Thursday, 28 August 2008

Hackers attack social networking sites

The Washington Post warns of a new security threat to users of social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. Apparently a new scam is doing the rounds whereby users may receive a bogus message from a 'friend' which leads to a joke video that displays on a web page that appears to be from YouTube and tells users that they need to download the latest software version to view the video. However, the downloaded file is actually malicious software that allows hackers to take over the computer and may also track keyboard activity to identify a user's passwords for secure sites.

As users of social networking sites tend to be both trusting and curious of messages from 'friends' these sites are being seen as prime sources of spam and malicious software. The article quotes research from Cloudmark, which says that an average of 64 spam attacks have been reported over the last year on social networking sites, with 37% of users having noticed an increase in unwanted messages over the past 6 months.

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Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Google AdWords makes changes to Quality Score

At the end of last week the Google AdWords blog announced some significant improvements to their Quality Score system. The changes are that, firstly, Quality Score will become more accurate because it will be calculated at the time of each search query. Secondly, keywords will no longer be marked 'inactive for search' and finally the notification of 'first page bid' will replace 'minimum bid' in an account.

The first change is particularly notable in that Google is now replacing the static Quality Score system for each keyword with one that will evaluate an advert's quality each time it matches a search query. This means that AdWords will use the most accurate, specific, and up-to-date performance information when determining whether an ad should be displayed, which Google says will mean that adverts will be more likely to show when they're relevant and less likely to show when they're not.

In Google's quest for relevancy, this change should also mean that searchers are likely to see better ads and advertisers should receive leads which are more highly qualified. This is clearly going to be a very 'fluid' system that adds further calculations to the position and cost of each advert and will require further focus from advertisers to improve their campaign metrics.

Google had previously identified under-performing terms within each campaign and marked them 'inactive for search' - this is now changing so that terms will be available for advertisers to use and bid against, although they are likely to still have a low quality score and not perform particularly well, even with higher bid levels.

The final change is also notable in that the 'minimum bid' notification for each search term is now changing to a 'first page bids' figure, which is an estimate of the bid level required to place an advert on the first page of Google's search results. These figures are based on the exact match version of each keyword, the ad's Quality Score and current advertiser competition on that keyword. This will be a more useful figure for advertisers and give some better insight into the competitive nature of each search term as well as guidance on the necessary bid levels to achieve first place position - which is also likely to help Google push up the average bid levels across the market.

These notified changes to the Quality Score system are gradually being introduced to advertisers but are likely to be widely available within the next few months ready for the pre-Christmas peak of advertising for many e-commerce companies.

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Friday, 22 August 2008

Google's PageRank

One of the most heated debates in the SEO sector can be generated by Google's PageRank and specifically the green PageRank indicator on the Google Toolbar - is this really a useful indicator of how Google's views each web page, or should it be completely ignored as a distraction? The question is also raised as to what purpose this indicator serves for most web users and why Google even bothers to display this.

Google's trademarked 'PageRank' algorithm and underlying technology is one of the main foundations of the search engine developed by Sergey Brin and Larry Page and was also a core factor that enabled Google's search results quality to stand out from existing search engines when it first launched in the late 1990's. Google's own corporate pages describe PageRank as follows:

PageRank reflects our view of the importance of web pages by considering more than 500 million variables and 2 billion terms. Pages that we believe are important pages receive a higher PageRank and are more likely to appear at the top of the search results. PageRank also considers the importance of each page that casts a vote, as votes from some pages are considered to have greater value, thus giving the linked page greater value. We have always taken a pragmatic approach to help improve search quality and create useful products, and our technology uses the collective intelligence of the web to determine a page's importance.

The underlying PageRank algorithm is a complex mathematical formula, which is then simplified by the short indicator bar on the Google Toolbar, where the green colour filling the bar indicates the PageRank 'score' between 0/10 and 10/10. New sites will start with a completely grey bar with no score and then develop a higher PageRank as the site gets indexed and starts attracting links from other domains.

