Live at SMX: State of the Search (Marketing) Union

Where is Internet search heading? That’s the topic of a panel on this last day of the Search Marketing Expo, the conference in Santa Clara held by Search Engine Land, Danny Sullivan’s most excellent Web site. Offering their thoughts will be Vanessa Fox, contributing editor at Search Engine Land; Avinash Kaushik, analytics evangelist at Google; Misty Locke, president of Range Online Media and chief strategy officer at Range Online Media / iProspect; and David Roth, director of search engine marketing at Yahoo!. (I guess Microsoft is leaving whatever it had to say to Steve Ballmer, who keynoted Tuesday.) I’ll liveblog the highlights of the panel here. (Actually, it turns out that, apropos of the thrust of the show, the panelists end up talking more about search marketing than core search.)

Sherman says we’ve seen more radical change in the past year than in the previous 15, and he’s not seeing that slow down. Sounds about right to me, though I think the search interface has a lot of change to come.

Key question to start: A year after the economic meltdown, how’s search doing? Roth says the meltdown allowed Yahoo to change its search engine marketing strategy, optimizing for profits vs. revenue or ROI. Locke says e-commerce performed very well in particular. The economy actually helped her business, since search, which is directed at people ready to buy, did well. Fox says large brands are still lagging in use of search.

Do branding and search ads mix? Kaushik says branding was really a metaphor for creating demand. Search, by contrast, is no mere metaphor but a direct driver of behavior. Search can be a massively effective way to show relevance for the right group of people, though.

How’s the Microsoft-Yahoo deal going? Roth says integration is on, a lot of resources being put against it. Proof will come when advertisers move over (which I believe is going to take awhile). Yahoo will continue to work on Search Boss, Search Monkey, and other features outside the search index.

How’s the cultural integration going with Microsoft and Yahoo? Roth says, true enough, too early to say. A lot of it remains to be seen how that’s going to work out. Everybody on this project understands that this is critical, that this is an “absolutely must work” project.

Are search marketers excited about this deal? Locke: Very excited. This gives us a viable No. 2. Now will be 60% of time spent on Google, 40% on Bing, where before it was 80% Google.

What are the prospects for greater reach with this deal? Locke: Not sure. Microsoft has always shown higher ROI, so looking to see if that holds. Cashback is a big new customer driver for many of our customers.

Now with this consolidation to two major players, what’s the landscape? Kaushik: Competition is a really good thing. But it’s prudent to have a portfolio strategy with acquisitions. People get far too obsessed between Microsoft and Google and Yahoo, but people need to pay attention to using those ad venues in unique ways. Fox isn’t sure how Search Monkey and Boss will work for Yahoo when it doesn’t control the index–not sure how much Yahoo will be motivated to keep improving search.

Why is Google’s Caffeine search index infrastructure improvement late, and what impact will Caffeine have? Fox (who used to work at Google) says search engine optimization (SEO) techniques could change a lot as a result of the speed of indexing. Kaushik says Google plans to continue providing search marketers more tools to analyze what they’re doing. Focus is “self-help at scale.” Also focused on providing tools to use search data to improve SEO and divine what impact various search keywords have.

Who’s really doing what in the Microsoft-Yahoo deal? Roth says Yahoo is staying committed in search, including the sales side. Yahoo is going to maintain the high touch with the big customers. The small businesses will be managed more directly on the Microsoft side. As for the platform, the work will be on making Microsoft’s AdCenter the platform. (So much for Panama and all that other stuff Yahoo has been working on for years?)

Could social media replace search as the way people interact chiefly with the Web? One reporter last week told Fox search is the old thing, social media is the thing now–but she thinks it’s not either-or (true). Locke says search is just starting to become the marketing vehicle that most effectively drives consumer behavior. But we’ll have to find new ways to be relevant. Roth says it’s actually the search marketers who are starting to do Facebook ads and other social marketing. Kaushik says marketers will continue to do both. He once said at a conference that Twitter was the dumbest thing on Earth, and got hundreds of hate emails. Now he thinks it’s the best thing since sliced bread. But the key will be using the right marketing for each medium–you can’t just shout in the social media realm.

If you’re going from mass-marketing to individual touch, how do you manage the data overload? Kaushik: We put on the wrong lens when we ask how can we make advertising more relevant? What we do today is try to influence people to do something. One emerging way to influence people is to have these conversations (with social marketing). We are going to be forced to accept this reality that the way we influence people is changing. The Mad Men era is dead.

Will search become another function of marketing rather than a broad marketing method of its own? (Not sure I understand that question.) Kaushik: In so many words, no. Roth: Social media is the first channel that has delivered on the promise of really engaging customers. Social media is absolutely breaking down the silos in marketing. Everything needs to be social in some way.

