Archive for September, 2009

Google’s Place Pages are Designed for Optimization

Google’s new Place Pages are designed for optimization which potentially makes them great landing pages.  Is Google positioning itself to simplify advertising for local businesses?

The downfall of most SEM offers to local merchants is that they deliver lots of clicks but few conversions.  That’s because too often nobody is optimizing the landing page (or has even defined what a conversion is).  Google has now put themselves in a position to address that by allowing the landing page to be optimized.  They could even have merchants use Google Voice if they want to optimize to receive calls.

What Does Designed for Optimization Mean

Recently I wrote in Picking Winners about the use of controlled experiments and A/B testing to optimize website performance.  Perhaps the most widely known application of this principle is the optimization of website landing pages using tools like Google Website Optimizer.

The basic idea in landing page optimization is to empirically test the performance of several different design options against some specified conversion goal.  For example, if your goal is to get people to ‘sign-up’ for something you’d test different page designs and see which one performed best.

If you want to do this easily – and especially if you want to do it using some automated process – you need to adopt a web page design that is amenable to such an approach.  Andrew Chen has written a great post on keeping the design consistent during A/B testing.  He says that the secret is to create an open design – and gives Amazon’s home page as a classic example.

Well, it turns out that Google’s Place Pages are another excellent example of open design that allows automated optimization.  Have a look at one of the example pages Google highlighted:

Google Place Page Showing Block Structure

Google Place Page Showing Block Structure

As shown above, the page is broken in to two columns and the content is organized in to various blocks.  This makes it easy for an automated process to vary both the placement and size of each of the blocks and the content shown within each block.  What’s more, you can select and optimize the look of the page based on where the traffic is coming from – varying the look and feel of the page based on how the user got there.  So, if you arrived at this page as a result of a search for ‘Tartine Bakery reviews’ the ‘review block’ might be much more prominently displayed.

The fact the pages are well suited for optimization doesn’t necessarily mean all that much.  Google is well known for being an A/B testing fanatic.  So, this may just reflect a desire to be able to more easily optimize how information is presented to users.

But it could also be a first step towards something more…

Could Google Try to Close The Optimization Gap?

Optimizing landing pages is a fairly well understood process.  Unfortunately, it’s a process that few smaller businesses have the time and expertise to perform.  So, it doesn’t get done.  And the end result is that small businesses don’t see the expected results from clicks and become discouraged.

But now Google has designed a landing page that it’s possible for a machine to optimize.

Imagine a tool that allows a local business to set up an Adwords campaign that automatically creates and tests landing pages.  The tool might suggest appropriate keyword alternatives along with appropriate landing pages and then start running the alternatives and select the combinations that deliver the best ROI.  All with minimal involvement from the business owner.  Google certainly has the scale and machine learning expertise to accomplish something like this.

What’s Missing

For one, Google would need local merchant’s to define some sort of ‘conversion event’.  This is conceptually as easy as defining a new ‘block type’ that will appear on the landing page and be optimized.  For example, a restaurant might view a phone call or an Open Table registration as a conversion event.  If it’s a phone call, I imagine the merchant could be encouraged to use Google Voice to provide a closed loop analysis of the conversion event.

Perhaps more likely than having individual merchants doing this (at least in all cases) would be a small army of SEO and SEM experts doing it on the businesses behalf – but within a closed looped system managed by Google.  Google could potentially create a whole new eco-system.

Updated (September 28, 2009): Lots of concern around a core issue of whether these pages are being indexed.  In fact, Google representatives have weighed in the comments on posts by Erin Schonfeld at Techcrunch, Greg Sterling and Mike Blumenthal.   Google is confirming that these new pages won’t be indexed directly, but they may be indexed if they are referred to by other sites.

They probably didn’t want to muddy the issue, but I couldn’t help but notice that they did NOT comment on my thesis about using these pages as landing pages!

Why I Like Adobe’s Purchase of Omniture

Ok, I know the folks at Adobe (yeah the Photoshop people) and Omniture (web analytics and optimization geeks) have been waiting for me to pronounce on their deal.  After mulling it over a bit, I’ve decided that it is good.

Judging from the twitter chatter, some found it perplexing.  And apparently the market didn’t much like it either.

I like it because it recognizes that the creation of web content should be done hand in hand with activities like Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM) and the tools used to the analyze and measure the effectiveness of a web-site.  In today’s world, there are those who create websites and those who do SEO and SEM – and they are often blissfully unaware of each other.  That’s unfortunate given that the whole point of a website is to engage people and accomplish some commercial goal.

For a long time, the technical hurdles associated with the mechanics of creating a website have dominated the equation.  But that continues to get easier – as it should.  So rather than focus on the mechanics, you can naturally expect people to start thinking more about how to use a website as a truly effective tool.  Which should lead you to think about how you are going to structure and evaluate the content.

So, I can see Adobe creating entire new classes of tools where the very way you think about and create web pages becomes much more oriented towards optimizing and measuring the content.  For example, you might have a tool where the first thing you do for a new page is define the ‘objective’ for it (i.e. this page is intended to get people to register for the site).   From this objective you would then have tools that would advise you on ‘best practices’ for achieving it.  You would design the page from the get go to evaluate several alternatives.  The code needed to manage this would just disappear in to the woodwork.  The tools required to manage the revision of various content elements are part of the tool-set.

