Internet Identity

On the net, we are defined by what we share.  This sharing tends to need a little maintenance in terms of keeping your presence up and running and providing a little fresh meat from time to time.  My identity was looking a bit shabby – sort of the way I look when I’ve omitted shaving for a little too long.  Beards with me are an act of omission rather than commission!

So, I’ve been giving things a bit of trim.  I started by restoring the URL for this blog.  I know blogs seem downright old school now and there are cooler blogging platforms on the block but I still think there’s a lot of meaningful stuff on this blog.  And I’ve got a few new things I want to ramble about.  And I still like the ‘long form’ blog better than the quick hits of things like twitter.

I also restored my photography site:  It’s long overdue for a renovation but I still enjoy looking at the photographs on it.  You might too.

I’ve been tweeting a bit too: predictabuy.  I have a Facebook presence as well – but I mostly view that as family and friends – with the exception that quite a few photographers are friends on Facebook – but a fair number of them are friends in the true sense as well.

Lately, I’ve also opened up an account on Google+:   I am a gray haired geek after all – and that does seem to be the dominant demographic at the moment.  I think it will likely have some legs.  The presence is pretty low key and easy to maintain.

That’s enough for me.  More than enough actually.  One thing that is both interesting and scary is that these identities are certainly becoming very personally identifiable.  That’s quite an explicit goal of all these social services – and understandably so from the point of view of the ‘utility’ of the service I suppose.

But it does feel like the virtual world keeps shrinking and become denser.  I hope it doesn’t all disappear in to a black hole!


Three Web History Search Tools Examined

The other day I was reading some commentary on Google+.  The author was commenting on Circles and how he didn’t like the paradigm.  That it was a ‘sort’ rather than a ‘search’ paradigm.  He then went on to describe how Gmail changed his behavior – that instead of sorting (filing) emails he just searched gmail.  That’s certainly how I use gmail.

I’d link to the post – but I can’t remember where I put it.  Which is why we’re having this blog post: I want to be able to ‘search’ my web history rather than having to ‘sort’ it with bookmarks or some other technique.

So, I did a little research and found three candidates: Infoaxe, Egoarchive and Google web history (with the help of the Google toolbar).  Here’s a brief run down of each of them.

Web History in the Cloud – Very Scary

So, the idea of all these tools is that you store your browsing history in the cloud.  They all use a browser plug-in that reports every link you visit to a cloud based service.  Then they provide you with some tools to search this history.

This is scary: you’re voluntarily providing your entire click-stream to a third party.  It’s imperative for them to demonstrate that they will take good care of it and they need to provide a lot of value – to me – the user – in return.

Searching Your History

All three work as advertised.  They store your history and provide various ways to search it.  EgoArchive and InfoAxe provide tools for bookmarking stuff in your archive.  EgoArchive also provides sharing tools from within the archive.  EgoArchive actually stores an image of your page – which is what get’s shared.  While I thought this was kind of cool I didn’t find it very useful – it just seems to take up a lot of screen real-estate that I think would be better utilized with a denser presentation of the results.

In the end, none of them were what I was really looking for.  They made me realize I am looking for more than ‘just’ search.  I want a tool that is able to help with organizing the information as well – something more along the line of threading conversations in the email world.  In this sense, Google’s web history did the best job of providing a bit of structure to the data.  Not surprisingly their organization views ‘the search’ as the fundamental organizational construct.  I’m not convinced that’s really the way to think of a click-stream.

Asserting Their Presence

I found that InfoAxe took a number of liberties with my browser settings!  It took over my home page, without asking me.  The nerve!  I was very annoyed.  I removed it almost immediately. Given how much trust I gave them in the first place – here have my click history – I really needed them to be much more respectful about what they were doing to my browser.  I was left thinking: wow, if they’ll do that to my browser right in front of me what might they do with my data behind my back!

EgoArchive was more refined in this respect.  I’m not sure I really enjoyed the way it stuck itself in to the top of my Google search results.  That could use a little refinement.  I don’t like things ‘messing’ with my browser too much.

Google on the other hand almost disappears.  You have to go seek out your web history.  This doesn’t surprise me, since they are probably more interested in how my data helps them organized the world’s information than in how they can help me organize MY information.

