though. That's how Google succeeded (if you count journalists and librarians as geeks, given that they were the hubs in those days), but isn't Microsoft's positioning different? How are you going to win geeks over with this thing, truly? Especially if you're trying to keep that effort consistent with the very fact that you plan to lean very heavily on a $100 million TV ad campaign?

A gem near the end of the piece: "Hire John Hodgeman – people love him. If you haven’t realized it yet Microsoft, everybody hates the cocky Mac guy, and everybody loves the adorable PC guy."

Ain't that the truth.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




Sunday, August 16, 2009

On Benefits of Microhoo Search Scale, Disagreeing with Hal Varian

I disagree somewhat with Hal Varian's (Google's Chief Economist) criticism of the theory that combining Yahoo and Microsoft in search will lead to improvements based on scale, data, etc.

Statistically, for sure, scale is already high enough that more won't apparently lead to significant improvements in either search performance or ad program performance due to the impact of data on improving relevancy. That's on paper, in the lab.

Off paper, in the real world lab:

  • Yahoo's reported 20% share is fiction. Globally, it's much lower. In the US, the real number is actually lower.
  • Data is highly granular in a number of ways. So to start, Yahoo and Microsoft have different search shares in every language and every country in the world, and different search shares in sub-regions of the world. In many, one or the other currently hold share of 1% or less. By bringing both up well over 1% and closer to say, 3%, you get a significant increase in useful data.
  • Even the tools that Microsoft provides for advertisers will improve markedly with a doubling or tripling of available data across all major markets, because usable data also comes in the form of highly granular data about keywords. Google doesn't have every last useful tool for researching keyword and consumer behavior: Microsoft has and will develop some really useful ones. Currently, as an advertiser trying to use the tools, you get "insufficient data".
  • And though this may stray somewhat from the subject of how to improve a search engine's relevancy... what about something super real-world and practical: running an ad rotation test for a group of keywords and trying to select a winning ad from a field of eight? Isn't that search marketing? Right now, no one is testing very much on any platform other than Google. I suspect they'll be more likely to try tests specific to the Microhoo audience now, rather than just porting all of their consumer feedback driven campaigns over to the Yahoo and Microsoft platforms. The current way is just guessing: really testing in the actual auction you're buying the media in, is more precise.
  • By "now," of course I mean when the Microsoft-Yahoo platform consolidation is complete in around a year's time.
I believe that Varian's assumption is mainly wrong because he's giving his competitors credit for having more consistent share across all major segments than they actually do. Aggregate numbers look impressive, but the information is less consistent as you drill down. Doubling or tripling the available information in any given segment, especially small ones, is bound to be helpful.

To double predictive accuracy, Varian suggests you need "four times as big a sample". Well depending on whether you're looking at it from the standpoint of Microsoft or Yahoo for any given teeny tiny segment, the number of instances where one of them now has "four times as big a sample" is going to be very high. Doubling predictive accuracy on teeny tiny segments - either as a search advertiser or a researcher looking into search trends - is our bread and butter out here. We'll take the "bogus" scale of the Microhoo deal any day.

P.S. I loved Varian's other insights, including the interesting note on the emergence of the "micro-multinational" type of growth company. Though I might have to take a run, at some point, at the recurring Google theme about "communication costs basically going to zero." The costs for collaborative tools have gone close to zero. But...

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Saturday, August 15, 2009

Google, Zappos, and the "New PR" - Communications Savvy Must Be Distributed Across Your Company

This isn't really a post about Google per se, but working with different Googlers at different levels, and reading their various public statements and blogs, and hearing Googlers speak and interact with the public, definitely hammers the point home. It's a huge company. Their people are well trained, well spoken, and well scripted. But everything can't be scripted, and they'd come across as awfully spooky if they walked around "muzzled".

Typically in the good old days, public relations messages were controlled. And people in companies were supposed to communicate sparingly and always "check back to base" before sharing with the public.

In companies still controlled by traditional top-down PR concepts, this seems like the right thing to do. To everyone else, it seems not only old-fashioned, but unworkable.

The Zappos legend is one of radical openness - one of allowing reporters to walk around and talk to any old employee. No surprises, no secrets.

