Archive for the ‘Twitter’ Category
Back from SMX Advanced London, where I got a chance to speak on “SEO, Search, and Reputation Management and SMX Advanced 2010 in Seattle, where I got to relax and just take in the knowledge.
So here for all who could not attend, is a summary of three of the sessions I attended on the first day of SMX Advanced 2010. I only get so much time to blog…working guy you know. I’ll do my best to post the rest, but no promises.
SEO for Google versus Bing
Janet Miller, Searchmojo
- From heatmap studies, it appears people “see” Bing and Google SERPs in pretty much the same way. The “hotspots” are pretty similar.
- Not surprising: average pages/visit and time on site are higher for Bing than Google – but that has always been true from my perspective
- Bing does not currently accept video or news sitemaps.
- On Google you can edit sitelinks in Webmaster tools, in Bing you cannot.
- Geolocation results show pretty much the same in both sets of results.
- One major difference: Google shopping is free for ecommerce sites to submit; Bing only has a paid option for now.
- Bing lets you to share results (social sharing) on Facebook, Twitter, and email, Google does not. But the sharing links point back to the images on Bing, not to the original images on your site. You also have to grant access to Bing on Facebook.
- Bing allows “document preview” when you rollover the entry. It will also play videos in preview mode – but only those on youTube. If you look at the behavior, information from the page shows up. To optimize the presentation of that information, Bing takes information in this order:
- H1 tag first – if title tag and h1 tag don’t match, it takes the H1 tag
- First paragraphs of information
- To add contact info, add that information to that page. Bing is really good about recognizing contact information that is on a page.
- To disable “document preview” enter the following
- Add this meta tag to the page: <meta name=“msnbot”, content=“nopreview”>
- Or add this line to robots.txt: x-robots-tag: nopreview
Rand Fishkin: Ranking Factor Correlations: Google versus Bing
As usual, Rand brought his array of statistical knowledge to bear to compare how Bing and Google react to different ranking signals. Here are the takeaways:
Overall Summary of Correlations with Ranking, in Order of Importance
- Number of linking root domains
- An exact match of .com domain name with desired keyword
- Linking domains with an exact match in the TLD name
- Any exact match of the domain name with the desired keyword
- Number of inbound links
- An exact match of .com domain name with desired keyword
- Linking domains with an exact match in the TLD name
- Number of linking root domains
- Any exact match of the domain name with the desired keyword
- Number of inbound links
Domain Names as Ranking Factors
- Exact match domains remain powerful ranking signals in both engines (anchor text could be a factor, too).
- Hyphenated versions of domain names are less powerful, though when they show they show more frequently (more times on a page) in Bing (G: 271 vs. B: 890).
- Just having keywords in the domain name has substantial positive correlation with high rankings.
- If you really want to rank on a keyword, make sure you get exactmatchname.com as the TLD.
- Other exact match domains may still help, but don’t have as high correlation.
- Keywords in subdomains are not nearly as powerful as in root domain name (no surprise).
- Bing may be rewarding subdomain keywords less than before (though G: 673 vs. B: 1394).
- On alternate TLD extensions:
- Bing appears to give substantially more weight to these than Google.
- Matt Cutts’ claim that Google does not differentiate between .gov, .info and .edu appears accurate.
- The .org TLD has a surprisingly high correlation with high rankings but you can attribute this to elements of their authority – more links, more non-commercial links, Less spam.
- Don’t forget the exact match data .com is still probably a very good thing (at least own it).
- Shorter URLs are likely a good best practice (especially on Bing).
- Long domains may not be ideal, but aren’t awful.
On-Page Keyword Usage
- Google rankings seem to be much more highly correlated with on-page keyword usage than for Bing.
- The alt attribute of images shows significant correlation as an on-page ranking factor. (I always thought so and it’s one of the elements most SEO newbies miss.)
- Putting keywords in URLs is likely a best practice.
- Everyone optimizes titles (G: 11,115 vs. B: 11,143). Differentiating here is hard.
- (Simplistic) on-page optimization isn’t a huge factor.
