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Archive for May, 2011

Google races ahead in the world of ‘free’

Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

Not long ago we opined that the only way someone could catch up to Google in the race for world domination would be to out-”free” Google. Chris Anderson has alerted us all to the nature of this most radical of business models. As a few technology players grow into behemoths, they’re capable of absorbing loss leader business models into their overall revenue funnels, crushing rivals in their wake.

Microsoft’s Skype acquisition was just the type of bold move we were thinking of.

But giving away free devices was also on our mind. Control the browser and OS? Google wants to. But the pace of adoption of their services isn’t quite what they’d like to see.

Piloting a $20/month laptop for the student market might be an interesting move in this direction, something Google has announced today.

Next stop, the enterprise market?

Unfortunately for Google’s rivals, then, Google is likely to counterpunch with more ‘free’ just when the competition digs deepest into their pockets to keep pace.

Strangely, this probably won’t result in everything being free, when all is said and done.

It sure does play havoc with ecosystems that run on stable, sound, profitable, business models, however. That should give the VC’s a lot to think about, and a lot more justifications for larger, riskier, funding rounds.

Engineer-speak… not

Tuesday, May 10th, 2011

Google recently released, to an audience of skeptical marketers and webmasters, an updated explanation of its approach to content quality… breathtaking in its level of detail.

While the cutting-edge cadre of algorithm-ponderers at the top of the SEO industry continue to plumb the depths of PageRank, Google shares stories of happy info-sharing angels with marshmallow wings, sent to guide us through a farmer-fogged universe.

To wit (Google’s words, emphasis Traffick’s):

  • “These are the kinds of questions we ask ourselves as we write algorithms that attempt to assess site quality.”
  • “Think of it as our take at encoding what we think our users want.”

Needless to say, this discloses a lot less than some SEO’s let on. It betrays a certain offhand quality to the soft sciences of relevancy, dwarfed by the incredible competence Google has in computation and technical fields.

It reminds us that the algorithm is subject to change. That gamers and spammers are free to try to chase it if they want. That the algorithm sets itself up to fail, often.

Neither communicating with an audience, nor SEO, lend themselves to precise calculation. Maybe it’s time to stop pretending they do.

Google, by their own admission, provides one “take” on information retrieval. They can’t provide you with a decision tree to work out your business model, or even your next move.

Google Ad Academy – Toronto – Display is More than Just Sizzle

Thursday, May 5th, 2011

Today, Google held an education event in Toronto, aimed mainly at Canadian agencies and other partners. This high-level overview of new developments in various advertising channel was called Google Ad Academy. The venue was in the beautiful Art Gallery of Ontario building at Dundas & McCaul.

Along with practical takeaways – like a typical 5.7% CTR increase being seen in the “long continuous headline format” available for eligible ads in premium position (this cited by Google’s Matt Rogers) – a variety of assertions and conjectures were offered.

Google Canada Country Manager Chris O’Neill pointed towards relatively poor adoption of display advertising among Google advertisers with this surprising statistic: “There are 1.5 million search advertisers but only 100,000 display advertisers.” The reason posited was due to complexity and unfamiliarity, but historic lack of performance must be driving this as well, especially for smaller companies uninterested in defending or lifting their brands.

The “newbie” audience at agencies in Canada is vast and will be a recurring constituency at these events, at least until more agency people get more curious about how the guts of the platforms work. One question from the floor: “In the AdWords platform, can you specify which mobile devices you want the ads to show to?” Just log in, dude. That’s two clicks down at the Campaign Settings level.

Google’s Jess Olsen soft-announced that Google’s pipeline includes a future capability to include display ad buys through other ad exchanges, not just DoubleClick’s.

At the session on Analytics, we learned that the Google Analytics interface had recently undergone a refresh and many features are now faster and more intuitive to use. This seems more like evolutionary change, but unquestionably the platform is jam-packed with features.

Most of the emphasis and excitement about fast-emerging functionality seemed to be rightly placed on new directions in the Display Network. Targeting by interest category (“topic targeting”), demographics, and remarketing (retargeting) are all in the mix despite confusing nomenclature. People actually using them know some of the nitty gritty details; people not yet using them may assume a degree of finality or finish to these offerings that just isn’t there yet. And even experienced advertisers and Googlers need to check and recheck the terminology; when you say “target similar users,” do you mean demographic targeting in the display network?

Regardless of the gap between the world of pretty slides and speeches, and the reality of what you can buy from Google and how, these offerings are vital to advertisers and will be more so as development increases.

Search is the steak, as Google’s Mike Lorenc aptly pointed out.

