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Help Us Shape The Signal Conferences in 2012

By - November 22, 2011

I’ve spent the better part of a few days thinking through the theme(s) of FM’s Signal series of conferences for the upcoming year. I’ve got a ton of thoughts scrawled across my whiteboards, but then a thought woke me up in the middle of the night – why don’t I ask all of you what you think are the most important trends for digital marketing in 2012? (This crowdsourcing thing, it might just take off…).

So I signed up for PollDaddy and created my first ever Searchblog poll. You can pick three of the choices below, and/or add your own topic at the bottom. So help a brother out, and let me know what you think!

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Facebook and Commenting Systems: Still Some Open Questions

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I’ve always been quite interested in commenting systems for the Independent Web, and when it came time to redesign this site, I chose to use Disqus, an independent company that is a leader in the space. Disqus has its detractors, but it has many more fans. The company has nearly 1 million sites using the services and is rolling out new features very quickly.

I did make a conscious choice to *not* use Facebook’s Commenting system. And while I could have justified the decision on pure features (I think Disqus still wins there), it’s more based on my belief in the Independent Web. I prefer to not have this valuable portion of my own domain controlled by a major identity platform with which I have some basic philosophical differences. (In short, I do not agree with the company’s stance on identity, among a few other things).

However, I was curious if others felt the same way. Apparently, the answer is no, if the numbers are any indication. Last night I asked this question on Quora: How many websites use facebook commenting? I’m curious if the service is growing, slowing, or flat?  I also emailed people I know at Facebook, and tweeted it. By this morning, Facebook gave me the answer (oddly, it did not show up on Google search, but that may because the two companies are retarded when it comes to sharing access to each other’s platforms. That’s a whole ‘nother story).

In short, Disqus was at around 750,000 sites as of May of this year. Four months later, in August, Facebook reported that it was at 400,000 sites. That’s darn good given the service is not yet one year old.

Now my question is this: What is the makeup of sites that use Facebook Comments versus Disqus, WordPress, or others like LiveFyre? I’d wager the sites using Facebook tend to be larger publishers, as well as very small publishers who are mainly hobbyists. I’d be very interested in the answer to that question. Any takers?

The Problem and the Opportunity Of Mobile Advertising

By - November 18, 2011

I hate to pick on the good folks at TextPlus, because I like the service (and my kids do too). But my family recently had an experience that reminded me how stunted the advertising ecosystem remains in the (relatively) new world of apps.

Quite serendipitously, after that experience I had the pleasure of meeting the CEO of Gogii, the company behind TextPlus. More on what I learned from him in a moment. But first, to the problem.

TextPlus is a star in what I’ve come to call “AppWorld,” that Jobsian funhouse mirror universe of apps (TextPlus also on Android, where I’m told it’s growing faster than in iOS). Parent company Gogii is backed by Very Serious Venture Capitalists like Kleiner Perkins and Matrix Partners. Clearly, this is a horse that smart money is backing.

But smart money cannot an ecosystem fix – at least not so far. With some notable exceptions, the mobile advertising ecosystem has been pretty broken. A few reasons why:

1. Every app maker I have spoken to tells me that they mostly rely on third party ad networks. They then complain that those networks “don’t understand our business” and are not aligned with their core interests. These networks provide limited visibility into future revenues, and the ads they deliver are rarely if ever targeted well.

2. These third party ad networks sometimes pay well, but most of the time, they pay very poorly. If an app is going to make it, they have to depend on Apple’s iTunes store and iAds (which brings with it its own set of gordian policy and business strategy issues) or on their own sales force, which is difficult, as most apps don’t have the scale to build and execute salable ad products.

3. Bad actors and practices often creep into how networks execute campaigns on third party apps.

Which brings me to my experience with TextPlus.

I recently helped my daughter set up her TextPlus account. We downloaded and configured the free version (you can buy an ad-free version for a few bucks, more on that later). After about three minutes, my daughter was happily texting my mobile number. It was a cool experience – my daughter doesn’t have a “real phone” yet, but now she can text me just like her older siblings. She proudly held her iPod Touch up to show me her latest text, then asked me why my phone number didn’t have a name like “Dad.” I thought about it for a second and realized she hadn’t set up any Apple contacts yet. So I opened the Contacts app, put myself in there, and reloaded TextPlus. Sure enough, there was “Dad” in the text stream. My daughter was radiant.