- Raw content length (length of page and number of times the keyword is mentioned on the page) seems to have only a marginal correlation with rankings.
Link Counts and Link Diversity
- Links are likely still a major part of the algorithms, with Bing having a slightly higher correlation.
- Bing may be slightly more naïve in their usage of link data than Google, but better than before.
- Diversity of link sources remains more important than raw link quantity.
- Many anchor text links from the same domain likely don’t add much value.
- Anchor text links from diverse domains, however, appears highly correlated.
- Bing seems more Google-like than in the past in handling exact match anchor links (this is a surprise!).
- Bing’s stereotype holds true: homepages are more favored in top results vs. Google.
Twitter, Real-Time Search, and Real-Time SEO
Steve Langville – Mint.com
Steve had a lot of interesting points, and I thought his approach to real-time was one of the most sophisticated I had heard.
- One element of his strategy is what I like to call “Merchandising Real-Time Search.” Basically someone at Mint has a merchandising calendar of important dates/topics in consumers financial lives (e.g. tax time) and also watches for hot topics that could impact a consumers sense of money (e.g. new credit card legislation). Mint then has a team that can create new content on that topic that is likely to generate word-of-mouth. At that point, they push the content out and then energize their communities on Facebook, Twitter, etc. by promoting the content to them. This generates buzz and visits back to mint.com.
- Mint has also created Mint Answers, it’s own Yahoo Answers-like site where people ask and answer questions on financial topics. The result is a lot of user generated content on Mint.com on critical keywords that yields high ranking in the SERPs.
- Mint also developed as Twitter aggregator widget around personal finance and put this as a section on their site. Twitter’s community managers then retweeted these folks who then signed up for @mint and began retweeting @mint tweets. According to Steve, the amplification effect was huge.
As always, Danny had some really interesting insights to add about real-time search. I will honestly say that many times I still think Danny, like many search marketers, thinks “transactionally” about search , as compared to consumer marketers who think about having an on-going “conversation” with a customer. (More on that notion later). But in this case, Danny really showed why he is known as an industry visionary:
- Search marketing means being visible wherever someone has overtly expressed a need or desire. It is more than web; more than keywords. An example is mobile apps – search by another name- so I guess he agrees with Steve Jobs on that one.
- This was uniquely insightful. Whereas normal search is a many-to-many platform where anonymous individuals post content whose authority grows based on “good” links that are added over time, real-time search is a one-to-one platform where clearly identified people post questions or comments and get responses. Authority comes from the level of active engagement, not links. I had never heard real-time described this way, and it is a succinct but very sophisticated definition of real-time search.
- You can use conversations to identify folks interested in what you need. Not a new concept, but good to repeat. So if you have a service that sells vacuum cleaners, search for “anyone know vacuum cleaners” and the folks who have an interest are now identified and you can respond to them.
- Get a gift by giving a gift. That’s the fundamental currency of social media. Danny answered 42 questions from people who didn’t know him, didn’t follow him. He got no complaints and 10 thank yous.
- Recency versus Relevancy. Anyone doing real-time gets this – that authority can come from having high-quality information or having reasonably high quality information in a very short time frame – in other words, sometimes the recency of news makes it more worthy of attention than something older but more thought out. Danny believes that as Twitter matures (and maybe the entire real-time search business – that wasn’t clear), relevancy is going to get a higher relative weighting, so that relevant results will get more hang time in the SERPs.
I have trouble summarizing all of Chris’s talk – and it was a very good talk – because so much of what he talked about was covered in my notes from other speakers. So here are the unique points from his chat:
- You have to decide how you resource Twitter and other sites. Questions to ask for your strategy
- Consumers First: What are consumers saying about your site/company already? How might they use your Twitter content? Develop representative Personas of consumers who would engage with you on Twitter.
- Time/Investment: How much time do you have to devote to Twittering? Do you devote someone to spend time dailyreading/responding to Tweets?
- Goals: What are some advantageous things you could accomplish by interacting with consumers in real-time?
