Last month popular review site Yelp launched a re-design, giving greater priority to visual content and making key business information in reviews stand out more.

The new layout now includes pictures at the front and middle of the page and makes key information easier for users to quickly access. The reviews themselves were also given an upgrade, with key information highlighted. If there’s important information from reviews (such as its BYO) then these are listed by bullet point on the right hand side of the review, making it clear for the user to see.

Additionally users are now able to search for relevant reviews based on keywords rather than just looking for business name or type alone. So for instance they may want to look for ‘gluten-free’ in a particular city, in which case they can search for that phrase and wherever it is mentioned in a review it will return those relevant businesses. A number of restaurants, cafes and gluten-free specialist retailers, for example, may come up.

Images are given priority so there is plenty of space for reviewers to post these; these will be shown at the top of the reviews to give users an instant visual for the reviews, rather than having to click on a separate link.

Yelp had the following to say on the new layout:

Yelpers have contributed more than 53 million reviews to date, so of course we couldn’t leave this important section untouched. Since Yelp’s rich content is so valuable in helping people make spending decisions, we adjusted the column width and font size for optimal readability, while adding large photos in-line to give further context to a Yelper’s experience.

It makes a change for Yelp to be in the news for something positive like this – previously there was scandal over its alleged number of fake reviews and consequently reports on their clampdown of it. Ultimately they are looking to improve user experience overall and a fresh new layout is one way of achieving this. Keeping up to date also means they can keep up with the competition – since Yelp’s inception there have been plenty more review sites that have popped up, many of which use an incredibly similar concept.

Currently Yelp received 120 million unique visitors each day globally.

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Microsoft has been forced to deny that its search engine Bing had censored certain searches and search results, specifically for its local Chinese version, instead insisting error messages were down to a technical glitch.

The apparent censorship was brought to the world’s attention by Chinese freedom of speech blog GreatFire.org, which seeks to reveal and breakdown China’s restrictions on free speech. The blog ran searches both on Chinese and US versions of Bing and for sensitive topics such as ‘Dalai Lama’ with the message:

“Due to legal obligations imposed by Chinese laws and regulations, we have removed the results for these search items. For more information, please see here”

Microsoft have responded to the claims with the following statement from Bing’s senior director Stefan Waltz:

First, Bing does not apply China’s legal requirements to searches conducted outside of China. Due to an error in our system, we triggered an incorrect results removal notification for some searches noted in the report but the results themselves are and were unaltered outside of China.

Second, with regard to the freeweibo.com homepage being absent from Bing search results, our investigation indicates that at some time in the past the page was marked as inappropriate due to low quality or adult. After review, we have determined the page is acceptable for inclusion in global search results.

Bing aims to provide a robust set of high-quality, relevant search results to our users. In doing so, Bing has extremely high standards that respect human rights, privacy and freedom of expression.

Microsoft is a signatory to the Global Network Initiative, which is an effort by a multi-stakeholder group of companies, civil society organizations (including human rights and press freedom groups), investors, and academics to protect and advance freedom of expression and privacy on the Internet. As part of our commitment to GNI, Microsoft follows a strict set of internal procedures for how we respond to specific demands from governments requiring us to block access to content. We apply these principles carefully and thoughtfully to our Bing version for the People’s Republic of China.

Google ran in to problems with Chinese censorship previously and as a result moved their Chinese offices to Hong Kong.

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Ad revenues across social media platforms have seen vast increases in the last couple of years – with figures set to soar to even greater levels. Overall, across all the sites, there will be a year-on-year increase from 2013 to 2014. However the largest growth was probably already witnessed last year, in which case what we will really see is a decline in growth, albeit alongside an increase in revenue.

Online marketing data company eMarketer collated the information to show the revenues for 2012 and 2013, and have made projections for this coming year and for 2015. All the main players are included plus smaller social media channels.

Although both this year and next will see a vast increase the biggest change was witnessed between 2012 and 2013. This was likely due to a shift from independently owned, venture capitalist-backed sites to bigger players buying up smaller success stories. This, and the fact that some became publically listed companies, means there is more pressure on advertising revenues 1. to be implemented and 2. to make money for shareholders.

For Facebook and Twitter becoming public meant they had to channel much of their investment and manpower in to creating successful advertising streams whilst maintaining user experience, whereas previously they only had the latter to worry about. After Facebook and Yahoo bought Instagram and Tumblr respectively, the smaller sites look set to follow in a similar vein.

