Advice for the Newbie In-House SEO

Congratulations! You’re hired�

It’s a huge step in your SEO career to be hired for an in-house SEO department.

Now it’s time to plan your in-house SEO strategy carefully, so you can secure your position and give your company what they’re looking for: tangible results from your SEO expertise.

What your average workday will look like will depend on several factors:

Are you a one-person team, or are you part of a team?Do you work for an average-sized company or a big brand?

If you are a one-person team you will likely find yourself with a huge workload as you struggle to get results that will be noticed in the shortest time possible. Unfortunately for many businesses SEO still has to ‘prove’ itself.� If you’re part of a team your workload will be lighter, but possibly not any easier.

It’s a fact that for most companies SEO has to prove itself in order to earn the right to stay. Sadly, too many half-baked SEOs who mistake what they do for Blackhat have created enough doubt and double standards that we are still not considered as important as we should be in many circles.

For now we’ll assume that you’re a one-person team and that you’re working for the average business.

Let�s take a quick look at all the tasks that will fall to you:

Keyword research: do this properly. Monitor where your pages stand for all presently used keywords and keep a record, together with your record of all new keywords you introduceCompetitive analysis: you need to know exactly who you’re up against and what kind of steps you need to take to get ahead of them in searchCorrecting canonicalization: make sure that as far as Google is concerned, there is only one version of each page of your company website.Correcting site structure (excellent article on the subject by Dave Snyder)Creating an internal linking structureCreating an incoming-links strategyOptimizing HTMLMake sure you use a good meta-description tag for each page plus a carefully crafted page title (must be different for each page of your site)Checking site navigationArranging for appropriate quality content that matches chosen keywords for each pageScanning for any issues that might beperceived as black hat by the search engines (such as inadvertent hidden text and so on)Monitoring pagerank and pagerank flow

Your Initial In-House SEO Strategy…

The best thing you can do off the bat is make friends with the people in the IT or web development department, and if there are in-house copywriters� get to know them too. The structure will differ from company to company, but basically you need to be on very good terms with anyone who will have anything to do with your end of the job.� Your task will be so much easier if they are your friends instead of enemies. This is especially so if, as is normally the case, you will need to ask for changes to be made in what they do.

If you build enough bridges you may even be able to delegate some of your huge workload to them.

After making friends and influencing people, the next most important thing is to get your web tracking applications in place, assuming they aren’t already there. In order to prove your own worth you need to be able to prove where the company was in terms of search engine estimation, and where it is going as a result of your expertise.

In all likelihood you will be responsible for the social media strategy as well as SEO. What you do in this regard is especially important if your company has any reputation management issues.

For a quick rundown on why you need a social media strategy, I can’t do better than refer to this excellent post on Mashable

When General Motors put together their social media strategy, they had some specific objectives they wanted to accomplish. Christopher Barger, director of global social media at General Motors, outlined the following:

A. Become more responsive to people/consumer audiences

B. Incorporate audience/consumer feedback into your organization more quickly and effectively than has happened traditionally

C. Make your brand a little more �human� to the outside world, and show people the smarts, personality and passion of the people behind your logo

D. Increase awareness of the strength of your current product lineup, and provide perspective/accurate information about your company

You’ll be asking ‘isn’t this for the PR people or a social media person?’ Technically speaking, yes it is. But a good social media strategy is simply one of the finest things you can do to get your SEO strategy showing gains in the shortest time–if you do it right.� The points outlined above should give you ammo for when someone above you asks ‘whaddya think you’re doing�’

Patricia Skinner is an SEO consultant, social media coach & reputation management expert. She is also community leader at the nascent SEO Self Regulation Community. She can be reached any time through her SEO website. Why not follow her on Twitter & her LinkedIn profile.

How to Measure Branding PPC Campaigns

Rule #1 in every paid search campaign (PPC) is Identify and Track a Measurable Conversion. For 95% of campaigns this is a must, but there is a new breed of paid search campaign: the branding campaign. These are based on traffic to a site only and intentionally do not rely on traditional tracked metrics (sales, forms) for results.

Before I get into the new breed let me make one thing very clear, paid campaigns are almost impossible to optimize if there is no trackable conversion to measure. Paid search managers rely on the conversion to determine where they are losing the searcher. The funnel of paid search starts with the impression, or the search query.

The click happens when you get the searcher�s attention with your 3 lines of poetic, intent-based perfection. The click through rate lets your manager know if the keyword and ad are targeted. After the click, conversion metrics based on ad and keywords are imperative. They allow managers to tell if the website followed through with the promise of the ad. If the searcher does not perform the intended action, there is something to fix or optimize.

The new breed of branding-focused PPC is missing the conversion metric. The intent of these ads is to inform the customer of the brand, send them to the site, and grow trust. They are looking to convert the searcher in the long term, which is not directly measurable.

You cringing yet? This goes against everything that is online marketing. We have seen a rise in budget levels over the past 10 years because executives can SEE the return on this advertising model. The selling point is in the ROI, and traditional advertising mediums have been losing ad dollar share because of that.

Another change is coming to the online marketing space. Trust is still a big part of the consumer�s decision-making process and with all of the scams online, it makes sense that a return to some form of branding was going to happen. How do we make this work though?

As much as branding campaigns cannot be tied directly to specific sales, every paid search campaign needs to have metrics and benchmarks. If you are tasked with a paid search campaign with no conversion metrics and a focus on traffic, dig deeper for what they are looking for from the traffic. Most branding campaigns should be measurable through a marked increase in overall traffic (given), but here are a few more metrics you might want to track:

  1. Click Through Rate � CTR is still very necessary to determine relevance to the end user. If you stop looking at this, you are not getting the best traffic for the cost.
  2. Time on Page � This metric will allow you to see how long people are spending on the initial page. This is one of the metrics to determine landing page relevance to keyword and ad. In most cases, the higher the better.
  3. Bounce Rate � Are your visitors leaving quickly? You might be on the wrong keywords, need a page redesign, or new ad copy if the traffic from your paid campaign has a high bounce rate. The main goal though is to get your branding campaign to drop your bounce rate over the entire site. An increase in return visitors will have an affect across the board if the branding campaign if effective.
  4. Return Visits � This is the key to any branding campaign. Are they coming back? A branding campaign should work with all other advertising to bring new people in and give them a reason to come back. If you are not growing your percentage of return visitors for the site overall, something isn�t working.
  5. Total Time on Site � If your intent is to drive traffic and get more people interested in your brand, then the entire site needs to be targeted to them. If the total time on site goes up (be sure you are not tracking yourself), this trust and branding goal is being met.

Remember that the online marketing world changes everyday. Roll with it and use your analytical brain to tie old media with new metrics. Everything is trackable and measurable online. Find benchmarks from prior years and forge a new path.

The guest post is by Kate Morris. You can find her on her blog or on twitter @katemorris.

