SEO News

If you think this June issue of SEO News will only be about the impact of Google’s Mobile Index, think again. We prefer to wait a bit on that. As the summer begins, we are therefore focusing on the return of a powerful tool, the prerequisites for good SEO work, and an industry in the throes of fake news.

1) The return of Google image search

The image bubble has burst. After a long legal dispute with the image agency Getty Images, Google decided to make some changes to its popular image search function. How positively these changes have affected website operators can be seen from a survey by the US search expert Anthony Mueller. But let’s start from the beginning. In January 2013, Google changed the way its image search function worked so that every user could directly view and download found images. A key aspect of this was that the files were buffered on the servers of the search engine, where users could access them with the ‘View Image’ button. As a consequence, clicks on the sites of content providers and rights holders nearly vanished and systematic traffic from image searches plummeted by more than 70 per cent in some cases. This development was especially perilous for websites that focus on visual impact for inspiration, such as fashion or furniture merchants, and had put a lot of effort into optimising their image content. Particularly for e-commerce operators, this collapse in traffic also meant a collapse in turnover. Three years later, the renowned Getty Images agency submitted a competitiveness complaint to the European Commission, apparently hoping that ‘Old Europe’ would again set things right. Getty’s efforts were rewarded, with the result that the ‘View Image’ button disappeared from Google image search in early 2018. Interested users had to visit the original sites to access the original files. That stimulated Mueller, the well-connected search expert, to ask some 60 large enterprises worldwide, if after nearly six months following the change, they had seen any impact in their website traffic. The result was that on average, visits from Google image search have risen by 37 per cent. Although the figures for impressions and ranking positions in image search have remained relatively stable, click-throughs have risen dramatically with all of the surveyed enterprises. The survey also indicates that conversions from image searches have grown by about 10 per cent. Of course, savvy users can still switch to other search engines, such as Microsoft’s Bing or Duck Go. Those two search engines never got rid of direct access to image files. However, due to Google’s market power this is exactly the right time to give new priority to the optimisation of image content and exploit the new growth potential, according to the author. Presently text search is still the dominant method for acquiring information. However, there are signs of a paradigm shift to visual search, particularly in retail.

2) Getting better results with smart SEO goals

Thanks to the Internet, contacts and advertising impact are now more measurable than ever before. Although the digital revolution in advertising is no longer in its infancy, it has by no means reached the end of its evolution. With digital campaigns, it is easy to define suitable key figures to measure impact and effectiveness, and it is not technically difficult to obtain corresponding campaign data. However, defining goals for search engine optimisation is not so easy. For example, Google stopped offering keyword-level performance data for systematic searches many years ago. Marketing managers and SEO experts are therefore repeatedly confronted with the challenge of developing an SEO KPI concept that visualises optimisation results and, above all, gets the company’s budget controller onside for professional SEO work. For this reason, search guru Rand Fishkin has put together some rules for formulating the goals of SEO activities, which are interesting to advertisers and enterprises alike. According to Fishkin, the main rule is that the business goals must form the basis for the SEO concept. The next step is to break down these higher-level expectations, which are usually financial, into marketing goals – for example, by defining requirements for various communication channels along the customer journey. The actual SEO goals come into view only after this point, and they can be mapped out in the last step using just six metrics. These KPIs are ranking positions, visitors from systematic searches (divided into brand searches and generic search objectives), enterprise representation with various hits on the results page of a search term, search volume, link quality and quantity, and direct traffic from link referrals. Fishkin checks his concept against two different example customers. For example, a pure online mail-order shoe seller has a fairly simple business goal: boosting turnover by 30 per cent in the core target group. In Fishkin’s view, the next step is to specify in the marketing plan that this growth will be generated by a high probability of conversions at the end of the customer journey. From that you can derive an SEO goal of 70 per cent growth in systematic traffic. In order to achieve this goal, you then adopt and carry out implementable SEO measures. For the contrasting scenario of local SEO without reference to e-commerce, Fishkin’s example is a theatre that wants to draw more visitors from the surrounding area. In this case the regions where the target audience should be addressed are defined in the marketing plan. The SEO plan then consists of setting up local landing pages, utilising theatre reviews and blogs, and other content-related and locally driven measures. The advantage of this sort of top-down approach is the alignment of individual SEO measures, which are often difficult to grasp, to the overall aims of the organisation. According to Fishkin, the rewards are higher esteem and faster implementation of the laborious SEO work.

3) Fake news threatens the existence of the SEO industry

Did you get a shock when you read this heading? That’s exactly what we wanted, in order to get your attention. Of course, you rarely see such highly charged headings on SEO blogs, but competition in the IT sector does not spare the search industry. Every year we hear that SEO is dead, but supply and demand for optimisation services have growing steadily for more than 15 years. A large part of that is doubtless due to the intensive PR activities of the parties concerned. Starting as the hobby of a few individuals, over the course of time search engine optimisation has developed into specialised agencies and migrated to in-house teams of enterprises. Along the way there has been continual testing, experimentation and comparison, SEO expertise has been constantly expanded, and above all a lot has been written about it. SEO blogs therefore serve on the one hand as an inexhaustible source of information – a sort of global treasure of SEO experience, forming the basis for success. On the other hand, postings on search topics are also a form of self-advertising and customer acquisition for service providers and agencies. John Mueller, the well known Senior Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google, has now criticised some SEO blogs. He claims that some of them use postings as click bait. That all started with a report on an alleged bug in an SEO plugin for WordPress. In the course of the discussion about the tool, information was presented in abridged form on some SEO sites and important statements by John Mueller on behalf of Google were not passed on. He is now saying that postings should pay attention to all aspects of complex search topics. What matters is to create long-term value with balanced reporting. People should resist the temptation to get quick clicks. According to Mueller, the goal should be to convey knowledge. It is clear that even the search scene cannot evade the grasp of digital attention. It looks like speed has become a goal in itself, and it is assumed that online readers no longer have time to pay attention to the details. In this way our own methods endanger the industry’s collective wealth of experience. In an increasingly complex search world, it is particularly important to not lose sight of the details, and we have to take the time for a thorough treatment of each topic. For example, the threat to the existence of our democracy from the SEO activities of Russian troll farms is a topic that still needs a thorough treatment.

