All posts by Andy Favell

t48_webpagetest_youtube.png

How video impacts mobile web performance and UX, part 3: detecting and remedying issues

Video has become an important tool in the marketers’ tool box. Video storytelling is a useful and increasingly popular way to engage customers.

But if your video doesn’t work properly or cripples your website or app performance it will become a major frustration to customers, marketers and techies alike.

In the previous two parts of this column on data and download speed and autoplay and audio we learned:

  • Video dominates mobile data traffic
  • When implemented correctly, mobile video should not impact the speed that pages load on a mobile device
  • Mobile users start to become impatient after waiting just two seconds for a video to load; by 10 seconds a fifth will have given up.

This column will explore how to detect, avoid and remedy issues with videos to give your viewers the best possible experience with your video content and keep them engaged and watching your videos.

Jump to:

How to detect problems with video
How to avoid problems with video
How to remedy problems with video

How to detect problems with video

Detecting issues with video, audio or any other web or app issue a) can be straightforward; b) should be everyone’s responsibility, from the CEO down; and c) helps to keep agencies, techies and marketers on their toes.

1. Use it

Blatantly obvious – but when was the last time you checked out your site and videos from a bus, train or bar? Incentivize employees to use the site/app (during beta testing and routinely after goes live) and report issues and suggest improvements.

Check for:

  • How quickly did the site/page load? (Count the seconds)
  • How long did you have to wait for the video to start?
  • How good is the quality?
  • Does it stall / (re) buffer during playback?
  • Was it worth watching/watching to the end?
  • How do you feel about these conclusions?

2. User test it

Recruit customers and monitor their behavior and reactions as they use your web site, using different devices, networks and locations. Score against the above checklist. If this cannot be conducted in person use a remote service such as UserTesting.com.

User testing should occur at each stage of the development process. For more on why user testing is so crucial, see my previous column for our sister site ClickZ on Why user testing should be at the forefront of mobile development.

3. Test it

There are different types of testing, including:

  • Page performance – tools such as WebPageTest (free) show how/if the video is impacting how fast the page loads. It shouldn’t. The image below shows the WebPageTest results for how quickly Sam Dutton’s mobile video explainer on YouTube loads on a mobile device. The page took 6.6 seconds to load 809kB.
  • A/B testing – tests alternative experiences with different groups of web (or app) visitors. For example, test hosting the video on the homepage versus on a dedicated page.
  • Video testing tools – AT&T’s Video Optimizer (formerly known as Application Resource Optimizer) is a free-to-download tool used by developers (requires technical knowledge) to detect issues such as delays with start-up and the frequency and duration of stalls and optimum segment size.

4. Monitor it

  • Web analytics tools, such as Google Analytics, track visitor engagement with video – e.g. number of views, who viewed, how long, and with the webpage itself, including dwell time and bounce rate. See this introduction to using GA to assess video engagement.
  • Heat map tools, such as Clicktale and Crazyegg provide a visual representation of how users interact, or attempt to interact, with webpages and video.

How to avoid problems with video

Following best practices while creating/producing the video or coding the page, website or app that will host it should help avoid many of the common issues – videos that won’t play, are slow to play, or have broken playback.

Industry guidelines on mobile video are thin on the ground, considering the increasing popularity of the format. What guidance is available tends to be a bit techie and thus a turn off for non-techies.

The following recommendations have been compiled with the help of:

1. Make it worth it

There are many costs involved with video/audio:

  • For the producer: the cost of production and distribution; impact on web performance
  • For the network: the impact of network congestion
  • For the viewer, in terms of data consumption, battery life and time it takes to consume.

This makes it imperative that the video is meeting a known user need, contains quality content, is the right length, optimized in terms of bitrate, segments and compression.

2. Be aware: video is greedy; HD greedier; 4K much greedier

When it comes to bandwidth, standard video is greedy, requiring 0.5 Megabits per second (Mbps); high definition (HD) is five times as greedy as SD; and 4K is 30 times as greedy.

Cisco’s Usha Andra explains:

“Mobile video and multimedia applications have higher bandwidth and lower latency requirements than non-video applications. The requirements can range from a low of 0.5Mbps for standard definition (SD) to 2.5Mbps for high definition (HD) and over 15Mbps for 4K/ultra-high definition (UHD) downloads and much higher for virtual reality (VR). Latency requirements can range from 100 milliseconds (ms) to 15ms for UHD VR video applications.”

3. Know the limitations of mobile networks in your target markets

Even among developed telecoms markets, the capability of mobile networks varies considerably. Check the Cisco GCI Global Cloud Readiness Tool for an averages of each country.

The stats suggest that download speeds in the US and UK are 40% lower than Norway and South Korea, and 25% lower than Canada:

  • South Korea – download: 31.0Mbps; upload: 14.3Mbps; latency: 68ms
  • Norway – download: 29.1Mbps; upload: 11.6Mbps; latency: 40ms
  • Canada – download: 24.2Mbps; upload: 9.0Mbps; latency: 51ms
  • UK – download: 18.2Mbps; upload: 8.0Mbps; latency: 55ms
  • US – download: 17.1Mbps; upload: 10.0Mbps; latency: 88ms.

Usha Andra adds:

“Please note that these are average speeds and latencies, which means many users experience higher or lower speeds compared to the average speeds. When the speeds and latencies are lower than what an application warrants, the end user experiences delay in video, garbled audio, etc.”

4. Home page or own page?

Few of the most popular sites, including those that have a strong video focus – YouTube, Vimeo, BBC and CNN – host videos on the homepage or category pages. These sites promote their videos on the homepage as image links (often with play button icon overlaid) and text links, which when clicked or tapped go to a page dedicated to that video.

Why? Keeping video off the homepage keeps it leaner and faster to load on mobile devices. See the Twitch example below.

5. Avoid autoplay

Forcing mobile web visitors to view video whether they want to or not, is:

  • Frustrating for the customer (especially when it happens in a quiet environment)
  • Prone to using up the customer’s bandwidth and battery life unnecessarily
  • Liable to slow down how quickly the page loads
  • Contrary to accessibility best practice (as it can interfere with the screen readers used by visually impaired people)
  • A common technique for artificially inflating video view stats.

There is a (vaguely plausible) argument that sites such as YouTube are an exception to the no autoplay rule. As the visitor is clicking through to the video on a dedicated page it is implicit that they intend to watch.

Consider Twitch, the surprisingly popular site where fans watch gamers playing video games live, captured in the image below. On the desktop homepage, Twitch.tv has a live game on autoplay, while on m.Twitch.tv, there are no videos hosted on the homepage.

Comparing the download size and page speed of Twitch homepage when downloaded to a mobile and desktop device on HTTP Archive (April 15 2017) delivers dramatic results:

  • Mobile homepage (with no video) took 5.8 seconds to load 354kB of data over 24 requests
  • Desktop homepage took 19.9 seconds to load 16,255kB of data over 275 requests. Of that, 11,827kB is video content.

How video impacts mobile web performance and UX, part 3: detecting and remedying issues

6. Viewer experience (VX) and choice

Make sure the video and host page is intuitive. Let the viewer take control. Make it easy to:

  • Choose video quality – low quality, HD or 4K
  • Select and exit full-screen view
  • Change device orientation change
  • View and operate. Ensure the video fits the device screen and that buttons are intuitive
  • Allow playback when the device is offline.

7. Make the video accessible

To make video/audio accessible for:

  • Visually impaired people, provide a written transcript of the audio.
  • People with hearing impairments, provide subtitles.

For more advice on making mobile content accessible to a wide audience, the BBC Mobile Accessibility Guidelines are an excellent resource.

8. Minimize video start-up delay

The delay to start-up is caused by two essential processes:

  1. The authentication process (including digital rights management).
  2. The downloading of the video. Video files are subdivided into segments. A sufficient number of segments need to be downloaded to the buffer (temporary store on the client device), before the video starts to play.

A delay is inevitable, but the video should be optimized to ensure delays are kept to a minimum.

As can be seen from the 2016 data from Conviva study below, videos tend to take longer to start on mobile devices, both on WIFI and Cellular, than Tablet or Desktop. It’s no coincidence that mobile has the highest proportion of exits per attempt.How video impacts mobile web performance and UX, part 3: detecting and remedying issues

9. Keep the user informed

While the authentication, downloading and (re) buffering occurs, tell the user what is happening and/or distract them. Watching a spinning wheel icon can be frustrating.

10. Minimize video stalls

Stalls occur when too few video segments stored in the buffer to allow playback to continue. The video will not continue until sufficient segments have been downloaded (called re-buffering).

The key is to find balance between slow start and stalling, says AT&T’s Doug Sillars:

“The 2 biggest metrics for video are:

  1. Startup delay (how long from click to stream).
  2. Stalls (video stops, maybe a spinner).

These are (of course) interrelated.  If you startup too quickly – there will not be enough video stored locally on the device… and you might get a stall.  Or you can take too much data at the start (long startup delay), but have no stalls later.

There is a magic “Goldilocks” point in the middle – not too hot, not too cold – that balances the two factors.” 

11. Optimize bitrate, compression and segment size

Optimize bitrate, compression and segment size for the device and network connection.

  • Re-buffering typically occurs where the video is played at a speed, measured in bitrates (bits per second), that is too fast for the download speed (bitrate) of the network connection, so the buffer is emptied quicker than it is being filled.
  • Digital videos are divided into files, called segments, of 2 to 10 seconds, which are downloaded to the buffer and then played in order. Segments of optimum size for the connection will download, buffer and play faster.
  • A Codec (coder/decoder) is a tool for compressing and decompressing audio and video files. There are a number of different compression formats, e.g. MPEG-4, each with pros and cons. Different video quality and the client device/connection will influence choice of format.

12. Use adaptive bitrates.

Adaptive bitrate streaming creates and stores digital video at a number of different quality/speeds/bitrates. The video player on the client device requests the most appropriate of these based on a) network speed, b) device capability, and c) capacity of the buffer.

There are two types of adaptive streaming, DASH and HLS, because one industry standard that worked on all devices would be just too easy (find out more here).

13. Use a content delivery network (CDN)

A content delivery network speeds up how quickly web media, including video loads and plays on a mobile device by reducing the that the video has to travel between the original web server – e.g. your webserver in California, USA and a viewer in Timbuktu in Mali – by replicating and storing the video on servers around the world.

According to BuiltWith, 53.8% of the top 10k websites use CDNs.

Akamai Edge, which was one of the original CDNs, founded in 1999, remains one of the most popular. According to BuiltWith, Akamai is used by 11.4% of the top 10,000 sites, followed by Amazon CloudFront at 4% and MaxCDN at 1.3%.

How video impacts mobile web performance and UX, part 3: detecting and remedying issues

14. Host or embed?

Hosting websites on a third party network, and embedding the file, removes several headaches, including video compression, adaptive bitrates and engaging a CDN. This helps to explain why 15.2% of top 10k websites embed YouTube videos and 3.6% Vimeo, according to BuiltWith.

