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Monday, March 29, 2010

Yusuf Mehdi's Too-Candid Comments About Abandoning the Long Tail

Credit Yusuf Mehdi for honesty: in his remarks at SES New York last week, as reported by eWeek, he noted that Microsoft fell well behind Google in search because it focused on doing well for popular queries, when it should have known that search is "all about the long tail."

It is bizarre, because every notable failure in search since 1994 has basically been in the realm of curated results and chances are, that trend will continue. Whether they're hand-edited search results or partially "produced" variations of web index search focusing on improving the treatment of head terms using the efforts of channel producers, the market kept coming back with the same response: this approach doesn't scale. A website with opinions about what people should focus on is not a search engine, it's just a website. And that creates a serious positioning problem when you're competing in the "search engine" space, which needs to scale to help people find hard-to-find information. Forget the long tail: channel producers and editors even do a poor job of producing information around the "torso". As information and customer demands evolve, it becomes difficult to keep up, and many of the real world uses of the search engine begin to look like a "demo" of "well, this is how it works over here, on this query, in theory, and eventually we'll get back to extending the technology so it works for the stuff you're looking for, with partners who provide information in a way that you prefer, which changed in the past year."

Here's a list of some of the search engines that haven't caught on precisely because they failed to understand and gear up for the massive scale required in the search engine business, focusing instead on curating results for a limited set of popular queries or categories:

  • Yahoo Directory
  • Open Directory
  • LookSmart
  • Ask Jeeves
  • Mahalo
The list could probably be much longer.

Others have fared a bit better because they didn't claim to be search engines. These include:
  • About.com
  • Squidoo
Obviously, many of these properties are of limited use in the real world of finding info.

The bizarreness doesn't stop there, however. A significant aspect of the PR rollout of Bing was focused on the fact that Microsoft knew it would be most effective -- again -- at doing better for users in the realm of more popular types of searches, ceding long tail excellence to Google. In terms of positioning, that's like saying Microsoft is good at negotiating partnerships, designing interfaces, and subscribing to web services. That's like saying Microsoft is building a portal. That's like saying Microsoft is Yahoo.

Google itself is no saint when it comes to long tail accomplishments and relevance. On many counts, all search engine companies have waved white flags on truly scaling to address all potential content, because there is just too much of it (and too much spam). Dialing back on the ambitions of comprehensiveness, to devote more screen real estate to trusted brands and search experiences that are tantamount to paid inclusion, is Google's current trend, much as it was for companies like Inktomi and Yahoo in the past.

The industry consensus is that search is far from solved. But a prerequisite to solving any problem is trying. Microsoft is signaling that they will continue to dip a toe in the water and essentially "wimp out" when it comes to addressing scale and complexity issues. This is in line with what they've done all along, and the positioning for Bing. The question is: if Google's wimping out too, wouldn't you rather use the relatively less wimpy search company that has committed a massive budget to R&D, probably 30X Microsoft's? By sending these signals, Microsoft is not exactly giving users good reasons to use their products. It's reminiscent of the trajectory taken by companies like AOL and Yahoo, who didn't feel that search was a problem that could or should be solved by them, so they contented themselves with staying hands-off and creating a workable project largely driven by feeds, partnerships, and ideas external to their own company.

To SEO's, Mehdi's ruminations on the long tail must be heartening. It says, in essence, "spam away."

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Google AdWords: No More Last-Click-Attribution Blues

Getting credit for an online conversion - and giving due credit to all recent influences - has been one of the hottest topics in digital marketing over the past couple of years. The urgency of the matter has grown as media costs -- especially click prices on paid search keywords -- have risen.

Marketers have been so hungry for better attribution of "keyword assists" (or simply, the non-overriding of the first click in the sequence towards purchase, whether that's over a matter of hours or many months), they've been willing to explore cumbersome customizations in a variety of analytics platforms, including Google Analytics.

But if you're looking to simply analyze the contribution of paid keyword searches on Google Search that preceded the keywords that led directly to a sales conversion (aka "assists"), you'd prefer to see all that data rolled up conveniently within Google AdWords itself, showing the data in handy formats that might make it easy to change your bidding patterns. In particular, earlier stage keywords (typically, before a last-click brand search) would now be revalued in your model; you'd bid them higher in cases where they made assists.

Happily all of this is now rolling out in AdWords as part of a reporting initiative called Search Funnels. A variety of reporting options help you tap into the power of this new information.

