Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce MSNBot. Search engine marketing firms of the world rejoice! There is bot another reason to qualify your existence. As last week wound down, Microsoft offered a look inside its new and improved search.
But is it really new and different?
MSN's new search beta has the usual cacophony of listings and omnipresent multitude of search options. Billions of pages indexed -- and a like number of keyword combinations -- reveal, you guessed it, sponsored listings provided by Overture intermingled with those sold by MSN, as well as algorithmic (a.k.a. natural) listings. The new algorithmic listings will replace Yahoo! search listings later this year, or early in 2005 when MSN search is slated to emerge from beta.
Alright, nobody panic.
Starting Wednesday evening, I received the first of an onslaught of emails from search marketers and site owners wanting the inside scoop on MSN's new search technology. What will happen to my listings? How can I change my listings if I do not like what I see?
Let's see if we can separate hype from reality, while applying a little uncommon sense.
And now, the numbers
Nielsen numbers tell quite a story in search activity. According to data from September of 2004, roughly 88.7 million unique visitors named Yahoo! a top Web site. The numbers change only slightly for number two and three -- MSN with 88.6 million uniques and Microsoft with 84.6 million. Rounding out the top five are AOL with 70.5 million uniques and sad little Google with only 61.9 million.
Based on the aforementioned data, one would estimate that having a search utility on one of those top Web sites would be a happy thing. The problem is that top Web site does not equal top search engine. Users have been programmed to think of a portal as simply an entry point for the Web, rather than a place to conduct an active search.
Now, let's take a look at search activity for the same time period. Google tops the list with its nearly 62 million searches. Yahoo! Search comes in second with around 44 million searches. MSN and AOL (which is another version of Google search) follow with 38.7 and 25.3 million searches, respectively. Ask Jeeves rounds out the top five with a small but steadily increasing 11.6 million. Clearly Google is the powerhouse search kid on the block, while the competing search-share sites have their work cut out for them.
Top sites with late entries into the search game will have to, in effect, re-program users to think of their entry point as a savvy search site as well. They can do that with smart tools, uniquely intuitive features and a better search experience. Web history teaches us that users will, if properly inspired, find a new place to dwell.
Nobody beats our meat
For most search marketers, the new and different search means developing a keen understanding of how MSN's crawling and indexing technology will interact with client's Web sites. For the rest of the human population, winning hearts and minds with more efficient and relevant tools is the order of today and every day.
Trust me on this, there is a way to instigate a meeting point for these two worlds.
Google has sharp search technology and other great things going for it, and let's not forget the strides both Yahoo! and Ask Jeeves have made in their local activities, not to mention the butler's natural language moves.
The Microsoft engine has some pretty nifty search add-ons as well. For one thing, the search beta apparently took a page from Jeeves with a stride forward in natural language search, along with an Encarta tie in for questions. It's a little quirky and falls into the interesting-but-not-really-useful-yet category.
MSN search also has a search builder tool that, among other things, allows a personalized sliding search barometer, similar to those found on shopping pages. Won't search optimization become a delight if everyone starts using those? It would transform the search world will be a highly customized place, rendering current ranking measures meaningless.
Other nifty tools include local functionality with "near me" (sites are indexed according to geography) options and a display of when sites were added to the index.
History has taught us that users will find the best experience, enjoy it, and then abandon it when the next great thing comes along. However, one has to ask, is an enhanced search technology important enough to change user behavior? In the end, the real story is not the indexing or ranking technology, it's the features, or the add-on enhancements, that will make or break the MSN search experience.
Let the games continue
Right after Microsoft announced that it indexes over 5 billion pages, Google announced it indexes 8 billion. The conspiracy theorist in me says this whole thing is just a bunch of hogwash. Does the average Joe care a monkey's derriere whether a search site indexes 4 billion pages or eight? Probably not, since 7,999,980,000 of those pages are pretty useless to him. Of the remaining 20,000 sites, more than half are porn, so the choices get narrowed a bit more … or not, depending on average Joe's preference.
The search marketer in me says digging deep in the Web's content to help me answer life's more difficult questions is a good thing. Said internal SEM person also believes that discovering and evaluating the unique differences in search engines puts food on the table. However, there are plenty of ways to show value and provide said necessary funds for groceries.
The pragmatist and altruist in me (much smaller internal presence) notices a great deal of similarities in the big three's search technology. Value-added features and toys aside, they all crawl Web pages for keywords and rank pages based on popularity, more or less.
The Gene Roddenberry in me (he's in there somewhere) points out that, in one way or another, every search engine has publicly stated or suggested a mission to create a better or more informed world via search. It seems the greater good might be realized in agreeing on standards for the quotidian or perfunctory aspects of search (more on this below).
The agreement would thereby free up brain power for helping users build a better search experience for themselves, and send search spammers to the Klingon prison where they belong.
At last we come to the futuristic portion of our demonstratively one-sided discussion. MSN will release its desktop search shortly, but it will still have to fight the battles associated with being second or third to the table. In addition to being a household name, Google has made great strides in winning the hearts and desktops of searchers everywhere.