How to remedy problems with video / audio

1. Page weight or load speed issues.

Regularly check the key pages using a testing tool such as WebPageTest (this is the tool used by HTTP Archive).

If this highlights issues of excessive page weight, slow download speed, and it appears that video is a contributing factor (rather than oversized images or inefficient use of JavaScript), the options are:

  • Kill autoplay
  • Ensure the video is not preventing the page loading correctly
  • Move the video to a dedicated page (with a prominent picture and text link)
  • Use A/B testing to verify if this solves the issue.

2. Video fails or is slow to start or stalls during play

If the video performance is an issue, here are some troubleshooting tips to try:

  • Try loading the video to a dedicated video service such as Vimeo or YouTube. Compare the performance of the video on the third-party site, embedded on your site and with the self-hosted version to highlight if problems lie with the video, as opposed to the website, webserver or CDN (or lack of CDN)
  • Test the video with a tool such as AT&T’s Video Optimizer (requires development skills) to detect issues with video segmentation, compression, buffering etc. and fix them
  • Have the video re-edited to make it more concise; and optimized to improve bitrate and compression
  • Use or replace the CDN.

If video performs better on some devices and over different connections e.g. PC on cable versus smartphone on 3G:

  • Prepare a number of versions of the video in different formats, with different quality, bitrates and compression to suit the most common scenarios of device and network type
  • Use device detection to discover the client device, its capabilities and the type of connection to serve the most appropriate version of the video
  • Use adaptive bitrates.

Resources (and sources)

These resources are aimed at developers, but are useful for all (if you ignore the techie bits):

 

This is Part 3 of a series looking at how video impacts mobile web performance and UX. Read the previous installments:

t_twitter_ola_pwa_native.png

Google I/O: What’s going on with Progressive Web Apps?

At Google’s developer jamboree, Google I/O, last week the search giant paraded a host of big name case studies and compelling stats to herald its success with two initiatives to make the mobile web better and faster: Progressive Web Apps (PWA) and Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP).

Progressive Web Apps are a Google innovation designed to combine the best features of mobile apps and the mobile web: speed, app-like interaction, offline usage, and no need to download anything.

Google spotlighted this relatively new web product at last year’s Google I/O, where the Washington Post showed off a newly-built Progressive Web App to enhance its mobile experience.

Whether companies believe in or plan to adopt Progressive Web Apps, the initiative (along with AMP) has done a fantastic job of highlighting a) the importance of making websites and apps lean and mean so they perform better on mobile and b) how ridiculously bloated, slow and inefficient websites and apps have become.

PWA and AMP are not the only answers to mobile bloat, but being led and backed by Google, they bring the potential for 1) broad adoption, 2) lots of resources, and 3) favorable treatment from Android, Chrome and Google Search.

What’s so great about Progressive Web Apps?

PWAs bring native app-like functions and features to websites. They should (depending on the quality of the build) work on all smart devices, adapting the performance to the ability of the device, browser and connection.

The key features that get people excited about PWAs are:

  • The ability to send push notifications
  • Option to save to the device (home screen and – now – app launcher), so it loads even faster next time
  • Ability to work offline (when there is no internet connection)
  • Make payments. One of the most significant PWA announcements at Google I/O was that PWAs can now integrate with native/web payment apps, to allow one tap payment with the users preferred provider, including Android Pay, Samsung Pay, Alipay and PayPal
  • Closer integration with device functions and native apps.

The margin of what native apps can do compared with a web-based app (N.B. PWAs do not have a monopoly over mobile web apps) is disappearing rapidly.

The last year has seen a remarkable 215 new APIs, allowing web apps to access even more of the native phone features and apps, announced Rahul Roy-Chowdhury, VP, product management at Google, in his Mobile Web State of Union keynote.

He pointed out that you could even build a web-based virtual reality (VR) app (if you wanted to), citing Within and Sketchfab, which showcase creations from developers around the world.

Who ate all the pies?

But the most compelling thing about Progressive Web Apps is their download size, compared with iOS apps and Android apps. Check out the size comparisons in the image below for two case studies featured at Google I/O: Twitter Lite and Ola Cabs (the biggest cab service in India, delivering 1 million rides per day).

  • Size of Twitter’s Android app 23MB+; iOS app 100MB+; Twitter Lite PWA 0.6MB.
  • Size of OLA Cabs Android app 60MB; iOS app 100MB; PWA 0.2MB.

Why does size matter? Performance on the web is all about speed. The smaller the size the quicker the download. Think SUV versus Grand Prix motorbike in rush hour traffic.

Interestingly, Twitter markets the PWA as Twitter Lite particularly targeted at people in tier two markets where connections may be inferior, data more expensive and smartphones less advanced; while Ola Cabs markets the PWA at second or third tier cites where there are similar issues with connections and smartphones.

This (cleverly) helps to position the PWA as non-competitive to their native apps.

Which companies have launched Progressive Web Apps?

A growing number of big name brands (see image below) have launched PWAs. These include:

  • Travel companies: Expedia, Trivago, Tui, AirFrance, Wego
  • Publishers: Forbes, Infobae, Washington Post, FT, Guardian, Independent, Weather Company
  • E-commerce companies: Fandango, Rakuten, Alibaba, Lancôme, Flipkart
  • Formerly native app-only companies: Lyft, Ola Cabs.

Google I/O: What’s going on with Progressive Web Apps?

At I/O, Google trumpeted the achievements of a number of companies, inviting several to share their experiences with the audiences – only the good stuff, clearly.

1. Faster speeds; higher engagement

m.Forbes.com has seen user engagement double since launch of its PWA in March (according to Google).

For the inside track see this Forbes article. The publisher claims its pages load in 0.8 seconds on a mobile device. The publisher was aiming for a Snapchat or Instagram-like experience with streams of related content along with app-like features such as gesture-based navigation.

In this video case study, embedded below, created for I/O, Forbes claims to have achieved a 43% increase in sessions per user and 20% increase in ad viewability.

The Ola Cabs PWA takes 1-3 seconds to load on the first visit – depending on the network, “including low 3G” Dipika Kapadia, head of consumer web products at Ola, told I/O attendees. On subsequent visits it takes less than a second as it only needs to download the real-time information, including cab availability.

Ola achieves this partly due to its size: the app is just 0.5MB of which only 0.2MB is application data. As it downloads it prioritizes essential information, while other assets download in the background.

2. Consumers readily download PWAs to their home screens

When mobile visitors are using the mobile app, they receive a prompt to save it to the home screen, so it loads faster next time. It does this by caching all the static parts of the site, so next time it only needs to fetch what has changed.

Twitter Lite, as Patrick Traughber, product manager atTwitter, told the Google I/O crowd, sees 1 million daily visits from the homepage icon.

Since launch of the Progressive Web App, in April 2017, Twitter has seen a 65% increase in pages per session and 75% increase in tweets.

3. Notifications

The ability to send notifications to mobile users to encourage them back to the app, used to be one of the big advantages of native apps over mobile web. No longer.

Notifying users about recent activity is very important to Twitter, said Traughber. And Twitter is taking full advantage of this capability, sending 10 million push notifications each day.

For the inside track on Twitter’s PWA, see this article.

4. Winning back customers that have deleted your native app

App-only companies face the challenge that users only download and retain a limited number of apps on their smartphone and will uninstall those that aren’t used as regularly as others, thus once deleted, it’s over.

Thus it is an eye-opener that 20% of Ola PWA bookings come from users who have previously uninstalled the native app.

See Google’s case study on Ola’s PWA.

5. PWAs appeal to iOS users

Compared with other mobile browsers such as Chrome, Edge, Opera and Samsung, the default browser on Apple devices, Safari, can be slower when it comes to adopting advancements in mobile web. This means Safari users won’t experience some of the more advanced features of PWAs, yet.

Despite this, brands are seeing improved mobile engagement after launching a PWA. Lancôme Paris has seen session length improve by 53% among iOS users, according to this case study of the Lancôme PWA, cited at Google I/O.

6. Conversions

According to Wego’s video case study, embedded below, created for I/O, the Singapore-based travel service has combined both PWA and AMP to achieve a load time for new users is 1.6 seconds and 1 second for returning customers. This has helped to increase site visits by 26%, reduce bounce rates by 20% and increase conversions by 95%, since launch.

If you need more impressive stats to make the case for a web app, visit Cloud Four’s new PWA Stats.


For more articles on mobile web performance see:

How video impacts mobile web performance and UX, part 1: data and download speed
How video impacts mobile web performance and UX, part 2: autoplay and audio
How to fix your bloated mobile website: fewer, better, smaller images
Optimizing images for mobile: right format, right size, right place, right device
How JavaScript impacts how fast your page loads on a mobile device

Andy Favell is Search Engine Watch’s columnist on mobile. He is a London-based freelance mobile/digital consultant, journalist and web editor. Contact him via LinkedIn or Twitter at Andy_Favell.

t47_top_100_youtube_content_breakdown.png

How video impacts mobile web performance and UX, part 2: autoplay and audio

Mobile video is a major up-and-coming trend in content, with brands everywhere converging on the new and lucrative mobile video market.

Mark Zuckerberg said on a recent shareholder conference call that he sees video as “a megatrend on the same order as mobile” – which makes mobile video, the intersection between the two, the ultimate sweet spot of engaging content to draw in new consumer eyeballs.

But sadly, there are still some technical hurdles to overcome before the mobile video experience is as smooth as companies would like it to be. In our previous installment we looked at how video can be a massive mobile data hog, and why it shouldn’t (but still does) have an impact on download speed.

In this part we’ll look at the contentious subject of autoplaying videos and their impact on mobile webpage performance, as well as how audio can delay page speed, and what kind of conditions make for a poor viewer experience (VX).

Our third and final part will consider some solutions that webmasters can enact to counter the issues with mobile video.

Video autoplay and page performance

Comparing the data on HTTP Archive for average content for the top 100 most popular sites (according to Alexa) with the top 1 million (shown above) reveals some interesting stats.

On average, video content is just 17kB (rather than 128kB) which is 2.1% of total page size, which, is a (comparatively) slender 828kB.

There are three reasons why this might be:

  1. Top sites avoid using video. (Considering these include video specialist like YouTube, BBC and CNN, this is the least likely of the three reasons).
  2. Top sites avoid using video on the (mobile) homepage. (The homepage of YouTube, for example, is made up of image links to videos, rather than videos themselves. Each video has its own webpage).
  3. Top sites use video more efficiently (as Dutton suggests).

Querying this apparent anomaly of video usage between all sites and the top 100 with the web performance experts at HTTP Archive, we received the following answer from Rick Viscomi, a leader of the HTTP Archive project and Developer Advocate at Google:

“I think the answer is: efficiency. To be more specific, I think it comes down to autoplay. HTTP Archive just visits a page and records the page load without clicking around. Autoplay videos would be captured on those visits, while click-to-play would not.

