Screenwerk Is Taking a Time Out

I currently blog on Search Engine Land, Marketing Land and MarTech Today (all Third Door Media sites) as well as the LSA blog. On most days I’m writing several articles on topics ranging from privacy and antitrust, to local SEO, location data uses, voice search and consumer behavior. It’s a lot to keep up with.

I’ve been writing for the Third Door Media sites since its inception and before that for Search Engine Watch, when it was Danny Sullivan’s property. That’s approaching 15 years. I started this blog in early 2006 before I left The Kelsey Group. It was largely a response to the slow pace of publishing there and the fact that things out in the market were accelerating and I wanted a vehicle to comment on them.

When I joined LSA in 2014 it was in the middle of a transition from being the yellow pages trade association to a much more diversified and dynamic organization with a broader mission. It now caters to multiple audiences: media publishers, startups, technology providers, agencies, multi-location brands and SMBs. The direct-to-SMB component is growing and increasingly important.

We’re doing original research and surveys, reports, consulting, conferences, bootcamps and other events for different audiences. And that’s not all . . . The demands of the role and my other responsibilities have caused me, sadly, to neglect this blog for a long time. I can’t do everything, though I often pretend I can.

People ask me how I am and I say things like, “really busy” or “in a frenzy” or “hectic” and they respond: “When has it ever been different?” or “It seems like you’re always saying that.” That makes be think there’s something pathological in the way I’ve set up my life.

I need to continue writing on the other blogs, which generate revenue and where I have formal responsibility. Screenwerk is just for fun at this point.

I’ve been thinking about what to do with this blog for some time but not come to any great conclusions. It needs to be redesigned and I need to move away from Bluehost for several reasons, cost among them.

For all these reasons I’ve decided to pause my writing here — for the foreseeable future. I welcome any comments, ideas or thoughts.


Most Analyst Forecasts Are Wrong: The iPhone 8 Edition

Here were some of the headlines, based on financial analyst “checks” and third party data, that came out ahead of Apple’s earnings this week:

  • ‘Anemic’ iPhone 8 demand drags Apple shares lower
  • U.S. buyers favor iPhone 7 over 8: research
  • Don’t Ignore Signs of Tepid iPhone Demand

These gloom and doom stories were picked up and repeated across the internet, partly because some segment of the industry wants to see Apple stumble or is waiting for that and this played into that narrative.

But when Apple announced its fiscal-quarter results they defied and soundly beat market expectations, in part because of these dubious “research” reports about weak iPhone 8 demand.

Apple sold roughly 47 million iPhones during the quarter. Here’s what Apple executives said on the company’s earnings call:

iPhone sales exceeded our expectations. In the last week and a half of September, we began shipping iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus to customers in more than 50 countries. They instantly became our two most popular iPhone models and have been every week since then.

This is another example of why we must take all analyst and third party data forecasts — which are often based on sloppy analysis or thin data — with a grain of salt.


The Acquisition of TaskRabbit and the death of the ‘Gig Economy’

A number of people sent me articles this last week on TaskRabbit being acquired by Ikea. The amount of the acquisition was not disclosed; its investors are likely to be both relieved and disappointed.

This is almost identical to HomeDepot acquiring Redbeacon. RedBeacon was dying under HomeDepot but has now been reinvented as Pro Referral, a lead-gen site for contractors in the home services vertical. It’s not clear how Pro Referral is doing but RedBeacon (“OpenTable for contractors”) is gone. Is suspect in a couple of years, Pro Referral will be sold or shuttered by the retailer.

For the foreseeable future TaskRabbit will continue matching people and those who can help them, while Ikea will probably funnel lots of near-term furniture assembly work to “taskers.”

Over time, TaskRabbit will likely also die. Ikea has little interest or incentive to support the fully array of services currently available through the site. It’s likely that the non-Ikea, non-furniture-assembly parts of the business will atrophy.

TaskRabbit was founded almost 10 years ago and was the poster child for the so-called “Gig Economy.” It was very hot for awhile and it symbolized a new type of work and worker. It took almost $40 million in investor money but more recently struggled against stalled momentum.

With the acquisition of TaskRabbit (and the inevitable Ikea neglect) we can probably pronounce the so-called “Gig Economy” dead — at least as conceived and written about for the past decade. Sure, Uber and Lyft and a few others still exist. But for the most part these employment matchmaking sites are really online marketplaces or lead-gen sites for local services, which are as old as the internet.


O2O: Time on Wine Site Leads to Direct Mail Piece in My Mailbox

I had a very interesting experience “online to offline” this week. One of the speakers for the upcoming Place Conference is Trace Johnson of wine retailer Total Wine & More.