Organizing My Information

I think the focus of existing web history tools is on ‘re-finding’.  This is a worthy objective, but seems to fall far short of the potential here.  What I’m ultimately looking for is a tool to help me organize all MY information (at least as it pertains to my wanderings around the web) – without requiring me to become a pedantic filer.  Because that’s just never going to happen!


Futzing with Internet Administration

Re-enabled the url.  Had to pay the tithe to WordPress!

Also, re-booting


iPhone: a great companion at home too

There is general agreement that 2009 was (finally!) the year of mobile.  And there are many predictions about how important location awareness is going to be in 2010.  Agree with all that and share in the excitement.

But the thing that surprises me about my iPhone is that it has become a great in-home companion for me.  It’s pretty much always by my side or in my pocket.  Here’s some of the things I do with it at home:

  1. It has replaced my watch, my alarm clock and my kitchen timer.  It’s easier to use for all these functions.  It automatically remembers to change time zones when I go from Edmonton to Vancouver.
  2. I use it as a remote to control my Macbook connected to our TV to watch programs I’ve downloaded from iTunes.
  3. I use i.TV to look at TV listings.  I look up the sad statistics on the Edmonton Oilers.  I still check to see when their next game is despite the apparent futility of it all.
  4. I check in on Twitter and Google Reader while having my morning coffee.
  5. I bought my wife a Kindle for Christmas.  This lead to me downloading the iPhone Kindle app.  Now I read books on it too – surprisingly good at this.
  6. I use Skype to make phone calls.  I can wander around the house and make a cup of coffee while on a call.  This is the way Skype was meant to be deployed  (And not to worry – I refrain from using the washroom.)
  7. I get directions to a place before I go out to it.
  8. I look stuff up.  Often.  Weather.  Stock prices.  What something is.  Where some place is.
  9. I listen to music on it (through one of those sound system docks) – most often with
  10. I send and receive email; update or check my schedule; see what’s happening on Facebook.

Let me know in the comments what else you do with your smart phone at home?  I know my son plays games on his while at home.  I do that sometimes as well – but to be honest it’s not a primary use case for me.

I’m thinking there is a lot of ‘untapped’ potential in the smart phone as an ‘in-home companion’.

Welcome to 2010.

Real-time Context Targeting

Targeting local advertising using the real-time context of local searchers is an effective alternative that overcomes the limitations inherent in simply advertising a local business as a potential alternative based on the category and location of the search.  In this post, I’ll describe what real-time context is, how it can be discovered and how models can be trained to target local advertising using this approach.

This post is part of the Improving Local Ad Performance series.  In The Challenge of Fine Segmentation in Local Advertising I discussed the challenges inherent in relying solely on a ‘like for like’ targeting approach in local search.  In a like for like targeting, local advertising is displayed by matching the category and location of the advertising business to the category and location of a search request.  In today’s post, we are going to discuss using Real-time Context Targeting as a complementary alternative to this approach.

What is Real-Time Context?

Let’s use the example of someone searching for a Taxi to call.  They might be looking up a number for a particular Taxi, looking for any old Taxi or even looking for the nearest available Taxi.  The following diagram illustrates various situations where a user might be looking for a Taxi:

The Real Time Context of Someone Looking for a Taxi

The Real Time Context of Someone Looking for a Taxi

The actual context of the user is hidden from us, but let’s assume for the moment we actually know it (or could at least take an educated guess at it).  In that case, we could advertise based on that context.  So, for example, if they are call a Taxi because they’ve lost their keys, we could advertise the Locksmith they will also need!

Why Not Just Advertise Taxis?

There are several reasons to consider advertising something other than just Taxi services:

  1. Other types of advertisers (a Locksmith for example) might be willing to pay you far more for a lead.  So, even if your response rate ended up lower than for a Taxi ad you might make more money because you’ve delivered more valuable leads.
  2. Some users may be loyal to a particular brand of Taxi or using a service that provides the nearest available Taxi.  As such, they aren’t really open to substitution – but may be more more open to something that meets another need in their context.
  3. You might not have Taxi ads in that locality.

If the advertising is relevant to the real-time context of the caller, they’ll appreciate and perhaps act upon them.

How Do You Determine Context?

