Wednesday, 30 May 2007

Auditing web traffic statistics

Following some criticism by the Interactive Advertising Bureau in the US, two of the biggest web traffic measurement firms - Nielsen/NetRatings and ComScore - have now agreed to have their methods and numbers audited by an independent body, the Media Ratings Council. This move seems to recognise the growing importance being placed on reliable audience data by online advertisers, and the disparities that the different methods being used have thrown up in the past.

We are always highly sceptical of web traffic numbers that are touted around by web properties trying to sell advertising. If any sales person starts talking about their huge number of hits, that's an immediate turn-off, as hits are a meaningless figure. Page views or visits (total or unique) are the main currency of website traffic numbers these days, but even these can vary depending on the methods or software used to capture the data.

In the UK the Audit Bureau of Circulations has been running an Electronic arm for some years, offering web publishers and advertisers the same level of rigorous and independent audit data that the newspaper industry has used for many years. However, the methods aren't infallible as the data will also be dependent on the statistical packages provided by the publishers and, although there are over 100 sites audited in the past 12 months, this is still a small sample of sites and the entry costs are too high for many.

Measurability for online advertisers is certainly going to become a bigger issue as this market continues to grow and, although there is no perfect solution, the data that is being collected is better than nothing. It does just mean that it's OK to compare data taken from the same software or methodology, but comparing stats between different services can be more unreliable. However, there are now moves in the right direction and this area will undoubtedly improve as the pressure from the advertising market grows.

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Monday, 28 May 2007

Google to buy Feedburner?

The rumour mill continues to speculate on the next acquisition target for Google, with Feedburner now supposedly in their sight. Feedburner is an advertising and web analytics firm that has been around since the early days of RSS feeds, helping publishers to disseminate their information, track activity and target potential advertising spend.

The takeover is reported to be around $100 million, although both parties are currently refusing to say anything about the rumours. This is likely to be a good fit for Google to gain more web traffic analysis and interactive ad serving. If the deal does go through, then the next question will be, are Microsoft and Yahoo! likely to follow suit with similar acquisitions? And, of course, who will then be the next target for Google?

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Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Web 2.0 and business

The latest issue of Marketing Magazine includes an article on how businesses could be using Web 2.0 applications - the online sites and tools that encourage social interaction, such as blogs, forums, social networks, wikis and so on. It reports on a recent survey from Hitwise which indicates that Web 2.0 style websites (such as YouTube and MySpace) now account for 12% of web activity in the US, up from 2% just 2 years ago.

The article states that Australian business is regarded to be 2-3 years behind many countries where the power of Web 2.0 is already being used to a commercial advantage. It is seen as a new ways to forge stronger ties with customers and to be used as a marketing and CRM tool. Web 2.0 applications can also be used to monitor what consumers think about them and their products, competitors and market sector, for little or no cost.

However, as the magazine points out, there can also be big risks with Web 2.0 formats, since these social networks can rapidly spread word-of-mouth news and comment, so that any negative experiences with a business or product can get out of hand and stay online for a long time, indexed by search engines like Google and remaining on search results for a business name. The whole area of online reputation management is now more important than ever, with companies needing to monitor and react to any negative PR.

So, the article concludes, Web 2.0 should be considered carefully and used to your own business advantage but content and postings should be honest, accessible, and above all, open to the comments your consumers feel that they need to post - and responded to accordingly.

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Monday, 21 May 2007

Microsoft joins the acquisition race

Following the purchase of Doubleclick by Google and then Right Media by Yahoo!, the rush to buy up online advertising agencies and networks was joined by Microsoft at the end of last week. They paid out $6bn for aQuantive in the hope that they can retain some control over the potential online advertising revenue that is fast disappearing under the ownership of Microsoft's competitors. There's more on this story here.

The next big area for potential acquisition is now thought to be the area of web analytics, which can help advertisers measure their advertising traffic and add a new level of quantitative data to their online spend. Although search advertising remains the big growth area at the moment, the recent acquisitions of the big adserving networks heralds a renewed focus on the brand advertising sector and this is likely to result in a demand for more data on the reach and effectiveness of this activity. The New York Times recently published an interesting article on this emerging market sector.

