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Book Review: In The Plex

By - April 20, 2011

Last night I had the pleasure of interviewing Steven Levy, and old colleague from Wired, on the subject of his new book: In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives. The venue was the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, and I think they’ll have the audio link up soon.

Steven’s interview was a lot like his book – full of previously untold anecdotes and stories that rounded out pieces of Google’s history that many of us only dreamt of knowing about. When I was reporting my book,The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture, I had limited access to folks at Google, and *really* limited access to Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Levy had the opposite, spending more than two years inside the company and seeing any number of things that journalists would have killed to see in years past.

The result is a lively and very detailed piece of reporting about the inner workings of Google. But I was a bit disappointed with the book in that Steven didn’t take all that new knowledge and pull back to give us his own analysis of what it all meant. I asked him about this, and he said he made the conscious decision to not editorialize, but rather lay it all out there and let the reader draw his or her own conclusions. I respect that, but I also know Steven has really informed opinions, and I wish he’d give them to us.

What I took away from In the Plex was a renewed respect for the awesome size and scope of Google’s infrastructure, as well as its ambition. Sometimes we forget that Google is more likely than not the largest manufacturer of computers in the world, and runs the largest single instance of computing power in the world. It’s also one of the largest collectors and analyzers of data in the world. All of this has drawn serious scrutiny, but I don’t think even the regulators really grok how significant Google’s assets are. They should all read Steven’s book.

Levy only grazes the surface of Google’s social blindness, unfortunately, and due to timing could only mention Page’s ascendancy to CEO in his epilogue. But his reporting on how the China issue played out is captivating, as are the many details he fills out in Google’s early history. If you’re fascinated by Google, you’ve got to add this one to your library.

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Google "Head End" Search Results: Ads as Content, Or…Just Ads?

By - March 30, 2011

GoogHeadEndSearchAdEditRatioBattelleMedia.png

Today I spoke at Sony HQ in front of some Pretty Important Folks, so I wanted to be smart about Sony’s offerings lest anything obviously uninformed slip out of my mouth. To prepare I did a bunch of Google searches around Sony and its various products.

Many of these searches are what I call “head end” searches – a lot of folks are searching for the terms I put in, and they are doubly important to Google (and its advertising partners) because they are also very commercial in nature (not in my case, but in general.) Usually folks searching for “Sony Tablets” have some intent to purchase tablets in the near future, or at the very least are somewhere in what’s called the “purchase funnel.”

I was struck with the results, so much so I took a screen shot of one representative set of results. In traditional print, we used to watch a metric called “Ad Edit Ratio” very closely (as did the government, for reasons of calculating postal rates). Editors at publications lobbied for low ad edit ratios (so they’d get more space to put their content, naturally). Advertising executives lobbied for higher Ad Edit ratios (so they could sell more ads, of course). We usually settled somewhere around 50-50 – half ads, half editorial.

Google is way lower than that, on any given search. But not for head end searches. In fact, as a percentage of actual “editorial” (organic search results) versus “paid”, it’s pushing towards 35/65 or more, at least when you measure the space “above the fold” on a typical screen.

Then again, in the case of AdWords, one could argue the ads are contextually relevant and useful.

Just felt worth pointing out, if for no other reason as to add a page to the historical record of how the service is evolving. Once “media” adwords start taking over, this picture may well change again, and it might not be a change that folks like much.

Google, Social, and Facebook: One Ring Does Not Rule Them All

By - February 17, 2011

Screen shot 2011-02-17 at 11.01.57 AM.png

When I read Google announcements like this one, An update to Google Social Search, I find myself wondering why Google doesn’t just come out and say something like this: “We know social search is important, and we’re working on it. However, we don’t think the solution lies in working only with Facebook, because, to be honest, we think social media is bigger than one company, one platform, or one “social graph.” We’ve got a bigger vision for what social means in the world, and here it is.”

Wouldn’t that be great?

Because honestly, I think the company does have a bigger vision, and I think it’s rooted in the idea of instrumentation and multiples of signals (as in, scores if not thousands of signals understood to be social in nature). In other words, there is not one “ring to rule them all” – there is no one monoculture of what “social” means. For now, it appears that way. Just like it appears that there’s one tablet OS. But the world won’t shake out that way – we’re far too complicated as humans to relegate our identity to a single platform. It will be distributed, nuanced, federated. And it should be instrumented and controlled by the individual. At least, I sure hope it will be.  

