Lance Loveday – Search Engine Land News On Search Engines, Search Engine Optimization (SEO) & Search Engine Marketing (SEM) Thu, 20 Aug 2009 21:54:54 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Dark Side Of Usability: When Business Goals & User Goals Collide /the-dark-side-of-usability-when-business-goals-user-goals-collide-24245 /the-dark-side-of-usability-when-business-goals-user-goals-collide-24245#comments Fri, 21 Aug 2009 10:00:07 +0000 http:/?p=24245 We’ve all experienced it at some point; the sneaking suspicion that those we’ve chosen to trust may not be entirely worthy. Take web sites, for example. We visit a web site, look around and like what it has to offer. We want to believe that the site—and the company behind it—has our best interests at […]

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We’ve all experienced it at some point; the sneaking suspicion that those we’ve chosen to trust may not be entirely worthy.

Take web sites, for example.

We visit a web site, look around and like what it has to offer. We want to believe that the site—and the company behind it—has our best interests at heart. Perhaps we’ve even had a good experience with the site before.

But then the oddities begin to creep in, the strange little inconsistencies that make us wonder… is it me, or should I really trust this site?


It doesn’t take much to plant seeds of doubt in a visitor’s mind. Small broken promises and misunderstandings can suffice, such as:

  • We click on an ad, then don’t find the promised item on the landing page.
  • We carefully click on a product link, only to find something different highlighted on the next page.
  • We start a registration process, only to encounter many more steps than the site indicated.
  • We try to complete a specific task quickly, only to find our progress slowed by questions, ads, and confusing page layouts.

What’s going on here? Don’t these companies know what their visitors want?

In many cases, the answer is yes—perhaps too well. They know exactly what we want, they just choose to use that understanding in a way we don’t expect. In a way that serves their business goals, not necessarily those of their visitors.

Let’s take a look at a couple examples I’ve run into in the past.

Example 1—GeoTrust

Once upon a time, it came time to renew the GeoTrust secure certificate I’d installed on a personal server. The email notice contained a convenient link which led to the following page (I’ve enlarged and called out the product list for clarity):


So far so good, this looked like exactly what I needed. I wanted the first item on the list, the “QuickSSL” product, so I clicked on the first dark-blue “Renew” button.

And came to this confusing page:


Here’s where the doubt crept in. The page title is what I expected, but the content on the page seems to be all about the “QuickSSL Premium” product. Did I make a mistake? I didn’t want the Premium product, I wanted the less expensive “QuickSSL” product.

At first glance (and most visitors won’t give the page much more time than that), the only available action on this page is the huge orange “Upgrade to QuickSSL Premium” button:


Yikes! How do I purchase the plain “QuickSSL?” Ah, there it is, a visually de-emphasized link in small blue text:


This is a great example of evil usability at work. Notice all the factors that contribute to this link’s obscurity:

Unclear design. Compared to the orange button, this option does not look much like an action item. It’s smaller, in a darker color, and doesn’t look like a button at all.

Unclear wording. The call to action, “Stay with QuickSSL,” isn’t what visitors to this page expect to do next. What they expect to do””what I expected to do when I came here””is to “purchase” or “renew,” not “stay with” the QuickSSL product.

Unexpected positioning. Visitors interested in purchasing the QuickSSL product don’t expect the next step in the process to be hidden down at the bottom left-hand corner of a page, outside the shaded area that contains the emphasized text, and after a bunch of unexpected content. The orange button, on the other hand, IS in the expected position on the page for a next step.

Why would GeoTrust design the page this way? Those less cynical than me might say it’s incompetence, poor audience task modeling, or a loose-cannon designer.

I think not.

It’s an example of a business goal overriding the visitor’s clearly stated intention. Now, we can debate the company’s intention. Perhaps they truly believe the basic “QuickSSL” product is inadequate for most customers and see this as a way to helpfully guide customers to a better solution.

What’s more likely is that this is a pure and simple upsell that disguises its intent by twisting well-understood usability principles such as:

Web visitors don’t generally read text. So all that verbiage that tries to make this sound like an option, instead of the only available action? Ignored by most visitors. But great cover.

Buttons get clicked. Visitors arrive on a page looking for the next step. What’s clickable? they ask. And on this page, that clickable item is the big orange button. It’s not a carefully considered thought process, it’s a trusting response to what appears to be clear guidance. “There’s a button!” Click.

Let’s look at another example.

Example 2: GoDaddy

Another task I undertook some time ago was registering a domain name through Let me preface this by saying I’ve had a decent customer experience with this company, overall, so I came into this with a fair amount of goodwill.

I’d just found the domain name I wanted, and clicked the “Continue” button. Below is the page I saw next.

Take a look: What’s the one item that looks most clickable on this page?


If you answered, “The huge green button,” you’re right!

But if you click that button, you add two additional domain names to your order, just like magic! What if that’s not what you wanted to do? What if you want to register only the domain name you picked on the previous page?

To do this, you’d have to click the small text link under the huge green button:


This annoys me every time I go through the GoDaddy checkout process. I’m used to it now, but each encounter incrementally diminishes the store of goodwill I have for the company. I never send friends to the site without detailed caveats along the lines of:

“It’ll be very confusing and they’ll try to sell you extra stuff, but just ignore all that. Look for the tiny little text links that say “No thanks” and keep on going.”

Again, it’s remotely possible GoDaddy truly believes they’re doing customers a service here. Or that they’re incompetent or don’t understand their audience.

Again, I think not.

You’ve got to change your evil ways, baby

It’s easy to shake an accusing finger at these and other sites who deliberately lead visitors into unintended actions. But waiting for them to change their ways isn’t the answer. As long as the rewards of this approach are greater than the downside (customer complaints, blog rants, etc.), they’ll keep right on down the same path.

What can we do about it? How about starting here:

  • Complain to the company, often and annoyingly.
  • Warn and educate everyone you know about tactics like this.
  • Avoid companies that consistently use these tactics, and spread the word about them.
  • On the flip side, reward companies who treat visitors with respect. Visit them, buy from them, and spread the word about them.
  • Help those who are less Internet-savvy than yourself through the minefields.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep doing my small part by encouraging our designers, clients and anyone else who will listen to resist the temptation to join the Dark Side and use their powers for good.

Thanks to my colleague and co-author Sandra Niehaus for providing the inspiration, research and much of the writing on this topic.

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Bing A Google-Killer? Get Real /bing-a-google-killer-get-real-20510 /bing-a-google-killer-get-real-20510#comments Fri, 05 Jun 2009 17:13:14 +0000 http:/?p=20510 Yes, this is another article about Bing. But I’m going to take a different spin. Instead of doing another expert review of the quality of the results and the cool interface like all the other search geeks (I use the term with affection), I want to review Bing the way that normal people will. So […]

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Yes, this is another article about Bing. But I’m going to take a different spin. Instead of doing another expert review of the quality of the results and the cool interface like all the other search geeks (I use the term with affection), I want to review Bing the way that normal people will. So I’m going to take off my search expert hat and approach Bing from the perspective of the average user, who has very different concerns and motivations than the average search expert—starting with the fact that they don’t give much conscious thought to them at all. Because let’s face it: while every search geek in the world has been checking Bing out this week, our moms don’t even know it exists yet.

The announcement

Most people’s first exposure to Bing was the news headlines generated by the initial buzz last week. Apparently there were over 1500 stories written about Bing the day after Microsoft’s announcement. Every major newspaper and news site had at least one headline that said something like “Microsoft ads say search is sick, Bing is the cure” or something similar. While most people probably didn’t read the articles, the buzz was loud enough that a healthy chunk of the population was at least dimly aware that Microsoft had launched a new search engine.

The name

OK, I thought it was a joke at first. I’d be willing to bet a number of others did too. Apparently Microsoft saw that coming, so they put out a bulletin to their employees to let them know it wasn’t. Good call on that. Arguably they would’ve been better off choosing a name that didn’t make people wonder if it was a joke, but I’ll let that go for now. In fairness, Google sounded stupid out of the gate, too.

What Bing makes me think of:

  • The Southwest Airlines sound: “BING! You are now free to move about the country.”
  • The super-annoying guy from Groundhog Day: Ned Ryerson – “Bing and bing again!”
  • The hysterically funny Fortune columnist and author: Stanley Bing.
  • Marc Andreessen’s social networking platform: Ning.
  • TechSmith’s cool screen/video capture utility: Jing.

Now I understand there are few un-trademarked monosyllabic four-letter words available that aren’t swear words in any major languages (bong, dong and tang were ruled out for obvious reasons), but still. Bing? I’m not sure a word that is easily confused for other words (what? ding?) and has multiple connotations is the best way to go. Even if you are going to spend $80M-$100M “branding” it.

Finding Bing

But I digress. Let’s say the buzz caused someone to want to find out what all the hubbub was about. What would the average person do in this circumstance? We can all joke about this, but the reality is that a huge number of people will go to Google and query “Bing” to find out more about the new search engine. Don’t believe me?


The results people get when searching for Bing look like this:


Note the Bing ad at the top. That was a pretty smart move on Microsoft’s part. I’m not sure the “Decision Engine” and “Search Overload” messaging is all that effective but, importantly, it’s consistent with their TV ad. As such, I have to give them credit for buying their brand name.

