Google and Search
May 11, 2011
Over the last five days, I have been immersed in conversations about Google and its public Web search system. I am not able to disclose the people with whom I have spoken. However, I want to isolate the issues that surfaced and offer some observations about the role of traditional Web sites. I want to capture the thoughts that surfaced after I thought about what I learned in my face to face and telephone conversations. In fact, one of the participants in this conversation directed my attention to this post, “Google Panda=Disaster.” I don’t think the problem is Panda. I think a more fundamental change has taken place and Google’s methods are just out of sync with the post shift environment. But hope is not lost. At the end of this write up, I provide a way for you to learn about a different approach. Sales pitch? Sure but a gentle one.
Relevance versus Selling Advertising
The main thrust of the conversations was that Google’s Web search is degrading. I have not experienced this problem, but the three groups with whom I spoke have. Each had different data to show that Google’s method of handling their publicly accessible Web site has changed.
First, one vendor reported that traffic to the firm’s Web site had dropped from 2,000 uniques per month to 100. The Web site is informational. There is a widget that displays headlines from the firm’s Web log. The code is clean and the site is not complex.
Second, another vendor reported that content from the firm’s news page was appearing on competitors’ Web sites. More troubling, the content was appearing high in a Google results list. However, the creator of the content found that the stories from the originating Web site were buried deep in the Google results list. The point is that others were recycling original content and receiving a higher ranking than the source of the original content.
Traditional Web advertising depicted brilliantly by Ken Rockwell. See his work at http://www.kenrockwell.com/canon/compacts/sd880/gallery-10.htm
Third, the third company found that its core business was no longer appearing in a Google results list for a query about the type of service the firm offered. However, the company was turning up in an unrelated or, at best, secondary results list.
I had no answer to the question each firm asked me, “What’s going on?”
Through various contacts, I pieced together a picture that suggests Google itself may not know what is happening. One source indicated that the core search team responsible for the PageRank output is doing its work much as it has for the last 12 years. Googlers responsible for selling advertising were not sure what changes were going on in the core search team’s algorithm tweaks. Not surprisingly, most people are scrutinizing search results, fiddling with metatags and other aspects of a Web site, and then checking to see what happened. The approach is time consuming and, in my opinion, very much like the person who plugs a token into a slot machine and hits the jack pot. There is great excitement at the payoff, but the process is not likely to work on the next go round.
Net net: I think there is a communications filter (intentional or unintentional) between the group at Google working to improve relevance and the sales professionals at Google who need to sell advertising. On one hand, this is probably healthy because many organizations put a wall between certain company functions. On the other hand, if Adwords and Adsense are linked to traffic and that traffic is highly variable, some advertisers may look to other alternatives. Facebook’s alleged 30 percent share of the banner advertising market may grow if the efficacy of Google’s advertising programs drops.
In the conversations, I pointed to my write up about search vendor Web site traffic. I have had a couple of irate phone calls about the Compete.com data. The particular story is “Enterprise Search Vendor Web Site Traffic.” The data are bad news for search vendors in general. Traffic is pretty dismal, assuming the Compete.com data are even semi accurate. None of the online analytics information is a sure thing, but the data are indicative and can be used to get a sense of what’s happening in Web site traffic. Most sites are like ArnoldIT.com; that is, too small in appeal to even register on the services. But I am a one goose band in rural Kentucky, and I don’t expect to hit the type of traffic we enjoyed with Point (Top 5% of the Internet) in 1993 to 1995. I have a very narrow focus or what might be called a “tight semantic vector.” If you are reading this post, you are one of a bout 1,000 people who have an interest in the ideas I have about online. At age 66, I don’t expect to hit Lady Gaga Web magnetism unlike most of the optimistic 20 somethings I encounter.
What’s clear to me is that a basic Web site is a non-starter for traffic. In 1995, a Web site could pull significant traffic, based on our Point (Top 5% of the Internet) experience. Today generating 250,000 uniques is difficult. Not only are there more Web sites and pages, there are some alternatives to a basic Web site. These range from the closed service on LinkedIn.com to the semi-closed service on Facebook.com to the evolving services like Wikia.com. Depending on one’s method of counting, the usage data can be pumped up for a company that successfully creates a presence on each of these services. However, the need to support multiple “channels” or “dissemination platforms” increases costs and consumption of other scarce resources like time.
In short, there are some sites that get lots of traffic. Then there millions, maybe hundreds of millions of sites that get essentially no traffic. This has some real Richter scale impact on organizations. The cost of a fancy Web site is not going to be recovered. Buying Google Adwords or building an iPhone app does not create new prospects, visibility or revenue overnight. Sure, there’s Angry Birds, but that model does not apply to a specialist like a vendor of customer support software or to a company looking for customers.