Sounds great – but how do we discover the hidden context of our searcher?  We have to infer the hidden context from characteristics (or attributes) of  the search and current events.  Examples include:

  • time and date based attributes (time of day, day of week, weekday/weekend, holiday, seasons, etc.);
  • place attributes (requested location and current location of the searcher if known); and
  • real-time events such as weather, sporting events and cultural events.

In fact, by examining past search history (in a completely anonymous way that protects the privacy of individuals) and the historical event record we can apply machine learning algorithms to build models that recommend the best ads based on current events and the attributes of a local search.  An example of how we do this at Predictabuy is shown below:

Real-time context targeting of local advertising

Real-time context targeting of local advertising

What’s in the Event Stream?

The explosion of social sites and mobile usage exemplified by Twitter and Facebook provides a rich and evolving set of events that a context-driven local targeting engine can exploit.  As such, this approach will just get richer and more effective over time.  If you have a suggestion for events you think will be important in local advertising leave a comment and let me know.  I’d love to hear from you.

Learn More

For a free consultation on how you can use Real-time Context Targeting in your business contact me.

This post is part of an ongoing series on Improving Local Ad Performance.  Upcoming posts will cover the use of consumer behavior and preferences in the effective targeting of local advertisements.  To ensure you don’t miss any of the discussion:

The Challenge of Fine Segmentation in Local Advertising

This post is the first in a series on Improving Local Ad Performance.  My perspective is primarily that of local information publishers and application providers.  In this post I lay out one of the fundamental challenges of local advertising: the need to finely segment it by geography and business type.  I’m going to focus on local searches, but the principles apply to other types of local information and advertising as well.

Local Searches: Sliced Very Thinly

Local searches are highly targeted.  This makes  makes them both an advertiser’s biggest fantasy and their greatest nightmare.  It presents a number of unique challenges.

As a minimum, local searches are distributed across many different geographies and types of businesses — and this is only the tip of the iceberg since you can also take in to account the user’s context, behavior and preferences.

Local Searches are Thinly Sliced

Local Searches are Thinly Sliced

These thin slices have implications for both publishers and advertisers:

  1. Each category/locality combination receives a small percentage of all traffic.  So publishers need large volumes at a national level or they have to specialize in particular geographies, vertical categories or demographics.
  2. These highly targeted searches are often most meaningful to small and medium sized businesses serving the niche but acquiring the necessary mass of these smaller advertisers is extremely challenging.
  3. National or even regional advertisers have to find ways to make campaigns truly meaningful at a hyper-targeted level.

Like for Like Targeting Alone Won’t Get You There

Most people approach targeting of local advertising by having the advertiser define the category and location they want to target.  Then, the advertisement is presented when a user performs a search in that category and location.  This frequently takes the form of offering the user alternatives to their request.  I’m going to call this ‘like for like’ targeting.

While easy to understand, this approach has a number of lmitations.

In high value categories, demand exceeds supply.  Businesses in categories like Locksmiths or Attorneys are often willing to pay a large fee for a lead.  Unfortunately, searches in these categories are rare, so while the inventory is very valuable and sells quickly and at a premium price – you just don’t have that much of it!  In fact, as the diagram below illustrates – the value of a category (from an advertising perspective) has no relationship to the volume of searches it experiences!

Search Volumes and Value by Category

Search Volumes and Value by Category

Unless you have a huge number of advertisers, for the (vast?) majority of local searches you won’t have a like for like match on the basis of category and location.  At least not one that’s truly relevant.  Providing a user with alternatives that are too far away or always providing them with the same small number of national advertisers undermines the credibility of advertising suggestions.

And the flip-side of the above, is that for many truly local advertisers you won’t have enough traffic to give them a meaningful set of leads.

Finally, in many local search use cases, users aren’t open to substitution.  A true category search – where a user is  open to suggestion and recommendation (and thus relevant advertising) is a relatively small – albeit very valuable – part of a publisher’s search inventory.  Instead, the most frequent use cases result from a user trying to complete a transaction with a business they’ve already selected.  They are most often looking for a phone number or directions.  In these cases it can be better to provide them with an ad that complements their current choice and context rather than trying to get them to substitute their choice.

