The Rank and File: Life and Work in a Quantified World

No one likes to be a number – unless, of course – that number is one. Then it’s okay.

Rankings started to be crucial to me back in 1996 when I jumped into the world of search engine optimization. Suddenly, the ten blue links on a search results page took on critical importance. The most important, naturally, was the first result. It turned on the tap for a flow of business many local organizations could only dream of. My company once got a California Mustang part retailer that number one ranking for “Ford Mustang Parts.” The official site of For – Ford.com – was number two. The California business did very well for a few years. We probably made them rich. Then Google came along and the party was over. We soon found that as quickly as that tap could be turned on, it could also be turned off. We and our clients rode the stormy waters of multiple Google updates. We called it the Google dance.

Now that I’m in my second life (third? fourth?) as a tourism operator I’m playing that ranking game again. This time it’s with TripAdvisor. You would not believe how important a top ranking in your category is here. Again, your flow of business can be totally at the mercy of how well you rank.

The problem with TripAdvisor is not so much with the algorithm in the background or the criteria used for ranking. The problem is with the Delta between riches and rags. If you drop below the proverbial fold in TripAdvisor, your tourism business can shrivel up and die. One bad review could be the difference. I feel like I’m dancing the Google dance all over again.

But at least TripAdvisor is what I would call a proximate ranking site. The source of the rankings is closely connected to the core nature of the industry. Tourism is all about experiences. And TripAdvisor is a platform for experience reviews. There is some wiggle room there for gaming the system, but the unintended consequences are kept to a minimum. If you’re in the business of providing good experiences, you should do well in TripAdvisor. And if you pay attention to the feedback on TripAdvisor, your business should improve. This is a circle that is mostly virtuous.

Such is not always the case. Take teaching, for example. Ratemyprofessors.com is a ranking site for teachers and professors, based on feedback from students. If you read through the reviews, it soon becomes obvious that funny, relatable, good-looking profs fare better than those who are less socially gifted. It has become a popularity contest for academics. Certainly, some of those things may factor into the effectiveness of a good educator, but there is a universe of other criteria that are given short-shrift on the site. Teaching is a subtle and complex profession. Is a popular prof necessarily a good prof? If too much reliance is placed on ratings like those found on ratemyprofessors.com, will the need to be popular push some of those other less-rankable attributes to the background?

But let’s step back even a bit further. Along with the need to quantify everything there is also a demand for transparency. Let’s step into another classroom, this time in your local elementary school. The current push is to document what’s happening in the classroom and share it on a special portal that parents have access to. In theory, this sounds great. Increasing collaboration and streamlining the communication triangle between teachers, students and parents should be a major step forward. But it’s here where unintended consequences can run the education process off the rails. Helicopter parents are the most frequent visitors to the portal. They also dominate these new communication channels that are now open to their children’s teachers. And – if you know a helicopter parent – you know these are people who have no problem picking up the phone and calling the school administrator or even the local school board to complain about a teacher. Suddenly, teachers feel they’re constantly under the microscope. They alter their teaching style and course content to appeal to the types of parents that are constantly monitoring them.

Even worse, the teacher finds themselves constantly interrupting their own lesson in order to document what’s going on to keep these parents satisfied. What appears to be happening in the classroom through social media becomes more important than what’s actually happening in the classroom. If you’ve ever tried to actively present to a group and also document what’s happening at the same time, you know how impossible this can be. Pity then the poor teacher of your children.

There is a quote that is often (incorrectly) attributed to management guru Peter Drucker, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” The reality is a lot more nuanced. As we’re finding out, what you’re actually measuring matters a lot. It may be leading you in completely the wrong direction.

What a Shock: Marketers Don’t Like SEO!

So, apparently marketers don’t like SEO because they don’t understand SEO. That’s the upshot of a new report just out where SEO ranked at the tail end of digital initiatives.

I call bullshit on that. It’s not that marketers don’t understand SEO. It’s that they don’t like it.

I did my first SEO work in 1996. That’s two years before there was a Google. And marketers didn’t understand SEO then. Or so they said. They’ve kept the message consistent for the last 22 years. “We don’t get SEO.”

Look, SEO is not rocket science. It’s where searcher intent intersects with content. Know what people are looking for and give it to them. It’s that simple. This is not about SEO being hard to understand. It’s about SEO being hard to do. The last time I climbed on this particular soapbox was 4 years ago and nothing has changed. SEO is still hard, maybe harder than it ever has been. That’s what marketers don’t like. Well, that and many other things. SEO is had to SEO is hard to control. It’s hard to predict. It’s hard to measure. And that makes it almost impossible to rely on. All of those things are anathema to a marketer.