As I was about to hand the iPod back to her, however, the entire screen was taken over by an ad for Cadillac. That was bad enough, but to make matters worse, I couldn’t figure out a way to make the ad go away. I had to wait for 15 seconds or so, till the ad cleared. The moment of delight between my daughter and I was ruined (my unscripted burst of expletives probably didn’t help).

In those 15 seconds, my opinion of both Cadillac and TextPlus dropped precipitously. It wasn’t the actual ad – the creative was pretty good in fact (the image at left is not what I saw, but I didn’t manage to get a screengrab). What angered me was the interruption and the lack of fit – why on earth would Cadillac push an ad to a girl who couldn’t even drive yet?  Given I am pretty deep in this industry and aware of the points I made above, I figured it was entirely possible that both Gogii and Cadillac had no idea this experience was happening to me.

Turns out, I was right. And therein lies one of the big problems (and opportunities) in the mobile advertising world.

Rather than bang out a post about how terrible my experience was (I was tempted), I lobbed a call into Gogii to ask if perhaps the ad was a mistake. Over the years at FM, I have had enough experience with similar issues in the HTML web to know it was certainly possible. As it happened, the CEO of Gogii (based in LA), was in San Francisco the next day. We set a meeting.

Scott Lahman is a mobile and gaming veteran, having held senior positions at Activision, EA, JamDat, and now as founder of Gogii. He came by the FM offices and within a few minutes we cleared up the Cadillac ad question – a third party network had “snuck” the ad past TextPlus’s filters. Lahman hates when that happens, but … it happens. He was aware of it (other customers had complained) and he had already addressed the problem.

With that settled, we could dig into the bigger issues of the mobile advertising landscape, from the point of view of a Serious App Maker like Gogii. Gogii has more than 25 million downloads, a very engaged and attractive base of customers (millions of teens), and has begun to build out a content driven social element to its service. It also has some big things planned that I’m not allowed to talk about yet.

While Gogii sells an ad-free version of its app, its future is deeply tied to advertising. This initially seems counter intuitive given you can buy your way out of ads on TextPlus for a few bucks – for life. That’s a pretty low estimate of the lifetime value of a customer. Clearly, something else is going on. At the moment, Gogii has one product that it sells at a premium – essentially a home page skin – but it makes the rest of its revenue from the networks.

Given all that, I wondered how Lanham felt about the three points I made earlier in this piece.

In short, Lanham told me, the mobile advertising industry is about five years behind the HTML web in just about every way. Which is interesting when you think about what was going on in web advertising back in 2006.

Back then, FM was one years old, but our model was gathering steam. Successful websites (the TextPluses of the world) were growing like crazy, but struggling with poor ad network revenue streams. There was a glut of inventory in both traditional media sites as well as “the Independent Web” – sites like Boing Boing, Dooce, NotCot, etc. – but there was no scaleable way to bring truly engaged marketing into the picture. Of course, since then the FM model and many like it have evolved to bring real revenue and relationships to the ecosystem. We’re not where we want to be, of course, but we’ve come a long way.

But at the same time as this progress was beginning, that same glut of inventory was feeding a new set of players – the second-generation ad networks. It was about five years ago that those networks were snapped up in a frenzy of M&A. AOL already had purchased Advertising.com. Google bought DoubleClick (and its nascent exchange business). Yahoo bought Right Media. Microsoft bought AdECN. There was a lot of froth in the marketplace, as the major players realized Internet advertising was ripe for consolidation and new business models.

Since then, we’ve seen the rise of exchanges, demand side platforms, and programmatic buying. We’ve also witnessed the attendant response from the publishing world – supply side platforms like Lijit, hand wringing from premium publishers like ESPN, and innovations in ad products like conversation targeting, which can’t be bought on exchanges (at least, not yet.) We’ve seen online advertising split into two large buckets: “Unsold” or remnant inventory, where the networks mainly play, and “premium,” where publishers (or their partners) create more engaging executions that resonate for brands.

