Monday, 18 May 2009

A Lone Wolf

New search engine Wolfram Alpha launched in the UK recently. Clearly a lot of man hours have been invested into developing this tool but there are some fundamental failings. The biggest of which will also mark it's eventual downfall and generally marks the downfall of all new search engines, it's not as good as Google.

What has to be congratulated, is the amount of PR that Mr Wolfram obtained for his project. Despite the performance of the search engine, I would imagine that online PR would have been easier to obtain due to the desire from the online community for a rival to Google.

The world needs another search engine. Google recently suffered from a power outage that, despite being less than two hours long, seemed to cause pandamonium in the online world and the bright future of cloud computing was questioned for the first time.

Google is the greatest risk for e-commerce with businesses reliant on traffic from both paid and natural search. Granted, it is a cost effective means of promoting your website but even basic businesses accept that a reliance on one area of the supply chain represents considerable risk to stability.

Mr Wolfram can be comforted however by the fact that far bigger players have also failed when competing against the big G.

Ask tried to change perceptions by being the first search agency to feature multiple formats within their SERP's in what we now refer to colloquially as Universal Search. They have now brought back Jeeves with a view to gaining more brand noise.

Yahoo! continues to struggle against the tide. The much hyped Panama change to calculating paid search results failed to ignite revenues in this area of the business and rumours of a takeover by Microsoft continue to rumble on in the background.

MSN has recently launched Bing to try and save face from the failures of To be honest, I'm not sure what they have gained here. It wasn't the brand that was the problem with Live, it was the results offered to the users and the speed in which it was capable of updating the index that caused problems.

Cuil launched in 2008 and claimed to have a larger index than any other search engine. Whilst this USP initially generated a lot of interest, once again the users quickly dropped off.

There are a lot more that could be added to this list as well.

There is a very limited window of opportunity for a new search engine to capture users on a permanent basis. If a user has a unsuccessful search using a new search engine, the chances are they will go straight back to Google. Even offering incentives to search in the form of cash rewards or charity donations has failed to change the balance of power. At the end of the day, people search online for the rightresults. When Google gives you the results you want, why go anywhere else?

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Lessons from Offline Conversion

Firstly an admission, I am impatient. On a regular basis I have been known to abandon my basket in a supermarket when faced with an excessive queue. I cannot empathise with the eager customers that stand outside Next for hours on the first day of the January Sale. To this extent, online has been my saviour. If I still had to do my Christmas shopping in the high street I would have suffered a nervous breakdown by now.

Working in online marketing, nothing annoys me more than waste. Attracting qualified, targeted customers to the brink of purchase only for the purchase process to fail is disheartening to say the least. I have previously blogged on the necessary steps online marketers should take when websites fail. But what about the online conversion process in general?

There are a number of lessons online can learn from offline. Lessons in merchandising can be taken from point of sale advertising in stores, information architecture can learn lessons from store layouts, and the service delivered from store representatives is actualised within live assistance initatives. In the majority of cases however, the ability to convert customers is not one of them.

Now I am an advocate of maximising conversion, whether it be offline or online. When the customer is ready to make a purchase, everything possible should be done to enable this. Therefore, when shopping offline, I am constantly faced by the same questions:

"Why is there only one till open? Why should I wait 20 minutes to get served? Why are there not more staff working? I am ready to pay, why don't they want my money?"

There are a number of initiatives that have been taken to accelerate the offline conversion process. Supermarkets have introduced self service tills, Barclaycard are the first bank in the UK to implement contactless technology and a number of shops have remote payment devices for those wishing to pay by card.

A successful brand that has one of the most unique and effective offline conversion processes is Argos. Offering payment consoles within their stores for customers to enter their products and make payments within a couple of intuitive easy steps.

To find successful examples of online conversion, just look at some of the biggest online retailers. Amazon invented the One Click process allowing users to purchase whilst browsing, as long as they are signed in. EBay bought Paypal in order to offer it's users a simple and secure way to purchase online and iTunes, is currently bankrupting me, by giving the ability to purchase within one click from my computer or iPhone.

Finding examples of traditional bricks and mortar brands with a strong online conversion is more difficult. The fact that in most industries 1% is considered a good conversion rate is damning in itself. Imagine if you owned a shop in which only 1 in 100 customers actually bought something. Granted, the internet attracts a higher proportion of browsers to buyers, but in my opinion, websites should do more to convert prospects into customers.

Other organisations have adopted third party payment mechanisms in the form of Paypal or Google Checkout but consumer adoption of these tools is still relatively low in the UK.

Maxymiser, a conversion optimisation company, recently blogged about how the growth in paid search had stagnated and how organisations should redeploy their finances into increasing conversion. Whilst their reasons for advocating this are relatively transparent, there is a great deal of substance to this argument.

In my opinion, organisations should invest in both. If my sole performance indicator was conversion, then the first thing I would do is pull back my advertising spend. There has to be a balance between attraction and conversion.

In these challenging times it is becoming increasingly difficult to get consumers to part with their hard earned wage. Brands should ensure that the online conversion process is as fluid and efficient as possible. I would challenge all site owners to examine their online conversion process using the analogy of an offline conversion and ensure that the people leaving their site are not those ditching their basket in the queue to pay.