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What Would You Ask Sundar Pichai, SVP Android & Chrome at Google?

By - February 24, 2014

sundar_pichaiA week from this coming Sunday at SXSW, I’ll be interviewing Sundar Pichai, Google’s Senior Vice President, Android, Chrome & Apps. Pichai has a huge job at Google, overseeing the company’s mobile ecosystem, from hardware (the Nexus platform) to the burgeoning Play store (oh, and that little browser/OS called Chrome, to boot). Last year, he took over Android from its founder Andy Rubin, who has moved his focus to new (and currently undisclosed) Google moonshots. Android is a huge business for Google – more than a billion devices have been activated since its inception. And that’s well before markets for autos, wearables, and enterprise heat up.

The interview is in classic SXSW keynote form – just us on stage, with a room of 1,000 or so attendees from the festival’s interactive track. On a prep call last week, Sundar mentioned he’d be up for hearing from readers here and on various social networks, so I’m issuing a call: What questions do you have for the man in charge of Google’s mobile future? A few that come to mind:

– What is Android’s role beyond phones & tablets? Pichai has said Android is moving into areas such as the enterprise, wearables, and automobiles. How might that play out? Will Nest become an Android device? Will you have to join Google+ to manage your thermostat?!

– I’ve called Google Now “The tip of a very long spear.” Is that a fair characterization?

– Much has been written about fragmentation in the Android ecosystem-is this a problem? Is Android truly “open”?

– The relationship between Google and Samsung seems strained – how is it going?

– What is the future of the Nexus effort – is Google committed to being a hardware player, or is the Nexus line mainly a way to show off how best to create devices? Related – what happened with Motorola? Was that a mistake, or part of a master plan?

– How do Chromebooks and the Chrome OS fit into Google’s future? How do we think about Chrome as separate from Android?

–  Chromecast, Google Fiber, Play, YouTube: All seem positioned to combat the Comcasts of the world. What’s Google’s POV on cord cutting and the cablecos?
Might Google up and buy sports rights?

What questions do you have for Pichai? Leave a comment here, or tweet them to me @johnbattelle. Hope to see you at SXSW!

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Google’s Year End Zeitgeist: Once Again, Insights Lacking

By - December 17, 2013
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Great photo, but not one we searched for….

It’s become something of a ritual – every year Google publishes its year-end summary of what the world wants, and every year I complain about how shallow it is, given what Google *really* knows about what the world is up to.

At least this year Google did a good job of turning its data into a pretty media experience. There are endless scrolling visual charts, there’s a emotional, highly produced video, and there’s a ton of lists to explore once you drill down. But there’s also a Google+ integration that frankly, was utterly confusing. Called #my2013 Gallery (sorry, there’s no link for it), it showed photos from a bunch of people I didn’t know, then invited me to add my own. Not sure what that was about. The “Search Trends Globe” shows top search terms by location, but you can’t click through to see results. Odd.

So kudos to Google for giving us a lot of eye candy – there are top ten lists for all manner of categories, from dog breeds to NFL teams to memes – all by geography. But the search capacity is, well – confusing. Once you search inside what you think is the year end Zeitgeist, you end up getting Google Trends data, and you’re kind of lost, not sure if you’re in the year-end special anymore. Bummer.

And while there are far more lists than I’ve seen before, there’s still no … insight. Even the “What is…” function, which was an interesting, if limited feature from last year’s Zeitgeist, is gone this year, most likely a victim of political correctness. (For why, see my post about last year’s Zeitgeist).

I sure wish Google would surprise us with Zeitgeist, but once again, no dice.

Apple+Topsy: It’s Not About Twitter (And Twitter Is Probably Cool With That)

By - December 03, 2013

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I’m going out on a limb, but a fairly stout one: Like Azeem, I think Apple bought Topsy for its search chops. But Azeem, who I admire greatly, says Topsy could become the search engine “for iOS… to index both the social Web, but also the best bits of the Web that power Siri and Apple Maps, [and] reduce the reliance on Google and reduce the flow of advertising dollars to the big G.” Certainly possible, but I don’t think Apple bought Topsy for its ability to search the web, or even for its trove of Twitter data. That might be a nice bonus, but I don’t think it’s the bogey.* Others have written that Topsy might be used to improve Apple’s iTunes/app search, but again, I think that’s not thinking big enough.

