All posts by Clark Boyd

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Can Google get users on board with “shortcuts in search”?

Google announced yesterday the launch of “shortcuts in search”, which will allow Android users (only in the US, for now) to access quick answers on a range of topics with the touch of a button.

Fittingly, Google has termed these “tappable shortcuts” and they will lead searchers to instantaneous information on dozens of topics, including sports, restaurants, local amenities, and entertainment.

The new feature is available within the Google app in the US, although users will have to upgrade the app to the latest version before the shortcuts are accessible.

As Google continues its relentless release of new mobile-first products, this announcement is entirely aligned with the search engine’s strategy to keep pace with – and anticipate – trends in user behavior.

Tappable shortcuts lend themselves to a search experience that is more open-ended in nature than traditional Google queries. Notably, they also remove a fundamental element of the Google experience: either typing or voicing a query.

In a wider ecosystem that now includes maps, the knowledge graph, and structured data, it is understandable that Google has chosen to make this move now. With the addition to their fold of hardware like Google Home and the Pixel smartphones, combined with an upgraded Assistant on all Android phones, Google seems closer than ever to unifying the digital user journey.

The following (very short) video was also released yesterday to demonstrate how ‘shortcuts in search’ will work:

But will this initiative take off, what will it mean for SEO, and how will Google manage to integrate paid ads into this new search experience?

Will Google convince users to get on board?

The first phase will be to convince its vast user base to transition across to this way of discovering information.

The actual functionality underpinning this change has not been updated; it is merely a more streamlined way to surface information. Google Now has offered access to many of these features for some time, but user behaviors can be slow to change.

One could even suggest that this launch is Google giving a nudge to the public to show them just how much is possible through their products now.

Can Google get users on board with “shortcuts in search”?

At SMX West yesterday, Google’s Jason Douglas summarised one of their core objectives as simply trying to find the “easiest way to help the user get things done.”

No doubt, achieving that goal would go some way to convince people to take the small step of updating an app.

A mass migration of users to this app would have myriad benefits for Google. By keeping users enclosed within its own ecosystem of information, Google gains access to their data and, just as crucially, keeps those users out of Facebook’s grasp.

With machine learning at the core of everything Google does now, all of that data will only serve to improve the accuracy of search results, and those improved results will convince users to stay on the app.

How will Google rank these results?

This is an important question for SEO professionals, although it is a little early to answer it conclusively. Its degree of importance will also, of course, depend on just how many users elect to search by tapping on shortcuts.

Can Google get users on board with “shortcuts in search”?

Intriguingly, Jason Douglas implied at SMX West yesterday that as part of the wider Actions on Google initiative, consumers will be able to set preferences, not just on their sports teams or favorite restaurants, but also on the brands they like most.

Douglas went on to add:

“We’re trying to decide now how sticky those preferences should be. In some cases, you can set some preferences in the app. We’re trying to learn as we go. For shopping, is it convenience or best price that matters most? There are a lot of new ranking and quality challenges.”

The ramifications of that statement could be far-reaching, and it is understandable that Douglas chose to equivocate slightly on these points, refusing to take a definitive stance on such an important point.

Nonetheless, it is certainly plausible that user ‘preferences’ on certain brands would factor into personalized organic search results.

The advice to SEOs in that eventuality is as trite as it is true; all we can do is create great content and exceptional user experiences to ensure we make our way onto the preferred brands list.

Will Google offer paid placements?

Google has been open in stating that this new environment presents a huge challenge to its paid search business. Voice search is best suited to providing just one answer, which leaves little room for paid placements.

Can Google get users on board with “shortcuts in search”?

The inherent complexities for an auction-based bidding model like AdWords in this scenario are subtle and difficult to disentangle, but this is especially true if users state an overt preference for one brand over another.

For example, if a user has selected Kayak as a preferred flight aggregator over Skyscanner, how would that affect the price each would have to pay to rank first on that user’s travel searches? How would Google factor that into its auctions, at a grand scale?

If Skyscanner did choose to pay an inflated rate for first position, how would that sit with the user, who no doubt would recall selecting Kayak as their preferred brand?

These are challenges that Google is all too aware of, but there can be little doubt that ultimately, they will find a way to monetize this trend if it does take off.

What should we expect next?

We should expect any attempts to monetize this to be tentative at first – especially in the wake of the opprobrium raised by the recent ‘Ads on Google Home’ fiasco.

That said, Google’s decision to make these updates has been driven by what it foresees to be a new way of discovering information.

Therefore, we can first expect Google to entice users to use its new range of hardware and software through their ubiquity and ease of use, before making those first forays into transforming its paid search model to an interaction that no longer requires a user to search.

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Google Posts: GIFs and videos published directly to SERPs

To relatively little fanfare, Google launched its “Posts” initiative during the US presidential election campaign last year.

The launch was accompanied by a landing page that labeled this “an experimental new podium”. That same landing page remains live, unchanged, and with the same call to action at its conclusion to “Join the Waitlist”.

Google Posts seemed to be a stripped-back version of Google+, devised with the intention of at least maintaining some of the functionality of a social network after sunsetting Google+.

The main premise of Posts had ostensibly been to work as a one-way social platform, where brands or individuals could publish (and be indexed instantly), but without the requisite mechanisms to allow the audience to engage in conversation with the poster or ‘like’ the update.

Since that tentative launch, Posts has perennially appeared in and disappeared from the SERPs in various guises, each time with very little fanfare. It initially appeared to be being trialed by a select few small businesses, then was spotted during Google I/O the following May, being used to publish live conference updates directly to the SERP.

A few months after that, Google Posts reappeared in search results for a charter school in New York, KIPP NYC, and then disappeared again. Each time, users have remained in the dark about whether a fully-fledged roll-out of Google Posts might be on the horizon, and nothing much has happened in this space to justify the tag ‘experimental new podium’. However, that may be set to change.

