We Want To Believe

January 20 2015 // Marketing + SEO + Social Media // 4 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 // 19 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 // 12 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 // 15 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 // 199 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.

Sitelinks Search Box

September 19 2014 // SEO // 53 Comments

Google’s new sitelinks search box threatens to take your hard won branded traffic and hand it over to competitors unless you implement the specified markup.

Here’s what’s happening and why you need to bump the sitelinks search box markup implementation to the top of your priorities.

Sitelinks Search Box

Sitelinks Search Box YouTube Mobile

On September 5th Google announced the launch of an improved search box in sitelinks for branded queries.

When users search for a company by name—for example, [Megadodo Publications] or [Dunder Mifflin]—they may actually be looking for something specific on that website. In the past, when our algorithms recognized this, they’d display a larger set of sitelinks and an additional search box below that search result, which let users do site: searches over the site straight from the results, for example [site:example.com hitchhiker guides].

Now I’d argue that the prevalence of any search box in sitelinks was minimal at best. I hardly ever saw them. That’s going to be important to this story later on.

Sitelinks Search Box Email

On September 15th several of my clients received a ‘Make your site ready for the new sitelinks search box’ email informing them that their site was eligible for this feature.

Sitelinks Search Box Email

Soon after that email went out I began to see sitelink search boxes appearing on branded queries. That was fast!

Sitelinks Search Boxes UX

What if you haven’t implemented the markup yet? If you don’t implement the markup and connect it to your own search engine Google will simply perform a site: search using your domain and the user’s search query.

The problem? Competitors might suck away that traffic through paid ads on those site: queries. Here’s what it looks like.

Google Sitelinks Search Box

Cool Hunting isn’t a client by the way, just an example I happened to find. Now lets search for ‘electric cars’ using the Cool Hunting sitelinks search box.

Sitelinks Search Box Results

The user’s intent was to find Cool Hunting but if they use the sitelinks search box to find Cool Hunting content they are presented with a raft of ads for other sites. Not for every query obviously but if you’re running any decently sized brand and getting the sitelinks search box treatment there’s a good possibility for click attrition.

The sitelinks search box could steal your branded traffic.

What really burns here is that the original intent was on a branded term. You’d won mindshare and loyalty. The query intent was clear. Yet that search box might deliver them to unbranded results.

It would be nice to think that users would seek out the branded organic results but monkey clicks happen and the additional friction and options turn a slam dunk into a three point attempt.

Sitelinks Search Box Markup

Google You Got Some Splainin To Do

The experience doesn’t have to be like this though.

If you implement the markup on your site, users will have the ability to jump directly from the sitelinks search box to your site’s search results page. If we don’t find any markup, we’ll show them a Google search results page for the corresponding site: query, as we’ve done until now.

That’s clear enough. Yet the way in which this was rolled out is unsettling to say the least.

The prevalence of presenting the sitelink search box was very low before and even when shown wasn’t very prominent. So to go from that reality to one in which it’s shown far more often and more prominently with 10 days notice seems … uncharitable. That’s not even a standard two week sprint cycle!

I understand the value Google is trying to deliver here. And in some ways I think Google believes that a site: query might be better than many site’s own internal search engines. They’d be right on that account too in many instances.

But if that’s really what Google’s trying to do then searches through the sitelinks search box should only return content for that site. Shouldn’t the ads be suppressed at that point? Otherwise it seems rather self-serving from an advertising perspective. And it doesn’t honor intent.

Of course, by having it behave this way (and having someone like me ring the alarm bell) you might find adoption of the markup increase dramatically. That seems like an awfully big stick though. Not to mention the sites that may never understand what’s going on or have the technical chops and determination to fix it through markup.

TL;DR

The improved sitelinks search box threatens to divert branded traffic to competitors unless you implement the specified markup. Sadly, the current user experience doesn’t seem to match the user’s intent nor Google’s aim to serve the user.

Image Sitemap Indexation

September 09 2014 // SEO // 4 Comments

This post is a bit of penance for yours truly. Read on to make sure you don’t fall into this trap.

Image Sitemap Indexation

For many months I’d open Google Webmaster Tools and stare at poor indexation rates for images across a number of client accounts. Not just one or two but several clients with crappy image indexation rates.