No, Apple most likely bought Topsy because Topsy has the infrastructure to address one of Apple’s biggest problems: the iOS interface. Let’s face it, iOS (and the app-based interface in general) is slowly becoming awful. It’s like the web before good search showed up.  To move to the next level, Apple needs a way to improve how its customers interact with iOS. Topsy will help them get there. Also, I think Twitter is happy that Apple bought Topsy – but more on that later.

Let me explain. First, my statement that iOS is “becoming awful.” Faithful readers know I’m not a fan of iOS. I switched to Android almost two years ago, and I’ve never looked back. But it’s not as if the Android interface is much better – I just like its chances of developing into something more powerful down the line. In the past few years, I’ve written several posts about the kind of interface I believe needs to emerge across mobile (which until last year, Apple pretty much dominated). Given my  obsession with the topic, it’s probably no secret that I view mobile’s biggest problem boils down to one of search.

In  Apple Won’t Build a (Web) Search Engine and Of Course Apple Is Going to Do Search, I argued that Apple must get into the “app search” game. Just as web search became the coin of the web realm, app search will be next. It won’t look like web search, I argued, but at its core, it’s quite similar.

That was three years ago, right after Apple bought Siri, launched iAds, and was relentlessly touting the growth of its app ecosystem. I was certain Apple was going to figure out a way to create value above the level of a particular app, using all that tasty data it had within its restrictive walled garden to build the next generation iOS interface.

But so far, Apple has failed to innovate inside its own ecosystem (unless you count minimalist icons and bright base colors as innovation). Three years later, we’re still stuck in a user interface of app-filled screens, most of which we never use, each disconnected  from the other save for the fact they happen to reside on your phone, possibly right next to each other, but otherwise unaware of the value they might reap should they magically start sharing links and data with each other. (You know, the way the web works.)

This has to change.

Google knows it, which is why I find Google Now so fascinating. Apple knows it too – the days of home screens littered with app icons are numbered. What will replace it?

My guess is some kind of intelligent, search-driven interface that “understands” you, based on the intent you signal through your use of all kinds of apps – including browser apps, of course, as well as true search apps like Siri (or Google Now). This new kind of interface responds to your voice as well as your location, your history, and anything else you might willingly (or unwittingly) feed it. It will strive to always put the very thing you need at your fingertips – something that simply isn’t possible without understanding your interactions as the equivalent of …. well, a personal interest graph.

And to do that, Apple needs a powerful engine, the kind of engine that, say, has been hard at work understanding a massive corpus of interest data for, say, six or so years. Something like Topsy.

My prediction: Apple doesn’t really care about Twitter data. The more I think about it, the more I’d wager that Twitter most likely blessed Apple’s purchase – and why not. With its newfound post-IPO billions, Twitter could have easily forced Topsy’s price well past $200 million. But Twitter is probably thrilled that Apple bought Topsy – Apple just took out a company that Twitter eventually would have had to either buy or kill. Now, Twitter is free to build enterprise value on top of its own data, as well it should, and Apple has a team of engineers who I’m guessing can’t wait to get their hands on a new kind of tweet stream – all that structured data captured, but not leveraged, off your mobile phone. It’s a win win win – if I’m right. Apple gets the tech and talent to build the guts of its next interface, consumers get a better OS, and Twitter gets to keep its cash and eliminate a potential competitor to boot.

Smart move, Apple. I hope I’m right.

*For the record, I spoke to no one at Twitter or Apple before I wrote this. It’s all my own brand of pure speculation. 

Hasta La Alta Vista, Baby.

