Is Guy Kawasaki Singlehandedly Ruining Twitter? (Part 2)

I said a lot of overly theatrical things about Guy Kawasaki in my last rant about him: Is Guy Kawasaki Singlehandedly Ruining Twitter? (Part I). Included in these were suggesting that Kawasaki was a "politician" who should never run for office any higher than "small town mayor"; that his tactics could turn Twitter into a "digital trailer park"; that he was like the regional manager of a vacuum cleaner direct sales organization; and that he would soon grow a mustache and begin smoking unfiltered cigarettes.

And for these indiscretions, I would apologize if asked. But not for stirring up the serious underlying debate about the unfortunate potential for Twitter's brand to degrade every time some spammy tactician auto-follows me, or you.

Is there a more charitable interpretation of Guy Kawasaki's Twitter antics than the one I put forward? Yes, there is a more charitable interpretation. If you choose to interpret it this way, I'd understand. It's how I choose to approach certain other seemingly annoying personalities myself. Here's an overview of how the argument might go.

Kawasaki's heartfelt personal insights (recent, and longstanding) combined with the range of favorable accounts of his accomplishments and personal qualities inevitably humanize a figure that in Part I, I'd only sought to demonize.

[Please keep in mind that I didn't set out with the intention of demonizing any individual. My complaint with him was actually pretty specific: his material in the SES keynote, and the approach to marketing it encouraged. It's one thing to be a well known underachieving spammer, telling people how to spam. Audiences know how to read that. But to see someone considered an eclectic, cultured, community-savvy leader and to turn around and violate both the spirit and letter of marketing ethics -- and to encourage others to do the same -- was bizarre to me. I've been to dozens of SES conference keynotes. Many have been provocative. A couple have violated basic keynote etiquette by being, umm, boring. But none (though Jason Calacanis came close) have been so hypocritical, self-serving, and silly as Kawasaki's Twitter advice. It was a keynote only because of his prominent name. The talk would have been more or less fine had it been a rank-and-file panel at Pubcon, for the gotta-learn-all-the-tactics crowd.]

The Case for Kawasaki as Ethical Showman

So thinking about the real human being that lurks behind the current public persona, I was reminded of a couple of people who have made millions being showmen and who are well known for being intelligent, cultured, thoughtful, and caring -- behind the scenes. (And I'm not even counting Howard Stern, probably the most polarizing example of someone like that you can think of.)

To go with one example, I've always been a fan of the financial analyst Jim Cramer, and remain so to this day. The Cramer many people know today was the sheepish fellow who was recently called on the carpet by Jon Stewart, made to atone for his pro-Wall-Street cheerleading, picking bad stocks on his show Mad Money, and all manner of other damage he'd done under the cover of showmanship, propped up by an endless bull market.

The general crowd reaction to this Cramer, I felt, was unfair. They didn't "get" Cramer. The real Cramer who was always the slightly disadvantaged Harvard boy who never quite fit in on Wall Street. The one who left Wall Street. The one who started up TheStreet.com (how many people can point to an accomplishment like that, for heaven's sake), which despite many ups and downs remains as one of a tiny percentage of "dot com" IPO's that has remained independent and solvent to this day.

When Stewart "outed" Cramer for telling people about shady tactics that Wall Street commonly used to create false futures activity overseas in order to fool the opening markets just long enough to help a trader liquidate a large position, the assumption was that Cramer advocated shady tactics. But that's an overly literal, "flat" way of listening to a smart man who is nuanced in how he communicates. I interpret Cramer differently, because I feel like I get him. I think in many cases, he's been out there trying to warn people: this is what Wall Street is really like! Don't be scammed. Buyer beware.

How does it benefit Cramer to be so transparent about Wall Street's (and his) shady tactics? It doesn't. It's a public service.

(So there, I do see an interesting parallel between Cramer and Kawasaki. Kawasaki jokes: "I may be a spammer, but I'm a transparent one." In the SEO world, there have been a few folks like that. Name your favorite transparent spammer SEO.)

The attention people suddenly paid to Cramer as a villain was nothing less than silly. Ultimately, The Daily Show taking a one-day interest in Jim Cramer's antics on Mad Money was something agreed to by both Cramer and Stewart for one reason alone: further showmanship leading to ratings. I imagine Jon Stewart is aware that there are worse villains to pay attention to than Jim Cramer. After Bush and co. left the scene, it got harder to fill air time with progressive rantings against the powers that be. And Stewart is paid millions of dollars a year to fill air time.

