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AI marketing and the journey through the uncanny valley

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By Sponsored Content: Amplero

“Things usually get worse before they get better.”

“It’s always darkest before the dawn.”

Whether it’s the valley of the shadow of death in the 23rd Psalm or the Dangerous Trench on the way to Shell City in the Sponge Bob movie, we’re used to the concept of feeling that things are getting worse, even though we know we’re headed in the right direction.

This experience can be represented by a U-shaped curve, literally forming the shape of a valley between two peaks. In technical terms, the curve represents a nonlinear relationship between two variables. A specific example is the uncanny valley — the hypothesis of the unease, frustration, or even revulsion we feel as something approaches the behavior and appearance of a human without getting all the way there. In this case, the two variables are the humanlike nature of the object and the emotional response to it. This can be experienced with robots and AI assistants, and with 3D animation. Perhaps you know someone who gets illogically angry when Siri or Alexa fails to understand their commands, or maybe you get uncomfortable watching humanoid robots or CGI-animated humans in TV and movies.

Although 78 percent of marketers are adopting or expanding artificial intelligence marketing in 2018, marketers are also uneasy about the uncanny valley. They are concerned that by implementing AI marketing, they will lose control of the customer experience, possibly bewildering or even revolting their customers. While this is a reasonable concern, it could prove to be an unfounded and risky position — because marketers have already forced their customers into the uncanny valley through the use of marketing automation and aggressive personalization. And to quote another truism, when you’re going through hell, keep going. Because you don’t want to stay there.

Your customers are already in the uncanny valley

Could it be true that we’re already subjecting our customers to experiences that create bewilderment and revulsion? You don’t have to have 3D avatars or robots in your customer experience to create these eerie, negative feelings in your customers. The uncanny valley is represented by a sudden decrease in empathy when a human-like being ceases in some way to be human. Here are some specific examples to indicate that your customers may already be in the uncanny valley:

Broken context

Example: An AI assistant or chatbot initially passes for human but fails to understand the context of a question that would be simple for a human to understand, revealing that it is not human. Here is just one of many anecdotes from Reddit:

In just seconds, this user went from loving their Echo to figuratively (literally?) flipping the table in frustration.


Not quite lookalikes

Example: A cursory read of our example user’s Facebook history could tell you that he is a foodie, a vegetarian and a fan of subscription boxes. Recently, this user got targeted by a new artisanal food subscription service that was relevant in many respects, except for the fact that they exclusively offer cured meats. It’s reasonable in some respects that an artisanal cured meat subscription service would target him. Except that as a vegetarian, this user found their ad bewildering and invasive, causing him to lose interest and scroll quickly past. In his scrolling fervor, he accidentally registered a click on the ad, leading to weeks of cured meats in his feed.

Bad timing

Another example from that same user: Currently, his bank is aggressively targeting him with a competitive mortgage offer. Three weeks ago, there were credit, fund consolidation and other signals that he was preparing for a home purchase. At that point, it was stone cold silence from the bank. But now that he has signed a mortgage with another bank and closed escrow, he is getting targeted after the fact with an offer that he would have considered three weeks ago. Now, it’s just aggravating.

Three ways to ascend from the uncanny valley

Ascending from the uncanny valley is possible, but it takes buy-in from executives and a concerted effort by the entire marketing organization. Fortunately, Artificial Intelligence Marketing (AIM) provides a new approach for interacting with customers, allowing for consistent relevant experiences across all channels and continuous optimization at scale. Marketers shouldn’t fear the uncanny valley. They should focus on crossing through to the other side. Here’s how:

1. Keep context: Match your level of sophistication across channels

Ideally, your website, app and chatbot work together to provide integrated, personalized service. Your customers should be able to access the same contextual features whether in the mobile app, at the brick-and-mortar store or when chatting with Alexa. If a user clicks through to your site from a specific offer email, that offer should automatically persist on the website. While your customers often encounter the same creative elements across your app, social, display, email and website, they’re disappointed when experiences are disjointed and out-of-context.

Unfortunately, many brand experiences can only be delivered to users in a single channel due to the inherent limitations of current marketing clouds, making a promise of sophisticated interaction that can’t be delivered in other channels.

