Jul 17 2009

Users really do influence search results!

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If you wanted to research something—the musician Johnny Cash, for example—would you go to a search engine or a library? There are many studies on search usage. It’s safe to say that at least 50% of people now turn to search engines for information. That number increases for certain types of searches, such as shopping or health information. If you are young and grew up in the technology age, the likelihood increases. So our young person may try Google and type in “Johnny Cash” at first. But I doubt it.

Without boring you with the case study statistics and latest scientific research, we are, as a human race, getting smarter. Ten years ago, we may have typed the singer’s name alone, but today, we know better and so do search engines. Therefore, we might try “Johnny Cash movie posters” or “Johnny Cash collectibles”. Or, “old movie posters” and then drill down to individual names; or instead of “collectibles”, choose “memorabilia” or specific “old records”; or “vintage Johnny Cash” or we might search by year, individual name, song name, movie name, or lyrics.

As a site owner, how do you structure your information architecture for easy search? As a marketer, how do you know what words to optimize for and when you dig up the top used phrases, do you make a separate page for each one? Wouldn’t that make for a gigantic web site that will confuse everybody? Welcome to information overload.

Search engines are like mini-interviewers. We arrive looking for information and a search engine interviews us. Whether or not you’re aware of it, search results actually influence where you may go next. In a paper called Shifts of Focus in Information Retrieval Interaction, David Robins of Louisiana State University writes:

During the course of information retrieval interactions, users may change the focus of their attention to various aspects of their information problem. These changes in focus, or interaction shifts are the subject of this paper. This phenomenon is readily observed in mediated database searching, from which careful analysis of the dialog among users, search intermediaries, and information retrieval (IR) systems reveals changes of search/interview focus.

He talks about a shift in focus, which can occur at any time during the dialog between a user and the “search intermediary.”

This is user behavior that most marketers don’t consider. He breaks shifts into categories:

  • From broader/narrower/related terms to broader/narrower/related terms
  • From general topic to specific topical concerns
  • From topical discussion to non-topical discussions
  • From one topical/non-topical discussion to another
  • Any other unexpected type of shift that occurs in the data

Robins writes, “Although a user’s behavior may be intentional and rational, it may not be linear or appear logical”. If you know precisely what you’re looking for, the information tends to be more stable and focused. If your search query is not as well defined and more uncertain, so might be your search results. Marketers allow room for this by creating pages that are variations on a theme. Whether or not these “throwing darts and hoping to make a hit” pages actually convert is another area of study.

What if you didn’t need to come up with different search phrases yourself? Could search engines do the “thinking” for you? This was explored and presented in, If At First You Don’t Succeed, Let the Search Engine Try, by Jim Jansen, Penn State associate professor of information sciences and technology and Danielle Booth, information sciences and technology student and Amanda Spink, Queensland University of Technology, Australia.

They found that search terms in 22 percent of queries were reformulated or changed to better convey the information the user was seeking.

“They typically moved to narrow their query at the start of the session, moving to reformulation in the mid and latter portions of the sessions,” Jansen said. “It appears that the assistance to narrow the query and alternate query terms would be most beneficial immediately after the initial query submission.”

Their findings on searcher behavior helps us to understand why search engines are trying to find new ways to come up with automated search assistance systems, recommendations and query reformulation assistance, such as “Did you mean…” Interestingly, they also found that searchers rather stubbornly don’t ask for help because perhaps, “they are too focused on using their own search terms to find information.” Marketers may be falling into this trap as well.

Microsoft’s new Bing search engine is labeled as a “new Decision Engine”. Its technology hopes to help searchers make more informed decisions by being more intuitive. How is Bing reading our minds? They studied how people use the Web. Their research showed that two-thirds of searches required refinement or requery and 30 percent of searches are abandoned because the results were not satisfactory. They set out to test certain areas where they found that people are more likely to want assistance, such as health, travel, shopping and local business. They approach search as a series of tasks, similar to the way usability reviews are performed. Bing hopes to simplify tasks and offer insight during the search dialog with its users.

It’s true that in some circles “user personas” and their use in software and web site development are debated. However, we know for sure that understanding each type of customer is vital. When keyword searching, it may help to remove yourself from the picture and look for how different people are looking for what you offer. What do they call it? Do different cultures and age groups call your items by different names? Are there sales funnels and landing pages on your site designed for specific groups of people with different goals?