I thought of this again when posting a response to a customer on a consumer review site I work with. A little part of me said, well maybe I should be collaborating on the team before I post my responses, to make sure we are all on the same page. But you know what? If we always did that, our responses would sound canned and we wouldn't sound like real people. And the speed of the business would slow to a crawl. Especially in the digital world, a slow business is a dead business.

What it comes down to is this: everyone in your organization needs to be someone you can trust to do a good job of representing your brand and helping out a reporter or customer when they're seeking information or ideas. Scary from the standpoint of traditional PR, but most of all, an opportunity to reflect on whether your people have your full confidence: do they know their stuff, do they have good judgment, are they social media savvy, do they know how to make it clear that there's a difference between them thoughtfully considering an issue in their unique human way and official company policy, etc.? And if they aren't quite up to speed on all that, maybe there's an opportunity for company-wide education - not about how to stonewall, but how to naturally reach out to the ecosystem based on the relative transparency of the "new PR".

When more people are qualified and willing to speak on behalf of the company at a moment's notice, you can get more done. You can draw customers into the dialogue, and solidify your role as a partner. It's a mistake to imagine that there is any other way to go about it. That's especially true in companies that have all sorts of responsible people working on hundreds of products, in dozens of divisions.

The "letting go" attitude also strengthens accountability and responsibility in more people in an organization and even outside it. That reinforces the idea of partnership. Think about the difference between two celebrities or CEO's who come to a major interview. One has had his "people" control which questions can and cannot be asked, and wants their bio to be structured in a certain way. The other has her people inform the magazine that (unflattering photos aside) the choice of questions and biographical portrayal are in the reporters' and editors' "capable hands". Who do you think is going to think harder about their real role as a responsible journalist? The one who is told what to say? Or the one who is asked to exercise their judgment?

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Thursday, August 13, 2009

Google Asks for Feedback on Future of the Advertising Programs

Comments or questions from all advertisers are being solicited by Google as they enter a new era of planning. Nick Fox provided a URL in yesterday's keynote that is the home of a new forum area - the SES Keynote Feedback Forum - where Google's advertising team will interact with anyone interested in this ongoing discussion.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Fox's Ad Insights (I)

In his SES keynote today, Nick Fox rolled out new material. If not news announcements per se, the talk contained high level talking points about fresh directions the Google advertising programs will take, as well as a review of some possibly outmoded assumptions that have driven the ad formats, keyword auction, and product mix to date.

Two of the key takeaways for me at this juncture are:
  • Small local businesses like plumbers (but importantly, many other types of businesses) shouldn't necessarily have to mess around with custom keyword research. Their business type and advertising objectives should theoretically translate more seamlessly into a media buy, at least removing some of the intermediate steps and experimentation so many of us are accustomed to. How quickly Google moves forward with ad programs that reflect this principle is anyone's guess. But it's quite possible you'll see a mix of parallel offerings: more attention paid to classifieds, product feed uploads, etc.
  • The end of the Model 'T' ad format? Nick mentioned the Henry Ford "you can have any color, as long as it's black" analogy, tying it to the current search ads format: "you can have any kind of ad, as long as it's got a blue headline, two lines text, and a green display URL." He seemed to imply that Google could begin experimenting more radically with ad formats, even on Google's own sites, and maybe even on the core AdWords inventory - search results pages.
Perhaps noteworthy: in a recent post here, I compared the current state of Google (in need of more easy-to-follow search listing processes and ad buying that ordinary businesses can understand) to the Progressive Era (roughly the same era as the Model T).

Posted by Andrew Goodman




Nick Fox Nude

In about 20 minutes time I'll have the distinct pleasure here at SES San Jose of introducing Nick Fox, Google's Business Product Management Director for AdWords. Nick won't actually be nude, but the headline is a bit catchier than my alternate, "Quality Score Revealed by Nick Fox Fully Clothed."

And given that no one has yet tried to rank on the phrase "Nick Fox nude," I thought it was high time someone did. I do, however, refuse to bid on the phrase. Organic rank is free, right? ;)

I'm looking forward to Nick's influential insights, as always.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




Friday, August 07, 2009

RSS: A Stalled Standard, But "Not Dead Yet"?

Blog and RSS advocates are devoted to the core. Only a couple of years ago, as so many factors appeared to converge to make feed readers the geek's information overload management tool of choice, the future seemed limitless. It only seemed fitting that Google acquired Feedburner.