Tackling the Like for Like Challenge

There are several possible – largely complementary – ways to approach this problem.  I’ll be exploring these options in some detail in future blog posts as part of the Improving Local Ad Performance Series.  Follow me on Twitter, subscribe with an RSS reader or subscribe by email so you don’t miss any of the series.  A quick summary of some of the approaches:

  1. In addition to like for like targeting, target local advertising based on context, behavior and preferences.  With appropriate analysis and targeting models it is possible to deliver relevant and complementary advertising in a way that results in a better match between available inventory and available advertising.
  2. Focus your efforts on being the ‘go to’ destination for the higher value ‘category’ or ‘research’ type searches – either broadly or within verticals.  Yelp is an example of a company that has done this by focusing on creating a community of reviewers making it a destination for people seeking opinions.  The advertising Yelp provides is primarily of the ‘like for like’ type – which is appropriate given that most people viewing review pages are in fact open to suggestion.
  3. Participate in some sort of exchange or market where you can buy traffic (i.e. by using AdWords for example) or gain access to advertisers (i.e. by working with a Yellow Page publisher for example).
  4. Focus your resources from both a publication and advertising perspective on specific verticals.

The Challenge Becomes Even More Acute in Mobile

Increasingly, local searches are occurring on mobile devices.  On the one hand, mobile devices offer the promise of even richer context information (where you are right now).  On the other hand, the more limited screen real-estate means that providing the most meaningful suggestions (or advertisements) becomes even more critical.

This post is part of a series on Improving Local Ad Performance.  To receive future installments you can:

Simple Product, Flat Fee, Proven Performance

Simple product, flat fee, proven performance – those are the ingredients for a successful local advertising offering to small and medium sized businesses.  Google’s new Local Listing Ads seem to have the right ingredients.  There are lessons here for all local advertisers.

Simple Product

Small business owners are busy running their business.  They don’t have the time or inclination to figure out complex products.

In Google’s case the offering is simple to set-up and easy to understand.  To set-up up local listing ads, you just have to:

  1. Claim and verify your Google listing (a good idea any way).
  2. Select your landing page – which defaults to a very functional Place Page provided by Google (so you can almost ignore this step).
  3. Select the categories where you want the ad to appear.

Google then creates your ad automatically (based on the information in your listing) and presents it based on the category  a user is searching, the location where they are searching and the location of your business.  All optimization is performed by Google.  There are no controls to tweak and monitor.  The ads automatically include a tracking number (more on this below)

Flat Fee

The business owner pays a flat monthly fee which is apparently based on their location and the categories they’ve targeted.  There is no bidding – it’s no haggle-free pricing.

Oh – and the first month is free.

Proven Performance

Google provides detailed information through Local Business Center that includes:

  1. How many people saw your ad.
  2. How many clicked on it.
  3. How many got directions to your business.
  4. How many people called your business.

And – whenever you receive a call you get a whisper telling you ‘this call brought to you by Google’.

The service is fully transparent.  At the end of the first Free month a business owner will easily be able to assess whether or not the service is providing value to them for the fee they are paying.

Applying the Recipe

All providers of local advertising can follow the same recipe:

Simple Product – This has always been a strength of traditional media like the print yellow pages.  People understand how the product works.  Someone visits you in person to set the product up!  But many digital offerings fall short by failing to ensure a functional landing page is used.  Google has addressed this with their Place Pages which are designed for optimization.  A landing page is an integral part of a complete digital solution – without one there are a lot of wasted clicks.

Flat Fee – I’ve said this many times.  Small businesses want simple pricing – combined with proven, transparent performance.  People too often link the idea of performance driven advertising with variable, performance driven pricing.  This just scares a lot of small business people.

Proven Performance – This is the most important part: you have to deliver the leads to the merchants and PROVE that you’ve delivered those leads.  Google’s service is fully transparent.  As a merchant you don’t control where and when you ad get’s placed, but you do know how well it’s performing and can choose to carry on or not.  As I’ve written before, all forms of advertising should be tracked – including print media.  Imagine a small business owner hearing ‘this call brought to you by the print yellow pages’ every time someone called a number from the book.  That would prove value in the media to them.

More on Local Listing Ads from Mike Blumenthal and Greg Sterling.

Want a review of your local advertising product  strategy?   Contact me at eric AT

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