Back In the Saddle

It’s been a few months but I’m back in the blogging groove. There’s been a lot going on.  We continue to make good progress growing our lead generation businerss based on search. The market continues to be complicated with Google dominating search.  The strategy Google alluded to more than a year ago as a potential fix for their ever increasing query volume but ever decreasing average price per click seems to be paying off. Clicks targeting a product or service and a locality (think plumber San Diego) continue to climb. As you may know we focus on an ROI based approach where we purchase and manage exposure through our platforms and turn that exposure into results we get paid for. Search is central to that. Other media represent additional opportunity. Display advertising can now be readily targeted to locality but in our (and others) testing display has proved pretty disappointing in attracting end users who are looking for that specific product or service and are ready to “call now.” Social media is more encouraging and certainly more effective than straight display but again it lacks the immediacy of search. The traditional high bounty markets (insurance, home security health) remain strong but the major brands are getting increasingly sensitive to how and where they are exposed to media which again makes the right kind of targeting trickier than it used to be.

Against this changing and challenging background we have seen a couple of dramatic changes in our society which are overlapping into our world. As you probably noticed the US has acquired a significant new problem in prescription drug abuse leading to heroin addiction in many cases. More people are dying from drug overdose than road traffic accidents. It’s a fairly recent change and it’s one that has impacted a much wider range of Americans than the cliché drug addict.  It’s a horrific and growing problem. The rules governing insurance were changed a couple of years ago with the goal of treating ‘behavioral health’ like any other chronic condition. If you ask any recovery facility how that’s working you will likely get a very angry answer. It’s not working well, yet…but it is better than it used to be with about 85% of recovery treatment costs being paid by insurers. What’s interesting here is that the entire process of finding the right kind of facility, matching it to the patients insurance and ability to cover any copayments is an arduous and time consuming mess. This industry is just about where hotels were ten years ago. The other point of note is that the process of finding help is done through search but transacted largely over the phone. People call facilities and facilities talk through their options. It’s search driven pay per call with very large bounties, much larger than traditional industries. We see this as a great fit for our platform and expertise and we are pursuing an initiative to address this rapidly expanding market. I’ll keep you posted on progress.

Google’s 2015 Year-In-Search

google-year-in-search-2014In prior years, nothing gets people Googling quite like the passing of a celebrity. But in 2015, some of the most searched-for deaths in the U.S. weren’t famous people at all, but regular people who died while in police custody.

Google released its annual roundup of what the U.S. searched for this year. They aren’t the top searches by volume, but top “trending” searches, meaning they saw the biggest spikes.

People We Lost

The third most searched for death was Sandra Bland, an African American woman who was found hanging in her jail cell in July, three days after being arrested during a routine traffic stop. Freddie Gray, who died from spinal cord injuries while in police custody, was fourth on the list. The passing of Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown’s daughter Bobbi Kristina topped the list, followed by longtime ESPN anchor Stuart Scott.

Biggest Searches

The most searched for topic overall wasn’t someone who died, though he came close. It was former basketball player and Keeping up with the Kardashians fixture Lamar Odom, who was found unconscious in a brothel in October. Not all searches were morbid. The top trending searchers of the year were mostly on lighter topics:

  1. Lamar Odom
  2. Jurassic World
  3. American Sniper
  4. Caitlyn Jenner
  5. Ronda Rousey

Breaking News

As big news stories unfolded, people went to Google for updates and answers. Google Trends dug into the top global stories this year, with an interactive graphic that looked at how the stories spread around the world and the most pressing questions people had about them.

Google’s biggest news story of the year was Paris. When terrorists attacked the French city on November 13, people around the world asked “What happened in Paris?” “Why did ISIS attack Paris?” and “Is it safe to travel to Paris?” There were more than 897 million searches related to the Paris attack.

Google Relying on “RankBrain” to Enhance Search Results

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On average, there are more than 3.5 billion Google searches every day, and a small percentage of these are requests that have never been made before. In an attempt to handle these obscure and hard-to-find searches, Google has developed an artificial intelligence system called RankBrain. According to Google, RankBrain tackles a “very large fraction” of all the total number of Google searches, which are about 15% of the millions of queries it receives every second.

Google searches are ranked based on ‘hundreds’ of signals including location, key words, the site’s ranking and more. Its current technology relies on discoveries and insights that people in information retrieval have had. RankBrain instead uses AI to turn words into so-called ‘vectors’ the computer can understand more easily. If it sees a word it doesn’t recognize, it takes an educated guess at what it could mean, based on other words and phrases that may have a similar meaning.

The system then filters the results and presents the most appropriate links to the person making the search. Every time it makes these guesses, it monitors how the person making the searches responds to the results and can adjust its filtering process accordingly.

Google says it’s only used RankBrain to handle this massive search load for the past few months, but Google says RankBrain is actually better at predicting top search results than their own search engineers.

Facebook Digging Further Into Search

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The search feature on Facebook has always been good for tracking down an old friend or a page to follow, but usually Google was the better search engine for keeping up with news or finding a story from a year back. Facebook hopes to remedy that with a new, expanded search that sifts through its 2 trillion posts from all over the world — not just those from your friends and followed pages.