2. Reduce uncertainty: Use visual cues to signal behavior and ability

If you do have varying levels of sophistication for some of your communication channels, you can give your customer cues to set appropriate expectations. If you have created a bot or an app with sophisticated abilities, imbue it with human personality. In contrast, a limited chatbot doesn’t need a name, a highly humanized voice or an avatar. And if your mobile app focuses on a subset of features, be clear about what they are in the app name and description.

3. Responsiveness: Reduce the lag between insight and action

If you gain insight about an individual customer, how quickly can you adjust your interactions to be responsively relevant? A human conversation involves both parties responding in real time to conscious and subconscious cues. If your campaigns and audience segments are static, or if your channels are siloed, it can take too long to move at the speed of the customer. However, with AI marketing that has dynamic decisioning at its core, new data and behavioral signals can immediately be acted upon without human intervention. The result is a more responsive customer interaction that adapts as your customer evolves.

To get to the other side

Helping your customers ascend out of the uncanny valley can seem like a monumental task, but with AI marketing, it is now feasible. Consumer brands that make the leap and move away from the rules will be the first to reap the benefits of consistent, cross-channel interactions that are optimized at scale by AI.

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SearchCap: Net neutrality, AdWords grants & EU licensing fees

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By Barry Schwartz

Below is what happened in search today, as reported on Search Engine Land and from other places across the web.

From Search Engine Land:

Recent Headlines From Marketing Land, Our Sister Site Dedicated To Internet Marketing:

Search News From Around The Web:

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European press agencies push for licensing fees for their content from Google, Facebook

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By Greg Sterling

Google has faced off several times against European news publishers and governments in Germany and Spain, seeking to get the company to pay copyright fees for the indexing of news content. Google has largely prevailed in these instances. However, that hasn’t deterred publishers from continuing to make the case that the US internet giants should pay for their content.

A new consortium of nine European press agencies is now arguing that Google and Facebook make money from news content and pay little or nothing for it. They also assert that news organizations — “a pillar of democracy” — are financially vulnerable, while Facebook’s and Google’s profits are soaring.

Google (and presumably Facebook) take the position that inclusion and exposure of publisher content drive online traffic and therefore is a benefit rather than a detriment. Indeed, when German publishers had their snippets and thumbnails removed from Google in the wake of a dispute over a 2013 “Ancillary Copyright” Law, they saw significant traffic declines. They subsequently requested the return of snippets, seemingly acknowledging Google’s position.

But where Google sees indexing of news content as a benefit, the publishers see exploitation. The persistence of these publisher arguments is fueled by perceptions of fundamental unfairness, objective financial need and European nationalism (vs. US tech companies). However, it appears from the report that members of the European Parliament are ambivalent or cool to efforts to “tax” Google and Facebook to subsidize publishers.

It remains to be seen whether there are enough sympathetic European legislators pick up the cause and try to devise a pan-EU response to the publishers’ arguments. In general, European politicians are more inclined to intervene in the market than their US counterparts. And I suspect there’s at least a possibility that some official initiative might commence, given the general antipathy toward the US-based companies.

The news agency consortium included press agencies from France, Germany, the UK, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Belgium, Austria and the Netherlands.

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Optimizing for Hanukkah: Sometimes it’s still strings, not things

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By Paul Shapiro

My wife came to me with a problem. She wanted festive, whimsical, and potentially matching Hanukkah pajamas. But there weren’t enough options coming up in Google under one spelling of the holiday’s name, so she told me she was systematically going through all spellings to compile her list of shopping items.

I was pretty surprised by this — I had expected Google to be smart enough to recognize that these were alternative spellings of the same thing, especially post-Hummingbird. Clearly, this was not the case.

Some background for those who don’t know: Hanukkah is actually a transliterated word from Hebrew. Since Hebrew has its own alphabet, there are numerous spellings that one can use to reference it: Hanukkah, Chanukah, and Channukah are all acceptable spellings of the same holiday.