- Strategy will decide whether you hire a full-time person, part-time person, or use automation.
- Use OAuth for API integration as it shows the application the visitor used as an appended data point
- Convert your Google News feeds to RSS to make them easier to subscribe to by members of your community
- A great tool for small business social media management is www.closely.com which auto-creates a social action page for every offer a company makes on Twitter and Facebook
- Be brief but really clear in main point on Tweets. Include a call to action as they are retweeted at a much higher rate.
- Tweets with please were retweeted ~5.5% of the time versus 0.5% for random Tweets.
- 98% of usernames on Twitter are 12 characters or less. So make your tweets no longer than 125 characters to allow for RT addition with username.
- Top 10 common words in retweets are (in order of most mentioned): you, Twitter, please, retweet, post, blog, social, free, media, help.
- Use custom features in URL shorteners to include your desired keyword on which to rank in the shortened URL.
- Resources to check out:
- http://collective-thoughts.com/2009/02/20/social-bites-like-sound-bites-butdifferent/ (Retweet tips – perfect “social bite”)
- The Science of ReTweets:
John Shehata – Advanced Internet
I loved John’s presentation because it confirmed many of the same conclusions I had reached about real-time search and reported on at SMX Advanced in London. Key points:
- The ranking factors for real-time search are very different. They include:
- User (author) authority (My comment: not just one site but across every site on which the author publishes).
- How fresh that author’s content continues to be.
- Number of followers.
- The quality of follows and how they act on the author’s content (is it retweeted often? Is it stumbled? Does someone flow it into their RSS feed? How often? How quickly?).
- URL real-time resolution.
- It is not about how many followers you have but how reputable (authoritative) your followers are. (This is what I call Authorank and like PageRank it is passed from authoritative follower to those they follow.)
- You earn reputation, and then you give reputation. If lots of people follow you, and then you follow someone–then even though this [new person] does not have lots of followers, his tweet is deemed valuable because his followers are themselves followed widely.
- Other possible ranking factors:
- Recent Activity : Google pays more attention to accounts with more activity?
- User name: keywords in your user name might also help.
- Age: since age plays a big role in Google search engine ranking, it’s possible that more established Twitter accounts will outrank the newer ones.
- External links: links to your @account from (reputable) non-social media sites should boost reputation as far as Google is concerned.
- Tweet Quantity: the more you tweet, the better chance you’ve got to be seen in Google real-time search results.
- Ratios of followed vs follow: a close ratio between the two can raise a red flag.
- Lists: it might also matter in how many lists you appear.
Tactics to follow:
- Encourage retweets by tweeting content of 120 characters or less so you can save room for the RT @ Username that is added when someone passes along your message to their followers.
- Tools to identify hot trends: Google Hot Trends, Google Insights, Google News, Bing xRank, Surchur, Crowdeye, Oneriot.
- Same advice as Steve Langville – plan for seasonal keyword trends.
- Don’t update multiple accounts, reTweet instead.
- Connect your social profiles.
- Attract reputable, topically-related followers.
- Write keyword-rich tweets whenever possible, without sounding spammy:
- Do not create content with multiple buzzing terms.
- Do not abuse shortening services for spam links.
- Do not go overboard using Twitter #hashtags – Search Engines will eliminate your tweet from search if you use too many because it “looks bad.”
- Spammy looking tweet streams will be eliminated from search.
- Don’t use same IP address for different twitter accounts.
Show Me The Links
This was a great session with a HUGE number of ideas for getting new links. And each person talked about a very different philosophy towards link building and their tactics reflected those philosophies. Let’s see if I can capture them:
- Philosophy centers on using easily created and highly valued visual or viral content:
- Creating Infographics – they work very well. An example – a “where does the money go from the 2008 stimulus bill” infographic generated 29,000 links.
- Writing guest blog posts whose content is highly viral for others . Embed a link to your site as the source. You give the gift of traffic to them, you get links as a gift in return.
