About

I'm a partner in the advanced analytics group at Bain & Company, the global management consulting firm. My primary focus is on marketing analytics (bio). I've been writing here (views my own) about marketing, technology, e-business, and analytics since 2003 (blog name explained).

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71 posts categorized "Online Marketing"

August 18, 2012

Gaming Facebook Sponsored Stories #fb #sponsoredstories

Facebook's Sponsored Stories feature is one of the ad targeting horses the firm's counting on to pull it out of its current valuation morass (read this, via @bussgang).  

Sponsored Stories is a virality-enhancing mechanism (no jokes please, that was an "a" not an "i") that allows Facebook advertisers to increase the reach of Facebook users' interactions with the advertisers' brands on Facebook (Likes, Check-ins, etc.). It does this by increasing the number of a user's Facebook friends who see such engagements with the advertisers' brands beyond the limited number who would, under normal application of the Facebook news feed algorithm, see those endorsements.

Many users are outraged that this unholy Son-Of-Beacon feature violates their privacy, to the point that they sue-and-settle (or try to, oops).

What they are missing perhaps is the opportunity to "surf" an advertiser's Sponsored Stories investment to amplify their own self-promotion or mere narcissism.

Consider the following simple example.  Starbucks is / has been using this ad program.  Let's say I go to Starbucks and "check in" on Facebook.  Juiced by Sponsored Stories (within the additional impressions Starbucks has paid for), all of my Facebook friends browsing their news feeds will see I've checked in at Starbucks (and presumably feel all verklempt about a brand that could attract such a valued friend). 

Now, what if I, savvy small business person, comment in my check in that I'm "at Starbucks, discussing my <link>NEW BOOK</link> with friends!"  I've pulled off the social media equivalent of pasting my bumper sticker on Starbucks' billboard.

I need to look more closely into this, but as I understand it, the Sponsored Stories feature can't today prevent users from including negative feedback in their brand engagements, where such flexibility is provided for.  So if they can't handle the negative yet, it may still be that they can't prevent more general forms of off-brand messaging.

I'm sure others have considered this and other possibilities. Comments very welcome!  Meanwhile, I'm off to Starbucks to discuss my upcoming NEW BOOK.

 

 

August 08, 2012

A "Common Requirements Framework" for Campaign Management Systems and Marketing Automation

In our "marketing analytics agency" model, as distinguished from a more traditional consulting one, we measure success not just by the quality of the insights and opportunities we can help clients to find, but on their ability to act on the ideas and get value for their investments.  Sometimes this means we simultaneously work both ends to an acceptable middle: even as we torture data and research for bright ideas, we help to define and influence the evolution of a marketing platform to be more capable. 

This raises the question, "What's a marketing platform, and a good roadmap for making it more capable?"  Lots of vendors, including big ones like IBM, are now investing in answering these questions, especially as they try to reach beyond IT to sell directly to the CMO. These vendors provide myriad marketing materials to describe both the landscape and their products, which variously are described as "campaign management systems" or even more gloriously as "marketing automation solutions".  The proliferation of solutions is so mind-blowing that analyst firms build whole practices making sense of the category.  Here's a recent chart from Terence Kawaja at LUMA Partners (via Scott Brinker's blog) that illustrates the point beautifully:

 

 

Yet even with this guidance, organizations struggle to get relevant stakeholders on the same page about what's needed and how to proceed. My own experience has been that this is because they're missing a simple "Common Requirements Framework" that everyone can share as a point of departure for the conversation.  Here's one I've found useful.

Basically marketing is about targeting the right customers and getting them the right content (product information, pricing, and all the before-during-and-after trimmings) through the right channels at the right time.  So, a marketing automation solution, well, automates this.  More specifically, since there are lots of homegrown hacks and point solutions for different pieces of this, what's really getting automated is the manual conversion and shuffling of files from one system to the next, aka the integration of it all.  Some of these solutions also let you run analysis and tests out of the same platform (or partnered components).

Each of these functions has increasing levels of sophistication I've characterized, as of this writing, into "basic", "threshold", and "advanced".  For simple roadmapping / prioritization purposes, you might also call these "now", "next", and "later".

Targeting

The simplest form of targeting uses a single data source, past experience at the cash register, to decide whom to go back to, on the idea that you build a business inside out from your best, most loyal customers.  Cataloguers have a fancy term for this, "RFM", which stands for "Recency, Frequency, and Monetary Value", which grades customers, typically into deciles, according to... how recently, how frequenty, and how much they've bought from you.  Folks who score high get solicited more intensively (for example, more catalog drops).  By looking back at a customer's past RFM-defined marginal value to you (e.g., gross margin you earned from stuff you sold her), you can make a decision about how much to spend marketing to her.  

