Freshly back from vacation and other assorted adventures I was catching up on search stories and there are some head scratching items out there. What seems to be happening is that the role of search as a measure of intent is potentially getting criminalized. Here’s a couple of examples:
You are probably familiar with the Cannibal Cop trial which is currently happening in New York. It’s an incredibly creepy and weird story which surrounds either a bunch of fantasists or would be murdering psychopaths. My personal experience with the police is that it could easily be either (possibly both) but a good chunk of the police case centers around searches done by the accused. Leaving aside simple questions like “why didn’t he use an anonymous browser like Chrome Incognito” (oh no wait he’s a cop) the larger question is does the mere fact that someone is searching for something online can that search be used against them in a court of law. Do you in fact have a first amendment right to search for ways to kill and cook a woman. Taking that to it’s logical conclusion does searching for Silence of the Lambs on Amazon make you part of Hannibal Lectors fan club?….where do you draw the line?
There’s an interesting regulatory question which could also end in search based Jail for somebody. This tracks back to our good friends at the FDA. If there is any example of our tax dollars at work to a fault it’s the FDA. Whilst they are happy to allow meat processors to feed pink slime to our children they are fanatically keen to be sure that no herbal product ever make claims that it do more than gather dust on your bathroom shelf. The issue here is where herbal companies who are not allowed to make any claims for efficacy link their products with disease conditions with things like meta data on web pages which gets those products found for disease relates searches. Pretty much any medical related search will bring up unconventional solutions to the problem. The other use case they are bothered by is where on a companies own website a search for a disease term brings up product which the retailer would like to link to that disease but can not make legitimate disease claims for. I would have thought that anyone (even a cannibal cop) with a modicum of common sense would read the warnings and might figure out that the supplements which are coming up in the results aren’t FDA approved drugs….but you never know.
The billion dollar question this raises is can the FDA attempt to regulate search in that way. If they can where does it stop? Google was recently cleared of FTC violations are they going to be up before the FDA now for including herbal products in results sets for disease queries. Could merely doing the query “cure for cannibalism” get me hard time in the Big House….it’s OK I just did that query Incognito.
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.
Google watching is endlessly entertaining….today it got entertaining in an unexpected way. A geek with I’m guessing way too much time posted on Quora that some searches which should be impossible to resolve rather than returning no results at all actually return tons of porn.
This isn’t something the average user is likely to have come across accidentally, most people don’t do advance syntax based searches on Google…but if you did and asked Google for an answer to a logically impossible query like “-4 “1 4″ in which you are essentially asking for results which don’t contain the number 4 but do contain the number 1 space 4, rather than returning no results in this case Google returns 808,000 results most of which (upon very cursory inspection) are porn links. This trick even works with “safe search” filter turned on. Weirdly, similar impossible queries like -4 “4″ return no results and -4 “14″ returns results which don’t have porn links.
Leaving aside what kind of extreme search jiggery pokery you would need to be doing to even find this effect it’s a hilarious bug. According to Google engineering post on the topic sadly it’s not a secret lonely nerd feature, it’s just a bug. This is fascinating. We don’t often get to see explicit bugs in Google search in real time…especially not bugs of this magnitude. This presents interested parties with the opportunity to witness just how long the Googlies take to track down, fix and deploy a really clear bug in main search. I’m guessing less than two days. The clock is running, let’s see how long it takes.
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.
You can’t make this stuff up. I checked the calendar and it’s not April 1st. According to a story I found in the Boston GlobeLatanya Sweeney a Harvard University academic noticed that when she searched for herself on Google or more precisely a site powered by Google search she received ads back for (amongst other things) criminal back ground checks for her name. She then did a more extensive test and actually wrote a research paper which found that distinctively “black” male first names are 25% more likely to return an ad from instantcheckmate.com offering background or criminal record checks than traditionally “white” names. She doesn’t draw any conclusions other than that this could be problematic for people of color….but the allegation that Google is somehow racially profiling is in the mix.
Of course even a cursory examination of the facts (as opposed to the hilarious conspiracy theory) is (allegedly) that instantcheckmate.com is in fact targeting what it believes to be ‘black’ names with ads for criminal background checks as opposed to more generic services for ‘white’ names. Google racially profiling would be a much better story. The same thing would apply were I targeting Russian fur hats or nesting dolls to people with Vladimir for a first name. It is a sad reflection on our society that (according to federal statistics) black males are seven times more likely to end in jail than their white non Hispanic peers. Logically that makes them more likely to have a criminal record, so it makes a twisted kind of common sense to target uniquely black male names with criminal background checks advertisements….but it’s not the Google Geeks doing it.