Survey Says SEO The Single Most Important Marketing Channel For SMBs

SEO: one channel to rule them all? A new “merchant confidence survey” from lead-gen company MerchantCircle/, among 2,500 US small businesses, finds that search engine optimization is the marketing channel they would choose if they could choose only one.

The question asked was: “If you had to put all your marketing time and budget into only one channel, what would it be?” The list of choices included SEO, paid search, mobile, social and traditional media. As you can see below SEO beats everything else by a mile.

What’s also interesting is how high “traditional media” ranked. That category would include newspapers, yellow pages, direct mail, traditional radio and so on. Newspapers and direct mail were the top traditional channels being used by this group of survey respondents.

However Facebook (not Facebook Ads) was the most common marketing tool, used by 70 percent of these SMB respondents. The question was,��Are you promoting your business with the following websites/services?�

The online survey was conducted in November. The sample came from MerchantCircle’s 1.6 million SMB member database. Just under 80 percent of respondents were businesses with fewer than four employees. The majority (63 percent) had annual marketing budgets of $2,500 or less.

There are additional findings about the use of social media, deals and mobile marketing that I discuss on my personal blog Screenwerk.

How To Post Your Google+ Feed To Facebook And Twitter

One of the questions that we see a great deal of on our Search Engine Land�Facebook Page and LinkedIn Group is “How can we get our Google+ feed to post in Facebook and Twitter?” �The correct answer to that question is that no official way exists to have the networks play nice. However, with the use of extensions & add-ons, this feat can be�accomplished.

There are two main solutions that work the best for solving this problem. One�solution, PublishSync,�allows for the simple sharing of content between the main social networks. �The other solution, SGPlus, enhances your Google+ experience, but doesn’t affect your other networks. Below is a breakdown of each.

Cross-Posting With Google+ And Other Networks

If you are looking for a solution that allows for posting Google+ messages on Facebook or Facebook messages on Google+, this extension is for you. �Publish Sync is an extension for Chrome that ties in:

  • Google+
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
  • MySpace
  • Digg
  • Plurk
  • Sina

These accounts can be set up by clicking on the Publish Sync icon:

Once you tie in your Facebook and other accounts, you will then see additional share options to post to additional Social Networks. �By hovering over the check boxes, any additional targeting will appear. �For example, users to share to Facebook to “everyone,” “friends” and more.


PublishSync will then also show up on your other social networks underneath your updates screen. �When posting to Google+ from another social network, PublishSync works with existing circles so that you can select only the circles you would like to share to.

Twitter integration is also smooth and allows for the same targeting options:


Integration Of Facebook & Twitter On Google+

SGplus is the new name of extension formerly known as ‘Start Google+ plugin (changed per request of Google) for Chrome, �Firefox (currently seems to be down) and Safari. �This extension allows users to make Google+ their one stop social site by integrating Twitter and Facebook into Google+. �However this does not give social sites other than Google+ any additional�functionality, it only enhances Google+.

SGPlus allows users to pull in their Facebook wall posts and Twitter feed and also post Google+ updates on Facebook and Twitter. �Once installed with the social accounts logged-in, the new Google+ update box will look like this:

Maybe the biggest attribute that SGPlus offers users is the ability to see their Facebook & Twitter information while in Google+. �These social networks show up on the left hand rail underneath the Sparks content. �Users can “like” and comment on Facebook without ever leaving �Google+. �Here is an example of what Facebook looks like:

Twitter also functions similarly to Facebook with SGPlus. �Tweets can be replied to and retweeted, directly from within Google+:

Overall both of these extensions may enhance your social experience if you are looking for easy integration of Facebook and Twitter into Google+. �With any add-ons or extensions, �it is important to know that each of these options require access to your social accounts as these solutions�truly�are ‘hacks’ for the current social landscape.


Google Squared, News Timeline Get Added To Google’s Chopping Block

The slow demise of Google Labs has put a few more Google tools/services on the chopping block, including Google Squared and Google News Timeline.

Those are two of the most recent experiments that Google has listed for shutdown on the Google Labs home page.

Google Squared

Google Squared launched in 2009 and offered search results in tables, with data presented across rows and down columns. That, at least, was the typical visible form of what Google Squared does/did. But the underlying technology also enabled Google to offer things like related searches and answers to questions, like this:

And in its announcement that Google Squared is shutting down on September 5th, Google says the technology will continue to be used in search results like that.

As part of the phasing out of Google Labs, Google Squared will be shut down on September 5, 2011. Any saved Squares will be deleted. If you would like to keep Squares, you may export them to CSV files or Google Spreadsheets using the Export function on the upper-right hand side of the Squared screen. We will continue to use Google Squared technology to improve search, as we have already done with question answering and related searches.

Google News Timeline

Google announced (and already removed) News Timeline a week ago — on August 17th. This appears to have happened as part of the removal of the Google News Archive search page.

As the name implies, News Timeline presented news search results in a visual timeline format. Here’s what it looked like when it launched in 2009:

Two other smaller projects are on the chopping block:

  • City Tours: Google says this will shut down by September 6th. Another 2009 project, this was a tourism-related experiment that, given a city, would suggest sites to see and also map out a detailed itinerary and minute-by-minute travel schedule. You can see a screenshot on our article about City Tours’ launch.
  • Realtime Mytracks: No date is given for the shutdown of this unusual tool that allowed users to follow Team HTC – Columbia during a previous Tour de France.

Google previously announced the impending shut down of several other labs projects, including App Inventor for Android and Talk Guru.

Volunia, A Social Search Engine, Says The Web Has Come Alive

Google might be synonymous with the word search in most of the world, but that hasn’t dissuaded others from bringing new search engines to the market, usually aiming to innovate in an area where Google has somehow let up its guard. Volunia,�launched this week, promises to help searchers with three distinguishing features:

  1. High level site previews in search results
  2. A multimedia search within a site function
  3. A social layer which, among other things, allows Volunia users to share information and connect to one another

My sense is that it is the social layer which will be most appreciated by Volunia users. Let’s look at each.

Volunia Search Result Previews Offer A “Fly-Over” Site View

During his launch presentation, (in Italian, starts at 40 minute mark) Volunia founder Massimo Marchiori described search users as similar to chickens, trapped in cages and incapable of flying.

Users have been forced to choose search results by consulting one of those classic 10 item title, summary and link lists for too long.�Wouldn’t it be nice if users were freed from their cages, and not only, were actually able to fly over a site, viewing a visual or a grid map, before committing to visit it?

Volunia, perhaps from volare, to fly, offers two types of high level site map previews, potentially freeing users from commitment tyranny. The first type, a visual map, aims to group areas of a site together in neighborhoods.

Figure 1: Volunia search result site fly-over: visual map

The second site preview map is in the form of a grid, reminiscent of computer folders. The expectation is that this format will be more useful to people searching from devices with small displays, like smartphones.

