Archive for July, 2011

Goodbye SEO, Welcome SDO

Thursday, July 28th, 2011

In the first part of this post titled Does Google Find Something Different About You?, we’d covered the ‘Something different’ section of Google search results that contains links showing some queries that may be in the same category as your original search. Based on the criteria used by Google to build this section, we’d seen how

  1. Companies with poor web presence don’t have this section, and
  2. Long-dead companies that once had a strong web presence got a rebirth in someone else’s SDG.

In this part, we shall explore reciprocal relationships between a company and its SDG members.

Based on what we know so far about SDG, we’d intuitively expect to find a reciprocal relationship between a company and its SDG members. In other words, if X belongs to the SDG of Y, we’d expect Y to belong to the SDG of X.

If we take Wipro / Infosys as an example, we find that this is indeed the case.

However, when we explore further, we find that reciprocal relationship is not guaranteed. For example, Amazon’s SDG includes Walmart but Walmart’s SDG does not include Amazon.

Likewise, Wipro’s SDG includes Accenture but Accenture’s SDG does not include Wipro.

Seasoned marketers would immediately understand the implications of this apparent anamoly.  A potential buyer who searches for Wipro might notice that Accenture is in the related business and might contact Accenture with the same requirement. On the other hand, Wipro won’t receive such a collateral lead from a prospect searching for Accenture since it is absent in Accenture’s SDG. Therefore, lack of reciprocal relationship between SDGs impacts Accenture positively and Wipro negatively.

This underscores two major imperatives for marketers, especially those who use social media, search and other forms of inbound marketing within their marketing mix:

  1. Make sure that your company has an SDG, otherwise your prospects might think that you’re too small for them.
  2. At the same time, make sure that your SDG doesn’t include your competitor’s names since you don’t want your marketing efforts to result in leads for them.
  3. Get your company named in the SDG of your major competitors.

Achieving these goals might spawn a brand new cottage industry, which we shall call Something Different Optimization, or SDO, for now. For all we know, SDO could become the next Holy Grail of digital marketing consultants and agencies out there who have been trying to game Google search results all these years with Search Engine Optimization (SEO).

With Google finally cracking down on content farms, paid links and other common SEO techniques, the era of SEO appears to be on the wane and SDO seems to be emerging not a moment too soon!

The Emergence Of ePayment Fraud Chasers

Thursday, July 21st, 2011

The jury’s out – well, not even selected – on this latest one but, at 1:1, the verdicts on the two previous lawsuits around EFT and ACH frauds in the USA are matched evenly between corporates and banks.

It seems fair to find in favor of corporates where banks haven’t complied with FFIEC and other well-established security guidelines. Issued over five years ago, and updated last month, FFIEC’s guidance around two factor authentication for Internet Banking have been around for a long enough time and there’s really no excuse for the failure of banks to implement them. The growing popularity of Mint, OfferMatic, BillGuard and other websites that access the customer’s bank account on the basis of a simple username and password suggests that there are still plenty of banks in the US that fall under this category, at least when it comes to retail banking, and I won’t be terribly surprised if a similar situation prevails in business banking as well. UPDATE: The complaint filed by Village View Escrow alleges that Professional Business Bank hadn’t implemented two factor authentication on its website even though its contract claimed that it had.

However, things get very murky when banks get judged by a broader canvas of expectations around what they should, or shouldn’t, be doing with payment instructions received from their customers.

Take the lawsuit of Experi-Metal Inc. v. Comerica Bank, for instance. According to the BankInfoSecurity article quoted in the Finextra story, the court found in favor of EMI on the grounds that “EMI’s prior wire-transfer activity, which had been limited to a select group of domestic entities, should have been noted by Comerica before it approved transfers to overseas accounts”.

This prompts the following questions:

  1. Should a bank ignore the “there’s a first time for everything?” maxim?
  2. If yes, by the same token, should a bank stop payments to all new beneficiaries just because the corporate had never made payments to any of them in the past?
  3. If no, why blame a bank for approving the first cross-border payment, which could signal the corporate’s entry into an increasingly globalized world rather than fraud?
  4. Assuming that the bank finds a cross-border payment suspicious, what is its contractual obligation to the corporate?
  5. Assuming that the bank decides to go beyond its contractual obligation and takes the initiative to check with the corporate. As experienced bankers know, this could take a couple of hours at times, longer in case the authorized contact at the corporate is traveling or otherwise unavailable. Because of this time lapse, suppose the corporate misses the deadline for submission of security / earnest money deposit for an overseas government tender and sues the bank for loss of the business opportunity?
  6. On the other hand, what if a bank sits on a payment on the pretense of carrying out fraud checks only to enjoy the float? Neither is this a rare scenario, as experienced treasures would agree!

