The Brand’s the Thing

It sometimes feel as though the writing has been on the wall for aggregators for as long as there’s been a wall. Philosophically, this is because they are perceived to be (or painted as) taking value from both ends of the chain:

  • Retailers must pay them for sales/leads/traffic (think: affiliate fees)
  • Advertising channels lose revenue to them as they offer a competing model (think: every use of the app costs Google lost advertising opportunity)

As such, neither end of the chain likes them. Retailers want to squeeze aggregators to ensure they’re getting maximum value – hence the increasing importance of the role of analyst for retailers, desperate to know what they’re getting for their money and/or to chip their fees. In turn, the mechanisms designed to reward aggregators (affiliate/referral fees) are constantly downgraded

And meanwhile, advertising channels want to crush them altogether. Google finds ways to de-rank aggregators all the time on spurious grounds like “thin content” and “no added value” all of which is intended to push retailers back towards the deathly embrace of AdWords account managers selling the use of broad match keyphrases and high bids based on smoke-n-mirrors ‘quality scores.’

The counterpart to all this is that aggregators do have genuine utility – and thus value – to the ironically least-valued part of the chain: consumers.

Confused and GoCompare etc are mere aggregators in the technical sense, but where else, realistically, would you head to get an insurance quote? From a consumer perspective, the experience is near perfect: put in what you want, get transparent market prices and utility, and act accordingly.

But even here, you can see how their role as honest brokers is under attack at both ends of the chain.

It might have came to nothing, but Google bought comparison engines and promoted them ahead of organic listings for these sites. Meanwhile, the quotes you see on the site are increasingly just starting prices onto which the retailers ladle extra options – forcing you to phone them to navigate your way through an extended sales pitch to a higher price than the one you were shown.

So, although aggregators are often depicted as agents of bad faith (Google: “they offer nothing to the customer experience!” Retailers: “why should I pay extra for a sale I would have made anyway?”) more often than not they are at the mercy of attacks from these two directions. In most cases, it’s not a battle they can sustain. In the end, most fold and the retailers’ advertising money goes straight to Google (where, lest we need reminding, profit has to be found in a system designed to drive margins to zero).

Now, it is true that I work at an aggregator, so you can see my personal slant on this is coming from: we’re effectively locked out of the SERPs by Google whitelisting three or four major aggregators and splitting the remaining long tail traffic between retailers’ own sites and non-competitors such as review sites.

It’s also true that I’ve sat through a lot of pitches over the last couple of years where SEO salesman have said that an aggregator site like ours can link build their way into this space with relatively trivial budgets and some technical tweaks.

Well, a few years ago I was on that side of the desk making that pitch myself, but sitting at this side of the desk you see how pressure from people who advertise with you turn your notional budget into a zero sum game: to develop a strong SEO position means taking cash from a budget that is constantly hammered for Results! Today! and thus finds its way into AdWords instead. It is, simply put, a circle that cannot be squared. Growth takes time, and time is money and this is why aggregators are trying to bypass the online game by going through TV.

Trivago advertise all the time to human eyeballs in human houses in the hope that I’ll remember them next time I’m booking a hotel (incidentally, this is why things like rebranding to… whatever it is now – and I genuinely can’t remember – is the height of stupidity) and why? Because they are building a brand.

People have been talking about ‘brand’ forever now (shit, I was writing about this 8 years ago!) but it remains the single most pertinent thing: in a cacophony of 24/7 advertising, viral spoofs, news jacking, PR shills, social media puff and manufactured conspiracy, who retains market share? Brands.

So when you look out of the window into your competitive space in 2018 that should be your starting point: brand. Do you have one, and if not – how will you get one?


Google in the mobile ecosphere

Mobile is a problem for Google. It’s a paradigm shift that few saw coming just 5 or 6 years ago, but the launch of the pocket web has begun to completely reshape our experience of the internet, which sites we interact with, and how we organise our spending. There are two reasons this creates problems for Google.

Less space for ads + different user XP

Here is a current screen cap of a typical Google search for “used ford kuga”


I’ve highlight the ads in yellow. Of the 10 available positions on the page, no fewer than 8 of those are paid ads. Given this experience, there is plenty of choice for the consumer even without scrolling down. In the desktop-only world in which Google’s ad model was conceived, this is wonderful – as you have many advertisers, all trying to appear in those top 8 slots, plus another 3 or 4 willing to appear further down the page.

On mobile the story is different. Here is the same result – again with the ads highlighted in yellow.


As you can see, the amount of screen space given over to ads is similar – with only one organic result. But that screen space includes just 2 ads.