One step up, you add demographic and behavioral information about customers and prospects to refine and expand your lists of folks to target.  Demographically, for example, you might say, "Hey, my best customers all seem to come from Greenwich, CT.  Maybe I should target other folks who live there."  You might add a few other dimensions to that, like age and gender. Or you might buy synthetic, "psychographic" definitions from data vendors who roll a variety of demographic markers into inferred attitudes.  Behaviorally, you might say "Let's retarget folks who walk into our store, or who put stuff into our online shopping cart but don't check out."  These are conceptually straightforward things to do, but are logistically harder, because now you have to integrate external and internal data sources, comply with privacy policies, etc.

In the third level, you begin to formalize the models implicit in these prior two steps, and build lists of folks to target based on their predicted propensity to buy (lots) from you.  So for example, you might say, "Folks who bought this much of this product this frequently, this recently who live in Greenwich and who visited our web site last week have this probability of buying this much from me, so therefore I can afford to target them with a marketing program that costs $x per person."  That's "predictive modelling".

Some folks evaluate the sophistication of a targeting capability by how fine-grained the target segments get, or by how close to 1-1 personalization you can get.  In my experience, there's often diminishing returns to this, often because the firm can't always practically execute differentiated experiences even if the marginal value of a personalized experience warrants it.  This isn't universally the case of course: promotional offers and similar experience variables (e.g., credit limits) are easier to vary than, say, a hotel lobby.  

Content

Again, a simple progression here, for me defined by the complexity of the content you can provide ("plain", "rich", "interactive") and by the flexibility and precision ("none", "pre-defined options", "custom options") with which you can target it through any given channel or combination of channels.

Another dimension to consider here is the complexity of the organizations and processes necessary to produce this content.  For example, in highly regulated environments like health care or financial services, you may need multiple approvals before you can publish something.  And the more folks involved, the more sophisticated and valuable the coordination tools, ranging from central repositories for templates, version control systems, alerts, and even joint editing.  Beware though simply paving cowpaths -- be sure you need all that content variety and process complexity before enabling it technologically, or it will simply expand to fit what the technology permits (the same way computer operating systems bloat as processors get more powerful).

Channels

The big dimension here is the number of channels you can string together for an integrated experience.  So for example, in a simple case you've got one channel, say email, to work with.  In a more sophisticated system, you can say, "When people who look like this come to our website, retarget them with ads in the display ad network we use." (Google just integrated Google Analytics with Google Display Network to do just this, for example, an ingenious move that further illustrates why they lead the pack in the display ad world.)  Pushing it even further, you could also say, "In addition to re-targeting web site visitors who do X, out in our display network, let's also send them an email / postcard combination, with connections to a landing page or phone center."

Analysis and Testing

In addition to execution of campaigns and programs, a marketing solution might also suport exploration  of what campaigns and programs, or components thereof, might work best.  This happens in a couple of ways.  You can examine past behavior of customers and prospects to look for trends and build models that explain how changes and saliencies along one or more dimensions might have been associated with buying.  Also, you can define and execute A/B and multi-variate tests (with control groups) for targeting, content, and channel choices.  

Again, the question here is not just about how much data flexibility and algorithmic power you have to work with within the system, but how many integration hoops you have to go through to move from exploration to execution.  Obviously you won't want to run exploration and execution off the same physical data store, or even the same logical model, but it shouldn't take a major IT initiative to flip the right operational switches when you have an insight you'd like to try, or scale.

Concretely, the requirement you're evaluating here is best summarized by a couple of questions.  First, "Show me how I can track and evaluate differential response in the marketing campaigns and programs I execute through your proposed solution," and then, "Show me how I can define and test targeting, content, and channel variants of the base campaigns or programs, and then work the winners into a dominant share of our mix."

A Summary Picture

Here's a simple table that tries to bundle all of this up.  Notice that it focuses more on function than features and capabilities instead of components.  

  Marketing Automation Commonn Requirements Framework

 

What's Right For You?

The important thing to remember is that these functions and capabilities are means, not ends.  To figure out what you need, you should reflect first on how any particular combination of capabilities would fit into your marketing organization's "vector and momentum".  How is your marketing performance trending?  How does it compare with competitors'?  In what parts -- targets, content, channels -- is it better or worse? What have you deployed recently and learned through its operation? What kind of track record have you established in terms of successful deployment and leverage from your efforts?  