Success in search engines was never quantity of pages vs. quality. It still is not. Rather, search engine market success is keenly tied to understanding user behavior and this is becoming more and more obvious every day.

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Jun 8 2009

Google in the Driver’s Seat with the Tomorrow’s release of the Palm Pre

Tomorrow Palm’s Pre (comeback) smartphone will go on sale through US carrier Sprint. In early 2010 it will reportedly come to Verizon, which opens it up to a much larger market. To date, the Pre has received mostly positive reviews, though, as with the G1 and soon ION/G2, reviewers seem to agree that it falls just short of the iPhone experience. Regardless it should prove to be a popular device. It’s significant then that Google has very high visibility on the new handset. According to the Google Mobile Blog:

As mobile technology geeks, we’re really excited to see a new smartphone launch from our friends at Palm. Palm Pre phone’s webOS works great with Google Search, Google Maps, and YouTube, which are built into the device. You can also easily sync your Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Contacts to Palm Pre.

We’re big fans of Palm Pre phone’s universal search feature. Just start typing a query from the home screen (no need to launch the browser). If your query doesn’t match any contact info or the name of an application on your phone, you’ll be prompted to search either the web with Google, local places on Google Maps, articles on Wikipedia, or Twitter.

Google is already the dominant player in mobile search with market share numbers that parallel the desktop, though Yahoo and Microsoft both hope to change that.

As smartphones and their apps stores proliferate — now about 13 percent of the US handset market — there’s a question in my mind about whether search will be the universal tool in mobile it has become on the PC. I was nearly laughed at during the Google I/O developer conference when I raised the possibility that search might fall behind apps and even browser bookmarks as a “secondary” tool or use case in mobile. Yet search remains somewhat more challenging in mobile, even with tools like search suggest and voice search across all major engines or their mobile client applications.

At SMX Advanced in Seattle, which just concluded, I moderated the mobile search panel. While the majority of panelists touted the benefits and ROI of mobile PPC/search there was some mixed data from iCrossing about ROI. In addition mobile search volumes today are a fraction of what’s coming from the PC.

However, in another SMX session, Citibank’s Mark Mahaney made the point that Google disclosed in a document last year that about a third of all the company’s searches in Japan were coming from mobile devices. While we have to be careful about extrapolating mobile trends from Asian markets like Japan and South Korea, mobile internet use and search will clearly grow over the next five years. And at a press event a couple weeks ago, Yahoo’s Prabhakar Raghavan pointed out that in several large developing countries the company already sees more mobile search volume than PC search.

Finally, the Wall Street Journal is reporting that many brands and national advertisers are starting to wade into mobile paid search with test campaigns. The article cites a JP Morgan Chase estimate that pegs US mobile search revenues at $129 million this year (up from $99 million in 2008). The estimate has mobile display at $94 million in 2009. With Google at least PPC advertisers can use essentially the same ads for both the iPhone and Android devices (and presumably the Pre soon as well). However there is less ad “inventory” for every Google search on those hadsets, four ad positions compared with as many as 11 potentially on the PC.

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May 20 2009

From Clicks to Live Leads

Many local businesses have long relied on incoming phone calls to drive their commerce. This is particularly true for needs-based businesses, such as plumbers or exterminators that require an initial conversation with a potential customer to determine whether a solution can be provided and an appointment should be made. This need is met over the phone as opposed to an in-store visit and is more efficient than a form request through the Internet because it allows for a dialogue to take place.  Conversely, when a consumer is faced with an urgent or immediate need, the telephone is the primary tool he will use to connect with a product or service provider to receive instant attention.

Enter pay-for-call.

