Monday, 30 June 2008

Plan B

Whilst watching the European Championship Semi-Final between Germany and Turkey, the BBC lost audio and visual coverage from the match due to a power failure caused by a severe electrical storm. Within seconds of the pictures and cutting out, audio coverage was restored through the television. However, it was not John Motson on BBC1 who was providing the commentary, it was Mike Ingham on BBC Radio FiveLive.

Even the most reliable technology can fail and websites are no exception. Last week the Sainsbury's Website was suspended due to a technical issue. During this period, any visitor to the site would have been shown the Site Unavailable page.

When a website does go down, it is important to have a contingency plan in place to ensure minimal disruption from a commercial and from a brand perspective.

Here are three simple things that should be considered:

1. Preserve Brand Integrity.
For Sainsbury's, a brand that maintains a strong offline presence, more could be done on the Site unavailable down page to promote brand strengths and reinforce key sales messages. It should be seen as an opportunity to communicate with their customer base and positively influence brand perception.

For example,
MySpace invite users to play PacMan whilst their site is undergoing maintenance. As a result of their handling of the power failure, I have a greater perception of the BBC, both as a brand and in their ability to provide seamless coverage of sporting events.

Visitors to the Sainsbury's site actually increased during the downtime as a result of the widespread publicity about the problem. Therefore, opportunities existed to actually communicate with and potentially acquire more customers.

2. Minimise Commercial Impact.

Hitwise reported that the downstream traffic from Tesco to Sainsbury's in
creased significantly whilst the Sainsbury's site was down. This is clearly detrimental to Sainsbury's commercial objectives. The site unavailable page could have done more to mitigate this.

For example, they could have displayed a unique discount code that customers could use during subsequent online transactions or even include a scannable barcode that customers could print and take to their local store.

Customers that had their shopping baskets affected, were rewarded with Sainsbury's discount vouchers. This only applies to customers that were mid transaction, not to those who may be visiting the Sainsbury's site for the first time and who may be less likely to visit again.

3. Cease Paid Marketing Activity
Given that the majority of visitors to the Sainsbury's website come from Google, it is fair to assume that a large proportion arrive via paid sponsored links. Therefore, Sainsbury's would have been paying for more visitors to arrive at their Site Unavailable page, than to their regular site, on a standard day.

Adwords campaigns are simple to pause in the event of unexpected site down time so the correct support mechanisms should be in place to identify and implement this as soon as possible.

Site down time is inevitable for any business, no matter how many support mechanisms are in place. Even Google was down for 7 minutes in 2007. It is important for any website to have effective plans in place to mitigate the effects of technology failures and acknowledge that site down time does not have to be catastrophic for their business.

Sunday, 29 June 2008

Chimp Off the Old Block

Before finding fame as David Brent Ricky Gervais and Office cowriter Stephen Merchant used to host a Saturday afternoon radio show on London based XFM.

Whilst working on the show they uncovered possibly one of most unique characters ever to work in entertainment in mancunian producer Karl Pilkington.
Like a far more abstract version of Larry Sanders, Karl's stories of growing up in Manchester would not be believed had they not originated from his innocent, half witted mind.

Pilkington has unwittingly influenced many of Gervais' comedic efforts over the past decade and has been referenced in a number of Ricky's stand up performances.

One of the most popular features of the XFM show was Monkey News, an item where Karl sprouts unbelievable stories about monkeys obtained from a dodgy source on the internet. The funniest part is that he actually believes it is all true.

Here is one of my favourites, that was subsequently animated and released as part of the world record holding Ricky Gervais Show Podcast.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Free Clicks

Google's Adpreview tool can be used to check the position and creative of PPC adverts, within Google. We all know that there are plenty of anomalies that can be found within sizable Adwords campaigns, so Adpreview can be used to understand campaigns from a users point of view.

Adpreview also allows users to conduct a search from a particular region, so that advertisers can understand local competition and evaluate geographic targeting opportunities.

One of the frustrations of this tool is that you are unable to click on an advert and check that it deeplinks to the correct landing page. This can only be checked from the standard Google search results. i recently discovered however, that there is a method that can be used so that advertisers can check creative and landing pages within the Google search results, at no cost.