If your answers are more like "I don't know" and "Um, not a great one" then you might be better off signing onto a mostly-integrated, cloud-based (so you don't compound business value uncertainty with IT risk), good-enough-across-most-things solution for a few years until you sort out -- affordably (read, rent, don't buy) -- what works for you, and what capability you need to go deep on. If, on the other hand, you're confident you have a good grip on where your opportunities are and you've got momentum with and confidence in your team, you might add best of breed capabilities at the margins of a more general "logical model" this proposed framework provides.  What's generally risky is to start with an under-performing operation built on spaghetti and plan for a smooth multi-year transition to a fully-integrated on-premise option.  That just puts too many moving parts into play, with too high an up-front, bet-on-the-come investment.

Again, remember that the point of a "Common Requirements Framework" isn't to serve as an exhaustive checklist for evaluating vendors.  It's best used as a simple model you can carry around in your head and share with others, so that when you do dive deep into requirements, you don't lose the forest for the trees, in a category that's become quite a jungle.  Got a better model, or suggestions for this one?  Let me know!

July 26, 2012

Wanted: Marketing Analytics Director, Global Financial Services Firm (Mid-Atlantic) # Analytics

I've been working with a global financial services firm to develop its marketing analytics / intelligence capability, and we're now building a highly capable team to further extend and sustain the results and lessons so far.  This includes a Marketing Analytics Director to lead a strong team doing advanced data mining and predictive modeling to support high-impact opportunities in various areas of the firm.  Here's the job description on LinkedIn.  If you are currently working at a large marketer, major analytics consulting firm, or advertising agency, and have significant experience analyzing, communicating, and implementing sophisticated multi-channel marketing programs, and are up for the challenge of leading a new team in this area for a world-class firm in a great city, please get in touch!

July 16, 2012

Congratulations @marissamayer on your new #Yahoo gig. Now what? Some ideas

Paul Simon wrote, "Every generation throws a hero at the pop charts."  Now it's Marissa Mayer's turn to try to make Yahoo!'s chart pop.  This will be hard because few tech companies are able to sustain value creation much past their IPOs.  

What strategic path for Yahoo! satisfies the following important requirements?

  • Solves a keenly felt customer / user / audience / human problem?
  • Fits within but doesn't totally overlap what other competitors provide?
  • Builds off things Yahoo! has / does well?
  • Fits Ms. Mayer's experiences, so she's playing from a position of strength and confidence?
  • As a consequence of all this, will bring advertisers back at premium prices?

Yahoo!'s company profile is a little buzzwordy but offers a potential point of departure.  What Yahoo! says:

"Our vision is to deliver your world, your way. We do that by using technology, insights, and intuition to create deeply personal digital experiences that keep more than half a billion people connected to what matters the most to them – across devices, on every continent, in more than 30 languages. And we connect advertisers to the consumers who matter to them most – the ones who will build their businesses – through our unique combination of Science + Art + Scale."

What Cesar infers:

Yahoo! is a filter.

Here are some big things the Internet helps us do:

  • Find
  • Connect
  • Share
  • Shop
  • Work
  • Learn
  • Argue
  • Relax
  • Filter

Every one of these functions has an 800 lb. gorilla, and a few aspirants, attached to it:

  • Find -- Google
  • Connect -- Facebook, LinkedIn
  • Share -- Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo!/Flickr (well, for the moment...)
  • Shop -- Amazon, eBay
  • Work -- Microsoft, Google, GitHub
  • Learn -- Wikipedia, Khan Academy
  • Argue -- Wordpress, Typepad, [insert major MSM digital presence here]
  • Relax -- Netflix, Hulu, Pandora, Spotify
  • Filter -- ...

Um, filter...  Filter.   There's a flood of information out there.  Who's doing a great job of filtering it for me?  Google alerts?  Useful but very crude.  Twitter?  I browse my followings for nuggets, but sometimes these are hard to parse from the droppings.  Facebook?  Sorry friends, but my inner sociopath complains it has to work too hard to sift the news I can use from the River of Life.

Filtering is still a tough, unsolved problem, arguably the problem of the age (or at least it was last year when I said so).  The best tool I've found for helping me build filters is Yahoo! Pipes.  (Example)

As far as I can tell, Pipes has remained this slightly wonky tool in Yahoo's bazaar suite of products.  Nerds like me get a lot of leverage from the service, but it's a bit hard to explain the concept, and the semi-programmatic interface is powerful but definitely not for the general public.

