Tuesday, 23rd January 2018

Search Engine “Improvements” Hypercommoditize Retailers

Posted on 10. Dec, 2012 by in Blogs


TechFlash reports that Google and Microsoft have begun to battle over the mobile browser. The best solution for everyone else would be an upstart that begins with the users’ needs and a great interface.

Over time, Google has focused so closely on how to capture data, profile users, and monetize data that the company has lost sight of the users’ needs. Sifting through all the gunk Google serves up has become extremely frustrating. So has the fact that the search engine predetermines what to display based on past behaviors. Over time, users get access to less and less ‘real’ data. The problem here is confirmation bias. Rather than offering up a vast array of results, the search engines junk up the interface with results that support their business models while also narrowing a person’s access to information.

Part of the “improvements” currently under development include targeting that enables businesses to “get local” for the holidays. According to Search Engine Land, up to 90% of online consumers conduct research before heading out the door to make a brick and mortar purchase. So, now your mobile device will show places that sell the things for which you’ve searched. That seems like a zero sum game if you think about all of the companies that sell commodity products. Competing on price has never looked so grim. Or so intrusive. Hey Google… I’ll just ask Siri if I want to know where to find something.

Voice Integration for the Desktop?

Posted on 19. Nov, 2012 by in Blogs


The latest rumor about Apple: Siri and Maps are under development for the desktop. While Maps experienced poor reception when released, as a longtime Google Maps user, I actually found the change to be a major improvement. Combined with Siri’s ability to “show traffic,” commuting in the Metro DC area has become a whole lot better. But then, I’m only one data point.

I like asking Siri to find things for me. She types and sends texts like a champ (most of the time). The ability to use Siri on the desktop would once again change the user experience in a significant way. She could make the laptops with touchscreens another one of those interesting relics from the past.

WhatRunsWhere Could Lead Companies to Me-too Status

Posted on 23. Oct, 2012 by in Blogs


WhatRunsWhere, a platform that shows where competitors place online and mobile ads, has just announced a feature that tracks ads in the Google Display Network. And now apparently the folks at eMarketer think Google could give Facebook a run for its money as the display ad leader.

The race for cloud-based ad domination got me thinking about how companies will use WhatRunsWhere. Those that use the tool to mimic competitors and compete for the same eyeballs will essentially commoditize themselves. Others, however, may gain some strategic insight if they use WhatRunsWhere to identify and target niche markets.

Companies that flock with the crowd establish a form of me-too status from inception. When a market’s in early stage or high growth, these startups struggle to differentiate themselves as they use similar business models and strategies to pursue the same opportunities. The most successful at execution may survive (or thrive) though the market consolidation phase. Throughout the process customers often have trouble distinguishing between companies that seem to offer very similar things.

Breakthrough companies follow a different path. They solve real-world problems (within the context of why they exist in the first place) for a large enough market segment to launch, grow, and then transition effectively to new markets. The difference: These companies rigorously expend more energy on what’s important to fulfilling the their purpose than they do in studying the competition.

While market leaders understand driving forces very well, they put competition into context. They establish cultures and systems that harness the creativity and passion of the people within to invent new ways of fulfilling corporate purpose. Whether you give employees time to invent new technologies (like 3M and Google), or teach them how to open and run a business (like Zingerman’s), these companies drive what happens in their industries.

As with any other tool, how one applies WhatRunsWhere will determine its true value.

Can Amazon Upset Google’s Applecart?

Posted on 05. Sep, 2012 by in Blogs


In some respects, it already has. A recent newspaper ad in Canada’s Globe and Mail proclaims:

You know who needs a haircut? People searching for a haircut. Maybe that’s why ads on Google work.

There’s a lot more irony underlying the ad than a recent article on Mashable lets on. Google’s message underscores how the Internet search giant disintermediated the newspaper industry, when in fact, the same type of disintermediation has begun to happen to Google with respect to product specific searches.

According to Business Insider, the number of queries on Amazon grew by 73% last year. Some people now look to Amazon first when they want to research and buy consumer products. The following factors have very likely contributed to the rise of Google’s very worthy competitor.

