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Google's "Opinion" Sparks Interesting Dialog On Tying of Services to Search

By - December 02, 2010

the search cover.pngYesterday’s post on Google having an algorithmic “opinion” about which reviews were negative or positive sparked a thoughtful response from Matt Cutts, Google’s point person on search quality, and for me raised a larger question about Google’s past, present, and future.

In his initial comment (which is *his* opinion, not Google’s, I am sure), Cutts remarked:

“…the “opinion” in that sentence refers to the fact our web search results are protected speech in the First Amendment sense. Court cases in the U.S. (search for SearchKing or Kinderstart) have ruled that Google’s search results are opinion. This particular situation serves to demonstrate that fact: Google decided to write an algorithm to tackle the issue reported in the New York Times. We chose which signals to incorporate and how to blend them. Ultimately, although the results that emerge from that process are algorithmic, I would absolutely defend that they’re also our opinion as well, not some mathematically objective truth.”

While Matt is simply conversing on a blog post, the point he makes is not just a legal nit, it’s a core defense of Google’s entire business model. In two key court cases, Google has prevailed with a first amendment defense. Matt reviews these in his second comment:

“SearchKing sued Google and the resulting court case ruled that Google’s actions were protected under the first amendment. Later, KinderStart sued Google. You would think that the SearchKing case would cover the issue, but part of KinderStart’s argument was that Google talked about the mathematical aspects of PageRank in our website documentation. KinderStart not only lost that lawsuit, but KinderStart’s lawyer was sanctioned for making claims he couldn’t back up… After the KinderStart lawsuit, we went through our website documentation. Even though Google won the case, we tried to clarify where possible that although we employ algorithms in our rankings, ultimately we consider our search results to be our opinion.”

The key point, however, is made a bit later, and it’s worth highlighting:

“(the) courts have agreed … that there’s no universally agreed-upon way to rank search results in response to a query. Therefore, web rankings (even if generated by an algorithm) are are an expression of that search engine’s particular philosophy.”

Matt reminded us that he’s made this point before, on Searchblog four years ago:

“When savvy people think about Google, they think about algorithms, and algorithms are an important part of Google. But algorithms aren’t magic; they don’t leap fully-formed from computers like Athena bursting from the head of Zeus. Algorithms are written by people. People have to decide the starting points and inputs to algorithms. And quite often, those inputs are based on human contributions in some way.”

Back then, Matt also took pains to point out that his words were his opinion, not Google’s.

So let me pivot from Matt’s opinion to mine. All of this is fraught, to my mind, with implications of the looming European investigation. The point of the European action, it seems to me, is to find a smoking gun that proves Google is using a “natural monopoly” in search to favor its own products over those of competitors.

Danny has pointed out the absurdity of such an investigation if the point is to prove Google favors its search results over the search results of competitors like Bing or others. But I think the case will turn on different products, or perhaps, a different definition of what constititues “search results.” The question isn’t whether Google should show compeitors standard search results, it’s whether Google favors its owned and operated services, such as those in local (Google Places instead of Foursquare, Facebook etc), commerce (Checkout instead of Paypal), video (YouTube instead of Hulu etc.), content (Google Finance instead of Yahoo Finance or others, Blogger instead of WordPress, its bookstore over others, etc.), applications (Google Apps instead of MS Office), and on and on.

That is a very tricky question. After all, aren’t those “search results” also? As I wrote eons ago in my book, this most certainly is a philosophical question. Back in 2005, I compared Yahoo’s approach to search with Google’s:

Yahoo makes no pretense of objectivity – it is clearly steering searchers toward its own editorial services, which it believes can satisfy the intent of the search. … Apparent in that sentiment lies a key distinction between Google and Yahoo. Yahoo is far more willing to have overt editorial and commercial agendas, and to let humans intervene in search results so as to create media that supports those agendas. Google, on the other hand, is repelled by the idea of becoming a content- or editorially-driven company. While both companies can ostensibly lay claim to the mission of “organizing the world’s information and making it accessible” (though only Google actually claims that line as its mission), they approach the task with vastly different stances. Google sees the problem as one that can be solved mainly through technology – clever algorithms and sheer computational horsepower will prevail. Humans enter the search picture only when algorithms fail – and only then grudgingly. But Yahoo has always viewed the problem as one where human beings, with all their biases and brilliance, are integral to the solution.

I then predicted some conflict in the future:

But expect some tension over the next few years, in particular with regard to content. In late 2004, for example, Google announced they would be incorporating millions of library texts into its index, but made no announcements about the role the company might play in selling those texts. A month later, Google launched a video search service, but again, stayed mum on if and how it might participate in the sale of television shows and movies over the Internet.

