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Archive for January, 2012

When Things Change, They’re Actually Different

Friday, January 27th, 2012

Turmoil is all around us, old assumptions no longer valid.

Richard Florida deftly lays out the scenario for the current economic and spatial Great Reset. Bob Garfield outlines the Chaos Scenario in traditional media and advertising (upon which I comment favorably here). Friendly, iron-fist in a velvet glove American liberalism-cum-imperialism is laid to waste in Chris Hedges’ Death of the Liberal Class. Seth Godin refers to a “forever recession,” somehow managing to remain optimistic (“and the coming revolution”) on behalf of the self-starters who can connect with markets by becoming extraordinary.

In light of this you’d think it would have percolated through to even the most frozen-in-amber members of the business-as-usual, Boomer-ec0nomic-boom-beneficiaries, that something is permanently different. As in not the same as before.

Yet a big ad agency demographer writing for Ad Age opines that the “millennials just might save our economic bacon” if they would “just begin acting a bit more like boomers.” Supposedly a statistician, he concludes the piece with “optimists such as myself continue to believe that the all-powerful primal human desire to have a home and produce children will prevail over whatever economic and political obstacles stand in the way”.

Let’s review.

In many societies around the world, the “all-powerful priman human desire” has taken a back seat to a declining fertility rate. Some countries have dropped from a fertility rate of 7 or 8 to just over 2 in a quarter of a century. In Europe and Japan, fertility rates are extremely low and the result (unless immigration increases) is an aging population and a smaller workforce, setting up an undeniable future fiscal burden for pensions and healthcare that can’t be outrun or outgrown. Even “Catholic” countries like Costa Rica have gotten into the action, some with fertility rates below 2. Check out the data on Iran, while you’re at it.

It seems nearly everywhere you go, people are having fewer babies. The blame lies where? Economics (affordability of families), more time spent in advanced study, cultural changes (less religion), women’s equality, women’s interest in careers, modernization, and a few other things.

Flip ahead to marriage and home life. Average age of marriage in many societies climbs inexorably towards (and eventually past?) 35. A skyrocketing percentage of adults over 30 (and yes, over 40 and over 50) live as “singletons”. Changing habits, changing tastes. This is permanent.

You can go broke waiting around for yesterday’s demographic trends and yesterday’s assumptions of secular, continuous growth in “this sector or that sector” or “the economy”. You’ll also be mistaken if you think “millennials” will soon become receptive to the same old media messages, broadcast in the same old ways. “Primal urges” don’t appear to trump the need to get more granular with your analysis in this, the most granular of ages ever seen.

AdWords, Declining Click Prices (CPC’s), and Interface Optics: Two Theories

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

Google’s recent financial results weren’t nearly as bad as the markets seemed to think. By any rational standard, once again they turned in a strong Q4 and strong YOY growth. Earnings were very solid. All they did was miss Wall Street expectations slightly.

If revenues and profits were up sharply — but below expectations — were there any red flags at all?

It appears so. While total paid clicks were up 34% year over year, click prices in the form of average CPC’s were actually down a whopping 8% from the same period in 2010.

Google didn’t provide a breakdown, unfortunately. Did much of that come as a result of the growth in less targeted display advertising? It doesn’t appear so, because network clicks grew more slowly than clicks on Google-owned properties. So the softness is either within Google Search or YouTube or both.

What about search clicks? What about the prices of commercially valuable terms in hospitality, financial services, health, education, and real estate? What is happening now, and financially speaking, what will happen down the road with, the increases in paid local searches? Google doesn’t have to tell us, unfortunately.

There seems little question that the market for paid clicks is showing a bit of pricing vulnerability, in any case.

And what is perhaps doubly red-flaggish about that is that it is occurring in the wake of Google taking a variety of steps to exact higher CPC’s to wring more profit out of the existing traffic to Google Search.

Some search marketers believe that terminology within the interface, default settings, and even certain tools and reports, are intended to “frame” the auction so that a higher bid appears logical in order to achieve your marketing objectives. So with all of that Google intellectual firepower going into making higher bids seem sensible, the financial results indicate that marketers are largely turning up their noses at these bits of subtle persuasion.

Take, for example, the Bid Simulator tool. Personally, I’ve found it useful because it can remind you that currently, your volume could go up more than you think if you raise bids on a keyword — even if your reported average ad position is already high. That is, in part, due to the fact that Quality Score now determines eligibility for as well as position in any given keyword auction. If you have middling to low quality scores on a keyword, a higher bid may increase not only your ad position, but your “eligibility” to be served each and every time a relevant search query is generated by a user.

