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With the population of mobile web device users overtaking pc-web users, several of our publisher customers have asked us to help them deliver search and discovery services to their mobile customers. Specifically, publishers asked us to think about how to help them engage their web audience segments on tablets and smartphones. We have learned a great deal and validated some intuitions from recent months of experiments in this area. Here are some highlights that we wanted to share.

Limited Screen Real Estate Requires Intent-Driven Relevance

Mobile users won’t put up with trial-and-error search, loading page after page looking for what they need. And just like the pc-web, mobile web surfers have difficulty accurately expressing their explicit interest preferences when you ask them. The best way to help mobile users with smaller screens and limited bandwidth is to leverage implicit search and discovery behavior and apply the natural resulting content filters.

Less Typing is More for Mobile Users

Mobile users don’t like to type. Tablets and smartphones have the ability to zoom and drag screen items with touch gestures. We’ve found this capability enhances mobile users’ search and discovery experience. The more drag-and-drop features you include, eliminating the need to type, the more your service will be used.

Push vs Pull Mobile Discovery

Mobile users appreciate search and discovery services that proactively deliver information they care about. This can be accomplished if you allow them to define their favorite content sources and apply personalized relevance algorithms.

Location Awareness Built into the Service

Users increasingly expect “location relevancy” from the search results of their mobile devices. The Collarity relevance engine provides the flexibility and control to flip between location aware to global for mobile search and discovery.

We are very excited about helping our publishers and their web visitors with new mobile services. Publishers can leap into the mobile device universe (tablets and smartphones) enabling their users to connect to the relevant content on their website and on the general web with a new engaging experience. Watch this space for further updates.

There’s been a lot of discussion in the blogoshere in the past week about whether search engines help or hurt web news properties like the Wall Street Journal, who seem to be wondering out loud about blocking the indexing of their content. Publishers feel too much of their content is being consumed on news search/aggregation sites, effectively cutting them out of the revenue generation loop. The search engines say they are the launching point for a huge percentage of  the publishers’ daily web visitors, increasing the publishers’ ad earnings on every arrival.

With so much pressure on publisher business models to pull out of their current nose dive, it’s understandable that the debate is happening. However, there is no agreement on how the web landscape shifts if media sites like the WSJ pull the indexing plug. The situation is even less clear, now that social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook are playing major roles in the daily news routines of the average web surfer.

Collarity believes that media publisher business models could be strengthened if they concentrate on making the most out of every visitor who does arrive at their site from a search engine. The key is audience engagement. The first page view must lead to a second and a third, if publishers hope to thrive online. Publishers must actively engage each visitor (like the classic proactive deli-counter sales person — “what else can I get you today?”) with additional content suggestions and relevant advertising. The trick is, of course, how do you choose which content suggestions and which ads to serve on that initial visit? If it isn’t an intent-driven real-time formula,  based on anonymous site segment actions, it is doomed to failure.

In addition, our experience shows that publishers need to be paying attention to the attention their visitors are paying on sites like Facebook and Twitter. We are working on some new solutions to help publishers in that area — more soon.

Interesting article (Google’s vision for future of search) in the Telegraph where Alfred Spector, Google’s VP of Reasearch and Special Initiatives, describes Google’s current R&D direction. According to Spector, relevance evolution involves hybrid intelligence, where computers learn from the search habits of people. Hmmm… that sounds familiar. Some excerpts:

He also predicted a future in which “hybrid intelligence” – the principle of computers learning from the search and browsing habits of users to refine search results and serve up the most useful pages first – would be a key technology underpinning web search and results delivery.

“If people click on a result, then that’s an indication we probably got it right,” he said. “We can reinforce the behaviour of the system to weight it towards that pattern. It’s a really powerful, data-driven approach.”

The vision of relevance moving from the link-driven-back-end (link topology/pagerank) to the user-driven-front-end (searcher implicit feedback) sparked the launch of Collarity in 2005. The idea of search migrating from a library model (the books you see on the shelves are the same as the ones I see, organized by a linkogopoly) to a more personalized model, where your search results are driven by your choices and help from like-minded communities of other searchers.

This blog, starting from our introduction to this post, chronicles the evolution of Collarity’s people-driven relevance approach. Here is a group of selected posts illustrating many of the ideas.

  • Nov 2006 - Web 2.0: Implicit Personalization of Search
  • May 2007 - Collarity: Anonymous Implicit Actions Speak “Truer” than Words
  • May 2007 - Collarity: Power to Your People
  • June 2007 - Collarity and the Implicit “Human Touch”
  • Sept 2007 - Collarity on the Rise of Automated Decision Making
  • Mar 2008 - Collarity Doesn’t Need to Know You’re a Dog on the Internet
  • May 2009 - Number One Silicon Valley Trend? (Implicit Data/Internet/Web)
  • With all the Facebook and Twitter headlines, it’s easy to get the feeling that the average web surfer is spending most of their time on social networking sites or sending tweets to all of their followers. A recent Internet activity study by the Online Publisher Association (OPA) reveals that web users are still spending the vast majority of their time looking for good sources of news, information, and entertainment.