The only category in fact that will see improved year-on-year growth is the ‘other’ category listed which includes smaller social media sites. This is most likely because for many there were no advertising revenue streams in place until late last year.

Another reason for growth declining is that at some point the market will hit its peak and so advertising revenues will plateau; the few years from 2012 onwards could be said to be the point of exponential growth as a sector new to advertising revenues took off.

What next for social media and online marketers?

As the growth for ad revenues has jumped from nowhere pre-2012, social media sites and marketers will have to produce and adapt to new ways of quantifying successes of advertising in this way. In order for online marketers to continue to invest in social media advertising they will need to be able to prove and to quantify how a particular channel is performing.

The social media sites themselves will have to be able to respond to this by having clear indicators that will determine whether advertising has been successful or not.

The area with the most potential for growth over the next few years will probably be with SMEs – and so with their smaller marketing budgets to play with it will become even more essential for social media sites to be able to track and to prove that their advertising works.

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Social network ad revenues chart

Facebook boasted 1.19 billion users in 2013, with 738 million of those classified as active daily users.  This enormous figure demonstrates how powerful social media can be as a marketing platform.  Almost no other marketing channel can potentially reach that many customers.  However, with that much influence, it is only natural that some marketing companies would utilize less than legitimate means of elevating client brands.

One of these methods that has been recognized in recent months is the use of paid likes.  This technique typically involves setting up accounts by non-existent users, who are usually third parties paid by marketing firms.  These falsified accounts then like certain ads, which bolster the marketing metrics for these agencies.  These advertising agencies can then go to their clients and show how well they are doing.

Not only does this perform a major disservice for the clients of these immoral marketing firms, but it also damages the greater marketing community on Facebook.  This is because the method used by these fraudulent users artificially inflates likes on other ads as well.  Facebook actively polices its community and has introduced algorithms which identify ads that receive an inflated number of artificial likes.  To circumvent detection, the fraudulent users must also like a wide range of other pages and ads to present the pretense that they are merely very active users.  In many cases, these spurious users hail from other countries like Russia, Philippines and Malaysia, and can produce thousands of likes.

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While this may seem harmless, it actually creates an illusion of engagement and undermines authentic marketing strategies.  What has occurred is that many ads receive an abundance of likes but with little or no follow up activity.  This casts a shadow of inauthenticity for even genuine marketing efforts, as the inflated number of likes doesn’t translate into any visible engagement with the business.

The artificial number of likes also discredits the accuracy of tracking programs.  Inflated numbers of likes can drive down the value of certain marketing ventures.  If more companies distrust the audits from their ads, it undermines the credibility of the entire marketing field.  I

This also skews the marketing strategies of legitimate groups on Facebook.  More than one advertiser has tweaked their ad buys in an effort to weed out participation from foreign users.  It is only after expending precious time and energy do these advertisers discover that their marketing strategy was not casting too wide a net, but that spam profiles were merely clicking their ads to cover for their unscrupulous actions.

Many Facebook advertisers have urged Facebook to identify these false users and penalize them.  It shouldn’t be that difficult to determine that if a user has liked thousands of ads and pages, he is probably not a legitimate user.  So far, Facebook has not taken this action.

Industry experts suggest using different metrics and tracking programs to measure ad effectiveness. They also recommend that marketers utilize local targeting so that only responses from a target country or region are measured.

In 2013, Facebook reported earnings of $7.872 billion, primarily from advertisements.  This figure was considerably more than analysts predicted, but many of Facebook’s advertising partners have voiced criticisms about its advertising system.  Much of this criticism focused on the inability to target certain users.

In response to these concerns, Facebook announced that it was introducing new targeting options that would allow advertisers to connect with market segments.  These targeting options include, demographic, geo location, behavior and interests.  This refined marketing system would enable advertisers to devote their marketing dollars to groups which are more amenable to their particular promotional message.

One of the most important categories is location.  Advertisers may now direct their ads to Facebook users who reside in a particular country, city, state or, even, zip code.  Businesses who provide local products and services no longer need to worry about spending in geographical markets with little relevance.

As Facebook is a social site, it is only natural that it would enable advertisers to broadcast their market messaging to groups that have interests that dovetail with their products.  For example, users who have become engaged can be targeted by wedding related companies.  Similarly, other major life events can also enable interested advertisers to direct promotions at users.

