New Google Referrer String – RIP Positioning Tools

Patrick Altoft has noticed some changes in the referrer string used for Google natural search results this week which will change the face of position reporting technology. Reported on Blog Storm Altoft analysis the elements of the amended referrer string seen from Google natural search results and points out a variable in the new Google referrer string which indicates the position in the search rankings the website appeared in when the click occurred.

This is major news in the world of SEO as it aids in the tracking an monitoring of search engine positions. Currently specialist tools are utilised for the tracking and monitoring of natural search positions but this change in Google referrer strings could be the beginning of the end for these tools. There is always an element of inaccuracy in position monitoring software due to the various data centres used by Google for serving search results. An update in one data centre means that users of Google would see your website in different positions depending on where and when they search. This issue has been magnified as Google has begun to introduce personalised search results and also the wiki search results for users signed in to Google services. Google has also made a step change recently to less major, more frequent updates to its algorithms which means that smaller variances in search results are more likely, but on a more frequent basis. Add in with this the introduction of universal search elements in sporadic testing stages on various results and the monitoring and predicting of positions has become a minefield and one which many softwares have struggled ot adapt to.

But with the introduction of this variable into the referrer string Google has provided users with a static, standard variable for use in monitoring SEO performance. Regardless of where you are seeing the website today, tomorrow, or yesterday you know exactly where it appeared when that particular click occurred. By including it in the referrer string with a clear indicator Google have also opened the door for analytics packages to begin including the position in their traffic reports. And you can be sure of course, that the Google Analytics team, as well as developers at all other major tracking and analytics tools, will be beavering away to release this functionality imminently.

With all the changes in SEO, and the emergence of universal and personalised search, over the past couple of years, the focus of any most professional SEO experts and companies has moved away from pure positions, and towards traffic volumes and resulting business. This move by Google follows on nicely and in a way is there way of acknowledging that your positions are going to change on a more frequent basis.  Where you see your website will be different to where your customers see it, effectively making the position at any one point in time, unimportant.  What becomes important to know in this ever changing landscape is knowledge of the position it appeared in when a click, ultimately a transaction occurred.

RIP position reporting tools, welcome the new age of SEO reporting.

Succeeding in Turbulent Times

There has been more evidence of the dreaded R word hitting the digital world in the past few days as previously untouchable companies face the harsh reality of a less profitable future. The irony is that these companies are seeing the pinch in the way of less than huge profits, where as smaller businesses are seeing the impact come in the form of zero profit and the prospect of going out of business. It goes to show however, that the difficult economic times are hitting companies in every sector, including Internet marketing, and of every size.

Google Feeling the Pinch?

Today, Google is set to post its Q1 figures and experts are predicting a sequential drop in revenue for the first time in Google’s history as a public company. And with 3 rounds of redundancies already in the first quarter of 2009, some cracks are starting to show in Google’s bullet proof exterior. The reality of the situation is that Google will still post huge profits and huge revenue and its biggest concern is appeasing investors and maintaining share price, there isn’t much danger of them going out of business any time soon. It does show however the severity of the situation however that it is hitting even the biggest and most profitable of Internet companies.

Ebay Going Back to its Core

Another Internet giant, Ebay, has announced measures this week which suggest they too, are conscious more difficult times may be ahead and they need to focus on their core business. After selling social content discovery website Stumble Upon back to its founders they have also announced they are planning to take Skype public in 2010 due to a realisation of its “limited synergies with Ebay and Paypal”. Ebay bought Stumble Upon just 2 years ago and Skype in 2008, and despite both posting impressive growth Ebay has since decided neither is a close enough fit to their core business. Both these purchases are evidence of a more frivolous time when large Internet companies had deeper pockets and could make $75M purchases (the price paid for Stumble Upon) without worrying too much about how it would fit in with their business. Now the honeymoon period is over, companies are looking harder at their businesses and spotting the need to streamline and maintain a focus on core activities.