For those new to Pay-For-Call (PFC), it is a performance-based advertising medium that delivers qualified customer inquiries to advertisers via the telephone.  PFC utilizes a variety of advertising distribution channels, such as search engines, Internet yellow pages, directories, vertical web sites or increasingly, mobile sources, to reach an advertiser’s target audience with call-focused advertisements.  Phrases like “call for more information” or “call now” are used to encourage the visitor to take action and place a call to the advertising business.  Following are some examples of the types of businesses that are most likely to benefit from PFC:

Real Estate Agents
Loan Brokerage
Automotive Repair
Rental Cars
Lawn Care
Urgent Medical Care
Emergency Pet Care
Pest Control
Chimney Cleaning
Home Maid Services
Home Heating or AC
Home Security
Taxi Cab/ Limousine
Debt Consolidation
Tax Accountant

What truly distinguishes PFC from simply a call-focused advertisement is the ability to track the specific distribution outlet that resulted in the phone call.  Every PFC advertiser can have a unique phone number for each method of distribution that is directly traced back to the advertisement.  This allows for accurate reporting of the number of phone calls delivered to the advertiser and allows the advertiser to track the new leads entering his business.  All phone numbers used in the campaign are directed to the advertiser’s business line or local office, which creates a seamless experience for the caller and advertiser.

In addition to the new customers that PFC can deliver to a business, it can also offer detailed reporting.  Advanced PFC providers offer reporting that may include caller phone number, including missed phone call numbers, call time, call length, caller location and number of calls. Some providers offer optional call recording, which can be used to monitor the quality of the phone conversation and call itself. The recordings can also serve as a powerful tool and focus group for some businesses.

PFC is characterized as a performance-based advertising medium because the advertiser only pays when the viewer takes a desired action—in this case places a call.  Typically, a call will need to have a minimum duration of time in order to be billed.  Common minimum billable call lengths range from 10-15 seconds.  Additionally, PFC providers usually only charge for new customer phone calls and will not charge for repeat phone calls within a specific period of time.

Why is pay-for-call important now?

Early on, PFC proved successful for only certain business types.  Dating services, insurance, lending and other business industries that naturally tend to generate customer inquiries via telephone, effectively utilized PFC to develop new customer relationships.  However, for businesses with increased competition for calls, PFC providers did not have advertisement distribution broad enough to cover a diverse range of business categories and therefore struggled to fulfill their advertisers’ budgets and deliver the desired amount of call-based leads.

Today, the problems that once constrained PFC are being overcome by certain providers. As a result, PFC is reemerging as a powerful tool for local businesses across a broad range of business categories.  Increased consumer use of the Internet and Internet-enabled mobile devices, allows an opportunity for PFC providers to cost-effectively connect businesses with consumers that are interested in placing a phone call related to a product or service.  Consumers’ increased use of local search via mobile Internet is a perfect example of how greater call volumes can now be generated. According to The Kelsey Group’s Mike Boland, we can expect to see growth from 54.5 million mobile Web users to 63.6-73 million in 2009 alone, with growth of handsets from 266.4 million to 274.7 million.  It is also expected that searches for local information at 27.8 percent in 2008 will to grow to 35.1 percent by 2013 (source: The Kelsey Group, Annual Forecast: Mobile Local Media, February 2009).

Ultimately, what this means is that more consumers are using and will continue to use mobile Internet to search for local information.  The increased amount of consumer attention for local information through the use of a mobile device provides a clear emerging avenue for PFC providers.  It is through this activity that Pay-For-Call is increasingly driving new business and relationships for businesses of all sizes.

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May 18 2009

Move Wrapped Up!

I’ll make this short and sweet. I’m all moved and everything appears to be good to go.  I will start posting regularly tomorrow.

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May 5 2009

In the process of Moving

I know it has been a while since I posted…. I am in the process of moving both my home and my servers. I am heading back to the east coast. I should be completely moved by the 16th of May. Wish me luck!

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Apr 16 2009

Business Directories and Breadcrumbs, the Alternative to Google.

So, you’ve junked your day job and made the commitment to your shiny new startup business. You’ve created your website, and what’s the first thing you do now?  Like just about every other startup business person you do the search on Google for your business name.

At this point, two things might happen:

  1. You discover you “own” the first page of Google results and you feel satisfied that you’re now on the map, or
  2. Your business is nowhere to be seen, and you lapse into a state of abject depression

OK, so it’s not quite as binary as that, but you get my point.  What we’re all hoping for is to see our business name up there in lights, right?

Let’s assume for a minute that you did find your business on that sometimes-elusive first page of Google search results. Before you break open the celebratory drink, let’s just think about this a little more.  What you’ve demonstrated is that people who already know your business name can find you.  But what about all those prospective customers out there who don’t yet know your business?

