Why Growth Hacking Works

April 12 2015 // Marketing // 3 Comments

The reason growth hacking works has nothing to do with growth hacking and everything to do with blowing up organizational silos.

What Is Growth Hacking?

M.C. Escher Drawing Hands

Marketers love to market. We’re forever repackaging and rebranding, even when it comes to our own profession. Can you blame us really? We’re frequently the last ones to get the credit and the first ones to get the blame and corresponding pink slip.

Nevertheless these redefinitions often induce a sigh and eye-roll from yours truly. Do we really have to go through all this again? Perhaps I’m just cranky and getting old.

Sean Ellis was the first to bring the term growth hacking to the mainstream in his 2010 post.

A growth hacker is a person whose true north is growth.  Everything they do is scrutinized by its potential impact on scalable growth.

They must have the creativity to figure out unique ways of driving growth in addition to testing/evolving the techniques proven by other companies.

An effective growth hacker also needs to be disciplined to follow a process of prioritizing ideas (their own and others in the company), testing the ideas, and being analytical enough to know which tested growth drivers to keep and which ones to cut.

His piece compares this to a rather bloated and generic job description for a marketing hire. Perhaps those descriptions exist but this would point toward a larger problem of simply not understanding online marketing.

Andrew Chen followed up with a post that emphasized this division between a ‘traditional marketer’ and a growth hacker.

Let’s be honest, a traditional marketer would not even be close to imagining the integration above – there’s too many technical details needed for it to happen. As a result, it could only have come out of the mind of an engineer tasked with the problem of acquiring more users from Craigslist.

Who is this traditional marketer? I worked as a marketer through both Web 1.0 and Web 2.0, hustling for ‘growth’ wherever I could find it.

Maybe I had an advantage because I came from a direct marketing background. I believe in data. And I love digging into technology.

No OLAP tool? Teach myself SQL. Want to change something on my blog? Learn PHP, HTML and CSS. Need a handy bookmarklet? Learn a bit of JavaScript.

I was (and still am) looking at emerging platforms and tactics to get eyeballs on a brand and productive clicks to a site. And you better be measuring the right way. Get the measurement wrong and you might not achieve real growth.

There are plenty of marketers figuring this stuff out. And plenty of marketers who aren’t.

The Lazy Marketer

Lazy Marketers

I’m frequently hard on marketers as a group because there are a number of them who seem more consumed by expensing dinner and covering their asses while being able to point at the well-regarded vendors they hired to do the work than actually understanding and doing the work themselves.

Lazy marketers piss me off because they give all marketers a bad reputation. So I understand why folks like Sean and Andrew might want to create an artificial construct that excludes lazy marketers.

But the truth is that marketers have been growth hacking for decades. You don’t think sophisticated RFM campaigns aren’t a form of growth hacking? I could tell you a thing or two about the strange value of the R dimension.

Brand marketers use data to understand aided and unaided recall. And I remember being shocked as a young account coordinator at an advertising agency at the calculations used to determine the value of sponsorships based on the seconds of TV exposure it generated.

Growth hacking is really just a rejection of lazy marketing.

Because … Growth

Moar LOLcat

I see little distinction between talented online marketers who use technology and data to secure gains and the newly minted growth hackers. They’re drawing on the same skills and mindset.

I’ve been lucky to get a peek into a decent number of organizations over the last few years. What I’ve come to realize is growth hacking works or … can work. But it has everything to do with how an organization integrates growth.

The secret to growth hacking success is the ability to go anywhere in the organization to achieve growth.

A good growth hacker can push for traditional SEO changes, then hop over to the email team and tweak life cycle campaigns, then go to design and push for conversion rate optimization tests, then engage engineering and demand that the site get faster and then approach product with ideas to improve gradual engagement.

When that growth hacker gets pushback from any of these teams they can simply fallback on the central mantra. Why should we do X, Y and Z? Because … growth!

Organize For Growth

Road Painted With Many Lanes

As much as I hate to admit it, the term growth hacker often provides a once constrained marketer with greater opportunity to effect change in an organization. A growth hacker with the same skills but a marketing title would be rebuffed or seen as over-stepping their responsibilities.

“Stay in your lane.”

That’s what many talented marketers are told. You’re in marketing so don’t go mucking around in things you don’t understand. It can be wickedly frustrating, particularly when many of the other teams aren’t relying as heavily on data to guide their decisions.

The beauty of the term ‘growth hacker’ is that it doesn’t really fit anywhere in a traditional sense. They’re automatically orbiting the hairball. But the organization must support ventures into all areas of the company for that individual (or team) to succeed.

Simply hiring a growth hacker to work in marketing won’t have the desired impact. I see many companies doing this. They want the results growth hacking can deliver but they aren’t willing to make the organizational change to allow it to happen.

Growth Hackers

Don't Be A Dick Batman

Hopefully I’ve convinced you that organizations need to change for growth hacking to be successful. But what about the growth hackers themselves?

The job requires a solid rooting in data and technology with an equal amount of curiosity and creativity to boot. Where the rubber really hits the road is in communication and entrepreneurial backbone.

A good growth hacker needs a fair amount of soft skills so they can effectively communicate and work with other teams. Because even if the organization supports cross-functional growth, those teams aren’t always pooping rainbows when the growth hacker knocks on their proverbial door.

Amid these grumbles, growth hackers are often under a bit of a microscope. As the cliche goes, with great power comes great responsibility. So the growth hacker better be ready to show results.

That doesn’t always mean that what they try works. Failure or ‘accelerated data-informed learning’ is a valuable part of growth hacking. You just better be able to manage the ebb and flow of wins and not lose the confidence of teams when you hit a losing streak.

Frankly, good growth hackers are very hard to find.

TL;DR

Growth hacking skills are nothing new but simply a rebranding exercise for tech-savvy marketers sick of being marginalized. But growth hacking only works when an organization blows up functional silos and allows these individuals to seek growth anywhere in the company.

My Favorite SEO Tool

March 24 2015 // SEO // 27 Comments

My favorite SEO tool isn’t an SEO tool at all. Don’t get me wrong, I use and like plenty of great SEO tools. But I realized that I was using this one tool all the time.

Chrome Developer Tools how I love thee, let me count the ways.

Chrome Developer Tools

The one tool I use countless times each day is Chrome Developer Tools. You can find this handy tool under the View -> Developer menu in Chrome.

chrome-developer-tools

Or you can simply right click and select Inspect Element. (I suppose the latter is actually easier.) Here’s what it looks like (on this site) when you open Chrome Developer Tools.

Chrome Developer Tools In Action

There is just an incredible amount of functionality packed into Chrome Developer Tools. Some of it is super technical and I certainly don’t use all of the features. I’m only going to scratch the surface with this post.

But hopefully you’re not overwhelmed by it all because there are some simple features that are really helpful on a day-to-day basis.

Check Status Codes

One of the simplest things to do is to use the Network tab to check on the status code of a page. For instance, how does a site handle domain level canonicalization.

Chrome Developer Tools Network Tab

With the Network tab open I go directly to the non-www version of this site and I can see how it redirects to the www version. In this case it’s doing exactly what it’s supposed to do.

If I want more information I can click on any of these line items and see the headers information.

Chrome Developer Tools Network Detail

You can catch some pretty interesting things by looking at what comes through the Network tab. For instance, soon after a client transitioned from http to https I noted the following response code chain.

An https request for a non-www URL returned a 301 to the www http version (domain level canonicalization) and then did another 301 to the www https version of that URL.

The double 301 and routing from https to http and back again can (and should) be avoided by doing the domain level canonicalization and https redirect at the same time. So that’s what we did … in the span of an hour!

I won’t get into the specifics of what you can tease out of the headers here because it would get way too dense. But suffice to say it can be a treasure of information.

Of course there are times I fire up something more detailed like Charles or Live HTTP Headers, but I’m doing so less frequently given the advancements in Chrome Developer Tools.

Check Mobile

There was a time when checking to see how a site would look on mobile was a real pain in the ass. But not with Chrome Developer Tools!

Chrome Developer Tools Viewport Rendering

The little icon that looks like mobile phone is … awesome. Click it!

Chrome Developer Tools Select Mobile Device

Now you can select a Device and reload the page to see how it looks on that device. Here’s what this site looks like on mobile.

Chrome Developer Tools Mobile Test

The cool thing is you can even click around and navigate on mobile in this interface to get a sense of what the experience is really like for mobile users without firing up your own phone.

A little bonus tip here is that you can clear the device by clicking the icon to the left and then use the UA field to do specific User Agent (UA) testing.

Chrome Developer Tools Override

For instance, without a Device selected what happens when Googlebot Smartphone hits my site. All I have to do is use the UA override and put in the Googlebot Smartphone User Agent.

Chrome Developer Tools UA Override Example

Sure enough it looks like Googlebot Smartphone will see the page correctly. This is increasingly important as we get closer to the 4/21/15 mopocalypse.

You can copy and paste from the Google Crawlers list or use one of a number of User Agent extensions (like this one) to do this. However, if you use one of the User Agent extensions you won’t see the UA show up in the UA field. But you can confirm it’s working via the headers in the Network tab.

Show Don’t Tell

The last thing I’ll share is how I use Chrome Developer Tools to show instead of tell clients about design and readability issues.

If you go back to some of my older posts you’ll find that they’re not as readable. I had to figure this stuff out as I went along.

Show Don't Tell Irony

This is a rather good post about Five Foot Web Design, which pretty much violates a number of the principles described in the piece. I often see design and readability issues and it can be difficult for a client to get that feedback, particularly if I’m just pointing out the flaws and bitching about it.

So instead I give them a type of side-by-side comparison by editing the HTML in Chrome Developer Tools and then taking a screen capture of the optimized version I’ve created.

You do this by using the Elements tab (1) and then using the Inspect tool (2) to find the area of the code you want to edit.

Chrome Developer Tools Elements Tab

The inspect tool is the magnifying glass if you’re confused and it just lets you sort of zero in on the area of that page. It will highlight the section on the page and then show where that section resides in the code below.