Besides the obvious – I bet Google wishes it had gotten into content sales back in 2004, given the subsequent rise of iTunes – there’s still a massive tension here, between search services that the world believes to be “objective” and Google’s desire to compete given how the market it is in is evolving.

Not to belabor this, but here’s more from my book on this issue, which feels pertinent given the issues Google now faces, both in Europe and in the US with major content providers:

… for Google to put itself into the position of media middle man is a perilous gambit – in particular given that its corporate DNA eschews the almighty dollar as an arbiter of which content might rise to the top of the heap for a particular search. Playing middle man means that in the context of someone looking for a movie, Google will determine the most relevant result for terms like “slapstick comedy” or “romantic musical” or “jackie chan film.” For music, it means Google will determine what comes first for “usher,” but it also means it will have to determine what should come first when someone is looking for “hip hop.”

Who gets to be first in such a system? Who gets the traffic, the business, the profits? How do you determine, of all the possibilities, who wins and who loses? In the physical world, the answer is clear: whoever pays the most gets the positioning, whether it’s on the supermarket shelf or the bin-end of a record store. ….But Google, more likely than not, will attempt to come up with a clever technological solution that attempts to determine the most “objective” answer for any given term, be it “romantic comedy” or “hip hop.” Perhaps the ranking will be based on some mix of PageRank, download statistics, and Lord knows what else, but one thing will be certain: Google will never tell anyone how they came to the results they serve up. Which creates something of a Catch-22 when it comes to monetization. Will Hollywood really be willing to trust Google to distribute and sell their content absent the commercial world’s true ranking methodology: cold, hard cash?

…Search drives commerce, and commerce drives search. The two ends are meeting, inexolerably, in the middle, and every major Internet player, from eBay to Microsoft, wants in. Google may be tops in search for now, but in time, being tops in search will certainly not be enough.

Clearly, as a new decade unfolds, search alone is not enough anymore, and my prediction that Google will protect itself with the shield of “objectivity” has been upended. But the question of how Google ties its massive lead in search to its new businesses in local, content, applications, and other major markets remains tricky, and at this point, quite unresolved.

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Twitter's Great Big Problem Is Its Massive Opportunity

By - November 30, 2010

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One of the many reasons I find Twitter fascinating is that the company seems endlessly at an inflection point. Eighteen months ago I was tracking its inflection point in usage (holy shit, look how it’s growing! Then, holy shit, has it stopped?!), then its inflection in business model (hey, it doesn’t have one! Wait, yes it does, but can it scale?!), and more recently, its inflection point in terms of employees (as in growing from 80+ staff to 350+ in one year – necessitating a shift in management structure….).

Twitter now faces yet another inflection point – one I’ve been tracking for some time, and one that seems to be coming to a head. To me, that inflection has to do with usefulness – can the service corral all the goodness that exists in its network and figure out a way to make it useful to its hundreds of millions of users?

To me, this inflection point is perhaps its most challenging, and its greatest opportunity, because it encompasses all the others. If Twitter creates delightful instrumentations of the unique cacophony constantly crossing its servers, it wins big time. Users will never leave, marketers will never get enough, and employees will pine to join the movement (witness Facebook now, and Google five years ago).

Now, I’m not saying Twitter isn’t already a success. It is. The service has a dedicated core of millions who will never leave the service (I’m one of them). And I’m going to guess Twitter gets more resumes than it knows what to do with, so hiring isn’t the problem. And lastly, I’ve been told (by Ev, onstage at Web 2) that the company has more marketing demand than it can fulfill.

But therein lies the rub. Twitter has the potential to be much more, and everyone there knows it. It has millions of dedicated users, but it also has tens of millions who can’t quite figure out what the fuss is all about. And you can’t hire hundreds of engineers and product managers unless you have a job for them to do – a scaled platform that has, at its core, a product that everyone and their mother understands.

As for that last point – the surfeit of marketing demand – well that’s also a problem. Promoted tweets, trends, and accounts are a great start, but if you don’t have enough inventory to satisfy demand, you’ve not crossed the chasm from problem to opportunity.

In short, Twitter has a publishing problem. Put another way, it has a massive publishing opportunity.

Oh, I know, you’re saying “yeah Battelle, there you go again, thinking the whole world fits neatly into your favorite paradigm of publishing.”