Programmatic Advertising

Programmatic advertising (PA) is a multi-faceted term. Many market players use it as a buzzword, a label for the hype that has at times raised very high expectations among lots of market players, especially advertising customers. Others frequently use PA as a synonym for automation projects that are several years overdue, especially in so-called classic media, but in which nothing is “programmatic”. At mediascale, we generally define programmatic advertising as data-driven media-buying and as a process we are only just beginning.

Therefore, the disappointment that may have occurred with one or other advertisers is not a fundamental issue for programmatic advertising. Rather, it should be an incentive to take programmatic to the next level: on the one hand, by rethinking the set-up of service providers and technology; on the other, individual expectations should be reasonably calibrated.

In recent years, it has mainly been venture capital-financed players, who wanted to be part of the media value chain, who have fuelled the programmatic hype starting from their own interests, which has led to high expectations. And of course they have claimed “their” part of the supply chain. But those who worked more intensively with the market knew that the quantity and quality of the available profile data for programmatic campaigns is limited. However, only good data can increase the efficiency of campaigns significantly enough so that the additional costs for the additional members of the value chain are reintegrated. A possible disappointment was thus an announcement or based on unrealistic expectations.

In many conversations with our customers, we have realistically presented both the possibilities as well as the limits of data-driven advertising in order to rule out exaggerated expectations of PA from the outset. In doing so, the following assumptions were made, which our customers, sometimes against their initial will, have been getting along well with so far:

  • Programmatic advertising is not a new channel with completely different rules to traditional display business. Also when auctioned and backed by data, a content ad remains a content ad and will not develop the advertising impact of an instream pre-roll large format
  • Meaningful, validated data is the indispensable basis for programmatic advertising. Here it is important to look carefully and carry out comprehensive auditing of the available data offers. At first glance, the data market in DMPs seems expansive. But data segments that deliver what they promise (delivering a corresponding uplift to campaigns) are by no means abundant. And they have their price.
  • An impression that cannot be assigned to valuable data should not be bought programmatically. As meaningful as it is to uniformly track all advertising contacts and accumulate all campaigns and pseudonymous profile data in one system, it makes little sense to put untargeted campaign volume into systems just to have bought it “programmatically”. This results in costs and technical performance losses that are not offset by financial added value.
  • The open market, open to all, originally proclaimed by many to be programmatic’s central promise of salvation, has created more problems than it solves, as it has also opened up the market to a plethora of dubious players. The efforts of the large, open sell-side platforms to push the black sheep out are commendable, but unfortunately not always successful. That is why we only buy inventories that we can thoroughly test, both technically and commercially. Furthermore, whenever possible, we buy from partners (often in private marketplaces) that we know and have established business relationships with – including any sanction options which may be necessary in the interest of the customer in an emergency.
  • And we’re not forgetting the creation: What use is the most sophisticated planning on a profile basis, if only one means of advertising is available? That’s why data driven creativity is, in our view, the indispensable fourth pillar of programmatic advertising – alongside technology, media space and data.

Today, programmatic has already caused major changes in the digital media business. But we are sure that this transformation process is far from finished yet. And it will encompass more and more media types in the future: TV, out-of-home, audio, cinema and eventually also print. In five years at the latest, we will be able to plan, book and control more and more channels via programmatic. In addition, people’s media use is evolving, new, relevant platforms are being created at ever-increasing speed, and data protection requirements also require fundamental and sometimes new solutions. All these challenges keep us busy and agile. Staying at the current level of development is not a solution. Particularly as we are just scratching the surface with programmatic.

This article was first published in adzine.

Amazon Echo Voice Search

What voice internet means for the future of digital marketing

The screenless internet: A bold prediction for the future

At the end of 2016, Gartner published a bold prediction: by 2020 30% of web browsing sessions would be done without a screen. The main driver behind this push into a screenless future would be young and tech savvy target groups fully embracing digital assistants like Siri and Google assistant on mobile, Microsoft’s Cortana and Amazon’s Echo.

While 30% still feels slightly optimistic mid 2018, the vision of an increasingly screenless internet becomes more and more realistic every day. The adoption rate of smart speakers 3 years after launch is outpacing the smartphone adoption rate in the United States. And what’s maybe most surprising, it isn’t only the young early adopter crowd that is behind this success story, but parents and families. Interacting with technology seamlessly and naturally through conversation is making digital services more attractive to a wider range of consumers.

The new ubiquity of voice assistants

And it isn’t only stationary smart speakers that are growing in usage and capability, every major smartphone features its own digital assistant and consumers can interact with their TVs and cars through voice as well. The major tech players are investing massively in the field and within the next few years every electronic device we put in our homes, carry with us or wear, will be voice-capable.

So, have we finally reached peak mobile and can finally walk the earth with our chins held high again, freed from the chains of our smartphone screens? Well, not so fast.
There’s one issue many digital assistants still face, and let’s be perfectly honest here: despite being labeled “smart” they are still pretty dumb.

Computer speech recognition has reached human level accuracy through advancements in artificial intelligence and machine learning. But just because the machine now understands us perfectly, it isn’t necessarily capable of answering in an equally meaningful way and a lot of voice apps and services are still severely lacking. Designing better voice services and communicating with consumers is a big challenge, especially in marketing.