This projection tool works sensibly in the case of a specific term using a tight match type, such as the phrase match for “buy green barbie”.

It doesn’t work very well at all for broad-matched terms such as the broad match for “ontario place” or “love handles”. That’s because such terms have a huge reach potential (if you’re willing to bid into the stratosphere), but at a very high bid, they achieve that potential only by showing your ad to ludicrously untargeted searchers, and by cannibalizing traffic away from your more specific, well-optimized keywords. In this case, the Bid Simulator becomes relatively uninformative and relatively useless.

The real question I have is: (1) Did Google build things like this on purpose so that novice and lazy advertisers mess up their accounts and bid higher to gain added impression share, willy-nilly?; or (2) Did this just not occur to them at all? Did they just throw up the tool without any of this occurring to them?

Both possibilities are disturbing. I think I’m actually less disturbed by (1) — the prospect that Google was evil. When someone is evil, you are always planning your counter-move. With (2) — the notion that there are well-meaning folks pecking away at creating moderately useful features, but overall, are just mailing it in — would mean that institutional memory and passion at Google have given away to an uncoordinated mishmash of people just doing their jobs. The latter makes for a pretty boring narrative for a poor ol’ blogger.

So are Google Search results crap, or aren’t they?

Tuesday, January 17th, 2012

The latest debates over Google Search results, search quality, antitrust, and other drama are only the latest in a long period of rapid change for Google in the search arena. That period, pretty much the past seven years, has been marked by (a) growth in new technology and soft innovations intended to handle the scale of search as well as more complex user intent puzzles; (b) the ongoing challenges Google faces in satisfying public expectations of relevant results in an environment characterized by gaming and spam. Other trends have included (c) mobile, (d) the rapid growth in video and the resulting changes in user information consumption, and (e) people’s adoption of Facebook-like social environments to make sense of their worlds. All these trends, ultimately, funnel back into the search experience. When it comes to (e), and perhaps numerous other trends, they’re new worlds for Google. In spite of its size and ability to assimilate and acquire new technologies, Google suddenly discovered it was poorly situated to respond to evolving user needs. “Getting social” didn’t seem to be in its DNA. Angrily, Google developer Steve Yegge ranted that Google “doesn’t get platform.” [Note: you'll probably need to log into Google+ to read this rant.]

Google has had an easy ride in this period. Bing has been its only serious competitor in search. That being said, rivals like Wolfram Alpha, Blekko, and Ixquick have all found their way onto the radar screens of those searching for alternatives.

But the real threat is Facebook, etc. And in the face of that threat, Google has done something close to panicking. It’s very reminiscent of the panic exhibited by Microsoft when it went all in playing catchup with the shift to Internet computing.

While it’s panicking about a massive paradigm shift, some people are complaining that garden-variety search is where Google dropped the ball. They imply that Google has arbitrarily voided something akin to a sacred social contract with its users, by changing the “no clutter” clause in our relationship with them.

I don’t need to show you all of the accusations that Google Search has deteriorated and that the results are now “crap”. I’m sure you seen plenty of these claims. But Dave Winer’s is worth noting.

Those types of claims stem from a few different points of view and motivations, not even counting those that are revulsed by Google’s pecuniary interest in showing relevant ads next to the results.

To attempt to aggregate the whole landscape of criticism, there seems to be an overall claim that Google has fought a losing battle with spammy results and as a result has turned to cheap shortcuts to mask this fact. Certainly, it has seemed that various crackdowns on link farms and “content farms,” sometimes with cute names, have not fixed some of the cracks in Google’s early assumptions. The problem with cracking down on “excessive” link building or “thin” content is that you need to then come up with a model that definitively satisfies some ideal of relevance — an ideal Google hadn’t given much thought to in its founding.

Google has replaced laser relevance in the ten blue links (which it can’t attain) with universal/blended search — a variegated set of new ad formats and content types. Google has greater control over some of these other (non-web) data sources, so they’re less likely to be spammy. Note: that’s also why Bing works well for many users.

Moreover, if some of them are spammy, so what? As a user, you were given a menu of choices, so you clicked on a YouTube video and were mildly entertained. Or you found a leading brand name or quality news source in the blended results, somehow, and then somehow did enough additional research to find your way to what you wanted.

That’s another specific complaint you hear: that Google Search more often than not takes “brand” as a proxy for relevance, which starves us for variety and essentially hands search over to well heeled corporate sites and media companies.

Google may actually be more thin-skinned about this claim than they should be! It may indeed be part of what has motivated them to try so hard to find yet another sweeping solution to their broken paradigm — a sweeping solution that to me is likely to produce disturbing results. More on that below.

