Monthly Archives: February 2009

Debating the ethics of SEO

Ad guru Bob Knorpp asked recently “Why do tech people hate SEO?” As you probably know, SEO stands for “search engine optimization,” a controversial approach to elevate a web site in Google search results by either stuffing it with content that Google may pick up on or creating inbound links from other web sites to make the content on the site appear more relevant. It’s all a bit of gamesmanship to put your brand somewhere it may (or may not) belong.

(UPDATE: SEO expert Michael Gray suggests that the description above is flagrantly inaccurate. For the record, SEO involves changing web site content, HTML coding, and relations to other web sites to allow content to be found more easily by search engines. Poor examples, or so-called Black Hat SEO, can include “keyword stuffing” or filling pages with tons of keywords to try to trick search engines, a naughty no-no, but if you read Michael’s comments in full below you’ll see there’s more than one way to skin an SEO cat.)

Bob wrote,

“Internet purists pride themselves on the idea that the Web is a world-wide leveling of the playing field. It is a place where anyone can rise to the top based purely on the quality of their thinking and expression. In-bound links and being part of the conversation online are benefits that are earned over time…

“SEO, however, ‘cheats’ that cycle. Thoughts and ideas that have no relevance or that may not offer the best solution can be transported to the top of the search results over-night. And frankly, that drives the tech community crazy.”

We responded,

“We have met the SEO enemy and it is us … because humans have a tendency to pollute every ecosystem, including advertising systems. We did it with phones (telemarketing, now almost dead), email (spam, now wildly annoying and ineffective), radio (Clear Channel once ran 12 minutes of spots per hour and killed ratings, then later retrenched to 9+ minutes with a ‘Less is More’ campaign to try to woo advertisers and listeners back), and now social media (think of bloggers shilling $500 Kmart gift cards to try to build link Ponzi schemes, throwing the beautiful names their mommies gave them out the ethics window).

“I write this not to say that any form of media is ‘bad’ — but rather, just as farmers who rush to herd their sheep into a common grass area to feed their own flocks might destroy the grassy commons, every individual’s incentive to be heard can destroy the greater ecosystem. What marketers usually fail to see, in their individual lack of self-control, is we *all* need a healthy environment for advertising to succeed.”

What do you think? Is it fair to try to manipulate the link structure of the web to make your own material rise to the top? Or is there a point where exploiting a networked system goes too far?

Photo: Hobo

NYT skimmer lets you skip the ads, yet see more ads. Here’s how.

Jason Moriber at Wise Elephant points to a new prototype interface from The New York Times which lets you rapidly skim over news content. He writes:

“It might not be pretty, but it matches the online trend of users skimming through feeds, reading over posts, grabbing the nuggets they want/need … I often say ‘react to the behavior of your market, follow what they are doing, not what they are saying.’ This new interface from The New York Times appears to be on this path.”

The new NYT skimmer format is perhaps most intriguing because it ditches the banner ads that have been encroaching on more and more of the visible real estate on the NYT home page. (See Apple monstrous ad format from last Monday.) But there’s a trick — if you click on any of the article headlines at skimmer, you land at a real NYT inside web page complete with ads. And the ads are more contextually relevant, since NYT can serve them next to the content you want to read. All in all, a nice victory for both marketers and consumers — faster access to the news you want, smaller and less-obtrusive ad formats, and the potential for ads to offer you something relevant, thus driving up response rates. We say, please NYT, keep it live. Bookmark it here.

TV and print push kids to the web

If you have children you know they are drawn to anything web related. We can hardly get our iPhone away from the wee ones. So it’s no surprise that MRI reports children 6-11 leap to the internet to research products they see in offline ads. About 46% of kids report they visited a web site they first heard about in a commercial. Within those numbers, the skew tends to older kids 10-11 who have more access to the net and sophistication.

The implication goes beyond children for marketers who often segment media plans and examine inquiries from each channel — TV vs. radio vs. print vs. web banners vs. SEM — as if they were separate Olympians competing for a gold medal in Greece. That’s a mistake, since one media channel may feed another. Broadcast and print still work to build awareness, and then the web captures the curious as they explore for more information. Integrating your measurement to capture the impact of all media touchpoints won’t be easy, but until you do, don’t turn off the TV.

Black swans, Schrödinger’s cat, and your own crossroads

We spoke today with a gentleman working on a business plan for a very clever, and potentially lucrative, business. Research is required to tune the concept, and especially to predict which types of customers will be most interested. So we suggested that instead of focus groups or quantitative studies, he instead stage a small web campaign, insert a snippet of Quantcast code into the banners and landing pages, and use it to match inbound visitors to the vast data sets of user behavior online — which would pinpoint the exact demographics of the audience who likes his offer.

You know. Open the door and observe who walks through it.

Data is dangerous because it lulls us into false security — we often want to predict what will happen based on erroneous theories, and then fail to see the reality transpiring before our eyes. Wired notes this week the meltdown on Wall Street was tied to a single math formula that allowed investors a shortcut to assess hugely complex risks (um, big mistake). Our Twitter colleague Max Zeledon points out Nassim Taleb’s thesis that major events are really unpredictable; humans in hindsight try to make sense of the disorder in the universe by linking data points into logic flows, when the reality is Black Swans — things that shouldn’t exist — often just pop up. You can bend your mind thinking about the paths of fate; see Schrödinger’s cat and then ask which of yourselves is going in to work tomorrow morning.

