Campaign Magazine

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
Face Off

Face Off

Originally written for the September 22nd 2019 issue of Campaign Middle East magazine

Our faces say a lot about us. They let other people know whether we’re happy or sad, angry or afraid, surprised or disgusted. They’re a window into our emotional state. And as facial recognition technology evolves, our faces are also becoming an increasingly useful tool to help us navigate the digital world; a key that we don’t need to remember to bring with us when we’re leaving the house in the morning. Today we can use our faces for everything from opening our phone’s lock screen to getting through customs at the airport, and in some countries to pay for goods at a store checkout or access the subway. At the same time, people seem increasingly obsessed with facial augmentation apps like Face App and filters on Snapchat, experimenting to see what they’d look like as an elderly person, as a baby, or even as the opposite sex.

More concerning perhaps is the rise of facial augmentation technology that lets people manipulate the faces in videos. You’ve probably already seen some of these ‘Deep Fake’ videos online; David Beckham seemingly speaking nine different languages fluently in a video for a Malaria charity, or comedian Bill Hader seamlessly warping into Tom Cruise or Arnold Schwarzenegger while doing impressions of them. A new app called Zao that’s gaining popularity in China lets users place themselves into famous movie clips with eerie accuracy simply by uploading a picture of their face. All harmless fun maybe, but as this technology gets better, and becomes more readily accessible to anyone with a smartphone, it raises the question of how it might be misused. We frequently have to suspend our disbelief when we’re looking at the actual news these days, whatever about ‘Fake News’, and while we’ve become increasingly sceptical about what we read online, now it seems that we can’t even rely on the mantra of ‘seeing is believing’.

From a marketing point of view, some make-up brands have achieved success with facial augmentation, launching AR lenses that let consumers virtually ‘try on’ make-up to name but one example. And when it comes to Deep Fake-style technology, maybe there’s potential for some novel marketing concepts too, like letting users place themselves and their friends into a video advertisement. No doubt we’re not that far away from some big brand nailing this concept and hoovering up a bunch of industry awards. But this novelty will quickly wear off, and marketers must be careful about not going too far by slotting users into ads without their permission, especially considering the heightened concerns around privacy and creepy targeting tactics these days. I can’t think of much worse than scrolling through my social feed and seeing my own face looking back at me from every ad.

Posted by Rob in Campaign Magazine, Media, Mobile
A Jungle In The Desert

A Jungle In The Desert

Can Amazon shake up the digital ad industry in the Middle East like it has done in the US?

Originally featured in the March 10th 2019 issue of Campaign Middle East magazine

What comes to mind when you think of Amazon? Maybe the world’s biggest online retail platform – the ‘everything store’. Or perhaps it’s consumer products like the Alexa-enabled smart speaker and Kindle e-Reader, or an army of delivery drones and warehouse robots that are revolutionizing retail logistics. Or maybe even as one of the world’s biggest cloud hosting platforms. Truth is, Amazon is a lot of different things to a lot of different users. While its online marketplace might be what the company is best known for, Amazon makes money in a lot more ways than just taking a cut off products sold on its site.

One such way is its burgeoning digital ad business, a platform that is beginning to mount a serious challenge to the current duopoly of Google and Facebook. Amazon is gaining traction charging companies to promote their products on both the Amazon website and a growing display network across the web. Brands can pay to feature their products prominently in product searches, on individual product pages, and also as regular display ads for products for sale on Amazon itself and even on third-party sites.

In 2018, Amazon made $10 billion from its ad platform, a massive jump from $2.8 billion in 2017, making it the third-biggest player in the space, behind only Google and Facebook. To put it in perspective, Amazon’s $10 billion in ad revenue still considerably trails Facebook ($56 billion in 2018) and Google (a whopping $137 billion in 2018), although the fact that this vertical has grown so quickly over the last couple of years is a hugely impressive.

While these two Goliaths are far bigger currently, the advantage that Amazon has over them is that users actually shop on Amazon rather than just search the web as on Google, or browse social media as on Facebook. As such, their ads are seen in places where the user is in an active buying mindset. And while other platforms know what users are searching for or looking at, Amazon knows what they ultimately end up buying. Such information can be incredibly valuable to brands willing to pay for the right placement. Another trend that’s working in Amazon’s favour is that consumers are increasingly starting online product searches directly on Amazon instead of Google. This increased search traffic is attracting third-party sellers and the ad placements available give them a unique opportunity to usurp rivals at the point of sale, even when a customer searches directly for a competitor.

While Amazon’s ad platform is still less sophisticated than its rivals, it is constantly improving and recent months have seen a slew of new features that make the platform more robust and easier for advertisers to use. The company has been expanding a self-service option for ad agencies and brands to take advantage of its data on shoppers, which includes hundreds of automated audience segments, as well as targeting based on shopping behavior and customer demographics. To make it less confusing to brands, all advertising features have recently been folded under the Amazon Advertising umbrella, echoing a similar move by Google last year. Through its dominance in e-commerce in the US, Amazon has become integral to the advertising industry there. Brands are threatened by its power, but also know that they have to maintain a presence on the site or risk being marginalized, and one of the best ways to get seen now on Amazon is to buy ads.