Earlier, when I defended the "last click"'s merits as an attribution method, I pointed to some data by Marin Software showing 74% of etail conversions only have one associated click - even counting assists. Moreover, Marin's approach bucketed prior clicks categorically, arguing that if a prior click was very similar in intent or style to the last click, then the extra information wouldn't be enough to cause you to alter bidding patterns anyway. That knocked the number of truly "assist-powered" conversions (that you could actually attribute properly) down to 10% or less.

This is where Google's new reporting needs to be scrutinized closely. In your individual case it could be quite valuable, but in current individual case studies Google may have on hand, anywhere from 70-95% of conversions only have one click to speak of. If Marin's logic above is even close to sensible, then it does underscore the limits to assist data. There will be some value attributable to assist keywords in around 10% of conversions, give or take. That's actionable but not earth-shattering. Of course, this is going to be most valuable to advertisers who have a lot of prior influencer clicks hiding behind a high number of clicks that are currently attributed to a last-click on the brand name.

To pump up the role of prior keywords, it might be fair to also point to assist impressions - views of the ad on Google Search where the ad wasn't clicked, but shown. But in those cases was the ad really seen? Perhaps not, but there may be some value in knowing what search keywords got the searcher's research motor running. Perhaps they clicked on a competitor's ad. Google is offering impression assist data as well with this release, which will be sure to delight trivia buffs, AdWords junkies, and Google's accountants alike.

Remember, we're not just talking about multiple searches all done in a single day, or in one session. Google is logging the time and date of every search by that user prior to a purchase/lead, and when a conversion happens, full funnel information is available as to the time lag between clicks and before the conversion.

Adding in impression assists to the mix, we may see past search query information for up to 20-25% of conversions in some advertiser accounts. Again, while not stupendous, this at least counts as extremely important and material to how you approach keyword value.

The ease of sorting in order of frequency of conversion by assist keyword helps not only to see the keywords in question, but with the "keyword transition path" view, you can see what last click converters they preceded, to better understand the consumer mindset. The screen shot below is a canned Google example while the program is still in beta. In my briefing I saw a more typical and valuable case example that showed the frequency (fictitious example to replace the one I saw) paths like "almond milk calories" > planethealthnut or "milk alternative" > planethealthnut. Whereas the brand might have got disproportionate credit for this conversion in the past, now, keywords like [milk alternative] or [almond milk calories] might attract higher bids, even more so if you experiment over time, allowing for more repetitions of your "research stage keywords" over many months.

In my opinion, "paths" work fairly well as a metaphor here and are not too misleading because the "funnel" steps tend to be relatively coherent and causal in practice. They aren't necessarily so, however. The reason these reports can look sensible is because they're drawn from a narrow universe of high-intent keywords that advertisers are avidly bidding on. You're not going to see a paid search keyword funnel path like "drawbridge in mexico" > james mcbleckr phone 415 > nike > air jordans used > nike.com largely because Nike doesn't have most of the keywords in that path in their paid search account. Truly generating causal paths out of all the things someone does online prior to a conversion is likely to be incredibly messy, but that's a much longer story.

Long story short: life is indeed a lot simpler when viewed through the prism of an AdWords account. And today, advertisers are getting what they desperately seek: easy-to-use information about paid keyword search attribution so that the last click doesn't override all other attribution data.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Monday, March 22, 2010

Ad Network Confusion Mounts

The announcement that an ex Doubleclick platform lead is launching a search retargeting network sounds interesting, but it serves as a key reminder that the display ad space remains mired in confusion.

Niche ad targeting concepts are interesting and attractive in principle, but in terms of total volume and advertiser priorities, they still look like they're nibbling at the margins. That state of affairs gets worse when you realize that literally hundreds of viable networks, exchanges, hybrids, and resellers are nibbling at that same sliver of pie. This creates a paradox of choice for the buyer, and more likely than not, their first "next move" will be to buy from a brand they know and that sounds big, directly: like Facebook.

The problem seems to be: every time another company comes in aiming to disrupt the display ad space, they join the other 500 companies that have been threatening to do the same thing -- since 1998.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




Friday, March 19, 2010

Yelp, Extortion, Spam, and ... Oh, Just Stop It!

Yelp has run into its share of problems, with a third lawsuit emerging, alleging that their advertising sales practices are akin to "extortion."

On top of this, the tone of comments about the company -- at least in some circles -- has turned nasty.

