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SearchTHIS: Speedboat to China

SearchTHIS: Speedboat to China Kevin Ryan

Everyone’s talking about the new world in online, but few really understand what’s happening in China. This week, I thought I’d hit the big red country to look under the Chinese interactive marketing hood. There’s a lot of horsepower in China, even if the engine is going to take a year or two to really warm up.

ad:tech Shanghai’s conference hall is reminiscent of the early days in online advertising trade shows. A handful of companies have exhibits, from American industry veterans to China specific start-ups. Many of those hoping to capitalize on the explosive growth in China have arrived on the scene.

ad:tech Shanghai represents the biggest, boldest and best in the web’s next generation of burgeoning opportunity. There are old friends like Google, Yahoo! and MSN, along with local market leaders like Baidu. Market makers and thought leaders alike agree there is plenty of opportunity in China, but there are a few things you should know before rushing out.

Audience insights

Tuesday’s keynote session featured Chuan Lo, MSN’s greater China regional director, touting the tremendous growth seen by MSN audiences since its launch in May, 2005. Lo noted that while only eight percent of China is online, that number represents 11 percent of the worldwide population.

The online media company and Value Added Information Service (VAS) Sina was represented by chief operating officer Hurst Lin, who noted that many western online advertising models were not successful at first. Lin said that sites have yet to agree on what constitutes a unique visitor -- citing that internet cafes still comprise a large portion of online users and report a unique IP address for multiple users. Lin also pointed out that Chinese advertisers are primarily concerned with viewing their ads on the most popular site areas, so more traditional pricing models such as those used in television and print media were implemented to accommodate advertiser demand.

Lin hoped that western online advertising pricing models held promise for the future so that Sina can continue to monetize the most popular site areas -- such as real estate and automobiles -- while avoiding formats that Chinese users complain are annoying and intrusive, like pop-ups. It’s comforting to know that pop-anythings are universally obnoxious.

Smarter shopping search

Topping the list of U.S.-based companies reaching out into the Asian market is the shopping destination, Smarter.com. Smarter announced the launch of http://www.smarter.co.jp/ and http://www.smarter.com.cn/ this week with a focus on Japanese and Chinese audiences, respectively.

According to co-founder Harry Tsao, the two markets represent huge growth opportunities and the firm is prepared to invest substantial resources to ensure market leadership. Citing the unique nature of each market, Smarter plans to focus on fashion, baby and maternity, pet supplies and sporting goods among other key categories in Japan, while Chinese will focus on 3C channels (computers, consumer electronics and communications.)

Smarter’s launch in China and Japan may serve as lesson in diligence for start-up hopefuls in any category. Many firms that might view the more established marketplace in the United States as a bit crowded stand a very good chance of achieving critical first-to-market staying power in Asia.

Smarter search marketing

Smarter’s Tsao also participated in the afternoon performance marketing session on search engine advertising. He illustrated search marketing best practices from the perspective of an advertiser purchasing hundreds of thousands of keywords.

Tsao noted that top search destinations accounted for the bulk of Smarter.com’s search initiatives. According to Shanghai-based iResearch, Baidu.com accounts for about 36 percent of search activity while Yahoo! and Google comprise about 31 percent and 18 percent, respectively.

Smarter uses a variety of key search tactics. Tsao emphasized the need for expanded keyword lists, monitoring keyword performance individually, ongoing creative testing and predictive bidding (using seasonality to bid terms up and down according to popularity) tactics.

India-based search marketing firm Pinstorm founder and chief executive Mahesh Murthy offered some insights for marketers truly seeking a global perspective. Murthy suggested that advertisers keep an open mind when approaching new markets -- trial and error in determining which strategies are most important can be critical to entering a new market. Recognizing that much of the world’s population does not speak English, keywords in multiple languages can be purchased at much lower costs than their English counterparts. 

Back to natural search basics

The afternoon’s performance marketing session wrap-up was an informative (if back to basics) forum for marketers seeking to achieve rankings in natural search. While avoiding any “secret sauce” giveaways, Google’s James Mi, head of Asia Products, described how following the guidelines for site design (posted on every major search engine) could help build a solid foundation for being ranked and indexed in search sites. Mi suggested avoiding some of the common pitfalls in search such as overuse of Javascript, keyword stuffing (building pages with only keywords), building pages frames and iframes, as well as session ID complications in URL strings.