Google might as well declare this up front and call it a strategy. In that context, it might even make sense to do further Facebook integration in the near term, as one of many signals, of course. Google already uses some limited Facebook data (scroll down), but clearly has decided to not lean in here (or can’t come to terms with Facebook around usage policies). Clearly the two companies are wary of working together. But it’s my hope that over time, whether or not they do should be a moot issue.

Why? Because I view my Facebook data as, well, mine. Now, that may not really be the case, but if it’s mine, I should be able to tell Google to use it in search, or not. That’s an instrumentation signal I should be able to choose. Just like I can chose to use my Facebook identity to log into this blog, or any number of other sites and services. It should be my choice, not Facebook’s, and not Google’s either.

Switch the control point to the customer, and this issue sort of goes away. I have a longer post in me about “social clothing” – came up on a phone call with Doc Searls yesterday – and hopefully when I get to that, this might make a bit more sense….

Does Google Favor Its Own Services?

By - January 19, 2011

Seems so. I’ve written about this a lot, so much that I won’t bother to link to all the stuff I’ve posted. It was the basis of a chapter in the book, where I pointed out that (at the time) Google claimed algorithmic innocence, and Yahoo, on the other hand, was cheerful in its presumption that Yahoo services were the best answer to certain high value searches (like “mail”).

Now comes this study, from Harvard professors no less, which pretty much states the obvious. Check this graph:

search favorites 1.png

It’s clear that in some cases, one might argue that Google services should win (maps, for example). But for “chat”? Or for “mail”? A stretch.

Here’s the paper’s authors general conclusion: “Google typically claims that its results are “algorithmically-generated”, “objective”, and “never manipulated.” Google asks the public to believe that algorithms rule, and that no bias results from its partnerships, growth aspirations, or related services. We are skeptical.”

So am I.

Update: Danny has, as always, a more nuanced point of view. Thanks, my always smarter commentators.

blekko Explains Itself: Exclusive Video (Update: Exclusive Invite)

By - August 31, 2010

blekko: how to slash the web from blekko on Vimeo.

Blekko is a new search engine that fundamentally changes a few key assumptions about how search works. It’s not for lazywebbers – you have to pretty much be a motivated search geek to really leverage blekko’s power. But then again, there are literally hundreds of thousands of such folks – the entire SEO/SEM industry, for example. I’ve been watching blekko, and the team behind it, since before launch. They are search veterans, not to be trifled with, and they are exposing data that Google would never dream of doing (yes, they do pretty much a full crawl of the web that matters). In a way, blekko has opened up the kimono of search data, and I expect the service, once it leaves private beta, will become a favorite of power searchers (and developers) everywhere.

The cool thing is, using blekko’s data and (I hope) robust APIs, one can imagine all sorts of new services popping up. I for one wish blekko well. It’s about time.

And in case you are wondering what the big deal is, besides all the data you can mine, to my mind, it’s the ability to cull the web – to “slash” the stuff you don’t care about out of your search results. Now, not many of us actually will do that. But will services take that and run? I certainly hope so.

For a quick overview of blekko’s core feature – “slashtags” – check out the new video, above. And to bone up on the various merits of the service, here are a few key links:

Blekko: A Search Engine Which Is Also A Killer SEO Tool (SEL)

TechCrunch Review: The Blekko Search Engine Prepares To Launch (TC)

A new search engine Blekko search: first impressions (Economist)

Blekko’s Tools Give Search Marketers Google Alternative (MediaPost)


Update: First 500 readers get a beta invite! Email battelle@blekko.com to get in on it!

Publishers, Marketers, and the Gap Scenario

By - August 06, 2010

mindthegap.pngA while back I wrote a post titled “The Gap Scenario.” In it I outlined one (of many) scenarios that I imagined would become pretty commonplace as location based services, search, and social merged into a retail setting.

Today’s news (Business Insider) that publisher Daily Candy has created an Android app that sends users articles when they are near “current local happenings” such as designer sales, spas, and concerts got me thinking about this scenario once again.

