Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Advertising Rules and Search Engines

Much has been written about the rules that Google and others have when it comes to advertising. The fear of many web site managers is that any paid advertising on their site will have dire consequences when it comes to their search engine rank or their Google PageRank value. While I have no idea what the exact rules are for the algorithms behind the search engines, what I do know is that the policies of Google, the biggest player in the search engine world, seem to allow many types of advertising.

Recently, while reviewing the polices of their Google AdSense policies, one paragraph about competitive advertising and services states that "In order to prevent user confusion, we do not permit Google ads or search boxes to be published on websites that also contain other ads or services formatted to use the same layout and colors as the Google ads or search boxes on that site. Although you may sell ads directly on your site, it is your responsibility to ensure these ads cannot be confused with Google ads."

There continues to be a fear among many web site owners that Google and others will punish sites for any kind of advertising, or that a "nofollow" attribute would have to placed in any kind of text link ad. I have yet to find any policy statement within Google's AdWords or AdSense that states this, though the belief that such a policy exists is widespread among site owners and managers.

There are cases where Google and others may punish a site, and I agree with sanctions in some cases. For example, if a site is clearly designed to game the system by artificially getting a high search engine rank and the site's content consists mostly of paid text links, then having the site ignored by search engines is in my opinion in the best interest of the consumer.

This doesn't mean that companies like Google that make their money in part from advertising enjoys competition. My interpretation of Google's policies, based in part on having conversations with Google representatives at industry meetings, is that although they would like to discourage links that exist mostly for the purpose of enhancing a site's PageRank value, and that there may be sanctions for sites that have a large number of these kinds of links, that they are not interested in punishing every site that has text link advertising.

The fear for many site owners is that they could be playing fair and seemingly within Google's rules and still get punished by having their PageRank reduced or having a drop in their search engine results, and to have these things to happen without notice or chance of appeal. This is a scenario I worry about on occasion. I currently manage about a dozen sites and blogs, and I also place significant content in places like YouTube and Facebook, This content is often closely related, and at any given time I may have dozens of relevant links connecting blog articles, web pages, online videos, and other resources. While a person looking at this collection of sites may be able to easily see a relationship, a search engine algorithm may evaluate designed to look for and punish paid link type relationships may not be able to do so.

My argument is that search engine companies are free to do what they wish when it comes to their search engines and related tools, and I think they should sanction activities that clearly undermine their usefulness of the search engine. While search engine companies may want to discourage advertising that they don't control, punishing sites isn't in their best interest and will likely not be an issue for most sites.

The following example may make it plain. If a set of sites for a particular subject area were consistently in the top ten results the major search engines and drew substantial traffic, it wouldn't be surprising that advertisers would want to work with those sites. If one one search engine decided to punish all sites with advertising, then the ten best sites on a subject, which happen to attract lots of advertising, would suddenly not be at the top of that search engines results for that subject area. The competing search engines that don't punish these sites would still have the best sites on the top of their results, which would provide their users with a better search experience.

If an search engine were truly putting sanctions on all sites that advertise, it would be pretty obvious once the top sites were no longer in the top results. In the past several yeas, I have not seen any pattern that suggests that this has been happening for Google or for the other top search engines.

I'll make no predictions about the future advertising policies of Google or any other search engine, but based on my experience, I believe sites that use dishonest or misleading advertising will be punished, but sites that use honest advertising that provides value to the site's visitors and that doesn't try to manipulate search engines will be treated fairly.

Friday, January 23, 2009

AirSafe.com, the New York Times Test, and Flight 1549

Since I launched AirSafe.com in 1996, one of the ways that I generated traffic was to get the attention of mainstream media. Most of the time, success is measured by a link to the site within an online story from a local newspaper or television station. If you visit AirSafe.com's media page at http://www.airsafe.com/pr/articles.htm and the Conversation at AirSafe.com podcast at podcast.airsafe.org, you'll find several of these kinds of articles and interviews.

You may think that an interview on the worldwide radio network of the BBC or a couple of minutes of conversation with Wolf Blitzer on CNN would lead to an avalanche of site visitors. I used to think that way too, until I reviewed the traffic statistics in the days after those events. There are however a few media entities that have consistently a huge effect on AirSafe.com's traffic, and the two that have consistently produced a combination of both high traffic and attention from other media entities are the New York Times and the USA Today.