That means greater competition for those two spaces, which in theory means higher CPCs for those wishing to compete in that space.

But, from a user perspective – and assuming we value choice – there is very little utility there. If I want to see diversity, I scroll. And here’s the rub: we DO scroll with our thumbs.

The old rubrick about organic listings in particular was that most of the traffic went to the top 3 sites and that anywhere further down the list was almost invisible (I exaggerate a little). But that was driven in part by the mouse-point-click metaphor that belonged to the desktop. With a scrolling interface, we can are accustomed to the easy flick of a thumb to see more: hell – the interface demands it.

Thus, on mobile, it is likely that fewer people will actually click the ads as they will assess what they see and move down the page.

In short, whereas equity on desktop is split across potentially 12 different ads, the opportunity for Google on mobile is less. Even if you include the bottom of the page that’s still just 3 additional slots.


5 slots instead of 10-12 means fewer opportunities for clicks. All things being equal, Google would have to see double the CPC or CTR from these ads to generate the same revenue from a mobile search as from a desktop search. And here we hit the wall of reality: in most markets, vendors are selling the same product with the same costs and the same margins. Investors might have been impressed by the stunning growth of the internet and Google’s revenues, but very real limits exist driven by real-world costs.

If I can buy Blue Widgets at £5 then so can my competitors. Having first-mover advantage on the internet might mean a window where I can buy clicks for 10p, sell the widget for £10 and thus make a profit according to my conversion rate. That doesn’t last, however. As more people come in, the market matures, margins narrow and thus the money available to spend on clicks declines. According to economic theory, the marginal profits on fungible goods are effectively zero. No wonder then that Google’s CPCs have been in decline for some time.

This probably is a peek behind the curtains as to the resurgence of brand building and display – none of which favours Google.

Apps are… better

Compounding Google’s problem on mobile is the very core of the mobile experience: the app.

I’ve opined before how a horizontal search engine such as Google is actually pretty clumsy when it comes to vertical searches like holidays, clothes shopping etc (other opinions are available)(other opinions are available). I’ve booked a couple of dozen hotels over the last year or two and the number of times I’ve used Google as part of that process? Zero*.

There’s always a danger of reading too much into your own personal experience (after all: I’m quite experienced and savvy these days) but specific apps just seem to make so much more sense than meta engines.

If you were actually looking to buy a Ford Kuga as per my example, downloading the AutoTrader app would make for a whole better experience than clicking through 5 or 6 different websites while trying to learn their varying internal logics and navigational methods.

In conclusion…

Google are still a money printing machine – even on mobile. That isn’t going to change any time soon and any advertiser who can afford to, has to be in the game. The day that the mobile web is the web is already here, and Google recent ‘mobilegeddon’ update is tacit acknowledgement of that fact.

In display, Google rule the roost – with the world’s most popular video channel, largest display network, and other native advertising tools for marketers to take advantage of: all of which yield good results if handled properly.


*Actually, that’s a small lie. A small example: when I stayed in Glasgow recently, I used Google to find out where the hotel was in relationship to various things I wanted to see and visit but the important bit – the transaction – was carried out through the app. What Google couldn’t do was monetise me.

Google as Paid Directory

Last night, I was searching for wellies for my sister’s Christmas present. Despite all the grumbling I do about Google, it was still the place I began my search (although I eventually ended up back on eBay.)

The first page of results had one organic search result above the fold on a 1366 x 768 monitor resolution. And that was Amazon, who were also taking multiple paid slots. In fact, increase the screen height to 1000 pixels and there was still only 1 organic result, with no fewer than 18 paid slots (if you include Google Shopping).


Congratulations to Amazon there for taking the sole organic slot (as well as 4 of the paid slots).

Now, I am not suggesting that every Google result looks like this, but treatments like this for commercial niches are becoming increasingly commonplace, and there is no compelling reason for Google to roll them back. Commercially speaking, filling the page with paid ads is simple logic: after all, Google gets nothing from the sites it shows for free. From a technological perspective too, why plunge billions into fighting spam and ranking an index when you go can whitelist a bunch of sites for most of the big money terms and leave the long tail to random chance?

Seen in this context, domain clustering is no mere mistake. That ‘used ford focus’ today returns a mere 11 domains for the first 3 pages of results makes eminent sense. Google are simply saying to everyone: “you can’t compete in this space unless we think you’re a brand and have whitelisted you as such”.

Of course, when you’ve arrived at that point you’re a whisker away from being a paid directory with an ancillary web search.

