Elephant in the room! Google unleashes latest updates to push publishers to advertising

new Google logo

It doesn’t take long to realise who is in potential violation of Fair Search’s transparency principle, “When search providers engage in search discrimination – manipulating search results to promote favoured products and demote competitors – consumers pay the price”. Google Search is at the heart of the internet, with the average number of global searches each day in 2012 reaching 5,134,000,000. With many considering the first page of 10 results as a search totality; anything beyond the first page is not worth knowing. The results of the 2007 investigation ‘Report on dangers and opportunities posed by large search engines, particularly Google’ (PDF file) highlight the danger of large dominant search engines.

So it doesn’t surprise me that plenty of companies exist who attempt to manipulate Google’s search engine results. Appearing on the first page of results can be a matter of life and death. When I search for ‘Where can I buy cheap shoes?’, what gives the right for boohoo.com to appear as the first result and shoezone.com to appear on the third page? It’s a pertinent question that companies and individuals alike wish to be answered. Especially when search results become a matter of reputation management, like when an Australian man’s name implied he was a most wanted criminal. Believe me, this is not an isolated case. It’s an abomination that Google’s former CEO, Eric Schmidt, implied in a 2010 interview with the Wall Street Journal that the answer to such risks in the future may be automatic entitlement in society for people to change their names to avoid reputation risk. For a man frequently praised for his intelligence, this seems like a short-sighted solution to a problem which has wider implications than just dodging the bullet from Google’s search results.

In August Tom Foremski threw up how the modern practices of PR could fall foul of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines (I swiftly responded), with many industry practitioners feeling offended. Whole businesses exist who offer SEO services and in August the entire industry had to re-think their strategies. The apparently scientific analysis required to manipulate search results has changed because Google updated their link schemes document,

“The following are examples of link schemes which can negatively impact a site’s ranking in search results:

  • Buying or selling links that pass PageRank. This includes exchanging money for links, or posts that contain links; exchanging goods or services for links; or sending someone a “free” product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link
  • Excessive link exchanges (“Link to me and I’ll link to you”) or partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking
  • Large-scale article marketing or guest posting campaigns with keyword-rich anchor text links

Using automated programs or services to create links to your site

The above list reads like a death warrant for many SEO agencies. For a long time link schemes have been an effective way to build traffic to websites, now Google has thrown everything in question. In fact, every travel blogger who goes on a familiarisation trip on behalf of a tourism board could fill the pinch on their own search traffic. If I accept a guest post to this blog, I could see my own search results see a sharp fall. Yet, the document is not absolute, “this can negatively impact”.

google-penguin-watch-out-webspam
More like “watch out SEO agencies”

From last month, Google started making a series of changes that has made it pretty much impossible for SEO to be managed like it once was:

1)      Google quietly decided to encrypt all search activity

In the past website owners could see the search terms that brought people to your website. Now Google has blocked this data, meaning that query referrer data is 100% not provided. In essence, Google knows more about your website than you do and has pushed people to use AdWords instead.

2)      Google’s External Keyword Tool stopped working

This tool was completely free and used to show keyword suggestions and the traffic these terms received around the world. Now this tool has been closed down and the only way to get the data back is to sign up for AdWords.

3)      Websites have been completely destroyed by Google’s Penguin 2.1 update

Essentially this update reinforces Google’s link scheme policies; it targeted links across the internet from bios, forums, link directories and even blog comment boxes.

Google may publically say that it is trying to perfect its search results and personalise our search experiences. In reality it is pushing publishers and businesses towards using their advertising platform, whilst throwing the existence of SEO agencies into question. No doubt over the next few months’ even harsher changes will come into place.

Bing It On campaign
Microsoft challenges Google

Let’s hope that Microsoft’s ‘Bing It On’ campaign gets some traction.

Twitter in Dispute with Windows 8 App Developers

Whether you love or hate it; Windows 8 is creating positive waves in the developer community. For the first time, Microsoft’s marketplace has been made available to millions of Windows 8 customers, an outlet only once accessible by their uncompetitive range of Windows Phone devices. By the end of last year developers have cumulatively added more than 75,000 apps to the marketplace.

