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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, January 12, 2010

Google Considers Pulling Out of China Four Years After Grand Entrance

Google is reporting through its Chief Legal Officer David Drummond that it's ending the censored version of its site in China, and considering pulling out of the country.

This is a gripping development.

Google's so big, they almost face the same dilemmas as a country trying to trade with China -- almost.

Summing up, purists argued that Google shouldn't go in in the first place, and certainly in our response in January 2006, we felt Google was being naive, but agreed that there was complexity in trying to initiate political change by being open to a partner that was far from perfect. We added that if it didn't pan out, they could leave. We figured they could set a time limit, then leave if the human rights situation didn't improve.

Six months after that, Sergey Brin was already expressing misgivings, and no doubt the company has been thinking about the relationship ever since.

Although the current shift in policy seems to be triggered by episodes of Chinese government hacking and espionage to spy on human rights advocates, no one episode need to explain the desire to pull out; certainly it doesn't seem like this is the only issue at hand.

Indeed, the US government has been alarmed at widespread security breaches of the Pentagon and other federal institutions dating back to at least 2007, clearly traceable to China. The early denials by China have given way to regular confirmations from well-placed security experts.

Google, as a private company, turns out to have the luxury of pulling out of a country if it doesn't like their policies. They can even chalk it up to "regulations" that make it "hard to do business," if they wish.

So, Google isn't a nation-state just yet. While there will be forgone revenue, the repercussions are likely to be relatively mild, and Google answers to its shareholders, stakeholders, and customers.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Tuesday, November 24, 2009

How Google's New Ad Formats Depart from Google's Old Philosophy

Google has been up front about their upcoming ad format releases, so this doesn't come as a bombshell. Nick Fox shared the news at SES San Jose, and we were offered examples previously, posted here.

Today, VP of Product Management Susan Wojcicki officially describes a variety of the new formats, with appropriate screen shots.

One reaction might simply be, "OMG another nail in the coffin for SEO!". I'm sure some in the SEO community will be afraid that more and more paid screen real estate will make it harder to drive organic traffic, and to some extent that's true. Whether elements of "universal search" take away organic traffic by one mechanism, or whether big local (paid) units take away organic traffic by another mechanism, it's an ongoing shift in the works.

And yes, it's a shift we said SEO's should get used to even back when we wrote about paid inclusion and paid search in the period 2000-2002. It's not easy news to share; never has been.

Google will no doubt protest it isn't turning into the Yellow Pages entirely, and certainly there will remain a huge amount of "unmonetized" inventory.

Susan Wojcicki makes another point worth noting, though, and that's "remaining loyal to [Google's] core principle" of "getting the right ad to the right person at the right time." Perhaps that's a core principle, but it's one that was invented and then emphasized by Wojcicki as a "core principle" in a blog post in 2008.

That implies that the new ad formats are, well, sort of an incremental, evolutionary change. On the face of it, this is disingenuous. In fact, if you looked up disingenuous in the dictionary...

I mean, look at some of the units. Hey Pizza Hut. Want to take up 50% of the screen real estate above the fold, on searches for "pizza hut"? You might have already, but with our new "pay us more" plan, you can sort of control how we display your listings.

Don't pay? Well, it might look something like the screen shot below, when a Toronto native searches for "pizza hut." Oh sure, you show up nicely in the organic results. But doesn't it really stick in your craw that the top sponsored listing is for Pizza Pizza, the leading pizza chain in Canada? Arrggghhhh! Pay up, Pizza Hut.















It naturally occurs to us, then -- given Pizza Pizza's success at "brandjacking" in this instance (largely legal in North America, though often subject to trademark litigation) -- that Pizza Pizza could scoop up the whole area above the fold, even on a search for "pizza hut," if they paid enough. I'm not saying it will happen, but while we're massaging core principles, what's a nuance among friends? Why not go all the way? I'm sure a few users will want to find a Pizza Hut, but they'll quickly lose interest when they see that Pizza Pizza has more locations anyway, to say nothing of seven flavors of dipping sauce.

It may well be significant that Nick leaned towards the word "revolutionary change" in his keynote. He wanted the community, and advertisers, to know that every assumption is on the table for discussion. Implying, in a way, that Google was adopting a new "open for business stance." While Google isn't about to throw its users under a bus entirely (at least if anyone remembers the Google Paradox that made them as wealthy as they are), it's hard to agree that this shift squares with Google "staying loyal to its original principle," unless that principle is a malleable, made-up principle that started making the rounds fewer than two years ago.

Are these significant enough changes to be unsettling, at least to the large contingent of longtime punters who thought they understood what Google's core principles were in the advertising realm? Absolutely. It's way beyond just rattling a few cheapskate SEO's. It's going to shake you up even if you liked buying the paid listings in the past.

Those who will be most comfortable with the changes may well be old-school big brand marketers, and agency veterans from the interruption marketing, big media buy era. Curious. Google spent ten years deriding that paradigm, forcing its adherents to play inside of Google's platform. Now, it's "you got money? let's talk."

They're radical changes, but naturally, Google is painting them as gradual. (Well actually, Nick Fox was honest. He used the word "revolutionary" at one point.)

Here are the key differences between New Google Advertising (2009-) and Google Advertising Classic (2001-2008):

  • Google is doing paid inclusion! In several ways. If this is just the beginnings of it, as it probably is, then Google is moving into paid inclusion in a major way. Almost all of Google's competitors have been lambasted for muddy ways of monetizing that didn't firmly explain what should go where, and whether it's paid for or not. Now that it has a monopoly position, Google is angling to do more of this muddy inclusion than any of its rivals ever did. Danny Sullivan, one of the only people in the industry who has followed the details of all forms of relationship between monetized and unmonetized search inventory, from Day One, of course called this right away in a column last week on Nov. 16, "Google Experiments with Paid Inclusion". And called "BS" on any attempt to deflect attention from this major shift in approach.
  • Google is ramping up a direct ad sales force and turning into the Yellow Pages, where it suits them. Folks, you can't buy all these various ad formats through a platform, and you don't have to adhere to an algorithm or an auction. Arguably, if you want to throw more money at Google, bunches more, for innovative forms of exposure and attention -- so innovative that they impact how Google manages the user interface, not just where it puts your message -- you're free to do so. Hello deep pockets, goodbye level playing field and transparent pricing.
  • Google, the search engine, is now heavily dominated by advertising and thinking about advertising. If you're into information, we suggest you consider Wolfram Alpha, or the local library.
I'm sure more bullet points could be enumerated, but that's the heart of it.

