Let us show you three awesome experiences at Hero Conf Austin from which you can get to know your fellow PPC Heroes and find ones who will become part of the best two days you’ll experience so far in 2020.
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Amazon is a giant in the world of ecommerce marketing, but that doesn’t mean advertising on it is the best thing for your brand. Read on to see the reasons why some marketers are keeping their dollars off the platform.
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6 things you might not know about Google’s optimization score and how digital marketers should treat this metric.
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3 Common Reasons Why Marketers Don’t Invest in Their Post-Click Experience… & Why That’s a Big Mistake
It’s important to give CRO time, money, and much-needed love and attention. My goal is to offer some clarity on why you should stop blaming these 3 things on not doing CRO and just do it already. It just makes sense!
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Video content impacts organic performance more than any other asset that can be displayed on a web page. In today’s online marketing world, videos have become an integral step in the user journey.
Yet for the large enterprises, video optimization is still not an essential part of their website optimization plan. Video content is still battling for recognition among the B2B marketer. Other industries, on the other hand, have already harnessed this power of video.
In the recent Google Marketing Live, Google mentioned that 80% of all online searches are followed by a video search. Some other stats to take into consideration, according to Smallbiztrends by 2019, global consumer Internet video traffic will account for 80% of all consumer Internet traffic. Furthermore, pages with videos are 53 times more likely to rank on Google’s first page.
I took a deeper look into video content and its impact on organic performance. My analysis started in the fall of 2018. Google had already started to display video thumbnails in the SERPs. According to research from BrightEdge, Google is now showing video thumbnails in 26% of search results.
Understanding the true influence of video SEO for your business will require some testing. I did four different sets of tests to arrive at the sweet spot for our pages.
The first test was to gauge if having video content on the page made any significant changes. I identified a page that ranked on page four of the SERP’s in spite of being well optimized. The team placed video content relevant to the textual content to the page. And the test result was loud and clear, having a video on the page increased relevance, resulting in increased rankings, and visibility in universal search. The Page started to rank on page one and the video thumbnail in the SERPs displayed the desired video and linked back to the page.
The next test was to understand the impact of the method of delivery. I measured what was the level of user engagement and organic performance when video contents are displayed/delivered on the page via different formats. The page was set up wherein users could get access to the video content either via a link that would take the user to YouTube or as a pop-up or as an embedded file that actually plays the video on the page itself. Results were very evident – every time the video was embedded on the page the user engagement increased, which decreased the bounce rate, and improved page ranking.
Taking a step further in our testing journey, I conducted a follow-up test to evaluate which category of video content performs better? Like any other SEO strategy, video optimization isn’t different. Skip the marketing fluff and go for product feature videos, “how-to” videos, or “what is” videos. We tested assorted video contents on the same page. Whenever the content of the video addressed a user need and was relevant to the page textual content the page rankings improved.
Lastly, I tested if Google prefers YouTube videos or domain hosted videos. On this subject, several of my business colleagues and I have budded heads. There is no universal truth. Google does display both YouTube and domain hosted videos in the thumbnails on the SERPs. Different sites will see different results. I tested the impacts of an embedded YouTube video on the page. What I found was something I had not even considered in my hypothesis. When the video was already present on YouTube and then embedded on the page, the URL improved in rankings and at the same time the thumbnails on the SERPs showed the YouTube video but when the user clicked on the video it took them to the product page and not to the YouTube video.
Many enterprise SEO strategists failed to leverage the video content because they feel their products are not that B2C in nature. Remember that search engines like videos because searchers like videos.
Videos take the static image or textual content to experience content, wherein the user can actually view how to use the information. This brings in a much higher and stronger level of engagement that in turn improving the brand reputation.
What video content should you consider?
I recommend starting at square one – what is the user intend/need you are trying to address. Define the goals you want to achieve from this video marketing. Are you looking to drive conversions or spread brand awareness? Put some thought into whether the video is informative and engaging and whether it is relevant to the page that it is displayed in.
