Will Microsoft’s Search Ad Campaign Work? (Groundhog Day… All Over Again)

So via AdAge, we're told that Microsoft is readying an $80mm+ advertising campaign, and that it will promote yet another brand of their search technology, this time, called Bing?

Further to Cory's piece about potential reasons for consumers to switch to Yahoo Search, now we have evidence that Microsoft plans to put not only persuasion, but money, into the "getting people to switch" effort.

What a shame, though, that these two companies don't get serious about working together to achieve that goal.

We can only be excited about the potential for Microsoft to create better technology in the space. Competition is good. But it's already a concern when the story is shaping up to be more about the promo of the alternative to Google, as opposed to the technology it actually offers. That's certainly been the case with the various lavish Ask campaigns (and I still won't forget when their PR people wanted me to write about the "significance of getting rid of the butler," as they saw it), and we all know that all that money didn't move the needle on market share.

The premise is that search technology doesn't matter all that much, and that brand does: you put a Google skin on other people's search, and consumers still prefer the Google. Sure, but how did Google build that brand? Through innovation, focus, and technology... not advertising. And by keeping the *same* brand for ten years. I don't think consumers are going to be compelled by the "meta-story" of how Microsoft is (again) spending a lot of money to make (another) stab at the search space.

Microsoft and Yahoo are already working together on some cross-promotion efforts. But the $80mm standalone campaign for the Bing technology seems to work at cross-purposes with that.

With one major search engine (Yahoo, say) benefitting from the largesse of toolbar love from 96% of browser share (IE, Firefox, + Safari, say), a real alternative could be created organically out of how consumers already behave, and how they already think about online brands.

So rather than waste breath casting aspersions on the potential cash sinkhole that could be opened trying to build the Bing brand, I'll vote again for the only major brand alternative to Google that makes economic and emotional sense to a wide cross-section of consumers: Yahoo.

Could Anti-Google Choices Re-Energize Yahoo?

Can declarations by tech celebrities (the technorati, as it were) start a snowball effect that impact the usage patterns of regular people? It doesn't always happen, but such sentiments can galvanize the crowd in certain cases, especially when attached to widely shared sentiments of fairness, transparency, and equity that have given rise to significant shifts in the locus of high tech power in recent years (such as, no less, the Open Source movement).

In other cases, falling well short of embracing open source models, consumers become more open to a second-place private-enterprise power because they see it as, at least, an "alternative." In the search space, that's why so many have continued to hope that Yahoo! stays solidly on the map.

Gina Trapani, the influential founding editor of Lifehacker, one of the most popular blogs around, says she's dumping Google search in favor of Yahoo! search. While this isn't exactly the equivalent of Jay-Z dropping Cristal and throwing his support to Dom Perignon, it may well be the start of a trend.

Before going down that road, it's worth noting that various pundits have previously predicted Google backlashes before, in 2007 and even 2003, and it seems to be a recurring theme every few years. Who knows, maybe we'll be saying the same thing two years henceforth in 2011.

But this time it feels a bit different.

As Google's supremacy over its rivals has quickened and as the Big G has begun intruding more aggressively on others' turf, concern over a potential Google monopoly is growing in many corners. This has caused many people to step back and ponder the consequences of an ascendant Google.

Recently, Ralph Tegtmeier (aka fantomaster aka the Dark Lord Voldemort of Cloaking) wrote a compelling piece comparing Google's burgeoning hegemony to the Kraken. Andrew and I debated it internally for quite a while, trying to decide whether concerns over Google are about to cross over from conspiracy theory territory into full "Google is actually becoming evil" land. Even the most forgiving of Google fans would have second thoughts of entrusting so much personal data to one company after reading fantomaster's take.

This unease with putting too many eggs in one basket is part of the reason why I've decided not to use Google Chrome as my primary browser, even after Chrome gets full extension capability similar to Firefox, which many people predict will lead to a mass abandonment of Firefox for Chrome. For similar reasons, I've also uninstalled the Google Toolbar from Firefox now that many Toolbar features are available inside the browser (I didn't really use the Toolbar much anyway). There's just too much data being beamed back home to Mountain View than seems necessary.

We've seen this sentiment repeated in other ways.

One of our clients at Page Zero opted not to install Google's Sitemap Generator due to data privacy sensitivity, despite the fact that they happily fork over their site activity to Google through Google Analytics. Their belief was that GSG acts as a network "switch" of sorts, with all server requests coming and going through GSG, and believed this would give away far too much sensitive information.

Search Engine Land has been chronicling the various anti-trust concerns associated with Google lately, concerns that seem to be proliferating more every week. For its part, Google is proactively attempting to blunt the momentum of this movement with their recent "charm offensive." Whether they succeed in fending off anti-trust actions in the future remains to be seen.

