As the central node on the world’s information network, Google has literally re-shaped the way we think. In this episode we talk about the role of Google in professional services marketing and how the technology is evolving to be even more useful for marketers yet more powerful for Alphabet.
Jason Mlicki: So Jeff, I’m coming off really one of the best months of my life. Want to know why?
Jeff McKay: I’m going to anticipate what you’re going to say, so fire away.
Jason Mlicki: I haven’t talked to you in a month.
Jeff McKay: I knew that was going to be it.
Jason Mlicki: Well, you know. No, it’s good to be back. It’s good to talk. We’ve been on hiatus for a month and both had some summer vacations, so hopefully we’re both refreshed and have new ideas to bring to the table. I’m game, you game?
Jeff McKay: Well, one of us is. All right.
Jason Mlicki: All right. Let me know when you’re ready.
Jeff McKay: I’m ready.
Jason Mlicki: You said only one of us had new ideas, so I’m waiting. Are you ready?
Jeff McKay: I was referring to myself, but okay.
Jason Mlicki: All right. Let’s talk about search baby. Want to talk about search?
Jeff McKay: I can’t think of anything else I’d rather talk about.
Jason Mlicki: Then Google. All right. Google, the system we love to hate. I’ve written a lot about Google over the years and I don’t fashion myself as an expert on Google and Google algorithms and algorithm changes, nor on even the evolution or history of Google. I’ve done enough research to be dangerous. I’ve framed it into a worldview on how Google fits both into society and into the world of thought leadership and consulting firm marketers.
Jeff McKay: I think you’ve shared some really good stuff on that and we should put a link in the notes for listeners to read up on some of your stuff. I like it.
Jason Mlicki: Well, good. Well, thanks. Well, the first thing I wanted to dive into as it relates to Google is, and you and I’ve alluded to this before, but I wanted to put an underline on it in this episode as it… as the episode is really about Google, is that Google is just reshaping the way we think in general. It’s really sort of invaded our thought process. There’s a podcast series that I fell in love with recently that Michael Lewis did. I believe it’s called Against the Odds. I’m going to use it as a quick analogy for what Google has done. In his series, he talks about… The series is about the decline of the referee in American society. He has all kinds of different examples of how sort of impartial referees that sit in the middle of all kinds of concepts in our daily lives are just disappearing or under fire.
I would argue that Google is one of those replacements. If you think about just the way we processed information and thought about things years ago, if you’re researching a topic and you went to HBR or you went to some other industry journal, the assumption is that there are human editors on the other side of this thing that are making decisions about what gets published and what doesn’t get published. When those things are published, that they’re highly valuable if they’re published and they’re highly accurate. That notion of that editorial referee is disappearing in all sections of the editorial world. And Google is really the referee and the algorithm that drives Google ultimately is the referee.
When we go into Google and we type in a search query and we’re asking Google questions about whatever we’re asking it about, the assumption is that the top results are the most quality and trusted sources. We make massive inferences about the results Google is giving us about the credibility of the providers. At the end of the day, we need to understand that Google values quality and prioritizes quality in those search results, but how Google determines quality looks absolutely nothing like how a human editor determined quality 30 years ago. I’ll pause there and let you react because that’s sort of a big heady topic. I can give examples if you want.
Jeff McKay: I think some examples would be good. I agree with you wholeheartedly and I think this is the core of some your best thinking. We should put a link in to Michael Lewis’s podcasts because I think that’s an excellent podcast series. It’s only like six or seven episodes. I think people that listen to this-
Jason Mlicki: He’s a great listen. He’s so engaging too.
Jeff McKay: Yeah, it would be a good listen so I agree with you on that front. I do think it’s interesting when we talk about search results and the quality of content that rises to the top. There’s one way Google works in its algorithm to make sure that you’ve hit keywords and stuff like that. That to me is kind of the basic mechanics of the search engine. But what they’ve replaced that editorial board with really are the back links and the collective wisdom, if you will, of the web. I think there’s really positive things associated with that because it’s very dynamic, but I agree with you that what pops up to the top of Google search results is not always the best, but if you look at click statistics, that’s when people start clicking on.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah. There’s also a snowball effect of the click statistics. When Google was first theorized by Eric Schmidt and Sergey Brin years and years ago, the notion of a directional link was the heart and soul of the system. And again, I’m not a Google historian, but so in the early days of Google, really things that were pointing to a piece of content were the single greatest indicator of what quality was because the assumption was, like you said, that the collective wisdom of the web is all saying, “This is useful.” Hence, it must be. Now over time, that system got gamed by SEOs left and right and they’ve evolved that to include all kinds of information about metadata and search site authority and all kinds of other sort of technical indicators of quality, but none of them really, at this point in time, can really drive to the heart of reading something and saying, “Is this good or bad?” I think that’s a really interesting piece of the whole story.