If you search for “Twitter” on the Microsoft marketplace you get 495 apps appear but only a handful of proper Twitter clients. However, as with the Android marketplace, it is difficult to differentiate between smartphone, tablet and desktop apps.

Windows 8 Twitter Search

The highest rated app by far is Twitter+ but it quickly becomes apparent that this app is built for smartphones, looking rather peculiar on a 1920×1080 resolution display.

The flagship third-party app for Windows 8 desktop and tablet is MetroTwit. Fitting neatly into the Windows 8 Metro interface, it creates lucidity between the start screen and Twitter use. Although it isn’t nearly as advanced as some of the apps found on iOS devices and has a few bugs which need ironing out (such as freezing, inconvenient refreshing and slow loading).

Why? The relationship between Twitter and third-party developers has become awkward.

In a widely publicised event last year, Twitter made developers aware of terms of use that would come into effect which would limit third-party access to their systems, including:

–          Amount of requests per-hour time limits

–          Obligatory authentication calls to the Twitter database

–          Limits to the amount of people using third-party applications

–          Changes to developer rules

As speculated across a number of blogs, this is a move likely to have been made to enhance Twitter’s monetising efforts by pushing advertising across browser based and certified Twitter apps. It is a move which has alienated and ended the relationship with Twitter for many developers.

Don’t get me wrong. I whole heartedly understand Twitter decision to place limits on the number of certified Twitter applications and to reduce the amount of third-party developers. Twitter is a social network but more importantly, a business – they have to make money. Twitter must wake up when it comes to Windows 8 though.

Twitter is actively stopping developers creating decent Twitter apps for Windows 8. We shouldn’t be surprised though, Twitter has already restricted access to the API warning developers that client building will becoming a frownable offence.

In my eyes Twitter needs to wake up and smell the coffee; Windows 8 isn’t going anywhere yet and their users would like to see a decent Twitter app. When will we get one? Who knows.

 

My thanks to @welshcuriosity and @webfoldYasin who helped me discover the full extent of the third-party Twitter app issue in further detail.

Review of Microsoft’s new social network ‘so.cl’

After years of being beaten by the competitors Microsoft have finally decided to join in with the social networking revolution with the release of their network so.cl (so cool… get it?). The network is meant to target young people as a ‘sort of’ academic resource. Users on so.cl share stories with each other which sees Microsoft’s social network become an amalgamation of Digg, Twitter and Google+.

Logging into so.cl is a quick process as you activate your account with either a Facebook or Windows Live login. Once you have done this your profile is active and you are able to start posting content straight away. Once logged in users are able to search for stories, each search then publicly displays on each users’ profile. This isn’t an invasion of privacy but instead underpins the purpose of so.cl, to search and share with other users.

Every social network allows search, sharing and contribution. These are the values behind the web 2.0 era but simply describe function. A social network is not born to create money but instead fulfil a purpose and attract users by being unique. In terms of so.cl none of features are innovative. Posting status updates, adding comments and sharing media files are common place on every social network.

Therefore so.cl seems like a weak attempt by Microsoft to enter the social networking revolution, seven years after the horse has bolted. Like the network was created in a poorly equipped lap which built a clean but poorly functioned network. Just why did Microsoft bother creating so.cl? I’m not sure they even know as the market positioning is confusing at best.

It is separate to Windows Live, doesn’t integrate Microsoft services and its functions can be found across other well established networks. You can connect your so.cl account with Facebook (which makes the idea of so.cl being a ‘Facebook killer’ impossible) or connect with Windows Live (which has seen huge declines in activity over the last four years). The only social network so.cl threatens is Quora but even the hype around Quora has recently died to a timid hush.

Microsoft has yet again arrived late to the party but in reality so.cl is not their first social network. Windows Live has been around for donkey’s years but over the last few it has seen a rapid decline in activity and account registrations. People simply do not use Windows Live like they used to – better choices now exist on the market. Without a doubt Microsoft’s most popular social network is Xbox Live, yes, it is a social network. In Live subscriptions alone Microsoft rakes in over $1bn – insane!

What Microsoft may be attempting with so.cl is a new era of search. A time when people don’t ask search engines for answers but instead each other. However this already happens across every social network which makes so.cl seem pointless. The work Google is already doing with semantic search blows this tiny so.cl project by Microsoft clean out of the water.

