Big Brands and Adware

I’ve discussed before how privacy/spyware concerns are going to restrict behavioral targeting related spending by big, well known brands.

This might be the first step in that process. From the article:

THE FEDERAL TRADE COMMISSION’S efforts against adware have so far focused on the supply side by filing lawsuits against companies that unlawfully install ad-serving software. Now, one agency commissioner says it might be time to target demand, by naming the big brands that use adware to market their products.

“A little shaming here might go a long way towards protecting consumers’ safety and privacy,” said the FTC’s Jonathan Leibowitz

It is important to note that this effort is not just associated with Spyware, but with any behavioral targeting technology:

Walter Mossberg, tech columnist for The Wall Street Journal ,went even further — condemning not just adware and spyware, but also cookies placed on consumers’ computers by ad-serving and analytics companies that he said “are under the delusion that it’s okay to force their way into our computers for advertising, marketing and research purposes.”

February 10, 2006 at 2:53 pm Leave a comment

Blue Nile and Paid Search

What do Blue Nile and FTD have in common?

Both have recently complained very publicly – during earnings calls in the last several weeks –  about the rise in online marketing costs – especially paid search. From their conference call (courtesy of Seeking Alpha’s transcript):

Second, during December, we saw extremely aggressive increases in the cost of online advertising. Our cost per click on Google, for example, rose by over 50% from a year earlier. While the cost of online marketing grew significantly in Q4, we remain disciplined in our spending in order to maintain profitability on new customers rather than to chase unprofitable growth, as some of our competitors have done.

Our marketing efforts during the fourth quarter were skewed toward search engine advertising. Given our experience over the past few years with paid search, this seemed like a prudent decision entering the quarter. However, with increased costs for paid search in Q4, we were unable to drive as much profitable traffic as we would have expected. Given these results, we will be looking to broaden our marketing efforts beyond search in the future. As we seek alternative marketing vehicles to complement our efforts in paid search, I would expect growth to be relatively conservative as we ramp our efforts toward broadening our marketing outreach.  

Two points start to make a trend. It is clear, as Nick Carr has said, that competition is starting to hurt the paid search market. Keyword prices are clearly going up, at least in a few areas (diamonds, jewels, flowers…) people are starting to get hurt by it, and are talking about moving dollars away. That will bring keyword prices down again, but at the expense of paid search revenues.

 

UPDATE:

I just got to the Q&A part of the transcript – blogged too quickly – and saw this very interesting explanation of the paid search dynamics. From the same source:

As far as who is out there bidding, it’s slightly different in Q4 as opposed to Q1. I think in Q4, you asked about Amazon. We haven’t seen them at all in the online search market. We saw a couple larger players; I think Zales was pretty aggressive, Macy’s was pretty aggressive. And then we see just a tremendous number of small players, and these are very small companies. And they don’t play for very long. They will come into search for a week or a couple of weeks. And I think there’s just a lot of, and then I think they burn through their budget fairly quickly and fall off the screen. But we just saw a lot of those types of players coming out. And then, just in Q1, we’re seeing some odd search behavior. A couple weeks back, you know I think, if anything, this is the time that there’s a little bit too much aggressiveness in search. A couple of weeks back, we saw MSN Shopping appear on Google. And that’s in our category; it’s also in a number of other categories. MSN Shopping began bidding to take customers from Google over to MSN Shopping. And for those of you who understand the cost per click on a Google, which is very targeted, versus a shopping channel, those economics are not going to make sense. So we see things like that, and we just feel like there’s something going on here; it’s a little too frothy.

As far as conversion rates, we continue to be able to convert quite well when we bring people in. I think, to some extent, there may be some downward pressure, and the conversion from every single channel is different. If you look at our overall conversion rate in Q4 versus last year, the conversion was quite good. But within channels it will differ. Within search, what we’re seeing, a slight downward pressure on the value of any customer coming out of search, if that makes sense. If you look at, the measures we’re looking at is revenue per visitor or gross margin per visitor over time, and then isolating that down to a single channel. So, for those of you don’t follow the search market, as well, the way as a merchant you really try to understand your numbers is look at the gross margin or contribution margin per customer coming off the flow of traffic, and you simply weigh that against the price to acquire those customers. And as you go up higher in search, you’re trading off perhaps more volume from higher placement with lower profitability from the stream of traffic.

