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Are You Winning The Attention Auction?

January 20 2014 // Marketing + SEO + Social Media // 23 Comments

Every waking minute of every day we choose to do one thing or another.

For a long time we didn't have many choices. Hunt the mammoths or mind the fire. Read the bible or tend the crops. I can remember when we only got six television stations on an old black and white TV.

But as technology advances we're afforded more choices more often.

Freedom of Choice by Devo

We can decide to talk about the weather with the person next to us in the doctor's waiting room or stare into our phone and chuckle at a stupid BuzzFeed article. We can focus on that Excel spreadsheet or we can scroll through our Facebook feed.

You can sit on the couch and watch The Blacklist or you can sit on that same couch and read Gridlinked by Neal Asher on a Kindle. You could go out and play tennis or you could go out and play Ingress and hack some portals.

I was going to overwhelm you with statistics that showed how many choices we have in today's digital society, such as the fact that the typical email subscriber gets 416 commercial emails every month. That's more than 10 a day!

I could go on and on because there's a litany of surveys and data that tell the same story. But ... we all know this from experience. We live and breath it every day.

We all choose to look, hear and do only so many things. Because there are only so many hours in each day.

Our time and attention is becoming our most valued resource. (Frankly, we should really guard it far more fiercely than we do.) As marketers we must understand and adapt to this evolving environment. But ... it's not new.

The Attention Auction

Content Doge Meme

There's always been an auction on attention. That critical point in time where people decide to give their attention to one thing over the other.

Recently, there's been quite a kerfluffle over the idea of content shock. That there's too much content. There are some interesting points in that debate but I tend to believe the number of times content comes up in the auction has increased quite a bit. We consume far more content due to ubiquitous access.

Sure there's more content vying for attention. But there are more opportunities to engage and a large amount of content never comes up in the auction because of poor quality or mismatched interest.

There are hundreds of TV channels but really only a handful that are contextually relevant to you at any given time. Even if there are 68 sports channels the odds that you are in the mood to watch sports and that there will be something on each of those stations at the same time that you want to watch is very small. If you're looking to watch NFL Football then Women's College Badminton isn't really an option.

More importantly, I believe that we've adapted to the influx of content. It's knowing how we've adapted that can help marketers win the attention auction more often.

We Are Internet Old!

Sample Geocities Page

Adolescents often do very reckless things. They run red lights. They engage in binge drinking. They have unprotected sex. While some point to brain development as the cause (and there's some truth to that), I tend to believe Dr. Valerie Reyna has it right.

The researchers found that while adults scarcely think about engaging in many high-risk behaviors because they intuitively grasp the risks, adolescents take the time to mull over the risks and benefits.

It's not that adolescents don't weigh the pros and cons. They do and actually overestimate the potential cons. But despite that, they choose to play the odds and risk it more often than adults. In large part, this can be attributed to less life experience. They've had fewer opportunities to land on the proverbial whammy.

As we grow older we actually think less about many decisions because we have more experience and we can make what is referred to as 'gist' decisions. From my perspective it simply means we grok the general idea and can quickly say yea or nay.

So what does any of this have to do with the Internet, attention or content?

When it comes to consuming digital content, we're old. We've had plenty of opportunities to experience all sorts of content to the point where we don't have to think too hard about whether we're going to click or not. If it fits a certain pattern we have a certain response.

Nigerian Email Scam

Nay! A thousand times nay.

The vast majority of content being produced is, to put it bluntly, crap. Technology has a lot to do with this. It is both easy and free to create content in written or visual formats. From WordPress to Tumblr to Instagram, nearly anyone can add to the content tidal wave.

Of course, the popularity of 'content marketing' has increased the number of bland, "me too" articles, not to mention the eyesore round-up posts that are a simulacrum of true curation.

People have wasted too much time and attention on shitty content. The result? We're making decisions faster and faster by relying on those past experiences.

We create internal shortcuts in our mind for what is good or bad. It's a shortcut that protects us from wasting our time and attention, but may also prevent us from finding new legitimate content. So how do we address this cognitive shortcut? How do you win the attention auction?

You can ensure that you fit that shortcut and you can add yourself to that shortcut.

Fit The Shortcut

Getting Attention

Purple Goldfish

Fitting the shortcut is simple to say, but often difficult to execute. Make sure that, at a glance, you get the attention of your user. There are plenty of ways to do this from writing good titles to using appropriate images to leveraging social sharing.

When '1-800 service' pops up on caller ID you're probably making a snap decision that it's a telemarketer and you'll ignore the call. When it's the name of your doctor or someone from your family you pick up the phone. This same type of process happens on nearly all social platforms as people scan feeds on Twitter, Google+ and Facebook.

Recently Facebook even admitted to the issues revolving around feed consumption.

The fact that less and less of brands' content will surface is described as a result of increased competition for limited space, since "content that is eligible to be shown in news feed is increasing at a faster rate than people's ability to consume it."

Now this is a bit disingenuous since Facebook is crowding out legitimate content for ads (a whole lot of ads) but the essence of this statement is true. Not only that but your content is at a disadvantage on Facebook since much of the content is personal in nature. Cute pictures of your cousin's kids are going to trump and squeeze out content from brands.

So with what space you're left with on these platforms, you better make certain it has the best chance of getting noticed and fitting that shortcut. The thing is, too many still don't do what's necessary to give their content the best chance of success.

If you're not optimizing your social snippet you're shooting your content in the foot.

Be sure your title is compelling, that you have an eye catching image, that the description is (at a minimum) readable and at best engages and entices. Of course, none of this matters unless that content finds its way to social platforms.

Make sure you're encouraging social sharing. Don't make me hunt down where you put the sharing options or jump through hoops once I get there.

Ensure your content is optimized for both social and search. And when you're doing the latter rely on user centric syntax and intent to guide your optimization efforts.

Your job is to fit into that cognitive shortcut by making it easy for users to see and understand your content in the shortest amount of time possible.

Keeping Attention

Bored One Ear To Death LOLcat

Getting them to your content is the first step in winning their attention. At that point they're giving you the opportunity to take up more of their time and attention. They made a choice but they're going to be looking to confirm whether it was a good one with almost the same amount of speed.

When you land on a new website you instantly (perhaps unconsciously) make a decision about the quality and authority of that site and whether you'll stick around.

A websites’ first impression is known to be a crucial moment for capturing the users interest. Within a fraction of time, people build a first visceral “gut feeling” that helps them to decide whether they are going to stay at this place or continue surfing to other sites. Research in this area has been mainly stimulated by a study of Lindgaard et al. (2006), where the authors were able to show that people are able to form stable attractiveness judgments of website screenshots within 50 milliseconds.

That's from a joint research paper from the University of Basel and Google Switzerland about the role of visual complexity and prototypicality regarding first impression of websites (pdf).

Once they get to the content you need to ensure they instantly get positive reinforcement. Because at the same time there are other pieces of content, other things, battling for attention.

Grumpy Cat Nope

So if they don't instantly see what they're looking for you're giving them a reason to say nope. If what they see on that page looks difficult to read. Nope. If they see grammatical errors. Nope. If they feel the site is spammy looking. Nope.

There is a drum beat of research, examples and terms that underscore the importance of reducing friction.

Books On Reducing Friction

Call it cognitive fluency or cognitive ease, either way we seek out things that are familiar and look like we expect. Books such as Barry Schwartz's Paradox of Choice and Steve Krug's Don't Make Me Think make it clear that too many choices reduce action and satisfaction. And we should all internalize the fact that the majority of people don't read but instead skim articles.

That doesn't mean that the actual content has to suffer. I still write what are considered long-form posts but format them in ways that allow people to get meaning from them without having to read them word for word.