But here’s the biggest thing that’s going against SEO’s popularity with marketers. It’s not very exciting. It’s arduous. It about as sexy as weeding the garden. That’s probably why social media tops the list.

So why even both about search? For two reasons. There is no better crystallization of prospect intent – short of converting on your own website – than an online search. The planets are aligned, the heavens have opened with a hallelujah chorus, the Holy Grail has fallen into your lap. I spent the better part of two decades researching search user behaviors. Trust me when I say this is as good as it gets. That’s reason one. Reason two is that somewhere between 75% and 85% of those prospects will click on an organic listing. When we’re talking about capturing a motivated prospect, this is no brainer stuff. Yet marketers are saying no thanks, we’ll take a pass on that – Thank you very much.

If online is important to your marketing, chances are extremely good that SEO is also important. I don’t care whether you like it or not. You have to do it. If you don’t want to, find someone who does.

That brings up another reason marketers hate SEO. It doesn’t really live in their domain. SEO, by its very nature, stretches across multiple domains. It has to be systemic across the entire organization. So, it’s not entirely the fault of the marketer that SEO is neglected. It tends to fall into a no-man’s land between departments. Marketers don’t push it because there are many other things they can do that they have complete control over. And if the marketers don’t push it, there is no one else that’s going to step forward. Executives, who may legitimately not understand SEO, think of it solely as a marketing exercise. Tech support hates SEO even more than marketers. And corporate compliance? Don’t get me started on corporate compliance! There is a reason why SEO has always been known as a red-headed stepchild.

As a past SEO-er, I wasn’t really surprised to see that SEO still gets no love from marketers. I’ve forced myself to eat broccoli my entire life. And it’s not because I don’t understand broccoli. It’s because I don’t like it. Somethings remain constant. But you know what else? I still choke it down. Because my mom was right – it’s good for you.

 

Is Google Slipping, Or Is It Just Our Imagination?

Recently, I’ve noticed a few articles speculating about whether Google might be slipping:

Last month, the American Customer Satisfaction Index notified us that our confidence in search is on the decline. Google’s score dropped 2% to 82. The culprit was the amount of advertising found on the search results page. To be fair, both Google and search in general have had lower scores. Back in 2015, Google scored a 77%, it’s lowest score ever.

This erosion of customer satisfaction may be leading to a drop in advertising ROI. According to a recent report from Analytic Partners, the return on investment from paid search dropped 27% from 2010 to 2016. Search wasn’t alone. All digital ROI seems to be in decline. Analytic’s VP of Marketing, Joe LaSala, predicts that ROI from digital will continue to decline until it converges with ROI from traditional media.

In April of this year, Forbes ran an article asking the question: “Is Google’s Search Quality Starting to Decline?” Contributors to this decline, according to the article, included the introduction of rich snippets and featured news, including popularity as a ranking factor and ongoing black hat SEO manipulation.

But the biggest factor in the drop of Google’s perceived quality was actually in the perception itself. As the Forbes article’s author, Jayson DeMers, stated;

It’s important to realize just how sophisticated Google is, and how far it’s come from its early stages, as well as the impossibility of having a “perfect” search platform. Humans are flawed creatures, and our actions are what are dictating the shape of search.

Google is almost 20 years old. The domain Google.com was registered on September 15, 1997. Given that 20 years is an eternity in internet years, it’s actually amazing that it’s stood up as well as it has for the past two decades. Whether Google’s naysayers care to admit it or not, that’s due to Google’s almost religious devotion to the quality of their search results. That devotion extends to advertising. The balance between user experience and monetization has always been one that Google has paid a lot of attention too.

But it’s not the presence of ads that has led to this perceived decline of quality. It’s a change in our expectations of what a search experience should be. I would argue that for any given search, using objective measures of result relevance, the results Google shows today are far more relevant than the results they showed in 2008, the year it got it’s highest customer satisfaction score (86%). Since then, Google has made great strides in deciphering user intent and providing a results page that’s a good match for that intent. Sometimes it will get it wrong, but when it gets it right, it puts together a page that’s a huge improvement over the vanilla, one size fits all results page of 2008.

The biggest thing that’s changed in the past 10 years is the context from which we’re launching those searches. In 2008, it was almost always the desktop. But today, chances are we’re searching from a mobile device – or our car – or our home through Amazon Echo. This has changed our expectations of search. We are task focused, rather than “browsing” for information. This creates an entirely different mental framework within which we receive the results. We apply a new yardstick of acceptable relevance. Here, we’re not looking for a list of 20 possible answers – we’re looking for one answer. And it had better be the right one. Context based search must be hyper-relevant.

