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My Predictions for 2014: How’d I Do?

By - December 31, 2014

2014Each year around this time I look back at the predictions I made 12 months ago, and I score myself with some combination of objectivity and defensiveness. And each year I do pretty well, batting somewhere between .500 and .750, depending on how you keep score.

This past year was different. First off, my predictions were unusually sparse. I started the year in a funk – I was depressed by our industry’s collective ignorance of climate change, and it showed in my writing. I called 2014 “A Difficult Year to See,” because my vision had been clouded by a deep anxiety over why tech hasn’t tackled what seemed to me to be the world’s most pressing problem.

One year later I find myself in a more patient stance. But given the goal of this post is to review how I did, and not how I feel today, let’s get to the score card.

1. 2014 is the year climate change goes from a political debate to a global force for unification and immediate action. It will be seen as the year the Internet adopted the planet as its cause.

Well, maybe not. I think I wrote from a place of “I wish this was the case” as opposed to “I think this actually will happen.” What I can say is this: Climate change is now a front burner issue for all thinking people on this planet, and that’s certainly a shift for the better. California, cradle of the tech industry, is in the middle of a severe, inescapable drought, one that weighs heavily on everyone working here. Sure, California has had cycles of drought in the past, but this one is different – in just three years, we’ve eclipsed draught data from as far back as 1,200 years, and as persistent as seven years in duration. Data like this starts to change how people think about their impact on the world.

But it takes time. Last year I hoped that “…the lessons of disruptors like Google, Twitter, and Amazon, as well as newer entrants like airbnb, Uber, and Dropbox, can be applied to solving larger problems than where to sleep, how to get a cab, or where and how our data are accessed. We need the best minds of our society focused on larger problems – but first, we need to collectively believe that problem is as large as it most likely is.”

Such a shift requires more than one year to happen. I’d judge myself harshly here – what I predicted simply did not happen. However, I do believe that 2014 was the beginning of it happening, and I reserve the right to come back to this post a few years from now, and claim that I called the beginning of a multi-year, secular shift toward “the Internet adopting the planet as its cause.” At least, I certainly hope I can.

Score: .000

2. Automakers adopt a “bring your own” approach to mobile integration.

Automobiles are in the “mobile experience” market, and until recently, it looked like they were going to try to keep their customers from bringing Apple, Google, and other tech brands directly into the driving environment. I noted that the auto industry changes painfully slowly, but 2014 would be the year things shifted to one where consumers began integrating their own smartphone environments directly into their driving experience. And while there is still a long way to go, it seems I was right.

Just this month, for example, Ford announced it was dropping its seven year partnership with Microsoft for a Blackberry’s ONX operating system. Seems like small news, till you look under the covers and see what it really means: using QNX allows Ford’s customers to easily integrate their iPhones or Android devices with their cars. Apple and Google seem to be taking a dual-pronged approach to the automobile – work with the industry to allow simple integrations between the phone and the car (contact lists, phone calls, some apps), while at the same time announcing far more ambitious plans to become the entire operating system for those cars in the future (for Apple, it’s CarPlay, for Google, it’s Android Auto).

Overall, I think I got this one largely right.

Score: .750

3. By year’s end, Twitter will be roundly criticized for doing basically what it did at the beginning of the year.

Twitter went public in November of 2013, and in my predictions two months later, I wrote: “The world loves a second act, and will demand one of Twitter now that the company is public…its moves in 2014 will likely be incremental. This is because the company has plenty of dry powder in the products and services it already has in its arsenal – it’ll roll out a full fledged exchange, a la FBX, it’ll roll out new versions of its core ad products (with a particular emphasis on video), it’ll create more media-like “events” across the service, it’ll continue its embrace of television and popular culture…in other words, it will consolidate the strengths it already has. And 12 months from now, everyone will be tweeting about how Twitter has run out of ideas. Sound familiar, Facebook?”

For the most part, this is pretty much what has happened. For Twitter, 2014 has been a year of piling on, in particular for Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, who was given a vote of no confidence in the Wall St. Journal this November.  And what has Costolo failed to do? Apparently, the same thing everyone else has failed to do over the past seven or so years: Define exactly what Twitter is supposed to be, even as the service kept growing and delighting the world. But let’s get real: in the four years Costolo has been CEO, Twitter has gone from zero to more than a billion in revenue – a feat that puts the company in the rarified air of Google, Facebook, Uber, and precious few others.

