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[ But first this: I know, I know, you nearly choked on your cornflakes when you saw another newsletter, blog type... er... thing - less than two weeks since the last one. But this is a special Christmas edition with an exclusive interview with Craig Nevill-Manning, Senior Research Scientist with Google. It's a little present from me and Christine. Merry Christmas! ]

~ * ~

I fly a lot. I mean a LOT. So I'm pretty much used to walking around airports without my shoes on and with my laptop floating away on a tray with the laptop bag behind it. I get "selected" randomly in various airports for those special little checks from time-to-time. I don't mind. It makes me feel all the more secure when I know that these kinds of precautions are happening.

But nothing could have prepared me for the little episode that took place as I left the Search Engine Strategies conference in Chicago last week.

Originally, I was due to fly directly to Chicago from London and then return. However, it was decided that I was required at Boston HQ (home of iProspect). Not that I was complaining much - it was the staff party last Friday night. And who'd want to miss a night at The Armani Cafe on Boston's famous Newbury Street? (They even have their own "wee-fee" network - Italian designer "wee-fee" of course!)

Anyway, I go to check-in at the United desk - only to remember that we hadn't cancelled the UK flight. So, according to the global system, there I was, missing an international flight, taking an internal flight, and with a one-way ticket booked to the UK from another airport!

Now, if you were security and you noticed that - and also saw me with a cardboard box wrapped up with Duck tape... What would you think?

Yep! And so did they. Boy was I searched good and proper.

In fact, I believe that those guys in O'Hare airport probably know me as intimately as my wife and my doctor!

Not all of it was sooo bad though...

So, to business. The conference last week was huge. It vastly exceeded the numbers expected. So the walk-up sales must have been pretty high. I got to meet fellow Brit Andy Beal of the hugely successful search marketing firm KeywordRanking. And that deserves a mention only because, we've been passing each other in corridors at these events without ever knowing we had fish and chips and lots of rain in common. 'Nice bloke' as we say in the UK.

As ever the sessions were very lively over the entire three days. I did my usual "organic" session with my team- mate Brett Tabke from the world's leading search forum, WebMasterWorld. And yes, the first topic was... Florida!

I think the walk-up sales at the conference may definitely have been as a result of that last update and people just trying to find out whatever they could.

Anyway, I then joined my friend Paul Gardi (SVP Search Jeeves/Teoma) and Marissa Mayer (Director Consumer Products, Google) for our "Link Building" session.

I had a feeling that Marissa might have been swamped with questions about Florida. Yet, even though the topic was broached, it was all very contained. Not so in the first session though. This started with one guy who appeared to want to form a lynching party and head right up to Google's HQ at Mountain View and torch the place!

I'm sorry, but I still maintain that these conspiracy theories about Google are nothing but poo! So, having arranged a timely interview with Craig Nevill-Manning, Senior Research Scientist at Google (and inventor of Froogle), I asked the BIG question. And Craig, bless him (and he is such a great guy) was happy to oblige with a full answer.

Just before we get to the interview, I want to ask you for your attention and endurance just a little longer. In the last epistle (if you were inflicted with it), I wrote a little about information retrieval and how it differs from pure data retrieval or information management.

I mention it again, because it's important to understand that a ranking algorithm is based on more than computer science and statistics. It's ridiculous to imagine that someone would dominate the results at a search engine interface, purely because they had more words, or more pages, or simply better HTML with words stuck in better places. If that were the case, my son, who's an excellent coder, but knows nothing about nuclear physics, could knock out a 100 or so pages cut and pasted from some books and be number one for a subject he knows nothing about, and has no authority in the field.

First generation search which was based purely on text and (mainly) the vector space model, proved that it could be so easily manipulated and that this older technology (for it is that) really couldn't scale with the web. We simply spend too much time thinking about text and contextual analysis to remember that, the web is, very much, an example of a social network. Social network theory is concerned with properties related to connectivity and distances in graphs. For instance, networks of social interaction are formed between academics by co-authoring research work. In that example, citation analysis provides a way of identifying central or influential papers.

Another area within the science is known as 'sociocentric network analysis.' This examines complete networks of actors and relations. Here, the study is of global properties of a network and characterizing the position of any given actor by reference to all the others (think link equity - think "what are you known for?").