Whenever a user views a SERP that features a number of sponsored links in the right hand rail, a link stating More Sponsored Links is located beneath the final paid advert. Clicking on this link takes users to Google's Ad Search feature. Ad Search only displays paid adverts. Advertisers can again use this feature to understand which advert is showing on a particular key term and the appropriate creative that is showing. The difference with Ad Search is that links can be clicked on, at no cost.

To explain further, the adverts displayed in Ad Search sit outside the traditional AdWords algorithm. Clicks and impressions are not accrued within Ad Search and consequently advertisers are not charged for clicks. Adverts are shown, even when they have met their daily budget allowing additional exposure for those with small budgets wishing to compete on expensive high volume terms.

Google of course will not be drawn on the volume of clicks that take place within the Ad Search feature but these are essentially free paid clicks that are contributing towards paid search objectives.

For the past couple of weeks however, this feature has not been functioning correctly. When clicking on more sponsored links, the results are quite erratic.
Looking closer at some of the adverts, it would appear that there is a database error with the matching of correct advert titles. As far as I can see advert descriptions, display URL's and landing pages are all correct.

It is important for search marketers not to over-rely on the statistical information generated by adwords. Adwords metrics are all displayed in averages, making it difficult to glean any really meaningful information. The best piece of information anyone has ever told me to deter me from relying on averages is that the average person has less than two arms.

By using Adpreview and More Sponsored Links, advertisers and agencies can gain an understanding of how a user views at search results. This qualitative information should always be used in conjunction with statistical data in order to make meaningful search marketing decisions.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Going through the Change

Over the next few months, I will be making some changes to this blog. I shall be improving the content and navigation, including a few new widgets and hopefully moving away from the standard Blogger template (No offence Rounders!)

Perhaps the biggest change has already occurred. I have now renamed the blog and moved it to a more appropriate URL. Here are the reasons why:

1. Initially I started this website as a storage place for the various thoughts and ideas that I have about the world in general. Initial posts such as Beer on Board
and Building Local Relationships were about missed marketing opportunities that I noticed in every day life.

In time however the subject matter has inadvertently skewed towards my specialist subject, online marketing. Whether it be expressing opinions on the Google trademark policy to forecasting the End of Facebook the majority of my previous posts, are online marketing orientated. It turns out that I am more of an online marketing geek than I had originally considered.

As anyone involved in SEM knows, a page title and URL that contains the your target keyphrases is fundamental to achieving a good ranking. Perhaps the best example of this is Cheap Flights. My initial objective was to achieve number one ranking in Google for my name. Having achieved this, I am now keen to undertake a new challenge by aiming to get this site in front of a larger audience.

To clarify, this is still a small blog. With less than 50 pages in total at the moment it is a mere spec on the blogospere. I have a demanding full time job, play sport at a competitive level and do have some life outside of the internet! In short, this is a not a small challenge.

3. I will now be using this site to conduct various experiments. Whilst it is possible to understand online marketing from the large amount of resource available on the web, nothing beats hands on experience. Therefore, I will be experimenting with various theories and trying to prove or disprove online marketing hypothesis, with a view to utilising my findings in a professional capacity. For example, I am tracking my ranking on a number of keywords after changing my URL.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it should be noted that the views and opinions expressed on this website are my own and do not represent those of any company I work for. There is no hidden agenda.

Search Expermental

Search Engines are constantly working behind the scenes to develop and advance their algorithms to keep ahead of the game. But with so much value placed on brand integrity of the major players as well as traditional usability, it makes it difficult to thoroughly test new developments in the public domain.

Google Experimental allows users to sign up for features that are fully tested for accuracy but not ready for the prime time of the public domain yet. Whatever experiment a user signs up to, the Google search experience does not change, a user still knows they are using Google.

Within experimental at the moment are alternative search views that will display particular results in a relevant format (EG, date information displayed over a timeline), keyword suggestions and keyboard shortcuts to accelerate the search experience.

Once a particular feature graduates from Experimental, it can be tested on pockets of Google account holders. In the past I have been involved in experiments with navigation including left hand side, dropdowns and pagerank like bars to distinguish result volume. I was also involved in the sponsored links shading experiment.