    “In the six years that the IAI (Internet Activity Index) has reported on how consumers are spending their time online, we have seen some significant shifts, most notably the emergence of Community,” said Pam Horan, president of the OPA. “While Community has grown, data from the IAI proves that Content is still king; these sites continue to be a place where consumers spend the majority of their online time and provide an environment for brand marketers to reach and engage with consumers.”

    Even in the face of expanded social networking competition, more people than ever are looking for good content. According to the IAI study, internet users spend 42% of their time on content sites (up from 34% in 2003), versus 13% of their time on community sites (Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, etc.). The study also shows an increase of 88% in the amount of time spent on content sites since 2003.

    For web publishers, whose business model depends on page views and advertising, it’s more important than ever to make sure visitors can find the content they’re looking for via effective search services. In addition, publishers can drive incremental monetization via discovery and recommendation services — helping people find additional interesting content after they arrive. That’s why content sites like ClickZ, SearchEngineWatch, Crain’s Chicago Business, Televisa, and Fox TV Stations leverage Collarity’s engagement platform to guide visitors to the content that interests them, based on the collective intelligence of each site’s entire audience.

    Levy Cohen, Collarity Co-Founder/CEO, will once again be sharing Collarity success stories at the upcoming Digital Hollywood Conference, October 19-22, 2009 in Santa Monica. This time, Levy will be participating in the “Video Advertising: How New Consumer Habits Are Driving the Advertising Community to Innovate, and the Challenges with Scale” panel taking place on Wednesday, October 21st, from 9am to 10:15am.

    Collarity was chosen for the panel because of its unique ability to match videos to the website audience segments with the greatest affinity for them, through search and recommendation applications. This ability to connect web visitors with videos that will interest them is based on anonymous interaction data of all site visitors with all the site’s videos. In addition, Collarity is able to serve more relevant search and contextual advertising, in conjunction with the videos, using this same anonymous behavioral data — increasing the revenue web publishers receive from serving digital video media.

    Google Too Big?

    This week, Techcrunch published a lightning-rod-post crying for more disclosure/transparency from Google (irony = post is signed by anonymous “guest author”) and asks whether Google’s market dominance should be regulated (The Time Has Come To Regulate Search Engine Marketing And SEO). We at Collarity feel that while Google may be an overwhelming influencer in the ecosystem (essentially creating it), it is “early days” in the world of search (and paid search advertising) and the mechanics of normalizing access is better served by the competitive market.

    According to Comscore, Google’s query market share (driven by consumers) stands at 65% and its paid search market (driven by advertisers) share has risen to 77%. Normally, you would expect those percentages to be roughly equal and this frustrates paid search competitors. This skewed ratio is evidence that advertisers favor Google – probably because of its market share. Additional transparency will level these figures over time. Advertisers will eventually demand more accountability and visibility into how their dollars are being spent and the market will gravitate toward the players who provide more of these details. Moreover, the market will rationalize and budgets will flow until the system gets to an equilibrium determined by the ROI achieved, with budgets allocated between different Ad Networks.

    Yesterday, John Dvorak wrote a tongue-in-cheek PC Mag article (Why Microsoft Named Its Search Engine Bing) about Microsoft’s new search engine, Bing, in advance of its expected unveiling sometime this week. While John poked some fun with possible b-i-n-g acronyms, he included some very kind words regarding Collarity’s search approach.

    My advice to the company [Microsoft] is to try to understand what’s going on at Collarity, where it’s easy to see what a new idea for search is all about. I’m actually kind of surprised that one of the big three hasn’t already made Collarity’s developers an offer they could not refuse. Maybe none of these guys are paying attention.

    We hope Microsoft’s new search product is successful. Most of all, we are happy to be included among the list of innovative search technologies to pay attention to. Collarity demonstrates, every minute, that there’s room for interest-driven relevancy to improve search and ad targeting The proof comes through the increased web visitor satisfaction and monetization levels that our web publishers see.

    In some ways, we are fortunate to listen to many large publishers who are evolving quickly and seek the highest CPMs on their sites. We all know that online revenues and sell-through rates are crashing, and haven’t seen the recession bottom out yet. Recently in MediaPost one columnist wanted publishers to change their habits, in part by throwing out clickthrough rates (CTRs) to measure success.

    There’s plenty of hand-wringing about how to appeal to the brand advertisers but we’re here to defend the humble clickthrough rate. We have no quarrels that brand impact is most important, but these ratios are one of the drivers that describes engagement online. Clickthroughs are certainly imperfect, but need to stay in the mix.