It strikes me that Costolo’s biggest error in judgement was to let Twitter go public in an environment where the stock was vastly over-valued. His stock debuted at $26, closed above $40,  and was pushed past $70 before it was retreated to its current price of $36 or so. Unfortunately, the market’s expectations of Twitter far outpaced the company’s true value, which was extraordinary to begin with. And so, one year later, Twitter is “roundly criticized for doing basically what it did at the beginning of this year” – struggle to define just what Twitter actually is, but at the same time, produce an invaluable service that has managed to grow revenues at a blistering pace. My own view boils down to this: Ignore Wall Street, and focus on Twitter’s plans in mobile services. More on that in my predictions post.

Score: 1000

4. Twitter and Apple will have their first big fight, most likely over an acquisition.

Well, I have no idea whether this one was true. It certainly didn’t break out into the mainstream news if it did happen. I mentioned that entertainment would most likely be where the two companies diverged, as I view that to be an area both want to play (most notably music and video). Apple certainly made its play there with Beats, but there’s not been any word of a “fraying relationship” between Twitter and Apple that I’m aware of. As far as I know, I whiffed on this one.

Score: .000

5. Google will see its search related revenues slow, but will start to extract more revenues from its Android base.

Yep. Search revenues have been slowing for years, but 2014 was the year everyone woke up to it. As the NYT reported this October: “The thing that worries investors, though, is that the company’s golden goose — its search engine — is showing signs of age.” Put another way, search revenues are not growing as quickly as they once were – Q3 grew 17% y/y, compared to Q2, which grew 25% on the same measure. But the piece also noted a strong uptick in Google’s Android-based Play store revenues – up 50% year on year. Combine that with Google’s focus on consolidating its control of the Android ecosystem, and I think I got this one pretty much right.

Score: 1000

6. Google Glass will win – but only because Google licenses the tech, and a third party will end up making the version everyone wants.

Whoa. What was I thinking? I was right in some details – in the post I suggested the price will go down by half, and sure, you can get used Glass for half price or better on eBay – but I whiffed again here. Not much happened with Google Glass this year, and no third party ended up making the version everyone else wanted. And I’m not sure anyone ever will.

Score: .000

7. Facebook will buy something really big. 

Um….yup. Twice. I suggested it might be Dropbox or Evernote, but Facebook went for WhatsApp and Oculus, among many others. I suggested that Facebook needed to admit it had “become a service folks use, but don’t live on anymore,” and that the company would continue to buy its way to its core user base, as it had with Instagram. I was right, but I picked the wrong horses.

Score: .750.

So looking at all my predictions, how did I average? Well, on seven attempts, I whiffed three times, nailed it twice, and hit .750 on two more. An average of .570, if you use “hits” as your base, but a less impressive .314 if you just add up the numbers and divide by 7.  I’ll let you decide which it was, and meantime, look forward to doing better next year. My Predictions 2015 post is coming, but most likely will wait till this weekend. Happy new year, everyone!

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What Will Search Look Like In Mobile? A Visit With Jack

By - December 18, 2014

I’ve come across any number of interesting startups in my ongoing grok of the mobile world (related posts: 1, 2, 3).  And the pace has quickened as founders have begun to reach out to me to share their work. As you might expect, there’s a large group of folks building ambitious stuff – services that assume the current hegemony in mobile won’t stand for much longer. These I find fascinating – and worthy of deeper dives.

First up is Jack Mobile, a stealthy search startup founded a year or so ago by Charles Jolley, previously at Facebook and Apple, and Mike Hanson, a senior engineer at Mozilla and Cisco who early in his career wrote version 1.0 of the Sherlock search app for Apple. Jack was funded early this year by Greylock, where Mike was an EIR.

I’d link to something about Jack – but there’s pretty much nothing save a single page asking “What Is Jack?” Now that Charles and Mike have given me a peek into what Jack is in fact all about, I can report that it’s fascinating stuff, and at its heart is the problem of search in a post web world, followed quite directly by the problem of search’s UI overall. Whn you break free from the assumptions of sitting at a desk in front of a PC, what might search look like? What is search when your device is a phone, or a watch, or embedded in your clothing or the air around you?