Now, for example, if you were to type “Mets World Series” into the search tool on Facebook, you would be hit with top post results from the Wall Street Journal and CBS Sportsline, followed by several posts made by your friends or public groups about the Mets.

The search was updated by Facebook in hopes to spark public conversations with strangers around the world about shared topics or news stories of interest. Seeing what your circle of friends has to say is one thing, but seeing what the world is saying is another.

Google Getting Serious About Interstitials

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Yesterday, Google announced that as of November 1st, webpages need to get rid of any interstitials— those annoying prompts you get from some websites that want you to download their mobile app— or else face the penalty of losing priority in mobile search results:

“After November 1, mobile web pages that show an app install interstitial that hides a significant amount of content on the transition from the search result page will no longer be considered mobile-friendly.”

As discussed previously, more and more people are using their phones— not their laptops or desktops— to perform searches. Being considered non mobile-friendly can significantly impact organic traffic, as it’s known that Google aims to return only mobile-friendly sites in mobile search. Also, the Mobile Usability report in Search Console will warn you if it detects large app download interstitials. Rather than using app download interstitials, Google reminds that browsers promote apps in ways that are more user-friendly.

Back in late July, Google published a post on its blog asking people to reconsider using app download interstitials. History shows us that when Google issues a recommendation it is best to listen, because an algorithm update soon follows behind.

Will the “Right to Be Forgotten” End in the EU?

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Google is refusing to follow a French Ruling that is asking to delete records globally, each time an individual requests the right to be forgotten. The company is clarifying its stand saying that the European ruling of Right to Be Forgotten should not be applied globally. By not following the ruling, Google might be inviting trouble and is likely to be fined for its stand.

CINIL, the data protection authority in France, made the order on the basis of the European court ruling that Google will have to delete irrelevant and outdated information when it receives a request from the individual or organization. Since the ruling, Google has received millions of requests and even cleared many of them. But it is refusing to accept the order that asks it to remove the name from the global list, arguing that the search is already being routed locally.

Google has further pointed out that one country should not have the authority to decide and control what content users in another country can find and access. The company notes that such a measure isn’t necessary, because as much as 97% of Internet users in France access a European version of Google’s search engine.

Google argues in a new post on its official blog for Europe: If the CNIL were to get its way, “the Internet would only be as free as the world’s least free place.”

A Buyer for Twitter?

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I hate to join a mob scene, but really Google, it’s time to spend some money wisely and buy Twitter. The little blue bird has been having a tough year. It’s trading at about $30 with a market cap of about $20 Billion, which is roughly half of where it was 18 month ago. Its investors are screaming about profits, which must make trying to plan ahead tough (trust me, I know of which I speak). Its management team is looking a little shaky, and it’s also seen slowing membership growth, which makes the market nervous. Last time I checked, Google had roughly $60 Billion in liquid cash stuffed behind the sofa, more than enough to pay cash and still have walking around money to fund their next moon shot projects.

 

Some argue that Facebook, Microsoft or Apple should make an offer, but Google would be the best fit. Apple has more than enough to do already, Facebook doesn’t need it, and Microsoft has their own social effort in Yammer. In contrast, Google could really use Twitter. To start with, in addition to the cash behind the sofa, it has another $440 Billion in market cap to play with, so putting the deal together seems feasible. Next, Google has been getting it in the neck of late for spending cash on projects with a high cool factor but no actual revenue. Google isn’t a car company or a Wi-Fi company or a VR company; at its core it’s an advertising company and a really good one at that. What twitter represents is a massive pool of end users who could be great consumers for the advertisers Google already possesses.

In recent months, Google has been killing off its failed social media effort Google+ (may it rest in peace). That leaves Google with a ton of advertisers, a difficult landscape in terms of making money out of mobile users, declining desktop traffic, and no social media component. If they were smart, they would make a play for Twitter and get them under their wing as a wholly owned subsidiary like they did with YouTube. YouTube thrives with a light managerial touch from Google and is now the second largest online search. If Google can annex Twitter, it can pretty much guarantee that it will also have the third largest search in Twitter as well.

Facebook has been focusing more on search recently, Apple has fired Google as their search, and with Windows 10, there is a chance that Microsoft will be able to grow Bing’s market share. If Google loses Twitter to one of those guys, its opportunity to grow its search in social will be greatly reduced at the same time their rivals are making aggressive moves into Google heartland.

It will be expensive, no doubt, and many will cry “foul” and “monopoly,” but it’s a move which makes perfect sense in many ways. It may by now be as close to a “must do” play for Google as makes little difference.

Search Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

Search-Wars-Logo-e1421429928227We have all been bystanders as the tech giants duke it out in various arenas. Microsoft won the battle for the desktop, Google won search, Apple won the device war, and the phone war continues. The supremacy enjoyed by Google in search has been so strong for so long that we have all stopped talking about it, except as a possible cause of anti-trust law suits. That could be changing, and the cause might well be Windows 10.