Google Webmaster Tools Indexation Rate for Images

This didn’t make much sense to me since image traffic reported in Google Webmaster Tools was healthy.

Google Webmaster Tools Image Traffic

In addition, image traffic reported using Google Analytics filters was looking good too. Mind you the difference between image clicks reported in Google Webmaster Tools and what is captured in Google Analytics doesn’t match up, even when I add back in lost referrer data from Chrome and other browsers.

But that’s a story for another day.

Lazy Investigation

Cat on Couch with Beer and TV Remote

Image search is largely ignored and under appreciated. It’s tough to sell folks on it when the data is murky (at best) coupled with engagement and conversion that is usually very poor in comparison to web search. I think a proper attribution model would tell a different story. But I digress.

This is my way of rationalizing why I didn’t push harder on investigating poor image indexation rates. It’s an excuse. Of course I opened up the sitemap files and made sure that the images being passed were valid.

They were.

But I stopped there and chalked it up to a Google Webmaster Tools bug. This wasn’t out of the question and the engineering teams I was working with were top notch. I then reached out to other colleagues and asked if they had similar issues. Sure enough, a number said they too were encountering this problem.

So it wasn’t my fault. It was Google’s problem!

False Accusation

Harrison Ford in The Fugitive

I took it upon myself to message a number of Googlers asking them to investigate. Don’t get me wrong, I was nice about it. But my approach was to provide examples that I felt sure would expose this bug.

To my chagrin what I got back was a nice but pointed response that explained that I (and my clients) had screwed up. The image URLs in those sitemap files might have been valid but they weren’t the ones currently residing on the location URL provided in the sitemap.

Loosely translated: you’re stupid and wrong.

The Devil Is In The Details

I hate being wrong and I hate wasting the time of Googlers. Talk about tossing any good will I’d earned into a roaring bonfire!

It turned out that in every single instance where the indexation rate for images was low there was a problem with matching the image URL with the location URL.

Image Sitemap Example

More often than not it was that the image had been placed on a subdomain of the cookieless domain serving images and the sitemap file hadn’t been updated to reflect that optimization.

For instance, on example.com the image might have started at exampleimg.com but was now being served from shard3.exampleimg.com instead.

If the latter is what is found by Googlebot Image on that location URL but you’re referencing the former in the sitemap then it won’t show up as an indexed image via Google Webmaster Tools.

Does It Matter?

Disaster Girl

If you’re reading closely you probably realize that this is a reporting error and the image itself is most likely indexed. But the indexation count in Google Webmaster Tools is looking at whether the images you’re passing in relation to that location are indexed.

Some of you might decide it’s not worth paying attention to at that point. But I’d argue that you want those indexation rates to reflect reality so you can measure, optimize and react to any changes that might impact your business.

You can’t improve what you can’t measure.

Not only that, but by doing the due diligence for each client I uncovered issues with how images were being rendered and optimized. Remember, these are smart engineering teams. I’m not blaming them. Images are a bear for sites who are consumed with reducing load times and improving speed.

Do The Work

It’s embarrassing to find that you’ve overlooked something so … obvious. At Share14 I got a chance to sync up with Adam Audette. One of the things we talked about was the benefits of working in the trenches and how it becomes more difficult as you expand and grow.

Yet this is where a good SEO can make such a difference. By digging into the details and figuring out what’s going on you can tease out a problem that might have gone undiagnosed for months on end.

Since making the changes indexation rates are rising for all clients. I can’t tell you that the changes have increased image search traffic by 134.7%. This isn’t a redemption feel good story. This is a reminder to do the work and get it right.

TL;DR

If you’re seeing low image sitemap indexation in Google Webmaster Tools you need to carefully inspect the sitemaps to ensure that the image URL(s) being passed exist on the location URL referenced. Beyond the specific image sitemap issue, this is a reminder to not assume or get sloppy with your due diligence.

The Rich Snippets Algorithm

August 20 2014 // SEO // 67 Comments

There’s been a tremendous amount of chatter recently about rich snippets vanishing from Google search results, whether it’s Amazon losing their review aggregate snippets or a wholesale reduction in video snippets.

What we’re really talking about are changes to the rich snippets algorithm.

Inception Leo Squinting

That’s right, we need to go deeper. There’s an algorithm within the algorithm.