Now, the next step can be a bit scary because you’re just wading into the HTML to tweak what the page looks like.

Chrome Developer Tools Edit HTML

A few things to remember here. You’re not actually changing the code on that site or page. You can’t hurt that site by playing with the code here. Trust me, I screw this up all the time because I know just enough HTML and CSS to be dangerous.

In addition, if you reload this page after you’ve edited it using Chrome Developer Tools all of your changes will vanish. It’s sort of like an Etch-A-Sketch. You doodle on it and then you shake it and it disappears.

So the more HTML you know the more you can do in this interface. I generally just play with stuff until I get it to look how I want it to look.

Chrome Developer Tools HTML Edit Result

Here I’ve added a header of sorts and changed the font size and line height. I do this sort of thing for a number of clients so I can show them what I’m talking about. A concrete example helps them understand and also gives them something to pass on to designers and developers.

TL;DR

Chrome Developer Tools is a powerful suite of tools that any SEO should be using to make their lives easier and more productive.

Non-Linking URLs Seen As Links

March 20 2015 // SEO // 27 Comments

(This post has been updated so make sure you read all the way to the bottom.)

Are non-linking URLs (pasted URLs) seen as links by Google? There’s long been chatter and rumor that they do among various members of the SEO community. I found something the other day that seems to confirm this.

Google Webmaster Tools Crawl Errors

I keep a close eye on the Crawl Errors report in Google Webmaster Tools with a particular focus on ‘Not found’ errors. I look to see if they’re legitimate and whether they’re linked internally (which is very bad) or externally.

The place to look for this information is in the ‘Linked from’ tab of a specific error.

Linked From Tab on 404 Error

Now, all too often the internal links presented here are woefully out-of-date (and that’s being generous.) You click through, search for the link in the code and don’t find it. Again and again and again. Such was the case here. This is extremely annoying but is a topic for another blog post.

Instead let’s focus on that one external link. Because I figured this was the reason Google continued to return the page as an error even though 1stdibs had stopped linking to it ages ago.

Pasted URL Seen As Link?

That’s not a link! It’s a pasted URL but it’s not a link. (Ignore the retargeted ad.) Looking at the code there’s no <a> tag. Maybe it was there and then removed but that … doesn’t seem likely. In addition, I’ve seen a few more examples of this behavior but didn’t capture them at the time and have since marked those errors as fixed. #kickingmyself

Google (or a tool Google provides) is telling me that the page in question links to this 404 page.

Non-Linking URLs Treated As Links?

This Is Not A Link

It’s not a stretch to think that Google would be able to recognize the pattern of a URL in text and, thus, treat it as a link. And there are good reasons why they might want to since many unsophisticated users botch the HTML.

By treating pasted URLs as links Google can recover those citations, acknowledge the real intent and pass authority appropriately. (Though it doesn’t look like they’re doing that but instead using it solely for discovery.)

All of this is interesting from an academic perspective but doesn’t really change a whole lot in the scheme of things. Hopefully you’re not suddenly thinking that you should go out and try to secure non-linking URLs. (Seriously, don’t!)

What’s your take? Is this the smoking gun proof that Google treats non-linking URLs as links?

[Update]

Apparently John Mueller confirmed this in a Google+ Hangout back in September of 2013. So while seeing it in Google Webmaster Tools might be new(ish), Google clearly acknowledges and crawls non-linked URLs. Thanks to Glenn Gabe for pointing me to this information.

In addition, Dan Petrovic did a study to determine if non-linking URLs influenced rankings and found it likely that they did not. This makes a bit of sense since you wouldn’t be able to nofollow these pasted URLs, opening the door to abuse via blog comments.

Aggregating Intent

March 13 2015 // SEO // 14 Comments

Successful search engine optimization strategies must aggregate intent. This is something I touched on in my What Is SEO post and also demonstrated in my Rich Snippets Algorithm piece. But I want to talk about it in depth because it’s that important.

Aggregating Intent

Many of Google’s Knowledge Cards aggregate intent. Here’s the Knowledge Card displayed when I search for ‘va de vi’.

Knowledge Card Aggregates Intent

Google knows that Va de Vi is a restaurant. But they don’t quite know what my intent is behind such a broad query. Before Knowledge Cards Google would rely on providing a mixture of results to satisfy different intents. This was effective but inefficient and incomplete. Knowledge Cards makes aggregating intent a breeze.

What type of restaurant is it? Is it expensive? Where is it? How do I get there? What’s their phone number? Can I make a reservation? What’s on the menu? Is the food good? Is it open now? What alternatives are nearby?

Just look at that! In one snapshot this Knowledge Card satisfies a multitude of intents and does so quickly.

It’s not just restaurants either. Here’s a Knowledge Card result for ‘astronautalis’.

Aggregating Intent in Google Knowledge Cards

Once again you can see a variety of intents addressed by this Knowledge Card. Who is Astronautalis? Can I listen to some of his music? Where is he playing next? What are some of his popular songs? How can I connect with him? What albums has he released?

Google uses Knowledge Cards to quickly aggregate multiple intents and essentially cover all their bases when it comes to entity based results. If it’s good enough for Google shouldn’t it be good enough for you?

Active and Passive Intent

Aggregating Intent

So how does this translate into the search strategies you and I can implement? The easiest way to think about this is to understand that each query comes with active and passive intent.

Active intent is the intent that is explicitly described by the query syntax. A search for ‘bike trails in walnut creek’ is explicitly looking for a list of bike trails in walnut creek. (Thank you captain obvious.)

You must satisfy active intent immediately.

If a user doesn’t immediately see that their active intent has been satisfied they’re going to head back to search results. Trust me, you don’t want that. Google doesn’t like pogosticking. This means that at a glance users must see the answer to their active intent.

One of the mistakes I see many making is addressing active and passive intent equally. Or simply not paying attention to query syntax and decoding intent properly. More than ever, your job as an SEO is to extract intents from query syntax.

Passive intent is the intent that is implicitly described by the query syntax. A search for ‘bike trails in walnut creek’ is implicitly looking for trail maps, trail photos, trail reviews and attributes about those trails such as difficulty and length to name a few.

You create value by satisfying passive intent.

When you satisfy passive intent you’ll see page views per session and time on site increase. You’re ensuring that your site generates long clicks, which is incredibly important from a search engine perspective. It also happens to be the way you build your brand, convert users and ween yourself from being overly dependent on search engine traffic.

I think one of the best ways to think about passive intent is to ask yourself what the user would search for next … over and over again.

Intent Hierarchy

First You Looked Here, Then Here

It’s essential to understand the hierarchy of intent so you can deliver the right experience. This is where content and design collide with “traditional” search. (I use the quotes here because I’ve never really subscribed to search being treated as a niche tactic.)

SEO is a user centric activity in this context. The content must satisfy active and passive intent appropriately. Usually this means that there is ample content to address active intent and units or snippets to satisfy passive intent.

The design must prominently feature active intent content while providing visual cues or a trail of sorts to show that passive intent can also be satisfied. These things are important to SEO.

We can look at Google’s Knowledge Cards to see how they prioritize intent. Sometimes it’s the order in which the content is presented. For instance, usually the ‘people also search for’ is at the bottom of the card. These alternatives always represent passive intent.

For location based entities the map and directions are clearly given more priority by being at the top (and having a strong call to action). While the reviews section is often presented later on, it takes up a material amount of real estate, signaling higher (and potentially active) intent. Those with more passive intent (address, phone, hours etc.) are still available but are not given as high a weight visually.

For an artist (such as Astonautalis) you’ll see that listening options are presented first. Yes, it’s an ad based unit but it also makes sense that this would be an active intent around these queries.

It’s up to us to work with content and design teams to ensure the hierarchy of intent is optimized. Simply putting everything on the page at once or with equal weight will distract or overwhelm the user and chase them back to search results or a competitor.

Decoding Intent

Decoding Intent

While the days of having one page for every variant of query syntax are behind us, we’re still not at the point where one page can address every query syntax and the intents behind them.

If I search for ‘head like a hole lyrics’ the page I reach should satisfy my active intent and deliver the lyrics to this epic NIN song. To serve passive intent I’d want to see a crosslink unit to other songs from Pretty Hate Machine as well as other NIN albums. Maybe there’s another section with links to songs with similar themes.

But if I search for ‘pretty hate machine lyrics’ the page I reach should have a list of songs from that album with each song linking to a page with its lyrics. The crosslink unit on this page would be to other NIN albums and potentially other similar artists albums.

By understanding the query syntax (and in this case query classes) you can construct different page types that address the right hierarchy of intent.

Target the keyword, optimize the intent.

TL;DR

Aggregating intent and understanding how to decode, identify and present active and passive intent from query syntax is vital to success in search and beyond.

Roundup Posts

February 26 2015 // Marketing + Rant // 35 Comments

I’m increasingly conflicted about roundup posts. You know, the kind where 23 experts answer one burning question and their answers are all put together in one long blog post. Instant content! I don’t produce roundup posts, rarely read them and infrequently contribute to them.

Roundup Dynamics

Silence of the Lambs Quid Pro Quo

The dynamics of a roundup post are pretty clear. The person aggregating the answers gets what is essentially free content for their site. Yes, I know you had to email people and potentially format the responses but the level of effort isn’t particularly high.

In exchange, the person providing the answers gets more exposure and gains some authority by being labeled an expert. Even better if your name is associated with other luminaries in the field. It’s an interesting and insidious form of social proof.

Flattery Will Get You Everywhere

Leo DiCaprio You're Awesome

It feels good to be asked to participate in roundup posts. At least at first. You’ve been selected as an expert. Talk about an ego boost!

The beauty of it is that there will always be people who want that recognition. So even if some tire of participating there is a deep reservoir of ego out there ready to be tapped. No matter what I think or write I’m certain we’ll continue to see roundup posts.

I still prefer individual opinion and thought pieces. I like when people step out on the ledge and take a stand one way or the other. Even if I disagree with you, I recognize the effort invested and bravery displayed.

