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
8 ways AR platforms like Google Lens can work in an advertising capacity

8 ways AR platforms like Google Lens can work in an advertising capacity

Google’s augmented reality platform, Google Lens, is expanding outside of the Google Assistant app to being accessible directly from the camera on some Android devices, as well as in Google Photos and Google Maps. With it only being a matter of time before Apple rolls out ARkit functionalities directly within its cameras too, users are about to have even more avenues for accessing this tech than ever before.

Google Lens enables your smartphone to visually scan your environment and pull up information about items in the real world, anything from buildings, people’s faces and household objects, as well as text from street signs, screens, restaurant menus and books etc. It basically lets you search for info about items in the real world as you’d search for keywords on the web, and call up actionable prompts like purchase links for products and Wikipedia descriptions of famous landmarks etc. The goal is to give users context about their environments and any and all objects within those environments.

Here are 8 ways that this type of technology could work in an advertising capacity:

  1. Scanning billboards or OOH ads, Shazam-style, to find out more information on a brand or apply for an offer. Like with QR codes in magazines etc. but less lame, on a larger scale, and without the need to download / access it through a standalone app.
  2. Scan the outside of a retail location or restaurant to find out its opening hours or offers.
  3. Scan a product in a supermarket to find product info or price comparisons.
  4. Placing AR elements in a real world environment, like BMW’s Snapchat AR lens for the X2.
  5. Integrating street ads with AR location information on how to get to the store.
  6. Scan an ad or product to access a promotion that can be redeemed online or in-store. Maybe a function that can ‘bookmark’ vouchers or discount codes for example.
  7. Scanning a product to view customer reviews.
  8. Turn empty retail locations into augmented reality storefronts like Net-A-Porter.



Posted by Rob in Augmented Reality, Google, Mobile

How Voice Search Might Impact eCommerce

Originally featured in the February 25th 2018 issue of Campaign Middle East

Long before the smartphone, the television, the radio, and even the printing press, we relied on our voices to communicate. These days we spend more and more time with our faces buried in a screen, although if you were to believe the tech press hype, all that might soon be about to change. There is a voice-powered revolution happening, or so we’re told.

Sales of voice assistant devices like the Amazon Echo and Google Home spiked last year and are expected to grow exponentially in the foreseeable future. With smartphone ownership long past saturation point, the big tech players see voice as the next great frontier for how they might embed themselves into our lives.

And rightly so. Google says that 20% of searches on Android devices in the US are currently done by voice, and ComScore expects voice searches to rise to 50% of all searches by as soon as 2020. You can almost hear brands scrambling around to try and come up with a ‘voice strategy’. But are we getting a little too ahead of ourselves?

How all this will affect advertisers exactly is still very much up in the air. While these stats seem staggeringly high, it’s important to unpack the different types of voice search taken into account here. These stats include using voice as an input to serve up results on a smartphone screen via Apple’s Siri or Google Assistant for example. While we might search differently when using our voice compared to typing a search into our phone, this method ultimately still produces a list of text-based results that can be scrolled through and pondered over.

The real disruption will happen when we also get the results coming back to us through voice. Unlike text-based search, the number of results that a voice platform can serve up will be far fewer. Gone are the pages and pages of listings that can be facilitated through a screen. This is bound to refine the types of searches we make, but also the types of responses we are given in return, fundamentally changing how search works.

For example, instead of searching for “pizza places in Dubai” and being presented with a list of the nearest pizza restaurants, unless you know specifically where you want to order from, you are likely to be presented with only two or three of the most popular options. How Google or Amazon etc. decide on these options will have drastic knock-on implications for businesses. Depending on how well these platforms know you, they can tailor options to your tastes and purchase history etc., but this could make it increasingly difficult for brands to influence the process.

All of this might sound worrying for marketers, but if we look back to the current usage of voice-assistants it’s clear that we might be a bit further off this reality than some would have you believe. The vast majority of interactions with these devices at the moment are to carry out mundane tasks like playing music, getting the weather forecast, setting a timer or asking generic questions. When it comes to actually using these devices to make a purchase, this is still very rare. A recent Business Insider Intelligence survey of 1,000 heavy voice-assistant users found that only 9% had ever used voice commands to actually buy a product.

Some first-mover brands in the US that have gotten a march on their competitors are the likes of Starbucks and Domino’s pizza who have launched Alexa ‘skills’ over the last couple of years. These skills are still quite primitive though and usually only facilitate re-ordering a designated item and having to use a specific trigger phrase to do so.

While voice may not ultimately replace all e-commerce, it could especially revolutionize ‘replenishment purchases’ such as toothpaste or toilet paper, products that can be re-ordered without too much consideration. If your brand can become the default for your customer when she says, for example, “Alexa, buy more washing powder”, this can put you in a very strong position when it comes to customer retention.

Ironically, many of the brands that will reap the benefits in this new landscape will be those that have built up their brand outside of these platforms, maybe even on – shock, horror – traditional channels. So much so, that they are top-of-mind and that consumers actually request them specifically on voice platforms, or have them set as a default order.

While we’re yet to see how ads might be facilitated on voice platforms, Amazon have been in talks with consumer companies like Procter & Gamble and Clorox about paying for higher placement if a user searches for a particular type of product, as well as targeting users based on past shopping behavior to cross-sell complimentary products to them. How will all this play out over the coming years? We’ll just have to wait and see. Or perhaps more accurately, listen.

