Competition: Another Big DC Week for Tech (Where Do We Go From Here?)

When the leaders of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google come to Washington, you know there’s going to be a lot of posturing – and it’s usually not (just) from the witnesses.

The focus this past week was the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust Law rather than privacy, security, and foreign influence – topics of previous high-profile hearings. Yet the out-sized attention on these leading executives and companies – all of them U.S.-based – is actually a testament, in my humble opinion, to the power of data, information, and innovation at work advancing the American and global economy. Has this exercise and accumulation of power been benign, beneficial… or harmful?

I’ve not been shy to tout the conveniences and benefits that we’ve accrued and enjoyed as a result of responsible data use. Yet I do not dismiss an investigation of harm, unintended or otherwise. Simply, I ask that in our zeal to rein in questionable practices, let’s flash a sign to policymakers: “Handle with Care.”

The world has embraced the Information Economy. It just so happens, not by accident, that the United States has both many global leaders (four of them visiting DC) and – it must be said – a long tail of innovative companies that want to grow, prosper, and potentially join the ranks of the next big, successful data-driven entities.

As Americans, we should do all we can to recognize our own advantage, and to encourage such business ingenuity – for a better world.  Transparency, control, and civil liberties must be protected… that’s all.

There’s a part of me – with my direct marketing heritage – that’s utterly in awe of what these companies have achieved, each of them forging their own paths to business success, and doing so in a way that has cultivated and curated data – marketing and otherwise – to create in each a global powerhouse. Digital has always been “direct marketing on steroids” (please let me know who coined this phrase), and many of these companies achieved their success through a fervor for measurability and accountability.

But the question of the day – antitrust – is a very serious charge. 

Practically every business revolution in the age of capitalism – oil, banking, computing, communications, digital, among others – have had to grapple with the question, how much power is too much? What constitutes “too big” in the Information Economy? Though no one has gone there yet, could there ever be a concept in the digital world as Wall Street’s “too big to fail” – in reference to our banking giants?

I myself don’t have these answers, but I do think it’s worth looking (again) to our digital and direct marketing heritage for some guidance. Certainly any new federal laws and regulation, such as for privacy, ought to be pragmatic in their approach – rather than overly prescriptive. We have a blueprint for a federal privacy law in Privacy for America, for example, which seeks to discern reasonable from unreasonable data uses.

Some consideration, please.

  • What if we held out that data collected for marketing use should be used for marketing purposes only? What non-marketing uses – product development and design possibly – might also be acceptable?
  • Should personally identifiable data collected for marketing use ever or always be anonymized for non-marketing use? Certainly, let’s make sure we can recognize consumers as they jump from device to device and across digital and offline platforms, if for no other reason than marketing or fraud prevention purposes. These aims grow the economy, serve consumers, and finance vital social aims such as news reporting.
  • Under what circumstances should private-sector data be handed over to government sources? What legal protections should govern such handovers – subpoenas and otherwise? It’s a borderless world. What access should foreign governments have to such data, about U.S. citizens or from other jurisdictions? It’s a fine line – or even a fuzzy blur – between anti-terrorism and unwanted surveillance of ordinary people.
  • And of course, there’s anti-competition. Data enablement and data sharing should grow the economy, foster competition, and serve consumers. Laws – whether anti-competition or privacy – should seek the same, and not undermine innovation. For example, the current demonization of third-party data feeds a frenzy that concentrates first-party data collection and power in “walled gardens” – where knowledge about customers’ marketing preferences often becomes incomplete and clouded. Could policymakers use their pen unwittingly to diminish the long tail of ad tech to detrimental effects? Even (some) Europeans have questioned what they’ve done.

As far as bias is concerned, add my voice to those who wish to do our utmost to minimize and eliminate protected-class discrimination in our algorithms and artificial intelligence – gender, race, religion, sexual preference – as we practice the art and science of commerce.

All the same, I have deep sympathy for this same task regarding political free speech: when and how we would ever attempt to define and remove political bias is dangerous territory. What is a lie? What is hate speech? What is a conservative or liberal bias?

There are no easy answers here. But I look forward to this public investigation, all the same. We need to understand fully where the Information Economy may overstep, overreach, restrict free speech, or undermine competition – even if these grievances are found to be remote.

A Map or a Matrix? Identity Management Is More Complex By the Day

A newly published white paper on how advertisers and brands can recognize unique customers across marketing platforms underscores just how tough this important job is for data-driven marketers.

As technologists and policymakers weigh in themselves on the data universe – often without understanding the full ramifications of what they do (or worse, knowing so but proceeding anyway) – data flows on the Internet and on mobile platforms are being dammed, diverted, denuded, and divided.

In my opinion, these developments are not decidedly good for advertising – which relies on such data to deliver relevance in messaging, as well as attribution and measurement. There is a troubling anti-competition mood in the air. It needs to be reckoned with.