Ironically, of course, Google have long proclaimed war on paid directories and have been busily purging them from the rankings for years. Equally ironic is their war on sites that they judge to be “too commercial” by carrying many banner ads or even Google’s own AdWords ads.

For SEO as an industry and a standalone activity, that leaves us expending our resources chasing an ever-decreasing pool of eyeballs. It’s not that you can’t still succeed in driving traffic through organic channels – you can and always will be able to – but we have to be close to the endgame of the idea that you can pitch into a truly competitive space with SEO as your central/only strategy.

While SEOs will continue to do the best they can to make sites friendly to Google and (hopefully) admit defeat and turn off the blog networks and comment spam robots, it doesn’t leave much for anyone to actually do. “Link building” is a philosophical dead end – a mere adjunct to PR, banner advertising and partnership building either through commercial relationships or social outreach.

People will still report success for their efforts and doubtless correlations will continue to be drawn between link building and sporadic SEO success, but if you’re truly looking to the long term: Google isn’t the sandpit it used to be.

Random Tuesday thought: eBay is a better search engine than Google

Tuesday’s random thought: once you’ve worked up close and personal with Google for a while – particularly if you’re interested in trying to frig the rankings in your favour – you start to really appreciate the flaw with Google as a model in itself.

Firstly, it was built as a scientific tool: hence its historic reliance on links. Scientific papers reference each other as citations and thus the link became a proxy for citation in Google. A scientific paper that is referenced a lot is clearly important and thus, theoretically, so is a website or domain.

As we all know, that model fell down the second that people realised that Google rankings were monetisable. Hence, we are in year 14 of the link building wars.

But, browsing eBay for Christmas shopping at the weekend really brought home to me flawed Google is in other ways.

  1. eBay stock is categorised by its sellers when it is added to the site. Thus, there is no need for them to try and reverse-engineer a gimcrack categorisation system after the fact and try to force advertisers to enact some abstruse, incomplete technical standard.
  2. eBay search can be organised in several useful ways that Google doesn’t particularly have an analogue for:
    1. Cheapest product first – self explanatory
    2. Cheapest product including delivery – equally self explanatory
    3. Distance to seller
    4. ‘Buy it now’ prices
    5. Time remaining on auctions
    6. Most reliable/top-rated sellers

Combining your search term with these things make it a relative breeze to find the right thing on eBay. Better yet, it’s all done within one interface. If you click 10 results on Google, you will find yourself faced with 10 different sites, with different logos, navigation systems etc etc. We all know that even for relatively sophisticated web users it can be a nightmare finding your way around an unfamiliar site.

eBay is also truly a level playing field because there is no algorithm trying to assign weight to all this stuff – it’s just some relatively simple database querying. If you are the cheapest, you can be found by those motivated by price. If you are the best in terms of customer service, you can be found by those who want the security of reviews. If you are selling locally then someone nearby can find you.

By trying to build algorithmic proxies for these things into what was originally built as a citation engine, Google has gotten just plain bad at an awful lot of stuff because it is trying to imply structure on a web that is fundamentally unstructured.

I’ve averred before that I would never now go back to Google to book a hotel now that I’ve got a great app to hand (although I might use it for ancillary information about the location of the hotel in relation to nearby attractions). It’s also fairly obvious that you might use Google as a conduit to finding insurance prices, but that the actual action will ultimately happen on a price comparison engine and once they’ve captured your details, will you really go back to Google to start again next time?

Should you build a website to sell online?

My sister in law was asking me recently about getting a website built for her to sell her handmade jewellery. I told her not to bother, because the cost of having a site built would be one thing, but actually getting it turn up in Google and thus generate business would be another story entirely.

An eBay store would effectively cost her a fraction of the price – most of which would only be paid after the fact on actual sales. She could also compete fairly on reputation and price and not through buying into some bullshit link building scheme that she wouldn’t even understand (and shouldn’t have to) and that could burn her business to the ground at some point even if it was successful in the medium term.

More seriously and pertinently to my own interests, if you search on Google for used cars of various makes, you’ll increasingly see the likes of Friday Ad and Gumtree cropping up. With the best of intentions, unless you’re actually know something about cars, the very last place you should buy one would be from some Tom Noddy on Friday Ad or Gumtree. Yet – and on the basis of domain strength or brand or somesuch nonsense, Google are happy to serve up those sites up.

New Google AdWords Format?

I’m possibly being behind the times here, as I don’t keep bang up to date with all PPC developments any more, but this definitely interested me. Don’t ask me why I was searching for a bouzouki.