Here’s what I know about the rich snippets algorithm based on observation and conjecture as well as statements from Google representatives. I’ll also sketch out some theories on how Google might be replacing many rich snippets with Knowledge Graph panels and carousels.

Rich Snippets History

Wayback Machine Cartoon

Lets start at the beginning. Rich snippets were first introduced by Google on May 12, 2009. The strange thing is Google was the last search engine to embrace rich snippets.

For a long time Google didn’t want to employ a feature that would be naturally biased toward sites with greater development resources. In short, Google wanted to keep a level playing field. You still see some of this mentality in the Data Highlighter feature in Google Webmaster Tools.

But once they started down the rich snippets road Google all-in, launching Schema.org on June 2, 2011. Sure it’s a joint venture between search engines but lets be real, the main author here is Google.

Not Your Ordinary Result

Rich snippets are fancy results or results on steroids. They usually contain a visual element such as stars or a thumbnail image.

Ferncer Ferst!

Whether they’re stars, additional links,  thumbnail images or video captures, these results stand out from the crowd. As such, they draw both the eye and clicks.

Whitelist Days Of Yore

In the old days (circa 2010) I was working with PowerReviews and, by proxy, a number of eCommerce companies who were chomping at the bit to get the review aggregate snippet on their results.

Those stars were extremely powerful in those early days. Anything shiny and new will have that initial heightened response. The review rich snippet is still valuable but less so now that the novelty has worn off and there are multiple review rich snippets per result.

At the time, it was all about interfacing with the ‘rich snippets team’ and getting them to ‘turn on’ your snippets. As rich snippets grew in popularity and expanded to new types this non-algorithmic approach was untenable and simply … un-Googly.

Rich Snippets Algorithm

It shouldn’t be a surprise that there’s a rich snippets algorithm. Google states it clearly in their rich snippets guidelines.

Rich Snippets Algorithm

For a long time this algorithm was rather basic and disconnected from other search quality signals. It wasn’t until the release of Panda 4.0 that Google integrated search quality signals with the rich snippets algorithm.

That’s not entirely true. Prior to that they’d done something because the review aggregate snippets for one of my clients just up and vanished one day.

I scratched my head and for months in early 2014 had the team tweak the code and fix every stray microdata error or potential conflict that could be responsible for what I assumed was some markup confusion. But nothing worked. In frustration I gave up, cursed Google, and put it on the back burner.

When Panda 4.0 was released this client’s review aggregate snippets magically returned along with a huge boost in rank. At the same time, I had another client hit by Panda 4.0 who lost their snippets and saw the Panda-typical decline in rank and traffic. So it became crystal clear.

Site quality is now part of the rich snippets algorithm.

From Google’s perspective it makes perfect sense. If the search quality team believes the site isn’t very good then why would Google render a rich snippet that would draw more attention and clicks to results from that site?

What that means is Panda Jail produces a double whammy of rank reduction and rich snippet suppression.

Validating Rich Snippet Suppression

You can validate the rich snippets suppression by using the site: operator for a query that should be showing rich snippets but isn’t. Here is a search for ‘dr waldo frankenstein’.

SERP for Dr Waldo Frankenstein

The vitals.com result does not have a rich snippet. Using my structured data testing tool bookmarklet I can tell the page does have the review aggregate markup in place. So then we just perform the same query with a site:vitals.com prefix.

Vitals Site Query for Dr Waldo Frankenstein

That’s the same page but this time the review aggregate rich snippet shows up. This is a clear case where Google is intentionally suppressing the rich snippet in normal search results.

Rich Snippets Relevance and Expertise

All of this doesn’t quite explain the big reduction in video snippets though does it? Many of the sites that lost video snippets weren’t Panda victims nor would you think they’d fall into some sort of non-authoritative bucket.

Video Snippets Require Video Expertise

Casey Henry nails it in seeing the pattern. Those sites that are dedicated to video continue to get the video snippet. The algorithm seems to be looking for ‘topical’ expertise when rendering snippets. I don’t think Google wanted any ol’ site ‘hacking’ search results with a video result. (Yes, there was a cottage industry of folks doing this.)

I’ve seen this same ‘expertise’ issue occur on larger general interest sites. They may have received a recipe snippet before, but the new rich snippets algorithm decides not to render it because the site doesn’t have a focus or an expertise in recipes.