Saturation Marketing Works

Times Square Advertising

I’m a marketer with an advertising background. I know saturation marketing works. So participating in roundup posts seems like a smart strategy. People see your name frequently and you’re always being portrayed in a positive light.

No matter where people turn they’re running into your name and face and you’re being hailed as an expert. Whoo-hoo! What’s wrong with that?

What’s The Frequency Kenneth?

How good is the content in these roundup posts? How much effort are these experts expending? I’m sure some spend a good deal of time on their contribution, if for no other reason than the desire to have the most insightful, provocative or humorous entry. I can’t be alone in thinking this way.

But at some point, as the number of requests rises (and they will since success begets success), you may realize that it’s just about the contribution. Showing up is 90% of the game. It’s not that the responses are bad, but they’re more like off-the-cuff answers than well thought out responses.

Remember Sammy Jankis

Memento Tattoo

Of course, I’m always thinking about how these contributions are being remembered. In a large roundup post is my name and contribution going to be remembered? I somehow doubt it. At least not the specifics.

So the only thing I really gain is installing (yes I do think of the brain like software) the idea of expertise and authority in a larger group of people. Because if you see my name enough times you’ll make those connections.

That’s powerful. No doubt about it.

Why So Serious?

Heath Ledger Joker

I ask myself why I bristle at roundup posts. Why am I increasingly reticent to contribute given my understanding of the marketing value? Am I somehow sabotaging my own success?

All too often I feel like roundup posts don’t deliver enough value to users. The content is uneven and often repetitive from expert to expert, exacerbating scanning behavior. It’s content that makes me go ‘meh’.

I might be dead wrong and could be committing the cardinal sin of marketing by relying on myself as the target market. Yet I don’t think I’m alone. I’ve spoken to others who skip these posts or, worse, have a dim view of those contributing.

Bud Light or Ruination IPA

Beer vs Beer

The top selling beer in the US last year was Bud Light. For many, achieving Bud Light status is the pinnacle of success. The thing is … I don’t want to be Bud Light. Or more to the point, I don’t provide services that match the Bud Light audience.

Lets see if I can express this next part without sounding like a douchebag.

I don’t run a large agency. I’m not in the volume business. Many of my clients are dubious of the public discourse taking place on digital marketing. They rely on their professional networks to connect them to someone who can make sense of it all and sort fact from fiction. Because, and here’s the hard truth, they don’t really believe all those people are experts.

My clients are those who crave a deliciously bitter Ruination IPA. And the way to find and appeal to those people is different. Budweiser spent gobs on Super Bowl advertising. Stone Brewing? Not so much.

So, I’m left thinking about the true meaning of authority and expertise. It’s subjective. Obviously a lot of people dig Bud Light. That’s cool. But that’s not my audience. I’m seeking authority from a different audience.

Roundup Posts

Roundup Posts

I’ll still participate in roundup posts from time to time, though I may have just shot myself in the foot with this piece. I’m inclined to contribute to posts that cover a topic I might not normally write about or to site that has a different audience.

My goal is to ensure I maintain some visibility, without going overboard, while securing authority with new audiences that match my business goals. Your business goals might be different, so contributing to lots and lots of roundup posts might be right up your alley.

TL;DR

There’s nothing inherently wrong with roundup posts as a part of your content marketing strategy. But you should understand whether this tactic reaches your target market and aligns with your business goals.

We Want To Believe

January 20 2015 // Marketing + SEO + Social Media // 5 Comments

Fake news and images are flourishing and even Snopes can’t hold back the tide of belief. Marketers should be taking notes, not to create their own fake campaigns but to understand the psychology that makes it possible and connect that to digital marketing trends.

We Want To Believe

I Want To Believe Poster

Agent Mulder, of the X-Files, was famous for his desire to believe in aliens and all sorts of other phenomena. The truth is, we all want to believe. Maybe not in aliens but a host of other things. It’s not that we’re gullible, per se, but that we are inherently biased and seek what feels like the truth.

One of the pieces that fooled some of my colleagues was the story about a busy restaurant who’d commissioned research on why service ratings had declined over time.

Restaurant Service Cellphones Fake Research

This was a post on Craigslist in the rants & raves section. Think about that for a moment. This is not a bastion of authenticity. But the post detailed patrons’ obsession with their phones and the inordinate amount of time they took texting and taking pictures of their food.

This self-absorbed, technology-obsessed customer was the real problem. Many reported this ‘research’ as fact because the findings were ones that people wanted to believe. Too many of us have witnessed something similar. We have experience that creates a bias to believe.

We wanted the story to be true because it felt right and matched our preconceptions and beliefs.

The Subversive Jimmy Kimmel

While Jimmy Fallon may be the more affable of late night hosts, Jimmy Kimmel has been doing what I think is some ground-breaking work. His most popular pranks have exposed our desire to believe.

Twerking was jumping the shark and this video tapped into our collective eye-roll of the practice. But less than a week later Kimmel revealed that it was all a hoax.

He didn’t stop there though. The next time he enlisted Olympian Kate Hansen to post a video that purportedly showed a wolf wandering the halls at the Sochi Olympics.

Once again, Kimmel revealed that while it was a wolf, it wasn’t anywhere near Russia. I’m not sure people give Kimmel enough credit. He made people believe there were wolves roaming the halls at the Olympics!

Now, why did we believe? We believed because the narrative was already set. Journalists were complaining about the conditions at Sochi. So when the wolf video appeared and it was endorsed by an Olympic athlete no less, well, we fell for it. It matched our expectations.

It’s not about the truth, it’s about it making sense.

Experience, Belief and Marketing

Adventure Time Demon Cat

So how does our desire to believe connect to marketing? Marketers should be figuring out how to create a narrative and set expectations.

Content marketing is popular right now because it provides us the opportunity to shape expectations.

I’ve written quite a bit about how to maximize attention. If you only remember one thing from that piece it’s that we’re constantly rewriting our memory.

Every interaction we have with a site or brand will cause us to edit that entry in our head, if even just a little. Each time this happens marketers have an opportunity to change the narrative and reset expectations.

For a restaurant this means that a bad meal, even after having numerous good ones in the past, can have a serious impact on that patron’s perception and propensity to return. I used to love eating at Havana, a nearby Cuban restaurant. My wife and I had many great meals (and Mojitos) there. But about a year ago we had a sub-par dinner.

Because we’d had so many good meals before we wrote it off as an aberration. This is an important thing to understand. Because what it really means is that we felt like our experience didn’t match our expectation. But instead of changing our expectation we threw away that experience. You should get a raise if you’re able to pull this off as a marketer.

We returned a few months later and it was another clunker. This time we came to the conclusion that the food quality had simply taken a nose dive. We haven’t been back since. Our perception and expectation changed in the span of two bad experiences.

Content, in any form, follows the same rules. Consistently delivering content that reinforces or rewrites a positive brand expectation is vital to success.

Know The Landscape

Beached Whale Revealed In Painting

Our experiences create context and a marketer needs to understand that context, the landscape, before constructing a content strategy. Because it’s not about the truth. It’s about what people are willing to believe.

All too often I find companies who struggle with this concept. They have the best product or service out there but people are beating a path to their competitor(s) instead. It’s incomprehensible. They’re indignant. Their response is usually to double-down on the ‘but we’re the best’ meme.

Nearly ten years ago I was working at Alibris, a used, rare and out-of-print book site. Within the bookselling community the Alibris name was mud. The reason could be traced back to when Alibris entered the market. The Alibris CEO was blunt, telling booksellers that they would be out of business if they didn’t jump on the band wagon.

He was right. But the way the message was delivered, among other things, led to a general negative perception of the brand among booksellers, a notoriously independent bunch. #middlefingersraised

How could I change this negative brand equity? Did I just tell sellers that we were awesome? No. Instead I figured out the landscape and used content and influencer marketing to slowly change the perception of the brand.

Our largest competitor was Abebooks. So I signed up as a seller there, which also gave me access to their community forum. It was here that I carefully read seller complaints about the industry and about Abebooks itself. What I came to realize was that many of their complaints were actually areas where Alibris excelled. Sellers just weren’t willing to see it because of their perception (or expectation) of the brand.

So every month in our seller newsletter I would talk about an Alibris feature that I knew would hit a nerve. I knew that it was a pain point for the industry or an Abebooks pet peeve. Inevitably, these newsletter items were talked about in the forums. At first the response went a little like this. “Alibris is still evil, but at least they’re doing something about this one thing.”

At the same time I identified vocal detractors of our brand and called them on the phone. I wanted them to vent and asked them what it would take for them to give Alibris a try. My secret goal was to change their perception of the brand, to humanize it, and neutralize their contribution to the negative narrative in the community.

It didn’t happen overnight but over the course of a year the narrative did change. Booksellers saw us as a brand trying to do right by them, perhaps ‘seeing the error of our ways’ and forging a new path. They gave us the benefit of the doubt. They grudgingly told stories about how sales on Alibris were similar to those on Abebooks.

I’d changed the narrative about the brand.

I didn’t do this through cheerleading. Instead, I led the community to content that slowly rewrote their expectations of Alibris. I never told them Alibris was better, I simply presented content that made them re-evaluate their perception of ‘Abebooks vs. Alibris’.

Influencer Marketing

Why do some of these fake stories take hold so quickly? The Sochi wolf had a respected Olympic athlete in on the gag. She was a trusted person, an influencer, with no real reason to lie.

Fake NASA Weightless Tweet

People wouldn’t have believed this false weightless claim if it hadn’t been delivered as a (spoofed) Tweet from NASA’s official Twitter account. Our eyes told us that someone in authority, the ultimate authority in this case, said it was true. That and we wanted to believe. Maybe this time in something amazing. Not aliens exactly but close.

So when we talk about influencer marketing we’re talking about enlisting others who can reinforce the narrative of your brand. These people can act as a cementing agent. It’s not so much about their reach (though that’s always nice) but the fact that it suddenly makes sense for us to believe because someone else, someone we trust or respect, agrees.