One thing seems certain. Just as the U.S. government's inquiries into Microsoft's business practices in the late '90s gave organizations like Red Hat and Firefox a vital opening, something similar is bound to happen with Google if it gets too big for its britches.

Could the main beneficiary of this be an old-timer like Yahoo?

It's conceivable that some shrewd moves by Yahoo! could lead to a reversal of Yahoo's declining search market share, and perhaps a resurgence to something on the order of 25% search share in the next few years.

Recall that Google's search distribution deal with Firefox expires in November 2011. It's a safe assumption that Google won't renew it due to their increasing support of Google Chrome. Or another way to look at it is, with Firefox's market share hovering around 20%, and perhaps headed to over 30%, Firefox might feel emboldened to be the one dictating terms. Regardless, Google must be a bit worried about Chrome's meager market share, as they've begun running TV ads for Chrome, a first for Google.

Mozilla could soon be in a position to be a quasi-king maker. They're independent-minded and, having emerged as a credible alternative to Internet Explorer even among mainstream users, they seem to be on a mission of sorts. If they decide to place a crown on Yahoo's proverbial head, things could get very interesting. Maybe we'll once again see a more diverse search landscape sooner than we think.

By the way, it's worth noting that last year Yahoo acquired the popular search-based extension Inquisitor, which I find myself using on a regular basis these days. It's a fine tool that I highly recommend to every FF user. Oh, and guess which search engine is set as the default? Yep, Yahoo.

Ultimately, I'm all for personalization and targeted advertising, and I don't really have a beef with Google knowing a lot of information about me. But there comes a point when too much is enough. When I realized just how much I rely on Google's services, it hit me like a slap in the face from Moe the bartender. Like Gina Trapani, I think there's nothing wrong at all with spreading the love around.

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?

How Google Stole Control Over Content Distribution By Stealing Links

There is so much misunderstanding flying around about the economics of content on the web and the role of Google in the web’s content economy that it’s making my head hurt. So let’s see if we can straighten things out.

Google isn’t stealing content from newspapers and other media companies. It’s stealing their control over distribution, which has always been the engine of profits in media. Google makes more money than any other media company on the web because it has near monopoly control over content distribution (i.e. like a metro newspaper in the pre web era).

Those who argue that Google is a friend to content owners because it sends them traffic overlook the basic law of supply and demand. The value of “traffic” is entirely relative. The more content there is on the web, the less value that content has — because of the surfeit of ad inventory and abundance of free alternatives to paid content — and thus the less value “traffic” has.

The more content there is on the web, the less money every content creator makes, and the more money Google makes by taking a piece of that transaction.

Nick Carr sums up the problem well:

What Google doesn’t mention is that the billions of clicks and the millions of ad dollars are so fragmented among so many thousands of sites that no one site earns enough to have a decent online business. Where the real money ends up is at the one point in the system where traffic is concentrated: the Google search engine. Google’s overriding interest is to (a) maximize the amount and velocity of the traffic flowing through the web and (b) ensure that as large a percentage of that traffic as possible goes through its search engine and is exposed to its ads.

The debate over whether Google’s excerpting content on its search result pages is a violation of copyright law, i.e. whether Google is effectively stealing content, overlooks the much more valuable asset that Google is appropriating. Google makes money less by its ability to display that snipet of content and much more by its ability to know that snipet of content is relevant to what the content consumer is looking for — it makes money by its ability to efficiently distribute that content.

And just how does Google know what content is most relevant, trustworthy, and valuable? How does Google know where to send the traffic that yields such diminishing returns?

Everyone talks about Google’s algorithms as if it were some giant artificial intelligence that had its own ability to judge the value of content.

The greatest irony of the web content economy is that Google by itself doesn’t have a clue what content is good or bad. Google is able to deliver relevant search results only because every site on the web helps them figure it out.

Google’s algorithm is based on reading “links” as votes for content. Every time a website links to another website, Google reads that link as a vote. The brilliance of the Google algorithm is its ability to figure out which votes should count more.

But without those links, without those “votes,” Google has nothing.

What Google “steals” from every website isn’t the content — it’s the links.

It’s the links, stupid. And everyone gives Google their links to read — for free!!

Google doesn’t really need your content, because there’s plenty more where it came from. What Google really needs is your links, i.e. your votes for content — it needs your help separating the wheat from the chaff on the web.

The backlash against URL shorteners and site framing (e.g. DiggBar) is all about who controls the links, and which links Google is going to read and credit.

The key to Google’s monopoly control over content distribution on the web is its ability to judge what’s most relevant in an increasingly large sea of content.