Also note the news results—starting off with PC World’s unflattering “The Unbearable Lightness of Bing” which the reviewer begins with “One thing I’ve noticed since I started playing with Microsoft’s Bing “decision engine” is that there isn’t very much “there” there.” Not the best PR for Microsoft, and an odd result in my view given the largely positive reviews that have come out thus far. I’m not suggesting that Google is tweaking the results as part of their broader attempt to dismiss Bing as a non-event. But it does seem strange. At least Bing holds the top organic listing as well—so people are going to find their way to Bing.

No description tag on

While I promised not to get all search geeky, I can’t pass up the opportunity to call Microsoft out for not populating the description tag for the home page of their own search engine, leaving it up to Google to create a completely nonsensical snippet like this:


I think I can approximate the average user’s response to this listing this way: “Wtf? Is that Microsoft’s new search engine I’ve been hearing about or not?”

Populating that description tag with something more intuitive would go a long way toward reducing that confusion. That’s a pretty glaring oversight for a search engine.

The ads

The plain truth is that most people’s first exposure to Bing will come via the massive advertising blitz that has just begun, starting with this ad:

In summary… search is broken, people are suffering from search overload and Microsoft’s decision engine is the answer. Also, it’s pretty clear this whole financial mess could’ve been avoided if you all hadn’t been screwing around on Google.

I’m not going to engage in a point-by-point breakdown of the ad itself. I’ll leave that to others. But I will observe that Microsoft’s approach isn’t likely to resonate with the gross majority of people who are at least satisfied, if not happy, with the state of search today. As Barry Schwarz notes here, all of the major search engines have satisfaction ratings of 69 or higher (led by Google with a score of 86). The idea that search is broken and that people are suffering from search overload seems to be wishful thinking on Microsoft’s part. That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement or innovation. I believe there is. And Bing may be an improvement. But people aren’t going to try it until they have a compelling reason to do so. Trying to dupe people into believing the search experience is somehow broken is at odds with people’s actual experience, and is therefore doomed to fail in my view.

Granted this is just one ad, and the first of many to come. Microsoft may have a more compelling message in future ads. But the tone-deaf approach to this first one hints to me that they’re continuing their top-down “the truth is what we say it is, inconvenient facts be damned” approach they’ve taken with their other advertising efforts. Like suggesting the only reason people buy Macs over cheaper PC’s is because they look cooler. Right… (full disclosure: I’m a full-time PC user, although I dream about going Mac someday.)

SilverLight required

Say you make it to and want to give it a go. If you don’t have SilverLight installed (as we didn’t on our conference room PC), you’ll likely be prompted to install it before you get too far. And you better, because without it many features on Bing simply don’t work. We didn’t realize this at first and rolled our eyes (must they always tie their products together like this?) when prompted to install it before hitting ignore and moving on. Unfortunately, we couldn’t do much without it—at least with the travel functionality we’d been trying to test out. As with the ad above, this decision seems shortsighted. Why require SilverLight to run interactions that can easily be programmed with basic HTML (dropdowns wouldn’t work without SilverLight) or JavaScript (same for rollover animations)?

Enough to break the Google habit? Nope.

I think Microsoft may be on to something with Bing, but the decision to battle Google on their own turf seems questionable to me. Gord Hotchkiss has made a compelling case that Google is a habit that will be hard for anyone to break. Even if Bing ends up being a “better” search engine than Google, the availability of an incrementally better Search Engine isn’t going to cause a massive shift in consumer behavior patterns.

Trying to claim that search is somehow broken when most users are quite happy with it is also a non-starter. It’s just not going to resonate—especially once the ad campaign ends. They could still take a different angle and attempt to change the game on Google by claiming that Bing does something useful that Google can’t. But the likelihood that Microsoft will be nimble and self-aware enough to move away from their full frontal assault on Google seems minimal. They’ve been itching for this fight for years, and now they have it.

They may win the battle, but their myopic focus on Google seems destined to lose them the war for the hearts and minds of the people who really matter. Our moms could care less.

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Designing For The Subconscious Mind /designing-for-the-subconscious-mind-18770 /designing-for-the-subconscious-mind-18770#comments Fri, 08 May 2009 11:00:20 +0000 http:/?p=18770 In last month’s column, I brought up the idea that the first impression your web site makes can have a bigger impact than many of the more traditional design considerations we tend to regularly obsess about. My theory is that users’ gut-level reactions when seeing a new site for the first time—and the split-second judgments […]

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In last month’s column, I brought up the idea that the first impression your web site makes can have a
bigger impact than many of the more traditional design considerations we tend to regularly obsess about. My theory is that users’ gut-level reactions when seeing a new site for the first time—and the split-second judgments they make about the site based on that first impression—have a major influence on the likelihood that they’ll ever end up transacting with that organization. I was intrigued to find that the amount of time it takes a major league baseball hitter to decide whether to swing at a given pitch is exactly the same amount of time it takes web users to start forming judgments about a site. The magic number for both turns out to be 0.05 seconds, or 50
milliseconds. Which is way faster than we can think consciously.

I decided to test this concept a bit at some recent speaking events. During my presentation, I show the audience a
glimpse of two different sites, flashing each up on screen for about half a second (as fast as PowerPoint would
let me). I then asked the audience which site they’d rather do business with. The results have been overwhelmingly
one-sided. Almost everyone chooses the second site. When I ask people why they chose the site they preferred, they used words like “professional” and “credible.” For the losing site, they used terms like “small-time” and “cheap.”

Ouch. Pretty harsh judgments for a split-second view.

Opinions – everybody has one

What I find fascinating when I conduct these tests is that nobody says “I don’t have enough information to make
that judgment.” That would seem to be the rational response. It seems ridiculous that people would make a
potentially important decision based on such limited information. Yet every person was totally comfortable in
forming and sharing their opinion. Granted, I rigged the experiment to encourage quick judgments. But a part of me is still disappointed that we’re all so willing to form and share judgments so easily. Chalk it up to the Spock in

Seriously, it just isn’t logical to base decisions on such superficial factors. Which is exactly the point. Human
beings aren’t rational, despite what we’d like everyone to believe. We make decisions based on instinct and
emotional inputs and then develop rationalizations to justify our opinions after the fact. Don’t believe me? Ask a
close Democratic friend what they think of the Bush tax cuts. Then ask a good Republican friend what they think of
Obama’s budget. I’m willing to bet the ensuing discussions are much more emotional than logical.

My point: If you can’t have rational discussions with your closest friends about important topics, why would you
ask more of the complete strangers who visit your web site? Better to accept that people react emotionally to seemingly superficial inputs and design your site accordingly.

Questions you should be asking

What are people thinking when they first land on your site? Are they immediately reassured about your
professionalism and credibility, and thus more receptive to your marketing messages? Or are they instantly
questioning whether they can trust you and looking for any excuse to leave? Realistically, you’re probably
somewhere in between these extremes. The question really should be: How much work would it be to improve that first impression, and how does that investment compare to the potential benefit we’d realize by doing so? My experience has been that most sites perform worse on this test than the site owner thinks, and therefore have substantial upside. But before you go down that path you’ll want to get a sense for how your site performs in the first impression contest.

Do your own blink test

Short of conducting brain scanning studies, it’s pretty difficult to test for what are largely subconscious responses. The moment you start asking people to think consciously about their subconscious reactions, you risk tainting your results. That’s why I like the simple “this one or that one?” test I described above. It allows people to simply react to which design they find more appealing without the burden of having to rationalize their responses. Since all your testing for is that initial reaction, that’s really all you need anyhow.

To conduct your own blink test just blink your site and one of your competitors’ sites in front of some users for a split second (any time up to a second is fine), ask them which site they’d rather do business with, and record the responses. You can get more scientific and expand the pool of sites to enable testing of different binary combinations against each other, but that can get complex fast. If you want to go that route, I’d recommend only
exposing any individual user to a site one time during the test. Once someone has seen a site once, they develop
some level of familiarity with it which then can potentially taint their future responses. So you may find yourself
needing a large pool of users to test against.

Ideally you’d recruit users who are representative of your target audience, especially if you serve a niche audience. But I’ve been amazed at the consistency of responses for the sites I’ve tested with diverse audiences. My
hypothesis is that the way people react in that split second exposure to a new interface has a lot more to do with
how we’re wired as human beings, and less to do with any superficial demographic differences between one person and the next. But that could just be the Vulcan talking again.

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Do Your Landing Pages “Feel” Right? /do-your-landing-pages-%e2%80%9cfeel%e2%80%9d-right-17282 /do-your-landing-pages-%e2%80%9cfeel%e2%80%9d-right-17282#respond Fri, 10 Apr 2009 15:41:31 +0000 http:/?p=17282 Question: What do web users and professional athletes have in common? Answer: They both make fast decisions about their next action based on limited information in the blink of an eye. This thought occurred to me as I was reading How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer. It’s quite an amazing book. I say that because […]

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Question: What do web users and professional athletes have in common?

Answer: They both make fast decisions about their next action based on limited information in the blink of an eye.

This thought occurred to me as I was reading How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer. It’s quite an amazing book. I say that because it’s a book about brain science and psychology (ooh, gotta get me some of that) and yet it’s really fun to read. Seriously.