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Friday, 18 May 2007

Google's 'universal search'

The announcement by Google this week that they are introducing 'universal search' results means that the main Google search engine will also display more results from images, videos, maps, news, blogs and so on, which are related to a particular search, rather than just text content. This has been happening to some extent for several years now, but with Google's mission to 'organise the world's information' this marks their next big step to provide relevant search results.

This move is interesting in several respects - they seem to be moving away from their vertical search tools by presenting this information on the main Google search tool, but it will also be interesting to see how the rankings may be affected with this new content and how maps or videos will be prioritised against text content.

In terms of search engine optimisation we will need to see how the results begin to differ and how widespread any changes may be, but it also adds new layers to the strategies that may be required to support business rankings in certain markets. Ultimately Google wants to present the best, most relevant, results to users and the challenge for online companies to take advantage of these opportunities will continue across this potentially broader field.

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Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Spotlight on the Australian SEO industry

An extraordinary claim from an unnamed CEO of an Australian SEO company was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald yesterday, saying that 'most' search engine optimisation firms use unethical techniques to boost their Google rankings - which, if true, could lead to penalties or their removal from the search results. He apparently quotes that there are "only 2 of the top 10 SEO firms that I would classify as ethical or 'straight'". However, he doesn't seem to differentiate between whether these firms just use such techniques on their own sites, or on their client's sites as well.

This coverage of SEO techniques has arisen following the demotion of Sydney-based company The Found Agency, who have been 'found out' by Google for pushing the barriers to achieve their previous high search rankings. They were using the somewhat dated technique of providing a free click counter to third party websites which included a link back to their own site, thus increasing their own link popularity.

Whether Google discovered this through their algorithms or another competitor ratted on The Found Agency, the result was that their rankings have disappeared off Google, including any for their company name. The founders of the agency claim that they wouldn't use any of these tactics for their clients if there was any risk of penalty, but when many companies choose an SEO agency by finding them within the search results, then it's not a great example to be setting!

In regard to the claim about the prevalence of unethical SEO techniques by Australian agencies, it is perhaps an indication of the growing competitiveness within this market and the need for top visibility to attract new business. Agencies may be testing different approaches to perform well on Google and it can be an ongoing challenge for the search engines to combat this activity to produce the most relevant and 'fair' results for users.

One of the core reasons for Google's success is that it has managed to effectively battle many of the outdated SEO techniques that used to manipulate their results and in most cases there are now very few long term substitutes to some hard graft to achieve high rankings. Companies may try some tricks to get a short term gain, but in the long run you have to play by the Google rules or face the possible consequences - which in terms of a high Google ranking can make or break an online business these days.

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Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Google to profile online gamers?

A report by The Guardian newspaper in the UK has suggested that Google has plans to collect information about online gamers to profile their preferences and personality type to use this for advertising. This is taken from one of the many patents Google files in Europe and the US for possible development work and has created some concern amongst privacy campaigners.

Google would use this information to target advertising to these gamers, but may also want to compile more information on online user profiles for their AdWords programme, to match the type of profiling data that is being offered by Microsoft's adCenter PPC programme, which uses Hotmail and other MSN service's information. Google doesn't yet have this level of information to access, although personalised search and other data collections could be the answer for them.

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Friday, 11 May 2007

Yahoo! at the crossroads?

As recent talk has been about whether Microsoft may buy Yahoo! to compete against Google, or whether both companies are simply talking about a closer association, the ever-dependable Economist has published an article about Terry Semel, the chairman and chief exec of Yahoo!

Simply title 'Out-Googled' it is a short and stark review of Semel's successes and failures during his tenure at Yahoo! and how he has continually been outsmarted by the rapid growth of Google - just as Gates and Ballmer have been at Microsoft. It questions whether he is now the right man for the job at Yahoo! and what direction the company is now likely to follow in order to compete in the search market.