This expertise signal is a bit tough to pin down since there are other factors, such as overall site quality, involved. But it seems logical that Google is moving toward rendering snippets only when that site and snippet deliver relevance and expertise.

NASCAR SERPs?

Too Many Logos

The number of rich snippets per query might be a factor as well. Or if it isn’t, I think it will be soon. However, it is super dependent on the query.

For instance, search for ‘funny cat videos‘ and you get 8 video rich snippets, 7 of them from YouTube and one of them from Animal Planet. This makes a bit of sense since the query syntax makes it clear they’re looking for videos.

Sadly, a search for ‘funny cat‘ actually yields 10 video snippets, all from YouTube. I’ll give Google a pass with the query ‘funny cat’ since my guess is the overwhelming modifier is, in fact, ‘videos’.

So lets try the difference between ‘ombre hair’ and ‘ombre hair video’.

Ombre Hair Google Search Result

Ombre Hair Video Google Search Result

Sure enough you get just one video snippet with ‘ombre hair’ and a full 10 video snippets with ‘ombre hair video’. The only problem? They’re all from YouTube. In fact the first 15 are YouTube video snippets.

Look for a tweak to the rich snippets algorithm to dial back the YouTube host crowding issue. Even if YouTube is the most popular video destination it’s a public relations disaster to have it dominate to such an extent.

Similarly when you use ‘recipe’ in the query you get more recipe rich snippets. I’ve noticed that Google regularly removes the universal image result when you append the modifier ‘recipe’ to any ‘dish’ query.

Chicken Saltimbocca Google Search Result

Chicken Saltimbocca Recipe Google Search Result

This makes sense. When you use the term ‘recipe’ in your query you’re looking for, well, recipes.

Query syntax and intent have an increasing influence on search results design and configuration.

But there are times when site quality and relevance aren’t in question and the only reason the rich snippet isn’t rendering seems to be that there are already a number of rich snippets in the results.

The problem is I can’t locate a good example of this signal at the time of writing. I had some examples but now they’re not working as advertised. So am I just reaching here? Maybe, but I don’t think so.

Too Much Of A Good Thing

Too Many Donuts

The concept makes sense and there are recent precedents to support it. Google tweaked the number of authorship images showing up prior to removing them completely. No one wanted to see face after face in their results and certainly not the same face multiple times.

User experience consistency was the reason given for the elimination of authorship images. There’s a prominent mention about cleaning up ‘the visual design of search results’.

In a Google+ Google Webmaster Central hangout shortly afterwards John Mueller (Webmaster Trends Analyst but really so much more than that) seemed to go a bit further and speak to the user experience decisions Google makes with regards to rich snippets.

So for example, if we were to show the authorship photo for all search results, then maybe that would be too much for the majority of the users, even if we had that information. So that’s something where, in the beginning when only very few sites implemented authorship, maybe it made sense to show them all. Maybe now that a lot of sites are implementing authorship, maybe it makes sense to reduce that, or maybe to switch over to the text-based annotation.

Now John is talking about authorship snippets specifically but it seems like this would apply to any visual element in search results. And this isn’t the first time Google’s dialed back images based on user testing and research. The first social annotations Google applied (those small faces under results) weren’t well received by users (pdf) and quickly disappeared.

When everything screams to be looked at, you look at nothing.

Mark Traphagen does a bang-up job teasing it out in his authorship post on Moz and was extremely helpful in pointing me at specific comments. Prior to full removal Google developed a sort of tiered class system for authorship snippets detailed by Mark in his Great Google Authorship Kidnapping piece on Stone Temple.

The first class received the thumbnail image and the second class only got a byline. This might have simply been about site quality and not about the total number of snippets in a result.

Yet coupled with the comments from John after the fact, it makes me wonder if it also served to test visual snippet density.

Choosing Favorites Is Hard

Tough Choices

I think Google is concerned about making the results too cluttered. From the start Google has maintained a type of less is more approach. Just look at their home page.

So at some point it makes sense to me that only a certain number snippets would render per query result, varying by the topic and query syntax. But which results get the rich snippet would make a humongous difference and become a bone of contention.

Do the rich just get richer? Or does the one site that has more topical expertise get the snippet over a larger national brand?

Google hasn’t had to deal with this problem in large part because the adoption of markup has been slow. But as more sites add structured data, how does Google deal with search results with multiple visual elements?

