If Forest Gump were alive today, he might be saying “Google is as Google does, Ma'am.” What else can you say about a now publicly-owned (sort of) search site and brand that has impacted our Internet lives in so many ways? How about, it’s not just a search engine anymore.
Would be hopefuls of search traffic seek top listings by dumping buckets of cash into optimization strategies. Google AdWords advertisers pay equal or greater amounts of cash into trying to figure out how to maintain top pay-for-placement listings; publishers reap plenty of dough from content clicking AdSense listings placed (sometimes) strategically on their sites. But that wasn’t enough for Google.
Google has a shopping engine, news search, images, blogging, discussion groups, and even that didn’t satisfy the Googlers.
The past few weeks have seen a flurry of post Instigated Public Optimization activity from the all-things-search giant that indicate there is enough cash around for them to try new things. In addition to mail, a user can now browse books, find local businesses, instant message with Google flair, and there are a dozen other things currently in the Google lab. Some of these initiatives represent advertising opportunities. Others don’t. But they’re all worth a look because, often, after a few rounds in the lab the next thing you know there’s an ad coming your way.
Mail me what now?
Lots of people are terrified that Google might actually be reading their email because Google looks for relevant keywords and places advertiser links on to the right of email content. Personally, I live by the “Don’t write anything in email that you wouldn’t write to your mother” guideline for email, but this doesn’t work for everyone.
There was so much inaccurate and negative buzz about Gmail that Google launched a full disclosure page about their practices. Among the most notable revelations are facts that advertisers never see email content and, more importantly, human beings don’t see the content at all. Ads are dynamically generated using automated systems. Also content is screened to make ad serving “Family-Safe.” That’s all well and good, but how does it stand up to live scrutiny?
I sent a bunch of emails to a friend using Gmail. I wrote about vacations, advice on search marketing careers, and in one, I quoted a blog about a certain hotel-chain heiress’ recent exploits in home video along with some vacation planning information. The travel email included keywords such as “Flights,” “Hotels,” and the job searching email included such keywords as “resume,” and “job hunting.” The combination travel-and-adult-video email contained the same vacation words along with, well, use your imagination.
My friend and I opened the “jobs in search” email first. Ads from human resources consultants appeared along with executive search firms. The vacation email carrying MPAA “G” rated content showed ads for travel sites. The “NC-17” or better rated content got no ads at all.
Conspiracy theorists are all over Gmail, but privacy issues aside the mail component of content-targeted ads represent the same non-directive search restricted ad opportunities as contextual search.
Ladies and gentlemen of the email scanning jury, I would like to point out two things. One; almost every email service scans email for one reason or another, such as spam filtering. Two, access to more performance-based contextual inventory is not a bad thing.
Books and Google Print
As Amazon digs deeper into search with A9, another beta release called book browsing or Google Print helps searchers find books. The interface serves as an additional option in search results for Google providing users with the ability to look inside books, just like Amazon does, although with a few exceptions.
Since it was only recently launched, Google does not offer the sheer number of books one finds at Amazon, but plans to expand are already underway. Google offers multiple retailer options to buy while Amazon only offers the “Buy New or Used.”
Unlike Amazon, Google doesn’t directly profit from the sale of books that you browse. They have chosen instead only reap click revenue from contextually placed listings on book publisher pages.
Again, more contextual inventory for advertisers is not a bad thing.
Search your own content
Certainly not new and definitely not new in the advertiser opportunity category, the Google Search Appliance is an out of the box tool for site owners to help index content on their own Web sites and intranets. Google uses its ranking and relevancy factors (over 100) to help make content readily available on public and private web sites.
Among the top features are automatic spell checking and conversion of Microsoft office documents into HTML, a unique hypertext analysis ranking methodology, and a very large (by industry standards) group of engineers who do nothing but try to sort out search problems… all in a neat little stand alone appliance.
They’ve got news for you
Visitors to news.google.com can search around 4,500 global news services using Google's traditional algorithmic ranking format. Most popular stories are ranked according to keywords searches.
Similar to other types of push news services, Google Alerts provides Web users with the ability to receive keyword-driven news in their inboxes at random intervals. I am not currently getting ads in my news alerts, but since the service is highly relevant and contextually keyword driven, this seems like an obvious place for future ad listings.