Do I hope they're poring over every sentence? Absolutely! I'm passionate about my writing and writing in general. But I'm a realist and would prefer that more people learn or take something from my writing than have a select few read every word and laud me for sentence construction.

I still point people to my post on readability as a way to get started down this road. Make no mistake, those who optimize for readability will succeed (even with lesser content) than those that refuse to do so out of ego or other rationalizations (I'm looking at you Google blogs).

I will shout in the face of the next person who whines that they shouldn't have to use an image in their post or that they only want people who are 'serious about the subject' to read their article. Wake up before you're the Geocities of the Internet.

Tomato

The one thing I do know is that being authentic and having a personality can help you stand out. It can help you to at least get and retain attention and sometimes even become memorable. Here's a bit of writing advice from Charles Stross.

Third and final piece of advice: never commit to writing something at novel length that you aren't at least halfway in love with. Because if you're phoning it in, your readers will spot it and throw rotten tomatoes at you. And because there's no doom for a creative artist that's as dismal as being chained to a treadmill and forced to play a tune they secretly hate for the rest of their working lives.

The emphasis is mine. Don't. Phone. It. In.

Add To The Shortcut

Using Attention

Dude Where's My Car?

When you do get someone's attention, what are you doing with it? You want them to add your site, product or brand to that cognitive shortcut. So the next time a piece of that content comes up in the attention auction you've got the inside track. They recognize it and select it intuitively.

For instance, every time I see something new from Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal, I give it my attention. He's delivered quality and memorable content enough times that he doesn't have to fight so hard for my attention. I have a preconceived notion of quality that I bring to each successive interaction with his content.

Welcome to branding 101.

Consistently creating positive and memorable interactions (across multiple channels) will cause users to associate your site, product or brand as being worthy of attention.

Let me be more explicit about that term 'interactions'. Every time you're up in the attention auction counts as an interaction. So if I choose to pass on reading your content, that counts and not in a good way. We're creatures of habit so the more times I pass on something the more likely I am to continue passing on it.

Add to that the perception (or reality) that we have less time per piece of content and each opportunity you have to get in front of a user is critical.

Now, if I actually get someone to share a piece of content, will it be presented in a way that will win the attention auction? If it isn't not only have I squandered that user action but I may have created a disincentive for sharing in the future. If I share something and no one gives me a virtual high five of thanks for doing so will I continue to share content from that source?

Poor social snippet optimization is like putting a kick-me sign on your user's back.

Memorable

Make A Short Cut

If you want to be added to that cognitive shortcut you need to make it easy for them to do so. You need them to remember and remember in the 'right' way.

I've read quite a bit lately about ensuring your content is useful. I find this bit of advice exceedingly dull. I mean, are you creating content to be useless? I'm sure content spammers might but by in large most aren't. Not only that but there's plenty of great content that isn't traditionally useful unless you count tickling the funny bone as useful.

Of course you've also probably read about how tapping into emotion can propel your content to the top! Well, there's some truth to that but that's often at odds with being useful such as creating a handy bookmarklet or a tutorial on Excel. I suppose you could link it to frustration but you're not going to have some Dove soap tear-jerker piece mashed up with Excel functions. Even Annie Cushing can't pull that off.

Story telling is also a fantastic device but it's not a silver bullet either. Mind you, I think it has a better chance than most but even then you're really retaining attention instead of increasing memory.

Cocktail Party

You have to make your content cocktail party ready. Your content has to roll off the tongue in conversation.

I read this piece on Global Warming in The New York Times.

I heard this song by Katy Perry about believing in yourself.

I saw this funny ad where Will Ferrell tosses eggs at a Dodge.

Seriously, when you're done with a piece of your content, describe it to someone out loud in one sentence. That's what it'll be reduced to for the most part.

As humans we categorize or tag things so we can easily recall them. I think the scientific term here is 'coding' of information. If we can't easily do so it's tough for us to talk about them again, much less find them again. As an aside, re-finding content is something we do far more often than we realize and is something Google continues to try to solve.

Even when we can easily categorize and file away that bit of information, we're not divvying it up into a very fine structure. Only the highlights make it into memory. We only take a few things from the source information. A sort of whisper down the lane effect takes place. You suddenly don't remember who wrote it, or where you saw it.

We're trying to optimize the ability to recall that information by using the right coding structure, one that we'll be able to remember.

Shh Armpit

It's the reason you need to be careful about if or how you go about guest blogging. This is also why I generally despise (strong word I know) Infographics. Because more often than not if you hear someone refer to one they say 'That Infographic on Water Conservation' or 'That Infographic on The History of Beer'.

Guess what, they have no clue where they saw it or what brand it represents. Seriously. Because usually the only two things remembered are the format (Infographic) and the topic. When I ask people to name the brands behind Infographics I usually get two responses: Mint and OK Cupid. Kudos to them but a big raspberry for the rest of you.

"But the links" I hear some of you moan. Stop. Stop it right now! That lame ass link (no don't tell me about the DA number) is nothing compared to the attention you just squandered.

I'm not saying that Infographics can't work, but they have to be done thoughtfully, for the right reasons and to support your brand. Okay, rant over.

Ensuring people walk away with a concise meaning increases satisfaction. And getting them to repeat it to someone else helps secure your content in memory. The act of sharing helps add your site or brand to that user's shortcut.

If there were a formula you could follow that would guarantee great content, why is there so much crap? If we all knew what makes a hit song or a hit movie why isn't every song and film a success? This isn't easy and anyone telling you different is lying.

Consistent

Janet Jackson

You can also add to the shortcut by creating an expectation. This can be around the quality of your content but that's pretty tough to execute on. I mean, I completely failed at generating enough blog content last year. I'm not advocating a paint-by-numbers schedule, but I had more to say and at some point if you're name isn't out there they begin to forget you.

There's a fair amount of research that shows that memory is a new mapping of neurons and that the path becomes stronger with repeated exposure. You inherently know this by studying. The more you study the more you remember.

But what if the memory of your site or brand, that path you're creating in your user's mind, isn't clear. What if the first time you associate the brand with one thing and the next time it's not quite that thing you thought it was. Or that the time between exposures is so great that you can't find that path anymore and inadvertently create a new path. How many times have you saved something only to realize you already saved it at some point in the past?

Now, I'm out there in other ways. I keep my Twitter feed going with what I hope is a great source of curated content across a number of industries. My Google+ feed is full of the same plus a whole bunch of other content that serves as a sort of juxtaposition to the industry specific content.

One of the more successful endeavors on Google+ is my #ididnotwakeupin series where I share photos from places around the world. It's a way for me to vicariously travel. So every morning for more than two years I've posted a photo tagged with #ididnotwakeupin.

The series gets a decent amount of engagement and if I tried harder (i.e. - interacted with other travel and photography folks) I'm pretty sure I could turn it into something bigger. I even had an idea of turning it into a coffee table book. I haven't though. Why? Because there's only so much time in every day. See what I did there?

Another example of this is Moz's Whiteboard Friday series. You aren't even sure what the topic is going to be but over time people expect it to be good so they tune in.

Or there's Daily Grace It's Grace on YouTube where people expect and get a new video from Grace Helbig every Monday through Friday. Want to double-down on consistent? Tell me what phrase you remember after watching this video from Grace (might be NSFW depending on your sensitivity).

Very ... yeah, you know.

That's right. Repetition isn't a bad thing. The mere exposure effect demonstrates that the more times we're exposed to something the better chance we'll wind up liking it. This is what so many digital marketing gurus don't want you to hear.

Saturation marketing (still) works because more exposure equals familiarity which improves cognitive fluency which makes it easier to remember.