Compounding this trend is the increasing number of circumstances where search is going “under the hood” – something I’ve been forecasting for a long time now. For example, if you use Siri to launch a search through your CarPlay connected device when you’re driving, the results are actually coming from Bing but they’re stripped of the context of the Bing search results page. Here, the presentation of search results is just one step in a multi-step task flow. It’s important that the result that is on top is the one you’re probably looking for.

Unfortunately for Google – and the other search providers – this expectation stays in place even when the context shifts. When we launch a search from our desktop, we are increasingly intolerant of results that are even a little off base from our intent. Ads become the most easily identified culprit. A results set that would have seemed almost frighteningly prescient even a few years ago now seems sub par. Google has come a long way in the past 20 years but it’s still losing ground to our expectations.

 

 

Disruption in the Rear View Mirror

Oh..it’s so easy to be blasé. I always scan the Mediapost headlines each week to see if there’s anything to spin. I almost skipped right past a news post by Larissa Faw – Zenith: Google Remains Top-Ranked Media Company By Ad Revenue

“Of course Google is the top ranked media company,” I yawned as I was just about to click on the next email in my inbox. Then it hit me. To quote Michael Bublé, “Holy Shitballs, Mom!”

Maybe that headline doesn’t seem extraordinary in the context of today, but I’ve been doing this stuff for almost 20 years now, and in that context – well-it’s huge! I remembered a column I wrote ages ago about speculating that Google had barely scratched its potential. After a little digging, I found it. It was in October, 2006, so just over a decade ago. Google had just passed the 6 billion dollar mark in annual revenue. Ironically, that seemed a bigger deal then their current revenue of almost $80 billion seems today. In that column, I pushed to the extreme and speculated that Google could someday pass $200 billion in revenue. While we’re still only 1/3 of the way there, the claim doesn’t seem nearly as ludicrous as it did back then.

But here’s the line that really made me realize how far we’ve come in the ten and a half years since I wrote that column: “Google and Facebook together accounted for 20% of global advertising expenditure across all media in 2016, up from 11% in 2012. They were also responsible for 64% of all the growth in global ad spend between 2012 and 2016.”

Two companies that didn’t exist 20 years ago now account for 20% of all global advertising expenditure. And the speed with which they’re gobbling advertising budgets is accelerating. If you’re a dilettante student of disruption, as I am, those are pretty amazing numbers. In the day-to-day of Mediapost – and digital marketing in general – we tend to accept all this as normal. It’s like we’re surfing on top of a wave without realizing the wave is 300 freakin’ feet high. Sometimes, you need to zoom out a little to realizing how momentous the every day is. And if you look at this on a scale of decades rather than days, you start to get a sense that the speed of change is massive.

To me, the most interesting thing about this is that both Google and Facebook have introduced a fundamentally new relationship between advertising and it’s audience. Google’s outré is – of course – intent based advertising. And Facebook’s is based on socially mediated network effects. Both of these things required the overlay of digital connection. That – as they say – has made all the difference. And there is where the real disruption can be found. Our world has become a fundamentally different place.

Much as we remain focused on the world of advertising and marketing here in our little corner of the digital world, it behooves us to remember that advertising is simply a somewhat distorted reflection of the behaviors of the world in general. It things are being disrupted here, it is because things are being disrupted everywhere. As it regards us beings of flesh, bone and blood, that disruption has three distinct beachheads: the complicated relationship between our brains and the digital tools we have at our disposal, the way we connect with each other, and a dismantling of the restrictions of the physical world at the same time we build the scaffolding of a human designed digital world. Any one of these has the potential to change our species forever. With all three bearing down on us, permanent change is a lead-pipe cinch.

Thirty years is a nano-second in terms of human history. Even on the scale of my lifetime, it seems like yesterday. Reagan was president. We were terrorized by the Unabomber. News outlets were covering the Iran-Contra affair. U2 released the Joshua Tree. Platoon won the best picture Oscar. And if you wanted to advertise to a lot of people, you did so on a major TV network with the help of a Madison Avenue agency. 30 years ago, nothing of which I’m talking about existed. Nothing. No Google. No Facebook. No Internet – at least, not in a form any of us could appreciate.

As much as advertising has changed in the past 30 years, it has only done so because we – and the world we inhabit – have changed even more. And if that thought is a little scary, just think what the next 30 years might bring.

A Possibly Premature Post-Mortem on Yahoo

Last Thursday, Yahoo held it ‘s annual shareholder meeting. At that meeting, CEO Marissa Mayer dealt the company a doubled down kiss of death. She stated the goals of the board are fully aligned with one clear priority: “delivering shareholder value to all of you.” She further mentioned, when dealing with the divesture of all that once was Yahoo, that she’s “been very heartened by the level of interest in Yahoo. It validates our business processes as well as our achievements to date.”