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Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Mobile marketing on the move

A recent report by US firm ABI Research has indicated that the global market for mobile marketing and advertising is expected to reach a value of $3 billion by the end of this year and up to $19 billion by 2011, if mobile search and video advertising is included.

These last two categories are seen as the big potential growth areas for the mobile marketing sector, which has repeatedly anticipated rapid growth which in reality has yet to materialise in any significant way - partly due to network availability but also due to the lack of agency experience or willingness to move into the mobile marketing sector.

This is now expected to change, with mobile video advertising seen as the big growth area. It's forecast to achieve a $9 billion market value by 2011 - nearly 50% of the total market sector and surpassing the current use of SMS for mobile marketing messages. The demographics available on mobile users can enable targeted campaigns and as specialist agencies begin to offer access to these networks, it is expected that this form of marketing will at last begin to gain a stronger foothold within the marketing budgets of many companies.

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Monday, 7 May 2007

Digging up a revolt

The after-effects of the user revolt on Digg last week continue to rumble on. Digg has become one of the market leaders in the field of user-generated content sites, where links to news stories and blog postings are based on members' votes, pushing some stories up the rankings or consigning others to obscurity.

Digg mainly focuses on technology-related stories, but it has become apparent that as the site has developed, there is a core of users who follow the same principles to control the type of stories that do well here - for example, any overt attempts to use the site for search engine optimisation purposes are blocked and, although this is understandable, sometimes other stories are suppressed by the 'diggers'.

Last week's attempt by the owners of Digg to remove all stories that referred to a 32-digit code used to encrypt high-definition DVDs against piracy - due to the potential threat of legal action by the DVD industry - provoked a backlash from Digg's users who flooded the site with stories related to, and including, the code. Digg's owners backed down against the unleashed power of the site they've generated and now wait to see what happens.

Will the entertainment industry now pursue legal action against Digg, which could shut the site down, or will the user control of this site now become stronger if this episode goes unopposed?

You can read a more detailed summary of this incident here.

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Friday, 4 May 2007

Trademark issues with PPC advertising

Two common questions that arise with PPC advertising campaigns is either 'can I bid on my competitor's name' or 'how can I stop a competitor bidding on my company name'. Trademark infringement has become a more prominent issue now that more companies are involved and aware of PPC advertising, as well as a potential legal minefield for Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft and the smaller players in the online advertising market.

If a company has a name that is made up of generic terms, it can be difficult to stop competitors bidding on one of more of these terms to make their adverts appear alongside the search results. Of course, if a searcher is specifically looking for a company name, the competitor needs to avoid an issue of trying to 'pass themselves off' as the other company, which will be dependent on the way the advert is written.

If a company has a trademarked name, or brand name, then this should be easier to control. We wouldn't encourage companies to bid competitively against other trademarked business names or brands, particularly as the relevancy of their result may be dubious and also it can backfire and create a negative impression with the searcher. There is still some confusion with the law in regard to this activity, which can also vary between countries (and even states in the US), although the main PPC providers are also trying to develop their own policies against such practices.

Google will consider complaints about bids against trademark terms - you need to contact them with details and a response is not quick, although once registered they will block bids against a restricted term in the future. Yahoo! tends to be tighter about bidding on trademark terms, which will either be blocked automatically or manually by their editorial review. However, advertisers can use trademarked terms in the advert text on Yahoo!, which Google will block. Microsoft will block the use of trademark terms unless it deems the use "truthful and lawful".

The protection of a company or brand name therefore needs to be monitored and action taken if other companies are seen to be making attempts to use these for their own commercial ends. It should be part of a regular review of your company's 'reputation management' on the web and action taken where necessary as the legal loopholes begin to be tightened as more test cases emerge.

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Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Web marketing newsletter for May

We published our latest monthly newsletter yesterday, which featured articles on how to use the robots.txt file to allow the main search engines to find your sitemap file, plus 10 ways that your website could lose customers, and the implications of PPC's popularity.

The full newsletter can be found here (or on our sister site, here), plus if you want to go back through the archive and find other articles, the best place to start is the subject index.

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