After the dust settles, I'm convinced that Jim Cramer will continue to be two things: (1) a decent man with a lot of talent who has more courage and scruples in his little finger than most folks on Wall Street; and (2) a brilliant opportunist and showman who (much like a Bill O'Reilly, Jon Stewart, or Howard Stern) has risen to a position where he can make serious coin and in some way "get back at" the people and system that didn't afford him the same opportunities as his wealthier peers. And he has every right to be both.

Kawasaki, like Jim Cramer, is a bundle of contradictions; a hero to some, a villain to others. On the positive side, Kawasaki's antics serve as a canary in a coal mine to help Twitter regulate itself before it's eaten alive by abusers. Already, Twitter is tightening up its rules, formal TOS, and API policies, angering some third party developers but pointing towards an ideal of "normal" Twitter usage as opposed to "spammy" usage. In that regard, Kawasaki's massive Twitter presence can be seen as doing the growing company a great service... almost like ethical hacking.

Opt Out??

Like any would-be plague on society, as many commenters on this debate to date have implied, the pivotal question is: can you opt-out? If a few stupid people choose to subject themselves to bad ideas, interruptions, etc. - it shouldn't affect me, right?

On that count, we still have a debate on our hands. That's how I've always felt about Jim Cramer's "work"; just as how I've always felt about people buying ineffective contraptions and cheap jewelry on The Shopping Channel. If it's not for you, don't do it, right? Unfollow, unsubscribe, opt out. Change the frickin’ channel.

But: what if, after unsubscribing, unfollowing, and opting out, the problem is still getting worse?

One smart reader of the last column referred to the problem as “digital blight.” Take digital blight, and accelerate it through social media contagion, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

The upshot is: I do still think Kawasaki is a spammer. And thousands of people are deliberately following his tactics. Many others are accidentally following them, or advocating them, because they haven't taken time out to think it through (or they didn't see the puerile SES keynote).

A friend of mine, someone with a lot of respect in the business world, followed me back recently when I followed him. His automated message pointed to a series of Twitter tips posted by Kawasaki last November. Without even trying, within seconds, I was able to discredit three of the five tips as spammy and/or contradicted by what Kawasaki actually does. 60% of the advice is easily refuted, and yet this is a "great article" that my friend sends to every single person who follows him (thousands to date)? "Great"? How about something by Malcolm Gladwell, maybe? Why was an otherwise smart person bamboozled into shilling for the King of Shill? Peer pressure, maybe? Or perhaps respect for Kawasaki's past accomplishments. Or the jokes about penis size and shiitake mushrooms were oddly disarming.

Maybe there's more to say about the problem of digital blight. Time allowing, I'll complete that thought in a Part 3. In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts.

Ads Vs. Conversations, Revisited

It's worth coming back to this subject.

Cited by John Battelle, comScore analyst Gian Fulgoni points out that the slowing growth in paid search clicks can largely be attributed to a decline in search coverage (proportion of searches monetized), and that's largely attributable to deliberate search quality and user satisfaction initiatives taken by all three major search engines. 100% right!

Fulgoni then points to a trend chart that might also contain an explanation: a rather slight increase in the average number of words used in a query, from just over 2.8, to just over 3.0.

From this, Battelle interprets very loosely, speculating that people are using search engines more like "natural language" tools and that Google is having trouble "matching advertiser demand to increasingly complex queries."

That's a bit rich. At the very least, it's an overly high-level, general explanation for users' increasing reliance on the new query-sensitive talents of Google and other engines. People's queries didn't get that much more complex in two years. Insofar as they're evolving, Google and other engines do a better job of tailoring the whole page to user needs. That may mean, for now, a slight shift towards the organic results being more compelling to users on informational queries. But that's exactly what Google wants. They want people to embrace, not ignore, the ads when they do appear. In part, they do that by keeping ads out of people's faces when they're inappropriate to user intent.

One reason you and I might type in a longer query is a higher expectation of getting an excellent local search result from Google, and then carrying on to look at restaurant reviews, maps, movie listings, etc. So to be sure, as confidence levels rise in the versatility of search technology, we're actually typing in more functional queries about movie times, the location of the local Home Depot, or even just our city name followed by "roofing contractors." Some of those merit ad coverage and lead to users clicking on ads; others merit query-sensitive local information results, not so easily monetizable.