Now, what if Yahoo! were to embrace filtering as its core proposition, and build off the Pipes idea and experience under the guidance of Google's own UI guru -- the very same Ms. Mayer, hopefully applying the lessons of iGoogle's rise and fall -- to make it possible for its users to filter their worlds more effectively?  If you think about it, there are various services out there that tackle individual aspects of the filtering challenge: professional (e.g. NY Times, Vogue, Car and Driver), social (Facebook, subReddits), tribal (online communities extending from often offline affinities), algorithmic (Amazon-style collaborative filtering), sponsored (e.g., coupon sites).  No one is doing a good job of pulling these all together and allowing me to tailor their spews to my life.  Right now it's up to me to follow Gina Trapani's Lifehacker suggestion, which is to use Pipes.

OK so let's review:

  • Valuable unsolved problem for customers / users: check.
  • Fragmented, undominated competitive space: check.
  • Yahoo! has credibly assets / experience: check.
  • Marissa Mayer plays from position of strength and experience: check.
  • Advertisers willing to pay premium prices, in droves: ...

Well, let's look at this a bit.  I'd argue that a good filter is effectively a "passive search engine".  Basically through the filters people construct -- effectively "stored searches" -- they tell you what it is they are really interested in, and in what context and time they want it.  With cookie-based targeting under pressure on multiple fronts, advertisers will be looking for impression inventories that provide search-like value propositions without the tracking headaches.  Whoever can do this well could make major bank from advertisers looking for an alternative to the online ad biz Hydra (aka Google, Facebook, Apple, plus assorted minor others).

Savvy advertisers and publishers will pooh-pooh the idea that individual Pipemakers would be numerous enough or consistent enough on their own to provide the reach that is the reason Yahoo! is still in business.  But I think there's lots of ways around this.  For one, there's already plenty of precedent at other media companies for suggesting proto-Pipes -- usually called "channels", Yahoo! calls them "sites" (example), and they have RSS feeds.  Portals like Yahoo!, major media like the NYT, and universities like Harvard suggest categories, offer pre-packaged RSS feeds, and even give you the ability to roll your own feed out of their content.  The problem is that it's still marketed as RSS, which even in this day and age is still a bit beyond for most folks.  But if you find a more user-friendly way to "clone and extend" suggested Pipes, friends' Pipes, sponsored Pipes, etc., you've got a start.

Check?  Lots of hand-waving, I know.  But what's true is that Yahoo! has suffered from a loss of a clear identity.  And the path to re-growing its value starts with fixing that problem.

Good luck Marissa!

 

 

 

July 11, 2012

Wonderfully #Pragmalytic Multi-Channel Attribution Advice From @avinash via @visualiq

Via my friends at VisualIQ, this wonderful post from Avinash Kaushik on doing multi-channel attribution and mix optimization in the real world.  Plus a really rich set of conversations in the comments. My summary of his advice (reassuringly consistent with my own experiences with "pragmalytic" approaches):

  • Start by solving for specific attribution / optimization use cases you face in the real world, not the more general form of the challenge.  He names three dominant ones he sees: "O2S -- Online to Store", "AMS -- Across Multiple Screens", and "ADC -- Across Digital Channels"
  • Use multiple analytic techniques to compensate for imperfect data that any one technique might rely on.  For example, if there are holes or quality problems with your data, supplement it with controlled tests
  • Don't cop out, but accept that there are no perfect answers, just better ones, and that you should bias toward acting on acceptably imperfect information and learning and improving based on actual experience

Absolutely terrific stuff here, gets even better on the third and subsequent reads.

July 03, 2012

#Microsoft Writes Off #aQuantive. What Can We Learn?

In May 2007, Microsoft paid $6 billion to buy aQuantive.  Today, only five years later, they wrote off the whole investment.  Since I wrote about this a lot five years ago (herehere and here), it prompted me to think about what happened, and what I might learn.  Here are a few observations:

1. 2006 / 2007 was a frothy time in the ad network market, both for ads and for the firms themselves, reflecting the economy in general.

2. Microsoft came late to the party, chasing aQuantive (desperately) after Google had taken DoubleClick off the table.

3. So, Microsoft paid a 100% premium to aQuantive's market cap to get the firm.

4. Here's the way Microsoft might have been seeing things at the time:

a. "Thick client OS and productivity applications business in decline -- the future is in the cloud."

b. "Cloud business model uncertain, but certainly lower price point than our desktop franchise; must explore all options; maybe an ad-supported version of a cloud-based productivity suite?"

c. "We have MSN.  Why should someone else sit between us and our MSN advertisers and collect a toll on our non-premium, non-direct inventory?  In fact, if we had an ad network, we could sit between advertisers and other publishers and collect a toll!"