The difference between RSS and old ways of opting in, though, is surely the issue of "breakout". Did RSS really ever cross the chasm from insider adoption out to being a mainstream technology? Nope.

Compare how things used to be with email. Even if you were a relatively unknown newsletter publisher, you could eventually build up your list to 10,000, 20,000, or more -- just through opt-in (not even counting swaps and "JV's"). Popular lists reached 200,000, and more, and those were just pinging companions to a popular content site.

RSS subscription worked differently. People had relatively strong feelings about how many feeds they'd sign up for, if they bothered at all. And suddenly, there was a host of other ways to find the content you loved, anyway -- Twitter, Techmeme, Digg, Sphinn, email, Facebook, etc. -- so even a lot of geeks curtailed their RSS habit.

Don't get me wrong, lots of people use it differently, but as adoption waned, it seemed less important to us here to bother displaying a "subscribe to feed" logo, and so forth. We started tweeting, Sphinning, etc., and hoping others would too.

Lee Odden over at TopRank Blog takes a slightly different view. Lee just posted the Top SEM and SEO Blogs list, in order of RSS subscription. In principle, I feel strongly about subscription, but I notice that many good blogs have only in the low thousands of subscribers. I asked Lee whether it was still worth paying attention to RSS. Here's what he thinks:

"Looking at the RSS subscriber counts for the top 10-20 blogs doesn't make it seem like RSS is dead just yet. For example, Search Engine Land has 9,500 followers on Twitter, and 40,909 RSS subscribers as reported by Feedburner.

"Twitter may be shiny and popular but not exclusive of RSS content consumption. Personally, I like to share both metrics on our blog. But that's just me.

"The AdAge list considers more variables and that sort of thing is likely to be a much better qualification of what's a 'top' list. In the end I think that decision is really up to the individual and lists are just puffery. There, I said it."

Well said, Lee.

Still, the fact that the top sites in the search marketing industry "only" have around 40,000 RSS subscribers despite their large numbers of daily articles and channels, shows that RSS subscription reaches its limits a lot sooner than email used to back in the day. It's a different animal. I tend to agree with Lee, in the sense that, as one of Seth Godin's all-time classic posts explains, Small is the New Big. You can choose between a million weak ties, or a few thousand strong ones. The strong ones are meaningful. They translate into real conversation and real connections. And best of all, they aren't spam. It's probably fitting, then, that Godin's blog currently sits at #3 on the Ad Age Power 150. And Search Engine Land sits pretty at #1.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The Five Most Controversial People You'll Meet at SES San Jose

I have a keen interest in how each and every SES conference is shaping up. Occupational hazard!

So today I talked about the upcoming SES San Jose (next week, Aug. 10-14) with Stew Quealy, as always SES Advisory Board Co-Chair, and VP, Content Development, Incisive Media. In a strange economic year there is remarkable continuity in the show.

I thought it might be worth giving newcomers a heads-up about what to expect. Rather than the dry playbook approach, let's try a hook. Who are the five most controversial people you're likely to meet?

Now there are a lot of exciting, dynamic, wonderful, insightful, loopy, and entertaining speakers. However, that doesn't make them all equally controversial.

Why is controversy important? Well, it can serve as a lightning rod that can lead to productive debate for months and years, and industry changes.

The list is highly subjective. I don't know everyone; even attending all the shows. And marketing being what it is, some people (more than a few) make a major effort to rant, rave, and otherwise be heard above the din. Staged controversy is, in our business, an adequate second-best to real controversy. And of course, we'll take it.

And now for the list.

1. Mike Grehan. First off, Mike is Co-Chair, SES Advisory Board. For that reason, you'll see a lot of him and find him deeply involved in debates about substance and curriculum. Second, Mike, well... does a darn good job of ranting, raving, and otherwise being heard above the din. But if it was on style alone, Mike wouldn't qualify (he pared down the pageboy haircut some time ago). It's about the substance. Mike released a self-published book that became an industry standard in following the search scientists' tea leaves, long before those MozSEO and BookAboutSEO people came along (or whatever their names are). More recently he shared a white paper with the community on behalf of Acronym Media, where he once again tried to introduce us to the future of search. Mike said things about PageRank's ineffectiveness long before it was the cool thing to do. He has made a career of grabbing people by the arm, and making them understand: what you're hearing about search is yesterday's information, and here are the concepts that will guide the playing field going forward.