The app monitors where you might be in the background, then matches content, and one must assume, eventually, offers. It works only in New York for now, but more cities are expected.

As I laid out in my original post (and my 2005 book), location aware services are not yet a cultural habit, in particular ambient ones. But it won’t be long before we assume that our public presence is, in effect, a search, one for which we will expect a response from any number of potential respondents.

What I find interesting is that the first innovators in this space are publishers, for the most part, rather than marketers. I’m not certain that this will stand. As many of you know from reading my thoughts here, I’m convinced that all marketers are now publishers, and the best ones will figure out how to add value in the context of ambient location aware scenarios. Platforms (like Google, Twitter, Facebook, Yelp) will be key mediators, but I’m not sure what we understand to be traditional publishers (like Daily Candy) can hold this ground. We’ll see….

Search, Foursquare, and Checking Into States of Mind

By - July 14, 2010

Screen shot 2010-07-14 at 1.06.43 PM.pngI’ve written before about my relationship with Foursquare, and I’m sure I will again. I’ve tweeted my complaint that the “friend” mechanism is poorly instrumented (in various ways), and I should note that this is certainly not just a Foursquare problem (more on “Friendstrimentation” shortly).

But today I wanted to build on my earlier post, “My Location Is a Box of Cereal,” and Think Out Loud a bit about what I’d really like to do on Foursquare: I’d like to check into a state of mind.

What do I mean by that?

Well, imagine that instead of checking into a physical location, as Foursquare is mostly constrained today, I check into the state of mind I might call “In the market for a car.” Or perhaps I check into “playing a great game of poker with my friends.” Or maybe I check into “pretty bummed out about the death of my cat.”

I think you get the point. The check in is, as I’ve argued elsewhere, more than a declaration of where I am. It’s also a declaration of my state of mind, as well as my openness to a response from someone who might provide me with value.

In short, the checkin is a search, waiting for a response. And there’s no reason to constrain that search query to location.

What matters is that as users of this particular brand of search, we get good results. And the jury is well out on that concept, at least to date.

Here’s what I’d like to have happen when I check in to the state of mind I’ll call “In the market for a car.” This is a commercial checkin, of course, and I’d be well aware of that when I checked in. So what might I expect?

First, the ecosystem of businesses eager to sell me a car become aware of my status, and are prepared to respond in an instrumented fashion. I use the word “instrumented” very directly here – the last thing I want is a bunch of spam results – pointless, irrelevant come ons for brands or models in which I most likely have no interest. If that’s what I wanted, I’d just use a search engine. After all, most of search is instrumented, for the most part, against my query, and my query alone. On a service like Foursquare, I’d expect the response to be far more nuanced.

How? Well, I’ve given Foursquare permission to use my Facebook social graph, for one, and my Twitter interest graph, for another. So when I check into Foursquare, I’d expect a response that understands who I am, who I know, what my interests are, and how I compare, as a cohort, to others like me, who may have also in the past checked into a similar “state of mind.”

Add even more social and interest data to the mix, and you can see how this starts to get pretty interesting.

I’d expect a response that 1. knows who I am is personalized in a meaningful way, 2. surprises or delights me with an offer of value to my search, and 3. respects the fact that I might not be ready to act, at least not yet.

Organizing all this data and response isn’t an easy task. But then again, neither was building out the infrastructure we currently understand to be search. Once the checkin is loosed from the chains of pure location, the potential for connecting to customers in conversation at scale, and at an intimate level, is far too great for this use case to not exist.

A final thought on Foursquare, since I’m on about it. I really wish it was easier to create temporary or unique “venues” or states of mind. For example, last night about 125 folks came to the Web 2 dinner at a local SF restaurant. Many of them “checked into” the actual restaurant, but wouldn’t it have been a lot more fun if, when they came and fired up Foursquare, they saw a new “venue” that had been created, perhaps by the first person there, or perhaps by the organizer, called “The Web 2 Premiere Dinner”? And further, wouldn’t it be cool if the organizer, sponsor, or anyone else involved in the dinner could attach some kind of value to folks who might check in?

Now sure, I know you can create a new venue on the fly, and many do (I saw a pal who checked into “The Dog House” a while back, because he did something that upset his wife. I loved that). But the process to do so is awkward and difficult at best. Foursquare can and should encourage such behavior, and provide resources for us to intelligently curate the results.