Consider these recent developments:

  • Last week, the European Court of Justice rendered a decision that overturned “Privacy Shield” – the safe harbor program that upward of 5,000 companies rely upon to move data securely between the European Union and the United States. Perhaps we can blame U.S. government surveillance practices made known by Edward Snowden, but the impact will undermine hugely practical, beneficial, and benign uses of data – including for such laudable aims as identity management, and associated advertising and marketing uses.
  • Apple announced it will mandate an “opt-in” for mobile identification data used for advertising and marketing beginning with iOS 14. Apple may report this is about privacy, but it is also a business decision to keep Apple user data from other large digital companies. How can effective cross-app advertising survive (and be measured) when opt-in rates are tiny? What about the long-tail and diversity of content that such advertising finances?
  • Google’s announcement that it plans to cease third-party cookies – as Safari and Mozilla have already done – in two years’ time (six months and ticking) is another erosion on data monetization used for advertising. At least Google is making a full-on attempt to work with industry stakeholders (Privacy Sandbox) to replace cookies with something else yet to be formulated. All the same, ad tech is getting nervous.
  • California’s Attorney General – in promulgating regulation in conjunction with the enforcement of the California Consumer Privacy Act (in itself an upset of a uniform national market for data flows, and an undermining of interstate commerce) – came forth with a new obligation that is absent from the law, but asked for by privacy advocates: Companies will be required to honor a browser’s global default signals for data collection used for advertising, potentially interfering with a consumer’s own choice in the matter. It’s the Do Not Track debate all over again, with a decision by fiat.

These external realities for identity are only part of the complexity. Mind you, I haven’t even explored here the volume, variety, and velocity of data that make data collection, integration, analysis, and application by advertisers both vital and difficult to do. As consumers engage with brands on a seemingly ever-widening number of media channels and data platforms, there’s nothing simple about it. No wonder Scott Brinker’s Mar Tech artwork is becoming more and more an exercise in pointillism.

Searching for a Post-Cookie Blueprint

So it is in this flurry (or fury) of policy developments that the Winterberry Group issued its most recent paper, “Identity Outlook 2020: The Evolution of Identity in a Privacy-First, Post-Cookie World.”

Its authors take a more positive view of recent trends – reflecting perhaps a resolve that the private sector will seize the moment:

“We believe that regulation and cookie deprecation are a positive for the future health and next stage of growth for the advertising and marketing industry as they are appropriate catalysts for change in an increasingly privacy-aware consumer environment,” write authors Bruce Biegel, Charles Ping, and Michael Harrison, all of whom are with the Winterberry Group.

The researchers report five emerging identity management processes, each with its own regulatory risk. Brands may pursue any one or combination of these methodologies:

  • “A proprietary ID based on authenticated first-party data where the brand or media owner has established a unique ID for use on their owned properties and for matching with partners either directly or through privacy safe environments (e.g.: Facebook, Google, Amazon).
  • “A common ID based on a first-party data match to a PII- [personally identifiable information] based reference data set in order to enable scale across media providers while maintaining high levels of accuracy.
  • “A common ID based on a first-party data match to a third-party, PII-based reference data set in order to enable scale across media providers while maintaining high levels of accuracy; leverages a deterministic approach, with probabilistic matching to increase reach.
  • “A second-party data environment based on clean environments with anonymous ID linking to allow privacy safe data partnerships to be created.
  • “A household ID based on IP address and geographic match.”

The authors offer a chart that highlights some of the regulatory risks with each approach.

“As a result of the diversity of requirements across the three ecosystems (personalization, programmatic and ATV [advanced television]) the conclusion that Winterberry Group draws from the market is that multiple identity solutions will be required and continue to evolve in parallel. To achieve the goals of consumer engagement and customer acquisition marketers will seek to apply a blend of approaches based on the availability of privacy-compliant identifiers and the suitability of the approach for specific channels and touchpoints.”

A blend of approaches? Looks like I’ll need a navigator as well as the map. As one of the six key takeaways, the report authors write:

“Talent gaps, not tech gaps: One of the issues holding the market back is the lack of focus in the brand/agency model that is dedicated to understanding the variety of privacy-compliant identity options. We expect that the increased market complexity in identity will require Chief Data Officers to expand their roles and place themselves at the center of efforts to reduce the media silos that separate paid, earned and owned use cases. The development of talent that overlaps marketing/advertising strategy, data/data science and data privacy will be more critical in the post-cookie, privacy-regulated market than ever before.”

There’s much more in the research to explore than one blog post – so do your data prowess a favor and download the full report here.

And let’s keep the competition concerns open and continuing. There’s more at stake here than simply a broken customer identity or the receipt of an irrelevant ad.