Heck, as a search advertising specialist, I should be thrilled. Maybe, but I'm also a search and information geek. Media buying is at the heart of what SEM geeks do, so I'll survive and so will our corporate clients, who seek ways to buy digital exposure on search engines and elsewhere. But I'm not entirely sure how anyone at Google can talk about their new ad formats cleaving to Google's "original principles" with a straight face, unless they're referring to an "original" principle that's all of two years old.

No one's holding a gun to anyone's head, of course. People love to shop. They love movies, and they love to compare mortgage rates. Hey, many consumers willingly watch infomercials. It's still a free country and you're still free to use or not use the engine and free to look or not look at the ads. But make no mistake, it's a significant change, and it comes at a time when the only significant challenge to Google's monopoly on commercial search in many markets is a search engine run by Microsoft.

Google's early experiments with blended search results made it seem like they never planned to charge anyone for appearing in a whole diversity of (often commercial) forms of listings. Viewed from a certain angle, it now looks like they're cooking up ways to charge everyone for everything. The free ride is rapidly coming to an end.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Friday, September 18, 2009

DoubleClick Ad Exchange: Myth (2009) and Reality (2012) of Display Ad Market Efficiency

Google has finally launched DoubleClick Ad Exchange with full plans to integrate the system with the AdWords platform. Although a long-anticipated development, it's still a "wow" time for our industry.

Google joins a number of other true exchanges of note, companies that have pioneered the idea of a true "bid-ask" system on display ad inventory. The most notable of these are ContextWeb, having gone so far as to dub their system "ADSDAQ," and Yahoo-owned Right Media.

The designers of such systems are the best ones to provide detailed explanations of how ad exchanges differ from ad networks, but transparency of bid and ask prices is probably how to sum it up. If you're a publisher in an ad network like AdSense or the thousands of others that have graced the industry since the 1990's, there is no direct communication with ad buyers. The intermediary tells you what you're going to get on a CPM or CPC basis, either in advance, or after the fact. You don't get to enter into a direct transaction with the buyer, and you don't have any clear sense of what the intermediary's "markup" is. That might lead publishers and advertisers to want to make a lot of individual transactions with one another, to cut out the intermediaries.

And that leads to a patchwork quilt whereby inefficient individualized ad buying and selling is taking place on "premium" inventory, and networks are stereotyped as buyers and sellers of "remnant" inventory only.

Meaning: the state of display today combines two unattractive qualities: a lack of transparency and a lack of efficiency. That there are too many networks just adds to the inefficiency problem: it's an industry ripe for consolidation.

Jonathan Mendez, in one ("The Market Forces Killing Display Advertising") of a series of complex posts, seems to agree that this is the sort of problem facing the display advertising sector. He also, however, predicts that the new exchanges will only make the problem worse: they'll "drive down media costs even further and become a new haven for performance advertising at the expense of [publishers]." If so, I suppose that's great news for advertisers. But there could be a different long-term dynamic at work. Mendez's point seems sound in that he integrates it with a perspective that shows market forces from search advertising being rudely applied to the formerly fat and happy world of display. In short, direct response is what drives much of paid search, whereas something else entirely (brand integration) is supposed to drive display, like it does on radio and TV. If display is being forced to play in the direct response world, those who formerly profited from that channel are at a loss as to what to do next as their margins (and raison d'etre) fade. If I interpret even 10% of Mendez's message right, it's sobering food for thought, regardless of how many brand channel strategists Google layers on top of its direct response and search-savvy core.

Perhaps, though, it's simply far too early to make this call. I'm drafting a potential counterpoint to Mendez's analysis that roughly says: maybe the display ad market today is simply prehistoric and inappropriately organized as far as buying and selling dynamics goes; what if it's like Google AdWords in the pre-CPC, fixed-CPM, non-tested, non-measured, clueless-buyer era of 2001? What if the number of participants in a well-designed auction matters a lot to publisher revenues, and we simply need more? What if measurement and attribution right now are in the dark ages, and the introduction of assists will help? What if new technology (features) to rate publishers, classes of inventory, characteristics of content, got built into the system for either manual or automated use? But that could be another 1,500 words.

For now, a few more thoughts on where the DoubleClick ad exchange may take us.

Here are some principles to consider:
  • Interoperability of networks: ecosystem sensitivity
  • Continued migration of ad dollars away from inefficient media
  • Applying the efficient auction principles of paid search to media buying as a whole
  • Chicken-egg scale issues
  • What kind of market is this? Will Google win with a capital W?
First, if a variety of networks can plug into the exchange and act as buyers, publishers may have a decent floor on their middling and remnant inventory. A "buyer" for a particular ad impression, then, could be any number of direct bidders participating in the DoubleClick exchange, or it could come in through outside networks who are also publishing in the DoubleClick exchange. That could mean a dual role for Google: (1) on one hand, hoping to create "the" platform for buying and selling ads, that improves the overall viability of the industry as it grows in size; (2) on the other, keeping the better outside networks in business, allowing them to buy and sell and even play around with arbitrage opportunities.

Second, the trend that won't appeal to traditional ad agencies and traditional publishers: dollars that can show clear ROI will be happier, so they'll be spend in this medium. The ongoing stampede continues.

Third - and this point is either scary or a forgone conclusion depending on your perspective - these principles will apply to all media someday: billboards, television, radio, product placement, etc. If you're a company like Google or Microsoft, you're thinking about organizing a platform to run that. Google did a pretty embarrassing job of doing this the first time around (radio, newspapers), which just proves you don't just snap your fingers and accomplish something like this. It's very early days.

Fourth, it looks like the early exchanges were sort of unsatisfying in the sense that their scale was understandably limited by how many participants were on either side of the transaction. If the buy isn't big enough, it's not worth the time to monitor your involvement with the platform. Signing up "sellers" (publishers) is a major prerequisite to making this work. And the pitch to them has to say something like: "we have millions of advertisers eagerly logging into our platform every day". Pretty much only Google (and maybe one or two other companies...maybe) can say that. This is a game-changer, potentially.

Point 4.5 is simply along the same lines, but it's probably important not to sidestep this issue. You don't draw up "market maker" logic in the abstract and then from there find great success. If the results to advertisers or publishers are lukewarm, they won't hide that fact, they'll simply stop using you. And unlike traditional ad networks and traditional media buying, your whole principle is that the exchange technology itself drives liquidity and sets prices. If that isn't working, you can't fall back on the sales team to grease the wheels; that would be incoherent. To date, some existing exchanges have suffered from the critical mass problems. Others have meted out condescending treatment to ad buyers, reverting to salespeople who promise to make a custom buy on the system, or work the system for you, as long as you commit to a certain budget. Hey guys, if you're trying to prevent me from logging in directly, then you're a mutual fund salesman exacting a fee; same old, same old.

