Search quality slips in people’s perceptions … or is it just that we’ve moved the goalpost?

Recently, the American Customer Satisfaction Index reported that the perceived quality of Google and other search platforms is on a downward trajectory. In particular, Google’s satisfaction score has declined two percentage points to 82 out of a possible high score of 100, according to the ACS Index.

Related to this trend, search advertising ROI is also declining. According to a report published recently by Analytic Partners, the return on investment from paid search dropped by more than 25% between 2010 and 2016.

In all likelihood, a falling ROI can be linked to lower satisfaction with search results.  But let’s look at things a little more closely.

First of all, Google’s customer satisfaction score of 82 is actually better than the 77 score it had received as recently as 2015. In any case, attaining a score of 82 out of 100 isn’t too shabby in such customer satisfaction surveys.

Moreover, Google has been in the business of search for a solid two decades now – an eternity in the world of the Internet. Google has always had a laser-focus on optimizing the quality of its search results, seeing as how search is the biggest “golden egg” revenue-generating product the company has (by far).

Obviously, Google hasn’t been out there with a static product. Far from it:  Google’s search algorithms have been steadily evolving to the degree that search results stand head-and-shoulder above where they were even five years ago.  Back then, search queries typically resulted in generic results that weren’t nearly as well-matched to the actual intent of the searcher.

That sort of improvement is no accident.

But one thing has changed pretty dramatically – the types of devices consumers are using to conduct their searches. Just a few years back, chances are someone would be using a desktop or laptop computer where viewing SERPs containing 20 results was perfectly acceptable – and even desired for quick comparison purposes.

Today, a user is far more likely to be initiating a search query from a smartphone. In that environment, searchers don’t want 20 plausible results — they want one really good one.

You could say that “back then” it was a browsing environment, whereas today it’s a task environment, which creates a different mental framework within which people receive and view the results.

So, what we really have is a product – search – that has become increasingly better over the years, but the ground has shifted in terms of customer expectations.

Simply put, people are increasingly intolerant of results that are even a little off-base from the contextual intent of their search. And then it becomes easy to “blame the messenger” for coming up short – even if that messenger is actually doing a much better job than in the past.

It’s like so much else in one’s life and career: The reward for success is … a bar that’s set even higher.

Organic Search: Still King of the Hill in Generating Web Traffic

online searchingIn recent years, the focus on “content marketing” has become stronger than ever: the notion of attracting traffic via the inherent relevance of the content contained on a website rather than through other means.

It seems eminently logical.  But content marketing is also relatively labor-intensive to build and to maintain. So there’s always been an effort to drive web traffic through “quicker and easier” methods as well.

But the newest findings on web traffic really do demonstrate how fundamental good content is to meeting the challenge of generating web traffic.

An analysis by web analytics and measurement firm BrightEdge reveals that organic search (SEO) drives over half of all traffic to websites (both business-to-business and business-to-consumer).

By contrast, paid search (SEM) accounts for only one-fifth of SEO’s result, and social is lower still:

  • Organic search: Generates ~51% of all web traffic
  • Paid search: ~10%
  • Social media: ~5%
  • All other methods (e.g., display advertising, e-mail and referred): ~34%

Web traffic driversSource:  BrightEdge, 2014. 

In other words, all forms of advertising put together don’t drive as much traffic as organic search.

The BrightEdge statistics also remind us that social media, however popular it may be to millions of people, isn’t a highly effective traffic generator like search. Here are some of the key reasons why:

  • Social shares are fleeting and can get drowned out easily.
  • Most users don’t go on a social platform, only then to click on different links that take them away from social.
  • Not everyone uses social media, whereas everyone uses a search engine of some kind when they’re in “investigative” mode.

That’s the thing:  People use SEO when they’re seeking answers and solutions — often in the form of a product or a service.  Unlike in social or online display advertising, there’s no need to “disrupt” the user’s intended activity.

And if you’re in the B-to-B realm, organic search even more prevalent:  Organic search drives ~73% of all web traffic there.

Even consumer categories like retail, entertainment and hospitality find that organic search is responsible for attracting 40% or more of all web traffic.

The takeaway for companies is that any marketing strategy that doesn’t adopt “content development” as a core tactic instead of an “ornamentation” is probably destined to fall well-short of its full potential.

More B-to-B Web Behavior Findings from Optify

Optify logoThis is my second post on the very interesting findings from Optify’s analysis of the behavior of visitors to business-to-business websites during 2012.