“Autoplaying is wasteful for everyone involved because a page visit does not always demonstrate intent to watch. One notable exception is YouTube, where visiting a watch page is definitely intent to watch. Keep in mind that only home pages are crawled by HTTP Archive. So my theory is the top sites choose not to autoplay in order to keep bounce rates low and conversions high.”

Notably, autoplay video and audio is also frowned on from an accessibility perspective. See these BBC guidelines for example. The reason for this is that people with visual impairments rely on screen readers to read aloud a webpage. Clearly if audio or video media starts to play (including advertisements) it will interfere with the screen reader and will make tricky for the user to find out how to make it stop.

The impact of audio on page performance

One of the most useful features of HTTP Archive or WebPageTest (from where it is captured) is the filmstrip which shows how a website loads on a mobile device second by second.

The loading process for New York Times mobile site on May 1, 2017 is captured by HTTP Archive in the image below. The audio story The Daily is at the top of the mobile page, above the fold, allowing us to see clearly how audio may delay page speed.

The audio does not finish loading until 22 seconds, when the play button finally appears and the site is visibly complete.

How video impacts mobile web performance and UX, part 2: autoplay and audio

Poor viewer experience (VX)

Assuming there is no autoplay, a correctly coded website should not require the video to be downloaded until the user requests it by clicking on the play button.

However as soon as the mobile user clicks on that play button, the level of expectation changes…

There are three potential VX problems with video:

  1. The video is too slow to start.
  2. It fails to start.
  3. It stalls during play back – this is due to (re) buffering or a dropping connection, typically shown by the spinning wheel.
  4. Poor video quality – or quality that is less an optimal for the connection.

Research by Conviva and nScreenMedia (November 2016) illustrates the difference in VX quality when a viewer is indoors (WIFI) or outdoors (cellular) failures for videos to start increases from 1.5% to 2.9% and buffering issues rises from 7.9% to 14.3% of views.

This has a noticeable impact on user satisfaction out of home 11.8% exit before the video starts versus 9.0% in home.How video impacts mobile web performance and UX, part 2: autoplay and audio

Research carried out by University of Massachusetts and Akamai, of 6.7 million video viewers, in 2012, also shows a growing intolerance to slow, stalling video.

Ramesh Sitaraman, Professor of Computer Science, UMass, Amherst tells ClickZ:

“Mobile users are impatient and abandon videos that do not start up quickly. However, they are more patient than users who have high-speed Internet access (say, Fiber), since their expectations of speed are lower in comparison.

“Mobile users start to abandon a video after waiting for about 2 seconds. By the 10 second mark, if the video has not started, roughly a fifth have abandoned.”

And on stalling:

“We don’t have data split out just for mobile. But, we studied a cross-section of users that included mobile. Overall, people watch videos for a shorter period of time when the video stalls than they would have otherwise.

“Roughly, a 1% increase in stalls leads to 5% decrease in the minutes watched.”

 

This is Part 2 of a series looking at how video impacts mobile web performance and UX. Read the previous installment: How video impacts mobile web performance and UX, part 1: data and download speed.

Or read on to the next part: How video impacts mobile web performance and UX, part 3: detecting and remedying issues.

t47_cisco_mobile_data_breakdown.png

How video impacts mobile web performance and UX, part 1: data and download speed

Mobile video is great. When it works.

Implemented correctly, video or audio *should not* impact the speed that pages load on a mobile device and when the play button is pressed, it needs to start quickly and work well.

Video content is top of the agenda for many brands. It is proving a great way to engage customers and visitors, but when viewed on mobile devices, particularly those on cellular connection, video (and to a lesser extent audio) should come with a health warning.

Users are increasingly impatient with slow-to-load and stalling video and will start to abandon a video after waiting just two seconds, research from UMass and Akamai shows.

This column, the first of three parts, will take a close look at how and why video affects page performance. In the second part, we’ll look at the impact of video autoplay and audio on page performance, as well as what makes a poor viewer experience (VX).

Finally, we’ll explore how to detect, avoid and remedy issues to prevent users tuning out.

Video is a massive mobile data hog

The provision and consumption of video on mobile devices via web and apps is growing rapidly. Mobile video is already 60% of total mobile data traffic worldwide and is expected to be 78% by 2021 according to Cisco’s Visual Networking Index (VNI).

All other elements will grow over the next five years, but their proportion of overall traffic will be less. Audio will be 5% compared with 8% today and mobile web will be 14% compared with 30% of traffic today.

Video – and audio – used wrongly or inefficiently will impact mobile user experience (UX) – or should we say: “viewer experience” (VX) or “listener experience” (LX) – massively, but not necessarily in the same way as oversized images and poor or inefficient use of JavaScript.

Images and JavaScript, as seen in previous columns, are the biggest causes of slow loading mobile web pages. As discussed below, video can still contribute to page size and therefore contribute to page load delays, particularly (it seems) where autoplay is used, as we will discuss below.

But the biggest impact on VX comes after page load when the video is slow, or fails, to start or stalls.

The two charts below are from HTTP Archive, which twice monthly records the page size and download speed of the homepages of the top 1 million sites to desktop and mobile devices, using the excellent WebPageTest.

The first chart shows the breakdown of content types by bytes – images, JavaScript, video, stylesheets, HTML and fonts – as an average of all homepages recorded on April 15, 2017.

Video is 128kB or 5.5% of the total bytes loaded (2312 kB or 2.3MB). This might appear small, until you realize that 97% of pages monitored by HTTP Archive have no video content (we examine this surprising stat below).

Pages that do have video content will therefore show a higher proportion of video content.

The second chart (captured April 15, 2017) shows the content breakdown for the homepage of the US digital agency Huge. Here video content is 727kB or 14.5% of the total bytes. The total weight of the page is 5MB, which is a homepage worthy of the company name, and, when measured, took 25.8 seconds to load on a mobile device, according to HTTP Archive.

To be fair, many agencies (digital, media, advertising et al) have surprisingly slow loading, heavy weight sites (considering the importance of digital to their businesses), though Huge is exceptionally large. A trimmer example is Young and Rubicam. On the same date the Y&R homepage took three seconds to load 783kB on a mobile device (on other dates it took nine seconds) according to HTTP Archive.

How video impacts mobile web performance and UX, part 1: data and download speed

Video shouldn’t affect page load size or download speed

Implemented correctly, video (or audio) should not impact the size of the webpage or the speed that pages load on a mobile device, according to the experts.

Even when video is present on the page, to render the page, the browser only needs to load the video container, teaser image, start button etc. it doesn’t need to download the entire video (as the visitor may not want to watch it at all). Thus video and audio ought not to be a significant proportion of content recorded by HTTP Archive / WebPageTest – as we will see when we look at the most popular sites.

Sam Dutton is a Developer Advocate at Google who provides educational materials and workshops for techies in mobile video. He explains:

“Video is not a big issue for page loading, since in general video shouldn’t be part of the cost of loading a web page.

“HTTP Archive measures the bytes to load a web page, not the total bytes crossing the internet. When you load most web pages, you don’t load a video (but you do load images, HTML, CSS and JavaScript).

“Top sites are less likely than less popular sites to require video for page load since (hopefully) the top sites realize the detrimental effects on page weight and (therefore) bounce rates, etc.”

 

This is Part 1 of a series looking at how video impacts mobile web performance and UX. Read the next installment: How video impacts mobile web performance and UX, part 2: autoplay and audio.

dna39_brand_safety_1.jpg

Why brands should care about brand safety in mobile advertising

Easily spotted on the mobile web: holiday ad next to plane crash story; ?Muslim dating ad next to KKK story; beauty ad next to domestic violence story; car ad next to emissions scandal story…

[This post originally appeared on our sister site ClickZ.com, but we thought it was so useful we wanted to share it here as well]

Let?s admit it we?ve all had an occasional giggle when we spot an ad prominently displayed next to inappropriate content on the web. But for advertisers this is no laughing matter.

An ad that is not displayed in a contextually appropriate environment is not only a waste of marketing budget, but is a potential embarrassment (if shared on social media) or, at worst, damaging to the brand?s reputation.

Research by inMobi (via eMarketer), July 2016, highlighted in this column on mobile ad fraud ?reveals that 26% of advertisers state that concerns over brand safety is preventing the take up of programmatic purchasing (buying ads on the fly via an ad exchange) of mobile inventory.

While this is considerably less than the 48% concerned about fraud/viewability, this is surely a matter the industry needs to address.

The examples pictured in this column were easily found on the mobile web. Try it yourself by selecting potentially controversial stories and waiting to see what ad loads (often ads load slower than the content).

The sites we have featured are not implicitly ?toxic?, such as pornography or gambling, but prominent news outlets where some stories will deal with unpleasant matters from time to time.

No one would want these news stories to go unreported. But that doesn?t mean that a holiday company wants its ad next to a plane crash story; a baby food brand ad next to a child sex abuse story; a Muslim dating service ad next to a KKK story; a beauty ad next to a domestic violence story or a car ad next to a story on the emissions scandal.

The ad business calls this brand safety or content adjacency. The issue is a real one.

But preventing brand safety issues has become increasingly complicated because:

  • Direct relationships between advertiser and publisher have increasingly been replaced by a web of intermediaries including ad exchanges and ad networks companies.
  • Many sites are implicitly safe, but publish eclectic content that could any subject ? i.e. news sites or news stories/user generated content (UGC) on social media sites.
  • Keeping track of ads displayed on mobile sites and ? particularly ? mobile apps presents a unique set of challenges, compared with desktop web.

As Kurt Hawks,?SVP of cross device and video at digital ad targeting specialist Conversant, explains:

Mobile ad tech is still maturing and while the mobile web operates similarly to desktop display, the in-app environment is a very different and more complex tech ecosystem. A rise in the intermediaries needed to execute in-app has resulted in a more fragmented digital supply chain that is more difficult to monitor.

Text, image and video-based analysis have gotten more adept at assessing brand fit within webpages, but a lack of mobile standardization, particularly in the in-app environment, can hinder the effectiveness of these tools. For example, the VPAID?(Video Player Ad-Serving Interface Definition) standard is still not universally supported within in-app environments yet.

This is the forth in our series of columns on mobile ad quality: see also:

  1. Mobile ad fraud?
  2. ?Combatting mobile ad fraud
  3. Mobile ad viewability

Brand safety issues easily found on the mobile web

Let?s take a look at some examples of what appears to be untargeted ads appearing next to stories on three mainstream news sites: Inquisitr, Washington Post and The Mirror; and/or via Google?s AMP (accelerated mobile pages) search results.

Please note that brand safety is subjective, we can only guess that the brand, the viewer and the publisher would deem these contexts inappropriate.

  1. It is hard to imagine many mainstream advertisers wishing to be associated with a story about a man being arrested for murder, a KKK march in favor of Donald Trump?s victory, or pictured above a picture of a KKK ceremony. There were plenty of examples spotted on various journals ? but this was the most controversial: a Muslim dating site alongside this INQUISITR story.
  1. Are stories of funerals or air crashes ever a good context for advertisers? But surely no travel brand would wish to be pushing overseas holidays against the backdrop of a funeral of the president of a football club wiped out in an air disaster as spotted alongside this Washington Post story.
  1. Child sex abuse is also a topic that most advertisers would consider toxic, but a brand, particularly one of the magnitude of Heinz is will be questioning how an ad for baby meals ended up topping this Daily Mirror story??about alleged child sex abuse at Chelsea Football Club.