It's sort of like the chorus in a song, right? Maybe you don't know all the words to each verse but you know the chorus! Particularly if you can't get away from hearing it on the radio every 38 minutes.

In some ways, the number of exposures necessary is inversely proportional to the quality of the content. Great content or ads don't need much repetition but for me to know that it's JanuANY at Subway this month might take a while.

Climbing Mount Diablo

And the biggest mistake I see people make is stopping. "We blogged for a few months and saw some progress but not enough to keep investing in it." This is like stopping your new diet and exercise regimen because you only lost 6 pounds.

You always have to be out there securing and reinforcing your brand as a cognitive shortcut.

Does Pepsi decide that they just don't need to do any more advertising? Everyone knows about Pepsi so why spend a billion dollars each year marketing it? You just can't coast. Well, you can, but you're taking a huge risk. Because someone or something else might fill the void. (Note to self, I need to take this advice.)

Shared

Everywhere

The act of sharing content likely means it will be remembered. To me it's almost like having to describe that content in your head again as you share it. You have that small moment where you have to ask questions about what you're sharing, with who and why it's interesting.

So sharing isn't just about getting your content in front of other people it's helping to cement your content in the mind of that user.

Of course, having the same piece of content float in front of your face a number of times from different sources helps tremendously. Not only are you hitting on the mere exposure effect you're also introducing some social proof to the equation.

To me the goal isn't really to 'go viral' but to increase the number of times I'm winning the attention auction by getting there more often with an endorsement.

You might not click on that 'What City Should You Actually Live In?' quiz on Facebook the first time but after four people have posted their answers you just might cave and click through. (Barcelona by they way.)

Examples

Breaking Bad

Walt and Jessie Suited Up on The Couch Eating

How did Breaking Bad become such a huge hit? It wasn't when it first started out. I didn't watch the first two seasons live.

But enough people did and AMC kept the faith and kept going. Because enough people were talking about it. It was easy to talk about too. "This show where a chemistry teacher becomes a meth dealer." Bonus points that the plot made it stand out from anything else on TV.

And then you figured out that you could watch it on Netflix! People gave it a try. Then they began to binge watch seasons and they were converts. They wanted more. MOAR!

Of course none of it would have happened if it weren't a great show. But Breaking Bad was also consistent, persistent, memorable and available.

BuzzFeed

BuzzFeed Logo

I know what you're thinking. BuzzFeed? Come on, their content sucks! And for the most part I'd have to agree. But it's sort of a guilty pleasure isn't it?

Here's why I think BuzzFeed works. You've found yourself on a BuzzFeed 'article' a number of times. It's not high quality in most senses of the word but it does often entertain. Not only that it does so very quickly.

If I'm 'reading' the 25 Times Anna Kendrick Was Painfully Accurate post I'm only scrolling through briefly and I do get a chuckle or two out of it. This has happened enough times that I know what to expect from BuzzFeed.

I've created a cognitive shortcut that tells me that I can safely click-through on a BuzzFeed post because I'll get a quick laugh out of it. They entertain and they respect my time. For my wife that same function is filled by Happy Place.

Blind Five Year Old

Blind Five Year Old Logo

How about my site and personal brand? I've done pretty well but it took me quite a while to get there, figuring out a bunch of stuff along the way.

Seriously, I blogged in relative obscurity from 2008 to 2010. But over time the quality of my posts won over a few people. But quality wasn't enough. I also got better and better at optimizing my content for readability and for sharing.

I use a lot of images in my content. And I spend a lot of time on selecting and placing them. I still think I botched the placement of an image in my Keywords Still Matter post. And it still irks me. No, I'm not joking.

The images make it easier to read. Not only do they give people a rest, they allow me to connect on a different level. Sometimes I might be able to communicate an idea better with the help of that image. It helps to make it all click.

I use a lot of music references as images. Part of it is because I like music but part of it is because if you're suddenly singing that song in your head, then you're associating my content with that song, if even just a little. When I do that I have a better chance of you remembering that content. I've helped create a tag in your mental filing system.

I try to build more ways for you to connect my content in your head.

TL;DR

We have more choices more often when it comes to content. In response to this we're protecting our time and attention by making decisions on content faster. Knowing this, marketers must work harder to fit cognitive shortcuts we've created, based on experience, for what is perceived as clickable or authoritative content.

Alternatively, the consistent delivery and visibility of memorable content can help marketers create a cognitive shortcut, giving themselves an unfair advantage when their content comes up in the attention auction.

Stop Carly Rae Content Marketing

December 17 2013 // Marketing + SEO // 9 Comments

Lately I've gotten a few too many Carly Rae content marketing emails, which makes me both sad and grouchy. This is not the way to promote content, gain fans or build a brand. Stop it.

What Is Carly Rae Content Marketing?

Carly Rae Content Marketing

The term comes from Carly Rae Jespen's popular Call Me Maybe song which contains the following lyrics.

Hey I just met you
And this is crazy
But here's my number
So call me maybe

I've changed the lyrics slightly to reflect the emails I'm increasingly receiving from folks.

Hey I just met you
And this is crazy
But here's my content
So promote me maybe

Carly Rae content marketing are out of the blue outreach emails from people you have no relationship with asking you to promote their content or engage in some other activity. In the end it's just shoddy email spam.

It's An Honor To Be Nominated?

The Oscars

I'm sure some of you are thinking that I'm ungrateful. The fact that I'm getting these emails shows that people want my endorsement. Perhaps it is better to be noticed than not but if I am some sort of influencer wouldn't you want to put your best foot forward?

First impressions matter and this one isn't going to win me over. In fact, I might remember you, your site or brand for the lousy outreach instead.

Win Over The Persnickety

I might demand a higher level of quality than others. So you could simply write me off as some anal-retentive prat with outrageous expectations and a self-inflated ego. But that would be a mistake.

Mr. Fussy

Because if you can put together a pitch that doesn't make me vomit in my mouth a little bit then you're likely going to have better luck with everyone else too. In short, win over your toughest critic and you'll have a powerful outreach message.

Content Marketing Basics

Johns

If you're doing outreach there are a few things you must get right. A recent post by Tadeusz Szewczyk about the perfect outreach message covered some of the basics. (It's not perfect in my view but it's certainly above average.)

You must be relevant, have a decent subject line, get my name right, respect my time and show that you've done some rudimentary homework about me. The sad part is that 50% of people fail to even get my name correct. Yup, somehow AJ Kohn is transformed into John. (Clicks trash icon.)

Respect My Time And Brain

Do or Do Not Dumbledore

One of the things that has bothered me lately is the number of people asking me to take time to provide feedback on their content. Feedback! Some of these people might actually want feedback but I'm going to call bullshit on the vast majority. You don't want feedback. You want me to share and promote your content.

Do you really want me to tell you that your infographic is an eyesore and then not share or promote it? Probably not. I mean, kudos if you really are open to that sort of thing but I'm guessing you're in promotion mode at this stage and you won't be asking for a redesign.

Getting me (or anyone) to do something is a high-friction event. Don't waste it asking them to do the wrong thing.

Honest Teasing

Teased Hair with Aqua Net

Being transparent about what you're trying to accomplish is almost always the best way to go. If you're looking for a link, tell them you're looking for a link. Stop beating around the bush.

I'd also argue that you should be applying marketing principles to outreach. Half the battle is getting me to actually click and read the content. So tease me! Get me interested in what you have to say. Give me a cliff-hanger! Don't put me to sleep or ask me to promote the content without reading it.

Get me interested so that I view or read your content. At that point you have to be confident that the content is good enough that I'll share and promote it. Stop trying to do everything all at once in your outreach email.

TL;DR

Stop Carly Rae content marketing! Fast and shoddy outreach might get you a handful of mentions but it won't lead to long-term success and may actually prevent it in many cases.