Again, this is deliberate on Google's part. They're serious about search intent and the use of the engine as "functional software" -- at least when people use the engines in that way. For example, if I use the Google Search calculator function or the currency and measures conversion tool in my Firefox toolbar to type something like "2000 GBP in CAD," I get (today) the result "2000 British pounds = 3,582.69061 Canadian dollars." There is little point in showing an ad here. Usually you'll see zero ads, or maybe a single ad, on such queries.

That sort of behavior is of course growing. So the number of unmonetized queries is growing faster than the number of monetized queries.

The reality is, there are multiple things happening. Fulgoni's principal analysis is accurate. The search engine results pages are turning to enticing universal & blended search formats, highlighting video and local content. Even when they show no images, the organic SERP's often point to video content. Funny: long term, Google will be monetizing video and local just as well as they monetize search, so it's likely a net wash for them.

Longer term, our propensity for real-time search, conversations, and peer trust networks may indeed put a cap on how much advertising is appropriate in our "sacred areas" digitally. But that's always been the case, even when advertisers tried to invade/spam it. For some thoughts on where search is headed generally and how it might affect paid search advertising, check out Mona Elesseily's recent column on Search Engine Land: Important Questions You Should Ask About Where Search Is Headed.

Related note: I think it's too early in its life cycle for Wolfram Alpha to be showcasing sponsorships. They may soon find that it's tougher to monetize search than it looks... especially with a small number of users. The appearance of ads might also be a public relations distraction for a young product.

A Hitwise Report Does Not a Financial Report Make

The recent Hitwise report as related by analyst Heather Hopkins should have been vital reading to anyone into digital marketing or search technology. Paid search clicks, the cash cow that almost entirely drives the industry leader, Google, were being portrayed by those reporting on the item as "down 26%" year over year in Q2. Easy conclusion: "the meltdown" has "finally hit paid search."

Economic weakness affects the click auction, no question about it.

But given the potential economic bombshell this represents, it's eye-opening to see the lack of actual responses to these reports. Look at any of the main stories reporting on the item, and they range from the misleading, to the credulous, to the snarky. Cade Metz's snarky response was at least an attempt at analysis. Hundreds of others linked to the story or retweeted it, without it apparently entering their heads for a second that flipping a link up of an oft-retweeted story isn't giving us any more insight than we had pre-re-tweet.

This has actually been a typical pattern. A few weeks after Google's financial reports for a quarter give us real insight into how the business has been going, everyone seems to go back to not understanding how the business works. Speculations on the next quarterly report tend to predict imminent doom, for whatever reason. We're in that "dark, suspicious" period now. We'll wait for next quarter to see if all the weird speculation was based on reality.

Since last year's misleading comScore report that tanked Google's stock before producing a clarification from comScore, it seems that no one's prepared to offer much of an interpretation of third party data at all. So into the void of no analysis, rushes headlines that seem to say paid search clicks are down 26% year over year. Or more accurately, the proportion of overall traffic referrals to (the subset of) websites (in Hitwise's sample), among all sources, that comes from paid search, has dropped by that much.

What can we make of this, really? Here's a stab at it.

1. The data may not be accurate.

1a. Or at least, the data might not be insightful because it treats a click as a click as a click. Some clicks are expensive or meaningful; others are not. There's a whole host of potential reasons for skew.

2. Why are we paying so much attention to travel sites? They do spend a lot. They may be spending a bit less. Their sector has been hard hit. It's hard to say, unfortunately, how the stats on clicks affect the dollars being spent on those clicks (see below). We do know from a study put forward in a webinar offered by Google that travel searches are holding pretty steady, but conversion rates are down. You can certainly see how in a sector like this, with massive overcapacity developing and brand-building efforts in the distant past, dozens of travel sites like travelocity, Expedia, Hotwire, and others, may be scaling back campaigns, and bids. They're one of the top paid click generators, ergo that looks pretty bad for Google on the surface, until you look at the financials overall. Does this mean, then, that the "sky is falling" on the "Google money machine"? That the sky is falling for the travel websites? I doubt it, for either. The much bigger problem is at the end of the suppliers - the hotels and airlines - who are being forced to go to thin and negative margins to fill rooms and seats.