Since acquiring Souq.com for a rumoured $580 million in 2017, Amazon has been relatively hands-off, at least from a consumer perspective. All that looks set to change, however, as the company gets ready to shutter the Souq.com site and rebrand as Amazon.ae in the UAE, later doing the same in Saudi Arabia. The revamped site would look similar to Amazon’s other international websites, like Amazon UK or Amazon Germany, giving it a more unified appearance and brand in the region. The new platform will also be better-integrated with the same logistics and seller back-end system as the US, which will presumably include integration with the growing ad network too. The Middle East e-commerce sector is growing at a rapid pace with online sales expected to double to $48.8 billion by 2021 according to a report by Fitch Solutions Macro Research. With more people shopping online, and starting the product search directly on these large e-commerce channels too, brands will need to maintain their presence there if they want to be seen. Assuming that these capabilities will soon be available in the Middle East, this presents an opportunity for forward-thinking advertisers in the region who are willing to try something new.

Posted by Rob in Advertising, Amazon, Campaign Magazine, Dubai, e-Commerce
The Year Ahead For… Social Media

The Year Ahead For… Social Media

This article was originally featured in the Predictions 2019 issue of Campaign Middle East magazine on 13th Jan 2019.

It’s that time of year again, and while it’s usually a bit of a folly to try and predict the cycle of  broad consumer trends based on the layout of the Gregorian calendar, it doesn’t hurt to look at how some trends might continue to evolve over the coming months. While many yearly predictions can end up turning into a game of buzzword bingo (I’m looking at you Blockchain, AI, AR etc.), instead, the below focuses more on what the average user might experience on social media moving into 2019, and thus what advertisers should take note of. This is not an exhaustive list for sure, but it might help you make sense of the social media landscape over the coming months.

STORIES, STORIES EVERYWHERE

In the not-too-distant past, the News Feed was the centre of all life on social media, but in the last two years, much of this usage has shifted to Stories. People just can’t get enough of the ephemeral vertical video format. The incredible popularity of Stories has been one of the most noticeable trends in social media over the last 12 months, with every platform seemingly adopting the format. Today, more than 1.2 billion users around the world share Stories each day across Instagram (400m+), Facebook / Messenger (300m+), WhatsApp (450m+) and Snapchat (150m+). Facebook’s chief product officer Chris Cox has predicted that, in 2019, Stories will surpass feed posts as the top way to share on its channels.

At the same time, other platforms like YouTube, Netflix and even LinkedIn have introduced Stories-style video over the last few months and will undoubtedly aim to utilize this format in the coming year. With this in mind, expect to see vertical video continue to become even more ubiquitous across the board, giving advertisers more of an incentive to create custom creative for the format rather than just adapting current assets.

AD OVERLOAD

Ironically, despite the recent growth in popularity of Stories, advertisers have been slow to fully embrace the format. Expect this to change in 2019. With the feed having been saturated with ads for some years now, the Stories feature is prime real-estate for growth, so expect to see more and more ads there in 2019. While revenue and user growth is slowing on Facebook, Instagram is booming. As such, expect to see an even bigger push for ads on Instagram as Facebook looks to offset this slowing ad growth. The Instagram feed will inevitably continue to become even more clogged with ads, while advertising will also start rolling out on WhatsApp too. As these platforms struggle to meet revenue targets, the once-sacred ideal of user experience will continue taking a back seat to cold hard cash.

With more and more ads getting in the way of regular content, and users becoming more aware of, and resistant to, the concept of targeted advertising, at what point will they start pushing back? Ad blockers are becoming an ever-popular way of dodging this onslaught, and brands must tread carefully so as not to alienate their audience.

INFLUENCER MARKETING MATURES

With it becoming ever harder to make an impact on users with traditional digital ads, brands are looking for more left-field ways of spending their budget on social media. Influencer marketing might have been considered a gimmicky and somewhat contentious approach in some circles up until recently, but this is an area that is maturing each year. With new regulation being introduced in the UAE in 2018, brands can be more confident that their budget is being spent legitimately. But with more money at stake, it’s increasingly important to choose creators that are a good fit with your brand, and to carefully consider what type of content you want them to create for you.

There is a huge opportunity for creating impactful content via influencers, but brands must be willing to budget accordingly. As the old saying goes, you get what you pay for. Social media marketing in general was initially seen as a fluffy channel where marketers could get free distribution until organic reach evaporated in 2014. Since then, marketers have been forced to re-evaluate this belief and consider it as they would any other paid channel; one that requires a dedicated budget and a well thought-out strategy. The same is now true for influencer marketing.

CLEANING OUT THE CLOSET

2018 was a watershed year for social media as most platforms faced increasing pressure from both users and the media over how they regulate content and manage user data. This will likely intensify in 2019. From concerns over user privacy and ‘fake news’ on Facebook, to trolling on Twitter and bot accounts on Instagram, many users are getting fed-up and these platforms are aware of the threat that this could pose to their sustainability in the long run. As users become more knowledgeable about how digital platforms make money from their presence, the platforms are being held to a higher standard and pressured into becoming more transparent. Expect to see more moves to appease these concerns over the coming months.

Posted by Rob in Advertising, Campaign Magazine, Facebook, Links of the Week, Social Media