Just to be certain, we checked the stories pictured in this column with Melody Gambino, director of marketing at brand safety expert, Grapeshot:

Every one of these examples is poignant. The key to brand safety is not only ensuring you don’t put your advertisement in front of bots or on spam sites, but also that the content surrounding your ad is not offensive. This can be in a broad sense (terrorism) or something specific to your brand (emissions testing for VW, for example).

But no one can say for certain what is considered brand safe or not except the advertiser, explains Melody Gambino

Brand safety means different things for every brand and every campaign, so clarity about what it means for you is imperative to ensure you are getting the most from your brand safety partners.?

Defining brand safety

In the useful New Rules of Brand Safety, ?Grapeshot gives the following definition for brand safety:

The term ?brand safety? is notionally understood. It represents an environment that is fundamentally not hostile, will not cause perceptions of uncomfortable association or, worse, spur unwelcome sharing or commenting.

The costs of an error in this arena can mount quickly, from the need to craft defensive counter-messaging to lost sales. Only after the fact does the degree of damage become clear.

Dirty dozen of toxic content categories:

There are 12 different content categories which, according to the report, tend to be considered toxic and are routinely excluded by agencies and brand safety tools. These are adult, arms, crime, death or injury, online privacy, hate speech, military conflict, obscenity, illegal drugs, spam or harmful site, terrorism and tobacco.

Why brands should care about brand safety in mobile advertising

CASE STUDY

Based on these criteria, the three stories pictured above ? the KKK organizer?s arrest, the Chapeco funeral and the Chelsea abuse allegations ? all appear to fail the toxic test.

Presumably a rape story, even when associated a classic film such as Last Tango in Paris, is deemed toxic content. But should it be considered universally inappropriate for all brands?

The following ads have no contextual relevance to the film or the news story, but is this an association that charities or luxury brands should avoid? N.B. if you perform a mobile or online search on this story, you will find plenty of other examples, these are not isolated cases:

Why brands should care about brand safety in mobile advertising

Targeted or untargeted?

Advertisers attempt to improve the impact of ads by targeting the ads at visitors based on the publisher, the visitor, their location, and contextual relevance of the story using keywords, images and metatags.

There is little evidence targeting in the Last Tango rape story, but the following three examples suggest contextual targeting at its most unfortunate.

Why brands should care about brand safety in mobile advertising

  1. The Volkswagen emissions story isn?t a universally toxic topic ? but it is one that auto manufacturers, such as VW, should and do seek to avoid. The ad targeting software appears to have picked up on the keyword ?Volkswagen? on this Chicago Tribune story to serve up ads for a VW leasing service. Unfortunately the ad targeting failed to pick out the word ?emissions?, so did not put the break on the ad.
  1. In the second example, the ad targeting seems to pick out the keywords ?makeup tutorial? in this Mediaite story?to serve up an ad for a Beauty app and a recruitment ad for models. To a computer this will look like a good opportunity, but no beauty brand will want to be associated with the use of makeup to hide domestic violence.
  1. It is unlikely that the CBC house ad ?Holiday like you mean it? is contextually targeted at?this story 3 about drug use by Hitler and Nazi Army, but a reader would be forgiven for thinking so.

How brand safety works

There are two key methods for avoiding brand safety issues:

  • Blocking websites/URLs that are known to contain contentious material.
  • Detecting context from keywords either a) pre-bid, preventing the ad space being purchased at the exchange) or, where not possible, b) post-bid, where the ad is blocked from appearing on the page.

The first approach relies on agencies maintaining vast blacklists (and whitelists) of websites. Ad technology then blocks the ads from displaying on these blacklisted sites. The problem with this method is that it assumes that all content on blacklisted sites is bad for business and all content on whitelisted sites is good for business ? which as we have seen above is not the case.

The second approach is more complicated. Ad quality/verification software, from vendors such as Integral Ad Science and Meetrics scan websites for possible issues for advertisers.

Jason Cooper, general manager, mobile at Integral Ad Science, tells how it works:

When web pages load they are requesting content from all across the Internet; text, copy, images, advertising content, tracking and analytics pixels among others. In each one of these requests, a little tout runs ahead declaring the page that is making the request; by intercepting that call, a verification vendor can decide whether that page meets the brand safety threshold of an advertiser before allowing the ad to serve.

However, apps don’t send URL’s, in fact identifying the app name requires a number of different strategies and is something that will be solved incrementally over time.

Issues with mobile (apps)

One advantage of native apps, is that they are scanned ? particularly with the Apple Store ? for malicious code and inappropriate content, before being admitted to the apps stores. However this does not take account of individual stories, user generated content or content pulled in from third party sites. Unfortunately, as native apps use proprietary code, rather than the web technologies, the web-based (JavaScript) scanning techniques used by the verification vendors is ineffective.

Felix Badura,?director product development at Meetrics, explains:

It is not possible to apply state-of-the-art brand safety technology to the in-app environment due to technical limitations with regard to the interplay of native code (e.g. Java, Swift) and web code (HTML, JavaScript) inside the webview container that actually displays the ad.

Due to the fact, that native apps and content loaded via a webview cannot exchange information, JavaScript based ad verification for instance cannot scan the content of the app on the fly.

Tips and common mistakes with brand safety

  • Don?t assume that because you are buying ad space on a known app it will be safe for your brand. Apps don’t need to be porn free to tick the box of ‘safe’. An article about performance enhancing drug scandals next to Reebok or Nike ads can be equally as damaging. ? Melody Gambino, Grapeshot.
  • Brands must be especially vigilant and engage vendors that have robust brand safety capabilities (semantic analysis of text; tags; imagery and tonality of web pages and apps; video-level data), but must also ensure these partners are capable of handling the nuances of brand safety in-app. ? Kurt Hawks,
  • Only serve ads via the big marketers like AdMob or MoPub and keeping the pressure high on insisting to have a third party measuring the data. ? Felix Badura,
  • While it is a good idea, to retrieve and analyse the Package names of the apps where an ad is running, one should be aware that even problematic apps might be uploaded using inconspicuous names to stay below the radar. ? Felix Badura, Meetrics.

This is Part 39 of the?ClickZ??DNA of mobile-friendly web? series.

Here are the recent ones:

 

Andy Favell is ClickZ columnist on mobile. He is a London-based freelance mobile/digital consultant, journalist and web editor.

Contact him via LinkedIn ?or Twitter @Andy_Favell.

dna38_visability_of_display_ads.jpg

Mobile ad viewability: what is it and does it matter?

Brand advertisers and their agencies only want to pay for mobile ads that are seen by a person. They do not want to pay for ads that are not ‘viewable’ i.e. they don’t render or are displayed where they are invisible; or for insufficient time to register the message.

With brand advertising a mobile ad does not count as an impression and the advertiser thus should not be charged if:

  1. The ad is not seen by a real person;
  2. Because it fails to render or is displayed where it is unseen, e.g. below the fold, when the visitor doesn’t scroll; or
  3. If there is insufficient time for the visitor to digest its message.

• The first factor is an invalid impression, often caused by ad fraud. These were discussed in the previous two columns.
• Factors two and three are referred to as viewability, viewable ads or in-view ads and will be discussed in this column.
• Brand safety or brand adjacency – i.e. the placing of content next to appropriate content, will be discussed in a subsequent column.

This viewability standard is very new to mobile. And, in practice, ensuring ads qualify as a chargeable impressions, is even more of a headache on mobile than desktop, especially for native app advertising.

Viewability is an issue on many levels:

1. Digital ad viewability, generally, is a contentious political issue.

It has led to some high-level industry bickering between advertisers, agencies, intermediaries and publishers. For example:

2. Measuring viewability on mobile is even more difficult than on digital.

  • The industry had to wait until June 2016, before there was any standard for mobile viewability. See MRC Guidelines below.
  • These standards are for the US, and do not necessarily have international scope. The viewability standard for mobile in the UK, for example, is still a work in progress, headed by JICWEBS (Joint Industry Currency for Web Standards).
  • Quantifying viewability on mobile apps is even trickier than mobile web.

3. Viewability isn’t the same as ad quality or effectiveness. It does not guarantee results.

  • You can thrust the wrong ad creative, in the wrong format, for the wrong product, in the wrong person’s face all day and they still won’t buy it.
  • Striving for max viewability can drive advertisers / publishers to use more intrusive ad formats, such as interstitials, which can alienate visitors and encourage ad blocking.
  • Viewability is more of an issue for brand advertisers, who pay CPM (cost per thousand impressions). For performance advertisers, who pay by results e.g. acquisition of a new subscriber / installation of a mobile app, it is far less of a concern than ad fraud.
  • Viewability is pointless if there is no guarantee that it is a human rather than a robot viewing the ads.

Definition of mobile ad viewability

MRC Mobile Viewable Ad Impression Measurement Guidelines (PDF), published June 2016 offers the following definition.

Mobile viewable display ad impressions are counted when the following criteria are met:

  • Pixel requirement: Greater than or equal to 50% of the pixels (density – independent) in the advertisement were on an in-focus browser or a fully downloaded, opened, initialized application, on the viewable space of the device, and
  • Time requirement: The time the pixel requirement is met was greater than or equal to one continuous second, post ad render. This time requirement applies equally to news feed and non-news feed environments.

Video Time Requirement:
To qualify for counting as a mobile viewable video ad impression, it is required that 2 continuous seconds of the video advertisement is played, meeting the same pixel requirement necessary for a mobile viewable display ad.

Why this definition is a good thing:

Jason Cooper, general manager, mobile at Integral Ad Science.

“For years we’ve seen media owners avoid addressing mobile viewability or brand safety concerns, citing reasons such as: ‘the MRC has not made up their mind.’ But now the MRC released its mobile viewability guidelines. So this should now help to align all sides of the industry in how to move forward.”

But are the MRC guidelines too lenient?

Anyone familiar with desktop display advertising will recognize that the mobile guidelines are remarkably similar to the MRC’s desktop viewability guidelines. These are the same guidelines which critics led by Unilever’s Keith Wood argues are too lenient.

However, the MRC guidelines should considered the base standard, rather than the gold standard, according to Mark Finney, director of media and advertising, ISBA (Incorporated Society of British Advertisers):
It is a misconception that the MRC standard is a “target” to be adhered to, it is really more of a baseline. A baseline is needed because all advertisers have their own viewability targets, but you have to have a definition of a “view” for comparison purposes and to calibrate measurement tools. What you choose to pay for is a different matter. However, some people think that MRC is advocating 50% for one second – it is not.

Setting a lower threshold gives advertisers the flexibility to buy the type of inventory they require. So while some brand advertises call for 100% viewability to maximize eyeballs, this is less of a priority for performance advertisers who are interested in consumer interaction with their ads, but do not what to pay over the odds.

