I’ve noticed I’m getting an increasing amount of spam comments on this blog that looks almost handwritten (might even be) and is much more difficult to spot than spam of the traditional format. However, it’s still identifiable as the kind of comment that either doesn’t belong, has been hand crafted to try to trick you or is just plain lazy. What’s the point?

Here’s a prime example with my comments in red:

Hi Patrick, (my name’s not Patrick, it clearly says Steve on the sidebar)
Right on target with this post. Customer service/care will always be about hearing the customer, delivering, and learning for continuous growth. Doesn’t matter what size business — even the smallest setup — if you have an online presence it must be a good one!
(A relevant comment to the post).

Nice to hear from you again. I am on Twitter as (katenasser). (I don’t know you and you even think my names Patrick). Check out my video on my website for humorous and inspirational customer servie talk. (What? Customer servie? Humorous video?)

All the best from this customer service fanatic… Kate.

I mean, thanks for the comment Kate, but at the least get my name right and it would be nice if you didn’t suppose to know me.

Kate titles her comment as ‘Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach’ and has an authentic looking web presence here katenasser.com but is she just looking for an inbound link and some free publicity? Where’s the value in her comment?

So come on Kate Nasser, get in touch and tell me why I should approve your comment (and why you think my name’s Patrick)?

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Just came across an interesting post by Bill Slawski on the subject of a patent granted to Google last week titled ‘Search result ranking based on trust‘. There’s been a lot of talk about trustworthiness being the next big factor to be considered in search engine algorithms but it makes me wonder how useful it would be in reality.

When I use Google to search for something what I’m really looking for is the most relevant result I can find which will answer my query. To be honest, I often couldn’t care less how much I trust the source as long as it’s reputable (maybe rep is a better factor?).

Where I can see a trust (or rep) factor being useful is with weeding out spam search results who have got themselves a really good natural search ranking. Beyond that I’m not convinced it’s required for normal web search (except perhaps as an option or it would be useful in a search through social streams like Twitter, but here I’m referring to the kind of search you do through http://www.google.com).

You see, to some extent trust is in the eye of the beholder and a very difficult thing to turn into a scientific algorithm. A source could be trustworthy to one person and not at all to another depending on many factors. So to really put an accurate trust rating on web pages is going to be extremely difficult (I think).

Would Google’s time be better spent working on relevancy ranking and using trust sparingly as a factor to filter out spam results? Or do you think trust has a bigger place in the future of search algorithms (maybe trust/rep on news/blog search)? Interested to hear your thoughts…

Having a poor website has never been excusable, if you want to have a presence online then you need to make it engaging, simple to use and easy to grok (understand). You want to have minimal barriers to conversion in your UI and you need to have easy routes to allow feedback and for your customers to talk to you.

In the past if you did screw up and disappoint a user or customer they’d generally talk to you about it through the usual channels of email or a phone call (if you’d been sensible enough to put a phone number on your website) where you could deal with the customer’s issue as best you could and at least half on your terms.

Now you’re more likely to get talked about in places where you have no control and possibly very little influence as customers vent their frustrations at a poor online experience on various social channels. A new survey by Tealeaf and Harris Interactive shows that the number of users who encounter an issue on a website and then share that experience on blogs and social networks has doubled from 6%-12% of the people they surveyed in the last year. While use of social networks as channels for letting off steam is increasing the same survey shows that the number of people who would try to contact a company through their website or call centre has dropped.

Help I hear you cry, does this mean we’re (brands) losing control of our relationship with our customers? It may well feel like it and any brand who’s experienced the power of crowd opinion on social networks when they screw up without being prepared will tell you it can be a scary experience. And preparation is what it’s all about.

Obviously you need to iron out the kinks in your web experience to try to stop complaints happening in the first place, optimise your customer care processes and make sure you have clear ways to contact you on your website.

If you really want to meet this new threat* head on and be ready to douse the flames before they get too hot, then the best way to prepare yourself for a situation like this happening is to embrace social media and make it a part of your business. Open up, interact and join the conversation so that you’re right at the hub of the discussion about your brand, ready to solve peoples problems, admit your failings and generally provide great customer service through social channels. It’s not just usability (as in making your website or product easier to use), it’s about social or brand usability (as in making your brand sociable, approachable, responsive and interactive).

*Of course this isn't a threat really. It's possibly the best opportunity you 
have ever had to really generate loyalty and brand alignment amongst your users and customers.

Kayak, the meta-search travel site, have joined the trend for opening up and setting your data free by launching Kayak Trends. Trends allows you to mine through data on what’s actually being searched for on Kayak. You can view the most popular flight destinations (to or from any airport in the world) and the most searched hotels in popular destinations. The data is available on a daily, weekly,  monthly or yearly basis and I think it’s really powerful data. Why is it powerful? Because it is a clear indication of consumer trends in travel, what are people looking for right now and how do those trends change across the year. That’s got to have some uses to other people than Kayak and their website visitors.

Travel sites have a huge amount of data on search trends and consumer preferences run through their booking paths and search forms. I can’t think of anyone else who has opened this up in the online travel world. Plenty of other travel companies have merchandising lists of their top destinations etc but they are based on their sales priorities as well as popularity so quite different to this almost realtime user data (if of course it is true data and not tainted). I know of online travel firms who feed this kind of data back into their web apps but not any who give it away in this manner.