Peak mobile and “voice first” as the new mantra for marketing

Ever since the launch of the original iPhone in 2007 and the smartphone boom that followed, “mobile first” has been marketing’s mantra. Transforming every service and touchpoint from a desktop computer to a smaller screen and adapting to an entirely new usage situation on the go was a challenge. And even 10 years later, a lot of companies still struggle with certain aspects of the mobile revolution.

The rising popularity of video advertising on the web certainly helped ironing out many issues in terms of classic advertising. After all a pre-roll ad on a smartphone screen catches at least as much attention as it does in a browser. We figured out how to design apps, websites and shops for mobile, reduced complexity and shifted user experiences towards a new ecosystem. But this mostly worked by taking the visual assets representing our brands and services and making them smaller and touch capable.

Brand building in a post-screen digital world

With voice, this becomes a whole new struggle. We have to reinvent how brands speak to their consumers. Literally. And this time without the training wheels of established visual assets. At this year’s SXSW, Chris Ferrel of the Richards Group gave a great talk on this topic and one of his slides has been on my mind ever since: The visual web was about how your brand looks. The voice web is about how your brand looks at the world.

In recent decades, radio advertising has mostly been reduced to a push-to-store vehicle. Loud, obnoxious, and annoying the consumers just long enough, that visiting a store on their way home from work became a more attractive perspective, than listening to any more radio ads.

On the screenless internet, we could see a renaissance of the long-lost art of audio branding. A lot of podcast advertising is already moving in this direction, although there it is mostly carried by the personalities of the hosts. Turning brands into these kinds of personalities should have priority.

The challenges of voice search and voice commerce

We will also have to look at changing search patterns in voice. Text search tends to be short and precise, mostly one to three words. With voice, search queries become longer and follow a more natural speech pattern, so keyword advertising and SEO will have to adapt.

Voice enabled commerce poses a few interesting challenges as well. How do you sell a product, when your customer can’t see it? This might be less of an issue than initially imagined, though. “Alexa, order me kitchen towels” is pretty straight forward and Amazon already knows the brand I buy regularly. Utilizing existing customer data and working with the big market places will be key, at least for FMCG brands.

But how to get into the consumer’s relevant set? And what about sectors like fashion, that heavily rely on visual impressions? Tightly combining all marketing touchpoints comes into play, voice as a channel can’t be isolated from all other brand communication. Obviously, voice will not replace all other marketing channels, but it might become the first point of reference for consumers due to its ubiquity and seamless integration into their daily lives. Finding its role in the overall brand strategy will be crucial.

Navigating the twilight zone of technological evolution

What may be the biggest challenge of this brave new world of voice marketing is the fact that our connected world isn’t as connected as we would like it to be. The landscape of voice assistants is heavily fragmented and more importantly, the devices act in very isolated environments. While I can tell my digital assistant to turn on my kitchen lights or fire up my PlayStation when using compatible smart home hubs and devices, an assumedly simple task like “Siri, show me cool summer jackets from H&M on the bedroom TV” isn’t as easily accomplished.

Right now, it often is still up to the users to act as the interface between voice assistants and the other gadgets in their living spaces. The screenless internet isn’t the natural endpoint in the evolution of technology, it’s more of an unavoidable consequence of iterative steps in development. For now, we have to navigate through this weird, not fully-realized vision of a connected world and hope for technology to catch up and become truly interconnected. So, let’s find the voices of our brands until they regain the capability of also showing us their connected personality.

Corinna Gleich, Junior Digital Media Planner at Plan.Net Media, has travelled to China to work for three months as part of an internal company exchange programme. She’s been at the House of Communication in Beijing for four weeks now, and is starting to feel at home in China’s capital city. We asked her to write about all about the surprises that living there has brought so far. This report is based on her experiences during the first four weeks.

When I arrived in China, the first thing I had to come to terms with was that my phone was as good as useless – Google, Facebook and Instagram were all blocked and WhatsApp didn’t work. I could get around this with a VPN, though. Speaking English wasn’t an option, hardly anyone here can speak it and that meant me having to work hard to learn Chinese. At first, I could only pay for things with cash (German bank cards aren’t usually accepted and there are only a few ATMs that work with Visa, for example), so I had to open a Chinese bank account as soon as possible to be able to pay using WeChat Pay. I needed to have a local mobile number before I could get a bank card. Luckily, this was quick and cheap to set up. I could set up WeChat with my new number and get a bank card (I was lucky in this respect, too, as the rules for bank cards were recently changed and foreign nationals now have to have lived in the country for at least a year to be able to request one). Getting money into the account from back home was the next challenge, but WeChat had that covered. WeChat makes it easy for another user to transfer money; this money doesn’t go into the account, but rather into the WeChat Wallet. Everything’s done on your mobile here – which is why there are a few more handy apps to help you go about your day, such as Alipay (WeChat’s biggest competitor and which has more users in some cities), Didi (Uber), Ofo (for cycle hire), Air Matters (an air pollution analyser), Dianping (Yelp), E (for ordering food) and translation apps.

The office in Beijing is located right inside a shopping mall. The work day in China is almost exactly the same as in Germany. The only thing is you have a much later start. Turning up between 10 and 12 is normal; you just work longer in the evening to make up for it. It’s also not unheard of to just take a power nap while at work. There are lots of cushions and cuddly toys dotted about to make the place comfortable. They drink coffee here too. You can order food and drinks round the clock. Generally speaking, the food is much cheaper than in Germany – three euros gets you a decent meal. You can also have bubble tea and other drinks delivered. Delivery people race on their scooters at breakneck speed, up and down streets and even steps!

