A while ago, Wired Magazine declared the web dead… the premise was that we are increasingly navigating the online world through Apps which deliver exactly what we want rather than the messy, spammy, and sometimes slow traditional online world. That was no doubt an exaggeration, albeit an entertaining one. It does point to a key factor that more and more content and data is locked behind the walled gardens of Apps, and thus not visible to searchers outside those Apps. Whilst it’s possible for app developers to expose content to search engines, most don’t and it’s getting to be a problem for both searchers and the search engines themselves. It’s clearly an issue, which is causing Google to loose sleep at night, and there are signs this week that this may be changing.
Google announced, at the TechCrunch conference yesterday, that it is integrating with an initial handful of large content sites so that when app users open the app, they are invited to log in with their Google+ account. That then allows Google to index data about the users behavior, which can then be exposed to searchers through regular Google search. In theory, searches for movies would get data on trending films from Fandango or music on SoundCloud. It’s an interesting idea; Google is essentially harvesting data and content from the walled gardens by collecting activity in those gardens from Google+ users. Google+ has been accused of being a social media platform without a reason to exist… and this, in part, at least contributes to it’s reason to exist. Logically this will become more compelling as it rolls out to a much larger fraction of the millions of Aps out there. If it’s easily available, app developers are likely to include it and we will all benefit… we will see.
The Tom Cruise movie Minority Report is often held up as an example of what the future may hold, a world where the digital world overlays the real one and retailers greet shoppers with digital assistants offering deals customized to your interests. That’s still a ways off…well the time travel part is anyway, but Google is clearly leading the charge to get us there. I’m reading the new book from Eric Schmidt (Google’s Chairman) at the moment, and it’s clear that he sees the future in very Minority Report ways. He envisages a digital world where the rich countries live in an immersed digital culture and even Kalahari bushmen have cellphones to report in on herd movement.
This week has seen progress in multiple Minority Report ways. For example, the first reports are coming in from the lucky folk who were able to pay $1,500 to get hold of a pair of Google Glass glasses. The initial results are mixed but encouraging. It seems that if you actually read the instructions they apparently they work pretty well. They understandably garner lots of interest from passersby… much like early horseless carriages must have done. A widely reported side effect is the ‘creep’ factor that people assume they are being recorded by the wearers… and don’t appreciate it. The glasses communicate with your wireless phone to display search results, maps directions etc directly to the user. Another example of the importance of the mobile device in your pocket… in fact you could think of Glass as not much more than a wearable heads up display for your phone.
Another Google step towards Minority Report World comes in the release in the Apple App store of Google Now. The release is a few months behind the release on Android but now it’s made it into the store so even us poor iPhone users can play with this neat App. The premise is that your phone takes notes on what you are interested in, where you go, and where you are. It also gives you heads up on your schedule, email, and other essential parts of your digital world. Combine Google Glass with Google Now, and the digital overlay tailored to your world gets a couple of steps closer.
The part which isn’t getting as much play as the Gee Wizardry of Glass is how all this monetizes. It’s fair to say that Google missed the boat with the tablet and is still playing catch-up with Android on the iPhone. If the future is at least in part a digital overlay, then Glass represents the first serious take at delivering it. The fact that Google has amassed the largest basket of advertisers who will already pay for clicks in search, plays directly into this opportunity. When I look at Google Now I’m presented with cards for various local restaurants, it’s only a short step from there for Google to present me with offers from local retailers since Google Now knows my location and has been collecting my interests. Now add Google Glass to the mix as a way to deliver information and commercial messages as I move around, and we really do have the potential for the Minority Report experience which customizes commercial messages to my interests and locations. It also makes sense for advertisers to bid more for an impression on Glass when the wearer is in proximity to the product or location. Being in proximity to an object or location is a different kind of search… and arguably a very powerful kind of search as it took effort and time to get there. It truly is a brave new world, very much in line with Schmidt’s vision… and (so far anyway), a world pretty much controlled by Google.