At this point you have to, as my mother would say, “use yer loaf;” it’s time to start to think about what keywords and key phrases those unknowing customers are likely to use to find your business. So, start now, make a list.  There are some key things you should consider when doing this. Here are my few golden rules for building out your keyword list:

Don’t use jargon unless its understood by consumers too.  Every industry has its own technical jargon that’s used internally by practitioners within the industry, but before slipping into those familiar words, consider first if they have crossed over into general consumer use.

Think local. Depending upon who you listen to, somewhere between 20% and 40% of all searches have a local component—a place name, or some other inferred geographic qualifier.  So, what’s your catchment area, what are the towns, villages, locations, urban areas, landmarks, counties, states, and even countries that you’re looking to serve?  Add those to your list too.

Products and brands. Clearly if you stock particular products and brands, or a particularly specialized type of product then these should be strong contenders for keywords and phrases.  One experience we had with Brownbook.net, which is my business, was a double glazing and patio supplier that won an order for over £7,500 when a customer found them through Google using the phrase “bifold doors” (this is a particularly specialized type of patio door that folds right back to expose your back yard).  Clearly, had they not included that key phrase, and instead stuck with generics like “patio doors” they would not have won the business (somewhat ironically, it transpired that that extra tag was added to their Brownbook listing by a regular employee—not a marketeer—that came across their listing).

Consider using modifiers. This is something new we’ve been experimenting with at Brownbook.net—advising our business customers to try adding modifiers, and early results look promising. The idea is to include keywords that tap into users’ behavior when searching—for example “cheap xyz”.  The word “cheap” is what I’ll call the modifier; it modifies your actual keyword (in this case the keyword being “xyz”).  Think about it, if you sell lifejackets, do you think people search for “high quality lifejackets”?  Of course they don’t, they search for “cheap lifejackets”, “lifejackets sale”, “best price on lifejackets” etc.  You get my point.  When I talk to brand owners they often have a problem with this until they realize the potential SEO benefits. Most brand owners don’t want to say their stuff is “cheap.” Rather, they prefer “good value”, but who the hell searches for “good value” anything?  So, brand owners might need to put the ego and “brand thinking” aside for this one.

Jump on a news bandwagon. Can you tie your product or service to a current news story or trend?  The most obvious example for me of recent years was the buzz that surrounded the iPhone.  All of a sudden a whole host of companies were proclaiming support for the iPhone, and justifiably associating their products or services with that hot brand.  The intention, of course, to attract people sensitized to that new trend.

Exploit the long-tail. The most obvious keywords and phrases are often those that are most fiercely competitive, and though search volume for those terms is high (which seems like a good thing) there’s so much content that gets returned in a search that your brand gets lost (which is bad).  So, consider long-tail keywords and phrases that have less traffic but are also less competitive.  The question to ask is this: So what if the search term is only getting 1,000 searches a month, if you can be prominent in all those 1,000 is that enough?  You may find you need only to capture a small percentage of that lot to be successful.  Think ‘big fish in small pond’.

Use common misspellings. Perhaps an obvious one; and one that’s already had a lot written about it.  Need I explian (sic) more?

Keep your keyword list current. With all the above, regular attention is important, but especially with product and brand names, and bandwagon strategies. You just got a new product range in? Update your keywords. You spot a new trend that you can associate with?  Update your keywords.  This isn’t always as easy as it sounds, and though its easy to be blogging with current keywords, entries you may have created in local directories may be harder to change quickly, if at all.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, and I’d certainly encourage all you smart people out there to add your own suggestions via the comments.  Now, lets assume now you’ve compiled your master list.  So how can you use it?

A few breadcrumbs go a long way

I’m going to focus on one concept called breadcrumbing (no, nothing to do with the idea of a breadcrumb trail) on your webpages.  In this case what I’m referring to is dropping little ‘crumbs’ about your business all over the web, to allow prospective customers to find their way back to your web presence, and thence to actually contact you.

Many years ago, when websites among small businesses were still uncommon, a lot of attention was spent by businesses on their websites; their showcase or home on the web.  These days, with so many websites out there the focus has shifted, to encompass not just your website, but all the places in which you can create high value links back to your website, drawing in attention from many places.