The PageRank score on the Toolbar is a snapshot and an occasionally updated figure - Google's Matt Cutts recently alerted people in his blog that a new update was being posted and back in 2006 had provided more information about the Toolbar indicator with answers to some readers' questions. It's clear that it would be wrong to place too much emphasis on this Toolbar figure for each website and web page, but it's also short-sighted to dismiss it completely when it does provide some degree of information from Google's perspective.

So the Google Toolbar shouldn't be a figure of primary concern but a useful indicator of relative performance and potential development. It does give website marketers a view of their own and competitors web pages and how pages within a site hold different PageRank scores. It shouldn't be a core driver of an SEO strategy but perhaps confirmation of how the search marketing support for a site is developing its potential performance on Google.

There's an excellent article on Google PageRank provided by Search Engine Land.

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Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Using 404 pages

The Google Webmaster blog has been running a series of posts over the past 2 weeks outlining the use of the 404 'response code' which is generated when a server cannot find a requested page, either due to a bad link or a mistyped URL / page name. In these cases websites should display an error page that informs the user of the problem and helps to direct them to the Home Page or other part of the website.

One blog posting describes the differences between a 'soft 404' and 'hard 404' response, recommending that the former shouldn't be used. Then there are a series of FAQs about how the 404 should be used, leading up to the latest blog posting which is promoting the use of a new 'widget' being provided by Google.

This allows webmasters to add some JavaScript to their customised 404 pages which will suggest to a user the closest match to a truncated URL or missing page. In addition, this 404 widget - which is still in test phase - will suggest a link to the parent subdirectory, a sitemap webpage or a site search query suggestions and search box, if these are available on the site.

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Monday, 18 August 2008

Google discusses search quality

Over the past few months the 'Official Google Blog' has been posting an occasional series of articles about search quality, explaining what the team at Google do and how they develop and maintain the quality of their search rankings. Of course they aren't revealing the inner secrets of Google's algorithm, but there is some more openness being shown to explain to users what some of the main issues are that Google considers important.

The first post back in May provided a background to the search quality team at Google and explained what they do. It introduces the blog posts that will explain more about the process and outlines the factors behind the ways of determining ranking position and trying to relate a user's search query with the correct set of results. It explains how different parts of the search team work on developing and evaluating the ranking process, adding new features and fighting 'webspam'.

The second post appeared over a month later at the start of July and explained more about the process of Google's ranking system. This is based on 3 basic principles that are outlined in some more detail - namely that the best locally relevant results are served globally, the ranking system is kept as simple as possible, and that there should be no manual intervention.

The next blog post was a more technical look at the issue of Information Retrieval and how this technology is used to determine results based on understanding pages, search queries and user intent. The most recent post earlier this month describes the developments in the search experience and how Google has tried to enhance the ways that results are presented to users, including spelling corrections, the presentation of results and text 'snippets' to enable users to assess the listings, and also query refinements or suggestions.

Google will be continuing this series in the future and although this is very much a PR exercise, there are some useful insights in these articles to explain how the search engine works.

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Wednesday, 13 August 2008

New research confirms the position of search

Media Week has just published the results of some new research that confirms previous figures that show search is the second-most popular activity on the Internet after email. Data compiled by Pew in the US show that, in terms of online behaviour, the use of search engines has become a primary activity, with 49% conducting web searches every day, coming second to email which 60% of users access every day.

These figures have grown significantly since 2002, when just a third of users searched every day and the percentage of 'at-least-once-a-day searchers' soared by 69% over the past six years. During the same period, the percentage of users checking email every day climbed just 8 points, from 52% to 60%. Other daily activities were visiting news sites (39%) and weather sites (30%). However, despite the huge numbers of users joining the social networking trend, the Pew research showed that only 13% of web users log onto those sites every day.

The report identifies three core reasons for search’s prominence in average users’ lives: accessibility, speed and relevance. Search is now more prevalent on content websites and with a greater mass of information available online, as well as the prominence of Google, search has become more necessary and available to users, who also have better awareness and familiarity with the web than 6 years ago. In addition, with around 55% of Americans using a broadband connection to access the Web, search has become a quicker starting point to find information, products or services online.