Don’t overlook how that message is conveyed as well. Take into account personas as that establishes your intended target audience, the overall tone that the video should take. What stage of the user journey is being targeted? Understanding the areas where video results are high can help provide insight and guidance for additional content strategy ideas.
Things to remember when starting to incorporate video content
More and more people are searching and viewing content on their handheld devices. Therefore, you have to optimize this content with a mobile-first approach.
The basic SEO principle still applies. Optimize title, description, tags, transcript. Matching these to the user intent can encourage click-throughs
- Ensure its page placement. Always surround your video with relevant content to tie it all together.
- Videos up to two minutes long get the most engagement. Keep them short and let your brand shine through.
Don’t just link to it, embed it onto your site and make sure the video image is compelling.
This is the critical time to incorporate video content and optimization into your content strategy for 2019. When quality videos are added to web pages, it gets recognized as rich content, a step up from the regular text-filled pages. Video content will only help your optimization strategy in expanding your reach to driving engaged site visits.
Tanu Javeri is Senior Global SEO Strategist at IBM.
Cloud gaming — however a company chooses to define that — is shaping up to be a big part of the next generation of consoles and other platforms. But Mario creator and Nintendo veteran Shigeru Miyamoto says his company won’t be so quick to jump on the bandwagon.
Speaking to shareholders at Nintendo’s annual general meeting, Miyamoto and other executives addressed a variety of issues, among them what some interpret as a failure to keep up with the state of the industry. Sony and Microsoft (together, amazingly) are about to lock horns with Google, Nvidia and others in the arena of game streaming, but Nintendo has announced no plans whatsoever regarding the powerful new technology.
As reported by GamesIndustry.biz, Miyamoto was unfazed by this allegation.
“We believe it is important to continue to use these diverse technical environments to make unique entertainment that could only have been made by Nintendo,” he said. “We have not fallen behind with either VR or network services… Because we don’t publicize this until we release a product, it may look like we’re falling behind.”
But although this hinted that Nintendo is working in this direction, Miyamoto didn’t sound convinced that cloud gaming was a home run.
“I think that cloud gaming will become more widespread in the future, but I have no doubt that there will continue to be games that are fun because they are running locally and not on the cloud,” he said.
The Nintendo focus on local multiplayer and complete offline single-player games is certainly emblematic of this point of view. And while Nintendo has been slow to adopt the latest gaming trends, it has shown that it can pull them off very well, indeed like no other, for example with the excellent Splatoon 2 and its constantly evolving seasons and events.
Nintendo President Shuntaro Furukawa said they see how gaming technology is evolving and that it’s important to “keep up with such changes,” but like Miyamoto made no indication that there was anything concrete on the way.
Instead, he indicated (again in true Nintendo style) that the company would reap the benefits of cloud gaming whether or not it took part in the practice.
“if these changes increase the worldwide gaming population, that will just give us more opportunities with our integrated hardware and software development approach to reach people worldwide with the unique entertainment that Nintendo can provide,” he said.
In other words, a rising tide lifts all boats, and if the others did the work to raise the water level, well, that’s their business.
The rumor on everyone’s mind after E3 is whether a new Switch or Switches are on the way. Naturally Furukawa demurred, saying that of course they were aware of speculation, but wouldn’t comment. However, he added: “It would spoil the surprise for consumers and is against the interests of our shareholders, so we are withholding any discussion.”
Of course a new Switch is on the way — that’s about as much as a confirmation anyone would be able to get from Furukawa or the other highly trained executives at Nintendo, even if the new hardware was coming out tomorrow. But at this rate it seems more likely that the new hardware will be timed to pull in buyers around the holidays — which may have the knock-on effect of taking the wind out of Microsoft and Sony’s sails (and sales) when they debut their next-generation consoles next year.
The $ 10 million entry fee to join the Facebook-developed cryptocurrency’s Libra Association is merely a minimum. Members who’ll verify transactions can opt to invest more in exchange for more Libra Investment Tokens that will earn them dividends from the interest earned by the Libra Reserve after it pays for infrastructure and operations costs. If regulators allow it to launch after today requesting a halt of development, and the cryptocurrency grows popular with tons of people cashing in local currencies for Libra, the Reserve that holds those assets could grow huge and generate meaningful returns via interest — especially for members willing to sink a ton of money in early.
