More raps for Google on the “fake reviews” front.

Google’s trying to not have its local search initiative devolve into charges and counter-charges of “fake news” à la the most recent U.S. presidential election campaign – but is it trying hard enough?

It’s becoming harder for the reviews that show up on Google’s local search function to be considered anything other than “suspect.”

The latest salvo comes from search expert and author Mike Blumenthal, whose recent blog posts on the subject question Google’s willingness to level with its customers.

Mr. Blumenthal could be considered one of the premiere experts on local search, and he’s been studying the phenomenon of fake information online for nearly a decade.

The gist of Blumenthal’s argument is that Google isn’t taking sufficient action to clean up fake reviews (and related service industry and affiliate spam) that appear on Google Maps search results, which is one of the most important utilities for local businesses and their customers.

Not only that, but Blumenthal also contends that Google is publishing reports which represent “weak research” that “misleads the public” about the extent of the fake reviews problem.

Mike Blumenthal

Google contends that the problem isn’t a large one. Blumenthal feels differently – in fact, he claims the problem as growing worse, not getting better.

In a blog article published this week, Blumenthal outlines how he’s built out spreadsheets of reviewers and the businesses on which they have commented.

From this exercise, he sees a pattern of fake reviews being written for overlapping businesses, and that somehow these telltale signs have been missed by Google’s algorithms.

A case in point: three “reviewers” — “Charlz Alexon,” “Ginger Karime” and “Jen Mathieu” — have all “reviewed” three very different businesses in completely different areas of the United States:  Bedoy Brothers Lawn & Maintenance (Nevada), Texas Car Mechanics (Texas), and The Joint Chiropractic (Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Minnesota, North Carolina).

They’re all 5-star reviews, of course.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that “Charlz Alexon,” “Ginger Karime” and “Jen Mathieu” won’t be found in the local telephone directories where these businesses are located. That’s because they’re figments of some spammer-for-hire’s imagination.

The question is, why doesn’t Google develop procedures to figure out the same obvious answers Blumenthal can see plain as day?

And the follow-up question: How soon will Google get serious about banning reviewers who post fake reviews on local search results?  (And not just targeting the “usual suspect” types of businesses, but also professional sites such as physicians and attorneys.)

“If their advanced verification [technology] is what it takes to solve the problem, then stop testing it and start using it,” Blumenthal concludes.

To my mind, it would be in Google’s own interest to get to the bottom of these nefarious practices. If the general public comes to view reviews as “fake, faux and phony,” that’s just one step before ceasing to use local search results at all – which would hurt Google in the pocketbook.

Might it get Google’s attention then?

In copywriting, it’s the KISS approach on steroids today.

… and it means “Keep It Short, Stupid” as much as it does “Keep It Simple, Stupid.”

Regardless of the era, most successful copywriters and ad specialists have always known that short copy is generally better-read than long.

And now, as smaller screens essentially take over the digital world, the days of copious copy flowing across a generous preview pane area are gone.

More fundamentally, people don’t have the screen size – let along the patience – to wade through long copy. These days, the “sweet spot” in copy runs between 50 and 150 words.

Speaking of which … when it comes to e-mail subject lines, the ideal length keeps getting shorter and shorter. Research performed by SendGrid suggests that it’s now down to an average length of about seven words for the subject line.

And the subject lines that get the best engagement levels are a mere three or four words.

So it’s KISS on steroids: keeping it short as well as simple.

Note: The article copy above comes in at under 150 words …!

Putting the best face forward at Twitter.

tdWhen business results look disappointing, one can certainly sympathize with the efforts of company management to explain it away in the most innocuous of terms.

This may be what’s behind Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s description of his company’s 2016 performance as “transformative” – whatever that means.

Falling short of industry analysts’ forecasts yet again, Twitter experienced a revenue increase of only about 1% year-over-year during 2016.

Monthly active users didn’t look much better either, with the total number barely budging.

While I have no actual proof, one explanation of tepid active user growth may be that Twitter became the de facto “place for politics” in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election — which didn’t actually end in November and continues apace even today.

Simply put, for many people, politics isn’t their cup of tea — certainly not on a 24/7/365 diet, ad nauseum.

Quite telling, too, was the fact that advertising revenue showed an absolute decline during the 4th Quarter, dropping below $640 million for the period.

Even more disturbing for investors, the company’s explanation about the steps Twitter is taking to address its performance shortfalls smacks of vacuousness, to wit this statement from CEO Dorsey:

“While revenue growth continues to lag audience growth, we are applying the same focused approach that drove audience growth to our revenue product portfolio, focusing on our strengths and the real-time nature of our service.”

“This will take time, but we’re moving fast to show results,” Dorsey continued, rather unconvincingly.

One bright spot in the otherwise disappointing company results is that revenues from international operations – about 39% of total overall revenues – climbed ~12% during the year, as compared to a ~5% revenue drop domestically.

