For the past three years my parents have asked me what I want for Christmas and the answer was always the same – SXSW Gold Badge, Gold Badge, Gold Badge. I was a student then and couldn’t afford it on my own, but now that I’m gainfully employed (bless you, Apogee) I can buy my own badge this year. Fun!
However, just because I don’t need presents doesn’t mean Christmas just goes away, so again my folks issued the call for gift ideas for their decidedly geeky/crafty/quasi-pinko-hipster daughter, and I had to think of something. Not only what my folks could give me, but also how to get them a list specific enough to where my choices were unmistakable.
Being a slave to social media, I made my list this year with Delicious. The social bookmarking site scraped the very title tags from Amazon, Target and the like, making each item’s title descriptive enough to where my parents could easily find what they were looking for among the options I offered – however, some of them needed a little doctoring. For example, My Ben Folds shirt didn’t have title tags at all and selected items from theWilco store were merely labeled “WILCO: STORE,” whereas Amazon had keyword-rich title tags, making it easy for me to remember what I linked to, and creating an opportunity for links with optimized anchor text. As items from e-commerce websites get sent around the Internet during seasons of high volume gift-giving, optimized title tags are a great way to get correctly-optimized links from a variety of sources. So label those pages carefully for holly jolly traffic even in “bah, humbug” recessions.
The year is almost done. I’ve noticed quite a number of “Best of 2008″ posts floating around the search marketing industry, along with the proverbial prediction posts: what does 2009 hold for SEM? The SEO department here at Apogee batted this question back and forth during one of our team meetings to formulate a list of answers. I’m not going to delve into the entire list right now, but instead, talk a bit about one item in particular from that list: the personalization of search and rankings.
Let’s first start with a definition of personalized search. I asked a few friends not barricaded within the ivory tower of search engine marketing if they noticed they could manipulate search results on Google when logged into one of their Google accounts, or if they noticed the “Customized based on recent search activity” text at the top right corner of their search results. The consensus answer? “No.” So, as long as there is an unaware class, I am of it. Basically, personalized search is providing search results to users based on search history, search query intent and user location, and in Google’s case,SearchWikiactivity, among other signals.
Of course, increased personalized search on its own isn’t much of a bold prediction. Rather, predicting the degree to which it will infiltrate search marketing, and search engine rankings in particular, is how you grab headlines. Well, I’m not here to join the “Rankings R Dead” team or the “Personalization Won’t Matter Much” team – I know, the grey area is boring and oh so non-polarizing, but I’m not looking for true believers here. Looks like I’m not grasping at headlines.
So how will personalized search affect rankings and how will we utilize them in SEO?
Personalized search will have the most impact on those queries whose relevancy is disparately dependent on location – restaurants and the like – and queries that are not location specific will be affected minimally, but could be affected by search history.
It’s logical that users receive different search results for a query such as “thai restaurants” if one lives in Ridgecrest, CA and another lives in Bremerton, WA. Location should be one of the primary signals in determining personalized results for these queries. However, it’s illogical that users receive completely different search results for queries such as “linguistics” based on location, but logical that search history slightly effect those rankings.
If search history reveals the person searching for “linguistics” frequents websites with videos, perhaps tweaking the algorithms so that websites with videos receive a bit of a boost makes sense. Nonetheless, the overriding desire here is for relevancy. Personalization does not occur in a vacuum where other users do not exist. Looking to the collective, through linking patterns, helps provide greater relevancy than merely one user’s search patterns.
Also, I don’t think the changes will be drastic for those queries where search history can play a role in determining rankings, because Yahoo! is going to anonymize user data after 90 days, and I think Google and Microsoft will not only set a similar limit, but will be forced to do so eventually. If this plays out as predicted, search results will only be personalized to a certain extent.
Finally, how will smart SEOs utilize rankings as a metric for success?
The first example, location dependent queries, would generally fall into the local search realm. I don’t foresee a major change in this department except that local businesses will be required to seek out SEO services from their hometown agency. Rankings are not dead. They are alive, well, breathing, eating, sleeping and working for you.
For those queries potentially affected by search history, I don’t think the changes will be drastic. It seems illogical to personalize search results for the sake of personalization while detracting from relevancy. Wikipedia works so well because it looks to the collective – groups are much wiser than individuals on their own.
