I know that sites need advertising to survive. I also know that overly intrusive advertising can kill the user experience. Check out this visual nightmare from Metro.co.uk that I was presented with when trying to read about the fat sleeping benefits supervisor that Lucien Freud made a star – a full 850x1025px of graphical madness. “Less is more” is clearly not a memo that reached the boys at Metro / O2.
I think Google’s playful persona has really been more of a marketing tool than anything else for a few years. I went to the Dublin Googleplex a couple of years back and while I noted the much vaunted ‘fun rooms’ I also noted that they were entirely devoid of staff. Even back then, that struck me as a company playing lipservice to fun but where the actual culture was a whole lot more professional and business focussed.
As I noted last week, the closure of Google Health and Google Power Meter, the end of the Wonder Wheel and the new interface in general says that Google is growing up. Like any business there are bits which make money and bits which don’t. The remorseless logic of commerce says: “bin the bits that don’t”.
It’s interesting to contrast that with the likes of Groupon (“in the toilet“) and even Twitter who are still living in a dotcom, IPO mindset. Google is a proper business beholden to its shareholders, and pissing money away on fun and non-commercial frippery never plays well with investors.
Their stake in the ground is this: search and social. Google+ now looks like a lot more serious play than it did even when it launched. While other projects get the chop, someone is staking their reputation at the company that they can go toe to toe with Facebook so it’ll be interesting to see how Google’s attempt at land grab goes. While they talk it up as a serious long term investment, the clock is already ticking (and personally I don’t think it last. I will eat this blog post if I’m proven wrong).
What can we tell from this? That Google should be bracketed alongside Microsoft – if it isn’t already – as an infrastructure rather than a mere supplier. The next time they ban a site and tell you that it’s in the interests of users, don’t buy it: everything is in the interest of shareholders now – even stiffing legitimate sites to generate headlines.
You wanna play on the internet in 2011? Make friends with Google and take what they give you.
“Both Google and Facebook offer their services to users apparently for free. But the services are not of course free. Both companies sell the information that users provide – in search data, or personal profiles.
Apparently, these companies mostly sell their (your) information to advertisers who mine the data in order to target consumers more effectively. But, despite fervent declarations about transparency, in fact, it’s very hard to find out exactly to whom they sell the data or what the “data miners” do with it. McDonald’s or the CIA? We’re not told, even though it is information about us that they are trading.”
So sayeth the Guardian. Given their political stance, it’s little wonder that they immediately leap from ‘advertisers’ in the generic to “McDonald’s or the CIA” in the specific. In the gothic imaginings of the left, The CIA and McDonald’s are handy ciphers for Government and Capitalist evil respectively – which pretty much informs the tone of the whole post.
In fact, neither Facebook nor Google sell your information to anyone. Instead, they allow advertisers to target you through information freely offered by you. And it’s all done at an aggregated level. In, well, the same way that the Guardian itself operates.
“We also ask some further, voluntary questions so we can gain a clearer understanding of our users. Your responses help us to sell appropriate advertising space and so keep the site free. They also enable us to personalise services for our users. We do not share this information with third parties unless you have specifically consented to this.”
No-one at Glaxo Smithkline is sitting there reading specifically about me. Or you. Or anyone. They have, however, instructed Facebook to show an ad for washing powder to any male between 30 and 45 who talks about trousers. Just as Google sells search slots based on, well, searches.
But hey – if you’d rather do it the old way and just get blanketed with formless, unpersonalised mailshots – don’t use Google or Facebook!
If you’re a small online player trying to punch above your weight with traditional PR, 2011 is the year to start questioning that particular route to market. Firstly it’s been an interesting and revealing few months for the meeja as we’ve come to know it. As its once-mighty institutions are revealed to be hollow shells, even the perceived value of ‘news’ coverage has to be in decline.
