We used to see the internet as the great equalizer. Anyone with good content could gain credibility. (On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.)
Today, what was once the closest thing we could imagine to a meritocracy more closely resembles an oligarchy ruled by a few powerful gatekeepers: Facebook, Google, and Amazon.
The digital landscape has shifted, and businesses need to take note. Growing in this world means understanding each of these giants’ motives, and reconsidering strategies that worked in the past.
Are you a Good Witch or a Bad Witch?
A few months ago on the political-comedy podcast “Lovett or Leave it,” host Jon Lovett playfully framed out a game for the audience: “Bezos or Pokémon.” He would read out a series of names, and the audience was to decide if the name belonged to a Jeff Bezos investment or a fictional creature. He read them off slowly, “Twilio (Bezos)… Everfi (Bezos)…Squirtle (Pokémon)… Twitch (Bezos).” The underlying message was evident: Jeff Bezos owns the internet.
He — Amazon, really — is joined by Google and Facebook. Each company’s flavor of influence varies slightly.
Amazon owns ecommerce. Google owns information. Facebook owns the social graph and all communications tied to it.
Streaming video, the great global pastime, is up for grabs from all three. Their continents are adjacent, at time overlapping, but the scale is neck and neck.
Think about this for a moment…
2 trillion searches run through Google every year.
Facebook in a single month has more active users today than the entire internet did in 2010
In 2017, over 60% of global advertising spend was put toward Facebook or Google ads.
The “Big Three” are immense drivers of life, business, and commerce. This is the internet’s new era of giants.
Much of the recent discourse around these megaliths has centered on whether they are good or bad for society. In 2015, Google — perhaps sensing the impossible nature of the motto — dropped “Don’t be evil” from its code of conduct and the internet took notice. (Okay, we lost our meme-generating minds. And then we went to bed, got up the next day and lost our minds about something else entirely. But I digress.)
The good witch/bad witch argument isn’t exactly a fair one, or all that interesting, because it oversimplifies the point. In fact, the history of strategic decisions made by each of these giants more closely resembles an actual human with complex and sometimes conflicting moral schema than some good/bad binary. Corporations aren’t people, but sometimes, they’re just as convoluted.
I’m not going to focus on the question of how moral these companies are or should be. There is plenty of worthwhile discussion happening on that topic today. Instead, this piece will explore what the rise of the Big Three means for the internet — and for internet-based businesses, which is to say, nearly all businesses — if digital behavior is defined by a few competing and complex forces rather than an open field of play.
Emergence and Authority
In their 2016 book, “Whiplash: How to Survive Our Faster Future”, MIT MediaLab’s Joi Ito and Jeff Howe argue that the internet has played a key role in shifting our society from a place where decisions and their consequences are made by authority figures to one in which ideas and decisions emerge through the actions of a loosely organized collective. They call this phenomenon “emergence”:
“Emergence is what happens when a multitude of little things — neurons, bacteria, people — exhibit properties beyond the ability of any individual, simply through the act of making a few basic choices: Left or right? Attack or ignore? Buy or Sell? The ant colony is the classic example, of course.”
“Humans are just like ants, scurrying to and fro, making small-scale decisions without a thought to civic consequences,” they write. The internet has enabled those small scale decisions to amplify much more quickly.
We’ve been talking about the internet as an emergent system for a decade now. But something is off about our classification. Today’s system isn’t as emergent as it was five years ago, or even at the time Ito and Howe’s book was published. Something has changed.
Movements, decisions, even the level of import we place on the black and blue dress debate, are all still amplified and expedited by an undulating mass of individual random choices — but the algorithm which brings those decision points to a head is not random.
Each algorithm is set up to make choices.
Each choice reflects the inherent slant of the algorithm creator.
With more sources of information that bias gets muffled.
With a consolidation of sources, its influence grows greater.
In short, the fewer entities we have pulling the strings on those algorithms, the less random the internet becomes.
So, if the lion’s share of all online activity is now driven of a few gatekeepers, what does that mean for businesses building an online presence? The answer comes in three parts.