I was doing a prep call with him and spent some time poking around the Total Wine site in advance of the call. I had never heard of the company prior to identifying him as a speaker, nor had I ever been in a store, bought anything or been on its website. There are few locations in California where I’m based.

Yet several days later a direct mail piece showed up at my house addressed to my wife. This has to be a case of matching one of my IDs (probably my IP address; I was visiting the site from a desktop computer) with a direct mail database.

It got my attention.

This kind of thing is happening all the time now: ID matching and retargeting through a different channel. And it was pretty “interesting” to see it almost in real time. It wasn’t explicit personalization but something like it given my recent visit to the site.

If I wasn’t so sensitive to these kinds of tactics, it’s not clear whether I would have made the connection at all.

Update: I spoke to a representative of the retailer who said that their direct mail outreach was not connected to online activity. Still this is quite coincidental and strange.


Reviews and the Problem of the Defensive Local Business Owner

You’re a local business owner who strongly identifies with your product or service and you hear negative feedback. What do you do?

Yelp counsels a “stop, drop and roll” approach to dealing with critical reviews. And many local SEOs and agencies have an array of advice on the subject. Among the recommendations:

–Ignore these reviews (unwisely)

–Write a response and give it to a friend to review before publishing anything

–Wait 24 hours before responding

–Respond to every positive and negative review — you’re writing for the larger audience — and express thanks for the feedback in your best Buddhist detachment voice

–If there’s a real problem reach out to the individual privately and try to resolve the matter

Among the things you’re not supposed to do is display overt hostility or defensiveness. But I recognize it’s very difficult for business owners not to get defensive when most work very hard and are sincere in their effort to deliver good service.

I’m fresh off an encounter with one such defensive business owner.

I was looking for someone to build a fence on my property. I went on Nextdoor to ask for a recommendation and peruse their listings. A couple of early responses recommended a particular local fence company. I checked it out on Yelp and it had largely positive reviews and so I contacted the company via Yelp’s request for quote system.

About 24 hours later the negative comments started coming in on Nextdoor — people who’d had dealings with the company and were unsatisfied (“I wouldn’t use them again”). There were multiple such responses, which are all pushed to me by Nextdoor.

I went back to the business and informed the owner about these concerns and negative comments (though not in specific detail). I said that while it gave me pause I’d be happy to have their estimator come out and take a look at the property.

The owner became agitated and defensive — this was all happening via Yelp in email — he said “I don’t recall any negative reviews of us on Nextdoor, but if that is your opinion, so be it . . . If you want to find another company, it’s a free market.”

This is essentially FU.

I went back and reiterated I would be happy to talk to the estimator and then (perhaps unwisely) I said I worked in digital media and suggested that it was better to investigate these issues than to dismiss them.

His final response to me was (FU): “It’s not a good fit” and he walked away. While the owner didn’t use expletives he was hostile and wasn’t really curious about what was being said about him. He also walked away from a job worth up to $10K potentially.

The upshot of this is that I now believe the critics were correct and I’m likely to relate this negative interaction when the business name comes up. If I were a jerk/crank I’d go on Yelp and write up my experience. But I won’t. I’m not angry.

Ironically, as a consequence, the business owner won’t know any of this, just as he was unaware of these dissatisfied customers on Nextdoor.

Word of mouth is like an iceberg (to the extent there are any left). Most of the activity is out of view of the business owner. Only a fraction of the public and customer base takes the time to write reviews. So it’s critical to take them seriously.

Word of mouth (online and off) remains the leading driver of business for SMBs. And while most customers will write positive reviews, for every negative or critical expression on Yelp there are others out there probably thinking the same thing.


Google and the Case of the Disappearing Location Modifiers

One of the most interesting tidbits that I’ve come across in the past week is the following on the Think with Google site:

In September 2015, we shared that “near me” or “nearby” searches on Google had grown 2X in the previous year. Now, just two years later, we see that behavior has continued to change . . . we’re now seeing a shift toward dropping location qualifiers (like zip codes, neighborhoods, and “near me” phrasing) in local searches, because people know that the results will automatically be relevant to their location—thanks to their phone …

In fact, this year, search volume for local places without the qualifier “near me” has actually outgrown comparable searches that do include ”near me.” Over the last two years, comparable searches without “near me” have grown by 150%.

(emphasis added.)

So while these “near me” mobile queries have grown significantly over the past couple of years, Google is saying they’re now outpaced by implicit local queries (e.g., best sushi) that carry no modifier to alert Google to “local intent.”

Google has reported different numbers over the past several years regarding the percentage of mobile queries that have local intent. First it was one-third (33%) then 40% and back to 30%, which is the current official position. (Informally I’ve heard Google employees express larger estimates in the past.)

Putting aside the percentages, an interesting question arises: how is Google now determining local intent as modifiers disappear? At LSA16 Google director of engineering Chandu Thota said (I’m paraphrasing) that mobile search is inherently local and Google regards all mobile queries as potentially local in nature.

Google must be assuming queries associated with certain categories of information (e.g., restaurants, medical, automotive) are inherently or predominantly local. Another tactic may involve watching the relationship between mobile queries and offline visits.

I’m speculating here entirely, but it would go something like this: Google sees “sushi” and then later sees some percentage of those mobile searchers showing up in sushi restaurants. Over time Google would fulfill those “inherently local” queries with a local pack, etc. in the absence of a modifier.

I’m sure there are other inputs and data sources that Google is using to determine which results to show. One might be the relationship between ambiguous queries and clicks on local results, which would also reveal local intent. If more users click on the local results vs. non-local results we have a pattern over time that can reveal the intent behind ambiguous searches or categories of keywords.

My position has been that if we look at fulfillment — where people go to buy — then many more searches should be considered “local” or potentially local. For example, my search for a stove or a jacket is probably ultimately a “local query” because in 9 out of 10 cases I’m going to buy the item in a store. Most service-business related queries are local for the same reason.

Yet some of these searches, ultimately fulfilled offline, may have no specific local or non-local intent at the outset. Teeth whitening is such an example; I may be curious about the procedure at first and then I ultimately go to a cosmetic dentist to perform it. Accordingly, so-called “upper funnel” queries may be more research oriented and “neutral,” whereas “lower-funnel” queries may be more “local” in the sense I mean here of offline fulfillment.

It’s interesting to consider how Google is making these determinations about which searches are “local” as location modifiers disappear. The company must be assuming — and acting upon that assumption — that much more than 30% of mobile searches are local.


My Recent Depressing Realization about All This Crappy ‘Content Marketing’

One of the things I do every day is blog. I haven’t been blogging here as much because I have too much work these days. I’m blogging on LSA Insider, Search Engine Land and its sister sites Marketing Land and MarTech Today.

As a person who has been writing or editing in some capacity for more than 25 years I take “content” seriously and try my best, often under intense time pressure, to be thoughtful about what I say. Which is why I became somewhat depressed this past week when I was struck by an epiphany of sorts about all the content, surveys and reports that I’m constantly receiving from tech companies and PR folks.

The market is awash in “content” and content marketing — reports, infographics, surveys and so on. A majority of it is garbage.

Before I get to my “epiphany,” a digression about an earlier one. Years ago I was in Moscone Center in San Francisco for one of the then-massive AdTech events. I was standing on a mezzanine level looking down at lots of people seated at various “bistro” tables. These were mostly male attendees presumably doing “biz dev” meetings. There’s nothing wrong with that.

However, my realization at that moment was that in some way, shape or form each of these conversations boiled down to one essential thing: “I want your money.” It was kind of horrible.

I had a similar feeling earlier this week when I realized that the 50+ pitches I see every day from companies and PR people are really just about SEO, about getting links. All the studies, surveys, reports and “content” being generated — so much that most of it is lost in the noise — is really about links. In some cases it’s about generating downloads for sales follow-ups. And in a fraction of cases it’s about branding and “thought leadership.”

If you work with Forrester Research or a comparable firm to create a report, you’re paying $20K – $40K or more. Then the PR firm is getting at least $5K or more per month to pitch your content to somebody like me. And because it’s mostly created for purposes other than exposing the information in the report it’s usually mediocre. But almost nobody in the system cares; it just needs a hook or some data to get pickup — and links.

So the sponsoring company winds up spending perhaps $50K overall and may not get much if any exposure or coveted links or leads. For every 20 pitches featuring a report, I’ll ask to see one or two. I may write about one. I have very little time to do more than scan these docs for top-level findings, let alone read them carefully and digest their implications. But most of the time they’re not intended to be read that way.

Beyond the realization that this is all about SEO, nobody is really very invested in the “content” they’re promoting — except in rare cases. It’s all part of a giant, relentless, impersonal marketing machine.

I write some of these sponsored reports myself on behalf of LSA and some of our members. When I do it I try to work closely with the company on questions that I think are interesting or important to the broader industry and develop interesting data and ideas. I’m often late in delivering them because I care about the work and what it says. (People want quick turnarounds because these docs are highly disposable or perishable.)

I’m somewhat sleep deprived and so chalk my mood up to that. But all this strikes me as pretty horrible and empty.


DexYP: What Should the Brand and Strategy Be Going Forward?

Months of rumors were answered yesterday when it was announced that Dex Media and YP would become DexYP. It’s not a merger; Dex bought YP for $600 million.

YP had been owned by private equity firm Cerberus Capital, with a minority stake retained by AT&T, the original owner of YP (formerly the AT&T yellow pages).