But therein lies potential disalignment of incentives.
If you’re confused, read our guide to everything about Libra
Each Libra Association member only gets one vote on the council, including Facebook . But if Facebook puts in $ 500 million and another member like eBay antes up just the $ 10 million minimum, Facebook has a much bigger incentive to get people cashing into Libra and holding onto the cryptocurrency so the Reserve earns interest on those dollars or other fiat, rather than just getting people to transact with it regardless of whether they hold on to Libra permanently. That could lead Facebook (and its Calibra subsidiary representing it) to push governance decisions that would disproportionately benefit it.
Ahead of the Libra announcement two weeks ago, Facebook’s head of blockchain and now Calibra David Marcus told me, “The reserve earns interest on some of those treasuries. It’s a small amount and it’s variable, but if the reserve becomes big it could become a substantial way to fund the association but also return capital to investors.”
Yet Facebook, for all its talk about transparency with Libra, refused to tell me how much it’s invested into the Libra project as a whole or the Libra Investment Token. That should be a core question raised by Congress when Marcus testifies before the Senate Banking Chair on July 16th and the House Financial Services Committee on July 17th. Facebook did not respond to requests for comment on this article. Congress should also be sure to ask how Libra will avoid a Cambridge Analytica-style crypto disaster given that apps built on the Libra developer platform aren’t subject to review.
The proportion of the total Libra Investment Tokens that Facebook owns in part determines how decentralized Libra really is. If Facebook owns the lion’s share or a majority, that could give it too much financial impetus to bend the rules in its favor even if it only has one vote on the council.
Here’s how. Facebook has led development of Libra to date. In fact, the Libra Association has yet to draw up and ratify a charter or formally admit members. Technically it’s just Facebook’s project right now. “So far we’ve been funding it all,” Marcus told The Information’s Alex Heath. It’s also been coding it all, organizing it all and communicating it all.
As such, for now the project can’t survive without Facebook, and may not be able to for quite a while. That means that if at any time Facebook disagrees so strongly with the Libra Association that it threatens to pull out, it jeopardizes the investment of all the other members. That could coerce them to vote in support of its governance policy suggestions. Facebook thereby wouldn’t need more than one vote to have a much larger influence on the direction of the project.
Today in a Facebook Note (…not a Libra.org blog post), Marcus wrote, “The levels of investments of each of the partners will most likely be public as well when that’s actually live.” But that’s far from a guarantee, and could come too late for regulators to intercede or other members to truly understand the asymmetry.
Meanwhile, Marcus also said that “We’ve been basically lending money to the association that will be at some point repaid back.” That raises another question of how much Facebook has already sunk into the Libra project, how much it expects to be repaid and on what schedule. Members might be more skittish to join if they learn much of their $ 10 million investment might just go to paying back Facebook.
That’s not to mention the other ways Facebook will earn money from Libra. Marcus wrote today that “If Libra is successful, Facebook will first benefit from it by enabling more commerce across its family of apps. More commerce means ads will be more effective, and advertisers will buy more of them to grow their businesses. Additionally, if we earn people’s trust with the Calibra wallet over time, we will also be in a position to start offering more financial services, and generate other revenue streams for the company.”
The fact that Facebook oversees development and has a massive head start on building its wallet that will be baked into its billion-plus user Messenger and WhatsApp products sure doesn’t hurt its prospects for offering other financial services. It will be first to market, instantly at scale, with an insider’s role in defining the rule book.
I’m not discounting the potential Libra has to aid the unbanked who can’t pay fees for having too little money in their accounts, or make commerce cheaper for small businesses. But if Facebook stands to earn outsized returns directly and indirectly from Libra, while expecting other members to foot its R&D bill, and these numbers aren’t made public soon, it’s reasonable to question how decentralized and altruistic this project really is.
This year’s Mobile World Congress — the CES for Android device makers — was awash with 5G handsets.
The world’s No.1 smartphone seller by marketshare, Samsung, got out ahead with a standalone launch event in San Francisco, showing off two 5G devices, just before fast-following Android rivals popped out their own 5G phones at launch events across Barcelona this week.
We’ve rounded up all these 5G handset launches here. Prices range from an eye-popping $ 2,600 for Huawei’s foldable phabet-to-tablet Mate X — and an equally eye-watering $ 1,980 for Samsung’s Galaxy Fold; another 5G handset that bends — to a rather more reasonable $ 680 for Xiaomi’s Mi Mix 3 5G, albeit the device is otherwise mid-tier. Other prices for 5G phones announced this week remain tbc.
Android OEMs are clearly hoping the hype around next-gen mobile networks can work a little marketing magic and kick-start stalled smartphone growth. Especially with reports suggesting Apple won’t launch a 5G iPhone until at least next year. So 5G is a space Android OEMs alone get to own for a while.
Chipmaker Qualcomm, which is embroiled in a bitter patent battle with Apple, was also on stage in Barcelona to support Xiaomi’s 5G phone launch — loudly claiming the next-gen tech is coming fast and will enhance “everything”.
“We like to work with companies like Xiaomi to take risks,” lavished Qualcomm’s president Cristiano Amon upon his hosts, using 5G uptake to jibe at Apple by implication. “When we look at the opportunity ahead of us for 5G we see an opportunity to create winners.”
Despite the heavy hype, Xiaomi’s on stage demo — which it claimed was the first live 5G video call outside China — seemed oddly staged and was not exactly lacking in latency.
“Real 5G — not fake 5G!” finished Donovan Sung, the Chinese OEM’s director of product management. As a 5G sales pitch it was all very underwhelming. Much more ‘so what’ than ‘must have’.
Whether 5G marketing hype alone will convince consumers it’s past time to upgrade seems highly unlikely.
Phones sell on features rather than connectivity per se, and — whatever Qualcomm claims — 5G is being soft-launched into the market by cash-constrained carriers whose boom times lie behind them, i.e. before over-the-top players had gobbled their messaging revenues and monopolized consumer eyeballs.
All of which makes 5G an incremental consumer upgrade proposition in the near to medium term.
Use-cases for the next-gen network tech, which is touted as able to support speeds up to 100x faster than LTE and deliver latency of just a few milliseconds (as well as connecting many more devices per cell site), are also still being formulated, let alone apps and services created to leverage 5G.
But selling a network upgrade to consumers by claiming the killer apps are going to be amazing but you just can’t show them any yet is as tough as trying to make theatre out of a marginally less janky video call.
“5G could potentially help [spark smartphone growth] in a couple of years as price points lower, and availability expands, but even that might not see growth rates similar to the transition to 3G and 4G,” suggests Carolina Milanesi, principal analyst at Creative Strategies, writing in a blog post discussing Samsung’s strategy with its latest device launches.
“This is not because 5G is not important, but because it is incremental when it comes to phones and it will be other devices that will deliver on experiences, we did not even think were possible. Consumers might end up, therefore, sharing their budget more than they did during the rise of smartphones.”
The ‘problem’ for 5G — if we can call it that — is that 4G/LTE networks are capably delivering all the stuff consumers love right now: Games, apps and video. Which means that for the vast majority of consumers there’s simply no reason to rush to shell out for a ‘5G-ready’ handset. Not if 5G is all the innovation it’s got going for it.
The barebones reality is that commercial 5G networks are as rare as hen’s teeth right now, outside a few limited geographical locations in the U.S. and Asia. And 5G will remain a very patchy patchwork for the foreseeable future.
Indeed, it may take a very long time indeed to achieve nationwide coverage in many countries, if 5G even ends up stretching right to all those edges. (Alternative technologies do also exist which could help fill in gaps where the ROI just isn’t there for 5G.)
So again consumers buying phones with the puffed up idea of being able to tap into 5G right here, right now (Qualcomm claimed 2019 is going to be “the year of 5G!”) will find themselves limited to just a handful of urban locations around the world.