At that point we’re more willing to become evangelizers of the brand. That’s the true value of influencer marketing. People will actively start passing along that positive narrative to their friends, family and colleagues. If you’re familiar with the Net Promoter concept you can think of influencer marketing as a way to get people from passives (7-8) to promoters (9-10).

Influencer marketing converts customers into evangelizers who actively spread your brand narrative.

Justin Timberlake Is A Nice Guy?

Dick In a Box Sceenshot

Take my opinion (and probably yours) of Justin Timberlake. He seems like a really nice guy, right? But I don’t know Justin. I’ve never met him and odds are neither have you. For all we know, he could be a raging asshole. But I think he isn’t because of a constant drip of content that has shaped my opinion of him.

He’s the guy who is willing to do crazy stuff and poke fun at himself on SNL. He goes on prom dates. He’s the sensitive guy who encourages a musician in a MasterCard commercial. He celebrates at Taco Bell. I don’t even like his music but I like him.

The next thing I want to say is that it probably helps that he really is a nice guy. But I honestly don’t know that! I want to believe that but I’m also sure he has a very savvy PR team.

Uber Is Evil?

Skepticism Intensifies

Uber is a great example of when you lose control of the narrative. A darling of the ‘sharing economy’ Uber might torpedo that movement because they’re suddenly seen as an uber-villain. (Sorry, I couldn’t help it.)

Once again, it’s about consistency. It’s about rewriting that perception. So taking a brand down doesn’t happen, generally, with just one gaff. You have to step in it over and over again.

Uber’s done that. From placing fake orders or other dirty tricks against competitors, to threatening journalists, to violating user privacy, to surge pricing, to sexual assault to verbal abuse of a cancer patient.

Suddenly, every Uber story fits a new narrative and expectation. Uber is evil. Is that the truth? Not really. Is it what we want to believe? Yup.

Uber screwed up numerous times but their negative brand equity is partly due to the landscape. There are enough people (me included) who aren’t keen on the sharing economy that took Uber’s missteps as an opportunity to float an alternate narrative, attacking the sharing economy by proxy.

Either way, it became increasingly easy to get stories published that met this new expectation and increasingly difficult for positive experiences to see the light of day. This is explained incredibly well in a case study on Internet celebrity brought to my attention by Rand Fishkin.

The video is 19 minutes long, which is usually an eternity in my book. But this video is worth it. Every marketer should watch it all the way through.

A Content Marketing Framework

I realize that I use a number of terms almost interchangeably throughout this piece. In truth, there are wrinkles and nuance to these ideas. If they weren’t confusing then everyone would be a marketing god. But I want to provide a strawman framework for you to remember and try out.

Why Content Marketing Works

Our experience with content creates context or bias that changes our belief or perception of that brand resulting in a new expectation when we encounter the brand again.

At any point in this journey a person can be exposed to a competitor’s content which can change context and bias. In addition, influencer marketing and social proof can help reinforce context and cement belief.

I’d love to hear your feedback on this framework and whether it helps you to better focus your marketing efforts.

TL;DR

The lesson marketers should be taking from the proliferation of fake news and images isn’t to create our own fake stories or products. Instead we should be deciphering why people believe and use that knowledge to construct more effective digital marketing campaigns.

Google Autocomplete Query Personalization

January 14 2015 // SEO // 22 Comments

The other day a friend emailed me asking if I’d ever seen behavior where Google’s autocomplete suggestions would change based on a prior query.

Lucifer from Battlestar Galatica

I’ve seen search results change based on prior queries but I couldn’t recall the autocomplete suggestions changing in the way he detailed. So I decided to poke around and see what was going on. Here’s what I found.

Query Dependent Autocomplete Example

Here’s the example I was sent. The individual was cleaning up an old computer and didn’t quite know the purpose of a specific program named ‘WineBottler’.

Search Result for WineBottler

Quickly understanding that he didn’t need this program anymore he began to search for ‘uninstall winebottler’ but found that Google’s autocomplete had beat him to it.

Query Dependent Google Autocomplete

There it was already listed as an autocomplete suggestion. This is very different from doing the uninstall query on a fresh session.

Normal Autocomplete Suggestions

I was intrigued. So I started to try other programs in hopes of replicating the query dependent functionality displayed. I tried ‘SnagIt’ and ‘Photoshop’ but each time I did I got the same generic autocomplete suggestions.

Query Class Volume

Coincidentally I was also chatting with Barbara Starr about an old research paper (pdf) that Bill Slawski had brought to my attention. The subject of the paper was in identifying what I call query classes, or a template of sorts, which is expressed as a root term plus a modifier. Easy examples might be ‘[song] lyrics’ or ‘[restaurant] menu’.

So what does this have to do with autocomplete suggestions? Well, my instinct told me that there might be a query class of ‘uninstall [program]’. I clicked over to Ubersuggest to see if I just hadn’t hit on the popular ones but the service was down. Instead I landed on SERPs Suggest which was handy since it also brought in query volume for those autocomplete suggestions.

I searched for ‘uninstall’ and scrolled to where the results were making the most sense to me.

SERPs Suggests Keyword Tool

Quite obviously there is a query class around ‘uninstall [program]’. Now it was time to see if those with high volume (aka intent) would trigger the query class based autocomplete suggestions.

Query Class Based Autocomplete Suggestions

The scourge of the pop-under world, MacKeeper, jumped out at me so I gave that one a try.

MacKeeper Search Result

Google Autocomplete for Uninstall after MacKeeper query

Sure enough the first autocomplete suggestion is uninstall mackeeper. It’s also interesting to note the prior query is kept in reference in the URL. This isn’t new. It’s been like that for quite some time but it makes this type of scenario far easier to explain.

At random I tried another one from my target list.

Parallels Search Results

Uninstall Autocomplete after Parallels Query

Yup. Same thing.

Classes or Attributes?

It got me thinking though whether it was about query classes or just attributes of an entity.  So I poked around a bit more and was able to find examples in the health field. (Sorry to be a debbie downer.) Here’s a search for lymphoma.

Lymphoma Search Results

Followed by a search for treatment.

Autocomplete for Treatment after Lymphoma Query

This differs from a clean search for ‘treat’.

Treat Autocomplete Suggestions

Treatment is an attribute of the entity Lymphoma. Then again ‘treatment of [ailment]’ is also a fairly well-defined query class. So perhaps I’m splitting hairs in trying to pry apart classes from attributes.

It Doesn’t Always Work

I figured I could find more of these quickly and selected a field that I thought had many query classes: music. Search for a band, then search for something like ‘tour dates’ or ‘tickets’ and see if I could get the query dependent autocomplete suggestions to fire.

I tried Kasabian.

Kasabian Search Results

And then tour dates.

Tour Dates Autocomplete Suggestions

Nothing about Kasabian at all. Just generic tour dates autocomplete suggestions. I tried this for many other artists including the ubiquitous Taylor Swift and got the same results, or lack thereof.

I had a few theories of why music might be exempted but it would all just be conjecture. But it did put a bit of a dent into my next leap in logic, which would have been to conversational search.

Not Conversational Search

One of the bigger components of Hummingbird was the ability to perform conversational search that, often, wouldn’t require the user to reference the specific noun again. The classic example being ‘How tall is the Eiffel Tower?’ ‘Who built it?’

Now in the scheme of things conversational search is, in part, built upon identifying query classes and how people string them together in a query session. So it wouldn’t be a shock if this started showing up in Google’s autocomplete suggestions. Yet that’s not what appears to be happening.

Because you can do a voice search using Google Now for ‘Kasabian’ and then follow up with ‘tickets for them’ and get a very different and relevant set of results. They figure out the pronoun reference and substitute appropriately to generate the right query: ‘Kasabian Tickets’.

What Does Google Say?

Of course it pays to see what Google says about their Autocomplete suggestions predictions.

About Google Autocomplete Predictions

I find it interesting that they call them predictions and not suggestions. It’s far more scientific. More Googly. But I’m not changing my references throughout this piece!

But here we can see a probable mash-up of “search activity of users” (aka query classes) and “relevant searches you’ve done in the past” (aka query history). Previously, the query history portion was more about ensuring that my autocomplete for ‘smx’ might start with ‘smx east’.

Personalized Autocomplete

While the autocomplete for someone unaffiliated with search wouldn’t get that suggestion.

Nonpersonalized Autocomplete

So I’m left to think that this new session based autocomplete personalization is relatively new but may have been going on for quite some time without many people noticing.

There’s a lot more research that could be done here so please let me know if and when you’ve noticed this feature as well as any other examples you might have of this behavior.

For Google the reason for doing this is easy. It’s just one more way that they can reduce the time to long click.

TL;DR

Google is personalizing autocomplete suggestions based on a prior query when it matches a defined query class or entity attribute.

Image Blind

December 16 2014 // Analytics + SEO // 15 Comments

Images are an increasingly important part of the Internet landscape. Yet marketers are provided very little in the way of reliable metrics to allow us to understand their power and optimize accordingly. This is doubly strange given the huge amount of research going on regarding images within search engine giants such as Google.

Image Tracking In Google Analytics

There is none. Or at least there is no image search tracking in Google Analytics unless you create filters based on referrers. I wrote about how to track image search in Google Analytics in March of 2013 and updated that post in April of 2014.

The problem with this method is that it is decreasing in usefulness. I still use it and recommend it because some visibility is better than none. But when Chrome removed the referrer completely from these clicks earlier this year it really hurt the accuracy of the filter.

Who cares you might be asking. I care because image search intent and the resulting user behavior is often wildly different than web search.

Google Image Search Traffic Behavior

The users coming to the site above via web search have vastly different behavior metrics than those coming from image search. I’ve highlighted the dramatic pages per visit and time on site metrics. Shouldn’t we be building user stories and personas round this type of user?

For a while I explained away the reasons for not providing image search tracking in Google Analytics under the umbrella of privacy. I understand that Google was pretty much forced to move to ‘not provided’ because of lawsuits, Gaos v. Google Inc. in particular. I get it.