- More traditional link building
- 50% is content development and promotion. The big example he used on this was the Google April Fools Day Prank about Google opening an SEO Shop. Got picked up as “real” story by Newswire 27 days after post, went viral, generated 800 backlinks.
- 20% is blog post and article placement.
- 10% is basic link development.
- 20% is targeted link requests to those few critical high-value sites. There are NO magic bullets here – it takes creativity and just good old-fashioned hard work and persistence. But the rewards can be substantial.
- Use badges with your URL embedded that benefits the person who puts on site (e.g. “a gold star” validation).
- Write testimonials for other folks.
- Write on sites that want good content and can deliver an audience.
- Answer questions on answer sites where you have the expertise.
- Make it easy to link to you by providing the information to potential linkers.
Focused on B2B link building tactics:
- Backlink trolling from competitors- but also look for sites that your competitors aren’t on – you want your own authoritative link network.
- Don’t ignore TLD .us There are lots of good possible link sites with decent authority there.
- Look at associations that provide ways to link to their members. Search for member lists, restrict your search to .org and add in relevant keyword phrases to filter for your related groups.
- Look at dead sites with broken links – see who is linking to them. Once you have identified a dead internet page do a linkdomain: search on Yahoo to identify sites still linking to the dead site.
- Free links from resources, directories, or “where to buy” sites.
- Bloggers: cultivate alliances and relationships with other sites and blogs. Particular bloggers who like to do interviews.
- You have all this content that you generate as a normal part of your business. Use it.
- Use dapper.net to create RSS feeds of your blog content
- Joost de Valk has a WordPress plugin at http://yoast.com/wordpress/rss-footer/ which let’s you add an extra line of content to articles in your feed, defaulting to”Post from“ and then a link(s) back to your blog,with your blog’s name as it’s anchor text.
- Use RSS feeds from news sources to identify media leads to speak with as part of your PR work.
- Content syndication: podcasts, white papers, living stories, news streams and user generated content (e.g. gues blogging) are still hot. Infographics, short articles, individual blogs, and Wikipedia are not.
- Widget Bait: basic widgets that you can build on widgetbox are getting somewhat passé but still have some value. You need to do more advanced versions – information aggregation widgets seem to work very well right now. Make people come to you to download them.
- Microsites: the old link wheels are worthless at this point – the engines have figured those out and treat them similarly to link spam sites. Those with good content – e.g. blogs or sites with good content – work. One option is to buy an established site and then rebrand it.
Let’s continue our discussion of Twitter economics.
The average Twitterer has 549 followers. Now this is skewed by corporate accounts (e.g. like our travel sites) and news sites that have a very large number of followers. I have gone through a number of accounts to determine what seems like a realistic average number to use – and I am going to assume 200 followers. Our experience is that for the first generation of followers, 10% pass along an offer (the theory of this is also quite enlightening but I will not cover it here). For subsequent generations it is much lower, usually in the 2-5% range. We mentioned previously that 15,000 is the average number of followers for the Big 3 sites (Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity). The calculation therefore looks something like the following:
+ (15,000 * 200 *.1) = 300,000 (first generation pass along)
+ (300,000 * .02 * 200) = 1,200,000 (second generation pass along)
= 1,515,000 (total number of individuals)
The number of impressions is then this base of 1,515,000 multiplied by the number of offers “seen”. Expedia seems to be making offers every five minutes, as does Hotwire (they must have set up some kind of automated feed into their Twitter accounts). Travelocity and Orbitz seem to be making offers once a day (or even less). The big unknown is how many offers does the average follower actually see? They aren’t always online, or if online, they are doing other things and their attention is not focused on Twitter. Or they are on Twitter, but the offer doesn’t register through the noise of all the other tweets. Without any really good data, I will assume that each individual “sees” two offers/month – which I hope is a conservative number.