5. Here's the way things played out:

a. The economy crashed a year later.

b. When budgets came back, they went first to the most accountable digital ad spend: search.  

c. Microsoft had a new horse in that race: Bing (launched June 2009).  Discretionary investment naturally flowed there.

d. Meanwhile, "display" evolved:  video display, social display (aka Facebook), mobile display (Dadgurnit!  Google bought AdMob, Apple has iAd!  Scraps again for the rest of us...). (Good recent eMarketer presentation on trends here.)

e. Whatever's left of "traditional" display: Google / DoubleClick, as the category leader, eats first.

f. Specialized players do continue to grow in "traditional" display, through better targeting technologies (BT) and through facilitating more efficient buys (for example, DataXu, which I wrote about here).  But to grow you have to invest and innovate, and at Microsoft, by this point, as noted above, the money was going elsewhere.

g. So, if you're Microsoft, and you're getting left behind, what do you do?  Take 'em with you!  "Do not track by default" in IE 10 as of June 2012.  That's old school medieval, dressed up in hipster specs and a porkpie hat.  Steve Ballmer may be struggling strategically, but he's still as brutal as ever. 

6. Perspective

a. $6 Big Ones is only 2% of MSFT's market cap.  aQuantive may have come at  a 2x premium, but it was worth the hedge.  The rich are different from you and me.  

b. The bigger issue though is how does MSFT steal a march on Google, Apple, Facebook? Hmmm. video's hot.  Still bandwidth constrained, but that'll get better.  And there's interactive video. Folks will eventually spend lots of time there, and ads will follow them. Google's got Hangouts, Facebook's got Facetime, Apple's got iChat... and now MSFT has Skype, for $8B.   Hmm.

7. Postscripts:

a. Some of the smartest business guys I worked with at Bain in the late 90's (including Torrence Boone and Jason Trevisan) ended up at aQuantive and helped to build it into the success it was.  An interesting alumni diaspora to follow.

b. Some of the smartest folks I worked with at Razorfish in the early 2000's (including Bob Lord) ended up at aQuantive. The best part is that Microsoft may have gotten more value from buying and selling Razorfish (to Publicis) than from buying and writing off the rest of aQuantive.  Sweet, that.

c. Why not open-source Atlas?

March 15, 2012

Question for Search Marketing / Digital Content Experts #SEO #SEM #CPC @seomoz

As I understand Google SEM CPC pricing, Google considers not only how much the marketer is willing to pay, but also the quality of results, in determining what price puts you in what slot.

So, to a certain degree, your SEO efforts influence your SEM cost.

SEO these days is about:

  • relevant content
  • relevant links to that content from authoritative sites
  • social relevance of the content
  • content freshness
  • other stuff, like site speed

These things have readily measurable attributes:

  • organic search results position
  • PageRank
  • followers / likes / retweets etc.
  • feed update frequency
  • response time

So logically, one question you might as a search marketer ask yourself is whether you're globally optimized across your SEO and SEM investments.  Should your next dollar go to pay for a click, or to develop and promote and present content that will rise higher directly, and indirectly lower your SEM CPC?  This is not an academic question, as collectively SEM and SEO are today big, front-and-center elements of many firms' marketing efforts.

One way to answer this question is to build a model that, for a range of keywords, predicts CPC (as a dependent variable) from different values of the measurable attributes of SEO mentioned above, and perhaps others.

I'm curious about whether anyone's seen or done analysis like this?  My quick search on "Optimizing SEO vs. SEM" yielded this interesting SEOMoz result": http://www.seomoz.org/blog/the-disconnect-in-ppc-vs-seo-spending .  I think this great article misses however that most of the leverage in SEO comes not from the narrow definition of the term but from developing and promoting great content.

April 16, 2011

The Marketing Funnel is a Brita Water Filter #OMMAMetrics @judah @schmults

Something you hear a lot these days is, "The 'Marketing Funnel' concept's dead.  It's just not clear what's replaced it."  At the recent OMMA Metrics conference in NY, IBM/Unica's Yuchun Lee described its successor as some sort of "spaghetti".  Judah Phillips had an excellent article in yesterday's Online Metrics Insider (Thanks to Rob Schmults for pointing me to it!) in which he suggested a "tumbler" metaphor and "seeking-shopping-sharing" structure for what we now do.

Here's my entry into the rename-the-funnel sweepstakes: The Brita Water Filter.

Let's consider our requirements for a metaphor to succeed the "funnel":

1. We still have a "current" whose power combines the "push" of customer needs and desires with the "pull" of companies with products that could satisfy those. ("I have testosterone, Porsche makes 911s.")  To me, that still makes "linear" metaphors useful.