But I’m with Chris Messina. Privacy shouldn’t be a four letter word. And the one company who has the best chance of changing the conversation about it is Google. But let’s not go down the privacy rabbit hole. Because we don’t have to.

Right now Google Analytics provides other data on how people search. They break things down by mobile or tablet. We can even get down to the device level.

Google Analytics by Device

Are we really saying that knowing the user came in via image search is more identifiable than what device they were using? They simply explain different meta data on how a user searched.

Furthermore, on both web and image search I can still drill down and see what page they landed on. In both instances I can make some inferences on what term was used to get them to that page.

There is no inherent additional data being revealed by providing image search as a source.

Image Clicks in Google Webmaster Tools

I wouldn’t be as frothed up about this if it was just Google Analytics. Because I actually like Google Analytics a lot and like the people behind it even more.

But then we’ve got to deal with Google Webmaster Tools data on top and that’s an even bigger mess. First let’s talk about the dark pattern where when you look at your search queries data it automatically applies the Web filter. #notcool

Default Web Filter for Search Queries in GWT

I’m sure there’s an argument that it’s prominent enough and might even draw the user’s attention. I could be persuaded. But defaults are dangerous. I’d hazard there are plenty of folks who don’t even know that you can see this data with other filters.

And a funny thing happens with sites that have a lot of images (think eCommerce) when you look at this data. It doesn’t make an ounce of sense.

What happens if I take a month’s worth of image filtered data and a month’s worth of web filtered data and then compare that to the actual data reported in Google Analytics?

Here’s the web filtered data which is actually from November 16 to December 14. It shows 369,661 Clicks.

GWT Web Filter Example

Now here the image filtered data from the same time frame. It shows 965,455 Clicks.

GWT Image Filter Traffic Graph

Now here’s what Google Analytics reports for the same timeframe.

Google Analytics Traffic Comparison

For those of you slow on the uptake, the image click data from Google Webmaster Tools is more than the entire organic search reported! Not just Google but organic search in total. Put web and image together and we’re looking at 1.3 million according to Google Webmaster Tools.

I’m not even going to get into the ratio of image clicks versus web clicks and how they don’t have any connection to reality when looking at the ratio in Google Analytics. Even taking the inaccuracy of the Google Analytics filters into account it points to one very clear truth.

The image click data in Google Webmaster Tools is wonky.

So that begs the question. What exactly is an image click? It doesn’t seem to be limited to clicks from image search to that domain. So what does it include?

This blog is currently number three for the term ‘cosmic cat’ in image search (#proud) so I’ll use that as an example.

What Is an Image Click?

Do image clicks include clicks directly to the image, which are generally not on that domain and not counted in most traffic packages including Google Analytics? Maybe. But that would mean a lot of people were clicking on a fairly small button. Not impossible but I’d put it in the improbable bucket.

Or do image clicks include any time a user clicks to expand that image result? This makes more sense given what I’m seeing.

But that’s lunacy. That’s comparing apples to oranges. How does that help a marketer? How can we trust the data in Google Webmaster Tools when we encounter such inconsistencies.

Every webmaster should be inquiring about the definition of an image click.

The definition (of sorts) provided by Google in their support documentation doesn’t help.

GWT Search Queries FAQ

The first line is incorrect and reflects that this document hasn’t been updated for some time. (You know, I hear care and attention to detail might be a quality signal these days.) There’s a line under devices that might explain the image click bloat but it’s not contained in that section and instead is attributed to devices.

Long story short, the documentation Google Webmaster Tools provides on this point isn’t helpful. (As an aside, I’d be very interested in hearing from others who have made the comparison of image filter and web filter clicks to Google Analytics traffic.)

Images During HTTPS Conversion

These problems came to a head during a recent HTTP to HTTPS conversion. Soon after the conversion the client involved saw a decent decline in search traffic. Alarm bells went off and we all scrambled to figure out what was going on.

This particular client has a material amount of images so I took the chart data from both HTTP and HTTPS for web and image clicks and graphed them together.

Exasperated Picard

In doing so the culprit in the decline post conversion was clearly image traffic! Now, some of you might be thinking that this shows how the Google Webmaster Tools data is just fine. You’re be wrong! The data there is still incorrect. It’s just wrong consistently enough for me to track fluctuations. I’m glad I can do it but relying on consistently bad data isn’t something I’m cheering about.

The conclusion here seems to be that it takes a long time to identify HTTPS images and match them to their new HTTPS pages. We’re seeing traffic starting to return but it’s slower than anyone would like. If Google wants sites to convert to HTTPS (which they do) then fixing this image search bottleneck should be a priority.

Image Blind?

I'm Mad as Hell And ...

The real problem here is that I was blindsided due to my lack of visibility into image search. Figuring out what was going on took a fair amount of man hours because the metrics that would have told us what was going on weren’t readily available.

Yet in another part of the Googleplex they’re spending crazy amounts of time on image research.

Google Image Advancements

I mean, holy smokes Batman, that’s some seriously cool work going on. But then I can’t tell image search traffic from web search traffic in Google Analytics and the Google Webmaster Tools data often shows more ‘image clicks’ to a site than total organic traffic to the site in the same time period. #wtf

Even as Google is appropriately moving towards the viewable impressions metric for advertisers (pdf), we marketers can’t make heads or tails of images, one of the most important elements on the web. This needs to change.

Marketers need data that they can both rely on and trust in to make fact based decisions.

TL;DR

Great research is being done by Google on images but they are failing marketers when it comes to image search metrics. The complete lack of visibility in Google Analytics coupled with ill defined image click data in Google Webmaster Tools leaves marketers in the dark for an increasingly important type of Internet content.

The Preference Bubble

December 11 2014 // Advertising + Marketing + Social Media + Technology // 16 Comments

A couple of mornings each week I drive down to my local Peet’s for some coffee. There’s a barista there named Courtney who is referred to by her co-workers as the Michael Jordan of baristas. Why? She can remember the names and orders for a vast number of customers.

“Both today AJ?” she asks me as I walk over to the counter.

“Yes, thank you,” I reply and with that I’ve ordered a extra hot 2% medium latte and a non-fat flat large latte.

This is a comforting experience. It’s a bit like the TV show Cheers.

Yet online we seem to think of this experience as something akin to having your foot eaten by a marmot. The person knows my name and what I usually buy? Something must be done! Courtney shouldn’t know any of that. Where’s my Men In Black pen so I and zap away any memory that this event ever occurred.

Men In Black Memory Erasing Pen

Courtney actually knows quite a bit about me. From that drink order she knows I’m ordering for another person. In rare instances she’s seen this other person – my wife. Courtney used to work at another Peet’s years ago that we frequented before we bought our house. So she knows we have a daughter.

The reason Courtney asks whether I want both is because about one out of every ten times or so I’m just getting something for myself. I’m driving off somewhere for a client meeting and not ferrying caffeine goodness back home.

Online some might suggest that it’s dangerous that I’m being presented with the same thing I usually get. I’m in a filter bubble that might perpetuate and reinforce my current life patterns and create a type of stunted stasis where I don’t experience new things. But here’s how this works.

“No, I’m going off the board today Courtney,” I reply. “I’ll take a medium cappuccino today.”

Just like that the supposedly dangerous filter bubble is popped. Of course it’s a bit more nuanced when we talk about it online but as our online and offline experiences become more similar this is an important reference point.

The Filter Bubble

The Filter Bubble

What is the Filter Bubble exactly? Eli Pariser coined the phrase to describe the way personalization and other online filters create a bubble of homogenous content that can have unforeseen and dire consequences in his book, aptly called The Filter Bubble.

The zenith of this personalization phobia was revealed in a remark by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.

I tend to think Mark is right but that’s not what I’m supposed to say. That’s not the ‘right’ thing to say. Yet human behavior just doesn’t work that way.

Similarly, I didn’t want to like The Filter Bubble. And while I disagree with some aspects, and many of the conclusions, I find the book compelling in a lot of ways. Not only that but I genuinely like Eli from an observer point of view. He’s been an activist of causes for which I support and created a framework (twice!) to help get the message out to people about important issues. #badass

My problem is that the filter bubble is increasingly used as a retort of fear, uncertainty and doubt when discussing personalization, marketing and privacy. It’s become a proxy to end discussions about how our personal data can, will and should be used as technology advances. Because despite the dire warnings about the dangers of the filter bubble, I believe there’s potentially more to gain than to lose.

What it requires us to do is to step outside of the echo chamber (see what I did there?) and instead rename this process the preference bubble.

Where Is Information Diversity?

US Geographic Mobility Graphic

Where do we get information from? The Filter Bubble covers the changing way in which information has been delivered to us via newspapers and other mediums. It documents how the Internet was supposed to allow for a flourish of different voices but hasn’t seemed to match that in reality. One can quibble about that outcome but I’d like to back up even further.

Instead of thinking about where we get information from lets consider where we consume that information. How many people in the US live where they were born? According to the 2010 US Census 59% remain in the state in which they were born (pdf) and there is similar evidence from Pew as well.

Not only that but there’s a host of evidence that Americans don’t often travel overseas and that many may never even leave the confines of their own state. The data here is a bit fuzzy but in combination it seems clear that we’re a nation that is largely stuck and rooted.

Most people will reference family and general comfort with surroundings as reasons to stay near where they were born or vacation. But what we’re really talking about is fear and xenophobia in many ways. It’s uncomfortable to experience something new and to challenge yourself with different experiences.

I was fiercely against this for some reason and made it a mission to break out from my northeastern seaboard culture. I moved from Philadelphia to Washington D.C. to San Diego to San Francisco. I also traveled to South America, the South Pacific, numerous countries in Europe and a bevy of different states in the US. I am a different and better person for all of those experiences. Travel and moving opens your eyes to a lot of things.

So when we talk about information diversity I tend to think it may not make much difference what you’re consuming if you’re consuming it in the same location. The same patterns and biases emerge, shepherding you to the common mores of your peers.

Your community shapes how you think about information and what information is important. One only has to take a trip into the central valley of California to hear chatter about water redistribution. I have some sense of the debate but because it’s not in my backyard it barely registers.