Don’t take this pessimistic article about so.cl as truth though. Try it out yourself, you can even follow me.

Will I use so.cl regularly? Unlikely. It already seems very dated.

A Question over Microsoft’s Perceived Twitter Strategy

Whilst I worked at Microsoft UK I often stared in disbelief how interns were allowed to take full control over official Microsoft Twitter account presences. Most interns had no prior PR knowledge and there was no social media code of conduct which was readily enforced. One meeting I even raised the point of the CIPR’s Social Media Code of Conduct – I doubt any interns bothered reading it.

In my eyes Microsoft does not practice Twitter accounts well, which is a huge risk to their multinational reputation. Just look at how many Twitter accounts they have active for Microsoft UK:

WindowsAAA

Everything Microsoft

Microsoft Windows

Xbox

Windows Phone

Microsoft Advertising

Microsoft adCenter

Microsoft Office

Bing

Bing Travel

Microsoft News

Microsoft Azure

Microsoft Channel 9

Microsoft Press

Microsoft Ad Asia

Internet Explorer

Young Britain Works (the intern run account)

That’s 17 official accounts found; it won’t be all of them.

Microsoft has a product focused brand strategy which is why the existence of standalone brands such as Xbox, Windows Phone and Bing probably deserve a unique presence. Yet by Microsoft handling so many accounts I do not believe they are increasing their audience but instead fragmenting it. Interestingly the variation of Microsoft Twitter accounts relates to the actual structure of Microsoft – many individual teams, most with minimal contact, all working towards their own causes. It strikes me however that there was no global Twitter strategy in place, leaving most accounts primarily managing the reputations of individual brands but potentially creating risk for Microsoft on a multinational basis.

The biggest task facing the Microsoft global public relations team should be ensuring the fluid and lucid internal communication between Microsoft teams. In my experience very little of the social media plans by individual teams are strategic considering Microsoft as a global brand. Considering the lack of attention given to official accounts it surprised me when another intern was given control of ensuring individual online reputation as a Microsoft employee.

Not only was part of his job to monitor everything we said online (Creepy much?) but to remind us that any account which labelled us as an employee at Microsoft was actually owned by Microsoft. He may not have realised how controversial this was. Until the outcome of the Phonedog lawsuit we will all discover just how much authority an organisation has over named Twitter accounts. Still, I took the advice at heart as I become involved with a blogging project.

The aim of the project was to promote the Microsoft Internship and Graduate Scheme by blogging our experiences as Microsoft interns. A role I quickly decided to drop after my graduate application failed to be successful (2 marketing roles for over 4000+ candidates. Tough times!). The focus on social media guidelines surrounding individual blogs and Twitter use was intense! On several occasions I was bewildered. Why didn’t Microsoft focus more on their own official accounts?

The two important questions this blog post raises is:

  1. How much control should an employee have over official Twitter accounts?
  2. Does an organisation have the right to claim personal accounts as their own?

Ways Microsoft could improve their social media strategy:

  • Employees must announce any new accounts (on any social network) to the internal PR teams. PR teams must then approve or disapprove.
  • An internal social media policy (for official Microsoft accounts) which must be provided by the PR teams and training given.
  • Employees must remember Microsoft as a global brand and follow the global strategies involved placed by global PR teams.
  • Not allowing interns full control over social media presences unless supervised

[UPDATE: Since posted I have been informed that tighter control has now been introduced at Microsoft. This involves passing a digital test. It seems a distinction still exists between local and global strategy. In my eyes social media should be handled by PR, I’m still not sure if this is the case.]

Could the internet be heading towards a decentralised future?

A social internet revolution is happening right now but it’s not the usual diet of Facebook or Twitter. This revolution is concerned with an internet user’s privacy rights.

On the 26th October the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) was introduced to the House of Representatives in America as a bill to, “promote prosperity, creativity, entrepreneurship, and innovation by combating the theft of U.S. property, and for other purposes.” In essence the bill will give the right to copyright holders and the government to remove domain names featuring copyrighted material or counterfeit goods. Just how is this achieved? Internet Service Providers (ISPs) will have an obligation to government to track a user’s progress online. It then seems rather ironic that the ‘free world’ America should be having these debates after the European Court of Justice ruled that copyright owners are unable to force ISPs to filter out content. The ruling also means national authorities are not allowed to adopt measures which require ISP general monitoring.