4 Takeaways From Google’s Search Quality Rater Guidelines Every Marketer Should Know

Google employs a massive team of quality raters across the globe to help it assess its search results. The data Google gathers from these raters is used to improve algorithms, ensuring that only the most useful and relevant pages show up in the first page of search results. But why does this matter to marketers?

Google employs a massive team of quality raters across the globe to help it assess its search results. The data Google gathers from its search quality raters is used to improve algorithms, ensuring that only the most useful and relevant pages show up in the first page of search results.

Why is this important?

In a remarkable show of transparency, Google actually makes its search quality rater guidelines available to the general public. That’s right, the same company whose make-or-break algorithm updates are cloaked in secrecy shares nearly 170 pages detailing exactly what their search quality raters are instructed to do. While quality raters do not directly influence search engine results pages (SERPs) or a site’s ranking, we can look at this document to determine what Google wants from a website — and what they don’t want, too.

The Quality of Some Pages Matters More Than Others

“Your Money or Your Life” sounds like an especially grim gameshow, but it’s the term Google uses for pages with higher stakes than others: pages that can impact a user’s happiness, health, finances, or safety. These pages are held to a search quality higher standard than other types of content.

The takeaway here is that if the site you run or perform SEO for is in one of these categories, you’re going to have to mind your Ps and Qs. Per Google’s quality rater guidelines, Your Money or Your Life (YMYL) pages include:

  • News and Current Events
  • Civics, Government, and Law
  • Finance
  • Shopping
  • Health and Safety
  • Groups of People (i.e., information about racial, ethnic, and social groups that could be potentially used to discriminate)

There’s also an Other category, in which raters are instructed to use their own discretion — these include nutrition, housing information, job search topics, and education. Recent algorithm changes have been hitting sites hard for proving themselves unreliable through the YMYL lens. Alternative medicine, for example, was seriously downgraded in the SERPs last fall, with science-based health sites including articles vetted by medical professionals taking their place.

Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness (E-A-T)

Remember Google Plus? It may have proven completely worthless, but it did give us insight into Google’s shift in focus to evaluating not just the content on the page, but the person or people creating it. E-A-T matters across the board, but not surprisingly, it matters more for YMYL sites. E-A-T means:

  • An article about Multiple Sclerosis should be written or reviewed by a physician or nurse, not someone touting a vegan diet as a cure.
  • News articles should be written by a journalist using proper grammar and come from a legitimate website, not a mysterious .news domain of unknown origin.
  • Science content should come from people or organizations with experience in the field and reflect scientific consensus. (Sorry, flat-earth enthusiasts.)
  • Financial, legal, home remodeling, and parenting topics must also be well-researched and written by trustworthy sources.

Even content on hobbies should be written by people with expertise. In short, Google is raising the bar in order to eliminate content farms. It also impacts those of us in the SEO field, who often use freelance writers to create a wide variety of content for an even wider variety of clients. It’s important to have your clients read and vet anything produced by a ghostwriter before it gets posted so it bolsters your client’s E-A-T score, rather than harming it.

Reputation and customer reviews are two other factors that are weighed when determining E-A-T—anyone offering professional services should send out reminders to clients asking them to write reviews because Google instructs its quality raters to look at these, which means that Google’s algorithms are also looking at these factors.

Supplementary Information Is Important

Related to this last point, search quality raters also are told to visit other pages on a website in order to make their evaluations. Transparency is critical here — an “About Us” page should not be vague, but crystal clear about the business being run and the team behind it. There should be a contact page on every website — and it should have actual contact information, not just a form to fill out.

This, too, is weighed differently for YMYL pages. Per Google’s search quality rater guidelines:

“If a store or financial transaction website just has an email address and physical address, it may be difficult to get help if there are issues with the transaction.”

The takeaway here is that even email and a physical address may not be enough to satisfy Google in some circumstances. You (or your client) should be comfortable putting it all out there if they have a YMYL page and they want to rank well in the SERPs.

Content (Is Still) King

Content is king. It is still king. It will always be king.

Ultimately, Google’s goal has been the same since it began: to make money. And how does Google make money? By delivering users the best content to meet their needs. The days of hiring people in far-flung places to write a garbled blog post about conveyor belts for $5 are over. SEO isn’t about tricks; it’s not about gaming the system.

Many people in our field spend a lot of time fretting about algorithms and jump on every SEO trend they read about. The danger in this is that as soon as you start implementing some shiny new strategy, Google catches on and adjusts its algorithm and the rankings plummet. You start feeling like a hamster on a wheel, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Read Google’s search quality rater guidelines and see what they look for and do those things. Without good content, none of the other SEO techniques you use will matter.

The Bottom Line

What does Google want in a website? High-quality content from reliable sources. Accuracy matters, but so does the quality of writing. User experience should be good, sites should be viewable and usable on mobile, and if a website has ads, they should not render a site unusable. Take a step back and evaluate each page on a site and ask yourself if you’d find it helpful before you release it into the world.

