Inauspicious Bing-inning?

Microsoft's new search engine, Bing, is now live in Canada, one of three countries (the US and the UK are the others) to get full access to the engine out of beta. I attended an impressive launch demo last night in downtown Toronto.

Before getting to the serious nitty gritty review -- you knew this was coming right guys? -- I have to mess with the Microsofters a little bit. Bad news first, full review (mostly good) later this evening.

The bad news is, you can't search Bing to find any relevant results on the query "microsoft canada bing launch." Looking at the screen shot below, that isn't the worst of the problems. The worst problem is that the familiar old eBay dynamic keyword insertion ad made it to the top of the right rail on that long tail query!

Canada
Fantastic prices on Canada. Buy &
Sell today

Love it! Always loved it!













Ha, and here I thought our dollar was making a comeback. :(

To their credit, on my favorite "embarrass the ad-engine" query, [schnauzers], the Bing result is really nice - with no ads, and helpful refinements in the left nav.













This does highlight a key issue with Bing - both a strength, and proof that there is much left to be done. There's a gap between the satisfaction you'll likely receive from popular queries -- the Microsoft team is optimizing results to provide quick answers to people's questions on the most popular generic queries -- and the not-much-improved functionality for longer tail queries.

Thought Leadership drives local media revenue

By Dave Chase: In an earlier piece "Local media survival depends on Low Cost Sales Models," I detailed the favorable economics of pursuing a broader base of advertisers if you employed a sales model appropriate to the size of ad budget. McKinsey had done some analysis that echoed the experience we have had setting up low-cost customer acquisition models using telesales-based approaches. A critical facet of developing this lower cost model is having very cost effective lead generation. Today, most of what I have observed with local media is they are using phone-based sales methods akin to the uninvited and irritating telemarketing methods that can interrupt our evenings. Not surprisingly, these "script readers" have had very low yield. Script readers can be fine for simple things like setting appointments but that's a far cry from closing meaningful business. The successful alternative is to become invited and to establish a relationship with prospective customers through high quality lead generation. There are many different tactics for lead generation but the one I've seen perform the best has been the organizations that establish thought leadership in their field of expertise.

PageRank Sculpting is Dead? Good Riddance

Danny Sullivan reports on an update in Google philosophy and algorithmic emphasis. As I interpret the story, at one point Matt Cutts didn't rule out the idea that you could slap nofollow tags on some internal links on your pages to conserve "link juice" for your important pages. Hence, the practice of "PageRank sculpting" was born. SEO's had another cool story to tell their clients, and each other.

Danny's interpretation of this is that making this kind of technique available, and then taking it away, is a violation of a broad principle of "backwards compatibility". Shame on Google, he implies, for making the advanced SEO's scramble to undo what they already did now that Google's algo has supposedly undergone this massive shift and a page with ten links passes only 10% link juice to each link on the page, rather than, say, doubling the juice on the remaining links if you nofollow half of them.

I don't think I agree. Here, Danny is standing up for the constituency of advanced SEO's, many of whom are currently attending SMX Advanced. My take is that SEO's taking actions on speculations about the algorithm are themselves building the new "features" that lack "backwards compatibility." This is especially the case when the "features" (tactics) address no known principle of third-party trust or relevancy of sites or pages.

But for those of us who don't believe all of Matt Cutts' stories and non-stories, and take a holistic view of business strategy, information architecture, audience development, and traffic growth, we had a lot of lower-hanging fruit to work on than using a short-term fad method of "telling" Google which pages are important.

Long term, search fails when site owners try to "tell" search engines which pages are important, short of burying the unimportant ones in their architecture so they're literally invisible. Importance shouldn't be arbitrarily determined by site owners, though certainly users and engines appreciate it if they provide indications.

Search Engine Land itself has undergone a surge of traffic in recent months, all no doubt a product of holistic audience development. I'd love to hear Danny's take on how much of that improvement in fact resulted from deliberate PageRank sculpting. None? A lot of it?

No matter: holistic brand building and audience development and overall quality content, combined with sound organization/architecture of the content, are what gave Search Engine Land its mojo - not short term tactics. And that's how most companies should look at the SEO exercise.