This technique does two things for you in relation to search engines:

First, getting plenty of high value links to your web site has always been desirable for getting your website up the rankings.

Second, and of increasing importance for young and agile small businesses, the object is to dominate the search results by populating them with other sites as well as your own that are all referring people back to your own.

Using local and business directories for breadcrumbing

A large chunk of my career was spent in big directory companies, but recent years have lead me towards the more distributed publishing model of social media and user generated content.   I speak with many small and large business owners all over the world, and one common thread emerges: those that are web-savvy are using these sites to list their businesses to execute a breadcrumbing strategy.

Of course they want their own website to appear in the search results, but those whose strategy has matured sufficiently also realize the value of getting several bites at the cherry by having third party sites where they’re listed too.  Its actually not about getting found in these sites themselves, but about piggy-backing on their good SEO to get found in the primary search engines.  So this becomes a slightly more indirect but additional route to customer acquisition:

User behavior on the web started out something a little like this: Open web browser –> type URL to visit business’s website –> customer acquisition.

Then it became: Open web browser –> query a search engine –> click to business’s website –> customer acquisition.

Today, the process goes more like this: Open web browser –> query search engine –> click to a site where a business is featured –> read something interesting enough to engage the user –> click to business’s website –> customer acquisition.

Hidden in this process is an obvious, but often overlooked, point: the distinction between the behavior of search engines and the behavior of people. Getting in the results (with your own site, and with referring sites) is only the start; getting people to click on one of those links and be motivated enough to actually get in touch with you is the key.

Conclusions and advice

What we’re really seeking with this process is almost omnipresence, to be everywhere we possibly can.

The advice then, considering my area of experience, is to use local search sites, vertical directories, and general business directories to list your business in as many places as possible, with relevant keywords and key phrases, and with links back to your own site if you have one (if you don’t, choose one of these directories as your main presence, and direct all other breadcrumbs to that site). You also must be prepared to invest the small amount of time required to keep these fresh and current.

This is not something that needs big budgets and large marketing teams.  It can be done on a shoestring, if you pick your places carefully.  It doesn’t necessary require paid listings; a lot can be done with free listings.  Consider that the ‘traditional’ directory companies are built on a sales model that required expensive sales forces and the corresponding high overheads, and their prices will reflect this.  Consider, also, that it’s often not the traditional directories that have the best chance of getting you into the search results pages—many of them still think that they are the point of entry for consumers, when most of us know its Google—so a strategy that embraces several of the alternatives at lower cost may be more effective.

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Apr 9 2009

Google Employee Alleged To Have Bypassed AdWords Trademark Policy For Own Benefit

Just on Monday I wrote about how the Courts Ruled, that Google could no longer use Trademarked words in 3rd party AdWord campaigns. Well if you haven’t heard already Shoemoney is Suing Keyen Farrell. You may have noticed the link to Shoemoney on my site before he is definitely someone I listen to when it comes to Internet Marketing as do tens of thousands of others.

Here is what I’ve been able to find so far, Shoemoney doesn’t have too much on his site since he is presently involved in the case, but this is what is known and on the net.

From SearchEngineLand.

Well-known internet marketer Jeremy “ShoeMoney” Schoemaker has filed suit against Keyen Farrell, apparently a Google employee alleged to have used Schoemaker’s US-registered trademark in search ads on Google. While issues over trademarks in search ads are heating up, the bigger issue in the case is why Google itself didn’t take action to stop the ads and whether an employee did indeed access Schoemaker’s AdWords account to gain competitive data.

Google’s trademark policy allows for trademarks to “trigger” ads — make ads appear when a trademark word is involved in a search query — but it prohibits advertisers from using trademarks in the title or description of ad copy. That’s the core of Schoemaker’s complaint [PDF file] — that ads were showing for his nickname, “ShoeMoney,” which is also the name of his web site and a registered trademark.

For example, here’s a screenshot Schoemaker provided of the ad using “ShoeMoney” in the title from last week:

Shoemoney Ads

These ads have been showing for the past few months. They shouldn’t have, given that Schoemaker previously had filed a trademark complaint action with Google back in 2007. On November 1, 2007, Schoemaker was told was sent this from Google:

Google AdWords Trademark Team Thu, Nov 1, 2007 at 4:13 PM

Hello Jeremy,

Thank you for sending us your trademark complaint letter. Your complaint has been processed and the ad texts in question no longer include your trademark: SHOEMONEY. Please note, we only processed the exact trademark you submitted. If you would like us to investigate variations or misspellings of your trademark, please supply us with a list of the exact variations or misspellings and we will review them. Please do not hesitate to contact us with any additional questions or concerns.