Well yes, indeed, I do think that. To me, publishing is the art of determining what is worth paying attention to, by whom. And by that definition, Twitter most certainly is a publishing platform, one used by nearly 200 million folks.

The problem, of course, is that while Twitter makes it nearly effortless for folks to publish their own thoughts, it has done far too little to help those same folks glean value from the thoughts of others.

It was this simple truth that led FM to work with Microsoft to create ExecTweets, and AT&T to create the TitleTweets platform. It’s the same truth that led to the multi-pane interface of Tweetdeck as well as countless other Twitter apps, and it was with an eye toward addressing this problem that led to the introduction of Lists on Twitter.com and its associated APIs.

But while all those efforts are worthy, they haven’t yet solved the core problem or addressed the massive opportunity. At its core, publishing is about determining signal from noise. What’s extraordinary about Twitter is the complexity of that challenge – one man’s noise is another man’s signal, and vice versa. And what’s signal now may well be noise tomorrow – or two minutes from now. Multiply this by 200 million or so, then add an exponential element. Yow.

There is both art and science to addressing this challenge. What we broadly understand to be “the media” have approached the problem with a mostly one-to-many approach: We define an audience, determine what topic most likely will want to pay attention to, then feed them our signal, one curated and culled from the noise of all possible information associated with that topic. Presto, we make Wired magazine, Oprah, or Serious Eats.

Facebook has done the same with information associated with our friend graph. The newsfeed is, for all intents and purposes, a publication created just for you. Sure, it has its drawbacks, but it’s pretty darn good (though its value is directly determined by the value you place in your Facebook friend graph. Mine, well, it don’t work so well, for reasons of my own doing).

So how might Twitter create such a publication for each of its users? As many have pointed out (including Twitter’s CEO Dick Costolo), Twitter isn’t a friend graph, it’s more of an interest graph, or put another way, an information graph – a massive set of points interconnected by contextual meaning. To the uninitiated, this graph is daunting.

Twitter’s current approach to navigating this graph centers around following human beings – at first with its “suggested users” list, which simply didn’t scale. Twitter soon replaced suggested users with “Who to follow” – a more sophisticated, algorithm-driven list of folks who seem to match your current set of followers and, to some extent, your interests. When you follow someone who’s a big foodie, for example, Twitter will suggest other folks who tweet about food. It does so, one presumes, by noting shared interests between users.

The question is, does Twitter infer those interests via the signal of who follows who, or does it do it by actually *understanding* what folks are tweeting about?

Therein, I might guess, lies the solution. The former is a proxy for a true interest graph – “Hey, follow these folks, because they seem to follow folks who are like the folks you already follow.” But latter *is* an interest graph – “Hey, follow these folks, because they tweet about things you care about.”

From that logically comes the ability to filter folks’ streams based on interests, and once you can do that, well, things get really…interesting. You could follow interests, instead of people, for example. It’s like search meets social! And hey – isn’t that kind of the holy grail?

If Twitter can make the interest graph explicit to its users, and develop products and features which surface that graph in real time, it wins on all counts. That is a very big problem to solve, and a massive opportunity to run after.

For more on this, read Making Twitter an Information Network, by Mike Champion, and “The unbearable lameness of web 2.0″, by Kristian Köhntopp, as well as the wonderful but too short The Algorithm + the Crowd are Not Enough, by Rand Fishkin. These and many more have informed my ongoing thinking on this topic. What do you think?

All Brands Are Politicians

By - October 29, 2010

Obama-kissing-a-baby.jpg(image) Recently I was watching television with my wife, a baseball game if memory serves, when an advertisement caught my eye. It was for a regional restaurant chain (not a national one like Jack in the Box). The ad was pretty standard fare – a call to action (go now!) and a clear value proposition: the amazing amount of tasty-looking food you could have for a bargain price. I can’t find the ad online, but there’s no dearth of similar spots on television – in fact, their plentitude is why the commercial caught my attention in the first place.

In short, the ad offered pretty much all you could eat pasta, fries, and burgers for something like six bucks. Nearly all the food portrayed was processed, fried, and sourced from factory farms – necessarily so, as it’d simply not be possible to offer such a deal were it not for the economies of scale inherent in the US food economy. It’s simple capitalism at work: The chain is taking advantage of our nation’s subsidization of cheap calories to deliver what amounts to an extraordinary bargain to a consumer – all you can eat for less than an hour’s minimum wage!

It’s entirely predictable that such an offering would be in market. What’s not predictable, until recently, is how marketing such an offer might backfire in the coming age of marketing transparency and political unrest.

Allow me to try to explain.