Jack is trying to answer that question, and the team is rethinking some core user interface assumptions along the way.

Search on mobile is by almost any measure broken – the core assumptions of what makes search work on the web are absent on your device. On your phone, there are no links to index, no publicly accessible commons of web pages to crawl and analyze. Just a phalanx of isolated chiclets – disconnected apps, each focused on a particular service. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need to search in mobile, in fact, we search a lot on our phones. But the results we get ain’t that great. In the main, that’s because when we search on our phone, we get answers from…the web. But as Jolley and Hanson pointed out, answers from the web often fail when presented to us in the context of mobile.

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Mobile search queries are just…different. Let’s explore why:

– Context. When you search on your phone (or later, on any “liberated” device), you’re more likely than not in completely different context from when you’re “on the web.” Mobile searches tend to be service related – “How do I get to this address,” and/or location driven: “What are good nightspots nearby.”

– Query & Corpus. Because of this context, *what* we want to search is focused in a far smaller potential corpus of material. Mobile searches tend to have one exact answer – we aren’t loking for a list of links that we then want to peruse, we want an answer to a specific contextual question – mobile searches bias toward service and action as the query result. That means search’s presumptive barrier of completeness (the cost Google bears of keeping the entire Internet in RAM, for example) is not a barrier on mobile. You don’t have to have ALL the possible information “indexed” – just the right information.  And what information is that? Well, that leads us to ….

– Signal. With mobile, rich new signals are available that could (and should) inform search results (but don’t). Certainly the most robust such signal is your current location, but that’s just the start. Others include your location history (where you’ve been), the apps loaded on your phone, your usage history with those apps,  and the structure inherent in those apps to begin with. Which begs a huge possible difference in…

– User Interface. Search on mobile, for now, is identical to search on the web. It’s a command line interface, where you type in your query, and you get blue links for results. Google’s been working hard to address this, and the combination of its universal search product, which surfaces “one true answer”, with voice search, is a real step forward. But the folks at Jack showed me another potential search interface for mobile, and I found it quite compelling. That approach? Well, I’d call it “conversational.”

The Conversational Search Interface

Way back in 2004 I met with Gary Flake, then a senior technology executive at Overture, a leading search firm of the day (Yahoo! later acquired Overture, which fueled Yahoo!’s search results until the Microsoft deal in 2009.) Even way back then, before mobile was a thing, I was frustrated with search’s interface.

I asked him why we couldn’t move forward in search interface – the “ten blue links” approach was so … flat. I wanted to ask one question, get results, and then ask another. Or better yet, I wanted the service to ask me a question – “You entered ‘Jaguars’ – did you mean the football team, the car, the cats, or something else?” Gary looked at me ruefully and said something I’ve never forgotten: “If only I had just one modal dialog box…”

What he meant was that search, at that point, was a race for the best ten blue links, and anything that got in the way of that, like a modal dialog box that popped up and asked a refining question, would mean that a very large percentage of folks would abandon the search. And abandonment of the search meant loss of revenue.

But that idea – of search as a series of back and forth exchanges, a conversation if you will – has always stuck with me. So imagine my surprise when Jolley and Hanson showed me a very early prototype of Jack Mobile’s search interface and it looked like….a conversation!

Jolley and Hanson have asked me to not report the details of their prototype interface, but suffice to say, it’s quite different, and it looks and feels far more like a back and forth than anything on the web. It’s delightful, and using the service is also cool. Jack knows where you are, so if you ask it “Guardians of the Galaxy” it’ll find showtimes near where you are, and return that information as the result. If you ask it “Italian restaurants,” Jack won’t give you a list of places with the most Google+ reviews – it’ll give you highly rated eateries near where you are right now, perhaps enhanced by reviews relevant to you given the fact that you have the GrubHub or OpenTable app on your phone.

Takeaways

Jack is still in very early stages, but the co-founders had a number of key insights from their work so far. The first has to do with completeness – while long tail edge cases rule the roost in web search, mobile has far more distribution of “head end” search – which means you can narrow your indexing and your algorithms and still satisfy a large majority of queries.