In an effort to monetize across its varied platforms, Google’s pays more attention to revenue generation than customer value. Over time the user experience has taken a turn for the worse. (I’m one of those people who turns to Amazon first when doing a product search because the results generated generally meet my needs far better than Google’s. It’s nice to know I’m not alone.)

The rise of Amazon has turned Google into an intermediary when it comes to online shopping. Google is not necessarily good in this role. Approximately 20% of Google’s traffic relate to commercial searches. The company snoops content from Google docs, gmail, and Google+, cross-references your interests across these cloud services, and then analyzes the data to develop a profile they think fits your tastes. So, if you know what category of ‘thing’ you want, going to Google could very easily be a waste of time. You’ll wind up poking through search results and ads that may or may not be relevant.

While Amazon also profiles users, it does so within a relatively closed environment. Like Apple, Amazon wants to own the experience. They’re the ones making recommendations or sending email reminders rather than serving someone else’s ads. Somehow that seems a little less creepy than Google’s personalized ads.

Perhaps the most important element that enables Amazon eat away at Google’s market share boils down to business philosophy. Amazon seeks to be “the earth’s most customer centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.” They’re very good at fulfilling that purpose. Amazon and its affiliates adapt to changes in the environment and sell what people look to buy—whether it’s books, other hard goods, food, digital goods, or cloud services.

Along the way, Amazon has established a solid user experience and a trusting fan base. The retailer’s closed system has also created a better platform for making product recommendations than Google’s more extensive, cloud services ecosystem. Amazon crunches data on search and conversions within their own environment and then upsell and cross sell based on what they know, not on what they think they know. There’s a difference.

In contrast, Google’s mission is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Looking at corporate purpose, their vision is less actionable than Amazon’s and far more open to interpretation. I think it has left the door open for Google to try to become everything to everyone. As a result, Google has tried to simply become the cloud. Users don’t want one entity to have that much power.

Amazon’s secret sauce is its ability to keep customer experience and revenue generation in sync in a way that Google cannot. And that’s how Amazon has tipped Google’s applecart. Perhaps all of this signals that the arc of the Google lifecycle may have crested.

The CyberWalls Are Always Listening

Posted on 09. Jul, 2012 by in Blogs

The CyberWalls Are Always Listening

Several years ago I was about to attend a Women in Technology meeting when I got a phone call informing me that a good friend had just lost her battle with leukemia. Shocked, I said a very indelicate word in a public place—a bit too loudly.

Imagine my embarrassment when a former boss came over to tell me the entire hotel lobby had heard my exclamation. Here I was trying to enter a new professional network and the first impression I made was less than stellar. The walls had ears and I wasn’t paying attention.

Fast forward to today. Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and other social networks have forever changed how we communicate and relate to one another. These networks have CyberWalls that not only listen to everything we share, they rebroadcast our most embarrassing moments. For example, We Know What You’re Doing scrapes Facebook to publish:

  • Who wants to get fired
  • Who’s hungover
  • Who’s taking drugs
  • Who’s got a new phone number

Really? Why would people put this kind of ammunition on their social networks? This isn’t the kind of first impression most people want to make. At least 70% of employers and 80% of colleges use social media to assess applicants’ characters as part of the screening process.

For an amusing look at how much the CyberWalls hear—or more accurately, share—please check out I Know What You Did Five Minutes Ago by Tom Scott. Perhaps you’ll want to go in and change your privacy settings before posting pictures from your next party.

When Size Matters

Posted on 03. Jul, 2012 by in Blogs


A while back I was in a planning meeting of a relatively small company which provides a highly technical and differentiated product for market segments too small to interest the much larger players in the industry.  The company enjoys good profitability.

To fuel greater growth, a strategic investment was proposed in a different market currently dominated by the two largest competitors.  After listening for a while, I said “We may get some growth there, but we’ll never do so profitably.  We are so much higher cost than those competitors, we’ll never be able to compete at their price.”