Finding A Look As Well As A Sound

October 28 2013 // Life + Marketing // 9 Comments

(This is a personal post. While it does have a lot of marketing insight it's also a bit introspective so you've been warned if that's not your thing.)

In the past year I've been interviewed by a number of folks. One of the questions that often comes up is who has influenced my work.

I get the sense that thy want me to reference other people in SEO or the marketing industry overall. And don't get me wrong, there are a number of smart folks out there but most of my influences come from outside the industry.

Artists

At the end of the day I am influenced and inspired by artists. Musicians are often at the top of my list and I regularly listen to music as I do my work, whether it's Daft Punk or The Chemical Brothers to get me through large chunks of analysis or Adam Ant, Kasabian, Cake or Siouxsie and the Banshees as I put together blog posts or conference decks.

I am continually impressed by artists who go out on that ledge with their own work. Of course nearly everything is derivative in some form, but I admire those that are able to express something in their own way, to put their twist on it with passion. I connect with those that aren't afraid to be authentic.

Adam Ant Full Costume

I mean, Adam Ant ladies and gentleman! Sure, he's been a bit off the map psychologically but it doesn't change his music and his appearance.

“I grew up in the glam era and, for me, every album should have a look as well as a sound.”

See, I appreciate that sentiment. That's what I think about when I'm working, when I think about what I stand for and what I want people to remember. A fair amount of what I've written lately connects to this central theme.

Expression

Ominous Van Gogh

Artists are investing something of themselves into their art, or at least the ones that matter do. You have to find your own voice, not someone else's voice if you're going to make an impression.

Will what you express always find an audience? Nope. Sometimes it just might take a long time for you to finally get that recognition, for people to understand what you're trying to communicate. Or maybe it never happens. Face it, not everyone is expressing something of value. #truestory

But it is the attempt, on your own terms, that matters I think. Or at least that's what I've embraced. This is slightly different then the failing your way to success mantra. I believe that, but I think what you're failing at matters a lot.

For well over two years I blogged here in relative obscurity. Did I get better over those two years? Hell yes! I still think some of those early posts are solid but it took time for me to put together that my content had to 'have a look as well as a sound.'

Authenticity

Ubik Book Cover Art

But I also try to put as much of myself into this blog, both in normal posts and the more personal ones.

I'm not talking about the 'the mistake I made that turned out to change my business for the better' posts that seem to be so en vogue lately. Yeah, we get that you can learn from your mistakes but it's all too ... tidy.

But reality is messy and I feel like it's exposing that reality that resonates. A better representation of this is my Google+ feed where I share things that I find funny, interesting or poignant along with my normal industry content. It could be the IPA I'm drinking at Beer O'Clock or a picture of some Sleestaks.

And many of my blog posts are actually just me documenting stuff that I'm figuring out, because there's always something more to learn.

Periods

Violator Depeche Mode Album Cover

The trite thing to say is that I've been lucky to have such success, but that type of humble brag isn't authentic. I worked hard (and continue to) and am very happy for the recognition. While I can't reveal many of my clients due to NDAs I'm damn proud to count 2 of the top 50 websites as clients.

I had a plan to develop my personal brand and I attacked it with 50% of my time. One of the things that worked out early on was exploring Google+ and Authorship. I didn't do this because I thought I could make it into something but because I truly did see something interesting.

But should I just continue to blog about those things even if my interest has waned? I think many people, sites and brands get stuck doing what has brought them success in the past. And that makes sense in many ways. Marketing is often about finding what works and repeating that.

Not only that but the fans and followers you've garnered provide a huge boost to your confidence to say nothing of their ability to amplify your content. I can't tell you how meaningful it is to have that support. I don't take that for granted for a second.

But if you're an artist, you evolve and grow.

What you want to express changes. In talking about writing this post with my wife she told me about how she and her friend listened to Depeche Mode's Violator album when it first came out. They hated it. It was a departure from their prior work. It took her time to embrace the new album but today it's still one of her favorites.

So I did write about Authorship again recently but I feel like that was an ending. I doubt I will again. Instead I'll continue to write and explore what I'm passionate about. Maybe that won't be as popular and that's ... okay.

Don't get me wrong, I hope it is! No artist doesn't want to achieve success. But just as importantly, success doesn't define them.

Inspiration

Drive's Scorpion Jacket

So in the end I am influenced by those who inspire me to do better, who challenge me to get out of my rut.

It's those that I read, look at or listen to and make me feel something. It's that photo of Los Angeles that brings back a flood of memories. It's the mood that Wang Chung's To Live and Die in LA instantly creates. (Seriously folks the entire album is incredible.)

So maybe I'll get up in this jacket at a conference and turn my presentation into a performance. Or maybe I'll just work to encourage my clients to be authentic and to find a look and sound for their content.

No matter what it is, I'm energized by the idea of putting myself out there (again) and taking those risks and seeing how people react.

2013 Internet, SEO and Technology Predictions

December 31 2012 // Advertising + Marketing + SEO + Social Media + Technology // 15 Comments

I've made predictions for the past four years (2009, 2010, 2011, 2012) and think I've done pretty well as a prognosticator.

I'm sometimes off by a year or two and many of my predictions are wrong where my predictions were more like personal wishes. But it's interesting to put a stake in the ground so you can look back later.

2013 Predictions

2013 Predictions Crystal Ball

Mobile Payment Adoption Soars

If you follow my Marketing Biz column you know I'm following the mobile payments space closely. Research seems to indicate that adoption of mobile payments will take some time in the US based on current attitudes.

I believe smartphone penetration and the acceptance of other similar payments such as app store purchases and Amazon Video on Demand will smooth the way for accelerated mobile payment adoption. Who wins in this space? I'm still betting on Google Wallet.

Infographics Jump The Shark

Frankly, I think this has already happened but perhaps it's just me. So I'm going to say I'm the canary in the coal mine and in 2013 everyone else will get sick and tired of the glut of bad Infographics.

Foursquare Goes Big

The quirky gamification location startup that was all about badges and mayorships is growing up into a mature local search portal. I expect to see Foursquare connect more dots in 2013, making Yelp very nervous and pissing off Facebook who will break their partnership when they figure out that Foursquare is eating their local lunch.

Predictive Search Arrives

Google Now is a monster. The ability to access your location and search history, combined with personal preferences allows Google to predict your information needs. Anyone thinking about local optimization should be watching this very closely.

Meme Comments

A new form of comments and micro-blogging will emerge where the entire conversation is meme based. Similar to BuzzFeed's reactions, users will be able to access a database of meme images, perhaps powered by Know Your Meme, to respond and converse.

Search Personalization Skyrockets

Despite the clamor from filter bubble and privacy hawks, Google will continue to increase search personalization in 2013. They'll do this through context, search history, connected accounts (Gmail field trial) and Google+.

The end result will be an ever decreasing uniformity in search results and potential false positives in many rank tracking products.

Curation Marketing

Not content with the seemingly endless debate of SEO versus Inbound Marketing versus Content Marketing versus Growth Hacking we'll soon have another buzzword entering the fray.

Curation marketing will become increasingly popular as a way to establish expertise and authority. Like all things, only a few will do it the right way and the rest will be akin to scraped content.

Twitter Rakes It In 

I've been hard on Twitter in the past and for good reason. But in 2013 Twitter will finally become a massive money maker as it becomes the connection in our new multi-screen world. As I wrote recently, Twitter will win the fight for social brand advertising dollars.

De-pagination

After spending years and literally hundreds of blog posts about the proper way to paginate we'll see a trend toward de-paginating in the SEO community. The change will be brought on by the advent of new interfaces and capabilities. (Blog post forthcoming.)

