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Yahoo: The Sloan of the Digital Age?

Monday, October 4th, 2010

Yahoo sells online advertising. That’s what they do for a living, first and foremost. They sell that advertising against content, both aggregated and unaggregated, and against various popular apps, like Yahoo Mail.

They came second in search. Yahoo Mail looks like it may be overtaken by GMail someday. They haven’t created a browser, haven’t created an operating system, never triumphed in video despite being well positioned to do so, and failed to position themselves to win in local and mobile, as their main competitor, Google, moved with lightning speed and ambition on maps, street view, and other audacious plans.

Back in 1999, when we created (The Guide to Portals), Yahoo had the lead or leadership momentum in things like search and mail. They were *the* portal in the minds of digerati (who felt MSN and AOL were lame), when that seemed important. And yes, that may still prove in the light of history to have been Yahoo’s high water mark.

But it’s certainly not all that complicated to describe what Yahoo is, and what it could be, even to this day. Even when their own people (CEO Carol Bartz) appear stumped when asked “what the company is,” or when seemingly treasonous memos from VP’s circulate (the famous “peanut butter manifesto” from Brad Garlinghouse, accusing the company of spreading itself too thin).

Both Bartz and Garlinghouse have taken a constructive outsider’s “tough love” view of how the company became bloated and confused in the process of doing what it does well. Too many years of taking insiders’ claims at face value led to an inflation of titles and the creation of too many meaningless positions.

When Bartz dropped one of her famous f-bombs in a very public interview in May, some people couldn’t believe she’d be allowed to lead a company with such a foul mouth, and one that airs dirty laundry in public to boot:

There were engineers in almost every country, and way too many product people. We had one product management person for every three engineers. We had a lot people telling engineers what to do but nobody f***ing doing anything. Excuse me. I knew that would slip out one of these times.

But wasn’t Bartz right? On one hand, Yahoo needs to be wary of chasing the cult of engineering-driven startup culture. They aren’t a startup, and they aren’t Google. But on the other hand, a lot of engineers are there, and a lot more need to be added. And inexplicable bloat in non-engineering supervisory positions around the world has to be addressed before Yahoo can move forward. Bartz is frustrated because Yahoo is a great company that spends too much time tripping over itself.

(There may also be some oversimplifications in Bartz’s methodology, to be sure. If her marching orders are “classic turnaround” vintage, her regime might potentially make international operations even less efficient by failing to nurture growth in these markets, subjecting country managers to stifling cost controls, just to show short term financial progress to the board.)

That these tough-minded managers can recognize the problem and turn things around should actually be a sign that there is hope. The “everything is great and I bleed purple” stuff is fine for morale, but…  they only work as long as the key management problems with the company are addressed.

When things are turned around, what will Yahoo actually do?

Actually, that’s something of a silly question, in that it is already doing an awful lot — and serving an awful lot of advertising against it. It needs to continue to do that.

Your mileage may vary, but personally I have some relationship with a variety of Yahoo products, services, and content areas. Others, I have largely mothballed. I don’t use Yahoo Mail very much anymore, because GMail became a standard, along with related apps like the Calendar. But I’d consider going back to it, for privacy reasons based on the “single overlord adoption threshold.” I don’t use Yahoo Finance anymore, because I find Google Finance easier to use. I do like Yahoo Sports. I use Flickr less than I used to, but I still use and like it.

I’m sure you have similar stories.

Originally I had considered titling this column Yahoo: The Canada of the Digital Age, for some good reasons. Canada, many of us think, is now looking relatively good as a place to live and work. It’s got no warm beaches, no Hollywood, no Obama, and no 500-year-old buildings. But the country weathered the financial crisis better than most; employment is strong; government is not particularly corrupt; and it three large cities are considered some of the most livable in the world. At a certain point, you realize you were sitting on more than you realized.

But I settled on the idea that Yahoo is like the Sloan of the Internet (yes Sloan is Canadian). In ‘The Rest of My Life,’ Sloan writes:

Am I gonna settle down
Am I gonna be
Someone who has to take
The rest of my life
To settle down?
Then I guess you caught me
Lying to myself
What kind of fool
Doesn’t think about it?