By - June 29, 2013

I just saw the news that Yahoo! is “sunsetting” Alta Vista, one of the first “good” search engines. This makes me a little misty, as Alta Vista was the search engine I used BG – Before Google – and it had a real shot at *being* Google, had its various owners not utterly screwed it up over the years. Did you know, for example, that at one point Alta Vista was the largest and most widely used search tool on the web? Its driving force, Lois Monier, once told me “search should be a pencil” – he was adamant that Alta Vista not become a portal.

But Alta Vista was owned by DEC, a now dead computer company, which was bought by Compaq, another now dead computer company. And they made it a portal. And through the now defunct Overture, the assets of Alta Vista made their way to Yahoo!, a still alive portal. But now, Alta Vista is going to truly be dead.

It’s hard to watch an important player in the early Internet go away – and it makes me reflect on a couple of things. First, how much or our own culture and history we’re losing day by day, even despite the best efforts of archivists like Brewster Kahle. And secondly, on a personal note, Alta Vista was the search engine that helped me find my birth mother way back in 1995, when my wife was pregnant with our first child, and my life-long wonderings as an adoptee took on a new urgency. Alta Vista pointed me to an online forum for people like me, and there I found a person who helped me find my mother. Pretty cool.

So I’ll miss you, Alta Vista. And if any of you want to know the engine’s journey, well, there’s a book for that.

Facebook Is No Longer Flat: On Graph Search

By - January 15, 2013

A sample Graph Search result for the query “friends photos before 1999.”

By now the news is sweeping across the blogosophere and into the mainstream press: Facebook is doing Search!

Well, not so fast. Facebook is not doing search, at least not search Google-style. However, the world’s largest social network has radically re-engineered its native search experience, and the result is not only much, much better, it’s also changed my mind about the company’s long term future.

Yesterday, Tom Stocky, Facebook Product Management Director, and Lars Rasmussen, Engineering Director, gave me a sneak peek of today’s much anticipated announcement (it’s gonna be a phone! A new Newsfeed! A big acquisition!). So as to not bury the lead, Facebook has built what it’s calling “Graph Search,” a solidly conceived structured-search service which leverages the company’s massive trove of personal data in any number of new ways (some obvious, some nuanced, and some glaring omissions). But before I get to the details, I want to write about why this matters so much.

Prior to seeing the new search, I was not certain Facebook would ever live up to the hype it has accrued over its short life. It’s a good service, but it’s flat – over time, it struck me, people would tire of tending to it. They set up their social graph, toss a few sheep, poke some pals (or not), “like” this or that (often off-domain), waste hours on Farmville, and then…engagement drops slowly over time. I’m also not a fan of Facebook’s domain-specific approach to the world, as many of you know. Facebook’s new search doesn’t address Facebook’s walled garden mentality (yet), but it nails the first issue. Once this search product is rolled out to all of its members, Facebook will no longer be flat.

This is a big deal on many fronts. First and foremost, Facebook has an engagement problem, particularly in markets (like the US) where its use has become ubiquitous and many of its original users are two, three or more years into the “Facebook habit.” While the company doesn’t talk about this issue, I am confident it’s real (in private conversations with people at Facebook, it’s called the “set it up and forget it” problem). If people do not constantly feed Facebook with engagement, its value attenuates over time. As the service slows in overall growth, engagement with its current base becomes critical. New connections are the lifeblood of a service like Facebook. Without a steady stream of meaningful Likes, Friend Requests, declared Interests, and such, the platform would wither.

Put another way, Facebook needed a service that layered a fresh blanket of value over its core topography. Graph Search is it.

Zuckerberg’s Engagement

One sign of how important this new search is? According to the folks I spoke to yesterday, Facebook’s mercurial founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg calls Search the “third pillar” of the company’s service, elevating it to the level of Newsfeed and Timeline, the two most important new features since Facebook’s launch (Open Graph is probably up there as well, but it’s true value remains locked up until there is mortar connecting it all, which Search could well be).