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Monday, 11 August 2008

Latest online advertising figures released

The latest quarterly figures from the Interactive Advertising Bureau in Australia has been published, showing that the rate of growth in the online advertising sector has slowed again, although the overall increase in spend continues to outpace all other forms of media.

The data has again been compiled by Pricewaterhouse Coopers and shows that spending on Internet advertising in Australia increased by 27% year on year to the end of June, breaking the $1.5 billion mark. Previous annual growth rates were reported around the 54% mark but as the underlying base of spend has grown, the annual rate of increase was expected to fall back. Threats of a slowing economy may also be having an effect on company spending.

Search advertising saw the biggest increase over the past 12 months, up 34%, compared to a 23% growth in the spending on general display / banner advertising. It therefore remains clear that many companies are still moving advertising spend to the online market and that search advertising, such as Google AdWords, remains a popular and cost-effective solution for many Internet businesses.

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Friday, 8 August 2008

Google launches Insights for Search

Google have introduced a new tool that helps to extend the data available from Google Trends, whereby users can track and compare the search activity for a number of search terms over time. The new tool, called Insights for Search, is designed primarily for advertisers and provides more information for marketers to understand search behaviour, as well as including some new features like a world 'heat map' to graphically display search volume and regional interest.

Like Google Trends, the new tool enables users to enter a search term and view the search volume patterns over time, back as far as 2004. It also shows top related and rising searches and there's the option to compare search volume trends across multiple search terms, different categories, geographic regions, or specific time ranges. A Google account is required to log in and view the numbers from the graph and to download the data into a spreadsheet.

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Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Google Street View launched for Australia

Google had launched its new Street View option for Google Maps in Australia this week, giving users the opportunity to view locations around the country as images - including extensive coverage of the main urban areas. The new tool can be accessed here or from a new button when searching on Google Maps, so that users can now view maps, aerial images from Google Earth and also street level pictures from the new option.

The images have been gathered by cars touring streets with roof-top cameras since last November, capturing continuous images so that users can 'travel' along streets, rotate the image view and zoom in and out. The quality of these new street images has generated a lot of concern about privacy since they were first launched in the US and Google has taken steps to blur the faces of people caught on camera or car number plates.

Nevertheless, for most people, this will be another useful tool from Google, both for the initial novelty value but also to identify and view locations prior to visiting, or when planning a journey. More countries are in the process of being photographed by Google, who are intending to eventually create a 'ground-level' record of much of the world.

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Monday, 4 August 2008

Tracking issues between Google AdWords and Analytics

A recent post on the Google Analytics blog helps to explain some of the issues surrounding the auto-tagging of a Google AdWords account so that the data is automatically recorded and displayed within Analytics, if both options are being used. Because the auto-tagging creates a dynamic parameter that's attached to the link URL from the AdWords advert, this can sometimes create issues for websites.

The blog clearly explains how the tagging parameter works and ways that this can be tested before implementing the link, depending on the URL structure of a website. It also reminds users of possible issues if redirects are used through third-party tracking systems, or sometimes servers may block or remove the gclid parameter that AdWords adds to the PPC advert links. In some cases, problems with auto-tagging mean that AdWords links need to be manually created and the blog post finishes with guidelines on doing this.

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Friday, 1 August 2008

Web marketing newsletter published for August

The August issue of the monthly Web Marketing newsletter has been published today, covering some of the recent stories on web search and online marketing trends.

This month's edition looks at the new enhancements added by Google to their AdWords PPC tool over the past month and how these can help advertisers. It also reviews Cuil, the much-hyped new search engine that has just been launched and lays claim to be a serious competitor to Google. Finally the new edition of the newsletter looks at the recent changes to the Australian domain name system and how this may affect the domain resale market.

If you want to sign up for future issues of this newsletter, please do so by using the form at the bottom of this page. To view back issues of this newsletter you can see the archive by date or by subject.

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