Search Grows, But Instant Search May Have Cooked The Numbers

As colder weather settles across the US, search engine volume begins its seasonal climb that will peak during the holiday season.

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Measurement firm comScore released its monthly Search Engine Rankings this evening and reports the number of US search queries climbed to 17.6 billion, a 4% increase over August’s totals with one fewer day.  Google’s share continued a steady climb and remains the market maker with a 66.1% marketshare.

The data behind these measurements is likely changing because of the Yahoo-Microsoft alliance.  The numbers may be further skewed by Google’s new Instant Search feature.    comScore says they’ve adjusted their counting methodology and will now count a page of search results that remains displayed for 3 seconds as another search even if the person using the search engine continues typing.

Measurement systems like comScore’s or TV ratings are often done on a “panel” basis where a particular set of users represent all users.  This is scientifically sound analysis.   It works.  And had there only been one major change this summer, tonight’s numbers might be more illuminating.

After looking at the data, I’ve decided that I want to see at least another month or two of data before completely understanding how much Instant Search is influencing the size of the market and Google’s share of that market.  For now,  the most illuminating data is that Yahoo! search queries fell from 2.72 billion to 2.68 billion.     Even when looking at the June and July numbers, which were lower for Yahoo!, it’s clear that the #2 player is fading fast.

We’ve written many times about the US search market becoming a duopoly with two major players.  Until a Facebook partnership is created with one of them, the search marketing continues crawling to that level.  Your takeaway as a small business leader is to remain aware that Yahoo!’s role as an independent, major search player is ending.

Google Proves SEO Is Ongoing Effort

Search engine optimization is not set-it-and-forget-it.   You can hire any number of capable individuals and agencies (including Silver Beacon!) that can analyze your website and either make recommendations or do work to optimize your site to receive profitable visitors.   You see, that’s what real search engine optimization is about: profitability.

The snake oil salespeople who guarantee that your site will rank #1 at Google are poseurs to avoid.  Even Google warns about these people.  ”Beware of SEOs that claim to guarantee rankings, allege a “special relationship” with Google, or advertise a “priority submit”, writes Google about SEO on its site.

Just this year, Google took its own steps toward transparency by auditing its own SEO efforts in report card format on various “organic” ranking factors.  Breathe easy.  That’s a link to the blog about the effort, not the actual 49 page report.    Google said it looked 100 of its properties across a dozen common SEO dimensions, and the search giant didn’t always give itself good marks.   That’s fair because some of Google’s SEO is reminiscent of the adage about the cobbler’s children’s shoes.

Critical in this post, however, is Google’s statement that they would continue measuring its performance and might use some different measurements in the future, but that Google itself would keep monitoring its own search engine optimization.

Almost any effort atrophies if left unused.  If you exercise, you know what begins happening after even a short layoff.  And if you don’t monitor your car’s fluids and the condition of its hoses, tires and belts, the mechanic may be your new best friend.  The same issues occur with SEO, but only more so because search engine best practices change all the time.

I spoke this week with a well known CTO whose decades of experience pre-date Google.   “I know when major changes happen,” he said in referring to Google’s “Caffeine” update,  but you SEO folks are like surfers riding each new wave.”

The analogy is apt.  The waves continue.   They don’t stop.  Neither does search engine optimization.  Even if Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL and Ask all decided to stop making any changes for six months, that doesn’t mean that the millions of other businesses will also stop their efforts.

Your takeaway as a small business leader is that just like a person needs a physical, an eye exam and a dental checkup every year, your website needs the same checkup.    Don’t surf the SEO waves without one.

Searching Now Influenced By Your Friends

social-network-graphIn December, we wrote that Google had “fundamentally changed the search engine results for everyone in North America…

At issue was the notion of “personalized search”.   That’s where Google builds a dossier of people’s interests and then tries to tailor search results to meet those interests.  The entire process’ details are much more complicated than anyone except a math whiz specializing in search engines should delve into and certainly not in a blog.  But Google changed the rules.  Previously a user had to opt-in to this program. Now anyone who didn’t want to participate had to opt-out.

Do No Evil takes a hit as a company grows.  The philosophy takes a huge hit when an entity completely avoids permission marketing.

Google Tries To Out Facebook Facebook

You know your friends on Facebook?  And you know your Flickr photos?  And maybe that blog or forum you frequent?   Not just you, but the people who interact with you — your social graph — will soon influence your Google search results.

That process is opt-in for now and so far seems to be limited to Google Images.

Then again, personalized search was opt-in until about 7 weeks ago.

Google cheerily calls its announcement “Search is Getting More Social“.  That’s their name.  Our headline today is “Searching Now Influenced By Your Friends”.  Hope more than you hope for most things that Google doesn’t opt-in for everyone for “social search”.