I’ve seen image ads before – particularly for eBay – and have dabbled in them myself by pulling images and individual stock items into the ads through from a Google Products feed, but this is clearly something entirely different (shopping results are also in the results, but inserted midway through the regular organic positions, in the same way that local/news results are).

This is an entire block of ads with imagery and product details pulled into the ads without going through any intermediary such as Google Products. It’s a very interesting model and I’d love to see it rolled out to the car sector, where my interests currently lie!

Naturally, it’s a further distraction from the organic results. As I mentioned above, Google Product results are also injected into the middle of the regular SERPs meaning that with this ad block and the other Google properties on display, there’s very little space for the SEO-led Bouzouki retailer in the UK (now that’s a niche!)

Anyway, no time to give this any further thought at the moment, but if you see anything similar cropping up I’d be interested to hear about it.

Zuckerberg heads for the iceberg

“All that bubbly good feeling that erupted through the investment markets as Zuckerberg rang the bell on Wall Street on Friday lasted as long as mid-afternoon. The big institutional investors stepped in to make sure that the stock price didn’t actually fall below the opening trade of $38 per share, costing them money just to save face.”

I wrote that sentence on Friday night, and in the days since (while this post has been in draft) the price has continued to drift down – currently touching $31 a share as I write now. (UPDATE: by 22nd August, the stock is just above $19. Wow!)

I’ve said before that the dotcom bubble is still here but FB’s feeble open day showing on the NASDAQ perhaps indicates that investors are maybe wiser than I give them credit for. Why do I think Facebook is a fail?

Taking Myspace as a template for Facebook is maybe a bit facile. The actual numbers for Facebook are phenomenal in direct comparison:

Regardless of size, there are some interesting comparisons.

For all the interest, the hundreds of millions of active users and an unparalleled depth of profiling information, FB have still not found a way to make realy money from their users. Google’s business model had money-making baked into it from the start. While their recent attempts to diversify into the social sphere have been dismal, the core operation of Google continues to print cash for the company at insanely profitable levels. Why? Because their model is, uniquely, based around intent.

A core component of Facebook’s money comes from third parties such as Zynga – whose games often encourage people to buy “Facebook credits” to access feature sets unavailable to players of the otherwise free games they offer. How are they doing through their use of the Facebook platform? Well over the first quarter of 2012, they posted a cool $85,000,000 in losses.

It’s obviously not unknown for companies in the tech sector to take a long time to reach profitability, but permissable timescales aren’t what they were. Back in the 00s with lax financial markets and phantom growth from hedge funds and CDSs swilling about, people were happy to punt on tech as a long term bet. In today’s environment of a shaky economic backdrop and advertisers looking for direct ROI from their marketing, FB as an advertising channel just doesn’t cut the mustard.

While it might be suitable for people who can afford to punt on demographics FB is an option (just as advertising during Coronation Street is) it just isn’t a viable route to market for most businesses. Partly this is because of FB’s woeful advertising. Whether it is due to the FB platform itself, or incompetent advertisers I can’t recall ever seeing an ad I wanted to click. Sorting this out has to now be Zuck’s top priority, and the only conclusion is that the user experience will start to suffer. The truth is (as GM pointed out) that a free FB page for a business is as good a channel – in fact probably better than – the advertising that FB is banking on.

So Zuckerberg, for all his Harvard smarts, is in a stupid place.

Now Facebook is half publicly owned, the pressure will start to grow on Zuck to produce the goods, money-wise. After Google floated, the pressure on them grew to do “other stuff”, which has led them into terrible decisions like Google+, while knocking on the head the science-y fun stuff they used to do. Next in line: Twitter – who surely will face pressure to float from investors looking for a return.

New AdWords Format?

Don’t ask why I was looking for polka dot handbags. Just accept it, then look at the image, then read my thoughts afterwards 🙂

Firstly, these ads appear in between Google Shopping results and the Gooooooogle pagination thing. Obviously that placement isn’t accidental: to get to the next page of results you are now forced to see the ads. That can only have a positive impact on CTRs.

Secondly, anyone who has used product links or sitelinks in their AdWords know what a dramatic effect they can have on CTRs too (I personally saw a fivefold increase in CTR for ads with sitelinks on a big enough sample size to know it was no fluke). What I haven’t seen – and I could be behind the times here – is the promotion of product links with no ‘plus’ button: the images are just planted straight into the ad.

It’s a very attractive format for an advertiser and one that would certainly appeal to me – especially if it were rolled out into the main SERPs.

Does that take Google another inch to being primarily a shopping and advertising channel to the further subtle detriment of the organic SERPs? Well, duh. Everything Google does at the moment is informed by that rationale.