Notre Dame Football

Taken to another level, your family is a huge filter for your information consumption. We know that bigotry and other forms of hate are often passed down through family. On a trivial level I’ve passed down my distaste for Notre Dame football to my daughter. She actively roots against them now, just as I do. It’s an odd, somewhat ugly, feeling and I’m perversely glad for it because it makes me mindful of more important biases that could be passed on.

Yet taken to a ridiculous extreme, the filter bubble would tell us that we should forcibly remove people from their families. We should rotate through different families, a crazy version of TV’s Wife Swap, where we get a different perspective on our information as seen through the family filter.

I’d argue that the Internet and even TV has helped reduce geographic bias. Our knowledge of the world now must be bigger then the days around the campfire or those of the town crier or when we only had the town newspaper, one source of radio news and idle chatter at the local diner.

How we analyze and digest information may have changed less (potentially far less) because of geographic filters but even the presence of additional stimuli is bound to have made a difference.

Social Entropy

Social Entropy Revealed

One of the places where The Filter Bubble falls apart is the idea that our preferences will largely remain static because of constant reinforcement.

Instead, we know our preferences change as we grow and evolve. It’s something I refer to as social entropy. You are close to your college friends upon graduating and your interests have been formed largely from what you did during that time. Maybe you were totally into Frisbee Golf.

But you get that first job and then another and it’s in a slightly different vertical and now you’re interested in the slow food movement instead. You’ve connected with new people and have new interests. The old ones fade away and no amount of marketing will change that. Might it extend it? Sure. But only for a defined amount of time. Prior nostalgia can’t compete against current interest. I’ve got a shelf full of baseball cards I never look at to prove it.

The issue here is that there are external forces that will change your preferences despite all efforts to personalize your experience through search and social platforms. Who knew I’d be so interested in Lymphoma until I was diagnosed in October? The idea that we’ll simply continue to consume what we always consume is … specious.

You might love pizza, but you’re going to stop wanting it if you eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day for a month. I know, that’s pure hyperbole. Instead lets talk about babies. (Got to keep you on your toes!) You have one and then suddenly you’re part of a mother’s group, women (and some men) thrown together by the happenstance of conception. For a while these relationships are strong but as your children grow these relationships largely dissolve.

Not only that but you aren’t continuing to watch the dreaded and whiny Caillou when your child is now 8 years old. The filter bubble fails to take into account social entropy.

Serendipity

Balsamic Vinegar and Strawberries! Who knew?

From social entropy we can segue nicely into serendipity. At some point, people crave and want something different. Serendipity is the unexpected appearance of something, often in relation to something else, that creates an epiphany or breakthrough. Balsamic vinegar and strawberries? Oh my god, it’s delicious!

Search Engines (pdf) and information retrieval in general has been interested in serendipity (pdf) for quite some time. Not only in the capacity to encourage creativity but to ensure that a balanced view of a topic is delivered to users. The latter is what raises the hackles of Pariser and others when it comes to search results. The left-leaning political user will get different search results than the right-leaning political user.

This seems to be the cardinal sin since we all aren’t seeing the same thing on the same topic. Now, never mind that seeing the same thing doesn’t mean you’re going to change your behavior or view on that topic. We perceive things very differently. Think about eyewitness statements and how the car the bank robbers drove away in was both a red sports car and a dark SUV. Even when we’re seeing the same thing we’re seeing something different.

But I digress.

Google believes in personalization but they aren’t just trying to tell you what you want to know. Search engines work hard to ensure there is a base level of variety. Amit Singhal has spoken about it numerous times in relation to the filter bubble accusation.

At a 2012 SMX London Keynote Singhal was noted to say the following:

Amit agreed, however, that there should be serendipity. Personalization should not overtake the SERPs, but it should be present.

At a Churchill Club event in 2011 I noted how Ben Gomes spoke about search relevance.

Two humans will agree on relevance only 80% of the time. If you looked at that same result a year later, you may not agree with yourself, let alone someone else. The implication (one I happen to agree with) is that relevance is a moving target.

At the same event AllThingsD reported the following quote from Amit Singhal.

Our algorithms are tremendously balanced to give a mix of what you want and what the world says you should at least know.

Then there’s an April 2012 interview with Amit Singhal on State of Search.

Regarding personalization, our users value serendipity in search as well, so we actually have algorithms in place designed specifically to limit personalization and promote variety in the results page.

There’s a constant evaluation taking place ensuring relevance and delivering what people want. And what they want is personalization but also serendipity or a diverse set of results. Just as we wouldn’t want pizza every day we don’t want the same stuff coming up in search results or our social feeds time and time again.

We burn out and crave something new and if these platforms don’t deliver that they’ll fail. So in some ways the success of search and social should indicate that some level of serendipity is taking place and that wholesale social or interest entropy (perhaps that’s a better term) isn’t causing them to implode.

Human Nature

Human Nature LOLcat

One of the things that Pariser touches on is whether humans aim for more noble endeavors or if we seek out the lowest common denominator. This seems to be what pains Pariser in many ways. That as much as it would be nice if people actively sought out differing opinions and engaged in debate about important topics that they’re more likely to click on the latest headline about Kim Kardashian.

So we’ll be more apt to click on all the crap that comes up in our Facebook feed instead of paying attention to the important stuff. The stuff that matters and can make a difference in the world. The funny thing is he figured out a way to hack that dynamic in many ways with the launch of Upworthy, which leverages that click-bait viral nature but for an agent of good.

To be fair, I worry about this too. I don’t quite understand why people gravitate toward the trivial Why “who wore it better” is at all important. I could care less what Shia LeBeouf is doing with his life. I watch The Soup to keep up with reality TV because I could never actually watch it. And I fail to see why stupid slasher movies that appeal to the base parts of ourselves remain so damn popular. It’s … depressing.

But it’s also human nature.

I guess you could argue, as was argued in A Beautiful Mind, that a “diet of the mind” can make a difference. I think there is truth to that. It’s, oddly, why I continue to read a lot of fiction. But I’m unsure that can be forced on people. Or if it can be, it has to be done in a way that creates a habit.

Simply putting something else in front of a person more often isn’t going to change their mind.

One More Facebook Post Makes A Difference?

That’s not how it works. In fact there’s a lot of evidence that it might do more harm than good. A good deal of my time in the last year has been dedicated to exploring attention and memory. Because getting someone to pay attention and remember is incredibly powerful.

What I’ve realized is that attention and memory all gets tied up in the idea of persuasion. The traditional ways we think about breaking the filter bubble do nothing to help persuade people.

Persuasion

Persuasion?

The fact is that being exposed to other points of view, particularly online, doesn’t aide in persuasion. There’s more and more research that shows that the opposite might be true. Simply putting those opposing views in front of someone doesn’t change human behavior. We still select the opinion that resonates with our personal belief system.

There’s a myriad of academic research as well as huckster like advice on persuasion. So I’m not going to provide tips on persuasion or delve into neuromarketing or behavioral economics. These are, though, all interesting topics. Instead I want to address how popping the filter bubble doesn’t lead to desired results.

One of the major areas of contention is the exposure to opposing political viewpoints on a variety of issues. The theory here is that if I only see the Fox News content I won’t ever have an opportunity to get the opposing point of view and come to a more reasoned decision. The problem? When we engage on these charged topics we don’t reach consensus but instead radicalize our own opinion.

From research referenced in this Mother Jones piece on comment trolls we get this interesting nugget.

The researchers were trying to find out what effect exposure to such rudeness had on public perceptions of nanotech risks. They found that it wasn’t a good one. Rather, it polarized the audience: Those who already thought nanorisks were low tended to become more sure of themselves when exposed to name-calling, while those who thought nanorisks are high were more likely to move in their own favored direction. In other words, it appeared that pushing people’s emotional buttons, through derogatory comments, made them double down on their preexisting beliefs.

Exposure didn’t move people toward the middle, it polarized them instead. This dovetails with additional research that shows that people often don’t want to be right.

Not all false information goes on to become a false belief—that is, a more lasting state of incorrect knowledge—and not all false beliefs are difficult to correct. Take astronomy. If someone asked you to explain the relationship between the Earth and the sun, you might say something wrong: perhaps that the sun rotates around the Earth, rising in the east and setting in the west. A friend who understands astronomy may correct you. It’s no big deal; you simply change your belief.

But imagine living in the time of Galileo, when understandings of the Earth-sun relationship were completely different, and when that view was tied closely to ideas of the nature of the world, the self, and religion. What would happen if Galileo tried to correct your belief? The process isn’t nearly as simple. The crucial difference between then and now, of course, is the importance of the misperception. When there’s no immediate threat to our understanding of the world, we change our beliefs. It’s when that change contradicts something we’ve long held as important that problems occur.

The piece (which is just brilliant) goes on to underscore the problem.

In those scenarios, attempts at correction can indeed be tricky. In a study from 2013, Kelly Garrett and Brian Weeks looked to see if political misinformation—specifically, details about who is and is not allowed to access your electronic health records—that was corrected immediately would be any less resilient than information that was allowed to go uncontested for a while. At first, it appeared as though the correction did cause some people to change their false beliefs. But, when the researchers took a closer look, they found that the only people who had changed their views were those who were ideologically predisposed to disbelieve the fact in question. If someone held a contrary attitude, the correction not only didn’t work—it made the subject more distrustful of the source. A climate-change study from 2012 found a similar effect. Strong partisanship affected how a story about climate change was processed, even if the story was apolitical in nature, such as an article about possible health ramifications from a disease like the West Nile Virus, a potential side effect of change. If information doesn’t square with someone’s prior beliefs, he discards the beliefs if they’re weak and discards the information if the beliefs are strong.

The emphasis is mine but it is vital to understanding that the areas where Pariser and others show such concern for the application of the filter bubble – in those areas where the issues are going to matter to our society – that popping that bubble might actually be detrimental.