As these issues illustrate, holding banks responsible for things other than contractual commitments and well-established security guidelines might result in unfavorable outcome in the long run – not just for banks but also for corporates. Let’s hope that these cases are decided with this consideration in mind.

At this point, it’s not clear if these are one-off cases or portend a tsunami of ePayment fraud lawsuits waiting to strike banks in the coming months and years. Either way, ‘ePayment Fraud Chasers’ will likely emerge as a new and lucrative category of practice in the American legal profession very soon!

Usability Can Cut Costs

Friday, July 15th, 2011

Usability is generally associated with benefits like reduced friction, superior UX and greater cross-selling for e-commerce providers. Click here to read a couple of my articles and blog posts about usability in this context.

During a recent transaction, I realized how better usability could also cut costs for an online business.

invalid01I normally buy domain names from the leading registrar GoDaddy. From time to time, I receive coupons from GoDaddy for 15-30% discounts. Since I normally order one or two domain names for one year duration at a time, my orders seldom surpass the $40-80 floor values required to qualify for these discounts. As a result, I’ve generally been ignoring these coupons.

Recently, when I wanted to buy a domain name for five years, I noticed that it cost $60.85. I was delighted to get the chance (finally!) to use a GoDaddy coupon. Taking advantage of the huge – now unlimited – storage provided by Yahoo! email, I never delete these GoDaddy coupons even if I’ve been unable to use them. Sure enough, when I searched my archive folder, I was able to locate a recent coupon from GoDaddy that offered 30% off on a minimum order value of $60. I plucked out the discount code from GoDaddy’s email and entered it on the checkout form of the GoDaddy website. However, after applying the coupon, I got a cryptic message saying “The promo code you entered is invalid, expired, or ineligible for the items you are purchasing.”

Well, since my order value exceeded $60, I couldn’t figure out why GoDaddy was rejecting my code. Clicking the View Offer Limitations link didn’t help much.

I was about to abandon my shopping cart at this stage. Not that 30% savings on $60 was substantial in absolute terms. My decision was driven more by getting ticked off at not being able to avail myself of GoDaddy’s discount the first time I qualified for it in all these years. On a higher level, I probably felt betrayed by GoDaddy after years of being loyal to it. Whatever.

Given my state of mind at the time, I’d have quit the website – and, who knows, GoDaddy itself forever – except that I happened to notice a 24/7 Sales & Support telephone # displayed prominently on the top of its checkout page. Since I anyway had an unlimited Skype calling plan for the USA, I decided to don my headphone and make the call.

The Customer Service Representative who came on the line immediately “got” me. There was none of the usual duh-like response that one gets from many call centers these days. Apparently, my order value of $60.85 included a $1-odd fees payable to ICANN. Since my net order value fell below the $60 qualifying limit, the website had rejected my discount code.

Now, domainers are aware that ICANN, or the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, is the private sector, non-profit corporation created to assume responsibility for coordinating domain names across the hundreds of for-profit domain registrars like GoDaddy. Therefore, fees payable by GoDaddy and other registrars to ICANN are tantamount to taxes, duties and levies. Like anyone reasonable, I’d no problem in accepting GoDaddy’s policy of netting out ICANN fees from its order value.

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Where do usability and cost reduction figure in all this?

Simple.

If only its website had explained its policy clearly, GoDaddy could’ve saved money on providing higher cost telephone support. If displaying multiple charges makes things confusing for an average GoDaddy customer, fair enough. The website could show this breakup at least when the order value is close to the eligible floor limit for the entered discount code, like mine was.

For those wondering if there’s any business case in making the necessary enhancements to the website to deliver superior usability in this narrow context, let me do some back-of-the-envelope calculations below and see what conclusions we can draw from them:

  1. The telephone call took around 15 minutes
  2. The CSR was definitely not located in some low cost call center
  3. 15 minutes of a high-quality CSR’s time can cost more than the $$ figure deal size.

Since not every GoDaddy customer is likely to have an unlimited Skype calling plan, they wouldn’t have made the call unlike me, and GoDaddy would’ve lost the deal, if not a loyal customer forever (Note to complacent vendors: I moved a large portfolio of domain names from another registrar to GoDaddy a couple of years ago, so I won’t hesitate to move it once again if it comes to it.)

To come to the conclusion of the story, GoDaddy’s CSR immediately came up with the suggestion of upping my order to six years. For this longer duration, the order value crossed $60 net of ICANN fees and therefore qualified for the 30% discount. Faced with one quote for 5 years @ $60.85 and another for 6 years @ $55, no  prizes for guessing what I did, so the story had a happy ending.