As clients panic about search positions and representation on the new Microsoft beta [link; beta.search.msn.com], and as striking similarities force marginal changes in tactical optimization, I must once again ask the same question.
Wouldn't uniform standards be of some assistance here? Obviously, crawling and indexing technologies have similar characteristics, so why not make it a bit more formal and let the add-on or value-added features be the determining factors in user search site selection?
Shouldn't we all get behind the C.O.L.O.N. (and no, I simply cannot let the C.O.L.O.N die,) or a similar effort to help prevent search engine abuse? Isn't it more important to have intuitive unique features that spark value-based discussions, as opposed to having search engines and marketers sitting around arguing over which search engine handles 301 errors better?
About the Author: 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. In his off-time, Ryan enjoys serving as Vice President at Wahlstrom Interactive.
Meet Ryan at the iMedia Agency Summit December 5-8.
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It's all about the "E" word.
Engagement. Yes, it's an overused word, but it's earned its place as the go-to descriptor of marketing's future given the combination of expanding choice and increased control that we all enjoy as consumers.
Most marketers and agencies agree that the choice/control combo necessitates a new approach. At Carat, we frame this challenge in terms of the need to move from a model based on "buying time" to one of "creating time." In other words, brands can't be successful with an approach that's about aggregating eyeballs; they need to offer consumers experiences that are compelling enough that people choose to spend time with them.
The value of discovery
I'd argue that engagement is directly linked to discovery. If our goal is for consumers to choose to spend time with brands, what we're asking is that they become personally invested in our messages and experiences. And investments must have returns.
For consumers the return should come in the form of discovery: being able to learn or experience something new, to put the pieces of a puzzle together for themselves rather than being beat over the head with the same message over and over.
The transmedia approach is all about discovery. Jenkins talks about each of the complementary pieces as being "points of entry" into the broader story, which is a great way to think about each of the communication points in a broader marketing strategy.
Instead of each communication telling the full story, the approach rewards the consumer for investigating on their own to understand the fuller picture.
Adopting a transmedia approach would certainly be a major departure for marketers. We'd need to stop thinking of consumers as entities that we "target" and begin to think of them as fans who we entice.
We need to have faith that if we seed compelling and complementary messages, then consumers will choose to spend time with them. We need to stop throwing the kitchen sink at every single communication, and we need to think in terms of one overarching communication distributed in smaller pieces.
Most of all, we'd need to think about what it means to tell great stories, as opposed to communicating messages. Stories aren't repetitive. Stories elicit emotion and start conversations. Stories are worth spending time with. Stories are engaging.
Transmedia brand-building presents us with lots of tricky issues to sort out. But to steal the sentiment of Geico's advertising, if a Caveman can figure it out, I'm sure the rest of us can, too.
Inflate your metrics
1. Chase irrelevant trends
Thanks to BuzzFeed's success, you know timely topics are more likely to be read and shared, driving visits, page views, and social sharing. Who cares if you have nothing to do with the latest iPhone or you don't offer social media services? Jumping on the hot topic bandwagon will drive a quick increase in results.
For an even bigger increase, be one of the first to write about an emerging hot topic. How about the newest LinkedIn feature, the latest iPhone rumor (even just your speculation), or breaking news in your industry (if you want to maintain a modicum of relevance)?
2. Don't let email recipients go
Create different lists for every type of email you send, and when you get a new subscriber, you add them to multiple lists. Even if they unsubscribe from one or two lists, they are still subscribers. Hey, if they don't unsubscribe, it means they want it!
3. Inflate social sharing metrics
Social shares are validation of your content. When we see your content only has a handful of shares (or none at all), we assume it isn't very good.
Fortunately, social shares are easy to manipulate to feign a degree of credibility, although it won't make you a Mashable rival. With tools like GaggleAMP or Triberr, even small businesses can easily add 30 to 50 shares to every single post.
On Twitter, don't forget to double the number of tweets of your content by saying "Thanks!" and retweeting every time someone else shares your content. Here is an example from the Economic Policy Institute.
4. Turn to idle banter
Yes. You need a high "People Talking About This" (PTAT) on your Facebook. It is the road to social media marketing success and, subsequently, world domination.
There is no better way to increase your PTAT than asking people to "like" or share your inane image or quote. For great examples nearly every day, check out the Condescending Corporate Brand Page on Facebook.
Just buy your results
When inflating your metrics isn't enough, buy the results you need. Back in the internet bubble days, if you had simply purchased your own products, you would have created a huge stock valuation (until someone figured it out).
Today it isn't quite as easy, but don't be discouraged. You can still buy your way to marketing success.
5. Buy social media love
For an above-board (and more expensive) option, you can turn to Facebook, Twitter, or influencer advertising programs -- or roll the dice and buy followers like Mitt Romney (maybe) did.
6. Offer an incentive
People don't want your newsletter, whitepaper, or webcast. Give them a real reason to fill your form: a chance at a big prize, and increase your conversions by 200 percent to 700 percent.
