Local Online Confusion

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The chances are that you are reading this on your smart phone or tablet or perhaps you are taking a break from your phone to read this on your computer or even on that charming ‘dead tree product’ called a magazine.  So much of how we live and shop has moved online.  Large companies with massive marketing budgets now have teams of online experts figuring out how to reach their audience through the complex web of new media often in tandem with traditional media.

Now answer this question: When was the last time you interacted with your yellow pages?  I don’t mean when you picked it up and walked it straight to your recycling bin, I mean when you last used it to find a local business. Thought so…me neither.  There was a time quite recently when your Sunday paper had to be lowered buy winch onto your front porch…now, if you still get it all, it’s clearly been on a severe diet.  We have been living through a massive realignment of media…print media has been vaporizing before our eyes.

What hasn’t changed anywhere near as much is the rest of our every-day issues.  We still get tooth aches, leaks in our pipes, pest infestations and we get married.  We still use dentists, plumbers, rat catchers and party rental stores.  The massive real world operation which is the twenty million local businesses in the US still do business every day.  What went away is the way those businesses use to get new clients.

It used to be that owning a home and sending your kids to college was the American Dream.  Those have become much closer to the new normal for many Americans, now owning your own business has become for many a new part of that dream.  The BIA Kelsey organization, experts in all things local, tells us that each year roughly half of all business done by local businesses is new business.  Local businesses get that and are desperately trying to come to terms with a radically altered local advertising environment.  It’s no longer good enough just to have a basic website, local businesses really need a social media plan, they may have to manage their online reputation, they may even tweet!  The complex and rapidly changing world of online media is tough for a freshly minted MBA who went to school to learn this stuff – it’s simply impossible for the average local business to navigate.

Clearly this presents a problem to a large and growing segment of the US economy.  Interestingly, a solution has emerged in recent years and Search Initiatives, Inc. is leading that revolution.

Most local businesses don’t value “clicks” to their websites, “likes,” “tweets,” or “reviews.”  Most would much rather get a telephone call from a potential customer looking for a quote or to schedule a service.  People certainly do research online but when it comes to get serious about the project at hand many shoppers would rather speak to the company involved.  That makes the 100 year old telephone a critical part of the new media economy.  Local businesses have figured out that rather than pay a marketing company, yellow pages or newspaper for websites or clicks they would rather pay for calls from potential customers.  Those customers may well have come from ads seen on search engines, social media even banner ads…but that’s not the concern of the local business who only pays when the phone rings.  Those businesses are more than happy to pay a premium for those calls.  A dentist may pay $40 for a new customer a home security company may pay over $100 for a call from a potential client because they recognize at a profound level that the potential customer on the phone is a much better prospect than any other kind.

Interestingly, these local businesses are still being sold to by the same yellow page or news print reps but instead of just selling print they are being sold online visibility packages which typically include a website, social media management and most importantly a certain number of leads delivered by tracked telephone calls.  This has driven a massive growth in the “Pay per Call” industry and Search Initiatives is leading that sea change.

Local businesses need to advertise, yet they are unable to navigate the complex world of new media effectively.  There is a pent up demand in the form of the billions of dollars which have fled traditional print media and have not yet found a place in the new media world.  What Search Initiatives does is use the complex and challenging tools presented by new media such as SEO, SEM, RTB, FBX, PPC and a dozen other acronyms which you will hopefully never have to come to terms with to drive new customers to local businesses via the paid phone lead.  It’s a concept which any local business can understand and embrace.  They only get changed if a potential new client is brought to them…if we can’t deliver we don’t get paid.

Search Initiatives has deep roots in new media and local business.  We work with the people who sell to local business to deliver the calls they need.  That means we have almost no cost to acquire a new customer.  Our millions of advertisers are managed by our marketing partners.  They provide all the customer support to our advertisers.  That leaves us free to focus on what we do best; driving thousands of valuable leads to local businesses in massive volume.

This new version of local advertising uses the kaleidoscope of new media to drive customers to local locations   Search Initiatives is ideally placed to be the one stop solution for all things local.  It’s a multi-billion dollar opportunity which represents the last green field opportunity in new media and Search Initiatives is ideally placed to lead that revolution.

