Banner ads on Google…a step too far?

By Daragh Cassidy

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Google has come a long way since it was founded by Larry Page and Sergey Brin in 1998.

The small company that once provided just internet search results has turned into a behemoth of a corporation involved in almost every area of digital life: social media, email, online advertising, mapping, cloud storage and much much more. Google now even provides (a pretty decent) language translation service!

The Google search site has also come a long way since it first appeared in 1998. The simple, uncluttered look and feel of the site has gradually been replaced by an increasingly ‘busy’ looking site over the years. These days, whenever anyone searches on Google, paid search ads take up an ever increasing amount of space. And if a company that you’re searching for has a Google+ profile page, then expect that to feature prominently too.

Google has also been giving personalised search results for several years. This means that two people searching for the same thing might get very different search results depending on their past browsing history and what Google perceives their interests to be. This is despite that fact that in 2005, Marissa Mayer, the then head of search and user experience, wrote that Google would never provide “biased” search results.

However, another more sacrosanct promise now seems to have been broken. Mayer, who worked at Google for 13 years before moving to Yahoo! as CEO, also vowed there would be: “…no banner ads on the Google homepage or web search results pages. There will not be crazy, flashy, graphical doodads flying and popping up all over the Google site. Ever”.

Until now that is…

Because Google has confirmed that it is testing a system with about 30 advertisers in the US in which it will show banner ads for these companies when people search for topics that include them in web search results. Google declined to say how long the test will run for, when it might be extended outside the US, or what the criteria for success – or failure – would be.

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For advertisers, this must seem like a marketing dream. Google is the world’s most-used search engine and one of the world’s most visited sites. And while AdWords provides a way for advertisers to target internet search users, the format hardly allows for a brand to communicate any type of rich, engaging or creative message. Banner ads (or better still, rich media, GIF animated banners!!) would provide a fantastic way for advertisers to get their message across to the hundreds of millions of people who use Google’s search engine every day.

But is the idea really right for Google itself?

Advertisers have been less willing to pay for ad space recently, forcing Google to increase the overall volume of ads that it sells. The banner ad tests come amid a push by Google to move from purely text-based ads to ones that feature videos, photos and other forms of visual information. This is understandable given the increasingly “visual” age in which we now live.

However, one of the major reasons why Google gained so much attention when it started in 1998 was because its opening search page, and following results page, were uncluttered by adverts and other elements such as banner ads. Users adored the clean look and feel of the site and this was one of the main reasons the company quickly overtook the Yahoo! search engine in so many markets – just compare the Google home page to that of Yahoo! But with AdWords and now banners ads clogging up search results, this uncluttered look and feel is quickly being eroded.

In the short term, banner ads may seem like a great way for Google to maximise revenue and make even more profits. But in the longer term, people may view all Google’s advertising as an annoyance and start moving back to simpler search alternatives.

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Not another social media #fail

The perils of social media were laid bare once more when a planned question and answer session on Twitter with the American investment bank JPMorgan Chase & Co backfired badly for the company.

No doubt attempting to appear au courant with all things marketing and digital related, the bank asked Twitter users to send in questions via the network to its vice chairman Jimmy Lee with the hashtag #AskJPM. Jimmy was there, as the PR agents put it, to “answer your questions on leadership and life”.

However, the idea soon descended into farce with most people using the upcoming “event” as the perfect opportunity to mock the company and make their hostile feelings about JPMorgan well known.

A woman who said she was a community organiser and “next gen freedom fighter” asked if Mr Lee thought it was “ok to outright lie, cheat and steal”. “Matt” wanted to know Mr Lee’s favourite type of whale, while another user known as “Guerrilla Educator” asked if anyone in Mr Lee’s family had ever been foreclosed upon.

The user “Wu- Tang Financial” pretty much summed things up nicely when he loudly asked: “IS IT A FAIR ASSUMPTION THAT YO SOCIAL MEDIA TEAM DID NOT PROPERLY PROTECT YA NECK?”

The event, scheduled for lunchtime today, was quickly cancelled by the company before it had even officially begun, who admitted that it was a “bad idea” (well at least they were honest!) 

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Ironically, JPMorgan was an underwriter of Twitter’s recent initial public offering of stock so one would have presumed they knew exactly what they were getting into. Besides, banks are hardly the most loved of institutions at even the best of times so the level of hostility directed towards JPMorgan should hardly have come as a surprise. 

A Q&A session with British Gas in October unleashed a similar level of loathing by the public and made world headlines for the company for all the wrong reasons. And who can forget last year, when a McDonald’s Twitter promotion using the hashtag #McDstories was hijacked by customers who used it to spread their horror stories of the fast food giant across the social networking site.