[Refer to my earlier post for a quick overview of salient “top-line” results.]

As part of its analysis, Optify uncovered some interesting factors pertaining to “organic” web searches, which represent ~41% of all visits to B-to-B websites.  Here’s what stands out in particular:

  • Forget all of the talk about Bing/Yahoo taking a bite out of Google on the search front. Optify found that Google is responsible for nearly 90% of all organic search activity in the B-to-B realm, making it the #1 referring source of traffic – and it isn’t even close.  (Bing’s coming in at a whopping ~6% of the search traffic.)
  • Organic search visits from Bing do show slightly better engagement rates in the form of more page views per visit, as well as better conversion rates (e.g., filling out a form). But with such low referring traffic to begin with, it’s fair to say that Google was — and remains — the cat’s meow when it comes to organic search.
  • “Branded” searches – ones that include the name of the company – account for nearly one-third of all visits from organic search. Plus, they show the highest engagement levels as well: ~3.7 page views per visit on average.

Optify notes a few clouds on the horizon when it comes to evaluating the success of a company’s organic search program. Ever since Google introduced its “blocked search data” securred socket layer (SSL) option (https://google.com), the incidence of blocked referring keyword data has increased rapidly:

  • Block referring keyword data now represents over 40% of all search queries.
  • Non-branded keywords that are known (and thus available for analysis) have dropped to just 35% of all organic searches.

Here’s the bad news:  As blocked keyword searches continue to grow in popularity – and who wouldn’t choose this option when it’s so easy and readily available – it’s creating a veritable “data oblivion” confronting marketers in their attempts to analyze and improve their SEO performance.

In a subsequent blog post, I’ll summarize key findings from Optify pertaining to paid search (SEM) and social media in the B-to-B realm.

The Rise of Siri: Getting Set to Revolutionize Web Search?

Siri digital personal assistant on the Apple iPhone 4SSiri, the digital personal assistant that’s been integrated into the new iPhone 4S from Apple, is generating substantial buzz. That’s because it’s so much more accurate than earlier iterations of voice command platforms. (Google’s digital personal assistant on the Android operating system has generated far less accolades by comparison.)

The question is, what will Siri do to change the traditional ways people interact with the Web? Because Siri is far more than just voice recognition. It’s what it does with the voice it recognizes that’s so interesting.

Siri can update your calendar, set reminders, play music, write e-mails and text – indeed, it’s a personal assistant in every sense of the word.

Users of the iPhone 4S are using Siri to send texts and e-mails. They’re tending to open fewer apps, since Siri is very effective in deciding which app, service or site will best handle the needed tasks.

In search, this means that Siri may supplant what users might have done previously: namely, open a browser window and search using Google or Bing. If a user is asking Siri to find the closest good-quality dry cleaning establishment, for example, the result may be based on more than the top spot on Google Places … it may also be based on customer ratings on Yelp or “likes” on Facebook.

That’s because Siri navigates a variety of application program interfaces, pulling not only your information, but also information provided by others.

The rise of social media platforms has already alerted us to the fact that simply having a highly relevant, well-optimized website is no longer enough. The “endorsement” of sites, the incidence of positive customer reviews and the degree of “engagement” with visitors are playing a bigger role now, thanks to Facebook, Google+1 and various rating sites.

But now, with Siri and digital personal assistants entering the scene in a major way, we may well see people migrating away from accessing search pages and simply using the friendly voice in their mobile device to send them where they want to go.

… It’s yet another example of the constant state of change that’s a fact of life in the world of digital marketing.

Click Wars Opening Round: Plaintiffs 1; Facebook 0

I’ve blogged before about the issue of click fraud, which has many companies wondering what portion of their pay-per-click campaigns are simply wasted effort.

Until now, Google has been the biggest target of blame … but now we’re seeing Facebook in the thick of it also.

It’s only been in the past year that Facebook has made a real run for the money when it comes to paid search advertising. There are some very positive aspects to Facebook’s advertising program, which can target where ads are served based on behavioral and psychographic factors from the Facebook profiles of members and their friend networks. This is something Google has had a difficult time emulating. (Not that they haven’t been trying … which is what the new Google +1 beta offering is all about.)

But now, Facebook is the target of a lawsuit from a number of advertisers who contend that there are major discrepancies between Facebook’s click volume and the companies’ own analytics programs which suggest that the purported clickthrough activity is significantly inflated.