So, point 5: is this a market like the one Amazon took by storm - a winner-take-all market where Google will enjoy market dominance? Or is it a market where first and second movers continue to do well (like the browser market, where Google only has 3% share, or the -opedia market, where the Google upstart product knol has nowhere the brand adoption of the original, Wikipedia)? How will Yahoo and Microsoft respond? For the record, I caught up with Jay Sears, EVP of ContextWeb, and he said: "We welcome Google to the ad exchange business. It's a terrific market validation to now have the two top exchanges in the market, including one that is independent."

We'll see how things shake out.

Something to think about: interoperable networks -- those less evolved creatures -- may do better in this ecosystem than competing exchanges. A clash of platforms is a true clash of superpowers; non-superpowers die. At most 2-3 leading platforms will win. Meanwhile, "app" creators (sub-players in the system) that work well within the leading platform are non-threatening to the leading platform makers, and don't need critical mass to be profitable within that environment.

In any case, to conclude by explaining what I meant by the title of this post: the display ad business is in a frustrating state, as every company developing products and services to serve that market seems to tell you in their booth pitch. The problem is that virtually none of these companies solve the problem; most make it worse, or sell you a futuristic solution adorned with "truthy" FAQ's, and then revert to old-school methods. In 2009, it's simply a myth that there is any satisfactory display ad system that is built to scale with a scaled-up marketplace of buyers and sellers. If that scale is reached - and I don't think it will be before 2012 - we may be in a quantitatively new ballpark.

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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




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 fašade 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




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




Saturday, June 13, 2009

Google to Hand a Huge Opportunity to Twitter?

Remember how Yahoo helped Google rise to prominence, then dominance, ultimately obliterating the search and portal brand that gave it that timely helping hand? If you've been in the industry less than five years, you don't. In 2001, Google's future was still far from assured. But the power its brand gained during its two-year partnership to display Google results on Yahoo did serious damage to Yahoo's brand, and bought Google the credibility it needed to move to top-of-mind as the world's leading search engine.

Is Google about to do the same favor to Twitter? On the surface, it seems that adding microblogging search capability that features mostly Twitter results would only benefit Google, by giving it equal or superior capability to the as-yet-to-be-honed Twitter Search. Another feature to solidify the world's leading search brand. So as for whether this helps Twitter do to Google what Google did to Yahoo: probably not. Google today is far more than Yahoo was in 2002-2004. Still, it's interesting to contemplate the possibility that a deal that looks only so-so for Twitter might have a salutary effect on Twitter's already strong brand, and turn out to be the mainstream exposure they needed to go from hot to white-hot.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Monday, May 25, 2009

Will Microsoft's Search Ad Campaign Work? (Groundhog Day... All Over Again)

So via AdAge, we're told that Microsoft is readying an $80mm+ advertising campaign, and that it will promote yet another brand of their search technology, this time, called Bing?

Further to Cory's piece about potential reasons for consumers to switch to Yahoo Search, now we have evidence that Microsoft plans to put not only persuasion, but money, into the "getting people to switch" effort.

What a shame, though, that these two companies don't get serious about working together to achieve that goal.

We can only be excited about the potential for Microsoft to create better technology in the space. Competition is good. But it's already a concern when the story is shaping up to be more about the promo of the alternative to Google, as opposed to the technology it actually offers. That's certainly been the case with the various lavish Ask campaigns (and I still won't forget when their PR people wanted me to write about the "significance of getting rid of the butler," as they saw it), and we all know that all that money didn't move the needle on market share.

The premise is that search technology doesn't matter all that much, and that brand does: you put a Google skin on other people's search, and consumers still prefer the Google. Sure, but how did Google build that brand? Through innovation, focus, and technology... not advertising. And by keeping the *same* brand for ten years. I don't think consumers are going to be compelled by the "meta-story" of how Microsoft is (again) spending a lot of money to make (another) stab at the search space.

Microsoft and Yahoo are already working together on some cross-promotion efforts. But the $80mm standalone campaign for the Bing technology seems to work at cross-purposes with that.

With one major search engine (Yahoo, say) benefitting from the largesse of toolbar love from 96% of browser share (IE, Firefox, + Safari, say), a real alternative could be created organically out of how consumers already behave, and how they already think about online brands.

So rather than waste breath casting aspersions on the potential cash sinkhole that could be opened trying to build the Bing brand, I'll vote again for the only major brand alternative to Google that makes economic and emotional sense to a wide cross-section of consumers: Yahoo.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Friday, May 22, 2009

Could Anti-Google Choices Re-Energize Yahoo?

Can declarations by tech celebrities (the technorati, as it were) start a snowball effect that impact the usage patterns of regular people? It doesn't always happen, but such sentiments can galvanize the crowd in certain cases, especially when attached to widely shared sentiments of fairness, transparency, and equity that have given rise to significant shifts in the locus of high tech power in recent years (such as, no less, the Open Source movement).

In other cases, falling well short of embracing open source models, consumers become more open to a second-place private-enterprise power because they see it as, at least, an "alternative." In the search space, that's why so many have continued to hope that Yahoo! stays solidly on the map.

Gina Trapani, the influential founding editor of Lifehacker, one of the most popular blogs around, says she's dumping Google search in favor of Yahoo! search. While this isn't exactly the equivalent of Jay-Z dropping Cristal and throwing his support to Dom Perignon, it may well be the start of a trend.

Before going down that road, it's worth noting that various pundits have previously predicted Google backlashes before, in 2007 and even 2003, and it seems to be a recurring theme every few years. Who knows, maybe we'll be saying the same thing two years henceforth in 2011.

But this time it feels a bit different.

As Google's supremacy over its rivals has quickened and as the Big G has begun intruding more aggressively on others' turf, concern over a potential Google monopoly is growing in many corners. This has caused many people to step back and ponder the consequences of an ascendant Google.

Recently, Ralph Tegtmeier (aka fantomaster aka the Dark Lord Voldemort of Cloaking) wrote a compelling piece comparing Google's burgeoning hegemony to the Kraken. Andrew and I debated it internally for quite a while, trying to decide whether concerns over Google are about to cross over from conspiracy theory territory into full "Google is actually becoming evil" land. Even the most forgiving of Google fans would have second thoughts of entrusting so much personal data to one company after reading fantomaster's take.

