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.

Where are Newspapers Now?

Newspaper ad revenues continue in the doldrums.John Barlow of Barlow Research Associates, Inc. reminds me that it’s been awhile since I blogged about the dire straits of America’s newspaper industry. The twin whammies of a major economic recession along with the rapidly changing ways Americans are getting their news have hammered advertising revenues and profits, leading to organizational restructuring, bankruptcies, and more.

But with the recession bottoming out (hopefully?), there was hope that the decline in newspaper ad revenues might be arrested as well.

Well, the latest industry survey doesn’t provide much cause for celebration. A poll of ~2,700 small and mid-size businesses conducted this summer by Portland, OR-based market research firm ITZBelden and the American Press Institute finds that ~23% of these businesses plan to cut back on newspaper advertising this year.

The kicker is that these revenues are being spent, but they’re being put to use in other advertising media.

The ITZBelden survey found that a similar ~23% of companies plan to up their 2010 digital ad spending anywhere from 10% to 30%. This compares to only about 10% planning to increase their print advertising by similar proportions.

Moreover, the survey findings reveal that small and mid-size U.S. businesses have moved into digital marketing in a significant way. Not only do more than 80% of them maintain web sites, they’re active in other areas, including:

 ~45% maintain a Facebook or MySpace page
 ~23% are engaged in online couponing
 ~13% are involved with Craigslist
 ~10% are listed on Yelp! or similar user-review sites

One area which is still just a relative blip on the screen is mobile advertising, in that fewer than 4% of the respondents reported activities in that advertising category.

Where are these advertisers planning to put their promotional funds going forward? While newspapers should continue to represent around one quarter of the expenditures, various digital media expenditures will account for ~13% of the activity, making this more important than direct mail, TV and Yellow Pages advertising.

There was one bright spot for newspapers in the survey, however. Respondents expressed a mixture of confusion and bewilderment about the constantly evolving array of digital marketing communications options opening up … and they’re looking for support from media experts to guide their plans and activities.

And where do they see this expert advice coming from? Newspaper ad reps.

Perhaps the Yellow Book’s “Beyond Yellow” small business advertising campaign – you know, the one that touts not only the Yellow Pages advertising but also web development, online advertising, search marketing and mobile advertising – is onto something.

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.

Searching for effective lead generation and conversion.

In the current business climate, companies are relying more than ever on new sales opportunities to replace business that has been lost with current customers. And it’s pretty clear by now that “search” has emerged as the form of online promotion that generates the best lead generation and conversion results — outstripping other e-promotional tactics such as online display advertising and newsletter sponsorships.

This isn’t surprising, of course. Search advertising captures the interest of online viewers precisely when they’re in “search mode” for specific products and services, rather than when they’re just surfing the ‘net for news and updates.

(In fact, some advertisers have come to believe that even print advertising outperforms online display advertising. That’s because readers are more likely to browse all the way through print publications. Compare that to visiting informational web sites where viewers are far more prone to selectively pick and choose the pages that they open. A well-placed display ad on a “new technology news” page, for example, might be invisible to the vast majority of viewers who come to the home page and then decide to click through to only one or two additional pages on the site.)

But back to search. Many advertisers wonder which is most effective: gaining high “natural search” rankings that occur based on the content of the web site, or opting for pay-per-click search listings such as Google’s AdWords program with their entries on the right side of the screen.

As it turns out, both tactics have their pluses.

In fact, a new year-long study that ended June 30, 2009 of more than 25 e-tail web sites by Engine Ready, Inc., a search engine software development firm, found that visitors who clicked through to the sites from paid search ads were ~50% more likely to make a purchase, compared to visitors who came to the same sites via clicking on a natural search link.

Specifically, Engine Ready discovered that the conversion rate from pay-per-click links measured 2.03%, while the conversion rate was only 1.26% from organic search clickthroughs.

On the other hand, various research studies conducted over the past few years demonstrate the clear popularity of natural search listings over paid search listings. It’s been shown pretty consistently that around two thirds of total clicks are made on natural search listings, compared to just one-third on pay-per-click listings.

So the key takeaway is that any marketing program worth its salt incorporates search marketing as a key component. And in most cases, that effort should encompass search engine optimization for natural search rankings along with a pay-per-click advertising program.