And there is potentially a very nice network effect.  The more people use your tools to create pages and analyze them the more data you (can potentially) collect on what works and what doesn’t.  This means you can do a better job of pro-actively advising people on what they should and shouldn’t do.  This allows the creative people to spend more time exploring new things that might work rather than wasting their time on things that are pretty unlikely to work.

Think of it as ‘objective driven design’.  I’m gonna let Adobe use that phrase if they like.

Of course, all that’s easy when you say it fast.  And difficult to execute in practice.  And I’ve glossed over at least one really important point.  What one means by an ‘effective’ web-site is a moving target.  Changes like social media and real-time media – not to mention changes in what people expect or want – mean that the very definition of ‘well designed’ is always shifting.

But that just makes it an interesting problem worth tackling.  Time will tell.

Picking Winners

Web applications allow us to quickly try out new features, presentations and approaches.  But people are terrible at predicting which changes are beneficial and which ones are neutral or even harmful.  That’s one reason why a systematic approach to the analysis and optimization of changes through controlled experimentation is important.

At it’s simplest, controlled experimentation is just trying different approaches to a problem (which can be as simple as the color used on a web page) and measuring how user’s respond to these changes.

The paper “Online Experimentation at Microsoft” (PDF) was presented at KDD 2009 and provides a great overview with many concrete examples of actual experiments run at Microsoft.  Here’s one example:

The MSN Real Estate site (http://realestate.msn.com) wanted to test different designs for their “Find a home” widget. Visitors to this widget were sent to Microsoft partner sites from which MSN Real estate earns a referral fee. Six different designs, including the incumbent, were tested.
treatmentsA “contest” was run by Zaaz, the company that built the creative  designs, prior to running an experiment with each person guessing  which variant will win.  Only three out of 21 people guessed the winner…

The winner, Treatment 5, increased revenues from referrals by almost 10% (due to increased clickthrough).

In general, the paper documents that even experienced experts can only pick the winners less than 1/3 of the time.  Meaning, the other 2/3 of the time they are recommending changes that are at best neutral or at worst actually harmful.

This is a non-technical paper that provides motivation for taking an experimental approach.  They also describe the many cultural barriers they encountered at Microsoft.  Overall, a very good read.  Highly recommended.

Of course, they recommend a very sophisticated approach.  But the same principles apply in a broad range of situations.  One common activity that falls in to this category is the optimization of landing pages for SEM and SEO efforts.  In these situations you are usually assisted by tools that make it easy to get the statistical analysis right.

The take home message is that successful companies are learning how to fail fast forward rather than getting stuck in endless rounds of paralysis and internal arguments.  Real-world experimentation can be the final arbiter.

via Greg Linden

Apple: Purveyor of Remote Controls for Our Lives

Last week Apple marched on announcing price reductions across the iPod line and various new features.  The highlight was the addition of a camera and FM radio to the iPod Nano.  They high-lighted the importance of the iPod Touch (an iPhone without the phone) as a gaming platform.  The technocrati responded with a collective yawn — since there wasn’t anything sensational announced.

overview_hero1_20090909

To me it seemed like a well executed release of incremental products as part of a clear long-term strategy: Apple wants to the the dominant supplier of the remote controls for our lives.

Mobile devices allow us to interact with the virtual world while simultaneously interacting in the real world.  In fact, with the coming explosion of Augmented Reality applications – the line between the real world and the virtual one is becoming increasingly blurred.  Mobile devices allow us to consume media, produce media and communicate with people.

In Apple’s case, the original iPod focused on the consumption side of the equation – allowing us to consume first music, then videos.  The ability to further consume media has been expanded to include games and the internet.  What’s more, many applications are creating brand new categories of things for us to consume – like specialized maps and services such as navigation.

Of course, the iPhone also supports the creation of media and communication in many different ways.  Some of these – such as voice and text – are traditional mobile features – while others are again enabled by the App eco-system – think Facebook and Skype.

The iPhone is the all-singing, all-dancing remote for our lives, followed closely by the iPod touch.  But these devices are expensive — so Apple has to provide less capable devices at other price points – at least for the time being.  The thing about technology is that it’s only a matter of time before iPhone capabilities become available at truly mainstream prices.

So, the significance of the new iPod Nano is simply that Apple has expanded this mass market device into one that is now capable of capturing and sharing media as well as consuming it.  In some ways, this can be seen as a pragmatic interim step.  One which extends Apple’s reach as the purveyor of remote controls while holding firm on a well understood price point.

I sometimes wonder why Apple doesn’t introduce more of an ‘entry-level’ iPhone.  I think perhaps the answer is that they don’t have to — they simply have to wait for the economics of silicon to get there instead.  When the time comes, people will gladly ditch their cell phones for a shiny new remote control for their lives.  In the mean time, they can satisfy themselves with Apple’s partial remotes.

A Three Hour Tour…

Ok, so I took off two weeks and disappeared for several months.  Reminds me of Gilligan’s Island.  Back now.

cast-of-gilligans-island


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