Analysts are clear that 5G rollouts, while coming, are going to be measured and targeted as carriers approach what’s touted as a multi-industry-transforming wireless technology cautiously, with an eye on their capex and while simultaneously trying to figure out how best to restructure their businesses to engage with all the partners they’ll need to forge business relations with, across industries, in order to successfully sell 5G’s transformative potential to all sorts of enterprises — and lock onto “the sweep spot where 5G makes sense”.
Enterprise rollouts therefore look likely to be prioritized over consumer 5G — as was the case for 5G launches in South Korea at the back end of last year.
“4G was a lot more driven by the consumer side and there was an understanding that you were going for national coverage that was never really a question and you were delivering on the data promise that 3G never really delivered… so there was a gap of technology that needed to be filled. With 5G it’s much less clear,” says Gartner’s Sylvain Fabre, discussing the tech’s hype and the reality with TechCrunch ahead of MWC.
“4G’s very good, you have multiple networks that are Gbps or more and that’s continuing to increase on the downlink with multiple carrier aggregation… and other densification schemes. So 5G doesn’t… have as gap as big to fill. It’s great but again it’s applicability of where it’s uniquely positioned is kind of like a very narrow niche at the moment.”
“It’s such a step change that the real power of 5G is actually in creating new business models using network slicing — allocation of particular aspects of the network to a particular use-case,” Forrester analyst Dan Bieler also tells us. “All of this requires some rethinking of what connectivity means for an enterprise customer or for the consumer.
“And telco sales people, the telco go-to-market approach is not based on selling use-cases, mostly — it’s selling technologies. So this is a significant shift for the average telco distribution channel to go through. And I would believe this will hold back a lot of the 5G ambitions for the medium term.”
To be clear, carriers are now actively kicking the tyres of 5G, after years of lead-in hype, and grappling with technical challenges around how best to upgrade their existing networks to add in and build out 5G.
Many are running pilots and testing what works and what doesn’t, such as where to place antennas to get the most reliable signal and so on. And a few have put a toe in the water with commercial launches (globally there are 23 networks with “some form of live 5G in their commercial networks” at this point, according to Fabre.)
But at the same time 5G network standards are yet to be fully finalized so the core technology is not 100% fully baked. And with it being early days “there’s still a long way to go before we have a real significant impact of 5G type of services”, as Bieler puts it.
There’s also spectrum availability to factor in and the cost of acquiring the necessary spectrum. As well as the time required to clear and prepare it for commercial use. (On spectrum, government policy is critical to making things happen quickly (or not). So that’s yet another factor moderating how quickly 5G networks can be built out.)
And despite some wishful thinking industry noises at MWC this week — calling for governments to ‘support digitization at scale’ by handing out spectrum for free (uhhhh, yeah right) — that’s really just whistling into the wind.
Rolling out 5G networks is undoubtedly going to be very expensive, at a time when carriers’ businesses are already faced with rising costs (from increasing data consumption) and subdued revenue growth forecasts.
“The world now works on data” and telcos are “at core of this change”, as one carrier CEO — Singtel’s Chua Sock Koong — put it in an MWC keynote in which she delved into the opportunities and challenges for operators “as we go from traditional connectivity to a new age of intelligent connectivity”.
Chua argued it will be difficult for carriers to compete “on the basis of connectivity alone” — suggesting operators will have to pivot their businesses to build out standalone business offerings selling all sorts of b2b services to support the digital transformations of other industries as part of the 5G promise — and that’s clearly going to suck up a lot of their time and mind for the foreseeable future.
In Europe alone estimates for the cost of rolling out 5G range between €300BN and €500BN (~$ 340BN-$ 570BN), according to Bieler. Figures that underline why 5G is going to grow slowly, and networks be built out thoughtfully; in the b2b space this means essentially on a case-by-case basis.
Simply put carriers must make the economics stack up. Which means no “huge enormous gambles with 5G”. And omnipresent ROI pressure pushing them to try to eke out a premium.
