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Archive for April, 2011

You-Can-Lead-a-Horse-to-Water.ca …

Thursday, April 21st, 2011

Awhile back, a friend mentioned to me that she might be leaving a traditional law career in favor of setting up her own boutique law firm.

Thinking of her business identity, I immediately thought — just in case, why not check out if her name as a domain name was available? Even if she didn’t set up a website or go really hard at building a new firm, it would be great to use for email if she was doing a little freelance work here and there.

I did some digging and wham! I saw that the domain for her full name was available for the Canadian TLD (.ca). Amazing! The .com was long gone. It’s a pretty common name.

She responded: “Great! Handle it for me and let me know what I owe.”

Aaaarggh! I have plenty to keep me busy taking care of services for companies. I’m not going to start babysitting my friends’ and neighbors’ online identities. Especially not the ones who giggle when they say “Hey, Internet boy…”

The last wave of this refusing to help non-paying “customers” of personal acquaintance was when I made it 100% clear that I would not help my parents’ cottage neighbors “fix their printer” because I was “good with computers”.

Thank heavens, I suppose, we now have Geek Squad and Tiny Briefcase, and the like. I can’t fix your computer, and I won’t register your domain name for you. ;)

I’m sure I’m not the only one to face this apathy, this sense that “someone else” will help you with your digital strategy or your online reputation. Mitch Joel seems to have some good anecdotes about this in Six Pixels of Separation (the book). Our companies are in the business of helping companies with that. But as for casual friends who are too-slowly dipping their toes in the water… I’m pretty sure our evenings and weekends are already booked up. We can’t help you. Only you can help you.

What’s New About Landing Page Policy? Google Responds

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

Google has quietly rolled out an update to how it communicates violations of its landing page policies. The official update was posted recently on the Inside AdWords blog.

The key point is that there is now a more explicit distinction between quality issues and policy violations. In the past, Google’s terminology was unclear, so the two seemed like they were lumped together. All quality issues were violations, or were all violations quality issues? And they were also conflated in the execution of the reporting. The penalties meted out for violations/issues were harsh: if Quality Score was reported as low as a 1, it was unlikely that your ads would be showing up more than a handful of times, if ever. And that would have held Google back from continuing to gradually incentivize (legitimate) advertisers to improve on the user experience on softer issues, like load times and relevancy.

So now, policy violations lead to site suspension for the offending advertiser, with a clear notification that this has happened; in contrast with less visible information in past iterations. And rather than explicit notices of suspension, low quality scores in the past required the advertiser to infer that something very serious had happened. They simply were not told as much.

Though Google does not say so in so many words, this now opens the door for Google to include (non policy violation related) “landing page quality” factors in the mix for keyword quality score. So in the future, we’d expect the definition of the core Quality Score algorithm to evolve, though the current definition does include Landing Page Quality without saying precisely how important it is.

On the surface this seems confusing, because advertisers are treated to a page of Landing Page and Website Quality “guidelines,” with some portions (such as those on navigation) including the words “Here are a few suggestions.” Suggestions? A “few”?

Still, flouting these “suggestions” is patently not as serious as violating the “policy guidelines,” of which Google maintains an entire laundry list. From get rich quick, to hacking, to misleading and inaccurate claims, it’s all there.

For some reason, in this latest blog post Google maintains that “landing page quality is determined by automated systems”. While we have no doubt that bots are used to sniff out potential violators of scores of Google policies, there is no way that the call is made (“determined”) by bots alone. And policy specialists are hardly playing the mere role of messenger, passing on the bots’ “determinations”. Many of the issues require judgment calls and some investigation by a policy specialist. They are editorial decisions. That automation rules the day is a theme Google has bent over backwards to maintain, perhaps to downplay any sense of an umpire’s subjectivity or partiality in decisions; perhaps to discourage appeals and excessive interaction with tedious bad-apple advertisers.

But again, now that policy violations are separate, we can all agree (can’t we?) that policy specialists do get involved in suspending the violating advertisers. And this new split in the communications method makes it more plausible to suggest that “over here,” in the realm of what Google calls “quality,” the appropriate treatment of “quality issues” can be nearly entirely be determined by an algorithm, much the same as organic search. (This will no doubt be music to the ears of SEO-trained snake-oil-salesmen. Real world advertisers should beware of excessive claims for relentless website tweaking based on limited knowledge of the proportional weight of this (unspecified) type of “quality garnish” as opposed to the main dish in keyword quality score: “historical CTR on the keyword and the matched ad.”)

In any case, this change made us even more curious, so Traffick asked Google for some clarification on this clarification. The following replies were provided by a Google spokesperson.