A Very San Fran Thing?

I have just returned from the BIA Kelsey conference in San Fransisco. I won’t waste your time with the details, but it was interesting to watch the smoking remains of the Yellow Book industry meet to stare at the entrails and try to guess the next disaster which will befall them.

While I was there I had a couple of moments which I thought nicely illustrated how things have changed. San Fransisco (as you no doubt know) is at the beating heart of all that we know of as new media and beyond. Indeed attend a tech conference there and you could be forgiven for believing that the rest of the world, let alone America, doesn’t actually exist.

the world according to san fran

In any event, if you had any doubt of the impact social media has had on our world (admittedly from a SF perspective) then look no further.

Example 1 Starbucks

I ordered my usual Starbucks coffee and croissant from the store opposite my hotel. When I got to the cashier she smiled sweetly and told me that their cash registers were off line… so breakfast was on them. They didn’t shut the store, demand cash only or ask people to leave, they just gave breakfast away. All they asked was that we maybe tell or friend or mention it on Facebook.

Example 2 Fang Chinese Restaurant

San Fran was packed, so getting into any decent Chinese place near the hotel was tougher than you might expect. I managed to get a spot for 3 at Fang, which was a block or two from my hotel. We arrived a little early and watched as about two dozen people who arrived after us (in many cases without reservations) were seated while we waited quietly starving. I’m guessing that the front desk was told to fill seats, and 3 people can’t fit into a four seat table so we were waiting for the one 3 person table to clear. In any event, front desk wasn’t interested in seating us any time soon. Thirty minutes in I took out my phone and started to compose a one star review on Yelp. At that point the manager passed by and saw me on my phone. She asked what I was doing on yelp and I told her. She then literally whisked us off to a table (which seated 5) and showered us with complimentary appetizers… all of which was in the (successful) attempt of heading off a one star review.

It’s interesting to note that in two service related situations, a national chain and a single location restaurant, the folks in charge had internalized at a pretty profound level that social engagement and reputation management have to be absolutely front and center… almost at any cost. It may be a very San Fran phenomena right now… but I have to believe it’s a trend with a future.

Middle Earth Google and The Real Sauron

Winter_Wonderlab-ChineIt’s fun watching the right people having fun… nothing else explains the allure of the Kennedys, Donald Trump, and the real Housewives. In the tech world we get to enjoy the playful antics of Google. This week we saw the launch of a new virtual Middle Earth on Google Maps, a Dr. Who Themed Google Doodle, plans for Google Glass at prescription strength, and some whacky winter oriented nonsense called Winter Wonder Lab. Ultimately all the wealth, power and fun tracks back to one thing… knowledge. Google has become the way we navigate the Internet… which is great if you live in a country like the US. In places like China, where the Government attempts to stop folk from finding out things they’d rather you not know about, things are different. Although you can still get to Google, there are many sites that you can’t get to via Google since they are blocked by the Evil Lords of China and their Political Nazgul.

The sad and somewhat Ironic fact is that for much less than the effort and cost Google employed on their adorable virtual Middle Earth (in commercial cooperation with the latest Hobbit movie of course), Google could set the information-oppressed people of China (and other evil empires) free. The task is laughably simple, all Google would need do is make Google china (like Google US) encrypted by switching to https rather than http. That would make the task of blocking encrypted results essentially impossible. It wouldn’t stop the Chinese from blocking sites, but since Google knows which sites are blocked, and any cached version of the site stored elsewhere, all they would need to do is redirect a visitor to the cached unblocked version via their results set.

Were Google to actually take on the dark lords like this, it would no doubt casue a furroro in many places. There would be protests and counter measures. However trying to oppose the growth of the Internet, and Google, is pointless.  They are just too huge to fight. What’s the worse could happen… Google would be seen as a crusader for freedom (nice change)? After a few news cycles, the new norm would be established and there would be several more cracks in mount doom.