Thousands of informed users are protesting against SOPA. What if SOPA becomes law? How would transparency on the internet survive? The answer is one word, decentralisation.

In 2003 the YaCy search engine project was founded. It is a search engine which is decentralised (often entitled distributed search) and relies purely upon users indexing web content. User’s searches are not logged and results are all returned equally. It has been said that Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is killing Google, Yahoo and Bing results – YaCy is immune. For the moment the project exists purely for the technologically minded (as they tend to be the innovators) but with the threat of SOPA, saturation of corporate communication online and invasion of privacy then such decentralised projects could be for a growth spurt.

Snapshot of the YaCy P2P Network

Traditional social networking platforms really only started in the early 2000s but community based online projects can be tracked to the 1990s with the introduction of bulletin boards. To misquote Clay Shirky, “Where collaboration exists so does productivity”. Collaboration could be likened to users creating Linux to avoid the two goliaths Apple and Microsoft. Collaboration killed Microsoft Encyclopaedia Britannica to make way for Wikipedia. Collaboration resulted in projects such as Facebook, Twitter and Google. Yet these companies have become corporate monsters, a single entity bound by the laws of the lands they operate within.

The social internet revolution has begun.

 

PR Dissertation Begins

Writing a dissertation first requires a question, some sort of academic line of enquiry which can be backed up with enough research, debate and modern relevance. The natural instinct of a writer is two-fold.

  1. Find a topic in line with the PR industry which could drive an effective rant
  2. Reflect on personal experiences in the industry which could lead to a recommendation to how things could change

Fortunately whilst on placement at Microsoft part of my mind was focused on the impending dissertation doom and so I have chosen my subject already. Having said that I am not going to reveal it publically (yet…) as I believe this dissertation to result in an original line of enquiry which will ultimately change the way professionals run their PR campaigns. Call it paranoia but this blog has a long reach and an intelligent audience!

Which reveals my desire for my dissertation – originality. Yes, existing research will be covered, examined but from the ashes I hope to conclude with an original idea. Of which will be backed up from my chosen research methods.

As a person with a clear interest in Philosophy it seemed only correct to follow a naturalistic line of enquiry.

  • Taking a hermeneutic approach which will result in the interpretation of data based on a logical progression to understand credibility
  • A reductionist approach to understand a subject as a sum of its parts
  • Processual research to gain understanding of behaviour of users which will then draw from the two other research methods.

As you can probably tell this dissertation will be evaluating communities made of consumers. Which is only the tip of the ice berg. Social networking will be proving a key subject area to tackle for many PR students around the world. It is changing every industry and must be fully researched, discovered and evaluated (the publishing industry is desperately looking for hope).

Apart from my basic dissertation plans everything else is still being constructed. Whilst I have a lot of research to hand I have not yet read through it all – neither does a dissertation draft exist (which will change in the next 3 weeks).

So there you go, fun dissertation times await and being the mad student I am this blog will still be updated continuously.

The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR? Umm… no.

When studying the theoretical ideals of any industry it is easy to get caught into a reasonable train of thought which is unjust to real-world case studies. This is the impression I received when reading the book by Laura Ries and Al Ries entitled, “The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR” (Amazon Affiliate Link). It is a book based on ideals and bias which, in my view, is poorly interpreted and instead shows the lack of understanding of the advertising industry by the authors.

“The fall of advertising” requires definitions in order for the argument to be clearly composed. We must ask:

  1. Which form of advertising has fallen (ie, failed)?
  2. What is meant by the word ‘fallen’?
  3. What is a company looking for from advertising?

I hope that this blog post assist to clearly serve my views on this matter.

 

The Different Forms of Advertising
Statistically online advertising is growing, this is also the form of advertising I have knowledge of due to my past role as a Multinational Account Manager at Microsoft. For this reason I will be focusing on online advertising rather than dipping into newspaper, magazines and television.

However I can say from the outset that newspaper and magazine advertising has failed in the sense of the complications of a poor economy and drop in physical media consumption. As circulation figures drop (especially in the case of physical magazines), it becomes increasingly difficult to place adverts in publications – demand increases and prices rise due to less issues being printed. Newspapers differ in this sense but can almost be disregarded entirely due to the shift to online news.