That prevented anyone from using the word “shoemoney” in their ads, as you can see is still the case in the screenshot below, when I tried to create an ad with the word earlier today:

AdWords Banning Shoemoney Term

So how was it that these ads started showing? Somehow, the advertiser got an exception or found some other way around Google’s block. Since the advertiser also appears to be a Google employee, that raises serious issues about Google’s own internal policing.

As the TechCrunch article on the case explains, at first Schoemaker couldn’t tell who was behind the ads. While the ad pointed at myincentivewebsite.com, contact details for that site were masked using a privacy address for the domain name registration. So Schoemaker got a subpoena demanding that that the site’s web host hand over the advertiser’s name and contact details, he told me.

According to Schoemaker’s lawsuit, the advertiser was Keyen Farrell. As TechCrunch explains further, Schoemaker said he spoke with Farrell, who apparently denied any wrongdoing. As part of that conversation, Farrell apparently shared a list of terms he was targeting — which raised alarms with Schoemaker, as they were similar to his own list.

Doing more checking, Schoemaker found a LinkedIn profile where Farrell listed himself as working as a Google AdWords account strategist. That’s since changed (Schoemaker says it was changed the day he filed suit), but here’s how it looked from a screenshot that Schoemaker sent me:

Farrell On LinkedIn

Farrell is listed as an employee with Google’s New York office, so all indications are that he does indeed work for Google. When I called and selected him by name from the automated company directory, I got to his voicemail that started, “Hi, this is Keyen with Google.” Farrell was also featured in a Spring 2006 article from Colby College about how he used Google’s ad systems to run an online business that he said put him “in the top one percent in income in the U.S.” If that was the case, of course, it makes you wonder why he apparently later worked what appears to be a low-level job at Google.

Talking with Schoemaker, he stressed that he assumes Google itself had no knowledge of Farrell’s actions, nor is he filing suit against Google itself.

Our goal in this is not for financial gain but to defend our trademark that we have spent many years building trust with. People [commenting on] the TechCrunch story talk like Google is going to write me a big check, but that is just silly. This is not going to be a cash flow positive thing for us I am pretty sure. And I do not honestly think nor do we have any evidence that Google was involved or had knowledge of this corrupt employee

I agree — Google probably wasn’t aware of what was going on. But it still raises questions about how people are able to bypass trademark blocks and how secure AdWords accounts are. Clearly an AdWords specialist would need the ability to review client accounts, but it’s still disturbing to think that they could be snooping for reasons unconnected with actually helping those clients.

As for Farrell, Schoemaker’s suit seeks:

  • An injunction preventing the use of “shoemoney” in ad text
  • An accounting of revenue earned by using the “shoemoney” term
  • Damages to be determined at trial
  • Attorney fees and costs

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Apr 6 2009

Court Ruling: Trademarked Keywords can no longer be used by Thirdparties in Google AdWords

Last week the Second Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling in the Rescuecom v. Google case that has some potentially serious implications for all concerned. The appellate court has jurisdiction over cases arising in Connecticut, New York, and Vermont but the case has national impact because of the way that AdWords is operated and administered.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) decries the ruling, which found that use of trademarked keywords in AdWords, even though they don’t appear in ad text, constitute a potential violation of trademark law. Here’s the EFF’s explanation of what happened and it’s potential impact:

In 2006, a district court ruled that Google’s AdWords program, which allows advertisers to buy search terms (including trademarks) that trigger their ads, did not violate trademark law. Following Second Circuit precedent (EFF participated as amicus in that case), and in line with other decisions around the U.S., the lower court held that this type of sale did not involve a “use” of the trademark within the meaning of trademark law, any more than strategically placing a generic brand of cough syrup next to Robittussin might. In essence, so long as the prospective customer never sees the trademark, neither Google nor the AdWords participant has “used” the trademark “in commerce.”