These marketing messages can be linked to various keywords or activities.  Advertisers only need to search for a topic and link their ads to the pages of users who have shown an interest in that topic in the past.

Key demographics are also easily targeted.  Social characteristics like age, gender, education and occupation can be used to refine market segments.  In some cases, even highly specific classifications like job title can be used to further narrow targeting. Of course, advertisers can link their ads to users who have shown interest in the organization, brand or product.

Facebook has also enabled more powerful advanced targeting mechanisms like

  • Custom audiences—upload a contact list for ad targeting
  • Lookalike audiences—identify people who share characteristics with a company’s best customers
  • Facebook exchange—find potential customers who have interacted with an organization outside of Facebook

Facebook has far exceeded revenue expectations in recent years due to its priority on mobile applications, but it has grown strongly in almost every earnings metric.  It has increased daily active users by 25 percent to almost 728 million.  The number of overall users has grown 18 percent to almost 1.2 billion.  The number of mobile Facebook app users grew 45 percent in 2013 over the previous year; as of September 2013, there were 507 daily mobile users.

Expansion into foreign markets has also buoyed Facebook growth.  While there was an addition of almost a million users in the U.S. almost, the vast majority of additional growth occurred in Europe, Asia and other emerging markets.

The recent $16 billion purchase of Whatsapp, a wildly popular messaging service in international markets, is Facebook’s next move in an effort to broaden its reach to a billion foreign online users not on Facebook.  Eventually, this messaging service could serve as a stepping stone to bring them into the Facebook community.

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Since the Penguin and Panda updates of 2012, Google has been unashamedly targeting organizations that buy or trade links in an effort to elevate their search engine rankings.  This black hat SEO technique has led to severe penalties including warnings, manual penalties, diminished ranking or even complete dismissal from SERPS (for gross violations).  In the latest policing effort by Google, they have targeted two Polish link networks that have provided unnatural links.  Piotr Cichosz, the owner of e-weblink confirmed that at least one of his four network domains was penalized by Google+. There is speculation that prolink.pl is the other possible culprit.  Google has not concretely confirmed or denied these allegations .

Prolinks.pl is a link exchange that facilitates the buying and selling of links.  The Polish company unashamedly details on its company website how it uses a network of 2,200 publishers  and 500 companies to elevate search engine rankings.

E-weblink offers clients various link packages ranging from 500 up to 5,000  links. This company currently has a market valuation of $157,221 according to W3Snoop and attracts almost 99,000 visitors daily.

It is unclear how Google will penalize the companies involved in unnatural link exchanges.  In most cases, Google will distribute notifications to clients of these companies.  In many of the cases where Google has announced that a link network violates its quality guidelines, that network has been dissolved.

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This action follows an evaluation of German link networks which may face similar sanctions.  Matt Cutts, the head of the Google Webspam team, announced in a tweet that additional action against German organizations may occur in the near future.  He also linked an article describing unnatural links and the reconsideration process. This follows similar action taken against the French link network Buzzea.  The targeting of link networks in Europe is indicative of Google broadening its scope into international markets.

These harsh actions by Google should not come as a surprise to anyone in the SEO community.  With the Penguin, Panda and Hummingbird updates to the Google algorithm, Google has unequivocally stated that it will reward sites that produce original, valuable content and penalize those that use techniques in an attempt to manipulate the search engine.  Prior to these updates, many unnatural links—which Google defines as links which are intended to manipulate page ranking—could be purchased to a variety of sites and raise search engine page rankings.

Many link networks used a variety of techniques to generate links.  This included some of the lower quality article and blog networks which relied on poor quality content to anchor links.  In more overt cases, unsavory networks can directly take money in exchange for creating a link with a partner publisher.

In addition to penalizing for the use of inorganic links, Google has reduced the importance of linking in general in its ranking algorithm.  Instead of emphasizing organic and quality links to other authoritative sites, Google has encouraged webmasters to focus their efforts on producing outstanding content that increases the informational value or enjoyment of the visitor experience.

Is Facebook the Ideal Platform for International Ads In its latest report, Marin Software showed that while 85 percent of Facebook users live outside the U.S. Mexico and Canada, only 52 percent of advertising is directed towards international consumers.  North America receives almost 48 percent of ad expenditure, while Europe follows with 35 percent.  Other markets receive much smaller ad targeting and expenditure in proportion to their population of Facebook users.  For example, the Asian and Pacific markets comprise 28 percent of Facebook users, but only 0.71 percent of ads are targeting those consumers.