Shopping mall right next to the office with big screens on the ceilings

The way people interact with and consume media here is completely different. Everyone wants to stand out from the crowd without really worrying about data protection. Live streaming is the big thing over here; you can watch a person eat their dinner, for example, and send them virtual gifts that you have to buy. This is how live streamers make their money. There’s a parallel for everything – WeChat is like Facebook, Sina Weibo like Twitter, Youku like YouTube and Nice like Instagram. There’s shops on every corner (I’ve never seen so many shopping centres in such close proximity), and great importance is attached to brands; Western brands are particularly fashionable. German brands (some that I didn’t even know existed) are seen as must-haves in electronics. Owning an iPhone is the norm here.

Work and everyday life aside, sightseeing in Beijing is amazing for a tourist! There’s so much to discover and ticket prices are only around two to three euros. Public transport is cheap, too (the subway and bus are around 50 cents a journey). You can also travel to nearby big cities (e.g. Shanghai, Hangzhou) in no time with the high-speed train. A highlight for me so far was the Summer Palace, which is just outside of Beijing on a small hill surrounded by a lake. I was actually quite disappointed by the Forbidden City; the architecture was very impressive, but there wasn’t much to see in any of the buildings and some were closed altogether. Hangzhou is definitely the place to visit for nature lovers (around five hours from Beijing by high-speed train); it’s rare to see so much green in a city, even in Germany.

Corinna at the Summer Palace

 

Another tourist attraction: The (crowded) Great Wall

My main takeaway from this experience so far is that Beijing is so much more than just a big city; you have to get used to the crowds and fast pace of life here. To me, China and Beijing are like a completely different world. If you want to discover something totally new like I did, you’d really love it over here.

SEO News

Spring has finally sprung, driving even the most hard-nosed online marketeers outdoors to enjoy the sunshine. It’s a time when important trends and developments can easily be missed – and that’s why we’ve summarised the most important SEO news for May here. This time we will be looking at the development of the search market, Google’s assault on e-commerce, and possible negative impacts of language assistants on our behaviour.

1) The market for search engines is maturing

It’s once again back in fashion to question Google’s dominance in the search market. The Facebook data protection scandal means that many critics of the Google system are hoping that a slightly larger portion of the online community is beginning to recognise that “free of charge” online doesn’t mean “without cost”, and that as a result, user numbers for the Mountain View search engine will no longer continue to grow. We can see some support for this assumption in the trend of many users preferring to start their shopping search directly in Amazon – a competing company. And this presents a good reason to ask the questions: is Google losing market share? Where are users actually doing their online searching? A study by American data collectors from Jumpshot sheds some light on the matter. SEO veteran Rand Fishkin interpreted their analysis of US clickstream data – i.e. referrer data at server level and anonymised click logs from web applications – from 2015 to 2018, with surprising results. Contrary to the presumed trend, the number of searches on Amazon is in fact growing; however, because the total figure for all searches increased at the same time, Amazon’s market share consistently remained around 2.3% over the entire period analysed. A detailed look at the various Google services, such as the image search or Google maps, reveals declining figures for searches within these special services, due to technological and design changes. However, these searches are simply shifting to the universal Google web search. This means that the company from Mountain View has been successful in integrating a range of services for users on mobile devices and desktops into its central search results page. Google’s market share therefore also increased by 1.5 percentage points between 2015 and 2018 to around 90%, meaning that the competition seems miles behind. As with Amazon, the search share for YouTube, Pinterest, Facebook and Twitter is almost unchanged. Microsoft’s search engine Bing and Yahoo have not increased their market share despite a rise in searches. Fishkin’s conclusion is appropriately pragmatic: the search engine industry was at a sufficiently high level of maturity in 2018 that a handful of strong players were able to successfully establish themselves on the market. However, Google’s dominance will not be at risk for some years, as all of its pursuers are benefiting equally from continued dynamic growth in search volumes, the SEO expert summarises. Fishkin adds that even if the giant from Mountain View manages to emerge apparently unscathed from any data scandals, the fact that Amazon, Bing, etc. are able to successfully keep pace with the market leader is the real key finding behind the Jumpshot figures. This assessment is also in line with the phenomenon of growth in mobile searches not coming at the expense of traditional desktop searches. Instead, mobile expansion is also taking place as growth, while desktop searches at a continued high level have not lost relevance.

2) Google wants to know what you bought last summer

In the growing segment of transactional shopping searches, Google’s market power is built on sand. Although the Mountain View company has successfully established Google Shopping as a brokering platform, their vision of controlling the entire value chain, including payment platform, has remained a pipe dream. Or to identify the issue more precisely: Google knows what people are searching for, but only Amazon knows what millions of people actually buy. This is about to change. With a feature launched in the USA called ‘Google Shopping Actions’, a buy option can be displayed directly in the Google search results for products from participating retailers. This feature is intended for retailers that want to sell their products via Google search, the Google Express local delivery service, and in the Google Assistant on smartphones, as well as language assistants. Instead of having to sidestep to selling platforms such as Amazon, the user will in future be able to procure products directly through Google. Google says that Google Shopping Actions will make buying simpler and centralised. The company announced that a centralised shopping basket and a payment process that uses a Google account means that the shopping experience will be processed easily and securely for users of the search engine. In addition to traditional search using the Google search field, it will also be possible to make purchases using speech input, enabling the company to remain competitive in the age of language assistants. Of course the other side of the coin is that a direct shopping function also enables a new level of quality data to be collected and attributed to individual users in Mountain View.