An executive of the company immediately objected:  “What makes you think we’re high cost?  Where’s your data?”  I replied that I didn’t have data but nonetheless was 95% certain of my hypothesis, because the proposed market was a scale-sensitive one, and we were one-twentieth the size of our would-be new competitors.  Nonetheless, the company spent a full year and lots of money trying to disprove my hypothesis – an effort that (not surprisingly) was unsuccessful.  Their analysis demonstrated that they were 40% higher cost than their large competitors, and the proposed investment was scrapped.

It’s crucial to understand when you’re competing in a scale-sensitive business and when you’re not.  The partners of small management consulting firms often earn more than those of large firms, because there are almost no economies of scale in that business and in fact some diseconomies.  On the other hand, scale economies in design, manufacturing and marketing are so powerful in the car industry that no one dares compete without getting very large, very quickly.  And while e-commerce used to be an area trumpeted for the possibilities it provided for the little guy, that is no longer the case.  Today the web is so noisy and crowded that unless you have large and growing amounts of talent and money to spend on marketing, your chances of becoming anything more than a mom-and-pop are remote.  For every Amazon, Google, and Facebook (and notice how big those companies are), there are thousands and thousands of failures.

If your company today is growing and profitable, it’s because you have sufficient scale relative to the economics of your product/markets.  Just be sure as you consider investing in new ones that you understand that the scale economy tipping point may be different there than for your current business.  Armed with that understanding, your odds of realizing the enhanced growth and profits that you’re looking for get much, much better.

How To Use Kickstarter As A Marketing Platform

Posted on 28. Jun, 2012 by in Blogs


Yesterday morning Salman Sajid showed us just how creative an entrepreneur can be when he spoke at Seed Stage Outlook 2012. Sajid shared his experience with Kickstarter, where he recently received funding for the Touchtype (a case for the iPad and Apple wireless keyboard). His project was oversubscribed.

Sajid sought more than funding from Kickstarter. Instead of launching his own online store, he chose to use the crowdfunding site as a marketing vehicle. He effectively used Kickstarter to:

  1. Build buzz
  2. Generate high value leads
  3. Improve SEO rankings

Sajid says that you’ll gain attention if you’ve got a cool idea. Measurement for cool comes from the other people on Kickstarter. Bloggers troll the site on a regular basis as they look for interesting content ideas. Sajid said that nearly 1/2 of the 21,000 video views have come from videos embedded in blogs. Additional reach came from viral sharing via Facebook and Twitter.

In addition, nearly 1/2 of the traffic resulting in product sales have come through Kickstarter’s site. And, since the Kickstarter pages stay live forever, the service provides a perpetual funnel to Sajid’s website.

Having a Kickstarter project also helps with SEO. The “world’s largest funding platform for creative projects” has a Google page rank of 7. That means having your project on the platform gives your search results a ratings bump. Sajid did his homework, optimized the title, and used other common SEO tactics very effectively. Try Googling “iPad case Apple wireless keyboard” and see what happens. Of course, that’s a rather long search string…

Sajid will tell you that he’s not really marketing yet. And yet, speaking at events like Seed Stage Outlook 2012 is the best form of marketing at this stage. He’s still getting press (this blog offers case and point) while providing a role model for creative thinking performed very elegantly during startup. In the old days we used to call that guerrilla marketing.

Oh, and if you want to see what all the buzz is about, please watch Sajid’s Kickstarter video.

Huddling Together For Warmth

Posted on 27. Jun, 2012 by in Blogs

Huddling Together For Warmth

There’s something familiar about Nokia and Microsoft huddling together for warmth in their losing battle against Apple, Google, and Samsung in the smart phone wars.  Both Nokia and Microsoft suffer from bad strategy and weak implementation, yet somehow they think that by combining forces they’ve magically solved the problem.

Remember Sears and K-Mart?  Two fading icons who had been lapped by competitors tried merging, in the since-discredited hope that one plus one can equal ten, or even two and a half.  And further back there were Burroughs and Sperry, two one-time powerhouses of the computing history who, bested by competitors, decided that if only they combined as Unisys they would obscure their many mis-steps and emerge a winner.  Instead the merger failed from day one, and today Unisys has a market cap of less than $700 million.