I noticed during a routine search for [red sox] that gifs were autoplaying within the knowledge graph sidebar, both on desktop (as in the screenshot below) and also on mobile.

Google Posts: GIFs and videos published directly to SERPs

 

This is particularly eye-catching and is in line with numerous other Google initiatives to bring a sense of vitality and immediacy to its results, most notably in the shape of Accelerated Mobile Pages and the decision to allow emoji in select organic results.

Although the Posts initiative itself is not new and nor is its inclusion within search results, there is a clearly-labeled ‘New’ box in the top right of this section to alert users of a change.

The same was observed for [yankees], so at least Google shows no clear bias in that sense:

Google Posts: GIFs and videos published directly to SERPs

 

This has been spotted by others in the last few weeks, although it does seem that is being rolled out in a piecemeal fashion.

The two entities that appear to be taking part in this partnership with Google are Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League, as seen in the screenshot below in a search for the ice hockey team [new york rangers]:

Google Posts: GIFs and videos published directly to SERPs

If it’s new, what has changed?

GIFs were also spotted in SERPs on a few occasions when Google+ was up and running, but again this was isolated to a few brands, and it was clear that this was being pulled from their own Google+ account.

What is most noteworthy in this instance is that these results may not be showing up as a result of direct action from each individual sports team.

It is therefore worth assessing the source of the posts to ascertain whether brands will be expected to update their feed on an ongoing basis.

This is quite vital if we want to know where this platform could go in future, as it helps us define whether this is a streamlined social media network (more in line with Twitter than Facebook) or more of an automated content syndication platform.

Back to the Red Sox example for further investigation.

First of all, clicking on an individual post, as it appears within the SERP, opens up a larger window containing the image or GIF. As you can see from the screenshot below, this is all contained within the same results page:

Google Posts: GIFs and videos published directly to SERPs

Clicking on the ‘More’ link leads to the original post which, intriguingly, is hosted on MLB.com rather than the Red Sox Google Posts page.

As such, this could be a welcome boon for brands like Major League Baseball, who will undoubtedly receive increased traffic. This will be of great interest to publishers, as there is the tantalising possibility of a new avenue to get their content in search results, should the initiative go mainstream.

The Red Sox ‘profile page’ is really just a feed of images and external links to more in-depth content – all of which are hosted on MLB.com.

Google Posts: GIFs and videos published directly to SERPs

 

This arouses the suspicion that the functioning of Google Posts is changing, especially as this seems to be the case across all MLB teams. The same is also true of many ice hockey teams, which link out to NHL.com from all of their posts.

As a result, it is plausible that the partnership here is between the sites hosting the content (MLB.com, NHL.com) and Google, with the individual sports teams acceptant beneficiaries of the increased engagement.

In the initial announcement about Posts, the selling point was said to be that individuals or brands could publish directly to Google. That requires a certain complicity; one would have to take action to set this process in motion by posting content via Posts, whether fully-formed or just a link to an external site.

In our coverage from March 2016, we noted that a few small businesses had been given access to Google Posts. There didn’t appear to be much in the way of consistent rationale for choosing these particular businesses over others, although their feeds are all still live.

The fact that the links from the Red Sox are invariably from one website suggests that Google is automatically pulling these links through to its search results when they go live on MLB.com. This differs from the small business accounts, which are composed of unique updates written for Google Posts.

This demonstrates an important and telling distinction from the original functioning of Posts, and could be one with far-reaching implications.

Google Posts: GIFs and videos published directly to SERPs

What is Google seeking to accomplish through Posts?

The reasons for doing this are self-evident.

Eric Schmidt was very public in admitting that the company “missed the boat” on social media, their only real foray into the market being their overdue and (in hindsight) always-doomed Google+.

That is a substantial missing piece in the jigsaw for a company that is competing with Facebook to maintain its digital advertising dominance.

Speed is of the essence, as indicated by the growing presence of AMP pages in search results.

Google Posts: GIFs and videos published directly to SERPs

Of course, it stands to reason that having brands publish directly on a Google platform is of great benefit to the search giant, as it has a significant task on its hands to crawl, index, cache, and serve everything that is published on the web instantaneously.

Moreover, one reason for using Google+ as a content distribution platform in the past was simply that it led to faster indexing. If Posts can offer the same benefit, especially if updates about a brand are pulled automatically from relevant websites, there will be a clear use case for most companies.

What could this mean for businesses and marketers?

The results pages are crowded as it is, so the addition of GIFs could only serve to intensify the battle for consumers’ attention spans. However, as always, we can expect Google to test this in detail before taking the plunge and releasing the functionality to the masses.

One concern is that Google may give prominence to these results over other social networks, notably Twitter, in order to ensure its own success. Perhaps the reason for such a tentative entry into this space is the hope of avoiding another newsworthy social media misstep, should the initiative fail to take hold.

The waitlist for Google Posts has been open for quite some time now, after all, but very few companies are active on the platform. Either demand is suspiciously low or (more likely) Google is taking its time on this one.

Google Posts: GIFs and videos published directly to SERPs

That said, any opportunities to increase organic traffic are very welcome nowadays, and that could be what Posts comes to offer us.

For now, we can only join the waitlist and patiently look forward to an invitation to start Posting.

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Test-driving Pinterest Lens: How does Pinterest’s new visual search tool stack up?

Pinterest has released its visual discovery tool, Lens, to all Android and iPhone users in the US.

As part of Pinterest’s strategy to capture some of the lucrative search market by mastering visual search, this is a significant move and is one that will undoubtedly extend beyond the US soon.

Within the last year, Pinterest has launched a range of new search and e-commerce products, including their paid search partnership with Kenshoo, Shop the Look, and Instant Ideas.

These all fall under the umbrella term ‘visual discovery tools’, and their USP is framed by Pinterest’s recurring phrase, “All without typing a single character.”

No prizes for guessing which search giant they are taking aim at there.