Jeff McKay: I want to add one more thing on cause I think you’re absolutely right. I thought when you were going to start, when you said that Google is kind of reshaping the way I think, one of the other ways that Google has really changed the way people think is so much knowledge today is just in time knowledge. I have a problem, I have an issue, I have a new project, I have something that I need to get done, you’re like, “Well, I’ll do that here and now for this moment in time.” It is very acute in learning. My kids, I see this all the time. I’m like, “Why do I need to learn that? I can just Google it later.” Right. All of us who have kids have heard that stuff, but I think that plays a really important role in how we think about thought leadership and marketing when our prospects and clients are thinking just in time. And we’ve talked a little bit about that on prior podcasts about strategic thinkers and tactical thinkers, but I think that’s another way that Google has seriously reshaped how we use information and knowledge.
Jason Mlicki: It’s really a thought provoking thing. I haven’t really even processed that fully. Can you give me an example in that regard? Because I’m trying to kind of wrap my head around just in time knowledge versus I guess not just in time knowledge.
Jeff McKay: Let me give you an example that’s very practical. This past week, my leaf blower stopped working really well and I wanted to figure out what was wrong with it. I Google “leafblower stalling” and I get any number of hits, whether they’re videos or how tos, checklists for what to look at and what’s working or what’s not. I never would have thought about doing that. Even though I’m in the auto part… grew up in the auto parts business and I have this general knowledge of how internal combustion engines work, I’m looking for very specific point in time knowledge to address a specific issue. I think one is a little more ethereal general concepts around internal combustion engines versus I have to fix a problem, this specific type of engine is stalling. Does that make sense?
Jason Mlicki: I love it. I love your example and what I love about it is it’s this implication that I don’t actually need to have any knowledge of internal combustion engines at all. I don’t have to have any knowledge about the query at hand, I just need some steps on how to fix it. Someone else has that knowledge and they’re just going to tell me how to do it. That’s a really fascinating example, just the knowledge that governs how the solution was developed is almost irrelevant to you in that moment. It’s just give me the steps to fix it myself and you’re fine.
Jeff McKay: Now, I think where that breaks down, particularly in professional services… I’ll give you a more relevant example. You can do a quick search on how to put together a marketing plan for 2020 right? Here are your steps, do these steps and you can go out and do that, but I honestly think that a marketing plan that’s put together like that is going to fall well short of a plan that has a bonafide strategic impact on the firm because there are so many things that happen at a strategic, cross practice, interpersonal, emotional, financial negotiations that take place in formulating a real robust and strategic marketing plan that no template is going to get you what you need in order to really have an impact. I think that’s why you see marketing plan templates are a dime a dozen because they’re valuable but they’re only valuable to a point.
Jason Mlicki: Well, I’m going to shift from the plan piece of it, but I want to lean into what you said because there’s… What you’re describing is the juxtaposition of content marketing and thought leadership. Content marketing and here’s are the steps on how to build a marketing plan. Thought leadership is here are the big deep, meaningful things you need to think about if you’re going to get this right. That’s the world we live in. These things coexist. I mean in reality, the steps to build a marketing plan coexist with the kind of deeper thought and they’re all being served up through one interface, one platform off a search. Google’s ability to interpret those results is not always the best because it is relying heavily on technical aspects.
I’m going to shift gears because we have really three things I wanted to hit on in this podcast on Google. The second, I just want to talk about Google’s role. One of the things I wrote about in the article you referenced is just the idea that we are in a network economy and maybe we are at the birthing of a distributed network economy, but that’s a different podcast. Google is the central node on the world’s information network and it’s really abundantly clear to me that… It’s one of the most profitable companies in the history of the world. 70% of US searches go through Google. They have virtual monopoly status on search activity, which ultimately if you really understand Google, we call it a search engine, it’s a hyper targeted advertising mechanism. Every search is really just serving up different advertising options to people and they’re making a fortune doing that.