This unease with putting too many eggs in one basket is part of the reason why I've decided not to use Google Chrome as my primary browser, even after Chrome gets full extension capability similar to Firefox, which many people predict will lead to a mass abandonment of Firefox for Chrome. For similar reasons, I've also uninstalled the Google Toolbar from Firefox now that many Toolbar features are available inside the browser (I didn't really use the Toolbar much anyway). There's just too much data being beamed back home to Mountain View than seems necessary.

We've seen this sentiment repeated in other ways.

One of our clients at Page Zero opted not to install Google's Sitemap Generator due to data privacy sensitivity, despite the fact that they happily fork over their site activity to Google through Google Analytics. Their belief was that GSG acts as a network "switch" of sorts, with all server requests coming and going through GSG, and believed this would give away far too much sensitive information.

Search Engine Land has been chronicling the various anti-trust concerns associated with Google lately, concerns that seem to be proliferating more every week. For its part, Google is proactively attempting to blunt the momentum of this movement with their recent "charm offensive." Whether they succeed in fending off anti-trust actions in the future remains to be seen.

One thing seems certain. Just as the U.S. government's inquiries into Microsoft's business practices in the late '90s gave organizations like Red Hat and Firefox a vital opening, something similar is bound to happen with Google if it gets too big for its britches.

Could the main beneficiary of this be an old-timer like Yahoo?

It's conceivable that some shrewd moves by Yahoo! could lead to a reversal of Yahoo's declining search market share, and perhaps a resurgence to something on the order of 25% search share in the next few years.

Recall that Google's search distribution deal with Firefox expires in November 2011. It's a safe assumption that Google won't renew it due to their increasing support of Google Chrome. Or another way to look at it is, with Firefox's market share hovering around 20%, and perhaps headed to over 30%, Firefox might feel emboldened to be the one dictating terms. Regardless, Google must be a bit worried about Chrome's meager market share, as they've begun running TV ads for Chrome, a first for Google.

Mozilla could soon be in a position to be a quasi-king maker. They're independent-minded and, having emerged as a credible alternative to Internet Explorer even among mainstream users, they seem to be on a mission of sorts. If they decide to place a crown on Yahoo's proverbial head, things could get very interesting. Maybe we'll once again see a more diverse search landscape sooner than we think.

By the way, it's worth noting that last year Yahoo acquired the popular search-based extension Inquisitor, which I find myself using on a regular basis these days. It's a fine tool that I highly recommend to every FF user. Oh, and guess which search engine is set as the default? Yep, Yahoo.

Ultimately, I'm all for personalization and targeted advertising, and I don't really have a beef with Google knowing a lot of information about me. But there comes a point when too much is enough. When I realized just how much I rely on Google's services, it hit me like a slap in the face from Moe the bartender. Like Gina Trapani, I think there's nothing wrong at all with spreading the love around.

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Posted by Cory Kleinschmidt




Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Google Hurdles Headlong Into Real-Time Search

As widely reported in connection with their Searchology event, Google has introduced a feature to allow you to set the results to display "past 24 hours" (similar in a way to the feeling you would get searching Twitter, or Google News by recency). As the screen shot below shows, that same pane opens up a variety of other advanced search options. Once viewing recent results, you can switch the sorting mechanism away from "by relevancy," to "most recent."


In Marissa Mayer's and Jack Menzel's post about the new features, they also allude to the increased use of "rich snippets" to display review content graphically, for example. (Similar to Yahoo's Searchmonkey initiative.)

These developments open up a new type of search behavior - further solidifying the notion that many different users will see more and more different results pages with content differently ordered. Although not unfolding exactly as described long ago in these pages, the principle of users taking charge of the "algorithm" (or at least becoming more comfortable with displaying search results in a form that is more useful to them) is gradually taking hold.

An excerpt from Traffick's post in 2004:

So that's the future as this glassy-eyed pundit hopes to see it: a search engine that works like a sophisticated flight simulator, with a bunch of dials and instruments formerly available only to classified personnel. But to the extent that your settings become comfortable to you, it would be a flight simulator operated largely on autopilot. Now that would be one sweet ride!

Keep in mind, though, that at that time, Marissa Mayer flatly stated in a Q&A at SES that hardly any users wanted to use advanced features. What seems to have happened is that Google sometimes believes behavioral data about what people actually do, rather than looking at possibilities that don't show up in straightforward tests. As such, Google can be a reactive company despite its labs and vast resources. No one would debate that the current focus on real-time search and rich snippets was moved up on Google's agenda by the popularity of Twitter and Yelp, and flashes of innovation shown by competitors like (yes) Yahoo.

Reactive business, arguably, is smart business. Who, after all, could have predicted the Twitter phenomenon?

Takeaways for search marketers, aka business owners thinking about their search visibility:

1. Marissa is right: a small percentage of users access advanced search features. That will continue to be the case. 85% or more of searchers will continue just typing words into toolbars, the search box, or the address bar, and "play around." Only a small percentage will be using the advanced features.

1A. As such, fresh content and the like matters, but don't be obsessed with the idea purely for the algorithm's sake. 100% of users aren't going to be switching on the Twitterizer when they perform a search on Google.

2. That said, Google may begin to infer your preferences and turn those features on for you, or flash different types of content in oneboxes and so on. SERP's will look different for every user. The notion of where your company ranks on certain keywords becomes ever more fluid. More sophisticated assessments of search referral analytics are a must to gain insight into your user behavior (but then again, you'll need to think about how to gain insight into the users who aren't finding you, and figure out why).

3. A diversity of content production and community-facing PR strategies are needed to be seen by a variety of searchers. Algorithm-literal SEO strategies are dying. Comprehensive SEO strategies are on the rise. And in contrast to the awkwardly-named Orion Panel we're putting together for SES Toronto in June (Is PageRank Broken? The Future of Search), PageRank is not broken per se. It's just becoming increasingly irrelevant. (The name of the panel is my fault.)

4. The more things change... the more they stay the same
: The ads always seem to stay prominent, don't they? Google doesn't seem to be sweating about the revenue impact of making changes to how search functions.

Not a takeaway, but fascinating anyway: it's even more interesting today to ponder who is going to acquire Twitter (Microsoft or Google), or whether they can really stick it out alone. Does Google not want Twitter? Does Twitter not want Google? Does the world not want Twitter inside Google? Are they haggling on price or not talking? Are you as curious as I am?