Global Strategies Chief Executive Officer Bill Hunt, author of "Search Marketing, Inc.," described some practical and very actionable advice for natural or organic search marketing hopefuls. Hunt provided an overview of search architecture in three layers: content, coding and infrastructure.

Hunt suggested a number of key tactics to ensure natural search success including: make sure your site is search-friendly and compliant, similar to the advice offered by Google. He also noted that avoiding marketing speak, or the language of your brand, in favor of focusing on the language used by your audience will reap enormous rewards in natural search optimization.

Opportunity knocks

Opportunity is knocking in China. Search activity in China is growing rapidly. iResearch predicts there will be 800 million daily searches by 2007, charging forward from 300 million in 2005 and a projected 600 million in 2006.

Many visitors have expressed shock and awe with the speed at which Shanghai itself has grown. Some hadn’t visited the city in three or four years. The old world design and character had been replaced by bright lights, modern architecture, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Starbucks.

If the speedy growth of Shanghai is any indication, we are in for a big storm of interactive growth. Some of the sessions were basic and offered a generous outline of behavior, but the Chinese market is almost guaranteed to ramp up very quickly.

iMedia Search Editor Kevin Ryan’s current and former client roster reads like a “who’s who” in big brands; Rolex Watch, USA, State Farm Insurance, Farmers Insurance, Minolta Corporation, Samsung Electronics America, Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Panasonic Services, and the Hilton Hotels brands, to name a few. Ryan believes in sound guidance, creative thought, accountable actions and collaborative execution as applied to search, or any form of marketing. His principled approach and staunch commitment to the industry have made him one of the most sought after personalities in online marketing. Ryan volunteers his time with the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization, and several regional non-profit organizations.
Kevin Ryan is managing partner at
Kinetic Results.

Another outlet for web widgets that is often overlooked are personalized homepages. Microsoft's Live.com, Netvibes and Google are just a few of the sites that offer anyone the opportunity to deploy a widget that appears to users as a personalized web portal. To many users, this page is what they consider "the beginning of the web." At the very least, every new browser window opens with your brand holding a piece of that screen real estate.

Aside from the obvious benefits of making a brand accessible through internet start pages in terms of reach and frequency, there is a tremendous PR upside. Web widgets like these tell a story of brand innovation and accessibility that practically writes itself -- for both the brand that develops the widget and the web platform.

Let's take a look at Slide.com as a way to understand the underpinnings of a well-done web widget:

The most popular widget out there according to comScore's April widget ranking, and Brittany Lawson's recent iMedia article, has, like most popular widgets, a very basic and singular idea at its core: an easy way to make a web-based slideshow out of your pictures.

Most people can't make their own Flash picture slideshows, but Slide.com solves a basic problem. They provide the functionality (an easy way to make slideshows on a website), and you provide the content (your pictures) and the promotion (sending people to view pictures on your site). They also do the coding legwork for you depending on the social network you need to put the movie into. And since Flash can handle video and audio, Slide has created ways to connect brands and users together through its own platform.

The easiest way to understand how Slide works is to think of it as a site that makes very small Flash websites. A user goes to the site, creates their Flash movie via the interface and saves it.

This is the key: they have to save it at Slide.com. As I mentioned, this is not John Q Public's MySpace slideshow of the family trip to the Yukon, featuring "Because of You" by Kelly Clarkson. It only feels that way. In reality, it is "Slide.com presents John's slideshow and Kelly Clarkson."

Slide ultimately retains control of the brand presence, creative assets, advertising, functionality and everything else through the life of that widget, and the tens of millions of others just like it.

If you're currently creating Flash banner ad campaigns, you're really not that far away from having your own widget network. The only missing pieces are the overarching Flash framework to "do it yourself," and a user administration structure for registration and serving the individual widgets. Of course, this is an oversimplification, and there are a lot of facets to consider as you build a system like Slide. The point is, you shouldn't be overwhelmed by the prospect of creating a web widget. You're probably already on your way there.

Desktop widget platforms
While social networks and blogs have their own web-based platform for widgets, the top four tech heavyweights have created their own platform for hosting widgets on your computer's desktop.

First, let's cover the basic concept here. Take the same rich media utility created in web widgets and actually present that web-based content directly on a computer desktop. This widget is downloaded as a mini-application within a tool that allows users to manage a group of widgets on their desktop.