Mark Finney:

“Unilever has been very vocal that everything should be 100% viewable. Group M will not pay for anything less on behalf of its clients, and this would seem sensible, but there are downsides.”

Not all advertisers share the “100% “view. Advertisers who are more focused on direct marketing care less about this than CPA (cost per acquisition). E.g. if the price is right and something is 40% viewable but had a measurable effect on sales they may be happy with that. To get 100% viewable ads carries a hefty premium.

A good indication of the bewildering array of metrics / definitions currently used by agencies and advertisers to measure viewable impressions is to look at the data dictionary of a measurement company, such as Moat Analytics. ClickZ was shown a copy by InMobi. There are dozens of variants, depending on percentage of ad in view, time in view, position on the page and behavior of the user, all defined with different methods of calculation.

How are mobile ads verified as viewable?

Publishers, and increasingly agencies and advertisers, use independent verification companies.

The list of vendors accredited by the MRC (PDF) currently includes 14 vendors. Check with the MRC which ones of these are ‘Compliant – Self Asserted’ and which are ‘Compliant¬ – Audited’.

Only two of the 14 are currently accredited for mobile web and mobile app:

  • Integral Ad Science
  • Moat

What proportion of ads are viewable?

Unfortunately no company could supply any stats to show how many mobile ads are viewable. So we will have to make do with a chart for general display viewability from measurement company Meetrics. This suggests that more than half of display ads in the UK currently fail viewability tests.

You might expect publishers to refute such numbers. But they do not.

So what would it take to get publishers to improve viewability?

That’s an easy one: advertisers will have to pay a premium for guaranteed viewability.

Ben Price, group product manager, global media brands, at UK-based publishing house, Future:

I think there are two things to understand – 1) Increasing viewability will always increase CTR (click through rate) – that’s a fact – because if the ad isn’t seen, then it isn’t going to be clicked. However, 2) Advertisers need to be aware that publishers aren’t currently flocking to drive viewability up, because the yield doesn’t make sense right now.

For example, if advertisers were just to pay for viewable impressions, at a viewability rate of 50%, the publisher needs to see a rise of 100% in CPMs to achieve the same revenues as before. In reality, the publisher CPM increases are in the 20-30% range, which is why we haven’t seen widespread adoption from the publisher side.

This also poses the question of how important viewability and CTR really are to advertisers, if the publisher CPMs aren’t in direct correlation to viewability and CTR, what other quality metrics should be measured?

Does improving mobile viewability improve effectiveness?

Tests run with one campaign by Future found that doubling the viewability of mobile web ads, increased CTR by 145%.

Ben Price explains:

“We focused on mobile ads on one of Future sites – and subsequently rolled it out across the portfolio. We did two main things. 1) Added a sticky footer (ad remains on screen, when scrolling) 2) Adjusted the placement of MPUs (Mid Page Units) to higher viewability locations on the page.”

The CTR was pretty evenly increased across all campaigns and all ad sizes on mobile as a result. We compared to a previous 3 month average and saw similar sizes of increase in CTR as we rolled out on the other sites as well.

Off the back of this test, we’ve been building out a dynamic ad serving technology that automatically optimizes the placement of ads across the sites, depending on the content, user and engagement, optimizing for viewability and time-in-view. We plan on launching in Q2 2017.

This does not mean viewability is the same as effectiveness, points out Price:

Viewability is a minimum metric and only indicates a minimum level of quality, we need to make sure that we are working to optimize quality at an advertiser, agency and publisher level.

ISBA’s Mark Finney agrees. Confusing these two is a common mistake:

“Don’t confuse viewability with effectiveness – they are two very different concepts. Viewability measurement is based on a minimum threshold to enable the validation of an exposure to an ad impression, but it is not a KPI (key performance indicator) in itself. It should be a hygiene factor.”

Why mobile viewability is different and more difficult than desktop

The first thing to note is that the smaller form factor means that if publishers, under pressure from advertisers, use more intrusive tactics to increase viewability, it will have an even greater impact on user experience. For example interstitial (interruptive) ads will take up the full-screen and (if badly designed) can be difficult to close, and large sticky ads take up far more of the real estate on mobile than on desktop.

Mark Finney:

“Trying to optimize to viewability can lead to creative decisions that can negatively impact the user experience and therefore the brand (intrusive overlays, interstitials etc.). This may also drive more users to ad-blocking.”

Remember the context and the importance of creative – factors often overlooked in mobile where it is routine to re-use (or should that be “misuse”) creative designed for other platforms.

The second thing to note is mobile connection times may be slower, so the ad may not even loaded fully by the time visitor has moved on.

Verifying mobile web viewability is more difficult than desktop:

The issue is that the technologies that vendors use to verify ads on the desktop are not necessarily applicable on mobile web.

Integral’s Jason Cooper:

“The over-arching issue is that in mobile we have moved away from an environment where URL’s (referrers), cookies and Flash were ubiquitous across all major desktop browsers, to an environment where none of these elements can be relied upon. Using a Flash approach solved measurement of unfriendly iframes in the desktop environment, but Flash is redundant on mobile, so for mobile web viewability we have to seek out new solutions for iframes.”

The situation with in-app ads is even more complicated as they use a mixture of proprietary “native” technologies a long with web technologies.

One effort to cure this is the IAB’s on-going MRAID (Mobile Rich Media Ad Interface Definitions) standard.

Jason Cooper:

“Broadly speaking there are two approaches for measuring in-app viewability: a native approach, which is the MRC accredited route, and MRAID, which offers more scale, but in its existing form, isn’t MRC accredited.”

Another major misconception is that all in-app ads are always in view because they have a fixed placeholder within the app. However, there are numerous use cases where this isn’t true, one case is with ads that are preloaded waiting to be shown at intervals dictated by the app developer such as between levels of a game. In this scenario the ad downloads and fully renders in the background, in a preloaded state, and of course all tracking pixels load along with it. However, if the user doesn’t get to that certain point in the game, then the preloaded ads are discarded, this is an important point to understand especially when an agency is trying to make sense of the data in their reporting.

Mobile ad viewability – and viewability in general is a contentious and evolving subject. It helps if all members of the ad ecosystem are well informed. Get involved with whatever initiatives are running in your country and attend any events.

This columnist recently attended a JICWEBS town hall that was well attended and informative (but the only advertiser speaker, from Unilever, wanted to keep his opinions secret).

This is Part 38 of the ClickZ ‘DNA of mobile-friendly web’ series.
Here are the recent ones:
How agencies and advertisers can spot and combat mobile ad fraud
Mobile advertising accounts for nearly half of digital spend, but it comes at a price: ad fraud
Where is Google heading with mobile local search?
Is Google killing mobile organic search

 

Andy Favell is ClickZ columnist on mobile. He is a London-based freelance mobile/digital consultant, journalist and web editor.
Contact him via LinkedIn or Twitter @Andy_Favell

dna37_advertiser_attitudes.jpg

Mobile ad fraud: how agencies and advertisers can spot, combat and kill it

Ten steps to help advertisers, agencies, ad platforms and publishers get on top of mobile ad fraud, with tips from the experts and guidelines to follow.

With mobile rapidly approaching half of digital advertising, the fraudsters that have plagued web advertising are now targeting mobile ads – particularly the “download or app” ads, which have become a cash cow for the ad industry.

In this column we ask: what do advertisers, agencies, ad exchanges, ad networks, demand-side platforms DSPs and other adtech providers need to do to stop mobile getting to the same state as web ad fraud?

What is mobile ad fraud?

Mobile ad fraud occurs where mobile ad impressions or click-throughs are triggered by a robot.

This might be a piece of malicious code that is operating on a legitimate user device, maybe downloaded with a dodgy native app. Each time the ad is served/clicked the fraudulent ad network or fraudulent publisher makes money, even though no human has seen the ad.

Ten steps to spotting and combatting ad fraud.

Step 1. Get your head out of the sand

The industry is still divided between those that have a position on ad fraud and those that don’t. The nothing-to-say camp is still by far the biggest. In the interest of diplomacy, we will avoid naming and shaming the leading global media agencies, ad networks, et al that were contacted for comments, but delivered none.

Instead, here is a list of the companies that do have a position on mobile ad fraud, and helped with this column:

Yodel Mobile; M&C Saatchi Mobile; GroupM; Conversant Media; Voluum; JICWEBS/IAB UK; Integral Ad Science; Forensiq; MRC; WFA; Dhar Method / Botlab.io.

Step 2. Ad fraud is everyone’s responsibility – advertisers, agencies/intermediaries and publishers

With ad fraud, it’s too easy to point the finger of blame at someone else, but it is everyone’s responsibility to put measures in place in house to ensure fraud is kept to a minimum and to encourage, coax and force all partners to do the same.

Advertisers appear to be the least prepared to accept responsibility. This is crazy considering ad fraud is costing them money, business and, if they are collecting and pursuing fake leads, potentially harms reputation and causes privacy issues also.

A survey of US advertisers conducted by Association of National Advertisers (ANA) and White Ops for the Bot baseline report, published January, found that only 17% felt it was the advertiser’s responsibility to combat fraud; while 26% of respondents felt that combatting ad fraud was the joint responsibility of the publisher, agency and advertiser.

Only 40% of advertisers had an anti-fraud policy in place. 55% used an anti-fraud detection vendor and 43% used a fraud prevention vendor.

Step 3. Put an anti-fraud policy in place, put someone in charge

All parties in the digital ad ecosystem should appoint an anti-fraud manager – or an ad quality manager, if you want to extend this role to encompass viewability and content adjacency/brand safety. This person will be responsible for:

  • Preparing the ad fraud policy.
  • Setting the rules of engagement with partners; building an accredited list of partners.
  • Keeping up to date with the various guidelines and initiatives.
  • Education – internal/external – of ad fraud issues/prevention.
  • Re-evaluating how ads are purchased and ROI (return on investment) is calculated – i.e. examining KPIs (key performance indicators).
  • Evaluate measures, tools to detect and prevent fraud.
  • Enforcement – refusing to pay for ads/leads that are suspect.
  • Industry liaison – join the various cross-industry initiatives to reduce fraud.

Many of these points are explained in the steps below.

A great example of this is GroupM UK (which is the umbrella group for the WPP media agencies) where the anti-fraud / media quality strategy has been built and run by Digital Risk Director Bethan Crockett. She is also an active participant in industry anti-fraud initiatives.

GroupM now plans to duplicate the strategy devised in the UK in operations worldwide, across it various media agencies Mindshare, MEC, MediaCom, and Maxus.

Bethan Crockett, Digital Risk Director at GroupM UK, told ClickZ:

“At GroupM we are working towards a zero tolerance approach to online advertising fraud across the industry. We have invested in a comprehensive and proprietary approach to reducing ad fraud. We’re already seeing the fruits of these labours on our clients’ campaigns and we will continue to do everything in our power to protect our clients and our business.  