Put another way, a lot has happened in the non-mobile web, and it’s all about to happen again, but faster, in the mobile web. There’ll be a lot of consolidation (the firing shots were, of course, AdMob/Google and Quattro/Apple), there’ll be engaging new products (think really new) that scale across federations of quality apps like TextPlus, and there will be new technology solutions that will, more likely than not, be snapped up for prices that don’t seem to make a ton of sense.

Which is all a long way of saying that I think things are about to get far more interesting in mobile advertising, in particular for apps that comprise “the Independent Web” of the mobile world. It’s about time. In a future post I hope to delve into some of the architecture, data, and business model issues that will need to be addressed if we really want to see a truly independent world of apps thrive. I for one certainly do.

Whisperings of the Future Surround Us

By - November 17, 2011

Yesterday I met with Christopher Ahlberg, the PhD co-founder of Recorded Future, a company I noted in these pages back in mid-2010. Ahlberg is one of those rare birds you just know is making stuff that matters – a scientist, an entrepreneur, a tinkerer, and an enthusiast all wrapped into one.

He ran me through Recorded Future’s technology and business model, and I found it impressive. In fact, I’m hoping I can employ it somehow into my book research. And that conditional tense of “hoping” is the main problem I have with Ahlberg’s creation – it’s a rather complicated system to use. Then again, what of worth isn’t, I suppose?

Recorded Future is, at its core,  a semantic search engine that consumes tens of thousands of structured information feeds as its “crawl.” It then parses this corpus for several core assets: Entities, Events, and Time (or Dates). Recorded Future’s algorithms are particularly adept at identifying and isolating these items, then correlating them at scale. If that sounds simple, it ain’t.

The service then employs a relatively complicated query structure that allows you to project the road ahead for your question. For example, you might choose “Amazon” as your entity, and then set your timeframe for events involving Amazon over the past two months and into the next two months. Recorded Future will analyze its sources (SEC filings, blogs, news sites, etc) and create a timeline-like “map” of things that have happened and are predicted to happen with regard to Amazon over the next eight weeks. You can further refine a search by adding other entities or events (“earnings” or “CEO”, for example).

How does it work? Well, turns out the Internet is rife with whisperings of the future, you just need to learn how to listen. That’s Recordable Future’s specialty. As you might imagine, Wall Street quants and government spooks just love this stuff. I’d imagine journalists would as well, but most of us are too strapped to afford the company’s services. Embedded below is a new feature of the site, a weekly overview of a news-related entity.

Recorded Future’s engine is not limited to the sources it currently consumes. Not only is Ahlberg adding more every month, his customers can add their own corpuses. Imagine throwing Wikileaks into Recorded Future, for example.

Perhaps the coolest aspect of the service is a visualization of how entities relate to each other over time. Ahlberg showed me a search for mobile patents, then toggled into a relationship graph. Guess what entity broke into the center of the graph, connected to nearly everything else? Yup – Motorola.

Did I mention that Google is an investor in Recorded Future?

As I said, I hope to start using the service soon, and perhaps posting my findings here.

You Are The Platform

By - November 08, 2011

A funny thing happens to me after each Web 2 Summit – I tend to curl up for a week or two and shut down my idea receptors. It takes a ton of output to curate the show, and then running it for three straight days is rather like running an intellectual and social marathon. You’re “on” the whole time, scrambling backstage, pretending to have it together onstage, greeting amazing minds, cheering them on, delivering what I hope will be thought provoking interlocution, and, of course, remembering to thank everyone for giving so generously of their time and treasure.

So when people ask me what I thought of the show, or what the key themes were, I usually have something of a blind spot. I can remember everything up to the start of the event – all the preparation, preproduction interviews, the endless research, etc. But once we kickoff (in this case, with an interview with Sean Parker), it goes kind of black. My next memory is usually the final cocktail party on day three. I know my Dad and my wife are usually there, and I know I have a fine bourbon in my hand. And I’m happy. And I want to sleep.

Which I’ve done a lot of these past two weeks. But this last show was too rich to not review a bit, in particular for themes that should inform our collective decisions as we move our industry forward. In this post and I hope in others this Fall, I hope to outline some of those themes.

The first one that really jumps out at me is one I’ll title “You Are The Platform.” That phrase was used by Mitchell Baker, Chair of the Mozilla Foundation in her talk at Web 2, and echoed by Jeremie Miller, founder of Singly and the Locker Project. But before we get to those two, I want to start with Chris Poole, founder of 4Chan and Canv.as, where he outlines a problem with how we currently think about who we are online.