These widgets are much more practical and personal in their utility. Take a look at Apple’s top five widget downloads, and you'll see a widget to search and play videos from YouTube, a widget to monitor your computer statistics (like your processor temperature and your internet download speed), a chess puzzle and a widget that shows movie trailers at theaters near you.

When you combine the personal nature of desktop widgets with the persistent presence created by having real estate on a user's desktop, these widgets are a hard bet to lose on. By finding a way to extend the utility of your brand in this technology, you are locking down a personal, everyday connection with the brand in a way few other media can match.

Even more than icing on the cake of this marketing equation are the aforementioned heavyweight players. Apple, Microsoft, Yahoo! and Google have all developed their own platforms and free distribution websites -- completely free advertising directly to the people that have these platforms on their computers.

Understanding each of these platforms is where the terminology really starts to bog down, so please hang with me as we navigate this sea of jargon together:

Having the most mature audience, Apple's widgets reside in the Apple Dashboard, a feature built in to the operating system that shows you all your widgets at the press of a button. The nice thing about Apple widgets for marketers is that while they don't command an audience as large as Microsoft, there are still many millions of users in the golden circle demographic of high HHI families who are extremely familiar with using widgets on the platform, and Apple promotes it heavily.

In fact, as Apple gains momentum from iPods and iPhones converting into desktop computer purchasers, making widgets from any web page viewed in Safari is only a few simple clicks away.

For the pro-am set that prides itself on creating home movies, websites and podcasts through built-in Apple software, there's also Dashcode, a program that makes building dashboard widgets significantly easier for novices. It's not a force yet but a very interesting integrated approach by a company that seems to always be a step or two ahead with an affluent audience that grows by the day.

Not to be outdone, with the release of Windows Vista, Microsoft rolled out its own dashboard product also directly tied into the operating system. Microsoft made the sidebar – an area off to the side of your desktop for holding the four or five most important "gadgets" (to differentiate them in name from Apple widgets).

Microsoft has programmed -- in one decided advantage for users and marketers -- that you can drag gadgets out of the sidebar to reside on the rest of the desktop. Once a user drags a gadget onto the desktop, the gadget is no longer limited in width or height, and brands can plan for that -- with the sidebar version providing "at a glance" utility, and expanding the features and functions in a larger canvas with different design that comes into play once the gadget has been "undocked." This is a great feature, and a win-win for users and brands alike.

The sidebar also has live.com and dedicated real estate on certain new-gen Microsoft websites within which you can load web versions of these sidebar widgets. You also can't beat having exposure to the largest desktop audience on earth.

The biggest drawback of Vista sidebar is that unlike the Mac Dashboard, in some versions the sidebar doesn't automatically load when it is installed. The user has to find it and turn the sidebar on.

That being said, it's still Microsoft, so even as a niche product within the system, it still will have a fairly large reach (even though that's what they said about Active Desktop in Windows XP).

Here's probably the most interesting path to a widget platform. In the beginning of widget platform time, there was Konfabulator: the first widget platform. Its success is what spurred Apple to make its own platform and include it as a major feature of its operating system. That was when Yahoo took notice and purchased Konfabulator, making it available for both the Mac and PC, renaming it Yahoo widgets.

Since then, Yahoo has done a lot to try and get wider adoption of its platform, which users have to first download before any of the widgets work. What Yahoo does have over the other platforms is a serious effort to make creating widgets as easy as possible for the development community. This alone may prompt some agencies to tout Yahoo widgets above others.

I simply haven't seen evidence to suggest that large audiences are willing to go through the hoops necessary to add this platform into their habits. If you're technical enough to understand the premise and use it regularly, you have two robust solutions for the Mac and PC that are already installed and ready to go. But I've been proven wrong before. If you're someone who works with Yahoo on the widget platform, please feel free to leave your comment below and correct me.

Google desktop
What Google has done with its widget platform is to make a play for all widget platforms on the desktop and across the web. The "standardizing" I mentioned earlier about OpenSocial really means making the Google desktop programming method consistent across the vast majority of social networking sites.

So, while I sat wondering why Google would create Google gadgets -- basically a stripped-down widget platform -- they were using it as a pivot foot into commanding the web widget space, and then taking that momentum back to the desktop.