What was supposedly "given" to advanced SEO's in the short term has now been taken away. Nofollow and for that matter XML sitemaps are just supplements in a much more important larger "grand scheme of things." PageRank sculpting turns out to be just another time-waster that contributed mainly to "Advanced SEO" bragadoccio on the barstool. It's gone now? Boo hoo.

If you spend your life hanging on Matt Cutts' words about SEO, well then mark these words: you will, in turn, find yourself annoyed with Matt Cutts.

In conclusion, I propose a new tag that should only be used by Advanced SEO's - square brackets used so as not to screw up the HTML on this page: [this page is really frickin' important] [/as you were]

Rand Fishkin, in a spiffy flow chart, seems to approximately (and diplomatically) agree with my take, highlighting the key low hanging fruit that comes before frivolity like PR Sculpting: content development, information architecture, link acquisition, internal link structures, and conversion rate optimization. But as for Rand's example of a site that is a large one with many deep URL's, as an example of one that might benefit from the sculpting, this might depend on the query we hope to rank for. Overall, I've seen no major problem ranking very deep pages on relevant long tail queries (for example, at HomeStars.com). Those pages rank or don't rank for a variety of reasons, as many as the tail is long. And from what Cutts is saying today, the point is moot anyway, as the provisional tactic/loophole has now been closed. Back to working on the important parts of the business.

Hmm, and I'd love to think my take on this is just common sense and uncontroversial, but the statistics out there seem to indicate (even outside of major sites like Wikipedia) that there was a massive rush to play with the nofollow tag among the "SEO community". Like Rip van Winkle, I slept peacefully through the stampede.

Worst quarter for newspapers: Sales dive $2.6B

In the worst quarter in modern history for American newspapers, advertising sales fell by an unprecedented 28.3% in the first three months of 2009, plunging sales by more than $2.6 billion from the prior year.Statistics posted without publicity on the website of the Newspaper Association of America show that print ad sales fell by a historic 29.7% to $5.9 billion in the first period of this year

Amid Bing Hype, Blekko Wants To Be Left Alone

Blekko, a stealth search startup headed by Rich Skrenta, is doing its best Greta Garbo impersonation while getting this sort of "glowing non-coverage" over at Techcrunch.

Like them, I respect the reclusive starlet (sorry, startup's) interest in privacy while they develop the product and the strategy.

In the next couple of weeks I will finally have the time to demo both Bing and Blekko.

But perhaps I can "leak" a couple of ideas I've gleaned from the past year or so of sporadic conversations with Rich.
  • You don't need the blogosphere to tell you, they're pretty serious about this one, and their idea of A-Level Talent doesn't just mean product managers with search engine names attached to their resumes, or business development folks with same. Along with those, they seem particularly focused on attracting high end engineering talent. You'd have guessed that anyway if you looked at the investors who have seeded the company, such as Marc Andreessen (to say nothing of Skrenta himself).
  • Although Screenwork reports they're "happy with the name Blekko," if you were a stealth startup, wouldn't you say that? They'll probably change it.
  • While not speaking directly to Blekko's own functionality, I've found Skrenta's (perhaps offhand) criticisms of search engine innovation in the past couple of years to be very telling. Skrenta told me last summer that users don't really want all these stage-managed "blended" results nearly as much as the major search engines let on. He's also been quoted as saying that PageRank wrecked the web, and implying that Google is out of answers when they begin threatening people with penalties and begging them to use web conventions in the "right way," instead of fixing their algorithms. Let's explore a bit more where these thoughts lead us... Bing may be a quintessential example, but Ask, Cuill, and the major search engines themselves (Google, Yahoo, Microsoft) have all been engaged in an overwrought effort to display search engine results in panes; variegated search results that purportedly guess at 'intent' (sometimes they do a great job); and other bells and whistles that speak to a broadening of the terms of what constitutes 'search' to convince us that search engines need to be good at finding, classifying, ranking, and displaying all 'objects', not just pages of information. "Ten Blue Links" has rapidly become code for "obsolete search engine design". "A page with panes and pics" is code for what "users really want today". Supposedly. Unfortunately, this leaves a gaping hole in what search engines used to do, or try to do: to be really good at providing relevant results for specialized queries, and getting the rank-order right. The fact that you get a bunch of panes and distractions instead of a really relevant list of links to serious content may be seen as some kind of evidence that search engines have given up on their core mission, and are engaged in a massive attempt to change the subject, whether consciously or not. And this kind of overwrought "integrative thinking" has apparently begun to pervade these companies' thought processes on other products. In terms of workflow and productivity, users shouldn't be satisfied with steady efforts to improve upon GMail functionality, integrated calendars, and IM integration (plus a to-do list that is a bland and clunky offering at best)? Instead of perfecting the core functionality, let's change the subject, and invent a new tool that assumes people want to share data and shift modes of communication willy-nilly. Google Sea of Distractions, as it were.
In that spirit, then, will Blekko turn out to be one part Kicking it Old School (no pretty panes, but going back to the fundamentals of serious searches for the right information, and rank-ordering serious results well, in a way that does a better job of keeping spam out without over-rewarding a handful of brands?), and one part Kicking it Up a Notch (soft-innovating in the information retrieval field, and leaving the portal guys to pretty up the planet with panes and pics)? Let's hope so. That would be one of the most noteworthy entry into the "serious consumer" web search space in the past five years. It might even turn out to be the type of search engine a librarian could love again. I'm looking forward to a deep dive... and launch later this year. As the other analysts have implied, maybe this won't be for everyone. What great product is? But the appeal also has to be wide enough to matter, and I hope that's true, too.