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Wednesday, May 06, 2009

On Brand Keyword 'Extortion'

As often happens, Danny has about 40 more paragraphs in him than I do on this issue -- Jim Spanfeller of Forbes moaning about Google at PaidContent.org -- but I do have a couple to spare.

On one hand, I actually think Spanfeller is within his rights to talk about Google's growing power. His is not the only sector rocked by the bad economy, and in the sense of figuring out who produces things of genuine value and who profits the most from that value, it's a valid armchair discussion. Are we getting away from rewarding productive people and companies for their contributions to our society or economy?

That said, who can take seriously the CEO of a company whose brand is an emblem of capitalism itself, raising Marxian concepts of "use value"? Forbes as humble content-producing "worker". Google as monopolistic "robber baron." Nice touch.

On the specifics of Google "forcing" brands to buy their own names as keywords: Danny rightly points out that no one has a gun to anyone's head. We work with this day-to-day for a wide variety of companies, and I really think when you start getting into a discussion like this, you have to dig into the details, not just spout off like a stereotypical CEO pointing at the SERP's on the screen and not really understanding what he's seeing.

On the legal and related moral aspects of who buys brand keywords for what purpose, as Danny points out in his example of selling his old Forbes magazines in a garage sale, brand names are going to be part of sellers' content and their advertising in many ways. They could be distributors, partners, writers of articles about companies, and many other things. Some trademark owners wish the law allowed them total control of every use of their brand name in every context. However, that's not what the law does, for very practical reasons.

But where I'd really like to zero in, is on the paltry sum it's costing the biggest companies to voluntarily buy their brand keywords (which convert extremely well to sales, and maybe better than organic varieties of listing that might get clicked more often if you don't bid on your brand keyword... the conversions are better because you tailor the copy, test the landing pages for response, etc.) in the AdWords auction. Larger companies have these garish line items for all sorts of marketing. Money going out the door in megabuck quantities based on whims and untested theories.

Meanwhile, one of the greatest sites for visibility in the world, Google, gets a few hundred k out of you for some keywords that happen to return a positive ROI. While sending you millions in free publicity from the organic SERP's.

It's a pittance to pay. And yet because of the Stereotypical CEO Pointing at the Screen syndrome, we're supposed to be all upset, because the law, or morality, or something else, should be forcing Google as some kind of public utility to hand over advertising space for free? Advertising has never worked that way. If Forbes wants Rich Beem to wear the Forbes logo on his cap so that every time someone watches him place 58th on a PGA tour event, they might glimpse the logo and remember the brand, does Rich sell the space for free? If you want people to pay attention to you and react in a certain way in a media venue, you pay to distract them. Google is a private company, not some public trust functioning as a "universal lookup service." Especially not one in service of any given CEO's exact wishes for the details of online navigation.

Where it really comes into focus is Spanfeller's focus on how much money Google is making. Because when you add it all up, Google takes in a lot of revenue. So? Why should you care how wealthy someone else is getting? Especially if individually, what they're "misallocating" from you is a pittance compared to various other forms of marketing? By rallying other poor, beleaguered businesses together so that collectively, they might whine about some sort of Mass Misallocation, Spanfeller seems to be calling for some revolutionary overthrow of our Google overlords, and buying into the Politics of Envy besides... flaky left-wing thinking I'm sure hundreds of his company's columnists have weighed in on over the years.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Monday, April 13, 2009

Perception, Not Reality, Could Topple Google in Search

Reading recent Twitter-will-crush-Google musings, it looks like the reasoning goes something like this: Google cannot do real-time search as well as Twitter. Ergo, Twitter will take over as a search engine people turn to for this type of information.

There is a chance that a growing Twitter could make significant inroads on that front. But it wouldn't be because Google lacks the capability. They can develop or add this relatively quickly on a variety of fronts, and the results could often be more useful. Over the weekend I typed "Kenny Perry" into Google and saw a custom result at the top of the page that actually noted his position on the current Masters leaderboard (at the time: T3). Adding more real-time capability isn't something that Google just thought of yesterday. What people are really saying when they say "Google can't do real time" is "Google isn't Twitter." Twitter is the current Lovemark in the space. If you're not them, then you're something else. No feature build will fix that, because it's all about who's there at what time. It's not like Google can index your direct messages inside Twitter or organize all the information in the same way Twitter and Twitter apps do.

The fact that Google can do the immediacy thing, and could add more of it to the mix, might not make any difference to users, then. If people want to use Twitter as a starting point for their social and informational lives, then increasingly they will.

And of course, given Twitter's major shortcomings, it's very possible that it's a placeholder for a sentiment of community and immediacy that is happening at a certain place in time. As I wrote here on a perfect April day eight years ago, online communities endure as platforms come and go. (Remember kids, online community is like Christine, the haunted 1958 Plymouth.) As sure as day turns to night, in a few years, everyone will migrate somewhere else, and you'll have to migrate with them to stay connected.

As community and peer based thought have risen to the forefront, we may finally - after a ten-year run - be seeing the all-powerful concept of "search" losing ground to a new dominant metaphor: "share". By "losing ground", I mean this could be merely as a concept, or it could be in the sense of "what's the first place people think of to go online to solve a problem or get information?" By and large, it's been Google in this decade. Many have said that will give way to Facebook, as if one is somehow mutually exclusive to the other. Still, the fact that Google "isn't sticky" -- a threat many analysts used to level at the search giant, and one that increasingly looked laughable as repeat visits and profits piledu up -- could indeed be its Achilles heel in the coming years.

This shift didn't just happen yesterday, but it seems to be gelling.

Of all their many strengths, Google's key weakness is that they really own none of the top-of-mind brands in collaboration, community, and sharing (not counting GMail and GTalk of course, which are formidable but also private, and not counting YouTube): Facebook, Skype, Twitter, all major brands that somehow Google couldn't surpass with in-house offerings.

Not only does this weakness threaten to paint Google in a light it's never been comfortable with -- big, impersonal corporation -- an acquisition of any of these properties wouldn't do much to change that situation because the user bases would lament the loss of an "independent" community. Yahoo began facing up to that difficult paradox more than a decade ago, and arguably hasn't done much to solve it. Independent digital brands engender a lot of loyalty and enthusiasm for their pioneering spirit, but they have trouble scaling, so they sell out to the big brands. And that allows the cycle to begin anew.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Thursday, March 19, 2009

Yes, Twitter's Business Model Is To Be Acquired, and Yes, It Will Be

This is the type of subject matter we set out to write about nearly ten years ago when we launched Traffick. And I'm a little surprised that we're still writing about it.