More than any other directory publisher, YP had continued to invest in its brand and consumer strategy. This past year, under the leadership of new CEO Jared Rowe, the company had also started to emphasize its print directory again as part of a “blended” print-digital approach for SMBs. This was something of a surprise given that it had been gradually backing away from print in the past few years.

YP also strongly promotes its consumer brand and traffic — “60 million consumers visit each month” — as part of its selling proposition to SMBs.

Dex has not really emphasized its consumer-facing properties and spent more time developing a broad set of marketing and progressive operational solutions for SMBs. In the past several years, under the leadership of Joe Walsh, Dex has moved from selling traffic and leads to a suite of services that help them manage their businesses — something approaching a cloud-based “operating system.”

That’s represented in “DexYP’s marquee product, Thryv, formerly known as DexHub”:

[Thryv] is an all-in-one app enabling local business owners to manage their businesses on their smartphones and other devices from anywhere. Thryv lets local businesses automate business functions they performed manually in the past, or never performed. These include building a digital customer list, communicating with customers via email and text, updating business listings across the internet, accepting appointments, sending notifications and reminders, managing ratings and reviews, generating estimates and invoices, processing payments, and issuing invoices and coupons…

(This “operating system” approach is essentially the thesis behind LSA’s new Tech Adoption Index research project.)

The merger of the two companies reflects DexYP CEO Joe Walsh’s vision for “a single, massive Yellow Pages entity,” according to my colleague Charles Laughlin. The belief is that only massive scale and its corresponding efficiencies can effectively compete with the larger digital-media companies.

There are some interesting questions now:

  • Will DexYP continue to invest in the YP brand?
  • Will the combined company use the YP brand for consumer-facing products and experiences and “Thryv” brand for the marketing solutions aimed at SMBs?
  • Will there be an attempt to reconcile the two companies’ somewhat different approaches to SMB marketing solutions or will DexYP simply shift to selling the Thryv product across all markets?

What are your thoughts about the outlook for success? What should the DexYP strategy be? What should happen/will happen to the YP brand assets and consumer properties?

Here’s another interesting aspect of this: Dex has been “branding” and promoting CEO Joe Walsh as an accessible personality (an entrepreneur like the SMBs themselves) in a series of SMB-focused explainer videos on YouTube about marketing tactics — everything from website development to email, CRM and social media:


What Percent of SMBs Are Willing to Pay Yext’s $500 Annual Fee?

Yext has a range of business listings management plans — from $200 to $1,000 per year. At the top level you get reputation management as well. The “best value” package is $499 per year.

Some local SEOs have expressed skepticism about whether local businesses would pay that much. David Mihm and I were having a debate about this on Twitter last week. So I did an online survey and asked 500 SMBs the following question:

Would you be willing to pay $500 per year to ensure your business is correctly listed on important sites across the internet?

  • Yes — 34%
  • No — 61%
  • Other — 5%

Most of the “other” category comments were requests for more specific information. Here are several representative responses:

  • depends on if it’s guaranteed and on what sites
  • depends on what the important sites are
  • I can do that myself
  • would depend on the specifics
  • depends on the company listing
  • need more details
  • depends on the guarantee

If a couple of percentage points from the “other” category migrate after specifics, let’s say that 36% would be willing to pay the $500 per year. And if there are 25+ million small businesses in the US and the “addressable market” is half of that (for argument), then the annual opportunity is $2 billion at least.

What’s your perspective on this? Do you find this persuasive or remain unconvinced?


Majority of Homes Now Don’t Have a Landline, 71% Under 35 Are Mobile Only

Another mobile milestone has been reached.

In 2015 mobile search passed desktop search volumes. Last year mobile advertising reached 51% of total digital ad spending. And now the majority of US homes are mobile only. For younger users the numbers are more dramatic: 71% of adults under 35 live in mobile only households.

According to the US Center for Disease Control:

The second 6 months of 2016 was the first time that a majority of American homes had only wireless telephones. Preliminary results from the July– December 2016 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) indicate that 50.8% of American homes did not have a landline telephone but did have at least one wireless telephone (also known as cellular telephones, cell phones, or mobile phones) —an increase of 2.5 percentage points since the second 6 months of 2015.

Demographic insights:

  • More than 71% of adults under 35 live in mobile only households.
  • More than 83% of unmarried adults in shared housing live in households with only wireless telephones
  • More than 71% of renters live in mobile only households
  • Among ethnic groups, Hispanic adults were more likely (64.8%) than non-Hispanic whites (46.6%) or African Americans (52.1%) or Asians (47.4%) to be in mobile only homes.
  • People in the Midwest (53.0%), South (55.5%) and West (53.4%) were most likely to be living in wireless-only households

Among other implications, it’s going to be much harder for telemarketers and telephone sales reps to reach people at home.