What is the Difference Between Google's Secrecy & Your Privacy?

Dec 13th

One of Google's leading marketing secrets is to appeal to power users. When describing how they designed Gmail, Google's Todd Jackson stated:

We started with the early-adopter crowd. That was on purpose. We wanted to build a product for people who were getting hundreds of e-mails a day, because we believe by focusing on the power user, you're designing the product the rest of the market will want in a couple years when everyone's usage habits catch up to the most active users. We pay most attention to seven-day active users (those who use Gmail at least once every seven days) and usage--the amount of actual engagement with the product. Something that Larry and Sergey (Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Google's co-founders) are always, always telling us is to focus on usage rather than users. That's what matters more. You get better feedback and you are properly kept more on the leading edge if you're focusing on the people who are using the product all the time, using the product all day, than just the casual users.

This is why marketing to developers and designers is so important...they use the web more, and the stamp they leave on it is much deeper than the average user. But they also tend to be sensitive to marketing messaging, especially when it becomes a bit hypocritical.

Eric Schmidt On YOUR Privacy With Google

Recently in an interview Eric Schmidt made the awesome statement "Judgment is important ... If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place."

That approach to privacy from a search engine intent on personalizing the search experience is horrible for a number of reasons. It is bad enough that it encouraged reactions from security professionals and open source advocates, who like to remind us that Google is *always* trying to spy on you and collect more data.

"Everyone knows that every site you visit and all address bar searches in Chrome go to Google, right?" - Christopher Blizzard

Why did Google create an operating system? So they can spy on you. Why does Google care about speed so much that they created a DNS service? It was a convenient excuse to use...so they can spy on you. Why is Google launching their own cell phone? So they can spy on you.

Mozilla makes most of its money from their search syndication partnership with Google, and yet Mozilla's Asa Dotzler wrote about how to switch your search provider to Bing. Explaining why he favors Bing, he wrote:

Because search is broken like browsers were broken in 2002. No competition means that Google can do what ever it wants and you have to like it. Bing's search is pretty good, in the US at least, and their privacy policy is so much better (they don't, for example, connect your Microsoft email or office accounts with your search results like Google does so search data they collect isn't personally identifiable.)

Bruce Schneier understands why privacy is important

For if we are observed in all matters, we are constantly under threat of correction, judgment, criticism, even plagiarism of our own uniqueness. We become children, fettered under watchful eyes, constantly fearful that -- either now or in the uncertain future -- patterns we leave behind will be brought back to implicate us, by whatever authority has now become focused upon our once-private and innocent acts. We lose our individuality, because everything we do is observable and recordable.

The following comment also reveals how this sort of tracking + philosophy on privacy can go astray

Why does Eric Schmidt dismiss your privacy?

money

Exploiting User Flaws for Maximum Profit Potential

Google collects more data than they need to (putting you at greater risk), so they can better exploit your mental weaknesses for profit. Eric Schmidt is betting big on exploiting YOUR privacy for profit:

Even better, the device knows who I am, what I like, and what I have already read. ...
Some of these stories are part of a monthly subscription package. Some, where the free preview sucks me in, cost a few pennies billed to my account. Others are available at no charge, paid for by advertising. But these ads are not static pitches for products I'd never use. Like the news I am reading, the ads are tailored just for me. Advertisers are willing to shell out a lot of money for this targeting.

But a bet for ads that learn you and profile your faults and weaknesses is not one that Tim Berners-Lee would make. The creator of the WWW is firmly against it:

In a world where democracy is getting more participatory, it's very important that people are informed over a neutral medium so they can connect to whoever they want. Another issue that is very important is snooping. I don't want any snooping on my Internet traffic.
You can do things to ensure that my Internet runs smoothly, but when I am doing something which is perhaps very intimate: when someone looks up something to see if they have cancer, or a teenager wonders if they are homosexual or not and wants to go online to find answers, this should be private. So systems that monitor every click and build a profile of me are very damaging.
The things we do on the Internet are so intimate that they are much more valuable to others and damaging to me than having a permanent TV camera in my living room. I don't want my health premiums to go up if I look up health information
; I don't want to be a suspected terrorist if I do research on chemicals, I don't want to get leaflets from gay rights groups if I look up something on sexuality.

At least we know why Eric Schmidt says "Advertisers are willing to shell out a lot of money for this targeting" and why he thinks you don't need to worry about it.

But maybe Mr. Schmidt is right. Lets look at how Google operates...

With Nearly Unlimited Privacy & Secrecy

What happens when Google gets search personalization or search suggestion wrong and your spouse wants to divorce you because of a Google error? Judgment is important, after all. Well Google wouldn't make such errors, they are perfect. Or are they?

Google's Data Privacy Strategy is a Leaky Boat

Google wants you to trust them enough to store your data with them in the cloud. Eric Schmidt said that the cloud was their most important focus in 2010. Well what happens when your internal data is exposed publicly due to a Google bug? Couldn't happen? Well guess again and again.