The thrust of the book is that the traditional model of how human beings make decisions based on either a rational or emotional basis is flat wrong. Instead, the author’s position is that we make decisions using both our rational and emotional minds simultaneously.

Pretty heady stuff, to be sure. But Lehrer weaves in such compelling and well-written stories that otherwise dry subject matter really comes to life. I was reading a passage about New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s decision-making ability on the field when the similarities between his thought process and that of a new user arriving at a site for the first time hit me.

Here are the lessons I took away from the first part of the book:

People react QUICKLY

The average time it takes a baseball to travel from a major league pitcher’s hand to the catcher’s mitt is 0.35 seconds. It takes most people 0.20 seconds to react to a sensory input. That means the average major league hitter must decide whether to swing at a given pitch in less than 0.15 seconds. That’s just not enough time to engage the rational conscious mind.

Likewise, people landing on a site for the first time make instant subconscious judgments about the organization behind it based on the design of the site. I’ve referenced a study done by researchers at Carleton University before about how people begin to react to new interfaces in as little as .05 seconds.

People want to limit their risk

Our behavior isn’t driven solely by our goals. We’re simultaneously trying to advance our objectives while limiting risk. Tom Brady (quarterback for the New England Patriots) wants to advance the ball downfield while avoiding interceptions and sacks. Alex Rodriguez (of baseball’s New York Yankees) wants to make contact with the ball and get a hit while avoiding striking out.

Web users want to accomplish their task without having their identity or credit card information stolen, getting spammed, or wasting their time.

People use small visual cues to inform their actions

Major league hitters get conditioned to pay attention to every clue they can to help inform their decision about whether to swing at a given pitch. What’s interesting is that their decision about whether to swing begins even before the ball is released. They do this by focusing on “anticipatory clues” including the speed of the release, the angle of the pitcher’s arm, and the pitcher’s grip on the ball.

New visitors to a site form initial judgments based on the design quality of the site—use of color and images, layout alignment, affordance, use of negative space, and many other factors. Having participated in a number of user studies, I’ve always come away amazed at how people form judgments about a site based on such limited information.

I’ve also learned to appreciate how important it is to get the little things right. We’ve traced the root cause of bad judgments about sites to a variety of factors that are seemingly insignificant at first glance. But when we learned what those factors made people think about the underlying organization, we realized they had a huge impact on how the site/entity was perceived. Beyond the branding impact, the judgments people formed impacted the likelihood that they’d ever transact with the organization behind the site. Here’s a partial list of the design problems we’ve isolated and the perceptions they created in users’ minds.

  • Poor layout alignment/Lack of visual hierarchy (disorganization)
  • Too many fonts (unprofessional)
  • Use of clashing colors (very small organization)
  • Dense blocks of text (difficult to work with)

Interestingly, while many of the users in these tests reacted negatively to these design issues, almost none were able to explain their response initially. They just didn’t like it. Even after some prompting, very few were able to pinpoint any one specific design issue that caused them to react negatively. There was a consistent negative response to these interfaces, but that response manifested itself as a feeling. And it’s next to impossible to rationally explain why someone feels they way they do. Why do I love my children, when they regularly scream, whine, nag, vomit…? It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but I do.

Lehrer answers that pretty well: “the process of thinking requires feeling, for feelings are what let us understand all the information that we can’t directly comprehend.”

The power of feeling

The fact is that Tom Brady doesn’t consciously know why he chooses to throw the ball to a given receiver. He just goes with the one that feels right. Some people would say he has better instincts. In Tom Brady’s case, his superior instincts have translated into an annual compensation estimated at $50M. Not bad for throwing a football.

When it comes to landing pages, some manage to feel right—and some don’t. The ones that feel right are likely to experience lower bounce rates and higher conversion rates. Would better landing pages have a $50M impact on your business? Probably not. But the cost of improving your landing page feel is pretty small (remember, it’s usually the little things that make the big difference), and the potential upside is likely huge by comparison. So it’s probably worth testing.

Yes, you have to have all the other stuff right in order to gain a high conversion rate on your landing pages: meet expectations, apply usability best practices, provide the scent of information, have a compelling offer, a clear call to action, and so on. But none of that matters if the user abandons your site after three seconds because it doesn’t feel right.

We’ve redesigned a number of landing pages over the years, and I can explain what was wrong with the old page and why the new page performed better by pointing out individual design elements we tweaked—and I believe that those individual changes had a positive impact. But my sense is that in many cases the new design just felt better to the user. I can’t explain it, but I believe it’s true.

In next month’s column, I’ll go into more detail on how to test for and improve your site’s feel.

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Search: Too Boring For Branding? /search-too-boring-for-branding-16899 /search-too-boring-for-branding-16899#comments Fri, 13 Mar 2009 16:37:17 +0000 http:/?p=16899 I’m not a big fan of TV. But my wife and I decided to cancel our satellite TV service effective next week, so I’ve found myself watching more TV than ever recently, trying to squeeze the most out of my remaining days. I guess Cinderella was right: You don’t know what you got ‘til it’s […]

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I’m not a big fan of TV. But my wife and I decided to cancel our satellite TV service effective next week, so I’ve found myself watching more TV than ever recently, trying to squeeze the most out of my remaining days. I guess Cinderella was right: You don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone.

Anyhow, my wife and I cracked up the other night at a TV commercial that’s had me laughing ever since. The commercial involves two characters: a guy and a llama. The guy (who looks suspiciously llama-like himself) chews on a Starburst, which makes him look exactly like the llama chewing cud (or whatever llamas eat). Then you see the guy’s arm feeding the llama a Starburst, which it continues chewing. Then when the shot switches back to the guy, you see a llama’s arm (Leg? Paw? Hoof?) reach up and feed the guy a Starburst. It’s unexpected and funny, which makes it memorable. I’d argue that it’s a rare example of a TV ad that does a brilliant job of branding.

It did this by appealing to multiple senses. Most TV ads use both video and audio, thus playing to our sense of sight and sound. This ad went further by playing off the unique chewiness of Starburst candy in such a funny way. It was easy to imagine being the funny-looking guy, chewing the candy yourself (touch), savoring the flavor (taste) and inhaling the aroma (smell) with your llama-esque nose.

The essence of branding

Branding has been on my mind a lot lately because I just finished reading “Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy” by Martin Lindstrom. It’s a fascinating book that provides great insight into how branding really works in the minds of consumers. It also explains how most companies get branding wrong by continuing to focus on stale advertising tactics and logo design instead of engaging consumers’ senses and emotions. The author conducted research using brain scanning technology to see how consumers really react to various types of stimuli associated with brands. It’s a very compelling read that yields some eye-opening takeaways about how human beings are wired.

Lindstrom posits that effective branding leverages emotion, interaction, experience, desire, ritual, faith, and our senses (the more the better). The brain scan results from study after study showed that subjects’ brains reacted to strong brands the same way they react to emotional or even spiritual experiences. But it was the ways that the successful brands were able to trigger the desired emotional reactions that really fascinated me. I was particularly disturbed to find out that the “juicy, charcoal-y… seductive aroma” one is assaulted by upon entering a fast food restaurant is not the smell of burgers on the grill but instead comes from a canister with a “just-cooked-bacon-cheeseburger-like fragrance” that the fast food restaurant pumps through its vents. I didn’t want to know that.

Regardless, I couldn’t help but start thinking about how to apply the broader principles from the book to the search world. But there’s an immediate disconnect here. If effective branding is about evoking emotion, and emotion is generated primarily by sensory inputs and built over a long period of time, then how could something as utilitarian and unemotional as search play a role in branding? Let’s start by comparing search to TV.

Why TV is an effective medium for branding

Most forms of advertising play off our senses, naturally lending themselves to emotionally evocative and thus more memorable interactions. For example, here’s the ad I described above:

Now ask yourself which was more engaging: my text description of the ad or the experience of seeing the ad itself?

The challenge of branding with search

Our challenge with search? The average search ad looks something like this:

search ad - dell

Did reading that ad raise your heart rate and make you lick your lips with desire? Are you ready to race out and buy a computer now? Probably not. Yet to be fully effective as a branding vehicle, we’d need to evoke these types of responses with 95 characters of text. Clearly we have our work cut out for us.

Are We Asking Too Much?

The bigger question it seems we should be asking is really whether search is an appropriate or efficient branding medium. Nobody would think of using the yellow pages as a branding medium. Maybe search is like that. Maybe we should just accept that search is a phenomenal direct response vehicle but has little to offer in the way of branding or awareness. Many advertisers have taken that path, and held their search campaigns to strict ROI objectives, never bidding for a keyword or position that wasn’t justified by the ROI.

But I’m getting less and less comfortable with that approach and increasingly wanting to find ways to measure brand lift and other soft benefits of search. To my mind, the question isn’t “Does search have branding benefit”? Virtually every form of media arguably has some potential brand benefit. The question is “How much?”

Credit just for showing up?

Is there really value just in having an ad show up in the search results? Is it really worth having your brand name show up, in green text, usually surrounded by www and .com, under your 95 character text ad, for the few seconds that the average user spends scanning results, when the average fixation on any one spot on the page is less than one second?

Seems like a tall order, doesn’t it?

