Google says that user experience will soon affect your search ranking

I originally wrote this article for Campaign Middle East magazine

Cast your mind back to 2015. It might seem like a lifetime ago for a lot of reasons, but it was also an inflection point of sorts for digital media – social media had finally revealed itself as a pay-to-play platform for advertisers, Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) brands had really started to take off, and mobile internet traffic had started to overtake desktop traffic. By 2015, pretty much everyone had finally gotten themselves a smartphone. But not every brand had updated their website to be responsive. We all remember having to wait forever for pages to load and pinch our screens to zoom-in in order to read tiny text because some websites hadn’t bothered updating to a mobile-friendly design. This was not a good experience. For a platform like Google that made a living by sending people to the right websites this was a problem. If you keep sending users to sites that frustrate them, eventually people will stop using your service. That’s why, with an April 2015 algorithm update, Google finally started punishing websites that still refused to provide a good mobile experience by giving priority to websites that displayed well on smartphones when users made a search on their mobile devices. Websites with large text, easy-to-click links, and displays that resized to fit the user’s screen were given a search ranking boost. And this makes sense. Google wants users to have the best experience they possibly can. For both Google and the end-user this was a win-win. On the flip side, this move effectively deprioritised millions of sites around the world that had yet to optimise for mobile meaning that, finally, brands had to sit up and take mobile seriously. Mobile had ‘arrived’. Something similar is now happening with user experience.

Taking user experience seriously

Last month, Google announced that it will be expanding the set of user experience metrics that are taken into account as factors for ranking search results, so the better your user experience, the better chance you have of Google sending traffic to your site. Google already takes page speed and mobile responsiveness into account when it comes to ranking pages, but these new criteria focus on how users perceive the experience of interacting with a web page – how quickly the main page elements load, how they perform when the user first tries to interact with them, and the stability of content as it loads (so you don’t accidentally tap that button when it shifts under your finger!). Like trying to move brands away from having unresponsive websites on mobile, Google is now trying to weed out the little things that make the user experience that bit more annoying. These are real and tangible things that your users notice when they come into contact with your site that ruin the experience, like trying to shop at a supermarket with sticky floors, a confusing store layout and long queues at the checkout counter. You’re shooting yourself in the foot by not giving these areas the attention that they deserve.

Having a great user experience should be table stakes for any ambitious brand in 2020. Customers these days have high expectations, and plenty of companies have perfected the art of giving them what they want fast, sometimes anticipating what they want before they even ask for it. This is the standard that you have to meet in today’s consumer landscape. User experience has well and truly ‘arrived’.

Food for thought

Google stressed that these criteria will not affect rankings until next year, but once they do, they will become a significant factor in where you show up in search. Back when the mobile-first algorithm update came into place, content marketing company BrightEdge tracked over 20,000 URLs and saw a 21% decrease in non mobile-friendly sites on the first three pages of search results. If something similar happens with this user experience update, you do not want to be in the 21% of sites that fall off the edge.

Having a fast-loading, easy-to-use website that shows your visitors relevant content and generally gives them a more personalised experience will improve your key site metrics – time spent, pages views and even conversion. And soon it will directly affect your search ranking too. At Horizontal, we believe in the mantra of CX4CA (Customer Experience for Competitive Advantage), and the conviction that brands can build loyalty and increase conversion by removing friction and improving the user experience. Google echoes this belief, and the message from them is loud and clear – if you want to rank highly in search results you better make sure that you have an easy-to-use and intuitive website. If you don’t, your competitor will. Is your site ready?