Back to defending Google circa 2010-2011 against the “anti-crap” claims, for now.

In essence, you quite often hear two or three different arguments that Google Search results are “crap”: (1) There are too many spammy results; (2) There are too many brands in there getting a “free pass” that prevents “true relevance” from coming to the fore; (3) Google’s way of masking their inability to define or reveal true relevance – the “blended solution” – is itself a copout that provides the illusion of variety, but in practice, is a fence-sitting “cover” for Google’s technological failures.

None of these complaints are all right, or all wrong. But (2) in particular is a good indicator that we actually may have a problem, not with Google Search, but with the whole process and idea of Web Search.

I’ve been using Google Search more heavily for cooking in the past year or so. Google has always been pretty great for quick access to recipes, no matter how poorly you used it. More recently, trying to solidify their status in this area, the company created something like an app for recipes that a bunch of people no doubt played with.

In hindsight, here’s what I discovered. I had been all too willing in the past to jump on a variety of recipes from second and third tier recipes sites. They’re good, they’re fun, and there is no shortage of user give-and-take on these sites to help you decide how or whether to make a dish.

At the end of the day, though, compared with sticking with just a single classic “home economics” media brand (say, a well-liked magazine with thousands of incredible recipes built up over the years — OK, OK, I really refuse to identify the recipe site I’m enjoying, because my wife and her mother both subscribe to the print magazine if you know what I mean!), these “generic,” “upstart” sites are amateurish. Over time I’ve learned to seek out and click on the “big media brand” sites more often and cooking those dishes more often. If there was any kind of measuring stick for culinary goodness, the mishmash of generic sites would score a 6, and some of the brand sites’ recipes would score a 9. Both types of website are “communities,” and there is no reason an upstart, chaotic “community” should be considered as somehow more special than one with a 75-year history that also has community features. They’re simply different. Shiny new objects aren’t always inherently better.

I’m sure many users have felt the same way.

Search results reflect those user clickstreams. Brands aren’t favored by Google, they’re favored by users because users both trust them ahead of time and like what they see when they get there.

So when it comes to cooking and recipes (for example), Dave Winer’s specific complaint is utter balderdash. (That being said, there is wisdom in his broader assessment of the sacred trusts that Google seems to think nothing of violating.) For a searcher with a shred of initiative, Google’s results are not crap. Some of what you see is crap to you, and some of it is relevant to you. Personalization is doing a pretty good job of giving us types of sites that we do like to see. I would love to see it do better and I think it would if given the chance.

And users likely feel and behave the same way when it comes to cars, personal finance, and a thousand other verticals. For every Autoblog or Seeking Alpha, there are just too many crap sites out there, so the brands actually deserve their good rankings. I’d rather read Car & Driver articles or a top tweet from a leading finance guru than joescrapesaboutcars.net or investitu2cando.com.

It stands to reason, then, that every search engine and every social app or environment is working on this problem. They have not solved it. The generics and the strivers are more likely to provide the “crap” results than the brands are. Hence, as an interim and even a long term solution, many of the brands win because they’ve earned it, and they invest in quality content because they are real editorial organizations.

To augment the obvious, most trusted content, to find the upstarts like Seeking Alpha or Autoblog — or for that matter, the popular Twitter-centric expert — and to allow them to grow their reputations, is no easy feat.

So what is Google doing to continue to try to solve that problem? How is it tapping into additional social signals and complex measures of reputation and quality to continue to improve your search experience? By doing more things like it did when it acquired PostRank? By partnering with Twitter? By respecting the results provided by Yelp and TripAdvisor?

To me, that’s where it breaks down. Google jumps ahead mentally, past its garden-variety problems, and launches Search Plus Your World.

Now a bunch of my “contacts” will fix all the problems with web search, since I’ll know know what my peer group thinks about everything! And a whole bunch of that ongoing activity will be affecting the baseline quality and relevance data that affects everyone’s search results. Great. But as most agree, Google was either doing a good job gradually fixing core search problems, or it has been doing a bad job, and should work harder on solving them. Either way, its resources are still needed on those problems.

First of all, let me just say this much: I am inherently suspicious of any company that reaches this level of puffery in a product launch statement — this by esteemed Google Fellow Amit Singal, no less:

While there may be 7 billion people and 197 million square miles on Earth, a septillion stars and a trillion webpages, we spend our short, precious lives living in a particular town, with particular friends and family, orbiting a single star and relying on a tiny slice of the world’s information. Our dream is to have technology enable everyone to experience the richness of all their information and people around them.

We named our company after the mathematical number googol as an aspiration toward indexing the countless answers on webpages, but that’s only part of the picture. The other part is people, and that’s what Search plus Your World is all about.