Yet there is research that indicates there is branding value in showing up. Here’s a snippet from the iProspect Blended Search Results Study:

Finally, it continues to be apparent that brand equity is conveyed upon companies whose digital assets appear among the top search results by roughly a third of the search engine users. In 2008, 39% of search engine users believe that the companies whose websites are returned among the top search results are the leaders in their field…

This finding represents a significant opportunity for brand marketers in particular. Specifically, it is a convincing argument for why they should become knowledgeable about, involved in, and integrate their efforts with, search marketing. Initiatives that produce top search engine rankings can clearly help them achieve their branding goals.

Then we have this snippet from research conducted by Enquiro on the Brand Lift of Search:

Using Honda as a test brand and “fuel-efficiency” as a brand attribute, the study focused on consumers early in the purchase process who had not yet selected a particular car model. Key findings of the study included:

  • A significant lift in brand affinity: Online consumers who saw Honda in the top ad placement and the top organic search result were 16 percent more likely to think of Honda as a fuel efficient car than when the automaker’s brand didn’t appear on the page at all.
  • A significant lift in brand recall: Online consumers were 42 percent more likely to recall Honda if the company appeared in both the top ad placement and the top organic search result, rather than just the top organic listing.
  • A significant lift in purchase intent: When Honda was featured in both the top ad and top organic listings, purchase intent for Honda increased. However, other automaker brands absent from the page suffered a significant decrease in purchase intent.

It seems counter-intuitive that an interaction like search, which is so fleeting by nature, would have such a significant branding impact. Yet the evidence indicates it does.

Too good to be true?

Is someone really more likely to buy a particular type of car because a particular manufacturer showed up at the top of the search results one time for a given term? That seems like a stretch.

But what if the same manufacturer showed up every time I conducted a search—with a consistent message that was well-written and differentiated from the others—so that at some point it broke through my semi-automated scanning behavior and made a conscious impression on me? That doesn’t seem impossible. In fact, that seems like a pretty good strategy, in principle. I just don’t know how realistic that scenario is given a) all the complexity behind user behavior and b) the constantly moving parts underlying most search campaigns.

Maybe impressions aren’t the goal

I think we’re looking in the wrong place to find the real branding value of search. You don’t maximize your branding potential from search by merely “showing up.” You maximize your benefit by showing up, inducing users to click to your site, and then providing a memorable experience. The brandable moment isn’t really on the search results page. It’s the whole experience. Just as with ROI-focused campaigns, it’s what you do “after the click” that really counts.

To be sure, search is still an integral part of the branding effort. If you don’t show up, you don’t make the consideration set at all for that interaction. Even if you have a strong brand that people would otherwise prefer, you won’t get the chance to wield your competitive brand advantage if you don’t show up. So showing up is a critical first step, but only the first step.

You can’t use imagery, video, logos, or other forms of media that more easily evoke emotion in the limited environment of the search results page. But you can differentiate your ad copy, utilize trigger words and provide the scent of information in order to draw attention to your ad and traffic to your site. Once a user arrives there, you’ve tilted the odds of making a valuable brand imprint substantially in your favor.

It may not be as fun as making ads about candy-eating llamas, but that’s the tradeoff we made by getting into search marketing. The upshot is that we don’t have to put up with clients who insist on appearing in their own commercials.

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How To Lose Money & Alienate Your Customers /how-to-lose-money-alienate-your-customers-16536 /how-to-lose-money-alienate-your-customers-16536#respond Thu, 12 Feb 2009 19:00:57 +0000 http:/?p=16536 With all the emphasis lately on how to market in a down economy, I’ve decided to go against the grain and dole out some advice for those organizations wanting to make less money (this is the “Just Behave” column, after all, and it sure seems like we could benefit from some decidedly contrarian thinking). Seriously, […]

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With all the emphasis lately on how to market in a down economy, I’ve decided to go against the grain and dole out some advice for those organizations wanting to make less money (this is the “Just Behave” column, after all, and it sure seems like we could benefit from some decidedly contrarian thinking). Seriously, everyone is so focused on helping the weak “profit-seeking” companies weather this financial storm that the needs of all the strong companies needing to waste money have been overlooked. Well, not on my watch. So for those companies looking for ways to keep those pesky customers at bay, here are my top recommendations for how to utilize SEM to achieve your unique objectives.

1. Don’t integrate search

Search was, is, and will always be its own standalone medium. All those statistics about how offline advertising drives search behavior, how search drives offline purchasing patterns, and how the web is becoming the de facto hub for all communications? Lies. Search is a silo within the online silo (it doesn’t even have its own silo!). You already have a marketing strategy that’s working fine. Don’t confuse things by trying to integrate search into the mix.

When users see one of your wicked cool $300K TV ads while paying partial attention to their TV and you’re fortunate enough to make that valuable impression (cha-ching!), you don’t want to have a similar themed ad appear in the search results when they go to check it out online later. That would only encourage them. Fortunately this isn’t as much of a problem now that people are increasingly skipping ads with their DVRs. It’s really cool that you got to meet Beyonce, though.

2. Under-spend on search

Ask not how much you should spend on search to achieve your goals and realize a competitive advantage. Instead, figure out the bare minimum you need to spend to get your boss off your back. Just because all the research and anecdotal evidence indicates search is one of the best-performing forms of media and spending on search marketing has doubled in the last 4-5 years doesn’t mean you should just blindly follow the herd. Merely because search appears to be the only major form of advertising holding its own during this era of ROI and accountability-driven marketing doesn’t mean the crowd is right. Markets make mistakes all the time, especially over the long term. My advice: Go rogue. Axe the search budget and double down on banner advertising. It’s getting cheaper by the day, after all. You’ll look like a genius when search is ultimately exposed as the Enron of marketing.

The ideal scenario is to start with a very broad keyword set and then starve the campaign of budget to achieve an impression share as low as possible, particularly for your most strategic keywords. That way your ads will show up very infrequently. When someone conducts a search and sees one of your ads, and then clicks on another listing before coming back to check out your offering… chances are your ad won’t be there when they get back. They’ll be confused and disoriented for a bit, but they’ll eventually move on and go somewhere else. Not to your site, of course. You’ve made sure of that. And what about the person who initially finds your site via clicking on one of your ads and then performs the same search later hoping to follow the same path? Boy, are they in for a surprise! It makes you wish you could videotape it.

But what if your executives have already caught the search fever and you can’t talk them down? A balanced approach is out of the question, so you have no choice but to go to the other extreme and…

3. Over-spend on search

Search is just like old media. If you can’t spend smarter, you can always make up for it by spending more. So what if your impression share is 17% across the board? The answer is always more budget! If a $3M buy is good, a $6M buy is better. Maxing out your budget? Then broad match everything. Still maxing out? Enable content. That’s why it’s there. Like multiple layers of protective padding, these budget sponges can help you absorb almost any amount of funding. It isn’t as easy as buying a Super Bowl spot, but with the right agency you’ll think it is.

Instead of spreading your ads thin in the above example, you want to lay them on thick when you’re over-spending. You want your ads everywhere, so that users always see them no matter what they search on. If a user searches for elephants, you’ll be there. If a user searches for flat screen TVs, you’ll be there. Of course users won’t know what to think, since your company sells neither. There might even be a backlash against your carpet-bombing tactics at some point, which would be great. After all, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Just ask Lehman Brothers. At least people will be talking about you. The important thing is that you’ve alienated your potential customers while still spending to budget. Nicely done.

4. Ignore creative

Designers, engineers, marketers and executives all agree—text is BORING. Reviewing text ads (in a spreadsheet, no less!) is beneath you and a waste of your talent. So act like the big dog you are and just rubber stamp whatever the agency sends over. It doesn’t really matter anyhow, because Dynamic Keyword Insertion can do all the work for you. And some generic copy is fine for the rest. It’s just a matter of finding the right formula and standardizing on it. If all else fails, just copy what the competition is doing. After all, it must be working for them, right?

Of course, users may wonder why some of your ads say things like “Buy Elephants Cheap” and “Used Thongs.” Some may also be underwhelmed by the sameness of the ads and have a hard time differentiating between them. But that’s their problem for being so persnickety about reading ads to glean meaning and the scent of information. If they don’t instantly recognize your brand name and want to click on your ad solely because of your wonderfulness, then they probably weren’t the type of customer you want anyhow. Pay no mind to those sub-1% click-through rates and low Quality Scores. Quality Scores are for people trying to make money. Not you. You’re playing a whole different game.

5. Automate campaign management

Finally we get to the sexy part of SEM. That crazy dynamic bid auction pricing beast is crying out for a theoretical solution to tame it, and you can bet every agency you want to work with has one. They may use different language to describe it, like (do the air fingers with me) “rule-based” or “portfolio-based” or “proprietary algorithm,” but it all means the same thing to you: push-button marketing.

Erratic campaign performance got you down? The wrong ad being served at the wrong time leading to the wrong landing page? Just push the “optimize” button and all those inconveniences melt away under the calming effects of our buzzword tranquilizer. There now, that’s better. What was that you were saying about increasing your spend?