Maybe they don’t.

Knowledge Panels Eat Snippets

As I investigated this topic and went down the rabbit hole I came across an interesting 2010 paper titled How Google is using Linked Data Today and Vision For Tomorrow (pdf). The focus of the paper was on using linked data in rich snippets.

First they looked at how much structured data was currently being used.

Structured Data Usage 2010

The result was a paltry 4.3% using any type of structured data and only 0.7% being used to generate rich snippets. A 2014 report from Searchmetrics indicates that the adoption hasn’t grown much in the intervening time.

But what’s more intriguing are the proposed ‘extended’ rich snippet examples.

Proposed Extended Event Rich Snippet

Proposed Extended Video Rich Snippet

What I can’t help think looking at these is how closely they map to new Knowledge Graph panels. It’s a bit like that old Reese’s Peanut Butter commercial. But here’s the thing. If this was a video from someone other than YouTube and it included links to another site’s content I think the first site’s head would explode.

“How dare Google put links to other sites in my result!”

You can’t think that someone like, say, Last.fm would be keen to have links to Wikipedia or ticketing sites in their result for an artist query. So moving all of that to a centralized location like the Knowledge Panel is almost a necessity.

Google Killed The Radio Star

I’m using Last.fm as an example because from what I can tell Google has eliminated the music rich snippet. I can’t even get one to render using a site: operator, which leads me to believe its been deprecated. If you can get one to render please let me know.

I’m going to use the music snippet example Google provides on their About rich snippets and structured data page.

Google's Rich Snippets Examples

The music snippet here is for Leonard Cohen and from the bold sections of the result I’m assuming the query used to produce it was ‘Leonard Cohen’.  Here’s what the Last.fm result looks like for that query today.

Last.fm Result for Leonard Cohen without a Music Rich Snippet

It’s the same URL but maybe Last.fm just screwed up their markup. I mean, it happens. So let’s run it through the structured data testing tool using my handy bookmarklet. (Seriously, it’ll shave hours of copy and paste work from your life!)

Structured Testing Tool Result for Last.fm

The markup is there. Google just chooses not to render it. Hey, those are the rules. And you can see why if you look at the Knowledge Panel in this search result.

Leonard Cohen Knowledge Panel

The Knowledge Panel has a ‘Songs’ section and a new ad unit to listen to music on multiple platforms. Click on any one of those songs and you get a full blown ‘songs’ carousel result.

Songs Knowledge Carousel

It’s pretty hard not to think this helps line Google’s pockets. It probably does.

The problem here is that sites don’t want competitive links in their Google search results and Google doesn’t want a long line of competing offers like some blinking-neon Las Vegas strip version of search results. Aggregating the various offers into one area of the page is a better user experience.

Knowledge Panels de-dupe, curate and aggregate intent for a better user experience.

The question then is how long until other types of rich snippets go the way of the Knowledge Panel?

Rich Snippets Ticket To Ride

Remember nearly 2,000 words ago when I mentioned Amazon had lost their review aggregate snippet. I took a screengrab of a specific instance of that about a week or so ago for my upcoming presentation on rich snippets.

No Reviews Snippet for Amazon

Instead of focusing on Amazon look at the two other rich snippets on the page from Goodreads and Barnes & Nobel and how they also appear in the Knowledge Panel. Now lets see how this same search looks today (August 19. 2014).

Rich Snippets Gets You Into The Knowledge Panel

Goodreads lost their rich snippet and with it their link in the Knowledge Panel. The Goodreads result changed to one doesn’t have the review aggregate snippets markup. That’s a kick in the pants!

The review aggregate rich snippet gets you access to the Knowledge Panel unit. At least for the book vertical. And if you didn’t realize, that link to Barnes & Nobel is … a link to Barnes & Nobel. External folks!

Google doesn’t play favorites in ordering. The order in the Knowledge Panel is dictated by the order they appear in search results.

Confederacy of Dunes Google Knowledge Panel

Blind Assassin Google Knowledge Panel

Accelerando Google Knowledge Panel Result

I included the last one here to show that other sites do qualify if they get their review aggregate rich snippet on the first page. ManyBooks is 8th on the ‘accelerando’ result.