This means that the total number of impressions is: 1,515,000 * 24 = 36,360,000 per year
Given this number of impressions, what is the potential economic impact for Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity? Typical conversion rates on these sites runs 3-5% according to various published data I have seen. But, this is not a situation where someone has either typed in a keyword or clicked on an ad that appears when a keyword is typed in. This is much more of a grazing situation. Many offers are made, but only a few are relevant to any specific individual. So the response rates look more like email, and yet they are even smaller. Why? Because while the first generation is signed up to receive notifications (parallel notion to an email, in this case), the second and third generation are not. Our first benchmark is therefore an email conversion rate from the initial mailing – which is calculated as follows (I am ignoring losses due to bad addresses, since that is not an issue for online accounts - although see below for a related issue of dormant accounts):
# of impressions * open rate * conversion rate
Typical average open rates for good emailings are 10-12%, and conversion rates vary but let’s assume 2%, which is a number that comes from my experience with emailings. That would yield the equivalent of a .2% conversion rate for the first generation. But for the second and third generations, the response would be substantially smaller, maybe .1% or even as low as .05%. Since the first generation is such a small number of individuals, I will use .1% as the conversion rate for the entire base of impressions.
The last pieces of data we need are the number of tickets purchased, the number of purchases per individual in a year, and the average revenue to the travel agency from each ticket purchased. Again, I am going to use data that is fairly well known in the travel business. These are gross averages and do not take into account a number of variables, such as the type of travel (business vs. personal), destination (domestic vs.international), and type of flier (managed vs. unmanaged)
Number of trips per year: 2
Average number of tickets purchased/trip: 2.2
Avg revenue per ticket to agency: $25
So now let’s do the annual revenue calculation for the economic impact of Twitter for a large online travel agency:
36,360,000 * .001 *2 *2.2*25 = $3,999,600
For a big travel agencies, which have around $1B in annual revenue, this is small (.4% of revenue) but it isn’t chump change either.
Before I close, one other issue needs to be explored – and that is the issue of dormant accounts. The model presented assumes that every individual who is following or who receives a retweet or direct message is an “active” Twitter user. But as we all know, many from our own experience, you may set up a Twitter account and then never go back to it. Or you may visit it only rarely. I call these dormant accounts. There has been a lot written on this topic – just type “dormant twitter accounts” into Google. Nicholas Carlson recently wrote a post for BusinessInsider.com titled “60% Of Twitter Users Quit After A Month“. Carlson cites Oprah (@oprah) as an example of someone who has become “bored” with Twitter and reports that Nielsen Online estimates that 60% of Twitter users quit after a month. The post goes on to say that the 60% number may be misleading as Nielson only measures Twitter usage based off Twitter.com and not from mobile use or apps like TweetDeck. Given this data is pretty consistent with other social media sites, and the fact that a lot of tweets happen off of twitter.com, I think we can safely assume that the dormancy rate for Twitter is 50%.
In this case, our approximately $4mm in annual revenue has now become $2mm in annual revenue.
Not huge, but I think we could say that the ROI on the costs associated with maintaining a corporate Twitter account for this purpose are probably pretty spectacular.
I do not doubt that this post will cause a lot of discussion/controversy (at least I hope it will), and I look forward to all feedback.
All I hear about is what the value of Twitter is (hopefully) to investors. What is Twitter’s business model? How will it make money? As a business person, I really don’t care about how much Twitter’s founders and investors will make (which is no doubt a heck of a lot more than I ever will). I care about my favorite radio station – WIFM – better known as What’s in It For Me? The two questions are not unrelated. For Twitter to make money, it will almost certainly need a base of advertisers who want access to it’s audience. There may be other revenue streams that the creative minds at Twitter will conceive over time, including some form of CPM, CPC, CPA or CPL. That advertising opportunity, however, does not exist on today’s Twitter. Yet, advertisers are trying to leverage Twitter now to increase sales.
Is there a way to model the ROI from investing in a presence on Twitter as it exists today? Let me suggest that there is and provide the approach and calculations below.