6. Do everything the search engines recommend

If you’ve ever logged into your Google or Yahoo account, you’ve probably seen a bunch of those friendly notifications telling you about how they’ve enabled Auto Matching or given themselves permission to spend your money in a manner that suits them better. You may have even heard about some Nervous Nellies in the search community (Yes, there is such a thing as a search community… well, yes, it is like a dork fraternity, but let’s stay on topic) trying to rock the boat about how it’s inappropriate for the engines to opt advertisers in to these programs instead of requiring their conscious consent. Hogwash. The search engines have only your best interests at heart. They’re just trying to make it easy on you to optimize your campaign by pushing a button. Now why does that sound familiar…?

7. Define success broadly

Like beauty and branding, SEM success is in the eye of the beholder. So identify your internal stakeholders and what their hot buttons are—and start pushing. Are they data-obsessed but don’t know much about SEM? Overwhelm them with charts showing traffic and CTR by campaign. Do they like branding and big numbers? Let’s look at impressions and equivalent CPM’s. Bonus tip: be sure to over-weight the content network next month. There are metrics and data for almost every stakeholder personality type. You just need to know a little something about your internal target audience and you’ll be fine.

If you follow any one of these tips, you can lose a lot of money very quickly. If you follow all of them, you’ll be a legend in no time. And when people ask where you got such sage advice (and they will), please be sure to give them my name: it’s Andrew Goodman.

Disclaimer: This is satire; please don’t flame Andrew in comments, but rather me, the true author, Lance Loveday. Those interested in making money with SEM are advised to check out the just-released second edition of Andrew’s book “Winning Results with Google AdWords.” It’s the real AdWords bible, as opposed to this heretical nonsense.

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Social Media Gold: Ratings & Reviews /social-media-that-actually-works-16122 /social-media-that-actually-works-16122#respond Fri, 16 Jan 2009 11:02:10 +0000 http:/?p=16122 I’m an introvert by nature, so this whole social media thing has left me feeling like an outsider looking in. While everyone Facebooks and Twitters each other to death, I’m asking “What’s the point?” It’s a genuine item of curiosity to me. I can’t really relate to wanting to relate to everyone. I have a […]

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I’m an introvert by nature, so this whole social media thing has left me feeling like an outsider looking in. While everyone Facebooks and Twitters each other to death, I’m asking “What’s the point?” It’s a genuine item of curiosity to me. I can’t really relate to wanting to relate to everyone. I have a hard enough time keeping up with my real friends who live 15 minutes away.

Don’t believe the hype

But as an advertising professional, I’m also always judging any new trend or platform for its potential to impact the business world. I watched the rise of Facebook and the attendant hype about how the company was going to pioneer a new advertising world with suspicion. And wanted to claw my eyes out when I saw Microsoft shell out $240M for less than a 2% stake in Facebook. That was back when all the headlines said that Facebook was going to be the next Google. Now that the winds of conventional wisdom have shifted, nobody seems to be making that prediction any longer.

Not that I’m a great oracle, but it seemed plain as day to me that a traditional interrupt-driven advertising model was never going to work in an environment where users are focused on connecting with each other in a highly personal way. Yet that’s what Facebook was preparing to launch at the time. Sure enough, users have largely ignored Facebook ads and the Facebook team is back at the drawing board trying to figure out how to monetize all their great demographic and behavioral data. What Facebook (and Microsoft, apparently) failed to understand is that people use Facebook to connect with each other. At its core, that’s the value of Facebook. It enables people to connect in a way they find valuable, useful and even fun. As one pundit said “We were foolish to think that advertising in a medium where a guy breaks up with his girlfriend was going to be effective.”

The Google lesson

The reason Google ads work is because they add value to the searcher and browser (for the content network) experience. They’re relevant to the task or content I’m engaged with at that moment. I’m not sure if, how, or when Facebook might develop a compelling advertising offering. But I’d argue that their goal should be to design an advertising system that users find valuable, useful and fun (OK, fun may be a stretch), and somehow relevant to what they’re doing at the moment. For social media to have real business value, it needs to provide real user value. Just like any other business – online or off.

Social media is hard

Facebook is an easy example, but social media generally is struggling with how to drive benefits for business without alienating users. Part of the problem is how we think and talk about social media. When someone says “social media” they’re generally referring to platforms—blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and so on. Everyone is gaga about the platforms. But by themselves, these platforms have little value. The value is in the networks of people who use the platform, the nature of their interactions, and the content they provide. And if for the social media platform companies the trick is to engineer platforms that let people connect in a valuable way, the trick for advertisers is to provide content that is appropriate to the medium while still advancing their business objectives. This takes some nuance and a totally different way of thinking, which is why so many of the early attempts at social media marketing have been so off-key. Most companies are diving in without taking the time to understand the unique rules of the medium and the level of work involved to be successful. So it’s not surprising that most struggle.

If this social media thing is ever going to take off, there need to be some easy wins for businesses. It’s too much to ask a 100 year-old company with an insular, press-shy culture to begin operating in an open and transparent manner overnight. What we need are some “low-hanging fruit” social media opportunities that don’t require organizations to completely rethink their corporate cultures. So far, I’ve only found one of these opportunities.

The diamond in the rough: ratings & reviews

As I was getting ready to give up on social media, I attended a session at the Web Design World Boston conference called “Your Users Trust Each Other, Not You: Why and How to Implement Ratings & Reviews.” I normally would’ve been working in my hotel room at this time (more proof I’m an introvert), but the title caught my interest and the presenter was my friend Steve Mulder from Molecular, so I figured I’d give it a chance. I’m glad I did. Steve delivered a very compelling and well-researched presentation that crystallized the business value of ratings and reviews in a way I’d never seen so clearly communicated. Not only that, he showed best practices for how to implement ratings and reviews. The good news: it’s relatively easy. After all, users do most of the work. And you can even license ratings and reviews content for commonly sold products. How cool is that?

But what really caught my attention were the eye-opening statistics on just how effective ratings and reviews are. I was so impressed I actually took notes, which is a real rarity for me. Here’s a sampling from my notes:

  • NetShops research showed that products with reviews had 26% higher sales
  • Letting users sort results by user ratings helped PetCo increase sales 41%
  • Products with reviews generally have a lower return rate
  • Bass Pro Shops indicated that users who viewed Top Rated products had a 59% higher conversion rate
  • Including ratings & reviews in emails had a huge lift in email CTR
  • Items with ratings on internal SERPs got a 100%+ higher CTR than those that didn’t
  • Better SEO is a side benefit of incorporating reviews (more keyword-rich copy on the page)

More sales? Lower returns? Higher conversion? That’s social media I can believe in!

SEO impact

That last bullet point will be of interest to the hardcore SEO types out there. The sites that have implemented user ratings and reviews have actually seen better organic rankings, traffic and sales as a side benefit. That resonated with me as soon as I saw it. It’s pretty intuitive, really. All other things being equal, a page with more content will likely outrank a page with less. I’d also argue that pages containing ratings and reviews make better linkbait (as much as I hate that word). So, assuming you implement them in an SEO-friendly manner, you get a two-fer with ratings and reviews. Nice.

The searcher behavior tie-In

What does this have to do with searcher behavior? Bottom line: A lot of searchers are looking for exactly this type of content. They use ratings and reviews to inform their decision process throughout the sales cycle. Early on, they’re usually looking for advice on what products to consider or skimming reviews to learn about factors they should consider when researching. Often their behavior follows a winnowing pattern. So over the course of an investigation into a digital camera purchase, they might use some or all of the following keywords:

  • Digital camera reviews
  • SLR camera reviews
  • Nikon SLR reviews
  • Nikon D80 reviews

If you’ve done keyword research (especially in consumer electronics), you’ve probably been struck by the popularity of “ratings and review” keywords showing up in your list. People are hungry for this type of content.

Checking out online ratings and reviews has become a mainstay of many people’s purchasing pattern because it serves a useful purpose.

One geek’s journey

If you’re like me (God help you), you probably check out the online reviews for a product before making any major purchase. In fact, I did it just this week. I’ve been envisioning a wireless audio system for my house that would enable me to play virtually any song in any room at any time. I always thought it was a pipe dream, but it turns out there are companies out there that have solutions for that (I love it when that happens). Anyhow, I came across the Sonos sound system and wanted to check it out. It’s a very cool system, but expensive as hell. So I’m not going to risk buyer’s remorse. I pored over every page of the Sonos site. I watched every one of their video testimonials and read every review they’d posted. I should note that their site is very good. They do a masterful job of online merchandising.

But I’m no sucker. I’m “in the field,” as they say. As a professional marketer, I know better than to take what a manufacturer posts about their own products at face value. So I went to Google for some third party validation, querying “Sonos reviews.” I’ve now probably read every review of the Sonos system ever written. And I’m closer than ever to purchasing one of these systems now, because the reviews are all generally positive and, taken together, paint a picture of a system that most people truly enjoy. I would’ve been intrigued by the product information alone, but now that I’ve seen the system work and how different people have used it, I can much more easily envision having one in my house. As a result, unlike various tech gadgets I’ve investigated only to have my interest wane, I can’t get this one out of my head.

It’s about the experience

The lesson for site owners of all types is that it’s no longer enough just to publish your product specs and assume that your features and benefits will be enough to convince people to take the next step in transacting with you. If you want to differentiate yourself and achieve great results, you need to give people some insight into the experience of using your product or service. Ratings and reviews are perfect for this. They’re valuable and useful because they enable people to see what others really think about a product or service before buying it. They’re fun because they’re unpredictable and provide a semi-voyeuristic thrill. Most important, as Steve’s presentation shows, it’s a relatively easy social media tactic that has real business impact.

