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.

Marketers Give Themselves Only Middling Grades on Understanding ROI

Marketing frustrationIt turns out that even the practitioners in the marketing field don’t think they’re doing a very good job of understanding the return on investment on key marketing tactics.

That’s a major takeaway fnding from the most recent State of Search Marketing survey conducted by digital marketing information clearinghouse Econsultancy in conjunction with the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization (SEMPO).

This survey of industry professionals is conducted annually.  The 2013 research cycle queried ~400 industry and marketing/communications agency professionals.

One would think that in an evolving field like digital marketing, the degree of collective skill in the discipline would be rising over time.  But the opposite appears to be the case – at least in terms of the professionals’ own self-assessment of their skills.

The SEMPO research report presents how marketers consider their level of understanding to be in terms of ROI factors.

What the research reveals is a pretty stark decline in self-assessment grades between the 2012 and 2013 surveys:

  • Understanding of paid search ROI:  ~47% consider their understanding to be “good” (down from ~79%)
  • Email communications ROI:  ~41% consider good (down from ~57%)
  • Digital display media ROI:  ~28% consider good (down from ~37%)
  • Social media ROI:  ~11% consider good (down from ~15%)

What’s the reason for the decline in these self-assessment ratings?

It could be ever-changing definitions of what each of these marketing tactics actually encompass.

… It may be that there is an actual decline in overall proficiency as more people are assigned these marketing tasks who have little or no relevant knowledge or prior training.

… Or if could be the rapid speed in which technology is evolving in the marketing sphere.  (Big data isn’t the half of it.)

Of the major marketing tactics addressed by the Econsultancy/SEMPO research, it’s clear that social media and mobile are the most mystifying to practitioners, judging from the percentage of survey respondents that profess to have a “poor” understanding of their ROI:

  • Social media ROI:  ~51% report having a “poor” understanding
  • Mobile marketing ROI:  ~35%
  • Search engine optimization ROI:  ~28%
  • Digital display advertising ROI:  ~26%
  • Paid search ROI:  ~19%
  • Email marketing ROI:  ~14%

Underscoring the admitted lack of understanding about ROI in social and mobile channels, the survey respondents reported that only ~11% of the digital marketing dollars in 2014 will be allocated to social media.

For mobile marketing, it’s even lower (~3% of the marketing budget).

This isn’t to imply that marketers don’t recognize the importance of these tactics.  For instance, more than eight of ten respondents consider mobile marketing to be a significant development in the field.

It’s just that many of them are having great difficulty going from Point A to Point B when it comes to quantifying the marketing payback.

[For access to the full report, which also provides interesting insights on the most popular marketing metrics, go to this page on the SEMPO website.]

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.

Google Gone Wild: Has its AdWords pay-per-click program become too costly for businesses?

Google advertisingNo one should be surprised by the huge success of Google’s AdWords pay-per-click advertising program. Almost single-handedly, that service has vaulted the company into the top ranks of U.S. corporations.

And why not? As an advertising concept, pay-per-click has no peer. Capturing the attention of customers when they’re in the midst of searching for specific goods and services is the ultimate in effective targeting.

What’s more, Google’s pioneering advertising model, where advertisers set their own bid pricing and pay only when someone clicks on a link to their web landing pages, made the program affordable for everyone – from the biggest national brands down to the neighborhood store.

Google also offered all sorts of geographic and time-of-day filters to make it easier for businesses to target people at the right time and the right place … yet another boon to smaller businesses that otherwise couldn’t hope to compete against the big national players.

Many advertisers were able to participate in pay-per-click programs at a fraction of the cost of traditional display advertising, where advertisers pay significant fees up-front for “wait and wish for” customer engagement.

A few years back, it wasn’t unusual to be able to conduct a lucrative AdWords program bidding, with clickthrough pricing running well below $1 per click.

Because Google continues to possess the lion’s share of search activity (two-thirds or more of all search volume despite the best efforts of Bing/Yahoo and others to chip away at it), it was only natural for more and more advertisers to gravitate to Google’s AdWords program as the best venue for pay-per-click advertising.

But the temptation to get in the game has had the predictable result: pay-per-click bid rates have been climbing steadily.

Whereas before, an advertiser could expect to get good exposure on search results pages with a modest bid, it’s not possible to accomplish that anymore without bidding $5, $10, $15 or even more per click.

That’s beginning to drive some businesses away – particularly smaller ones without the deep pockets of the big firms.  For for many of them, it’s simply not sustainable to pay that much money just to get someone to visit their website.

AdGooroo, a search intelligence database firm that studies the pay-per-click market, reports that ~96% of pay-per-click advertisers spend less than $10,000 per month on such programs. That compares to millions of dollars spent by the largest companies.

Richard Stokes, AdGooroo’s founder, states this: “The only way for smaller advertisers to get an edge is to spend a lot of time improving the quality and relevance of their ads. The problem is that everyone else is doing that as well.”

So where does this leave us now? We’re beginning to get some hints that Google may have tapped out on advertiser demand. Some companies are dropping pay-per-click programs altogether, while others are scaling back while redirecting resources to other forms of promotion – traditional and social.

We have additional proof of this in the earnings report filed by Google just last week. The company reported that advertising sales continue to grow, but at a slowing rate.

And even more interestingly, average cost-per-click rates have declined by ~15%. That’s the first-ever decline since the AdWords program was launched.

Here’s another development:  heightened interest and focus on obtaining better natural search rankings by optimizing websites for content relevance.

Imagine that:  companies looking for ways to make their websites more relevant to viewers as well as search engine bots!

The heightened SEO emphasis has worked for many companies – at least up until now. Google may want to increase advertising revenues, but it also wants to ensure that its search functionality continues to deliver the most relevant and quality results so that users don’t begin to migrate to other search platforms.

But some advertisers may be wondering if the “Chinese wall” between advertising and natural search is as high or as airtight as it once was. They contend that their natural search rankings seem to perform better when they’re also actively engaged in pay-per-click advertising campaigns … and perform less well when they’re not.

Whether there’s any actual proof of this happening is mere conjecture. After all, the same company that runs AdWords is also running the search algorithms. So there’s really no way to prove this from the outside looking in.

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.