It’s fancier language, but it’s basically the same as the butcher saying, “This cow is no longer viable as a cow, so I’m looking at it as a collection of rump roasts, T-Bones and hamburger. I’m hoping we have more of the former and less of the later.”

Yahoo_1996I first encountered Yahoo in 1995, shortly after it’s brief life as Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web. I think it was probably still parked on Stanford’s servers at the time. At the time, the Internet was like the world’s biggest second-hand store – a huge collection that was 95% junk/5 % useful stuff with no overarching order or organization. David Filo and Jerry Yang’s site was one of the very first to try to provide that order.

As an early search marketer in the run up to the dot-com bubble, you couldn’t ignore the Yahoo directory. The Yahooligans walked with typical Valley swagger. Hubris was never in short supply. They were the cocks of the walk and they knew it.

It was a much-humbled post-bubble Yahoo that I visited in 2004. They had got their search asses soundly kicked by Google, who was now powering their non-directory results. The age of the curated directory was gone, replaced by the scalability of algorithmic search.

As a culture, the Yahooligans were struggling with the mixed management signals that came from then CEO Terry Semel and his team. Sunnyvale was clouded in a purple haze. The Yahooligans didn’t know who the hell they were or what they were supposed to do. Where they a tech company or an entertainment company? The answer, as it turned out, was neither.

I met with the remnants of the once mighty search team to talk about user behaviors. I didn’t know it at the time, but Yahoo was gearing up to relaunch their search service. A much vilified paid inclusion program would also be debuted. It was one of many ill-fated attempts to find the next “Big Thing.”

Marissa Mayer continues to put a brave face on it, but the Yahoo engine ran out of steam at least a decade and a half ago. What amazes me is how long the ride has been. There is a message here for tech-based companies.

If you dig down to the critical incubation period of any tech company, you find a recurring pattern. Some technologically mediated connection allows people to do something they were previously unable to do. This releases pent up market demand. It’s like a thin sliver trying to poke through a water balloon. If successful, this released market demand creates an immediate and sizable audience for whomever introduced the innovation. Yahoo’s directory, Google’s PageRank, Facebook’s “Facemash”, AirBnB’s accommodation directory, Uber’s ridesharing app – they all share the same modus operandi – a tech-step forward creates a new audience and market opportunity.

In hindsight, once you strip away all the hype, it’s amazing how tenuous and unimpressive these technological advances are. Luck and timing typically play a huge part. If the conditions are right, the sliver eases through the balloon’s membrane and for a time, there is a steady stream of opportunity.

The problem is that is that as easily as these markets form, they can just as easily evaporate. When the technological advantage passes to the next competitor, as it did when Yahoo gave way to Google, all that’s left is the audience. When you consider that Yahoo has been coasting on this audience for close to two decades, it’s rather amazing that Mayer still has any assets at all to sell.

 

Can Alphabet Spark Corporate Innovation?

As I was reading Walter Isaacson’s new book, The Innovators, which chronicles the rise of the digital revolution, something struck me. From Charles Babbage to Sergey Brin, the arc of digital innovation has gone through three very distinct stages.

In the beginning of the digital revolution, some 150 years ago, the innovator was the inventor and the gentleman scientist. They maintained and nurtured academic networks but often worked alone. The primary way they spread ideas was through publishing them in journals. If, as in the case of Charles Babbage and his Differential Engine, there was prototyping required, they would find a patron and then hire the people required to fabricate the prototype. They did this because they could. In this time, innovation was not a particularly resource-intensive endeavor.

But, as we moved into the 20th century, things changed. For the next 6 decades, Isaacson’s innovators tended to be found in one of three places: an university, a government funded lab or a corporate lab. Innovators were generally cogs in much bigger machines. Why? Because the scope of innovation had changed. It had become much more resource hungry. You needed the bulk of a Bell Labs in order to turn out a prototypical transistor.

One also gets the sense that many of the innovators Isaacson profiles were barely tolerated within these more corporate environments. Brilliance often comes coupled with abrasiveness as its dance partner. Many of the forebears of the digital revolution seem to be – not to put too fine a point on it – assholes. If you read between the lines you get the sense that both the innovator and their place of innovation would be immeasurably happier if their paths diverged. But, given the realities of the world at the time, they both needed each other.

Starting in the Sixties, a new breed of innovator emerged – the innovative entrepreneur. Almost without exception, they started within a larger organizational context, but soon found a way to break free and build a company around their innovativeness. Gordon Moore, Robert Noyce, Bill Hewlett, David Packard, Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Larry Page and Sergey Brin – all took a new path to innovation. Thanks to the introduction of venture capital, innovation could become the road to riches.