We feel there is an industry-wide responsibility for inventory integrity and online ad fraud.  

By working with industry partners and staying away from rogue inventory – we believe that we are succeeding to minimize the challenges of fraud and viewability. Our goal is to standardise this approach around the world.”

Step 4. Read and adhere to the ad fraud guidelines

There are no guidelines for preventing mobile ad fraud, but there are several for web fraud. There are some differences between online and mobile ad fraud, particularly mobile ad app fraud, but many of the principles are the same:

Step 5. Ensure that partners adhere to industry guidelines and have sound policies in place

When you ask experts for tips on preventing ad fraud, they don’t tend to focus on the ad verification tools/services available. Instead they focus on company policy and ensuring that partners have the right policies in place.

Shailin Dhar, ad-fraud consultant, Dhar Method:

Advertisers: Ask your agencies for a detailed plan of how they are preventing your budgets from being compromised by fraud. Also remember, cheap media is not conducive to good, effective media. 

Agencies: Audit the supply partners of your trading desks and DSPs (demand side platforms). Ask where they get their traffic. 

Publishers: Don’t buy cheap traffic from random networks.

As industry certification programs (Step 10 below) become more established, these could also help with the approval of partners.

Step 6. Insist on transparency and traffic being verified.

The problem is that advertisers rarely buy direct from a publisher anymore. Buying ads – particularly programmatic buying of ads in real time via ad exchanges – today taps into a complex web of intermediaries, where advertisers have little visibility of where their ads run, or which ad networks are fulfilling the placement.

Alex Hewson, head of media EMEA, M&C Saatchi Mobile:

“Programmatic, when run in house, does allow for greater control and therefore greater protection from fraudulent activity – network buys are riskier for advertisers especially where the inventory is not owned and operated by the network themselves, as they may be relying on exchange or affiliate traffic over which thy don’t exert the same control. 

Paramount to this is their processes by which this external traffic is vetted and analyzed on an ongoing basis to minimize any issues. It’s worth noting that no solution or process is perfect and that we as the agency must work in partnership with our suppliers to tackle this together through an open and consistent dialogue.

We have a thorough approach at M&C Saatchi Mobile which is anchored in a rigorous data analysis process to look for suspicious patterns in the data – very low eCPC’s or high click to install rates, for example. This is powered by the reporting solutions offered by the mobile measurement partners (e.g. Tune) where the findings are then shared as part of our partnership with suppliers. Simply put, it is key to have a robust process in place underpinned by technology.”

As advertisers and agencies become more alert to the risk of ad fraud and better at detecting it, they have started to refuse payment and blacklist business when there is evidence of fraud.

Some ad platforms are now offering money-back guarantees but this is met with some skepticism by peers.

Gavin Stirrat Managing Director at Voluum, a performance tracking solution:

“There are many companies that offer post-impression analytics or cash back guarantees. We believe this is an unacceptable compromise that continues to line the pockets of fraudsters and further damages mistrust in the medium.

Our recommendation to agencies and brands is to demand high standards of their buying platform partners such as the pre-bid filtering of inventory for fraud, as we do at Voluum.”

Step 7. Rethink how you purchase mobile media and measure ROI

As mobile ad fraud has become increasingly clever, advertisers have moved away from pay per click/cost per click CPC to more sophisticated cost-per-acquisition (CPA) (e.g. pay-per-subscription) or cost-per-app-installation (CPI). But ad malware is increasingly capable of filling out forms or downloading applications to compromised devices or to a mobile emulator.

This means advertisers have to be more intelligent about how they reward agencies and how they set KPIs for their campaigns.

Jason Cooper, general manager, mobile at Integral Ad Science.

“Globally we have seen that mobile ad fraud has become increasingly sophisticated, for example, methods that go beyond the click and now include location and app install fraud which may have a greater impact on campaign reporting.

Performance advertisers rarely now pay out on a CPC basis with CPI and CPGP (cost-per-game-play) becoming the norm. Uber will only reward a user once they have installed the app and taken their first ride which requires a valid credit card, while Candy Crush only pays media owners once a new user reaches a pre-determined game play point.

For brand advertisers that pay on a CPM (cost-per-thousand-impressions) basis, a higher CTR might lead to incorrect campaign measurement but there will no impact on spend.” 

Step 8. Tell tail signs that ad fraud is present 

The most obvious tell tail is price. If the costs of ads is cheaper than the going rate, there’s a higher chance that it is fraudulent.

The problem comes when advertisers place pressure on agencies to buy cheaper media. Which makes it very important that agencies educate their clients as to:

  1. a) The risk of click fraud, particularly with pay-per-install/cost-per-install ads for mobile applications.
  2. b) The real cost of legitimate CPI media.

But there are many more tell tail signs that fraud is present, explains

Ijah Miller, Director, from mobile media specialist Yodel Mobile. He offers the following tips:

Tips for spotting/preventing mobile fraud:

  • Look for valid/invalid/fraudulent clicks according to analysis of IP address – e.g. detecting web hosting, VPN endpoints and repeated IP addressed, as well as irregular country/city origin.
  • Analyse hourly clicks and install behaviour and distribution: clicks and installs are distributed in a known pattern during the active hours of the day, between the busiest hours and the less busy ones. Deviation from the pattern such as detection of just few very active hours in the day can be a result of incentivised traffic or fraud.
  • Analyse hourly conversion ratios: Conversion through ratio (CTR) should normally be stable in the hours of the day. A sharp increase of hourly CTR can point towards incentivised or fraud traffic.
  • Look for valid/invalid/fraudulent installs in line with targeting parameters and click-install delay: Click to install delay varies from app to app, from one tracking vendor to another, from country to country. Yodel partners measure delay for each campaign and detect deviations between traffic sources.
  • Continuously scan known incentivized apps and web sites to make sure that our campaigns are not presented there: Develop an App and Web site scanning process to run checks. You can then open the apps/sites, click on ads and track the redirect chain.
  • Analyse the post-install events behaviour: It’s vital for app businesses to share the pattern of behaviour of users that install their apps. Then if CPA results are significant lower than the expected/known post-install events behaviour, it will suggest that the traffic is from incentivised or fraud source. 

Step 9. Be vigilant (publishers)

The same vigilance should also be applied by the publishers that are showing the ads.

We have already touched on the perils of buying cheap traffic. Some publishers boost their visitor numbers by buying traffic, from intermediaries, who may use incentives to entice visitors. But there is no certainty this traffic is not simply robots.

Another way for mobile publishers to avoid robots – according to the ANA Bot baseline report – is to block desktop traffic to mobile pages. The report points out that a lot of fraudulent mobile traffic is really desktop traffic.

Mobile ad fraud: how agencies and advertisers can spot, combat and kill it

Step 10. Get certified as compliant with guidelines / only use certified ad partners

Three of the associations behind the guidelines included in step 4 above, now have certification programs. But some are still at nascent stages. Criteria varies, compliance may be through self-certification or independent verification, and certification costs are also unclear.

The most established of these is MRC’s US-based program to certify companies that measure, verify and filter out general invalid traffic (GIVT), which includes ad fraud. The MRC recently started accrediting vendors for Sophisticated Invalid Traffic Detection/Filtration (SIVT) – which so far includes comScore, Integral Ad Science and White Ops Fraud Sensor, all three of which cover also cover mobile web traffic (but not apps of yet).

Companies that are evaluating ad fraud detection companies will find this list of GIVT accredited companies (PDF), very useful. It includes details of areas of expertise, including whether they cover mobile web and mobile app traffic. Also check the compliant versus self-asserted list (PDF) to find who has been independently verified.

In July 2016, the US-based Trustworthy Accountability Group (TAG) announced it had registered 100 companies, including advertisers, agencies, adtech companies and publishers, as “verified as legitimate participants in the digital advertising industry through a proprietary background check and review process powered by Dun & Bradstreet and approved by TAG.”

In November 2016, TAG has also launched a “Certified against malware” seal and malware threat sharing hub to provide intelligence on attacks to industry and law enforcement.

The UK’s certification initiative – launched August 2016 – is led by The Joint Industry Committee for Web Standards in the UK and Ireland (JICWEBS).

As these certification programs become more established and more stringent, it will hopefully reduce the requirement for advertisers/agencies to independently audit each one.

This is Part 37 of the ClickZ ‘DNA of mobile-friendly web’ series. Here are the most recent chapters:

Read the reports:

Andy Favell is a ClickZ columnist on mobile. He’s also a London-based freelance mobile/digital consultant, journalist and web editor. Contact Andy via LinkedIn or Twitter at Andy_Favell.

dna36_mobile_programmatic_barriers.gif

Ad fraud: mobile advertising accounts for nearly half of digital spend, but it comes at a price

US Advertisers are spending US $2.6 billion on mobile ads each month, $0.4 billion in the UK, they understandably want to know that their ads are seen by real people, not robots, ideally the people most relevant to their ad message.

Advertisers are now investing up to half of their digital advertising revenues – according to the latest stats – in mobile ads. They want/need to know that their money is invested wisely and that the ads they are paying for are seen by real people, not robots, ideally the people most relevant to their ad message.

Advertisers need to be able to trust that the various parties that create, manage and deliver etc. their ads have put all measures in place to ensure their ad campaigns deliver maximum return on investment ROI. That is entirely reasonable.

Richard Foan, Chairman, JICWEBS (the UK-based Joint Industry Committee for Web Standards) tells ClickZ:

“The level of concern among advertisers about click fraud – that includes mobile click fraud – worldwide has now reached a point where the industry – agencies, ad networks, DSPs, exchanges – needs to accept there’s an issue and continue pulling together, through cross-industry initiatives to rebuild trust.

The industry must get behind initiatives from bodies, such as JICWEBS in the UK and TAG (Trustworthy Accountability Group) and MRC (Media Rating Council) in the US, make sure their business practices – and those of their suppliers – are compliant with the best practice guidelines and get themselves certified/registered as being compliant.”

Research by InMobi (via eMarketer), July 2016, shows that at 48% concern over fraud/viewability is the biggest barrier to the take up of programmatic purchasing (buying ads on the fly via an ad exchange) of mobile inventory.

We will look more closely at the industry initiatives led by JICWEBS, TAG and MRC in part two of this column.

What is mobile ad quality?

Advertisers (publishers too) are beginning to require from their adtech partners an assurance that they are buying good quality mobile inventory.

The following definition of mobile ad quality is an adaptation of one supplied by David Ip, mobile, cross-device and healthcare advertising at Conversant Media.

Mobile ad quality is a combination of:

  1. No evidence of ad fraud, or other invalid traffic – ads are seen and clicked by humans, not robots.
  2. Optimum viewabilty – ads are displayed on the mobile page in such a position and for long enough that a human registers it.
  3. Content adjacency or brand safety – ads are displayed on a mobile site/app and next to content that is appropriate.

This is the first of two columns on mobile ad fraud. Part 2 will focus on spotting and combatting mobile ad fraud. Viewabilty and content adjacency will be discussed in subsequent columns.