So, when someone searches for “Hanukkah pajamas” or “Chanukah pajamas,” Google really should be smart enough to understand that they are different spellings of the same concept and provide nearly identical results. But Google does not! I imagine this happens for other holidays and names from other cultures, and I’d be curious to know if other readers experience the same problem with those.

Why am I surprised that Google is returning different results for different spellings? Well, with the introduction of the Knowledge Graph (and Hummingbird), Google signaled a change for SEO. More than ever before, we could start thinking about search queries not merely as keyword strings, but as interrelated real-world concepts.

What do I mean by this?

When someone searches for “Abraham Lincoln,” they’re more than likely searching for the entity representing the 16th president of the United States, rather than the appearance of the words “Abraham” and “Lincoln,” or their uncle, also named Abraham Lincoln. And if they search for “Lincoln party,” Google knows we’re likely discussing political parties, rather than parties in the town of Lincoln, Mass., because this is a concept in close association with the historical entity Abraham Lincoln.

Similarly, Google is certainly capable of understanding that when we use the keyword Hanukkah, it is in reference to the holiday entity and that the various spellings are also referring to the same entity. Despite different spellings, the different searches actually mean the same thing. But alas, as demonstrated by my wife’s need to run a different search for each spelling of the holiday in order to discover all of her Hanukkah pajama options, Google wasn’t doing the best job.

So, how widespread is the Chanukah/Hanukkah/Chanukkah search problem? Here are a couple of search results for Chanukah items:

As you can see from the first screen shot, some big box retailers like Target, Macy’s and JCPenney rank on page one of Google. In screen shot two, however, they are largely absent — and sites like PajamaGram and Etsy are dominating the different spelling’s SERP.

This means that stores targeting the already small demographic of Hanukkah shoppers are actually reducing the number of potential customers by only using one spelling on their page. (Indeed, according to my keyword tool of choice, although “Hanukkah” has the highest search volume of all variants at 301,100 global monthly searches, all other spellings combined still make up a sizeable 55,500 searches — meaning that retailers optimizing for both terms could be seeing 18 percent more traffic.)

Investigating spelling variations and observations

Since I’m an ever-curious person, I wanted to investigate this phenomenon a little further.

I built a small, simple tool to show how similar the search engine results pages (SERP) for two different queries are by examining which listings appear in both SERPs. If we look at five common spellings of Hanukkah, we see the following:

Keyword 1 Keyword 2 SERP Similarity
Channukah Chanukah 90.00%
Channukah Hannukah 20.00%
Channukah Hannukkah 20.00%
Channukah Hanukkah 30.00%
Chanukah Hannukah 20.00%
Chanukah Hannukkah 20.00%
Chanukah Hanukkah 30.00%
Hannukah Hannukkah 90.00%
Hannukah Hanukkah 80.00%
Hannukkah Hanukkah 80.00%

The tool shows something quite interesting here: Not only are the results different, but depending on spelling, the results may only be 20 percent identical, meaning eight out of 10 of the listings on page one are completely different.

I then became curious about why the terms weren’t canonicalized to each other, so I looked at Wikidata, one of the primary data sources that Google uses for its Knowledge Graph. As it turns out, there is an entity with all of the variants accounted for:

I then checked the Google Knowledge Graph Search API, and it became very clear that Google may be confused:

Keyword resultScore @id name Description @type
Channukah 8.081924 kg:/m/0vpq52 Channukah Love Song by Ju-Tang [MusicRecording, Thing]
Chanukah 16.334606 kg:/m/06xmqp_ A Rugrats Chanukah ? [Thing]
Hannukah 11.404715 kg:/m/0zvjvwt Hannukah Song by Lorna [MusicRecording, Thing]
Hannukkah 11.599854 kg:/m/06vrjy9 Hannukkah Book by Jennifer Blizin Gillis [Book, Thing]
Hanukkah 21.56493 kg:/m/02873z Hanukkah Harry Fictional character [Thing]

The resultScore values — which, according to the API documentation, indicate “how well the entity matched the request constraints” — are very low. In this case, the entity wasn’t very well matched. This would be consistent with the varying results if it weren’t for the fact that a Knowledge Graph is being returned for all of the spelling variants with the Freebase ID /m/022w4 — different from what is returned from the Knowledge Graph API. So, in this case, it seems that the API may not be a reliable means of assessing the problem. Let’s move on to some other observations.