If you’ve chosen to make the fact that vaccinations cause autism a part of your belief system and have responded by not having your children vaccinated it won’t be easy to change that viewpoint. #dummies

Another post on Facebook from a friend telling you how the vaccination link to autism has been completely debunked won’t have any impact. The numerous results on Google that point to this fact won’t help either. Instead, you’ll wind up distrusting those sources and falling back on others that conform to your beliefs.

Popping the filter bubble will not persuade people to think differently.

Oddly enough the one thing that seems to open the door to change is feeling good about yourself.

Normally, self-affirmation is reserved for instances in which identity is threatened in direct ways: race, gender, age, weight, and the like. Here, Nyhan decided to apply it in an unrelated context: Could recalling a time when you felt good about yourself make you more broad-minded about highly politicized issues, like the Iraq surge or global warming? As it turns out, it would. On all issues, attitudes became more accurate with self-affirmation, and remained just as inaccurate without. That effect held even when no additional information was presented—that is, when people were simply asked the same questions twice, before and after the self-affirmation.
Still, as Nyhan is the first to admit, it’s hardly a solution that can be applied easily outside the lab. “People don’t just go around writing essays about a time they felt good about themselves,” he said. And who knows how long the effect lasts—it’s not as though we often think good thoughts and then go on to debate climate change.

Another study detailed in a NiemanLab post shows that people feel more positive when an article proposes a solution instead of just presenting a problem.

After reading one of these six possible articles, respondents answered a survey about what they’d read. Did the article seem different from typical news articles? Do you feel more interested in the issue, or better informed? Have you gained knowledge from reading the article? Was your opinion influenced? Were you inspired? Do you feel there’s a way that you could contribute to a solution?
The results were somewhat surprising. Across all 16 measures, those who had read the solutions journalism article felt more satisfied, Curry found. “Often, doing research, you don’t get results where something works so well,” he said.

Not only that but those people were more willing to share those stories.
Solutions Journalism Leads To Sharing

“We are intrigued by the finding that people seem to want to share these stories more, and want to create conversation around them,” Hammonds says. “So we may build on that in the way we strategize with our papers.”

People are most open to change when they feel good about themselves and are more positive. In addition, those reading solutions journalism feel better and are more likely to share those stories – perhaps as a way to extend that good feeling and to feel like they’re doing something.

It makes Upworthy seem devilishly smart doesn’t it? #kudoseli

Soylent Green is Filters

Gay Pride Colors

Obviously real life experiences can transform our interests and beliefs.

I once had the idea for a story where a gay pride group would recruit a large number of homosexuals (10,000 or so) from urban environments and have them move to traditionally conservative areas where they’d pass themselves off as heterosexuals. Over the course of two years they’d join the community in all ways possible. They’d be churchgoers, friends, barbers, cube mates, insurance agents, softball players, you name it.

Then on the same day, after two years, they’d all ‘come out of the closet’ in these conservative communities. The idea being that knowing someone who is gay might be the best way to transform beliefs about homosexuality. Suddenly it’s not those ‘sodomites in San Francisco’ but Larry who helped get you a replacement car when you were in that bad accident.

Of course the idea is flawed because a movement that large would be noticed and then everyone would feel fleeced and duped. No one likes to feel that way and it retards our ability to change our opinion. But the idea here is that people and interaction is what transforms the filter bubble.

So how does this work online? Because some argue that the people you ‘friend’ online are too like you to bring new ideas into your orbit. If you were just relying on those friends you might be right. But more and more social graphs bring content liked by your friends. In other words, it’s a friend of a friend that might bring new ideas and perspectives. This is something referred to often as FOAF.

The idea here is that I might have a friend who shares certain things but if she likes something that she hasn’t shared explicitly then that content might still get passed along to me as well. I wrote about how I consciously friended people because I knew they were interested in a certain subject and would likely bring content I wouldn’t see otherwise into my universe. But even if you’re not doing this consciously, a FOAF implementation can help introduce serendipity.

Astronautalis

Instead of all this theory I’d like to present a real life example. I recently discovered Astronautalis, a really excellent songwriter/storyteller/rapper. Here’s how I wound up finding him.

I follow Wil Wheaton in large part because of his science-fiction leaning (both Star Trek TNG and Eureka) and then Table Top (which is why I play a lot of Ticket To Ride). Wil shared some content from April O’Neil, a porn star (for lack of a better term) who is also a huge science-fiction fan. I followed April’s Tumblr and she wound up sharing some of her music tastes, one of which included, you guessed it, Astronautalis.

Wrap your head around the chain of events that connects a digital marketer and father from suburban San Fransisco with Astronautalis!

So am I an atypical user? Perhaps. But even if my information diverse diet isn’t the norm this type of discovery happens naturally. You go out with your friends to a new restaurant and it’s there that you run into someone one of your friends knows who says they’re just back from an awwwwwwesome trip to Hungary.

Hearing about this gets you interested in learning more and suddenly you’re searching for information and your next vacation is to Budapest where you happen to meet another traveler from England who designs wool sweaters for a living on some green moor, which is where you wind up living as husband and wife two years later.

There’s a fear that our online activity translates into isolation, or that the only vector for information discovery is through that medium. But that’s just not the reality.

As our online and offline experiences converge and the world gets smaller we’re going to slam into the new with greater frequency, producing sharp sparks that are sure to puncture the filter bubble.

The Preference Bubble

Ham Sandwich

So for the moment lets agree that the filter bubble might not be a bad thing and that trying to eliminate it through traditional means is Sisyphean due to human nature and life experience. Instead lets talk about what it really is – a preference bubble. This is a bubble that represents what you currently prefer and will change (as I’ve noted) over time through a variety of ways.

For good or for bad there are people who are mining the preference bubble. Those people are marketers and advertisers. As in every field there are some that will exploit the preference bubble and take things too far. But that doesn’t mean we should reject it outright.

My dad told me a story once about how you don’t stop liking a ham sandwich because Richard Nixon loves ham sandwiches. The idea being that you can still enjoy something even if there are tangential parts of it that are distasteful.

From my perspective there’s a small anti-marketing bias throughout The Filter Bubble. But perhaps, as a marketer, I’m just a bit too sensitive and on the watch for this attitude. Don’t get me wrong. I have a severe distaste for many (if not most) fellow marketers who seem more than happy to spit out a few buzzwords and feel good when they make a vendor decision on their latest RFP. #CYAmuch

Yet, there are other marketers who combine creativity and data and are passionate about both the fundamentals and the details of their craft – and it is a craft. In the very general sense marketing is about finding a need and filling it. The preference bubble gives marketers the ability to find those needs far quicker and with more accuracy.

Marketers want to save you time and effort, read and buy things you desire as quickly as possible. Do we want to make a buck doing it? Absolutely. But the good ones aren’t out to use the preference bubble to sell you stuff you don’t want. Sure we might make some assumptions that your penchant for kayaking might also indicate that you’d want some rugged outdoor wear. But would we be wrong?

There’s been numerous instances where people can show when these models do go awry. Even now at Amazon if you buy something as a gift for someone but don’t mark it as such, that can have some pretty interesting consequences on your recommended products. Marketers are not perfect and the data models we’re using are still evolving. But they’re getting better every day. And that’s important.

Privacy?

Elbow Fetish and Privacy

As marketers get better at mining the preference bubble we have an opportunity to engage instead of obfuscate.

Chris Messina wrote about this recently where he discussed the very real trade off that takes place with the preference bubble.

Ultimately I do want companies to know more about me and to use more data about me in exchange for better, faster, easier, and cheaper experiences. 

That’s what the preference bubble is all about. We want this! If you’re a vegetarian and you’re looking for a place to eat out wouldn’t it be nice if the results presented didn’t include steak houses? But we need to understand what and when we’re giving our preferences to marketers. We need to know the personal ROI for providing that information.

I often tell people that privacy is far more bark than bite. How quickly do we provide name, address and phone number on a little comment card and slip it into the window of a Ford Mustang sitting at the local mall, hoping that we’ll be the lucky winner of said car. Pretty quick.

How often do we mindlessly hand over our driver’s license to cashiers to verify our credit cards when there is no such law saying we need to do so. Every damn time right? It’s just easier to go along with it, even if you’re grumbling under your breath about it being bunk.

But here we’re making conscious decisions about how we want to share our private information. It may not always be the most noble exchange but it is the exchange that we are willingly making.

The change that Chris Messina rightly asks for is a data-positive culture. One were our ‘data capital’ is something we marshall and can measure out in relation to our wants and needs. We might not want our elbow fetish to be part of our public preference bubble. That should be your right and you shouldn’t be bombarded with tweed elbow patch and skin cracking ointment ads as a result.

It would be nice if the things we feel so self-conscious about didn’t come under such scrutiny. You shouldn’t be ashamed of your elbow fetish. That would be really data-positive. Many have written that a transparent society might be a healthier society. But there are many ways in which transparency can go wrong and we’re clearly (perhaps sadly) not at the point where this is a viable option.

Instead we should be talking about how we engage with privacy. The consternation around personalization is that people don’t know what type of private information they’re giving up to deliver that experience. But lets be clear, based on the advertising they receive users do know that they’re giving up some personal information. You don’t get that retargeted ad for the site you visited yesterday unless you’ve been tracked.

Speed Boat Wake

People know, on some level, that they’re providing this personal information as they surf. Fewer people understand that they leave behind a large digital wake, waves of data that mark their path through the Internet. What is missing is exactly what is tracked and how they might limit the amount of information being used.

The problem here is that Messina and others are asking people to participate and take what amounts to proactive action on shaping their public preference bubble. In the realm of user experience we call that friction. And friction is a death knell for a product.

It makes any opt-in only program, where nothing is tracked unless I specifically say so, a non-starter. We know that defaults are rarely changed so the vast majority wouldn’t opt-in and nearly all of us would be surfing the Internet looking at the ‘one trick to get rid of belly fab’ ad.

Not only that but your online experiences would be less fulfilling. It would be harder for you to find the things you wanted. That increased friction could lead to frustration and abandonment. And the added time taken to navigate is time taken away from other endeavors. Life gets less happy.