The upshot is Google is a massive funnel today. So not all of its individual lines of business need to make near-term profit. But the whole enterprise, right now, is geared towards dominating core streams of user attention and user functionality, with enough of that attention being monetized through advertising to pay for everything. That's the kind of scale the major players in the same race are all seeking. And it colors the prospects of standalone services looking to be acquired (or pretending to want to go it alone).

When we launched this site, our subhead/tagline was "The Guide to Portals" or "The Portal Portal". At the time, the "portal wars" raged. They don't call them that anymore, but the principle is still the same. In this emerging space of core online standards or starting points, or diversified digital lifestyle brands, or however you want to describe them, there's room for only a few major players. Since AOL took the lead in the area with Yahoo following on as the savvier version of same, the leading digital lifestyle monopolists have knitted together their various services in such a way that they keep you in their garden, or at least coming back. They had various grand visions of how they would accomplish that; few predicted that one feature -- search -- would be at the heart of the grand takeover of first place by Google, which hasn't looked back in years. Many of those schemes revolved around the idea that the ISP would be the lock-in point. Some thought nice features (better email) would do it. Microsoft hoped the browser or the OS would return them to universal dominance. Just buying up a big enough percentage of the important online stuff was another theory. IAC Interactive pursued that path, but never far enough to get anywhere close to scale. The others have played the "buy not build" game enthusiastically at times. They have to! User loyalty can't always be produced out of thin air. Orkut, Knol, and a good list of other Google inventions may never dominate their verticals.

Every so often a standalone service would emerge that would be so popular on its own it would be eagerly snapped up by one of the leading players. Sometimes it helped them build a nice feature (Rocketmail became Yahoo Mail) or add something viral and even more cool than many realized at first (ICQ by AOL). Yahoo made many great bets, though paying staggering sums for some of them: eGroups and Geocities beefed up community. They made some subtle bets (Flickr) and some awful ones (Broadcast.com). Their aggressiveness has left them where they are today: in second place (not bad). History buffs know that many wannabes (Excite, AltaVista, Go2Net) died unceremoniously, failing to reach top of mind.

Yep, this is all about scale - sustainable scale, but scale to be sure. Few of the standalone services would be household names today without those mega-acquisitions. They'd be popular, and bankrupt.

Google has made some subtle acquisitions (Applied Semantics, Blogger, Dejanews, Keyhole) and some stunning ones (YouTube), while developing far more great products and functionality in-house than any of their competitors. Without both the subtle and stunning acquisitions, they most certainly wouldn't be in the position they're in today.

In any case, this post is supposed to be about Twitter. Nielsen's recent report shows the service growing a stunning 1,328 percent year over year.

How to interpret this? One one hand you have the camp that understands what such a rapid growth rate means in this space. It's a rush of user attention - a locus of operations for the savviest of users that is now crossing the chasm to become a mainstream attention - that the big guys just cannot ignore. The month-over-month growth numbers are hugely important to anyone watching.

On the other hand you have the chicken littles who say that companies like Twitter have no business model.

Both are right. It's much harder for a get-big-fast online service to build a business model on their own than it is to sell. On the other hand, if they dominate a category, they can be pretty scary to the big guys.

The best precedent would be with YouTube. YouTube could have made a lot of noise about wanting to stick around for the long term, but where would they be today had they not sold to Google or someone else? It takes a long time to continue growing and investing in a platform before monetizing in a way that doesn't kill your user base. On the other hand, Google Video had largely failed. YouTube was already the People's Platform for online video. In the end, Google got great value for money. They talked the price down by referring to the copyright threats that were in the air.

The "poor man's email service" that is Twitter is both growing so fast that it cannot be ignored, and it has no credible way of handling all of the coming hyper-growth *and* monetizing in time to keep itself afloat financially, despite raising large sums of money. (Facebook's in a similar position but that's a separate topic.) Like YouTube, it is hurdling headlong towards an acquisition, in a game of chicken with the leading potential acquirers to see who can hold out the longest.

Which brings us to the question of which gigantic company can afford to underwrite such high-volume expansion that will eventually funnel into a bigger monetization picture, as Google did with YouTube.

It's an uncomfortable scenario in that Yahoo has been forced into a frugal state, and simply cannot afford to acquire Twitter. That's most uncomfortable for Twitter, as it leaves them looking at Microsoft -- who took an expensive stake in Facebook -- and Google as the only two logical acquirers. Oddball acquisitions can happen -- see eBay & Skype -- but they aren't ideal in the sense that the oddball could get spun out again in a couple of years, and who's to say the oddball acquirer would be the proper environment for growth.

In a weird sense, Twitter is most like ICQ, in the sense that it's gone viral and offers a certain kind of immediacy at a certain moment in digital communication history. AOL isn't the kind of company that acquires a Twitter today, though.

For companies like Twitter, the messy and as-yet-unconsolidated patchwork left by the also-rans (Microsoft, Yahoo, AOL) in the digital space may be bad news valuation-wise, as it creates too many distractions for these lesser candidates, and points so heavily towards a single acquirer.

Make no mistake about it, if Twitter can't find themselves an acquirer with deep pockets, and soon, they are in deep trouble. They are actually growing too fast.

Eric Schmidt's comments about Twitter being a "poor man's email service" may have been even more telling than we realize. Twitter under Google could go anywhere, but the literal interpretation of its value is typically how Google would look at the value at first. Could you slap targeted contextual text ads next to people's Twitter streams -- that look much like a thread in GMail? Why yes. And how much money do those ads make for Google? A healthy sum, but nothing stupendous. So in looking at Twitter as analogous to GMail, Schmidt is actually trying to put a real-world value on the company. And he's trying to knock that value down a peg from the hyped values that refer to untried monetization methods.

A similar game of chicken happened before -- with YouTube. And the valuation was a bargain for Google and didn't exactly make paupers out of the company founders and their investors. If I had to lay down a chip, I'd expect Google to acquire Twitter by the middle of May. We'll see.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Thursday, January 29, 2009

Rewards for Search: Yahoo Canada Teams Up With Air Miles

Toolbar installation for cash or points isn't new. It has an uneven history in Internet lore, with the crash and burn of a few schemes back in 2000 as they were overrun by teens and hackers gaming the systems.