Okay, so you can hear the propeller on my head starting to whirl around again. But I just want to help you think a little more about how the web, in the way that we link to each other, and communities interact with each other reflects what happens in real life. A ranking algorithm needs to incorporate this 'relationship analysis' as well as understanding the 'textual matrix' between terms and pages, in order to return authoritative documents as indicated by the community: Not the owner of the search engine.

It's a fascinating science information retrieval on the web. And the more you know about what the scientists at search engines are trying to achieve in this unification of text and link analysis - the less frustrating it is when you see a major change take place such as the Florida episode of last month. And you'll see other nuances at the interface which compensate at times.

While all eyes were on ranking reports and much hair was being pulled, discretely, Google introduced Froogle into the main body of results for certain queries.

So the many conspiracy theorists are incorrect when they say that Google has dumped the most popular 'commerce' queries from the top of the results to force people into buying AdWords. There ARE results at the top of the page AND they are FREE listings AND they are pure COMMERCE listings.

Does that mean that last month wasn't such a big deal? Not at all. I believe it's all part of the ongoing experiment to provide authoritative listings - separated from the pure commerce listings - separated from the advertising. It's very much those invisible tabs that Danny Sullivan has so succinctly put his finger on.

Did it work? I don't think so. Will we see more changes? We certainly will. Read the interview with Craig Nevill- Manning and find out for yourself where Froogle fits in the long term... And how, as he says himself about Florida: "We don't claim that we're perfect either! You know, we rolled out a change in the search results... We're going to tweak that and change it and get feedback from people and improve it."

So, there's a fact: Everyone is allowed to screw-up sometimes and be forgiven - even Google.

~ * ~

And that, for me, is the end of a brief era of shoddy timing and relentless non adherence to the rules of email marketing.

Next year I'm back with stabilisers! Or maybe I should just say the incredible "adept at everything search engines" Christine Churchill. (For those who care : She did let me build a little quirkiness into the recipe. I must still be around in the new year after all ;-)

Read on, dear reader - read on!



Christine Churchill has a quick perspective on the proceedings of the SEMPO meeting in Chicago. Hear it from the "horse's mouth"... What... WHAT??? I know you love horses but I was just being metaphorical...

<< Play >>

One of the landmark developments in the SEM industry this year was the formation of a professional search engine marketing association called SEMPO < www.sempo.org >

Now SEMPO is one of those subjects that elicits strong emotions from people - they either love the idea or they want to crucify you for being associated with it. As a member of the Board of Directors, I've had many "discussions" about the pros and cons of SEMPO. Relax guys, it's just an organization. It can be anything you want it to be. I'm not here to debate whether we need such a group or not, the organization is here - it's real - there are over 120 members and sponsors like Yahoo/Overture and Google are throwing money at it. It's ALIVE!

SEMPO had its inaugural meeting in San Jose in August 2003. At that meeting we launched the organization's new web site and opened the doors for membership.

The day before the Chicago SEMPO meeting, the Board sat down in Noel McMichael's Marketleap suite (which I noticed had a well stocked bar) and we went over the meeting agenda. Since the meeting the next day didn't go exactly as planned (more on that in a minute), in my mind there were two meetings - the planned meeting and the real one.

The Chicago meeting was to be both a "here's what SEMPO has done since August," "a presentation on the results of the SEMPO member survey" and a quick blurb on "here's some plans for next year." The meeting was also seen as a chance to talk directly with SEMPO members and solicit feedback on a variety of subjects.

As I mentioned earlier, the actual SEMPO meeting didn't exactly go as planned, but what does in life? We can laugh at it now, but the Chicago SEMPO meeting had a sudden change of events when minutes into the opening presentation a disgruntled Labor Union representative turned off and then removed the projector.

Undaunted by the now infamous "projector episode," SEMPO's enthusiastic cheerleader, I mean President, Barbara Coll (aka WebMama) continued on unfazed (okay a little fazed, but she covered it up well). Barbara verbally described recent SEMPO activities and new web site additions (new ROI based case studies, numerous new search engine marketing articles, and an excellent SEM glossary edited by Danny Sullivan himself along with generous help from Kevin Lee and a team of volunteers). Barbara also announced the addition of the new Job Board that was launched only days before the meeting. Who needs a PowerPoint presentation anyway? (Note to self - next meeting bring a white board.)