First, we need to understand what Twitter is and how its audience uses it. I view Twitter as multithreaded Internet chat. It’s like being in a coffee house with conversations going on all around you and choosing which ones you want to participate in. Moreover, the form of communication – 140 characters – lends itself mainly to status updates and quick bursts of timely information. Twitter is at its best when it is used to communicate information whose value deteriorates at a rapid rate. It particularly does because the information is streamed – and the stream flys by so fast that anything much older than a few hours is effectively lost unless you actively search for it in historical tweets – which is a change in consumer behavior that few have associated with Twitter yet. Thus, Twitter in its near real-time form is perfect for businesses and business models whose information quality degrades quickly – e.g. stock prices, airline ticket prices and availability, exploding special offers/deals (an offer that has a specified end date), employment opportunities, immediate local expiring opportunities (e.g. ticket availability at the stadium just before a big game), among others.
So let’s say you are an online travel agency that sets up and maintains a Twitter account. Do you care? Is it worth the effort to put specials out through that mechanism? Let’s look at some numbers. Here are the number of followers of various travel agency Twitter accounts:
- Expedia – 13,281
- Orbitz – 14,087
- Travelocity – 16,133
- Cheapoair – 1,925
- Vayama – 1,193
- Travelzoo – 8,020
- Priceline – 16,212
- Hotwire – 3,769
Assume that you have a Twitter account with 15,000 followers (the average of the big sites) where you post daily specials on travel. They are obviously interested in the opportunities – so we have an audience that, relatively speaking, is highly motivated to purchase if they can find the deal they want. As active participants, they are likely to forward information to friends and family who have a similar interest – so they retweet or they forward via direct message. I call this the amplification effect.
The key question to consider in this is what percentage of people pass the information along and then, subsequently, what percentage of people subsequently retweet to the next level? We actually have good data on this from word-of-mouth marketing campaigns we have run for some of our travel industry clients and from Twitter follower data. There is also research (see Norman, A. T., and Russell, C. A. (2006). The pass-along effect: Investigating word-of-mouth effects on online survey procedures. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11(4), article 10. http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol11/issue4/norman.html) that aligns well with our experience.
More in the next post.
I love it when I’m in the middle of a long discussion about a subject and the world catches up with me. Last post: what kind of communication are we creating in social media and its implications for us? Today, along comes Flutter, a humorous take on the on-going shortening of communications online. Where Twitter is microblogging, Flutter now creates a new category called nanoblogging, which limits all communications to 26 characters.
Now, I happen to find this paraody hilarious, but even as this was happening, my old buddy from Sun/JavaSoft, Miko Matsumura – the original Java evangelist, took reductio ad absurdem even further with the term femtoblogging, which is communicating in a single character. While he did not define the vocabulary and grammar, I assume that ! becomes I, K becomes “I’m great” but k is a simple ”I’m ok,” just to give a few examples. Miko had 30 single character responses, all of which everyone else seemed to understand, so clearly a true language with semantics and syntax has developed. (I am proud to say however, that my response was in full sentences and required people to actually read something – which means it was clearly out of step with current reality and no one read it. )
What femtoblogging reminds me of is the !Kung click language. A click could be considered the equivalent of a single character in femtoblogging, but the San people who speak !Kung seem to understand it and communicate very effectively with it. However, in click languages, clicks are more like ones and zeros – long strings of specific clicks accumulate to express complex ideas. But that doesn’t take away the importance of the analogy. Why would advanced civilizations with thousands of years of development of complex, deep, and profound written systems move to a form of society (socializing) which values shorter and shorter messages which by definition must contain less content? There has to be some kind of trade-off – we have to get something in return for the “loss of signal” in our communications. What tradeoff did the San people make and why are they still speaking a click language hundreds of years after being exposed to more robust and efficient oral communication tools (with an almost infinite combination of consonants and vowels)?
The tradeoff we make is twofold. First, in a society where time is an increasingly valuable commodity (although that whole treadmill links to a topic for another day), learning to communicate quickly in short bursts about elements of one’s status – what I am doing and what I know or have discovered that may have use to you right now - is worth the reduction in signal volume. The other tradeoff that makes bursty communication worthwhile is the ability to keep track of many more people over a wider geographic range than we could previously. So in a way, we are substituting volume for depth. The bandwidth has not changed at all. What has changed is that each communication requires less bandwidth and allows us to communicate with more people in parallel.