The critical piece to understand in all this is you, as a firm, as a thought leadership marketer, whatever you’re trying to do, and however you’re planning to use Google, you have to remember Google is the central node, all the spoils go to Google. You might make a good living off of search traffic to your site from thought leadership you’re developing, but I’ll use Mr. Wonderful’s kind of comment, “Google can crush you like the bug you are anytime they choose, whenever they choose for any reason.” They wield a tremendous amount of power to the thought leadership marketer because they can basically wipe out your search findings instantaneously for any or no reason. It’s just really interesting in that there’s a fundamental shift in the economy. I mean, there’s been the talk of we’re in a knowledge economy. I would argue we’re past a knowledge economy, we are clearly in a network economy. In a network economy, the central nodes really get all the gains.
Google is making money on every search. Whether or not you’re rising to the top or not, you’re only making money in a very arcane way when someone finds you through search, reads your stuff and ultimately gets into some interaction with you and then a project later. Right? I think it’s a really important dynamic for firms to understand, not that I know that many firms that are really riding search that centrally in their lead generation or client acquisition efforts, but it should play a critical role in that and you need to understand the dynamics of it. I’ll let you comment on that if you want.
Jeff McKay: Absolutely. You know the thing that I’ve been thinking about as a professional services marketer, Google to me… And this may be market dynamics and I haven’t really thought this completely out so if this seems a little stream of conscious, it’s probably because it is. The Google search capability seems to be geared so much more towards retail and eCommerce and driving people from advertising specific products into purchase. Professional services is much different. It’s B2B, it’s complex sale, it’s relationship-driven, it’s thought leadership that doesn’t lend itself to that kind of turnkey quick purchase retail model. The competing force on that retail front with Google, in my mind, is Amazon. Amazon is entering that product advertising market because the people that go to Amazon are specifically looking for products at that time and place. They are ready to purchase.
I think Google is going to have to adjust what they do in order to compete with Amazon. I wonder what that means to us B2B thought leadership marketers and what that is going to entail in terms of our marketing strategies and tactics. I haven’t thought that through completely, but it just seems like everything you read about SEO and online conversion and websites is so much geared towards retail, eCommerce product purchases. I think we need some different thinking on that front. I don’t know what that means in terms of who becomes the node or how that node branches off from Google into some new node.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, I mean, I don’t see another node emerging. I mean, I understand your comments and they’re really, really good ones. If I’m a retail company or I’m a consumer goods company and I’m selling things direct through the internet, Amazon’s probably the bigger node right now. I think there is a battle between Amazon. I’d toss Walmart in there and Google for sort of ownership of that relationship between the consumer on a retail search to purchase type behavior. I don’t see another emerging node in the world of thought leadership and B2B marketing beyond Google. They may be out there, I just don’t see them. I’m not trying to say that Google is going to originate large portions of your client base, I’m just saying that Google is the closest thing you have to Superbowl advertising because it’s going to deliver anywhere from 50 to 80% of the traffic to your site if you’re a professional services firm and you’re doing anything as it relates to content and thought leadership marketing, even if you’re not to be honest.
It has the ability to deliver more audience to you than anything else that you might do, whether it’s third party publishing or small scale events. Is it the best audience compared to those? Maybe not, but it’s the biggest and I don’t see another node of that scale emerging anywhere, but you might have more impact elsewhere. Right. You might get an article published in HBR and that might have way more impact than grabbing search position number one on whatever topic it is you’re writing about.
Jeff McKay: I think that’s a brilliant point. We can’t confuse scale and focus or effectiveness of these tools. I think you make a really good point there.
Jason Mlicki: I’ll piggyback that real quick and I’ll go back to kind of the opening of this, how it reshapes the way we think. The argument I always tend to make to our clients is, “Look, you published this article in HBR and that’s great. And now I read this article on digital transformation you did and boy, it wowed me.” What’s one of the next things I often do? I go, “Hey Google,” and I started searching the topic again and now maybe you’re there, maybe you’re not. If you’re not, you’re not the authority anymore and you may have lost me. You almost need to be in both places. But there’s competing interests on how you get there. How you get to high ranking search positions for big meaty topics on Google does not look like how you get into HBR, right? They’re different models, but that’s what buyers are doing, right?