    • For all tried-and-true brand marketers, this is a return to causal analysis. Since the old days, consumer packaged goods companies have studied all the influences on their product volumes – including price changes, product extensions, in-store tactics, media spends, and other marketplace activities. While there’s a data tsunami, there’s no doubt that branders press different marketing levers based on market share and sales trends.
    • Meanwhile, brand recognition has always mattered for all media buys. Online ad sales have been growing so quickly that the focus had been on the media spending line, and how to make banners and other units an efficient reach/frequency spend. It’s true that all media vie for the ad dollars of these big spenders, and off-line media have been running their awareness tests for decades. Of course, awareness is an important factor but not literally the end-game.

    Things are different online. The point is that publishers have a terrific opportunity to target dynamically in ways the other media could only dream of. Thus response rates, as measured by CTRs, are an imperfect yet valid tracking mechanism – and ultimately a causal factor that contributes to brand awareness.

    It’s therefore a true head-scratcher when media cognoscenti say that CPM advertisers should belittle and ignore CTRs. Do you think the branders ignore what they are doing elsewhere, like spending money on an end-aisle display and ignoring whether that influences sales? Of course not.

    What’s heartening is that the online CPM ads can be measure by more than impressions delivered to “the right places” where you think targeted audiences live. Online capabilities to target based on site content and interests associated with the visitors is a gold mine – and can be practically measured by clicks or time spent online. The humble clickthrough rate isn’t fancy, but let’s keep it in our tool chest for now.

    As we know, Interest-Based Targeting can and does work, if it is applied correctly. Unfortunately, the term behavioral targeting - also known as BT - was abused over time and it’s good that Google came along with a refreshing definition.

    There have previously been two schools of ad targeting, followed by advertising networks:

    • Contextual: Based on the content shown on a page, how it’s been tagged by publishers or how it’s scraped by the ad network, the ads are targeted on the fly to match this content. If you are reading about Turkey, the country, then you might see an appropriate Istanbul travel ad right along with a turkey recipe.
    • Behavioral: Based on how publishers pre-define categories related to their site content. While simplified, if a site is about autos and in the network, an individual may be tagged and then see an auto ad while visiting an unrelated music destination on the network. Interests take precedence over the current behaviors or content.

    So it’s icing on the cake to see Google jump on the interest bandwagon, which attempts to merge practices from the two schools (see Google video). Google will rely on pre-set categories and individual preferences and then deliver Interest-Based Targeted ads. It may solve the “turkey recipe shown with Turkey the country” matter. The question is whether this is really a step forward or just BT we have known for years. Is Interest-Based Targeting the same old BT, but in the hands of a larger or better machine?

    At Collarity, we have always applauded harnessing of interests, and know that it’s important to understand what visitors surf collectively as a basis of ads and content targeting. While we place ads in front of individuals, Collarity is literally targeting to their interest groups rather than individual people. We have developed a platform that targets advertising based on anonymous users’ interests.

    We rely on anonymous stats and dynamic segmentation of users not only to preserve and maintain a high privacy level but also because we have discovered that it’s more effective. Collarity doesn’t succeed by following anyone around the web or across sites - instead we look at the interests of segments on the publisher’s site, to better cater to their user interests.

    It’s no secret that web publishers want to improve visitor loyalty by appealing to their varied interests. Along with their own content and features, larger publishers often include vertical content related to employment, weather or other categories from external suppliers – which are all monetized in their domains.

    Now there’s demand for socially-created content as well. According to a recent WSJ article , niche companies are arriving on the scene to act as aggregators, and they have the ability to curate the content, blogs and communities that appeal to specific audiences. Andrew Braccia, from Accell Partners, supports these vertical players and claims that “three to five years from now, people will no longer be drawing a distinction between traditional forms of publishing and what we know as blogs today.”

    Vertical content discovery may be important, but these niche publishers can’t make it alone because they would be challenged by low impressions and thus can’t deliver the right reach or frequency to advertisers. They turn to the bigger publishers but in a new content-sharing ecosystem, where ads can be targeted even if the content is “social” in nature.

    While traditional licensing arrangements seem to be a thing of the past, it’s not clear that publishers will embrace content without having a very clear revenue path and upside. We think that large publishers must be smart about their content and placements, without over-exposing it or putting into a some lost corner of their sites. After all, this socially-created content won’t be unique or proprietary to a specific publisher.

    The typical ad targeting approaches are thrown into disarray, with social or super-vertical content. Large publishers might already have a well-developed advertiser list that could be put off or otherwise feel the content isn’t what they expected. Put another way, ads that would be most appropriate for this niche content can’t be ignored either.

    We feel that advertising needs to be re-framed in this cross-fertilized environment – and operate based on the visitors interests makes the most sense rather than pre-defining the domain targets. It’s not the traditional behavioral approach that works best here, but a careful cultivation of the content and interactions to drive targeted advertising.

    Of course, Collarity is quite interested in the trend because we have been delivering these cross-domain and intra-domain content and recommendations, based on our collaborative filtering of site visitors. We are already working on these kinds of deliveries and seeing CPM boosts, and know that it’s possible to monetize well beyond the “category” targeting approaches typically used today.

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