But that is a result, not a cause. Why is communicating with more people in parallel, more immediately, of value? I could understand that if we were talking about a marketplace or stock exchange where the freshness of information lasted only a few minutes or seconds and we needed to quickly communicate our “price” to a large number of people in real time. But for more typical human interactions, communicating this way seems counterintuitive and ineffective.
The other question we should ask is why suddenly are these parodies of our technology arising on the same day? Parodies evolve from real situations that have some element of the absurd in their nature which a comic can expose and explore. They bring out something about a situation that is inherently uncomfortable for or inconsistent to us and cause us to not only look at what is making us uncomfortable but to also laugh at it.
What oddity fundamental to the essence of Twitter, Facebook, Flutter, and other similar sites is making us uncomfortable, like a grain of sand in an oyster? Why do we accept the implications of a world where communication is in short, bursty messages, and yet fear its consequences?
We’ll pick it up in the morning.
Communication. It’s something simple to understand. There is a message, a sender of the message and a receiver of the message. If the receiver receives the message the sender sends, that is a communication. Communication is nothing more than the act of sending and recieving the message. Nothing more, nothing less?
Well, let’s take some examples. I am sending you a message:
2380 jsdaop oj sdoppojsd ppjpodsj.
You just received the message (we hope). Is that communication? I certainly doubt you feel it is. To you and me it’s a garbage string, has no meaning. We’ve gone through the act of communicating (in a sense), but we have not communicated.
Let’s take another:
Ad praesens ova cras pullis sunt melior
More than likely you do not speak Latin. So to you, I have not communicated very well. You can hypothesize from the grammar and word combinations that it is a “true” communication of some kind, but in a language you don’t understand. If you spoke Latin, you’d know that the phrase I just wrote is “Eggs today are better than chickens tomorrow.” And if I thought you knew Latin, then that would be all the message I did send. But since you don’t speak Latin, you may feel I’m showing off and the message you received was “I’m superior to you because I can speak an ancient language and you cannot.” (I certainly hope you don’t feel that – as I don’t really speak Latin, I used the Web). But I didn’t even vaguely send a message like that – so where did the message you received come from?
In this case, the message you “received” was an emergent property of the context of the communication. The context was the medium of the communication, the situation in which it was sent, and the psychology of the receiver (what I like to call the “communication veil”). I didn’t send anything vaguely resembling your message, but as my message moved through the communication veil, a substitution occurred in which a new message was created because you didn’t understand the original message, which I assumed you did, and you were therefore able to insert a new message into the “hole” that existed. You knew I was trying to communicate something, but didn’t know what. You also assumed I knew you didn’t know Latin. Through your veil, I was therefore purposely being abstruse. So you “filled in the gap” as it were with your best guess of what my implied message was. Unfortunately for me, your best guess was not what I intended.
It often amazes me given all the communication veils, the unpredictable situations we experience daily, and our mediums that are both noisy and odd at times, that sender and receiver come even close to having a true meeting of the minds.
So we now have a new medium – a social medium. It can be written, photographic, audio only, or video and audio. When it is written, it is between 140 characters (Twitter and SMS) and 450 characters (Facebook), with many sites/services limited to the 250 character level. Photos usually extend to 4 or 5 in a short space (with the ability to click to a larger page) and audio/video have minimal limits (unless the site, like 12seconds, limits length).
Written communication in 140 characters? What kind of communication is this? Let’s look at some examples from Twitter:
The first is an ad – and may I add (no pun intended) that we are seeing Twitter become overwhelmed with advertisements now. From my perspective, it is getting to the point where I cannot maintain any kind of “conversation” (back to that term shortly) flow with all the noise. If something doesn’t happen to limit this, Twitter is quickly going to find itself obsoleted.
The second is a personal note. The third is a share about something of interest to the sender. The fourth and fifth are an information request I made about whether others were noticing trouble with Twitter and one person’s response
What can we say about these messages and communications in this medium?