Will personalization force smart SEOs to adapt?
Of course. Will it potentially make tracking certain rankings harder? Yes, but harder does not mean impossible. However, proclaiming rankings dead is akin to saying search engines are dead. Search is a cornerstone of the Internet. So long as people need to find information about things they do not know, rankings will matter. So long as the search results are organized (ranked), rankings will matter because they bring exposure, traffic, leads, sales and revenue. Rankings should have always been looked at as a means to these ends.
At the beginning of the year, this post on the Apogee Search Marketing Blog made some predictions about search marketing in 2008. Before we try to make any predictions about 2009, let’s take a minute to review 2008’s search predictions compared to what actually occurred over the last 12 months.
Apogee’s 2008 search predictions were as follows:
Management tools become the cost of having a seat at the paid search table, rather than a competitive advantage. PPC management tools were certainly abundant in 2008. And, yes, they were almost necessary to a campaign’s success. Whether these tools were internal or external, focused on automated bid management, analyzing data or testing campaign variables, management tools freed up paid search managers’ time so they could focus on new opportunities, expansion and overall strategy.
Business/marketing acumen becomes more important to paid search management than technical prowess. While tools are great, tools just do what we tell them to do. Ultimately paid search managers have to set appropriate goals for marketers and outline the necessary steps to reach those goals. This year ad copy and landing page testing have gained popularity as marketers focus on increasing conversion rates. With new tools such as Google Website Optimizer (GWO), these tests are becoming easier to implement.
Search engines continue to provide better bid management functionality. Most tools vendors don’t react. Search engines have made many improvements in an effort to provide better bid management functionality in 2008, but despite all of the changes made this year, there is still a long way to go in providing reliable bid management functionality.
Google announced a new quality score method this year that determines CPC in “real-time,” as opposed to its tried and true static quality scores. It also allows for marketers to see first page bids rather than minimum bids.
AdWords Editor now allows users to download performance statistics so that analysis and adjustments can easily be made in the same interface. In addition, the newest 7.0 version, allows users to see quality scores and first page bid estimates for keywords.
Yahoo! now allows marketers to view average rankings when in the bid editing page.
MSN Live Search released a desktop beta tool that is essentially an AdWords Editor for Microsoft.
Bid management tools are also still a bit behind the curve. While their automation saves paid search managers time by adjusting bids, they are slow to react to changes made by search engines. Adjusting bids manually within the search engine’s interface is often more complicated than just using the free tools offered by search engines. As for full blown campaign management, we’re still not seeing many tools with the ability to handle that functionality yet.
Google extends its lead in the paid search market, either a little or a lot, depending upon how you measure the industry. Without a doubt, Google continues to be the leader in the paid search realm. ComScore recently released that in October 2008 Google Sites held 63.1% of all searches, as compared to58.5% in October of 2007. Google’s revenue also increased 31% from third quarter 2007 to third quarter 2008, raking in $5.54 billion in Q3 2008.As for service offerings, Google rolled out tool after tool after tool aimed at helping paid search marketers in 2008. All of these tools successfully assist marketers in optimizing and expanding their paid search campaigns, allowing for Google to maintain and grow its steady cash flow.
Local search continues to grow, but still has a difficult time providing substantive traffic in most markets. This year businesses flocked to Google Local Business Center. It has become “the” thing to do. As Universal Search rolled out throughout the year, local search optimization became even more visible and critical. In most industries and major cities, a business with a service that is location-specific and not on Google Local, will basically be behind by the end of this year.Furthermore, Google’s Local Business Ads (LBAs), a version of paid ads that appear mostly on Google Maps, contributed heavily to local search’s growth in 2008.
Google rolls Click-To-Call in with its local search service, and still no one cares.Not much word about Click-to-Call this year; still no one cares. What has gained recognition in 2008 is phone call tracking for paid search campaigns. Companies such as ClickPath, provide the ability to track calls to the keyword level.
Google Pay Per Action gains traction with B2C advertisers, struggles with B2B advertisers. Google launched Pay Per Action beta globally in June 2007, but phased it out in 2008, citingthe DoubleClick/Performics acquisition as the reasoning.