Google also run Searchmash, an experimental search site with no direct reference to Google. Here they can conduct experiments on the user interface without tainting the existing Google brand and risking the value of it's valuable brand properties. Searchmash was also recently made available in a flash version which is slightly ironic considering Google's historical dislinking of any webpages containing flash.

Yahoo! run AlltheWeb as their user interface test engine. It was on AlltheWeb where Search Suggest was first trialled under the name of "Live Search". No prizes for guessing why they could not launch with that name!

Microsoft are perhaps the most adventurous when it comes to experimental search. It is no secret that there they have not had the intended growth from of traditional text search having failed to dent Google's market share. Resource is therefore diverted into researching and developing the next big thing in search.

Their experimental user interface, Tafiti is perhaps more extravegent than either of it's rivals. It takes advantage of Microsoft's new Silverlight technology to produce a more interactive visual search experience. These search results can also be viewed in a rotating tree view. Quite why, I am not sure.

Tafiti also offers a "Shelf" where users can store their searches on a particular subject. Again, I struggle to see the point in this feature. In my experience, users are comfortable using the browser navigation

They also have Ms. Dewey, a gimmick involving live flash movies with an enchanting female presenter who reacts to user searches. It's probably not your search engine of choice, but it's fun for a small period. Recently MSN have built upon the cult success of Ms. Dewey by launching Left vs Right, a site that satires aspects of the upcoming American presedential election.

Whilst experimental search is an exciting insight into the thinkings of the big three search networks, it is clear that small iterative changes are necessary in order to maintain stability of established and sizeable user bases. Google alone, reach over 90% of the online population, so they have to absolutely guarantee that any amendments to the interface do not have a detrimental effect.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Download Firefox 3.0 Today!

Today sees the launch of the Firefox 3 internet browser. The Firefox creators, Mozilla are trying to break a world record for the most software downloaded in 24 hours.

I have been Beta testing Firefox 3 for the past month and yet again I have been impressed with the improvements that have been made.

Two years ago I was not really aware of Firefox, living my online life as an Internet Explorer (IE) drone. Now, I am a massive advocate of the browser.

Firefox was the first to introduce the multiple tabs feature to browsers way back in 2002. I often use the view source that uses a coloured index and the handy Find Tootbar.
It's faster, slicker and generally more polished than Internet Explorer.

Firefox's greatest strength however is it's developer friendliness. There are over 2,000 add-ons, plug ins and themes that can help to customise and enhance a users browsing experience.

In 2007, 90% of the funds raised by the made by the Mozilla Foundation came from search engine revenue, the majority of which comes from the paid referral scheme with Google. As the Mozilla foundation is a nonprofit organisation, these funds can go into development, rather than revenue hungry directors.

Considering these strengths, I am surprised that market share has not grown more significantly. As of May 2008, Firefox recorded an 18% share of web browser usage. Perhaps Steve Vamos of Microsoft Australia was correct when he stated that he "did not see Firefox as a threat." I would Steve.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Ode to 02

Today Apple announced the launch of the iphone 3G, their latest update to the iPhone. This updated version will feature 3G connectivity to the internet, GPS and many other useful software updates.

As an early adopter of the iPhone, I have found it to be a superb device with one of the only drawbacks being the slow and often frustrating performance of the EDGE network. Therefore the addition of faster 3G connectivity would be very much welcomed not to mention additional features such as GPS maps.

At first I couldn't help but feel a little disgruntled as my state of the art device that I purchased for over £300 was going to be superceded by a better version at a far lower price. Some of the features are available in the software update iPhone 2.0 but not the 3G connectivity, which is recorded as 2.5 times faster that the existing access speed.

Whilst I realised that technology innovation was inevitable, I had hoped that I would enjoy a a longer period as holder of the best iPhone on the market. At some points today, I was actually considering purchasing the new iPhone.

I was therefore delighted to read this statement on the 02 website. Perhaps I am getting excited too early but 02 intend to allow upgrades to existing holders of the iPhone 1.0 providing they sign up for another 18 month contract.