I’m attuned to this because when I’m in the business development process, I ask people these questions and marketers tend to remember things. Marketers will say to me, “Well Jason, I saw you speak at such and such event. And then I was Googling this topic and then I Googled this topic and you came up both times. I guess you’re the expert, right?” And that’s literally what they’ll say to me. They haven’t even really read the content that was the result very closely, they’re just making the inference real quickly.
Okay, I’m going to transition to our last topic on Google before we wrap our first episode back from hiatus. Google’s changing. I am not an SEO expert. I don’t get into the weeds of algorithm updates and all that kind of stuff. I read more directionally about big picture what’s happening and I just want to kind of put in the minds of people what’s going to change here very, very soon and already.
First, historically Google basically understood metadata. So as we said, in the early days it was mostly looking at directional links, now it looks at a variety of technical factors. It looks at some really basic metadata. It looks at headlines on pages, page titles, URL strings, to infer what content’s about and then it looks at technical factors and link information to understand what’s quality and what’s not and render search results. But historically, it only understood strings of texts, right, even image search. You look at an image search, for the most part it’s really reading the alt texts tied to the images, not really interpreting the images themselves, but that’s changing.
The first read I got on that was a comment recently from our SEO lead telling me, “Google understands audio now,” meaning that it can read raw audio files, podcast recordings and other audio recordings without accompanying metadata for the first time. That’s a relatively new advancement. That’s playing out.
I would argue that Google will be fully capable, if it’s not already partially capable, to do a full on image or video search within the next five years, meaning it will be able to recognize an image file or recognize a video clip without any accompanying information in a metadata universe. That’s a huge deal. And as that plays out, that will massively change how we as marketers develop and distribute content. We have to be on top of it. I want to layer one on top of it that I find really interesting and I’m not on top of this at all cause you brought up Amazon, but I like to follow a guy named Shelly Palmer who’s a really forward thinking guy on the technology front. He’s been writing recently about how Amazon’s now saying, “Hey, we can read your emotions on your face.” From face recognition of you interacting with devices, they’re starting to use AI to infer your feelings and your emotions based on what it can see. That’s just another indicator that again, these systems are becoming a lot smarter in the way they interpret information. Search is going to change and the way they interpret information is changing dramatically right before our eyes, probably faster than any of us can really process or understand. I say this only because if you’re a firm and you’re invested in thought leadership and you’re thinking about search as an element of how you get your thought leadership in front of people, recognize that the mechanisms Google is using to understand what content’s about and what represents quality is going under more change right now than it’s ever gone under and that’s just going to be going much faster than you can probably process.
I don’t have any right specific recommendations on what to do about it, just kind of making people aware of like, “Hey, these things are playing out.”
Jeff McKay: It’s so funny how we see things from such different perspectives. I liked what you had to say there. I was thinking of it in different terms. When you look at, at least in my understanding of what’s Google is doing, is it’s making these very strategic investments and AI is, as you’ve talked about… And they’ve made, gosh, I don’t know, half a dozen a dozen acquisitions in that space. They have a capital arm that invests in some of those things. But to me, there are several investments that Google is making strategically that becomes a direct threat to the professional services industry, not just in distribution of thought leadership, but in annihilating entire professional services industries. When you look at the investment in AI, cloud. They are becoming one of the leading providers of cloud and a big part of that strategy is linked to both mobile and IOT. They’re targeting specific industries like healthcare and financial services. That combined with the voice that you just talked about, that to me is just going to be a very potent combination of technologies that just transform industries.
Where consultancies used to go in and kind of correct things around the edges or process or implement a technology here or there, all that stuff will just change on the fly to a large degree in the future. I think that’s both the exciting thing and the scary thing about where Google is going. It’s fascinating, but this company is so big, so powerful and changing so rapidly, I don’t even know how you stay on top of it.
Jason Mlicki: Well yeah, I don’t think either one of us really can. I love the things you just put out there and I would love to do a podcast on that. I mean, I would need some time to process it and really come fully prepared to actually render a valuable opinion about it, but it’s really, really interesting stuff. I think we should absolutely put that on our agenda at some point in time if we can do it. I’m going to take us to wrap. Welcome back from our summer hiatus. This was a really good first episode back. I hope you enjoyed it. I hope the listeners did as well and I’ll talk to you next week.