Google Product Search (previously Froogle) celebrates its sixth birthday, remains in beta. Yes, Google Product Search is still in Beta. During 2008, this product caught up with other comparison shopping engines by showing groups of similar products when a search is performed. This change caughtsome bloggers’eyes when it first rolled out, but ironically, later in the year Google Product Search made it on the list of search engines you’ve never heard of. An option that many companies have not yet tapped into is submitting services just as you would submit products.
Google continues to rail against paid links. The paid linking industry adjusts and continues to provide SEO benefit to its clients. SocialSpark was launched byPayPerPost in mid-2008, and the head of Google’s webspam team Matt Cuttssays he actually likes IZEA’s new service. SocialSpark provides advertisers an opportunity to pay bloggers for a review but requires a nofollow link to the advertiser.Another paid link vendor, Text Link Ads (TLA) launched InLinks publicly in November. Throughout 2008, Google has commented and posted extensivelythat paid links are in violation of the FTC’s Guides Concerning Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising. SEO bloggers have been debating about the impact of these changes as recently as the last few weeks.For whatever reason, Yahoo! and MSN haven’t been quite as vocal against paid linking in 2008. Yahoo! isn’t worried about the payment as much as the likelihood that a paid link usually doesn’t give as much value as a non-paid link.
SEO becomes more metrics driven as companies learn to measure their SEO performance. Absolutely. Tracking SEO leads and sales provides ROI that is critical to include in a company’s overall marketing expenditure analysis. The tricky part here is if the company knows what the value of a lead is to them or if they can track natural search visitors all the way through to a sale. During 2008, fewer companies were concerned about rankings as they were forced to look more at the bottom line.
Rumors swirl about an imminent merger between Yahoo! and Microsoft triggering a deluge of blog posts and nothing else. Yes, definitely. Talks between Yahoo! and Microsoft surfaced again early in the year but have fizzled quickly. Mid-2008 Google stole Yahoo! from Microsoft and became the attention of all, but that too died out by the end of the year. Although Google and Yahoo! gave it a shot with a trial period during the spring, antitrust scrutiny and regulatory concerns ultimatelycaused Google to call it quits with Yahoo.
The line between Search Engine Optimization and Social Media Marketing blurs further, except among those that actually know how to perform SEO and/or SMM. SEO and SMM definitely continue to be blurred in some circles (i.e. many marketers think creating a Facebook page will greatly help their search engine efforts). While creation of the company’s profile in these outlets is a fairly straightforward process, actually promoting them becomes much trickier and requires a completely different set of goals and strategies. Tracking offline inquiries becomes an important consideration but is not yet mastered in most campaigns.
I recently spoke with Lauren Perdue, a natural search specialist at Apogee Search. She discussed social networking strategies that businesses should consider to increase their online presence.
First, let’s identify the difference between social networking vs. social media. Social networking sites are websites that allow people to connect and socialize. Usually, they have a profile based platform through which individuals create a profile and interact with other users. Social networking sites often offer a social media aspect within their sites, but this function is often secondary.
Social media, on the other hand, is self-published news or articles. Individuals can disseminate information without relying on a major news outlet. Social media has a very strong community aspect.
Businesses should consider using social networking sites since they are free and a great way to grow a loyal customer base. Facebook offers fan pages that companies can use for self promotion and to pass along information. This is a free option that any business can use to begin experimenting with social networking.
Businesses should be aware of the potential risks involved with social networking sites as well. They are opening themselves up for public comment, and these comments are not always positive. Companies should be especially careful if they have skeletons in their closet or other embarrassing information that they do not want to share.
Companies should also remember their goals when considering social networking options. If they do not have the time to continually update a blog, then they should not start one. Additionally, Twitter users often use cell phones to make updates. It doesn’t make sense for a company that forbids cell phone usage to utilize Twitter.
Social networking gives businesses the opportunity to interact with their consumers and to solicit feedback. There are very few forums that provide businesses as much information about their consumers as social networking.
Lauren concluded with two key tips for implementing a social networking camapign:
Maintenance is key! Users will only participate when the content is interesting and when new information is contributed regularly.