Local and mobile messaging
For as long as I can remember, Yellow pages publishers have worried that the online versions of their directories signified the death of big yellow books made of wood fiber. Every day we move closer and closer to that point. Paid search sites are launching local components of primary directive search areas, but the biggest threats to phone books are always on broad connections combined with new wireless applications.
For Google Local, the “natural” or “organic” local listings cannot be influenced by advertising dollars. Instead, massive site crawls along with, you guessed it, yellow pages data serve as local content guidelines to provide a truly unbiased local experience. Local targeting with AdWords, however, creates something of a dichotomy in that advertisers designate local areas thereby offering the chance of a less relevant local search result.
Most recently, Google’s local component has reached into the wireless world. While I haven’t really been able to try the Short Message Service (SMS) service (my Sprint Treo 600 has decided to go on permanent “Network Search” disability), the new service purports to offer a local interaction via a multitude of wireless providers, without ads.
Top on my list of useful applications for this service is finding a place to eat while on the road. The problem with text messaging for anything but pizza parlors and the like is that text messages don’t show ambience, pricing, dress codes, or reputation. For now, a simple phone number will have to do.
Google Groups and brand history
Want to chat with people who are into the ancient art of torture stretching in blistering heat (a.k.a. Bikram Yoga) just like you? The Google Groups area -- which bears a striking resemblance to the Yahoo! groups area (among others) -- is the place to find archives of discussion groups dating back to 1981.
With 20 years of discussion in the archive, it represents a neat way to see how discussions about brands have evolved in that time. AdWords listings are served into the Groups area, so one task I enjoy involves doing a brand specific search, admiring the top placement of the listing, and then reviewing discussions about said brand. Try it, I promise you will not be disappointed.
The learning search and toolbar
“Learning,” as it were, often means dropping cookies on your machine, but in Google’s personalized search [link; http://labs.google.com/personalized] a user generated profile helps to reduce the amount of ambiguity in search results. Meanwhile, Google's browser-embedded toolbar -- which looks a lot like the AOL toolbar that helped itself to my browser when I installed AOL -- is more opt-in and requires a download.
Both the browser toolbar and personalized search are strong and useful in their own right but they might suffer from the growing anti-cookie movement. Like pop-ups, cookies are getting a bad rap, largely due to a select few who care little about ethics or moral considerations in online marketing. If the anti-spyware tools prohibiting cookies don’t get these tools, the inevitable legislation against cookies will sabotage efforts to enhance search activity.
Identity crisis vs. usability
History has taught us that search engines trying to reinvent themselves (with new and different uses that stray from their core mission) can have disastrous results. One possible exception is Yahoo!, which began as a search utility, diversified, later returned its focus to search, and has now once again diversified, somehow surviving in the process.
Google's reinforces its mission (”to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful”) in almost every new project it launches -- a task in which it continues to outdo itself.
In Moxee, Washington recently, a Google image search was used to identify a hit and run victim who died nearly eleven years ago. The lesson here is that users will define how they want to use tools (or search engines) beyond the scope of each creator's intentions.
Despite all the bells and whistles, one difficult truth faces search engines as we know them today. Let’s face it folks, finding what you want on a search engine is still a pain the backside.
This is why users are starting to lean away from search sites in favor of specific vertical destinations. According to recent Hitwise data for the travel and auto verticals, users increasingly tend to favor vertical sites over a search sites, and stick with that preference.
If there were credible, valuable destination sites for verticals beyond travel and automotive category killers, search sites would be in serious trouble. The trick for Google will be in weathering its identity crisis storm by maintaining its valuable identity, all while trying to determine which, if any, destination features it wants to bring along for the ride.
iMedia columnist and 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.
Yahoo generates revenue from advertising while attempting to provide a rich content experience for users. In turn, television networks seek to provide incredible content while generating absurd amounts of revenue from advertiser placements alongside the shining content.
The problem is network ad revenues are declining. Advertisers are looking for new ways to reach consumers, and television is heading for a big change in ad formats. TNS Media Intelligence reports that ad spending across all categories will increase 2.6 percent. Targeted areas like cable are growing at 4.7 percent.
While television searches for its new identity, advertisers are shifting dollars online. TNS predicts that online ad spending will increase 13.4 percent over last year (not including search).
Lesson learned: targeted vehicles attract advertisers.
Why is cable growing? Because the Discovery Channel has now become Discovery Networks, and while audiences are smaller and segmented, advertisers can simultaneously target unique audiences with positioning on the network's niche properties like Discovery Kids and the Military Channel.
