Ian Lurie // May 21 2013
Marketing wasn’t supposed to be a zero-sum game.
Your competitor bought a TV commercial, you bought a TV commercial. They bought radio time, you bought radio time. Even if they bought every available second of radio time on one station, you could buy time on another, or go to a completely different medium.
That promoted two good things:
Of course, business has always been a zero-sum game, in a way: If you win a customer, that’s one less customer for your competitor. But the competition for actual share of voice plays out in a huge arena where ties are possible. Yours and your competitor’s marketing campaigns might be equally good, and you might win the same amount of business.
Alas, none of this is true any more. Google ruined marketing.
Back before Google, two companies spending the same dollars to market competitive products could win solid marketshare. Not any more.
Well, OK, Google didn’t exactly ruin marketing. It, and other search engines turned it into a nasty, zero-sum game. But saying ‘Google ruined marketing’ will get more people to read and link to this article, which is critical for my company’s SEO…
Here are the four key wounds inflicted upon marketing by Google and search-driven marketing culture:
It’s all about #1. A 2006 Cornell eye-tracking and click-tracking study [pdf] found that the #1 ranking in a search result received 50% of all clicks. A later study by SlingShotSEO [reg required] showed 25%. Either way, a #1 ranking means you get a lot of clicks, and that you deny those clicks to your competitors. That’s like saying, “Buy this TV ad and you’ll get 25% of the market’s population to walk through your store. Oh, and most of those people won’t walk by your competitors.”
Oh, and #2 gets one-half the traffic of #1. After that, traffic share disappears into the depths faster than James Cameron in his submarine.
No other marketing channel has the same winner-take-most structure. If your competitor bought a TV commercial, you could buy one, too. If they bought radio time, you could buy radio time 2 minutes later. Theoretically you could buy up all available advertising time for your laxative product. But barring Don Draper, it’s always been difficult. There was always a way to balance out share of voice.
Now, there’s no way to do it. The #1-ranked site gets twice as much traffic as the #2-ranked site. That makes #1 the winner, and everyone else the loser.
And, it’s getting worse: As Google works to insert local listings, shopping listings, paid product listing ads and who-knows-what-else into the rankings, rankings below #3 get pushed further and further down the page, below the fold, and into click-less oblivion.
Welcome to the age of zero-sum marketing, everyone.
The result: Entire businesses spring up and die out based on their ability to rank #1.
To fix it: If your business plan includes ‘rank number 1’ as a major strategy, slap yourself in the face a few times. Don’t make natural search results your sole revenue source. That’s business 101. But it’s awfully tempting when you know you can get 60-70% of your audience from one source. Instead, diversify. Build a great house e-mail list. Use paid search. Look at remarketing and other channels.
With zero-sum marketing becoming the standard, we’re not really marketing to our potential customers any more. Well, we’re not marketing to them as much. Instead, we’re dividing our attention between our customers and Google.
This is particularly true of interface design. My firm gets hired, all the time, to make sure that a site’s architecture and design are ‘Google-friendly.’ Often, we end up spending our time explaining while a particular feature is a good idea, even if it’s not ‘SEO-friendly.’
The result: UX designers attempt to light my car on fire.
To fix it: There are a lot of significant SEO improvements you can make to a web site that are good for end users, too. Focus on the technical side, first. Make your site speedy and adaptive. Then, for heaven’s sake, hire good writers. See? Not an ‘SEO footer’ in sight.
We are all – every one of us marketers – way too focused on a tiny set of key phrases. All of us. Anything else is nearly impossible. If you get your company or client a top-3 ranking for a big, revenue-generating term, you want to crow about it. And if your client falls out of the top 3 for a revenue-building phrase, you’ll hear about it, whether you’re the SEO, the design firm or some poor bugger who fixes their computers. That noise shouts down the incremental successes that drive real success.
The result: You get a high ranking for ‘flying purple people widgets’ and sit back, comfortable in your good fortune. For a year, you make lots of money. Then, without warning, you drop from #1 to #6. Revenue tanks. Your business tanks. Google makes this all to easy. But in a zero-sum game run by Google, Google also giveth and taketh away. I’ve seen a lot of folks dive out of the rankings, get desperate, and head straight to #5.
To fix it: Never let one non-branded phrase drive more than 10% of your revenue. If you get the #1 spot for a dominant key phrase, great! Make sure you build enough long-tail traffic to balance it out. That way, you won’t be over-dependent on a single phrase, and you won’t see your bottom line bottom out if you slip a few spots.
Two guys have wet sponges in their hands. If no one throws a sponge, they’ll both go home dry. But, if one throws and the other doesn’t, the victim gets wet, and the attacker has a chance to run while the victim splutters. What happens? They both throw.
That’s called the Prisoner’s Dilemma. The original example was two arrestees in custody, in separate rooms. If neither confesses, they both go free. But the first one to confess will get a lighter sentence. So they both confess, hoping for the deal.
You can get a top ranking on Google by creating a great web site, filling it with awesome content, and having a fantastic product. That’s the best way to rank high and stay there.
Or, you can cheat: You can sneak around and buy links, thereby inflating your importance (at least until you get caught). You can fill your site with keyword-stuffed junk content, thereby inflating your relevance. Yes, Google catches a lot of the folks who do it. It’s not a good long term plan. But the first one to do it will probably get a top ranking for weeks, months or in the more depressing cases, years. The current #1 site gets pushed to #2 and loses1/2 their traffic.
If you take the high road, you’re guaranteed to eventually move up. But ‘eventually’ doesn’t work when the CEO is looking at the rankings every day. And you know that if someone else moves up by cheating, you’ll be ordered to do the same. What happens? Everyone cheats.
As I said, Google fights hard to curtail this kind of cheating. But, at least from where I sit, they only catch about 1/2 or 3/4 of the cheaters. That leaves a lot of folks benefitting by cheating. So the temptation is still huge. A zero-sum game encourages people to do whatever they have to to win.
The result: This is the ultimate outcome of a zero-sum game with multiple participants and a way to ‘win’ by cheating: A lot of people start cheating.
To fix it: Don’t cheat. While it’s really tempting, it’s actually a really poor long-term strategy. Also, Google doesn’t have to abide by any rules of fair play. So they could change their policy and impose harsh penalties with zero tolerance, and you’d have no recourse.
Ultimately, the fixes I’ve listed here only work for marketers and businesses, by helping us hedge our bets. But that’s what we can do: Good marketers and CMOs will spend a lot of time diversifying channels.
Somehow, marketers and their clients need to be in a win-win scenario again, where multiple brands can get roughly equal share-of-voice. It just has to be possible, and marketing will improve. Adwords won’t suffice – it doesn’t generate enough traffic. Google might find a way on their own, but they have very little incentive. This structure works for them, as far as usability and revenue. Why change it?
Facebook advertising? Maybe. Someday. After everyone stops talking about how unproven it is.
The only real fix is a true Google competitor in terms of market share, audience share and ability to drive revenue. Because, as long as #2 gets half the attention of #1, marketing will remain a zero-sum game.
Ian Lurie is founder and CEO of Portent Inc., an internet marketing agency that has provided internet marketing, including PPC, SEO, social and analytics services, since 1995. Read More