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Is It App Time?

In a move that further signals the remarkable growth and increasing importance of mobile devices,
Google has announced changes
to its search algorithms to prioritize apps.

Starting April 21, for all searches on mobile devices, Google will present search results that identify and prioritize mobile-friendly sites. That means those with mobile-friendly sites should rank higher in search results conducted from mobile devices. Further, if you wish, Google will also begin to index content on mobile apps that may not appear on your website. And to close the loop, Google will allow app developers to use mobile search results to guide users to either the website or the app (provided the app is installed on the mobile device, something Google will check), wherever you the content owner think they’ll have the best experience.

These are cool if not world-changing new features from Google, but they indicate clearly the rapid evolution of the mobile ecosystem, one where the quality of the displayed information is becoming nearly as important as the information itself. This means that mobile-friendly websites are important, but the future lies with apps that will become an increasingly seamless part of the search experience. Think about it. Google will now check (on Android devices) what apps you have installed, index the content of those apps, present this content in regular Google search results, and allow you to seamlessly view that content in the installed app.

If your website isn’t already mobile-friendly (and it should be just as a best practice), Google’s giving you a big incentive to do so by pushing you up in mobile search results.

And if you’re wondering about the value of apps for your products, consider how quickly they are moving from handy appendages to the mobile experience to becoming central to that experience. If your data makes sense on a mobile device (and it doesn’t always), it’s probably time to stop thinking and start coding!


Google: An Unstable Platform

Google appears to be near a settlement with European Union regulatorsgoogle-logo over alleged anti-competitive practices there. A broad outline of the proposed remedy for this activity is beginning to emerge, and it’s fairly remarkable. The remedy has two parts. First, all Google services that appear in search results would appear in a separate box and be labeled as sponsored content. Even more remarkably, Google would be required to show search results for up to three of its competitors whenever it displays a result containing one of its own services.

Now before you get too excited, remember this settlement only applies to Europe. Don’t expect to see it in the United States anytime soon, if ever.

The core issues underlying this settlement are intriguing. Can a search engine be accused of anti-competitive behavior for favoring its own services in search results? The publisher in me says “yes,” because Google is rolling out more and more content, and it has a massive, unfair advantage over any publisher it competes with.

Google would probably respond to this by saying its dominance in search comes from providing really good search results, and that’s what will ultimately constrain its behavior. If Google gets too cute with users by pushing its own products too aggressively, users will desert it for another search engine. I buy this argument to some extent, but it also downplays the power of user habituation, and Google’s unique ability to promote its own products inside seemingly organic search results.

I know more than a few publishers who have woken up in the morning to find their traffic - and by extension their businesses - had dried up because Google had tweaked its search algorithms. I know why Google did this, and agree they should have the right to do this. But it leaves a trail of wreckage in its wake. And Google’s seemingly accelerating push into the content business seems likely to have the same effect.

The bottom line is that Google has evolved over the years, and consequently publishers need to evolve in their thinking towards Google. The term “frenemy” was coined to summarize our confusion about how we should best interact with Google. The emerging reality seems to be that while Google can still bring benefit to all of us, it’s a mistake for any of us to depend on Google for our business. That’s a big statement to make, but from both a strategic and operational perspective, Google is an unstable platform.



Perfectly Measurable

An interesting new study produced in cooperation with eBay and sporting the weighty title “Consumer Heterogeneity and Paid Search Effectiveness: A Large Scale Field Experiment,” raises some interesting new questions about search engine marketing (SEM) effectiveness. The study involved eBay actually suspending various types of SEM on specific search engines, and then closely monitoring the results. The first big finding was that, at least for large companies, brand advertising via SEM (e.g. eBay buying the keyword “eBay”) was a waste of money. While it’s always good to see hard proof, at the same time, this finding strikes me as intuitively obvious. I see it all the time with big companies with strong brands: their paid ads appears directly above their organic listings. Drawn to the bold type and high positioning, consumers will often click on the paid click, enriching the search engines and yielding the advertiser a click they would have gotten anyway for free.

The second (and more controversial) finding is that SEM for non-branded keywords (i.e., products or services as opposed to company names) is also largely ineffective, because it tends to draw in far more existing customers than new customers, making SEM more of an alternate form of navigation than a true discovery mechanism. Indeed, the authors of the study go so far as to say, “Bluntly, search advertising only works if the consumer has no idea that the firm has the desired product.” In short, SEM only really works when you bring a user new information, such as the fact you sell a specific product, and the user didn’t know that information in advance.

The study is careful to limit its conclusions to large companies with big brands. And this notion of having to provide new information for SEM to prove effective would seem to be a perfect opportunity for smaller and less-known companies. Or would it?

While far less scientific, I have spoken with dozens of small B2B data publishers who have tried SEM and pronounced it a waste of money. While SEM reliably yields traffic (great if you are advertising-based), it doesn’t seem to dependably yield purchases (not so great if you are subscription-based). Yes, I know B2B is different, and site visitors often don’t purchase on their first visit. But my informal survey was of small publishers, who though they often lack sophisticated analytics, generally have a very good seat-of-the-pants sense of where their business is coming from. And for these publishers, they believe their business isn’t coming from paid search.

There’s no definitive answer here, but it does suggest we all take a much harder look at paid search efficacy, and consider the possibility we may be paying handsomely for clicks we would have gotten for free anyway.



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