Figure 2: Volunia search result site fly-over: grid map

Interactive drill-down versions of the maps are also available from a Volunia menu bar which is visible while navigating a site. Site owners can improve the maps using a Volunia provided sitemap editor.

Figure 3: Volunia sitemap editor

Result previews aren’t exactly a new concept – introduced their binoculars feature in 2004.

Where Volunia differs is in their choice to show a site map preview instead of a page preview. Many searches are indeed navigational in nature, one reason Google provides their sitelinks for some queries.

Volunia may be on to something.

Volunia Wants To Surface Multimedia Otherwise Hidden In A Site

Initially the primary focus in Web search was on textual documents, particularly the html kind, rich in semantic structure with their glorious title, heading and paragraph tags.

Oh, I didn’t mention the links between documents, did I? Other Web content formats, from PDF files to images and then video posed much greater obstacles to search engine indexing for a number of reasons.

Today, major search engines like Google offer navigation links to enable a user to search just images or video.

Ambitious searchers can usually find an advanced search syntax page which allows them to limit their searches to specific sites and file types, but for the most part major search engines have taken the �don’t make me think� approach, providing searchers with a blend of media types in search results, what Google calls universal search.

Volunia on the other hand wants to make it easy for a user to discover the multimedia richness hidden in sites like NASA by providing a very visible multimedia site search filter.

Figure 4: Volunia's multimedia search filter

The Web Has Come Alive, Says Volunia: Volunia’s Social Layer

Volunia’s second area of innovation is in adding a social layer to their search results and subsequent website navigation by the Volunia user.

In search results, users can select a site based on what other Volunia users are viewing right now. Volunia displays the number of page and site visitors.

Figure 5: Volunia visitors currently viewing the page and the site


It isn’t immediately clear how useful this feature will prove to be: after all, even if we want to follow the �wisdom of the crowd�, there’s no way to know if the site’s current visitors from Volunia are actually happy with their choice, nor would it be clear to what extent one searcher’s expectations for a page align with those already visiting that page.

The same visitor counts are also available as layers on the site navigation maps.

Seek & Meet: Interact With Other Volunia Users

What might arguably be Volunia’s greatest innovation is in letting fellow search travelers to a page interact with each other, what Volunia calls�seek and meet, a feature which feels very reminiscent of Google’s now closed�Sidewiki, albeit with two key differences. The first is that users can interact in realtime.

Figure 6: Volunia seek and meet interactive site chat

This birds of a feather real time information sharing might prove useful in a number of situations where people are looking for pre- and post- purchase information.

In the pre-purchase phase, a searcher might want to interact with other users to better understand the product or service they’re considering, not to mention to discover what alternatives others are considering.

Sometimes, it’s nice just to have confirmation that we’re making the right choice. In the post-purchase phase, searchers might be able to resolve support issues by consulting with other searchers � potentially reducing a company’s support costs while providing interactive peer to peer support 24 hours a day.

Each Volunia user is able to fill in a personal profile, much like any social network. The matchmaking possibilities are clearly endless, but I suspect it would be best if I don’t go there….

It isn’t rare to see glowing online reviews written by someone with a connection to a product or service, and equally harsh reviews from competitors or ex-employees with an ax to grind. It doesn’t take much to imagine people attempting to scam the system by introducing fake search users to interact with other searchers.

It remains to be seen if �seek and meet� really is something people will take to. Real time search collaboration will well depend on a critical mass of socially oriented searchers congregating on the same sites at the same time, no easy feat for a niche search engine.

Site owners will undoubtedly be pleased with the second apparent difference to Google’s Sidewiki: commenting can be disabled if desired, something Google didn’t allow.

Volunia, The Company, And A Few Volunia Tidbits

According to data published by Italian business paper Il Sole 24 Ore, Volunia was founded in 2008 by Massimo Marchiori and entrepreneur Mariano Pireddu, with Pireddu providing �2 million in funding to date. You might not immediately recognize Massimo Marchiori’s name, yet as an academic Massimo has been working on the theoretical issues of Web search for years.

His seminal 1997 paper, The Quest for Correct Information on the Web: Hyper Search Engines, would serve as one of the sources of inspiration for two Stanford students, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, who would acknowledge Marchiori’s contribution to their own work, Google.

During Volunia’s beta phase, over 100,000 people are being invited to become �power user� beta testers. The Volunia user interface is in 12 languages but Marchiori said during the launch presentation that the actual index coverage isn’t limited to those languages.

The Volunia team has ideas for Volunia �extensions�, i.e. new functionality, which will be added to the core, the hard part which has already been done. Advertising will be added to the service.

Marchiori Says Social Needs To Emerge In Search

In an introductory video, Massimo notes that Volunia stems from an idea he’s harbored for several years, an idea for a �different perspective of what the search engine of the future should be�. In the Il Sole 24 Ore report Massimo said �The Web is a living place, there’s information, but there’s also people. The social dimension, already present, just needs to emerge�.

Bing, which started incorporating social signals from Facebook in 2010, and Google, which launched its social search in 2009, would probably both argue that the social dimension to search has already emerged. So would upstart blekko and to a lessor degree, the Russian Yandex.

Armani, Chianti, Ferrari… And Volunia

Volunia is based in Italy, not in Silicon Valley as one might have guessed. Italy actually has a history of search engine excellence. Google may well power most Italian portals today, but the talent behind a now defunct Italian search engine, Arianna, led to locate its European R&D headquarters in Pisa.

The Reality Check: Search Isn’t Easy: Volunia Faces Many Challenges

The basic task of a search engine, finding, indexing and retrieving the world’s information, is a complex one. The size of the Web is immense. There’s the problem of searcher intent: we know what we’re looking for when we type a brief search query, but those few words are often open to multiple interpretations.

Google has conditioned searchers to expect lightning speed and mostly fresh and relevant results. Volunia will have to perform well on all these fronts and navigate thorny issues of privacy.

Many start-ups have nonetheless tried to compete with Google and Bing. Some, like Cuil, ran out of funding before gathering significant market share; others like blekko, with far greater funding, are still working hard to win over hearts and minds. Whether Volunia will be able to pull this off remains to be seen.

Kick The Volunia Tires Yourself!

Volunia has a sign-up form for those who want to try it out. Go kick the tires and support the underdog! From messages that I’ve seen on Friendfeed, Twitter and Facebook, very few have actually had a chance to actually use Volunia, credentials are only dribbling out, most likely in an attempt to avoid problems similar to what Google faced when they first opened Google Analytics to too many people at once. I based the considerations made (and images) in this article on demo videos released by Volunia in order to give you a preview of what to expect.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

“Don’t Be Evil” Tool — Backed By Facebook & Twitter — Shows Google’s “Search Plus Your World” Can Go Beyond Google+

I’ve�written that Google has plenty of public data to allow parts its new Search Plus Your World feature to be inclusive of rival social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Now, those networks are proving that true, through a new “Don’t Be Evil” tool that lets anyone leverage Google’s own results to see this.

The tool — a bookmarklet that works in your browser — changes three parts of Search Plus Your World that currently shows information only from Google Plus. These are:

  • People & Pages results
  • Google+ Sitelinks
  • Google+ Suggestions In Autocomplete

The tool can be found on the Focus On The User web site. It was created, as the site says, by engineers at Facebook, Twitter and MySpace, who in turn consulted with other unnamed social networking companies. The “Don’t Be Evil” name of the tool comes from Google’s philosophy of wanting to focus on what’s best for users, rather than what’s best for Google.

The companies behind the tool feel Google’s hasn’t focused on what’s best for its users with Search Plus Your World. They have a good point. But the tool makes this point better than all the debates that have happened so far around Search Plus Your Word, because it shows what Google could have done to better serve searchers, if it had wanted to.

Below, how to install the tool and how it works, once you’ve done so, along with a revisiting of some of the issues it highlights.

Installing The Don’t Be Evil Bookmarklet

To get the tool, head to the site�and look for the “Try a more relevant Google” button:

Clicking the button will make a new window appear, with a “don’t be evil” button that’s visible:

You click and hold on that button, then drag it to the bookmarks bar in your browser (if you don’t see your bookmarks bar, look in your browser’s options to make this visible):

Once it’s installed, you’ll see it on your on your bookmarks bar:

When you search on Google, you push that button to transform your results, as I’ll cover next. By the way, I’ve tested this with both Google Chrome and Firefox. It should also work with Safari. It doesn’t work with Internet Explorer.

Problem: “People & Pages” Powered By Google+

One of the biggest issues I’ve had with Search Plus (my shorthand name for Search Plus Your World) was the new “People and Pages on Google+” results that appear for some searches. These can show up even if you don’t have a Google+ account or are logged out of Google entirely.

These are the first search results that I’ve ever seen on Google that haven’t been inclusive of sources beyond Google, when those sources are available. To understand more about this, and how it’s such a major departure for Google, see my previous post,�To Understand Google Favoritism, Think If Google+ Were YouTube.

Aside from favoring Google in a way that I’ve never seen before, I’ve felt that the results simply weren’t providing the best information to searchers at Google, especially given the prime real estate being given to them. My previous story,�Real-Life Examples Of How Google�s �Search Plus� Pushes Google+ Over Relevancy, explains more about that.

The reason for the relevancy gap was simple. Google+ still lacks many important or notable people that might be on the other social networks. Indeed, until last week, Lady Gaga wasn’t on Google+ despite being one of the most followed people on Twitter and Facebook. Her absence meant she’d never have a chance at being one of the music recommendations for the People & Places results that Google was showing.

Including other social accounts in People & Pages results would, as I’ve written repeatedly, done what I expect of Google as a search engine, delivered a great search experience. From one of my past posts:

I�d love to see is Google retool the social suggestions that come up, so they aren�t simply Google+ �People & Pages� results injected into Google but more inclusive of other social sites, as well. Because that type of inclusive search product is what Google does well, and what we expect for the company to provide.

Now the engineers at Facebook, Twitter and MySpace have done what I expected Google to do, create a social suggestions search engine. Let’s see some examples.

Solution: “People & Pages” Powered By Google Search

Let’s start with a search for music. On the left, what you see from Google’s Search Plus. On the right, how things change after you click the Don’t Be Evil bookmarklet:

The first set of arrows at the top show how “People and Pages on Google+” is changed instead to “People and Pages from the Social Web.”

The second set of arrows shows how for Britney Spears, rather than her Google+ profile being shown (where she has 1.6 million followers), her Twitter account is displayed (where she has 12.6 million followers). Underneath her Twitter account, links to her MySpace, Facebook and Tumblr accounts are also shown.

The third set of arrows shows how for Snoop Dogg, rather than his Google+ profile being shown (with 1.4 million followers), his Twitter account (with 6.2 million followers) is shown. Underneath that, links to his MySpace, Facebook and Google+ accounts are displayed.

I’ll explain more about how each profile gets selected, but first, let’s do some more examples. Here’s a search for cars:

For this search, the Google+ page for Ferrari (6,500 followers) is changed to Ferrari’s Facebook page (5.6 million followers), with its YouTube page as an alternative link. Toyota’s Google+ page (180,000 followers) is also changed to the Toyota Facebook page (700,000 followers).

One of my favorite examples to show the failing of Google’s current system is a search for Facebook:

On the left, Google’s regular listings suggest Mark Zuckerberg’s Google+ profile as something people should follow. It really is Zuckerberg’s official page, with over 600,000 followers. However, Zuckerberg has never posted to it since creating that profile shortly after Google+ launched.

On the right, the Don’t Be Evil button transforms that listing into something useful, a pointer to Zuckerberg’s Facebook page (his Google+, Twitter and Quora pages are listed as alternatives.

Also notice the arrows. In this case, I was signed-in to Google+, which is why an “Add to circles” button appear next to the Google+ result. However, when the result was transformed to show a Facebook listing, I got an indication showing that I was already following Zuckerberg on Facebook (if I wasn’t, a Like button allowing me to follow him would have appeared).

One more example, this time to show that there’s more intelligence going on that just stripping out Google+ links and swapping them for any other network. Here’s a search for Google:

The first suggestion is for Google’s own page on Google+, which is changed to Google’s page on Twitter. Notice how there’s a “Follow” button next to the Twitter link, as well.

Under that is Larry Page. His listing isn’t changed. It remains pointing to his Google+ page, which makes sense. To the best of my knowledge, that’s the only place he’s active socially. While LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter accounts are also shown for him, none of those seem to be real accounts for him.

What’s The Most Relevant Social Account To Show? Ask Google!

We could debate which is the most best social account to show for each of the examples above in various ways, such as:

  • Should it be based on followers? If so, in many cases, accounts on the established social networks of Twitter and Facebook would easily trump Google+ accounts, though not always.
  • Should it be based on activity? Britney hasn’t posted to Google+ since January 18. Her last tweets are more recent, as of January 21. Does that count for more?
  • Should it be based on engagement? Even if Britney hasn’t been on Google+ recently, perhaps her engagement with fans is better there?

Rather than try to figure all this out — and potentially come under accusations they were selecting metrics to favor their own social networks — the developers of the Don’t Be Evil bookmarklet decided to let Google itself figure out which social account was most relevant.

For example, let’s go back to how the listing for Snoop Dogg was changed:

What happens is that the bookmarklet looks at which accounts are listed initially by Google in the People & Pages section. It then does a search for the people or companies listed to find which social profiles Google itself believes are most relevant, in the first 100 results.

In the case of Snoop Dogg, the bookmarklet sees that he’s listed as a People & Pages suggestion for a search on “music.” It then conducts a search for “snoop dogg” on Google, to see which social account Google lists first for him.