It’s fascinating to watch an old dog learn a new trick… almost as much fun as watching him chew toffee. The incident I refer to was my experience at the Pantages Theatre in LA. If you haven’t been there it’s an excellent old theater in the unfashionable end of Hollywood where the homeless meet to mingle. I was there to watch a recording of Americas Got Talent. Ever since Howard Stern (blessed be his name) joined the show, I have become a firm fan of its eclectic mix of dancing dogs, jugglers, comedians, and singers. A long time a go I worked at a TV studio for a year. I was mostly the “Studio Gopher” (Gopher Tea, Gopher coffee, lunch, etc), but I did get to see a lot of recordings and it’s almost shocking to see how little the entire process has changed in 30 years. It’s still lots of very important people talking into headsets and ordering the poor benighted studio audience around; much like the guards at a WWII POW camp… come here … go there… no food or water for you… stop screaming!
The tickets were free and I’m always looking for interesting and exciting new places to fight with my lovely wife at, so we grabbed a hotel and went on an AGT adventure. On a side note, I used a new app called “Hotel Tonight” to get a room. It only sells hotels for that day, and doesn’t start selling until 12 noon local. Unlike Hotwire, it let’s you see the hotel before you commit. It has some decent deals and the price actually dropped as I was booking.
We arrived at the theater to begin several hours of waiting in line in the sun and general hanging about before we were brutally strip searched by the camp guards, given a change of clothing, deloused, tattooed, and finally admitted to the theater to be further bossed around. I was actually pleasantly surprised at how they managed the process of recording the acts, the delays between each contestant were manageable and the audience wrangler did a good job of keeping us reasonably entertained. At the beginning of the recording, they asked the entire audience to learn a simple mini dance routine to “living in America” for use in the opening credits (maybe). It was all fun and games for the first dozen or two runs but by the time we had passed 20 the natives were getting restless… we were about three more forced repetitions from an all out camp uprising.
So what about the old dog learning new tricks? Well, it wasn’t much of a trick…but it was interesting to watch. The audience is patrolled for the entire show by what can only be described as video bouncers. They watch avidly for anyone trying to sneak a pic or video of a dog dancer or belly dancer (yes we had one and yes she went through to the next round). Any attempt at video is leapt upon, water cannons are turned on the audience the offending person is dragged out, beaten senseless and in some cases water boarded on stage. However in a massive break with tradition, they did allow the audience to video the judges’ progress from the back of the theater to the stage. In fact, the audience is actively encouraged to do that… and post the pics or videos on their Facebook, Twitter, Vine or Instagram. In a further concession to the real world, all the busy and bossy crew wore t-shirts with #NBCAGT emblazoned across the back. They plugged the heck out of the Hashtag, and from the number of followers and tweets they are getting it seems to be working reasonably well. In my video (attached) of the King arriving, it’s interesting to note that you can hear cheers from the crowd but not much applause… for the simple fact that you can’t clap when you are recording… and fully 75% of the crowd was recording.
What would have been much more interesting would have been for them to let the crowd film anything they wanted, publish, and be damned. What I suspect would have happened is they would create tons of buzz on the show long before its real broadcast driving people who want to see the event in HD, as opposed to shaky phone cam – but baby steps still count as progress.
The Germans have a word for it… Schadenfreude. It literally means something like shameful enjoyment… the pleasure one takes in seeing a good friend fall off a roof… it’s also a terrific song in the show Avenue Q. In any event I was guilty of the “S” word yesterday watching Google fall off the mobile roof. The guilty banana peel is the new app from our good friends at Facebook called Facebook Home. As far as I can tell, it only works on Android but what it does is let loyal Facebook users turn their mobile device into essentially a Facebook Phone. The home screen of the phone, and all the other places and apps which a phone might reach out to, can be controlled through Facebook. The millions of Facebookers using Android devices can now lead a much more highly integrated Facebook world… mostly at the expense of Google… and there’s not a whole lot Google can do about it.