For those interested, check out Steve’s full presentation on SlideShare.

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A Plea To Stop Dissing Your Customers /marketing-by-spreadsheet-15848 /marketing-by-spreadsheet-15848#respond Fri, 19 Dec 2008 13:47:23 +0000 http:/?p=15848 Dear Search Marketers: I’m worried about us. The way we’ve started talking about our target audience has me concerned that our priorities may be out of whack. By target audience I don’t mean our clients or employers. I mean the people to whom we’re marketing—the human beings performing the searches and on whose backs we […]

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Dear Search Marketers:

I’m worried about us.

The way we’ve started talking about our target audience has me concerned that our priorities may be out of whack. By target audience I don’t mean our clients or employers. I mean the people to whom we’re marketing—the human beings performing the searches and on whose backs we make our living.

I’ve been wanting to address this issue for some time, but haven’t done so for fear of offending people. But I’m over that. So here’s the potentially offensive stuff…

Watch your language

Here’s my concern: I’m hearing more and more people in this industry using language that indicates a complete lack of respect for the average searcher—essentially treating them like eyeballs—or, God forbid, TV viewers.

A few examples of the disrespectful language I’m talking about:

  • “Get them to fill in the form.”
  • “Create a sense of urgency so they’ll buy now.”
  • “Trap them with a pop-up on exit so they can’t leave.”

And my favorite:

  • “Capture their information”

I always cringe when I hear that one. As if searchers are like lumbering beasts careening dumbly through the forest, and we’re the hunters lying in wait so we can kill and eat them (I picture Homer Simpson: “mmmmmm, searcher….”). That’s hardly the mindset one should have when the goal is to begin a relationship. That is the goal, right…? I’ll get back to that later.

Search marketers becoming order takers?

I’ve had the chance to interact with a number of search marketers and agencies over the years. While a few have really impressed me with their business savvy and  professionalism, I’ve been disappointed by a recent trend toward over-specialization. Many of the people who’ve come into the field in the past 2-3 years know one aspect of search well, but have thin knowledge beyond their primary area of focus. Some know the SEM platforms, some know landing page design and optimization, some know metrics, and so on. What worries me is that we risk becoming an industry of order-takers and, as a result, producing campaigns that seriously underperform over time. If that happens, many advertisers will conclude that search isn’t as valuable as they thought, and the industry will suffer. I think the cause of this problem—and therefore the solution—lies in having an appreciation for the target audience/s to whom we’re marketing: the searchers.

Let me acknowledge up front that search marketers have a hard job. There are an insane number of moving parts to manage with search campaigns, and clients want results immediately. The short-term focus we develop is a natural outgrowth of those and other pressures. But the result is that many search marketers end up with their head in the weeds, and not very strategically focused. All the focus on short-term factors like rankings, traffic, CTR’s, CPC’s and even conversion rates can be misguided—and is eerily similar to the TV industry’s focus on ratings. I worry that if we keep this up, we’ll actually end up inhibiting an organization’s long-term success because we’re so often focused on the wrong metrics.

Say you have an e-commerce site. What’s the real end goal for such a business? To sell something once? That feels short-sighted. But that’s the usual outcome of focusing exclusively on maximizing short-term conversions, which is the approach that most search marketers take. Instead, why not think a little bigger about how to sell something now while also laying the groundwork for future additional sales? That’s hard. It’s also not how we tend to be compensated. So it’s no surprise few people do it. Yet it’s a trap we should aim to avoid if we can, lest we end up like our brethren in the broadcast world.

Search vs. TV

I’ve always liked search marketing for its pragmatism and data-driven nature. Search marketers have an inside line into the thinking of their audience. That knowledge gives us the power to tap into a demand stream to target and customize our messages at a very granular level. And it has worked better than anyone could’ve predicted. Search marketing is still growing substantially, while offline media and other forms of advertising are virtually collapsing. It would be easy to view this as a victory over the broadcast advertisers who thought they could get people to change their behavior by drilling a message into their heads enough times. And it is a victory of sorts, even if against an already-wounded opponent.

The broadcast advertising establishment can point to any number of causes for their current dire situation. There are a lot of complicated reasons and macro factors involved. But I think the answer is simple. I think one of the biggest causes was that they got cocky and assumed their power would never be challenged. So they stopped caring about keeping their real audience – TV watchers, radio listeners, direct mail recipients, and so on – happy and instead focused more and more on maximizing short-term advertising revenue and serving the fickle god of ratings.

I could expound on the aggressive stupidity and inaccuracy of the TV ratings systems, but I’ll save that for another time. My point is that even if TV ratings were accurate, they’d still be the wrong success metric for the industry to rely on exclusively because they don’t provide any measure of customer loyalty or long-term value. TV ratings remind me of the dot-com boom, when all anyone cared about was how many eyeballs a website had. That didn’t end so well.

It’s not a “relationship,” either

So, if disrespectful language is a symptom of a problem, then perhaps it can be fixed by nurturing a relationship with the audience. Right?

Actually, I have a problem with that language as well. It’s just taking the same unfeeling concept of users as cattle to the other warm and fuzzy extreme (“I love you, you love me…”). Seriously, what thinking person considers the act of buying something from a web site as a relationship? I have a relationship with my friends, my family and other people to whom I have some real bond. I don’t have a relationship with a web site (despite what you may have heard). It just doesn’t reach the level of emotional involvement or long-term commitment required to qualify as a relationship. I can say I love Apple products, but that doesn’t mean I have a relationship with Apple. Because I don’t love Apple “like that.” I love their products. And that’s a key distinction. If my laptop froze in the middle of a public speaking engagement and caused me major embarrassment, then I’d be less inclined to use that product in the future. But I wouldn’t get a divorce from the offending party or cut off all ties with them (no matter how tempting that might be, PowerPoint).

So if users aren’t drooling idiots or my best buddies, then what language should we use to talk about our user objectives? I vote for this one:

Customer engagement

Why customer engagement? It’s simple, realistic and doesn’t overpromise. Most of all, it accurately describes the sensation most advertisers would like to evoke in their target audience: a sense of engagement.

Customer engagement isn’t a new term, or even a new concept. However, it’s enjoying a renaissance of sorts in regards to online marketing. For those wanting to dive deeper on the topic, Richard Sedley and his team at cScape has written a very good (not to mention prescient) book called “Winners and Losers in A Troubled Economy.” You can download it for free from the website.

I’ve pasted the table of contents here because I don’t think the title does the book’s topic justice:

  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: New marketing: the old ways will not do
  • Chapter 2: The changing face of the customer
  • Chapter 3: Creating an online customer engagement strategy
  • Chapter 4: How to create your own online customer engagement successes
  • Chapter 5: The tactics for creating a customer engagement strategy
  • Chapter 6: Measuring online customer engagement
  • Chapter 7: What role can digital media play during a recession?
  • Conclusion

The authors have clearly done a lot of thinking about the topic of online customer engagement. They offer concrete tactics to help them improve their customer engagement quotient and recommend some good metrics organizations can use to measure engagement.

I like the concept because it takes a more holistic view of marketing effectiveness, while staying grounded in real-world measurable behaviors. It also has some similarities to behavioral economics, wherein you base economic policy on what people actually do in response to various scenarios instead of what economic theories tell you they should do. That shouldn’t be revolutionary, but for some reason it is.

I think the concept is so powerful that it’ll start catching on with more progressive organizations very quickly. In fact, the 2009 Online Customer Engagement Survey, also conducted by cScape and e-Consultancy, indicates that interest is rising already, although clearly the term means different things to different people. It makes for fascinating reading.  (Full disclosure: My firm assisted in promoting the survey in the US.)

It requires thinking a bit differently—and therefore will be rejected outright by many—but my sense is that those willing to embrace customer engagement as a strategic goal will be poised to outperform in the future.

What customer engagement means for search

I’ve taken some liberty talking about a general topic like customer engagement in a column about searcher behavior. It’s a stretch, but not as much as it seems. User experience matters so much to Google that they incorporate relevance and user experience factors into their Quality Score calculation, thus charging advertisers who offer a better user experience discounted rates. Think about that. Google essentially gives money away to advertisers who provide a superior user experience. And not just a token amount of money, but as much as 30% based on our experience. That’s how much Google values customer engagement.

Why does Google do it? Because they know that offering a better user experience for searchers engenders loyalty. They knew they’d take a short-term revenue hit by implementing such a mechanism. If they’d focused only on what the numbers were telling them, there’s no way they’d have made this move. But they fundamentally believed that ensuring a better experience for searchers would yield long-term rewards for them. I’d like to think they may have had some customer engagement metrics that helped to justify this decision. Regardless, time has proven them right and their already dominant market share has only grown further.

To be clear, I don’t love everything Google does. I could provide a long list of complaints about them as an agency/advertiser. But I have to give them credit for putting their money where their mouth is on the topic of user/searcher experience; they show respect for their end user audience.

Contrast that approach with Microsoft’s recent Cashback program, wherein they essentially bribe users into using their search engine, by literally paying them to do search. Does anyone really think that Microsoft is going to sustain any market share gains this program yields once it ends? Put me down as doubtful.