The British Monetary Policy Committee (who?) also had a Q&A Twitter session recently. Thankfully this passed off slightly better, presumably because no one really had a clue what to ask about monetary policy or quantitative easing.  

The lesson? While Twitter and social media have powerful benefits for companies it needs to be remembered that social media is also a two-way conversation between a company AND its customers and it can be a very public and easy place for companies to get things wrong. The seemingly best of ideas can quickly turn into the stuff of PR nightmares.

A company always needs to have clear social media objectives and to have a well-defined plan in place too. Having a well resourced team of social media experts is also important. And remember, just because everyone else seems to be doing something on social media doesn’t mean you need to too!

Mobile optimisation – the forgotten art in digital marketing?

With social media still the buzzword du jour among digital marketers, there appears to be one area of digital marketing that has been badly neglected: mobile optimisation.

Mobile optimisation simply refers to the conversion of a ‘desktop’ website into a format that can be read easily on any mobile device. It eliminates the need for zooming on phones; gives easy access to contact information; and easy navigation to minimise hitting the wrong link. With so much online activity now taking place through mobile, one would think a mobile-optimised website would be the first digital-related decision a company would make. But that’s certainly not the case.

A recent report by the marketing agency Add People has revealed that almost 80pc of Irish SMEs have websites that are not optimised for mobile browsing. The findings are deeply worrying considering analysts at Morgan Stanley predict that by 2015 more people will be browsing the internet via mobile devices than on a PC or laptop.

Reiterating the significance of a well-optimised mobile website, a study from Google entitled What Users Want Most From Mobile Sites Today, found that 67% of respondents were more likely to buy from a mobile-friendly website, whilst 50% of respondents said that even if they liked a business they would use it less often if its website wasn’t mobile-friendly. Google also found that almost half of web users feel frustrated when they visit a site that’s not mobile-friendly and that the same number of users feel like a company doesn’t care about their business if a site doesn’t function well on their smartphone.

On foot of this, Google has publicly stated that a mobile-friendly website will rank higher in users’ mobile searches and fully endorses responsive web design as a best practice solution. As a result, it’s imperative that Irish companies implement mobile optimisation as soon as possible to better engage with mobile browsers: in order to retain customers and boost their Google mobile search ranking.

With so much web activity now taking place through mobile, it should be a given that every company has a fully functional, mobile-optimised site. Indeed, we may one day get to the point where every company starts with a mobile-centred website and then develops a ‘desktop’ version as a mere afterthought. But we’re a long way from there for now…

The future’s bright…the future’s #Twitter?

Although long considered the most important social media network, a new report from American investment bank Piper Jaffray shows that Facebook’s popularity is fading fast among the important teen market.

According to the bank’s 26th semi-annual market research report Taking Stock with Teens, Twitter has overtaken Facebook as the social media network that is most important to teenagers. 26% of respondents named Twitter as their “most important” social site while 23% said Facebook was most important to them, down from a high of 42% a year ago.

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Worldwide, Facebook claims to have over one billion users, dwarfing that of Twitter. In the all-important US market, Twitter had 49 million active users on average during the second quarter of this year. In comparison, Facebook had 198 million users on average in the same period. However, if the report from Piper Jaffray is to be believed, those figures could reverse dramatically over the coming years.

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Despite the growing popularity of Twitter, it remains a social media platform that a surprising number of people and businesses are uncomfortable with, at least for a slightly ‘older’ generation. Many people still don’t ‘get’ Twitter in the same way they understand and use other social networks such as Facebook and people tend to either love the site or not at all. However, the research from Piper Jaffray would appear to suggest that Twitter is a social platform that businesses can no longer afford to ignore.

Nevertheless, Twitter shouldn’t become too complacent either. The report also claims that Instagram has rocketed in popularity with teens. 23% said Facebook-owned Instagram was their No.1 choice, up from just 12% a year ago, suggesting Facebook was wise to acquire the site in 2012 as a backstop against losing younger users to competing, simpler networks.

Smile…you’re on Google!

Anyone with an active Google+ account might want to take a closer look at their profile picture going forward as it could end up appearing in more places than usual.

From 11 November, Google plans to incorporate people’s profile pictures, and their comments about products and places, into more of its adverts.

Under the new terms of its shared endorsements policy, the name and photo a user has on their Google+ account could be included in search ads. For example, if someone searches for ‘spa resorts’ and a Google+ user has reviewed or commented on a spa resort that has a PPC ad appearing for those keywords, their review (along with their name and Google+ profile image) could show up as part of the ad.