One of the great strengths of Android is that it does allows apps to talk to each other and do just these kind of things. It’s very open and Google, unlike Apple, doesn’t police who can offer what in their store… so they are vulnerable to those kinds of integrations. I imagine there will be an immediate rush to adopt the new tool… after all many Facebookers are just rabid in their devotion to their craft. Once Facebook has taken control, it can set the defaults for things like search to its preferences. It’s a brilliant move essentially allowing Facebook to gain a substantial foothold in mobile without having to come up with an operating system, a handset, or a deal with a carrier. Facebook can essentially hijack android devices.
The real pleasure comes from watching Google, who so studiously ripped off iOS by Apple, getting a piece of their own medicine. Steve Jobs was just furious when Android came out… indeed he had the Google guys over to yell at them from his death bed. So to see Google’s beloved Android having copied Apple then built a significant market share so comprehensively hijacked (just as mobile is exploding) by the only people who could pull that off in a large enough volume to hurt them, does warm my cold dead heart very slightly. Ironically, were Google to release a similar product featuring Google+ I’d be prepared to bet that they wouldn’t get anywhere near the same traction. Google+ is famously a bit of a ghost town with many profiles adopted but not much going on… where as Facebook is still the place where the cool kids hang out… actually Twitter is where the cool kids go but you see my point.
I’m easily distracted… always have been. Had I been born in the 80’s rather than the 60’s, I’d probably be a life long Ritalin user. My internal hamster is running a mile a minute and if what’s happening right now isn’t getting to the point fast enough I reach for the zapper… I have often thought how neat it would be to have a human zapper, which allows you to fast forward through lackluster conversations. This impatience extends to media. I was raised in the UK on commercial free BBC TV and radio with the result that I am physically unable to sit through more commercials than the concise 30 seconds offered by the brilliant people at HuluPlus. I’m clearly not alone in this; media companies and advertisers are in constant conflict with consumers who don’t want the distraction. Placing ads anywhere, especially on social media, draws cries of outrage from consumers who have gotten used to the price of admission being free… both from cost and distraction.
So, it is with interest that I started playing with Vine recently. If you haven’t tried it already you are probably using an Android phone… so far it’s only available on iPhone and iPod Touch. What this cunning, but evil little App does is allow you to create six second long stop-motion micro movies on your iPhone. If you ever watched Wallace and Gromit, or anything by Ray Harryhausen, you will be familiar with this technique. It’s very easy to do and kinda fun, but in the same way that Twitter drove the wannabe witty commentators to compress their deathless prose into 140 pithy characters, so Vine is going to turn a good number of us into six second animation crazy people. The app allows you to post direct to your twitter feed or Facebook, and it’s pretty addicting. I haven’t had the nerve to post my first efforts yet, but I’m working on it.
The challenge this very cool App, and the social integration it brings with it, goes beyond the interest it may generate in millennial cineasts or middle-aged goof balls like me. In the same way twitter declared 140 characters to be the required length for any conversation (commercial or otherwise), so Vine and the compressed media featured on Hulu is driving the attention span and the media window ever closer. Advertisers are responding by attempting to build their brands into successful vehicles much like Hyundai and the Walking Dead. That’s a show where no matter how horrific the zombie attack may be, you can be sure that our heroes will escape in a weirdly clean Hyundai… makes perfect sense. I’d much rather be trying deal with zombies in a shinny new Hyundai rather than (say) a Humvee. Mobile is further compressing the real estate available to target. The end product is an audience which is highly fragmented, talking to itself or just the people it likes, consuming media on multiple screens often in time shifts who is increasingly intolerant of the distraction commercial messaging creates.
If you are old enough you may recall when everyone loved to hate Microsoft. They appeared to have the kind of arrogant monopoly powers which are normally attributed to third world dictators (BTW RIP Hugo Chavez…turns out not only the good die young after all) or more recently Google. Whilst the US regulators never really did humble the Redmond Giant it’s own litany of missed opportunity and dropped balls (Search, mobile, social etc etc) have rendered it if not humble then at least a little shame faced on occasion…only Sony has lost dominance in more market sectors in the last 20 years. Back when they were still an evil empire the EU imposed an anti monopoly deal on them which required that they offer users of Windows alternate browsers to the God awful Internet Explorer when they install Windows or take delivery of a new machine. Unfortunately when they launched Windows 7 (SP1) they “forgot” to include the option to choose and continued to forget to include the option for 15 months. The fact that the EU was relying on Microsoft policing its self (as opposed to occasionally installing a Windows product and checking that the option was there) is testament to how lazy and dumb public servants can on occasion be.