Is Eric Schmidt suggesting that businesses simply shouldn't consider using Google Apps because Google has a track record of not caring about user privacy & being sloppy with private data? How should we judge Google based on their current business practices? Judgment is important.

Google Promotes Lambasting Content

A few weeks back while watching CNBC I remember seeing reporters mention that if you want customer service from airlines that you should complain on Twitter. Google has since integrated such messages directly in their search results. So now any bad customer experience (or envious competitor) becomes part of your brand. And you can't make money while making everyone happy. As the web gets more competitive the markets will only get nastier, where more people try to cash in on established brands.

In fact, running AdWords ads asking if (or exclaiming that ) product or service x is a scam is one of the most popular AdWords affiliate strategies. Google doesn't let brand advertisers opt out of such messaging on their brands, and if you don't buy your brand they will be glad to sell that ad slot to someone else.

Google AdWords Ads Promote Scams

Sure Google recently sued some scammers who were cashing in on the Google brand directly, but how long was Google running the Obama stimulus and government grants for after they lied and said they were already cleaned up?

What does it say about the Google brand that their own brand is being tarnished, but will run scam ads on other keywords even after they said the issue has been cleaned up?

It is so bad that Google has an ad category called "get rich quick".

How should we judge Google based on their current business practices? Judgment is important.

Google Recommends Violating Copyright

Most sites violating copyright online which carry ads are wrapped in "Ads from Google", via Google AdSense & Google DoubleClick.

Further, Google also promotes cracks, warez, and torrent searches on copyright materials.

Sure it is not as bad as when Google ran AdSense ads on the #1 cracks website, but how hard would it be to sanitize words like warez and cracks from search suggestions?

How should we judge Google based on their current business practices? Judgment is important.

Google Uses Limited Ad Disclosure

Google has frequently talked up the importance of publishers disclosing ads. And yet in some cases Google removed the "Ads by Google" notification with a little "I" button that you have to scroll over to see that it is an ad.

Further sometimes they have shown NO ad notification on some ad units, making some website visitors think certain site owners condoned homosexual activity.

And Google even marketed the fact that their searchers did not realize that paid search AdWords ads were advertisements:

INT [interviewer]: “Why do the results on top have a yellow background, did you notice?”
TP [tester]: “I didn’t notice this.”
INT: “What does it mean?”
TP: “It definitely means they’re the most relevant.”

Google did not use this feedback to beef up their clearly confusing disclosure...they stuck with what was working well for them.

How should we judge Google based on their current business practices? Judgment is important.

Google Funds Manual Information Pollution

I was looking through some of the suggested article titles for some of the garbitrage websites, and came across gems like "Miley Cyrus Did What? Celebs who Make Bad Decisions and How to Teach our Kids Right"

Could that title be any more leading? And Google is funding that sort of garbage - right now.

How should we judge Google based on their current business practices? Judgment is important.

Google Funds Automated Information Pollution

And there are sites with automated content generation built around arbitraging brands. A few months ago I saw the following automated crap ranking for some of our branded keywords...trying to arbitrage our brand & associate it with foreclosure scams

And that was not a 1 off article...Google is paying to have 10,000's of such gems created, and is indexing them with glee

What does it say about the Google brand that their ads support this automated generation of trash? What message does that send to online consumers and business owners? How should we judge Google based on their current business practices? Judgment is important.

Google's Enjoyment of Privacy (aka Black Box Pricing)

Some advertisers have fallen out of grace with Google over the years and have had no luck getting back in. Google arbitrarily decides they don't like them (or maybe even their business model) and that the relationship should end. The game is complicated, but in some cases one strike and you are out. The same sort of privacy and secrecy is core to Google's organic search engine ranking algorithms, how they profile and target certain webmasters, the proprietary standards they push onto the web (like rel=nofollow), & almost every other aspect of their business.

Are you a Google cell phone partner who built a phone on Google's Android OS? If so, did they tell you that they were going to thank you for the cross marketing by creating a competing product? I doubt it.

Are you a Google partner who syndicates their ads? Want to know what percent of the click price you are earning? Screw you, you can't. Go eat crow.

And in the markets where Google is dominant they not only pass arbitrary judgment without care, concern, or explanation...but they also use their market position to exert monopoly pricing powers. They frequently state that the market sets the prices on the ads, but for one of our sites we did some brand ads on informational searches where there are no competing sites buying AdWords ads.

Our ad is so relevant that even the broad matched version of the ad is pulling in a 12%+ clickthrough rate (with phrase match more than doubling that clickthrough rate). Searchers love our ad and website. But if we bid less than a nickel Google won't even display the ad (in spite of the high relevancy and complete lack of competition in the marketplace).

Google sets arbitrary floor prices and shows you that if you want more clicks you need to pay more, even though the only competitor in this auction is Google. It is no better than the shill bidding SnapNames got in trouble for.

And yet you often hear Google talk about the power of democratic marketplaces. Something they clearly don't believe in. What message does that send to business owners? How should we judge Google based on their current business practices? Judgment is important.