Look up from the spreadsheet

A quote from Richard Sedley’s book, mentioned above:

It is important to recognise that customer engagement places conversions—the ultimate goal of marketing—into a longer term, more strategic context and is premised on the understanding that a simple focus on maximising conversions can, in some circumstances, decrease the likelihood of repeat conversions. The pushy sales person will gain a sale, but the store will lose a customer.

Understood in this way, it should be clear that the long-term goal of customer engagement is to encourage loyalty and even advocacy from the customer. As such, your level of customer engagement is the best indicator of how your business will fare in any economic downturn. Indeed, regardless of prevailing economic conditions, it is probably fair to say that an engaged relationship is really your only cast iron guarantee of profitable future performance.

The takeaway: It’s not always about the ROI you can prove. Sometimes you have to look up from the spreadsheet, put yourself in your target audiences’ shoes and act on a vision for what will yield an engaging experience. It isn’t easy, but that’s what will be required to achieve breakout SEM success moving forward.

We’re moving toward an era where the mechanics of SEM will be increasingly commoditized. Those who know how to create good end-to-end user experiences and appreciate both the art and the science of SEM will have an advantage over those who only know how to build keyword lists, write ads, and generate reports.

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Two Little Things That Make A Big Difference /hidden-gems-of-search-two-little-things-that-make-a-big-difference-15491 Fri, 21 Nov 2008 16:52:21 +0000 http:/?p=15491 A lot of the focus in the search marketing world—both paid and organic—is on the technical and quantitative side. And that’s understandable, given the technical background of many of the practitioners and the perception that those elements are relatively easy to control. But many search marketers do themselves and their clients a disservice by not […]

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A lot of the focus in the search marketing world—both paid and organic—is on the technical and quantitative side. And that’s understandable, given the technical background of many of the practitioners and the perception that those elements are relatively easy to control. But many search marketers do themselves and their clients a disservice by not taking a more balanced view, arming themselves with the tools that a solid understanding of the search user experience (SUE) can provide.

With all the talk about how to achieve high rankings, the right growth curve to target for inbound link counts, PageRank shaping (which always makes me think of Suzanne Sommers, like she’ll be pimping the PageRank Shaper as the next Thigh Master), eking out higher Quality Score, and the like, it’s easy to lose sight of the role that actual users play in determining the success of our search campaigns. But user experience considerations often play as large a role as any of the other topics that search marketers regularly discuss. The trick is figuring out where to focus your attention.

To provide a shortcut, here are two quick tips on SUE issues that don’t get a lot of attention yet have a big impact on results. The first tip focuses on how to increase organic traffic by achieving a higher CTR on your organic search listings. The second discusses how to reduce the bounce rate on your site by ensuring a good first impression.

Tip 1 – URLs do matter for SEO

We all know good titles and descriptions are critical for a well optimized site. A lot has been written about the art of crafting these items and how to best balance relevance with user experience concerns. I don’t want to rehash those here. But there’s another element to search listings that doesn’t get much attention from the SEO community: the URL itself.


Yes, there have been debates about the importance of including keywords in your URLs. But those debates have usually centered around whether having keyword-rich URLs helps you to rank better. I watched this debate with some interest for a while trying to understand the practical SEO impact of URLs until I ran across some eye-tracking research that caused me to see the issue differently—and gave me the answer I was seeking.

The research was conducted by Enquiro for MarketingSherpa and published in Sherpa’s 2008 Search Marketing Benchmark Guide (the 2009 guide is out now – and is highly recommended). The research was attempting to see what impact, if any, that short vs. long URLs have on search behavior. Here’s an excerpt:

“What we discovered was that long URLs actually work as a deterrent and stop viewers from doing what they’re supposed to do (click!). Instead, viewers spend time trying to decipher what’s in the URL itself. Those viewing the listing with the long URL actually ended up clicking on the listing immediately after it 2.5 times more than those viewing the listing with the short URL.

Long URL length contributed to more clicks – on the next listing down the page. Those viewing the listing with the long URL clicked on the listing immediately following it 2.5 times more than those viewing the listing with the short URL – the long URL actually repelled a click as it was interpreted as being less relevant. The long URL may act as a visual wall, directing attention to the next listing.”

This rang true for me the moment I read it, mainly because it makes perfect sense. Users have so little information on which to make a decision about which listing to click that they naturally use every bit of information available to aid in their task. Many of us in the online marketing space might think of URLs as strictly utilitarian (who coined the phrase “Universal Resource Locator”, anyhow…?). But to a searcher the URL is just one of a few elements available to help determine relevance. Given how fast people scan search results for the scent of information and the abundance of “easier” results available, it makes sense that searchers essentially skip over any element that causes even momentary hesitation. More accurately, long ugly URLs create a cognitive burden for the searcher that they often resolve by skipping the burdensome listing altogether.

So by shifting from using long ugly URLs like this:

to short URLs like this:

…you could see as much as 2.5x more organic search traffic, with no change in your rankings. That’s some serious low-hanging fruit.

Surprisingly, this didn’t get a lot of play at the time, and I haven’t seen much talk about it since. But to me this was, and is, groundbreaking. I remember reading it the first time and thinking this should end the argument and make it plain as day that we should always recommend publishing short keyword-rich URLs—not for rankings, but because they garner higher consideration and clickthrough rates. So that’s what we’ve done ever since. We don’t realistically expect to see traffic increase 250% from making this change. That always struck me as a bit high. Our experience has been more in the 10-50% range. But that isn’t the point. Even if traffic only increases 10-20%, that’s plenty enough for most clients to justify the effort required to make the change.

Tip 2 – Your site design reflects your credibility

This tip is probably less controversial than the first, but no less significant in terms of potential impact. On the surface it makes sense that users would make judgments about your organization’s credibility based on their experience on your web site—starting with your landing pages. No surprise there. What might be surprising is how quickly people start to form those judgments when they see your site for the first time. And if your organization is like most, those new visitors are probably the audience you care most about, because return visitors are generally going to be more familiar and forgiving than first-timers. So how quickly do people start to react when presented with a new web site?

1/20 of a second

That’s right. A summary from a study done by researchers at Carleton University in Ontario, Canada concluded:

“This research shows that reliable decisions about your site can be made in as little as 1/20th of a second. This emotional judgment can color subsequent judgments made after further reflection. Even though your site may have superior products, services, or usability, an initial negative impression from a poor or slow design can steer customers towards your competition. You only get one chance to create a good first impression, make it count.”

Why does this matter to Web marketers? Because the research indicated that the initial split-second judgments people made about the web sites they saw impacted their likelihood of ever transacting with that organization. Once aware of this phenomenon, it seems irresponsible not to try to engineer around it. But telling a client or internal designer that their site is the visual equivalent of fingernails on a chalkboard is fraught with risk. And it’s a highly subjective judgment. Fortunately, the Canadian researchers offered some guidelines:

“A clean, professional, and fast-loading site can ensure that your first impression will be a good one.”

OK, we can ensure a site loads quickly, but how to ensure a site is “clean and professional?” That’s definitely an art. I like to use this analogy to help explain it: Pretend someone takes you to a mall and then blindfolds you before walking you around the mall to ensure you lose your bearings. If they whip off the blindfold for just a split second, chances are you’d be able to tell if you were in Nordstrom or K-Mart. It sounds silly on the surface, but your initial gut reaction would likely be right a high percentage of the time.

Note that the research only addressed users’ first impressions of a site and not the subsequent usability, load times, or other factors related to user experience. All those factors are extremely important in the overall success of a site. An e-commerce site is obviously not going to be successful if the shopping cart doesn’t work. But the research makes clear the importance of ensuring a good first impression—or what we like to call the initial “hit.” We’re assuming that a site that creates a positive first impression will have a lower bounce rate (all other things being constant) than a site that generates a poor first impression. Our experience has been that bounce rates decline as a site’s design becomes cleaner, simpler and generally more professional, so this doesn’t seem like an unreasonable assumption.

So how do you test a site for the first impression it creates? First you have to accept that there are limits to the kind of reliable feedback mechanisms available to us non-university types. You and I can’t realistically hope to measure someone’s emotionally subconscious 50 millisecond reaction with any degree of accuracy. There are too many variables involved and we don’t have the measuring tools. But you can pretty easily test users’ initial reactions to a new site. In fact, a new online tool called Five Second Test does just that. It basically allows you to upload an image of the page you want to test and then flashes it up on a willing tester’s screen for five seconds, after which the user records what they remember about the site.

My colleague Sandra Niehaus has written a more complete review of the tool. I encourage you to check it out for yourself. It’s easy to use and, best of all, free. If you use it, please be sure to participate in one or more tests to help the other people out there trying to get feedback on their sites.

That tool will help you understand the issues in play. But to apply that intelligence, you’ll need to develop one or more new designs incorporating your learnings and A/B test those designs against your current landing pages. It can be a fair amount of work to do all of this. I can’t overstate the importance of working with a designer who understands usability and conversion marketing well. That can make all the difference in finding a design that feels right to your audience so that they hang around to find out more about you. Which is, of course, the goal of all of this.

So ask yourself honestly: Does your site feel like a clean well-lighted place or the online equivalent of a dark back alley? If the latter, you may be paying a higher price than you think.