At a certain point, then, you can consider scouring the world for new and better experiences… or you can just go with the relationships you’ve already got.

The job ahead for Yahoo isn’t to convince users that they’re better than Google in every respect, or even in most respects. It’s simply to keep being themselves. Digital content and apps simply aren’t a winner-take-all market. Maybe you don’t want to be second to eBay in auctions or second to Amazon in books, but being the #2 ‘digital nation’ in users’ minds, that alternate place you go to also (other than Google), has a long future ahead of it, if Yahoo plays its cards right.

Here are a few ways that Yahoo can sharpen the edges around its existing identity and corporate culture so that everyone internally is on the same page as to the company’s unique Yahoo-ness:

  • First, do no harm. Yahoo has a unique opportunity to actually out-good the “Don’t Be Evil” leader, Google. It can start by noticing where the leader has crossed the line from bleeding edge to being a major invader of privacy. When Google reached critical mass, offering office software, mail, chat, phone services, desktop search, and much more, they theoretically took control of your whole digital footprint. Yahoo can come back and offer the promise of an alternative. Not one that is perfect; simply one that is less creepy.
  • Get the right people on the bus, by adding clarity to what Yahoo’s definition of ‘talent’ is. A crisper sense of mission is going to be needed to tie into the long term plan to begin attracting top talent again. But if Google is beginning to talk about its next mission statement in terms of being an “innovation company,” Yahoo must decide whether to chase this, or to become a very solid execution company. There is an awful lot of mileage you can get out of analyzing customer feedback and metrics for a company with as large an audience as Yahoo. Innovation can be soft innovation and progress can be towards recognizable goals within the universe of what is already important. Finding the next great thing? That shouldn’t be on the radar and there should be no 20% time, come up with new apps, type of culture at Yahoo… sorry. Big breakthroughs, if they are needed at all, should be achieved mainly through acquisition.
  • Build on legacy. Yahoo’s brand is powerful. Consumers actually trust Yahoo more than both Google and Microsoft, mainly because Yahoo is a fun company that hasn’t tried to take over every aspect of their lives. Yahoo can build on what are essentially benign relationships dating back as long as 15 years.
  • Stick with core products. Losing hope in Yahoo Mail, Flickr, etc. would be a bad move. Consumers are ripe for alternatives to the Borg-like leaders of the world.
  • Bold acquisitions to create lock-in opportunities. At the end of the day, the Portal Wars are about monopolistic media models 2.0. We’ve always said that around here. That’s why Yahoo can’t fully win unless they acquire channels they can exploit. Even if this means acquisitions are actually mergers and they become quite dilutive for existing shareholders. And part of the long-term logic involves giving things away to reap more lock-in advantages. Yes, the combined Yahoo 2.0 giant that I envision may have to raise an awful lot of money with a debt offering to be able to afford this, but the additional attention and loyalty assets they need are locked up in a variety of mid-sized companies that should consider selling out at this time. Deep subsidies or giveaways on products like domain names and handheld devices (read: Yahoo should acquire GoDaddy or Research in Motion) are part of the scenario here. In the future, Yahoo should also be pursuing partnerships with hotels, cities, airports, media companies, malls, and other touchpoints in consumer and business life.
  • Keep selling those ads and don’t hide that part of your culture. Yahoo will have to continue innovating around maximizing ad yield. Advertising is simply a poor business model for 95% of the companies that try to make a go from it. But they have the scale and the technology to do well here. Since that’s covered, plenty of business relationships with agencies and partners will be needed to keep Yahoo on the radar as the type of magnetic, positive publishing company that advertisers and their partners want to do business with.

Yahoo’s culture has always been very different from Google’s. It’s time for them (and us) to reaffirm that this is a good thing, because it gives users and partners an alternative.