2. Bryan Eisenberg. Bryan's another one of those fellows everyone loves to be associated with - now that it's cool. Now that it is cool to do conversion improvement work, to lambaste coworkers who are too lazy to test. Back when Bryan was making waves, not so many people were willing to toot his horn. (Formal researchers, for example, can be a little stuffy. They don't like agencies and consultants who actually do stuff.) Think, though, about how disruptive it is to force organizations to truly test their marketing. Bryan has never done so "politely," but his good nature wins everyone over. It must be a sign of either his good nature or his masochism that he travels so frequently to Canada, a land where everything is good enough, and no one likes to hear that they suck. But when a guy from Brooklyn who gets up every day at 5:00 a.m. to get down to work on improving things tells you good-naturedly that you suck, it's hard to be mad at him. Whether you implement his advice or not is up to you.

3. Shari Thurow. Shari Thurow is polarizing, and audiences ask for her by name - and pay good money to hear her speak. As the quintessential "white hat" information architecture expert, Shari Thurow has authored a couple of the more authoritative books in the space. Most speakers in the SEO field are what is smarmily known as "gray hat". But Shari will take any questionable SEO practice to task. She won't pussyfoot around. She'll simply call it "spam." This approach is draconian in the eyes of SEO's. Corporate and academic audiences tend to love it. Shari thrives most in an academic setting, she has shared with me. So while a short session may give you a flavor of what she teaches, you'd learn much more from taking a day-long training session or even a longer course. By advising you to take these, by no means am I suggesting you should agree with everything Shari says. But that goes for any "professor" with a strong point of view, doesn't it?

4. Avinash Kaushik. Web analytics expert Avinash Kaushik has reached "star" status despite his frequent telling of inconvenient truths to corporate audiences. Proof: he's often referred to merely as "Avinash". (Of course, for many people, that's because they can't remember his last name - but they won't admit it.) Because of his long list of credentials, and meaty blog posts at Occam's Razor, it would be easy to assume that Avinash is a steady, serious individual. He is, but that's not where it ends. It's in the discussions and speeches where Avinash will subtly get up in your grill. With the sweet smile and risque humor, this five-star speaker might be mistaken for the Russell Peters of the analytics world -- if he could do anything other than an Indian accent, that is. But make no mistake, corporate folk. Avinash is a bit angry with you. He hopes that you'll test and improve your web pages and campaigns using the relevant data, and then go ahead and do it again. No vetoes from the "HiPPO's" (the Highest Paid Person in the Office/Organization). He won't help you make excuses about failure to execute. Like Shari or Bryan, he'll just say what he thinks flat out: "Don't you like money? Do you want to be poor?" Miss Avinash's act at your peril. He's speaking on Day 1 of the full conference.

5. Nick Fox. I've saved the sweetest smile for last. Nick Fox, to some of us, is a man who needs no introduction. Only in the search marketing world would an architect of a Search Ads Quality system be keynoting, as Nick is in San Jose this year. It was in New York a few years ago that the industry finally seemed to give full, full recognition to the fact that paid search and organic search were equal partners - at least to marketers if not users. 800+ people crammed into a hall to watch Nick, me, and other panelists talk about "Ads in a Quality Score World." That was the kind of frenzy normally reserved for a chit-chat with Matt Cutts about his innermost thoughts on organic search (or what kind of dressing he likes on his salad). And sure enough, this year in San Jose, instead of Matt, we have Nick keynoting. Nick has always done a fantastic job explaining a complex system. To my surprise, Nick's bio shows that he is not a computer programmer (though I'm guessing he also is) by trade; he studied economics at Harvard. And no one will be surprised to hear he graduated magna cum laude. Why is Nick (and by extension, his company, that shaped and moulded this ad quality system) controversial? Like Google as a whole, the ad quality system is an iron fist in a velvet glove -- especially if you're an advertiser that likes to break the rules or ignore relevancy. Both the iron and the velvet parts have been refined over the years. For a recent flavor of how I view the "hidden government" that lurks inside the Google-designed "economic model," check out my recent SEL Column, Geekynomics? Finding the Hidden Government Within Google's Magic Money Machine.

See you at SES!

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




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