The Big Three Are Taking Back Their Real Estate
Companies are accustomed to thinking of channels like Facebook and Google as a promotion channel. The key word here being “channel,” as in, pathway, conduit, stream. Most social media strategy involved sharing content on Facebook so that it would bring people back to your site, and referrals from social were a primary way many companies validated the investment. On Google, as long as you ranked on the first SERP, there was a pretty good chance you’d get significant traffic from searchers clicking through to your site.
But the days of that pass-through are in the past.
Google has introduced featured snippets and structured answers on SERPs. These boxes, which range in format, aim to give searchers the answers without ever having to click-through to a second website. These structured answers are also tailor-made for voice search, a growing conduit for information gathering and action.
Over the last few years, Facebook has also invested in technology and formats designed to keep viewers from leaving the site. From instant articles to video programming, running a Facebook strategy today means accepting its new status as the internet equivalent of the The Eagles song Hotel California:
‘Relax’ said the night man,
‘We are programmed to receive.
You can check out any time you like,
But you can never leave.
So if companies can no longer expect to convert much traffic off of the social network, why even engage there? Two reasons….
1.The entirety of human internet activity is beginning to coalesce in just a handful of centralized places. Any marketer worth his or her salary knows you need to be where the people are.
2.The conversions are coming. They’re just different than they once were. Instead of funneling someone back to your website to convert, the combination of Messenger and bots is bringing the entire lead conversion (and sometimes purchase) process right into Facebook.
It’s early days for converting leads or driving purchases without ever leaving Facebook, but in my company’s own experiments leveraging messenger we’ve seen a 477% reduction in cost per lead.
It may not be organic, and it may not be traffic, but it is business.
And what about Google? It’s not as bad as it may seem. We found that optimizing for the featured snippet actually generated more traffic for us, despite our fears. It’s fairly simple to execute this HTML optimization, but it is a different approach, one that companies large and small will need to put the time in to learn. (Here’s a walk through of our experiments if you want to follow along.)
Paid Is Becoming More Important
We used to be fond of telling our small and mid-sized customers that “the width of your brain is more important than the width of your wallet” on the internet — meaning, if you had a good enough piece of content, you could beat companies with budgets five times your size. It was true. It was better than true, it was consequential. Thousands of small and medium-sized companies put themselves on the map because of that insight.
Today we are in a different reality.
It’s not that quality content isn’t an effective magnet for prospective customers. It’s that companies like Facebook and Google are less likely to surface that content today without some budget behind it.
“If any brands haven’t already shifted their Facebook strategy entirely to paid, then they may have to soon,” Digiday’s Seb Joseph writes on the social behemoth. Facebook has fully changed the newsfeed algorithm — once fertile ground for highly engaging brand content — to instead prioritize what family and friends share.
Facebook isn’t the only one changing its feed. In February 2016, Google moved search ads, a central artery of its revenue stream, from the sidebar to the top four spots of the SERP, pushing organic results down and on certain devices, off-screen.
So is the width of your wallet now more important than the width of your brain? Not quite. Turns out, you need both.
HubSpot’s own experimentation on Facebook demonstrated that while budget alone broke through the algorithm and resulted in views, budget plus content designed for engagement (read: likes and comments) does so at a much higher rate — 3X to be exact. So, you have to pay to play on Facebook, but when you have emotionally engaging content your paid spend will go farther. Or, in the words of HubSpot’s Janessa Lantz:
“It actually costs more to be boring on Facebook.”
When it comes to Google, in a world where the first four results are ads, it’s evident how leaning into PPC with the right strategy can get you views. For companies who can’t buy their way into a top spot, exposure on Google today is much more heavily influenced by site architecture than keyword targeting.
Matthew Barby, Director of Acquisition for HubSpot and SEO expert explains this concept in Your Google Rank Doesn’t Matter Anymore. On a single site page, HTML optimization can land your content in a featured snippet box. Throughout your site, reworking site infrastructure to group and internally link content under a single topic page feeds into Google’s current algorithmic model.
Updating the structure of your content and building structured clusters of topics is a more efficient use of your time than endlessly trying to capture new long-tail keywords, but it does take intention and a discipline that many content strategies don’t have at this point.