2. For me, "Attract", "Engage", and "Convert", plus sometimes "Retain" -- or variants thereof, like Judah's, still work for me as basic stage descriptors.  What's changed is that channels have exploded in number, and audiences have fragmented as they use different ones.  So a good metaphor will describe a journey that is less predictable in both flow path and rate. (It's probably also useful to use stage descriptors that reflect the customer's perspective, not the marketer's -- "Awareness", "Consideration", "Purchase", plus sometimes hopefully "Loyalty" and  "Advocacy" -- but they're not quite as punchy.  Nonetheless, you get the point.)

3. The channel system that lies between nascent demand and final purchase is, these days, much more replete with advice that educates folks as they flow through, qualifying and intensifying final demand.  The metaphor we use has to describe the "chemistry" that happens in these intermediate spaces and interactions.  And, the behaviors we observe in these stages should inform, as Judah suggests in his article, how we market afterward.

4. Over time, however, the system in between gets clogged with a lot of junky information, or becomes technologically obsolete, so you need to refresh or replace your presences in this system on a regular basis.  The metaphor has to anticipate this need as well.

5. The operational and analytic processes for marketing within this flow are higher-tech than a simple funnel.

OK, so let's look at the Brita filter:

1. Water still generally flows through in a linear fashion; and, not all of it flows through at once.

2. As water flows through the charcoal however, it breaks up into much smaller droplets, that flow through at different rates and and less predictable paths.

3. The interaction of the water with activated charcoal only got rid of some impurities; Brita's engineers learned to add an ionic coating to get some minerals out of the water too.

4. Ideally, you change it now and then to keep its performance up.

5. It's higher-tech than a funnel (and more expensive too, but the benefits are sometimes worth it).

So, you say, "Cute but esoteric -- how is this conceptualization useful?"

1. For me, it helps me to validate frameworks I'm familiar with, like the Channel Pathways (TM) framework we used years ago at Monitor / Marketspace, or the similar "Wiggly Line" chart Akin Arikan and Don Peppers describe in Multichannel Marketing.  

2. It also helps me to extend them, by considering differential flow rates through discrete paths, and to focus on what we can learn from interactions at one stage and channel that might inform what we do in subsequent, different ones.

3. It helps to remind me that when populating and managing any such framework, when it gets too complex or overly-"excepted" with rules, I might be better off replacing it.  

4. It helps me to remember that at best I can only be probabilistic and not deterministic in my understanding of "customer flow dynamics", and that what's important is to be explicit about probability levels so that group decisions can be helped by a shared understanding of these.

5. Finally, it's oddly memorable (to me anyway), and the filter's specific properties help me remember the requirements better.

So, what do you think? Please answer the poll below, and comment with questions / alternatives.

 

 

January 06, 2011

#Google Search and The Limits of #Location

I broke my own rule earlier today and twitched (that's tweeted+*itched -- you read it here first) an impulsive complaint about how Google does not allow you to opt out of having it consider your location as a relevance factor in the search results it offers you:

Epic fail

I don't take it back.  But, I do think I owe a constructive suggestion for how this could be done, in a way that doesn't compromise the business logic I infer behind this regrettable choice.  Plus, I'll lay out what I infer this logic to be, and the drivers for it, in the hope that someone can improve my understanding.  Finally, I'll lay out some possible options for SEO in an ever-more-local digital business context.

OK, first, here's the problem.  In one client situation I'm involved with, we're designing an online strategy with SEO as a central objective.  There are a number of themes we're trying to optimize for.  One way you improve SEO is to identify the folks who rank / index highly on terms you care about, and cultivate a mutually valuable relationship in which they eventually may link to relevant content you have on a target theme.  To get a clean look at who indexes well on a particular theme and related terms, you can de-personalize your search.  You do this with a little url surgery:

Start with the search query:

http://www.google.com/search?q=[theme]

Then graft on a little string to depersonalize the query:

http://www.google.com/search?q=[theme]&pws=0

Now, when I did this, I noticed that Google was still showing me local results.  These usually seem less intrusive.  But now, like some invasive weed, they'd choked off my results, ranging all the way to the third position and clogging up most of the rest of the first page, for a relatively innocuous term ("law"; lots of local law firms, I guess).  

Then I realized that "&pws=0" tells Google to stop rummaging around in the cookies it's set on my browser, plus other information in my http requests, and won't help me prevent Google guessing / using my location, since that's based on the location of the ISP's router between my computer and the Google cloud.

 Annoyed, I poked around to see what else I could do about it.  Midway down the left-hand margin of the search results page, I noticed this:

Google Search Location Control

 

So naturally, my first thought was to specify "none", or "null", to see if I could turn this off.  No joy. 