A team of engineers and product folk have been working on Graph Search for more than a year, and Zuckerberg has been engaged with them the entire time. The team has been in “lockdown” – a exclusive state of focus on one product so as to ship it as quickly as possible – for the past 34 days. Lockdown is a time honored and rather prestigious occurence inside Facebook, dating back to Zuckerberg’s original Facemash dorm room programming outburst. During the Search team lockdown, Stocky told me, he and Rasmussen got plenty of 2 AM emails and unexpected late night visits from the CEO.

In other words, this is A Really Big Deal for the company.

Why? Well, a quick tour of the product will explain.

What Is It? 

Graph Search subsumes Facebook’s previous search offering, which was extremely weak and focused mainly on the use case of navigation (finding people and pages).  The new service takes full advantage of the face that Facebook is, at its core, a massive structured database of tagged entities. The initial beta “indexes” four main types of these entities: People, Photos, Places, and Interests. Over time, I am told, Facebook will expand its index to include all Facebook posts and even the Open Graph – which means the “rest of the web.”

But for now, users can search across four main categories, using a slick set of intuitive verbs (“lives,” “like,” “work,” etc.), nouns (“San Francisco,” “Indian,” “restaurants,” “friends” etc.), prepositions (“before,” “with,” “in”) and pronouns (“who,” that,” etc.). This makes for a richly structured set of results: “Friends of friends who live in San Francisco and like Indian restaurants,” for example. Or “Friends who have been to Ireland,” or “Photos of friends before 1990.” Once you get the hang of it, the possible pivot points are endless, and the results are quite intriguing.

Stocky and Rasmussen, both ex-Googlers, walked me through a few intriguing use cases, one of which harkens back to one of Facebook’s original use cases – dating – and another which looks forward and presents a threat to LinkedIn’s current strength: Recruiting.

Let’s say you’re single, and you’re interested only in dating engineers who are also friends of your friends. With Graph Search, it’s ridiculously easy to find “friends of friends” who are also engineers. (And single, of course). You can look at their pictures, profiles, interests, and then ask for an introduction from whichever of your pals happens to be connected to one who looks like a good prospect (you could also just “poke” the guy if you wanted to…). Want only C++ programmers, or Indian C++ programmers, or  Indian C++ programmers under 35 years of age? Done.

Or, let’s say you work at, I dunno, Google. And you want to recruit product management talent from, say, Facebook. Again, the best way to get to that talent is probably a friend. So why not do a search for “friends of friends who work at Facebook and are product managers”? Why not, indeed.

One can imagine such functionality will create a lot of new engagement on the service. And not just from people “friending” prospective beaus or hires. Recall that when Google burst onto the scene, it prompted a dramatic response from owners of web pages, who immediately began rewiring their sites to be optimized for search. Similarly, Facebook’s Graph Search will incent Facebook users to “dress” themselves in better meta-data, so as to be properly represented in all those new structured results. People will start to update their profiles with more dates, photo tags, relationship statuses, and, and, and…you get the picture. No one wants to be left out of a consideration set, after all.

Facebook Gets More Weather

Last year I wrote a post titled “Facebook Is Now Making Its Own Weather.” The focus was on Facebook’s Newsfeed, and how an economy of value was now in place to game Facebook’s “edgerank” algorithm, which determines what stories show up in a person’s feed. With Graph Search, I expect a similar ecosystem will emerge. All of a sudden, two things will be true that previously were not: Facebook users will be using search, a lot, creating liquidity in Facebook “SERPS.” And secondly, there will be significant perceived value in being included in those search results, both for individuals (I want to be considered for that job at Google!) and for companies/brands (I want to message to anyone looking for a job!).

While Graph Search is in very early beta, I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by predicting that it won’t be long before Facebook integrates a product that lets marketers purchase ads in these new search results. It already has a similar product, which is by default included in suggested searches (the “auto completed” queries suggested to a user as they enter terms). At the moment, however, paid listings are not included in search results. They will be. Which means, of course, the rise of a native SEO/SEM ecosystem inside Facebook. Add in Open Graph search across the web, and presto…Google’s got some serious potential competition. (Well, not exactly presto. Incorporating Open Graph is going to take some serious chops and time. But still…).