Short open letter to Rupert Murdoch: Google is about to grab a huge chunk of all your MySpace real estate. For free. Best, Michael.

Desktop widgets
Even the makers of these widgets have changed the way we refer to them. We used to call them branded desktop applications (BDAs), but no more. We got too many blank stares. People just want to call them widgets.

Where web widgets go on websites, and platform widgets go into a group of widgets on the desktop, desktop widgets are their own application. They stand alone, independent of the web or a platform. One download and the widget is always on the desktop (yes, you can minimize it, or open it from your desktop tray). And more than the value of desktop persistence (how much would it cost to put a logo in a corner of a TV screen all day?) is the control over that piece of the desktop.

Desktop widgets can be shaped and sized in any way imaginable. They can be updated seamlessly, with no need to download a new application. They provide a fluid, two-way channel between the user's computer and your brand. You can send messages or content instantaneously. You can see metrics as granular as individual mouse movements, and individually identify each application without taking any personal information. That means you can micro-target messaging to the individual, in real-time.

The funny thing about desktop widgets is that we use a few of them all the time without realizing that they are nothing more than brands extending themselves to the desktop.

My favorite example of this is iTunes: 

iTunes does three things well: it creates a place where you can search your music collection, it plays MP3s and connects to an online store within the desktop widget that works almost exactly the same way you've already learned to catalog your own music.

Most of all, it is a giant Apple desktop widget. A big reason why iTunes will continue to dominate over other online music stores is the perceptual space desktop widgets take advantage of. As a marketer of a website, you're not only competing with all of the other websites in your sector, you're competing with all the other websites in the daily habit of your audience's internet usage. That's a really tough nut to crack.

On the desktop, accessing web-based functions, like buying songs, feels nothing at all like navigating to a website to do it. It feels so much more convenient and consolidated, and you never have to touch the browser at all.

Another great example is Joost:

While all the press on it has cooled since beta testing started, you cannot count this video viewer out.

What puts Joost in such a desirable position is that as a desktop application, much higher quality video is possible without draining bandwidth. Unlike YouTube or any other web-based video site, Joost's user computers and the Joost server share the task of balancing bandwidth and processing.

When you compare the quality of YouTube video versus Joost, well, there is no comparison. It just shows that the key to Joost lies in the next three years.

Eventually, quality will matter to people looking for video on their computer. And as bandwidth and computer storage become even more accessible and cheaper, the masses will be seeking a solution just like Joost. Luckily for them, Joost will already have the brand equity to start a step ahead of the competition.

As a side note, these advanced capabilities had me very interested in how Bud.tv was going to implement its widget. But that promotional "coming soon" message has unfortunately disappeared from the site since it was redesigned. It's too bad, too. That may have made the difference between a struggling video channel and a vibrant channel with a dedicated audience.

Not to confuse the subject further, but Joost even has its own widget platform within its application. Again, the audience is small, but Joost is just waiting with its doors open for the moment when the masses have the capability and the desire to see high quality video on their desktop.

These are just two examples of audio and video brands having incredible success with the desktop widget as a competitive differentiator.

The question for brands is: how do you leverage the web-based functions along with the convenience and power of the desktop to create a powerful presence?

Well, it starts with understanding your audience and the utilities they need or the tasks that are being underserved in their daily habits. It may not even be a function of your brand, but a service your brand presents to users as a convenience.

If your audience is made up of social networkers, what are the ways you can make their most tedious, repetitive tasks a bit easier from the desktop? If they're savvy seniors, maybe a desktop widget with larger graphics and type?

What widget is right for your brand?

Maybe all three. As you can see, each type of widget gives you different, compelling avenues to reach different audiences. The key is working with agencies experienced in these media to make the best connection with the needs and habits of your audience, and your reach/frequency goals.

Maybe the biggest lesson learned from "The Year of the Widget" is that there is a significantly large and varied audience for widgets of all flavors. The challenge is how to build the channels that will supercede web presences in terms of importance to brand equity and the utility you provide your audience to interact with every day.

iMedia features a wealth of articles on the topic, and you can see our video introduction to branded desktop applications here.

Michael Leis is VP of Publishing Dynamics. Read full bio.

Kevin Ryan founded the strategic consulting firm Motivity Marketing in April 2007. Ryan is known throughout the world as an interactive marketing thought leader, particularly in the search marketing arena. Today's Motivity is a group of...

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