3) Alexa and the age of unrefinement

“Mummy! Turn the living room light on now!” Any child that tries to get what it wants using these words will probably fail miserably. It’s an unchanging component of childhood that you learn to politely word a request to another person as a question, and that that little word “please” is always – by a distance – the most important part of a statement of wish. But this iron certainty is at risk. And that’s not because of a vague suspicion that children these days are no longer taught manners by their parents: what might prove to be a much stronger factor is that the highly digitised younger generation have at their command – even from a very early age – a whole arsenal of compliant, uncomplaining helpers and assistants who do not respond with hurt feelings or refusal if given an abrupt command to complete a task immediately. In the American magazine ‘The Atlantic’, author Ken Gordon engages with the effects of this development on future generations. He states that although precise commands are a central component in controlling software, it makes a huge difference whether these are silently conveyed to a system using a keyboard, or delivered to a humanised machine assistant via speech commands. Gordon goes on to say that the fact that Alexa, Cortana, Siri, and so on accept the lack of a “Please” or “Thank you” without complaint could leave an emotional blind spot in young people. Finally, he concludes that although a speech command is just a different type of programming: “Vocalizing one’s authority can be problematic, if done repeatedly and unreflectively.” But it’s still too early to start predicting how our interaction with each other will change when artificial intelligence and robots become fixed parts of our family, work teams, and ultimately society.

SEO News

In 2018 the Easter Bunny brought us more than just chocolate, it also gave us the long-awaited mobile-first index from Google. It will be interesting to see what impact this has when it comes to optimising digital assets. I’ve no doubt that we’ll be hearing a lot more about this in the weeks and months ahead. For the time being, however, the SEO news for April has focussed on short clicks, the need for speed in e-commerce, and a new (search) view of the world.

1) Google’s quest for instant search satisfaction

People are often looking for shortcuts, especially when it comes to searching for things on the Internet. We want to find exactly what we’re looking for straight away, with zero hassle. However, it’s never the case that your search query immediately takes you to the result you’re looking for. On average, you have to return to the search results five times, either to refine your search term or to search for something different. These clicks back to Google or Bing are known as ‘short clicks’. You could argue that the primary objective of search engine optimisation is to make these short clicks obsolete, because the aim is to tailor the content of websites to exactly match what people are searching for. Google has made clear its desire to improve and speed up the search experience, and the company has now rolled out a feature which has been extensively tested on mobile devices and in the USA. If you return to Google with a short click, a box with the heading “People also search for” is shown underneath the first search result. This box contains a list of links with similar search queries. This list differs markedly from the list of alternative search queries which is already shown at the end of the search results. The fact that Google has rolled out this short click box globally indicates that the company is taking the issue of laborious, time-consuming searches seriously, and is prepared to take concrete steps to address it. It’s also another indication that short clicks are a negative thing in terms of the users. As such, it’s clear that search engine optimisation teams need to continue with their efforts to eliminate short clicks, with a view to making life that bit easier when you head to a search engine.

2) A real need for speed in the battle for the top spot in e-commerce

It’s now spring, which means the conference season for the industry is well under way. However, if you compare the main topics being discussed at ‘Search Marketing Expo’ (SMX), the leading international trade fair for the industry, in North America and Europe, you might notice that Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) is a much bigger topic in the USA than on our shores. On the other side of the pond, website operators and increasingly also e-commerce providers are placing a major focus on this stripped-down HTML protocol. It’s primarily designed to improve the user experience and increase conversion rates by ensuring that pages load faster. What’s more, at this year’s Online Marketing Rockstars conference in Hamburg, representatives from Google also indicated that fast loading times are crucial if you want to stay ahead of the competition, particularly when it comes to the top dog, Amazon. In keeping with this topic, US search expert Eric Enge has published a study which investigates the advantages of AMP technology and aims to dispel four key myths which are presumably holding many companies back from using the technology. Firstly, Enge points out that AMP is not just suitable for news publishers, even though the ‘stories’ format has only recently been implemented on the AMP platform for this. Instead, using examples from India, he demonstrates that the higher speeds available for e-commerce result in significantly higher conversion rates, particularly in markets in which mobile end devices are heavily used. Enge also explains that opting for AMP in no way means needing to compromise on design features. He argues that the responsive website design recommended by the major search engine operators has major weaknesses compared against AMP. According to Enge, more resources would need to be planned to design and implement an optimal AMP user experience as there are not enough use cases in this field yet. The study also expressly warns against half-hearted AMP implementations, as this would make it more difficult to use the technology on mobile devices, and would unnecessarily complicate key functions such as the navigation. Loading speed should already be a central pillar of every SEO strategy. However, if German companies want to prevail against their competitors on the global stage, they too should take a closer look at AMP technology and the benefits it offers.

3) Life through a lens – say hello to Visual Search

“Alexa! Can I show you something quickly?” You might already like to give the latest generation of voice-enabled personal assistants this kind of command, in the same way that you might ask a member of your family. Yet there’s one fundamental obstacle standing in the way of such integration: voice assistants don’t have eyes. This will very soon be a thing of the past, however, through what is known as ‘Visual Search’. Thanks to increasingly deep integration of artificial intelligence, it has now become possible to interpret visual information and recognise objects. Just look at the ‘Google Lens’ as the most recent example. This tool for performing visual searches was launched a few months ago and is available exclusively on Google’s own ‘Pixel’ smartphones. ‘Google Lens’ enables the user to run a search on a photo at the touch of a button. The search engine automatically recognises what is depicted in the photo, e.g. sights such as the Eiffel Tower. It then provides relevant additional information such as directions, opening hours, entry prices and reviews. What’s more, Google Lens really excels with text. Although text recognition is by no means a new feature, Google is able to recognise a photo of a business card as an address format, for example, and convert the information from the photo into a corresponding contact file. However, Google isn’t the only player investing in this field. Microsoft upgraded its Bing search engine with an AI package a few weeks ago, which also contained new features for running visual searches. And Pinterest – the popular platform which has always considered itself to be a tool of visual discovery – has also put visual searches at the heart of the user experience through its new ‘Pinterest Lens’ app. Not only does Pinterest Lens break down scanned images into their attributes such as colour, quality and function, it can also generate shopping links for selected brands from an image search. It’s no coincidence that all major Internet companies are placing visual searches centre stage. According to the market research institute Gartner, around 50 percent of all mobile searches will be triggered either by voice or an image by as early as 2019. As such, the new context-driven searches constitute a growth segment which complements intuitive human behaviour. It remains to be seen whether it will quickly become a real revenue driver in e-commerce, as is currently promised. However, it’s clear that search engine optimisation is facing a steep learning curve that goes beyond keywords and content.