As an example of one company that is a party to the lawsuit, sports fan site RootZoo alleges that on a single day in June 2010, its software programs reported ~300 clicks generated by Facebook … but Facebook charged RootZoo for ~800 clicks instead.

While contesting the allegations vigorously, Facebook’s attorneys have also argued against the company having to disclose the source code or other details of how it calculates clickthrough activity, citing fears that the proprietary information could be leaked to outside parties (competitors) as well.

But that argument fell on deaf ears this past week. Instead, Facebook has been ordered by the U.S. District Court in San Jose, CA to disclose a wide range of data, including its source code for systems to identify and filter out invalid clicks.

In making this decision, Magistrate Judge Howard Lloyd stated, “The source code in this case implemented Facebook’s desired filtering, and whether that filtering [has] lived up to Facebook’s claims and contractual obligations is the issue here.”

This ruling appears to call into question the sweeping terms and conditions that Facebook advertisers are required to sign before beginning a media program. The relevant language states: “I understand that third parties may generate impressions, clicks or other actions affecting the cost of the advertising for fraudulent or improper purposes, and I accept the risk of any such impressions, clicks or other actions.”

[This isn’t the only incidence of Facebook’s broad and restrictive stipulations; another particularly obnoxious one deals with “ownership” of content posted on Facebook pages – basically, the content creator gives up all rights of control — even if the content came to Facebook through a third-party source.]

But in this particular case, evidently the terms and conditions language isn’t sweeping enough, as Judge Lloyd ruled that the plaintiffs can sue on the basis of “invalid” clicks, if not “fraudulent” ones.

Touché! Score one for the judges against the lawyers!

Of course, it’s way too soon to know how this particular case is going to play out – or whether it’ll even get to court. It’s far more likely that Facebook will settle with the plaintiffs so as not to have to disclose its source code and other “trade secrets” — the very things that cause so many marketers to see paid search advertising as a gigantic black hole of mystery that is rigged against the advertisers no matter what.

But one thing is easy to predict: This won’t be the last time the issue of pay-per-click advertising is brought before the courts. Whether the target is Facebook, Google or Bing, these skirmishes are bound to be part of the business landscape for months and years to come.

Facebook’s Hidden Bombshells

Facebook's hidden bombshellsAs Facebook has been busily turning itself into a web powerhouse – challenging even the likes of Google for dominance – some people are beginning to question the fundamental aspects of how Facebook treats users and the content they post.

Last week I came across an interesting article by Douglas Karr, a social media consultant and author, who has spent thousands of dollars advertising on Facebook for himself and his clients. Karr summarized recent experiences he’s had with Facebook accounts that now make him extremely leery of using it as a central rather than an ancillary platform for promoting companies and their brands.

Facebook somehow became suspicious of entries posted by one of Karr’s clients. Facebook then proceeded to disable every administrator’s account that was associated with this client’s Facebook page. Because Karr was one of the administrators, this action disabled all of his Facebook pages and applications as well.

It then took a Herculean effort to repair the damage, during which time Karr learned quite a bit more about the customer service side of Facebook – if you could even call it “customer service.” Here’s how he summarizes it:

Facebook lacks a meaningful customer service process. There’s no phone number to call … or dedicated e-mail address specifically for support. So good luck trying to get any sort of satisfaction. Karr was asked to submit a form in order for his account to be turned back on. But that communication only resulted in an automated reply message to verify his identity.

In the meantime, with his accounts disabled, there was no way for Karr to log in and retrieve any of the now-hidden content.

What Karr learned is when all of what makes a Facebook presence so valuable – postings, photos, video and other content, fans, applications, etc. – goes by the boards, there’s essentially no recourse for a business.

Luckily for Karr, his account was re-enabled after a few days – with no notification from Facebook. But then he still had to republish all of the pages.

[It turns out that Karr’s client had a “friend of a friend of a friend” at Facebook who was able to pull a few strings to set things right … but how many of us should be so fortunate?]

This experience revealed another distasteful reality: The content you post on Facebook may be yours, but Facebook owns the access to it.

Yep. If you look closely at Facebook’s fine print, this is what you’ll find: “You grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook.”

So much for keeping proprietary control over anything that may go viral and ends up on Facebook.

Karr’s word of advice for companies considering employing Facebook as their primary means of generating online traffic and revenue: “Don’t.”