Poole argues that identity is prismatic, and that both Facebook and Google force a “fast food” approach to identity – one size fits all. “They shouldn’t set the bar” for what identity is, Poole argues, “we should.” (Each of the videos below are just five or ten minutes).

How do we do this? Baker argues we have to take control of our data, away from a “20th century factory model,” where the platform for our data is highly centralized (IE on Google, or Facebook, Amazon, or Twitter). She asks us to think differently about managing our data:

In short, Baker suggests that we should each be the platform for our own data, determining how it’s used and in what context, depending on the kind of data (health, social, family, interests, etc).

Sounds great, but how do you operationalize such a concept? It sounds like a lot of work. That’s where Jeremie Miller comes in. His company, Singly, and associated Locker Project is an audacious attempt to “put the person at the center of the data.”

Singly and the Locker Project are in the early days, and the chances they won’t work are probably high. But the approach they augur, I believe, must ultimately become reality. This concept of “you are the platform” is really, really important, not just technologically, but socially, politically, and culturally. Watch this space.

Brands as Publishers

By - November 07, 2011

This week Ad Age published All Brands Are Publishers, Learn How to Be a Good One, by yours truly. In it I summarize six or so years of work I’ve done outlining terms like “conversational media,” which I first outlined on this site, “brands as publishers,” also written about first in these pages and at FM’s home, and of course the Independent Web (again, here).

But I hadn’t really pulled all of it together in short form, till now. So give the piece a read, if you’re so inclined. It’s written for the print version, so there are no links. (Old school!). From it:

It’s illuminating to remember that five years ago, Twitter was three months old, and Facebook had just opened to non-students. Neither company had a business model. Oh, and Digg was considered the pre-eminent social news service.

Over the next half-decade, of course, Twitter and Facebook have become huge forces, driving the rise of what I then called “conversational media” as opposed to “packaged-goods media,” where marketers just send a message to consumers.

I laid out five “golden rules” of this new media in several blog posts, and over the years, I’ve come to believe that it comes in two distinct flavors: independent and dependent.

“Dependent web” platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Google and Yahoo are where people go to discover and share new content. Independent sites are the millions of blogs, community and service sites where passionate individuals “hang out” with like-minded folks. This is where shared content is often created.

Marketers need to play in both spheres to effectively build their brands. ….

Read the rest here.

Only Connect: Facebook, From The Eyes of an Old Newbie

By - October 27, 2011

I recently joined Facebook. Have you heard of it?

I know, I know, that sounds crazy, given that I’m “an Internet guy.”  If you search for me on Google, say “John Battelle Facebook,” you see that I am already there, and that I have nearly 5000 “friends.” (The interplay between Google search and Facebook is worthy of an entire treatise, I’ll leave that for later). You’ll see I also have a fan page, which has about 5400 “fans” – I think that’s the terminology, though now I think Facebook has turned those fans to “Likes.”

But as many of you know from reading my past posts on the subject, I’ve been essentially “Facebook bankrupt” for years. The service has never been of much value to me, in the main because I made an early and fatal decision to accept any and all folks who asked to be my friend. (For details on that, see this post: I Blew It On Facebook.)

So this week, as both research for my next book and because I’ve been meaning to do it for more than two years, I re-joined Facebook under a slightly different name. I created a new account from scratch, and I promised myself I’d really curate this one so that it’d be meaningful to me personally.

It’s not turning out to be easy.

I’m sure this process will yield more posts, so consider this the first chapter. What I’ve experienced so far, however, only strengthens my belief that Facebook hasn’t even crawled out of the sea when it comes to understanding the nuances of how people communicate with each other. Sure, it’s an extraordinary service and platform, etc. etc. And I know and respect a ton of people who work there. But it’s a testament to how utterly thirsty we are to connect that Facebook, in five short years, has captured the attention of nearly everyone in the online world.

Because, let’s face it. The initial experience with Facebook is pretty bad, from a social point of view.

Here’s why I feel that way.