Today, the Second Circuit reversed the lower court ruling and held that recommending and “selling” a mark to an advertiser to trigger a sponsored link could violate trademark law. Indeed, the Court went further, observing that even product placements could be subject to trademark law if the mark holder could show that consumers were confused.

The holding has obvious implications for Google, which could now face an avalanche of similar lawsuits with no easy way to shut them down (instead, they’ll have to go through the expense of discovery and arguing the always difficult question of consumer confusion). But the real losers will be consumers.

Here’s the summary of the Second Circuit’s thinking and rationale for the decision, from the factual discussion in the opinion:

Many of Rescuecom’s competitors advertise on the Internet.  Through its Keyword Suggestion Tool, Google has recommended the Rescuecom trademark to Rescuecom’s competitors as a search term to be purchased.  Rescuecom’s competitors, some responding to Google’s recommendation, have purchased Rescuecom’s trademark as a keyword in Google’s AdWords program, so that whenever a user launches a search for the term “Rescuecom,” seeking to be connected to Rescuecom’s website, the competitors’ advertisement and link will appear on the searcher’s screen.  This practice allegedly allows Rescuecom’s competitors to deceive and divert users searching for Rescuecom’s website.  According to Rescuecom’s allegations, when a Google user launches a search for the term “Rescuecom” because the searcher wishes to purchase Rescuecom’s services, links to websites of its competitors will appear on the searcher’s screen in a manner likely to cause the searcher to believe mistakenly that a competitor’s advertisement (and website link) is sponsored by, endorsed by, approved by, or affiliated with Rescuecom.

The main thing the EFF is concerned about is a “chilling effect” on third parties and Google. Advertisers will now potentially be reluctant to use terms that may be trademarks and Google might have to litigate lots of cases. The risk of litigation and associated costs will create the chilling effect EFF is talking about.

Any ruling that creates uncertainty or opens the door to additional lawsuits is bad by definition. Previously there was relative clarity: trademarked terms could be used as keywords, but not in ad copy. EFF cites a couple of fairly compelling examples of why this ruling may harm consumers and be bad for online free speech more broadly:

Consider an example. If you used Google to search on the term “McDonald’s” in 2007, among the “sponsored links” that may have appeared in response was a link for “The Coalition of Immokalee Farm workers,” a community-based organization that supports the rights of low-wage workers in Florida. The Coalition deliberately chose the trademark to trigger its ad because it is highly critical of the practices of McDonald’s and thought you might like to learn more about why before you buy that next burger. Or consider a consumer seeking comparative information on hybrid vehicles, searching on the (trademarked) term “Prius.” That consumer might like to know about GM’s hybrid offerings (did you even know GM sold hybrids?), but after today, the threat of litigation may make Google hesitant to let GM buy a “sponsored link” triggered by the term “Prius.”

Courts sometimes get “confused” about trademark law, which is intended to protect consumers from deception or manipulation and not the economic interests of the companies that own the trademarks and usually bring the cases. The two sets of interests are often treated as one, which is analytically incorrect as EFF points out.

Google has not “lost” the case and this ruling is not necessarily the final word on the keyword-trademark violation issue. There are other jurisdictions that have different rules and the case could be appealed in turn to the US Supreme Court. Eric Goldman doubts this will happen, however, and offers a list of all the potential implications (directed toward lawyers rather than search marketers) of the decision.

Policing trademarks is messy and Google doesn’t want to do it, but this decision all but compels the company to change its keyword suggestion tool policy and go deeper into the role of trademark enforcer.

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Mar 30 2009

The Problems with LinkBait and SEO Copywriting

Back in the early days of search engines and search engine optimization it was an anything goes environment. Initially, SEOs stuffed reams of keywords into their page to get their pages to rank. Then when links became the driving force in rankings SEOs moved into link buying. The problem with all this is that it was all based on manipulation of one form or another.

While many will argue that SEO continues to be the practice of manipulating search rankings, it does not have to be that way. The SEO industry hurts itself by allowing itself to be associated with manipulation. That is my problem with the terms “linkbait” and “SEO copywriting”.

The problem with linkbait

Linkbait is the term that emerged for developing content for the purpose of getting large numbers of links. In many cases this was focused on getting articles to the front page of social media sites such as Digg. In principle, there is nothing wrong with developing content that is intended to garner a lot of links. In a non-search engine world it would be similar to many types of PR tactics, and something that you might do to promote your business.