That wasn't the only reason I was skeptical when Microsoft rolled out a program to reward users for the searches they do, a few months back. (It's been a modest success, while share of non-incented searching on Live Search seems to be still declining.) It's also because people are not always eager to change their behavior just to get some small reward. Changing brand loyalty from Google to another search engine would take more than just points, you would think.

So how will this program whereby Yahoo (teamed up with a toolbar software company) rewards Air Miles cardholders for the searches they do, shake out? Will people switch to Yahoo just for the points? Well, they pick credit cards on that basis. But it probably isn't the reason why I bought Tropicana orange juice over another brand.

Despite not being overly impressed with all incentive schemes, I do know that some loyalty programs are much more popular than others. People love Air Miles. (They love real air miles even more, so a frequent flyer program toolbar like Aeroplan might be a bit more exciting.)

Still, one of the key reasons Air Miles works and keeps working is that your behavior is constantly being prompted. The clerk at the store, or the display at the gas station, asks you if you've got an Air Miles card. That isn't happening with your choice of, say, search engines or browsers (and when it does, unless it's at the top of your device or OS setup funnel, i.e. when you're just configuring it, you tend to get annoyed at the "browser war" or "search war" that puts all these prompts in your face).

So for this to work, somebody needs to prompt web users to install a toolbar or to make use of a loyalty program. Otherwise, far fewer searchers are going to take the trouble to make the switch. I'm sure a purple flyer in the Air Miles mailing will help. But that won't be enough, either.

That's why a merger between Microsoft and Yahoo (or, given that Microsoft isn't interested, the all-encompassing partnership they're probably going to work on) makes so much sense. If Microsoft, along with other players such as the makers of computers and mobile devices, prompt owners of new computers, new software, new OS's, etc., with the reminder to install the toolbar or to activate it with the rewards card information, now you're seeing some serious adoption that might win some market share back from Google... who would be unlikely to follow suit, as it would look tacky for the market leader to try to copycat such a transparent attempt to bribe people to use their search engine.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Yahoo Ad Agreement: Google Won't Proceed

My sources just informed me that Google has pulled out of the advertising agreement with Yahoo, citing regulatory interference.

Although it is a short term loss to Yahoo's bottom line, I believe ultimately it's healthier for competition to keep the two companies more at arm's length and for Yahoo to continue to develop their own, proprietary platforms.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Saturday, October 04, 2008

Is this what you do after you win?

Pretty cool. If you search Google for "flickr," the first result is not only the Flickr site, but offers a nice search box so you can search Flickr right from the Google SERP's page.

Downright even-handed, I must say.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Thursday, August 07, 2008

Revenge of the Straw Man Argument: Jarvis Unhinged

Jeff Jarvis, apparently writing a book called What Would Google Do?, must have Michel Foucault spinning delightedly in his grave, as he has just discovered post-modernity! Jarvis asserts that "the Internet" is what "... opens up creativity past one-size-fits-all mass measurements and priestly definitions."

I understand that as a journalism professor whose job apparently hinges on the lucrative current trade in old-media-bashing, Jarvis sort of has to say this stuff. "Curmudgeons" don't get invited to a lot of parties. And I gather that Jarvis is the sort who likes to be invited to a lot of (new economy style) parties, else he'd just hang onto his tenure and sleepwalk his way through the ivy-encrusted halls.

But like other champions of emerging media, is he laying it on just a tad thick?

Jarvis claims that "Internet curmudgeons argue that Google et al are bringing society to ruin precisely because they rob the creative class of its financial support and exclusivity: its pedestal." Ah yes, the pedestal thing. Why hire trained, overpriced architects to build that new museum or skyscraper? Let's crowdsource it. It'll be cheaper, more efficient, and most of all, exhilaratingly non-pedestal-ish! The only downside: if you hate it, you have no one to point the finger at.

Got yourself a legal problem? Just bring your laptop into the courtroom with you, and plug in an app that will let a global group of legal enthusiasts construct your next argument. Bye, bye, legal profession! Goodbye to all the professions! And while we're at it, let's eliminate professionalism, period! (Hmm, am I sounding curmudgeonly?)

But get serious for a second. The creative class? There is a whole slew of curmudgeons sitting around defending ... who again? Show me one of these curmudgeons. And what creative class? Is Jarvis referring to Richard Florida's creative class, from Rise of the Creative Class et al.? This is merely a broad-based statistical group making up upwards of 30-40% of workers -- so hardly a group that Florida lauds as an enlightened few. That Creative Class tends to flock to mega-regions, tolerant and fun places, etc. Nearly all of Florida's work, including his recent Who's Your City?, is important enough for anyone to read. Jarvis hasn't bothered, even though he punts the concept around for sport.

Stunningly, at the end of his post, Jarvis notes that he never managed to crack a Richard Florida book on the creative class, though he purports to have at least bought one. And the reason it's OK to torch imaginary arguments not really made by statistically-grounded authors like Florida? Because "books are such an echo chamber." Ha ha. Take that, books! Said the author of a new book. Deliciously decadent irony.

So if it isn't Florida that defends some kind of straw man creative class, then who does? Who's dumping on the explosion of pro-am culture *because* it robs a rightful creative class of their deserved role in society? No one? Hardly anyone, then. Some people who rip into the Huffington Post, perhaps; I'm at best dimly aware of these people because I only take occasional peeks into that particular echo chamber (blog-bashing and blog-basher-bashing, etc.).

I'll be looking forward to, um, reluctantly reading Jarvis' book... but as he is a self-described "Internet triumphalist," his book sounds like it may be a flavor of Kool-Aid that's already in oversupply.

An outdated and naive hat tip to the "link economy," our "culture of links" that is a "meritocracy" (yes, that was Google's idea in 1998, but has anything changed?) isn't helping. Jarvis goes on at some length about how the crowd can ferret out merit (yawn), but I don't think you have to be a curmudgeon to think that at some point, online voting systems and online culture can drag us into a kind of perpetual, unreflective adolescence. But more importantly, they can be gamed.

We're on the cusp of yet more progress in the use of technology to gather data and opinions, some of that used in a more tailored bid to inform and shape public policy. (A good friend of mine is putting together a citizen input platform right now -- there will be no shortage of fun developments like this.) But Internet technology aside, models of direct democracy and improved decision-making have merited serious debate in academic and political circles since the 1960's. Is there really a need for breathless, one-way evangelism in this effort? There will be plenty of hurdles, corruption, shenanigans, victims, and hiccups, and an ongoing battle with the garbage-in, garbage-out problem. Jarvis sounds like he's just encountering this debate for the first time -- from a peculiar angle that post-dates the death of Kurt Cobain and the founding of Yahoo.