First is what I’ll call The Guilt of Not Connecting. When you sign up for the first time, Facebook bludgeons you relentlessly to connect to others. It’s beyond irritating – a newcomer to the system (like me) gets constant reminders to find friends before you even get a page going. And once you do, it continues, like an irritating beep in the background – all over your page. “People you may know” stare out at you on the right side of my page, forlorn, as if to ask “How could you NOT want to be my friend?!” Large ads at the top of my page, replete with beckoning profile pics, ask “Are They Your Friends Too?”

And you know what? These are certainly people I know. But being forced to chose if you care enough about them to add them as friends is an intrusion at this early point. I’m just figuring this thing out, Facebook. There’s gotta be more to it than just adding friends, right? Right?!

The second thing I’ve noticed that feels broken is The Forced Rudeness. When I set up my page, I did add a few friends – mostly family members. I added my wife, my kids (the ones who are on the service), and my Dad, who recently joined. Come to think of it, I think I started this whole process because my Dad joined and tried to “friend” my old account, the bankrupt one. I knew if I accepted his request, his voice would be lost in the cacophony that was my old identity.

I also searched for a few folks who came to mind – really close and true pals of mine. All in all, I think I sent out about ten “friend requests” under my new name (which is pretty much the same as my old name, I just added my middle initial). I’m pleased to report that everyone accepted my request pretty much on day one, which I kind of expected (I would have grounded my daughter if she refused, after all). But as soon as the first few folks added me as a friend, the Facebook friend machine went into overdrive, and all of a sudden, I began to get new friend requests. From people I know. But…not that well.

And here’s where Facebook utterly falls down. Because while I do know these people, and I even like them, I may not want to connect with them right now. I have my reasons as to why, and I’d sure like to explain myself to these folks.

But Facebook doesn’t really enable me to do this. In the email notification, I can’t even say no. It’s either “Confirm” or “See All Requests”, which forces me back to Facebook to manage my next steps. Since I don’t want to connect, I pick the second choice. On the site, I am given the choice of either accepting, or pushing a button that says “not now” or somesuch. I have *no idea* what that rejected friend on the other end of this transaction is told once I hit “not now.” And that’s a big problem – is the person notified that I’ve said no? How? If not, I’d like to know that – and ideally, before I see them in real life. These kind of nuanced signals are pretty much table stakes in a “real” relationship. But on Facebook, you get black or white. And that’s just not good enough.

Unlike with a real email request from a real person (not the service), or a phone call, or a face to face conversation,  there’s no simple way to respond to the friend request with a short note like “Hi (name) – Thanks for reaching out to connect with me. I’m restarting a new Facebook account, and for now, I’m limiting it to family and a very small group of really close pals. As I figure out how to navigate the service, I’ll be sure to add you. For now, I want to make sure I don’t overshare!”

Now, my messaging would change depending on the recipient. That one above might be for a business colleague who found me through my close friendship with someone who also happens to be in my industry. But I’d modify my message for the mother of my son’s high school pal. This is a person I see at school functions from time to time but who, to be utterly honest, isn’t someone with whom I’d otherwise spend much time (or share personal experiences with via an online platform). I’d wager she feels the same way about me (but I don’t know! It’d be nice if Facebook allowed her to explain why she’s friending me, but … it doesn’t!) We like each other, we’re cordial when we see each other, but why is Facebook forcing me to be rude to her by telling her “not now” (if, in fact, she’s even told – which I don’t know!).

This is going to make for a pretty awkward soccer party next month, I can tell you that.

Because, really, that’s what it feels like should I decide not to accept her request. It’s rude. So I am going to go out on a limb here, and say that Facebook seems to be counting on this fact to drive connections. And you know what? That’s a house of cards. It insures a lack of truly honest social instrumentation when it comes to building your “social graph,” and down the line, I’m going to predict that will come back to haunt Facebook, if it hasn’t already.

Now, I know many of you are snickering at this post, because most of these issues have been raised and settled, so to speak, over the past few years. Heck, I’ve even made similar points on this site from time to time. But through the fresh eyes of my recent experience, I sense something far deeper is at work. Most folks only take one run at crafting their digital identity on Facebook. I’d reckon most of us don’t want to spend hours going back to rejigger our “graph” once it’s created. That’d be way too much work.