Lens will be central to the fortunes of Pinterest’s decidedly alternative entry to the digital advertising market, so we have taken a hands-on look at what it is, how it works, and just how effective it is.

What is Pinterest Lens?

Lens is a point-and-shoot discovery tool that analyses and interprets smartphone images to find related Pins and ideas, then suggests them to the user. The objective for Pinterest is to turn the world into a set of Pins that can be captured, discovered, and linked to each other, typically via mobile devices.

To get started with Lens (if you are in the US), just download or upgrade the app, then tap the search bar within the app, and select the red camera icon.

Test-driving Pinterest Lens: How does Pinterest’s new visual search tool stack up?

How does Pinterest Lens work?

Once Lens is open, Pinterest’s visual discovery technology springs into action. 

This will open up a camera frame like the one below, which is surely designed to encourage the user to hone in on one specific object:

Test-driving Pinterest Lens: How does Pinterest’s new visual search tool stack up?

This is vital to the successful functioning of Lens. Pinterest’s technology works best when it can isolate a specific item, then cross-reference the identified form with its database of images, using their own search platform.

The object is broken down into segments; by color, shape, or product category, for example. Pinterest has developed confidence metrics to include in this calculation, to account for uncertainties caused by fuzzy images or a combination of objects within the same frame.

This process (outlined below in a handy diagram from TechCrunch), will allow Lens to move from recognizing a shoe, to recognizing that it is a loafer, through to recognizing that the loafer is, in fact, blue.

Test-driving Pinterest Lens: How does Pinterest’s new visual search tool stack up?

Image: TechCrunch

So far, so typical image search. Amazon’s FireFly technology aims to provide the same service, in technological terms, and its image recognition abilities are impressive. Google has made significant strides in this area, as has Instagram.

Where Pinterest hopes to add a new and rewarding dimension is by incorporating what are typically the reserve of human perspectives: value judgments.

By knowing the style of the loafer, Pinterest could recommend accompanying accessories, but could also learn something about the user’s taste. This knowledge helps to refine suggestions, so the user experience is constantly improving.

Where Amazon will recognize a product and deliver a selection of very similar products, Pinterest’s creative lead, Albert Pereta, summed up their philosophy nicely: “If I’m in my kitchen and have an avocado in front of me, if we point at that and we return a million photos of avocados, that’s close to as useless as you can get.”

Test-driving Pinterest Lens: How does Pinterest’s new visual search tool stack up?

It is in the conceptual leap from the product in view, to related products contained in Pinterest’s database, that Lens could become most useful for consumers and marketers. Where Pinterest has an advantage in the visual search race is in its vast database of images, which are typically product-led, clearly labeled, and posted in relation to similar items.

How effective is Lens?

All of this theory is seductive, for Pinners in search of new ideas and for advertisers in search of a cost-effective alternative to Google search.

But how well does it work in practice?

I used the app as an aid during my search to replace some much-loved but battle-weary sneakers.

First, I took a picture of the sneaker in question using Lens:

Test-driving Pinterest Lens: How does Pinterest’s new visual search tool stack up?

Pinterest’s colourful tags on the left and right reveal the identifying factors of the shoe, which are mainly pretty accurate. They have never been used for running, but I understand and accept that they could have been.

Next up, the recommendations for related items. A scrolling list of about 60 images was provided for this example, which were certainly very varied in terms of style, but there was enough aesthetic cohesion to say that they are inter-related items:

Test-driving Pinterest Lens: How does Pinterest’s new visual search tool stack up?

These images provide an option to click through and, in many instances, purchase. And this is where the lines are blurred – beautifully so, from Pinterest’s perspective. Not all images will lead to that option; many are just other Pinners proudly sharing their shoes, providing inspiration to others.

This engenders trust, a fact that can benefit advertisers if they manage to blend in with this ethos of inspiring and sharing, rather than just selling.

The demarcation (which is, admittedly, dissolving rapidly) between paid and organic results on Google is at odds with what Pinterest could achieve here, if advertisers pay attention to the platform and its users.

That said, I tried Lens out with a number of items (a chair, a pencil, and a plant pot, to name just three), and there was a pattern across the results. The image recognition is great, and it’s easy to use. Where things become murkier is within the suggested results, which show a lot of potential but are the output of what is still a work in progress.

Pinterest has quite intelligently pre-empted and sidestepped these potential recriminations by admitting up front that this isn’t perfect – yet.

One criticism of advances in consumer-facing AI is that it simply hasn’t delivered on the Utopian visions we were led to believe would be reality by now. The potential of this technology is such that people can’t help but get carried away – a realization that has fed Pinterest’s decision to temper expectations.

Test-driving Pinterest Lens: How does Pinterest’s new visual search tool stack up?

Moreover, they have invited their users to get involved and help out. In their blog post announcing the launch, Pinterest stated:

“Lens is still learning, and doesn’t always recognize exactly what you’re looking for.

Lens will stay in beta as it gets even better at recognizing all the things. And that’s where you come in!

If you get results that feel a little meh, tap the new + button to add feedback and help Lens get better at finding ideas inspired by whatever you just Lensed. As more and more people help teach Lens about more and more objects, soon it will earn its way out of the beta zone.”

This attitude of openness and collaboration could safeguard them against some ripostes to unconvincing results in the early stages, but there can be no doubt that haste will be of the utmost concern as Pinterest tries to monetize this technology before the competition gets there.

How would advertisers measure performance on Pinterest?

One of the enduring attractions of Google AdWords has been its measurability, an area where it remains without a serious competitor.

Brands accustomed to this satisfying marketing mechanism may therefore hesitate before investing their AdWords dollars in a platform like Pinterest. No doubt, any such forays will be experimental in nature through this year, with few brands willing to take a serious risk on a nascent search technology when such a dependable, dominant alternative exists.