Yelp is popular, so they've got a big target on their forehead. Businesses (as we saw many years ago with Google) suddenly wake up to the opportunity; some see it as a place to spam; the publisher-slash-algorithm upholds editorial standards in a realm where, for whatever reasons, certain businesses feel a sense of entitlement. Is it because the business model is new? Businesses may have grumbled about yellow paged directories over the years, but there aren't lawsuits accusing listings salespeople of extortion rackets.

Remember: Google went through the same thing in the days following algorithmic changes that took aim at SEO practices like link farming. The little guys who were "put out of business" by Google's "unfair" algorithm changes made for compelling copy in wire stories, but a strong sense emerged in the wake of that: no one owes you a living built around free traffic, and building your whole business model around a free high Google ranking doesn't earn you much sympathy from anyone.

Plus, it was a zero-sum game to an extent. The companies who were featured more prominently in the algorithmic listings certainly didn't complain when the other guys dropped. Everyone can't be first. As a result, there will always be disappointment in ranked listings, just as there is after each Olympic medal event.

Of course, if there is something to spam, aggressive (gray-to-black-hat) SEO's will try to figure this out. This group wants to know how to "spam the Yelp review filter" which really means raising the trust level of fake reviewers so automated flags aren't as likely to send reviews to editorial. That's similar to the tactical SEO mentality of "aging sites and domains" for future use as authority sites for link spam. This line of thinking is clearly of the variety of "you have eyes, but can you really see"? A local business *should not want* to astroturf Yelp with fake reviews. Think the logic through. To really move the needle, you'll need more than one fake account or to get a bunch of long term fake reviewers in your employ. This is the type of thing that eventually comes out in the wash, somehow, as sure as Tiger sexting about threesomes. And when it does, your business credibility is shot.

Because such dangerous lunatics are out there providing advice to businesses, review sites take a hard line, and disallow content and ratings as they see fit if the reviewers don't seem trustworthy. (Don't you wish Twitter took a more aggressive stance on banning fake accounts?) This gives the appearance to some businesses that their "great reviews" are being removed maliciously. I submit, it's part and parcel of weeding out spam. (See above, where someone openly writes about "how to spam that".)

In the end, the goal is pretty straightforward: editorial content that helps users find things, make better choices, and lead better lives. It also has a social component, though, so these review-sites-slash-social networks need to be a bit careful about how aggressive they are in banning people per se. Maybe some people trust other people and that's their business. Behind the scenes, for the purposes of the algorithm, the trustworthiness or publishability of certain reviews can be discounted or downgraded, but the process needs to be as transparent as feasible. (This analogy with Google might help: it can't actually "ban sites" from existence (just its index) or "tell sites not to link" or "tell you not to trust a site"... but it can quietly remove the "link juice" from links that its algorithms feel are fake or part of a scheme. That's their prerogative. Don't like it, ask another search engine for answers.)

Classified advertising (which is separate from content) has been a business model forever. No one in publishing set out to create an extortion racket, and if they did, the marketplace is free to question the validity and unbiased nature of the content, and to move onto a more reliable source. (Compare the "canned" lists of "recommended" restaurants that you might get in some publications, or some cab drivers. Better?) So it will always be a messy, fractured sector with give and take and back and forth going on.

To be sure, there is a certain amount of Schadenfreude mixed up in the Yelp case. By seeming to look down their noses (in concert with their investors and various hangers-on) at various other companies in the space that weren't quite as hip or youthful or well-funded (InsiderPages, Judy's Book, CitySearch), and by being photographed having insider, exclusive good times with their insider, exclusive circles of friends, Yelp gave fuel to the "haters" who would love to see them fail. Comments floating around the current news bring all the nastiness out of the woodwork.

But surely it's the haters who should look inside themselves for answers, rather than fabricating wrongdoing and posting snarky comments that say little more than that the sales team are "kids" with an "attitude". Suddenly, it is a crime to be young, employed, and in classified listings sales?

Businesses considering investing time and money in venues like Yelp should consider them dispassionately as media investments and avenues for reputation management. The former is similar to an Old Media classified ad buy; the latter, Web 2.0 and digital reputation awareness. Both are simply realities of our connected world.