Secondly, for web-based businesses who are in a position to directly measure the impact on their site (rather than just nod their way through a collection of press-cuttings) the impact of dead tree coverage of web businesses is shown to be pretty poor.
An 8 page colour pull-out in the Sunday Times might set phones ringing, but will deliver next to no impact on site traffic without amazing optimisation. And this isn’t speculation: I have seen it with my own eyes. Beyond a vague and contentious blip in daily direct visits and type in traffic for the brand there was zero effect on the site overall. No lasting uplift in traffic or conversions through the site. And, of course, until technology improves a little, there’s no way to capture SEO juice from dead tree coverage.
An isolated example? Here’s some screenshots of what a 2 page spread in a Sun pullout (daily readership: 7,5920,000!) did for traffic on the day it was published.
The branding was featured extensively in the Sun coverage – but there was no discernible activity in brand search activity.
Domain Type-in Searches
OK. Clearly a discernible uptick here – the brand was mentioned primarily as the domain name in the coverage. But look at the scale. Type-ins went from a normal daily average of 10 per day to a whopping 20 on the day of publication.
Perhaps a small increase in people coming directly to the site – but the number is at best equal with other random spikes during the preceding few weeks.
Coverage was strictly analogue. The story didn’t even reach the digital version of the Sun, so there was neither traffic nor linkjuice to be had. Perhaps had the story reached that level of penetration into the paper’s coverage this blog post would have a different tone.
And in the meantime…
I set up an AdWords campaign to tackle the same theme. This was for two reasons:
- To pick up residual traffic from people who’d seen the story on the train and gone to research it on their PC at work/wherever.
- To widen the coverage to tangential subjects and themes that didn’t appear in the press story.
It was a very limited affair – 13 keywords and 2 ads and a daily budget of just £50. Despite that, it is now clearly outperforming the Sun in terms of response.
The brand has been seen by far fewer people (the hundreds, rather than the millions) but of those hundreds, there has been a much more immediate and direct involvement with the brand.
Measuring a couple of events in Analytics has demonstrated beyond doubt that people are interacting with the site in a highly targeted fashion through this channel in a way that seems highly unlikely that The Sun delivered.
A small note
If any PR companies are reading this, I’d just like to make it clear that it was a great PR scoop for us – a new, small business – to get that kind of coverage. There’s certainly no doubting the effort and skill that went into getting us there, nor the positive tone of the coverage.
There is no criticism implicit in this post of the PR activity itself, just an airing of doubts about whether the trad PR model is the best fit for a companies who operate mainly in the SEM/SEO spaces.
PR works on the principle of brand exposure. See the brand a few times in reasonable context and you have a brand presence which you can then exploit to sell your wares more easily.
Once you are a brand, PR becomes a natural part of everything you do: your every move is reportable and interesting to the press and public and you’ve probably got budget to finesse the coverage to suit your needs.
But, as a cost, PR is a long term activity. Monthly retainers are part of a picture that then expands to include junkets, offline stunts and the inevitable costs of managing things, brainstorming ideas and so on.
But for a lot of web businesses – particularly start-ups – that model just doesn’t wash when you look at cold hard figures.
If money is tight, don’t necessarily become entranced by your picture in the paper and consider spending the money on PPC.
In a world of ever-shorter attention spans and when the ad space is ever more polluted with “me too” messages, it’s hard to get a message out to lots of people at short notice and low cost.
One method is what I’m loosely calling “guerilla PPC” – something we’ve been trialling ourselves with interesting effects.
The principle runs thus:
- Take the day’s biggest news story
- See if anyone is running PPC against it already
- If not, fire up a quick and dirty campaign
- Try and tie it back to brand messages
- Take some exposure, some traffic and (perhaps) some links / coverage
- You can get uncontested presence on big volume terms at relatively low CPC levels
- You might get a little bit of positive buzz within the industry
- You associate your brand with humour and wit
- Might not fit with your existing brand messages
- Some news stories are just too risky to touch
- Response rates are likely to be pitiful unless backed up with landing pages/actions etc
- Must be repeated over time to get the necessary exposure to actually build a brand
Should you bother?