Yes, the informational meeting was also a recruitment effort. We recognize that for the organization to be strong it needs to be representative of the industry and the only way we can do that is to have a large membership base. Barbara encouraged companies on the fence to go ahead and join now by leaking the news of an upcoming membership price increase. Join now or pay more later! (Note: Apparently the recruiting call worked. We are thrilled to announce that 15 new companies have signed up in the week since the meeting.)

If you'd like to see the presentation Barbara was going to present, you can download the PowerPoint version at: < http://www.sempo.org/downloads/Chicago-SES-2003.ppt >

Special thanks goes to Net Applications: < http://www.netapplications.com > for sponsoring an open bar that had brisk business during the SEMPO meeting. Thanks guys - you did your part in helping things stay cool.

The original agenda for the member meeting had Noel McMichael (SEMPO VP and CEO of Marketleap) give a presentation on the results of the recent SEMPO membership survey. The idea behind the survey was to solicit information from SEMPO members including what they wanted the organization to do and their reasons for joining. Again due to the "projector episode" this became the "radio version" only. If you'd like to view the presentation on the survey results, Noel's slides are posted on the SEMPO web site.

One interesting item that the survey documented was the motivation behind members joining SEMPO. It wasn't to get freebies, discounts, or links, but rather most members joined:

1.) To raise awareness of SEM to the general marketing community (70% of respondents)

2.) To influence industry direction and growth (52%)

3.) To get a stronger voice in dealing with search engines(36%)

4.) To network (after all, we are a social bunch)(45%)

The overall message from the Meeting was "SEMPO works for the membership." One thing I will say about SEMPO management - they are an open minded and accessible group.

If you have ideas on what the organization should be doing, talk to us. I promise you none of us bite (okay, well not very hard and we've had our rabies shots.)

Okay, enough of the SEMPO meeting. Oh - the Overture and GoToast parties after the meeting were a big hit and for some, who shall remain nameless (but who has the initials M.G.), the parties lasted until 4 AM. Back to you Mike...

[ Ed: At 4.00am I was simply delivering newspapers, as I do at that time - this is where the confusion arises I think... Anybody??? ]

(c) Christine Churchill 2003 - Net Writer Publishing.

< http://www.sempo.org >



I had the pleasure of working with Google's Senior Research Scientist, Craig Nevill-Manning in London earlier this year. So it was great to know that I'd be seeing him in Chicago for a "catch-up".

Craig's a Kiwi (from New Zealand) and not only is he one of the smartest scientists in this entire industry; he's one of the nicest guys you could wish to meet.

He's based in New York, is a bit of Knicks fan and partial to a bit of sailing around the Statue of Liberty!

Originally, we were due to do an "In-Conversation" piece about Froogle generally. But of course, in between, we'd had that Florida update and the discrete debut of Froogle listings at the top of the results pages.

Find out everything you ever wanted to know about Froogle. And then get the answer to the BIG question: "What happened last month Craig?"

<< Play >>

o Mike:

It's always nice to get to know some background Craig. I know a little, but in your own words, where are you from and... How did you get here?

o Craig:

Okay, so, I did my PhD in computer science in New Zealand. And then I came to the US for a post at Stanford. I then decided to take up a faculty position, so I was Professor at Rutgers, which is the State university of New Jersey.

Actually, Stanford is where I first met Larry [Page]and Sergey [Brin], who, as you know, went on to found Google. Then six months after I moved to New York, they emailed me and asked me if I wanted to join them!

I said: "No, no I'm doing the professor, academic thing..." Anyway, you make these decisions in life! And so, a couple of years later, I finally changed my mind and moved out to California and joined Google.

I'd done some research stuff on the academic side with information retrieval, and then at Google I worked on a whole bunch of things, including Froogle.