I don’t like social discovery, at least I don’t want people who don’t know me but might share interests discovering me without me looking for the attention. So the rumors swirling around Facebook and social discovery are interesting. The inside word is that a high octane team from Facebook including ex Googler Peter Deng and folks from Glancee a location based company FB acquired in 2011 are working full tilt on an Ap to be with eager mobile FB users sometime in March. It looks like the App will ‘know” and alert your when one of your FB friends is in your near vicinity even if the App isn’t running. I can imagine that this might generate “friend spam” where (for example) you are friends of folk you work with your phone constantly letting you know that your friends are nearby.
Where it gets really interesting is how the app will likely go beyond just friend discovery. If taken to a logical conclusion this may allow advertisers to reach out to users who have some level of engagement with their brand such as a ‘like’ with a brand message or offer. In this use case as you pass Starbucks they might hit you up with a special offer or coupon. Given FBs horrible record with end user privacy issues the key question will be “will they be able to withstand the temptation to reach out and spam us with offers and deals”. Either way the smart device in your pocket is about to get even more chatty….and potentially annoying.
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.
OK, I’m confused. As part of keeping ahead of the game I check in with Google in other countries, Canada is often the test bed for US roll outs so it’s always worth checking in from time to time. When I was doing that the other day I noticed something which I haven’t seen before so I thought I’d share. It’s no secret that Google took along hard look at buying Skype last year. There was an internal political power struggle worthy of a movie which went all the way to the top. Eventually they dropped out and Microsoft picked up Skye for $8.5 Bn and they have subsequently announced that they will merge Skype into or replace Windows Messenger. So why, I wonder, when you search for a business on Google Canada do all the numbers light up as Skype dial numbers. If I click a number my Skype tells me I’m about to dial an international number, I assume if I’m in Canada I could make a free Skype call locally. It’s not obvious to me what’s in it for Google for them to promote a Microsoft product as prominently as they are in this Canadian results set, featuring Google Voice would make more sense. If they roll that out to the much larger US market, especially on mobile devices that would be a much more compelling move. Meantime Google had a great Q4 last year with revenues up substantially even though click prices continue to trend down, driven down by lower mobile click prices. On that topic, still no announcement from the Googleplex on their new mobile ad product…it’s coming for sure but no announcement yet.
It’s not often that I gush about anything. I’ve been in the biz for a good while and any number of gee whiz ideas pass my desk every day, I have seen dozens of “next Googles” and the vast majority are seen then never seen again. So when someone recommended Flipboard for iPad to me recently it took me a while to get round to actually installing the ap. I’m late to the party these guys launched last summer. For a guy who lives online I hate a lot of the online experience. I don’t like reading stories on websites and I find next page navigation annoying and the ads intrusive and boring. Flipboard is a brilliant answer to those problems. Essentially you tell it what you are interested in and it fetches content which matches your interest and presents it in a clean elegant magazine like format. It makes reading and navigating stories seamless and simple, as the name suggests it allows you to flip between stories and sections. It also allows you to log into your Facebook and Twitter feeds and displays that content again cleanly and elegantly formatted. It turns your Twitter feed into your own magazine and makes your Facebook a much more engaging experience.
The result is a simply brilliant way for you to digest online content on your tablet. It’s so slick and so elegant and easy to use I think it could seriously impact other parts of our online engagement. I could see the paradigm overflow into search. Imagine searching on your tablet and flipping between results as opposed to traditional search and click navigation. It’s been a while since we have seen a significant improvement in search results and how we navigate them. Adding the ability to present the results formatted elegantly and simply with flip navigation is intriguing. To an extent Google has been heading in this direction by aggregating data from sites and presenting them in the right rail of the results set. This is controversial with many content producers because if the answer has been scraped and displayed by Google which obviates the need for end users to click through from the results set. Take a look at the results for the “Query Jodie Foster“the right rail presents images, a biography, key film data and other key personal and career data. It’s a short conceptual step to make those results flippable. Meantime, if you have a tablet be sure you download Flipboard to make it twice as useful.