Microsoft has had the Bing search platform for a good while now, but it’s only loosely integrated with their other products. It was once terrible; now it’s pretty good. In most cases, it’s just about indistinguishable from Google, and has clawed its way to about 20% of the overall U.S. search market. However, those clever guys over in the Evil Empire of Microsoft have plans.

In the new Windows 10 version (which is officially released today), Microsoft has wrapped search around all of its components. Irrespective of what you may be looking for, whether on your PC, in your Outlook or anywhere on the web, Windows 10 will be able to give you an answer without you ever leaving the Windows environment.  Since that environment is to be found on something like 93% of all desktops, that must be a little worrying to our good friends at Google. In addition, the new Windows browser is supposed to be lightning fast. The start bar is back, their digital assistant is impressive, and all in all, what I’ve seen looks both modern and very usable.

I’ve put in for the free upgrade, and I’ll know more once I get my eager little hands on it. However, if I’m rattling around on my Windows desktop using mostly Windows programs, I might not be bothered to go open a Chrome browser just to search on Google. Of course, there will be an adoption curve. There is still a measurable number of Windows 3.1 users, but if the Windows 10 search is as good as it looks, this is going to hurt Google’s search market share, and it will once again be game on in Search Wars. I’m getting popcorn; want some?

Google Meets The Pelican Brief

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Sometimes, I find a story that is so weird and apparently unlikely that it can’t be real. But then, suddenly it is.

A few months ago, I read The New Jim Crow, which sets out a well substantiated case that the political right wing of America conspired to essentially jail our young men of color by the thousands as a way to keep the black population “in their place,” following the progress made through the civil rights movement. It’s a staggering story. A more recent and less wide scale story — but almost equally unlikely — has emerged around Google. And this time, Google is the victim. Here’s what appears to have happened:

The film industry hates movie piracy. It’s an entirely understandable position, and one they have been pursuing by all available means in recent years. They had placed a lot of hope in the Stop Online Piracy Act, which nearly made it into law a couple of years ago, but fell at the last fence when mighty Silicon Valley lobbyist (led by Google) convinced the Obama Administration that it would amount to far reaching and unprecedented censorship of all things online. The act would have made search engines, in some part, responsible for displaying pirated content in search results. Search engines understandably hated and feared this idea, as it would strip from them the safe harbor they had been enjoying since the Digital Millennium Copyright Act protected them back in 1998.

I understand this is profoundly dull so far, but bear with me; this gets good. Having failed through the judicial process, the movie studios plotted (conspired is such a harsh word) to have various state Attorneys General file suit against Google, with the goal of tying them up in legal knots and making them so miserable that they remove their support from the anti SOPA campaigns, leaving them with the chance to get it reinstated at some point, perhaps under a Republican President.

It was nothing if not ambitious in scope and breadth, budgeting $500,000 per year to fund this process. They even suggested that News Corp (Fox) and NBC plant stories in the Wall Street Journal and the Today Show speculating on the likely impact these actions might have on Google’s stock price. Leading the charge for the bad guys was the AG for Mississippi.

Why Mississippi, you ask? Why not California, where movies are made? The neat wrinkle is that the tax climate in California is so hostile to business that it has allowed other states to offer tax breaks to encourage productions to move there. Mississippi has benefited enormously from these changes, so it makes perfect sense that they sign up to be the stalking horse for this process.

There are many twists and turns with which I won’t bore you, but Google has just filed additional documents in its case against Fox, NBC Universal and Viacom detailing an arsenal of smoking guns. The bad guys weren’t exactly successful in covering their tracks; it would be comical if it weren’t so revolting. The case continues…

Stalking the Google Way

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The recent data breach at Ashley Madison (a company whose boss was dumb enough to claim that he had the most secure site on earth) means the site may end up with private information about millions of people having affairs being released online. What is perhaps much more threatening to anyone trying to stay under the radar is the spy in your pocket. Google just announced the latest version of its timeline feature in Google Maps, and it’s kind of horrifying.

For as long as you have had location services turned on (the default is off, but many people turn it on to take advantage of other cool features), Google has been tracking your every movement. For example, last Christmas, we visited Las Vegas. On my timeline for Christmas day, it shows that we stayed at Caesars and visited an exhibit at the Luxor. It’s not perfect; it shows us at the Hilton (the Purple Rain tribute show), but has the time wrong. Nonetheless, it’s pretty amazing. The fact that I didn’t ask to be tracked and didn’t know it was happening is apparently neither here nor there.

In theory, all this rather creepy. Tracking is double opt in, but I bet most people have no idea what Google has been tracking for the past five plus years. Do you know where you were in April 2009? Google does. In some cases, it even shows me moving around inside my house. Again, weirdly creepy.

Obviously (as always), all this data collection comes down to commerce. If Google knows where we are, it can better target ads of all kinds at us. Since most of us don’t make much effort to control what we share (most don’t actually care), maybe it’s just another aspect of our “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” culture. However, since Google has no problems sharing with the government pretty much anything they ask for, you have to wonder what Google and our overlords are making of the places you go and the people you see.