So an important matter is how well you can convert. Over time from search, we see slight declines, and it’s not tremendous but slight declines in the conversion rate. I think, to some extent, that has to do with the search engines placing more ads. So, when you went to a search term a year ago versus going to it today, you are going to see more paid search placements today than you did a year ago. And as there’s more people there competing for the same traffic, if one consumer is shopping, so if you’re shopping for a plasma TV, you are probably going to go to many merchants, or at least a handful of merchants, before you make your purchase. And so you will be clicking on multiple ones of those, but only buying one plasma screen. And the more paid placements there are, probably the more click-throughs you’re going to have.

So what that results in for merchants is downward pressure on the value of those customers. So just as bidding is going up, you’re seeing downward pressure in conversion. Again, this points to our desire in the channel to be less aggressive with our bidding. And if that means giving up some volume to other people who perhaps are not measuring that and doing that ROI calculation, as well, we will do that until it rationalizes somewhat.

February 9, 2006 at 4:13 am Leave a comment

Random Google Speculation

Google-mania may have subsided a bit with their recent earnings announcement, but Google Conquers the World talk is still alive and well.

Case in point, all the recent talk about Google creating a “private internet“. The rumors are based on, in part, Google job postings for “Strategic Negotiators” for dark fiber. (Actually, these ads are not new – they have advertised for these positions for a while. But they caught people’s attention again).

The word on the street, if I understand it correctly, is that this Google Internet would be more efficient, etc, etc, than the existing internet. People would be able to access it via a Google Cube. Content providers who are locked out of the system are in big trouble. Free speech is dead, Google is world government and censor, Peace reigns on… ok, take a deep breath.

I am going to go out on a limb here and suggest that all these reports are wrong. It doesn’t make much sense for Google to create a real parallel but closed universe.
However, there is one option that makes a lot of sense to me. Google is planning to create a monster Content Delivery Network (CDN). These are companies that route content more efficiently through internet. They set up data centers at different nodes, cache content at these centers (typically client content), and then deliver it when it is requested from a website. There are bandwidth savings, server load balancing benefits, and the overall speed and quality of the consumer experience is vastly improved. Akamai is the creator and leader in this space.

So, why do I think this is what Google plans to do? Several reasons:

  1. CDN’s are all about math. Akamai was founded by an MIT math prof. The best routing algorithms go a long way. This is surely a good fit for the Googlers, who are similarly all about math.
  2. CDN’s also rely on great server management skills – which Google has in abundance. In addition, CDN’s need content caching and delivery skill. Again, Google already caches and serves a ton of web content
  3. Akamai has great Margins – i.e., this is unlikely to dilute the top line profitability of Google – in fact, it might add to it. Akamai’s Gross Margins are 87.4%. Very high. Google’s are 61.9%. Pre-Tax Margins are also high in both cases – 24% for Akamai, 35% for Google.
  4. CDN’s are very very useful when delivering large files – such as media files (Google Video, Google Music?)
  5. Adding a CDN service is a perfect cross-selling opportunity for Google’s contextual and branded advertising services (in both directions). It is the same customer base – large content providers. Google would have easy access to the content. It can greatly help localization (as you are serving content from a relatively local server). And both can use pay-per-click and value-based selling models.

Granted, I have no idea if this is what Google plans. But I think it makes more sense than most anything I have heard to date. It uses datacenters and fiber – giving the Strategic Negotiator something to do. It makes sense financially. It makes sense from a customer standpoint. And it is all about math. Frankly, the last part might be the most important. Before Google, the internet math whizzes lived at Akamai.