Try to maintain a fun and casual tone. Twitter and Facebook are not the place for stuffy, corporate tones. Keep these tools fun and interactive and you will find more success.
I recently spoke with Tanya Green, Paid Search Analyst at Apogee Search. She shared her insights about eCommerce paid search campaigns and even offered a few tips to help eCommerce sites get the most out of their online presence.
Tanya began with a brief explanation of the paid search process. Paid search ads appear above and to the right of natural search results on major search engines. Advertisers generate a list of keywords relevant to their website and then bid on those keywords. Advertisers only pay for the actual clicks they receive on their ads, hence the term often used “pay per click.”
ECommerce paid search campaigns measure success based on sales and revenue rather than leads generated. Most paid search campaigns are lead generation campaigns. This means that paid search strategists must design eCommerce campaigns using different tactics than the typical lead generation campaign.
SEO vs. Paid Search
Many newcomers to search engine marketing wonder whether SEO or paid search is right for them. Typically, it is best to utilize both natural search (SEO) and paid search campaigns to expand your exposure on the search engines. However, for eCommerce sites, paid search may be the most efficient option to immediately drive traffic, while natural search campaigns may take time to build SEO ranking.
Paid search can also produce valuable data on keywords that can help shape the natural search campaigns. This is important as SEO keywords are long-term time investments.
Tayna shared several tips for eCommerce sites:
Have tightly themed ad groups. This helps keep ads consistent and relevant to the webpage.
Use relevant keywords. Don’t bid on keywords that have nothing to do with your site. This can improve your quality score, which is used to determine how much an advertiser will have to pay to be ranked in a certain position. The higher the quality score, the lower the cost of a higher position.
Have calls to action in your ad copy. If you have a current promotion, market it in your ad copy.
Make your ad copy timely. If you have seasonal promotions or products that make good gifts for certain occasions, promote them at those times.
Send shoppers to the specific product page (landing page) that they searched for rather than the homepage. Ensure consumers can make their purchase on that page without having to click around too much.
Adjust bids according to the success rates of those keywords. Bid higher amounts for successful keywords and bid less for keywords that convert at lower rates.
Use negative keywords to eliminate unqualified traffic. If there are words that are related to your industry but will not bring you qualified traffic, set these as negative keywords so you do not pay for clicks that have no chance of turning into a sale.
Over the weekend a truly extraordinary example of the impact social networking is having on business to consumer relationships emerged as Motrin’s newest ad campaign turned from a firestorm of criticism into a brilliant PR move.
Motrin’s campaign (done by NYC ad agency TAXI New York) commented on the various tolls motherhood takes on one’s body, and how this pain was a badge of pride for “real moms.” Nevermind the potentially incendiary idea of “real moms” (versus what, “fake moms?”), mothers began to grouse that these ads were wrong on many, many levels:
“I am exquisitely aware that the only way my voice is heard, is when you repeat my words. I try to play nice and use my inside voice, and I need y’all to know that my ‘baby’ is seven. I’m not prickly because they picked on me. I’m prickly because they picked on new mommies. I’m prickly because calling us bad mothers will never be funny.” – LA Moms Blog
“I am deeply and profoundly offended. My kids are big, I no longer wear them so Motrin (Johnson and Johnson) didn’t hurt my feelings specifically but they broke the #1 rule of comedy and satire:
Don’t pick on the weak.
New mothers are fragile. Motrin has proven, irrevocably that they don’t understand that mothers are the ones in the grocery stores. Mothers clip coupons and build brands with discussion. Mothers get together and uplift one another.
Offended mom Jessica Gottlieb was the first to air her criticisms of the campaign via Twitter, and over the weekend thousands of tweets by “Motrin Moms” littered the Twitterverse, which surpassed Barack Obama to become the most-tweeted topic in months.
The last group of people you want to upset via the Internet are mommybloggers, for they are fast, efficient, and well-connected. In a recession, Motrin probably recognized the much higher cost of bad press and the idea of being blacklisted in American homes in favor of cheaper generic medicines and mom-friendly brands.