Posted by Rob in Campaign Magazine, Google, Mobile, SEO
The power of first-party data in a cookie-less world

The power of first-party data in a cookie-less world

I originally wrote this article for the May 31st 2020 issue of Campaign Middle East magazine

The humble web browser cookie doesn’t get much love these days. Despite being part of the fabric of the internet since web browsers took off in the mid-nineties, cookies still get a bad rap. While they may have been integral to the way digital advertising and e-commerce has worked for over twenty years, things are about to change with Google revealing plans to block third-party cookies on its Chrome browser from 2022 onwards. Not all cookies are the same however and it’s important to know the difference. First-party cookies can be helpful, enabling websites that you visit to remember who you are when you go back to them, keeping users logged into their accounts and remembering website preferences or shopping carts etc. Third-party cookies on the other hand can track user activity as you move from site to site across the web, letting advertisers record information about your web browsing history and behavior over an extended period of time. This type of cookie provides the foundation for programmatic advertising, ad targeting and retargeting – an essential element in the effort to serve relevant ads to each user. The digital ad ecosystem we see today would not exist in its current form without them. But change is coming. With third-party cookies being blocked, it will be harder to get people to your site in the first place, and also harder to get them to come back once they have already visited. Basically, it’s about to get a whole lot harder to create effective digital ad campaigns, which means that it’s even more important for brands to capitalize on every visitor that comes to their site in the first place.

Making the most of each visit to your website

While third-party cookies are about to go the way of the dodo, first-party cookies will remain alive and well. Indeed their value will increase, giving any brand that collects and truly utilizes their first-party data a big advantage in this new environment. Knowing who your website visitors are, where they are from and whether they have interacted with any of your campaigns or website elements before can be incredibly valuable, but it’s what you actually do with that information that is key. Too many brands today rely on retargeting as a safety net for not making a sale or conversion at the first time of asking rather than putting a system in place to take what they know about their users and using it to make the experience better and increase conversions. The onus is on you to make the most of the data that you have. And there is a whole lot that you can do with that data.

Offer a Personalised experience

  • Offering a more personalised experience to your website visitors will reduce the chance that they will bounce, letting you make the most of their initial visit and removing the need to retarget them with a message to revisit your site at a later time. To personalise your website, you can adapt elements like images, copy and calls-to-action based on what you know about your user, e.g. who they are, where they live and whether they reached your site from a campaign-specific source.

Nudge visitors along the Customer Journey

  • As visitors engage with your site, you can adapt the content based on their behaviour. For example, on the first page a user sees on your website you could use a designated element to showcase a brand video. If the visitor watches the video, the same module can update to feature a newsletter sign-up form, then a call-to-action to download an ebook or white paper and, after that, communicate a product offer. Showing sequential content lets you warm up a prospect with educational material before trying to close the sale.

Build a user profile based on behaviour over time

  • Offering a more personalised experience and nudging visitors through the Customer Journey will increase the chances of making a sale there-and-then. But it will also make it more likely that your visitors will return to your site of their own accord once they leave. And when they do, you can use the data you collect to build an ever-evolving user profile to help you better cater to them over time. You can track page views and interactions with site elements and calls-to-action etc. and use this to segment your website visitors into Personas and show them more relevant content based on their Persona over time. Having a full 360° view of your customer that includes email marketing and purchase history etc. will give you even more power to show them relevant stuff over time.

Future-proofing your business

In a cookie-less world, brands will be forced to rethink the way they communicate and interact with customers on digital channels. The tides are turning and brands that don’t adapt will be left behind. The good news is that there’s time to adjust. Data is power, but measuring and acting on it can be a challenge. If your CMS is not capable of any of the above it might be time to rethink your web platform. What are you waiting for?

Posted by Rob in Campaign Magazine, Tech
Can Careem become the SuperApp of the Middle East?

Can Careem become the SuperApp of the Middle East?

I originally wrote this article for Forbes Middle East

Hot on the heels of launching a new bike rental network across Dubai last month, ride-hailing app Careem has hinted at ambitious plans to further branch out from being a transportation and food delivery platform, and become an all-encompassing ‘SuperApp’ that offers users everything from digital payments to financial services.