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In response to this apparent invasion of privacy, some Google+ users have launched a protest against shared endorsements by replacing their profile photos with pictures of Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt.

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Google has responded by saying users can easily opt out of the new policy but many will be unaware that the change is even taking place. And unless users choose to opt out, Google will reserve the right to use their name and photo in ads for products, services, and businesses whose pages and content they’ve interacted with in some way.

While some people are outraged over the new policy the simple fact is that using people’s data, especially for advertising, is how social networks and internet giants make their money. So if we +1, like, tweet, upload, review a product, or leave comments on a social network site, we should accept that the information could potentially be used in all manner of public ways.

Facebook faced strong criticism over a similar system called sponsored stories which it rolled out in 2011. Legal action following the criticism eventually led to Facebook paying out $20m in compensation to people whose images it used without permission.

It’s possible that something as serious will happen to Google. Indeed, American senator Edward Markey has already sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) asking the agency to investigate whether the shared endorsements policy change violates the terms of Google’s 2011 privacy settlement with the FTC over its long-dead Buzz feature, in which Google promised not to change its privacy settings without explicit permission from users. Watch this space. 

Facebook is bad for you *Dislike*

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Facebook may be great at keeping people connected and form a vital part of businesses’ marketing strategy, but new research suggests it may not be quite so good for people’s health.

In a recent study, scientists from the University of Michigan in the United States found a clear correlation between the time people spent on Facebook and their unhappiness.

82 participants took part in the recent study and all had smartphones and a Facebook account. Over a two-week period the participants were monitored closely and asked questions by text message about how well they felt at various times of the day. They were also asked questions about how much time they’d spent on Facebook.

After analysing the results, the researchers found that levels of Facebook use correlated with a greater loss of wellbeing. In contrast, talking to friends on the phone or meeting them in person led to greater levels of happiness!

While social media has its benefits in that it allows friends and family members to keep in contact in ways that weren’t previously possible, psychologists and social commentators have long remarked on the negative influence it can also have on people’s health and social skills as they increasingly rely on virtual contact as opposed to real face-to-face communication. This study would seem to back up those fears.

And while social media remains the buzzword among marketers at the moment, business leaders have long complained about the lack of decent communication skills and literacy skills among younger graduates who have grown up on a communications diet of short ‘txts’, 140-character tweets and meaningless status updates.

So perhaps it’s time we finally put the smartphones down and started communicating with each other in person that little bit more… for the sake of our communications skills as well as our health!

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AdWords – the 21st century marketing con?

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Each year billions of dollars is spent on pay per click (PPC) advertising or ‘search’ advertising. And as Google controls the vast majority of the search engine market, that means billions gets spent on AdWords. And the amount continues to grow at a staggering speed each year.

In 2011, Google’s revenues topped 37 billion dollars, the vast majority of which came from search advertising.

However, a new report by eBay has claimed that businesses may be wasting billions of dollars a year on this type of advertising.

The 25-page report, given the not overly search-friendly title of Consumer Heterogeneity and Paid Search Effectiveness: A large scale field experiment was published on the National Bureau of Economic Research website on 6 March 2013. The report found that brand keyword ads (where companies purchase ads on searches for their own names) have no real benefits. This is because most consumers would have clicked through to a company’s website without being prompted to do so by a paid search ad for the company. Quite simply, in the absence of paid ads, consumers just substitute to organic search links.

According to the report, this implies that search advertising has ‘neither persuasive nor informative value to well-known corporations.’

When conducting the study, eBay removed PPC advertising for its brand from the Yahoo! and Microsoft search engines but kept it on Google and then monitored the results closely. The results showed: ‘that almost all of the forgone click traffic and attributed sales was immediately captured by natural search.’

The effectiveness of PPC for non-branded keywords was also questioned. The report found that the return is small for a large and well-known brand like eBay and that PPC advertising has been ineffective on average for the company.

The report did accept that new and infrequent users to a website are influenced by PPC ads. However, it is actually existing loyal users (who already know about a company, its products and its website) who actually account for most of the clicks on paid search ads. As a result, businesses may think they’re attracting new customers to their website through PPC advertising but in reality they’re not and in many cases the vast majority of customers would have found other ways of getting to the business’s website, according to the report.

The report has already generated fierce debate within the marketing world with some arguing that the report is flawed, biased, or simply wrong. However, the report does raise important questions around the effectiveness of PPC advertising, considering the billions that are spent (wasted?) on search advertising each year and it challenges the industry thinking that Google is a good way to advertise to customers.

So…is AdWords an effective use of advertising budget or is it simply a way for Google to grab vast sums of money from naive businesses – on which it then pays little to no tax?

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Is AdWords simply a waste of money?