Analytics 3.0 Emerges

Pulling information out of big data will be a trend in 2013. But I'm even more intrigued by Google's Universal Analytics and location analytics services like Placed. Marketers are soon going to have a far more complete picture of user behavior, Minority Report be damned!

Ingress Becomes Important

I'm a bit addicted to Ingress. At first you think this is just a clever way for Google to further increase their advantage on local mapping. And it is.

But XM is essentially a map Android usage. You see a some in houses, large clusters at transit stops, movie theaters and doctor's offices, essentially anywhere there are lines. You also see it congregate at intersections and a smattering of it on highways.

Ingress shows our current usage patterns and gives Google more evidence that self-driving cars could increase Internet usage, which is Google's primary goal these days.

Digital Content Monetization

For years we've been producing more and more digital content. Yet, we still only have a few scant ways to monetize all of it and they're rather inefficient when you think about it. Someone (perhaps even me) will launch a new way to monetize digital content.

I Will Interview Matt Cutts

No, I don't have this lined up. No, I'm not sure I'll be able to swing it. No, I'm not sure the Google PR folks would even allow it. But ... I have an idea. So stay tuned.

Content Recall

September 19 2012 // Marketing + SEO // 33 Comments

"Produce great content." No doubt you've heard this phrase over and over again as content marketers bask in the sun of Google's animal algorithm updates. You've probably even heard it from me.

But what is great content? It's a dreadfully fuzzy term that often disintegrates into a less that satisfactory 'I know it when I see it' explanation. Maybe our focus on great is misplaced.

Instead of creating great content, create memorable content. 

Recall

Peter Gabriel I Don't Remember

The definition of recall is fairly straightforward.

A measure of advertising effectiveness in which a sample of respondents is exposed to an ad and then at a later point in time is asked if they remember the ad. Ad recall can be on an aided or unaided basis. Aided ad recall is when the respondent is told the name of the brand or category being advertised.

Advertisers are keen on recall because it's a measure of mind share and true reach. It doesn't matter (as much) if your ad was seen by millions of people if no one really remembers it. Particularly if they can't connect that ad to your brand.

Ads are just another form of content. So shouldn't content recall work the same way?

Memorable Content

Online, we can't easily identify those who saw a specific piece of content and then ask them whether they recall it two weeks later. (Though that's an interesting little product idea.)

Yet, the absence of this data doesn't mean we can't begin to think about what type of content is memorable. Bill Sebald wrote something that struck a chord for me recently.

I tweeted that out after reading another “top x link building tactics” list. A fluffy, chewed up piece of tactics we’ve all seen before. It didn’t claim to be written for beginners – which would have at least described the intended action of the content – but it was just more noise that wasn’t helpful for a reasonably experienced SEO. It was also praised in the comments and shared quite a bit … but so are the annual “SEO is dead” posts, and I’ve yet to find a new takeaway from that topic either.

I shared this post with a headline of '124 Reasons This Post Could Save the Internet in 7 Seconds'. Because I'm tired of these cookie-cutter posts too.

Mind you, we see them because they do well by some measures. I'd argue it's because of the perceived value and not the real value. Too often we think more is better. So getting 96 tips must be hugely valuable right?

I believe very few of those tips are actually read. People aren't going to read all of them so they scan and maybe they think a few are good. But how many are really remembered?

I suppose you could argue that this shotgun method ensures that some of the tips are found. Users simply cherry-pick the ones that matter to them. But that's a lot of work for the user. Instead, the Paradox of Choice kicks in, people decide not to engage at all and it gets sent to some read-it-later hell where it collects dust until it's ultimately deleted or succumbs to bit rot.

Those long list of posts may get you kudos but I think it's a 'I should think this is awesome so I'll say it is awesome' type of reaction. Maybe that's okay for you, but it isn't for me.

Because it speaks to the real problem with this kind of content. If you didn't read it you're not going to remember it.

Can you honestly recall that specific list versus another one? How often are you trying to find a list of content you saw a few months ago?

Reading Is Fundamental

Reading Rainbow with Levar Burton

The first obstacle to memorable content is getting it read. You can't remember something if you haven't read and understood it.

While there's certainly a component of reach involved (getting people to the content), I'm more concerned with whether those who actually view the content are truly reading and comprehending it.

That's why readability is so critical. Making your content more accessible - more scannable - actually helps it get read. They might not read it word for word, but you'll increase the chance of them reading important passages that will stick.

This excerpt on why we mangle quotes shows how the brain craves readability.

Our brains really like fluency, or the experience of cognitive ease (as opposed to cognitive strain) in taking in and retrieving information. The more fluent the experience of reading a quote—or the easier it is to grasp, the smoother it sounds, the more readily it comes to mind—the less likely we are to question the actual quotation. Those right-sounding misquotes are just taking that tendency to the next step: cleaning up, so to speak, quotations so that they are more mellifluous, more all-around quotable, easier to store and recall at a later point. We might not even be misquoting on purpose, but once we do, the result tends to be catchier than the original.

Don't you want your content to be easier to store and recall? I sure do.

How We Remember

Memento Polaroid

It's not just about getting your content read, but remembered. Yet, memory is a tricky thing. Here's an excerpt from UX Booth on the concept of 'Roomnesia' applied on a macro-level.

Recent research suggests the Internet is becoming an external part of our memory and that we are experiencing “reduced memory for the actual information, but enhanced memory for where to find the information.” In other words, we can’t remember the name of the director of Memento but we can remember where to find that information. It’s easier to remember one “room” (IMDb) rather than the many actors and directors that inhabit our world. By delivering high quality content through a trustworthy website you help to make your site memorable as the store of relevant information.

The concept of remembering one "room" is incredibly important when extended to content marketing. Obviously you must be focused and stay on topic. A reader has to be able to easily attach a phrase to your content. How do you want them to describe that post to a friend? If you can't do it in a sentence you're in trouble.

But think about how this applies to guest blogging. What room am I going to put a guest post in? The one that provides the most cognitive ease, right?

So your post on the power of evergreen content on SEOMoz? Odds are that's going to go in the 'SEOMoz' room and not the 'author' room. At some point you might have enough pull, but Rand and team have done a pretty stellar job of branding, haven't they?

This isn't just theory. You can see how this plays out as people respond to guest content. Mackenzie Fogelson recently blogged on John Doherty's site. Here's the first comment on her piece.

Comment to Publisher, Not To Guest Author

So even with prominent text telling readers it was a guest post, it seems like an engaged reader associated this content with John and not Mackensie. I don't think this is the fault of the reader (nor John or Mack). It's just cognitive ease at work.

That's not to say that guest blogging can't be part of the mix. If I didn't make it clear before, find publishers that are in a different and complementary vertical. Content recall goes up since users are more likely to put that content in the 'right' room based on the unusual topic.

Even if they don't, you don't want a lot of competition when people are searching for or re-finding this content. It's a lot easier to find a specific piece of content about SEO on Bloomberg than it might be on Search Engine Land.

Modified Branded Search

I'd argue that when we remember content we're using a root modifier strategy. The root is usually what the content is about - the topic. The modifier is usually the room where you stored that memory - the author, publisher or brand. So our content searches look something like this:

"hacking Jeff Atwood"

"Old Spice viral video"

"scamworld The Verge"

You can measure content recall by looking at your modified branded search terms and traffic.

Modified Brand Search Terms

Are people remembering and associating specific content I produced with my brand? Now, mind you I've got some odd things going on with my name versus my brand and a brand that can include a number or a word but I'm following Tim Gunn's advice and making it work.

Monitor these metrics when embarking on a content marketing effort. Is your modified branded search traffic going up? Are the breadth of terms in your modified branded search traffic expanding? What content (and syntax) is getting the most traction?