How big is the mobile ad business?

By any measure, mobile ad revenue is growing very rapidly, worldwide – particularly in the US.

US – mobile ad business was worth $15.5 billion in the first six month of 2016, up 89% YoY. That is 47% of online ad spend (Source: IAB, November 2016).

UK – mobile ad worth £1.7 billion (US$ 2.1 billion) in the first six month of 2016, up 56.1% YoY. That is 36% of online ad spend (Source: IABUK, October 2016)

How big is mobile ad fraud?

When you have a prize of this size it should be no surprise that it’s attracting the attention of the fraudsters. The problem is no one knows exactly how big mobile ad fraud is or how much it is growing.

The internet advertising business has only recently started trying to measure and discus how to combat desktop ad fraud – which has been around a lot longer than mobile ad fraud – arguably, it has been plaguing the business for decades.

If things continue as they are, the WFA (World Federation of Advertisers) projects:

[Internet] Ad fraud is likely to exceed $50bn globally by 2025 on current trends second only to the drugs trade as a source of income for organized crime.

In fact things have got so bad that in July 2016, in the US, two senators wrote this letter to the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) asking what steps the FTC was taking to:

  1. Mitigate digital ad fraud.
  2. Reform opaque advertising exchanges.
  3. Combat criminal organizations involved in ad fraud (together with e.g. the FBI).

But it isn’t clear what proportion of ad fraud is mobile, as industry stats do not seem to be available. However anecdotal evidence from agencies – those that have the systems in place to detect it – suggests that mobile ad fraud is on the rise or, if not, they are getting a lot better at detecting it.

Shailin Dhar Ad-Fraud Consultant, Dhar Method:

“Mobile click fraud is uncharted territory in comparison to desktop because it has not been monitored with the same scrutiny and not for nearly as long. Estimates with fraud are always tough but I would say there are more invalid/accidental clicks on mobile 

That’s the universal problem with fraud statistics: there’s no such thing as accurate fraud numbers. It’s always estimates, regardless of what anyone tries to claim. You are trying to count something that actively doesn’t want to be counted.”

The US and UK already have significant volumes of click fraud but we will see, or at least detect, an increase in emerging advertising markets like India and China.

So how does mobile click fraud work?

Mobile ad fraud or click fraud works in multiple ways, including:

  1. Fraudster places hidden code in a) browser extensions; b) native applications, which are then download to the user devices, or c) on publisher sites.
  2. The code generates fake views or click throughs a) as the user of the compromised device browses the web, or b) or simulating browsing while the device is supposedly dormant; or c) ads are served invisibly behind legitimate ads or screens on the compromised publisher app or site.
  3. The views or click throughs are attributed to the fraudster’s network, which takes a cut of the click-through revenue.

For a more comprehensive description see Anti-fraud best practices (PDF) from the UK based JICWEBS (Joint Industry Committee for Web Standards).

According 2015 research by Forensiq, an ad verification vendor, mobile devices are particularly susceptible to being hijacked by native apps, innocently downloaded, that contain malicious code that serve hidden ads and simulate click-throughs to landing pages that are never seen or by the user.

Over a ten day period, the vendor spotted 12 million unique devices running run at least one of the 5,000 apps flagged for ad fraud. The research estimated that these hijack apps would cost advertisers US$857 million in 2015 in hidden ads. An example of a hijack app is shown in the image below.

Ad fraud: mobile advertising accounts for nearly half of digital spend, but it comes at a price

Why is mobile ad fraud on the rise?

Alex Hewson, head of media EMEA, M&C Saatchi Mobile:

“Simple, risk and reward. Without data analysis processes and technology in place, it is difficult to detect and highly profitable. Legal recourse is very rare as, owing to the evolving nature of the industry, and standards are unclear.”

The area of most concern according to agencies and ad verification vendors alike is ads to drive downloads of mobile applications.

Hewson, again:

“As cost models in mobile move towards cost per install for a large proportion of spend, the fraud we see is therefore largely associated with app install campaigns.  And this is predominantly driven through display channels.”

Badly designed ad formats to blame – yes it’s those [EXPLETIVE] interstitials again.

Sometimes what appears to be ad fraud, may not be. Sometimes unintentional clicks are caused by mistakenly tapping an ad when attempting to close it.

One of the plagues of mobile web and apps is full screen ads, such as interstitials, that interrupt page loading with a plea to “download our app” or “sign up for our newsletter”, but so often – no matter how accurately this is done – when tapping the cross (exit) to close the ad, it instead clicks through.

Whether this is just poor design or malicious intent on behalf of the advertiser, publisher or ad network, these bad ads deliver erroneous or fraudulent clicks. But we aren’t just talking a few clicks here and there.

These bad ads are so prolific that they actually cause spikes in mobile ad fraud levels. As Jason Cooper, general manager, mobile at ad verification vendor Integral Ad Science, explains:

“Fraud of all kinds fluctuates, so we detect both rises and falls at select times. We mostly attribute any increased occurrence of mobile click fraud to the rising popularity of full screen ad units such as interstitials. The IAB requires that these ad units incorporate an exit button at the corner of the ad, meaning any miss click from the user while exiting the ad could be causing skewed CTR (click-through rate) results.”

In the next column we will consider how the industry, agencies and advertisers can help prevent being victims of mobile ad fraud.

This is Part 36 of the ClickZ ‘DNA of mobile-friendly web’ series. Here are the most recent chapters:

Read the reports:

Andy Favell is a ClickZ columnist on mobile. He’s also a London-based freelance mobile/digital consultant, journalist and web editor. Contact Andy via LinkedIn or Twitter at Andy_Favell.

sew1_handyman_sacremento_home_services.jpg

Google Home Services ads come to mobile search (then disappear again)

A trial of Google Home Services (GHS) ads on mobile is the clearest sign yet that Google intends to roll the GHS beta program out to the mobile platform and an insight into how it might look when it happens.

Google has been running a trial of Google Home Services (GHS) ads on mobile. GHS results have been spotted – revealed below – in mobile searches for tradesmen in San Francisco and Sacramento, during October.

The subsequent disappearance of the ads come November show this was just a trial. But it is the clearest sign yet that Google intends to roll the GHS beta program out to the mobile platform. Plus, if this format is a good indication of the real thing, the format will look very different on mobile to what we are currently seeing on desktop.

Experts privy to Google’s plans have been sworn to secrecy, so we can only speculate on when (not “if”) Google will finally roll out the GHS beta to mobile search and what format it will take. But this does look like one to put on the watch list for the New Year.

What is Home Services ads?

The GHS beta has been running in desktop search for over a year in parts of California, near Google’s HQ. On first glance these desktop results look similar to the Google My Business (GMB) listings, which have become commonplace in desktop and mobile search in US, UK and other markets.

But there are three distinct differences from GMB:

The GHS beta has been expanding – suggesting Google is satisfied with the results. GHS started in the San Francisco area with plumbers and locksmiths. It has expanded geography now also covering the cover the Sacramento area.

The number of trades covered has also expanded now also including searches for local handymen, interior painters, house cleaners, garage door pros, electricians and HVAC (Heating, ventilation and air conditioning) engineers.

But Google has been surprisingly slow to expand Home Services to mobile search.

Then during October 2016 that changed

Searching for a handyman in Sacramento https://www.google.com/search?q=handyman+in+sacramento or San Francisco during October brought up the following results page headed by the search box to find “pre-screened and insured handymen.”

A subsequent screen invites searchers to describe the job to get personalized quotes, with buttons for drywall, fans, flooring, furniture assembly, gutter cleaning and home theatre.

This mobile version of GHS has a different look and feel to the current version of GHS on the desktop, as showed image below for handyman in San Francisco https://www.google.com/search?q=handyman+in+san+francisco.

The desktop version shows three handymen in Google’s program, with an option to expand for more; whereas the mobile version encourages searches to enter the job type and ZIP code for the most accurate match.

Google Home Services ads come to mobile search (then disappear again)

Notably in both cases of desktop and mobile, GHS are at the very top of search results, there are no traditional search ads (though some still appear at the bottom of the page) and there are no GMB listings, commonly known as the “three pack”.

This gives both GHS formats a cleaner, less cluttered feel than is typical of Google’s modern search results pages.

The added advantage of this compact approach is that organic listings tend to appear higher up the page with Google Services. Perhaps, on some devices – gasp – even appearing above the fold. This should appease search marketers who have been frustrated by Google’s new innovations GMB, Knowledge Graph, AMP pushing organic results further and further below the fold.

This demonstrated well when a mobile search for handyman in Sacramento https://www.google.com/search?q=handyman+in+sacramento is compared with a mobile search for handymen in Venice Beach. https://www.google.com/search?q=handyman+in+venice+beach (Venice Beach, and the rest of the Los Angeles area, isn’t covered by Home Services beta, yet).

Google Home Services ads come to mobile search (then disappear again)

Puff… and then they were gone

Just as quietly as Home Services appeared on mobile, so they were disappeared.

As of November a mobile search on handyman in San Francisco https://www.google.com/search?q=handyman+in+san+francisco (or Sacramento) delivers up to four PPC search ads – which look increasingly old-fashioned and bloated, compared with GHS (on desktop or mobile) – and then the usual organic results.

There’s no Home Services ads, but nor has the GMB three-pack returned. This is the same for all Home Services verticals, including locksmiths, plumbers, handymen, interior painters, house cleaners, Garage Door Pros, electricians and HVAC.

GMB remains unchanged for mobile search for verticals not yet included in GHS e.g. gardeners, mechanics, accountants, lawyers. As show in the image below.

So why does this matter?

It is evident from various trials and betas in California that Google’s is on a mission to bring more trust to local search results for verticals such as tradesmen. Businesses with the best SEO or who bid the most for search ads, doesn’t necessarily mean best service for the customers.

See this ClickZ column on the future of mobile local search for more detail and analysis.

But verification and guarantees cost money, which is part of the reason that Google can justify charging businesses for referrals. And if GHS does replace PPC ads in these verticals (as indicated by both desktop and mobile results, pictured above), then Google needs to replace that revenue stream.

Mobile is a massive part of local search; plus with mobile-only functions such as tap-to-call; it is not only unfeasible that GHS would not come to mobile, but it may also the results of trials on mobile may also feedback into desktop.

If Google can make GHS work on both mobile and desktop it is inevitable that the program will expand geographically and in to other trades and professions.

If GHS proceeds along the lines pictured above, the likely implications for businesses in these verticals – in mobile and desktop search is fourfold:

  • Verification and guarantees could encourage searchers to place more trust GHS results than organic or GMB results.
  • Traditional search ads could disappear for GHS verticals.
  • GMB could disappear for GHS verticals.
  • Organic results could feature more prominently in search – if GHS replaces both search ads and GMB, with take up considerable more real estate on search results.

But while Google continues to trial and beta test GHS nothing is certain.

Kevin Cotch, SEO Analyst, TopRank Marketing commented:

Google typically tests changes for mobile users and then will roll out the change to desktop over time.