Agiles Arbeiten

“Being able to adapt quickly, flexibly, and proactively to new situations” – the significance of agility is not disputed. But how to achieve an agile digital agency definitely is. In the middle of the transformation of hmmh, we take a break and look back: what are the most valuable experiences from our change process with 300 employees up to this point and what questions should agencies ask when they move in the direction of agility?

Independent of industry, many employees today expect being able to realize themselves in the company and being able to show off their skills in interdisciplinary and exciting projects. Questions like “Why do we go to work in the morning” and “What is our mission?” demand clear answers. The objectives of companies are also clearly defined: finding creative solutions for the ever-changing needs of customers quickly, to keep up, and thus growing the company’s success and consequently their own. Achieving this while staying competitive requires more autonomous working methods and an agile structure. In addition to the will to change something, one must also raise internal awareness for the subject in order to be able to get all employees on board. And it requires a company structure with as few hierarchies as possible. However, the whole thing will only work within predefined boundaries for the entire team which leave enough room for creativity and autonomy for each individual and provide mutual trust. Once the change has been decided and the general direction laid out, the right strategy for the agile transformation must be found.

1. What is the right strategy for the transformation?

First of all: There is no “one right” strategy. Depending on industry, business size, and the willingness of the team, we decide whether the culture and structure should change gradually or in a short time. For companies with different service areas, only partially agile customers, and employees who are not yet completely convinced we recommend putting together a small group of promotors. As representatives of the different departments, they collect requirements, wishes, and concerns of the entire company, take care of the framework conditions, and accompany the process. The more varied the opinions, the better. Routines are deconstructed and then new paths found together. In 2015, after interviews and open spaces and after finding a strategy task force consisting of elected representatives for each area who accompanied the process, at hmmh this meant saying goodbye to functional pillar structures and “departments”. As the word already indicates, it is derived from parts (“de-part-ment”), the exact opposite of the objective. In this phase, hmmh formed agile customer teams in order to be able to address customer wishes faster and more flexible.

2. Creating initiative – How does one do that?

The developer, creative conceptioner, consultant, graphic designer, copywriter, HR, or management: each person in the company has different responsibilities and roles which require different skills. Breaking up all structures and redistributing responsibilities requires large-scale T-shaping in the company. This means that for instance developers also need to take on leadership roles for customer projects and internal tasks: either as member of a temporary SIG (Special Interest Group) created for a specific question or of a COP (Community of Practice) which tackles specialized topics across the company. Most of all, one must get adapted to the new spirit in order to focus on the positive aspects of an autonomous working method. Transparency and the involvement of each employee is the main point here in order to achieve the needed acceptance. This also includes education concerning the new possibilities and duties that come with such a change. The management must lead by example, delegate responsibility, and trust in its team and give them space to work. However, this also means that the management should initiate this process, guide it positively, and sometimes provide additional impetus. Courage to change serves as a role model and is contagious. The main foundation and guarantee for a successful transformation is a team that knows the objective.

3. Do the internal systems still fit the structure?

While the type of organization, the thinking, and working methods change it is important to check the internal systems for their fitness. How agile are the tools and programs which are a part of everyday work? Be it for internal information exchange, scheduling, or budgeting. The tools have to fit the organizational structure and permit agile work. No matter whether you use Confluence, Rocket Chat, or Bit Bucket – the decision for or against a tool should be based on the opinions of the internal experts and a reconciliation of all important requirements. One must also consider that compatibility with customers is also important. Tools may vary, but the focus should not: one must always ensure that the customer gets the best solution, the best service, or both. This means that agile work requires the transparent use of software, tools, and systems. Internal working methods can and must be adjusted: whether open spaces, lean coffees, or Kanban boards, the implementation must fit the structure. This also applies to the management.

4. How can you convince less agile customers?

At the moment, digital agencies usually are a lot more agile than its customers. This poses a great challenge in working together, since rigid structures and routines are often firmly anchored in the customer’s procedures. These customers want security and a perfect solution at a fixed price. When dealing with less agile customers it is important to let them know that they not only receive a tailor-made result but also tailor-made service which adapts to all their requirements in order to achieve the best possible result without compromises. Ideally, the price moves within a target range. Transparent processes, a sometimes cheaper but always better solution, and measurably better productivity as well as enjoying your work often also makes customers think twice. Agility is contagious.

5. When is the agile process completed?

Once the strategy and the roles have been found, the first agile projects implemented successfully, and new agile projects are added continually, then the acceptance of those who were not quite convinced of the model also increases. Employees who are unhappy with the new environment will leave, but make room for new ones. This is normal. It is important to reflect, verify, and adjust – as part of everyday work – internally and externally. This path is a permanent process that is never completed. And that is a good thing, since stagnation is boring.

Conclusion

Agile working is not just a method that makes businesses more efficient and flexible in order to achieve better results. Agility is a business philosophy. It requires clear and transparent communication, both with colleagues and with customers. It requires a great deal of initiative, mutual trust, and space for development. A complex process that not only need to be initiated well, but also continually supported, reflected, and adjusted. It is essential to find the right strategy for the respective business, give employees space to develop their own responsibility, adjust internal processes and roles, and get customers excited about the method. Only then can the entire company react flexibly to new challenges. There is no path to becoming an agile business without a change in culture. This piece of wisdom is well-established: “Structure follows strategy but culture eats strategy for breakfast”.