Memorable content leads to brand awareness.

Spontaneous Mentions 

I know that content has been memorable when it is spontaneously mentioned in another piece of content. The number of Tweets, Likes, +1s and comments all show a certain amount of popularity but it's these mentions and links that truly matter.

It's funny how this resolves down to contextual citations, the real backbone of most search algorithms.

Of course the link is nice but it's the knowledge that it was read, understood and remembered that counts. Your content and brand is a meme of sorts and those spontaneous mentions show how far it's reached.

My post about the decline in US desktop search volume wasn't particularly popular in comparison to other posts. Yet I was able to get a spontaneous mention from TheStreet. That's pretty awesome in my book.

That's why this focus on numbers, on the volume of Tweets or Likes, may be a false positive. That minute of fame feels good! Gamification 101 right? It's so good you might try to replicate it again and again. But producing 15 posts that meet these numbers adds up to 15 minutes of fame and nothing more.

Track spontaneous mentions (not total backlinks) as a way to measure the strength of your content.

Fill In The Blank

Mad Libs Logo

Gabriel Wienberg recently put a different spin on recall.

He's the _______ guy. That's the _______ startup. Isn't that the __________ search engine?

Unfortunately, the way we are wired means we generally don't like to put more than one thing in those blanks even though most people and companies would prefer more words.

In other words, people often make poor choices of leading characteristics. They take the path of least resistance, insert their own biases, repeat hearsay, etc.

Once again we see cognitive ease at work here and the importance of recall. Are you using your content to continually play to your leading characteristic? Do you know how people are remembering your brand?

Memorable content can help ensure the right words go in those blanks.

Multi-Content Stories

A real content strategy should be about storytelling. It should promote your brand (personal or corporate), message and value proposition. Not every piece of content has to do everything at once, but together they should be moving your brand forward.

I think about each piece of content as an opportunity to tell a story and reinforce brand.

It’s not that our memory is a glitchy wetware version of computer flash memory; it’s that the computer metaphor just doesn’t apply. Roediger said we store only bits and pieces of what happened—a smattering of impressions we weave together into feels like a seamless narrative. When we retrieve a memory, we also rewrite it, so that the time next we go to remember it, we don’t retrieve the original memory but the last one we recollected. So, each time we tell a story, we embellish it, while remaining genuinely convinced of the veracity of our memories.

While this passage from Scientific American is about specific memories I think it can also apply to your memory of a person or brand. I want to ensure that each new piece of content shapes how other pieces of content are remembered and retrieved.

Because not every piece of content deserves to have the same level of recall. They'll have different goals and meet different types of user intent. Not every piece of content has to be some epic War and Peace tome. But they should all fit your narrative and help perserve or improve the memory of the content corpus.

We're constantly rewriting the memory of that person or brand or site. Your job is to shape memory through content.

Have A Take, Don't Suck

Animotion Obsession

Recent posts seem to indicate that creating controversy or, at a minimum, provoking emotion is the pathway to success. To me this is focusing on the result instead of the product. The goal isn't to make someone cry, create controversy or generate enemies.

Despite what you've heard, any press is not good press. Not only that, but usually those trying to force these emotions are far too transparent. (Remember, don't feed the trolls!)

Instead, follow Jim Rome's advice: "Have a take, don't suck."  Have an opinion and back it up with solid reasoning and logic. Have a point of view, but make it your point of view, not someone else's point of view or one specifically created to generate a desired reaction.

Don't obsess about whether your content is going to elicit emotion, bring your own to the table. Create passionately not programmatically.

TL;DR

Great content is only great when it's read and remembered. Track metrics that measure content recall so you can produce a content marketing strategy that ultimately leads to increases in brand equity and awareness.

The Knuckleball Problem

December 08 2011 // Marketing + Rant + Web Design // 4 Comments

The knuckleball is a very effective pitch if you can throw it well. But not many do. Why am I talking about arcane baseball pitches? Because the Internet has a knuckleball problem.

Knuckleball

Image from The Complete Pitcher

The Knuckleball Problem

I define the knuckleball problem as something that can be highly effective but is also extremely difficult. The problem arises when people forget about the latter (difficulty) and focus solely on the former (potential positive outcome).

Individuals, teams and organizations embark on a knuckleball project with naive enthusiasm. They're then baffled when it isn't a rousing success. In baseball terms that means instead of freezing the hitter, chalking up strikeouts and producing wins you're tossing the ball in the dirt, issuing walks and running up your ERA.

If a pitcher can't throw the knuckleball effectively, they don't throw the knuckleball. But in business, the refrain I hear is 'X isn't the problem, it's how X was implemented'.

This might be true, but the hidden meaning behind this turn of phrase is the idea that you should always attempt to throw a knuckleball. In reality you should probably figure out what two or three pitches you can throw to achieve success.

Difficulty and Success

The vast majority of pitchers do not throw the knuckleball because it's tough to throw and produces a very low success rate. Most people 'implement' or 'execute' the pitch incorrectly. Instead pitchers find a mix of pitches that are less difficult and work to perfect them.

Yet online, a tremendous number of people try to throw knuckleballs. They're trying something with a high level of difficulty instead of finding less difficult (perhaps less sexy or trendy) solutions. And there is a phalanx of consultants and bloggers who seem to encourage and cheer this self-destructive behavior.

Knuckleballs

In general I think mega menus suck. Of course there are exceptions but they are few and far between. The mega menu is a knuckleball. Sure you can attempt it, but the odds are you're going to screw it up. And there are plenty of other ways you can implement navigation that will be as or even more successful.

When something has such a high level of difficulty you can't just point to implementation and execution as the problem. When a UX pattern is widely misapplied is it really that good of a UX pattern?

Personas also seem to be all the rage right now. Done the right way personas can sometimes deliver insight and guidance to a marketing team. But all too often the personas are not rooted in real customer experiences and devolve into stereotypes that are then used as weapons in cross-functional arguments meetings. "I'm sorry, but I just don't think this feature speaks to Concerned Carl."

Of course implementation and execution matter. But when you consistently see people implementing and executing something incorrectly you have to wonder whether you should be recommending it in the first place.

Pitching coaches aren't pushing the knuckleball on their pitching staffs.

Can You Throw a Knuckleball?

Cat Eats Toy Baseball Players

The problem is most people think they can throw the online equivalent of the knuckleball. And unlike the baseball diamond the feedback mechanism online is far from direct.

Personas are created and used to inform your marketing strategy and there is some initial enthusiasm and some minor changes but over time people get tired of hearing about these people and the whole thing peters out along with the high consulting fees which are also conveniently forgotten.

The hard truth is most people can't throw the knuckleball. And that's okay. You can still be a Cy Young Award winner. Tim Lincecum does not throw a knuckleball.

How (and When) To Throw The Knuckleball

This doesn't mean you shouldn't be taking risks or attempt to throw a knuckleball once in a while. Not at all.

However, you shouldn't attempt the knuckler simply because it is difficult or 'more elegant' or the hottest new fad. You can take plenty of risks throwing the slider or curve or change up, all pitches which have a higher chance of success. In business terms the risk to reward ratio is far more attractive.

If you're going to start a knuckleball project you need to be clear about whether you have a team that can pull it off. Do you really have a team of A players or do you have a few utility guys on the team?

Once you clear that bit of soul searching you need to be honest about measuring success. A certain amount of intellectual honesty is necessary so that you can turn to the team and say, you tossed that one in the dirt. Finally, you need a manager who's willing to walk to the mound and tell the pitcher to stop futzing with the knuckleball and start throwing some heat.

TL;DR

The Internet has a knuckleball problem. Too many are attempting the difficult without understanding the high probability of failure while ignoring the less difficult that could lead to success.