The first three messages do not seem to request a response. They appear to be monologues. Are they? Depends on the context of the receiver. But what is unique about social media is just that fact: it makes no distinction from the sender’s or receivers’ (not the plural) perspective. Unless I do a direct message, I don’t necessarily expect or require a response. I don’t even know who is listening, and I don’t care. It’s as if I were in a cafe with hundreds of people all talking – some to themselves, and some to others – and I’m shouting a message that I hope, but can’t know, that anyone will really hear.
The receiver’s pespective is similar but opposite. I’m listening for specific messages among the noise. I can tell when someone is talking to me (or even about me) because there are visual or other clues (e.g. the @sign) that allow the volume of those messages to raise above the din. But there may be other interesting things these monologers are saying, so I can’t ignore the noise totally. What I can do is filter the voices of only those I think I might care to hear. This reduces the signal to noise ratio substantially, but doesn’t remove it altogether. It may cause me to miss other messages of interest, as well.
As a receiver, I can chose to send a message back, but it is not required or expected. That is very different from previous conversational media: when a message was sent, a response was expected. So, if there is a message sent and you can’t know if anyone hears it, are we really engaging in communication? To a certain extent, this is the online version of a message in a bottle – only the ocean is filled with thousands of bottles. Not only can I not know if someone will receive my message (even my followers), but with thousands of other messages out there, they may not be able to find it, even if they are looking for it. Certainly as a sender I am trying to communicate, but on the surface it would appear an awfully inefficient and ineffective mechanism. We’ll come back to this.
So what are the purposes of these communications? Why send a message someone may receive but I can’t be sure and I can’t truly identify who will be the receiver? We’ll also come back to that in a moment.
On the other hand, the fourth message requests a response – so it is a more traditional form of communication. Its purpose is to get a broader perspective on an issue important to me. I’m trying to confirm a fact or a situation and determine whether it is specific to me (a personal problem that I must take action to solve) or whether it impacts the whole community (in which case, others may be acting to solve the problem). It is also probably a timely issue, otherwise I would not necessarily send it via social media. I say probably because that isn’t necessarily true. Communication is about habits. If I am in the habit of communicating mainly through social media, I may chose that as my medium, even though it may not be the most efficient.
The fifth message is a directed response to me. It is very likely I will receive it, but not guaranteed (if I am away from my desk or phone). But it is also sent to everyone listening, so the intent has to be to engage a broader group in the conversation. So in that regard, it has the same basic properties as the first four messages.
What about the content of these communications? Certainly, they are not rambly blogs on deep subjects that no one will ever read…. (I have no self-delusions on that subject). They cannot and do not contain Ideas – even Matt Cutt’s entry doesn’t contain an Idea – it contains a pointer to something that to him contains an important Idea. But isn’t Danny Sullivan’t comment about the Karate Kid an Idea? Isn’t it expressing something unique? The answer is it expresses a unique opinion, but it does not contain a new Idea – it is instead commenting on the validity of Ideas expressed in a longer and denser medium.
You cannot express substantive thoughts – big Ideas – in 140 characters, and probably not in 450 characters. And I am the first to say – and please hear me because I don’t want anyone thinking this is some kind of elitist claptrap – that most communication is NOT about big Ideas – otherwise we wouldn’t identify specialized subsets of humanity as visionaries, philosophers, or gurus. The point is social media is not a vehicle, nor is it expected to be a vehicle for conceiving, developing, or communicating Ideas with a capital I.
So what about stories? Storytelling is deeply ingrained and fundamental to human communication. In fact, I would argue that most everything we try to communicate is done in the form of a story. I used to love to say that as our ancestors used to sit around the campfire at night and listen to the shaman tell a story about the Gods, today we sit around the projector in a dark room listening to shamans tell us about the Gods of profit and technical wizardry.
So does social media contain stories?
We’ll leave that to tomorrow’s entry.
Tweet verus est rara avis – A true Tweet is a rare bird
(OK, NOW I’m showing off)