3. The theme that came to light with misinterpretations of last year's comScore numbers has yet to be digested fully by observers: 0verall, the nature of Quality Score keeps more white space on the page more often. (Google's overall monetization rate, % of pages with ads on them, remains relatively low.) Many conventional advertisers are barely affected, though they've been annoyed by arbitrarily high "reserve" prices on less competitive phrases and keywords that supposedly aren't relevant. Many conventional advertisers are still seeing growth in paid clicks; some in weak economic sectors are seeing appropriate declines. Google's purge of affiliate marketers and click arbitrageurs has been widespread, so it removes a lot of low-quality, low-priced ads from the system entirely. Financially this is only a short-term hit for Google. It increases satisfaction with search results and maintains pricing on keywords with high commercial intent. Granted, pricing power is diminished as smart advertisers take this opportunity to lower their bids, but the decline in sheer volumes of paid clicks isn't purely due to a weak economy, but rather, the side effect of a deliberate Google policy that was still going strong throughout 2008.

4. Has Google experimentation with various blended search results and page layouts actually resulted in more people clicking on SERP's, local results, and video content as opposed to looking at paid clicks? This is a pretty bold move on the surface, but owning local business relationships and video ads in the future is part of the overall strategy, so it's perhaps expected that Google will be willing to see users click on the paid ads slightly less often. If it was a shift that terrified Google, I don't think they'd continue pressing forward as aggressively with the changes.

5. Some - maybe many - large-company CEO's are ganging up on Google, informally, as this "don't buy your brand clicks" meme seems to spread. While that adds up to quite a few clicks, those are inexpensive clicks anyway. Brands' refusal to buy those clicks hurts them, in my opinion, more than it hurts Google. Anecdotally talking about "ranking on those terms in the organic results anyway" is not an accurate way to measure the incremental sales lift from those keyword ads, for a host of reasons, including a 2003 view of what it means to "rank in organic". Some folks will continue to try to pinch pennies in the digital channel in spite of the waste going on in other channels; others will get over it and go back to putting more profit in the till with straightforward direct marketing to searchers, including those parts that focus on brand terms.

6. By quasi-organizing against Google and collectively angling to take revenue out of Google's pocket on brand terms (despite Google playing nice by policing trademark in a variety of ways), it appears the Moose Lodge of CEO's may have incurred Google's revenge.

Google may have grown tired of being handcuffed in monetizing those terms by both the rhetoric of trademark holders and Google's own editorial policies. They've launched the first major initiative in the direction of re-opening that monetization avenue, especially in the U.S., starting in June. (Although it refers specifically to ad text, I believe the announcement may also signal a shift in overall stance towards trademark terms.) It almost feels like the Hitwise report spurred Google's timing of the announcement. Insofar as the Hitwise report did a good job of showing that many brand keywords got taken off the board year over year, Google's response is going to be to put them back on the board. IMHO that means not only less editorial squelching of ad copy, but a relaxing of punitive Quality Scores on brand terms. Maybe Cade Metz's verbiage is apropos here: Google's going to "turn the dials" on something they had dialed way back on (largely to avoid the nuisance of legal squabbles and CEO's carping). "Turning the knobs" back towards a more relaxed setting for brand keywords should mean more paid clicks back on the board, more fun and profit for some qualified and creative advertisers, and more revenue for Google.

To put it another way: if you don't want to pay a few dollars here and there for your brand keywords, not only will we let someone else do it, but we'll let them use your name in their ads, as long as it's legal. So there.

No doubt, advertisers and search marketers today need to shift to a more comprehensive strategy of being visible in searches across various search "forms" as search behavior shifts and new blended search formats emerge. But that said, the fact that Google's stock hasn't dropped much on reports of a supposed 26% decline in paid search clicks indicates that investors, at least, now understand that the paid search auction is highly predictable, still a real cash cow for both advertisers and Google alike, and user behavior in clicking on ads remains surprisingly resilient, even in the worst period of negative economic growth seen in most of our lifetimes.

Paid Search Click Decline Caused By Longer Queries? Nah.

Too much interesting stuff happening late week and this weekend, including Wolfram Alpha going live, data about paid search, and Google's trademark policy change. And a long weekend here in Canada to boot!

Anyway, I think I agree with Michael Arrington. Recent reports suggesting that declines in overall paid click volume (or, the proportion of referrals that came through a paid search click) year over year cannot be explained away by consumers typing longer searches that are less monetizable. The change in search behavior (towards longer queries) has not been that abrupt, and all advertisers didn't suddenly start using more negative keywords and exact match options all at once.

That said, bad economy aside, the explanation for the paid search data is a little more subtle than "bankrupt advertisers." I'll have to get back on here in between bouts of barbecue cleaning and hootin'-and-hollerin' for the Blue Jays, to offer a more comprehensive explanation and to catch up on the pressing news items that came out late week.