Time to Rip up the Script

With Internet giants such as these cutting back, what chance is there for the smaller business? How does the small website owner survive in difficult times? I think it has been proven in the past that those with a solid business model who react to the changing market quickly, will survive. Sure things will become more difficult and margins will be squeezed, but those who remain agile should be able to ride the storm. Companies need to rip up the playbook of 2007-2008 and make sure their strategy for 2009 is in fitting with what the market demands. Make sure you are meeting a market demand and providing something more, or significantly better than, your competition. Be prepared to change in line with the market, stay agile, and keep in touch with customer demands. Hopefully then, you should be able to survive the difficult times and possibly even come out the other side in a stronger position. There will be casualties, no doubt about it, but for the companies which can stay strong and adapt, there could also be huge opportunities.

Google Trialling Favicons

The social world of Twitter and the Search Marketing blogging community has been buzzing today with screenshots of Google trialling the use of favicons in Adwords creative, presumably to judge the impact on CPC.  So far I have seen examples in the bingo and car insurance markets with numerous PPC. Ads showing a favicon alongside the display URL.  Que hundreds of search marketers testing positioning of favicons to try and get theirs included. 

Its an interesting test from Google but surely if it was to be deployed across Google Adwords companies would become wise to it and all 10 would have the favicon in place?  How about, as an interested alternative, allowing only the ads which achieve a CTR. above a certain threshold to show the favicon?  A reward for writing well targeted creative and following Adwords best practice, surely that’s more beneficial than introducing something which will become nothing more than decoration for the SERP in a few months.

favicon in google ppc

favicon in google adwords

Google Catching Up In the Behavioural Targeting Game

Google’s latest move into the world of behavioural targeting has been hit with a lot of publicity, but in reality, all they are doing is catching up with the game.  Yahoo and Microsoft have been using behavioural targeting functionality based on users search queries and pages browsed for a number of years, and charging a premium for the service.  But now Google have stepped into the game and all of a sudden it is big news again.

Obviously anything Google announce is going to be big news, but there isn’t much really to their new service that isn’t available in other portals.  They have tried to cover themselves from a privacy perspective by allowing people to select their areas of interest but really, is anyone other than those working in the digital arena going to now where to find these settings? No.  In reality the ability to select and deselect interests is a token gesture to the privacy police.  And of course they are going to sell it to advertisers as an opt in on interests and charge additional for the targeting options.

There is added complexity with Google due to their adsense network and it not being only their properties they would be targeting you on, but other than this, it is nothing more than Yahoo and MSN have been doing with their display advertising for years.  Of course the major benefit of Google is they will have much more data to work with than Yahoo and MSN combined so the targeting should be more accurate and more detailed, but other than that, its just Google catching up in the display advertising game.

Yahoo! Wins Keyword Legal Case

Yahoo! has won a legal case in the US which puts a different slant on brand and trademark infringement in PPC, but also goes to show the search engines have covered themselves against such cases.

As reported in media post, Yahoo has come out on top in a case brought against them by Heartbrand Beef, of Yoakum Texas.  Heartbrand, who claim to be the only seller of Akaushi beef in the US, didn’t believe Yahoo! should allow their competitors to appear on the keyword “Akaushi” as it was misleading to their searchers and of the products their competitors provided.  This would have been an interesting judgment had it gone the other way.  It is different to other trademark disputes of past or present as it wasn’t actually a trademark or brand term owned by Heartbrand, just a product exclusive to them.  I can’t honestly see how Heartbrand thought they were going to win this case but the result does go to show that the search engines are covering themselves for any such cases through their practices and T&Cs.  Google, Yahoo and Microsoft aren’t stupid, they aren’t going to open themselves up for potential legal backlash through the changes they make to policies, they are going to be pretty sure they aren’t liable before making such as Google’s most recent changes to trademark bidding.

This is not the first time the search engines have come out in battles such as these, and it certainly isn’t the final say in the argument over brand and trademark infringement in paid search.  But the more cases like this which come out in the search engines favour, the less chance there is of one going the other way, which in turn means less companies will be tempted to try their luck in the courts.

I predict in 12 months trademark and brand bidding in PPC will just be a common practice, give it 2 years and search engine marketers will be reminiscing about the good old days when there was no competition on brand terms and you got all the clicks for next to nothing.