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Archive for June, 2010

Fertility Rates, the Psychic Octopus, and World Cup Outcomes

Monday, June 28th, 2010

What do you get if you spend a week pondering life, climbing hills in Italy, watching football, reading Super Freakonomics, and then come home to play around with one of Google’s many incredibly helpful Labs creations?

Garbled conjectures about comparative fertility rates and their possible correlation with soccer victory in this year’s World Cup, perhaps?

The economist and journalist behind Super Freakonomics dazzle us with the way that inquiring economists’ minds work. From correlating television exposure in some regions of India with changing social and marital mores and thus lower birth rates, to the maxim “friends don’t let friends walk drunk,” after you read this book (sequel, of course, to the blockbuster bestseller Freakonomics), your mind may never work the same again.

(On interesting conjectures about birth rates, on a previous day off, I had the chance to go through a Mother Jones issue with a focus on global population issues. One of the highlights was the remarkable coordinated campaign in Iran to change cultural perceptions related to birth rates. It’s one of the most dramatic examples, globally, with a steep plunge in birth rates in a decade’s time; some scholars call it “the Iranian miracle”. Mexico’s graph is straighter and the decline more spread out in time, but oddly similar in its before and after outcome; in a completely different way, Russia’s and Ukraine’s graphs since 1960 show them to be nearly identical, well below 2.0 nearly the entire time, as if they were essentially the same country with identical cultural norms and family practices.)

The Freakonomists are wrong to say that thinking this way is the purview of “economists,” however. Slyly, the most brilliant thoughts in the book are routinely attributed to tenured stalwarts of “behavioral economics” toiling in “official” positions in accredited university economics departments.

That’s misleading. All social scientists can and do look for interesting patterns in data and behavior — even if economists shoehorn in the concept of “incentives” to stay on message while essentially exploring the same patterns as anyone else. (Incentives are indeed important; economists seem to imply that they have a monopoly on fully understanding their importance.)

More importantly, insofar as any educated person now has access to data sets (though, to be sure, not all the required training and statistics background to make sense of it), the parlor game of looking at patterns in human behavior is open to a much wider group of people. Call it the pro-am movement in data interpretation.

Google is already well known for their mission statement (“to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible”), and for some very concrete efforts to put more actionable data at people’s fingertips; in particular, Google Analytics.

But they’re certainly not stopping there. Let’s hope they apply the same persistence and spirit of openness to other socially useful data sets.

As they do this, they’re going to give the emerging “brand name for structuring data” — Wolfram Alpha — a run for its money. Google can do that, as can any leader. If Wolfram Alpha innovates, Google can cherrypick the most useful ideas, and repackage them for a mass audience.

Ask any rank and file professor what she thinks of the Google Public Data creation in Google Labs, and you’ll no doubt hear squeals of delight. You would hope, too, that some students would actually cause their professors to squeal with delight (and maybe dole out “A’s”) by taking the bull by the horns and using this data in their work — just out of sheer interest. Some profs will no doubt be surprised that it’s this easy to slice and dice the data. Students are typically reluctant to learn how to do research in proprietary databases. By contrast, this makes it easy and fun.

So as a non-student, I get to focus on “fun”. Poring over the “country by country fertility rates” graph, I thought to myself — what if I plug in a few of the remaining World Cup soccer nations? Compare them with the losers? Any patterns?

I guess we won’t know until the tournament is over.

fertility-rates1

What we do know is that so far, a psychic octopus has a 100% success rate in predicting Germany’s game outcomes in the World Cup.

Thus far, it seems like we’re heading for a potential scenario where fertility rates (unlike octopus intuition) bear no relationship to soccer game outcomes in tournament battles for global supremacy… but further research will be warranted if Ghana, with the highest fertility rate amongst remaining World Cup nations — goes all the way. The situation will be a bit more confusing if it’s one of Japan, Slovakia, Portugal, or Germany: all have very low fertility rates.

An enterprising Super Freakonomist (or Amateur Datacologist) would then be forced to turn to a more specific possible fertility correlation with soccer success: the fertility rates of the players’ wives. And/or girlfriends.

Other possible correlates of winning at football could include hair length, foot speed, prevalence of left-handedness, how well paid (over or under the table) the players are, caloric intake, hours of sleep, foot size, and GMAT scores. I like that Google has big computers, because I think we’re going to need them.

Maybe the moral of the story should be: friends don’t let friends blog drunk.