To me, the sinister sides and hucksterism that can come with [Whatever it is that Jarvis plans to say Google would do] are as real as the wins. I find it galvanizing to watch society opening up, and to watch formerly inefficient industries give way to smarter models, but I hardly sit back and cheer when perfectly talented writers and producers of TV shows (to use one example) are threatened with crowd-sourcing and Reality-TV-ification, in order to drive down their pay. And hey, I think we've all learned that you can automate 75% or more of radio... that we're no longer in the spell of the Big Network Anchors... and that many of the other talent-worshiping Grand Narratives are being unwound. But then there's Howard Stern, asking for and getting a quarter of a billion dollars to be Howard Stern, also proving the opposite point.

The no-doubt-curmudgeonly counter-book to Jarvis' book might well be entitled "Beware the Tactical Uses of Internet Triumphalism." And if you're the straw man in Jarvis' sights: duck for cover!

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Did Google Use Ad Planner to Gauge Digg Acquisition Value?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Meet the New Boss, Google -- And the Coming War of Free

Henry Blodget's post on the impending crisscrossing of lines on Google's and Microsoft's core businesses is timely. In 2009 sometime, Google's search ads business will be larger and more profitable than Microsoft's core Windows operating system business. (If Microsoft is lucky, that won't be the day Google launches a hostile takeover bid for Microsoft, a development Sergey Brin slyly alluded to several years ago, when such talk could easily be dismissed as a joke, or painful delusions of grandeur.)

Cloud computing, and ad-supported online business models are assumed to be a new naturally dominant business model. Chris Anderson has begun talking about the "power of free," as he gets set to release a new book on the concept.

But I think many analysts fail to grasp the complexity of the scenario. (Well, maybe it isn't that complex, actually. My wife, who teaches labour market theory among other things, notes that China can win a lot of business by simply undercutting other companies in the garment sector. But then India, or somewhere else, undercuts them. The result isn't beneficial to the guys who did the first round of undercutting.)

Today, Google is very wealthy, from a core economic driver. It is so wealthy, it is able to give away many products and services for free - sometimes, after acquiring a leading paid or freemium player in a space. This activity has been rampant. Blogger was acquired and its premium version was given away for free. Google Analytics continues to grow in sophistication. It costs $10,000 - $200,000 less than competing products; i.e. it's free. Google Checkout simply undercuts the pricing of PayPal on merchant services. Google Docs and Spreadsheets takes aim at Microsoft Office, and again, it's free.

This is what Microsoft used to do. It used to take out whole lines of business by adding them as a "feature" to Windows or Office. Now, it seems, the tables may have turned. Microsoft could only do that when it had a natural monopoly. That's being whittled away by open source, cloud computing, and giveaways galore. Much of that competition is going to come directly from Google.

So why do some analysts feel that Google itself is immune from tit-for-tat, any more than China can lose garment trade to an even cheaper competitor?

As consumers find ways of getting what they need from companies who choose to make it accessible with no advertising, ad supported models themselves are shaky. Brin has often said it himself: a competitor is only a click away. I can't avoid all commercial messages: I can't drive on a different highway, use a different subway platform, or wriggle out of my airline seat. It's a bit difficult to miss the glossy ads on the magazine I choose to read. And some messages, I actively seek. Google's business isn't going away anytime soon. But the real heyday of Google from a consumer standpoint might have been in the years when expectations of future profit (and some funding still in the bank) were subsidizing a search site that showed *no* ads.

[And as an aside, it's essentially the same phenomenon and "ethos" (an "ethos" that is more of an economic model dependent on acquisition or massive funding) that drives many Web 2.0 companies. Many of them make the mistake of divorcing "the power of free" from the need to be acquired. Others are smart enough to know when to fold 'em, for healthy valuations.]

If "free" is so great, then isn't even freer even better?

There is a certain false cleverness, then, about business models that smugly give stuff away to put others out of business, based on the knowledge that some other parts of an enormous (and hopefully, diversified) conglomerate can subsidize the insanely great deal consumers are getting on the other stuff. It works as long as that profitable part is safe! For most companies, it isn't.

Make no mistake though, for a handful of gigantic companies, these models are *very* clever and they work very well. The overall profitability comes from bringing a very large number of consumers and businesses into the "fold," and figuring out how to maximize profits from the few areas that consumers will actually "pay" for. Yes, in an era when everything seems free, I even have to put "pay for" in scare quotes.

That's why today I dub the large Internet companies (we used to call them portals) Super Funnels. It's far more complex than just the rather simplistic idea that we can offer cloud-based services cheaper, or free, or support whole lines of businesses with ads. But it is all about the rampant amount of investment capital and cash flow that makes it possible to create amazing user experiences and products that cost very little... as long as some element of the whole process, and hopefully many elements, are wildly profitable. Achieving this is not like falling off a log. The funnel has to be very well engineered, and the pockets have to be very deep.

Connected to my analysis (which basically says, beware of "the power of free" if all that means is an ad-supported model that assumes x% of users will tolerate and act upon advertising) is the rampant assumption that display ads online are holding up well as an economic model. What are the CTR's and ROI on such ads? So poor, metrics gurus have to come up with new measures that disguise the lack of engagement. Where people are really going to share and interact - platforms like Facebook - will let you bother users for a $0.30 CPM... and this may be the high-water mark.

Search ads are largely safe, for now, because they are quasi-classifieds, and because Google engineers the ad program to make the ads and the sites they lead to actually as good as or better than the sites in the organic/blended index results. That leads to the question, won't somebody eventually come up with more pleasing organic index results? What if someone releases something very, very good, and makes it available without ads for three years? They'll need a few hundred million dollars to try that stunt on any serious scale.

Can someone out-Google Google? Eventually, someone will, but for now the discourse of "the power of free" will sync up well with the next 5-10 years of Google hyperprofits. It's just a mischaracterization that "free" has true power, divorced from its rare, Super Funnel context. Google is the most efficient Super Funnel today, which will continue to be very disruptive to former dominant ones like Microsoft (other targets will be phone monopolies and the list goes on). To get back to a scale that can challenge Google's dominance, Microsoft has been rightly looking to bulk up to achieve more scale in today's dominant ("power of so-called free") business model. Hence its interest in Yahoo, Facebook, and others. Can Microsoft "go it alone" in this quest, as the current discourse of Ballmer and Gates suggests? It's highly doubtful. If they do not return to several bargaining tables soon, the buildout will take too long.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




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