What I don’t like is that the term has overtones of much deeper manipulation, largely because the word “bait,” of “bait and switch” fame is part of it. For example, in March of 2008, money.co.uk wrote an article titled 13 Year Old Steals Dad’s Credit Card to Buy Hookers. According to Yahoo, this page has nearly 1400 external links, a nifty haul for a single article. The problem is that the story is not true.

Ultimately, it is not OK to publish a deliberately misleading story in order to gather links. It should be noted that Money.co.uk published an apology. Jonathan Crossfield wrote about the story in his article Linkbait at any Cost.

This is what the term linkbait can lead you to do. Clearly a deliberately misleading story does not serve the interests of your web site’s users. I favor a descriptive phrase like “linkworthy content” because it includes the word “worthy” in it. Whatever you do, make sure the content you develop is linkworthy and lose the term linkbait, as it just confuses people about the goals of your content.

The problem with SEO copywriting

We work with large numbers of writers, and nearly all of our SEO projects include a strong component of recommending content for our clients web sites. As a result, we are constantly faced with questions about SEO copywriting practices, such as:

  • How long should the article be?
  • What keywords should we use in it?
  • How should content be allocated across various pages of the site?

As with linkbait, the term SEO copywriting creates a mental image of manipulation which can quickly become a slippery slope. The root of the problem is that your writers are not trained in SEO, and nor should they be. That bears repeating: I recommend that you do not train your writers in SEO. There are two major reasons for this:

  1. Even if you do try to train your writers in SEO, you will inevitably train them at a surface level. This means that their decision making will be based on partial information, and this can lead to mistakes.
  2. Content quality has to remain the primary goal of the writers at all times. Providing low quality content for any reason, including your desire to get search engine traffic as a result of creating it, is not a good idea. This will come back and haunt you in the end.

Hire good writers and let them write good stuff. To meet your SEO needs make sure they are writing about the topics you want, and provide them with an article template. Great content, on a site that is search engine friendly, and that is effectively promoted, will always do well. It is a formula far older than the web, but it still works, and you don’t have to worry about the backlash tomorrow.

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Mar 23 2009

Big Brand Media wants Google to take it Easy on Them!

It seems like almost everyone in Big Business is looking for a bailout these days. That’s certainly true of several big brand media companies who, according to an AdAge article today, have told Google they deserve higher rankings in Google’s search results. Not only that, but one executive has also labeled the rest of the content-producing web — including bloggers like us — as “parasites” who “benefit disproportionately” from Google’s ranking algorithm.

This collection of media companies, AdAge reports, includes The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Time Inc, Hearst, ESPN, and others — all of whom belong to Google’s Publishers Advisory Council.

(Did you even know Google had such a council? The article describes it as “a small, invitation-only group for professional publishers to pow-wow confidentially with the search giant.” Cue small publisher anger in 3…2…1.)

The big media companies’ complaints include:

  • Google’s search algorithm in general, which they say “penalizes paid content”
  • PageRank specifically, because it places too much of an emphasis on links
  • The appearance of Google’s search results, which hurts big brands because every result looks the same

AdAge says the publishers are pushing their Automated Content Access Protocol (ACAP), a machine-readable language for indicating copyright permissions that online crawlers can understand, as a means to gain leverage on Google. But Google’s Josh Cohen recently dismissed ACAP:

“Acap only addresses the small minority of content owners and [it has] major technical issues. We can’t accept it in its current form. There are a number of challenges with Acap.”

The irony in all this, of course, is that Google’s so-called Vince update earlier this year supposedly promoted big brands that have more trust and authority than their smaller counterparts — something that should clearly benefit the complaining members of the Publishers Advisory Council.

Steve Rubel has already done a fine job of refuting the argument that big media is any more deserving of high search engine visibility than blogs just by virtue of their size. And at least one publisher quoted in the AdAge article recognizes that the media companies themselves are at least partly to blame for any lack of visibility in Google’s search results:

“They don’t owe us that we show up a particular way. They do publish a whole lot about how to make your site show up as much as possible. If people haven’t taken action on it, that’s their own damn fault.”

Perhaps the big media companies should be asking an SEO consultant for bailout help, not Google.

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