But looking further down the road might Google simply remove all the rich snippets and aggregate them in the Knowledge Panel unit? Or maybe they’d only do that if the query was more specific and contained the word ‘review’. On a lark I tried ‘blind assassin reviews’.

Blind Assassin Reviews Google Onebox

Will you look at that! Now both Goodreads and Barnes & Nobel have a starred result front and center. The rich snippets still show up in the individual results but it’s almost immaterial given this presentation. How about another?

The Eyre Affair Review Google Knowledge Panel Result

All three sites that have review aggregate rich snippets on page one also get this monstrous book reviews unit. I don’t know about you but it certainly feels like change is coming.

It’s easy with books because there is one representation of this ‘work’. The connection between the entity represented in the snippet and the Knowledge Panel is straight-forward.

But there is not just one funny cat video! However, could you decide that there is one representation for a ‘dish’? Might a new recipe Knowledge Panel include one big image and links to individual recipes from sites using the recipe rich snippet?

It doesn’t seem so far-fetched to me.

Rich Snippets Redux

Pulling myself out of the rabbit hole here’s what I’ve learned.

The Rich Snippets Algorithm Got Smarter

The new rich snippets algorithm clearly draws on site quality signals and may also be looking for topical expertise. Sites impacted by Panda will see both a reduction in rank and a suppression of any rich snippets.

Query Syntax Changes Search UX

Google is adopting new user interfaces for query syntax that indicate specific intent. The number of rich snippets and other visual elements change based on certain modifiers. Knowledge Panels in particular serve to de-dupe, curate and aggregate user intent.

Rich Snippets Are Linked To Knowledge Panels

In some instances rich snippets are being deprecated in lieu of Knowledge Panels (such as music) while other times rich snippets provide access to prime Knowledge Panel real estate.

So while the landscape continues to shift beneath our feet I believe implementing structured data is one of the smartest moves you can make given Google’s clear and continuing efforts around entities, the knowledge graph and Knowledge Panels.

Twitter Analytics

August 11 2014 // Analytics + Social Media // 21 Comments

What if Twitter launched the most awesome analytics dashboard and no one really noticed? Well, that’s pretty much what happened nearly a month ago. I’ve been waiting for the posts that detail how much you can get from the tool and the different types of analysis you can perform.

But … I’m tired of waiting.

Twitter Analytics Dashboard

The dashboard provides a decent overview of activity over the last 28 days.

Twitter Analytics Dashboard Overview

The major statistics it provides are Impressions, Engagements and Engagement Rate for each tweet and the trend for those over time. That’s not too shabby but lets poke at what lurks under Engagements.

Twitter Engagements

Click on a specific Tweet and you get to see how people engaged with that specific Tweet.

Twitter Analytics Tweet Engagements

Now if you’re not quietly swearing under your breath at this point I don’t know what’s wrong with you. There’s so much awesome information here. A sliding scale of engagement for you to pour over.

In particular, you can see which Tweets produced User profile clicks and actual Follows. Not shown here but also tracked are the number of times the Tweet was Shared via email. But wait, we haven’t even gotten to the best part.

Export And Analyze

Twitter Analytics Export Data Button

At the top right hand on the dashboard is an Export data button. This might as well be colored gold and in the shape of a treasure chest. Click and suddenly you have one of the richest sets of data you could wish for on your Tweets.

Twitter Analytics Export Data in Excel

This eyesore of data is a goldmine. You get the actual text of each Tweet along with the timestamp coupled with all of the engagement metrics. So what could you learn from this data?

A bit of data manipulation and I can find out which days I have the most engagement.

Tweets by Day of Week Chart

Monday and Thursday for the small amount of time I have data. But maybe I just want to see the overall engagement rate by day.

Twitter Analytics Engagement Rate by Day of Week Chart

Friday and Saturday suddenly look pretty good from an engagement efficiency standpoint. I could drill down here and get to the hour and come out with one of those popular ‘best time to Tweet’ posts if I wanted. But I won’t.

Twitter Analysis Smorgasbord

Instead I’ll look for better insights. I happen to use hashtags as a way to classify my Tweets. Two of the more popular ones I use are #seo and #ux. Now with a bit more data manipulation I can look at how these two different themes of Tweets perform.

Twitter Analytics Engagement by Hashtag

I get a lot more impressions and engagements overall with the #seo hashtag but my engagement rate on #ux is twice as high. I could dig even deeper and do a pivot table to see what type of engagement I’m getting on each.