Want more tips to improve your SEO?  Click here to grab a copy of our Ultimate SEO Checklist.

 

 

Data Love Story in the USA With a Few Spats, Too

You might call this time of year, Jan. 15 to March 15, marketing data’s “high season,” based on all of the goings-on. There’s a lot of data love out there — and, like all relationships that are precious, they demand a huge amount of attention, respect, and honor — and celebration.

I’ve been enjoying Alliant’s “Data and the Marketer: A Timeless Love Story” postings this month, leading up to Valentine’s Day.

You might call this time of year, Jan. 15 to March 15, marketing data’s “high season,” based on all of the goings-on:

The Alliant infographic download got me thinking of some other “key” dates that might also be recognized on the Data Love calendar, reflecting other aspects of the love story. Not all love affairs are perfect — are there any? Sometimes there’s a quarrel and spats happen, without any abandonment of a full-on love affair.

  • 1960 — The Direct Marketing Association (then, DMAA) develops its first self-regulatory ethics code for data and lists, in an early industry initiative to separate the good from bad players. It becomes the basis for practically every data protection (and consumer rights) framework since.
  • 1971 — The Mail Preference Service is launched (today DMAChoice) the first marketing industry opt-out control program for consumers — the essential framework for every consumer choice tool in marketing (in-house and industry-wide) since.
  • 1973 — The U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare introduces and adopts eight Fair Information Principles. In 1980, the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development adopts these principles for trans-border data flows. In 1995, The European Union, among other governments, enact variation and interpretation of these formally into law, eventually adopting the EU General Data Protection Regulation in 2018.
  • 1991 — Jennifer Barret is named Acxiom’s privacy leader — among the first enterprises to name what essentially would become a “chief privacy officer.” In 2000, Trevor Hughes launches the International Association of Privacy Professionals. A nascent cottage industry evolves into a huge professional education and development organization that today includes tens of thousands of members.
  • 1992 — A nonprofit and privacy advocacy organization, the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, is formed, and soon thereafter begins tracking data security breaches, both public and private sector. Its breach list since 2005 is posted here. Data privacy and data security, as evidenced in Fair Information Practice Principles, go hand-in-hand.
  • 1994 — The first online display ad appears on the Internet, by AT&T. (And the first commercial email perhaps the same year.) So marked the humble beginnings of Internet marketing — “direct marketing on steroids.” I thought Jeff Bezos used this term in Amazon (formed 1994) early days during a DMA conference – but alas, I’m having a hard time sourcing that one. Perhaps this quote was related to Google (formed 1998) and the real-time relevance of search!
  • 1995-96 — Subscriber Ram Avrahami asserts a property right to his name in a lawsuit against S. News and World Report. Because he thwarted the spelling of his name on the magazine’s list – in a bid to discover who else the magazine rents its subscriber list to – the court ultimately rejects his challenge. The case, however, introduces a novel concept and set of questions:Is the value of any list or database tied to the presence of any one individual name on that list, a penny a name in this case?  Or, is its value because of the sweat of the brow of the list/database creator (a business, nonprofit group, or other entity) that built a common attribute to which a list may derive commercial value?The “walled gardens” of today’s Digital Giants largely were built on such data collection. These two questions recognize that a “data-for-value” exchange must be perceived as mutually beneficial, or else consumer trust is eroded. “Who owns the data?” (a 20th Century assertion) might be better substituted today as “Who has a shared interest in the value and protection of data?” (a 21st Century proposition).
  • 2006 — Facebook is formed, among the first companies that created a “social network.” (I’m sure the adult content sector preceded it, as it often points us the way.) In one industry after another, digital disruption reorders supply chains, consumer-brand relationships, shopping practices, and name-your-own-business here. The Great Recession, and venture capital, serves to speed the quest for data-defined efficiency and transformation.
  • 2017 — Equifax, one of the United States three leading credit and information bureaus on Americans, experiences a breach of epic proportions. While the nation was fascinated with subsequent public hearings about Facebook, its data deals, and its (ahem, beneficial) targeted advertising practices, a potentially much more egregious purveyor of harm – sponsored government hacking of the highest order – largely gets a ho-hum from the general public, at least until this past week.
  • 2020 — California fragments online privacy protection in the United States – only underscoring the need for the federal government to act sooner than later. Support Privacy for America.

So, yes, there’s a lot of Data Love out there — and, like all relationships that are precious, they demand a huge amount of attention, respect, and honor — and celebration. See you soon in Orlando!

 

 

Why Google Going to the Dark Side Is Bad for Advertisers

Over time, the simplicity of Google’s results page has clearly eroded. In the beginning, Google’s clear user interface was beloved to search users for its ease of access and clarity. It was easy to spot ads, because they were clearly marked. The Google SERP today is visually very noisy, with lots of distractions.

