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Archive for March, 2014

The Web from an Elite to a Mass Medium – The Irony of ‘Free and Open’?

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

Sir Tim Berners-Lee posted this reflection on the Google Blog on the 25th anniversary of his invention of the World Wide Web.

For those of us who were around then, it would be convenient to say we remember the day it happened, or the year it happened, and we warmly embraced that hypertext world he created from Day One. For most of us, though, it was a little more complicated. For most of us there might have been a delayed reaction, dismissing “whatever that is” and carrying on using whatever tools we had at our disposal.

Even without the great advance of the Web and its amazing hyperlinked, standardized architecture, a relatively small elite relied on Internet access. Most such individuals were connected with universities and research centers — true “cyber-geeks” who used various tools to chat, connect, and send files.

The Internet and the Web that came along on top of it began as earnest, elite media. Its geeks were rare, not hanging around in every cafe. And it wasn’t all self-referential and juvenile. Scientists used it to send each other research papers, and comment on them, etc.

When did the Web move to being a truly mass medium? When Webcrawler made it easier to search? When Yahoo came along? When Amazon reached some interesting sales benchmarks? When a good version of Netscape and a faster modem finally made the thing more fun and interactive? When Google took over as the search leader and was able to maintain a sustained age of dominance due to its harder-to-game search algorithm and its uniquely subtle ad ranking formula that didn’t bother search engine users nearly as much as some might have feared? When Google acquired, subsidized, and nurtured YouTube? When Facebook — more like an old AOL or bulletin board walled garden than most things we associate with ‘The Web’ — became ubiquitous?

Yes to all of the above, and much more besides. Much online activity now transcends the Web architecture. It’s heavily interactive – sometimes decentralized, sometimes not.

In the end, it’s a fiction that a standardized architecture and “no power center” leads to a nirvana of openness and freedom. Power centers tend to crop up anyway. Anarchy’s rules shouldn’t be taken at face value.

Likewise, a robust infrastructure of interstates and train tracks, and a nation built on a tradition of small farms and hard work, didn’t mean that it turned out to be a fair fight between “Big Food” and the average person’s waistline, or (call it) the Slow Food Movement. Take a good look at Michael Moss’ Salt Sugar Fat for an interesting look at how one “side” — huge companies with everything to gain — literally “take aim” at the mass market, trying to get them hooked on something (convenience in general, but most notably, sugar, which profoundly affects health) that flies in the face of common sense. Today in Wal-Greens near the checkout, I saw probably the biggest selection of candy I’ve ever seen in a drugstore. The proportion of these items as a proportion of all the rest of the stuff in the store has grown inexorably over the years. One item, Swedish Fish, is billed as “A Fat-Free Food” (!). There was also one of the largest selections of cigarettes I’d seen in awhile, behind the counter — much of them different types of Marlboroughs. (Great business model, right? Profit from the cause(s) of disease, then profit from the cure(s).) Irritatingly, they’ve discontinued beer and wine sales at that location. As I checked out, the clerk signed off with the company’s “signature greeting”: ‘Be Well.’

Back to the free and open Web. Personally, I’m nostalgic for the good old days when I got to send and receive little emails and files through a hard-to-use medium on a slow connection. It felt quiet, sane, and sheltered from the urges of commerce. Today, I work in the unsheltered version of that, making a living from it. Somehow, we aren’t all able to parlay our higher education into quiet lives as poets or professors. (The food science campuses, for their part, are crawling with clever Ph.D.’s.)

Over the years, a few privileged folks (read a bio of Steve Jobs and that will certainly be confirmed) have the type of lifestyle where they can really “dig in” and embrace the ins and outs of nutrition, cuisine, etc. Those who have dined at the eateries of elite chefs like Alice Waters are about as rare as those who have box seats for the Knicks or Lakers game. In spite of all of today’s talk of the rise of a foodie nation, obesity has reached epidemic proportions.

In that industry, there were versions of “Don’t Be Evil” at one time, too. But as competition heated up, as conglomerates grew to hate one another, and as Wall Street financed growth through M&A, the gloves came off, and the concern for health also waned. Have a look at this lengthy excerpt from Moss’s book:

Knocking an hour or two off that (pudding-making) ordeal would give a competitor a decisive advantage, the General Foods executives realized. They asked Clausi to get there first by inventing an instant formula.