Point of Purchase Privacy

Shut Up And Take My Money

Is there a solution? (Because you clearly want one so you feel better about this piece and wind up sharing it with your colleagues.) One of the ideas I’ve mulled over is to deliver the data-positive message at the time of purchase. What if when you clicked on that retargeted ad and wound up buying that product that during the transaction the data transacted would also be revealed.

I’m not talking about whether you’re agreeing to opt-in to that site’s email newsletter. I’m talking about a message that would state that your purchase was made by tracking your behavior on two other sites, interacting with a Facebook ad and through a prior visit to the site in question.

It’s during that time when you’re most satisfied (you’ve just made a purchase) that you are most likely to engage in a positive way with your data capital. There’s an educational aspect, where you’re told, almost Sesame Street style that today’s purchase was brought to you by pixel tracking, search history and remarketing. But there’s also a configuration aspect, an option to access your data capital and make changes as appropriate.

If my personal data tracking led to this purchase, do I feel okay with that and do I want to double-check what other personal data might be out there or not? So it would be my time to say that my tastes have changed from a latte to a cappuccino and that while I love Astronautlis I’m not a Macklemore fan. #notthesame

So maybe I do want to zap away any memory of how that transaction occurred. That would be your right. (A bad choice I think but your right nonetheless.)

I doubt you could leave this up to each site so it would likely have to be something delivered via the browser, perhaps even a add-on/extension that would be cross-browser compliant.

I’m not an engineer but I sense there’s an opportunity here to have sites provide markup that would indicate that a page or purchase was made based on personalization and that the specific set of preferences and tracking that led to that can then be displayed in a pleasing way to the user as a result. I’m not saying it would be easy. It would need to avoid the annoying ‘this site uses cookies’ message that buzzes like a gnat across UK websites.

But I think it could be done and you could even think of it as a type of customer satisfaction and feedback mechanism if you were a smart marketer.

Are We Ourselves

Our lives are increasingly reflected by our digital wake. We are what we do online and that’s only going to grow not decline. Why not embrace that rather than deny it? I’m a perfect example of why embracing it would make sense. As a digital marketer I work with a number of clients and often visit sites that I have no personal interest in whatsoever.

Being able to quickly adjust my preference bubble appropriately would make sure my experience online was optimized. In a far flung future the cost of goods could even be reduced because the advertising and marketing spend would drop through preference bubble optimization (PBO). The maxim that advertisers are wasting half their spend, they just don’t know which half would be a thing of the past.

Beyond the crass commercialization I’m amped up about as a marketer are the societal aspects of the preference bubble. And while I share Pariser’s concerns about how people can receive and digest information I think the answer is to go through it instead of avoid it.

I remember playing Space Invaders for days on end, my thumb burning with a soon to be callus. But at some point I got bored of it and went out to count wooly caterpillars under the Japanese Maple in our front yard. This is who we are.

Our preferences are influenced by more than just what flows through our social feeds and what’s returned in search results. And while I wish we could force a ‘diet of the mind’ on people the fact is that people are going to consume what they want to consume until they decide not to.

I’d prefer to make it easier to show who we are when they’re most open to seeing it. We need to point them to their own Japanese Maple.

TL;DR

The filter bubble is not something terrible but is a product of human nature and geographic bias. It has been around before the Internet and will be there long after because it simply reflects our preferences.

Our preferences are a product of more than our digital diet and trying to change that digital diet externally may actually backfire. So as we express and conduct more of our life online we should embrace the preference bubble and the privacy issues that come with it so we can gain better, faster experiences.

What I Learned In 2014

October 09 2014 // Life // 200 Comments

(This is a highly personal post so if that isn’t your thing then you should move on.) 

It’s not 2015 yet but I already know what I learned in 2014. I have Follicular Lymphoma. Here’s my story.

Stomach Pain

Ouch with Nails

Last year I began to have some stomach issues. The first time it looked like it might have been food poisoning, which I blamed on Chobani. One minute I was fine and the next I was throwing up and had abdominal pain and bloating for the next 48 hours.

I binge-watched action flicks until I was okay. Afterwards I felt a small twinge on my left hand side of my lower stomach. I didn’t want to be the guy that let something go and have something bad happen so after three weeks I saw a doctor. He thought it might be diverticulitis and suggested a change in diet and referred me to a gastroenterologist.

I remember talking to a school-parent friend at a Halloween get-together about diverticulitis. It sounded both dreary and scary. I was bummed.

Colonoscopy

Fletch Prostate Exam

In early April of this year I got over my fear and got a colonoscopy and endoscopy. The prep for this was truly nasty – chugging a substance that tasted like purple chalk death and then having what looked like pee come rushing out of your bowels for the next 24 hours.

The results of the test were basically clear. No diverticulitis and only some mild irritation was noted. In short, idiopathic IBS. Or for the rest of us, ‘you have some screwed up intestinal issues that don’t seem to have a known cause.’

This was a relief to some degree but also not. What the hell was causing my flare ups?

Flare Ups

Solar Flare

Because over the course of the year I’d have small flare ups. Usually I’d wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning with the pain, go downstairs and take some Tylenol, Gas-X and/or Mylanta and lay on the couch watching TV to distract me from the cramping pain until I fell asleep.

Food seemed to be the culprit. I’d drink beer and then have that cramping abdominal pain. I’d eat onions and that seemed to trigger it. Never were these flare ups that long nor exceedingly painful. They were 5-6 on the pain scale. I figured it was just my stupid intestines and getting old. So I gave up beer (oh sweet IPA) and avoided onions.

I had maybe 5 or 6 flare ups of varying intensity and went for a long time (3 or 4 months) with no flare ups at all.

Happy Birthday

Happy Birthday Candles

Friday night was my birthday and I was going to a nice restaurant with my wife, daughter and parents. By the time we got home I could tell I was having a flare up. I took Tylenol and some Mylanta but the pain got more intense. At 11pm, after about 3 hours of truly intense pain (8-9 on the pain scale) I drove myself to the ER.

I checked-in and sat there tapping my fingers together as the pain surged and watched Volcano with Tommy Lee Jones. Once in the ER they pumped me with 4mg of morphine (wow is that a strange feeling) and took at CT scan of my abdomen.

Hospital

John Muir Medical Center 2014

Soon after the CT scan I was visited by a doctor who said they wanted to admit me to the hospital because they’ve found abnormal lymph nodes on my CT scan that needed more investigation. When I pressed her she admitted that the worry was that what they were seeing might be lymphoma.

The world just became very clear and the focus of things shifted. I’m not saying I believed it right then and there but for whatever reason it felt true and just like that I felt the axis of my life changing and I simply had to adapt.

I called my wife at this point and gave her the news. I was stunned and scared but numb too and not just from the morphine.

Diagnosis

OMG LOLcat

On Saturday I was officially admitted to John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek. I noted that my room was on the Oncology ward and when I saw the Oncologist she said that, in her opinion, the odds that it was Lymphoma was 70-80%.

The best way to tell was to get a biopsy of one of the lymph nodes and the fastest way to do this was for me to stay in the hospital until Monday when that department was working. So that’s what I did.

It wasn’t horrible but it was odd laying there in the oncology ward watching football, an epic 18 inning Giants game win and a marathon of Bar Rescue.

The biopsy itself was a piece of cake but the waiting was the worst part. Because at this point I think I’d come to terms with the idea I had cancer. Sure I read the test results and tried to find evidence that it could instead by some sort of infection. Many House jokes were made. Sarcoidosis anyone?

But Wednesday around mid-day I got the call that confirmed the diagnosis. I had follicular lymphoma.

What’s Next

Kick Cancer's Ass

I’m going in for a bone marrow biopsy tomorrow (wow, that hurt) and a PET scan next week (that was easy) to determine the true severity of my lymphoma. (Do you capitalize it or not? I don’t know but I choose not to give it capital status right now).

From there it’ll be a 6 month regimen of chemotherapy. I’m already busy researching what specific cocktail might make sense for me and will discuss that with my oncologist after all the results are in. But it looks like I’ll be starting treatment by the third week of October.

I will kick cancer’s ass.

Make no doubt about it. No matter the severity I will beat this ugly thing to the ground and kick it a few times on the way down in hopes that it won’t return. Mind you, it probably will. But if it does it will get another beat down.

Lymphoma isn’t curable but it’s also not fatal.

Follicular lymphoma (FL) is not considered a curable cancer, chiefly because it is considered an indolent, or non-aggressive, cancer. However, ‘incurable’ should not be mistaken in this instance for ‘fatal’, as most patients with FL will not die from their lymphoma. It is considered a manageable disease, so often patients will endure some form of therapy, then go from months to years without any therapy or symptoms, then take up some form of therapy again when necessary.

So the odds are that I won’t die of Lymphoma. But I’ll die of something else! Oddly, that’s pretty comforting. My goal is just to be here for as long as I can (like 40 more years damn it!) so I can see my daughter grow up (oh man, getting teary eyed) and live a great life with my wife.

I don’t want lymphoma to define my life. So I absolutely plan on working during my treatment. However, I will probably scale back on new clients (even more), may need some flexibility and may not be able to travel. I’ll know more soon.

Lymphoma is an unwanted guest but will be a speed bump in the scheme of things. So while it’s important to manage this disease it’s also important to love the life I have and to keep doing most of the things I normally do.

What You Can Do

Right now there’s not much others can do. I’ve got a very supportive family here and access to wonderful healthcare. Of course I appreciate your thoughts and encouragement as I kick cancer’s ass.

I’m a believer in ‘particles’ and magical thinking. (In my spare time I chant ‘I’m going to be okay’ over and over again.) So think of me getting better. And if the time comes when I need the support from a larger group I’ll absolutely reach out.

Perhaps I’ll just keep updating this post with my progress. I’m not sure I want to start a whole new blog (cancer doesn’t deserve that) nor do I want to have multiple posts here on this topic. Because I do intend to keep blogging normally.

Thanks for reading and if you want to keep up on my progress you can jump over to my CaringBridge page.