Next, some homework to see if there's some way to configure my way out of this.  That led me to Rishi's post (see the third answer, dated 12/2/2010, to the question).  

Unbelieving that an organization with as fantastic a UI aesthetic -- that is to say, functional / usable in the extreme -- as Google would do this, I probed further. 

First stop: Web Search Help.  The critical part:

Q. Can I turn off location-based customization?

A. The customization of search results based on location is an important component of a consistent, high-quality search experience. Therefore, we haven't provided a way to turn off location customization, although we've made it easy for you to set your own location or to customize using a general location as broad as the country that matches your local domain...

Ah, so, "It's a feature, not a bug." :-)

...If you find that your results for a particular search are more local than what you're looking for, you can set your location to a broader geographical area (such as a country instead of a city, zip code, or street address). Please note that this will greatly reduce the amount of locally relevant results that you’ll see. [emphasis mine]

 Exactly!  So I tried to game the system:

Google Search Location Control world

Drat!  Foiled again.  Ironic, this "Location not recognized" -- from the people who bring us Google Earth!

Surely, I thought, some careful consideration must have gone into turning the Greatest Tool The World Has Ever Known into the local Yellow Pages.  So, I checked the Google blog.  A quick search there for "location", and presto, this. Note that at this point, February 26, 2010, it was still something you could add.  

Later, on October 18, 2010 -- where I have I been? -- this, which effectively makes "search nearby" non-optional:

We’ve always focused on offering people the most relevant results. Location is one important factor we’ve used for many years to customize the information that you find. For example, if you’re searching for great restaurants, you probably want to find ones near you, so we use location information to show you places nearby.

Today we’re moving your location setting to the left-hand panel of the results page to make it easier for you to see and control your preferences. With this new display you’re still getting the same locally relevant results as before, but now it’s much easier for you to see your location setting and make changes to it.

(BTW, is it just me, or is every Google product manager a farmer's-market-shopping, restaurant-hopping foodie?  Just sayin'... but I seriously wonder how much designers' own demographic biases end up influencing assumptions about users' needs and product execution.)

Now, why would Google care so much about "local" all of a sudden?  Is it because Marissa Mayer now carries a torch for location (and Foursquare especially)?  Maybe.  But it's also a pretty good bet that it's at least partly about the Benjamins.  From the February Google post, a link to a helpful post on SocialBeat, with some interesting snippets: 

"Location may get a central place in Google’s web search redesign"

Google has factored location into search results for awhile without explicitly telling the user that the company knows their whereabouts. It recently launched ‘Nearby’ search in February, returning results from local venues overlaid on top of a map.

Other companies also use your IP address to send you location-specific content. Facebook has long served location-sensitive advertising on its website while Twitter recently launched a feature letting users geotag where they are directly from the site. [emphasis mine]

Facebook's stolen a march on Google in the social realm (everywhere but Orkut-crazed Brazil; go figure).  Twitter's done the same to Google on the real-time front.  Now, Groupon's pay-only-for-real-sales-and-then-only-if-the-volumes-justify-the-discount threatens the down-market end of Google's pay-per-click business with a better mousetrap, from the small biz perspective.  (BTW, that's why Groupon's worth $6 billion all of a sudden.)  All of these have increasingly (and in Groupon's case, dominantly) local angles  where the value to both advertiser and publisher (Facebook / Twitter / Groupon) are presumably highest.

Ergo, Google gets more local.  But that's just playing defense, and Eric, Sergey, Larry, and Marissa are too smart (and, with $33 billion in cash on hand, too rich) to do just that.

Enter Android.  Hmm.  Just passed Apple's iOS and now is running the table in the mobile operating system market share game.  Why wouldn't I tune my search engine to emphasize local search results, if more and more of the searches are coming from mobile devices, and especially ones running my OS?  Yes, it's an open system, but surely dominating it at multiple layers means I can squeeze out more "rent", as the economists say?

The transcript of Google's Q3 earnings call is worth a read.

Now, back to my little problem.  What could Google do that would still serve its objective of global domination through local search optimization, while satisfying my nerdy need for "de-localized" results?  The answer's already outlined above -- just let me type in "world", and recognize it for the pathetic niche plea that it is.  Most folks will never do this, and this blog's not a bully-enough pulpit to change that. Yet.

The bigger question, though, is how to do SEO in a world where it's all location, location, location, or as SEOmoz writes

"Is Every Query Local Now?" 