As I watched the ad, and considered how many similar ones I see on a regular basis, I got to thinking about who the chain was targeting.

Certainly the chain wasn’t targeting me. I’m one of the so-called elites living in a bubble – I try to eat only organic foods, grown locally or sustainably if possible. I do this because I believe these foods are healthier for me and better for the world. I know I am in the extreme minority when it comes to my food – in the main because I can afford the prices they command. (And sure, I love hitting a burger joint every so often as a treat, but I also know that the act of considering fast food chains a “treat” is a privilege – I don’t have to rely on those outlets for my main source of sustenance.)

So no, that television ad was most certainly not targeted to me. I’d actually never even heard of the chain (nor had I seen its restaurants near where I live or travel). In short, that chain was wasting its marketing dollars on me, and most likely on a lot of other folks like me who happen to like watching baseball.

So what audience was that chain trying to reach? Experts in food marketing will tell you that the QSR industry is obsessed with reaching young men (and young men do watch baseball). But as I watched that ad, I started to think about another cohort that would clearly be influenced by the ads.

And that “target?” Intentionally or not (most likely not), it struck me that the advertisement would certainly appeal to our nation’s poor, as well as to those in our country who have eating issues, quite often the same folks, from what I read. One in seven people in the US are officially poor (and that bar is pretty damn low – $22K a year or less for a family of four). Nearly one in three are categorized as “obese.” And these two trends have become a seedbed for what are becoming the most politically sensitive issues of our generation: healthcare, wealth distribution, and energy policy. (The link between energy policy and food is expanded upon here).

Now, what happens when marketers like the all-you-can-eat chain, who like most marketers are not spending their money efficiently on TV, start buying data-driven audiences over highly efficient digital platforms? When and if we get to the nirvana that Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft, Blue Kai, Cadreon, and countless others are pushing at the moment – a perfect world of matching marketers dollars to audience data and increased foot traffic in-store – we’ll be able to discern quite directly who a marketer is influencing.

And while that restaurant chain’s goal might be to influence young men, what happens if the digital advertising ecosystem proves directly that the folks who are responding are deeply effected by what has become a hot potato national issue around food, energy, and health?

And what happens when digital activists reverse engineer that marketing data, and use it as political fodder for issue-based activism? As far as I am concerned, the question isn’t if this is going to happen, the question is when.

Wait a minute, you might protest (if you are a marketer). What about privacy!! Ah, there’s the rub. Today’s privacy conversation is all about the consumer, about protecting the consumer from obtrusive targeting, and informing that consumer how, when, and why he or she is being targeted.

But that same data, which I agree the consumer has a right to access, can be re-aggregated by intelligent services (or industrious journalists using willing consumer sources), and then interpreted in any number of ways. And don’t think it’s just anti-corporate lefties and green freaks who will be making noise, in my research for this article, I found tons of articles on Tea Party sites decrying federal food subsidies. In short, the data genie is out of the bottle, not just for consumers, but for marketers as well.

Get ready, marketers, to be judged in the public square on your previously private marketing practices – because within the ecosystem our industry is rapidly building, the data will out.

I’m not picking on the food industry here, rather I’m simply using it as a narrative example. Increasingly, a company’s marketing practices will become transparent to its customers, partners, competitors, and detractors. And how one practices that marketing will be judged in real time, in a political dialog that defines the value of that brand in the world.

This new reality will force brands to develop a point of view on major issues of the day – and that ain’t an easy thing for brands to do – at least not at present. I’ve written extensively about how brands must become publishers. I’ve now come to the conclusion that they must also become politicians as well. Brands will have to play to their base, cater to interest groups, and answer for their “votes” – how their marketing dollars are spent.

I’d wager that marketers who get in front of this trend and shows leadership on the big issues will be huge winners. What do you think?


Identity and The Independent Web

By - October 21, 2010

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Are we are evolving our contract with society through our increasing interactions with digital platforms, and in particular, through what we’ve come to call the web?  

I believe the answer is yes. I’m fascinated with how our society’s new norms and mores are developing – as well as the architectural patterns which emerge as we build what, at first blush, feels like a rather chaotic jumble of companies, platforms, services, devices and behaviors.

Here’s one major architectural pattern I’ve noticed: the emergence of two distinct territories across the web landscape. One I’ll call the “Dependent Web,” the other is its converse: The “Independent Web.”

The Dependent Web is dominated by companies that deliver services, content and advertising based on who that service believes you to be: What you see on these sites “depends” on their proprietary model of your identity, including what you’ve done in the past, what you’re doing right now, what “cohorts” you might fall into based on third- or first-party data and algorithms, and any number of other robust signals.