What is YOUR Judgment on Google?

Anytime you see Google do something stupid make sure you blog about how stupid Google is, and compare their errors to what sort of results are available on Microsoft Bing. Feel free to leave your examples in the comments AND blog them. I'll share one of my favorite examples from today, showing me New York hotels near San Francisco :D

I still use a lot of Google products and write the above knowing that they have been pretty good to me, but seeing nonsensical garbage absolutist statements from the top of their company scares me.

If Privacy is Unimportant...

Think I am being hard on Google? Well if they think privacy is unimportant, then maybe they can explain why they host a PDF titled Inside the Black Box Technology and Innovation at Google.

Google workers think THEIR own privacy is crucial to their success (and WILL fire any employees who get it wrong), but think YOUR privacy is a commodity they should sell to the highest bidder.

Good to know!

Careful what you enter into a search box. And be careful when choosing your web browser. I would rather pay $50 more upfront and not get spied on. How about you?

10 Blue Links (and a Bunch of Other Stuff!)

Nov 12th

Google announced product listing ads today, a cost-per-action ad program that shows images in the search results:

Product Listing Ads is part of our effort to simplify the advertising process for merchants with large product inventories. Some of the key features of Product Listing Ads include:

  • Pay only for results: Product Listing Ads are charged on a cost-per-action (CPA) basis, which means that you only pay when a user clicks on your ad and completes a purchase on your site. Because Product Listing Ads is charged on a CPA basis, it offers a risk-free way for you to reach a larger audience on Google.com.
  • List your entire inventory: Product Listing Ads requires no keywords or additional ad text. Whenever a user enters a search query relevant to an item in your Google Merchant Center account, Google will automatically show the most relevant products along with the associated image, price and product name. Product Listing Ads makes it easy for you to promote your entire product inventory on Google.com.
  • At this time, Product Listing Ads is still a beta feature and is only available to a limited number of retail advertisers. Over time, we'll increase the number of users who see Product Listing Ads as well as the number of advertisers able to participate.

Along with this launch, Google is also pushing product search harder in the organic search results. If you look back at our last post, it is not beyond the realm of possibilities that those product listing ads and product search could eventually blend (to some degree) and appear as part of the AdWords ads above the organic search results.

Given that only launched today, the current impact on the search results of the new product ads is quite noticeable.

The big problem with this vertical data is that it is not as fuzzy as general search is...so none of the above products are the popular video game. But in time Google will collect lots of click data and use it to help determine if they should broaden or narrow the exposure for a particular product, product class, or vendor. And if they are collecting conversion data on the back end it makes it that much easier to measure customer satisfaction - just look at what adds the most money to Google's bank account.

In a recent interview Marissa Mayer stated that universal search results appear on about 25% of search results pages, and they would like to keep increasing that number:

When we launched [universal search], it was showing in about one in 25 queries. Today, it shows in about 25 percent of queries. And we think there are probably times when those auxiliary [file] formats could actually help, and we aren't triggering them on our results page. That's something we need to continue to strive to do.

As Google collects that data they can expand this stuff at will. It becomes a simple game of math. And even while charging CPA Google will still be able to increase yields because there will always be some new funded project, ambitious brand manager, or CEO looking to increase stock volatility to drive up share price to where "the company" wants to buy customers without profit to increase marketshare. Some non-sense metrics beyond lifetime customer value will be used to justify the expenses, because it is so easy to do nothing and let Google do all the work - even though that strategy yields no long-term competitive advantage.

Matt Cutts said that Google will wait on caffeine (though pieces of it might already be implemented), but I seriously doubt that any short-term changes to the search results under caffeine would present anywhere near as big of a concern to webmasters as Google becoming (roughly the equivalent of) an affiliate in ecommerce, local, and lead generation - while using their search results to aggressively push into market leadership roles in those new markets.

Question: Who cares where they rank algorithmically if the algorithmic #1 result is below the fold?
Answer: Nobody!

And yet for certain search types that is the world we are increasingly living in.

I am not sure how sloppy and aggressive searchers (and competitors) will let Google get with pushing verticals...but I am betting that the limit is probably even worse than the above. And remember that it can get far more aggressive while not appearing so to the end user. As Google collects data they will make the vertical insertions more relevant. And each time searchers see search results with more banner-like junk in them, they are being conditioned to expect more of it in the future.

Google realizes that if they want to keep increasing profits from search they have to drive down the organic search results with either

  • more ad units in different formats
  • other filler (like Youtube)

Increasingly these types of shifts in the search results will drive affiliate SEOs (or at least the ones that care about product quality and customer satisfaction and long-term profit margins) to create their own products & services rather than marketing someone else's. If you own the product you have the fattest margins and can partner directly with Google for distribution, rather than fighting for scraps of scraps as the organic search results keep disappearing.