But that graph is based on a extremely rudimentary set of social rules that break down over time, and will fail to reflect our true selves as we extend our identity online. And as Facebook moves to leverage that identity through the Open Graph to nearly every action we take online, I can’t help but think the brittleness of this system will be exposed. It then becomes a race – between Facebook’s ability to reverse engineer more nuanced social interaction back into its platform (and it is, I can see attempts in the interface already), and some new startup (or, OK, maybe Google) that allows us to do the same with far less work.

Of course, Facebook has what amounts to a “moat” around social platforms due to its network effects – as Sean Parker pointed out in our conversation at Web 2 last week. It’s really hard to leave, because you want to bring your “real friends” with you, and asking them to step over to a new service is too much of an imposition. If they leave, they will want to bring their friends, and now you have a real shampoo problem on your hands.

But I predict that we’re racing headlong into a cultural moment when we realize we need more control and nuance in our lives when it comes to what Facebook currently represents for us (if you think this isn’t related to #occupywallstreet, it is, in a really interesting way. That post is coming). Facebook works really well for folks who are just beginning to define who they are in the world, like my kids, or college kids just learning what it means to be out on their own. But those kids ultimately grow up, and become deeply refined social creatures. The question is, can Facebook?

I’m not sure. The DNA and core driving principles of the company have been set. The entire system seems driven by the maxim “only connect.” I wonder how our culture will interpret the first word of that phrase, and whether Facebook, as it’s set up today, has the capacity to redefine it.

There’s so much more to say, but I’m pushing two thousand words. Best to press “publish,” and hear from you.

Help Me Interview Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft (And Win Free Tix to Web 2)

By - October 07, 2011


Day Two at Web 2 Summit ends with my interview of Steve Ballmer. Now, the last one, some four years ago, had quite a funny moment. I asked Steve about how he intends to compete with Google on search. It’s worth watching. He kind of turns purple. And not Yahoo purple.
So sure, I’m hoping for more classic Ballmerisms this time around, and there’s plenty to talk about. From investors calling for his head (Microsoft generates impressive cash and dividends, but could hardly be called a growth stock), to the future of Windows, my only concern is we’ll run out of time.
Because I want to talk about the Xbox SDK, Microsoft’s cloud strategy, Bing, Windows 8, the Facebook and Twitter partnerships, the Skype purchase, Yahoo (again), tablets, the Nokia deal…

But enough of my questions. What do you want to ask one of the most important CEOs in the world?

As an extra incentive, I’ll be picking the best three questions from these series of posts (see below and watch for more). The authors of those questions will get complimentary passes to Web 2 – a more than $4000 value. So get to commenting, and thank you!

Previously: Mark Pincus, John Donahoe, Marc Benioff, Dick Costolo, Michael Dell, Mary Meeker, Michael Roth. Next up: James Gleick.

FM Welcomes Lijit to the Family

By - October 04, 2011

lijit.jpeg

Today Federated Media Publishing announced it has acquired Lijit Networks, a world-class business partner to online publishers based in Boulder, Colorado. This combination is the result of literally months of work, including a ton of strategic thinking that dates back to Federated’s acquisitions of Foodbuzz, Big Tent, and TextDigger last year.

With reach into nearly 200 million uniques, Lijit is a major player in what we at Federated call “the Independent Web.” While Lijit serves all stripes of publishers, it shines with smaller sites whose size often means they get ignored or minimized by other network players. Lijit not only provides top-tier advertising services (it’s growing like crazy, see Lijit CEO Todd Vernon’s post here), but it was born as a service to publishers – with great analytics and search (I use it here on Searchblog). In the past year, Lijit has built out an impressive set of offerings in the technology-driven display market – a space rife with acronyms like SSP (supply side platforms), DSP (demand side platforms), and RTB (real time bidding). This ecosystem is increasingly complex, and Lijit is committed to helping independent publishers thrive within it.

But Lijit is more than great technology and services. It’s a passionate group of people who share our vision of bringing service and value to the constellation of “small pieces loosely joined” that, taken together, comprise the true voice of the web. When I traveled to Boulder and met the team, including CEO Todd Vernon, COO Walter Knapp, and lead investor Seth Levine of the Foundry Group, I knew we had more than a business deal at hand. I don’t know how else to put it – these are really good people, and I can’t wait to work together to write the next chapter of our work together. Congratulations to all.

Read more about the Lijit deal on the FM site, the Lijit blog, and over at All Things Digital. Congrats to all!