Over time, the simplicity of Google’s results page has clearly eroded. In the beginning, Google’s clear user interface was beloved to search users for its ease of access and clarity. It was easy to spot ads, because they were clearly marked. The Google search engine results page today is visually very noisy, with lots of distractions.

Google rolled out its new UX on mobile several months ago, and — in mid-January — applied the changes to desktop search. Contrary to the company’s claims that the new design “puts a site’s brand front-and-center, helping searchers better understand where information is coming from, more easily scan results and decide what to explore.”

But the change, in fact, blurs the user’s ability to easily differentiate ads from organic listings. These most recent changes have taken the desktop search engine results page into the dark side, for its UX exhibits “dark patterns” in how it differentiates advertising from organic results. This has a significant downside for advertisers, organic search marketers, and their audiences.

Dark Patterns

Coined by Harry Brignull, a London-based UX designer in July 2010, “dark patterns” are user interfaces that are carefully crafted to trick users into taking an action. Although the current layout places a bold “Ad” indicator next to text ads, and shows favicons next to organic brand listings, it is easy for the user scanning a search page quickly to overlook the ad notation or confuse the ad notation with the similarly placed favicons. Many users choose not to click advertisements, preferring to skim the listings for the page that most clearly suggests the answer to their search query. Savvy users know that the ad may not, in fact, deliver the most relevant page for their query and are wary of paid advertisements.

Google has made it harder for the user to rapidly differentiate, particularly on noisy desktop pages, paid ads from organic content. This new layout is not as distracting on mobile, where the small screen makes each listing stand out. The smaller screen visually reduces the clutter, forcing the user to focus on each result card.

A single search for “high heels shoes” on a desktop yields a cluttered page that includes “sponsored” shopping ads, ads (marked with bold Ad indicator), a set of accordions with “People also ask,” a map and local listings box, and finally organic results.

With all of this distraction, the user is likely to click unintentionally on a poorly differentiated ad. In the future, it will be easy for Google to slip more ads into the pages without creating user awareness of the volume of ads being served.

Why Is This Bad?

When the user cannot clearly differentiate an ad from an organic listing, the advertiser pays for clicks that are unintentional. This depletes the advertiser’s budget, without delivering sales conversions. It is too early to tell the exact levels of the unintentional clicks, but it is my clear bet that there will be a significant volume of them.

Contrary to claims, the new UX is not good for the user. It forces the user to slow down to avoid making a perhaps erroneous decision. Rather than enhancing the user experience, the user will be less satisfied with the results delivered.

For organic search marketers, the redesign makes it imperative to have a favicon that works and clearer branding in the search Titles and Descriptions — because the actual link has been visually downgraded. It is now above the Title.

It is expected that Google will continue to test new ways to demarcate ads from content, but the continued blurring of paid and organic results only really benefits Google.

Does Google Really Need Your Website? Well, How Mobile-Friendly Are You?

In the last two months alone, two significant updates have occurred to the Google algorithm — creating volatility in the search results. The second update happened around March 15, and was a major update — a Core Algorithm Update.

In the last two months alone, two significant updates have occurred to the Google algorithm — creating volatility in the search results. The second update happened around March 15, and was a major update — a Core Algorithm Update.

These core updates occur several times a year. Recovering from rankings drops created by a core algorithmic change is not about fixing a page. I contend that just fixing a few pages is an exercise as fruitful in arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Instead, you site owners should ask yourselves, honestly, does Google really need the website? The answer is often “no,” so Internet management teams avoid the question and pour their efforts and funds into fixing pages in response to algorithmic updates.

The way to avoid making fixes is to think like long and big. Think like Google, and use its learning on search and user intent to make your site valuable.

Why Should Google Want Your Site?

With its proclaimed intent to index all the world’s knowledge, it could be argued that Google needs your site to fulfill this mission.

But just being included does not mean showing up in the top results. What brings a site to the top of the results? It is the user and whether your site answers the intent of the user’s query.

If a page and, by extension, the entire site addresses the user’s intent per the query and provides clear expert, authoritative and trustworthy (E-A-T) content, then it will show up in the top results.

There is an added wrinkle. With Google moving to a mobile-first, mobile-focused environment, your mobile site must meet the user’s intent.

As I write this post, I am working at a laptop linked to a large monitor, the typical configuration of an Internet worker. This is not where the searchers are. They are on mobile devices.

If your analytics don’t show more than half your visitors are mobile, then you are an outlier.

If you are looking to fix your search results, think mobile. I would suggest getting away from the monitor at your desk and using your mobile device to conduct a series of searches your typical user might perform. You may find yourself frustrated. If you typically chase rankings, you may find lots of reasons why you are not in the top search rankings.

How Do You Fix the Problem?

Because SEO success is tied to meeting the user’s search intent, then it is imperative to attach more significance to a creating successful user experience for mobile users.