It is interesting to note was that when searching for Channukah, Google pushed users to Chanukah results. When searching Hannukah and Hannukkah, Google pushed users to Hanukkah results. So, Google does seem to group Hanukkah spellings together based on whether they start with an “H” or a “Ch.”

Chanukah, Hannukah, and Hanukkah were also the only variations that received the special treatment of the Hanukkah menorah graphic:


What a retailer selling Hanukkah products should do

Clearly, if we want full coverage of terms (and my wife to find your Hanukkah pajamas), we cannot rely on just optimizing for the highest search volume variation of the keyword, as Google doesn’t seem to view all variants as entirely the same. Your best bet is to include the actual string for each spelling variant somewhere on the page, rather than relying on Google to understand them as variations of the same thing.

If you’re a smaller player, it may make sense to prioritize optimizations toward one of the less popular spelling variants, as the organic competition may not be as significant. (Of course, this does not bar you from using spelling variants in addition to that for the potential of winning for multiple spellings.)

At a bare minimum, you may opt to include a spelling beginning with H- and Ch- and hope that Google will direct users to the same SERP in most cases.

Future experiment

I started an experiment to see whether the inclusion of structured data with sameAs properties may be a potential avenue for getting Google to understand a single spelling as an entity, eliminating the need to include different spelling variations. As of now, it’s a little too early to know the results of the test, and they are inconclusive, but I look forward to sharing those results in the future.

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How to generate links that drive traffic, not just ranking

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By Kevin Rowe

Many people see link building as a way to drive rankings. But, when done correctly, it can (and should) also drive traffic.

Driving traffic has a lot of benefits beyond the obvious potential increase in leads and sales. More website traffic can provide valuable analytics data about what users are looking for and what confuses them. It can also help grow engagement and potentially referral links on social media as others begin to share our content.

In this column, I’ll explain how to identify sources of links that drive actual traffic and how to evaluate your progress so that you can focus your efforts where they will have the greatest impact.

Identifying link partners

In order to find good sources for traffic-driving links, there are a few ways you can go: competitor research, rankings and influencers.

First, find the publications driving traffic to your competitors by using tools like SimilarWeb to find their top referral sources. Not only do these tools tell you who is linking to your competitors, but some can also show how much traffic your competitors are getting from those links.

links to moz.com for referrals

Any site driving traffic/referrals to your competitors should be investigated and evaluated as a potential linking partner. Check each one for quality, verifying that they aren’t content scraper sites and are actually valuable resources for your target audience. If they pass the test, then consider approaching them for a link.

Of course, you shouldn’t just pursue links from sites that are driving traffic to your competitors. Review the top-ranking websites in Google for the terms you want to rank for and see if any of them can serve as good linking partners. For example, many industries have vertical-specific directories that provide both free and sponsored listings.

As always, do your research when approaching sites like this. Do the directories seem spammy, designed only to generate links for SEO purposes? Or are they legitimate sites that consumers actually use, like Yelp, TripAdvisor or Avvo? (Note that links from legitimate sites will often be nofollowed, but they are still valuable because they drive real traffic.)

If you want to do more of the heavy lifting when it comes to content, try approaching major and niche industry outlets that you can contribute content to. In addition to the above sites you found during your research, use a tool like BuzzSumo to find social influencers and reach out to them on their social channels or via email to see if they accept guest posts. These posts need to be highly relevant to the website’s audience, and be careful to follow any editorial guidelines and respect their rules for submitted content.

In addition to smaller industry publications, you can also find guest posting opportunities on major sites like Inc.com through their guest posting forms. The byline link or the author page can be a great source of traffic and referrals. Often, I’ve gotten leads from these links just because the prospect was impressed with seeing the byline in major outlets. However, you must be diligent and careful here: Submit your best work, as inclusion is often competitive, and editors can therefore be extremely choosy.