About Time Guys!

google blocks 13000 child porn phrasesBack in the day.. .by which I mean about a decade ago (when I used to work a tone of the big search engines), we were approached by a Middle Eastern Country to come up with a web search engine which could be controlled so that content from specific sites on the web could be excluded and specific queries and queries about specific topics  would return no results.

At the time, the consensus from our engineering team was that it was mostly pretty doable.  The problem we had was that the customer wanted very strong guarantees that we’d stop everything, and back then we couldn’t guarantee that we would never show content on specific topics if that content was found indirectly. It had a pretty high “ick” factor too, so we passed on the opportunity.

It was thus with a feeling of being somewhat underwhelmed by recent announcements from Google and Bing that they would be implementing filters for the 13,000 plus queries which have been shown to link back to child pornography or pedophilia related sites. The announcement has been greeted with limited ballyhoo… but positive ballyhoo nonetheless. The fact really not commented on is that this is something they have had the engineering ability to do for at-least the last decade. No doubt the efficiency of the process has improved over the years, but there was absolutely nothing stopping them doing something very similar a long time ago.

In fairness, both Google and Bing have been responsive in taking down offending content when that content is reported to them… but it’s always been a proactive response. The root of this reticence (as is most things bad) is legal. The Digital Millennium Copyright act (amongst many other things) gave the search engines ‘safe harbor’ against being accused of copyright infringement for indexing content published on the web. A corollary to this argument was that Search Engines would loose this safe harbor if they could be accused of manually “editing” the index. The end result was that search engines (like my old one) steadfastly resisted doing anything other than make algorithmic changes which impact the entire index or only removed URLs when instructed to by a Judge. This thinking has ruled the world of web search ever since.

The recent furor around the issue of kiddie porn and search has been led by the Brits and is gaining traction over here. The changes just announced will likely calm that excitement at a cosmetic level, a couple of news cycles later it will be long forgotten… sadly, the problem won’t be. The folks into this toxic garbage don’t rely on search engines, rather pics are traded like baseball card between like minded “enthusiasts.” These changes might slow down the curious or beginners, but it won’t stop the hardcore… it’s too little and too late.

A Bookish Win For Google

Google BooksIt’s unlikely that this story will survive more than one news cycle… indeed as we deal with the Philippines Disaster and the latest gun rampage this story may never cross your desk. So it’s with a glad heart that I can declare a win for the good guys today… and weirdly today the good guys are Google.

What feels like a million years ago, but was is in fact only about 8 years; the publishers and Authors associations/guilds (whatever) sued Google over copyright infringement for Google Books. Ironically, the intervening years have established scanned books and all they represent in terms of keeping all our of print books available to more than a few researchers as invaluable to the whole world. Even though the parties to the case reached multiple settlements, the judge insisted that the case go forward and today Judge Chin ruled that the project both respected copyright holders rights and served an enormous public benefit. Finally, a judicial ruling that makes perfect sense.

I won’t bore you with minutiae of the argument, no doubt the losers in this quixotic case will appeal and waste more of their members money flogging a horse, which died about 5 years ago.  Meanwhile Google will continue to scan and in many ways rescue books that are out of print, out of copyright, or just plain languishing in the stacks of libraries all over the world. As we move inexorably from a dead tree digital world digitizing the massive corpus of the world’s writing and mobilizing them for humanity to experience is an expensive and reasonably thankless task. If Google weren’t doing this essentially for free, we’d likely have to wait for some governmental body to do that for us… and we know how well that stuff works out. So score one for humanity, and let’s give Google credit where it’s due… this one time.

Google’s Brave New World

As an avid Google watcher, I find myself wondering “what’s next” on a pretty regular basis. Driving to Vegas recently, I passed the surreal power plant out in the desert, which focuses the desert heat from thousands of mirrors on to the power housing that drives steam turbines. Someone got ticketed recently for driving whilst impaired… in as much as they were wearing Google Glass, and apparently in our crazy over-regulated world that’s an impairment. A few weeks back Google filed a patent for an approach which allowed someone wearing Google Glass to indicate to “like” something by making the two hands make a heart symbol over the object as seen by Glass. Last week Google filed a patent for what is essentially an electronic (removable) tattoo that would allow users to control their devices by speaking to them.  It could also double as a handy dandy lie detector. Clearly Google has plans to allow us to interact at deeper and deeper levels with the Google technology that surrounds us.