As many shots as we take at the company, their search results remain the defacto standard in North America and in much of the world.  And while I love some of my friends and like all of them, I don’t want their biases to take a valuable “page one” spot away from another source.  I think it’s bad enough that my biases can alter search results.  I certainly don’t need my friends and family altering my  results.

Bigger Google – Fast Friday Fact

December’s search engine market share data is out from Hitwise.  Don’t bother with the link   The Fast Friday Fact is that Google’s share increased 1 point and the next 3 players (Yahoo, Microsoft’s Bing) all lost share.

Google now has 72.25% of U.S. search engine market share.   That’s why when people complain about the company or its policies, the battle is uphill. There is no real monopoly issue.  Google beat everyone at search fair and square, including its two closest competitors, both of whom had search engines and a big lead before Google launched.

Your Fast Friday Fact is that US Internet search is Google’s world.  You just get to use the site for free.

Google Launches Certified Professionals Search

Google has launched a search site listing certified professionals and marketing agencies.

From the company’s description:

Google Advertising Professionals are not Google employees, but rather are online marketing professionals, agencies, and other individuals such as search engine marketers (SEMs), search engine optimizers (SEOs), and marketing consultants. They have been certified by Google to manage AdWords accounts. To become qualified, professionals must demonstrate an in-depth understanding of AdWords by passing exams, and they must meet all our qualification guidelines

You may not have a need for an Internet marketing agency now, but it’s a handy resource to bookmark.    Then again, since you’re here at Big Thinking for Small Business, save some time and bookmark our Google Advertising Professionals listing.

Google Usability Tools Continue – Meet Visible Area

Browser resolution may be a new SEO metric.  It's certainly good usability practice.

Browser resolution may be a new SEO metric. It's certainly good usability practice.

Google launched another tool hot on the heels of last week’s  release of Speed Tracer, a tool developers can use to determine what elements on a particular web page are slowing down its display in a browser.  And last month, we told you that a new SEO frontier for 2010 would be speed, as in how fast the site renders.

Now comes Google again with a tool that shows how much of a web site is visible for a particular monitor and video card. Browser Size is not a plugin or standalone problem.  Instead, a simple Google page allows anyone to type a web address and see how much of that page is visible to web users based on Google’s data about browser resolutions without scrolling.

Tools like this have existed for a long time, but not with built in Google metrics.

Refinements will come.  Some sites will receive more visitors from people with smaller or larger screen resolutions.  Imagine the site designed for a certain width that receives a larger percentage of visitors with smaller resolutions?  Might Google someday begin penalizing such sites or demoting their ranking when the search engine knows the browser resolution as it displays the search engine results?

Google: Yeah, We Got That

The acceleration rate of Google announcements is amazing to watch.   As Search Engine Strategies’ Chicago conference roars into full swing this week, Google has:

* Offered an olive branch to mainstream media
* Introduced some nifty Android phone apps that has my wife broadly hinting about a new phone
* Finally introduced official extensions for Google Chrome
* Finally launched Google Chrome for Mac in development/pre-beta
* Launched all kinds of translation and other gadgets.
* Fundamentally changed the search engine results for everyone in North America using Google’s search engine.

Did you miss that last announcement?   We’ve been telling people for several years not to pay attention to rankings because they differ.  They’ve been slightly differing for a very long time.   Now comes the time when they will be different for everyone.

We could explain the ins and outs, but it’s easier to quote and show you the official Google video.  On their official blog, Google posted last week that,

Previously, we only offered Personalized Search for signed-in users, and only when they had Web History enabled on their Google Accounts. What we’re doing today is expanding Personalized Search so that we can provide it to signed-out users as well.

What does that mean?

Search guru Danny Sullivan calls this phase Search 4.0.   Danny says:

The short story is this. By watching what you click on in search results, Google can learn that you favor particular sites. For example, if you often search and click on links from Amazon that appear in Google’s results, over time, Google learns that you really like Amazon. In reaction, it gives Amazon a ranking boost. That means you start seeing more Amazon listings, perhaps for searches where Amazon wasn’t showing up before.

Sullivan continues:

If they’re looking for a plumber, Amazon probably isn’t close to being relevant, so the personalization boost doesn’t help. But in cases where Amazon might have been on the edge? Personalization may help tip into the first page of results. And personalization may tip a wide variety of sites into the top results, for a wide variety of queries.

We told readers a month ago to stop chasing rankings.   We even said in March that “search rankings are dead” as a metric.

Online marketing is about increasing profit.   Is generating profit easier if a page on your web site is at the top of someone’s search results?   Sure.  But ranking is also also about engagement, promotion through advertising and  dozens of other significant factors.    You still have to do the basics:  you need well-written copy on pages organized in a search-engine friendly way with the appropriate meta information, including page titles (title tags) that technically aren’t meta tags.  And you need links from other relevant, authoritative web sites and many other things.