Location-based results raise political debates, such as "this candidate is great" showing up as the result in one location while "this candidate is evil" in another.  Location-based queries may increase this debate.  I need only type in a candidate's name and Instant will tell me what is the prevailing opinion in my area.  I may not know if that area is the size of a city block or the entire world, but if I am easily influenced then the effect of the popular opinion has taken one step closer (from search result to search query) to the root of thought.   The philosphers among you can debate whether or not the words change the very nature of ideas.

Heavy.

OK, never leave without a recommendation.  Here are two:

First, consider that for any given theme, some keywords might be more "local" than others.  Under the theme "Law", the keyword "law" will dredge up a bunch of local law firms.  But another keyword, say "legal theory", is less likely to have that effect (until discussing that topic in local indie coffee shops becomes popular, anyway).  So you might explore re-optimizing for these less-local alternatives.  (Here's an idea: some enterprising young SEO expert might build a web service that would, for any "richly local" keyword, suggest less-local alternatives from a crowd-sourced database compiled by angry folks like me.  Sort of a "de-localization thesaurus".  Then, eventually, sell it to a big ad agency holding company.)

Second, as location kudzu crawls its way up Google's search results, there's another phenomenon happening in parallel.  These days, for virtually any major topic, the Wikipedia entry for it sits at or near the top of Google's results.  So, if as with politics, now too search and SEO are local, and much harder therefore to play, why not shift your optimization efforts to the place that the odds-on top Google result will take you, if theme leadership is a strategic objective?

 

PS Google I still love you.  Especially because you know where I am. 

 

January 04, 2011

Facebook at Fifty (Billion)

Is Facebook worth $50 billion?  Some caveman thoughts on this valuation:

1. It's worth $50 billion because Goldman Sachs says so, and they make the rules.

2. It's worth $50 billion because for an evanescent moment, some people are willing to trade a few shares at that price. (Always a dangerous way to value a firm.)

3.  Google's valuation provides an interesting benchmark:

a. Google's market cap is close to $200 billion.  Google makes (annualizing Q32010) $30 billion a year in revenue and $8 billion a year in profit (wow), for a price to earnings ratio of approximately 25x.

b. Facebook claims $2 billion a year in revenue for 2010, a number that's likely higher if we annualize latest quarters (I'm guessing, I haven't seen the books).   Google's clearing close to 30% of its revenue to the bottom line.  Let's assume Facebook's getting similar results, and let's say that annualized, they're at $3 billion in revenues, yielding a $1 billion annual profit (which they're re-investing in the business, but ignore that for the moment).  That means a "P/E" of about 50x, roughly twice Google's.  Facebook has half Google's uniques, but has passed Google in visits.  So, maybe this growth, and potential for more, justifies double the multiple.  Judge for yourself; here's a little data on historical P/E ratios (and interest rates, which are very low today, BTW), to give you some context.  Granted, these are for the market as a whole, and Facebook is a unique high-growth tech firm, but not every tree grows to the sky.

c. One factor to consider in favor of this valuation for Facebook is that its revenues are better diversified than Google's.  Google of course gets 99% of its revenue from search marketing. Facebook gets a piece of the action on all those Zynga et. al. games, in addition to its core display ad business.  You might argue that these game revenues are stable and recurring, and point the way to monetizing the Facebook API to very attractive utility-like economic levels (high fixed costs, but super-high marginal profits once revenues pass those, with equally high barriers to entry).

d. Further, since viral / referral marketing is every advertiser's holy grail, and Facebook effectively owns the Web's social graph at the moment, it should get some credit for the potential value of owning a better mousetrap.  (Though, despite Facebook's best attempts -- see Beacon -- to Hoover value out of your and my relationship networks, the jury's still out on whether and how they will do that.  For perspective, consider that a $50 billion valuation for Facebook means investors are counting on each of today's 500 million users to be good for $100, ignoring future user growth.)

e. On the other hand,  Facebook's dominant source of revenue (about 2/3 of it) is display ad revenue, and it doesn't dominate this market the way Google dominates the search ad market (market dominance means higher profit margins -- see Microsoft circa 1995 -- beyond their natural life).  Also, display ads are more focused on brand-building, and are more vulnerable in economic downturns.

4. In conclusion: if Facebook doubles revenues and profits off the numbers I suggested above, Facebook's valuation will more or less track Google's on a relative basis (~25x P/E).  If you think this scenario is a slam dunk, then the current price being paid for Facebook is "fair", using Google's as a benchmark.  If you think there's further upside beyond this doubling, with virtually no risk associated with this scenario, then Facebook begins to look cheap in comparison to Google.

Your move.

Who's got a better take?

Postscript:  my brother, the successful professional investor, does; see his comment below (click "Comments")