“A lot of the network equipment vendors have turned down the hype quite a bit,” Bieler continues. “If you compare this to the hype around 3G many years ago or 4G a couple of years ago 5G definitely comes across as a soft launch. Sort of an evolutionary type of technology. I have not come across a network equipment vendors these days who will say there will be a complete change in everything by 2020.”
On the consumer pricing front, carriers have also only just started to grapple with 5G business models. One early example is TC parent Verizon’s 5G home service — which positions the next-gen wireless tech as an alternative to fixed line broadband with discounts if you opt for a wireless smartphone data plan as well as 5G broadband.
From the consumer point of view, the carrier 5G business model conundrum boils down to: What is my carrier going to charge me for 5G? And early adopters of any technology tend to get stung on that front.
Although, in mobile, price premiums rarely stick around for long as carriers inexorably find they must ditch premiums to unlock scale — via consumer-friendly ‘all you can eat’ price plans.
Still, in the short term, carriers look likely to experiment with 5G pricing and bundles — basically seeing what they can make early adopters pay. But it’s still far from clear that people will pay a premium for better connectivity alone. And that again necessitates caution.
5G bundled with exclusive content might be one way carriers try to extract a premium from consumers. But without huge and/or compelling branded content inventory that risks being a too niche proposition too. And the more carriers split their 5G offers the more consumers might feel they don’t need to bother, and end up sticking with 4G for longer.
It’ll also clearly take time for a 5G ‘killer app’ to emerge in the consumer space. And such an app would likely need to still be able to fallback on 4G, again to ensure scale. So the 5G experience will really need to be compellingly different in order for the tech to sell itself.
On the handset side, 5G chipset hardware is also still in its first wave. At MWC this week Qualcomm announced a next-gen 5G modem, stepping up from last year’s Snapdragon 855 chipset — which it heavily touted as architected for 5G (though it doesn’t natively support 5G).
If you’re intending to buy and hold on to a 5G handset for a few years there’s thus a risk of early adopter burn at the chipset level — i.e. if you end up with a device with a suckier battery life vs later iterations of 5G hardware where more performance kinks have been ironed out.
Intel has warned its 5G modems won’t be in phones until next year — so, again, that suggests no 5G iPhones before 2020. And Apple is of course a great bellwether for mainstream consumer tech; the company only jumps in when it believes a technology is ready for prime time, rarely sooner. And if Cupertino feels 5G can wait, that’s going to be equally true for most consumers.
Zooming out, the specter of network security (and potential regulation) now looms very large indeed where 5G is concerned, thanks to East-West trade tensions injecting a strange new world of geopolitical uncertainty into an industry that’s never really had to grapple with this kind of business risk before.
Chinese kit maker Huawei’s rotating chairman, Guo Ping, used the opportunity of an MWC keynote to defend the company and its 5G solutions against U.S. claims its network tech could be repurposed by the Chinese state as a high tech conduit to spy on the West — literally telling delegates: “We don’t do bad things” and appealing to them to plainly to: “Please choose Huawei!”
When established technology vendors are having to use a high profile industry conference to plead for trust it’s strange and uncertain times indeed.
In Europe it’s possible carriers’ 5G network kit choices could soon be regulated as a result of security concerns attached to Chinese suppliers. The European Commission suggested as much this week, saying in another MWC keynote that it’s preparing to step in try to prevent security concerns at the EU Member State level from fragmenting 5G rollouts across the bloc.
In an on stage Q&A Orange’s chairman and CEO, Stéphane Richard, couched the risk of destabilization of the 5G global supply chain as a “big concern”, adding: “It’s the first time we have such an important risk in our industry.”
Geopolitical security is thus another issue carriers are having to factor in as they make decisions about how quickly to make the leap to 5G. And holding off on upgrades, while regulators and other standards bodies try to figure out a trusted way forward, might seem the more sensible thing to do — potentially stalling 5G upgrades in the meanwhile.
Given all the uncertainties there’s certainly no reason for consumers to rush in.
Smartphone upgrade cycles have slowed globally for a reason. Mobile hardware is mature because it’s serving consumers very well. Handsets are both powerful and capable enough to last for years.