The GHS ads typically cost less than other AdWords ads, which is beneficial for these industries. I would expect to see the GHS ads take visibility away from the current local packs and encourage users to use qualified professionals.

Google requires the home service professionals to pass a background check and proof of insurance to become a part of the GHS ad program to protect users. Then, Google evaluates the professionals based off of the user rating and review, which benefits other users using the ads and offers more control for Google.

It would be smart for home service professionals to use the advertising service when possible, as well as verifying and optimizing their Google My Business pages to help get the most local visibility.

Google Home Services ads come to mobile search (then disappear again)

Andy Favell is writer for SEW and ClickZ. He is a London-based freelance mobile/digital consultant, journalist and web editor. Contact him via LinkedIn or Twitter at Andy_Favell.

dna34_venice_beach_pl_kggmb.jpg

Where is Google heading with mobile local search?

In our last column we asked: Has Google killed mobile organic search?

In this column we consider what Google’s plans are for those owned properties that get the prime real estate atop mobile search results, such as Google My Business (GMB) and Knowledge Graph (KG).

There are five areas/initiatives that should be observed closely, as these could be prototypes for the future of mobile local search. These are:

  • Restaurants in [US city] – Google My Business (GMB) results.
  • Hotels in [US city] – GMB results.
  • [US city] –Knowledge Graph (KG) results.
  • Movies in [US city] – KG results.
  • Tradesmen (or similar) in [San Francisco area] – Home Services results. Some or all (unclear) of the tradesmen pay to be included in this scheme. This will be covered in detail in a subsequent column.

While these are likely to come to a Google near you, most are not yet seen, or not seen in their entirety outside the US (or parts of the US). So for the sake of this column we will pretend we are in sunny Venice Beach (Los Angeles).

GMB v KG

The distinction between Google My Business (GMB) and Knowledge Graph (KG) panels is a little fluffy (and the terms are often used interchangeably).

The GMB panel is found in the results of a local business search. So if you search on Restaurants in Venice Beach.  The results deliver a three-pack (as is called in the trade) of local restaurants, for three local restaurants (at the time of search): James’ Beach, Gjelina and 26 Beach; with the option to expand for more.

KG results from an information search which is not local business specific. An example is Venice Beach or Harry Potter. This delivers an information panel or card with data from various sources, most commonly, Wikipedia or from Google partners (see below).

With place searches, such as Venice Beach, there is commonly a carousel of restaurants and/or hotels at the end of the panel. These tend to be similar to the GMB listings, but the priority of results differs slightly from GMB results for Hotels in Venice Beach or “Restaurants in Venice Beach” (as shown below).

Tapping through on a restaurant or hotel in either GMB three-pack or KG carousel – does not take you to the business’s website. This brings up a new in-search panel, which Google calls a “Knowledge Graph card”, dedicated to your business, which is similar to the Venice Beach KG panel above, but with contact information; tap to call; tap for directions; and a link to website.

Today Google does not charge businesses a fee for calls generated, or people who click on a map to find the location, but it is keeping count of how many clicks it is generating for your business.

Note the presence of the paid listing prioritized at the front of the restaurant and hotel carousel. The example pictured below is from Google.co.uk – the same search in Google.com delivered the same results, but did not mark them as paid. The reason for this is not clear.

The new face of local search

Whether or not we like it, this is the future of Google mobile search, looks like this. Traditional organic website listings are being pushed further and further below the fold on mobile devices, as Google’s owned properties (ads – GMB – KG) take the prime real estate. Businesses have to face it and address it.

David Mihm, local digital marketing consultant:

There is no question that web results are in decline for high-volume local searches like ‘pizza.’

Organic place listings, though, (and hybrid/paid place listings like the HVAC (Heating, ventilation and air conditioning) tests going on in San Francisco at the moment) are here for the long haul as Google shifts more and more results to its Knowledge Graph. Knowledge Graph results will continue to provide significant impressions through the coming voice tsunami.

It’s time to start thinking about your website as an API of structured information about your business, its products, and services that will help Google display Knowledge Panels instead of webpages. Google is increasingly shooting for conversions to happen directly on the SERP, within Knowledge Panels, for example through their OpenTable integration in restaurants.

In many cases, conversion rates may actually be higher from place results, but they won’t show up in your Google Analytics. And of course a huge percentage of local searches result in offline conversions in-store, which (so far) aren’t easily trackable.

See restaurants below for more on the OpenTable integration, the HVAC listing, we will discuss in a subsequent post on Google Home Services.

Hotels in [Venice beach]

First we need somewhere to stay in Venice Beach. Whether you access a hotel via the GMB results in Hotels in Venice Beach search or via the carousel in the KG results for Venice Beach Google delivers the same GMB/KG card for the hotel.

Similar to other business panels, e.g. restaurants (see below), there is a tap to call, directions, web link with a description and reviews. But unique to hotels is the option to book a room through a booking agent e.g. Expedia, Booking.com, Hotels.com and others.

As demonstrated by the Ad badge, all of these brokerages are paying for their listings, presumably on a pay-per-click basis. In turn they will be taking a commission from the hotel for any booking.

Of particular interest, is that within these lists of paid-for results, when expanded, there is sometimes an option to book direct with the hotel, e.g. for Inn at Venice Beach. Which suggests that in order for a hotel to offer bookings direct via its so-called “my business” listing, the hotel has to bid against other advertisers (the travel brokerages) on Google.

Russell JonesPrincipal Search Scientist at Moz, was able to shed a little light on how it might work:

I am not sure about this, although it appears that synxis.com the system which seems to power their booking engine, might be connected. However, from Google’s developer documentation it looks like you don’t need a third party for this – and that pricing uses the standard bid model

Where is Google heading with mobile local search? 

How to get on the three-pack GMB listing

Today the GMB three-pack – see the restaurant and hotels examples in the images above – are not paid-for listings. Though reports suggest that Google is certainly considering replacing one of the three pack with a paid listing.

So, with organic listing being pushed further and further below the fold on mobile devices, and the potential for GMB listings to drive calls, reservations (for restaurants and hotels), it is increasingly important to ensure that your business appears and appears correctly on the GMB three-pack.

But when your “My Business” panel is actually owned by Google, how do you do this? Start by updating the basic details on the listing. Also see these tips from Google.

But there does not appear to be an option to alter reservations or deliveries (for restaurants), so your listing shows your reservation or delivery service, rather than those of a third party. If this is possible, which isn’t entirely clear from Google’s developer pages then this is a job for your web developer.

As with all things Google, there’s a bit of mystery how the local search algorithms work, but it seems that old fashioned SEO rules still apply.

Dan Leibson, VP of Local at LocalSEOGuide.com

As far as general tips for getting in the 3-pack… we did a huge regression study on the rankings of 30,000 businesses and looked at over 100 factors. The biggest takeaway is that links are a dominant ranking factor. Also, citation consistency is incredibly foundational for getting in the pack. 

Buying ads in competitors GMB / KG panels

It appears that businesses can buy ads competitors’ GMB/KG card. These appear in the prime spot in the carousel of other restaurants (or hotels) displayed below the reviews in the competitors’ panels.

Interestingly these ads lead to the advertiser’s own KG card, not the advertiser’s own website.

The screenshots below were taken of the Domino’s Pizza and James’ Beach KG card on Google.co.uk (in Google.com the same restaurants were shown without the ad badge).

Where is Google heading with mobile local search? 

Restaurants in [Venice Beach]

So next we need to find somewhere to eat.

Whether you tap on the restaurant via the GMB results in Restaurants in Venice Beach search, via the carousel in the KG results for Venice Beach, or via the carousel in a rival’s KG card, Google delivers the same GMB/KG card for the restaurant.

These are similar to the hotel panels, in respect of details, click to call, directions. In addition there are several options to view menu, find a table and place an order, which may or may not be present.

  • The menu may be provided by the restaurant or via a third party, most commonly, SinglePlatform. This is the provider of the menu for Domino in Venice Beach (though this is not clear from Google’s listing).
  • Find a table appears to be exclusively provided by OpenTable, even where the restaurant takes reservations on its website, either directly or through a preferred third party.
  • Place an order, where available, is only provided via third parties, such as GrubHub/Seamless, Eat24 (Yelp), DoorDash, Delivery.com, BeyondMenu and Slice/MyPizza.com. This is the case even when the restaurant has its own delivery service via its website. As seen below, both neither the GMB listing for Domino’s or James’ Beach offers place an order, but both outlets do offer delivery from their websites.

Unlike hotels these are not marked with an Ad sign, which suggests these third parties are not paying for their privileged Google partnerships. Certainly SinglePlatform does not receive compensation from Google.

Russell Jones, Moz:

Unlike the food delivery space, OpenTable seems to be by far the leader in nation-wide reservations. Given the cost of integration and the stability of partners required by Google, it is not surprising that OpenTable is the only partner at this point. I would suspect this to remain the same for quite some time.

The food delivery space is more crowded, so integrating with only one provider might leave a Google user with fewer options. Google seems to have chosen partners that have large, nationwide coverage. I am doubtful that this relationship is paid at the moment. 

Google’s developer pages give details on how web developers can adapt business websites to allow integration with their KG card. But it does not look likely that integration will happen automatically.

For certain, businesses (restaurants, hotels, events etc. along with any third party services) should register their interest in becoming Google partners and hope for the best.

Dan Leibson, LocalSEOGuide:

To your question on if you can remove competitors, you cannot. Lots of the special functionality in the right hand Knowledge Graph panel are through partnerships with Google.

So, to your example, a big brand like Domino’s could likely try to work out some form of partnership with Google where their Knowledge Graph entry would have some kind of special functionality. Though to my understanding Google only does it with services that will function cross brand.

 Where is Google heading with mobile local search?

Movies in [Venice Beach]

Next we need something to do, so let’s go to the movies. Ok, this is the last thing we would do in Venice, but let’s pretend.

The KG for movies is a different format with a carousel of movies along the atop the mobile search results. Tapping The Accountant film, reveals blurb, ratings, reviews and the option to select show times at one of the two movie theatres (both AMC).

Tapping on a show time delivers the option to purchase tickets from one of three Google partners Fandango, AMC Theatres and MovieTickets.com.

Unlike hotels these are not marked with an Ad sign, which suggests the booking agents are not paying (currently) for their partnership.

The option to book direct with AMC Theatres suggests that Google is not restricting partnerships to third parties, as appears to be the case with restaurants (see above). However this may just be for the largest national chains.

Where is Google heading with mobile local search?

Where next?

It is easy to see any of these models – restaurants, hotels and/or cinemas being expanded into other areas, which makes it important to keep a close eye on them – particularly in the US, which is where most of the local mobile search innovation tends to start.

Another very interesting and, perhaps, concerning area of innovation are the on-going trials with local handymen, house cleaners, locksmiths, plumbers, and (as mentioned by David Mihm) HVAC engineers – where local tradesmen pay a fee to be listed as “pre-screened” in Google’s Home Services search.

For more detailed insight read our m-commerce reports: