2013 was an epic year for Internet professionals from an innovation standpoint. We're moving faster, making better decisions, and collectively and aggressively moving toward the ultimate aim - success in the digital realm. But how did we get here and where are we going?
While it can be overwhelming to keep up with the variety of technologies that are bringing digital-focused enterprises to new heights on the 'Net (and beyond into brick-and-mortar), there are a handful that every business professional interacts with - or will at some point in their careers - and as a result should be at least somewhat familiar with. In this edition of Website Magazine that's just what you'll find - an overview of what's trending and inspiring on the digital innovation front.
Weaved into the discussion of some of the most exciting emerging technologies, you'll also find many practical digital solutions from software vendors and service providers that are setting the pace of innovation, standing (virtually, of course) ready to support your enterprise for its immediate survival and long-term success.
If there's one particular overarching trend it's this - businesses, digital enterprises in particular, are innovating at a feverish pace - but doing so increasingly with an eye to the big picture, maximizing use of their capital, rethinking the whole notion of "performance", leveraging existing relationships and moving seamlessly to a more holistic approach to profit from their endeavors.
Popular management consultant, educator and author Peter Drucker once famously mused that "business has two functions - marketing and innovation." While few, myself humbly included, could ever dare call themselves innovators, it doesn't mean that you/we shouldn't try. Besides, even if you're not an innovator, you can always be a marketer (wink).
The definition of "innovation" is hotly contested, but think of it this way - you are an innovator and you innovate upon things or processes. That's different from invention - when something entirely new is created. With invention, change is the only constant, whereas with innovation, change is the result. Where the discussion usually breaks down is not in the defining of the term "innovation," but rather in the "something" that is changed, altered, evolved, transformed or metamorphosed. A significant breakthrough, an improvement in process or significant modification of anything is innovation - upon what, it really doesn't matter.
Digital entrepreneurs and Internet professionals, those that understand the importance of innovation when it comes to staying on the cusp of digital leadership, must first know the core principles of innovation. They have to concentrate and understand what problem is being solved, be discriminating in their choices of what needs change first, be organized and creative throughout the process, experiment endlessly, listen and analyze qualitative feedback and quantitative data and communicate the vision. That's not all of course - it's still fundamentally important to design and implement everything. With all the background work in general, it's amazing that anything is innovated upon (not invented) at all.
Above everything else, the real innovators know that what they are innovating must be disruptive to the digital status quo; it must fundamentally be useful to the potential audience, and even more, in demand. The solutions you'll encounter below are those living up to this ideal and our collective expectations, those that can support you on your own quest to digital success.
One of the areas of technology that has been ripe for innovation over the past decade has been that of Web hosting, data storage and network delivery services in general. The reason there is so little innovation (and thus so boring to so many) is because it's quite expensive. The hardware and functions it could provide in the past, were far more costly and required greater expertise to operate.
Some rather innovative thinkers decided that it was better to leverage software to reduce many of the hardware hurdles that enterprises experience - and the cloud (and content delivery networks and loads of related software solutions) emerged. Now the cloud, while innovative itself (ever-changing) by definition, is also ripe for innovation.
Take for example providers such as OnApp, which offers software to power cloud, CDN and storage services. What's innovative about OnApp is its "federated approach" explained OnApp's Chief Commercial Officer Kosten Metreweli. OnApp enables small and mid-size hosts and service providers (including telcos) to tap into a global pool (geographically diverse) of cloud capacity and do so at scale. The result of combining the solution with their customers' local market knowledge and support is that they create a better, more compelling and more innovative service for their own customers.
Los Angeles cloud computing provider Reliam, whose clients include the Grammy Awards, the Oscars and Miss Universe, serves as a powerful example of why such a solution as OnApp is appealing. Websites such as MissUniverse.com can receive more than 2 million page views in a single day while events are taking place. OnApp CDN allows Reliam to scale instantly during these traffic spikes, customizing the service to leverage only the locations they need from among 200 global POPs. Reliam has reduced CDN expenditures by 50 percent since moving to OnApp from its previous provider, while still guaranteeing performance - for example, 100 percent uptime even when Miss USA was a top 50 most visited website for an entire day.
Necessity isn't just the mother of invention, but the mother of innovation as well.
Internet professionals and digital entrepreneurs innovate when they are faced with challenges, turmoil, crisis and time of great change. With those challenges and changes, come opportunities to satisfy needs. Consider the opportunity you have in your daily life to work productively, responsibly and in service to others (and yourself). Rather than stopping at the wall, the barrier to achieve success, you need to exercise your talents and find and develop innovative solutions to whatever is standing in your way - be it process or product.
One of the most common walls (challenges) facing Internet professionals of all experience levels these days is the practice of application development. There is likely a good reason that digital media and the Web in general have captured your attention - you had an idea, an innovation, about doing something your own way, doing something faster or better than someone else or another company. But you hit a wall because you're not a designer or a developer, right? Fear not, some rather innovative technology solutions have emerged recently and over the years that will turn you and your team from dreamers into doers.
UBot Studio, for example, recently launched a new version of its software that enables anyone to develop - and more importantly sell (distribute) - applications through its all-in-one design and app delivery system. Unlike other automation software platforms, UBot Studio 5 lets aspiring innovators create executable applications that can be customized to automate any repetitive or routine tasks including those for social media marketing, online advertising, market research, SEO and other functions (more on that below).
The new version is built in C++ and incorporates HTML 5, offering an intuitive and highly flexible user interface - complete with drag-and-drop features - to enable their users to create proprietary applications. The platform also provides layered encryption that combines SSL certification with an authentication algorithm, resulting in a platform that allows innovators to create useful (and secure) applications that are unreadable/unusable until validated through a new customer licensing and distribution dashboard.
"There is a growing need for technology to help streamline the marketing process as it increasingly becomes more complex and this is an area that a lot of businesses and professionals see as a huge opportunity," said Seth Turin, president of Seth Turin Media, Inc. "Our response is the introduction of UBot Studio 5, which helps marketers turn their ideas into solutions that they can easily, safely and securely distribute to their clients. At the same time, the platform's easy-to-use WYSIWYG interface removes barriers, making the tasks involved in creating applications - which are normally linear - much more intuitive."
UBot Studio also provides a way for its users to create custom user interfaces for the bots and compiled files. A user simply selects the UI element he wants to add his interface, dragging it to the interface, positioning it and finally customizing each element (color, font, content, etc.). Users can even see previews before finalizing their projects.
There are, of course, still many other innovative technology solutions worthy of note. One would be remiss to not mention, from a pure design perspective, what role solutions like Adobe's Creative Suite are offering up. Adobe is currently unmatched, but it's not preventing some rather big companies from giving it a go on the innovation challenge.
Google Web Designer, which is in beta, is far less robust than even Adobe's early versions, but it does lower the hurdles to ideas and innovations. The free, downloadable application enables users to create HTML5-based designs and even motion graphics (see "How to Create Ads in Google Web Designer" at wsm.co/gwebdes) for Web use across any device. By offering full code control, Google is enabling a broader segment of Internet professionals to take control, solve their own problems and, therefore, innovate.
There's some direct benefit for Google's innovation though. The Web Designer solution makes it possible to publish the ads that are created to platforms including DoubleClick Studio or AdMob. It's interesting to see how easily innovations in one market, so greatly influence the success of other industries, companies or individuals. That's no more so the case than in design.
Display advertising has seen an incredible resurgence over the last few years and in great part due to the increasing sophistication of design, as well as the near meteoric increase in usage of the Web and technology in general. There are more connected humans today than yesterday; there are more websites and, of course, more inventory to display ads.
The developments and innovations made in the retargeting and behavioral-based display market are important (and you can read more about them in Website Magazine's new "Quick Guide to Retargeting and Display" at wsm.co/targetguide), but they don't mean much without the right creative, in the right format, size and shape. Internet, where we're going, there are no 468x60 banners.
AOL, for example, recently released a set of new ad formats that many hope will provide advertisers and publishers with bumps in performance. The new products include a "reactive" wallpaper (or takeover) unit that transforms as users scroll, a "persistent" loft unit that travels down a Web page and opens up to display video or other multimedia elements, a multiscreen unit built with HTML5 and another proprietary format, which is a version of the IAB's Mobile Rising Star unit. What's so important about the AOL release, and those of the IAB as well, is that they are innovative and force advertisers and publishers to rethink the concept of advertising altogether. It might be a challenge (unless you're working with one of those aforementioned tools) but the rewards are immense.
Another reason that display advertising, and all digital advertising in general, is so prominent in the virtual lives of Internet professionals today, is because we as users can simply do more with it. AOL's new persistent loft unit serves as a good example. Opening up when interacted with by the user, the ad unit has the ability to show videos or dynamic content. Users are coming to expect this sort of immediate gratification of their curiosity, satisfying their desire for information, education or simply entertainment. And companies, including Microsoft and its Bing search engine, know all too well that the faster they help others (e.g. consumers) solve problems and reach their digital destinations, good things can happen.
In a "why didn't we do this before" moment, Bing announced recently that it will be introducing a click-to-call feature on paid listings that is powered by Skype, enabling advertisers to connect with customers through phone calls directly from their ads.
Bing introduced a beta of the Call Extensions ad feature last year, which was limited to smartphones. The project yielded some positive results for advertisers (higher ad click-through rates, more phone calls and better engagement according to Bing) and was formally introduced just in time for the holidays. The Call Extensions feature enables advertisers to show their phone numbers along with their ads on smartphones, PCs and tablets, and do so on a cost-per-click basis. Advertisers, marketers and the data analysts and business professionals that love them will also be able to access performance metrics/reports to understand impressions, call volume, and spend data at the campaign, ad group and individual call extension level. Analytics of this nature are exceedingly important, because it's one of the only ways available to ensure the strategic decisions made are good ones moving forward. But they aren't the only ones.
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Many of the great innovations of our age are a result of some epic shift, a change that sends Internet professionals into a digital tizzy.
The most recent change of this nature comes from Google, which (over a course of roughly two years) has now moved to fully encrypted search. The result is that search engines no longer share keyword-level data about the users visit. That's caused some discomfort for many solution providers that have put all their virtual eggs in that basket. There are platforms however, such as BrightEdge and GinzaMetrics, that are releasing products that hope to lessen the associated anxiety (which has been at fever pitch of late) and encourage SEOs in particular to rethink the very definition of digital success.
BrightEdge, for example, released its new Page Reporting feature, which allows marketers to transition from keyworddependent SEO to what BrightEdge is calling a "content-centric" model. The company believes the approach will give marketers the insights they need about the performance of Web page visits, conversions and revenue that results from organic traffic, displaying the revenue performance from organic search and how pages are converting against pre-set goals. Who needs keywords anyway?
Search and content marketing platform GinzaMetrics is another solution innovating in the face of continual search updates.
"Four major trends are converging to present new challenges to online marketers: secure search, semantic search, device proliferation and the growing influence of content marketing," said Ray Grieselhuber, GinzaMetrics CEO. "All four of these trends ultimately result in a better experience for Internet users. It also means, however, that marketers need a technology platform that responds to these trends in order to reach those users most effectively."
With its newly created Content Insights report, GinzaMetrics' users can view page-level data pulled from their existing third-party analytics solutions (Google Analytics, Adobe Site- Catalyst, etc.). Analytics data is taken for each page, then correlated to the most relevant keywords for that specific page based on a user's target keyword settings and GinzaMetrics' own algorithm. This allows GinzaMetrics to display page data, utilize page traffic to infer how much traffic a specific keyword is driving and project monthly traffic based on search volume and CTR curve.
A content-centric search algorithm from Google has placed a growing need on understanding which content is performing well, what keywords and topics are driving traffic, conversions based on page content and how to utilize this data to optimize pages in market as well as know what content to create moving forward. GinzaMetrics' hybrid solution provides this data to users and allows them to drill down into pages and keywords to uncover recommendations that can help teams further optimize content and campaigns.
Integrated with Content Insights is Social Signals, a feature of the platform that helps users uncover how social signal interactions may influence search rankings. A user can view Facebook shares, likes and posts; Google +1s; and Twitter tweets and retweets for content across a site and sorted by target keyword. GinzaMetrics' competitor analysis feature also allows users to view social signal data for selected competitors for comparison.
Another noteworthy feature is the device filtering layer. Users can now select a device type including desktop, mobile, or tablet, and view page level data based on their selection. GinzaMetrics is looking to expand device and mobile integrations across the platform as a growing number of search queries originate from devices other than users' desktop computers.
Understanding that this is a first step toward ensuring that search and marketing professionals can continue to promote findability of their brand online, GinzaMetrics is set to release additional features this year that tackle Hummingbird and secure search head-on.
Analytics, of course, isn't limited to SEO performance or advertising; nearly everything is measured on today's Web properties and that's causing some trouble for Internet professionals that they likely never imagined when they set out on the path toward 'Net success.
For example, Adobe recently released new dynamic tag management capabilities for its Adobe Marketing Cloud that the company suggests will speed up the process for tagging content that needs to be measured and optimized on websites. The technology itself results from an acquisition Adobe made in July of 2013. Satellite, formerly part of interactive agency Search Discovery, will help Adobe's Marketing Cloud users consolidate code for different marketing and advertising services (as well as analytics) that are implemented by websites to monitor how content is being used.
Dynamic tag management is unique in that it not only solves standard tag management problems such as code deployment, data management and rule building, but also provides the capabilities to map these activities directly to marketing scenarios and user experiences. The functionality is substantially more robust than what is commonly known as a universal tag, which is essentially nothing more than a tag container. Dynamic tag management essentially includes logic that determines what action should be taken on a page to measure the "right" data about a particular interaction, making it easier for marketers to develop digital marketing strategies and implement them without any IT support.
Internet retailers aren't known to be aggressive when it comes to innovation. It can take years for a company to decide to replatform, and they take great precautions with their brands and budgets when promoting their services, serving their customers and reaching for revenue opportunities.
What's unique about the ecommerce environment today is that merchants are closing in on the technology, catching up as it were with some of the most innovative solutions on the market and preparing their enterprises for success.
At its annual client summit, eBay introduced a new suite of commerce-focused technologies for eBay Enterprise that aim to help merchants focus on omnichannel operations and marketing solutions. The "Exchange Platform" offers retailers backend capabilities, including distributed order management, omnichannel inventory management, payment processing, fraud management and reporting. The Exchange Platform is pre-integrated, not surprisingly, with Magento, eBay Marketplaces and PayPal.
eBay Enterprise's Interfaces and Tools module also serves as the front-end, a commerce storefront solution for retailers to create "...experiences across devices, locations, users, geographies and brands," said Chris Saridakis, president of eBay Enterprise.
"Retailers and brands understand the importance of having industry-leading capabilities across their entire value chain to support a new retail environment where consumers demand consistent, seamless and personalized experiences anywhere, at any time," said Saridakis. "We've been singularly focused on being a strategic growth partner to our clients, and our new suite of modular commerce technologies will give our clients a competitive edge in this rapidly changing retail landscape."
There's no denying that companies like eBay are innovating and fulfilling the expectations of their users (and stockholders) but there are hundreds of fascinating digital, ecommerce focused software and service companies that are working as hard or harder and deserve an equal amount of attention from Internet professionals (see sidebar on page 28).
Easier said than done, right? To develop an innovative product or solution, everything must be working in perfect virtual harmony, moving you faster and more efficiently toward the ultimate aim - success in the digital realm.
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