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I’m sure that even with the best of design and programming inputs, it’d be impossible for a website to match a human CSR’s ability to come up with a winning alternative proposal interactively and in realtime. So, I’m excluding the concluding part of the telephone interaction from the purview of website usability. (Although it’s probably within the realm of capabilities of virtual agents, but that’s a topic for another day). Having said that, the earlier part of the process flow on the website could’ve always been designed in such a way that the website doesn’t have to face such an impossible situation in the first place.

GoDaddy immediately followed up this telephone conversation with a customer satisfaction survey email where it asked two simple, but highly relevant, questions. Once I gave the above feedback on this survey, I decided to take up GoDaddy’s suggestion to tweet my views – just to see where it went. @GoDaddy tweeted me back almost immediately asking for more information. Credit where it’s due, I haven’t come across such quick response when I’ve tweeted my feedback to a lot of other companies. According to its HEATMAP360, GoDaddy has a 50:50 sentiment on Twitter, so it has the opportunity to improve its service so that its positive sentiment improves even further.

Does Google Find ‘Something Different’ About You?

Friday, July 8th, 2011
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'Something Different Group' of Skype

Although we believe it’s been around for a while, it was only recently that we stumbled upon the ‘Something different’ section on the left-hand panel of Google search results. According to Google, the set of links in this section shows some queries that may be in the same category as your original search. These alternative queries can help you discover webpages that are indirectly related to your search.

For example, if you search for Skype, you could see Yahoo Messenger, Google Talk and MSN Messenger, which are Skype-equivalent services. Likewise, the ‘Something Different Group’ (SDG) for Amazon’s search results shows leading retailers like Barnes & Noble, NewEgg, Walmart, Circuit City and Best Buy.

Different pages on Google’s website explain how Google determines what links to show in a keyword’s SDG and how SDG is different from the “Related searches” section listed at the bottom of the search results page. For the purpose of this post, it’s relevant to note that “Something different” relies on web documents and users’ search queries to identify concepts that that may be related or are in the same category whereas “Related searches” generally help you drill-down further into the given keyword. For example, if you search for [giraffe], “Something different” may list other animals like zebras and elephants, while “Related searches” might delve deeper into your original search with things like giraffe pictures, giraffe facts and safari animals.

From the aforementioned criteria used by Google for building the ‘Something different’ section, we might be led to conclude that companies with poor web presence will be missing this section altogether. The following screenshot proves that this is indeed the case for a couple of such companies.

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Poor Web Presence Means No SDG Section!

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Andersen Consulting is still around - at least in Accenture's SDG!

On the other hand, long-dead companies that once had strong web presence achieve rebirth in the SDG of someone or the other. Witness, for example, Andersen Consulting – a company that downed its shutters in 2001 on the back of Enron’s bankruptcy – in Accenture’s SDG.

In the next part of this post, we shall explore reciprocal relationships between a company and its SDG members and how they impact the business development efforts of different companies in a given industry.

Spoiler Alert: In the absence of any guarantee of reciprocity, we might see the birth of a new industry, which we’re calling Something Different Optimization. SDO could very well turn out to be the next Holy Grail of gaming Google Search.