Eventually even Windows spotted this “glitch”and having apologized profusely we all sat back and waited for the EU to impose the nearly $8BN fine they could in theory impose. As it turned out they actually fined MS less than 10% of that ($732MM) today. I actually heard the collective sigh of release from my office thousands of miles away. I’m sure if MS checks behind the sofa cushion they will find enough to pay the ticket. The kicker to this comic opera story is that once again the EU will rely on Microsoft to police it’s self going forwards…..to quote my good friend Hedwig of Angry Inch “I laugh, because I will cry if I don’t.”
In parallel announcements Google’s Q4 was good but not great. It continues to see a decline in click prices (6%) YOY a decline which is now 6 quarters old….and again driven by the ocean of mobile clicks with in sufficient inventory to support the price. This is a tough spot for big G. In an attempt to at least partially stem the bleeding they recently announced a self service online package incorporating desktop and mobile targeted at local businesses. It’s a clever product which (in theory) let’s SMBs target searchers based on location and time. For example a doughnut shop might want to focus on the 7-9 AM slot whereas a wine bar might target happy hour.
As always adoption by traditionally recalcitrant SMBs is going to be the main issue. Cost is also going to be a factor. The bundling Google is offering essentially rolls the mobile clicks involved up to a desktop click price…which is usually significantly higher than mobile. That’s great for Google but not such great value for the SMB. You have to wonder why Google continues to treat SMBs as cattle fattened for slaughter with their ‘do it for me’ packages which consistently maximize Google’s value ratether than SMB returns.
There’s also an interesting trend I have observed from various recent Google presentations (especially to local/SMB audiences) where they focus of ROI which shows up all over the place not just in the obvious places. It’s an argument which is well made, but sounds a little desperate “don’t just look at directly track-able obvious conversion metrics, check behind the sofa too”. That’s a tough message to receive from the super thin smart young things which Google sends out to preach to the masses. In all my years of knowing Googlies I have yet to meet any with any kind of weight issues…there are literally no over weight Google employees. That’s perhaps not surprising when you read about the latest Google project to provide street level views. Over the summer they send a bunch of their brightest and best to cool hard to reach places like the Grand Canyon to show the rest of us what it looks like. This week they released detailed renditions of 38 top Ski resorts….come on guys we know you are super rich…but what’s next great yacht basins of the world? I will be off line probably all of next week looking for Googlies doing street level views of Maui. Aloha till then.
Search at Yahoo has languished somewhat since Bing took over their search back in 2008 after a failed bid by Microsoft to buy Yahoo. There has always been an antitrust concern about the search on Yahoo being powered by Google…so I was interested but not that surprised to read today that Google contextual ads will now start showing up on Yahoo properties and more importantly Yahoo mobile traffic. To be clear this isn’t the same as main search on Yahoo being taken over by Google, rather these are contextual AdSense ads displayed on billions of Yahoo web and mobile pages…which will presumably represent a significant revenue opportunity for Yahoo. It makes perfect sense as Google’s ads are generally more valuable than Yahoos and they have a larger stack of advertisers to play with. At the core of the deal is the dramatic growth of mobile. Millions of people use Yahoo mobile content to keep them up to date with news, celebrity, finance sports and email. Google has a much stronger mobile platform so adding Google mobile ads to the enormous Yahoo mobile inventory. Google doesn’t (yet) have the kind of vertical interest Yahoo boasts so that’s likely to be an upside for them both.