Of significant note in this regard is the recently-announced integration of Pinterest data into Datorama, a cross-channel reporting platform. This API connector adds a new level of measurement and accountability for the platform, which will be welcomed by anyone investing in Pinterest advertising.  We should expect this functionality to be standard for reporting platforms in the near future.

Test-driving Pinterest Lens: How does Pinterest’s new visual search tool stack up?

Measurement is not the only hurdle for Pinterest to clear, of course.

Pinterest’s number of daily active users and their propensity to purchase will also be under scrutiny, metrics that will be of significant interest when broken down by industry. Pinterest is unlikely to be the right fit for every company, no matter how effective its visual search becomes, but for some it could be the perfect match.

With the advent of Lens in the US, and Pinterest’s accompanying admission that the technology is “not perfect”, there is plentiful room for experimentation. The search results will continue to improve and, with some senior recruits from Google on board to lead their visual search team, Pinterest means business.

Time will tell whether consumers and advertisers have the patience to get on board for a bumpy, but potentially very fruitful, journey.

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Rank Tracking in a RankBrain World by @clarkboyd

Ranking positions are the lifeblood of a successful SEO campaign, but with RankBrain at the heart of Google's algorithms, they are harder than ever to pin down. How can SEOs track the performance of a metric that is in constant flux?

The post Rank Tracking in a RankBrain World by @clarkboyd appeared first on Search Engine Journal.

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Chrome Extensions: A vehicle for Amazon and Pinterest to compete with Google?

Search advertising has swelled to become an industry worth over $35 billion annually, yet it is still heavily driven by text-based searches and dominated by Google.

However as Google’s index goes mobile-first, consumers get to grips with voice search, and technology advances to avail of image identification in our predominantly visual culture, new opportunities are opening up for the competition.

One such opportunity lies in the use of Google’s own Chrome web browser, which allows companies (including Google’s rivals) to develop and disseminate extensions to grow their digital footprint.

This may not necessitate or even facilitate a seismic shift in the industry, if Google continues to provide a search product that responds best to a user’s query.

Undoubtedly, Google remains the go-to location when consumers know what they want; but what if other providers could get in on the act earlier, by nudging consumers towards products they hadn’t thought of or never knew existed? What if consumers start to move away from text queries, and image or voice search become the norm?

These are the questions Amazon and Pinterest are pondering as they look to break Google’s hegemonic hold on the market. This has seen both companies launch paid search products, but something significant has to give if consumers are to switch from the well-worn habit of reaching out to Google first.

Intriguingly, recent moves suggest Amazon and Pinterest are prepared to use Google’s own Chrome platform to loosen the search giant’s iron grip on ad revenues, with what are at times aggressive tactics.

Although some commonalities exist across both challengers, there is much to distinguish them too. We’ll begin with Amazon’s Chrome extension before moving on to Pinterest’s recently-upgraded offering.

Amazon Assistant for Chrome

Amazon’s Assistant tracks users as they browse other sites and locates opportunities to alert them of better deals on the same product over at Amazon.com.

This feature looks something like this in action:

Chrome Extensions: A vehicle for Amazon and Pinterest to compete with Google?

No doubt, this is an overbearing approach designed to have the maximum disruptive impact on a consumer’s experience, diverting their path to purchase towards the comfort of Amazon’s one-click purchases and free deliveries. And all at a lower price, too.

There are reports of some websites blocking the extension and, in the pettiest of cases, ensuring that low quality images of products are used when a consumer adds them to their Amazon wish list, in the hope of dissuading them from finishing the purchase there.

However, the damage may well be done by that stage. Digital consumers vote with their fingers, and people tend to follow where the best deals are.

Where this gets particularly fascinating for those of us in the search industry is when we apply this Chrome extension to Google search results pages.

With the extension downloaded (I am based in the US), a clearly commercial query like [laptops] returns the following results:

Chrome Extensions: A vehicle for Amazon and Pinterest to compete with Google?

Indeed, those are Amazon results at the very top of the page.

This very assertive approach sees Amazon encroach directly on Google’s owned space, in fact relegating them to a lower position.

Even a much less commercial query returns this option to purchase from Amazon:

Chrome Extensions: A vehicle for Amazon and Pinterest to compete with Google?

It is noteworthy that while no advertisers are bidding on the term [john berger and our faces my heart brief as photos] via Google, Amazon’s search engine has a match for the query and, therefore, it shows an ad above the Google results.

I have seen this occur for about a month now (on other, less obscure queries) and, even if Google moves to shut this down in future, it is a clear and overt statement of intent from Amazon.

A look at the terms and conditions for the Amazon Assistant reveals how this is happening.

The list of information gathered by Amazon is extensive (to the extent of being troubling) and includes the following statement:

“We will collect and store information such as the name and price of the product, the webpage on which the item is sold, your Amazon account, your search query, and other information.”

Nested in there is the operative phrase “your search query”. By capturing a search query, Amazon can cross-reference its own inventory to see whether there is a match and dynamically serve the available options.

The aim, evidently, is to create an ‘all roads lead to Amazon’ approach within e-commerce, and the only way to do that right now is to take market share directly from Google and other retailers.

Chrome Extensions: A vehicle for Amazon and Pinterest to compete with Google?

Strategically, this makes a lot of sense. Each of the main players would love to have a self-enclosed ecosystem that houses billions of users and all of their accompanying data.

Only Facebook can lay even tenuous claim to such a lofty ambition, so for the likes of Pinterest and Amazon there is no other option than to reach beyond their own platforms and observe, ready for the opportune moment to communicate with consumers.

Amazon, therefore, has adopted the assumption that consumers will swallow any level of intrusion into their data and their online experience if they ultimately end up with a better deal on products.

Pinterest has a rather different market position, user base, and approach to search. So how do these take shape within their revamped Chrome extension?

Pinterest save button

We have written about the advances in visual search taking place on Pinterest recently, but use of that technology is of course dependent on people visiting their site initially to conduct a search.

