I’ve decided to add a new category to Searchblog, and with it a new facet of coverage, which I’m calling The Web As Platform. For reasons I hope to make clear over time, I think search represents critical binding for this particular erector set. This meme has been around for a very long time, in various flavors, but any number of circumstances are gathering which have given it significant traction and I find it important and fascinating. I’ve been doing a fair amount of work in this space, work I’ll be announcing later in the year, but for now, I hope you agree this is a space worth watching.
Back in 1998, February to be exact, I shared a stage at the TED conference with Bill Gross, founder of IdeaLab. Richard Saul Wurman, TED’s founder and impressario, introduced us both. I went first. I gave a short overview of my new magazine to a polite and curious reception. Gross then got up and in ritalin-starved fashion began a manic pitch. Imagine, he told the incredulous audience of tech and entertainment influencers, an entirely new search engine model, one driven not by editorial results, but by the raw metrics of the market itself – a pay-for-placement search engine, where the highest bidder wins top spot.
Afterwards a number of folks gathered around to congratulate me, and at the same time to ridicule Gross’s vision. After all, I was starting a magazine predicated on principles pretty much diametrically opposed to Gross: objective and high-integrity journalism. Pay for placement? Bah! It will never work. Keep up the good work, Battelle.
Well, what Gross presented six years ago was GoTo, nee Overture, nee AdWords. What I was pitching was The Standard. Enough said.
This was on my mind earlier this week as I chatted with Doug Stevenson, CEO of Vibrant Media, the company behind IntelliTXT. This is the service that has been much maligned by journalists for its inline advertising solution, ads which pop up from inside editorial content when you click on a word or phrase which is double underlined in green. (An example of the ads in action is here (doesn’t work on OSX).)
While the knee-jerk reaction of the press to this invasion of their hallowed editorial space is understandable, it’s hardly nuanced. And some nuance is required to grok this particular beast.
That the IntelliTXT approach violates one of journalism’s most sacred conventions cannot be denied. The ASME guidelines covering new media, in which I played a minor role as an ASME judge, do not specifically prohibit an IntelliTXT scenario. But that very fact belies how deep the nerve IntelliTXT has touched truly is: No one ever imagined that advertisers and publishers would have the temerity to turn a journalist’s very words into an advertising opportunity. The section covering this territory reads as follows:
Hypertext links that appear within the editorial content of a site, including those within graphics, should be at the discretion of the editors. If links are paid for by advertisers, that should be disclosed to users.
It’s almost as if we knew that IntelliTXT was coming, but in fact, we did not. What we meant by “hypertext links” were the ad units already extant at the time – in particular, paid text links at the bottom of the page or to the right, which were proliferating when these guidelines were created (circa 2001). We presumed they’d be discrete, we did not imagine they’d be the actual content itself.
The guidelines also state:
All online pages should clearly distinguish between editorial and advertising or sponsored content. If any content comes from a source other than the editors, it should be clearly labeled.
A case could be made that the green double-underline format is sufficiently distinguishing, and one could argue back that the opposite is also true. I’d like to move past that. If this approach can in fact make money for publishers, some version of it will be adopted. So now what?
Stevenson, the Vibrant CEO, was quite flummoxed by the negative press IntelliTXT has garnered. He said that Vibrant has been around quite a long time, had built a strong online advertising business with tens of millions in revenues, and was very deliberate in its approach to rolling out IntelliTXT – he had solicited the input of publishers and journalists, and built the product in a way that he thought was both appropriate and cutting edge. He argued that the system was created to be unobtrusive – the only way the ads show is if the user actively rolls the cursor over the keyword, then clicks. In a sense, he argues, he’s giving control back to the user, they can ignore the ad if they’d like; the double green underline is far less intrusive than pop ups, and far more relevant than contextual paid links. If you’re reading a travel story on Paris, for example, and the words “Paris hotel” are underlined, you just might choose to click on that link, and be offered an advertisement for a Paris hotel booking service. (Note I did not choose the Paris Hilton….) If you do choose that link, the ad is a service, not an intrusion, Stevenson points out.
Stevenson’s other point is even more direct: It’s the publishers who decide which keywords are linked to, and when. The entire system is controlled by the publishers, so if anyone should take the heat, it’s the publishers, and not the IntelliTXT system. While this argument ranks up there with insoluble polemics such as “Guns Don’t Kill People, People Kill People,” Stevenson does have a point. So why might a publisher want to employ such a system?
I can think of many reasons. One, the publisher has no ostensible editorial boundaries. Cargo – one of a raft of new magazines that are essentially cataglog magazines (“magalogs”), or most of the Seven Sisters (Glamour, Vogue, etc) come to mind. These magazines pretty much exist to move product, and they don’t pretend otherwise. A system like this would work quite well for the online kin to these kind of publications.
Second, there are an entire classes of content-driven sites which claim absolutely no pretense of editorial objectivity. Whether they are fan sites, directories, blogs, corporate advertorials, for-profit domain-specific portals, you name it, the tradition of sites which carry their biases proudly or are baldly commercial in nature is rich and growing, and IntelliTXT may well give these kind of sites a new monetization model.