In the main, there is little actual tangible benefit, but a little skit can put the brand in front of tens of thousands of people for an actual cost of a couple of quid. It drips a brand message in front of them and every little helps when you’re in the establishment phase.
But perhaps most importantly of all, it gives you a little something to smile about on days full of horrible news.
The press, we are told, is the exposer of hypocrisies, purveyor of the truth, defender of liberty and champion of justice. Rarely does a day go by when the media won’t claim victory for itself in the personal or professional ruination of Person X or Person Y, who has been found wanting in the cold stare of press indignation.
How hollow and shabby do those claims ring in 2011?
Well this week, we see that The Sun and The Mirror are charged with contempt of court for portraying an innocent man as “lewd” and “creepy” during the investigation of the disappearance of Joanna Yeates. He had been arrested for questioning at the time of the investigation but the courts found that the coverage of his arrest was so prejudicial as to potentially render a fair trial impossible. They were not alone: The Telegraph still carries a page rife with innuendo:
“However, another former pupil of Mr Jefferies, David Gawain, said: “He had a tendency of wanting to get his own way. If you had not done your prep or other things like learning poems, he used to shout at you. I went to his flat with my English class once and he began shouting at us because we were not behaving ourselves.”
We also now know that The News of the World were prepared to sanction the ‘hacking’ (although the phrase – popularised in the media – is also inaccurate) of the phone of missing Milly Dowler.
In the same case, 6 newspapers now face charges of contempt of court by their coverage of the case. which caused the collapse of a second prosecution of Levi Bellfield: again for the prejudicial nature of their coverage
Less seriously, but no less tellingly, the press rushed to cover the “beautiful people Shrek virus” story which was, of course, nothing more than a got-up piece of PR puff which they swallowed gladly and regurgitated over their front pages while the EU balances over the edge of a continuing economic precipice which could yet bring ruination to us all.
The ‘quality’ end of the press also finds its nose rubbed in its own do-do this week. Johann Hari has been exposed as a plagiarist. He might dance on the head of a pin with his explanations but outside the media circle, all we say was another liar exposed at the heart of our media.
So far from purveyors of the truth, the media stands exposed as peddlars of lies, corrupters of justice, destroyers of lives.
The press think that you are simple, manipulable and often vile. Sometimes, the expression of their contempt for you is very direct. Andrew Marr, now revealed to be a hypocrite of the first water, spoke publicly about bloggers last year:
“..so-called citizen journalism is the spewings and rantings of very drunk people late at night. It is fantastic at times but it is not going to replace journalism. A lot of bloggers seem to be socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy, bald, cauliflower-nosed young men sitting in their mother’s basements and ranting “
Even if not expressed so directly, the likes of The Sun, championing such constructs as ‘white van man’ is nothing more than contempt with another face. The people who write for the Sun are highly educated, highly trained and work in an intense, technological field. The very notion that they share anything in background and outlook with the man on the Clapham omnibus is laughable.
Need we even talk about the likes of Jan Moir or Richard Littlejohn?
The charge sheet lengthens daily.
Contra Marr, we see bloggers holding journalism to account. From all parts of the political spectrum, bloggers daily show up the media for what it is, exposing its lies and perversions. While no doubt personal ego plays a part, these people seek no power. They do not presume to be influencing policy or leading the country by the nose. It is they who are the truth seekers. They who fact check the media. They who act to express the discontent of people of all political persuasions.
I know and have known journalists. As individuals they are no more incorruptible or abnormal than you or I. They include good, honourable people as well as thieves and liars. Taken together, the form a terrifying cabal of untrammelled power and unwarranted influence.
We need a media with the power and the moral authority to speak truth to power and to question mercilessly the motivations of politicians and business in our interest.
In 2011, we don’t have one.