So Google loves people. Finally.

Also first of all, this move does not do anything fundamental to reduce “spam” or “crap.” Sensibly, Eric Enge recently pointed out that “links were a better quality signal when the world didn’t know they were a signal.” Upping the ante to include a whole bunch of idiosyncratic Google platform features in your “must-do’s” as a marketer or content producer doesn’t make life more relevant for users. It just sends millions of SEO’s and social media gamers scurrying to set up the latest “please the algorithm” projects for their clients. In terms of the cat-and-mouse game that is supposed to provide users with a useful search tool, it’s basically like adding a dimension to the former chess game that mostly involved links. So what? Same game.

Moreover, while it certainly might be cool or interesting to augment search results with peer recommendations, +1′s, and whatever else Google will do to ape likes, tweets, and social sharing that were pioneered by competing media companies like Digg, Twitter, Facebook, etc., it leads towards a wholesale swapping of the model of searching that most everyone is expected to use. So shocking, coming from introverted geniuses who up until about two years ago mostly admitted they didn’t care for social media, the trend in your Google+-influenced online experience will mimic the broader trend in the workplace: the assumption that extroversion is normal and leads to productivity. For more on this, see Susan Cain’s sad chronicle of The Rise of the New Groupthink (New York Times, Jan. 13.)

Crowdsource your whole life. It’s catching.

Until Facebook had a movie made about it, most people instinctively knew that it was the introvert in us that generally retreated from the noise, and got stuff done. Now the cheery chatterboxes are ascendant. Certainly, it seems like just creating products that work effectively — so we can “get stuff done” — has lost its cachet. Just ask Steve Yegge.

Long term, it’s hard to say what Google will do. But for now, it appears obsessed with Google+ and its sudden ability to contribute to our search experience (just six months after launch). Even when more people — far more — spontaneously use Facebook. No one Google+’s anything, do they? Do people really +1 things? They tweet them. But more and more people will feel pressured into using the +1 thing “too,” which makes “+1″ one of the most aptly-named new (but not really new) actions of all time.

This “our dog food or you’re dog meat” attitude certainly can’t be coming from a search engine, can it?

Surely not one that is a Trustmark… one that used to have a social contract with users about not being evil?

Sadly, yes.

This doesn’t necessarily violate antitrust laws, as Jerry Brito attempts to argue.

But if you’re of a Dave Winer bent, it does tear up the social contract we as searchers all thought we had with Google. To be sure, it’s something Facebook — if left to its own devices — would also do. Facebook, but pretty much no one else. The “who is less evil” contest between Google and Facebook has not been setting the bar particularly high lately.

Google is pulling out all its flamethrowers seemingly because it has tunnel vision about one thing, mainly: beating Facebook at “that”. Whatever that is. And if your privacy, Yelp’s legal rights, Twitter’s contribution to our collective social life, etc., should get in the way, then so be it. Flame on.

So does Google “get platform” now? As Steve Yegge has been urging them to do?

Hardly. Platform means ecosystem. That means playing well with others — suppliers, contributors, information providers, partners, the technology world, and on down the list. Microsoft, Mr. Yegge even refers to as a “platform”. He lauds Amazon for being one.

So Google can’t “get social” if they can’t “get platform.” They need to get better at not elbowing every single potential collaborator (who they view as competitors) out of the way with the arrogant assumption that they can build something better and just plain take over (Knol, Google Reviews and Places, Chrome, Android, anyone?)

So are Google results crap? If you’d asked me that a year ago, I would have launched into the above lecture about how the seemingly crap results you see are pretty much inherent to the kind of searching we do with search engines today. And that Google is working on core search, as it should. That’s something I support.

Instead, they’ve actually tried to move beyond crap.

But as Mr. Brito points out, that seems to have unleashed a tricky market response. Some users may applaud the new paradigm, and Google’s ability to move “beyond the crap” of the previous generation of search. Others may less charitably conclude that Google is trying to escape its crap by producing search results that are “beyond crap.”

Google wants to control more elements of your social world now. They don’t just want to be a search engine.

Is that so bad? Maybe not. It’s certainly no different from how other companies, from AOL, to Microsoft, to Apple, to Disney, to Facebook, have viewed the world — as ideally a walled garden, an all-consuming platform that most people use for pretty much every form of entertainment and social interaction.

A lot of people thought that Google was somehow different. They were, of course, wrong.

The specific implications of all of this mostly come down to Google’s enormous size and scope. The fallout is on your privacy, and on thousands if not millions of companies’ right to operate their businesses in a fair, competitive environment. If that isn’t strictly a legal issue, it’s close to one. It certainly speaks to Google’s blind spot as identified by Mr. Yegge, the one it’s ironically trying to remedy by taking shortcuts: its failure to “get platform.”