The Independent Web, for the most part, does not shift its content or services based on who you are. However, in the past few years, a large group of these sites have begun to use Dependent Web algorithms and services to deliver advertising based on who you are.

A Shift In How The Web Works?

And therein lies the itch I’m looking to scratch: With Facebook’s push to export its version of the social graph across the Independent Web; Google’s efforts to personalize display via AdSense and Doubleclick; AOL, Yahoo and Demand building search-driven content farms, and the rise of data-driven ad exchanges and “Demand Side Platforms” to manage revenue for it all, it’s clear that we’re in the early phases of a major shift in the texture and experience of the web.

The dominant platforms of the US web – Facebook, Google, and increasingly Twitter- all have several things in common, but the one that comes first to my mind is their sophisticated ability to track your declarations of intent and interpret them in ways that execute, in the main, two things. First, they add value to your experience of that service. Google watches what you search, where you go, and what advertising you encounter, and at near the speed of light, it provides you an answer.

Facebook does the same, building a page each time you click, based on increasingly sophisticated data and algorithms. And Twitter is hard on its parents’ heels – to my mind, Twitter is the child of Google and Facebook, half search, half social. (Search’s rich uncle is the explosion of “user generated content” – what I like to call Conversational Media. Facebook’s rich uncle is clearly the mobile phone, and texting in particular. But I digress….as usual.)

Secondly, these services match their model of your identity to an extraordinary machinery of marketing dollars, serving up marketing in much the same way as the service itself. In short, the marketing is the message, and the message is the service. We knowingly go to Facebook or Google now much as we go to the mall or the public square – to see and be seen, to have our intent responded to, whether those wishes be commercial or public expression.

When we’re “on” Facebook, Google, or Twitter, we’re plugged into an infrastructure (in the case of the latter two, it may be a distributed infrastructure) that locks onto us, serving us content and commerce in an automated but increasingly sophisticated fashion. Sure, we navigate around, in control of our experience, but the fact is, the choices provided to us as we navigate are increasingly driven by algorithms modeled on the service’s understanding of our identity. We know this, and we’re cool with the deal – these services are extremely valuable to us. Of course, when we drop into a friend’s pictures of their kid’s Barmitzvah, we could care less about the algorithms. But once we’ve finished with those pictures, the fact that we’ve viewed them, the amount of time we spent viewing them, the connection we have to the person whose pictures they are, and any number of other data points are noted by Facebook, and added to the infinite secret sauce that predestines the next ad or newsfeed item the service might present to us.

Now I’m not against the idea of scale, or algorithmic suggestions – in particular those driven by a tight loop of my own actions, and those of my friends (in the case of Google, my “friends” are ghost cohorts, and therein lies Google’s social problem, but that’s grist for another post).

But there is another part of the web, one where I can stroll a bit more at my own pace, and discover new territory, rather than have territory matched to a presumed identity. And that is the land of the Independent Web.

What’s My Independent Identity?

What happens when the Independent Web starts leveraging the services of the Dependent Web? Do we gain, do we lose, or is it a push? We seem to be in the process of finding out. It’s clear that more than ads can be driven by the algorithms and services of the Dependent Web. Soon (in the case of Facebook Open Graph, real soon) Independent sits will be able use Dependent Web infrastructure to determine what content and services they might offer to a visitor.

Imagine if nearly all sites used such services. As they stand today, I can’t imagine such a world would be very compelling. We have to do a lot more work on understanding concepts of identity and intent before we could instrument such services – and at present, nearly all that work is being done by companies with Dependent business models (this is not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a thing). This skews the research, so to speak, and may well constrain the opportunity.

The opportunity is obvious, but worth stating: By leveraging a nuanced understanding of a visitor’s identity, every site or service on the web could deliver content, services, and/or advertising that is equivalent in relevance and experience as the best search result is to us today. The site would read our identity and click path as our intent (thus creating the “query”), then match its content and service offerings to that intent, creating the “result.” Leveraging our identities, Independent Web sites could more perfectly instrument their sites to our tastes. Sites would feel less like impersonal mazes, and more like conversations.

But is that what we want? It depends on the model. In a Dependent Web model, the data and processes used to deliver results is opaque and out of the consumer’s control. What we see depends on how the site interprets pre-conceived models of identity it receives from a third party.