The Pen Salesman

July 17 2011 // Marketing + Web Design // 4 Comments

If you work with me for any amount of time you'll likely hear some of my stories and analogies. One of my favorites is an old direct marketing story passed down to me when I was just getting started.

The Pen Salesman

pen from the pen salesman story

There once was a pen salesman who had two types of pens. One was a very nice but basic model and the other was a fancier, more expensive, high-end model.

The pen salesman was doing a pretty brisk business but he had a problem. He wasn't selling enough of the high-end model. This was troubling because the margin on his high-end pen was ... higher. People seemed to like the high-end model but, on par, most wound up buying the basic model instead.

So what did the pen salesman do?

He decided to create a new premium pen. It would be even fancier and more expensive then his high-end pen. Now the pen salesman had a selection of three pens from which to choose. The secret was that the pen salesman didn't really want to sell the premium pen! In fact, he wasn't even really stocking them. But a funny thing happened, customers began to select the high-end (now the middle) model in droves.

When presented with three choices (good, better and best), the middle pen suddenly became far more attractive and looked like a better value. Had the pen changed? No. But the context in which it was presented did, and that made the difference.

That doesn't mean you can go on forever adding more and more models to your product line and expect similar results. No, I can also talk your ear off about The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz some of which is based on work by Sheena S. Iyengar, author of When Choice is Demotivating (PDF).

In short, consumer behavior is fascinating and powerful.

Internet Marketing Maxima

cat trapped in invisible box

I sometimes wonder if we as Internet marketers are using these old school techniques and stories when implementing our campaigns. The ability to conduct A/B and multi-variate tests has soared but the root of most successful campaigns is in understanding context and consumer behavior. Don't get me wrong, I love numbers and am all about data-driven decision making. But not in isolation.

I worry that the technology we rely upon creates local maxima issues, which is a highfalutin way of saying that we constrain ourselves to the best of a limited set of outcomes instead of seeking a new (and better) solution altogether. Harry Brignull of 90% of Everything and Joshua Porter or 52 Weeks of UX explain this far better than I could, so go off and do some reading and then come back to finish.

The pen salesman could have tried different colors (of pen or ink), or a different pitch, or added features or cut prices or offered a gift box with purchase or any number of other typical marketing techniques to help increase sales of his high-end pen. But it's unlikely any of them would have achieved the monumental shift in sales he saw by introducing that premium pen.

So I hold on to the story of the pen salesman as a way to remind me to think (really think) about context and consumer behavior.

Google SEO Communication

June 02 2011 // Marketing + SEO // 6 Comments

Google has a love hate relationship with the SEO community. They view many SEO agencies, consultants and services as part of the problem - parasites that seek to exploit and game their algorithm. No doubt, many fall into this category.

NIN Pretty Hate Machine CD Cover

Unfortunately, Google's lack of transparency contributes to the problem, spawning a host of poor theories and misguided practices. In addition, the changing nature of the algorithm creates a powerful variant of bit rot - outdated information and myths that stubbornly persist.

In response, Google has worked (perhaps reluctantly) to improve communication with the SEO community. They send employees to search conferences, write blogs, create videos, maintain a forum, provide informational tools and have a presence on social media platforms (Twitter) and sites (Hacker News).

The vast majority of these efforts are undertaken by one person: Matt Cutts.

Last month Google increased their communication efforts, dedicating a blog to search (it's about time!) and doing a live 90 minute Q&A session via YouTube. I'm encouraged by these new developments but Google still doesn't have a solid share of voice within the SEO community and when it does it is often viewed with suspicion.

Here are three ways Google could improve SEO relations.

Google Search Summit

Invite select members (perhaps 50) of the SEO community to the Google campus for a search summit with Google engineers. This is very different from a conference where the day-to-day mechanics of the SEO industry are discussed.

Instead, I propose a real exchange of ideas on the nature and problems of search. It could even have a lean component where groups are challenged to propose a new way to deal with a specific search problem.

There are a number of smart folks in the SEO community who could contribute positively to discussions on search quality or web spam. Even if Google doesn't believe this, understanding how the SEO community perceives certain stances, guidelines and practices would be valuable.

At a minimum, the dialog would provide additional context behind search guidelines and algorithmic efforts. For Google, this means the attendees become agents of 'truth'. By allowing the SEO community to truly engage and learn, they can help transmit Google's message. I'm not talking about a Kool Aid conversion but instead building a greater degree of trust through knowledge transfer and personal relationships.

Attendance would require some modicum of discretion and a certain level of knowledge or interest in information retrieval, human computer interaction, natural language processing and machine learning.

Even if I didn't get an invite (though I'd want one), I think it's a good idea for Google and the SEO community.

Google Change Log

The SEO community is intensely curious about when  and what changes are made to search, whether they be algorithmic or design oriented. Some amount of transparency here would go a long way. Would it really hurt to let the SEO community know that a certain type of bucket test was in the field?

We're already seeing most of the UX tests, with blogs cranking out screenshots of the latest SERP oddity they've encountered. So why not publish a changelog, using FriendFeed as a model.

FriendFeed Change Log

FriendFeed makes it clear that this wasn't comprehensive, but it did provide a level of transparency and insight into pain points and personality. The latter even more so because the user is linked to their FriendFeed account.

Imagine a Google changelog where the user is linked to a Google Profile. God forbid we learn a little bit about the search quality engineers.

I understand that there are certain changes that cannot be shared. But opening the kimono just a little would go a long way.

LOLMatts

Matt Cutts is willing to interact at length at conferences and jump into comment threads (in a single bound). He gets a bit of help from folks like Maile Ohye and John Mueller, but he's essentially a solo act.

If Google isn't going to allow (or encourage) more engineers to interact with stakeholders (yeah, I have a business background) then you have to amplify the limited amount of Matt we have at our disposal.

What better way than to create a Matt Cutts meme? LOLMatts!

Matt Cutts Meme on Page Sculpting

Yes, this is tongue in cheek, but my point is to do some marketing.

Matt Cutts Meme about Cloaking

Make the messages pithy and viral.

Matt Cutts Meme about Meta Keywords

Break through the clutter and keep it simple.

Matt Cutts Meme about Paid Links

Make it easier for people to pass along important information. I've just created four LOLMatts that cover page sculpting, cloaking, meta keywords and paid links. Of course this can go wrong in a multitude of ways and be used for evil. But the idea is to think of ways to amplify the message.

Develop some interesting infographics. Heck, Danny Sullivan even got you started. Get busy creating some presentations (you could do worse than to use Rand as a model) and upload them to SlideShare. Or create an eBook and let people pay for it with a Tweet.

Let's see some marketing innovation.

TL;DR

Google's rocky relationship with the SEO community could be improved through real interaction and engagement, an increase in transparency (both technical and human) and marketing techniques that would amplify their message.

The SEO community and Google would benefit from these efforts.

There Are No New Ideas, Just New Buzzwords

April 05 2011 // Marketing // Comment

"There are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt." - Audre Lorde

Okay, there might be some new ideas, but very few of them. Far fewer than marketers would have you believe. But that's their job right? They come up with ways to make you feel different about an old idea.

Buzzwords

The easiest way for marketers to do this is through buzzwords. Oddly, I think marketers are often more susceptible to buzzwords. They create them and in many instances they wind up believing in their own creations. They become certain that the hot new buzzword is an entirely new and groundbreaking idea.

But it's not. That's not to say that it isn't a good idea, it's just not new. Here are a two recent examples.

Social Proof

The way some folks talk about it, you'd think social proof was the love child of Twitter and Facebook. Social proof, persuasion and crowd psychology have been around for a long time, even before Cialdini made it popular.