What the browser extension can now become is a vehicle to carry that technology to a much wider arena, to any site Pinterest users (or ‘Pinners’) visit.

In their blog post announcing the launch, Pinterest stated that the latest iteration of their Chrome extension will allow consumers to conduct a visual search using any image or webpage they visit.

The screenshot below is an example of this in action, with a user selecting the sunglasses within the image and Pinterest suggesting a variety of similar products to browse:

Chrome Extensions: A vehicle for Amazon and Pinterest to compete with Google?

This provides access to Pinterest’s vast database of images and its industry-leading image recognition software, without even having to visit the Pinterest site. All of this occurs while the user stays on the original web page, only moving them to Pinterest if they click on one of the suggested images.

Another striking aspect of the blog post comes in this statement:

“Now anything you see on Pinterest, or capture with the camera in your Pinterest app, can kick off a search for great ideas—all without typing a single character.”

The business strategy here is not to tackle Google head on à la Amazon, but rather to engage users before they even know what they want to type. As such, the aim is to offer a different experience altogether, driven uniquely by images.

When we think of search, we think of Google, paid ads, and ten blue links. But by stepping into an area that pre-dates those steps in a consumer’s mind, Pinterest may find a niche that Google has not yet managed to tap into just yet.

Chrome Extensions: A vehicle for Amazon and Pinterest to compete with Google?

The language used in the announcement is notable too, if we compare Amazon and Pinterest; in place of ‘products’, read ‘ideas’, for example. This is a subtle but telling distinction, with Pinterest looking to claim the more aspirational ground within the e-commerce search market.

Pinterest’s new visual search functionality will extend to other browser extensions “soon” and will allow brands to opt out, but Pinterest is of course hoping that the mutual benefits will outweigh the inconveniences for retailers. As is the case with Amazon, the force of consumer demand will ultimately drive (or halt) the extension’s adoption and acceptance.

What should marketers make of this?

Competition breeds innovation and search has been close to a monopoly for too long, in that sense. Google evolves and new products are rolled out constantly, but these are often tantamount to slightly bigger versions of the PPC ads we had yesterday, or an increasingly inconspicuous ‘Ad’ label.

Competition also increases scarcity, of course, and scarcity drives up prices. We have seen this with Google CPC prices and more recently on Facebook, so the diversification of options for advertisers could help to stem that tide.

Pinterest’s global head of partnerships, Jon Kaplan, has even been quoted recently saying, “You might see a pretty steep discount”, when comparing their inventory prices to Facebook or Google.

The possibility of another major player in this arena, be it Amazon, Pinterest, or both, should therefore be welcomed by consumers and advertisers alike. By everyone except Google and Facebook, in fact.

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Emoji appear in Google AdWords ads titles

Emoji have been spotted in the wild in Google AdWords ads titles, giving rise to speculation that this option may be rolled out globally for all advertisers soon.

We have seen this before, although prior instances of emoji in AdWords seemed to be caused by a loophole that allowed certain character combinations to pass through Google checks. As such, any gains to be made from using emoji were very short-term.

However, there is cause to believe that this time round, they could be here to stay.

The prime instance of emoji showing up recently in AdWords was last week, when the following ad title was spotted on Google.de for the query “autohaus mainz”:

Emoji appear in Google AdWords ads titles

Only a small number of ad titles including emoji have been observed so far, so this may just be a small test and could even be another loophole set to be closed soon by Google – although the latter seems unlikely.

It seems more probable that this is an indication of an upcoming change that could have significant implications for many industries.

We wrote a couple of weeks ago about Google’s decision to allow emoji in organic search listings again, hinting at a noteworthy change in stance on the use of this universal, visual language.

Emoji appear in Google AdWords ads titles

It is expected that there will be restrictions on their appearance for organic search queries and only truly relevant searches will return these characters in their results.

We tried this out with our article and, in line with what we have seen elsewhere, emoji are present within the title tag in search results:

Emoji appear in Google AdWords ads titles

Viewed in light of what we have seen over the last few years, with the ever growing presence of paid listings in search results to the cost of their organic counterparts, it is difficult to conceive that this new functionality will extend only as far as SEO. It seems only a matter of time before this applies equally to paid search, if it has a positive effect on CTR.

What impact could this have?

The aspect that will enthuse or discourage advertisers will, of course, be the impact on campaign performance. In theory, apt usage of emoji could increase CTR and, ultimately, Quality Score too, so this could be seen as very welcome news.

Should this be rolled out even to a small percentage of queries, it could provide a new avenue for attention-grabbing creative in an area that has lacked for invention when compared to, for example, Facebook.

Moreover, bearing in mind the new, less conspicuous ‘Ad’ label, launched with the rationale that Google wants to “streamline” the number of colours in search results, it would be contradictory to launch emoji across a large swathe of results so soon.

Although, a cynic may counter, perhaps that rationale is a rather convenient aegis under which to increase paid search CTR and, in turn, Google revenues. In that sense, the launch of emoji in ad titles would be entirely in keeping with Google’s business strategy.

Emoji appear in Google AdWords ads titles

How can advertisers use emoji in their AdWords titles?

Assuming that this will be rolled out beyond small, ring-fenced tests, advertisers will be able to copy and paste emoji into the ad text creation field within AdWords.

As such, this would only be a small change compared to launching any other campaign, and the more telling aspect of the upgrade will be within the targeting options deployed and the analysis of campaign performance.

Emoji appear in Google AdWords ads titles

How far could this trend go?

Google announced last year the ability to perform searches using emoji, we have seen their appearance within a small pool of shopping results within the last year, and there is even an option to view query-level performance for emoji in Search Console.

In the case of the latter, this capability of course depends on consumers having used emoji initially, so its applicability to search marketers so far is limited. Nonetheless, it is a direct reflection of Google’s aim to increase search query volume through new means in the face of a rapidly maturing competitive landscape.