Which, if I had a team to cheer for, I probably would be. Luckily, I’m a fourth-generation Canadian (current fertility rate: 1.6).

Or maybe I should take a cue from the Italians. After Italy bowed out of the tournament, everyone in Rome began feverishly cheering for the United States because the game was on TV and it seemed like the thing to do. Suddenly, American, French, and British tourists bonded with Italy natives (loudly) over pints of Irish beer, as the crowds watching the game against Ghana spilled into the streets. When Ghana prevailed, however, all this was forgotten, and everyone partied all night long to salute their new heroes. When in Rome.

Did Facebook Win in a Lame Category?

Saturday, June 19th, 2010

Reports of Facebook’s surprising revenues have added momentum to the prevailing viewpoint that the popular social networking platform is a looming financial juggernaut, possibly on a par with Google.

On further reflection, though, the two companies couldn’t be more different. Google burst on the scene because it solved a really hard problem — web search — and kept solving it. The company continued to innovate on a variety of fronts. Once it gained a critical mass of engineering talent, it became a magnet for even more talent — both mature and shiny new. Today, the company innovates not only in straightforward product categories like email, but it’s a leader in video, mobile, browsing, and yes, operating systems.

Facebook’s developers may be smart, but they’re not working on even a tiny proportion of the hard problems Google faces down. In that regard, Facebook reminds you of a company like Yahoo (but admirably, less diversified). Few barriers to entry, nothing really proprietary. It’s just the place people go. Yahoo — in yet another lame tagline that seems to be popping up of late — states that you should consider it “your home for everything.” Facebook wants you to think that, too. But why? Why should you? Yahoo fought a losing battle over the years against the “why should I?” erosion of its user base. To maintain loyalty and eyeballs, it was forced to acquire companies like Geocities, eGroups, and dozens of others. That diluted its share price, and confused users.

Turning to the financials, Facebook appears to be really rolling. Still, if you project a couple more years of 100% growth in revenues, that only gets the company to $3.2 billion, and projecting a more modest growth rate from there, it’s close to a decade before they get to the $21 billion level where everyone was suddenly saying “WOW. Google is REALLY a force to be reckoned with.” Where do you think we’ll all be in a decade? Where will Google be?

Other recent talk has noted that Facebook ascended because management at MySpace and Friendster bungled badly. There’s little question about that, but it’s also worth pondering whether most of the companies in this space are just in a doomed category that eventually burns through user goodwill and attention spans.  Ning, Bebo, and orkut have also had incredible promise that seems to have fizzled. Company after company in the social networking vertical have hit a wall where users get bored, momentum fades, and usage drops.

The jury really is still out, in my mind. Facebook is champion in its category. But is it really building a platform, and defensible assets? Or just a familiar sort of environment, and a brand?

In other words, is Facebook more like AOL or Yahoo than Google?

Being compared with other billion-dollar companies is not such a terrible thing, of course, for any young upstart founded in a college dorm room. Being number one in any lucrative category isn’t such a terrible thing. But down the road,  maybe the failures of Friendster, Bebo, and MySpace mean more than just that they lost to the opportunistic, well-managed leader: it could mean that users will eventually have trouble figuring out what your “category” is or means, and what you actually do… as happened in the long declines of AOL and Yahoo.

For these reasons, I think it’s worth asking whether there is something inherent in Facebook that limits its potential… and makes it night-and-day different from a serious engineering-driven company like Google.

Yet Another Blather About Why Performance Digital Advertising is a Crack Cocaine of Iterative Delight, Whereas Spray & Pray Traditional is Not

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

Driving around in the beautiful sunshine, you tend to see a lot of billboards.

And if you’re an AdWords junkie, you tend to notice a lot of ads that would never work if their performance was tested.

Contrast that with the stinging pain of real time feedback from digital advertising prospects who must click (let alone, buy).

We don’t get to fire up nearly as many new, unusual paid search accounts as we used to; proportionally, we work on accounts for a longer time and often inherit accounts that have been poorly or inadequately managed in the past. Fresh new ones are a challenge, to say the least.

The fun of rolling out new ads, keywords, etc. pointing to “virgin” landing page never gets old. Well, actually, it’s no fun. (The fun part is when you manage to make headway out of the Quality Score Doghouse and kick competitor butt, leading to client profit. :) )

In the ‘no fun’ file this week, I got to face up to the fact that certain keywords just wouldn’t work. Certain landing pages that had poor headings and confusing cues to users. And ads that didn’t merit a click. On the flipside, finding what does work is more invigorating than a shower in a waterfall with Irish Spring Soap. “Manly yes, but I like it too!” OK, OK, tee hee, have your fun. Moving on…

Back to the traditional no-test world of “ad creative.”

How do you like the tagline on the Audi A5 Cabriolet billboard:  SPF meets OMG.

Now if you happen to “get” the ad right away, you can appreciate that you’ll be out in the sun with the top down, in a car that is so, like OMG, good-looking it will blow your toupee off.

Unfortunately stuff like that doesn’t usually work any better for people hurtling by at 70mph than it does for people scanning a page of SERP’s quickly. How can I prove that? Well I can’t! And the people who wrote that can’t prove it does work.

I’m here to posit that “SPF meets OMG” seems really plausible if you wrote it, but you lose 70% of the audience that is actually reading it. SPF? Most people know what it is, but the point is it doesn’t *read* well. As logical as it is when you work through it, abbreviation-laden, “clever” ad copy is simply inscrutable to those quickly scanning. “Am I applying lotion to the windshield? Does the car actually come with sunblock technology? I thought I read about that somewhere!” And you’ve whizzed by (in your existing, less flashy, vehicle) without even considering why some 14-year-old girl has written the remainder of the ad.

What’s worse by far is that the writer has actually smuggled an objection into an advertisement. The fact that you’ll have to slap on greasy sunscreen every time you get inside your vehicle might have just convinced half of the remaining 30% (5% of whom are in the market for a convertible in their lifetime) to think twice about buying a convertible at all. “Won’t sun damage compromise my efforts to impress a date? Isn’t that greasy crap going to get on the (white) leather seats, and become a magnet for dirt?”

Your billboard is now, at best, addressing 0.75% of the drivers on the road — and at that, only to consider buying an Audi if they (anytime in their life) purchase a new convertible. That could have been 1.5%. The ad sucks. And you haven’t even tested which color of Audi might have the most positive impact on those viewing the ad. Probably, that hasn’t even occurred to you.

AdWords taught us all that. We know it because we have data.

Traditional advertisers, it appears, are still running on fumes.

Fortunately, that billboard — which could be considered a hybrid of an ad and a landing page all rolled into one — will be testable in the future. Worlds colliding? I can’t wait.

Google, Caffeinated

Wednesday, June 9th, 2010

Search is in our veins as surely as that morning cup of java is a required kickstart for many of us. Being caffeinated will be the only way to make it through the remainder of the week, with the SMX Advanced and SES Toronto conferences in high gear. (Toronto’s main festivities start tomorrow. For delegates, there is a pre-party at the Charlotte Room tonight at 7:00 p.m.)

And I can only assume that you’d need to be highly caffeinated if you’re one of the very few who are hopping from Seattle to Toronto so they can attend both conferences.

In keeping with the times, Google’s search index is now fully caffeinated. A new indexing architecture has gone live. Overall, Google’s message is that it promotes “freshness” in search results, but that we shouldn’t misinterpret this to mean it affects the ranking algorithm.

Vanessa Fox is one of the very few commenters who adds significant insight related to the Caffeine project. In a recent piece, she quotes Google’s Matt Cutts:

“It’s important to realize that caffeine is only a change in our indexing architecture. What’s exciting about Caffeine though is that it allows easier annotation of the information stored with documents, and subsequently can unlock the potential of better ranking in the future with those additional signals.”

In SEO, it’s always important to be able to read the tea leaves. “Subsequently can unlock the potential of better ranking in the future with those additional signals?” This means, of course, that major algorithmic evolution, and major volatility in search rankings awaits: no doubt to the benefit of companies who understand how to marry timeless elements with freshness, vibrancy, and sociability. Better “annotation” of pages and elements will mean, long term, more accurate

So of course, the release of Caffeine is a harbinger of a new phase of evolution in Google’s means of sorting out remarkable and relevant wheat, from spammy and counterfeit chaff. Of course, then, ranking and algorithm changes come with this territory. Don’t be alarmed, cough cough, but they do!

Even the mention that pages can now be associated with “multiple countries” in Google’s architecture (“not that they couldn’t be before!”) is evidence that the old Google indexing environment (and by extension, the ranking algorithm) wasn’t up to the task, and many more holes than anyone would let on.

In a recent talk, I pointed to the importance of social media savvy as a direct and indirect driver of search visibility. The talk was entitled “No Social, No See” (with apologies to Bob Marley).

Certainly, these trends will spur the development of a range of new third-party tools and agency services. Perhaps most importantly, though, corporate cultures — all corporate cultures, if they want to play Google’s game — will have to evolve from within. Means of providing freshness, vibrancy, and original content will have to be developed — in some cases, from scratch. In other cases, by changing how you think.

These are exciting times.

Say Your Final Prayers, Black Hat SEO’s: Guest Post by Dr. Ken Evoy

Tuesday, June 1st, 2010

[Editorial note:  Dr. Ken Evoy is one of the most successful entrepreneurs in our space. Back when a great many small businesses (today's "savvier more experienced online businesses") were coming onstream, Evoy's company, SiteSell.com, was providing one of the first "bibles" of Internet Marketing, Make Your Site Sell!. Many Internet marketers cut their teeth on that book. SiteSell morphed into a tool and process providing company called Site Build It!, which over 40,000 customers use to build their own, independent, e-businesses. Recently, Ken and I engaged in some friendly discussion about some of the blackest of black hat tactics that are still lurking around, and the practitioners' ham-fisted attempts to profit from them. Some of them are quite harmful to the ecosystem, but most importantly, after a time they stop working. And the howls and screams begin. We shouldn't listen to those howls and screams. They're about search engines doing their job: protecting consumers and competing businesses from shady, spammy, and often borderline illegal marketing tactics.

--Andrew]

One Day, the SEO’ers Will Get It: But Not Today

[by Dr. Ken Evoy, Guest Post for Traffick.com]

I am constantly amazed by the “psychology of the herd.”  Any herd.  From Bernie Madoff’s super-rich herd to the Toronto Maple Leafs fans (who believe that one day they will win the Stanley Cup — sorry, Andrew), the ability of bandwagon psychology to blind us from seeing the obvious is powerful stuff.

The practitioners of Search Engine Optimizations (“SEO” and “SEOers”) form such a herd.  This herd is the object of this article.

SIDEBAR:  I define SEO as the manipulation of search engines to produce search results which rank their Web pages (or those of their clients) “incorrectly high.”  I do not consider pure “white hat” practices to fall within the definition.

Pure white hats do not mislead the engines. The emphasis is on “keeping it real” (eg., quality content and links, optimal site architecture, etc.). Their practices fall comfortably within search engine guidelines.

Some SEOers fool themselves into thinking they are white hats. Here are two tests to help you find out if your white hat is, in fact, a little gray or worse…

1)  The true white hat NEVER talks about doing anything to “avoid detection by Google.”

2) The truest of white hats can answer “yes” to the following question… ”If Google announced that they are launching absolutely perfect, human-level, Artificial Intelligence tomorrow, will they perform better or worse?”  Only the purest of white hats are ready for such an occurrence.  Their sites should expect to see more traffic, IF their content is original and of high quality.

With that understanding in hand, when I use the term “SEOer,” I include black, gray and all but the purest-of-white-hat practitioners.

From the early days of keyword stuffing and doorway pages to today, the arms race between SEOer and search engines continues. But it fascinates me that SEOers just… don’t… get… it.  It’s not a fair race.

NO SEO black hat trick has ever survived the propellorheads who work for the search engines. They don’t survive because they compromise the quality of search results.

What do you think would happen if an SEOer’s techniques succeed and degrade the quality of the SERPs?  Nothing, at first.  But when the engines find you, and they will, they will hurt you.  Why?  It’s elementary…

If you degrade their quality, surfers are less likely to keep coming back.  Soon, you will be delivering fewer targeted surfers to your REAL customers, the advertisers.  In other words…

If you degrade the quality of their SERPs, you threaten their very business.

Case in point…

I once knew two brilliant black hats.  They were WAY beyond what anyone was doing or writing about.  No one who is SERIOUSLY good at SEO writes about it.

These two guys were math wizards, the types who got 100 in advanced calculus… in kindergarten. Nicholas Taleb type of brains.

THESE guys, I respected.  I didn’t agree with them, but I respected them. They broke no laws. They shattered every search engine guideline ever published (and a whole bunch more, I’d wager). They made 7 figures/year.

I would ask/tell them… “Why don’t you guys just take it to Wall Street? You’re smart enough and you won’t be facing off against hundreds of Computer Science PhDs whose entire lives revolve around making search better. Even if they don’t target your techniques directly, you will get swept away by the ever-improving ability to detect real, genuine and excellent content. You can’t beat that forever.”

I understand why they thought I was wrong.  No one had ever outsmarted them.

But this was not a 1-on-1 fight.  One got knocked out of the box around 2 years go. I can’t reach and have not heard from the other, who used to like to e-mail me about how well he’s doing.

It is simply not possible to stay ahead. The sheer complexity of ARTIFICIALLY ranking high goes up, up and up, making it continuously harder to manipulate.

Recently, a very large ring of sploggers was dismantled by Google.  This ring consisted of thousands of people creating countless mini-money sites.  They admitted that they took content from top-ranking sites for high-paying keywords, then altered it just enough so Google could not recognize it.  They then created huge fake link networks (often coordinating efforts with each other) to prop the “money page up” at the SERP for that keyword.

The amount of spammy content and links must have been staggering.  The major “gurus” had high traffic and they coached countless thousands of others how to do it.  They taught this system publicly, which shows the degree of invulnerability they felt.

Note that this was not high-tech cutting edge like the black hats who should have gone to Wall Street.  This was low-tech link-bombing, the simple overwhelming of one factor, inbound links, by thousands of people.

Well, it turns out they were not invulnerable. Reality is reality. You can recognize it earlier and adapt to it, or you can ignore it until it’s two inches away from your nose, when you can’t ignore it anymore, and it stomps you.  The sploggers have been self-admittedly stomped, their blogs full of the gory stories of rankings and traffic disappearing.

Bottom line? No matter how cutting edge or low-tech-brute-force your black hat may be, it won’t survive.

I was slammed when I published that message in “The Tao of SBI!” in 2005, explaining why SEO is doomed.  Everything in that book is happening. SEOers are morphing their job descriptions, some now calling it SEM, rather than admit that SEO is dead.

Look at just a few trends since then… Universal search, personalized search, Google Suggest, tools to help us search smarter.  We all get something a little different from Mother Google, including influences by your social network, and on and on and on… And what about AI, where Google is doing cutting edge work?

Can SEOer really keep up and manipulate this?  As they say in the Sopranos… fuhgeddaboudit.

And still, SEOers don’t get that it will soon be impossible to manipulate rankings.

There’s good news for all of us, though.  Lao-Tzu (604 BC – 531 BC) said the following in “Tao te Ching”, 2500+ years before I said it in “The Tao Of SBI!” in 2005 AD (so I can’t take the credit)…

One who wins the world does so by not meddling with it.

One who meddles with the world loses it.

The good news?  In the midst of the increasing complexity emerges the simplicity of how to generate free, targeted search engine traffic…

Add Value.  Real Content. What people want. Love what you do, but make sure you can make some money at it (if that’s important to you — if it’s not, it’s a hobby but you likely still want an audience).

Sure, get the on-page stuff “right enough” to let Google know the page is about “Anguilla beaches” and not “chinese restaurants.” Secure some quality inbound links, not article-marketing spam or other link tricks (the next bad group to howl about Google depriving them of a living)….

Watch your snowball grow as Google sends you more traffic because…

You are delivering exactly what they want.  As you deliver more if it, traffic increases further.  Google tracks behavior and sees that visitors like your site, improving your rankings, increasing your traffic. And round it goes, like a snowball gathering momentum.

What started this virtuous circle of success?  You gave Google exactly what their searchers want, which is exactly what Google wants.

And that takes me way back to when I wrote my first book, Make Your Site SELL! in 1997.  Although I had been successful with black hat tricks when “working just for myself,” the critical question I had to answer for future readers of MYSS! was…

“Is this just a game, like counting cards in Vegas?”

“Or are search engines going to turn out to be real important for the folks I’m writing this book for?”

If you “play” only for yourself, you can afford to play a game if that is what you want.  But if you are making business recommendations to people who will act upon them, you can only make one recommendation…

“Stop playing games against the engines and work WITH them.  Give them what they want and you will never have a sleepless night.”

Life becomes so simple and worry-free.

[Editorial note: Ken, I am a Montreal Canadiens fan. -- Andrew]

Brief bio of Ken Evoy:

SiteSell.com sold over 100,000 copies of Make Your Site SELL!, which received high critical acclaim, in the late 90s.  The company self-published several other successful “Make Your ____ Sell” books.  They stopped when Dr. Ken Evoy realized that most people need more than a book to build a business online.

As he says, “They need the step-by-step and the tools to execute.”  SiteSell’s flagship product, SBI!, is based upon simple, “keep it real” principles.  Ken calls SBI! “the living test tube that proved up the decision to give humans and search engines what they want.” But even that, he says, is only one small part of the bigger picture of building an e-business.

 


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