Be “The” Answer, Not “An” Answer
If Google owns the information graph, and Facebook owns the social graph, then Amazon unquestionably owns the product graph.
By click, voice, swipe or subscription, Amazon is how we shop. But more to the point — Amazon is how we discover products. According to a 2016 BloomReach study, 55% of online product searches start directly on Amazon. Only 28% begin on a traditional search engine like Google or Bing. Even when the search does begin on Google, Amazon often claims top SERP placement. Even when it doesn’t, anyone with an Amazon browser extension installed can see an overlay with Amazon’s recommendation for any search query.
Amazon is product search.
Much like the other behemoths we’ve discussed, Amazon has its own algorithm for surfacing products. And much like the others, that algorithm has changed over the years — it factors in standard information like product names, categories, descriptions, but your personal shopping history, location and demographic information also influences what you see. Like Google and Facebook, paid placement heavily influences discovery through Amazon and should be part of any strategy.
But the most interesting shift over the last few years has been the fact that consumers, increasingly, are outsourcing their decisions to the algorithm — something we’re seeing on Amazon and Google.
When Amazon’s Choice becomes the only choice.
Let’s start with Amazon, which has long included badges on its product listings indicating best sellers in a category. In 2015, Amazon introduced a new badge called “Amazon’s Choice,” designed to make voice shopping easier — badged products are the first results suggested by Amazon Echo.
Sometimes consumers don’t want choice. Sometimes they just want convenience.
The impact of this simple designation is immense. Shopping for products is very often about habit. Once a single order for paper towels is placed, Amazon’s Choice becomes that default product for all repeat purchases. Ecommerce analytics company Profitero calls this the Recursive Moment of Truth.
With a single purchase, all subsequent decisions are set.
Amazon’s Choice represents a proprietary advantage, but it is also reflective of a shift in consumer interest. In a world overrun by choice, consumers are gravitating toward simplicity. And they’re willing to hand over a few decisions to do so.
Of course, Google (the internet’s master of answers) has added features that not only play better with voice search, but make its own answer “the” answer. If you Googled “how to roast a chicken” right now, you’d see examples of two key new features, featured snippets and structured answers.
Featured snippets, which don’t always correspond with the first result on the SERP, are a formatted answer that displays Google’s best guess at the answer to a query. Structured answers are a series of questions related to your search, each of which can be expanded to reveal the featured snippet of that question. (With every structured answer you click into, more appear.)
It’s not just enough to appear on the first page of SERPs anymore. Google Assistant, the company’s eponymous voice assistant, and Alexa, Amazon’s equivalent, both select an answer for consumers. To compete on these platforms, marketers must optimize for the featured snippet and for voice search — through an increasingly sophisticated site architecture.
The expansive reach of these few algorithms has fundamentally changed how we shop, buy, and engage with companies.
Amazon’s influence is not confined to Amazon.com. It extends to the Echo, FireTV, even our comparison shopping experience in the aisles of brick-and-mortar shops.
Google’s influence is not confined to Google.com — it permeates Google Assistant, Google Maps, Google Home and the G Suite.
Facebook, as noted earlier, influences the lion’s share of mobile communication with the ownership of the top four apps globally.
All of this amounts to a new consumer milieu that should be accompanied by an entirely new go-to-market strategy. If you haven’t taken a look at the way information flows in this increasingly centralized internet, it’s time to start.
There’s not a perfect playbook here beyond getting more finely tuned to the twists and turns of each major algorithm. Businesses that are able to do so will earn a considerable competitive edge.
Their dollars will go further.
Their prominence in each algorithm greater.
The rules for surfacing on Google, Facebook and Amazon change and they change often.
Today’s internet is one that rewards adaptable businesses and punishes control-freaks. You don’t have to be the biggest company, or the most well-known, but you do have to be the quickest.
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Author’s Post-note: If you’re interested in reading more this topic, there are a few people who who have really opened up and developed my perspective on it. Here’s a starter reading list
- Joy Buolamwini — The Algorithmic Justice League
- André Staltz — The Web Began Dying in 2014
- André Staltz — How to Save the Web from the Internet.
- Joi Ito and Jeff Howe — Whiplash: How to Survive our Faster Future.