When it comes to true editorial sites, I think IntelliTXT portends an important opportunity for publishers to control and manage relevance, service, and context for their readers. But I think both readers and journalists are not ready for the context-jarring concept of ads directly in editorial text. It crosses a line that should be respected. But what if it were possible to break out keywords for a given article in a separate box, for example, and run that box at the end or to the side of the article? This addresses the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup problem (your advertising peanut butter is in my editorial chocolate….) but retains the power and reader service of the system. Stevenson replied that in fact such a hack would be possible. Should IntelliTXT prove a viable advertising medium, I’d expect publishers to try this approach almost immediately.
Now, I won’t get into other issues this service raises – that editors might start writing to high-value keyphrases, for example – but they exist, as they do for anyone working with AdSense or even standard print advertising, for that matter.
To conclude, I think journalists jumped all over IntelliTXT because it was easy to leap, just like we did with GoTo back in 1998. But we’d be wise to not dismiss so quickly ideas which might portend new approaches to monetizing our work. In this marketplace, a few minor tweaks can yield historic shifts. Witness Overture: Gross and his team ended up adopting an OEM model and outsourcing their pay for placement engine to others, who put the ads on the right of editorial results, clearly marked for readers (well, in most cases). The rest is history.
IntelliTXT backgrounder is here.
A reminder to sign up for Re-Find, the email summary of the week that was on Searchblog, in the upper left hand corner. If you’re into that kind of thing, that is.
Perhaps I was being a bit too off the cuff in my last post on Claria. Full disclosure: A good friend went to work for them recently. This person admitted the company’s past, but said that in fact it was mending its ways. New management has come in, folks with a good track record at Excite, pre-bust. I’m looking forward to learning more soon. On that note, look for my post on IntelliTXT shortly.
Change your name from Gator, get the books in order, put happy smiling people on your website, and file. OK, Marchex, Advertising.com, BrightMail, Shopping.com, Salesforce, Claria. Do we have a trend yet? Do we have a problem yet?
Bankers: Deutsche Bank Securities, Piper Jaffray, and Thomas Weisel Partners.
Not sure entirely what they’re on about in this eMarketer report, as it’s an excerpt, but the suggestion is made, after lengthy throat clearing, that Google create its own online currency so as to compete in the SFO (Search Find Obtain) space. The article correctly points out that Google lacks muscle in the Obtain part of the equation, compared to Amazon and EBay. But then it says Google should get its own currency. I don’t think so. But, what do you think?
Yahoo announced earnings (PDF) just now, and the numbers were stronger than expected. The company earned $132 million on revenues of $758 million ($550 excluding TAC), up from $55 million on $283 million a year ago. EPS came in at .14, the street was expecting .11. The stock is up more than 10% in after hours trading. If you want to download their presentation on their earnings, click this link. The company posted strong gains across nearly all the core metrics – uniques, active users, cash flow, international revenue …etc.
To add to the euphoria, Yahoo announced a 2 for 1 stock split, and boosted guidance. The conference call is slated for a half hour from now.
(Thanks for SEC nod, Gary)
In a letter released yesterday twenty eight privacy experts and civil liberty organizations urged Google to suspend Gmail. This is quickly becoming a significant test of not only Google’s ability to communicate its intent to the world, but of what it means to live in a web centric world where your data is out there, with all the consequences, good and bad. One company cannot solve this problem.
PS – Gmail also has some trademark issues…
Excerpts from Kottke:
They have this huge map of the Web and are aware of how people move around in the virtual space it represents. They have the perfect place to store this map (one of the world’s largest computers that’s all but incapable of crashing). And they are clever at reading this map. Google knows what people write about, what they search for, what they shop for, they know who wants to advertise and how effective those advertisements are, and they’re about to know how we communicate with friends and loved ones. What can they do with all that? Just about anything that collection of Ph.Ds can dream up.
Tim O’Reilly has talked about various bits from the Web morphing into “the emergent Internet operating system”; the small pieces loosely joining, if you will. Google seems to be heading there already, all by themselves. By building and then joining a bunch of the small pieces by themselves, Google can take full advantage of the economies of scale and avoid the difficulties of interop.
Google isn’t worried about Yahoo! or Microsoft’s search efforts…although the media’s focus on that is probably to their advantage. Their real target is Windows. ….
After all, even if you do have a great way to search through desktop-based e-mail, you might like the idea that all your mail is backed up, stored offsite, and easily searchable from anywhere.
Now, take things a step further. Imagine next year Google provides users with 5, 10, or more gigabytes storage space for personal files.
Got a ton of text documents, spreadsheets, and other material? Push it to us, Google would say. We’ll store it, index it, and make it easy to retrieve what you want. Google already indexes this type of material across the Web and has done so for ages.
As broadband expands, such an idea becomes increasingly more feasible. With it, the notion that Microsoft might trump Google with desktop lock-in becomes less of an issue.
As I’ve muttered privately more than a few times, and have begun to shout to anyone who will listen now that I’m writing in Word – if Google could do to Word what it intends to do to Entourage, well, that would sell me. F*cking Word…..