Twitter Analytics Types of Engagement by Hashtag

It’s hard to see, I know, but here I can tell that I get more retweets per Tweet on #seo but that many of the other metrics skew towards #ux in terms of engagement efficiency. This makes sense to me since I’m more of an authority in SEO than in UX. But it shows that with the right type of Tweets I am moving the needle in the latter. (Engagement efficiency – that has a nice ring to it doesn’t it?)

The analytic opportunities here are nearly endless. Particularly if you’ve adhered to some sort of pattern in your Tweets (thank you latent OCD).

Twitter Analytics Engagement by Prefix Graph

So here I can see that my particular Tweet pattern of using a prefix gives me some interesting results. Do people pay more attention and interact with my Tweets when I say I’m saving the piece of content I’m referencing? Maybe. But there’s also a huge bias involved in the value of that content. Either way it’s something I can track over time.

So what are you waiting for?

How To Get Twitter Analytics

I think part of the problem is that the analytics feature is buried under the Ads interface. Maybe folks think you need to be running ads to get all of the organic Tweet data. That’s not true. I haven’t been running ads on my account. Never have. All I did was click the Get Started link and jump through a few hoops. Free!

If you’re having trouble check out Dan Shure’s post about how to set up Twitter Analytics on Evolving SEO.

Flabbergasted LOLcat

Hopefully you’re ready to jump in with both feet and try this out. I know i’d appreciate others providing some insight and potentially some macros to make the analysis even easier. Step to it Excel gurus!

[Updated August 22nd, 2014] Dan Shure at Evolving SEO also has some tips on using Favorited Rate to predict content success.

[Updated September 24th, 2014] Paul Shapiro at Search Wilderness also pointed me at Twitter Analytics for Websites. I implemented this a month ago and have had it in a Chrome tab ever since. What’s cool is that it gives you information about everyone Tweeting about your website.

Twitter Analytics for Websites

So implement both to gain insight into how both you and your site is performing.

TL;DR

Twitter is giving you an amazing dashboard and data on your organic Tweets that allows you to perform an insane amount of powerful social analysis.

StumbleUpon Remarketing

July 21 2014 // Marketing // 7 Comments

For years I’ve used a combination of StumbleUpon and Google Remarketing to cheaply and efficiently open the top of the funnel for start-ups.

I don’t hear much about this tactic (though perhaps I’m not looking in the right places) so here’s a little explanation on this handy growth hack.

StumbleUpon

StumbleUpon Logo

You remember StumbleUpon right? A darling of the Web 1.0 world, it was purchased by eBay in 2007 where it was largely ignored until it was bought back in 2009. It doesn’t get a lot of press but it’s still a well-trafficked property and product.

I’m not saying it’s in some sort of renaissance or anything. But it delivers traffic and has benefits many overlook.

Paid Discovery

You can buy ‘Stumbles’. That shouldn’t be news to you since you’ve been able to do that for ages. But … StumbleUpon has been overshadowed by other platforms so I often get a furrowed brow and a ‘you learn something new everyday’ response when I tell people this.

The paid StumbleUpon product is called Paid Discovery. Like nearly any paid ad product today you can target StumbleUpon users by geography, age, gender and interest. This is important since you only want to find people who are interested in your site or product.

StumbleUpon Ad Targeting and Costs

The news gets even better because you can buy these targeted visits on the cheap from anywhere from $0.10 to $0.20 a click. It used to be cheaper but it’s still a bargain for guaranteed targeted visits.

Now, there is often some discrepancy between paid Stumbles and what shows up in Google Analytics due to various issues. You can obsess about this or simply shrug your shoulders and move on. I recommend the latter.

I figure I’ll make up the difference based on earned Stumbles, those StumbleUpon visits you get for free because your content has been well received.

Low Engagement

If you’re familiar with StumbleUpon you know that the product itself encourages low engagement. You ‘Stumble’ from one site to the next in a Tumblr for websites like fashion. It’s sort of like channel surfing on TV when you’re bored and looking for something interesting, yet not really having the time to watch for long anyway.

Marketers complain that StumbleUpon traffic has a 90%+ bounce rate and 1.1 page views per visit. And they’re not wrong. Here’s a look at the metrics for the campaign I launched to show how this works.