Emoji appear in Google AdWords ads titles

Additionally, going back to our article on emoji in organic results, we did find some difficulties with social sharing buttons, which were clearly unable to process the characters as intended. So it is safe to surmise that the widespread adoption of emoji across all digital platforms is not solely dependent on Google’s position.

That said, with their AI-powered Assistant set to roll out on all Android phones, emoji usage will likely increase on Google devices, as will the search giant’s ownership of the data.

Emoji appear in Google AdWords ads titles

That sequence of events would no doubt strong-arm other tech platforms into upgrading their capabilities to keep up.

What does this mean today?

It would be prudent to wait for further confirmation that Google is allowing emoji in AdWords before experimenting with this; until that point, we can still assume that this is in violation of Google’s guidelines.

However, with the confirmed release of emoji in SEO listings, it seems entirely plausible that paid search will follow suit sometime soon. In the interim, it would be worth considering how best to make use of this across industries if and when the anticipated announcement does arrive.

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How will Google’s new ‘Ad’ label impact marketers?

Google started testing a new ‘Ad’ label in January this year, and late last week it was confirmed that this will now be rolled out globally.

This white label with green text and a green outline will replace the green label that was launched in June 2016.

The instant reaction to this is that the new labels fit in quite seamlessly with the rest of the paid placement, perhaps creating less of a contrast between them and their organic counterparts.

So why has Google made the change now, what impact will it have have, and will users even notice the change?

The official line on this update is that Google wants to streamline the number of colors on its results pages, particularly on mobile devices. A Google spokesperson revealed:

“After experimenting with a new search ad label with a green outline, we’ve decided to roll it out. The new ad label is more legible and continues to make our results page easier to read for our users with clear indication of our ad labeling.”

How will Google’s new ‘Ad’ label impact marketers?

Additionally, they claimed that “the color change had no bearing on consumers’ ability to distinguish ads from organic listings on the page.”

So why make the change at all?

First of all, these changes never occur in a vacuum. This is just an indication of a wider trend and should be viewed in the context of the removal of right-hand side ads, expanded text ads, and the consistent drive towards a ‘mobile-first’ approach.

Add in the growth of ad blockers, intensifying competition in the search industry (with both Facebook and Pinterest upping their efforts), and the constant pressure on Google to grow its revenues, and the reasons for moving to a less noticeable ‘Ad’ label become apparent.

We should also beware the source of this information. Google may say it has had no impact in testing, but that seems a convenient line for a company that is close to obsessive in its desire to attract more paid clicks through attention to the minutiae.

Google is famed – sometimes ridiculed – for this constant tinkering, but it does work.

Their highly-publicized ‘50 shades of blue’ experiment was seen by some as a step too far, but Marissa Meyer made sure to state that it drove an extra $200m in ad revenue. Even at a company of Google’s size, those figures talk.

How will Google’s new ‘Ad’ label impact marketers?

It is also worth remembering where we have come from with these ‘Ad’ labels. People can have short memories – a fact that such frequent adjustments take advantage of – and this latest change makes sense when viewed at a higher level.

Google’s ‘Ad’ labels have gone from garishly overbearing to their latest camouflage iteration in the course of just two years:

How will Google’s new ‘Ad’ label impact marketers?

The change from yellow to green in mid-2016 was reported to have a positive impact for paid search CTR, and few will doubt that last week’s move was led by exactly the same motive.

But is this just a myopic attempt to gain clicks (and the accompanying revenue) in the short term? Or is there more at play here?

For many in the organic search industry, this will just be another step in the inexorable march towards paid search domination of results pages.

How will Google’s new ‘Ad’ label impact marketers?

One assumption at the heart of Google’s latest update is that users simply want to get to the result that answers their query, whether a brand has paid for their click or not. Giving more space to paid placements and a never-ending stream of new products to make these ads more attractive undoubtedly gives prominence to sponsored listings.

But, the counter-argument goes, people prefer organic listings. They know an ad when they see it and will go out of their way to avoid it.

Perhaps.

However, one of the reasons this has held sway in the past is that paid search landing pages have at times been of lower quality or of lesser relevance to the query than organic listings. Brands are willing to pay their way to the top, while that right has to be earned in SEO. The quality of the search results in each camp reflected this.

Which brings us to the growing impact of content marketing and user experience signals in SEO. These factors are essential for any successful SEO strategy and they touch all aspects of a brand’s digital footprint – including paid search.

All that effort site owners have put into creating ‘great content’ to improve their SEO rankings plays directly into the hands of AdWords. If Google can convince brands that the best way to get this new content in front of people is to pay for that right, they will do so. The same great content ends up in front of consumers, so everyone wins. Brands still get the traffic (at a higher price), users get the result they want, and Google makes more money.

Someone has to lose, though, and SEO traffic seems most likely to assume this position.

How will Google’s new ‘Ad’ label impact marketers?

A diminished SEO landscape would be to the detriment of user experience, though, and no monopoly (even one as seemingly immovable as Google) has a divine right to market ownership. Higher CTR for paid listings will have to go hand-in-hand with a better user experience if this pitfall is to be avoided. If the quality of results starts to dip, alternative search engines do exist.

Another argument is that perhaps the role of paid search is starting to change. The AdWords business model is beautifully crafted for a direct response strategy, but it has its limits when it comes to brand marketing. As brand budgets start to move into the digital space, it would make sense to have a less obvious ‘Ad’ label if Google wants to encourage advertisers to spend this budget on AdWords.

As always, there is much room for speculation, even if the central thrust behind this move seems to be an intended increase in paid search revenues.

One thing is for sure, though: we will be keeping a very close eye on CTR for both paid and organic listings over the upcoming days and weeks to see how this plays out.

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Can Pinterest crack (and monetise) visual search?

Pinterest made a clear declaration of intent last week with the announcement that Randy Keller, Google’s former head of image search, has joined the photo sharing site as Head of Search.