The upside for searchers (and publishers) is that as Google aggressively pushes to become a back-door algorithmically driven portal it leaves a market opening for Blekko and other search players which would be happy to make just a few billion here or there...the same hole AltaVista and Yahoo! left for Google. :D

Excuse Me, But Where Did Google's Organic Search Results Go?

Nov 6th

In the past many SEOs have called organic search results the results on the left side of the page and the pay-per-click / AdWords results as the results on the right side of the page. As Google has grown more aggressive with promoting vertical/universal search I think a better way of defining the portions of the search result page are ABOVE THE FOLD and BELOW THE FOLD.

As recently as yesterday Google stripped the phone numbers off of non-sponsored map listings, even if you were doing a navigational search! And that shows that the primary goal of the maps is as filler content (rather than utility).

Update: it looks like Google claimed the phone number removal was a bug, but weird timing that the bug appeared at the same time they started selling premium local ads that appear on the regular search results.

So lets redefine these search result pieces as they are...

  • AdWords Ads: the ads at the top of the search results and those which run down the right rail of the search results.
  • Universal Search Results: filler stuff to put in the search results to a.) drive the organic search results lower down the page, while b.) driving additional incremental click volume to other Google properties which display ads.
  • Organic Search Results: the results on the search result page that are determined algorithmically and appear below the fold. On some larger monitors a listing or 2 from this category may appear above the fold, at least for the time being.

In the future A LOT of verticals (movies, music, books, news, ecommerce, travel, etc.) are going to look more and more like local, where Google in some cases has at least 15 ads above the fold AND filler pushing down the organic search results...quietly building a backdoor portal that sends Google the second click if they were not able to monetize the first one.

To me this screams the importance of working the tail of search, because the more obscure a search query is the greater the risk to Google if they pollute it with junk from vertical search databases.

As Google gets stingier with their traffic that will increase the importance of relationship development and lead capture, as well as developing distribution channels outside of Google.

This new search result layout also highlights the importance of being #1 for your most important keywords...if only 1 result is going to show above the fold then there is little point being #2. So that will really help/force you to decide which words are practical to target and which words are not. If you have some valuable #3 or #4 listings you better start marketing them today before they end up below the fold tomorrow.

The last important thing this search result signals is the importance of increasing conversion rates and lifetime customer value...if/when search becomes pay-to-play in your market, will you still be able to compete? If not, what can be done to help bridge that gap?

More Ways for Google to Embed Themselves in Your Conversion Stream

Nov 5th

The Free Credit Report ads have caused such user confusion in the marketplace that the government has felt the need to create a spoof site with $100,000 worth of amateur video to mock Free Credit Report.com. And yet even if you search for the official website [Annual Credit Report] to this very day Google is cashing in showing 3 PPC ads ABOVE the organic search results for that NAVIGATIONAL search query...sorta like how they were cashing in on eBay's brand recently.

For [Annual Credit Report] the government has stepped in and said what is right for the consumer. But the Google AdWords team has different ideas. "Increasing user choice" means the official site at best ranks #4.

It doesn't matter if you are a white knight SEO. This free credit report link doesn't matter if Google is going to put scammy AdWords ads at the top of the search results where most searchers think those are the most important results.

Google is cashing in on searcher ignorance and misplaced trust, at least while they can - just like other scammers pushing reverse billing fraud would do.

Search competition is important, because without it, consumers lose out on choice. You can see the absurdity of Google's position when they claimed sitelinks on AdWords ads increase user choice. Giving the most dominant players in any market more share of voice only aims to consolidate the marketplace further. If they wanted to increase user choice they would show more result diversity on the page and/or more search results on the page, not just show you more from a big spending market leader.

When you think about Google moving into lead generation and becoming an affiliate play you can see they have massive upside potential. Why? They are the default way most people search the web. So even if someone is searching on a brand and making a navigational search, Google still gets a bite on the apple and shows up as the source of conversion. Don't pay Google their tithing? Too bad, they will sell your brand to leading competitors.

And they are aiming to extend out with this strategy. Not only did the Google Chrome browser replace the address bar with a search box, but Google has been pulling back on data they put in some search results to drive a second click onto other Google properties.

Here is my favorite local Indian restaurant on Google

Up until this past week that listing had a phone number on it. Now it doesn't. I am required to make 1 more click so Google can show their large local search marketplace and their dominance over local/maps search.

In the short run Google makes it easy to embed themselves in your business. Analytics and testing are free. They provide services at a loss to gather data and destroy marketplace competition - exerting their monopoly power without being called a monopoly. Cell phone providers get the Android operating system for less than free. Ecommerce players get a new commerce site search option. Content players get an enhanced Friend Connect. In the short run they make life easier and margins thicker. But after competition is removed from the marketplace look for Google to claw back on partners - just like they did to LendingTree, domainers, and anyone with a brand or a local business listing.

BEWARE: Information wants to be free. Attention wants to be monetized. After net-neutrality will we need a Google neutrality?