And while there’s no doubt 5G will change things radically in future, including for consumers — enabling many more devices to be connected and feeding back data, with the potential to deliver on the (much hyped but also still pretty nascent) ‘smart home’ concept — the early 5G sales pitch for consumers essentially boils down to more of the same.
“Over the next ten years 4G will phase out. The question is how fast that happens in the meantime and again I think that will happen slower than in early times because [with 5G] you don’t come into a vacuum, you don’t fill a big gap,” suggests Gartner’s Fabre. “4G’s great, it’s getting better, wi’fi’s getting better… The story of let’s build a big national network to do 5G at scale [for all] that’s just not happening.”
“I think we’ll start very, very simple,” he adds of the 5G consumer proposition. “Things like caching data or simply doing more broadband faster. So more of the same.
“It’ll be great though. But you’ll still be watching Netflix and maybe there’ll be a couple of apps that come up… Maybe some more interactive collaboration or what have you. But we know these things are being used today by enterprises and consumers and they’ll continue to be used.”
So — in sum — the 5G mantra for the sensible consumer is really ‘wait and see’.
A decade ago, it was almost inconceivable that nearly every household item could be hooked up to the internet. These days, it’s near impossible to avoid a non-smart home gadget, and they’re vacuuming up a ton of new data that we’d never normally think about.
Thermostats know the temperature of your house, and smart cameras and sensors know when someone’s walking around your home. Smart assistants know what you’re asking for, and smart doorbells know who’s coming and going. And thanks to the cloud, that data is available to you from anywhere — you can check in on your pets from your phone or make sure your robot vacuum cleaned the house.
Because the data is stored or accessible by the smart home tech makers, law enforcement and government agencies have increasingly sought data from the companies to solve crimes.
And device makers won’t say if your smart home gadgets have been used to spy on you.
For years, tech companies have published transparency reports — a semi-regular disclosure of the number of demands or requests a company gets from the government for user data. Google was first in 2010. Other tech companies followed in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations that the government had enlisted tech companies’ aid in spying on their users. Even telcos, implicated in wiretapping and turning over Americans’ phone records, began to publish their figures to try to rebuild their reputations.
As the smart home revolution began to thrive, police saw new opportunities to obtain data where they hadn’t before. Police sought Echo data from Amazon to help solve a murder. Fitbit data was used to charge a 90-year old man with the murder of his stepdaughter. And recently, Nest was compelled to turn over surveillance footage that led to gang members pleading guilty to identity theft.
Yet, Nest — a division of Google — is the only major smart home device maker that has published how many data demands it receives.
As first noted by Forbes last week, Nest’s little-known transparency report doesn’t reveal much — only that it’s turned over user data about 300 times since mid-2015 on over 500 Nest users. Nest also said it hasn’t to date received a secret order for user data on national security grounds, such as in cases of investigating terrorism or espionage. Nest’s transparency report is woefully vague compared to some of the more detailed reports by Apple, Google and Microsoft, which break out their data requests by lawful request, by region and often by the kind of data the government demands.
As Forbes said, “a smart home is a surveilled home.” But at what scale?
We asked some of the most well-known smart home makers on the market if they plan to release a transparency report, or disclose the number of demands they receive for data from their smart home devices.
For the most part, we received fairly dismal responses.
What the big four tech giants said
Amazon did not respond to requests for comment when asked if it will break out the number of demands it receives for Echo data, but a spokesperson told me last year that while its reports include Echo data, it would not break out those figures.
Facebook said that its transparency report section will include “any requests related to Portal,” its new hardware screen with a camera and a microphone. Although the device is new, a spokesperson did not comment on if the company will break out the hardware figures separately.
Google pointed us to Nest’s transparency report but did not comment on its own efforts in the hardware space — notably its Google Home products.
And Apple said that there’s no need to break out its smart home figures — such as its HomePod — because there would be nothing to report. The company said user requests made to HomePod are given a random identifier that cannot be tied to a person.