But let’s not be apologetic about the importance of Display. Display is more than just the sizzle; more than just an adjunct that “assists” search in making final conversions. A significant part of the display network can directly drive conversions, and it must be used because for some purposes, search simply won’t work well. Search’s rules are: people must be searching for that — and you’re not allowed to distract people who aren’t really searching for what you’re offering. Misused search advertising is either a complete non-starter due to insufficient searches, or prohibitively expensive due to how Quality Score works.

Display can be steak too: and you’ll need it when you just want to focus on target demographics, themes, and behavior as your targeting methods, without any keywords in the equation.

I’ll be talking about the concept of the “steakish” portions and uses of the Display Network at SES Toronto in June.

Ordinary people have good ideas (sometimes) – and sometimes they need help

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

Digital snobs have a way about them.

Remember all those times you were hanging out with people who shook their heads because they couldn’t believe how many times people would simply type a search into the address bar? And then, when desktop toolbar search got built into your browser, those crazy ordinary non-savvy people would still type search terms into the address bar! Auuuggghh!

Turns out, having two boxes on the screen is redundant. Why have two of them when you could just type your search into the address bar (a la Chrome, and belatedly, the other browsers)? Let alone take the extra step of going to a search engine’s home page.

So…. the ‘dummies’ were right? Yeah, in this case. The snob, learned, orthodoxy was no better than the dummy way.

Time and again, people’s knee-jerk behaviors are dismissed by better-educated elites.

Sometimes it makes sense to listen more closely, though. Because where there is behavioral smoke, maybe there is coherence fire in there somewhere.

Lower-income people often have appalling diets. Rather than lecturing them or pointing fingers or laughing at them, though, why not get closer to the source of the problem? Some people really have no idea how to find and prepare healthier meals. And kids? In many cases, they have no choice.

This is what makes chef Jamie Oliver such a hero. Instead of sticking to his industry’s historically ‘classist’ means of separating discerning people from slobs, he spearheaded change in the school system that would both educate and provide healthier sustenance to kids.

Giving people choices rather than laughing at them or looking down on them. What a concept!

You can’t make a middleweight boxer out of a graceful swan

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011

Michael Ignatieff had such poor brand positioning for what he just got himself into that he couldn’t even hold his own seat in Parliament. His humbling defeat, one of the most humbling defeats in Canadian political history, coincided with one of equal magnitude in Quebec, where Gilles Duceppe went from hero to zero as leader of the Bloc Quebecois.

Fellow Canadians,

I come before you not to talk politics, but marketing. Especially, about the packaging of leaders. In national election contests, not invariably but most of the time, leaders’ images carry the day… especially when they’re negative ones. We’ve known it instinctively since Kennedy trounced Nixon. And despite his majority win, Prime Minister Steven Harper came within a whisker of being unseated as PM by a lite-socialist charmer named Jack Layton who he dismissed as “all smiles and snake oil”.

All smiles and snake oil works pretty well, if people think the smile is for them and the snake oil is for other people.

Michael Ignatieff, leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, just led his party to the party’s worst showing in Canadian history. As a result, he will be stepping down.

There will be those who will say: “he should have done this, and he should have done that.” Coulda, shoulda woulda. What he should have done was never shown up.

There’s a term in politics: “retail politician”. Politics ought to be about high-minded ideals, but as we know, barely qualified individuals now have a habit of overachieving because of their innate personal abilities to connect. John Edwards? Sarah Palin? These are people who got a lot farther than a lot of smarter, more ethical, more talented leaders. Somehow they managed to position themselves for success.

And more often than not, the image that works for a retail politician campaigning in opposition to an incumbent is “fighter”: middleweight boxer with a brain. Near the end of the campaign, Jack “over 100 seats in parliament now and moving to the Opposition Leader’s nice stone house” Layton was labeled as such in TV ads. His MP’s signs sprouted “Fighting for [district]” add-ons. No one doubted the veracity.

It’s difficult to smear that positioning on someone who is patently not that.

And in today’s times it’s about the only positioning the Canadian people are going to accept en masse, coming out of an opposition party like the Liberals.

Look at the history. The two most successful Liberal Prime Ministers of all time were Jean Chretien and Pierre Trudeau. It’s well known that Chretien positioned himself as the Little Guy from Shawinigan, and no one doubted it to look at him. He was derided for being our only leader in history who was incoherent “in both official languages”. (Of course, despite his sometimes inelegant syntax, he spoke both languages well.) For those who didn’t absolutely despise him, it played, because it disarmed. To stay in office, Chretien’s secret was to govern moderately, often having his whole government going into silence mode for months — as if they were doing nothing at all. The quieter they were, the happier people were.