How agile a business really is does not depend on the management but every team member. Agility is not an end in itself and also no cure-all. But it is necessary today and even more in the future in order to be able to act successfully in the market in disruptive times.

Space Rocket

Some people in the digital sector, especially, have ceased to believe in brands. However, I am convinced that in the digital age, more than any other, brands offer precisely what we need in a multi-optional, information-flooded world: orientation. Brands condense a large volume of information into a (hopefully) relevant promise. Of course brands that want to be successful in the future, will also have to adapt to a society in transition. Anyone who takes the following five tenets for the brand management of the future to heart, will have a good chance of achieving this.

1. Viable brands are defined in three dimensions

What is a brand? A logo, a slogan, a value proposition? The appearance and if possible, differentiated positioning are only two dimensions shaping the brand image and consumer perceptions. In the digital age, every brand must prove itself, above all in its direct interaction with people. In order to offer a coherent, self-similar brand experience, the brand must establish rules of conduct which govern how it interacts while defining its stance towards people and the subjects on which it pronounces.

2. Viable brands offer a real benefit

The days when brand communication consisted in stating as loudly as possible why your own brand is so great and why people should buy it, are over. To be noticed for the long term, brands today must not only compete for people’s attention, but also offer content which delivers a noticeable, relevant benefit in the eyes of consumers. Depending on the context and the target market, this can, for example, consist of personalised offers, entertainment, monetary benefits or exclusive information. To enable the brand to develop promising content, the challenge is to put customers and their needs not just at the beginning but at the centre of your own concepts and actions.

3. Viable brands are user-friendly

Our digital devices have accustomed us to getting fast, easy access to everything we need. Usability is the umbrella term for the degree of user-friendliness experienced. This is not primarily about content. From the website via the hotline all the way to local service — every touchpoint with the brand should be intuitively comprehensible, simple to use and capable of being unambiguously implemented.

4. Viable brands communicate personally and in personalised fashion

People in a digitised world expect personal communication and personalised content and offers from their brands. If such offers are tailored to their individual needs, users will reward the brand with above-average response, purchase and loyalty rates. However, it is vital to find the right degree of personalisation: just because it’s technically possible, doesn’t mean it makes sense. Because enthusiasm over the newsletter containing exactly the right offers can quickly turn into a horrified “How do they know that?”.

5. Viable brands offer a consistent, coherent customer experience

Today, people experience brands at many very different touchpoints: in a shop, on the website as well as on social media and through advertising. In the best case, this so-called customer experience will give a consistent, coherent overall image across the various touchpoints. So here is my tip. Place a relevant customer experience at the start and at the centre of your transformation in the marketing sphere. In doing so, you will create a good platform — on the one hand for the greatest possible success today, and on the other, to ensure the viability of your brand tomorrow.

SEO News

Following the major cold snap in February, spring is now well on the way in terms of SEO. Appropriately enough, the hot topics for the month of March are AMP, backlinks and Bing.

1) Google liberates stories format from confines of an app

The popular information and entertainment format of “Stories” is breaking new ground. Originally invented by Snapchat and quickly pounced on by Facebook and Instagram once it proved successful, the handy multimedia gallery has since been confined to the closed systems of smartphone apps and social media worlds. Google now has plans to liberate stories from captivity. The search engine has developed a stories format for the stripped-back Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) HTML protocol, which it presented at this year’s AMP Conference in Amsterdam. The aim is to combine the narrative options of the stories format with the technological benefits of AMP, such as fast loading times and optimum display on all platforms and devices. The new format supports videos, images, GIF animations and links. Publishers including CNN, Hearst, and Mashable supplied three sample stories on the “open” internet as part of an initial showcase. Fast loading times and platform independent user experiences are two key ranking factors for search engines, so it is worth news publishers and content producers taking a closer look at the options afforded by AMP stories. In addition, it has previously often been shown that the Mountain View search engine sometimes prioritises its preferred technologies in its search results. For instance, this is what happened with the markup for structured data. It remains to be seen whether the introduction of the stories format will accelerate the spread of AMP technology. Despite the benefits, there are also limitations in terms of the feature set and the implementation of tracking.

2) Old school? You must be joking: SEO success with backlinks

Optimising a website to increase its organic reach to the right target group is a complex undertaking. The explosion in the number of ranking factors and signals across a range of new platforms, and the expansion of the search function to include new interfaces such as voice and image, means that SEO managers are spoilt for choice when selecting the correct approach for a project design. So it’s time to remember the origins of our craft and consider a good old-fashioned backlink campaign. In an article for the Search Engine Land blog, US columnist Andrew Dennis explains that the use of brand mentions and shrewd competitor research can substantially boost reach, even for completely new domains. Dennis quotes the example of an offline brand with a relatively small digital marketing footprint. Despite this, the brand manages to attract a high level of attention in relation to news and blogs in its niche industry. Dennis states that this initial position applies to many companies in the cybersecurity, STEM education, payment, fitness and hotel industries, in particular start-ups. The first tactic was to generate brand mentions, i.e. unlinked mentions of the brand on third-party websites in the most positive context possible. By involving the right managers, a large number of brand mentions were obtained through the PR and HR departments, as well as industry associations, press interviews and charitable work. The second tactic involved analysis of the most successful competitors’ backlink profiles, whose key link sources were automatically relevant for the company wishing to make improvements. According to the author, it did not take much effort to identify a large number of portals and directories where backlinks could be acquired, including those not featuring expensive content. The effort put into link analysis and developing brand mentions resulted in a total of 64 new links and a 43% increase in organic traffic over a six-month period. This example in itself is nothing out of the ordinary, but illustrates how relatively simple results can be achieved in our trend-driven SEO world by applying classic analysis and common sense.