Google's Conflicting Push to Move Beyond Search

Oct 28th

As Google has looked to increase revenues and move beyond being "just a search engine" they have put themselves at the top of the food chain in multiple categories. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, etc. ;)

If you search for books their book search is the result in natural search and when you search for movies they push their iGoogle application in paid search. Every holiday season Google tries to make further inroads in ecommerce by doing things like offering free Checkout services (at launch of Google Checkout), integrating Google Checkout with AdWords ads (and claiming this increases ad CTR by ~ 10%), and promoting Google Base / Google Product Search more aggressively in their navigation and organic search results. Some early Google Checkout users also got free links.

As Google dives into music services a new one-box with links to selected partners will appear at the top of the search results. And as Google makes tie-ins with more software providers you can look for Google to promote Google pack and other such offerings across the spectrum of search results.

Google has tested creating a mortgage marketplace in the UK and LendingTree is suing a business partner because they heard that the company might sell data to Google.

Everything is a beta and everything is a test. And then one day a new competitor appears from nowhere.

At times Google seems unbelievably savvy, but at times they seem unbelievably conflicted. Google claims that searchers are expecting more for advertisers and that advertisers need to start acting more like magazine publishers who publish (and advertise) great featured content. Sounds good, maybe. But then Google launches an AdWords ad translation kit. It is pretty safe to say that if a machine translates your ads in a competitive marketplace you are wasting an awful lot of profit margin.

Google claims to like brands, that brands are how you sort out the cesspool, and to show brands for generic keywords to increase user satisfaction.

But lets look at a recent search result for the eBay brand. Google knows that eBay.com gets a 90%+++ CTR, that the keyword is a trademark, that the keyword is navigational, etc etc etc. And in spite of eBay even bidding on their own brand, this is perhaps the first time Google takes a valuable partner hostage.

If Google claims that they need to show brands on generic search queries to increase user satisfaction then why do they pollute the associated brand search results with irrelevant nonsense? Navigational searches are the easiest ones in the world to get right, and if a site has historically got a 90%+++ click-through rate for a keyword, why would it ever make sense to risk putting a universal search result or a marginally relevant ad above the obvious #1 result?

If people are looking specifically for news when entering a branded 1 word trademarked keyword then surely they would skip past the #1 result for the official site. Sure there is money in promoting apps for eBay, but it seems so counter to Google's messaging when justifying their algorithmic editorial philosophy elsewhere.

Google Localizing Search Results Based on the Search Query

Oct 25th

David Naylor highlighted how some Google UK and IE search results are showing primarily Australian websites because some of those keywords are most frequently searched for in Australia. Conversely some Australian search results were returning primarily UK websites for keywords that are more popular in the UK.

If you can't rank for a specific keyword it is worth looking at the composition of the search results and seeing if Google is localizing it to another region. Yet another reason to have a multi-domain strategy if you are targeting many markets.

We Are Just a Search Engine, Honest Guys ;)

Oct 21st

The WSJ reports that as soon as next week Google will begin selling music in the search results:

Google Inc. will soon let users buy songs or listen to them for free, right on its main results page, as part of a broader push to enhance the offerings on the leading search engine, according to several people familiar with the matter.

The music offerings, from four online music services, are to be packaged in what Google calls a "one box" at the top of a results page, similar to the site's presentation of weather and financial results.

To lock up these sorts of deals, some of the largest players in dying markets are given a sweetened deal where Google does not directly generate revenue. But after the deal exists for a few years (and Google becomes a leading destination for that type of media) look for a sharp re-negotiation on pricing. And at that point smaller players better cough up the cash if they want to play.

This is why search is such a powerful market position. Google can wedge themselves at the top of any industry with instant, free, and massive distribution. And they can experiment with the business model and integration while starting off free until they have something that works.

Meanwhile the contracts behind such deals often have a strict NDA. So as long as you trust Google it should end up maybe ok. Except for when it doesn't. In the next couple years this partnering with rights holders and market leaders will hit dozens of markets - further consolidating them. You are either big enough to be #1 or you are #10. If your business model gets crushed when Google starts competing directly against you then it might make sense to invest in other traffic distribution channels and/or other points of differentiation which they can't clone.

Brands vs Query Refinement: Is Google Using The Second Search?

Oct 16th

Patrick Altoft highlighted how Matthew Trewhella (from Google) may have tipped Google's hand a bit about what was known as the Vince / brand update:

Matthew [said] the brand update is about Google minimising the number of times people have to search to find the products or information they are looking for. Every time a user has to perform a second search Google regards it as their failure for not bring up the right result the first time.

So what Google is doing is testing which results are going to give the least number of secondary searches and displaying those. In the past somebody might have searched for “travel insurance” and found a few good sites before remembering that the Post Office does travel insurance too and searched for them to get a comparison. For Google this is regarded as a bit of a failure because they didn’t bring up the Post Office in the first place.

Understanding the bold part above also highlights why Google dislikes many affiliate based business models. Google views itself as the affiliate, and if Google sends the searcher through an affiliate page which does not add significant value (ie: no coupon, no in depth original editorial review, no value add comparisons, etc.) then they feel the extra click was a failure.