Most of us think of Careem as primarily a taxi app, but the company has been steadily spinning off ancillary services over the last couple of years. Careem NOW, a food delivery and courier service, was launched in 2018, followed last year by Careem BUS, an on-demand bus service in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as well as Careem PAY, a type of digital currency and payment platform that can be used within the Careem ecosystem. And just last month, phase one of Careem BIKE was launched, letting users rent from an almost 800-strong fleet of bicycles at 78 locations across Dubai. But this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Continue reading

Posted by Rob in Tech
The mystery of the most expensive painting ever sold

The mystery of the most expensive painting ever sold

I originally wrote this article for the October 27th 2019 issue of Arabian Business magazine

Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘lost’ painting, Salvator Mundi, sold for $450m back in 2017, becoming the most expensive painting ever sold. It was supposed to go on public display at the Louvre Abu Dhabi last September but, despite the auction taking place almost two years ago, it hasn’t been seen since.

Read the full article here

Posted by Rob in Tech
It’s time to push back against distraction – Nir Eyal Interview

It’s time to push back against distraction – Nir Eyal Interview

I interviewed ‘Indistractable’ author Nir Eyal for the October 2019 issue of Entrepreneur Middle East magazine

We live in a world of constant distraction these days. Or at least that’s the way it feels. An army of devices and digital media channels call out to us, demanding our attention and sucking up our time. It’s getting harder and harder to focus on the things that actually matter. We’ve all been there. Whether it’s trying to concentrate on something at work only for a never-ending stream of emails to keep us from reaching a flow state, or in a family or social setting where everyone in the group has their head buried in their phone, these distractions are taking over our lives.

In his new book Indistractable, Nir Eyal is on a mission to give readers the tools to combat the multitude of distractions of the modern world. Nir’s previous book ‘Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products’ outlined the ways in which tech companies keep us returning for more. Now he’s back, but this time to help us stand up to this onslaught and guard ourselves from a world of round-the-clock connectivity. We had a chat with Nir to learn more about what we can do to push back and regain control of our attention.

 

In your new book Indistractable you aim to help people control their time and attention by understanding the psychology of distraction. What are some of the most common distractions we face today that you’ve come across in your research?

When I started writing Indistractable I thought that the distractions that we generally face were the usual suspects; the pings, dings, and rings in our environment that prompt us to do things we don’t really want to do. What I was surprised to realize is that these guys are just one source of the problem. A much more pernicious source are the distractions that we don’t see coming. For example, we don’t think about how distracting the open floor plan office is, or how distracting meetings can be, or how our constant reacting to emails or group chats can be something that derails us from achieving our bigger objectives and more important goals when it comes to the workplace.

Equally, we don’t understand how many of our distractions are spurred, not by the external triggers in our environment, but within, from an uncomfortable emotional state that we seek to escape from. If we don’t understand these internal triggers, we will always find distraction in one thing or another. So it’s very important not only to focus on the obvious potential sources of distraction, but also to dive deeper into the more pernicious forms, the less clear sources of distraction like those in the office setting, or like those that start from within us.

 

So distraction has as much to do with what we are avoiding as it does with what we look for when we reach for our devices. How does this work?

When we try and understand the source of distraction we have to start with why we do anything, not only why we do things against our better interest when we get distracted, but what is the nature of all human motivation and behavior. Most people will tell you that it’s about the pursuit of pleasure – this is called Freud’s Pleasure Principle. But it turns out that it’s not actually true. From a neurological basis, the brain gets us to act, not through pleasure, but through pain. It’s all about the desire to escape discomfort. So if our behavior is spurred by a desire to escape discomfort, this means that time management is essentially pain management. And if we don’t understand the fundamental reasons why we are looking to escape into our devices, or with some other distraction, we will always become distracted by something. So the first step has to be to master our internal triggers.

 

When we feel a lack of control at work we often reach for our tech tools to feel better. Why do we do this, and how can distractions hurt us at work?

Well it’s pretty clear that the more distracted we are at work, the poorer our work performance is. We know our work suffers because of these distractions and we know that in order to compensate for an uncomfortable sensation a lot of the time what we do is reach for our devices. The kind of feelings that we are looking to escape are the usual suspects: boredom, loneliness, fatigue, stress, anxiety, a lack of control. All of these things spur us to look for a distraction. Apart from checking our devices, one of the main reasons that people call frivolous meetings, or send emails they shouldn’t send, is because they are desperate for a sense of control, for a sense of agency. We’ve seen people who call these frivolous meetings just because they want to hear themselves talk or because they don’t want to do the real work of actually figuring out the problem for themselves.