If media companies want to compete with Google, they need to look at the source of its power — judging good content, which enables Google to be the most efficient and effective distributor of content. They also need to look at Google’s fundamental limitation — its judgment is dependent on OTHER people expressing their judgment of content in the form of links. Above all, they need to look at sources of content judgment that Google currently can’t access, because they are not yet expressed as links on the web.

The balance of power on the web can shift — but only by understanding what the real sources of power are.

UPDATE

Just to clarify,  the use of “steal” and “stole’ is in the sense of “stole the game.” The point of this post is to explain how Google won, and not at all to suggest that they didn’t deserve to win. Google’s success is a direct reflection of how much value they create, i.e. A LOT — they solved a problem in the market that nobody else figure out how to solve or even recognized as the huge opportunity in the market. This post is also intended to help media companies understand better how Google works so that they can better compete in the web content marketplace, not to justify any feelings of “sour grapes.”

The market and the internet don’t care if you make money

The title of this post comes straight from the mind-blowing mind of Seth Godin, preaching to the book industry (promoting his book Tribes), but he could just as easily be preaching to anyone in media:

[T]he market and the internet don’t care if you make money. That’s important to say. You have no right to make money from every development in media, and the humility that comes from approaching the market that way matters. It’s not “how can the market make me money” it’s “how can I do things for this market.”

and

The market doesn’t care a whit about maintaining your industry. The lesson from Napster and iTunes is that there’s even MORE music than there was before. What got hurt was Tower and the guys in the suits and the unlimited budgets for groupies and drugs. The music will keep coming. Same thing is true with books.

When I read this, I thought immediately of many assumptions the newspaper industry is making as the decline of its business model accelerates:

  • There has to be a new business model to support journalism with the same profit margins as newspapers have enjoyed in recent decades.
  • There has to be a way for newspapers to “reverse” the declines.
  • Newspapers will eventually find a way to make their web operations as large and profitable as their print operations once were.
  • Newspapers can’t be permitted to die, because then journalism will die.

But the reality is that all of these assumptions may be wrong.

Why? Because the web and the market don’t care. The web is the most disruptive force in the history of media, by many orders of magnitude, destroying every assumption on which traditional media businesses are based.

But the market should care, you say. What would happen if we didn’t have the newspapers playing their Fourth Estate watch dog role?

Here’s the bitter truth — the feared loss of civic value is not the basis for a BUSINESS.

The problem with the newspaper industry, as with the music industry before it, is the sense of ENTITLEMENT. What we do is valuable. Therefore we have the right to make money.

Nobody has the right to a business model.

Ask not what the market can do for you, but what you can do for the market.

Every conversation about reinventing a business model for newspapers begins, it seems, with a question about how to find a way to pay for what we value in the current product. In other words, how do we find a way to keep doing what we’ve always done and make as much money as we’ve always made?

I’ve rarely heard anyone start by asking what the market values. Where are the pain points in the market? How can we solve problems for people?

You know, business 101.

At Jeff Jarvis’ conference last month on new business models for news, I heard more out-of-the-box thinking in one day than I’ve had in the probably past year. But everyone had to constantly shoo the sacred cows out of the room.

I’ve been accused in recent months of Google worship, because I keep coming back again, and again, and AGAIN to Google’s business model.

Why? Because it’s the most successful media business on the web, by many orders of magnitude.

Why? Because Google solves a big problem for consumers. It helps them find stuff on the web they could never find on their own. And it solves a big problem for advertisers. It lets them buy traffic.

So what’s a problem in the market that newspaper companies could solve? When I know what I’m looking for, Google helps me find it. But when it comes to news, I don’t always know what I’m looking for, because, well, it’s NEW. And I want the best of what’s on the WHOLE web, not just what one news brand has to offer.

That problem is still largely unsolved.

And it’s just one example (and you can disagree about whether its a problem).

But Google as an icon is a double-edged sword. Google gave birth to the most destructive, soul-sucking, innovation-destroying notion in media today: monetization.

Nobody thought search was a business, until Google found a way to “monetize” it. Now everyone with something big, e.g. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, etc., assumes there must be a way to monetize it, like Google did.

Newspapers and other traditional media put their content online and try to “monetize” it. We have it, therefore it must be worth something.

We’ve got lots of page views, therefore they must be worth something. We’ve got lots of ad impressions, therefore they must be worth something.

But here’s the problem — so does everyone else.

Everyone is chasing more TRAFFIC.

You know, just like everyone wanted “eyeballs” in the 90s.

We’ve got some traffic, let’s monetize it.

But, frankly, the market doesn’t give a shit about your traffic.

So what does the market care about?

Networks.

The web media market is a giant network. Google figured out how to harness the network. But nobody else has yet.