Lesson learned: smaller audiences don't equal smaller dollars.
The definition of targeted media vehicle has begun to change. Capturing the consumer mind offers equal opportunity for catastrophe and wealth. The biggest opportunity for portals like Yahoo is to capitalize on specialized interest offerings to targeted groups of people (a.k.a. the social generation). Catastrophe, however, can be found in something else entirely.
Conversion: Time lag and frequency
Less exotic than attribution modeling, these types of reports are in use more frequently at agencies. They are used to help fine-tune the length of a flight and the frequency of ad exposures.
First ad display > No. of imps > uniques > clicks > unique clicks > post-click event
Second ad display > No. of imps > uniques > clicks > unique clicks > post-click event
Third ad display > No. of imps > uniques > clicks > unique clicks > post-click event
... and so on
This report would track the frequency of up to 10 ad displays and the resulting impressions, clicks, and conversions (or any post-click event) by frequency level.
This type of data forces the agency to look at the correlation between ad frequency and conversions, and avoid the "conventional wisdom" that a frequency cap of three is the most efficient path to conversion.
In terms of time lag to conversion, the advertiser is measuring the chronological point in the timeline of a campaign at which a consumer converted. Was it during the first half hour, day 1, or day 30? The report structure looks like this:
Placement A > No. of imps > No. of conversions @ first hour = 5 > Day 1 = 10 > Day 2 = 6... Day 30 = 1
Again, the quantitative data here might be counterintuitive. The best duration for a flight might be 10, 20, or 30 days -- it depends on what the data show. Conducting an ROI analysis would show the agency the optimum duration for a campaign.
Among the more-conventional metrics expressed as important by agencies interviewed include:
Re-targeting. This involves the retargeting of people that did not perform an action or conversion, and sending them an ad with a specific message designed to prompt them to take action.
Testing (AB/multivariate). Some agencies rely heavily on simple A/B testing, which creates two separate landing pages, splits the traffic between the two, and tracks conversions to see which versions gets the best results. Multivariate goes beyond A/B testing and enables several variables on a single web page, analyzing the results to arrive more quickly at the optimal design. The implication for publishers is that it may place them on the receiving end of revisions designed to leverage the results from the multivariate testing.
Publisher overlap. When running campaigns across several publishers, the agency may look at how many unique users overlap from one site to another.
Who's supplying this type of functionality to ad agencies? The same providers that power many publishers: Atlas, Bluestreak, DoubleClick's DFA, Eyeblaster, and Mediaplex.
As use of this type of data becomes more widespread, I believe the rate of campaign revisions will increase, and as mentioned previously, this will require ad operations on the publisher side and all the links in their workflow (including processing of insertion order revisions from sales all the way through finance) to be more efficient and more accurate.
Publishers could take the same metrics and do a self analysis of their audiences to model and understand the patterns of usage and response. This could in turn be used as a selling tool to agencies that are perhaps more direct response-oriented than we would like, or to suggest duration and frequency of campaigns to advertisers that need that guidance.
Long, long term, on the agency side, it's likely that the analysis of data, like attribution modeling, will be run automatically, resulting in automated decision making on the mix and placement of ad units to achieve the best ROI. This could then be programmed into the agency ad server, which would subject the publisher to more rapid campaign changes.
Is there a danger that more automated crunching of data on the agency side will start to turn digital media into more of a self-service model? Although we can't deny that Google has proved this out to some extent, traditional publishers and their digital media properties will have a long time to figure this out. Just remember, we've been talking about the "convergence' of media for (believe it or not) 20 years now. So even in our digital world, significant change takes time. Combine that with the fact that there is a tremendous legacy and infrastructure inherent in the ad agency/publisher model, and I don't think we're anywhere close to "the end is near." That's good news for all of us who still believe that advertising at its best is a creative collaboration between the buyer and seller.
On the other hand, if we were to imagine a future, decades from now, where automation of media performance data is so current, and processed so quickly, that only machines can manage decisions on media, it might read something like this: "Here's Looking at your Future, Kid."
On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.
The lesson: 3D-visual effects increase user engagement for image-intensive sites.