This has led many industry experts to suggest that advertisers seeking to vastly improve their brand visibility in emerging markets like Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe can take advantage of limited competition on Facebook.  Because of Facebook’s considerable market penetration in these regions, but little or no ad spend, a small investment can produce outsized returns.

The Marin report goes on to suggest that advertisers eager to enter these rapidly developing markets should take some important steps prior to entry:

  • Examine local and international laws
  • Evaluate international sales potential and fulfillment capabilities
  • Investigate regional demand and anticipate growth requirements
  • Utilize local preferences to inform culturally oriented marketing messages
  • Customize promotional strategies to each region
  • Ensure that language differences are well understood

This overlooked aspect of Facebook’s reach has yet to dawn on many advertisers, but this could be rapidly changing.  In part, this new concern about foreign markets is originating with Facebook itself.  The recent purchase of the messaging service WhatsApp for $16 billion by Facebook is a signal to the business community that Facebook is keenly interested in raising its presence in foreign markets.  Whatsapp has immense popularity in Brazil, Indonesia, India and South Africa, and is seen as a platform to springboard users in those regions to join the Facebook community.

This investment by Facebook suggests that it anticipate rapid growth abroad, which in turn should increase marketing competition on this social platform in the near future.  Advertisers who wish to take advantage of Facebook’s limited marketing activity should recognize that competition could ramp up rapidly and plan accordingly.

Facebook has made considerable gains in the number of international users and the amount of digital ad spend in the international marketplace in recent years.  In 2011, Facebook accounted for only 3.65 percent of global ad revenues, but by 2013 this number had grown to 5.41 percent; this translates into $3.15 billion ad revenue in 2011 to $6.36 billion ad revenue in 2013. In 2008, Facebook could only claim 34 million international users; by 2010 this number had increased to 400 million.  Today, almost 86 percent of Facebook users hail from countries other than the United States.

It is also important to recognize Facebook’s growing presence on mobile devices.  Not only is Facebook the most popular app on smartphones, but its popularity among mobile device around the world is exploding.  Of the 669 million daily active users in 2013, almost 469 million engaged with Facebook via a mobile device.

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Google Places for Business has long been one of the most important directories to list a business. For many businesses without a website, this service allows them to be found online through one of the most trusted services on the web. Companies can post key business information, photos, and videos without charge through Google Places for Business, sometimes eliminating the need for an independent website.

In February, Google announced that businesses may now list a single descriptor that better enables customers to find the organization or understand how the business can serve them. Prior to this, only the exact name of the establishment was permitted in the title. Now, according to Google’s quality guidelines, this descriptor cannot be a URL, phone number, store code, or tagline.  Descriptors that attempt to elevate the repute of the business are not permitted; only accurate, factual information is permitted.

Many industry experts have criticized the move by Google because of the likelihood that companies will misuse the descriptor.  Critics suggest that many companies will attempt to use keywords in the descriptor to elevate rankings or obtain a marketing advantage. They also contend that this will compromise Google’s ability to accurately distinguish the actual business name from a modified version.  For example a business officially named “Ted’s Steakhouse” could accidentally become “Ted’s London Steakhouse” if the Google Places user introduces a descriptor.  Obviously this can create considerable confusion for consumers and may even provide difficulty for the search engine.

This confusion may actually manifest in a variety of ways.  Legitimate companies who introduce a descriptor into their business title may be penalized for unknowingly using a keyword.  They may actually change lose their current SERP ranking because Google has difficulty linking them to the original name and, inadvertently labeling them as spam.

In effect, marketing experts argue that Google has gone too far in giving users the authority to damage their own brand name.  On the other hand, unscrupulous marketers may take this as carte blanche to introduce a variety of unfair branding practices. Unique product names, employee names or services could be used in the descriptor.

While Google Places has not officially responded to the criticisms, it is recognized by the online community that the change it has instituted has been occurring for some time. Many companies have already included an extra word or two in their title to help distinguish themselves from other locations or competitors.  It appears that Google Places for Business is merely adopting a practice that has been widespread tactic among its users.

In the past, Google has issued a list of quality guidelines which include:

  • Do not create more than one listing for a business
  • Businesses which do not conduct business face-to-face cannot display their business address and must designate locations where public transactions are offered
  • Select the type of business from among the listed categories
  • List a local phone number if possible

If a user fails to comply with Google’s list of quality guidelines, Google reserved the right to delist them.

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