Blodget Blase on Bing

Although I currently lack 4,000 words to match his analysis, (and 10,000 to match Danny's), I agree with Henry Blodget's answer to Microsoft's search problems, I think. In case you somehow missed it, I also roughly believe that it's a good idea to spin Bing and MSN into Yahoo, in exchange for a major share in the company. (Add a Bartzian Boatload of $ to that, for good measure.)

Still and all, a lot of folks have an ever-optimistic take about what money can do for market share. Not everyone agrees with our grizzled search analysts' take that says: the money won't move the needle. Folks I had dinner with last night said "$80mm in marketing has to do something." You would think constant TV ads would get to people somehow right?

Many of us have seen this movie before, and we disagree. Users try out the new thing, the traffic spikes incredibly for one or two weeks, and then it goes right back down to where it was and people resume using Google. This has happened with Ask, Hotbot, A9...

One interesting twist with Bing is, well, the bling. If there is any segment that is amenable to switching, it's customers who will subscribe to loyalty programs for cash or points. I'll tell ya, I'm a pretty big points addict (Aeroplan miles) and that would almost get me to switch. So I think if Microsoft is absolutely dead set on spending cash to build market share, they might be able to build it one customer at a time and one giveaway at a time, and keep market share holding steady just north of 10%. With weak profit margins, but at least in the game and gathering valuable data.

So with all that being said, Bing is a major search product and it therefore deserves our full attention - some people (I think they'd need convincing with some points or cash, though) will use it if it's actually good. With that in mind, I'll be attending a demo and gathering notes for a review next week.

Pre-SES Interview Blitz Continues: Digital Marketing U

I'm grateful to Marty and Manny over at aimClear for allowing me the chance to ramble in this interview.

I am, however, a bit uncomfortable with the term "intellectual". In my experience, intellectuals are people who attend plays, read literature, and go out to debates on foreign policy. By that standard, I ain't no intellectual: I've been too busy running a business for the last few years.

It is important to have foresight and some kind of framework for understanding digital media, though. So I'm glad our field has so many "intellectuals lite" mixed in with the genuine articles. Almost every scribbler who can be counted as a quality blogger is an intellectual, in my book. Digesting the deeply-researched and principle-profound books produced by folks like Tara Hunt and Emanuel Rosen the past couple of weeks (I mention them as they're are SES keynotes for Toronto), I know how powerful a message can be when it's more than just observations, but backed by some kind of scientific research and historical knowledge. In both Tara's and Emanuel's case, I come away from their work not just feeling "smart," but with urgent tactical priorities for my business.