A couple of years ago, I walked into the lobby of a mid-sized advertising agency, as they were kind enough to offer a boardroom for a trade association meeting. Lo and behold, in a waiting area, I saw two beautiful, overstuffed Yahoo-branded recliners. Perhaps a gift for doing business with Yahoo, probably in its core area of display ad sales. The total value of the furniture had to be in the neighborhood of $1,600. But it wasn’t just the largesse that struck me, it was the brashness. Google distributes small gifts to its partners and advertisers at holiday time – a beer fridge worth around $95 would be a typical fun, but modest, reward. They wouldn’t be caught dead doing some of the stuff Yahoo has done over the years. It’s just a cultural difference. And the thing about it is, both cultures have a place in the industry.

To quote Sloan, “you’d have to be a fool not to think about it.”

Blekko Update: Mechanical Turk Meets Algorithmic Web Search

Friday, August 13th, 2010

Blekko, the stealth search engine startup co-founded by Rich Skrenta (of ODP fame), has recently launched a limited private beta. I’ve been able to give it a spin and can confirm, it feels like early days yet for the project but it does have its core metaphors and functions nailed down solidly.

As close observers now know, the service allows users to use pre-set (or custom) “slashtags” to reduce a whole web search to a narrower slice of relevant websites. “Pre-sets” include /people, /stock, /weather, /define, etc. These work somewhat the same as certain Google pre-sets, which can be either activated by knowing the nomenclature, or may be activated automatically based on the style of your query. Blekko’s pre-sets already go beyond some of what Google offers; as these develop they constitute a potentially useful toolkit.

Some quirky areas they’re working on are near and dear to the founder’s heart: because he’s always aimed to pitch the product to search pros and SEO’s, Blekko has spent considerable time building out SEO-candy features. For example, a slashtag called /rank (and no doubt other features in development) reveal the factors in ranking for certain phrases, which would allow one to understand why some sites rank higher than others. Go ahead and game Blekko if you want — people won’t be using it to search the whole web, so they’re unlikely to include your site in a slashtag site list if it’s spammy.

More germane to the spirit of the project are “topic” slashtags (from /arts to /discgolf to /yoga) and “user” slashtags (anything users customize). The idea is basically to metasearch all the sites that are included in the list, but none of the rest of the web. (Or you can call it a mini index or a multi site search if you will.)

It’s important to note that Blekko needs to maintain its own full web index to offer this to users and partners as original technology; after all, when you enter a site to add to the list, it’s got to be spidered and already included in the master list of sites. One of the key guiding principles Skrenta mentioned to me in the earlier going was that so few search startups are going into the Google arena of “whole web search” that the field is starved of healthy competition. He’s right. To keep costs down, Blekko’s index is of course much smaller than Google’s. That means it’s less comprehensive, but it makes the project feasible and further limits the incentives for spammers.

So many other search startups have been content to set their sights lower, tinkering with mere “features.” Yet somewhat disturbingly, in a recent Techcrunch interview, Skrenta’s emphasis is on slashtags as a “feature”. It’s still unclear, then, whether Blekko is a big idea, or a small one.

A few points are worth mentioning as far as this core functionality goes.

1. There is some question as to who Blekko is competing with and where its positioning lies. Clearly, the identified shortcoming in mega web indexes is junk, spam, and an inadequate commitment to personalization.

2. To address that, some return to the curated web must be contemplated. Fixed directories had their day and were susceptible to claims of corruption. Moreover, as Steve Thomas of a startup called Moreover once noted, directories and other curated sources suffer from the “fixed taxonomy problem”. What if your own list or own approach would be different? Shouldn’t you be able to follow an “editor” who “slashes” the web in a way that you approve of? Shouldn’t you be able to contribute your own value as an editor to the community, without being stuck on categories you don’t actually love because someone else got there first?

3. The large number of pre-set slashtags are interesting. They suggest yet another attempt could be made to intelligently curate the web, using people who are good at putting together the lists. Someone would need to admit that it was opinionated categorization, of course. There’s something disingenuous about Google News’s helpful reminder that the whole thing is “generated by a computer program” and has no editorial judgment involved. Presumably Blekko suggests we might (or must inevitably) go in a different direction. Admitting to curation might be a start!

So Blekko is a way to customize the web and shrink the universe. It’s a cousin of wave 1 of “peer to peer” search (OpenCola) or shared bookmarking services (Backflip, HotLinks).