This does not push aside all of the other elements of good SEO, it simply creates a delivery system for meeting the user on the user’s terms.

Getting there goes beyond simply doing searches on a mobile device. It forces a rethinking of how and why data is presented. Begin by reading. Here are several points of departure. If you love deeply technical information or suffer from insomnia, spend some time reading Google’s Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines. (Opens as a PDF) These are the guidelines that Google’s team of human evaluators use to determine the quality of sample pages. The results from the evaluators are used as part of the training data that flow into creating the algorithm.

Here, you will quickly see what makes a page good. This is just the first stop on the tour.

Then, check out the much more user-friendly and readable UX Playbooks available for various types of sites. The retail playbook is eye-opening. (Opens as a PDF)

First, all of the examples and screenshots are mobile.

For an even longer view of where Google Search is headed in the future, read Ben Gomes’s blog post on “Improving Search in the Next 20 Years.

Instead of worrying about fixing pages in response to updates, consider how well you and your site will fit with what Google wants now and into the future.

The Triple-A Approach to Succeeding at Digital Marketing in 2019

While it’s impossible to predict the new innovations advertising platforms will release in the year ahead, there are three trends and tactics marketers should be aware of that made a big enough impact in 2018 that are likely to be the cornerstones of digital marketing in 2019, and they all begin with “A.”

While it’s impossible to predict the new innovations advertising platforms will release in the year ahead, there are three trends and tactics marketers should be aware of that made a big enough impact in 2018 that are likely to be the cornerstones of digital marketing in 2019, and they all begin with “A.”

The triple A approach to succeeding at digital marketing in 2019: Amazon, Audiences and Automation.

Amazon Advertising Reaches the Big Time

Rumors circulated for years that the online retail giant could become one of the biggest media companies, yet advertisers just recently started taking these rumors seriously and jumping on the bandwagon. After an initial uproar when Amazon began showing up in Google Shopping results in Q4 of 2016 causing competing advertisers’ costs-per-click (CPCs) to spike, many retails shifted gears, choosing to partner with Amazon rather than compete against it, making Amazon’s growth inevitable. In fact, Amazon has already become the third largest digital ad publisher behind Google and Facebook, and according to a recent survey, 80% of advertisers plan to increase their budgets on Amazon in 2019.

For those advertisers who haven’t yet dipped their toes into Amazon advertising, it’s time to explore the self-service Amazon Marketing Services. Sponsored Products are usually a good place to start since the ads go live immediately, appear organic, and don’t require images or custom copy. Automatic targeting that adapts dynamically to trends and seasonality is available, eliminating the need to manually select keywords. Combined, these options make for a relatively simple process. Of course, an agency can help fine-tune an Amazon advertising program; especially if they completed Amazon’s power training which grants them assigned dedicated support.

Audiences Become the Priority

Having been a hot topic for some time now, in 2019 audiences will become unavoidable. While many advertisers already applied audiences to their advertising programs, not many have done so strategically. Imagine if step one of any digital program was building an audience to target with your program rather than building a list of keywords. Keywords would be supplanted as the most important aspect for paid search, replaced by audience targeting to positively impacting a client’s bottom line with a much more refined approach.

Refining an audience approach will be the single most effective tactic to win at customer-centric marketing; by focusing on the right person at the right time, with the right messaging, marketers set themselves up for victory. By focusing on audiences, marketers can move beyond the all-too-common channel-approach that limits cohesiveness in campaigns and limits effectiveness. The audience approach enables refined targeting, eliminating waste and delivering deeper, more meaningful insights.

Both Google and Bing have already made advancements in this area. Google expanded its audiences beyond website visitors and customer lists to in-market, custom intent and detailed demographics. Bing followed suit and introduced its new Audience Network which uses artificial intelligence to connect Microsoft data insights with LinkedIn’s to deliver the right message to the consumer. Advertisers can then target these audiences on Microsoft’s premium properties such as MSN, Outlook and Microsoft Edge.

Automation Enables Marketers to Get Strategic

Marketing automation tools maximize efficiency and increase revenues; they also eliminate tedious tasks, freeing up marketers to focus on strategic growth for their clients. While bidding automation has been adopted by most marketers at this point, Google has taken automation a step farther, introducing multiple fully-automated campaign types that require very little, if any, intervention during its Google Marketing Live in July 2018. The first campaign type was automated feeds for Shopping campaigns that get products online faster and simplifies maintenance; second was Hotel campaigns that simplify management and optimization; third was smart campaigns for small businesses, that are designed for local and small businesses that might not have the staff to focus on management and need an easy solution instead.