The clever part is that they are encouraging existing customers to pass on their old iPhone to friends and family. Of course, various internet hacks, the iPhone remains exclusively available to 02 tariffs. So by encouraging the passing down of old phones, they are effectively recruiting existing iPhone customers into their sales force. I am sure there will be plenty of people willing to take my old iPhone when I decide to upgrade. This is canny marketing; delight your existing customers whilst using them to recruit new ones via the strongest referral of all, word of mouth.

Perhaps I should not be surprised that 02 would do something like this. As an early adopter, my initial tariff was significantly above the market rate for the equivalent with other networks. At the time I was prepared to pay, just to get my hands on the new iPhone. When 02 reviewed their tariffs and lowered the prices, they automatically reduced my tariff in accordance. I was also contacted out of the blue to say that they would reduce the amount I paid for broadband.

I am sure that everyone has had good and bad experiences with each and every mobile phone operator, but my experiences with 02 have been faultless to date.

Sunday, 8 June 2008

Check Me Out

Achieving differentiation in the SERP's is something that all websites strive for. An eye catching advert can increase the quality of traffic and reduce the necessity to pay the highest costs per click.

As paid search reaches a certain level of maturity, advertisers are gradually reaching a limit to how relevant and appealing they can make the 130 characters afforded to them in a Google PPC ad.
As advertisers and agencies increasingly adopt best practice, it is much harder to achieve standout from the SERP's.

Take this search on all inclusive holidays on Google. Every paid advert has exactly the same title. The same principles have been applied to each advert. The title consists of the keyword, as does the text within the advert and wherever possible, the display URL.

In my opinion, an advert has a very small amount of time to capture a users attention. Obtaining the referral from a competitive and relevant search term is imperative to getting the embark upon the purchase cycle.

Some organisations have tested various creative styles. Arrow ads have been proven by some organisations to improve click through rates. There are also some more creative examples using Ascii text.

In the US, Yahoo! has already experimented with the use of images in adverts in order to allow advertisers a means of differentiating their results but in truth differentiation is becoming increasingly difficult. Therefore, I am surprised at slow uptake of Google Checkout in the UK.

Google Checkout affords adwords advertisers a Checkout Logo below their listing.

The checkout logo stands out from the page making the decision as to which advertiser to click on far simpler for GC users. In this example, the Vodafone advert stands out clearly on what is a very competitive search term. This means that the advertiser does not have to pay to be in the top position.

Although a number of smaller retailers have implemented Google Checkout on their site, the only notable organisations to adopt are Dabs and Vodafone. There have been reports that GC does not mix well with Affiliate Marketing but there are far more advantages to advertisers.

Google advertise the benefits to an Adwords campaign as one of the main benefits of adopting the Checkout facility. Other benefits include free transaction processing and free fraud protection. Some pundits in the US have even pointed that use the of the Google Checkout logo in the SERP's provides the listed organisations with an unfair advantage over competitors.

According to Hitwise, during the key pre-Christmas shopping period, Google Checkout overtook PayPal as the most visited alternative payment provider for the first time. However, these figures do not compare to the US where alternative payment methods have grown significantly in popularity over the past twelve months.

So why has this not been the case in the UK?
Is the UK consumer slightly more apprehensive about supplying their payment details to an independent provider? Or is the online retail market so dominated by affiliate marketing organisations that are generally opposed to it's use.

The growth in adoption is cyclical. Advertisers will not look to adopt until there is a proven market of prospects with a greater inclination to purchase. Consumers will not adopt until there are greater incentives to do so. eBay virtually forces customers down the PayPal route but there is no GC equivalent.

For me, as an advertiser that invests heavily in paid search marketing, Google checkout is good value simply for it's ability to provide differentiation in the SERP's. Only once the cyclical adoption model gathers momentum will advertisers truly realise it's potential. I anticipate a scramble to adopt later this year and that by next Christmas, the gap between between GC and Paypal will be even more significant.

Free Swim

In a bid to aid their wailing popularity, the government have recently unveiled an initiative that will enable free public swimming to everyone by the year 2011.

I couldn't help think of this classic sketch on The Day Today about a typical day a St. Lambs Swimming Baths in Acton.