So some powerful consumer intent data, I can think of a number of ways you could use this. This is great data for anyone (competitors, affiliates) who want to know what to target destination or hotel wise. Focus on these destinations, if they’re being searched for on Kayak users want product associated with them. Put them on your websites, marketing assets and in your ECRM shots. People must surely be looking at how they can monitor or scrape this data to inform their merchandising decisions, PPC/SEO campaigns (Bid more on the destinations and hotels that are hot on Kayak. Can you assume they will be searched for more on Google when they’re in the Kayak Trends? Long tail flight terms anyone?). You could use it to inform the biasing of your search results, or even to help you highlight areas where your inventory may be lacking.

Kayak will I’m sure have thought of all of that and probably won’t be bothered as their business model is to get as many users through the site and referred on to the agents, airlines and operators from their search results, which they do extremely well.

It’s a great move and I applaud Kayak for being so open. I hope that something positive comes from this; that other online travel sites see this data and realise the power of it, and so start to collect and utilise the data their own websites generate. Too many don’t do that (you may be surprised to hear).

There’s an interesting post over on the Nielsen Wire blog from Jon Gibs (their VP Media Analytics) about the methods people are now using to discover content. Their findings show that a lot of surfers now make social media their starting point when trying to find information online. 18% of the people Nielsen quizzed said they start a search for new information using Wikipedia, blogs or social networks (such as Facebook or Twitter). That’s a pretty big percentage, especially when you consider that only 37% said they started their hunt on a search engine (which you’d traditionally think might be the starting point).

It’s not really a surprise to see web users learning to trust information that is recommended by their peers, or info that comes from within their sphere of influence on social networks. Recommendation is a powerful thing online and crowd sourced recommendations are a great way to answer certain queries. However, as networks are inherently distributed are they as likely to get an accurate answer to their more complex info needs as they would on a search engine?

In the same report 26% of respondents who identified themselves as socializers (the ones likely to start on a socnet) said that they feel ‘there is too much information online’. Perhaps this is what draws them to social networks for their information searching needs? Maybe the trust factor that someone has recommended some information to them gives them the confidence that they will drill through the dross and find the nugget they are looking for. However, if they feel overloaded now that is only going to get worse as networks grow.

Social network contacts are never going to be able to answer all the questions that intelligent use of a search engine would (unless your network includes some of the finest minds). If we, as web users, rely too much on social networks for finding information are we going to lose the ability to really search when we need to? Search can be a bit of an art form; some people struggle to get how to think laterally when searching for a niche topic, others can get there in one or two searches by using word combinations and booleans cleverly. Could reliance on social networks for the answers to questions destroy the art of searching or data mining that the web has historically been so good at encouraging? Social networks are great for recommendation and serendipitous discovery of content but how do they cater for people who just want their questions answered? Do they need to branch out more deeply into indexing and search or perhaps encourage search to begin on their networks by providing tools to do so?

I’m not offering any answers as this is a shift in habits which has been underway for a long time, but as more users become socializers (inevitable), and information becomes more and more realtime, someone needs to provide a way they can divine the realtime stream for the information they seek. Either that or search engines need to provide new, more social ways to search their indexes. What do you think?

PS. Just in case you think I mean divine in the Biblical sense, have a look at this.

This post has been moved to my new home on the web www.steve-e.co.uk. The post itself can be found here. 23Musings is going to remain dormant for now and somke of its more popular posts will be transferred to the blog at my new site.

My reason for moving and not taking the years of posts with me is the need for a fresh start, 23Musings had been dormant for long enough for me to feel it was time to start my blog from scratch.

Don’t forget to check out my new blog! www.steve-e.co.uk/blog

Babson Executive Education and Mzinga have published the results of a survey into businesses use of social media. The report shows that while many businesses are spending both money and resources on social media the number of people measuring ROI is low.

The graph below shows that 40% of respondents spend budget on social media and 57% expend resources on it.

Graph showing answer to do you utilise any budget or people for social media?So you’d think that they’d be measuring its effectiveness. Wouldn’t you? The pie chart below shows the percentage of respondents who said yes/no to the question ‘Do you currently measure ROI for your social media program?’. Only 16% said yes…

Graph showing percentage of respondents who measure the ROI from social media activities

That’s low! It seems to me that there’s a real lack of understanding of online measurement and when it comes to social media that gets even more apparent. Social media measurement requires an understanding of more than just web analytics. You need to grok user behavior, interaction and engagement while also living brand equity, sentiment and what people are saying about you on all mediums. You need to understand the online/offline journey your audience is taking when it interacts with your brand, as an online social campaign could manifest itself as increased (or decreased) offline engagement. It’s a tough mix and there’s no one way to measure all of that right now. The best advice I could offer to businesses who trial social campaigns would be to distill it down to the things that are measurable (there’s always something even if only referrals and changes in rates of sales) and at the same time monitor sentiment like a hawk while listening to your audience (they will tell you a lot about how well you’re doing).

It’s getting better, there are many sentiment analysis tools out there now and you can even create your own dashboards with RSS and something like Netvibes. At the same time smart folk like @willmcinnes and the Measurement Camp crowd are trying to come up with answers to the social media measurement question and there’s a lot of information available on the subject.

So, in my opinion, measuring nothing is inexcusable, measuring or monitoring something is just fine if you’re dabbling in social but if you’re spending a lot of budget and manpower on your social exploits you either need to learn to measure it or find someone who can help you do that.