Doing so would be a big step toward an ecosystem of search that was driven by the equivalent of a “social query” driven by a state of mind as much a location. And when the two connect, well, so much the better (read The Gap Scenario for more on that.)

OK, back to work, all.

Will Google Compete With Facebook? Er…It Already Is, Folks.

By - June 29, 2010

Screen shot 2010-06-29 at 10.20.21 AM.png

Last weekend the news was conjecture about Facebook doing web search, today, the news is conjecture about Google doing social networks. All of this has been sparked by two well known Valley guys opining on samesaid…Kevin Rose, CEO of Digg, tweeted that Google was working on a “Google Me” social network (he since was “asked to take down his tweet” by someone…) and then a former Facebook employee answered a related question on his own Q&A service, Quora.   

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here, folks. I certainly don’t find it the least bit surprising that Google is continuing its push into social – let’s not forget, the company recently launched Buzz, which qualifies as a major social network, already owns Orkut, which also qualifies, and has added social features to its core search service – including Google Profiles and social search functionalities.

Pulling these together into a seamless, useful, and coordinated product just makes sense. It’s to be expected. And it’s badly needed, because none of these disparate features or products have found their own footing.

The real question is whether Google has the corporate will to call a spade a spade, and acknowledge publicly that it’s game on with Facebook. Often companies attempt to pretend they’re not really in a competitor’s business. It’s rather hard to defend such a position now. I say, go for it, Google. If the product is good, the traction will be there.

Short Thoughts, At D, On Apple Search

By - June 03, 2010

Thanks to Andy at Beet for asking. My post earlier here goes into far more detail. I do look rather querulous, do I not? It must have been the sun.

Google Steps Gingerly Toward Search As Application

By - May 05, 2010

New Goog Interface.png

When Bing launched, I framed the new service from Microsoft as an important step in the evolution of search:

I actually don’t think Microsoft is trying to out-Google Google with Bing. I think it’s trying to build a different kind of search application, one that sits on top of commodity search and helps people make decisions in a new way. Done right, this totally breaks the AdWords model that has driven search so far. To me, that is a very big step in a new direction, and one that Google cannot afford to make.

Today Google has decided it can’t afford NOT to make this step, at least somewhat. The company has decided to create a left hand nav bar that pushes the service toward search as an app.

Now, when I mentioned that idea in a briefing yesterday, the Google rep I spoke to wasn’t eager to confirm the concept, but to my mind, this is exactly what’s going on. Bing (and Ask before it) has built a service on top of commodity search results, one that does not require you to go back and forth, back and forth, but rather instrument your search session using intelligent, persistent navigation. This is exactly what Google’s new UI lets you do.

The real question, of course, comes down to money. Does this mean fewer clicks on paid ads for Google? I asked that question, and the response was telling: I’m paraphrasing, but in essence Google told me “we’ve found that this new approach increases the chance that users will find the information they are looking for.” And in Google’s parlance, ads are information.

Of course Google would never roll out such a significant UI update without rigorously testing the impact on AdWords clicks, and indeed Google confirmed to me that this is the most tested UI change Google’s ever made. Indeed, the left nav bar has been seen in the wild for several years.Goog Update nav.png

What’s on the bar is worth grokking as well. First, “Web” has been replaced with “Everything.” That’s pretty meta – maybe we should change the name of the Web 2.0 Summit to the Everything 2.0 Summit – but I digress. Second, what is on the bar changes based on your search in real time. And one of the options includes “Updates” – their way of incorporating Facebook, Twitter and other real time data. A “Something Different” link gives you related searches, among many other new or consolidated features on the left nav. A full overview can be found at SEL.

Google told me that the actual underlying results – both organic SERPs as well as the ads that accompany them – have not changed. This is a new skin over Google’s results, not a shift in how those results are determined. That’s important, but not entirely the story.

The story is that this shift will change how we interact with Google, what our search query stream looks like, and therefore, what kind of SERPs and ads will be produced. I am certain Google has modeled this shift, and equally certain the company believes this change will impact their bottom line in a positive way. Of course, the company could be mistaken. Only future quarterly results will prove whether or not Google got it right.

What do you all make of the changes?