Overall however, industry watchers are predicting more in the way of bad rather than good news in 2017. Principal analyst Debra Aho Williamson at digital media market research firm eMarketer put it this way:

“Twitter is losing traction fast. It is starting to shed once-promising products such as Vine, and [to] sell off parts of its business such as its Fabric app development platform.  At the same time, some surveys indicate that Twitter is becoming less integral to advertisers’ spending plans.  That doesn’t bode well for future ad revenue growth.”

With a prognosis like that, can the next big drop in Twitter’s share price be far behind?

What do you think?

Thanks to IOT, search is morphing into “just-in-time knowledge.”

aeIn today’s world of marketing, it’s been obvious for some time that the pace of technological change is dramatically shortening the life cycle of marketing techniques.

Consider online search. Twenty-five years ago it was hardly a blip on the radar screen.  Picking up momentum, paid search soon began to rival traditional forms of advertising, as companies took advantage of promo programs offered by Google and others that aligned neatly with consumers when they were on the hunt for products, services and solutions..

Google has attracted billions upon billions of dollars in search advertising revenue, becoming one of the biggest corporations in the world, even as entire industries have grown up around optimizing companies’ website presence and relevance so as to rank highly in search query results.

And now, thanks to continuing technology evolution and the emergence of the Internet of Things, the next generation of search is now upon us – and it’s looking likely to make keyboards and touchscreens increasingly irrelevant within a few short years.

afhSearches without screens are possible thanks to technology like Google Assistant, Amazon Echo/Alexa, and software development kits from providers like Soundhound and Microsoft.

This past October, market forecasting firm Gartner came out with an interesting prediction: Within four years, it forecasts that ~30% of all searches will be carried out without a screen.

It’s happening already, actually. In web search, Amazon Echo answers voice queries, while the Bing knowledge and action graph allows Microsoft to provide answers to queries rather than a set of answer possibilities in the form of links as has been the case up to now.

Gartner envisions voice interactions overtaking typing in search queries because it is so much easier, faster and more intuitive for consumers. By eliminating the need for people to use eyes and hands for search and browsing, voice interactions improve the utility of web sessions even while multitasking takes on ever-increasing degrees of shared activity (walking, driving, socializing, exercising and the like).

Related to this, Gartner also predicts that one in five brands will have abandoned offering mobile apps by 2019. Already, many companies have found disappointing levels of adoption, engagement and ROI pertaining to the mobile apps they’ve introduced, and the prognosis is no better going forward; the online consumer is already moving on.

Gartner’s predictions go even further. It envisions ever-higher levels of what it calls “just-in-time knowledge” – essentially trading out searching for knowledge by simply getting answers to voice queries.

Speaking personally, this prediction concerns me a little. I think that some people may not fully grasp the implications of what Gartner is forecasting.

To me, “just-in-time knowledge” sounds uncomfortably close to being “ill-educated” (as opposed to “uneducated”).  Sometimes, knowing a little bit about something is more dangerous than knowing nothing at all. Bad decisions often come from possessing a bit of knowledge — but with precious little “context” surrounding it.

With “just-in-time knowledge,” think of how many people could now fall into that kind of trap.

Holiday online shopping dynamics: The 2016 season’s results are already coming in.

ohsOne of the neat aspects of online shopping is the ability to learn about consumer behaviors almost in real-time. No waiting around for published reports that are released months after the fact.

Moreover, we can know quite a bit more than simply gross sales figures, including traffic stats.

In fact, we already have extensive information available about consumer online shopping activities in the 2016 holiday season, thanks to data released by firms such as Connexity’s Hitwise division, which measures consumer behaviors across desktop, tablet and smartphone devices.

From Hitwise, we know that its Top 500 retail websites received more than 335 million visits on Thanksgiving Day alone. That averages out to just under 14 million visits per hour … but the time period of 8 pm to 11 pm had more than 50% greater traffic compared to the hourly average for the day.

Amazon.com was among the retailers receiving extensive traffic volume from 8 pm onward – in its case ~25% of its total traffic on Thanksgiving came in those final four hours of the day.

One supposes that after the “big meal,” the “big game” and the “big cleanup,” consumers decided cap off the day by plunking down at their computers or smartphones for some heavy-duty online shopping.

Hitwise found that Black Friday online shopping dynamics were different, with the top retail sites being busiest in the late morning hours, when site visits were around half again larger than Black Friday’s daily hourly average.

As for Cyber Monday, Hitwise found that consumer online shopping dynamics weren’t very much different from any other typical Monday – except that the overall volume (nearly 330 million visits) was substantially higher than the typical Monday volume of ~200 million visits. That, and a slightly greater-than-average share of online shopping happening in the early morning hours of 6, 7 and 8 am.

hwlAs for the persistent belief that Cyber Monday has more people shopping online during their time in the office, Hitwise is not seeing that phenomenon any longer.