If you see more people liking something, or someone you trust liking something you're more likely to like that too.

social proof

McDonald's figured this out a long time ago. We're bombarded with 'number of satisfied users' claims. You always remove at least one if not two strips when posting a tear off flyer. And people have been using these things called testimonials, often from celebrities, for quite a while.

Social proof works, it has offline and it will online too. But lets not go crazy making it into something new.

Crowdsourcing

I remember going to Hershey Park as a kid and being asked to describe my perfect candy bar. It was just a guy holding a clip board, scribbling down the ideas of all the kids coming into the amusement park that day.

In 1981 the Chicago White Sox held a uniform design contest. Anyone could enter and the fans could vote on the finalists. To this day, I swear someone stole my design.

crowdsourcing

Clearly new technologies have enabled businesses to collect more information and to collaborate with others on a larger scale, but the idea of canvassing and engaging with your customers is not new.

Beyond Buzzwords

no lemmings

Just because it's hot and trendy doesn't automatically mean it's right for your business. Look beyond the buzz. Break it down into the fundamentals.

Remember, buzzwords are a new way of feeling about an old idea. It's rarely as complicated (or expensive) as it seems. Heck, you might be doing it already and not even know it.

"The more things change, the more they stay the same." - Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr

Google Search Quality Decline or Elitism?

January 27 2011 // Marketing + SEO + Technology // 7 Comments

Are content farms really the problem or are you just a snob?

The recent complaints about Google's search quality (here, here, here and here) range from real spam to indictments of content farms. I think we can all agree that spam (cloaking, scrapers, splogs, status code manipulation etc.) should be weeded out. But that leaves us with the larger issue: the quality of results.

Quality

The definition of quality usually refers to a 'degree of excellence' or 'superiority of kind'. It's often associated with grade. Think back to your time in school. Did you ever get back a paper you thought deserved a higher grade? You were certain it was an A paper and you got a B+ instead!

B+ Grade

Quality is a matter of taste.

Taste

Ruination IPA or Coors Light

What about beer? I adore Stone's Ruination IPA. But I'm certain a lot more Coors Light is sold in a day than Ruination IPA in a month, maybe even a year. Even if I were to try to determine the best IPA, there would be many conflicting and passionate opinions on the topic.

Value

Perhaps it's about value instead? Ruination IPA costs a pretty penny while Coors Light is cheap. Maybe Coors Light is the best value because of the ratio of price to quality. But people value things in very different ways. This is clear when looking at restaurant reviews.

Applebees vs The French Laundry

When I read restaurant reviews I can tell whether the reviewer has the same food bias as I do. I treat reviews which laud huge portions, or rock bottom prices, or extol the virtues of never-ending refills differently. Their view of what a good meal is differs from mine. They're looking for quantity, no matter how mediocre the food. I'm looking for quality and generally don't want a pound and a half of garlic mashed potatoes.

There's nothing wrong with either perspective. But they are different.

Popularity

Google Serves Lots of People

Look around folks. What do you see more of? Fast food or fine dining? It's fast food hands down.

And you can see this in nearly every area of life. Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus are wildly popular musicians but I'm listening to Kasabian and Kaiser Chiefs. I haven't touched Internet Explorer in years but it's (sadly) still the most popular browser.

Mahalo, Squidoo and eHow get millions of visitors a month. These site are popular, and while you might find them distasteful, lacking quality or providing little value, many others (clearly) disagree.

Do I like these sites? No. Perhaps I'm a snob. Maybe you are too.

Numbers

The number of searches has skyrocketed in the last five years. Using comScore's monthly numbers, core searches has gone from 6.9 billion at the beginning of 2007 to 16.4 billion at the beginning of 2011.

US Search Volume 2007 to 2011

At the same time Pew reports a growing percentage of adults are now online and using search engines on a daily basis.

Audience

The search audience has changed. One way to measure this is to plot daily search engine usage by adults against the innovation curve.

Diffusion of Innovation

The U.S. Census Bureau puts the population of the US at around 300 million. Using the CIA World Factbook we can estimate that 80% of those are over the age of 14. I'm going to use the resulting number (240 million) as my adult population number.

In 2007 Pew reported that 70% of adults were online and that 40% of them used search on a daily basis.

  • 240,000,000 X 70% X 40% = 67,200,000

In 2010 Pew reported that 79% of adults were online and that 49% of them used search on a daily basis.

  • 240,000,000 X 79% X 49% = 92,904,000

innovation adoption of search

In both 2007 and 2010 daily search usage penetrated the Early Majority. The difference is that the Early Majority now outnumber the Innovator and Early Adopter groups combined.

Early Majority Rule Search Volume

That's just in three years, imagine the difference between 2005 and 2010. The picture of a daily search user is very different today.

Mental Models

The nature of our searches (as a whole) is likely changing because of who is now searching. The mental model of an Innovator or Early Adopter is going to be different than that of someone in the Early Majority.

Each group is going to approach search with different ideas and baggage. The Innovator and Early Adopter are more likely to be open to new experiences and to explore. They are more risk tolerant.

The Early Majority and Late Majority are more likely to apply their information seeking behaviors from other mediums to search. They're looking for the familiar.

Brands

Many seemed surprised when Google Instant revealed a 'bias' toward brands. It has since been confirmed that Google is not engaging in any internal bias. That bias is a user bias. It's a predication based, in large part, on the volume of searches.

Should we really be surprised? Many of these companies are spending a fortune to advertise and market their brand. Their goal is to capture mindshare and they are succeeding. So much so that people, particularly the Early and Late Majority, go online to search for those brands.

Brand Search Acceleration

In 2005, a DoubleClick report (Search Before The Purchase) showed relatively low levels of brand search. While it accelerated closer to the actual purchase, in some instances only 27% of searches were on brand. Do you honestly think that's still true today?

eCommerce has certainly grown in that time. The number of navigation searches has climbed, which is closely related to brand. People continue to search (a lot) for Facebook or Craigslist as a way to get to those destination. But last year Bing also reported that Walmart was the 8th most searched term.

Users

Matt Cutts tells us not to chase the algorithm but to chase the user. But who is the user really? The audience has changed! And if the algorithm is trying to use human feedback as a signal, wouldn't the results reflect that new composition?

Might that be why in October of 2010 many people noticed an algorithm change that seemed to skew toward bigger brands. It's what Jonathan Mendez called 'gentrification of the SERPs'. (I wish I'd come up with that term!)

I may not think the results got better, but perhaps someone from the Early Majority or Late Majority did. They look at those results and see a lot of familiar brands and that instills confidence.

Content Farms

So when you see eHow at the top of a result and cringe, others might be thinking Google has led them to the easiest and best result. When you find a Mahalo page you might grind your teeth, but others could walk away thinking they got exactly what they needed.

I may enjoy reading the works of Shakespeare but plenty of others will be super happy to have the CliffsNotes version instead.

Which User is Google Optimizing For?

McGoogle

I believe Google when they say they want to provide the most relevant results. But there is a fair bit of subjectivity involved because the user is not some monolithic, homogeneous blob. Quality, taste, value and popularity are all going to inform what people think is relevant.

If Google is optimizing for the majority, that may mean a very different interpretation of relevancy. There's nothing really wrong with that, but if you're an Innovator or Early Adopter, you might think things are getting worse and not better.

There's usually a better place to eat right down the street from a McDonald's, but it's McDonald's that still gets most of the business. There are some places (North Beach in San Francisco for instance) that have a 'no-chains' policy.

Google could certainly do that. They could stand up and say that fast food content from Demand Media wouldn't gain prime SERP real estate. Google could optimize for better instead of good enough. They could pick fine dining over fast food.

But is that what the 'user' wants?