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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




Monday, February 26, 2007

Seth on Contextual Ad Targeting

Seth Godin wonders whether media buyers are right to pull ads off Google's and Yahoo's contextual networks because of how loosey-goosey they are with their approach to placement -- they match ads to pages, rather than allowing the advertiser "channel control."

While it's true that Y!&Goog would benefit from better sites joining their networks, I agree with Seth that being so afraid to show your ads on "Joe Schmo's Sports site" could be doing the client a disservice.

I thought we already had this debate. In the early going, lot of us were critical of the contextual ad programs for a number of reasons - mine was simply the poor performance, fraudulent or crapulent publisher partners, etc. Others in the biz, with more of an agency bent (and most likely to cheer for Quigo, Sprinks, etc.), demanded that Google's content targeting allow more direct control of what websites ads show up on, as opposed to forcing advertisers to accept the open-ended "smart matching" concept that used semantic technology to match ads with content.

So... first Google responded with site exclusion. Then, they released a site-targeted flavor of content targeting, in a parallel program. That as a direct response to these agency-style demands. Site targeting allows you to browse a menu of sites, add them to your list, and only show your ads on them.

I monitored ads running in both flavors for several months. A funny thing happened: the old "flawed" content targeting program got better, and my approach to managing those campaigns improved. The ROI came in line with search. Meanwhile, nothing on the "site targeting" side was converting. The performance was much worse.

At a couple of conference presentations I guessed that this is in part because computers do a lot better job of matching my ads against a million potential candidate pages than I possibly can in scanning down a list of 50 so-so potential publisher targets. You settle on 20 or so of these sites, then become obsessed with spending the full budget on just those. They convert poorly, so you've overspent on this handful of websites. That's a fairly typical scenario.

In short, because of computers aiding in the matching, classic content targeting offers more efficiency, as the systems get perfected.

Seth, both the intuition and the data point towards there being nothing inherently wrong with Google's approach to matching ads with content. No, the program isn't perfect, but placing high-CPM ads on big brand sites just because I want to appear respectable isn't exactly a challenge. It's more of the same: take too much of the client's money, and waste it, and claim the blue-chippiness of that approach as a benefit.

Both approaches -- the finicky put-me-only-here approach, and the "ROI-or-else" approach -- work in the marketplace. For very different reasons. Funnily enough, Google now offers two parallel programs to suit different ad buying constituencies, and are working on rolling out multiple ad products down the road, to keep everyone happy.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




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