And then there’s Trudeau. People often make the mistake of making Pierre Trudeau out to be some kind of effete intellectual, so that Ignatieff might turn out to carry that legacy forward, rising somehow above the fray. Well, Trudeau was smart enough to be Justice Minister upon joining the government, and he wrote a book or two. But he was undoubtedly one of the feistiest, most combative SOB’s of all time… and he wasn’t just putting it on. His book Federalism and the French Canadians sought to challenge separatism and took to task (“Le Trahison des Clercs”) the intellectual class for their treasonous incitement of ordinary people into dreams of prosperous secession. When Trudeau felt oppositional to Western Canadians (who hated his National Energy Policy), he gave the finger to protesters on a train ride across the prairies. When he got a bit overheated in a parliamentary debate, he dropped the f-bomb (famously rendered as “fuddle duddle”). He sarcastically challenged wage and price controls for a brief time, saying “What do you do, say ‘zap, you’re frozen’?” He turned around and imposed just that to fight inflation when conditions warranted when in office. It had become a tactic to rein in public sector wages while claiming to spread the pain to the private sector. Trudeau was full of spit and vinegar. When he imposed the War Measures Act to clamp down on the terrorist FLQ, he challenged a reporter by saying “there’s a lot of bleeding hearts around who don’t like to see soldiers and guns (etc.)” When you’re a liberal politician who wears a flower in his lapel, there’s no better medicine for your image than taking on a few “bleeding hearts” fighting terror with tanks roaming the streets of the capital. That was in 1970. He was in power for a long time after that. And it didn’t hurt his image to marry a young club-hopper who also dated Mick Jagger.

Trudeau also inspired. In the course of liberalizing family laws he famously said “the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation”. He brought our Constitution home in 1982 with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms attached. On this front, he fought for us as well, even though many people figured an implicit constitution and de jure rule under Britain (the “British North America Act” was our constitution’s name prior to the Constitution Act of 1982) was good enough.

In light of all that history, maybe there just wasn’t that much left for Mr. Ignatieff left to fight for. Or at least, he could never convince us what it was that he was fighting for. As a career journalist (Britain) and professor (Harvard), it’s safe to say that — upon entering national politics in his 60′s — he’d never fought for anything in his life, other than in a rhetorical sense. Political instincts? Poor. Trudeau and Chretien played law and order and won support. Ignatieff dabbled in support for the war in Iraq (complete with justifiable torture) and somehow lost his connection with the Canadian people. Chretien distanced himself from George W. Bush and made fun of the argument for “regime change” — he made a joke of the need for regime change in the United States. Because, despite his mangled syntax (on WMD’s, he mused: “What is a proof? A proof is a proof. What kind of a proof? It’s a proof. A proof is a proof. And when you have a good proof, it’s because it’s proven.”), the little fighter from Shawinigan was a retail politician with his ear to the ground.

Michael Ignatieff could not have done anything to save his skin when it came to Canadians’ final judgment on his campaign efforts. A man with no connection to people, trying to act as if he had one. Classic Ries and Trout. Wrong positioning, behind the eight-ball from the get-go. Poor information scent. We clicked, and got taken to the wrong landing page. Against the sad, negative campaigns by the Conservative Party (“Michael Ignatieff: Just Visiting”), the only defenses were abstract and intellectual. Fine for you and me to consider the merits of an absentee prince who had been out of the country for 34 years. Dismal positioning for a mass election. Especially when the real deal — the real fighter — was gaining in the polls.

So, perhaps fueled by poll numbers that suggested their votes wouldn’t be wasted, many Canadian liberals chose the orange door instead of the red door, to express their desire for a middleweight fighter. Jack Layton, “all smiles and snake oil,” rides into Parliament as Opposition Leader, presiding over 100+ members. Until the last weeks of the campaign, no poll had predicted it; never had the party been considered anything more than a well-meaning “conscience of Parliament”.

And yet no one is particularly surprised. He fought for people and shook hands for decades, starting as a city councillor in Toronto. He rode his bike around town, spent a lot of time with wife Olivia Chow’s family. When Layton spoke, he spoke in local French from his upbringing in Quebec. When he cheered for the Montreal Canadiens, the elation was real.

Mr. Ignatieff (like Mr. Duceppe, who lost all but four of his province’s seats to the Orange Tide) has already resigned. He’ll return to academia: the vanquished politician’s version of judging Dancing With the Stars. A graceful exit? As much as he could have expected, from a much harsher world than he was prepared for.


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