7. Buy a list
Looking to quickly grow your email database? Buy a list of new contacts! For measly pennies per name, you can almost certainly afford to reach your goal.
Alternatively, add a social twist. Using a service like Social123, you can buy the email addresses of your Twitter followers or even your competitor's followers!
Spin failure into success
Is buying results beyond your budget, but you still need to show something positive? Turn to your data and refine your story.
8. Focus on the subtrend
Every program, even the apparent utter failure, has a hidden story. Find the best segments or activities and tell that story.
For example: "Although revenue is down year-over-year, revenue from visitors using iOS and Android devices is up significantly, showing we are well positioned for the critical mobile commerce market."
9. Celebrate failure (it's the modern success)
Every time you fail, you learn. Every time you succeed, you learn. But I digress again -- that won't help you.
So celebrate your failure as a success. Don't worry; even Harvard Business Review is on your side. Just send your boss a link to "Fail Bigger Cheaper: A Three Word Manifesto."
Shift to an easier metric. For online advertisers, the easiest solution is to report on view-through results.
When you switch to view-through results, you just need to reach the right audience to show great results on paper. And with high volume retargeting or audience buys, that is the easy part.
Warning: Look at the big picture. If you claim 40 percent of all website sales or conversions were driven by your new program but overall results were nearly flat, you may find yourself out on the street holding a cardboard sign.
Lie about it
Out of time to find a positive story? Just lie. Little white lies are common in business ("Sorry, my calendar is completely full"). One more won't hurt, right?
11. It's just an Excel formula
You do use Excel for reporting, right? Your reports can say whatever you want.
If you are going to falsify your data, step carefully. Whatever you do, don't touch the numbers that live in other systems (like marketing expenditures). However, click rates, pages per visit, or even revenue can be fair game, particularly if you include view-through results (see No. 10), which are almost never available in broader enterprise systems.
Rest assured: Corporate deception isn't limited to marketing. For inspiration, consider some of the tidbits that have come out around Autonomy, the software company purchased by HP.
Quoted from an article on Going Concern: "When Autonomy Corp. was starting up in this historic university town, founder Mike Lynch stuck a sign on an office door that read 'Authorized Personnel Only.' Behind the door, he told visitors, were 500 engineers working on 'hush-hush' projects. The door, in fact, led to a broom closet, Mr. Lynch recounted in a 2010 speech."
12. What measurement?
Measurement can be expensive and complicated. This comes in handy when you need a reason to not talk about your results.
"We delivered more than a gazillion impressions and estimate we reached more than 80 percent of our core target market. Although we were not able to measure the revenue, we are very pleased with the results, including the sharp increase in our Facebook 'likes' during the campaign."
Seem far-fetched? If Doritos can turn a blind eye to the sales impact of its Super Bowl campaign (at least publicly), you can too.
Just take their money (the publisher tricks)
As a marketer, you win awards, increase your influence, and accelerate your career by manipulating metrics, but none of that can change your business results. But publishers? They turn manipulation directly into revenue.
13. Buy low, sell high
Like marketers buying social media love, why would publishers want to earn an audience when they can just buy one and resell it for a profit?
From StumbleUpon promotions, like the example below driving traffic to a large scale IBM sponsorship, to publishers buying bot traffic for fractions of pennies per visit, publishers can purchase low-cost traffic and resell it to advertisers for a significant premium.
14. Use navigation to increase impressions and engagement
To read this far, you've probably viewed six pages already. Not only did this increase page views by 500 percent, it also increased page views per visit, making the audience appear more engaged on paper.
How big of a difference can it really make? Check out this recent quote from Sam Slaughter: "We had a slideshow called 'Child Stars Then and Now,' which we would run at the end of every month when we needed to make up ground toward our page view goal." He continues writing, "But as an editor, I knew users were ignoring those banners as they clicked frantically past Leif Garrett's mugshot, and I always wondered: what if advertisers knew how the sausage was getting made?"
15. Reload, reload, reload
Need more impressions? Just refresh the ads on the page! If you pay attention (just this once) to the sidebar ads as you scroll down your Facebook news feed, you will see them reload.
Traditional web publishers still use this old trick too. Watch the Signal Magazine homepage for 40 seconds, and you will see many of the ads reload. Leave the page open in a tab for an hour, and your visit will be like 90 additional page views!
16. Chase hot topics
Marketers do it (see No. 1). Hot topics are even more valuable for publishers that directly monetize page views. For publishers with an in-demand audience, the hot topic is a modern day money tree.
What is MarketWatch, well known as a way to reach investors, doing covering the recent Asiana Airlines crash video? What is CIO, known for a business-focused enterprise IT audience, doing with a review of free Google Reader alternatives, as a 17 screen slideshow no less? That's right; it is taking your money.
Reach for the stars, and with these tricks, the results will back you up every time. Just don't come crying to us if someone figures it out.
What is your favorite from this list, or what other tricks should your fellow marketers know about? Share in the comments below!
"Image of young businessman puppeteer" image via Shutterstock.