This appointment is reflective of a strategy to challenge both Google and Amazon in the product-based visual search market. Notably, Pinterest also rolled out their paid search offering, driven initially through a partnership with Kenshoo, in 2016.

Due to the glacial pace of advertising product launches from Pinterest over the past few years, some in the industry felt their opportunity to monetise their user base may have passed.

Moreover, the keyword-based paid search market is saturated as it is, with Google constantly trialling new ways to eke out more searches.

However, in many of the potential growth areas for the industry, such as voice search, personalisation, and most obviously, image search, Pinterest believe they have something different to offer.

As a social platform focused more on nourishing the self than sharing selfies, Pinterest is inherently driven by the power of images. Nonetheless, the history of image search has shown that mastering the requisite technology to tap into this potential is no mean feat.

How Pinterest plans to tackle visual search

On February 7, Pinterest launched their new Visual Discovery Tools, including Lens. Built into the Pinterest app, through Lens users can point their camera at an item and the app will make suggestions based on what it sees. Point the camera at some asparagus, for example, and the app will suggest some recipes.

Can Pinterest crack (and monetise) visual search?

This is a further stage of development from Amazon’s Firefly (available through the Amazon app), which can recognise objects and suggest similar items to purchase, but is not yet able to make the conceptual leap to suggest complementary products or ideas.

Can Pinterest crack (and monetise) visual search?

Pinterest posted the following in relation to the Lens launch:

“Sometimes you spot something out in the world that looks interesting, but when you try to search for it online later, words fail you. You have this rich, colorful picture in your mind, but you can’t translate it into the words you need to find it.

At Pinterest, we’ve developed new experimental technology that, for the first time ever, is capable of seeing the world the way you do.

It’s called Lens (currently in beta), and it lets you use the camera in your Pinterest app to discover ideas inspired by objects you see out in the real world.”

This is in beta and works best with food, clothing and decor at the moment, but the possibilities are endless if the technology continues to develop. With an estimated 75 billion Pins to sift through, it may take a while.

However at Pinterest, there is clearly a belief that cracking visual search can start to bridge the gap between language and the world around us.

The fact that they routinely refer to ‘idea searches’ rather than ‘keywords’ is indicative of this focus on adding a new spin to a deeply-ingrained feature of internet usage. This is intriguing on many levels, but strikingly it may offer a new avenue for advertisers to engage with consumers at an optimal time, through the ideal medium.

Pinterest and ad blockers

This leads on nicely to the current ad landscape, one in which many internet users have resorted to ad blockers to avoid overbearing messaging.

Another stated aim at Pinterest is to re-frame ads as a welcome way to discover new ideas, concepts and products, rather than an intrusion into a user’s browsing experience.

Can Pinterest crack (and monetise) visual search?

An advertiser’s product feed, if synced to Pinterest’s image search algorithms, could deliver increasingly timely and relevant results to users. Where this becomes most compelling is in the ‘related searches’ that Pinterest provides. So for example, a search for shoes could also provide recommendations for the rest of an outfit.

If advertising can become synonymous with the discovery of new and exciting ideas, it suddenly seems much more appealing to the consumer. As such, consumers could be much more willing to jettison their ad blockers and engage with promoted results.

This is a tall order and perhaps quite a utopian aspiration at this stage, but the theory is seductive nonetheless.

Offering an alternative to Amazon and Google

Much has been made of Amazon’s continued rise in the search market, and an oft-cited 2016 survey from Power Reviews placed them as the preferred starting point for product searches among US consumers.

This was particularly newsworthy for the fact that it relegated Google to second place. The battle for supremacy in such a profitable arena has only intensified since, with commercial searches the main prize.

The most interesting aspects of this – and where Pinterest comes back into the fray – are the reasons why Amazon has taken this lofty position.

Can Pinterest crack (and monetise) visual search?

Predictably, variety of products ranks as the most popular reason, followed by free shipping and competitive pricing.

Amazon led with these value propositions and they continue to drive the company’s success, even with the advent of more innovative home technologies like the Echo and Echo Dot.

Google has been at pains to streamline its purchasing processes too, in search, shopping, and their rival to the Echo, Google Home.

What these platforms ultimately provide to the consumer is a frictionless way to purchase products from reliable sources. The consumer knows what they want and they reveal this by searching for it, and companies are willing to pay for the chance to get in front of customers at this high-intent purchase stage.

But there is more to some product-consumer relationships than just a seamless transaction, and it is one that either Google or Amazon would have to work hard to avail of in its entirety.

Pinterest’s competitive advantage

Pinterest has the enviable asset of an engaged user base, not on the premise of deals or free shipping, but on the experience the platform allows them to create and the ideas it allows them to access.

Pinterest may not be a credible threat when it comes to some clear transactional searches, where the consumer knows what they want and is really looking for a comparison, by price or by review ratings. But this seems very unlikely to be Pinterest’s natural marketplace anyway.

It would be very interesting to segment the Power Reviews survey results further to understand the different categories within product searches. The act of searching can be nuanced; it implies uncertainty and a desire to be provided with an answer.

Can Pinterest crack (and monetise) visual search?

The answers Pinterest can provide, if technologies like Lens take hold and it delivers on the enticing promise to read the world through visual search, will go far beyond a traditional list of links and images, and into the realm of something much more inspirational for consumers.

As such, it would be fascinating to know how many product searches, whether on Google, Facebook, Amazon or Pinterest, fall into this category. Or perhaps more appropriately, how many searches would fall into this category if people knew the technology existed.

Combined with the one-click purchase technology Pinterest plans to integrate worldwide, this would see Pinterest tick many of the boxes that shape the ‘Why Shoppers Start on Amazon’ graph featured above, and also generate new demand.

Can Pinterest crack (and monetise) visual search?