Q: Has Google realized that a low quality score, and a notation indicating that landing page & website quality was low, wasn’t clear enough?

A: “We’ve heard from advertisers that they wanted more information about this particular issue, and so we wanted to listen to them and provide greater clarity on our quality and policy guidelines.”

Q: It does seem that by packaging up “editorially suspended” sites with lesser violations, there was confusion and ambiguity that caused some advertisers to overreact, others to misunderstand, and still others (the true violators), to keep pecking away with false hope that there might be a way to optimize their way out of an editorial decision.

A. “The purpose of this change was to emphasize the distinction between policy and quality more clearly by making it easier for advertisers to know when they’re affected by landing page and site policy issues, and to take appropriate corrective action.”

Q: Does this mean Google has increased its editorial and policy resources to deal with website quality (now: “policy violation”) issues among advertisers, or has this policy team been there all along, but not communicated as such?

A: “We want to emphasize that we’ve always had resources – both automated systems and human review – focused on the review of landing pages.  In response to advertiser feedback, we’ve decided to improve the clarity of our communication in the AdWords interface, but there have not been any changes to back-end systems or operational processes.”

Finally, Google wanted to explain the difference between “policy” and “quality”:  “Policy violations, which include guidelines for the content and format of ads and sites (more here), prevent ads from showing and from entering the auction. Quality issues impact quality score, which in turn affect whether or not an ad would show, ad rank, pricing and other aspects of the advertising system.”

So, if you violate certain content policies — such as those related to drugs and drug paraphenalia, your account would not show ads (would be suspended). “Quality” issues (non violations) affect quality score, which (as always) can affect not only ad rank, but also the likelihood of showing at all to any given searcher.

Perhaps the best way of explaining this is that policy violation suspensions are dealt with by “hard” enforcement such that no Quality Score need be shown. All other website and landing page quality issues are affected by a “soft” scoring system, of indeterminate impact on your position, costs, eligibility, etc. Although it may seem like it’s been this way all along, it’s safe to say that Google itself muddied the waters when it decided on its own to conflate policy with quality several years ago. By unpacking the two, Google now admits that landing page, content, and website policy violations are “hard enforced” and website quality issues are “soft scored”.

Moreover, it’s highly likely that Google has shifted some “policies” into the realm of “suggestions,” and will continue to evolve its treatment of some policies and some suggestions. There is no hard and fast rule that says Google should suspend or severely cripple your account for showing pop-ups on the landing page, for example. Nor is there any objective reason that Google would suspend an advertiser for certain types of “gruesome imagery”. Try as it might, Google won’t be able to dissuade outside observers from the obvious conclusion that there is considerable subjectivity inherent in some of these policies and suggestions, despite the company’s deft touch with definitions, scoring systems, bot-themed interfaces, and cagey word play.

Scam’s back

Thursday, April 14th, 2011

False hope? Recently we wrote about the term “scam” no longer being prevalent in Google Suggest. Well, it’s back.

I got a call today from an entrepreneur who is a victim of the term “scam” being associated with his company in Google’s autocomplete. Indeed, it’s the top suggestion in Google Suggest. Not exactly the sort of thing you want associated with your company.

I checked a couple of the leading brands I had seen associated with the term in the past. Unfortunately, they’ve been re-victimized as well.

I don’t have blanket solutions for the problem, and our agency doesn’t handle this type of issue-specific reputation management. Especially not where there should or could be litigation involved.

Again, this seems to be more like the exploitation of a loophole in how autocomplete “should” work, and it’s wreaking havoc on legitimate businesses. It’s like a sick meme; the SARS of Search.

One thing that has been a recurring trend in all this, is our society’s increasingly uncritical overuse of the word “scam” to criticize any company or individual you disagree with, or gave you bad service. Sort of like the word “nazi” (more on that below).

So although there may not be easy solutions, one way to avoid getting caught up in this is to stop using the word “scam” yourself; especially on your website. One of the businesses that contacted me had several articles refuting the charges of their company being a scam, but also some about competitors who are scams, and how to tell a scam from a legitimate enterprise. Well, if your title tags and content say scam this, scam that, unfortunately that could possibly stick to you in search behavior. Don’t play into the trollers’ hands.

Companies that used to be victims of this – like JetBlue – no longer are. That may mean they took aggressive legal action with critics and Google alike. Which unfortunately means smaller companies are stuck with an unfair litigation burden. Google needs to take steps to level the playing field as much as they possibly can.

On the issue of “nazi”: people need to learn to disagree better. I was happy to challenge certain attacks on TSA security patdowns that appeared on a one-sided website, and I did so openly (well, not with my last name, but I entered a comment and left the required email address). Essentially I was calling for a balanced treatment of security employees, and our collective need for physical searches in a general sense, for everyone’s safety and security. Minutes later, an owner or fan of that site invited me to a “Nazi” forum. Sorry to disagree with you there, but name-calling won’t change my mind!

What Yahoo Numbers Do You Trust?

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

So Google’s search rivals are either gaining share (according to Hitwise), or looking flat (with Yahoo declining slightly) (according to comScore), or… if insider scuttlebutt is to be believed, experiencing business results that are “falling off a cliff“.

There’s a chance these claims can all be true at once, but it’s a slim chance.

As always, website owners think of the real numbers in terms of the search referrals they’re experiencing to their own site.

And paid search marketers find that their capacity to generate paid search impressions, clicks, and conversions pretty much tell them all they need to know.

It doesn’t ring true that the “Bing-Yahoo alliance” has a functional 30.01% search share, in the same way that Google has 64.42%.

If that was really the case, and Yahoo truly has a robust and seemingly stable 15+% search share, why would Yahoo be so subservient to Microsoft? So frightened of the future? In short, why is everything so bad at Yahoo when those numbers say things should be pretty good?

And if those numbers really are that robust (not even counting their larger display advertising side), and Yahoo has a big enough ad-supported, automated, regime to generate healthy revenues… should we really credit management moves for the future profitability that this would entail? At these volumes, it really should be like making money in your sleep. Less money than Google, to be sure. But that goes for everyone.

Can Getting Inside Larry Page’s Head Help Your Strategy?

Tuesday, April 12th, 2011

Since Larry Page took over as Google CEO, there has been a renewed appreciation for his personality and influence, and how it affects Google’s approach to products.

Tip: if Larry wants something, he’s likely to get it. In the past, that often meant some cues being provided by former CEO Eric Schmidt, agreeing with Larry’s push. Of course, not to rule out Sergey Brin’s strong will in these matters either, but he’s no longer at the helm in any sense, so it will now be more Larry, more of the time.

Take Quality Score in the ad program, and the reasons behind it. If Google’s founders — based on clear signals sent from Google’s massive user base — didn’t care for the look of affiliates and other “yucky” advertisers, they would take steps to challenge them. They did this via rules at first, but later, most policies of this type simply got buried in an opaque, non-confrontational formula called Quality Score. (Keyword quality score was a continuation of the old Ad Rank formula, with additional sophistication; landing page and website quality score was a codification of policies, likes, and dislikes — driven mainly by what Google perceived to grossly offend some users.)

A top manager at Google once told us how unrelenting the founders were when it came to the perfection of policies and Quality Score algorithms; if the main objectives weren’t being reached in terms of real world quality and editorial filtering, they would keep hammering away until the team got it right. It was about perfecting the engine, not just setting up some kind of arbitrary scoring mechanism.

Indeed, the approach taken was not so different from that taken with organic search (which is a much harder problem given the openness of the web and the much larger database involved).

I noticed something recently that also — to use a term that has now become popular in the industry — “has Larry’s fingerprints all over it”. It’s in the conventional Display Network (formerly the content network).

Years ago, in the dark days of the unoptimized, fleece-o-licious content network, we routinely recommended that performance-oriented advertisers bid 75% lower, to equalize ROI with search. In other words, our belief was that the network would return about 25% of the ROI as paid search, so you’d have to bid that much lower to equalize ROI on each side.

As the network got smarter, that got to be closer to 50%, then 60%. For the past couple of years we’ve often recommended a bid guesstimate of around 75% of your median click cost on the search side in an ad group, again, in order to keep ROI even on both sides.

Lately, on certain kinds of high volume, relatively routine, relatively predictable accounts in the US, we’ve found the network to be increasingly uncanny in performing equally to search. That means, quite often, leaving the bid on display at somewhere around the same as your median click cost on search will give you about the same ROI. Granted, we have tools that help us bid even higher on some search network sources for some ad groups (managed placements), or to exclude or lower bids on the sources that don’t perform as well. But it’s amazing how this “roughly equal” result keeps recurring. More often than not, we’re raising bids on specific display placements about as often as we’re excluding or lowering them.

This has all the signs of a relentless quest by Google to achieve just that result. If it’s not Larry’s doing, then it’s “opinionated Googler X” that has pushed and pushed until this equilibrium has been reached. It’s good business. It creates confidence that Google’s full AdWords program performs for advertisers willing to tweak and optimize thoroughly.

What does it mean for you?

  • Drop legacy assumptions about how the Display Network performs.
  • Keep watching search like a hawk! Its foibles are now equally painful to the junky inventory you used to run into on the display side.
  • Investors and analysts may need to be aware that Google thinks this way. It protects trust with advertisers and users, which means the cash cow that funds other stuff is at least secure.
  • However, that other stuff is by no means proven to be anything but expensive research at this point. Google might grow, and there is limited downside risk in its core, but there is still a lot of risky behavior in other untried business models.
  • Google will have to tell different stories to different advertisers. There is basically no way they can achieve a similar goal (rock solid performance) across all of YouTube and other less reliable areas of display advertising, so they’ll have the brand lift pitch for some folks, and the performance pitch — well, it won’t need to be pitched, as performance-based advertisers have been pretty much addicted to the performance all along, and will continue to be.
  • As a result, if you’re into that performance and not so keen on brand lift experiments, you’ll feel unloved by the Google sales machine. Don’t be too eager to feel loved, though. Let the performance numbers and the associated profit be all the love you need.
  • Test, iterate, and optimize, no matter what your goal.

Don Draper Knew About the Meta-Message

Saturday, April 9th, 2011

In a memorable scene from Mad Men, Season 3, Conrad Hilton comes up with a print ad concept when he’s considering firing his agency. The folksy concept, complete with illustration: “When the country mouse comes to the city.” He wants free advice from Don Draper.

Don smokes, squints, and thinks. He says simply: “I don’t think anybody wants to think about a mouse in a hotel.”

Why would someone associate actual rodents in the hotel with a folksy cartoon character and a totally different message? It doesn’t matter. As the quintessential “ad man,” Don instinctively knows that in this category, rodent imagery is forbidden. It takes him two seconds to dismiss Hilton’s effort.

Don, of course, knew that advertising was often about how the “meta message” — how people respond to things the ad doesn’t literally say, but conveys — affects positioning and user response. Yes, it’s unscientific. But it’s important to know that insofar as you’re testing advertising “messages”, you don’t have the luxury of testing on one dimension only — the literal content of the copy and how “persuasive” it is. Anyone who has done multivariate landing page testing online knows that the persuasiveness of the actual copy is only one element. Even within the copy, there are aspects that position or suggest more than they convince or persuade.

That logic needs to be considered for search advertising too, even though these seem to occupy a very small space. And it works, if you practice.

If you didn’t catch my short piece in ClickZ about the metamessage in paid search, it’s here.

Google Rolls Out Secret Magic Number They Already Had

Tuesday, April 5th, 2011

In the acquired-taste-but-classic 1970′s flick Capricorn One, Elliott Gould plays a hard-drinking, well-traveled reporter who thinks he’s onto the fact that NASA has faked a Mars landing.

Soon enough, “they” are out to get him. At first they want to bewilder him into thinking he’s lost his own mind, interspersed with efforts to kill him and discredit him. So after rigging his brakes, the CIA-or-whoever decide to move everything out of his home, and a new family in there. For awhile, he can’t convince anyone that he really *does* live there, because the first thing you see when you go in the house is a happy family that appears to live there, and their stacks of weathered magazines stating back several years… of course with the official address labels with the other family’s name on it. Throw in a few more curveballs like this, and you can see how our hero would start to question whether his own mind was playing tricks on him.

Anyway, today Google announced something they’ve had for North America since 2003: a free support line for AdWords advertisers who punch in their account ID#, at 1-866-2GOOGLE.

You can prove this by using your handy Google search engine and constraining the dates on a search for mentions of 1-866-2GOOGLE. You’ll discover that one of the very first online mentions of this line appears at Webmaster World Forums, with discussion from the likes of our old friends eWhisper and AdWords Advisor. That was on November 27, 2003.

Of course by now, “we” have been “with Google” quite a bit longer than many current employees and even top execs. Maybe that explains the various disconnects and feelings of needless reinvention, or dare we say even feelings of temporal bewilderment most associated with that other silver screen favorite, Groundhog Day.

Guy Kawasaki: World’s Nicest Man

Monday, April 4th, 2011

He actually said it.

Just catching an interview here on CP24 with @ambermac, where @guykawasaki actually says:

“I use it [Twitter] to push. I push my books, push my stuff, push my friends… ”

And then, the warning:

“I am a firehose. So if you’re here looking for some kind of kumbayaaaa, sociaaaal, e-harmony type of ‘existence’, this isn’t for you. It’s a real firehose.”

So apparently, the opposite of being spammed by Guy Kawasaki is some kind of vegaaaan, nammmby-pammbby, treee-huggging, free-love-smoking, commie-birkenstocks-cross-legged-seance-unscented-soap-incense-burning, unretouched-social-graphy-anti-consumer-packaged-goodsy, man-hating-or-at-least-Guy-hating, ‘existence’. Your options are clear.

 


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