Even without incorporation of Open Graph or Posts, Graph Search is going to change the game for brands and people on the Facebook service. As I watched Stocky and Rasmussen put their product through its paces, I couldn’t help but wonder how much new traffic the product will drive around the Facebook Platform. Will Facebook be watching “conversions” – clickthroughs from search results to profiles and pages? Of course they will! Will Facebook report those referrals to individuals and brands, much as Google Analytics does for webpage today? Not yet…but wait for it. It’ll come….

 What’s Missing: Sharing Results

I’ve already noted that Graph Search does not index content (posts) or the Open Graph, though I’m told that’s coming. But the big miss, from my point of view, is the inability to share search results.

Share search results? Who’d want to do that? Well, in web search, very few of us. That’s because with rare exception, open web search is not an inherently social action – it’s private and it’s ephemeral. But inside the walls of Facebook, it’s definitionally so. In fact, I’d argue that every single “result page” in Graph Search is a “media object” in its own right. If you search for “pictures of friends before 1990,” for example, you get the equivalent of a Pinterest board of your friends’ childhood shots. Wouldn’t you like to post that on your timeline so your pals can see it? Better yet, wouldn’t you like to export it to Pinterest or Tumblr? Of course you would (but, alas, I don’t expect Facebook will allow it, under cover of “protecting user privacy.” More on that in a second.)

Or take another example. Say you have a pal in Southern California who is despondent after being dumped by her boyfriend. You do a quick Graph Search for “single friends of friends under 30 who work in Los Angeles.” The results look pretty promising. Don’t you want to shoot them over to your pal with the subject line “Don’t despair, there are plenty of fish in the sea!” Of  course you do.

I mean, just a query like “Photos I Like” is a huge feature win for Facebook. And who wouldn’t want to post a montage of “Photos I Like” to their timeline? (Or, ahem, their personal blog?!)

For now, you can’t share the results of your searches with anyone else, and that’s a bug that should be a feature. When I brought up the issue, I was told that the privacy implications of sharing searches were extremely complicated. Because of past missteps and current scrutiny, Facebook is going to tread cautiously here (privacy was a central theme in Graph Search’s launch). I certainly understand why, but while those issues are sorted, I expect there are going to be a lot of screen shots of Graph search results being shared around the web.

Bigger privacy issues will likely arise around what might be called the Randi Zuckerberg principle – as in “Oh shit, I didn’t realize I’d show up in that circumstance!” Graph Search is going to expose all manner of privacy controls as super important, and send millions back to Facebook’s sometimes-confusing dashboards, so as to appropriately re-tool settings such that nothing untwoard shows up in this important new functionality.

And to me, this is a Very Good Thing. A couple of years ago, I wrote a post titled  The Rise of Digital Plumage in which I predicted that we’d all become habituated to “dressing” ourselves in structured data, so as to best present ourselves to the world at any given time. Graph Search is another important tool in our ever-growing digital wardrobe, one that motivates us to understand and manage the implications of our ever-expanding digital footprint.

Facebook just posted an announcement about its new search here.  The initial beta will roll out slowly, folks will have to ask to join a waitlist to get the service. I’ll be updating this post as the news is discussed and digested….

Facebook Is Now Making Its Own Weather

By - November 09, 2012

(image) The past month or so has seen the rise and fall of an interesting Internet tempest – the kind of story that gets widely picked up, then quickly amplified into storms of anger, then eventually dies down as the folks who care enough to dig into the facts figure out that the truth is somewhere outside the lines of the original headline-grabbing story.

The topic this time around centers on Facebook’s native ad unit called “Sponsored Stories,” and allegations that the company is gaming its “Edgerank” algorithm such that folks once accustomed to free promotion of their work on Facebook must now pay for that distribution.