As you can see above, Twitter is the first social account shown, so the bookmarklet rewrites Snoop Dogg’s suggestion to link to his Twitter account. His MySpace account is found next, so it’s listed as the first alternative. Facebook is found after that, so it’s the second alternative. Google+ is found after that, so it becomes the third alternative.

According to the tool’s FAQ page, it checks for links from any of these social networks:

  • CrunchBase (weird, I wouldn’t consider this a social network)
  • Github
  • Google+
  • Facebook
  • Flickr
  • Foursquare
  • FriendFeed
  • LinkedIn
  • MySpace
  • Quora
  • Stack Overflow
  • Tumblr
  • Twitter

All the information the tool finds comes solely from Google itself, even the profile pictures, which are generated using Google’s own rich snippets testing tool, as the FAQ page explains.

Because only Google’s own information is being used, the tool can’t patch up a key weakness, which is that all the suggestions are initially based on people who are in Google Plus.

For example, you will never get Katy Perry as a music suggestion, despite her being one of the most followed musicians on Facebook or Twitter. That’s because she’s not on Google+, so she has no chance of appearing as a suggestion to music-related queries. If she doesn’t get suggested, then the tool can’t add her.

Problem: Autocomplete Profiles Only For Google+

Another feature of Search Plus that favors Google+ is within Google’s search box. As you type, the autocomplete feature of Google Instant will suggest things you should search for. For notable or prominent people, these suggestions may also include a link to their Google+ profile. For example, consider this search for Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg:

Just typing in the word “sheryl” �– when I was completely logged out of Google — was enough for it to suggest that I select her Google+ page, where Sandberg last posted in September. That’s pretty preferential treatment. Why should that be suggested over Sandberg’s personal web site or another social profile?

Solution: Expand The Choices

The Don’t Be Evil button developers call the autocomplete suggestions “typeahead” results. When you use their button, the typeahead suggestion is changed. For Sandberg,�her Facebook profile is shown:

The same logic I explained above is used to do this. Whatever Google lists as the first social network for a search on Sandberg’s name, that profile is used to go into the autocomplete box (though for me, it should be her CrunchBase profile there, not her Facebook profile).

I’ve covered this in my earlier articles, but I’ll stress it again. Pointing to Google+ profiles — and no other profiles — was a significant change to favor Google+ than how Google operated in the past. Consider this:

That’s where I’m starting a search for “facebook.” I’ve only entered the “face” part and, already, Google suggests that I go directly to the Facebook home page from within the search box itself.

Google started offering these types of suggestions back in�2008�and�2009. You can still see it working today, if you disable Google Instant predictions within your search settings. Typing in Amazon, or Best Buy or New York Times brings up other examples of this.

Most people have Google Instant on, since it’s the default, so they never see these type of “old” web link suggestions. Instead, they get the new Google+ profile ones. Google didn’t have to only push these, but it chose to.

Problem: Sitelinks Only For Google+

Ever done a search and noticed a bunch of listings “indented” under the main listing? Those are called sitelinks. For listings associated with Google+ accounts, they pick up special sitelinks, their last two posts on Google Plus. Here an example for TV Guide, what someone who is logged out of Google would see:

The two arrows point to the special Google+ sitelinks that are appearing. This type of thing existed before Search Plus Your World rolled out, though I can’t recall any formal announcement of it. Certainly when Direct Connect for Google+ came out, there was nothing that highlighted these sitelinks as part of that.

In fact, the addition of them feels very odd, given how just over a year ago, Google was showing sitelinks of a different sort for other social networks. For example, here’s how a search for Twitter was suggesting people our news editor Barry Schwartz should follow:

Solution: New Social Sitelinks

The Don’t Be Evil button replaces the Google+ sitelinks similarly to how other changes are done. Here’s TV Guide again:

Rather than two Google+ sitelinks being shown, only a single one appears. In this case, it’s a link to TV Guide’s Twitter profile, since that’s the first profile that the tool finds when doing a Google search for “tv guide.” A link to TV Guide’s Facebook profile follows as an alternative.

Which Way Forward?

As I’ve explained in many articles over the past two weeks, I’ve been pretty disturbed by Google’s promotion of Google+ within its search pages.

The “People & Pages” results, if they’re intended as a promotion for Google+, still come across as if they are regular search results — results that I think Google users assume come from across the web. They do not. The come only from Google+ itself.

You could argue with better labeling, that type of promotion might work better. But that still leaves questions about why Google+ profiles are being pushed within Google’s search suggestions, rather than links to other pages from across the web. The links shown there aren’t necessarily the most relevant suggestions to be shown.

Google, in particular its executive chairman Eric Schmidt, has argued that it doesn’t have all the data it needs to include other social services in the way it does for Google Plus. The failure to reach a deal with Facebook; the failure to renew a deal with Twitter, these have prevented the social signals it needs from being used, Google has said.

The Don’t Be Evil tool demonstrates this isn’t the case, that there are social signals that Google already can find which could be used, if it wants.

Of course, if Google had done so what the Don’t Be Evil tool is doing now — incorporated links to Facebook and Twitter after they’ve rejected deals — potentially Google could have been accused of scraping content from them without permission. Indeed, that was one of the things Facebook suggested last year�in what was widely seen as a smear campaign.

I put that to Facebook when I talked with the company last week about the tool. I was told Facebook saw a difference between taking public signals to build a competing social service — as it felt Google was doing — and using those signals as part of a search service that points outward.

I was also assured that if Google wanted to do the types of things that the Don’t Be Evil tool is now doing, Facebook wouldn’t complain.

We’ll see. I’ll be following up with Google. In the meantime, you can read more at the Focus On The User web site, and there’s also an overview video available:

John Battelle also has a nice write-up with his perspective here, and Techmeme has a round-up of coverage from others.

Google’s Unusual Balancing Act

It can seem confusing — even hypocritical — for services like Facebook and Twitter to not release their public data more fully to anyone (including Google) without demanding deals, then complain they don’t feel represented enough in search results.

It can also seem odd that both of those companies might favor themselves in their own social networks, not include Google+, yet demand that Google somehow be “fair” to them.

The challenge Google faces, however, is that it operates both a social network and a search engine. The Google+ social network does compete with Facebook and Twitter, and anyone would expect that it should favor itself.

The Google search engine, however, was founded on the idea that it should be fair to all. That is, after all, what a good search engine should do — provide the best results, not the results best for its parent company. The continued Google+ification of Google’s search results is bringing that fairness into question.

Potentially, that’s an anti-trust issue (and Facebook, as the dominant social service, might find itself similarly under pressure to open up to competitors). But anti-trust issues aside, it’s simply a trust issue. Will users trust that Google’s results are doing the right thing by them?

I strongly encourage anyone feeling lost in all this debate and some of the tricky issues it presents to see my post from last week,�FAQ: What�s The Debate About Google�s Search Plus Your World?