Parallax scrolling isn't new technology, but it's a relatively new trend. The effect produces the illusion of three dimensions within the screen, with content seemingly scrolling behind other features on the site such as the main navigation bar. It's a great effect to use for visually intensive sites, particularly all-important product pages.
eBay uses a tasteful dash of parallax scrolling, and the effect is that the products on the page are the focus. They seem to slide behind the smll navigation bar, which remains ever present at the top of the page. It's an effect that aids the shopping process by allowing users to focus on the products, but still easily navigate should they need to do so.
The lesson: When there is no end in sight, users remain on the page, increasing engagement time.
Traditionally, infinite scrolling was used on social media pages such as Facebook and Twitter. As the user scrolls down the page, the site continues to load content, seemingly endlessly. Other sites have applied this functionality to their benefit; the overall effect is an improvement in engagement time.
eBay uses infinite scrolling, but Mashable's website really takes advantage of this. When users click through to an article on Mashable, they can read the article in its entirety by scrolling down the page. When the user reaches the end of the article, the website appears to loop itself, and the visitor finds himself or herself right back at the beginning. This not only saves the user the need for the "back" button, but it also prompts the user to select another article rather than jumping off the Mashable site once the original article that piqued the reader's interest has been read.
The lesson: A website doesn't always have to scroll up or down.
Example: Jacqui Co.
Users are conditioned to a top-down approach. They land on a website and instinctively begin scrolling down, searching for content.
This doesn't have to be the case. By incorporating a number of techniques (including infinite scrolling and the parallax effect) and by designing and laying out the content in an alternative fashion, a website is no longer confined to a y-axis.
Jacqui Co.'s "Journal to the Perfect Cake" is a great example. Users can navigate the page by scrolling left or right, up or down, and zooming in and out as they explore the baking site. It's not only visually appealing, but the alternative navigation also makes it more interesting.
Creating cinematic experiences
The lesson: Marketers are storytellers. The website is a screen. Why not marry the two?
Example: Peugeot graphic novel microsite
If the goal of a website is to hold the visitor's attention, then what better way to accomplish that than by producing a cinematic experience?
Peugeot's graphic-novel-style microsite (advertising the HYbrid4) is a perfect example. The visitor scrolls through what is essentially an action-adventure web comic. Interspersed are tidbits about the HYbrid4's four different driving modes, but it doesn't really detract from the story. The site also uses parallax scrolling and sound effects to truly immerse visitors in the experience.
The lesson: Users appreciate a personal touch. Allowing interaction and personalization creates a bond between the experience and the user.
Example: The Wilderness Downtown
Interactivity improves any cinematic experience by actually letting the user control or personalize some of the functions on the site. TheWildernessDowntown.com is an example. The site is a promotion for the new single by Canadian indie band Arcade Fire. It allows users to enter the street address of the home they grew up in to create a personalized music video of the song "We Used to Wait," with images from Google Maps scrolling and popping up, thus creating a memorable, personal experience. It's no doubt a unique way to advertise the band and the song.
The lesson: Fresh, custom design elements help humanize the content and the brand.
Staying fresh and relevant has always been a component of effective web design. Lately, we've been seeing a trend toward original design work, particularly in typography. Hand-lettering is catching on, and sites are using less-traditional fonts in favor of custom work. The photography we're seeing is crisp, and colors are more often vibrant and bright.
G'Nosh capitalizes on fresh design elements on its site. The pictures of the food are vibrant and clear, set against a light plum background to help make them pop off the page. And the typography is fresh and modern, appearing to be hand-drawn in white paint. The overall effect enhances the web experience and highlights the product.
The lesson: Your audience is mobile. Build your site to scale.
Examples: United Pixelworkers, Oneupweb.com
Perhaps the most important lesson is making sure your website is responsive to your mobile users. Your website needs to scale and remain user-friendly no matter what device it's being viewed on.
United Pixelworkers has a great responsive site that scales down as the screen size reduces with smaller devices. And, of course, we're partial to our own site -- Oneupweb.com. We recently underwent a full redesign and one of the key elements was making sure the site was responsive. As the screen size shrinks, certain elements disappear, leaving only the most relevant and useful information. That information is presented to the viewer in a readable way, no matter what device it's being viewed on.
There are many more lessons from web design, and it's true that not every lesson will apply to every project. But if you're not paying attention to the recent trends and if you're not learning about the newest and upcoming concepts, then you're going to get left behind.
The final lesson is simple: The only constant is change. Embrace it with an eye toward strategy, and you can keep your web properties fresh, relevant, and engaging.