Those are the table stakes.  That’s what lets you put your site into play as a viable commercial web site.   But stop saying you want to be #1 for widgets in your town.  Because your #1 is my #7 is your supplier’s #43.   We always tell our clients to follow the money.   A search engine ranking is not a proxy for profit.

Here’s what the Google camp says about their new search results:

SEO’s New Frontier – Speed

Get ready because a ranking factor that was kind of important until now is receiving all sorts of quiet guidance from Google that things will change again.  Page Loading Time, call it Page Speed like Google does, is literally how fast an individual page loads.  Google is serious enough about this factor that there is a page speed section on Google Code describing their new plugin.

Yes, the company that built the Chrome browser created a Firefox plugin that rides along with FireBug.  And this is some seriously good development advice, if not simple SEO advice.   After testing on our home page, we got results showing some inline CSS no longer being used.    Our big hit was on caching and setting expiration dates.

I don’t feel so bad because visiting Google News showed that they too had CSS issues.  Amazon, which knows a thing or two about code but probably doesn’t care if it messes with usability, got beat up by the new tool, including a warning for my new favorite, “Serve static content from a cookieless domain”.

After grumbling about the amount of work I had to do, I took the tool to the World Wide Web Consortium because if anyone gets good coding concepts, they would be the folks.    They got beat up too — almost as much as my sites did so I’m in good company.

Meanwhile, page speed has been hinted at for months if not longer.  Now you need to start doing some reading and focus your radar a bit more on the entire concept.  Oh, and W3 folks?  Google says you need some help.  Here’s the screen shot from Monday morning.

Google's new Page Speed plugin finds fault at W3.org

Google's new Page Speed plugin finds fault at W3.org

Stop Demanding High Rankings

Drawing of a self-service store.

Do you want visitors or profit? Image via Wikipedia

I watched another potential lead go by today and decided not to purchase the information because the prospect was in a medium sized market.  Their sole criteria was that they wanted to rank in the top 3 spots for a certain local phrase.

It’s important that you as a small business don’ t make this mistake:  there are no more ways that rankings can be counted. There are lots of SEO specific phrases that tie into this concept.  Ignoring them for a minute, here’s what you need to know:

  • The Google results you see for a query will likely vary based on the physical location of the Internet connection you’re using.
  • The Google results you see for a query will likely vary based on whether you have a Google account and are logged into that account.
  • The Google results you see for a query will likely vary based on how other searchers have interacted with a page and query over time.
  • The Google results you see for a query will likely vary based on constant testing Google does for thousands of variables.
  • And our new favorite, Google Social Search.

Forget about Social Search for a moment.  Remember this because it’s critical business advice that predates the Internet by thousands of years.

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Google PageRank is Dead – Fast Friday Fact

NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 23:  Google founders Larr...

They brought us Google. And PageRank. We forgive you the second one. Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Most people working in the online marketing world have known the truth about Google‘s infamous PageRank scoring for several years:  it didn’t work, it wasn’t terribly accurate and attempting to classify the billions of pages on the web into 10 clusters was just plain silly.

PageRank was named after Larry Page, one of the two Google co-founders.  The company included the score on its web toolbar so that someone surfing from one site to another could see that they had moved from a PageRank (PR) 4 location to a PR 3 location.

That meant nothing to anyone, of course, and PageRank grew more meaningless over time.  It grew so meaningless that Google removed the metric from its Webmaster Tools section this week.

Googler Susan Moskwa posted about PageRank in an official Google forum Wednesday:

“We’ve been telling people for a long time that they shouldn’t focus on PageRank so much; many site owners seem to think it’s the most important metric for them to track, which is simply not true. We removed it because we felt it was silly to tell people not to think about it, but then to show them the data, implying that they should look at it.”

What Susan didn’t unfortunately comment on was that Google’s toolbar that many non-marketing users have access to still includes PageRank.   Those numbers haven’t matched up with “real” PageRank in years, and the marketing community has differentiated between the two for years by referring to the latter as “toolbar PR”.

PageRank is not a meaningful metric, and you should immediately stop using it in any context.  If your marketing agency refers to PageRank as a metric, you should fire them just for being dunderheads who are out of touch with the marketplace.

This underscores a big issue.   Just because you know a piece of data doesn’t mean that you have the context, training or skills to interpret that data.  My doctor sent me an electronic medical recod on CD with all my tests from my last physical.  Not having gone to medical school (sorry, Mom), I have no idea what the numbers mean, but I’m sure that some web site somewhere will convince me I can read the chart.  For my sanity, I think I’ll let the medical folks worry about that data while I explain to them that they can stop worrying about PageRank.

Now if only Amazon would admit that Alexa’s data is easily manipulated garbage, we would could really start cleaning up.