Finally, you can expect we’ll be taking a close look at the huge changes that Google+ is unleashing in the search marketing space at our upcoming SMX West conference in San Jose Feb. 28-March 1, in particular during these sessions:

  • Getting Personal, Part 1: How Google & Bing Personalize With Social Connections
  • Getting Personal, Part 2: How Google & Bing Personalize With Search History & Geography
  • SEO For Google+ & Google Search
  • Ask The Search Engines � Open Q&A Forum

Be sure to see the full agenda and register soon to save the most on a ticket.

Postscript: See�A Proposal For Social Network D�tente�for some further reflections on moving ahead from today’s events.

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Google Instant: Only On When Your Computer Can Handle It

As part of the January search update provided by Google – Google Instant has a new default preference. The new preference is to only enable it if your computer can handle it – otherwise, Google will disable Google Instant results.

If you go to the search preferences it should say Google Instant is only enabled when “my computer is fast enough” and then show if Google thinks your computer is or is not fast enough. Here is a picture:

Google said:

Automatically disable Google Instant based on computer speed. [project codename �Psychic Search�] Google Instant has long had the ability to automatically turn itself off if you�re on a slow internet connection. Now Instant can also turn itself off if your computer is slow. If Instant gets automatically disabled, we continue to check your computer speed and will re-enable Instant if your performance improves. We�ve also tweaked search preferences so you can always have Instant on or off, or have it change automatically.

One of the complaints I see every so often is that Google Instant makes it slower for some people to search. Google Operatin System has a picture of when Google Instant is automatically turned off because the computer cannot handle it.

Hopefully this will reduce the complaints I see from searchers on Google Instant.

Related Stories:

  • Google Instant Search: The Complete User�s Guide
  • How Google Instant�s Autocomplete Suggestions Work
  • Google Instant Now On New Google Toolbar 7
  • Google Instant Previews Via Mouse Over
  • �Don�t Be Evil� Tool � Backed By Facebook & Twitter � Shows Google�s �Search Plus Your World� Can Go Beyond Google+
  • Will Google Instant Kill The Long Tail?

Promotions aim to steer subscribers to revenue-rich data plans

Verizon (NYSE:VZ) is launching new promotions, including its double data plan offer, in an attempt to boost sales and subscriber numbers in what traditionally is a sluggish first quarter.

Starting Feb. 10, customers who sign a two-year contract can get 4 gigabytes of data capacity when they buy a smartphone designed for the 4G LTE high-speed operating standard (LTE is short for long-term evolution, one of several 4G standards). They must also sign up for Verizon�s $30-per-month data plan, and a qualifying voice and text message package, to qualify for the 4GB of data capacity.

To further entice customers Verizon will offer a two-for-one deal on the Motorola Droid 4, a 4G LTE-capable phone. Those clients can choose between the Droid Razr Maxx for $299 with a two-year contract or the Droid Razr 16G for $199 with a two-year agreement.

The phones are designed to strengthen Verizon�s lineup in the 4G fight with AT&T (NYSE:T) by allowing Verizon customers to surf the Web at speeds of 5 to 12 megabits per second on a 4-inch high-definition scratch-resistant screen. Users also can share the carrier�s 4G connection with eight other Wi-Fi-enabled devices. With the addition of the Droid 4, Verizon will have 12 smartphones in the 4G category.

To boost so-far disappointing tablet sales, Verizon is offering $100 off any 4G tablet with the purchase of any basic phone or smartphone. And in an attempt to spur upgrades among basic feature-phone-user holdouts, the carrier is offering a $30 in-store gift card to existing customers who trade in their feature phone � preferably for a data-using smartphone.

Beyond texting and the iPhone

It may look as if Verizon is giving away the farm with these promotions, but they could result in big revenue gains for the carrier if customers take the bait. 4G phones fit into Verizon�s strategy of steering customers to profit-rich data services as profits from voice and text messaging services fall victim to lower usage; cheaper, all-inclusive plans from Sprint (NYSE:S), the pay-as-you-go prepaid service Straight Talk, and free services such as Skype.

Although Verizon signed up more smartphone users and said its data revenue grew 22.2% year over year during 2011, the numbers still disappointed investors. And Verizon needs to show them that its data-service strategy won�t be sabotaged by demand for Apple�s (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhone, which Verizon sells at a discount.

Verizon�s latest promotions will likely capture the attention of customers who favor bandwidth-heavy functions such as video and music streaming, and those who send lots of large files and play games online. The Droid 4�s large screen and 8-megapixel front-facing camera will also appeal to smartphone users who like to use the device to read, shoot video, and video chat. The smartphone also has a 1.2-gigahertz processor and 16-gigabytes of storage in a slim, attractive design.

The Droid 4 phone�s strong battery, however, cannot be removed by the user, a limitation that may turn off some customers. Women also may balk at the phone�s wide frame, and there are many customers who won�t give up their iPhone, regardless of what the competition has to offer. What�s more, data plans are a significant extra expense, so the promotions may not be enough to entice users who already have a hard time footing the bill for basics on Verizon�s expensive network, especially if they can get cheaper plans from, say, T-Mobile�s growing assortment of 4G offerings.

Nonetheless, Verizon has more to gain than lose with these promotions, and that makes them worth the effort.

Jabil Slips: Needham Less Bullish as ‘Valuation Gap’ Narrows

Shares of Jabil Circuit (JBL) are down 65 cents, or 2.5%, at $25.33 after Needham & Co.’s Sean Hannan cut his rating on the shares to Buy from Strong Buy, but actually raised his price target to $29 from $26, writing that the stock’s “valuation gap” relative to peers has narrowed after a 33% run-up this year.

However, the company’s winning business in contract manufacturing, and demand appears “stable,” he writes.

Our conversations continue to suggest a win/new business environment at particularly strong across EMS, with some players characterizing the level of activity at historically high. In general, we believe demand has also been stable, with many OEMs more hopeful on stronger 2HC12 (as per our EMS industry piece today).

Also Jabil’s “DMS” and “materials” businesses are seeing “strong demand.”

Hannan now values the stock at 12 times the expected $2.60 per share in profit for this fiscal year ending in August, versus a 10 times multiple before.


Foreclosure free ride: 3 years, no payments

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Delinquent borrowers facing foreclosure are learning that they can stay in their homes for years, as long as they're willing to put up a fight.

Among the tactics: Challenging the bank's actions, waiting to file paperwork right up until the deadline, requesting the lender dig up original paperwork or, in some extreme cases, declaring bankruptcy.

Nationwide, the average time it takes to process a foreclosure -- from the first missed payment to the final foreclosure auction -- has climbed to 674 days from 253 days just four years ago, according to LPS Applied Analytics.

It takes much longer than that in Florida, where the process averages 1,027 days, nearly 3 years. In D.C., foreclosure averages 1,053 days and delinquent borrowers in New York often stay in their homes for an average of 906 days.