Here’s the rub at this stage. When I try to use certain slashtags in an intuitive way to find content, it doesn’t work very well.

I built my own slashtag called /ugc to encompass a number of user review sites I like, such as Yelp and Chowhound (and Tripadvisor and…). When I tried to find certain restaurants, no matter what I typed, I still got a mess of irrelevant results.  And this is arguably not an advanced search problem, but one of the simpler ones you’ll throw at an engine. I’d be way better off just going directly to Yelp or, or to their mobile apps. Then, I discovered the slashtag called /reviews. It didn’t work any better. At the end of the day, I know how Yelp, Tripadvisor, and HomeStars work when I visit them directly. I don’t know how Blekko works, and/or, it currently just doesn’t do the job. In many important ways, it offers a less rich experience than the individual sources, which offer a rich navigational experience, community, etc. It’s a search engine, of course, so it helps you find stuff. Which in this day and age, isn’t all that impressive to the average person… especially if it does a poor job of that.

Similar problems came up when I tried intuitive seeming searches using the /vegan slashtag. With a very specific intent, maybe that tag might work. 90% of the time, it’s safe to say you’ll be just as frustrated as you would be using Google.

One generous reviewer noted that “Slashtags aren’t perfect“. In my opinion, they don’t really work as billed, and might never work intuitively. As a user, when I see the slash /liberal or /local or /review, I think of an attribute, not a simple notation that the web universe will be shrunk to a curated list of websites, however small or large. The state of the semantic web is in shambles, there is no question about that. So it is indeed pie-in-the-sky to expect key attributes of pages (such as “this is a consumer review”) to be widely and universally available for search engines and users. But I get overexcited when I see a slashtag like /funny or /green. I expect it to work magically. Of course, it doesn’t.

Granted, the project is still in Beta and even the individual site searches on the underlying sites are often weak and cluttered until you become a power user. At HomeStars, we quibbled for a couple of years over the best way of treating the fact that 40% or more queries are on a company name, but generic words in company names often overlap with review content, giving the “wrong” rank-order for that user’s intent. Those are solvable problems to an extent, so with more curation, more tweaking, more feedback on the beta, etc., Blekko can maybe solve many of these problems.

I definitely empathize with the challenge, having been involved in a site that fails often even just making the search and navigational experience work for a narrow subset of users. Novices come and go who think they can write code that will “fix” search and make it “work”. It does work, for 0.5% of users. Then it breaks for the other 99.5%. Everyone has opinions about rank-order, and pretty much everything else to do with search. You don’t “solve” it with a couple of pointers as it’s incredibly complex and subjective.

Ruminating on all of that, it’s clear that Blekko is an enormous idea, not a small idea or a simple feature. As a result, it opens up enormous cans of worms — as it should.

Other (Googly) ways of assessing relevance and quality are going to eventually need to be built into an engine like Blekko, regardless. Google has a light-year’s worth of head start in gathering data about user behavior, click trails and paths, and other signals that help propel one page or site higher than another. Even if you cut out 95% of Google’s index, or 99%, Google’s proprietary data and ranking technologies would be immensely helpful to ranking. Heck, you can use Google site search for your own site and tap into the same technology.

Meanwhile, Google is moving forward to aggregate content and serve up types of content with certain attributes, drawing from qualifying lists of underlying data providers. One such area is user review aggregation. They’re making a botch of it now, and are heavy-handedly trying to funnel users into their own review app. But they’re iterating fast.

In other words, Google is going hard after solving this type of problem in areas where it really matters. Blekko is experimenting with how the problem itself is posed, and where to take it next. And that is bound to be strikingly different in tone and execution than Google’s method.

Rich Skrenta is right. The field of large scale search engines is in desperate need of innovation and genuine competition. Blekko can act as an incubator for better ideas about search, but perhaps just as importantly, different ideas about search.

Google’s Shuttered Projects: Does it Come Down to Trust?

Monday, August 9th, 2010

Danny Sullivan offers a thoughtful piece “celebrating” and reviewing Google’s failed (closed) projects, accompanied by “celebratory” (rationalizing, explaining) quotes from Google.