That said, I also thought that Google was raising the $4bn through their secondary offering in part to buy Akamai. That hasn’t happened yet. So I could be completely off my rocker ;)

February 8, 2006 at 6:00 pm 1 comment

Blogging

Sorry, everyone, for not posting more. We’ve been heads down trying to push the technology forward. Should be up for air soon.

To those who have signed up for the beta, thank you! I will start sending out periodic email updates to let you know as the beta date approaches, but rest assured we haven’t forgotten you.

February 8, 2006 at 5:24 pm Leave a comment

Customer relationships in a beta world

Random thought in process, would love outside perspective…

I may be late to the game here, but I’ve noticed recently an increase in applications processes for participation in beta programs. For example, to join AdSense for feeds, you have to apply. To join the Tivo ipod/PSP download beta, you have to apply. To become a beta tester for SlingBox, you had to apply (before they launched).

I understand the need to find qualified people to be your beta testers. And there is nothing new about the practice of beta testing: Consumer product companies regular launch products in test markets. Films often open in “limited release”. But the difference is that the restrictions in those cases are not personal – you are not turning down someone who is paying you $12.95 a month, for example.

It seems that with these programs, companies are taking their customer base for granted. It sounds like a great idea to build buzz by having a limited, hard to get into program – the “I wouldn’t want to be a member of a club that wanted me as a member” school of marketing. But, when you say no to a current or future customer, you inevitably, I think, hurt that customer relationship and risk an “if you don’t want me, I don’t want you” backlash. Maybe not a big one to start. But when customers are your biggest asset, it is worth asking if you want any damage at all.

January 26, 2006 at 11:28 pm Leave a comment

Significant Business Risk

More facts and fun about the privacy issue facing Google et al – from MediaPost’s Just an Online Minute:

For Google, fallout from the government attempt to subpoena the company’s records isn’t likely to end any time soon.

For now, the government is seeking only a list of 1 million Web sites and records of searches done in a one-week period. And, despite some muddled news reports, the feds aren’t seeking this information as part of an effort against “child pornography.” Instead, the government wants to prove that minors have easy access to online porn–though why the feds think they need Google’s help with this remains mystifying.

Even though the government isn’t seeking any personally identifiable information, the public at large has grown concerned–apparently because people are just now realizing that companies like Google store searches.

A recent survey by the Ponemon Institute found that 89 percent of Google users believe their Web searches are private. What’s more, 62 percent said that if Google released information about their Web searches to the government, they would stop using Google. For the report, Ponemon surveyed more than 1,000 Web users this weekend.

Those numbers alone show that Google–not to mention the rest of the search industry–will soon face a monumental crisis unless the public is reassured that the feds aren’t going to get their hands on information that will link people with their Web searches.

Don’t want to beat a dead horse here, but I think this will emerge as a Significant Business Risk to Google. Not because consumers will stop using it – people say all sorts of things in surveys the never actually do in practice, and there are numerous ways to word questions to get great headlines the next day.

But, as I have written before, the threat, compounded the longer the bad press continues, is that the brand advertisers, i.e., the growth engine, will start avoiding the medium.

January 26, 2006 at 8:56 pm Leave a comment

Stop Badware

From today’s SJ Mercury News:

A coalition of academics, consumer advocates and technology firms is taking aim at malicious software, launching a site today that it hopes will help protect consumers and place software makers under the harsh glare of scrutiny.

The Stop Badware Coalition said it intends to shine a spotlight on companies that trick Internet users into downloading programs that steal personal information, launch unwanted ads and spread computer viruses.

The effort is being run by Harvard University’s Berkman Center and the Oxford Internet Institute, with help from Consumer Reports. Technology companies Google, Lenovo and Sun Microsystems are providing undisclosed funding for the multi-year, multimillion-dollar project.

“I wish we were getting a handle on this problem, but I think it’s pretty substantial,” said Vint Cerf, Google’s Internet evangelist, about the malicious software problem. “There’s an uneasy feeling that going online is risky.”

Check them out at www.stopbadware.org.

January 26, 2006 at 4:21 pm Leave a comment

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