http://www.google.com/support/websearch/bin/answer.py?
hl=en&answer=180739
In the left-hand panel of a search results page, a set
of links in the “Something different” section shows
some queries that may be in the same category as your
original search. These alternative queries can help you
discover webpages that are indirectly related to your
search.
For example, if you search for [ Amazon ], you might
see Barnes & Noble, NewEgg, Walmart, Circuit City and
Best Buy listed in the “Something different” section.
This feature allows you to explore other concepts that
you might find interesting.
How does Google determine what links to show?
“Something different” relies on web documents and
users’ search queries to identify concepts that that
may be related or are in the same category. Among other
factors, our algorithms look at the terms that users
search for during the same session, since they are more
likely to be related. We also consider whether the
terms appear in similar contexts on websites, such as
in the same table. For example, if you search for [
soccer ], we might notice that web documents and users’
search queries often connect soccer to other sports
like tennis and basketball. These searches are
algorithmically determined based on a number of purely
objective factors without human intervention.
How are the queries in “Something different” different
than the “Related searches” listed at the bottom of the
page?
“Something different” helps you discover concepts that
may be related or in the same category as your original
search, such as different sports, foods, or places.
“Related searches” generally help you drill-down into a
specific subject. For example, if you search for [
giraffe ], “Something different” may list other animals
like zebras and elephants, while “Related searches”
might delve deeper into your original search with
things like giraffe pictures, giraffe facts, and safari
animals.
Something Different Group (SDG)
It can be expected from Google’s criteria for building
the ‘Something different’ section that companies with
low web presence are unlikely to have this section at
all. The following screenshot extracts show that this
is indeed the case.
In fact, it probably isn’t even required for a company
to be around to figure in an SDG – strong web presence
along suffices, as Accenture’s SDG indicates: It
includes Accenture Consulting, a company that ceased to
exist in the wake of the Enron bankruptcy!
Intuitively, you’d expect a reciprocal relationship
between a company and the others in its SDG. In other
words, if Y belongs to the SDG of X, you’d expect X to
belong to the SDG of Y.
This is often the case. For example, Wipro’s SDG
includes Infosys and Infosys’s SDG does include Wipro.
However, you’d also notice that their SDGs are not
identical. While Wipro’s SDG does not include Mastek,
Infosys’s SDG does.
By exploring further, you’d notice that a reciprocal
relationship is not guaranteed. That is, just because
X’s SDG includes Y, it does not mean that Y’s SDG
should include X. For example,
Amazon’s SDG includes Walmart but Walmart’s SDG does
not include Amazon!
Likewise, as you can see from the following screenshot
extracts, Wipro’s SDG includes Accenture but
Accenture’s SDG does not include Wipro.
Seasoned marketers would immediately get how this
impacts Wipro’s business development efforts negatively
and Accenture’s positively: A buyer searches for Wipro
and finds that Accenture is in the related business, so
Accenture gets a collateral lead from this buyer.
However, Wipro has no such luck since a buyer searching
for Accenture will not find Wipro in its SDG.
This underscores at least two imperatives for
marketers, especially those using a significant
component of social media, search and other inbound
marketing techniques in their marketing mix:
1. Boost web presence so that your company’s search
results contain an SDG. Otherwise, buyers could keep
your company away from their purchase shortlists since
they might perceive lack of an SDG as implying that
your company is too small for them.
2. Get your company named in the SDG of your major
competitors.
With help of external agencies, it’s possible for any
company to achieve the first imperative.
The second goal might spawn an entire new industry
around what we might term SDGO, which could very well
become the next holy grail of gaming Google Search. The
era of SEO is on the wane since Google is finally
taking strong action to crack down on content farms,
link farms and other traditional SEO aids. So, SDGO is
coming not a moment too soon!

Castigating Politicians Tantamounts To Undermining Democracy

Friday, July 1st, 2011

Once upon a time, like most members of the intelligentsia, I too used to have a largely negative opinion about politicians.

Thanks to the regional manager of a leading engineering company (Hint: I took the job!) who interviewed me during campus placement at IIT Bombay, all that changed around 25 years ago. Himself a part of the intelligentsia – having graduated from IIT Madras ten years before me – he enlightened me about what politicians have that most of us don’t.

“Every time I went to my native place in Nasik during my vacations”, he recounted his own ephiphany moment about politicians, “I’d come across some politician or the other giving a speech in the vacant ground next to my house. Even if they were only minor politicians, the ground would be full of people who assembled to listen to them. Now, how many of us from IITs and other colleges can gather even ten people to listen to us? That’s when I realized that politicians have the rare and uncanny ability to rally people around them, something which most of us don’t”.

Converted in my views about politicians from that moment, I’ve ever since been objective in my views about politicians, government, and other public institutions. All media reports on corruption have met a stony gaze from me since they tend to blame politicians unilaterally for corruption.  For one, according to me, corruption is like tango: it takes two to play the game. For another, I’ve always found that many factors considered as leading to corruption in India are practiced perfectly legally in many other countries viz. election campaign funding by business houses, sale of tickets for concerts and games at prices that are determined solely by the supply and demand dynamics even if they are 10-100X of the face value (something that’s termed “black market” in India).

This recent article in the The Economic Times was an exception. Professor T T Ram Mohan of IIM Ahmedabad, the author of this article, puts things in the right perspective and raises many thought-provoking observations:

  1. The majority of people see the politician as the most venal element in Indian society. They are wrong. The fountainhead of corruption is more likely the businessman.
  2. Corruption in the corporate world would not be possible without the participation of the middle-class.
  3. The politician is seen as not only corrupt but incompetent. One is struck by the general lack of appreciation of the abilities of politicians and the contributions they make. Few people are aware that debates in Parliament are often of high quality. So are the reports of various parliamentary committees . Question hour can be very illuminating. Those who habitually denounce politicians would be well-advised to visit Parliament’s website and browse through the material posted there.

His concluding remark is bang on: “To demonise the politician is not only to betray ignorance of the Indian political system (but to devalue) one of (its) most precious assets, our democratic process itself.”

This is true for democracies all over the world and more so for one like India. With its vast diversity in religion, language and financial status, it’s no mean task to hold such a nation together. Warts and all, India has a robust and functioning democracy and, for that, we have to admire the unique ability of politicians to rally people from all walks of life around a common cause.