I came up with the idea, prototyped it and then led the engineering team that put it together.

o Mike:

But I know from when we met last in London, that you're actually based in New York. Right?

o Craig:

Right. So about six months ago I moved out to New York to start up Google's first satellite engineering office. Essentially, we figured we'd hired all the good programmers in Silicon Valley... So we're now going to hire all the good ones in and around New York. [laughs]

o Mike:

So, does that mean that Froogle is now based in new York?

o Craig:

No, it's not actually. The Froogle engineering team is still based back in Mountain View. So I spend a lot of time on planes...

o Mike:

So, tell me: What are your overall responsibilities with Google right now?

o Craig:

Well, it's a combination. I'm managing Froogle... Well, everyone else does most of the work these days. But I still make sure it's headed in the right direction. And, as I said, I'm also hiring and managing people for the New York office.

o Mike:

Okay: Froogle. Was that your idea? Was it a kind of innovation? Was it something the R&D guys at Google were already working on...

o Craig:

It was, kind of, partly me and partly the idea of product manager Pearl [Tsai] Renaker who'd already kicked the thing off. The observation was, that, sure, Google's great for many things. But if you're trying to buy something Google doesn't always have the coverage. And especially the user interface when people are trying to buy. When people are buying things they want to see photo's - they want to see prices called out etc. That's something that Google.com doesn't do. So Froogle is trying to fill that niche.

And over time, what we're going to do is try and integrate it more and more. Essentially to improve Google search results for these kind of product queries.

o Mike:

I'd like to come back to the technical side a bit more in a second. But, is it safe to say that, a lot of what we can find in Froogle is made easier because it's more difficult to crawl that kind of shopping, commerce type site...

o Craig:

Yes, yes. So, one of the issues is definitely crawling. Shopping sites are much more difficult to crawl than the average site. I know you're familiar with session ID's and so on, which get in the way and give crawlers fits...

You know, we've been working on some techniques to crawl better. And I guess the other aspect from a technical point of view is coming at from information extraction. That is, you've got a page on a shopping site and it has five prices on it and six photo's etc. etc. How do you identify the correct price and the correct image... And so it goes, the correct name the correct description, the correct category... And that's really a problem of extracting structured information that is fielded like database information, from, well a big chunk of HTML.

o Mike:

So, in very simple terms, for the average end user: What's the difference between a query for 'digital camera' as a general search over at Google - as opposed to a search for 'digital camera' over at Froogle?

o Craig:

That's a good question! In one? The results you get look a lot different. We have the image called out, we have the price called out. The user interface is different so you can restrict by price, and sort by price...

All of those types of features are additional, on top of what Google normally offers. And the other thing is that, Froogle's pre-identified a sub-set of the web which is about products. So if you know you're interested in buying a product - you go to Froogle!

But, if you're kind of doing research, if you want a review or you want the manufacturers site - you go to Google. So Froogle's really the last point in the cycle where, you know what you want to buy and you just want to find where to buy it.

o Mike:

Yeah. I've done a few selective searches recently on specific items and I seem to be seeing Froogle results at the head of the page. I mean it looks as though those results are being returned by Froogle. So does that mean Froogle's out of beta. Is Froogle now live?

o Craig:

It's not out of beta yet. There's still a lot of work to Be done. It's now at the point, we think, where it's useful to people. We're VERY conservative about bringing things out of beta. But, essentially, it shows up for a number of searches, where... Well, where we think people are basically looking to buy something.

o Mike:

How's it going to be presented? I mean, will Froogle have it's own interface or will there be a combination of general and shopping results or...

o Craig:

[Laughs] GOOD question! We're working our way around that right now. I mean, Google does a LOT of experiments. You know we try to figure out...

o Mike:

[Bursts out laughing] Tell me about doing experiments after what happened last month! [referring to the Florida update]

o Craig:

Yeah... alright... exactly...

Mike, we're continually working to improve peoples' search experience. That's what keeps people coming back and clicking on ads and... So, we're making sure that when people are looking for things to buy we can simply give them the information they want.

We'll see how this experiment goes, we'll probably modify things in the future...

o Mike:

From an awareness point of view, do you think the user knows that these results at the top of the page are not paid for? You know like AdWords or sponsored listings...

o Craig:

You know, really I don't know. They're not paid for. And it's a little bit difficult to communicate that to users. Maybe they do look a little more like ads because they're actual products that people are trying to sell.