Google survived an FTC investigation into monopolistic practices last year and is still under scrutiny in the EU, so making a move which further centralizes Google commercial control could be thought of as ballsy.. but in a race to grab as much real-estate as possible before the new Search at Facebook gets out of short pants it makes perfect sense.
So what’s a marketer to do? If you keep an eagle eye on Industry trends you will see some interesting and conflicting trends. The continued migration of dollars away from traditional media continues at pace. A survey from the American Marketers Association shows a 20–30% of respondents plan to move money with (as usual) newspapers being top of the hit list. Digital media in general and social in particular are slated to be the beneficiaries although mobile is lower than I would have expected. However, all is not necessarily sweetness and light. Although marketeers are trending to digital many of them remain confounded by the efficacy of the new medium. In another survey from Vizu another set of marketeers are unsure of how effective it is. In the survey fully two thirds of those surveyed were bullish on social media in general but unconvinced of ROI….a hold out 6% are convinced that it doesn’t work at all..
We are a little different to many marketeers. We don’t do brand support we do results based marketing only. If we don’t get the phone to ring we don’t get paid. We have tried social media as a direct response channel in many different ways with spectacularly underwhelming results. In many ways our hands are tied in that we can’t create social content on behalf of our advertisers and are frequently limited in how we can use logos etc. Mobile is the other large and growing beneficiary of the digital migration and the jury is out on that too. In our testing of mobile ad delivery search works…and works pretty well. Our testing with mobile display is quite different. Thousands of clicks which don’t result in any calls. Our experience of search targeted media indicates that it takes from 3 to twenty clicks to drive a successful call. Thousands of clicks with no calls indicates that the clicks aren’t from people looking for a product or service.
So as the migration continues marketeers are faced with developing channels which either don’t convert or are much harder to track than traditional media. Part of this complexity is the old marketing adage that half of advertising is wasted but we don’t know which. Digital media exposes exactly what does and doesn’t work…and maybe it’s close to three quarters of all media spend is wasted…and we can now tell which works.
Six months into her new job Marissa Mayer the new queen of Yahoo was able to tell some reasonably good news to investors in her Q4 results call yesterday. Yahoo saw their first uptick in revenue for a good while as Mayer shared the good news from the annual meeting of the great and good in Davos Switzerland last week. She pointed to two clear areas of focus for the newly invigorated Yahoo. Not surprisingly mobile is one of them. That makes a huge amount of sense as mobile is rapidly catching up with the desktop. For all its failing Yahoo has a ton of great content which million of people go to each day for their daily dose of sports, news gossip etc. Making that content mobile and personalized for their millions of users through apps and targeting ads around that offers a significant opportunity for revenue growth. However, the other focus Mayer pointed to is search….yes really search. I have been in the search business for about a million years and back in the day Yahoo powered its own search. Then they brought in the cuddly friendly guys at Google to power it for them (under a powered by Google brand) to run their search for them. Their assumption was that people would use Yahoo for everything including search. Back then before high speed connections users could either sit and wait for a yahoo results page encrusted with ugly ads to load or they could hop over to Google and have a fast clean ad free search result from Google. Weirdly I remember discussing this with several Yahooligans at the time and they honestly didn’t think it would be a threat. A decade or so later…they aren’t quite so sure.
Yahoo ceded search to Microsoft’s Bing a while back so for Yahoo to attempt to gain a stronger position in search without even owning the technology is incredibly ambitious. Doing search well is hard, doing it as well as Google does given the 30 trillion pages Google indexes is incredibly hard. Google has beaten off legal challenges for their rivals and the FTC and become both a noun and a verb…it’s tough to beat a competitor which has become the name for the activity. The mobile opportunity is probably more compelling. When I just checked there are about a dozen separate Yahoo apps out there. The question is can Yahoo weave those separate strands into a strong unique mobile user experience…before Facebook does? The jury is out on that. Certainly Yahoo has done a better job than Google whose mobile news app is just horrible. Their biggest problem is that Google has become the way that most of us navigate the chaos of the Internet and Facebook has become the way we share pics of our kids….all that’s left is mobile, and the clock is ticking on that too.