This continues a trend for Google, which already utilized automation in Universal App Campaigns and Universal Shopping Campaigns; these campaigns do not allow for marketer intervention beyond creative asset upload and budget changes. With the continued deployment of new fully-automated campaigns that rely on machine learning for optimization and management, Google has established a clear direction. It seems possible, if not likely, that Google will eliminate its manual offerings for Shopping campaigns and text-based campaigns the way it did with App campaigns. After all, Google is already testing responsive ads, which dynamically combine headlines and descriptions based on performance and the advertiser’s goal. There’s a possibility that completely automated campaigns will be the new normal for advertisers sooner than we think, once Google works out the kinks.

By understanding and adopting these trends and tactics, digital marketers should be able to deliver an A across the board on their campaigns, keeping clients happy and budgets flowing.

8 Tips for Creating Content That Creates Leads

The goal of content marketing is, of course, to win new business. More precisely, it’s to win new business in a manner that is sustainable and profitable — you can’t spend $2 to earn $1. Below are eight tips on how to create content that will power a successful, high-ROI content marketing program.

The goal of content marketing is, of course, to win new business. More precisely, it’s to win new business in a manner that is sustainable and profitable — you can’t spend $2 to earn $1. Below are thoughts on how to create content that will power a successful, high-ROI content marketing program.

Getting to Know You

Get to know your audience and their interests. Don’t assume you know – ask! And once you’ve asked, don’t assume the answer never changes. The goal is to create content that addresses the topics they love with answers to questions they have. And that’s a whole lot easier to do if you’re not guessing about what they want.

Let Google Guide You

If “let Google guide you” makes you think “SEO,” you are correct! But you don’t have to commit to a full-on SEO campaign if doing so doesn’t make sense for you. (It may not, depending on your target market, your offering or other factors.) There are all sorts of keyword tools available if you don’t have an SEO expert in-house or on contract. One caveat: if SEO isn’t right for you, there may be limited value to keyword research: the two generally go hand-in-hand.

(But It’s Not Really Google)

It’s worth splitting hairs to say that it’s not really Google that is guiding you here. They’re just aggregating the data for you. It is your audience and potential audience who are telling you (through their choices of keyword phrases) what they’re interested in and what language they use to find relevant information. Which brings us back to talking to your clients, prospects and all who interact with them (sales teams and customer service personnel) to find out what really interests them.

Personality and Perspective

Have a voice and a viewpoint. More than anything else, being “you” is the only thing that will make you stand out from the crowd. Don’t shrink away from showing your personality, whether through humor, a sense of wonder, or absolutely geeking out over the details of your niche.

And don’t worry about alienating some of your audience. You’re going to do that anyway, so you may as well help those members of your audience who aren’t a good fit to weed themselves out.

Worms, Roxanne. I’m Afraid of Worms

That subhead is a reference to Roxanne, the Steve Martin movie re-imagining the Cyrano de Bergerac story. The line in the original is “I’m afraid of words” but the worms paint a nice picture, no? All of which is a long way of reminding you not to forget visuals. Breaking up the printed word is critical, especially for longer pieces, so make use of images as well as white space, sub-heads, bullets, and other formatting.

And think beyond the printed word. Video, animation, and other tools will help bring your ideas to life and get your audience engaged.

Planning

An editorial calendar will help you stay on track throughout the year. And should also ensure that you pay attention to all audience segments and all stages of the buying process. IBonus: if you map out what you need, there’s much less “what am I going to write about” stress.

Take a Load Off

You wouldn’t dig fence posts with a teaspoon. Don’t do your content generation manually. Use tools to automate processes and batch tasks so that it’s not a never-ending death march of, say, social media posts. Do ‘em once a week, schedule ‘em with a tool like Hootsuite or Buffer, and get on with other work.

Track, Analyze and Adjust

Use the firehose of analytics data for good. It’s tempting to ignore it because it can be so overwhelming. Start small if you have to, and look at just one aspect of your data. Track it over time. Make adjustments to content and track whether they help or hurt your results.

Then add another dimension to the simple data you’re tracking. Do a little research and you’ll find out how to get the data you’re aiming for. (And your analytics dashboard will become a little less intimidating.)

Your goal should be to turn data into information and information into actionable insights. With that as your guidance premise, creating content that creates leads will be much easier and your content marketing programs much more successful.

5 Keys to SEO in the Voice Search Age

Voice search is increasing in use, and many businesses need to adjust their content to fall in line with this new way to search online. Follow these five tips to get your website to rank higher in voice search.

Imagine for a moment that you’re running with a pack of hyenas behind you. As you’re running, you see the road changes ahead. You could stay on the same road you’re on or you could take a shortcut so you get farther ahead of the pack. Obviously, you’ll choose the shortcut… 

Now, let’s switch the focus. Imagine running your business and the hyenas are your competitors. They are coming up behind you quickly. You can continue the same digital marketing path you’ve been taking, or you can switch paths to put your business way ahead of them.

Which do you choose?

If you’re like most, you’ll switch paths, which in SEO means optimizing for voice search.