Consider how most display advertising works today. As we roam the web, we are tracked, tagged, and profiled by third parties. An increasingly sophisticated infrastructure is leveraged to place a high-probability advertising match in front of us. In this model, there is no declared intent (no “query”) – our presence and the identity model the system has made for us stands in for the query. Because there is no infrastructure in place for us to declare who we might want to be in the eyes of a particular site, the response to that query makes a ton of assumptions about who we are. Much more often than not, the results are weak, poor, or wasted.

Can’t we do better?

For purposes of this post, I’m not going to wade into what many consider the threat of “our privacy being breached” as more and more personal data is added to our Dependent Web identity models (the ongoing debate about tracking and disclosure is robust, but not what I’m getting at here). Instead I see a threat to the overall value of our industry – if we continue to graft a Dependent Web model onto the architecture of the Independent Web, we most likely will fail to deliver the value that we all intuit is possible for the web. And that’s not good for anyone.

As consumers, we understand (for the most part) that when we are on Dependent sites, we’re going to get Dependent results. It’s part of a pretty obvious bargain. On Facebook, we’re Facebook users – that’s our identity in context of Facebook. But out on the Independent web, no such bargain has yet been struck. On Boing Boing, the Huffington Post, or Serious Eats, we’re someone else. The question is – who are we?

I Am What I Say I Am, For Now…

The interplay between Dependent and Independent services may set the table for a new kind of identity to emerge – one driven not by a model of interaction tracked by the Dependent Web per se, but rather by what each individual wishes to reveal about who they are, in real time. These revelations may be fleeting and situational – as they so often are in the real world. If I alight on a post about a cool new mountain bike, for example, I might chose to reveal that I’m a fan of the Blur XC, a bike made by the Santa Cruz company. But I don’t necessarily want that information to presumptively pass to the owner of that site until I read the post and consider the consequences of revealing that data.

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Let’s presume, for sake of argument, that the biking site has deeply integrated Facebook’s Open Graph (the way that, for example, Yelp or TripAdvisor does). When I show up, that site will know I’m a fan of Santa Cruz (let’s assume I have “fanned” the Blur XC on Facebook) and surface all sorts of articles and services related to that information. Somehow, that doesn’t feel right. It’s not that I don’t want the site to know that I like Blurs, it’s that I want to reveal myself to a new community on my own terms (and every media site is, at its heart, a community). In this example, the Dependent Web does the revealing for me. I’m not sure that’s a good thing for our industry. It runs counter to how people are wired to work in the real world.

Creating such a nuanced instrumentation of identity and how it might be conveyed across the Web seems a long way off, but I’m not so sure it is. It starts with taking control of your own identity in the Independent Web (for more on that, read A. Dash - from 8 years ago…). Who we believe we are in the world is pretty fundamental to being human, and as we bleed our actual identity into our digital one, it’s worth recalling that so far, at least, we don’t have a system that lets us really instrument who we are online in a fashion that scales to the complexity of true human interaction.  

Let’s take that last bike scenario and play it out in the “real world.” Instead of alighting on a post on some random web site I’ve stumbled across, let’s say I’m having a coffee at a local bakery, and I overhear a group of guys talking about a bike one of them recently purchased. I don’t know these guys, but I find their conversation (the equivalent of a “post”) engaging, and I lean in. The guys notice me listening, and given they’re talking in a public place, they don’t mind. They check me out, reading me, correctly, as a potential member of their tribe – I look like a biker (tribes can recognize potential members by sight pretty easily). At some point in the conversation – based on whether I feel the group would welcome the interjection, for example – I might decide to reveal that I’ve got a Blur XC. That might get a shrug from the leader of the conversation, or it might lead to a spirited debate about the merits of Santa Cruz bikes versus, say, Marin. That in turn may lead to an invitation to join them on a ride, and a true connection could well be made.

But until I engage, and offer new information, I’m just the dude at the next table who’s interested in what the folks next to me are talking about. In web parlance, I’m a lurker. As I lurk, I might realize the guys at the next table are sort of wankers, and I’m not interested in riding with them. I have the sense that this model of information sharing is, at its core, the way identity in what I’m calling “The Independent Web” should probably work. If, however, the Independent Web uses Facebook and/or Google services to determine what content to show me when first alight on a site, the model will be quite different.

A Third Way – The Revealed Identity?

I sense an opportunity to create a new kind of social identity for us to leverage around the web, one that is far more personal and instrumented than a Facebook profile or a Google cookie. It’s an identity that is independent of the one we’ve cultivated on Dependent platforms, but not necessarily separate from them. We can chose to include our Dependent Web profiles, but we don’t have to. At the moment, the model seems pretty black or white. If I’m logged into Facebook and the site I visit is using Facebook’s services, that site knows more about me than probably most of my friends do.