That’s not surprising. Media companies can only think about their own properties, their own content. They can’t let go of the monopoly control business which the web has already destroyed.

Since you made it this far in this post, I’ll tell you a secret, since this post was not meant to be defeatist, but rather a swift kick in the head.

So here’s the secret. Legacy media companies can’t create a new business model for news and journalism by themselves.

They have to work TOGETHER, to build a network — a giant network of much smaller pieces, loosely joined.

I’ve said this before. And I’ll surely say it again.

But most of the media company executives who read this blog will shrug and go back to trying to figure how to prop up their monopolies.

And those monopolies will continue to crumble faster every day.

I’ll write more about networks and media company collaboration in another post. In the meantime, I’m going to watch the the web’s disruption continue to blow up everyone’s assumptions (including whatever assumptions I still have left).

Newspaper CEOs are meeting for a closed-door summit this week. Maybe someone will forward them this post. Or print it out and set it on fire in the middle of the conference table. Whatever works.

And as for Journalism, I’m less worried.

I’ll repeat Seth: The lesson from Napster and iTunes is that there’s even MORE music than there was before.

We’ve got highly entrepreneurial, creative, and driven people like David Cohn — who’s launching spot.us this week — working hard outside of newspaper company walls to invent new models for journalism

Journalism will find a way. Even if the industries that once supported it do not.

It took the ruination of the Bush Administration to create the right conditions for electing Barack Obama. Sometimes it has to all be torn down before you can begin to build it back up again.

Why Isn’t Facebook Making More Money? (Hint: Advertiser Value and User Value Are Not Aligned)

I happened to visit Facebook’s Business Solutions page, and was struck by how, at least on the surface, these advertising formats seem like exactly the kind of innovation that should be helping Facebook achieve Goolge-style revenue — which is of course what Facebook’s $15 billion valuation assumes will happen.

And yet with 100 MILLION users, Facebook’s 2008 revenue was only projected to be $300 million. (The number may higher, haven’t seen, but it would be big news if it was much higher.)

Can you imagine a traditional media company with 100 MILLION viewers/readers/subscribers and only $300 million in revenue?

Which leads to the question that should be on the mind of every media executive, from startups to big legacy players:

Why isn’t Facebook making more money?

Thinking about that question, I went over to Google’s Advertising Solutions page to compare the way AdWords is described to the way Facebook’s offerings are described.

So let’s compare Google’s value proposition with Facebook’s:

Google says:

Reach people actively looking for information about your products and services online

Facebook says:

Promote your website or Facebook Page with highly-targeted advertising. Make your ads even more effective by attaching them to News Feed stories about the users’ friends.

Allow your customers to share with their friends the actions they take on your website.

Connect with your customers on Facebook similar to the way they connect with their friends.

With Google you can reach people who are looking for precisely what you have to offer.

With Facebook you can insert your ad into news about peoples’ friends. You can let people share their shopping habits with their friends. And you can, as a company/brand, be “friends” with your consumers.

What’s the key difference between Google’s value proposition and Facebook’s?

With Google, the value to users and the value to advertisers is perfectly aligned. Everybody wins.

With Facebook, if you read between the lines, it’s really the same value proposition as traditional advertising — advertisers forcing themselves on users, in a way that creates little or no value for the users.

How many Facebook users have a burning need to find ads in their friends’ newsfeeds? Or share their shopping habits? Or make friends with brands?

On Google, when you search for something, the adds are a form of search result — i.e. something you asked for, that you opted in to receive.

On Facebook, the ads, despite all the innovation, still aren’t something users are really asking for.

Is it possible on the web to have a more perfect alignment between advertiser and user value than search advertising?

I don’t know, but it seems a pretty safe bet that Facebook’s ad formats aren’t it.

(And pre-roll video advertising sure as heck ain’t it.  Could there be anything more antithetical to the fundamental web experience in the broadband era than having to wait 15 seconds to access the content you’re trying to load?)

If you’re in media in the web era, you’d better be working on a business model that creates huge value for users. Either that, or be content to have a small business by traditional media standards.

Google Friend Connect Disabled By Facebook

Google is taking a big shot at Facebook in the PR war over data portability and social network interoperability. I signed in to Google Friend Connect, implemented on the Go2Web2.0 blog, and saw this:

Google Friend Connect Diabled By Facebook

Normally, you wouldn’t list a service that isn’t a partner, but in this case Google chose to list Facebook and let users know loud and clear that they can’t connect to their friends on Facebook because the feature has been DISABLED BY FACEBOOK.

This is subtle in some ways, but in others it’s as big a smack as Apple’s brilliant I’m a Mac, I’m a PC ads.

Google is betting that hell hath no fury like a user denied access.

Probably a good bet.