What the smaller but notable smart home players said
August, a smart lock maker, said it “does not currently have a transparency report and we have never received any National Security Letters or orders for user content or non-content information under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA),” but did not comment on the number of subpoenas, warrants and court orders it receives. “August does comply with all laws and when faced with a court order or warrant, we always analyze the request before responding,” a spokesperson said.
Roomba maker iRobot said it “has not received any demands from governments for customer data,” but wouldn’t say if it planned to issue a transparency report in the future.
Both Arlo, the former Netgear smart home division, and Signify, formerly Philips Lighting, said they do not have transparency reports. Arlo didn’t comment on its future plans, and Signify said it has no plans to publish one.
Ring, a smart doorbell and security device maker, did not answer our questions on why it doesn’t have a transparency report, but said it “will not release user information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us” and that Ring “objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course.” When pressed, a spokesperson said it plans to release a transparency report in the future, but did not say when.
Spokespeople for Honeywell and Canary — both of which have smart home security products — did not comment by our deadline.
And, Samsung, a maker of smart sensors, trackers and internet-connected televisions and other appliances, did not respond to a request for comment.
Only Ecobee, a maker of smart switches and sensors, said it plans to publish its first transparency report “at the end of 2018.” A spokesperson confirmed that, “prior to 2018, Ecobee had not been requested nor required to disclose any data to government entities.”
All in all, that paints a fairly dire picture for anyone thinking that when the gadgets in your home aren’t working for you, they could be helping the government.
As helpful and useful as smart home gadgets can be, few fully understand the breadth of data that the devices collect — even when we’re not using them. Your smart TV may not have a camera to spy on you, but it knows what you’ve watched and when — which police used to secure a conviction of a sex offender. Even data from when a murder suspect pushed the button on his home alarm key fob was enough to help convict someone of murder.
Two years ago, former U.S. director of national intelligence James Clapper said the government was looking at smart home devices as a new foothold for intelligence agencies to conduct surveillance. And it’s only going to become more common as the number of internet-connected devices spread. Gartner said more than 20 billion devices will be connected to the internet by 2020.
As much as the chances are that the government is spying on you through your internet-connected camera in your living room or your thermostat are slim — it’s naive to think that it can’t.
But the smart home makers wouldn’t want you to know that. At least, most of them.
Americans looking to reduce their reliance on products from tech’s most alarmingly megalithic companies might be surprised to learn just how far their reach extends.
Privacy-minded browser company DuckDuckGo conducted a small study to look into that phenomenon and the results were pretty striking.
“… As Facebook usage wanes, messaging apps like WhatsApp are growing in popularity as a ‘more private (and less confrontational) space to communicate,’” DuckDuckGo wrote in the post. “That shift didn’t make much sense to us because both services are owned by the same company, so we tried to find an explanation.”
DuckDuckGo gathered a random sample of 1,297 adult Americans who are “collectively demographically similar to the general population of U.S. adults” (i.e. not just DuckDuckGo diehards) using SurveyMonkey’s audience tools. The survey found that 50.4 percent of those surveyed who had used WhatsApp in the prior six months (247 participants) did not know the company is owned by Facebook.
Similarly, DuckDuckGo found that 56.4 percent of those surveyed who had used Waze in the past six months (291 participants) had no idea that the navigation app is owned by Google. A similar study conducted back in April found the same phenomenon when it came to Facebook/Instagram and Google/YouTube, though for Instagram the effect was even stronger (wow).
If you’re reading TechCrunch it’s probably almost impossible to imagine that average people aren’t tracing the lines between tech’s biggest companies and the products scooped up or built under their wings. And yet, it is so.
Even as companies like Google and Facebook suffer blowback from privacy crises, it’s clear that they can lean on the products they’ve picked up along the way to chart a path forward. If this survey is any indication, half of U.S. consumers will have no idea that they’ve jumped ship from a big tech product into a lifeboat captained by the very same company they sought to escape.
And for the biggest tech companies, it’s at least one reason that keeping satellite products at arm’s length from their respective motherships is advantageous for maintaining trust — especially while aggressive data sharing happens behind the scenes.
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