 

You mention that distraction is contagious. How can this negatively affect us in a social setting?

That’s true, it’s called ‘social contagion’, and what we find is that when we use our device in a social setting, or in a meeting, it has a similar effect as when a smoker sees another person smoking and says “oh well, now must be a good time to smoke”. We see this in social settings when someone takes out their phone and starts checking Facebook or their email or whatever, it leads other people to do the same. This is particularly harmful when it comes to the work environment, when you see other people in a meeting checking their email you can’t help but think “I’ve got emails too. I better check them as well”. And so that’s why if I’m going to a meeting in the workplace or in a social setting I aim to leave those devices out of that environment because we really can’t be fully present with other people that we care about or other people in the workplace. Our minds aren’t fully there if they’re half on our phones and half with the people around us.

 

With that in mind, how much does our success and happiness depend on our ability to manage our attention?

I would say that it is a significant factor. Some people will argue that procrastination – delaying a task that you intended to do with a diversion or re-prioritization – has some good aspects. While there’s nothing wrong with re-prioritizing if your circumstances change or something gets in your way, the problem is that when people procrastinate they don’t allow for it in advance. They procrastinate in the moment, and that is essentially skirting your responsibility to yourself. We know what happens when we lie to other people – it feels bad. You carry around that guilt all day and it’s horrible. Well it turns out that when we lie to ourselves the same thing occurs. We spend time rationalizing why we didn’t do something. We beat ourselves up and say “oh, I’m lazy. I’m this. I’m that”, and none of that feels good. None of that is helpful. There’s a really pernicious effect to this habit that we get into around procrastinating. When circumstances change we can re-prioritize, but we don’t want to do that in the moment. If you commit to doing a task, stick by what you say you’re going to do. It feels so great when you get to the end of your day and are able to say “I did what I planned to do”. I recommend that people reassess their calendar at least once a week to make sure that the week ahead is still consistent with their values and goals. But we don’t want to change our plans in the moment. It has a really negative effect on our sense of well-being and our happiness.

 

To what extent can understanding the psychology of distraction help us guard ourselves against it?

Initially I didn’t understand why I kept doing the same bad things that were not consistent with my values and goals and not getting the things done that I did want to do. It wasn’t until I understood the deeper psychology of distraction that I could do something about it. There’s a famous quote that’s attributed to Einstein, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results”. And that’s what most of us do. Day in and day out we keep getting distracted by the same things. We have that huge To Do list, half of which gets rolled over from one day to the next, and we don’t get the things done that we say we’re going to get done. That’s insanity and we’ve got to stop. And so the idea here is that when you understand the deeper psychology of distraction, when you understand what actually drives us to do the things we don’t want to do that are against our better interests we can do something about it. And that’s what being Indistractable is all about.

 

Many entrepreneurs and small business owners struggle with the idea of disconnecting and feel that breaking with an ‘always on’ approach might negatively affect their business. What do you say to them?

So this is exactly what Leslie Perlo, a researcher at Harvard Business School, found when she went to do a case study with the Boston Consulting Group and she heard this feedback from a culture that had very high employee turnover. People were dropping left and right, and the excuse was that while we’re in the Client Services business we need to always be available. And it turned out that it was just an excuse. People think to themselves, “How can I get some focused work time in my day?”, and it’s actually not that hard to figure out if you want to. There are solutions you can use like the Do Not Disturb function that comes with every smartphone where if somebody really needs to contact you they can text you with the word “Urgent” and it will get through to you, and that’s just one of dozens of ideas I mention in the book. But fundamentally, we need to ask ourselves if it’s really true that we need to be always-on all of the time. For most jobs out there you need some focused work time, not just constantly reacting to emails and meetings. We can’t do our best work unless we have time to reflect, to strategize, to think. And so it behooves you and your business to make time for reflection in your day.

Posted by Rob in Tech