This is where online advertising steps in. Internet usage is constantly increasing and thus more ad placements are being made in order to monetise traffic websites and blogs are receiving. Top Network Advertisers such as Specific Media, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft are seeing the industry grow each year – indeed Google primarily make their profits from advertising (90% of their revenue stream) through their Google AdWords and Google Adsense tools.

Online advertising is not just about focusing on awareness but can clearly track sales of products. This is what the industry call “performance advertising”. A client will approach with a varying amount of investment which publishers will convert into sales of their product. CPA (Cost Per Action) tracking is commonly used for this goal.

 

Has Advertising really Failed?
In terms of advertising causing sales then, if measured correctly, has not failed. Otherwise major publishers would lose clients. Online Advertising is an industry based on ROI, if a publisher fails to deliver to client’s objectives then they will lose business. The mere fact online advertising is growing indicates that organisations are seeing their ROI.

It is true to say though that we are all become less influenced through advertising. When was the last time you clicked on an online advert? Tools such as AdBlock make it easy for consumers to block potential advertising by publishers. Even those who choose not to block online adverts will rarely click on them, hence a rough industry standard of 0.1% average CTR (this depends on a website’s audience, the graphics and the product/service). For a publisher’s advert to be effective then a website will commonly need a high amount of daily traffic (counted as impressions).

To say that online advertising is an irritant is quickly becoming untrue. Context analysing and re-messaging are two advertising methods which are used to ensure that a user only receives relevant advertising content. This can occasionally be beneficial to their web searching efforts. Ad Exchanges take this approach one step further by taking all the data about an individual and making split second decisions about which advertising content to serve on a particular page – this is currently the present and future of online advertising.

So if we have established that online advertising provides ROI and generates revenue to publishers then how can it be concluded advertising has ‘failed’?

 

What is a company looking for from advertising?
This is the deal breaker. If a company is simply looking to raise awareness of a product or service then online Public Relations (Social Media) should be their focus. Using certain analytic tools (I have written about a number of them in this post) then you can track how your online campaign is going.

If a company is looking to generate sales then take social media efforts with a pinch of salt. I wish you could clearly track sales from social media but it is a tough business. Social media specialises (in my view) to create and join in with online engagement. You may promote products or services through this way but it is near impossible to track individual sales from certain accounts.

As a student I am more than happy if my view on this is proven incorrect, I have yet to witness a factual case study to indicate that this view I currently hold is incorrect. There is no doubt in the a company will discover a way to track individual sales from social media but for the moment receiving a good ROI is based upon what an organisation considers their objectives to be.

Conclusion
The authors, Laura Ries and Al Ries, should spent time looking at modern online advertising and recognise it is just as part of the marketing mix as Public Relations. No effective campaign is ever PR or Advertising – they are regularly two different bodies of one marketing campaign.

 

(Side Note: It would be foolish of me to not take into consideration the experiences of both Laura Ries and Al Ries. Both of which are intelligent and talented individuals with advertising and PR experience. Yet I somehow become confuddled at their view in this 2002 book. Perhaps their views have changed now that advertising has vastly evolved over the last 9 years.)

 

What is your opinion?

Achievement Unlocked: Microsoft Internship Completed

Yesterday marked the end of my internship at Microsoft as a Multinational Account Manager for Microsoft Advertising. Over the last year and 3 months I have been fortunate enough to work with high profile clients across EMEA, APAC, US and Latin America. Microsoft has refined me professionally and has positively impacted me personally. I could not have hoped for a better internship.

What Next?
In the next 2 weeks I will be returning to Cheltenham to complete degree in Public Relations at the University of Gloucestershire. It will be refreshing to return once more to the University way of life, meet all the new students, old friends and complete a 10,000 word dissertation. Can’t wait to attend Cheltenham Social Media Café and Cheltenham DigiTalks again!

Microsoft has fundamentally adjusted the way in which I approach work and has further improved my understanding of the digital industry. I will miss all my colleagues at Microsoft. Despite studying and partying once back at University I also be continuously looking for job opportunities for when I graduate June 2012.

 

For now though 2 weeks of relaxation…