Google Hurdles Headlong Into Real-Time Search

As widely reported in connection with their Searchology event, Google has introduced a feature to allow you to set the results to display "past 24 hours" (similar in a way to the feeling you would get searching Twitter, or Google News by recency). As the screen shot below shows, that same pane opens up a variety of other advanced search options. Once viewing recent results, you can switch the sorting mechanism away from "by relevancy," to "most recent."


In Marissa Mayer's and Jack Menzel's post about the new features, they also allude to the increased use of "rich snippets" to display review content graphically, for example. (Similar to Yahoo's Searchmonkey initiative.)

These developments open up a new type of search behavior - further solidifying the notion that many different users will see more and more different results pages with content differently ordered. Although not unfolding exactly as described long ago in these pages, the principle of users taking charge of the "algorithm" (or at least becoming more comfortable with displaying search results in a form that is more useful to them) is gradually taking hold.

An excerpt from Traffick's post in 2004:

So that's the future as this glassy-eyed pundit hopes to see it: a search engine that works like a sophisticated flight simulator, with a bunch of dials and instruments formerly available only to classified personnel. But to the extent that your settings become comfortable to you, it would be a flight simulator operated largely on autopilot. Now that would be one sweet ride!

Keep in mind, though, that at that time, Marissa Mayer flatly stated in a Q&A at SES that hardly any users wanted to use advanced features. What seems to have happened is that Google sometimes believes behavioral data about what people actually do, rather than looking at possibilities that don't show up in straightforward tests. As such, Google can be a reactive company despite its labs and vast resources. No one would debate that the current focus on real-time search and rich snippets was moved up on Google's agenda by the popularity of Twitter and Yelp, and flashes of innovation shown by competitors like (yes) Yahoo.

Reactive business, arguably, is smart business. Who, after all, could have predicted the Twitter phenomenon?

Takeaways for search marketers, aka business owners thinking about their search visibility:

1. Marissa is right: a small percentage of users access advanced search features. That will continue to be the case. 85% or more of searchers will continue just typing words into toolbars, the search box, or the address bar, and "play around." Only a small percentage will be using the advanced features.

1A. As such, fresh content and the like matters, but don't be obsessed with the idea purely for the algorithm's sake. 100% of users aren't going to be switching on the Twitterizer when they perform a search on Google.

2. That said, Google may begin to infer your preferences and turn those features on for you, or flash different types of content in oneboxes and so on. SERP's will look different for every user. The notion of where your company ranks on certain keywords becomes ever more fluid. More sophisticated assessments of search referral analytics are a must to gain insight into your user behavior (but then again, you'll need to think about how to gain insight into the users who aren't finding you, and figure out why).

3. A diversity of content production and community-facing PR strategies are needed to be seen by a variety of searchers. Algorithm-literal SEO strategies are dying. Comprehensive SEO strategies are on the rise. And in contrast to the awkwardly-named Orion Panel we're putting together for SES Toronto in June (Is PageRank Broken? The Future of Search), PageRank is not broken per se. It's just becoming increasingly irrelevant. (The name of the panel is my fault.)

4. The more things change... the more they stay the same
: The ads always seem to stay prominent, don't they? Google doesn't seem to be sweating about the revenue impact of making changes to how search functions.

Not a takeaway, but fascinating anyway: it's even more interesting today to ponder who is going to acquire Twitter (Microsoft or Google), or whether they can really stick it out alone. Does Google not want Twitter? Does Twitter not want Google? Does the world not want Twitter inside Google? Are they haggling on price or not talking? Are you as curious as I am?

50 Ways to Use Your Hover (Part 1?)

Method 1: Make that link right, Dwight.

After getting sort of hooked on Twitter and seeing the clear need for the URL shortening & forwarding services such as bit.ly, I really don't know why anyone would use anything other than Hover to shorten and share long URL's. With this service, you get a dashboard that makes it easy to manage all of your URL "Hovers" (forwards), but it's with your own personalized domain.

I've found it fun and useful on several fronts, but one feature is really handy. Several times, I've put the wrong link in, then posted the forward to Twitter telling everyone about some article or post. With Hover, it's easy to correct my mistake. I go into my own domain's back end, click on the edit icon, and fix up the forwarding info for the URL I've posted. Now the public forward goes to the correct (long, unwieldy) URL; problem solved.

Disclaimer: Hover is a client! I didn't quite twig to how cool it was first either (I made them explain it patiently a few times, at least). Although it works best with your own domain or domains (and gives you an incentive to find cool shorter ones to call your own), you can give it a spin for free using Hover's domain. Did someone say "no risk free trial"?