Possibly, similar to when I long ago caught an AltaVista sales rep doing it, there have been isolated incidents of salespeople tying editorial to ad buys, or implying a connection. The question is, does Yelp have a clear policy on this? And, what can you prove in isolated cases of businesses' positive reviews being suppressed (which is a normal practice to prevent "astroturfing" or self-reviewing)? Going forward, businesses who continue to use terms like "extortion" are going to come off as resentful and out of touch. Because: virtually no form of media that sells advertising has been immune from some claim that an ad buy is a bribe to get yourself better treated in the regular content (newspapers, TV, magazines, trade shows, and you name it). You want Yelp to fail because it sells advertising? Then you'll take on the entire media sales industry worldwide. That dog won't hunt.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Go Deep With Our Paid Search Training at SES New York, March 22

Are you and your company dabbling in paid search, but feel that you're far from maximizing the assets you have? Or you're thinking about investing, but don't know how to get fully up to speed in the shortest time possible? Or maybe you were into it five or six years ago but need a serious refresher course, or are an SEO, developer, or another related professional looking to diversify your skill set.

Well, you can browse the forums or sample the short presentations at the conferences, but to get as much as possible in the shortest possible space of time, nothing beats a full day of paid search training, with detail-by-detail examinations of fundamentals, new ideas, live workshop sessions, and more.

Led by me and Mona Elesseily, the Page Zero paid search training course takes place in conjunction with SES New York on March 22, 2010. What's even better - you can take 20% off the already low price if you use coupon code SESPPC20 when you sign up.

Check out the agenda, and sign up early to avoid disappointment.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Monday, March 01, 2010

Making Marketing Matter: A Reply to Mitch Joel

Taking Mitch up on a challenge like joining the dialogue as to how we can make marketing meaningful (and not scummy) carries only one danger with it: you can overshoot, egged on by the spirit of the exercise, and say something you really don't mean.

Back before Howie Mandel had a serious(?) career, he appeared on one of those late night comedy shows that was so late that you had to use "late" like five times in the title. This was back in the days when Howie inexplicably put a latex glove on his head and did that thing with his hand when he did standup. Anyway, Howie would appear in a sketch where everyone was sitting around after a couple of drinks, usually near an open window, describing their most edgy or daring escapades. Howie would open his mouth and overshoot the level of the group so far, with the filthiest, most perverted comment imaginable. Even the most depraved members of the group would slowly edge their way out of the room.

Then again, probably no danger of that here. If you've really built your career around Cluetrains, Whuffie, Permission, Life After the 30-Second Spot, and the like, as I have, you've probably reached the point of no return.

Anyway, to throw some fuel on the fire:

I still believe in an abstract distinction I introduced in Winning Results with Google AdWords (2nd ed.), and that is that there is something called "reasonable targeting," to be contrasted with "surplus interruption." Empirical evidence appears to suggest, as Godin has boldly argued for years, that people simply avoid messages if they get too many of them that aren't personal, anticipated, and relevant. But evidence aside, you have to believe it in your heart.

I want to live in a world - not exactly like, but similar to - Google AdWords, where relevance is rewarded and spammery is punished through a sort of "user experience tax". I also want to live in a world where we can freely experiment with a variety of forms of advertising. The "AdBusters" and "no logo" crowd take it too far, not understanding that imposing a moral code that restricts communications is a (totalitarian-style) cure that is worse than the disease.

I do not want to live in a world where:

  • We change the definition of permission (and other things), because we're marketers and hey, it's OK to spam people if you're a big company, right? This just creates a tragedy of the commons and degrades consumer trust over time. See Seth Godin, "Permission Marketers: Did We Blow It?" (September, 2001)
  • The professional association for marketers in a given nation sells me on a membership renewal, in part by telling me they'll continue lobbying to loosen up on those horrible "do not call" laws. As a consumer, I hate to be spammed on my personal phone lines. I'm supposed to feel differently as a "marketer"?
  • For that matter, in my renewal application for the same association, in 2010, it would have been nice if the same trade group had finally put in a checkbox for "search marketing" as a special interest, given that it is nearly half of digital marketing, and certainly more than half of the (targeted, voluntary, granular) traffic to many corporate websites. To go alongside the checkboxes for companies specializing in printing brochures, keeping databases, building websites, maintaining outbound call centers, and emailing people. Maybe next year.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




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Yusuf Mehdi's Too-Candid Comments About Abandoning...

Google AdWords: No More Last-Click-Attribution Blu...

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Yelp, Extortion, Spam, and ... Oh, Just Stop It!

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Making Marketing Matter: A Reply to Mitch Joel

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