The impact of this situation is that most organizations don’t know what to do to generate buzz, revenue, or proof that their investments in a Web site are paying any significant dividends. Not surprisingly, when Web site traffic drops, the panic among those who fund Web sites upticks. Maybe desperation is a better word?
Is social marketing the next big thing? For some organizations aiming at consumers, social marketing is a potential game changer. For specialist firms, social marketing is a variation of making contacts, building relationships, and getting work via trust or referrals. The problem with social methods is that these are not as well known as the “put up a Web site and get traffic from Google” solutions. In addition, social methods are fragmented. There is an investment of time in figuring out what to do and then there is the on going cost of doing the button pushing required to make social methods work. Let’s face it. Social methods are more work than slapping up a Web site and updating it via a template every few hours, days, or weeks. Tweets don’t work unless the person has a Bin Laden scale message or is Lady Gaga. A tweet about a talk at a technical conference is useful but is not likely to win the lottery in terms of new business. LinkedIn requires time and effort. Even a Facebook presence is tricky. Facebook is a walled garden and the tips and tricks of maximizing the return from 700 million members has not diffused as widely as how to create a basic Web site using SquareSpace.com or a similar service.
After thinking about the conversations I had about Web sites, I jotted down a list of implications or consequences. I want to capture them before I lose the napkin on which I wrote these thoughts disintegrates:
- Traditional Web sites are no longer enough. These have to be amplified by other marketing methods. Companies once again have to figure out the mix of methods and then make adjustments in order to get these methods working at a price that the organization can afford.
- Social media by itself is not enough. The idea that a business can have a Facebook page and sit back and reap big money may work for some. However, vendors of search and content processing are probably going to find Facebook a frail gymnast when it comes to moving a $1.0 million search or business intelligence system. In fact, the likelihood that the demographics of Facebook will match the needs of a specialist software vendor is interesting to ponder. What happens if the Facebook campaign backfires? Interesting question.
- Traditional marketing no longer is affordable or predictable. In local markets, small businesses still do lousy marketing. Part of the reason is the nature of a small business. There’s no time, money, or mind slices available to figure out what to do and how to do sales. Life is a bit catch as catch can. Mid sized companies have more resources and in my experience diffuse their efforts. Pooling resources to do a couple of things is mostly a bet on the casino’s roulette wheel. Big companies are victims of organizational inertia. Most of the marketing—even when given a jazzy coat of paint like Ford’s promotions on podcasts—is pretty predictable stuff. The grooves are worn and smooth in marketing in big firms just like the chariot ruts in Pompeii. Getting out of those ruts is almost impossible.
- No one has the “answer”. The companies with which I spoke wanted a “silver bullet”. The reality in today’s interconnected world is that “silver bullets” and other magical solutions are mostly a matter of luck. Look at Super Bowl ads. Only one or two are memorable, and it is difficult to determine if the ads worked or not. Most companies’ marketing is well below the sophistication of a Super Bowl marketing firm’s efforts.
Net net: Marketing is in turmoil. In search, I see several flashing yellow lights. Maybe I have the non human vision of an addled goose, but here goes:
First, search and content processing vendors are now engaging in “semantic promiscuity.” This is phrase that suggests the vendors are trying words, phrases, pitches, positioning, and partnerships in the hope that the slot machine bet will pay off. What the impact is, I believe, is confusion. As a result, large companies gravitate to what looks like a “safe bet” in search. The winners are outfits like Autonomy, Exalead, and Microsoft. The wackiness of the flip flopping from other vendors is too much work to figure out.
Second, the service industry is likely to be the big winner. Licensees lack the expertise in house to make certain enterprise systems deliver. As a result, firms that deliver services with the solution or services focused on a specific solution will be in demand. No big marketing is going to be needed. Finding and selecting a vendor is shifting to a discovery mode.
Third, the marginalization of search and content processing is now unstoppable. New positioning or a complete reinvention of the search and content processing vendor is needed. The change is difficult. The language to use fuels “semantic promiscuity.” I don’t think most of the today’s search and content processing vendors will grow much beyond their present size. A few will, like a blind squirrel, find an acorn. But the vendors with 1990s technology are vulnerable to plays that are like a speeding truck. The “truck” is delivering big data and analytics based on open source technology. Alternatively, there is a cloud “service” that does a SugarCRM, Salesforce.com, or similar bundle like IBM’s OmniFind plus content analytics. Search is just a minor add on. Finally, there is the free or low cost search solution. Ever hear of Gaviri? What about dtSearch? What about Lucid Imagination or Funnelback? Now there are truly low or no cost options, often for quite specialized information retrieval tasks.
Fourth, the azure chip crowd is going to shift into high gear. I expect to see some wild and crazy studies, grids, evaluation algorithms, and other baloney. Life gets complicated when the good old Web goes downhill in a rapid descent to decrepitude.
There are some fixes. You can learn about them if you send an email to seaky2000 at yahoo dot com.
Stephen E Arnold, May 11, 2011