What’s going to happen when we get unethical marketing using social data and maybe the government gets involved? Nobody wants to answer at first. Kaushik: If you look at the sides of Egyptian tombs, there is spam in those characters too. (OK, if you say so.) You need to provide incentives to do the right thing. In search, there is so much more incentive to do things the right way. We need to keep making sure we provide those incentives in advertising channels. Locke says there will always be spam, etc. But what’s different about this is it’s now the users who are actually policing. The authenticity, consumers can sniff that. Marketing has to be so good that you don’t get called out by the consumer.

Roth says there’s a good chance of government intervention. But the legislators aren’t really up to speed on what’s going on.

Is mobile here? Roth: It’s here but maybe it’s not what we thought it would be. Citi’s Mark Mahaney says now that we’re at 20% of wireless phones being smartphones, ubiquitous Web access could soon become the norm. Kaushik mentions that voice search changes the search game: He recently used an Android phone to speak “Exploratorium location” (or something like that), and that “query” was transcribed by Google servers, which then sent directions based on where he was (which Google knew from the GPS in the phone). That’s a “search,” but a very different one.

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Peter Norvig: An Insider’s Look at Google Research

Google is such a business powerhouse that people sometimes forget that every single penny depends on the research of thousands of engineers toiling in the bowels of the Googleplex. That’s why I always like to hear what Google’s rocket scientists have to say. This morning, at the Search Marketing Expo, Pete Norvig, Google’s director of research, is holding forth. I’ll liveblog the highlights here. (And there’s more coverage by Cade Metz at The Register and Tom Krazit at CNET News’ Relevant Results.)

His opening Powerpoint slide promises a review of 21 projects in 15 minutes:

1) Person Finder, following the Chile earthquake.

2) Power Meter you can plug into your house power system to monitor how much you use.

3) Earth Engine, which can show areas of deforestation using Google Earth.

4) Trike and Snowmobile that can contribute to Google Earth views.

5) User photos in Google Street View.

6) Image Swirl, image recognition software.

7) Web-scale image annotation, matching words for images.

8) Image rotation captchas, so you don’t have to divine those increasingly ridiculous captchas.

9) Google Goggles, take a photo of a product and Google will tell you what it is.

10) Discontinuous video scene-carving.

11) Sharing cluster data.

12) App Inventor for Android, introductory programming development environment for phones, in alpha test.

13) Speech recognition, and how much better it’s doing over time.

14) Punctuation/capitalization in transcribed speech. (I want this!)

15) Translating phones, or at least two pieces of it–translation and voice recognition.

16) Low-resource MT: Yiddish–better translation even with languages with not much written material.

17) Sound understanding: Show me all the car crashes in YouTube. Not quite there yet, but it’s coming.

18) Google Squared

19) Clustering of words within a context, like “Whistler” creates clusters of the painter, Olympics, British Columbia, etc.

20) Attribute extraction, to improve search results.

21) Browser size–tool that puts overlay on pages that shows which percentage of the page can be seen on each browser.

Whew. Barely kept up there.

Norvig: We’re trying to observe the world of the Web… try to understand all of that that’s going on by observing the data and creating models.

Chris Sherman at Search Engine Land, which puts on the SMX show, asks about 20% time. Norvig says Google’s ability to scale Webwide using Google’s infrastructure is key, because it allows much faster testing and deployment.

How do you decide the balance between short-term and long-term research? Norvig: We’re pushing very hard toward doing something useful. Always in service of something we eventually want to get out there.

Danny Sullivan, Search Engine Land’s editor in chief, asks about what has come out of 20% time. Norvig: Gmail is one example. Though right away that became that engineer’s 100% time. Speech recognition is another.

How much are cofounder Larry Page and Sergey Brin involved now? Norvig: They’re very involved. They’re setting the long-range direction. And they’re really trying to evaluate as many projects as they can. Their life hasn’t changed very much, because they’re still at their deep level. But for rest of us, a lot has changed–takes them longer for them to get to any particular new project.

What are you researching now? Norvig: Education. Ways to lead people to information over an entire semester, not just this moment.

How are projects segmented in various regions? Norvig: Some are local because we need local translations or products. Remote product development sometimes because that’s where the right people are.

What technologies do you see out there that would change how search is done? Norvig: Lots of emphasis on mobile.

How has Google come up with new signals to do real-time search? Norvig: One thing that I still think is overhyped in PageRank. Just one of many things. We never felt that it was such a big factor. It’s got the catchy name but we’ve always looked at all the available data. How do users interact with them, etc. You’re combining every available signal. It’s just a slightly different combination.

What enables that is the infrastructure that we’ve built. That’s allowed us to do real-time.  I remember when we went to hourly (updates of the index), and Larry pushed back and said that’s not good enough. The engineers said, well, we can’t do better yet. In the end, Larry gave in, but said they needed to call it the 3600-second index, otherwise the hour would remain an hour.

Is it time for new marketing beyond PageRank? Norvig: I think that’s right. We need some better branding.

On the Caffeine infrastructure update, what’s your group’s role and where’s it at? Norvig: Gives only vague timing, despite coverage lately that it might be late.