Microsoft's ad lab offers a search funnels tool which allows you to view what searches occurred prior to or after a search for a particular keyword.

If you look at some of the above branded keywords associated with credit cards you will see those brands ranking in Google's search results for credit cards.

About 3 weeks ago Dave Peiris highlighted a similar set of theories about the Google update, noting how some of the related searches seemed to be driven in some cases by the next search query. If user satisfaction remains constant or increases slightly (as one might expect it to, since brand is in part driven by exposure, and we tend to like & trust things that we are aware of more) with such algorithmic changes then you can expect Google to keep pushing them on more and more keywords (at least until it starts to harm relevancy slightly). Why?

  • Google would prefer to police a few thousand companies rather than policing millions of individuals (this is equally true for organic search and AdWords)
  • AdWords is approaching a natural price ceiling in many markets based on direct advertiser ROI (and perhaps some related measures like lifetime customer value)
  • as Google's display ad network grows they will get more taste of the branding ad dollars (from when you try to advertise to build a brand right on through when they are cashing in on your branding efforts by selling ads against it)
  • promoting brands helps promote irrational and wasteful and abstract advertising campaigns that can only attempt to be justified when thinking about (and guesstimating) the broader branding impacts of the additional exposure
  • advertising creates search volume. with fewer and fewer people clicking traditional display ads (8% of the Internet user base accounts for 85% of all clicks) Google needs to find a way to ensure that publishers are still getting some credit AND as Google plasters ads over 75% of the web they want to can claim such ads indeed did help drive conversions to further help justify the ad spend (hence the recent view-through conversion AdWords data-point)

Many thin website models (unremarkable thin affiliate, AdSense publisher with thin keyword-targeted content, etc.) will slowly get chipped away at by such algorithms if Google moves this down the query stream (though they can't go too deep into the longtail with it or they would start impacting relevancy in a negative way).

As an SEO, this query recycling concept (if expanded) means that you not only want to rank, but you want to deliver ***an experience*** remarkable enough that people actively search it out by name. And you want to be one of the first couple brands that people think of for your core target keyword.

Search is already heavily influenced by a rich get richer effect and the concept of cumulative advantage. And with search engines potentially feeding search query chains back into the relevancy algorithms, it gets that much harder to come from behind in saturated markets unless you change the model or target different keywords. If you are late to the game and a #10 player it might make sense to brand yourself against the second largest keyword rather than being an after-thought in a more saturated keyword market.

Search Keeps Innovating

Oct 10th

Steve Balmer on Search Innovation

In the above interview Steve Balmer states that search innovation has slowed down over the past 5 years compared to the 5 years prior. While committing to pouring billions of Dollars into the search market, Steve Balmer does not think that search has kept up its rate of innovation. But this perception is actually a fib. A lie. One that Steve must tell himself AND the media in order to try to gain press coverage for Bing and justify what will amount to a very expensive competition in the search marketplace. And it is a lie the media mush push to be able to write about / hype THE NEXT GOOGLE!!!!!!

Search Innovation is Speeding Up

The reason I know that search keeps speeding up is that I write about it. We offer subscribers a monthly newsletter, have forums that we participate in daily, and blog about the latest developments in search. This past month I have done a week of traveling and 2 conferences, but I have absolutely struggled to keep up with the all the changes recently (in spite of closing our site off to new members). Frankly I am amazed at how Danny Sullivan is able to put conferences together and still keep up with everything!

To understand the search game you must first understand that Google is first and foremost a public relations driven company which sells itself as a technology company. This is precisely why they market their browser/operating system as a browser and not an operating system...to avoid the regulations on (and comparisons with) Microsoft.

Recently Googlers have felt threatened by the media, Bing, Twitter, Facebook, and Wolfram Alpha. You can see this by looking at how Matt Cutts posted a 30 day challenge not to use any Microsoft projects, by all the daily innovations and releases Google is offering, by their promotion of a vaporware micropayment system, and by reading the recent 5 part interview of Eric Schmidt, Udi Manber, Amit Singhal, Scott Huffman, and Matt Cutts they did with BusinessWeek to remind the world how innovative Google is.

Google has went as far as advertising their advanced search tips on many search queries and even SELLING SEARCH AS A LIFESTYLE!?!?!

Now some of the changes may not be noticeable to the average searcher because Google has become more refined over the years. But it does not mean that the market lacks innovation. I thought it would make sense to put a post together to highlight some of the ways search has changed so far this year.

Under the Hood Innovation

Google stated they plan to support their rel=canonical tag across domain names and let you set URL parameters for them to ignore.