Based on the role these two publications play, its not much of a surprise. The New York Times is very influential because it often influences what news stories or policy issues are covered by major print, broadcast, and online media organizations both inside and outside the United States. When it comes to commercial aviation, the USA Today is at least as influential as the New York Times. The paper is the one you would most likely see in the hands of an airline passenger (at least in the US), it has an extensive online presence, and the organization has consistently produced comprehensive coverage of major aviation events, especially those that happen in the US.

That influence extends beyond the news world. In 1991, the New York Times published a news article about the result of a research I coauthored with my adviser while a graduate student at MIT. Some time after that, I was watching Saturday Night Live (this was before it got rebranded as SNL) and had the eerie experience of watching my work lampooned on live national television. I don't know if the writing staff decided to try to generate a few laughs after reading the article, but I have to believe that if the story didn't run in the Times, the research would not have been joked about on the show.

Based on that experience, I came up with something I call the "New York Times Test." The test is a simple one, you only have to answer one question--if something that you do ends up being featured in a front page story on the New York Times, could you deal with it? Could you deal with the kind of scrutiny that happens when your family, friends, colleagues, coworkers, and millions of total strangers suddenly take a keen interest in your work? Would you be able to stand the criticism, whether it was deserved or not, whether it was honest and fair or mean spirited and destructive? For me, it happened twice, and I'm happy to say that I passed the test both times.

Last week, I took a variation on the New York Times Test when the USA Today featured part of my site in a page two story the day after the ditching related accident involving US Airways Flight 1549 (the night before, I'd had a hurried cell phone conversation with the reporter who interviewed me while I was negotiating rush hour traffic). The story, which mentioned that the crash was only the fourth time that a jet airliner had ditched, came out on Friday, but I didn't realize it was printed until Sunday. I may have seen the story earlier, since I bought the paper that day, but I was way too busy dealing with the aftermath of the accident.

What tipped me off was multiple emails with the following kind of message--"Hey Todd, you missed one, what about the time airline XYZ had a plane crash in the water." To make a long story short, I didn't miss any and I didn't have to change any of the accident data on the site. AirSafe.com had always had a specific set of criteria for calling an event a ditching. However, prior to all the attention generated in part by USA Today, I had never felt the need to explicitly state on the site what definition I was using. After last week, I saw the need, and you can see my definition at http://airsafe.com/events/define.htm.

It wasn't a classic "New York Times Test" because it was neither a New York Times story or even a front page story. However, it certainly generated the kind of attention for the site that a front page story in the Times would generate. If you want to see what was written, check out the article, which was reprinted as a sidebar story on one of the USA Today's online pages about the accident.

After last week's experience, I've decided that the "New York Times Test" is still a valid test, but it doesn't have to involve a front page story on the New York Times. On today's Internet, you don't even need a media organization to make the test happen. It could be a YouTube video, a blog post, or some combination of online information services that may take your work from obscurity to prime time in a matter of hours. This test has many of the elements of a common nightmare of college freshmen--you can't study for the test, you can't predict if or when it will happen, and you may not even know that you're taking the test until after it has started. My only advice is that if you find yourself in the middle of the test, be prepared for an experience.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Animoto.com Is an Excellent Free Tool for Video Trailers

On occasion, I tear myself away from the computer and actually read a magazine or two for news about what's happening online. I came across an article about Animoto.com, which allows users to upload photos or graphics from their computer, or from an online photo management site like Flickr, Facebook, Picasa, or Photobucket, and have the Animoto turn it into a dynamic trailer. You can even add music to it (theirs or yours) and create a music video type trailer in minutes. Like many online services, there is a free version and a paid version. With the free version (my kind of price), you can upload the result to YouTube, Facebook, or other social networking sites.

How good is it? Just for fun, I decided to make a trailer for an upcoming AirSafe.com podcast on airline accidents of 2008. I uploaded a bunch of pictures, hit the button, and waited for the result. You can see the fruits of Animoto's labor for yourself below (or at Youtube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w_Xe4ClgMR0).

Trailer for 2008 Year in Review

By the way, the music in this trailer is from the song "Time and Place" from the Canadian group In-Flight Safety. Yes, that is the name of the group. How could I possibly pass up the chance to use their music?

If you think this looks like something you can use, go sign up today. By the way, the paid version allows you to download the finished product, but you can also do something creative like upload it to YouTube, use Mediaconverter.org to do a conversion into a format of your choice like MP4 or WMV, and then download it to your hard drive. Just a random suggestion.