So there you have it. One tip for getting more organic traffic and one for reducing your landing page bounce rates. They may not be as sexy as PageRank shaping, but neither of them are likely to get you in trouble with Matt Cutts.

Lance Loveday is the CEO of Closed Loop Marketing, a search marketing agency specializing in conversion optimization. He also co-authored the best-selling book, Web Design for ROI. The Just Behave column appears Fridays at Search Engine Land.

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Wagging the Long-Tailed Dog: Search Behavior & The Economy /wagging-the-long-tailed-dog-search-behavior-and-the-economy-15171 Fri, 24 Oct 2008 11:15:43 +0000 http:/?p=15171 As the head of a search agency, I admit that I was somewhat bemused at first by this whole financial crisis we’re having. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t like seeing people suffer, and it hurts to see the impact that a slowing economy is having on many of my friends and neighbors. But as […]

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As the head of a search agency, I admit that I was somewhat bemused at first by this whole financial crisis we’re having. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t like seeing people suffer, and it hurts to see the impact that a slowing economy is having on many of my friends and neighbors. But as a longtime critic of traditional media and promoter of Search, I couldn’t resist feeling a little smug knowing that traditional ad budgets were about to be cut and the move to online media accelerated as advertisers started focusing more heavily on ROI. Given that Search accounts for almost half of online media spending, that trend would be a good thing for Search and, selfishly, my company – right…? The big picture search trends aren’t going to change dramatically. More people will continue to search more often no matter what, so what could possibly go wrong?

Lies, damn lies & search statistics

Indeed, the big picture for Search isn’t likely to change much. Here’s the latest search query growth chart for the US (data from comScore):

Search Query Growth, Sep07, Sep08

The forecasts may come down somewhat as a result of this downturn, but nobody I’ve heard thinks it’s going to turn negative.

This, along with all the usual points we make when making the business case for Search (measurability, control, ROI…), is partially why I felt so assured that Search would remain relatively unaffected by a recession.

When the economy sneezes…

Here’s the problem: while the overall search volume numbers are likely to keep climbing, the nature of those queries is likely to shift in response to macro behavioral trends. Here’s how it works: a barrage of news stories about global economic meltdown causes consumers to get nervous and rein in spending. They don’t shop as much, and even when they do, they buy fewer goods and/or shop less often. This doesn’t necessarily cause them to spend less time online (God forbid) or search any less. It just means they search for different things. So the number of purchase-related queries may decline while the number of information or entertainment-related queries increases. This, in a nutshell, is what I believe is happening right now.

As with most things, Gord Hotchkiss beat me to the punch on this topic. I encourage you to check out his summary of the psychological underpinnings of our society’s response to the current financial crisis a few months ago: Human Hardware: Risk vs Reward – Expressed Through Search (his Google Trends chart of “house plans” vs. “foreclosures” provides a brilliant visual synopsis of our current economic mood):

Everyone gets a cold

I got my first inkling that Search wasn’t immune from the economic slowdown while reviewing the SEM campaign performance one of our consumer e-commerce clients. This client only sells one thing – a very popular and heavily branded high-end technology gadget that people love. Sales from Search had increased nicely from when we took over their campaign, but then stalled somewhat dramatically in mid-September. We couldn’t figure out why at first. But a close examination revealed at least one reason: impressions had dropped by roughly 20% over the course of the month. Uh oh.

Optimize that

Why was I so unsettled by this? Because a) this data was for branded searches only, b) we’d consistently held top positions for all these terms, c) impression volume on these terms had been steady for months prior to this, and d) I knew there had been no other change to the campaigns themselves or in the offline advertising or promotional efforts that would explain the sudden drop-off in impressions. The only remaining explanation was that fewer people were searching for my client’s product. As search volume for branded keywords is a good proxy for demand, that meant consumer demand for my client’s product was on the decline.

That couldn’t be good. Then I checked out the conversion rate over the same timeframe:

Conversion Rate Graph

What the…? On seeing this, my first reaction was that there must’ve been a site push or some other technical glitch with the site in mid-September that would account for the sudden drop in conversion. But after extensive investigation with the client and their web agency, we couldn’t find any internal reason for why this had happened. So I ultimately had to accept that this drop had been caused by external factors. Damn.

Spoiler alert: Search isn’t magic

I’d been assuming that the economic news was partially to blame, but couldn’t believe it was solely responsible for a conversion drop of this magnitude. What the hell happened in the world over the weekend of Sep 13-14 that could explain this?

In retrospect, this should’ve been obvious to me. Aside from Search, one of my other hobbies is keeping up on economic news (I don’t get invited to a lot of parties). So I was well aware that Lehman Brothers had declared bankruptcy on Friday, Sep 12 – and that it was perceived that the Fed “let” Lehman fail, which was quite unnerving. I think that’s when the economic crisis really hit home for most Americans and investors, as indicated by this chart of the Dow Jones Industrial Average:

Dow Jones Chart, Sep08

So economic uncertainty not only caused fewer people to search for my client’s product, it also caused those that did search to convert at a lower rate. Anecdotal evidence from a variety of sources indicates this trend is playing out across a number of e-commerce sites, where both traffic and conversion rates are down. Put simply, there are fewer shoppers and fewer of those shopping are buying. No wonder the forecasts are for this holiday season to be the worst in twenty years. Ouch.

Astute readers will notice that there was a gap between the Lehman bankruptcy on Sep 12 (a Friday) and the time that conversion started dropping on Sep 15 (a Monday). My explanation? Despite the media’s best efforts, not everyone is instantly aware of each news item. It still takes some time for even major news items to reach full saturation out there among the general public. And often longer for new information to be socialized and internalized to the point that would cause a change in behavior. So the fact that it took only two days for this news to be reflected in behavior patterns speaks to the powerful impact this announcement had. My sense is that people had been pushed to the edge by the steady drumbeat of negative economic news over the prior weeks. Lehman’s failure on Sep 12, then, was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Drinking the Search Kool-Aid

I really should’ve known better than to think that Search would keep powering along regardless of changes in the economy. But I let myself be blinded by my own self-interest, the same way so many homebuyers and speculators had convinced themselves that real estate values would continue rising forever. This is particularly egregious in my case because I usually try to approach every Web marketing problem by starting with the end user experience and working backward from there. But as they liked to say back in the dot-com boom, I was “drinking the Kool-Aid.” And it tasted so self-righteously delicious.

Renewing my vows

Here are the lessons I re-learned as a result of all this:

Search is a pull medium. If people stopped Searching, the search economy would crumble. Unlike, say, TV. Which continues to run and charge for ads even when nobody is watching.

Searchers are in charge. Search isn’t a passive activity. Every search impression involves an engaged user on the other end who is looking for something. Every question related to Search should be analyzed from the searcher perspective to see what we can discern about the searcher’s intent and context.

Searchers are people. And it is the actions of people that ultimately dictate the direction of the economy. Nothing in the world is immune from the combined actions of hundreds of millions of people, no matter how cool it is.

People are irrational (myself included). Fortunately, they are predictably irrational. Case in point: Very few people had less money on September 20 than they did on September 10. But the economic news caused them to think they might have less money in the future. And as we’ve learned, if people think they have less money to spend, they’ll spend less. So this series of events all followed a foreseeable pattern. Even if I couldn’t have predicted the degree of dropoff, I should’ve expected to see a decline. But I stubbornly thought we’d be able to optimize our way out of this problem.

Beware extreme conclusions. Search isn’t so strong that it’s impervious. And the economy isn’t so weak that it’s going to implode and have us all roaming the streets as cannibals.

Focus on the things you can control. Like ensuring you have well-structured and highly targeted campaigns, testing landing pages, improving conversion, and so on.

Search Still Rules

Search is a fantastic medium with a great future. Its usefulness and utility will ensure its continued growth. But its inherent value is ultimately determined by the people doing the searches, and not those of us managing the campaigns. All the statistics can obscure that simple fact sometimes.

Besides, it’s possible that the client example referenced above is an isolated incident. There are circumstances unique to their business that render them more risk-prone to a pullback in spending than the average company. It’s also possible we’ll eventually discover something that went wrong with the site that will explain the sudden drop in conversion. That would actually make me feel better. But I don’t think either of these possibilities is likely.

To be clear, I don’t think it’s safe to extrapolate from this example to draw conclusions about the degree of the overall economic slowdown or any single company’s financial performance during this time. I’m merely making the point that economic malaise -> consumer fear -> fewer searchers looking to buy -> fewer searches with purchase intent & lower conversion rates due to increased window shopping.

My intent with this article isn’t to scare anyone. I continue to believe that Search has a very strong future as a (the?) dominant advertising platform. I’m also sensitive to the notion that all the negative media coverage of the economy risks creating a negative feedback loop and further eroding confidence. Yet here I am in my first serious journalistic endeavor writing about recession.

So… don’t let this article keep you from believing and investing in Search, and certainly don’t let it keep you from buying stuff. In an attempt to lead by example and offset any economic damage this article may do, I’m going to remodel my kitchen – with a little help from Google, of course. So I’m off to get a home equity loan now. What could go wrong?

Lance Loveday is the CEO of Closed Loop Marketing, a search marketing agency specializing in conversion optimization. He also co-authored the best-selling book, Web Design for ROI.

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