Google’s $200m Colour Experiment?

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How much is a colour worth and how important is it to a company’s success?

If McDonald’s famous arches weren’t so golden, and Coca Cola’s soda cans weren’t that distinctive red, would either company have become the global power house that they are today?

While people may scoff at the notion that colours are really that important in business decisions they should consider Google.

When Google decided to introduce adverts on Gmail several years ago, it famously ran a series of tests to pick between over 40 different shades of blue for its ads. As managing director Dan Cobley explained: “We saw which shades of blue people liked the most, demonstrated by how much they clicked on them. As a result, we learned that a slightly purpler shade of blue was more conducive to clicking than a slightly greener shade of blue, and gee whizz, we made a decision.

“But the implications of that for us, given the scale of our business, was that we made an extra $200m a year in ad revenue.”

Not bad!

Learning from this lucrative lesson, no doubt, Google has recently begun testing a change in the colour of its search result links from blue to black. On foot of this, previously visited links now turn light grey instead of purple. 

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Google changes search links from blue to black

Not everybody has seen the colour change, suggesting Google is simply conducting one of its famous A/B tests in certain regions. The Twitterverse was still duly appalled, though, immediately spawning the hashtag #BringBacktheBlue. The main gripe being that the change makes it harder to differentiate between which links users have clicked on and which ones they haven’t. But perhaps that’s the whole point?

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Twitter reacts unfavourably to the new colour scheme

However, if Google does decide to change colour, you can be sure there’s a good reason behind it and that there’s money to made, irrespective of how insignificant the change might seem.

There’s no official word yet from Google on whether the colour change is here to stay. But given the number of colours Google likes to test before making any final decision it does beg the question: if the black test is successful, will users be forced to suffer through 50 shades of (light) grey before a final decision is made!?

The Google mobile algorithm update – are you ready for it?

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Are you fully mobile optimised? Well you probably should be.

But just in case you needed any more convincing about whether to invest in a fully mobile optimised website, Google has probably just done it for you.

As announced earlier in the year, Google will this week change its search algorithm for mobile to favour sites that are “mobile friendly”, while penalising sites that fail to meet its criteria.

Experts in search engine optimisation have dubbed the shift “Mobilegeddon”, predicting that companies unprepared for the change will see their search rankings on mobile plummet.

As people rarely browse beyond the first page of Google’s search results, any change in search ranking could be hugely costly for businesses and the algorithm change is expected to sway where millions of people shop, eat, and find information worldwide.

According to experts, some of the companies expected to suffer include big brands such as Versace and Microsoft’s Windows Phone.

In an ironic twist of fate, another company whose site fails to meet Google’s new mobile requirements is the EU, whose Europa website is not considered “mobile friendly”. Last week the EU brought formal antitrust charges against Google over its abuse of market position.

The algorithm change won’t affect search results on tablets or desktop computers. But as mobile now accounts for around half of all searches on Google, companies will notice the consequences.

Google regularly updates its search algorithms and any changes are keenly felt by businesses that fail to adapt to the new requirements.

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In addition to the above mobile search overhaul, there is the possibility that Google will also base future desktop search rankings on factual accuracy. A report, courtesy of NewScientist, surfaced on 28 February regarding Google’s future plans. The detailed essay Knowledge-Based Trust: Estimating the Trustworthiness of Web Sources proposes that websites could eventually be ranked based on the quality of facts, rather than links.

While the internet is a great source of information we also know it’s full of complete nonsense too. We’ve all seen or read something online and thought “that’s so not true” and fought with friends over the accuracy of the “fact”. Thankfully Google may soon be able to help us tell the truth from the lies.

But one thing is certainly true: mobile optimisation is no longer something companies can afford to ignore.

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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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…

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. 

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?