Of course, there can be any number of reasons why pilot projects fail to take off. On the flip side, Google’s dominance in some of the lines of business that started out in Google Labs or otherwise alpha level functionality, is nothing short of astounding — think Google Maps.

But is there a deeper reason for Google’s inability to gain traction with what often seemed to be promising initiatives? With their tech savvy and reach, they should have an advantage from the standpoint of promotion as well as deep pockets to ride them through to completion.

One thing that comes to mind is user trust. Is there an unconscious upper threshold of total company product adoption in many users’ minds? For business users, is that perception particularly acute? As in: “I love Google Search and YouTube, and Google Maps I can’t live without. I’m willing to try Google 411… but when it comes to this latest invention, I think I’m going to take a pass and stick with [independent provider x].”

In the old school of American political science (pluralism, ne0-pluralism, Robert Dahl’s Who Governs?) the idea was that contemporary America was reasonably democratic even though there were elites (C. Wright Mills). As long as no one elite had total control over all facets of an economic region (for Dahl it was New Haven, CT), there was something analogous to the checks and balances the Founding Fathers of the country envisioned. That concept (wish?) still resonates with many people. In fact, it’s baked into the American psyche.

Why wouldn’t people approach their business relationships or technology adoption decisions the same way? (“I’m using five Google products all the time, but something about this new one bothers me. I think I’ll take my business to the other guys for a change.”) It’s hugely different when a startup starts doing well with a similar product. Why? Well, the underdog syndrome has consumers cheering that entity, community, product on to greater heights. When a product is Google-owned, you can no longer cheer for Page and Brin (though the company would like us to still see them all as underdogs). And the developers of Google’s products (even the widely loved GMail and Chrome) are rarely charismatic, or even visible. They are software developers: that’s what they do. They don’t feel the need to be hybrid entrepreneur-evangelist-developers. With a new or acquired Google product (say Aardvark?), it’s not cool to recommend it to friends anymore, because you’re recommending “just another Google product”. You make a conscious or unconscious choice not to work too hard at adopting that thing. The underdog syndrome, too, is baked into the American psyche.

Beyond trust is being top of mind in a category. Foursquare gets to be top of mind in something specific. If the same product is owned by Google, the positioning gets muddied.

So is any of this true? Do new Google initiatives now fail because people don’t trust Google to be a powerful elite in the ecosystem across too many categories? Are users consciously wanting to spread the love, if not to the tiniest garage startups, at least to other elites?

Let’s go through Danny’s list product by product, to find out.

Google Wave: Beyond the product being potentially too advanced and new to achieve quick adoption by the average (especially non-technical) user, there is a huge trust component to sharing internal company messaging across different communications styles, with different objects, etc. At the risk of oversimplifying, the product works in the general category of the old-school “office intranets”. Those kinds of systems worked in an atmosphere akin to “lockdown” and the service providers took security seriously. Despite the fact that similar players in the category like 37 Signals are offputtingly casual to some, the fact remains that Wave entered a paranoid type of market category with a freewheeling, experimental attitude. If people are going to be free-wheeling in their work and project environments, they’ll do it in ways they’ve already grown accustomed to (even using Skype or various cobbled-together solutions, or multiple types of solution). Despite the Cluetrain 2.0 style lectures by “how to set up a Wiki” evangelists near the end of the Web 2.0 hype phase, it’s clear that many aren’t adopting. The alternative to going whole hog into a single, consolidated system, for many, appears to be using multiple solutions clumsily and sometimes badly. The alternative, though, is akin to totalitarianism. Inhibited by trust issues? Yes.

SearchWiki: Did Google ever really seriously intend to keep this feature? Was adoption really the problem, or was this one of the many weak experiments in the Google Search world intended to act as a trial balloon to see how much genuine behavior would result, as opposed to self-dealing and spam? Leaving the feature in wouldn’t hurt anything, but Google must have felt it was a distraction to users. I’m sure they collected enough data to learn a few things during the time it was running. Trust issues? No.