If you add in their efforts towards driverless cars, massive and self-sufficient data centers, genome driven disease detection (23 and me), World Wide WiFi and plans to end death, you could be forgiven that they are single-handedly trying to make the life’s work of Isac Asimov become reality in our generation.

If you are a keen Sci-Fi follower you may have come across the debate around advanced civilization and virtual reality. The theory goes that as we explore the universe we find the remains of civilizations but never the actual civilization. It seems worlds get to a level a little more advanced than we are… then vanish. The answer lies in death. The theory goes that as soon as a civilization gets advanced enough, it can store the consciousness in a machine the inhabitants essentially depart this boring old world for a much more entertaining and immortal virtual world stored on massive data centers buried deep beneath the surface.

I have to admit I have a sneaking suspicion for the amazing (but much less glamorous) work that the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation has been doing to eliminate some of the world’s nastiest diseases… as opposed to the cool “Wham Bam Science Man!” innovations much beloved by Google. However, it is fascinating to see what was pure science fiction becoming reality in real time… one crazy Google idea after another.

The Privacy Game Continues

Google privacy gameWhen I was a little kid, we used to play a game where everyone except one person would line up on one side of the room with the one person facing away covering their eyes on the other side ‘guarding’ the wall. At any point, the person on guard can spin round and uncover their eyes. The goal was to get from one side of the room to the other without the person on guard catching you moving. I cannot for the life of me remember the name of that game… I thought it might be Freeze Tag, but apparently not. In any event, it feels a lot like we are playing that right now with our privacy rights and the online giants.

In this modern online case, it’s the search engines and social media giants which are sneaking up on us trying to get to the other side without getting caught moving our rights. They make progress by tinkering with the long verbose terms of service and user privacy agreements (which none of us ever read). Typically, when one of these changes is affected (like the recent ones to Google+ )  they are couched in ways that are so vague and sweeping that it leaves privacy activists and the FCC reaching for their guns while the rest of us just scratch our heads and get on with life.

I’m a huge user and fan of Google, but this stuff drives me crazy. I actually did read the recent changes to the rules and I’m still in the dark. Here are a few examples: I went to see the brilliant and breathtaking movie Gravity last night. Does me posting about it on this blog whilst I’m logged into several Google platforms count? Can I expect to see “Brilliant and Breathtaking says ThinkJudd” on a billboard some place? Probably not.  However if I went to Google Play and commented on the movie or shared this blog through Google+ (as I will), then it looks like it’s fair game. If I emailed my kids about the movie through Gmail, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t expect to see those remarks recirculate on Google.  I don’t actually mind that much either way about things I post in what are clearly public forums… what bothers me is that it’s not clear what Google intends by the changes.

What will happen (as happens every time) is there will be a few days of excitement and complaints, a few stories in the media about big brother then the news cycle turns and we go on with the new norm firmly in place… until the next time.  We are clearly moving to a new norm where we have collectively agreed to trade much of our privacy rights for convenience and cool toys… tag you’re it.

It’s Tough Being Yahoo

New Yahoo Logo

Image via http://art.raphaellowe.com

I like Yahoo… always have, and it’s tough to see their fortunes continue to flag. Their recent Q4 projections underwhelmed the Street, they projected a tad over 1 billion, sadly the analysts were looking for something closer to 1.25. The brightest spot on their cloudy horizon isn’t even in the US… it’s the Amazon of China Alibaba of which they own 24 percent. If the Alibaba IPO goes as well as anticipated, it will bolster Yahoo’s numbers nicely. Apart from that, Yahoo continues to languish… snapping up cute baubles at what appears to be almost any price without those acquisitions materially moving the numbers.

They have done relatively well this year pulling off a close to 70% rise in value, but their core problem remains that the big search money goes to Google and Facebook is killing it with display and social. Google has made a good run at forcing people to use Google+ with sheer brute force, dragging their integrated social play into relevance, despite the wishes of it’s audience who really didn’t want it.