Voice search is increasing in use, and many digital marketers are adjusting their content creation to fall in line with this new way to search online. Understanding how to do this will help you stay ahead of the hyenas that will soon start to scramble to reclaim lost business due to voice search.

The following tips will help get you started.

#1: Conversational Keyword Phrases

It’s normal for people to type in a different way than they speak. Usually, people will type less than they will say out loud. For instance, people may say, “What are some Italian restaurants near me?” but they may only type “Italian restaurants near me”.

As you can see the voice search includes “what are” and other example searches might include phrases like “how to” or “who is” or “where are.” Start by brainstorming the most common questions your prospective customers will be searching for and create content that answers those questions.

#2: Use Structured Data

Structured data like Schema.org was designed to spoon feed search engines like Google important information about your business. For example, there is Schema code that can tell Google your business name, address, phone number, products, prices, testimonials, recipes and much more. Google then uses this information to create rich search results (ex. search “how to bake apple pie” and you’ll see Directions at the top of Google’s first page, plus additional links to other recipes that include star ratings and even the time it will take to bake the pie. This information is collected using Structured data on websites)

Structured data is also used to deliver information to voice searchers. When you ask Alexa “how to bake an apple pie” then Alexa will likely read the directions that you saw at the top of Google’s search results. That means if you want to rank high in voice search, then you must use Structured Data on your website.

#3: Capitalize on Local Search

There’s no better time than now to claim your Google My Business listing and optimize it.

Be sure you have all of these components in your listing:

  • Name, Address and Phone Number (NAP) exactly the same as it’s listed on your website
  • Select all the relevant Categories
  • Fill out your Business Description
  • Add Photos
  • List your Services
  • List your Business Days and Hours

Be sure that all of the information is consistent across your listing, website, and any other online directories. Google cross references your information to ensure your business information is correct and deserves to be listed in the voice search results.

#4: Make Your Site Mobile Friendly

Many voice searches are performed on mobile devices.

And with Google’s new Mobile-First Index, your website doesn’t have a shot at ranking high for voice search if it’s not mobile-friendly. It’s as simple as that.

#5: Use Blogs to Answer Questions

Blogs are perfect for targeting those long keyword phrases that usually come through voice search. For example, “What is the best dog food for my pitbull?” could be a great blog post topic for a business that sells different types of dog foods. What a great time to get your business in front of a prospective customer!

Remember, add Structured Data to the blog post to increase the chances the search engine will grab information from your article to answer the prospective customer’s question.

Putting It All Together

Staying ahead of the hyenas, I mean competitors, isn’t as hard as it may seem. Start by researching to find what your prospective customers are voice searching for, and then create content on your website that answers those questions. Next, add Structured Data to make it easier for search engines to find your information and serve it to voice searchers. If your business serves local customers, then claim and optimize your Google My Business listing. Lastly, make sure your website is mobile-friendly or else you won’t have a shot when people use voice search on their mobile devices.

Want more tips on improving your SEO? Grab a copy of our Ultimate SEO Checklist.

Why Gmail Is No Longer Cool

Gmail launched in 2004, and was immediately a hit largely because they offered more free storage than anyone. It was more than storage that kept Gmail the leader in email, it was powerful features that were easy to use overall. Gmail was one of the first major applications to use AJAX (if you really want to know what this is, Google it, but it’s not important) technology, which almost all applications use today.

Gmail launched in 2004, and was immediately a hit largely because they offered more free storage than anyone. It was more than storage that kept Gmail the leader in email, it was powerful features that were easy to use overall. Gmail was one of the first major applications to use AJAX (if you really want to know what this is, Google it, but it’s not important) technology, which almost all applications use today. They kept enhancing Gmail at a pace that made it nearly impossible for others to keep up.

Gmail now “suffers” from what most businesses (and technology) suffer from: It is now the establishment. Established firms (and technologies) have more customers (users) and years of legacy systems, which enable their business. A small startup comes along with new flashy technology and people say, “Why doesn’t Gmail (or any company/software) do that?” People are drawn to what is new and shiny, and suffer from FOMO (fear of missing out), so they try the new software/business.

Gmail is still an incredible email client, and it is impressive to see how what they originally built still lives on in the current application. However, Outlook email has caught up with many of the features, and in some ways surpassed it. Microsoft has stopped acting like the establishment (in some ways) and more like a startup. There are real startups that are also competing for email clients and receiving accolades, as well as funding.

It’s harder to be the establishment and maintain the leading edge on all fronts. Google still dominates search by a long shot and shows no sign of becoming the establishment for search, but some day that too will happen.

This blog is not about encouraging you to leave Gmail and try Outlook or something else. The point of this blog is that most software and businesses become “the establishment.”

Don’t become stale. maintain your fresh perspective and startup-like flexibility and energy. Do something bold and build from there.