3) Bing in favour of a balanced argument

We have become so accustomed to using search engines to help us in almost every aspect of life that it is high time we started to question viewpoints supplied by a machine (in this case the search engine). Following on from Amazon’s announcement of plans to give personal assistant Alexa her own opinions (as reported here), Microsoft has now added a new feature to its search engine Bing – the multi-perspective answer. This may initially sound incredibly academic, but actually makes perfect sense on closer inspection. For example, asking whether a hot yoga session is good for the body will result in contradictory responses, as will many other queries. Bing now lists and compares the pros and cons in a neat box on the search results page, similar to the Featured Snippet Box on Google. According to Microsoft, the viewpoints are selected via a self-learning neural network that uses reputable content from trusted, high-quality websites. The company states that another requirement for a place in the response box is the indexability of the content on the original site, where it must be displayed prominently and clearly. Early examples of multi-perspective answers from the USA relate primarily to health and nutrition issues. However, Microsoft has announced plans to roll out the feature in the UK initially and then to other markets, as well as expanding it to cover other topics.

 

On the face of it, the SXSW is a pretty poor deal. You spend 12 hours on a plane and then rush around downtown Austin with 30,000 other lunatics for a week to listen to lectures and panels in air-conditioned 80s-style conference rooms. Doesn’t sound very inspiring. For me, the conference is nevertheless one of the absolute highlights of the year, because you’d be hard pressed to find a higher concentration of excellent speakers on current trends in the digital world. Read about the topics and lectures I am particularly looking forward to below.

Digitisation has arrived in society

In recent years it has become apparent that the times when you had guaranteed attention with the next hype platform or app in the market are over. The issues have no longer been revolving around digital services or the marketing behind them for a while now, because digitisation currently covers all areas of life. The impact of this process on society, working life, health and urban development will be the dominant themes of the conference, as they were in 2017. The same goes for the demand for specific solutions that include new technologies in product development and the creative process.

The perennial favourites: VR, AR & AI

Virtual reality continues to be a hot topic, especially in the creative industries. While the search for meaningful application scenarios outside the niche continues, augmented reality is preparing to make the breakthrough into a modern storytelling tool suitable for the mass market.

AI, on the other hand, is much more established: Data as the DNA of the modern world and ever better algorithms promise automation and increased efficiency in many areas. But how much of this will find its way into consumers’ everyday lives? Amazon Echo & Google Home are now in millions of homes, but currently lead a sorrowful existence as glorified light switches and Bluetooth speakers for Spotify. What do the truly smart assistants of the future look like in comparison? And how are various industry pioneers already using AI today for communication, data analysis or product development?

Blockchain self-awareness

This year’s theme for tech conferences is probably inevitable: the blockchain. The flagship project Bitcoin has evolved from a democratic, borderless payment system into an investment bubble for dauntless investors. But there is tremendous potential in the technology behind it. How will smart contracts and transaction-based systems change our economic life, business processes and, ultimately, marketing? Ethereum co-inventor Joseph Lubin has titled his lecture “Why Ethereum Is Going To Change The World” and the other actors in the blockchain business are not lacking in self-awareness. It will be interesting!

Gaming & eSports

Representatives of the gaming and eSports world are also confidently taking an increasingly prominent place at SXSW. Often ridiculed by outsiders, gaming has now become a dominant force in the entertainment industry. The professionalisation of the eSports scene reached new heights in 2017 with millions invested in tournaments and teams. So if you’re still around in the second week of the conference, you should drop in on the lectures of SXSW Gaming. It could be interesting to see what the industry’s ROI expectations look like and what opportunities there are in marketing.

Problem children start-ups & disrupting dystopia

In contrast, the start-up scene in Silicon Valley is experiencing a bit of a crisis. At last year’s elevator pitches, every second comment was “Nice idea, but what are you going to do in three months’ time when Zuckerberg copies you?” The stifling market position of the Big Four has noticeably cooled the willingness of investors to provide seed capital for new start-ups. How can start-ups continue to raise capital to make their ideas a reality and grow in a world dominated by Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple?

A few months after the Trumpocalypse, the mood in 2017 was somewhat gloomy, a rather atypical level of self-reflection for the industry. In our enthusiasm for the digitisation of all areas of life, have we underestimated the risks of a fully networked and automated world? What will be left of the quiet self-doubt in 2018? The closing keynote from SciFi author & SXSW bedrock Bruce Sterling is likely to be an excellent barometer. An hour-long rant with subtle peaks against the self-loving tech and marketing scene will surely be a highlight once again. A fitting title for 2018: Disrupting Dystopia.

Away from the lectures

In addition to the lectures and panels at the conference, the event spaces of the numerous brands and companies will be another highlight. Exciting from a German point of view: the presence of Mercedes-Benz. The joint focus of the me Convention during the IAA had already indicated far-reaching cooperation with SXSW. Mercedes and Smart are now on the starting line in Austin as super sponsors and are hosting their own lectures and events on the topic of Future Mobility in Palm Park, right next to the Convention Centre.

In addition, visits to the brand locations of the Japanese electronics giants Sony and Panasonic are also likely to be worthwhile. In 2017, Panasonic exhibited numerous prototypes developed in cooperation with students on the subject of the Smart Home. Sony, on the other hand, devoted itself to VR.

The large number of lectures, panel discussions, pop-up locations and the numerous events off the official program make planning your SXSW visit a challenge. When you think back to your time in Austin on your flight home, you often realize that the most exciting lectures were those you caught by chance, that the best Brand Lounge was one where you just happened to be passing by and you only met the most interesting people because they were standing next to you in the endless queues. Resisting the temptation to plan everything in advance makes a visit to SXSW all the more interesting.