Motrin responded quickly, taking the ads down and issuing an apology to their offended moms:
The apology is circulating now, and while it was a drastic move, it was also very smart. The social networks that spread negative news can just as easily spread positive ones, and using social networks to their advantage was a great reaction on Motrin’s part. Social networks are community-based, and direct communication is key. Social networking is vital to monitoring public opinion and maintaining those connections, so that when a marketing move crashes and burns, you can fight fire with fire.
The Pessimist’s View
Over the past couple months, it has been quite depressing for eCommerce marketers to read the news – layoffs, recession, consumers cutting back spending, etc. Unless you live under a rock, all marketers have heard that “Consumers Aren’t Shopping Online, Either,” and online retail traffic is down week-over-week. This may be true in large, but the world of eCommerce is not coming to an end.
Among all the negativity there are many articles that offer hope to search marketers. For example, today MediaPost released an article claiming “Search Adds Impact To Marketing Campaigns in Weak Economy.” MediaPost further explains, “four out of five online sessions begin at a search engine,” and “41% of people use search to navigate toward Web sites.” Furthermore, as the online advertising market continues to receive grim forecasts, search will remain the “bright spot.” The reasoning? Consumers are using search engines more now than ever to research products and prices online. Overall searches are up 25% year-over-year, so now it’s up to marketers to capitalize on the traffic, make sense of it, and act accordingly.
In addition to the fact that search will survive this downturn, the outcome of the recent presidential election offers hope across the board. An article in AdAge states that the “Obama win could spur holiday sales,” as “8% of respondents said they are likely to increase holiday spending, thanks to the historic election of Sen. Obama to the White House. By contrast, only 5% said they would have increased spending if Sen. John McCain had been elected.”
During tough times we’re forced to take a hard look at our search campaigns and optimize them as much as possible. Below are some ways to boost sales through the 2008 holiday season:
Run a free shipping promotion –72% of respondents in a comScore study said that if an eCommerce site took away free shipping, they would use another site. That’s huge!
Utilize cause marketing (and promote it online!) – Consumers are willing to pay more for a brand if it supports a cause, recession or not.
Test ad copy and landing pages – Experiment with placing different promotions or call to actions in ad copy or landing pages and use those that yield the highest conversion rates. For landing page tests try using Google Website Optimizer (GWO).
Apply knowledge from search campaigns to the overall marketing plan – Do you find that sales are coming in during specific dayparts or from concentrated geographic areas? The accountability of search allows marketers to pinpoint success areas. Use it to concentrate traditional media efforts and eliminate waste.
Stay informed – Utilize research to leverage marketing efforts. This Holiday Shopping Intentions presentation by Google provides insight as to when consumers will be researching online and when they will actually be purchasing this year. Paid search ads can be adjusted to speak to searcher’s stages in the buying cycle whether they are facilitating research, promoting the ease of your buying process or speaking to last minute shoppers.
Online search reinforces in-store sales. An article in MediaPost claims that “the impact of online product research is greater on store sales than Web sales.” If possible, place a dynamically generated coupon on your Web site to better discern how online campaigns are generating in-store sales.
One assumption in online marketing as of late has been that richer forms of online media are a valuable tool to generate leads and expose consumers to your brand. There is no denying that forms of advertising that appeal to multiple senses (audio/visual versus simple text-based or even banner ads) have an advantageous effect in marketing. Assuming unlimited resources, there is no cost to the consumer for being exposed to these media–other than the time commitment and the inability to skim the content, like you would with a text-based or banner ad. However, this assumption is quickly becoming challenged, as we see Internet Service Providers (ISPs) changing their models from unlimited bandwidth to limited or rated service models.
In the news recently, AT&T has joined Comcast and Time Warner in putting bandwidth caps on its users. This is ostensibly to ease network load, and mostly fair to the end-user at the upper end of the 20- to 150-gigabyte caps being tested in Reno, Nevada. For users that break this cap, a charge of $1 per gigabyte is then appended to their bill. This opens up a future for American ISPs to incorporate a per-gigabyte model, such as seen in Europe and some US universities.
Because bandwidth is fast becoming a commodity to the average broadband user, how a consumer will perceive certain forms of advertising may quickly change. Any form of online advertising that uses a large amount of bandwidth may be much more resented than today. Today, if anything, the more obtrusive forms of media-intensive advertising online are simply an annoyance. Should this trend in major ISPs continue, it could have a negative effect on a brand and its sales. Consumers are intuitively less likely to purchase something if they feel the brand is already costing them something, without an actual purchase.