Posted by Rob in Advertising, Amazon, Apple, Campaign Magazine, e-Commerce, Google

Google shows off its Artificial Intelligence chops at I/O 2016

Google’s annual I/O event took place last week and it’s pretty clear from some of the most high profile announcements how seriously the company is taking Artificial Intelligence as a platform moving forward. One hardly surprising reveal was the launch of a home AI assistant similar to Amazon’s Echo, imaginatively named ‘Google Home‘. The Echo has been a bit of a sleeper success since it hit shelves in selected markets last Summer and it isn’t much of a shock that Google wants to get in on the action too. It’s not scheduled to ship until the end of the year but it looks like the concept in general is meeting with consumer approval at least.

While Amazon and Google are making headway in this space, you’d imagine that Apple (much more of an actually established hardware manufacturer than the other two) might be waiting in the wings, ready to launch something similar. But as pointed out by Marco Arment, this type of device, despite being a tactile consumer tech product, is much less about the hardware, and much more about the software platform behind it. If an AI voice-controlled interface takes over from a 5 inch smartphone screen as the preferred input method at some time in the future, Apple could be truly blindsided. I’m sure they could use some of their $137 Billion war chest to acquire a suitable AI platform though so I doubt Tim Cook is losing any sleep over it.

Another AI-based product that was showcased was a new messaging app called “Allo” that suggests responses to questions. The potential here is not so much as a standalone app, but for integrating predictive search and suggestions into messaging in general.

Posted by Rob in Amazon, Google, Internet of Things

Are Apple & Google Creating A Mobile Ad Network Duopoly?

Apple, loving ads on their Apple News app. Not so much on the open mobile web

With the annual Apple product launch event taking place this week, all anyone seems to be talking about are the new iPhones, iPads and Apple TV that will be thrown into the Autumn pipeline. But something else equally important to the state of the media landscape is also bubbling under the surface in the form of some interesting additions to the new iOS 9 software update.

Apple announced earlier this year that they are introducing an Ad-Blocker extension baked directly into iOS 9. This will allow iOS users to effectively opt-out of seeing ads on many third-party sites around the web. It has the potential to drastically impact online media publishers that make their money from hosting display ads on their site, and could put many of them in serious danger of going out of business.

Ad-blocking on mobile and the web is a hot topic at the moment, but regardless of the challenges that this poses to countless online publishers, when it comes to pushing ads on Apple’s own apps it’s a different story. They announced this week that ad-blocking will not be enabled on their new Apple News service, the app that aggregates content from a number of top publishers including The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, Rolling Stone etc. While the revenue split looks favorable to the early adopter publishers, Apple News has the potential to grow into a huge hub for all major online publications very quickly. In this scenario, Apple own all the eyeballs, not only hijacking them from their original source, but also blocking the ads that appear to viewers that manage to slip through the net and get the content directly from the publisher’s site itself.

While blocking third-party ads on the open mobile web and promoting ads inside a particular mobile application (in this case, their own) is not exactly the same thing, the general attitude is the same: Hosting ads on your own site = Bad. Hosting ads on an Apple app = Good.

One rule for them. Another rule for the rest of us. They own the landscape I guess so everyone else just has to play by their rules.

Boromir Meme

Google champion In-App ads on Android but penalize mobile-web ads

Similarly, last week Google announced their new full-screen In-App advertisements. These ‘interstitials’ are full screen App-Install ads that will appear in Android apps to promote other apps to users. They look pretty nice and offer a much needed solution for advertisers that want to get exposure for their apps, but once again, there’s a potential conflict of interest.

Offering in-app advertising solutions on your own platform is fine, but when it comes to the mobile web, they want to crack down on publishers promoting their own apps on their own mobile sites. Google announced this week that they will start to penalize publishers in mobile search results that put up app-install banners (similar to the ones that Google just launched). A little contradictory no? Promote your apps through our in-app ad network, but don’t you dare try and do it on your own mobile site.


What next for publishers?

As the world goes increasing mobile, it’s not a question of distinguishing apps and the mobile web from the ‘real’ internet we all grew up with on the desktop, but about catering to the mobile experience first and foremost.

It’s time to invert that mental model – there is not the ‘mobile internet’ and the internet. Rather, if anything, it’s the internet and the ‘desktop internet’

Source: Benedict Evans

And this is where the problem is. In this mobile-first landscape, as Apple and Google exert more and more control over how ads are served on mobile devices, they’ll start to take a bigger and bigger slice of the pie. Both companies have been relatively happy to just facilitate the unprecedented growth of mobile usage over the last few years, but it looks like they are finally starting to really take advantage of the fact that they wrote the rule book. Duopoly much?

The rise in ad-blocking in general has been huge over the last 12 months and Apple & Google are throwing fuel on the fire all under the guise of ‘enhancing user experience’ on mobile. This is fine in theory, but pretty hypocritical when you champion your own ad platforms all while blocking out others. Publishers should think about this very carefully. In this new ad-blocking mobile age,  it might be a good time to stop and re-evaluate your strategy.


Posted by Rob in Apple, Google, Mobile, Old Media