Acquisition of a weak competitor sometimes (although not in the majority of cases) works when it provides a strong acquirer with a missing piece of the puzzle, such as a key technology, product or employee set that can be acquired faster than it can be built from the ground up.  And a few people have gotten rich by rolling up a series of weak competitors and then flipping the combined company, leaving the problem of making sense of it all to someone else.  But the merger of two weak competitors to produce a strong one never works.  If you can cite an example I’d love to hear it, because I’ve been doing this for 33 years and can’t think of a single one.

The simple truth is, you have exactly two choices.  Either fix your company, or take temporary comfort in huddling together with another problem child, perhaps obscuring the inevitable for a brief period of time, but not for long.

Bit.ly’s Facelift

Posted on 30. May, 2012 by in Blogs


Yesterday Bit.ly released an upgrade that removed the . from its name and raised users’ ire. As noted in PC Magazine, people lament the fact that truncating URLs has become a bloated, multi-step process. While it seems like a step back, bitly consciously chose to take this approach to force users to try new features—aka bitmarks and bundles. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the one click feature return once the company has had time to assess the success (or failure) of its new feature set. Let’s just say they’re taking the New Coke approach out for a spin.

The new feature set does introduce additional value. And that’s really the point. Users have created 25B links with 100M daily shares since the company’s launch four years ago. One could term that kind of volume as critical mass. Now their question is what to do with that momentum when Google, Twitter, Evernote and others offer URL shortening services.

Bitly needed to keep pace with the changing social media scene or it risked becoming obsolete. Their willingness to make changes that tick off their user base (à la Google and Facebook) offers a reminder that today’s business axiom is iterate or die. Given the increasingly rapid pace of change in today’s marketplace, dwindling market share, irrelevance and death come much more quickly now. In the past companies thought they could rest on their laurels. Is there such a thing as a laurel any more?

Frankly, I like how bitly integrates with my Twitter account. Posts flow smoothly from bitly to Twitter, which automatically updates my LinkedIn feed. In the end, that’s easier than posting to multiple social media sites. I even like the new iPhone app. You just have to be cognizant that what you want to post is relevant to your audiences. Please visit bitly to learn more about their new feature set. And then tell us what you think. Is this an improvement or not? I kind of miss the .

Big Data Strikes Social Media

Posted on 23. May, 2012 by in Blogs


TechCrunch recently featured an article about Ark, a company that solves the “problem of too much social data and too little discoverability.” Their service searches for people across social networks including Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, foursquare, myspace and others. Frankly, I’m not convinced that discoverability is a problem consumers want to be solved.

For example, how many people maintain duplicate Facebook accounts so they can keep distinct social groups separate? And what about the line of demarcation between Facebook and LinkedIn? Most everyone I know uses one for managing personal relationships and the other for business. At least 70% of Facebook users actively manage their privacy settings, so there’s an indication that consumers want some sense of privacy even in the most social of networks. Using big data apps to compile your personal data is just the next invasion of consumer privacy.

Even more concerning is the ability to meld big data from social networks and public information with the behavioral profiling companies already perform. According to yesterday’s eMarkter, etailers monitor shopping behaviors for “immediate purchase intentions” by cross-referencing online behaviors with personal interests published on social networks.

Perhaps the most alarming, however, is that at least 70% of employers polled have admitted to rejecting candidates based on information found on social networks. This spring there was an uproar about employers asking candidates for their Facebook credentials. While that request is wholly inappropriate, these two facts suggest we should simply expect employers to use tools that easily enable them to search for all available data.

The primary message: Be careful about the personal information you share. Anything in the public domain has always been discoverable. Access to a more robust profile will become even more common as big data tools mature and delve into email commumications, text messages and other forms of data. The scary thing is that data is often misinterpreted. Even if you’re careful about what you share (and with whom), employers and others may still draw the wrong conclusions.