Sometimes data can predict events, if screened carefully; Google does this beautifully with its little known Flu Trends site, collecting user Google searches for flu remedies to predict outbreaks in the United States two weeks before the Centers for Disease Control. Tel Aviv University professors are sorting Gnutella music searches by the location of consumers to predict when small bands will spike into bell curves of popularity. And in our favorite example, a simple chart comparing home prices vs. rent over the past 28 years indicates clearly that the U.S. housing market was due for a massive headache in 2009.

So are we humans vain to try to see the future, based on the data at hand? Or does randomness really make forecasting impossible? We ordered Taleb’s Black Swan tonight to learn more. Until then, we’ll keep trying.

Photo: Dietrich

‘Nice not to see Cheney’: As Obama speaks, Congress Twitters

As President Obama took the podium last night, members of Congress did more than listen. They started tweeting on their Blackberries, sharing text messages 140 characters at a time.

“One doesn’t want to sound snarky, but it is nice not to see Cheney up there,” typed Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon. Republican Rep. John Culberson of Texas went further, broadcasting video live from his camera phone. It’s all reported in a brilliant column by Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, who writes:

“Some members called it a new age of transparency, a bold new frontier in democracy. But to view the hodgepodge of text messages sent from the House floor during the speech, it seemed as if Obama were presiding over a support group for adults with attention-deficit disorder.”

Call it the new duality of consumer media consumption. Even as we participate in live events, we feel compelled to contribute, and new social media broadcast tools make it simple to carry on side conversations. The impact for marketers is both positive and negative. Pro, disseminators can listen in to instant feedback on what people think digesting the message. Con, your audience may tune out. Heck, the President can’t even capture their undivided attention.

What you can learn from the North Face iPhone app. Hint: Think free.

See the red logo above? Notice how small it is?

Dirk Singer, chief of the London-based Cow PR shop, has a nice review of the North Face iPhone app, which gives skiers free information on snow conditions. “Though it contains a link to the nearest store, North Face knows better than to interrupt users’ ski holidays with constant brand info,” Dirk writes.

This reminds us of the recent failure, which by comparison pushed the brand hard and made it difficult for users of the entertainment site to derive any content ( had an extensive registration/log-in process that required your driver’s license). Unlike North Face, failed because it didn’t offer enough free value first before trying to identify (or sell) you, the user.

Wired editor Chris Anderson has been making rounds talking up his new book Free, filled with the concept that the rapidly diminished costs of data transfer and storage mean prices for many services are also approaching zero. In this competitive arena, marketers need to provide some level of service for “free” … while in reality they hope to make money by selling goods to a fraction of the users. As Chris has noted, even if you sell to only 1% of your audience, if your audience is big enough, 1% of a large number can still be a large number. North Face has gotten the free-vs.-selling balance right. Next time we head north to ski, we’ll check out their iPhone app … and then maybe buy some gear along the way.

NY Times: All the news you can’t see below this ad

The New York Times revised its web site today to make room for a new ad format that takes up one-third of the visual real estate. First up, Apple, with big sound, crayonish animation and flipping pages. We asked our colleague Jim Knipper, an internet display guru, for the technical term. “That’s called a big-ass ad,” Jim said.

The trend continues NYT’s stretch to sell more of its sacred news space — back on Jan. 5 NYT sold ads on the cover of its print paper for the first time. We’re conflicted. From a media buy, the new, large, beautiful formats are sure to get noticed. But as a news consumer, the only next step we see in making these ads more intrusive is if they give us electric shocks as we sit in front of our keyboard or flip through the paper. As news organizations lose traffic and ad revenue to the web, and then within the web lose even more to the long tail of niche web sites and consumer-generated content, they must try new tricks to keep advertisers engaged.

So bully for you, Apple. Now where did we put that news?

Oscar winners, U2 album leaked? On web you can find what you’re looking for.

Last August a Dutch fan of U2 walked by Bono’s holiday villa on the French Riviera and heard the singer’s voice booming out of a sound system. So the fan recorded the tunes — tracks from U2’s first album in four years — on his cell phone and posted them online. Problem was, the album wasn’t to be released until this spring; Bono was simply enjoying a private blasting of his new record. U2 managed to get the four songs taken down from YouTube, but then last week perfect digital copies of No Line On the Horizon appeared again on the internet two weeks before hitting online music stores.

So we weren’t surprised when someone began passing around this memo showing the Academy Award winners before tonight’s broadcast. Who knows if this is a hoax — and that’s part of the point. The new publishing and file-sharing tools are blending reality, opinion, paid sponsorships, untruths and even lies, seeding a thorny mess for content publishers such as awards auditors or rock bands. Chris Anderson has argued for three new “free” business models (best illustrated by David Armano) where producers learn to give more away for free on the front end, to maintain some semblance of control and revenue in the back. In other words, you can’t stop the flow of digitized content to the free.

Hey. If Mickey Rourke wins, all bets are off.