Some food creations happen in a flash. Most take months. This one took years. From 1947 to 1950, Clausi and his team cooked, ate, and breathed pudding. They tinkered with its chemical composition. They played with its physical structure. General Foods preferred using cornstarch as the base, but Clausi’s crew looked at potatoes and every other starch they could find, including the sago palm, which Clausi tracked down himself after traveling, via prop plane, to Indonesia. Nothing worked. The problem was that, at the time, General Foods was staunchly committed to pure ingredients. [Emphasis mine.] Food additives such as boric acid, a preservative, and artificial dyes were showing up in more and more items on the grocery shelf, but General Foods knew that consumers had deep trepidations about these ingredients, especially those that were synthetic. Clausi’s marching orders, then, had been quite strict: He was to create his instant pudding using only starch, sugar, and natural flavorings.

That all changed in the summer of 1949 when he returned from two weeks [sic] of fishing in the Catskills to find that all hell had broken loose. A competitor, National Brands, had filed for a patent on instant pudding by using not one synthetic but a blend of synthetics, including an orthophospate that was usually added to drinking water supplies to prevent corrosion… a pyrophosphate, which thickens foods; and water-soluble salts like calcium acetate, which extend shelf life. On his desk the first day back was an envelope marked ‘Open Immediately’. Inside was National’s patent application. And when he went to see his boss, the section head of desserts, Clausi was told that the rules had changed, public fears be damned. “He said, ‘Marketing wants us to outdo the competition,’” Clausi told me. “That it was urgent. And when I asked if it still had to be 100 per cent starch, he said, ‘That’s all out the window. Just come up with an instant pudding that can be made in thirty minutes.’ Overnight, the constraints were removed.”

As Seth Godin often argues — from his (and my) perspective — “elitist” isn’t a dirty word. He recently decried the “fabled Oreo tweet” and “the now-legendary Ellen selfie” as further dragging thinking people into a morass of trivia.

But mass markets are massive profit centers for somebody. It gives somebody (many somebodies) a great deal of incentive to sit in their glass and steel campus bunker coming up ways to ‘optimize’ (that’s what the food scientists call it, believe it or not) products to make them addictive to consumers — to find their ‘bliss point.’ Food scientists began using multivariate testing methods as early as the 1950′s, at General Foods. They’ve gotten very good at it indeed.

It’s hard not to see a parallel with today’s digital world. While I (and Mr. Berners-Lee) may have the wherewithal to dine more frequently than the average person on the digital and informational equivalent of raw broccoli, hummus, and spicy cashew nuts, that’s not, seemingly, where a lot of this is headed. Giants in our industry, just like those giants in the food industry, make more money if they remove choice, and if openness is just a slogan.

It’s not all bad. For starters, much like Jell-O Instant Pudding, our digital life is now incredibly convenient. Didn’t it used to suck when we had to struggle with finding a street address, or just take a chance on a restaurant without checking Yelp? Indeed. We’ve reached our bliss point. It’s a brave new world.

There’s more to say on the issue — on the part about it not being all bad. Along shortly will be the Part 2 of this post.

P.S. Hat tip on the general idea for the subject of this post goes to Professor Carolyn Bassett.

Quality Score Isn’t Actionable. Here’s What You Can Do About It

Monday, March 3rd, 2014

Everyone in PPC (and related display advertising) today knows that ad rank is determined in part by your bid, and in part by a multifaceted relevancy measure called Quality Score.

What many still don’t realize is that Quality Score doesn’t merely determine rank on the page (of the ad listings), but also impression share or the frequency of delivery (Google currently refers to this as “ad auction eligibility”). With lower Quality Scores, ads may simply be shown less often, rather than just dropping down in position. Not only does that enforce relevancy standards, it provides a handy lever that Google can use to tweak its profitability. Change the algorithm a little bit, and some advertisers are forced to ramp up bids if they want fuller delivery of their ads. Google’s auction regime includes handy little “framing” features, like the estimated “first page bid” notation that implies you won’t even make it onto the first page of ads if you don’t up your bid.