Maybe we do probably need to work on that and how to communicate that to the users. BUT - the bottom line is - they are unpaid listings, they're unbiased. They're the best results we can find for those products online.

o Mike:

Okay. So, what about submitting to Froogle as opposed to Google? I've noticed that there are already people creating little software packages, little utilities as Froogle feeders. Are these sort of things supported by Google?

o Craig:

Well we don't support them - but we encourage them. Let me put it that way. There's a distinction there. You know, Froogle accepts feeds...

o Mike:

Sorry to interrupt Craig, can I just keep it fairly simple for the average user here. If I'm a guy with a smaller site, with not too many products...I know about submitting to Google and how if I'm linked I'll get crawled and stuff... But how do I get my stuff into Froogle?

The easiest way is to put together a text file... the feed format is a tab separated text file, which you can export from Excel, for example. And in that, on each line, you put the name, the price, the URL for the image, a URL for the page itself - the destination page - and a description of the product and a category.

Most of this information the merchants already have. And it's just a very simple tab separated text format. They upload that to our FTP server. You set up an account in advance so that can get access, and then you can update that as often as you like.

o Mike:

That kind of information is already available if you go to froogle.google.com?

o Craig:

Yes, that's right. If you go to http://froogle.com/merchants.html there's a whole description of how to proceed.

o Mike:

Just from an online marketing point of view, one of the biggest areas, next to search is affiliate marketing. It seems to me that this could hit some of those affiliate guys pretty hard.

o Craig:

Why do you think that?

o Mike:

Well, with affiliate marketers taking a commission on every sale they make on behalf of the merchant and they're making their own affiliate sites to promote on the Google.com interface... If I'm the owner of the affiliates program, I just feed my stuff into Froogle and then I don't have to pay anyone commission...

o Craig:

Yeah. Although there is still some extent to which the affiliate sites form a useful function. In some cases there'll be a site where the owner hasn't bothered to put together a Froogle feed themselves. And in those cases we'll sometimes get feeds from affiliates instead.

You still end up at the merchants site. But because they haven't bothered to put a feed of their own together, there's a possibility for someone to fill that gap.

o Mike:

So that brings us to an existing problem, where sometimes, again on the main results page, you end up with the affiliates turning up in the results more often than the owner of the affiliate program. What would happen if you end up with the top ten results at Froogle coming from ten affiliates of the same product?

o Craig:

We work pretty hard to avoid that. When we accept a feed, we want to know that it's not going to just duplicate a feed we already have, for example.

And we also crawl sites. So if we've already extracted information from a merchant we're not going to accept an affiliate feed for the same data.

So, you're right, in that case the affiliate's sort of shut out. If we already have the data - we don't want duplicate information - as you say Mike.

o Mike:

So what about the future then? It's not quite out of beta, but it's kind of there. Will there be a big "roll-out" with a fanfare and that sort of thing?

o Craig:

Weelll... Overtime we're going to give it more and more exposure. Obviously around holiday shopping season people are searching more, so we wanted to give a little more exposure by making it appear for a certain subset of product categories.

It's really a judgement call for us about: "Has it reached a level of quality where we actually think it enhances the user experience?"

We believe that's the case at this point - but there's a lot of work still to be done. You know, part of the increase in quality will come from the merchants getting involved. There's kind of a catch 22 here. Merchants are not going to give us a feed until they know it's going to pay off for the traffic. Part of the reason for us making it a bit more visible is to say to merchants: Look we're serious about this. Give us your feed. Costs you nothing - put in a little effort and you'll get some free traffic from us.

o Mike:

So it is completely free. Is there likely to be a time where you'll charge?

o Craig:

No. It'll be free forever. We've learned from Google.com that if you provide a great service then you can derive income from putting ads down the side. And we're going to do exactly the same... Well, we're already doing the same for Froogle.

o Mike:

On a general level Google.com competes with MSN and Yahoo! and Jeeves etc. But from the Froogle side, from the shopping bot and comparison shopping side, there are not that many players, but it is a whole different set of competitors you have out there...

o Craig:

Yep, yeah. It's a very competitive area simply because there's money changing hands when people shop... But it's a lot of fun. From a technical point of view it's a good challenge...

o Mike:

Craig: There's one question I really have to ask you right now. [Laughs] What on earth happened last month? [referring to the Florida update]

o Craig:

[Huge laughter] You mean with the Google.com main results - yes? Mmmmm...

o Mike:

Craig, I get asked this question by everybody. And I don't want to give you a hard time. But... You know, there are conspiracy theories and... Well it would be lovely just to be able to say something more than my own idea...

o Craig:

Right, right... I understand. There's no conspiracy. This was simply an effort to make our results better on Google.