Google Audio Ads: This was a very ambitious initiative. Nothing has changed in Google’s thinking long term: they’d like to broaden the idea of advertising auctions to any conceivable medium. There’s a slight snag, though. This works best on sites Google owns. To enable ad auctions on publishing platforms & content Google does not own, Google needs to sign partnerships. The end result of such partnerships may be that the publishers & providers won’t partner with Google for prime inventory but only remnant inventory. Take the analogy of a billboard owning company like CBS or Pattison. The best case scenario for Google would be to run an auction where advertisers could bid on the inventory digitally, and run the ads digitally. But they’re still at the mercy of the providers. Would the providers be resistant to such partnerships? Absolutely. They don’t see their interests as aligned with Google’s, especially if in the short term their revenues are not threatened by the old model, and especially if they believe they could create their bidding technology when their world becomes digitized. Google, in short, faces competition with ad networks, other technology platform providers, and resistance from publishers and media sources. They’ll continue to study ways to control more of their inventory directly, in partnerships where the other party is eager to try something out long term. Closing Google Audio Ads doesn’t reflect at all on Google’s backing away from the larger strategy. It does point to some of the roadblocks they’ll face in attempting to play a middleman or platform role for media assets they do not own. Did trust issues derail this one? In a strange way, yes.

Google Video. Google Video got its butt whipped by YouTube, so Google bought YouTube. The user culture at YouTube was much more vibrant. Google Video got hammered by a high spam to content ratio, in both videos and comments. On YouTube, when it came to the user base, there was a lot of “there there”; on Google Video, it felt like no one was home. YouTube’s culture was edgy and fast-moving. They also moved quickly to become the standard for embedded videos.  As a result of all this, Google Video failed to gain momentum while YouTube momentum was huge. Trust issues? Pretty much. But also, users simply couldn’t strongly identify Google’s brand with video. (Not until after the YouTube acquisition.)

Dodgeball. Why don’t we chalk this one up primarily to the “first draft effect”. In the first attempt to identify opportunities in a category, services don’t always find their feet. The valuable experience (and fundability) the founders gain from being acquired by Google helps them succeed much bigger on their next venture, especially if it’s playing in a similar space. On top of that, Foursquare being identifiable as a standalone thing, and coming along at a time when tweets helped to augment what it does, helped its momentum as an agenda-setter in the very space it wanted to define for itself. One part experience, one part positioning. You can’t entirely rule out the possibility that users feel better about sharing their location when it’s somehow a “cool” service that isn’t owned by the big guys. Typical early adopters of mobile and social apps are not exactly careful about their privacy; but like everything else, they like the exploitation of their willingness to trust, to at least be spread around a bit. Trust issues? Not entirely, but somewhat.

Jaiku. Google decided not to devote engineering resources to a Twitter clone, which just might indicate that it’s the user base and the data, not the amazing innovation and code base, that hold the key to Twitter’s current market value. In other words, there is room in the world for only one “show about nothing”. Trust issues? Hard to say, but don’t rule them out as a factor in slowing adoption had Jaiku gotten far enough along.

That’s enough examples to make the point. The many advantages Google’s reach, brand, and resources bring to a project can be offset by users’ unspoken “single overlord adoption threshold”. Both impulses will be at work when Google rolls out its mega social networking initiative near the end of this year. And indeed, it’s hard to completely untangle the issue of “I don’t trust you” from the positioning issue of “I trust you to do certain things really well, and I don’t believe you’re actually good at these other things.” These issues are inevitable as a company grows very large. It doesn’t mean anyone at Google is actually untrustworthy. It speaks more to an inherent fact of contemporary customer psychology, where the very big will do anything to mask or soften that bigness in order to appear humble and scrappy.

French Navx AdWords Banning Case – Comments

Monday, July 5th, 2010

Google will appeal the French regulator’s decision in this Navx case… and I can see why.

There are so many products and services banned from advertising with Google, third parties have a field day documenting all of them. Google’s own help files keep evolving, and provide a real sense of the breadth of the issues they must consider when deciding whether to accept advertising.

The French decision appears harsh in that it claims Google “abused its dominant position” to shut off an advertiser account. Yet if Google leans too far to the permissive side, it has to worry about being liable for facilitating violations of the law.