A few months back Google announced their new caffeine index, but some of the algorithmic changes are far more subtle. When Patrick Altoft tried to dissect some of the ideas behind the Vince/brand update he quoted this killer post from the always impressive Tedster

Here's my current idea. I believe that Google's staff contains more statisticians than any other specialty. The algo is, more and more, driven by statistics and probability. These statisticians watch query data as well as backlink data. That's what jumped out at me while re-reading this patent: backlinks PLUS queries.
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This is my current brainstorming area, and it's why I recommend the idea of ATTRACTING backlinks more than "building" them. Backlinks alone cannot create a statistically correct footprint for a growing, thriving website. Even though such a "dummied-up" impression has been a working tool for improved ranking in the past, it's a tool whose future is getting more and more cloudy.

Creating a legitimate looking link profile by doing nothing but push marketing keeps getting harder as Google refines what they are looking for as a natural link building profile based on better statistics. If your link building efforts revolve around public relations, publicity, and brand then you are good to go. But if they are mechanical and aggressive you can use fairly similar link building strategies on 2 parallel sites and see one rank while the next is stuck somewhere in Google hell. From the above linked 5 Googler interviews you can see how Google is constantly working to improve localization, word relationships, indexing, and spam detection. QDF + universal search further complicate the search results.

Filtering Information

Beyond the core ranking algorithms there are also new ways to sort through information.

Google has added many options / filters / lenses to view search through, including links to...

  • vertical databases (like Videos, News, Blogs, Books, Forums, and Reviews)
  • results within specific time frames
  • ways to navigate related searches (via Related searches, Wonder wheel, Timeline)
  • additional filters (like displaying images from the page, more text, fewer or greater shopping sites)

Thinking through those type of filters with universal search in mind (and Google's new caffeine index in place) you could see how Google can further alter the search landscape on a query by query basis. Give me something fresh, give me old trusted stuff, give me at least 1 authoritative review, etc. In select markets this can be further refined by editorial partnerships like the health onebox.

Here are recent SEO results. And when authoritative SEO related sites (like SEO Book, Search Engine Land, SEOMoz, SE Roundtable, Search Engine Journal, Search Engine Watch, etc.) publish fresh posts they quickly get mixed into the top 10 to 20 search results (similarly to how Google News results get mixed in). As Google tests mixing in different types of results they can track user response on a per query basis, and bucket different related keywords together.

Inspired User Interface Innovation

A lot of the innovations come from competing search services. Consider that

  • Google's SearchWiki (and SideWiki) were heavily inspired by Wikia Search.
  • Yahoo! implemented search suggestion features widely before Google did.
  • Ask 3D pushed about a lot of the universal search sort of ideas.
  • Google tried to clone Youtube, right up until they were forced to buy it.
  • Bing launched a new visual search service.
  • Wolfram Alpha forced Google to create and evolve the Google Squared service.
  • Yahoo! SearchMonkey pushed microformats, which are now becoming more popular across competing search services.
  • One of Microsoft's best Bing innovations was putting the ads closer to the organic search results - which was quickly copied by Google.

Single Listing? Double Listing? Triple Listing? Quadruple Listing?

In the past sometimes sites would be able to get a double listing and/or sitelinks. Recently I saw a quadruple listing

Google is better surfacing forum posts in search results, has tested displaying breadcrumb navigation in the search results, and is returning internal link anchor page-links directly in the search results.

Google has made results from site: searches extensible

Search Business Model Innovation

Paid search is so easy to grasp that Google's test case is LITERALLY a pet stick!

In spite of the ease of marketing Google is not happy leaving that as is.

Google is testing using machine learning algorithms (and current Google AdWords advertiser data!!!!!!!!!) to set flat rate search ad pricing for small local businesses. And they are rumored to be launching a LendingTree clone.

Google ***is*** the competition, and they keep taking more of the web for themselves.

They are also ramping up their ad exchange. Traditionally Google has tried to credit the last click with most of the value since they are the #1 search company. But brand advertisers buy branded display ads based on mushy feely impulses...and so search can't keep taking all the credit forever if Google wants to expand the online ad pie to become a $100 billion company. As display ad clickers fall off a cliff, Google is beginning to show view conversions (conversions where an ad was viewed but not click) to further justify fuzzy brand spend. Hey if they have ads on 80% of the WWW then you are going to think those ad views created some conversions, even if they were ignored.

It doesn't matter what regulations appear, advertisers feel the need to buy those ads because that is where the distribution is. Currently Google (and Facebook) have such domination over advertisers that they can mass ban them and shut them down overnight as desired, in spite of the economic climate.

There is going to be continued innovation in the online advertising space as marketers better test / recommend / track / explore / learn how to better automate blending ads and content.

Google is testing ads tied to location pages and product ads directly in the search results.

Further marketers are studying how ads sometimes sell something other than what they were created to sell, and there is research being done on ad fatigue and relevancy.

Media Innovation

Google has been buying maps marketshare through cross promotion, a fairly flexible API, collecting user data, and clever promotional tie ins with the likes of Monopoly. China might crack down on Baidu's music piracy, and Google has distribution deals to buy marketshare as long as China allows it to happen. Increasingly Google is procuring the source of record for a greater and greater number of classifications of information types. They are already pushing their power meter, have Sony distributing their browser, and patenting some types mobile consumer reviews. Alas everything is information!