You know, at Google we have this Church State wall between the people who sell the ads and engineers that work on making the Google search engine better.

We determined, for certain kinds of queries, the search results had... Well, many irrelevant results. We've tried to weed those out by changing our algorithm.

So, whenever we change our algorithm it's going to hurt some people and help some others. So it's a tricky business. But the bottom line for us is: "Is it going to be better for our end users?"

And... We don't claim that we're perfect either! You know, we rolled out a change in the search results... We're going to tweak that and change it and get feedback from people and improve it.

o Mike:

So, there are going to be a number of iterations and people are going to see more changes...

o Craig:

Undoubtedly! As it always has been. This may be a larger change than many changes that have happened in the past. But the bottom line is the engineers that have worked on that, and I know them very well, so I know their motivation, and they're totally focused on making the top ten results as relevant as possible. So, if you were inside Google, you'd know that these conspiracy theories just hold no water.

o Mike:

You know, I've tried to explain to so many people at this conference that there is a sort of "Chinese Wall" or however you want to refer to it inside Google. But there are still so many guys convinced that there is a conspiracy and all of the previous results for the most popular keywords have been buried in place of education sites and government sites, so now everybody has to open an AdWords account... It doesn't make any sense to me I have to say...

o Craig:

Well now you can use Froogle as a counter argument to that. Product related searches... You can see we're putting free listings out for people who have submitted to Froogle. So, thinking about, that could potentially drive away AdWords traffic. So, you'd need to come out with a consistent conspiracy theory about all of these things...

o Mike:

Craig - I think you've been grilled enough [Laughs]. And I know you have a conference session to attend. You've been great thanks so much for giving me your time.

o Craig:

And thanks to you Mike.

(c) 2003 Net Writer Publishing.

< http://www.e-marketing-news.co.uk/google >



o WHAT YOU NEED IS... SEARCH MARKETING ADVISOR: It's big AND it is clever! And it features real word online marketing case studies and news from experts such as the great man himself, Fredrick Marckini. (And I may even beg to be in it myself one day!)

< http://www.imakenews.com/iprospect/index000032103.cfm >

o LARRY CHASE'S ESSENTIAL SEARCH ENGINE MARKETING RESOURCE GUIDE: Special edition. At no cost to you, get SEM info from industry leaders and an eccentric Englishman called Mike Grehan!

< http://wdfm.com/getsem.htm >

o BRYAN AND JEFFREY EISENBERG WANT ME TO MENTION THEIR NEW REPORT: These are the FutureNow Inc. guys from New York. They have persuasion... And a huge amount of architecture between them... Could I refuse? Not likely...

< http://www.cafeshops.com/futurenowinc.8261783 >

o ASK CHRISTINE: Here's your opportunity to get some very valuable and free advice from a leading search engine marketer. Yes, our very own Christine presents an excellent site clinic session at the SES conferences - and now she's bringing it to our happy little e-rag. Find the email address below to get Christine to take a quick peek at your web site and give a little friendly critique.

< mailto:answers@e-marketing-news.co.uk >

o MIKE, THAT HUBS AND AUTHORITIES AND COMMUNITIES BOLLOCKS YOU'RE ALWAYS GOING ON ABOUT: I don't understand it all! Then you need my free paper on the subject dear witless one! Seriously, for those who missed the opportunity of the free paper at SES Chicago, you can get a link below to: A look under the hood: Link equity explained.

< http://www.search-engine-book.co.uk/LinkEquityExplained.pdf >

o WEBMASTERWORLD.COM ANNOUNCES PUBCONFERENCE V1 IN FLORIDA: I'll be there with my SES team-mate Brett Tabke - find out more!

< http://www.webmasterworld.com/conference >



Editor: Mike Grehan. Search engine marketing consultant, speaker and author. http://www.search-engine-book.co.uk

Associate Editor: Christine Churchill. KeyRelevance.com

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