There continue to be many other nuances of Quality Score that are really only taken into account by a tiny minority of advertisers:

  • Quality Score is calculated on the fly for every query, for all eligible advertisers in a given keyword auction. What we see in our accounts next to the keywords (if you Customize Columns to view this) are reported averages.
  • Quality Score is predictive until a keyword builds up a significant amount of history. Perfectly good keywords might come in at 3 or 4, and eventually go up.
  • Some kinds of keywords (inherently ambiguous ones) may always attract consumer-oriented information seekers, etc., not people looking for your highly specialized software. That’s why you might never crack 4 or 5 on your phrase match for “prevent phishing,” despite your perception that the keyword is relevant. But your longer phrases that include “software” in the phrase (etc.), might clock in with a 7, 8, or 10. In B2B, it’s not all about the Quality Score. It’s about doing your best to find customers at the best possible CPA. Sometimes you’ll get cues from Quality Score, but that’s about it.
  • Quality Score history is important, but we don’t know how far back that goes, how much of it is needed for optimal results, or how or when it degrades.
  • Reported Quality Score might be drifting farther away from actual Quality Score.
  • There is an available “three-factor” breakdown of “components” of Quality Score by keyword, but it is not terribly informative, since it is not clearly actionable. The factors are Expected CTR, Ad Relevance, and Landing Page Experience.
  • We don’t really know what the “ad relevance” component of Quality Score is, though Google refers to the keywords in an ad group not being “specific enough” to the ads. This factor may be unnecessary, given data is already collected on CTR and user behavior, but trust Google to meddle further in relevancy matters: they’re a search engine, after all!
  • Landing page experiences are important, but this component isn’t very actionable — it certainly isn’t typical that an advertiser runs an A/B landing page test and somehow gets usable information back about how that affected Quality Score. Indeed, the only case studies I’ve seen have cited just the opposite — a lengthy test period with inconclusive or confounding results. I do believe that a big step up in the user experience via a site redesign, testing the appropriate level of granularity for landing pages, etc., will score you a win on this Quality Score component, which might give you a slight boost in AdRank, but we’re talking about a full redesign or upgrade in UX, not to be taken lightly, and something you should probably do for all the right reasons anyway. (Regardless, there are some guidelines all advertisers should be aware of. Especially, avoid certain practices that decrease trust with users or annoy users.)
  • There are Quality Scores for Display Network ads, PLA’s, Dynamic Remarketing, Dynamic Search Ads, etc. None are reported, so none are actionable.
  • Edit an ad, lose the old ad’s Quality Score history (i.e. something resets). How harmful this is to the score for your “keyword and matched ad” isn’t known, but it’s important to understand that all testing in AdWords comes at a cost, as does a blanket change in display and/or destination URL.
  • AdWords normalizes Quality Score for match type and ad position. Don’t get your hopes up that you’ll discover loopholes around these.
  • Negative keywords are always a good idea, if they make their case on their own merit. Google won’t confirm how important they are as an aid to keyword Quality Score, though. As with many other factors, the story from Google is subject to change.
  • In case you missed the point I was trying to make, regular keyword Quality Score is nearly as mysterious as the ones that aren’t even reported, so it isn’t very actionable.

There are some obvious best practices that will probably get you better Quality Scores:

  • A well-organized campaign — because ads & landing pages will be more relevant to queries that the related keywords in your ad groups trigger ads on.
  • Avoiding self-indulgent theories that simply mean something different to the consumer than what you’re trying to put in front of them — “weight loss ideas” as a keyword, when you’re selling jump ropes. Hey, it could work, but if it persists with a Quality Score of 2, pause it. It’s doing more harm than good.
  • The Quality Score history component at the “URL level” is an interesting and murky way Google can reward brands, but it might also be good for you if you aren’t a big brand. It might be a way of ensuring that established, trusted advertisers get a slight boost over upstarts and tinkerers.
  • Try out anything that boosts Quality Score (CTR) with no obviously deleterious effect on ROI. (hint: ad extensions).
  • Ad testing: go with ROI or conversion rate related metrics when you can. But in the case of a tie, consider letting the higher CTR ad win. Some advertisers might want to go all in for CTR, if volume is much more important than profit.
  • Here’s a big one for me. Google explicitly states that Quality Score history at the account-wide level is a factor. We don’t know how big a factor, but it affects every auction for every keyword in the account to some degree. That makes a strong case for professional campaign management. Sloppy, messy, irresponsible, lazy, irrelevant, etc. campaigns pay some penalty. Best practices (campaign organization, meticulous testing) pay off over time. You can’t prove it with an A/B test, but the benefit it there. Google says so!

Some “advanced tactics pushers” will try to convince you that there are certain more esoteric Quality Score voodoo tactics that can give you a magical lift. They have rarely if ever proven any of these claims.

Quality Score is super-important? Yes. It’s very important to understand how it works. It is not actionable or testable in the way that many advocates claim, however.


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