Also, mobile search is deeply personal – there’s almost no such thing as one size fits all result. In mobile, results should be rewarded because they are the most likely answer, not because a ranking system has pre-determined them as most authoritative. Searching for “BMW 3 series” while standing at a Mercedes dealership should most certainly bring a different result than the same search from a Taco Bell on Interstate 5. While personalized search has become a mainstream attribute of Google, the truth is, it’s quite shallow – on the web, Google knows precious little about you. But your phone knows quite a bit. Unlocking all that data is still too hard, but it’s coming.

But perhaps the most interesting implication of Jack’s approach to search lies in how it might drive a new ecosystem between “publishers” and “audience members.” Web search, Hanson points out, is all about the consumer – the creator of the web page is a second-class citizen, stuck in a suckers’ deal of sorts: You have to “publish” your presence on the web, or risk irrelevance, but you are entirely at the mercy of black box forces you don’t understand when it comes to how people might find you. Hanson posits a different model for Jack’s index, one in which publishers deliver their app and content structures to Jack via a proprietary feed of discrete, small units tagged to specific query types.  If this sounds a bit like semantic search, well it is. Hanson, a veteran of open web standards fights via his work at Mozilla, told me he has “deep scar tissue” around the topic, but at the same time, he and Jolley sense that with mobile, a new kind of level playing field just might allow semantic, personalized search to truly emerge.

There are far more questions than answers hanging over Jack, but that’s why it’s interesting – here’s a small, well funded team of search, web, and mobile experts really leaning into a new way to think about a massive problem/opportunity set. It’s certainly one to watch in 2015.

What Media Must Do To Succeed

By - December 15, 2014
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Wired Founder Louis Rossetto at work in the early days.

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Man, there’s been a ton of hand wringing over “the media” of late, from all the fuss over First Look and the New Republic to questions about whether a publication can survive if it’s not at 20-30mm uniques and growing – like current darlings Vox, BuzzFeed, and Vice.

To me, just one question matters when it comes to a publication and whether it has a chance of long term success: Is it a must read?

Back when we were just starting Wired – 22 years ago – I remember coming into founder Louis Rossetto’s office with some pressing matter. I was the Managing Editor, and it was my job to have a lot of pressing matters – the majority of them tactical in nature. I needed to edit pieces, I needed to get pages out the door, I needed approvals on headlines and captions and budgets and scores of other details. I’m not sure what I needed from Louis that day, but I do recall what he was doing – he was sitting down, a Wall St. Journal spread out across his desk, and he was slowly and deliberately turning the pages, studying the newspaper from front to back.

I had seen him doing this enough to know it was a regular habit, and the pile next to him, consisting of the NY Times, New Yorker, and other long form, old school periodicals – told me he was going to be at it for at least another hour if not more.  As a harried Managing Editor of The Coolest Magazine In The World which covered The Digital Revolution, the idea of steeping myself in “old media” for an hour or more a day seemed insane. If an article in the Journal or the Times was really important, someone would tell me about it in email or on the Web. I interrupted Louis and I asked him: “How can you afford to take the time to do this every day?”

I’ll never forget his response. He looked up, genuinely nonplussed, and said “How can you afford not to?”

Looking back, with the benefit of having sat in Louis’ chair (as CEO of a media startup), I now understand his response. As CEO, Louis had to understand what the most important people in media were reading, and in order to do that, he had to read the Journal, the Times, and the New Yorker, at the very least. These publications were essential reading if he was to be fluent in his core community, the people in that club were the people who would determine Wired’s ability to get funding, to prosper, or to fail.

It may no longer be true that aspiring media chieftans must read the Journal to be fluent in their craft  (certainly not in paper form, any way), but the lesson of that exchange stuck with me. If a publication is going to succeed, it must be required reading for a core of influential people in a given market. At the end of the day, that is what matters most. It’s why Wired worked – lots of people may have wanted to read Wired, but a core group of them felt they had to. For four or so years, the same was true of The Industry Standard. And it was true of many of the best sites that aligned with Federated back in 2005-2010 – TechCrunch, Mashable, and GigaOm among them.

For me, the true test of a publication’s endurance is its convening power – does it bring together the most important people in a given community? If it does, it has the best chance of success, regardless of its overall reach or number of pageviews. Certainly it’s no guarantee of success – you still have to be deft and thoughtful when it comes to making money. But it all starts with that one simple question: Is it a must read? All else flows from that.