Consumers can be fickle and if they prize the variety of products on offer (as evidence suggests they do), the platform that provides this will become their preferred destination. If it can do this by resolving the awkward paradox inherent in ‘traditional’ image search (using words to search for images, often with unconvincing results), it will be all the more attractive and effective.

Advertisers, of course, will follow where consumers go, especially if Pinterest continues to develop their paid search offering through 2017.

Delivering better search results through new technology and a growing pool of users is a model ripe for monetisation, a possibility not lost on Pinterest.  For luxury goods, home decor, and fashion companies, this platform seems a natural fit and it would not be surprising to see these brands among the early adopters of paid advertising on Pinterest.

What does the future hold for Pinterest?

Attention spans are a precious, dwindling commodity, and simply shouting at consumers just won’t cut through.

By connecting to, and enhancing, our experience of the world around us, Pinterest may be in a position to steal a march on the competition – in technological terms, at least. A monthly user base of 150 million lags behind the giants in this arena and Pinterest will not gather the clout to tackle Google for Search dominance, but its development is no less compelling for that.

Can Pinterest crack (and monetise) visual search?

Ours is an increasingly visual culture, and Pinterest is well placed to challenge on the basis of the big focal points in search today; local, personalisation, voice, image, video, and app integration. It also offers a different experience to users that potentially allows advertisers to sell without intruding.

That makes for a potent combination and, should it all come together as planned, could see Pinterest offer a welcome alternative to Google and Amazon for marketers and consumers alike.

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How do the recent updates to Google Data Studio benefit marketers?

In a slew of recent posts on their Analytics blog, Google has announced the removal of the 5 report limit in Data Studio in the US, integration with Search Console, and most recently, enhanced support for AdWords MCC accounts.

So what is Data Studio, why has Google focused so much attention on improving it, and what benefits does it provide for marketers?

Data Studio: A brief recap

Data Studio was launched in beta as part of Google’s Analytics 360 suite in May 2016. The aim of the platform was (and remains) clear: to provide Analytics users with an intuitive, shareable dashboard solution that allows them to make sense of their data.

Its functionality reflects this purpose. Users can drag and drop a range of graphs and charts onto a blank canvas, then populate them using the dimensions, metrics and goals from their GA account. As such, anyone familiar with Google Analytics should be able to create polished, professional dashboards to help inform their business decisions.

Data Studio delivers on that promise, but the restrictive 5 dashboard limit and a lack of platform integrations curbed its widespread uptake last year beyond the expensive 360 Suite.

However, these recent announcements go some way to creating a solution with universal appeal.

Data Studio integrations

Following the announcement of Search Console integration and enhanced MCC support, the list of connectors (connections to a specific type or source of data) now looks as follows:

How do the recent updates to Google Data Studio benefit marketers?

Marketers who have adopted the full suite of Google products will find a wide variety of new opportunities for data analysis and reporting here. The addition of Search Console support brings SEO into the fold too, adding the capability to show keyword-level performance through impression, clicks and CTR data.

Furthermore, the MCC updates provide two new benefits:

  • Users can now select up to 75 sub-accounts to include within their dashboard, rather than having to connect the whole account
  • Currency fields are removed if they differ across sub-accounts, removing some of the difficulties seen when Google aggregates multiple currencies into one report.

How do the recent updates to Google Data Studio benefit marketers?

The addition of Search Console support to Google Data Studio adds the capability to show keyword-level performance through impression, clicks and CTR data

But what about non-Google products? Do they integrate with Data Studio?

Yes, albeit in a slightly roundabout fashion.

Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed Google Sheets among the list of available connectors. So if data from Facebook, for example, is scheduled to export automatically to Sheets, this information will then be included within your Data Studio dashboard quite seamlessly.

How do the recent updates to Google Data Studio benefit marketers?

Although not as direct an integration as other enterprise-level reporting suites can provide, this is still a hugely beneficial capability. Moreover, the customizable, intuitive nature of Data Studio should make up for this inefficiency among a large user base.

Does this mean the democratization of data analysis?

At a basic level, it might do – and this is a platform designed to engage novices, after all.  But if the improvements keep coming at the recent pace, we could be looking at a very powerful contender for more advanced data analysts too.

These highly customizable reports also allow users to circumvent many of the inefficiencies that arise from searching in GA to collect data, synthesize it and then produce compelling visualizations.

This is clearly good news for marketers and business owners alike, removing some of the barriers to entry for useful, everyday data analysis.

Google Optimize and Session Quality Score: a brief guide

Google announced on its Analytics blog and at SMX East the launch of some intriguing updates to its Analytics platform.

Notably a free version of Optimize 360 and a new metric, Session Quality Score.

Optimize: what is it?

Optimize 360 was launched as an enterprise-level product in March this year, and is essentially a landing page testing tool that allows site owners to test page layouts and copy without changing a page’s source code.

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This new version, for which users can sign up to trial now, will be available for anyone with an Analytics account worldwide, free of charge.

How will it work?

The functionality is similar to the likes of Optimizely (as is the name), with the significant advantage of an automatic and direct tie to other Google products, such as DoubleClick, AdWords and Audience 360.

The opportunities for remarketing to highly qualified leads are clear, as are the possibilities for testing different copy for a range of audience segments, so this news will be assessed in detail by Search professionals.

Session Quality Score: what is it?

This is a new metric due to be launched later in the year and it is a very interesting announcement.

Google says that Session Quality Score will “predict the likelihood of a visitor making a transaction (purchase) on your site or app”, based on past behaviour, data taken from similar users, and myriad other factors.

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Driven by the same machine learning technology that drives its Smart Goals product, this is another reflection of Google’s objective to become a ‘machine-learning first’ company.

What does all of this mean?

At a time when device, personalization and customer engagement factors are increasing in importance, this is certainly welcome news as marketers try to target users in ever-more granular detail.

How effective these features are at launch remains to be seen, but given the technology and backing behind them, there is good reason to believe both Optimize and Session Quality Score will have a significant impact on site owners and search marketers.