This all becomes more than academically interesting in the light of Google’s announced corporate re-org. Essentially, they’re trying to buck the trend of innovative evolution. Page and Brin feel that innovation can still be contained within the boundaries of a corporate structure, as long as that structure is – well – innovative enough.

In theory, their logic looks sound. The biggest complaint I hear from current Googlers is their feeling of inconsequentiality within a massive organization. Breaking the big boat into a bunch of smaller life rafts could solve that problem. If you could somehow provide innovators with enough room to stretch their mental muscles and yet support them with the enormous resources Google/Alphabet has at their disposal, it seems like a no-lose scenario. Essentially, Alphabet should be able to provide a steroid powered incubator for innovation.

Yet, I remain skeptical. I suspect innovation may defy the best-laid corporate logic. You can sketch out an org-chart that seems like a stable platform for entrepreneurialism, but I think the entrepreneurs may still squeeze out through the cracks. Even if they’re not egotistical jerks, they are, by their very nature, individualistic. They defy authority. Their dreams are tough to contain. Where you see a supportive incubator, they see a restrictive cage. Corporations tend to excel at incremental innovation, but disruptive innovation comes from individuals who don’t play nice at company picnics. And that’s the type of innovation that Alphabet is betting on.

Alphabet is an interesting development in corporate structures. I hope it works. But I’m not sure you can harness entrepreneurialism because it, like information and the human spirit, yearns to be free.

Farewell Search Insider. It’s Been Fun!

Note: This is my farewell column for MediaPost’s Search Insider.

476.

What’s significant about that number? Well, it’s a Harshad number. Math geeks can learn more here. For history buffs, it’s also the year in the Julian calendar when we switched from the Julian to the Anno Domini calendar. Generally, it’s when most historians say the Roman Empire fell and we went from ancient history to the Middle Ages.

It also happens to be the number of Search Insider columns I’ve written since my first appearance here 10 and a half years ago.

It’s been a good run. I’ve had fun. I’ve ranted the odd time. I’ve taken you with me on my family vacations. Most of all, I’ve had a ringside seat at the emergence of a true industry. In fact, that’s what my very first column was about – Search growing beyond the confines of a cottage industry into a real contender for ad budgets. Here’s how I ended that column:

Search will become much more sophisticated, and the price of entry to play the game may prove to be too expensive for many smaller providers. Alliances will form and total solutions will begin to emerge. Google and Yahoo! will have to address the huge amount of time and effort required to manage a large, sponsored search campaign. Real money will start to be invested and made.

And to think, one day I’ll be able to say I was there.

Well, I guess that day has arrived. In the next 5 years, according to Forrester, digital will surpass TV as the single biggest destination for marketing budgets and search will make up the lion’s share of that spend. Digital budgets combined are forecast to top $100 billion. I think that qualifies as “real money.”

But regular readers will also know that over the past 10 plus years, my columns have spent less and less time inside the “Search Insider” box. I’ve talked before about the artificiality of the way we’ve divided online up into channels. As our digital world has become richer and more robust, it’s become increasingly difficult to keep it compartmentalized into arbitrarily defined boxes. My personal interest has always centered on human behaviors and the rapidly growing intersection between behavior and technology. Search is part of that, but so is social and mobile and content and rich media and wearable technology and – well – you get the idea. Digital is a deeply and widely interwoven part of our lives. It makes up much of the context of our environment. Trying to talk only about one part of it would be like trying to describe the world by only writing about water.

At the end of 2014 (AD – just to keep our calendar references consistent), Ken Fadner, the publisher of MediaPost, asked me if I’d consider a move. I said yes. So this column – number 476 – will be my last one for the Search Insider. Starting next week, I’ll join the Online Spin lineup. It’s probably more appropriate. I haven’t been active in search marketing for the last 2 years. I’m hardly an “Insider” any more. I am, at best, a somewhat informed observer commenting from the sidelines. I think that can still be a useful perspective. I hope so. I will continue to write about the things that interest me: corporate strategy, human behavior, evolving cultures, digital technology – and yes, the odd rant.

So, for those of you who have been along for the ride for the last 10 and a half years, thanks for sticking around. When this ride started, there was no Facebook, no iPhone, no YouTube, no Twitter – and Google was just starting to figure out how to make some real money.

We’ve come a long way. But I suspect we’ve barely started. Maybe we’re even transitioning from one era to another. After all, it’s happened before when we’ve hit the number 476.

See you next Tuesday at Online Spin.