And while some borrowers are looking for ways to make good with lenders and get their homes back, many aren't paying a dime. Nearly 40% of homeowners in default have not made a payment in at least two years, according to LPS.

Many of these homeowners are staying in their homes based on a technicality. There is rarely any dispute over whether or not they have stopped paying their mortgage, said David Dunn, a partner at law firm Hogan Lovells in New York, who represents banks and other financial institutions in foreclosure cases.

"In my experience, they never say, 'I'm not delinquent' or 'I want to pay my bill but I'm confused over who to send it to,' or 'Oh my God, you mean I didn't pay my mortgage?' They're not in technical default. They're in default because they're not paying," he said.

Millions eligible for foreclosure review

Ironically enough, the banks have given delinquent borrowers some of the ammunition they need to delay the foreclosure process. During the "robo-signing" scandal in 2010, it was revealed that bank employees signed paperwork attesting to facts they had no personal knowledge of. Now, borrowers are routinely challenging that paperwork.

A Staten Island, N.Y. man who owed $300,000 on his mortgage and hadn't made a payment in two years, said his attorney used the robo-signing issue to fight his foreclosure.

In his case, the lender's paperwork included many different papers signed by the same employee. The problem was that the signatures didn't match. The judge dismissed the lender's case against the borrower, although it can be re-filed.

"It looks like I'll be in my home for some time to come," said the homeowner, who asked to remain anonymous. He said he is currently not making any payments on his home.

Sometimes just asking the bank to produce the paperwork that shows it is the legal holder of the mortgage note can stall a repossession, said attorney Robert Brown. Since mortgages are often transferred electronically, the official paperwork often gets misplaced.

10 cheap foreclosed homes for sale by Uncle Sam

"My lawyer asked my bank to produce an affidavit that entitled them to foreclose," said a client of Brown's, who lives in Harlem and also asked to remain anonymous. "They couldn't do it."

The case was dismissed, without prejudice, though the lender can try again -- if it finds the paperwork.

In some of the more extreme cases, borrowers will file for bankruptcy in order to block a foreclosure. In these instances, courts order creditors to cease their collection activities immediately. Home auctions can be postponed as the bankruptcy plays out, which can take months.

The ensuing delays are further harming the housing market. People who stay in homes undergoing foreclosure for years often don't maintain the properties, causing blight and lowering property values in the surrounding neighborhoods, said Dunn.

Home prices: Your local forecast

Then there are the court costs that lenders bear, which will eventually be borne by home buyers as lenders increase their borrowing fees to cover the increased risk, Dunn said.

David Berenbaum of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC), a community activism group, disputes the contention that owners are gaming the system for free rent and hurting the housing market.

"Most people do everything in their power to maintain these homes," he said. "They take in relatives, get second jobs and even rent out rooms."

What really needs to be done, he said, is for lenders to work harder to find solutions that allow delinquent borrowers who can afford to make reasonable mortgage payments to keep their homes. 

10 Things NCAA Basketball Won't Tell You -

Gavin Landry isn't a big pro basketball fan, but he loves college hoops -- especially March Madness, the NCAA's three-week tourney to crown the best team in all the land. "College basketball is basketball in its purest form," he says. And since starting a hotel-industry consulting business in 2008, Landry says it's gotten a lot easier for him to watch the games while at work. "Being my own boss and having the ability to be a little flexible allows me a lot more time to do that kind of thing," Landry says.

Also See

  • 10 Things the Super Bowl Won't Say
  • 10 Things the Oscars Won't Say
  • 10 Things E-Books Won't Tell You

For those of us with less freedom at the office, catching daytime games is a little trickier not that we're letting that stop us. American workers were projected to spend a total of almost 8.4 million hours watching March Madness games online at work last year, up 20% from the previous year, with most of that video streaming occurring the first two days of the tourney. Given that the average hourly wage for a private-sector worker is $22.87, the consulting firm Challenger Gray & Christmas estimated that all those lost hours would cost employers more than $192 million this month.

Thank (or blame) the boost in viewership partly on's new free mobile apps, as well as the fact that a greater number of games are being streamed online and more workers have access to high-speed internet connections at work than ever before, says James Pedderson, a spokesman for Challenger.

2. "We make loads of money..."

The players may be amateurs, but the NCAA men's basketball tournament is big business -- second only to the Super Bowl in terms of ad sales for a postseason sporting event. A thirty-second commercial during one of the last two rounds of the tournament costs around $1.2 million, far more than a $440,0000 spot during the World Series, and more than three times the cost of an ad during the NBA championship, according to Kantar Media, a research firm. Those high prices are partly due to the tournament's "protected" spot on the calendar, "a three-week window of time where it is the focal point of the sporting world," says Jon Swallen, a senior vice president of research with Kantar Media. And while ratings for head-to-head matchups like the World Series can vary widely depending on the size of the teams' fan base, March Madness always has national appeal, Swallen says.

All that ad revenue also translates to big bucks for the NCAA, which in 2010 reached a new 14-year deal for the TV rights to the tournament with CBS and Turner Broadcasting System for $10.8 billion, or about $771 million a year. In the 2009-2010 fiscal year, more than 80% of the NCAA's total revenue came from the rights fee for the tournament. (The NCAA's deal with ESPN for the rights to the women's basketball tournament brought in about $16.8 million, or about 2% of the organization's revenue that same year.)

"3. ...but not for your alma mater."

March Madness may make billions, but for most colleges it doesn't provide nearly enough cash to cover the rapidly escalating costs of running a first-class athletics program. In the 2008-2009 school year, only 13 Division I-A sports programs were in the black, according to research by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP). The few financial winners include a handful of last year's tournament participants, including the University of Georgia ($1.8 million in earnings), Purdue ($2.3 million), University of Michigan ($10.6 million) and Texas A&M ($15.8 million). But most schools' athletics programs are actually a major drain on the school's finances. For example, the athletics program at the University of Houston lost $19.8 million in the 2008-2009 fiscal year, SUNY Buffalo (-$20.2 million), Oklahoma State University (-$24.7 million) or Rutgers, where last year's heartbreaking -- and controversial -- loss to St. John's in the Big East tournament followed a financial loss for its athletics department of $25.5 million in the 2008-2009 fiscal year.

So who pays for big-time money losers? Student fees, says Richard Vedder, a professor of economics at Ohio University and the director of CCAP. The average Division I-A program needed $3.4 million in student fees in fiscal year 2009; in the Big 10 Conference, the average student fee subsidy was $383,000, and in the Mid-American Conference the average subsidy was $6.7 million. And because the NCAA's spoils go largely to the winners, students at schools with losing programs end up paying more in fees. "The burden of athletics seems to be falling particularly on the lower-income schools which are sort of wannabe athletic powers," Vedder says.

"4. We're why college is getting so expensive."