Due to its size, Google will inevitably face claims of favoritism and caprice when it comes to banning advertiser accounts (or in practice — the way it normally plays out — allowing Landing Page and Website Quality scores to sink so low that the final keyword quality scores are very low, which may affect not only minimum bids but “eligibility” for each and every potential keyword auction). The only way to avoid such claims is for Google to keep publishing its policies, and to be as transparent as possible as to what’s banned, and what isn’t.

Unfortunately Google has been transparent about around 50% of the process, and opaque about the other half. The various deceptive and discouraged practices Google refers to in its Landing Page and Website Quality guidelines are very much open to interpretation.

Despite Google in some sense bringing this type of scepticism on itself, the question remains as to whether they have indeed “abused their dominant position” in any given case. On the whole, its stock price is high because Google is able to exploit its dominant position generally, to keep ad prices high under an auction regime that is tuned to extract de facto reserve prices.

In attempting to solve several distinct classes of problems — economic issues, user experience issues, legal and policy issues, enforcement issues, etc. — by tossing them all into the same Quality Score cauldron, Google has in some sense made some problems (appear to) disappear from view while guaranteeing that they’ll keep coming back to life, like any undead life form you try to bury. As it turns out, you can’t take a subjective policy decision on whether to accept an advertiser’s money, hope the industry will uncritically accept your characterization of it as a “largely technical” calculation of “quality score,” and have the resulting debate and due process just disappear.

That being said, there is a flaw in the French regulator’s attitude and approach, insofar as it seems to rely on excessive due process being required of a publisher in its advertising policy decisions. All publishers might be second-guessed as to their decisions to accept or not accept certain advertisements. The law here can be quite complex, and it usually leans towards the publisher having the right not to take certain advertisers’ dollars, unless the refusal can be taken as overtly discriminatory or anti-competitive.

But was it so in this case? In this case, presumably Google was acting in good faith to refuse advertising from a service that helped users contravene traffic laws. They do much the same on many similar issues, including products that help people beat drug tests.

Google (or any publisher) will miss the mark on some of these calls: that’s only normal. As a private company, they shouldn’t be assigned the burden of creating an excessive layer of regulatory bureaucracy in their private dealings, given that there are plenty of regulators on the outside to fulfill that role.

Perhaps the French regulator is happy that the nation’s investment in traffic cameras will now be negated, and public safety further jeopardized by people playing with their smartphones in their cars. Maybe that’s their call. But Google banning ads because they thought they were for something prohibited hardly counts as abusing one’s “dominant position” as a publisher.

The European regulator’s reaction is unsurprising, however. Silicon Valley companies think more than anyone else in the world about “scale,” which means sucking unnecessary extra steps out of all business models. I’ve begun to write about how Google necessarily plays a role as a quasi-regulator of many things, and I’ve termed that role “the guvernment“. The “guvernment” of Google attempts to run cheaply to scale; Google always tries to ensure that it can quantify and codify what it can to remove capricious judgment and excess steps (and cost) from the process of passing editorial (etc.) judgment.

That model is not well understood by old-school regulators, who relate better to government in its more cumbersome, weighty role. Surely, though, part of it is professional jealousy. Google has gotten pretty good at exacting a hefty “tax” from advertisers who run afoul of “the guvernment”. Abusing its dominant position? It takes one to know one.

Google, Caffeinated

Wednesday, June 9th, 2010

Search is in our veins as surely as that morning cup of java is a required kickstart for many of us. Being caffeinated will be the only way to make it through the remainder of the week, with the SMX Advanced and SES Toronto conferences in high gear. (Toronto’s main festivities start tomorrow. For delegates, there is a pre-party at the Charlotte Room tonight at 7:00 p.m.)

And I can only assume that you’d need to be highly caffeinated if you’re one of the very few who are hopping from Seattle to Toronto so they can attend both conferences.

In keeping with the times, Google’s search index is now fully caffeinated. A new indexing architecture has gone live. Overall, Google’s message is that it promotes “freshness” in search results, but that we shouldn’t misinterpret this to mean it affects the ranking algorithm.