In other words, perhaps it’s time for a Revealed Identity, as opposed to a Public or Dependent Identity. As human beings wandering this earth, we certainly have both. Why don’t we have the same online?

I think it’s worth defining a portion of the web as a place where one can visit and be part of a conversation without the data created by that conversation being presumptively sucked into a sophisticated response platform – whether that platform is Google, Blue Kai, Doubleclick, Twitter, or any other scaled web service. Now, I’m all for engaging with that platform, to be sure, but I’m also interested in the parts of society where one can wander about free of identity presumption, a place where one can chose to engage knowing that you are in control of how your identity is presented, and when it is revealed.

One thing I’m certain of: Who I am according to Google, or Facebook, or any number of other scaled Dependent Web services, is not necessarily who I want to be as I wander this new digital world. I want more instrumentation, more nauance, and more rights.

The question is, however, how to create that better service? Is it in the commercial interests of the dominant Dependent Web players to do so? Are there startups working on this right now who already have the answers?

I think how we manage these questions will define who we are at a very core level in the coming years. As Lessig has written, code becomes law. It took tens of thousands of years for homo sapiens to develop the elaborate social code which defines how we interact with each other in the real world. I’m fascinated with the question of how we translate that code online.

(I’m not certain where I’m going with this post, but as I said it’s an itch I wanted to scratch. I know I’ve not done the reading I should in the topic, and I’m hoping readers might point me in useful directions – further reading, people to meet, companies to watch – so I might get a bit smarter and refine my thinking. This is all, of course, pointing me toward the “next book” which, as books tend to do, is not exactly writing itself.)

The Mac As Just Another i-Screen in an iWorld. NO THANKS.

By - October 20, 2010

wired-pray.gifToday Apple announced a move that, on first blush, seems to push the Mac, its seminal and defining product, into the iWorld. You know, the world of Apple-controlled, closed, manicured gardens a la iPhone, iPod, iPad, and iTunes.

There’s going to be an “app store” for Macs, and the iPad OS is going to be integrated in the next release of the Mac.

If anything, ever, will make me leave Mac for good (and the companies I’ve started have purchased literally thousands of them), it will be the integration of the Mac OS into Steve Jobs’ vision of where mobile is going.

I’ll have a lot more to say about this once I’m well and truly smart on the announcements. But given the trajectory of Apple, which is now driven far more by iWorld than by Mac, I’m not holding out much hope for the Mac continuing to be a computer in any real sense of the word. You know, where a computer means you have choices as to what apps you run on it, what apps get developed for it, and how you express yourself using it.

Feh.

Is Google Objective?

By - August 26, 2010

I was struck by this headline from TechCrunch: Has Google Purged Places Of Yelp? All Signs Point To Yes.

The story is rather pedestrian – yet another dispute between a content and community service with the all powerful Google. Sure, it’s Yelp, but at the end of the day, it’s another company who has run afoul of the distribution giant, and is a bit confused by how things seem to be playing out. It’s like Google isn’t playing by the rules that, well, that created Google.

I think the question, which I’ve raised before a number of times (it was a chapter in my book), must be raised again, if only to force clarity on how we think about the role Google now plays in our ecosystem. And that question is simply this:

Is Google objective?

Before I wax for too long with an answer, I’d love your thoughts.

Ok, maybe I’ll wax just a bit.

Back in the day, Google was seen, as it is now, as a black box, but at least it was a fair black box. No matter who you were, your content or service was subject to the same rules as any other content or service. Entire industries sprung up attempting to charm Google’s algorithms into favoring a particular page, or content class, or service.

The premise was simple: Google may be all powerful, but at least it doesn’t favor any one partner over any other one.

I predicted, many times over, that this could not stand. Once Google started buying content assets like YouTube, or building its own favored “owned & operated” properties like Google Finance or Places, there was no way that it would happily and objectively cede its own distribution power to its competitors (competitors who, before Google expanded into content, were partners in a happy ecosystem of search).

It has always been so, in a way. Google is a platform, and at some point, platforms always build out that which most benefits the platform, for any number of reasons. Twas so for Windows, for Facebook, for Twitter.

But Google, many of us thought, was different. The holy sacrament of search is fairness to all that which might be available on the web.

So I ask you. Is that sacrament dead?

Seems to me, it pretty much is, no?

Finding a Yogurt Shop A Mile Away: I'm Not Feeling Lucky.