Anticipating this change is an important step in doing something about the problem. Until bandwidth caps lower or rated service becomes widespread in the United States, there is most likely no reason to abandon current media-heavy forms of advertising. However, advertising is an investment, and with any form of investment, diversification is the key to protecting the resources you put into it. Here are some tips to reduce bandwidth in advertising. Other than keeping the cost to advertise low to the consumer, it will also speed up loading time, improving the functionality of the pages on which you are advertising:
Use compression where you can. Most browsers support gzip encoding.
Social media optimization is a good way of incorporating a number of media while still letting the user come to you. By transferring some efforts away from flash or other video advertisements to this outlet, you may find more promising leads and bigger fans among your consumer base.
Never underestimate the power of a well-placed text ad. As semantic computing improves, services such as Google AdSense become better and better, grouping your messaging with individuals who are interested in its subject matter.
News in the micro-blogging world says that Twitter accounts with branded user names are being eaten up with minimal to no activity. This points to the probability that these accounts are being taken captive by outsiders. This is known as “Twitter squatting”, where savvy Internet users attempt to capitalize on something valuable, but ostensibly free. There is little risk for them, and a good chance of making money using this tactic.
Twitter squatting is a new take on the old practice of domain squatting. This is typified by the battle between the Pop-Punk group NOFX and their inability to secure NOFX.com from a squatter (they eloquently explain the problem here). This is truly an annoying problem, but rarely a source of worry for the vigilant and forward-thinking marketer.
In the spirit of making sure this doesn’t happen to you, here is a list of best practices you can use to avoid this for the Twitter of today, tomorrow, or ten years from now:
Surf the net and stay hip to what’s new.Social media being one example. Early adopters had the advantage of low-cost, broad-reaching messaging and the opportunity to take part in thought leadership in this space. All of these are good things, so why not keep an eye out for places to innovate? It appears that micro-blogging platforms such as Twitter are getting poised for this.
Get it while it’s free. This is a corollary to getting into what’s new. There’s nothing wrong with finding as many free sites as possible and registering your brand’s user name. You can do some drilling for leads yourself with these tools, or ramp up your activity once a resource becomes a legitimate venue for brand messaging.
Don’t be afraid to carry a big stick. Many popular services are started by small groups with limited resources. They’ll be happier to acquiesce to legal threats than ask you to substantiate anything that sounds legitimate. This means that even asking a lawyer for an hour of his time to write a letter to this resource may be a good investment in marketing dollars if that means stopping another source from pretending to represent your brand and spreading misinformation or using it as a venue for defamation.
With this in mind, get hunting, start registering, and defend your brand!
Not long ago I blogged about research done by Google on the OpenID platform. Let’s do a quick rehash (cue NFLPrimetimemusic. No, seriously, open a link in another tab and listen as you read):
What is OpenID?
“OpenID eliminates the need for multiple usernames across different websites, simplifying your online experience.”
Why should I care about OpenID?
According to the same report by Google, “[o]ne of the biggest reasons the industry has focused on federated login is to minimize the work required for a user to signup for a new account at a website. When users are presented with a traditional signup page that asks for E-mail, password, & password confirmation, it is quite common for 30 to 50% of users to not finish the process.” Couple this 30% to 50% number with the fact that the average user visits 11 pages within a website, spending 43.62 seconds on each page for a total of 8 minutes spent on site and you’ll see that annoying users with a signup form will only shrink the already paltry amount of time they generally stay on a page. And think, creating a simplified login/signup process was basically completely out of your control.
Google and OpenID
Today Google announced they are providing web services with limited access to an API based on the OpenID protocol which is based on the user experience research of the OpenID community.
Users will be able to sign into certain websites using their Google account credentials without having to sign up for a new account at the websites. Zoho, Plaxo and Buxfer are among the initial launch partners.
With Google now joining Microsoft and Yahoo! in spreading the OpenID protocol to the masses, it looks like the user experience will improve for many people, and businesses could see an increase in sales from that 30% to 50% of individuals who would rather continue surfing than fill out a login/signup form.