Vanessa Fox is one of the very few commenters who adds significant insight related to the Caffeine project. In a recent piece, she quotes Google’s Matt Cutts:

“It’s important to realize that caffeine is only a change in our indexing architecture. What’s exciting about Caffeine though is that it allows easier annotation of the information stored with documents, and subsequently can unlock the potential of better ranking in the future with those additional signals.”

In SEO, it’s always important to be able to read the tea leaves. “Subsequently can unlock the potential of better ranking in the future with those additional signals?” This means, of course, that major algorithmic evolution, and major volatility in search rankings awaits: no doubt to the benefit of companies who understand how to marry timeless elements with freshness, vibrancy, and sociability. Better “annotation” of pages and elements will mean, long term, more accurate

So of course, the release of Caffeine is a harbinger of a new phase of evolution in Google’s means of sorting out remarkable and relevant wheat, from spammy and counterfeit chaff. Of course, then, ranking and algorithm changes come with this territory. Don’t be alarmed, cough cough, but they do!

Even the mention that pages can now be associated with “multiple countries” in Google’s architecture (“not that they couldn’t be before!”) is evidence that the old Google indexing environment (and by extension, the ranking algorithm) wasn’t up to the task, and many more holes than anyone would let on.

In a recent talk, I pointed to the importance of social media savvy as a direct and indirect driver of search visibility. The talk was entitled “No Social, No See” (with apologies to Bob Marley).

Certainly, these trends will spur the development of a range of new third-party tools and agency services. Perhaps most importantly, though, corporate cultures — all corporate cultures, if they want to play Google’s game — will have to evolve from within. Means of providing freshness, vibrancy, and original content will have to be developed — in some cases, from scratch. In other cases, by changing how you think.

These are exciting times.

“It’s like, half the Internet.”

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

Whatever niche people are working in, defending, or touting in our industry, it’s customary to begin with a slide or a quick stat over cocktails to remind the listener of its hugeness.

A friend of mine just noted that she told people we work in search (marketing), and everyone’s eyes around the table went a bit wide, before someone tentatively noted that this was “such a fast-moving, and newly emerging, field”. (That’s when the corrective has to come into play: it was newly emerging twelve years ago. Now, it’s like, half the Internet.)

We always say that about search, and people never believe us, but we say it anyway: around half of the ad revenues online come from search. Sure, you do have to throw in a bit of non-search inventory to get to half, but it’s close enough.

But then, how can our field be so freakin’ important, when everyone else’s niche also requires you to drop everything and pay attention to it?

With all due admiration for Marty Weintraub, who is probably closer than anyone else to being accurate when he pulls this stunt (“Facebook, is like, half the Internet”), if we added up all these “half the Internets”… we’d be at about 600%.

Let’s do the math.

  • Search is half the Internet
  • 80% of clicks on search results are on the “unpaid, organic” search results. Unless it’s 90% because someone’s feeling particularly bullshitty that day.
  • However, if you live in a real world case and don’t just create free content for a living, and rather, count ecommerce or lead-related revenues and other things that matter to your business… 50-95% of search referral revenues will come from the paid search referrals.
  • Banners and display? Half the Internet.
  • Podcasting, blogging, video, etc etc etc: half the Internet, each.
  • User generated content: 168% of the Internet.
  • Facebook: half the Internet.
  • Don’t forget domains and domaining! I don’t have a stat for this.
  • Unless you know the names of every semi-funded, bootstrapped, hacker-driven web app startup and have a bust of Mike Arrington on your bookshelf, you are, like, half- if not entirely- clueless. On the flip side, if you try to name-drop referring to founders of any of these companies that you keep in touch with, expect a long speech about how the current startup founder standing in front of you needs to really just focus on their app and connecting with their users, and other industry people’s names don’t matter a bit and it’s not about who’s who and yadda yadda yadda… even though you were being ignored at first because they didn’t know your name, and you were just feigning interest in the first place.

And let’s not forget the really important stats:

  • Google is, like, half of everything.
  • It all comes down to analytics.

If I were a betting man (which I should not be, as I’m clearly poor at math), I’d take a shortcut here and tell you the answer must in reality be quite simple: Google Analytics.

You’re welcome.

P.S. It’s free.


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