StumbleUpon Low Engagement Numbers

This is why most marketers write off StumbleUpon as a viable channel. Yet, if you’re creative, you can use the limitations of StumbleUpon to your advantage.

And I have, time and time again.

Forced Brand Exposure

Clockwork Orange Eye Scene

The first thing to recognize is that StumbleUpon essentially forces visits to your site. This means you don’t have to deal with ad blindness or click-through rate issues to get exposure.

The problem with many StumbleUpon campaigns is that they don’t create a page that will work at a glance. Because it’s not about engaging on that visit. Don’t try to encourage an activity that is antithetical to the product. User engagement metrics should be largely ignored when using StumbleUpon.

The job of a StumbleUpon visit is to ensure that the user leaves remembering your site and what you’re offering. So the page has to be designed with five foot web design in mind and should be laser focused, passing any five second test with flying colors.

StumbleUpon is about getting brand and marketing message exposure.

You’re hoping that they’ll return later via another channel. I’ve seen strong correlations between an increase in direct traffic in the weeks after a StumbleUpon campaign. This would indicate that some people do remember that exposure and come back directly as a result.

But it’s awful hard to prove with all the mitigating factors.

Stumble Remarketing

Cat Looking Through Blinds

The good news is that there is a better way to get those brand exposures to come back to your site. Remarketing!

All you need to do is set a remarketing tag on that specific StumbleUpon page and you suddenly have the ability to market to a specific and relevant group of people who already have a nascent idea of your site or product.

I like having a dedicated StumbleUpon campaign page so you can isolate this group from other groups when you’re doing more complicated remarketing campaigns. It’s just far simpler to manage and measure.

Easy To Set Up

It’s a snap to set this up now that you can create Google remarketing lists (aka Audience) using Google Analytics.

Setting Up Remarketing Lists in Google Analytics

Here I’m simply targeting those users who visit my new search volume trend page. You do have to tweak your Google Analytics code to enable remarketing, which isn’t that hard if you’re willing to tinker. It’s even easier if you’re using Google Tag Manager.

Then you create your StumbleUpon campaign and watch as users ‘Stumble’ to your page and fill up your new Audience. At that point you can then go to AdWords and build a remarketing campaign using that Audience.

I won’t give the step-by-step instructions here unless there’s an outcry of folks for this level of detail.

StumbleUpon+Remarketing=Win

Funnel Cake

Even at $0.20 a visit I can take $5,000 and turn it into a list of 25,000 targeted users that I can target via remarketing for a loooong time.

Yes, the remarketing will also cost you some money but those clicks will be qualified clicks and will convert at a high rate. Not only that but if you’re smart you can use remarketing to gain extra brand exposures that produce additional view-through visits and conversions.

Stumble remarketing opens and fills your funnel with relevant users.

All you have to do is combine a remarketing tag with this targeted traffic source!

First This, Then That

Green and White Dominos Set in Spiral

My idea was to demonstrate this with a new page on my site dedicated to monthly updates to US desktop search query volume. I’ve tracked this metric for a long time and figured I would create a dedicated page for it and use StumbleUpon to announce and launch it. Then I’d use remarketing when the next month’s data was live and the graph was updated.

I screwed a few things up though so the test didn’t work quite as I’d planned. (User error!) And I haven’t seen new June numbers from comScore yet and was getting itchy to post this. But the idea was solid.

Have a defined plan behind the two exposures.

In my case I was looking to get people’s attention with one interesting graph and commentary. Then I’d bring them back with a remarketing ad when the graph was updated with a new month’s data. The ad could be the graph with a ‘see updated search trend’ call-to-action or any number of creative treatments. In a best case scenario I would also have created a subscribe option for the page itself once users got there again.

If you have a product you’re trying to sell you might have the first ‘Stumble’ exposure introduce the product and brand. The second ‘remarketing’ exposure could be a benefit message, a free white paper download or a coupon for a product trial. In some ways the first exposure is advertising and the second is marketing.

You’re a marketing boxer hitting users with a combination one-two punch.

TL;DR

By combining StumbleUpon Paid Discovery with Google Remarketing you can quickly and efficiently open and fill the top of the sales funnel. Use StumbleUpon’s low-engagement context to your advantage and deliver a memorable first impression that you then build on through additional remarketing exposures.