Other great outlet options to consider are community forums, like industry-specific subreddits or sites like Inbound.org if you are in marketing. Just remember to be a good community member — never spam other users with your own content, and be sure to participate regularly by answering questions and commenting thoughtfully on others’ content.

One last angle to try is to find industry influencers and sponsor or partner with them. Many influencers are willing to enter into partnerships with brands, where they will review or work with a company on content and social media posts to get the brand’s name out to their audience. Cost usually varies with audience size and the scope of the campaign.

influencer links

Since the aim here is to drive traffic and branding, you shouldn’t run into any issues regarding Google’s linking guidelines. However, it’s important to ensure that all financial relationships are disclosed according to FTC guidelines and that you aren’t attempting to hide or sneak links into any content that you are sending to these outlets for publication.

Evaluating success

Once you’ve approached your chosen link partners and successfully obtained links, it’s time to review your work. After each month, check Google Analytics for referral traffic to see which new sites you’ve worked with are actually bringing you traffic. After three to six months, you’ll have a clear picture of which sites are worth your time and which aren’t. For instance, if Inc.com is bringing you more traffic than three industry sites combined, it might be better to pare down your industry sites to be able to submit more content to Inc.com.

Additionally, you can also see if there is an increase in overall brand search for your name using Google trends or Google Keyword Planner. Often, branding campaigns can result in more direct traffic, as well as organic traffic due to an increase in branded searches. By carefully tracking increases in direct and branded organic referrals, you can see the impact your branding campaigns are having. This can help you see the long-term benefits of your link-building efforts in growing your website traffic.

While tracking the data, be sure to also track your success building relationships with the influencers and websites you’ve singled out as potential link-building partners. This can show your progress to management and help you hone your pitch and messaging style.

Final thoughts

Link building, no matter the goal, is hard work if you want it to be done ethically and with enduring value. Building a healthy link portfolio can help you generate traffic from a wide variety of referral sources, while also increasing your overall online presence and making sure you own more of your branded search terms. Be sure to cast a wide net by working with many different sites and platforms.

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Google Ad Grants policy changes include 5% CTR minimum, up from 1%

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By Ginny Marvin

Google is making changes to Ad Grants, the AdWords program that provides search advertising grants of up to $10,000 per month to non-profits.

As first reported by Robert Brady of Clix Marketing, advertisers and agencies began receiving email notification this week extolling the fact that more than 35,000 non-profits participate in the Google Grants program and news that it is lifting the $2 bid cap when campaigns use Maximize Conversions bid strategy.

That news was then followed by a set of links to updated policy pages. On those pages Brady discovered several other significant changes.

The biggest update is a new requirement for accounts to maintain a minimum 5 percent click-through rate (CTR). That’s an increase from a 1 percent CTR minimum. Accounts that miss that threshold for two consecutive months will be suspended. Accounts in jeopardy of being canceled will be “alerted through in-product notifications if your account is at risk of falling below 5 percent CTR with educational resources offered to improve.”

Other updates include:

  • Non-profits cannot buy branded keywords they don’t own.
  • Keywords must have quality scores of 2 or higher.
  • Campaigns must have at least two ad groups with at least two ads running in each.
  • Accounts also must have at least two sitelink extensions active.

The new policies go into effect on January 1, 2018 — just weeks away. Of the short timeline, Brady writes, “… asking nonprofits to make such significant changes on such short notice (only 17 days from email send before these go into effect) is just bad customer service. And if they try to say that one email and a few notifications in the interface are enough, then they don’t understand how busy nonprofits are.”

Last year, Google wound down the Grantspro program, which was the premium Google Grants offering for non-profits spending between $10,000 and $40,000 per month.

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Search in Pics: Life size Google snow globe, Bing bean chair, Menorah & more

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By Barry Schwartz

In this week’s Search In Pictures, here are the latest images culled from the web, showing what people eat at the search engine companies, how they play, who they meet, where they speak, what toys they have and more.

Life size Google snow globe:

Source: Instagram

Bing bean chair:


Source: Twitter

Google Dublin Menorah:


Source: Instagram

Google branded Christmas tree ornaments:


Source: Instagram

Googlers doing Christmas carols at the GooglePlex:


Source: Instagram

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