Sadly, Yahoo missed the social boat… and the twitter boat, the RTB display, and even the search boat. In fact, they have missed a flotilla of opportunities in recent years. For the biggest thing in the Yahoo story to be their ownership of a Chinese eCom giant is frankly a bit sad. Despite all these clouds on their horizon, they remain the largest single inline property with a strong brand and some very strong properties.  Yahoo clearly sees all things mobile as a possible route to salvation, as users migrate to mobile engagement at a more rapid rate that anyone predicted. If Yahoo can become the key providers for digital content across their own apps and mobile properties, then that may be a strategy with legs… we will see.

Thanks For Sharing… I Think

Image coutesy of http://isageeks.com/mobile/google-privacy/It’s been a while coming, but today Google announced the change in their ad and privacy policies. There’s a bunch of legal mumbo jumbo, but the short read is if you endorse, score, or +1 anything on a Google platform like Google Play or Search, then Google may include your smiling face and comments to any of your friends or colleagues in your Google+ circles. The example they give is if you gave an album 4 stars and a rave review on Google Play, the next time one of your friends or family are searching for the same music, restaurant, or Asian Massage parlor… you may well pop up in the result/review.

If you buy that, we are essentially moving to a privacy free world where anything and everything you do online is fair game. This move makes perfect sense. From a commercial point of view, I can see that the endorsement by one of your friends is likely to catch the eye and may well make that searcher more likely to make that selection. If you see the world as descending into an over connected nightmare, where we are all essentially shouting to each other in a fishbowl owned and operated by Google and Facebook, this will likely build your paranoia.

If reinforcement were needed, this week Facebook announced new advertising tools that will allow advertisers to better target ads based on shared interests. The twist here is that they invite the advertiser to state what the goal of the campaign is and, based on Facebook’s extensive knowledge of the behavior of their users, they will put the campaign together for you. In part, I suspect this is a testament to how hard Facebook advertising is to figure out given the limited experience most marketeers have with social media. They are essentially saying “don’t worry your pretty little head… we will do it for you”.

So now we have Google roping us into endorsing products and services on the behalf of those advertisers, and Facebook cutting out the middleman and taking advertisers straight to their targets. Oh… and Twitter is worth a billion dollars… or something.

Now Endorsement Spam?

LinkedIn spammingAs I have mentioned several times before, I’m not a huge fan of social media. I realize it’s a generational thing and I’m probably not in the core demographic. I have a Facebook page, which I think I’ve posted on maybe a dozen times, but I do use LinkedIn. As a hang out place for people with a business interest it works pretty well. I have a lot of contacts (something over a thousand I believe), and I probably know about half of them. If you aren’t already a big LinkedIn user, you may be not be familiar with the LinkedIn way, but it’s pretty easy to find folks online and invite them to contact you. The bar is low… you really don’t have to know (or even have met) them to reach out. That generates a lot of contact spam where folks who don’t know you invite you to connect… and as an easy going kinda guy I usually accept.

A while back LinkedIn added an endorsement feature where you can endorse one of your contacts for a skill or expertise.  I’m not entirely sure how LinkedIn figures out your interests and capabilities, but when you log onto the platform it asks you what one of your contacts knows about something LinkedIn thinks they may know about. It’s easy to do and generates engagement. LinkedIn is constantly letting you know who endorsed you for which skill… fair enough. What’s weird is that this provides the contact spammers with a neat new tool. They can endorse people they don’t know and have never met for skills or experiences that they may not actually have.  For example, the other day I was endorsed for ‘email marketing skills’ by a person I have never had any contact with. I know a fair amount about a range of marketing and online activities… but what I know about email marketing you could fit in the subject line… of an email.

After the endorsement, in many cases, comes the follow-up email claiming credit for the endorsement looking for a meeting or call about something.

In the big picture, none of this amounts to a hill of beans… I really should stop complaining about things which don’t matter… but suddenly acquiring credit from complete strangers about skills or expertise you neither have nor have profess to have is a weird first world problem.