Google is learning to read more content in new formats like AJAX and is getting better at spitting content back out via a quick view of PDFs and mobile printing devices.

Google has begun trying to tie search volumes to economic activity, with their economist claiming that the economy is improving. Others, like Kayak, have followed suit by sharing their data in an easy to reference format.

All this additional content creates more competition and lowers profit margins for web publishers. And affiliate marketing will continue to grow harder. Increasingly successful media is going to need to bake self-promotion in its core, and profitable media will become more of an interactive service.

Why Write a 5 Page Blog Post With ~80 Links in It?

3 reasons...

  • to help me collect my thoughts and share them with you, our readers! :D
  • to point out that anyone talking about a lack of innovation is search is speaking from ignorance, hyping public relations messaging to the media, and/or lying
  • to help push to save Yahoo! Boss. By some measures it might be bigger than Bing AND it if it stays around it will help ensure that search keeps innovating at faster and faster rates with healthy market competition

Employing Market Leverage + Subsidies

Sep 29th

Are You Employing Leverage?

A few months back I had a chat with ShoeMoney and we talked about a lot of marketing stuff. He always speaks of the importance of being able to leverage success to build other related projects. It is typically worth far more money to be a lead player with projects that build off of each other than it is to be a #10 player in many different markets trying to build disconnected brands that can't feed off each other. Even traditional slow moving publishing organizations like newspapers are aggressively leveraging network effects in their SEO strategy.

Networks Allow You to Come From Behind

When you look at Theme Forest they came late to the market, and yet are many times as large as competing businesses that are twice as old. Envato was launched in 2006, and in spite of coming late to market they were nearly instantly successful. Owning popular blogs helped them create thriving marketplaces, and the marketplaces help them make the blogs more popular. The promotion is circular.

Most Leading Web Companies Use Networks

Larger web networks like IAC, Amazon.com, Yahoo!, Internet Brands, Quinstreet, Expedia, Classified Ventures, BankRate, Monster.com, and Demand Media employ the same tactics. At $170 million Mint was a cheap buy for Intuit just to block out competition. Any additional distribution and cost savings are a bonus. Once you have distribution you have free inventory to promote a new site into a related vertical. And this strategy works with smaller niche sites as well. Publishing this site made it easy for us to get a lot of exposure for my wife's PPC strategy flowchart.

Subsidizing New Channels

Everything that is free is subsidized. And rather than trying to squeeze the maximum returns out of any given project it is often better to look for ways to add more value. The best businesses that are sustainable create more value than they capture. Once you have multiple monetization models and multiple income streams you can be flexible with your approach to growth.

Keep Bolting On Pieces

We originally gave away free SEO tools mainly with the ideas of building links and promotion in mind. But now they also help establish a customer funnel while commoditizing the value of some similar business models. And because many of the tools are decentralized (as Firefox extensions) maintenance costs are much lower than someone who centralizes everything. Our customers on average tend to be toward the more sophisticated end of the spectrum, so giving away useful and extensible tools helps us meet that market. But a lot of our business strategy has been made up as we went along, rather than having an aggressive master plan in place.

Watching Big Companies Develop Strategy

Some companies are driven by big goals and 5 (and 10) year plans. Adobe bought Omniture and plans on offering deep analytics into user interactions with flash widget ads. Out of nowhere Adobe entered the ad market.

Renting vs Building

As Seth Godin highlighted, marketing has moved from renting an audience to building one:

This might be the most subtle yet important shift that marketers face as they deal with the reality of new media. Marketers aren't renters, now they own.

For generations, marketers were trained to buy (actually rent) eyeballs.
...
Suddenly the new media comes along and the rules are different. You're not renting an audience, you're building one.

Google is GOD of the Web

One of the best companies to study from the perspective of using market leverage to enter new markets is Google. Recently they struck a deal with Warner to bring their music back to Youtube. But even while their music was not on Youtube I was still able to listen to it - on Youtube ;)

Want to try Google's newest software in Microsoft's Internet Explorer? Continue at your own Peril!

Google is constantly trying to extend search. And their 4 step process to entering a new market usually consists of...

  • Make the service essentially free to buy marketshare, become the marketplace, and kill the business model for competing start ups in the space.
  • Promote it across search, the AdSense content network, and via a thick public relations program.
  • Use the work of thieves and the blurry parts of copyright law to diminish the value of non-partner content to try to force non-partners into a formal partnership.
  • 12 to 36 months later start charging a fair to normal market rate for the service. Claim the service makes no profits until it is an undeniable cash cow.

One of the more cynical, but perhaps accurate, in depth research reports on Google's use of market leverage is Scott Cleland's Googleopoly [PDF]. You might not be able to apply every idea in there to your projects, but it should help you understand where Google intends to intersect with your market and how you can leverage some of those touch-points to your advantage.

One last tip, from Larry Ellison, "Pick your competitors carefully for you will quickly come to resemble the companies you compete with."

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