At many schools, spending on sports is growing twice or three times as fast as spending on academics, according to the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. Much of the growth is due to coaching staff salaries, which account for a third of overall sports program budgets at the average university or college, says Amy Perko, the Knight Commission's executive director. Division IA football coaches' salaries rose an astounding 46% from 2006 to 2009, to $1.4 million, according to the Knight Commission. And men's basketball coaches aren't too far behind: The average salary for the head coach of a team in 2010's March Madness tournament was $1.3 million, excluding benefits, according to a USA Today report.

Not only are coaches' salaries rising, the number of people on the payroll is growing, despite official NCAA rules that allow only three assistant coaches, Perko says. Take a look at who gathers around during tournament timeouts: Perko suggests -- you'll likely see more than four staff members. Many programs are hiring staff that essentially serve as assistant coaches but are called things like "director of basketball operations," "director of player development," or "director of recruiting," Perko says.

5. "For student-athletes, this is a full-time job (without the pay)."

The NCAA stresses that it has put rules in place to make sure its student-athletes spend as much time in the classroom as they do on the field or court. For example, the association limits formal practice and competition for student-athletes to only 20 hours a week.

But a 2010 NCAA survey found men's basketball players were spending 39.2 hours a week at the gym, up 2 hours from 2006. Of course, as a full-time job it doesn't pay too well. Athletic scholarships can't exceed the cost of tuition and fees, room and board, and books. In the 2010 school year, a full scholarship would have been worth $28,130 at the average public four-year college or university, according to data from the College Board. At a school where the basketball team does bring home a lot of revenue from the NCAA tournament, "these kids are the ones doing the work and producing the income," Vedder says. "They're so valuable, and they're getting paid so little," he says.

6. "Our players might not graduate."

On the first day of last year's tournament, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan joined the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics in calling for the NCAA to change its revenue-distribution policies to do more to reward academic success and punish teams whose players aren't on track to graduate. Over the past five tournaments, teams that weren't on track to graduate at least 50% of their players had been awarded $178.8 million in March Madness money, nearly 44% of the total revenue doled out, according to the Knight Commission. Ten teams in last year's tournament were set to graduate less than half their players: Alabama State, Kansas State, Morehead State, Purdue, San Diego State, Syracuse, UAB, UC Santa Barbara, USC, and UT-San Antonio.

That said, the likelihood of a Division I men's basketball player graduating has improved in recent years: According to the NCAA's "graduation success rate" data, only 56% of Division I freshmen basketball players in 1995 graduated, compared to 66% for the 2002 cohort. But men's basketball and football programs still graduate fewer players than any other sport. And male athletes fare worse than women: The average graduation rate for Division I men is just 72%, compared to an 88% average for women. Among men's sports, tennis has the best graduation rate, at 87%; for women, basketball has the worst record at 83%. The top student-athletes? Women's fencing, which graduated 100% of its 2002 class.

"7. We can't get rid of agents."

It's against NCAA rules for a player to receive any financial benefit other than scholarship money, and NBA rules also forbid professional agents from giving college players anything of value. But agents still find creative ways to skirt the rules. One new strategy: Agents are employing "runners," who serve as a middleman between the college player and themselves, says Stacey Osburn, a spokeswoman for the NCAA. The "runner" might present themselves simply as a friend or "advisor," and all the while attempt to make business deals on that player's behalf and give them gifts or money. "Sometimes kids have no idea they're being used in that way," Osburn says.

The NCAA only has direct jurisdiction over players and schools, but they continue to work with professional players' associations, agents and state governments to try to address this ongoing problem, Osburn says. In addition to rigorously enforcing its rules, the NCAA is looking into ways to provide better education to student-athletes who may later go pro on how to steer clear of agents and others who could cost them their college eligibility or penalize the college's basketball program. Consider the case of O.J. Mayo, the standout guard who was accused of receiving improper cash and gifts while playing for the University of Southern California during the 2007-2008 season. In 2010, before waiting for the NCAA to act, the school imposed sanctions on its basketball program, including a one-year ban on postseason play.

8. "Forget tickets -- hotel rooms are hardest to come by."

Maybe you have to stay somewhere miles away from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, the site of this year's Final Four. Maybe you have to rent a truck instead of a car (for three times the cost) because there are no rooms available. "But that's what makes it fun," says Mike Janes, the CEO of ticket-search site FanSnap, who in 2010 followed Duke all the way to the Final Four in Indianapolis. "What really separates March Madness from every other event is the incredibly short notice that fans have as to whether their team's going to be playing," Janes says.

Tickets can be relatively easy to come by -- confident fans will often buy Final Four seats in advance, while others will scoop up last-minute tickets from disappointed fans, who tend to sell within minutes of a loss or even before the game is over if the outcome is clear. But making last-minute travel arrangements to catch a game can be a real challenge -- especially hotel accommodations. Demand for hotel rooms last year was up more than 18% over the previous year, thanks in part to the continued rebound from the recession, says Sam Soni, the president of PrimeSport, the NCAA's official provider of ticket and hospitality packages. One tip for those fans who wait until the last minute: check out the official tourism site for Louisiana, which has some information about available housing, or contact NCAA partner Fan Experiences.

9. "Cinderella story? That's a fairy tale."

Sure, any team theoretically has a shot at the title -- just win six straight games. But in fact the odds are heavily stacked in favor of established powerhouses. For starters, the Big 6 conferences Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pacific-10, Atlantic Coast Conference, Southeastern Conference on average, about three times as many at-large bids as the mid-majors. In fact, there are many Division I teams that have never made it to the tournament at all, including Northwestern and William & Mary. Once in the tournament, history still favors the Big 6: The last time a team who wasn't from one of the six major conferences won the tournament was in 1990 (University of Nevada Las Vegas, which was a number 8 seed last year).

Don't think an underdog entering the tournament on a hot streak has any better chance of winning either. "There's no evidence that that matters," says Tobias Moskowitz, a professor of finance at the University of Chicago, and co-author, with sportswriter L. Jon Wertheim, of the book "Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won." "Streaks occur, but they have no predictive power," Moskowitz says. He notes that streaks happen when you flip a coin hundreds of times, too -- but the odds of getting heads never change.

10. "You're right -- the ref is biased."

In college basketball, home teams win 69% of games -- and the home-team advantage is nearly as strong in the NBA, where home teams win 63% of the time and nearly 99% of teams perform better at home than they do on the road, according to research by Moskowitz and Wertheim. The reason? Something many fans suspect, but Moskowitz and Wertheim say they have managed to statistically prove: referee bias.

"The home court advantage works through fans exerting pressure on the referees," Moskowitz explains. Refs (unconsciously) avoid making calls that will anger a screaming crowd -- so even in a tournament where games are played on "neutral" ground, whichever team plays closer to home or simply has more fans should have a built-in advantage, Moskowitz explains. Moskowitz and Wertheim also found that refs are less likely to call fouls on star players -- and that tendency to "swallow the whistle" gets worse as the game -- and the tournament -- goes on, he says.