Instead, he suggests adopting other tactics such as developing a blog, investing in search engine optimization and search engine marketing, using Twitter … and owning all of your content on your own domain.

That’s pretty smart advice from someone who speaks from experience.

Search Goes Global

SEO in Different LanguagesMost companies hitched their wagon to search engine optimization long ago. That’s not surprising, because high search rankings are one of the most effective ways to get in front of customers and prospects when they’re in the mood to research and buy.

But up until recently, SEO has generally existed in the world of English. By contrast, SEO campaigns in Spanish and other languages haven’t worked so well. Despite the fact that Spanish is among the most widely spoken of languages, many Spanish-language countries have been behind the curve in Internet connectivity. And you could say the same of other languages.

But that’s not the case today. As more people overseas have become connected, the amount of content in Spanish and other foreign languages has risen dramatically.

Looking back at a bit of history, in the early-1990s essentially all of the search engines were in English only; if you wanted to conduct a web search, you had no other choice. That started to change by the mid-1990s when ~75% of all Internet searches were being conducted in English.

Fast-forward to today. According to Internet World Stats, an information resource that chronicles web usage in more than 230 countries and world regions, searches in English now account for only ~25% of all searches conducted.

Time was … search spoke English only. But the dramatic growth of Hispanic and other non-English digital markets means that companies that take the time to invest in foreign-language content and SEO initiatives will find themselves in the strongest position going forward.

It’s yet another item for the marketing department’s to-do list. Fortunately, help is available … with companies like MSEO.com and SEO Matador providing turnkey programs for implementing SEO campaigns in multiple different languages.

Bing, Blekko, and more new developments in search.

Facebook + BingWhen it comes to the evolution of online search, as one wag put it, “If you drop your pencil, you miss a week.”

It does seem that significant new developments in search crop up almost monthly – each one having the potential to up-end the tactics and techniques that harried companies attempt to put in place to keep up with the latest methods to target and influence customers. It’s simply not possible to bury your head in the sand, even if you wanted to.

Two of the newest developments in search include the introduction of a beta version of the new Blekko search engine with its built-in focus on SEO analytics — I’ll save that topic for a future blog post — along with a joint press conference held last week by Facebook and Microsoft where they announced new functionalities to the Bing search engine. More specifically, Bing will now be displaying search results based on the experiences and preferences of people’s Facebook friends.

What makes the Bing/Facebook development particularly intriguing is that it adds a dimension to search that is genuinely new and different. Up until now, every consumer had his or her “search engine of choice” based on any number of reasons or preferences. But generally speaking, that preference wouldn’t be based on the content of the search results. That’s because the ability for search engines to deliver truly unique search results has been very difficult because they’ve all been based on essentially the same search algorithms.

[To prove the point, run the same search term on Yahoo and Google, and you’ll likely see natural search results are pretty similar one to another. There might be a different mix of image and video results, but generally speaking, the results are based on the same “crawling” capabilities of search bots.]

The Bing/Facebook deal changes the paradigm in that new information heretofore residing behind Facebook’s wall will now be visible to selected searchers.

The implications of this are pretty interesting to contemplate. It’s one thing for people to read reviews or ratings written by total strangers about a restaurant or store on a site like Yelp. But now, if someone sees “likes,” ratings or comments from their Facebook friends, those will presumably carry more weight. With this new font of information, as time goes on the number of products, brands and services that people will be rating will surely rise.

The implications are potentially enormous. Brands like Zappos have grown in popularity, and in consumer loyalty, because of their “authenticity.” The new Bing/Facebook module will provide ways for smaller brands to engender similar fierce loyalty on a smaller scale … without having to make the same huge brand-building commitment.

Of course, there’s a flip side to this. A company’s product had better be good … or else all of those hoped-for positive ratings and reviews could turn out to be the exact opposite!

What’s Happening with Web Search Behaviors?

Search EnginesMore than 460 million searches are performed every day on the Internet by U.S. consumers. A new report titled 2010 SERP Insights Study from Performics, an arm of Publicis Groupe, gives us interesting clues as to what’s happening in the world of web search these days.

The survey, fielded by Lancaster, PA-based ROI Research, queried 500 U.S. consumers who use a search engine at least once per week, found that people who search the Internet regularly are a persistent lot.

Nine out of ten respondents reported that they will modify their search and try again if they aren’t successful in their quest. Nearly as many will try an alternate search engine if they don’t succeed.