Again, not very surprising in that more consumers have 24/7 access to digital devices in 2016 than they did ten or even just five years ago.

The Hitwise report for 2016 includes extensive findings not just on hourly shopping patterns, but also on product searches and key traffic drivers for the major online shopping websites. More data can be found on the Connexity/Hitwise website.

Clickthrough rates on web banner advertising actually rise! (But they’re still subterranean.)

bbThe headlines last week were near-breathless, announcing that North American clickthrough rates for web banner advertising are rising!

And that’s true on the face of it: According to a new analysis by advertising management company Sizmek based on billions of online ad impressions, the average engagement (clickthrough) rate on a standard banner ad has actually increased.

It’s risen all the way up to 0.14%.

It means that for a standard banner ad, for every 1,000 times it’s served, 1.4 engagements happen.

Here’s what that also means: Don’t bank your business success on online display advertising.

Of course, there are more ways to advertise online than by using standard banner ads. So-called “rich media” ads – ones that incorporate animation and/or sound – perform substantially better.

But it’s all relative, because “substantially better” in this case means that in North America, achieving an average of 2.1 engagements for every 1,000 times a rich media ad is served.

The situation is even worse than these figures imply, actually. When one considers the incidences when viewers accidentally click through on an ad thanks to an errant mouse or a fat finger, even “one out of a thousand” for engagement isn’t really correct.

The Sizmek analysis found that banner ads in certain industries perform better than those in others. Among the “winners” (if one could characterize it that way) are electronic products, apparel, and other retail advertising.

At the bottom?  Automotive, jobs and careers and, ironically, tech and internet advertising.

A glimmer of hope in this continuing saga of hopeless news is in-stream video which, according to the Sizmek study, is generating far higher engagement levels of 1.5% or greater, depending on the degree of interactivity.

But I can’t help but wonder: As the novelty of these newer ad innovations inevitably wears off, won’t we see the same phenomenon occurring over time wherein audiences will become as “blind” to these ads as they are to the standard banner ad today?

As the years roll by and the effectiveness of online banner advertising continues to underwhelm in overwhelming ways, the “drive towards zero” seems to be the relentless theme. I seriously doubt we’re going to see a reversal of that.

The fundamental problem with newspapers’ online endeavors.

olnIt’s no secret that the newspaper industry has been struggling with finding a lucrative business model to augment or replace the traditional print medium supported by subscriptions and advertising.

The problem is, their efforts are thwarted by market realities at every intersection, setting up the potential for head-on crashes everywhere.

In October, the results of an analysis conducted by several University of Texas researchers were published that illustrate the big challenges involved.

The researchers pinpointed 2007 as the year in which most large newspapers’ online versions had been available for about a decade, meaning that they had become “mature” products. The evaluation looked at the total local online readership of the Top 50 American newspapers, and found that nearly all of them have been stagnant in terms of growth over the past decade.

Even worse, since 2011 more than half of the papers have actually lost online readership.

The issue isn’t that people aren’t going online to consume news; the precipitous drop in print newspaper subscriptions proves otherwise. The problem is that many consumers are going to news aggregator sites – places like Yahoo News, CNN.com and other non-newspaper websites – rather than to sites operated by the newspapers.

That leaves online newspapers attracting disappointing advertising revenues that can’t begin to make up for the loss of those dollars on the print side. To wit, the University of Texas study reported that total newspaper industry digital ad revenues increased only about 15% between 2010 and 2014, going from ~$3 billion to ~$3.5 billion.  That’s pretty paltry.

The problem goes beyond ad revenue concerns too. In a market survey conducted in 2012, two-thirds of newspaper subscribers stated that preferred the print version of their daily newspaper over the web version.

I find that finding totally believable. I am a print subscriber to The Wall Street Journal whereas I read other newspaper fare online.  My daily time spent with the print WSJ ranges from 30 minutes to an hour, and I peruse every section of the paper “linearly.”  It’s an immersive experience.

With online newspaper sites, I hunt for one or two topics, check out the headlines and maybe a story or two, and that’s it. It’s more a “hit and run” operation, and I’m out of there in five minutes or less.

The notion of carefully picking my way through all of the menu items on an online newspaper’s navbar? Forget it.

And with such a tentative relationship with online newspapers, do I want to pay for that online access? Nope.

Magnify that to the entire market, and the web traffic stats show the same thing, which is why online advertising revenues are so underwhelming.

Once again, the optimistic goals of newspaper marketers are running up against cold, hard reality. The fact is, people don’t “read” online in the traditional sense, and they’re quick to jump from place to place, in keeping with the “ADD” most all of us have developed in our online behaviors.

There just isn’t a good way that newspapers can take their product and migrate it to the web without losing readers, losing ad revenue – and indeed, losing the differentiation they’ve built for quality long-form journalism.  And so the conundrum continues …

What about your print vs. online newspaper reading habits?  Are your experiences different from mine?  Please leave a comment for the benefit of other readers.