By - August 19, 2010

I don’t know about you guys, but I see way too much of this when I search Google lately.

Tonight I was looking for a particular frozen yogurt shop in Edgartown, which is a town on the island where my family has spent portions of the summer for the past 100 or so years. This was a relatively new shop, but not that new.

Anyway, we forgot the name, so I Googled “yogurt edgartown.”

Here’s what I got:

Screen shot 2010-08-19 at 8.48.05 PM.png

OK, none of the local results are even on the island, much less in Edgartown. So strike one.

I’m familiar with the first result below the map, but that’s not the place I mean. Strike two.

The third result is clearly some kind of aggregator, but maybe they have an up to date directory I can look at. It’s called “American Towns.” I’ve never heard of it. Do I trust it? I dunno, maybe. So I click.

I get this:

Screen shot 2010-08-19 at 8.52.45 PM.png

Look at that for a minute. There’s exactly ONE “organic” result on that page, and by the way, it’s not what I’m looking for. The rest are ads that in no way help me.

This is not an unusual result for me lately. How about you? When it comes to finding places via Google, I’m not really feeling lucky anymore. Any suggestions as to what I should have done to find that yogurt shop?

Wait, I have an idea. What if Foursquare or Facebook had Places search? Man, that’d be great! I could search for yogurt shops in Edgartown, and I bet, without a doubt, I could find what I’m looking for. Do they? Nope. Should they? Yep.

Just saying.

Or Maybe It's Really About (Google) TV…

By - August 11, 2010

Screen shot 2010-08-11 at 8.48.02 AM.png

Yesterday I posted some thoughts on the Google-Verizon framework, offering what turns out to be a pretty widespread sensibility, at least in the punditocracy, that this whole thing feels off, not like Google, counter to the brand.

There had to be another reason Google would do this, something super important that forced its hand, something so crucial to its own perceived future that it would be willing to upset its core brand advocates.

But what? I wrote: “it gives me the sense that the two parties are colluding in some way, creating and/or obscuring potential loopholes which will allow side deals in other parts of their business.”

I then suggested this had to do with Android. And perhaps it does.

But a very well placed source just sent me a thoughtful note, and it immediately stuck a nerve. Perhaps this has not to do with Android as much as it does the future of television.

Google TV, according to those that see it, is very very powerful stuff, and a major weapon on Google’s war with Apple (not to mention Microsoft and others). It’s streaming, interactive HD with the web folded into it (and it’s based on Android). And to work, it will need a fast lane on the ol’ info superhighway. Screen shot 2010-08-11 at 8.52.45 AM.pngA really fast lane. And perhaps, preferential treatment to boot.

Might Google petition that Google TV is an “Additional Online Service” outside the protected net neutrality framework it’s developing with Verizon? Such a service sure would drive subscriptions for Verizon and customers and advertisers for Google.

Hmmm. I think I’ll ask.

Google Has A History of Agonizing. Will This Be a Chapter, or A Conclusion?

By - August 09, 2010

The Wall St. Journal has a compelling story about Google executives, including Page and Brin, struggling with the vast amount of actionable data available to the company, and what to do about it, even before Facebook pretty much forced the Internet giant to play their hand. A must read.

If any of you recall Google’s agony over China, its entry and then its withdrawal, this will certainly sound familiar.

What Means This, To "Go Google"!?

By - July 21, 2010

GoogFortuneBackPageJuly2010.png

I thought it meant to search! Apparently, in this context, it means “to drop Microsoft Office and use our software!”

I almost feel like a relic pointing out the obvious, but when I got my latest paper-based Fortune magazine (yes, I do subscribe to a few still), I found the image at left on the back cover.

Long ago, while writing the book, I predicted that Google, long proud of the fact it never had to market its brand, would have to start marketing like a “normal” company. Why? Because while search “markets itself”, applications like Picasa won’t.

And so it has been, and so it continues. In January of this year, when my attention turns to predictions, I said that Google will have to decide to promise more as a brand than “search.” In May, I pointed out that this concept was progressing.

Not that big a deal, I suppose, given that the years have come and gone, and we’ve turned our attention to other Internet meteors like Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare. Except…I still find it significant that the king of the Web has purchased the back page of an analog magazine. If for no other reason that this entry in the database of intentions – this blog post – may be discovered by some anthropologist in centuries yet to come, as proof of some point yet unmade.

Or something.

Still and all, I am fascinated by what it means that Google, the verb that means “to search”, is being used by Google, the company, to mean something entirely different.