As for search engine preference, despite earnest efforts recently to knock Google down a notch or two, it remains fully ensconced on the top perch; three-fourths of the respondents in this survey identify Google as their primary search engine. Moreover, Google users are less likely to stray from their primary search engine and try elsewhere.

But interestingly, Google is the “search engine of choice” for seasoned searchers more than it is for newbies. The Performics study found that Google is the leading search engine for only ~57% of novice users, whereas Yahoo does much better among novices than regular users (~36% versus ~18% overall).

What about Bing? It’s continuing to look pretty weak across the board, with only ~7% preferring Bing.

The Performics 2010 study gives us a clear indication as to what searchers are typically seeking when they use search engines:

 Find a specific manufacturer or product web site: ~83%
 Gather information before making a purchase online: ~80%
 Find the best price for a product or service: ~78%
 Learn more about a product or service after seeing an ad elsewhere: ~78%
 Gather information before purchasing in-store or via a catalog: ~76%
 Find a location for purchasing a produce offline: ~74%
 Find coupons, specials, or sales: ~63%

As for what types of listings are more likely to attract clickthroughs, brand visibility on the search engine results page turns out to be more important than you might think. Here’s how respondents rated the likelihood to click on a search result:

 … If it includes the exact words searched for: ~88%
 … If it includes an image: ~53%
 … If the brand appears multiple times on the SERP: ~48%
 … If it includes a video: ~26%

The takeaway message here: Spend more energy on achieving multiple high SERP rankings than in creating catchy video content!

And what about paid or sponsored links – the program that’s contributing so much to Google’s sky-high stock price? As more searchers come to understand the difference between paid and “natural” search rankings … fewer are drawn to them. While over 90% of the respondents in this research study reported that they have ever clicked on paid sponsored listings, only about one in five of them do so on a frequent basis.

Google’s Instant Search: Instant Irritation?

Google's Instant Search is a Non-StarterHow many of you have been noodling around with Google’s new Instant Search functionality since its unveiling earlier this month? I’ve spent the better part of a week working with it, trying hard to keep a “completely open mind” as to its benefits.

I’ve finally came to the conclusion that … I can’t stand it. I’m a pretty fast typist, and generally know what I’m searching for. I really don’t need Google “pre-anticipating” search results for me, and find the constantly jumping search results window extremely off-putting to the point of distraction.

I gave Instant Search a full week … and couldn’t take it anymore. I’ve now elected to turn it off completely.

Wondering if I was the only one with this view … it certainly didn’t take long to find out that there are a great many people out there who feel the same way. You can use Google search (either the “instant” or “traditional” will do fine) to find any number of blog posts and user comments about Google Instant Search that are just one notch shy of mutinous — and hardly genteel in their choice of language. (A few examples can be found here and here and here.)

If the comments by disgruntled users are to be believed, Bing/MSN may find itself with a nice little bump in search volume market share by the end of September.

And if that actually happens, Google Instant might die a quiet death – which wouldn’t be the first time Google laid an egg in its “throw-everything-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks” approach to product development.

But if Google Instant does gain traction … there are some negative implications for search marketers as well. Many companies seek to structure their online marketing campaigns by determining the optimal amount of spending on search advertising, display ads and social media. The key to success in this endeavor is undertaking a process that examines the millions of cookies and billions of clicks that are made by web users, along with factoring in other elements like geographic location and time of day.

All of this information is weighed against the cost of various ads and the likelihood of success as they are served to the user. That’s determined by running regular models of millions of keywords and word combinations, judging the relative costs to determine the optimum frequency. For some of the most aggressive marketers, these models are run once or twice daily.

The advent of Google’s Instant Search scrambles all of that, because it makes the process even faster and more hectic than before. As those of you who have experimented with Instant Search know, you start seeing “suggested” search results with just the first one or two keystrokes … and those choices continue to change with each new keystroke made or movement of the cursor down the list of Google’s suggestions. For marketers, the result is a lot more velocity on the ad side – and more price changes.

As proof of this, within the first few days of Instant Search’s launch, sites that Instant Search recommends after the first one or two letters are typed into the search box – “Mapquest,” “Ticketmaster” and “Pandora” are three useful examples – were experiencing significant increases in traffic, whereas their hapless competitors were not.

If that’s what is happening with the big boys, where does this put smaller businesses? The answer is obvious: They’re going to get squeezed big-time … and as a result, their search advertising costs are going nowhere but up.

Mighty sporting of you, Google.