To move forward either as the old Google or Google+, Google needs to be capable of making fair deals with the partner ecosystem. It needs to curb its instinct to kill competing media companies that were actually producing great content that Google helped you find. Can it? Will it?

A Website is Like a Company, and Vice-Versa. Post-Revolution,There Really is No ‘Revert’

Monday, January 9th, 2012

You’ve been through it. Everyone you know has probably been through it, at some point.

Your website and the platform is built on are now five (or, aaaghh! seven or eight!) years old, and your website redesign and relaunch are long overdue. But what pain are you going to endure, and how much money will you spend (lose?) before you come out the “other side”?

That was the premise of our session at SES Chicago last November, “Navigating the Dip: Planning a Successful Site Relaunch” (with thanks to Seth Godin for inspiration).

It may be comforting to say to yourself “hey, if it doesn’t work out, we’ll just revert to the old site, and keep on makin’ money that way.”

And in the abstract, pundits may sound very clever in advising you to keep an open mind, and to ignore sunk costs in your criteria for which strategy to pursue.

During this panel, one discussant breezily stated that you should try (using the world’s fanciest CMS?) somehow rotating the old site and the new site, slowly pecking away at the new one until it’s perfected before dropping the old.

The reality is, it doesn’t work that way.

Many companies bring a dozen reasons for relaunch to the relaunch party. In the case study I covered, the technology was so outdated and so limiting that the entrepreneur (mid-sized ecommerce company in household goods) did not relaunch because they wanted to… but because they had to.

And the same thing seems fair to state about the new Search Engine Watch, the case study Jonathan Allen cheerfully brought to the table. Take an old site that is now full of new ideas, functionality, and flair after a relaunch (with some hiccups, or major hiccups depending on who is giving the case study presentation). Even if not everything went swimmingly — even if the profit rate post relaunch got worse in the short term, for example — there’s pretty much 0% chance you’d go back to the previous site, with its old design, older way of presenting the news, and its various other outmoded elements. Can you imagine what users would say to a company that couldn’t relaunch its website in this day and age, that went back to the 12-year-old design with the old-time “binoculars” logo associated with a long-gone founder? No, sometimes you just can’t revert. You soldier on and make the new thing work, somehow.

What is truly frightening about this — the fact that, in any real world case studies of significant site relaunches, the architects of it are pretty much going “all in” on sweeping change that materially affects the business — to a great extent, you are jumping without a net. You’re contradicting the soundest of business advice (see Jim Collins, Great By Choice): “bullet, bullet, bullet, then calibrated cannonball.” A major relaunch is too much like firing your cannonballs without knowing what the result will be. With the possibility that you may find yourself out of cannonballs before you hit the target.

So, you’d better have an incredibly solid plan. And while you may be digesting many changes at once, if there are any big changes you can put off for one year, you’d better do so. Otherwise the chaos could sink you.

This puts me in mind of Google of late.

Formerly, Google was all about bullet, bullet, bullet, calibrated cannonball. That’s how they came to be so dominant in search, search ads, and display ads.

But then they went all in with Google+.

Then, they acquired Motorola.

Think it’ll be possible, if they continue to flounder in social media, to simply turn the clock back, turn off Google+, and act like nothing happened, maybe launch yet another attempt to “get social” in a year or two? No way. Google is all in with this thing.

And if the Motorola acquisition and the plans to build devices seem not to be panning out… knowing Larry Page the way we do, and how he has now become so associated with this latest phase of the company’s development… how likely is it that Google would crisply “cut bait” and change course? It seems unlikely. Rather, Google plans to stubbornly pursue a long-term plan to achieve Apple-like cult device status.

(Does all the shuttering of loose ends in the company make Larry feel “crisper,” perhaps deceptively so? I doubt the same cold-blooded attitude will be possible if some of the current strategies don’t pan out. They are too all-encompassing to be amenable to “fail-fast” tests of potential.)

Maybe this is why investors are starting to sell off Google stock. This latest round of “all in” behavior may be a noble quest from the standpoint of insiders, but it signals a change in the type of company Google is.

The strange part is, it feels like Google launched Google+ and acquired Motorola not because they wanted to, but because they had to.

Of course, the “safer” path (not doing these things, not creating a self-imposed Dip to push through) may lead to what Godin called the ‘cul-de-sac’ or ‘the cliff’. So it’s not like it would have been safer for Google to sit on their hands, to let others take those markets. You don’t always have a choice.

 


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