Do you have some signals Google uses that people don’t realize? Norvig: Bibliographies in Google’s book scanning.

How separate is the search and the ad side? Norvig: Just the way a newspaper has editorial content and advertising content, and those don’t mix. Of course, we use Google File System and Big Tableing and things like that in both.

Is there more work put into core search vs. ads? Norvig: Doesn’t quite say (though I suspect most of it is core).

Now that the Web is an index of objects as much as pages, will there be a different notion of how to treat those objects, like companies or people’s names? Norvig: We are moving in that direction. We want to support types of queries like “show me these types of companies and rank them by revenue.” You’re on your own now unless some page has done that.

What are the really hard problems today? Norvig: Vision is the big problem today. There haven’t been really big breakthroughs from 20 years ago. Still images and especially video images. There’s just so much more data involved in video vs. a text file. And parsing video into understandable objects. I’m excited about that.

Do you have any solutions for email overload? Norvig: Actually I had an intern last summer working on that project. Some experimental things will roll out before long. Another thing is saying, Is email the right tool? Maybe just slashing all that down and starting all over again is the way to go. Google Wave? Google Buzz? Not sure, but maybe. But still people trying to figure out where Wave works. Do I make a Google doc, do I make a Wave, do I make a site? I think we’re going to have to see some consolidation… based on the content.

Sergey has talked about embedded chip in your head to do searches–anybody doing that? Norvig: Uh, not yet.

How do you ensure that people get training and knowledge to work at Google? Norvig: When people doing information retrieval in college come to Google, they realize all I knew was wrong. That’s changing a little bit. Also we have an internal course on all the Google tools. Then give them a starter project. Then they get ready to do something else on their own.

Do you move people around a lot to different projects? Norvig: We encourage that. We like to keep our projects short–three or six months rather than a year. Often they find a couple things out of those projects to do, so they stay a little in that same area for awhile. But we do make it easier to move from one place to another.

What’s next in search–any dramatic changes in the metaphor beyond the list? Norvig: You see the page becoming more interesting and varied–pictures, video, etc., rather than 10 links. Mobile is also driving things hard because the screen is so small. There we’re really forced to do a better job. That will require more of a partnership, more interactive. Won’t be as stateless–will have more of a dialogue that both sides are contributing to. Right now, we force the user to do most of the work.

And that’s  a wrap.

Carol Bartz: Art, Science, Scale Will Revive Yahoo

Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz is speaking at the 4A’s ad agency confab this morning in San Francisco, and she’s her usual frank-speaking self. She’s using the occasion to answer people’s continuing questions about Yahoo’s vision and relevance–and she says the latter is something nobody should doubt. “You better friggin’ care,” she says.

What sets Yahoo apart from the many other big Internet properties out there? Art, science, and scale–though she notes her marketing people didn’t like the algorithm duh, acronym that would make. (Everybody has data on the brain here.) Lots of targeting, work on measurement, etc.  Targeting is a huge focus for Yahoo right now–as it is for every Web site and marketer alike.

“We have so much data at our fingertips,” and Yahoo techies are working hard to turn that data into insights about consumers and targeting.

On the the art side:  “There really is a human side” to marketing. “It’s not all algo-driven,” she adds after mangling the word “algorithm,” while also avoiding a specific mention of Google and its algo-driven search engine and ad system. Next quarter, Yahoo will introduce Digital Adventures to work with agencies to be more creative on all media. Come up with off-the-wall ideas and test them.

Video will also be a big focus. Much more engaging, but Yahoo needs much more of it.

It’s on to Yahoo’s scale: Bartz notes that Yahoo is one of the few Internet properties that has television-level reach and scale. Talks about various properties but quickly turns to search–and the recently approved deal with Microsoft.  Interesting, she specifically thanks people here for their support through letters to Justice. (Now, folks here better hope Yahoo and Microsoft make something of that support, and well before the 2012 final target date for the full realization of the pact. Otherwise, marketers will simply have one fewer choice instead of a credible alternative to Google.)

Bartz now addresses the perception–which Bartz acknowledges is all too true–that Yahoo is tough to do business with. “We know we need to be more responsive. We know we need to get the friction out of the system.” Any problems, she says, write cbartz@yahoo-inc.com.

And after noting that tomorrow is Yahoo’s 15th birthday, it’s a wrap. Honestly, Bartz offered nothing new about Yahoo’s direction.  But Yahoo’s presence here–it’s also a founding sponsor of the confab–is a sign that it’s trying to repair a reputation with traditional ad agency types that was damaged in recent years during Yahoo’s many struggles.

It’s still uncertain how well Bartz can restore Yahoo’s relevance amid social networks like Facebook and Twitter and so many other sites and services. But it may well be that Yahoo’s survival depends even more on wooing traditional marketers and agencies looking for alternatives to television and other mass media than convincing the peripatetic digerati that the company is still cool.

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