Edgerank determines the posts you see in your Facebook newsfeed, and many sites noticed that sometime early this Fall, their traffic from Facebook shrank dramatically. Others claimed traffic had been declining since the Spring, but it wasn’t until this Fall that the story gained significant traction.

I’ve been watching all this play out – first via an angry post on the New York Observer site in which the author posits that Facebook is “broken on purpose” so as to harvest Sponsored Story revenue. An even angrier post on the same theme came five weeks later on a site called Dangerous Minds. From it:

Spring of 2012 was when bloggers, non-profits, indie bands, George Takei, community theaters, photographers, caterers, artists, mega-churches, high schools, tee-shirt vendors, campus coffee shops, art galleries, museums, charities, food trucks, and a near infinite variety of organizations; individuals from all walks of life; and businesses, both large and small, began to detect—for it was almost imperceptible at first—that the volume was getting turned down on their Facebook reach. Each post was now being seen only by a fraction of their total “fans” who would previously have seen them.

The author goes on to argue that Facebook was breaking the implicit contract between himself – an independent blogger – and Facebook, the corporation.

…as a publisher of a medium readership blog, I used to get a great deal from using Facebook—but I understood it to be a two-way reciprocal arrangement because I was driving traffic back to Facebook as well, and reinforcing their brand awareness with prominent widgets on our blog.

Now, if you’ve read my Thneeds post, you know I’m sympathetic to this point of view. I believe large social platforms like Facebook and Twitter “harvest” content from the Indpendent Web, and leverage the traffic and engagement that this content creates on their platforms to their own benefit via scaled advertising offerings. Most of us are fine with the deal – we promote our work on social sites, social sites drive traffic back to us. We like that traffic, either just because we like more folks reading our work, or, in the case of commercial sites like this one, because we serve ads against it.

Now, as I’ve noted many times over the past six months, this bargain is breaking down, because it’s getting harder and harder to monetize traffic using standard display advertising units. That’s not Facebook’s problem, per se, it’s ours. (See here for my suggestions as to how to solve it).

Nevertheless, for many sites, the spectre of losing significant traffic from Facebook means a serious blow to revenues. And from the point of view of the Dangerous Minds blogger, Facebook first cut his traffic off, then began asking him to pay to get it back (in the form of promoting his posts via Sponsored Stories).

This makes for a very good narrative: corporate greed laid bare. It got picked up by a lot of sites, including Ars Technica and even the aforementioned George Takei, who is upset that he’s lost the ability to push his posts to all 2.9 million of his Facebook fans.

Turns out, the truth is a lot more complicated. I’ve done some reporting on this issue, but not nearly as much as TechCrunch did. In a follow up to the Dangerous Minds story, TechCrunch claimed to have debunked the entire story. Titled Killing Rumors With Facts: No, Facebook Didn’t Decrease Page Feed Reach To Sell More Promoted Posts, the story argues that Facebook didn’t change its algorithms to drive up revenue, but rather to cull “spammy posts” from folks’ newsfeeds.

Facebook has always shown just a percentage of all possible posts in a given person’s newsfeed. Anyone paying attention already knew that. The company uses its Edgerank algorithm to determine what it thinks might be interesting to an individual, and sometime in the past few months, I can confirm through sources which wish to remain anonymous that Facebook made a pretty significant change to Edgerank that penalized posts that it felt were not high quality.

Of course, that begs the question: How does Facebook determine what “quality” is? The answer, in the main, is by measuring engagement – is the post shared, liked, clicked on, etc? If so, then it is seen as quality. If not, it’s demoted in value.

Is this sounding familiar to anyone yet? In short, Facebook just executed a Panda.

I held back from writing anything till this predictable cycle played out, because I had a theory, one that I believe is now confirmed: Facebook is now making its own weather, just like Google, and in the past couple months, we’ve witnessed the first widespread instance of a Facebook weather event.

For those of you who don’t know quite what I’m talking about, a bit of history. Ten or so years ago, the ecosystem around search began to notice shifts in how Google drove traffic around the web. Google would make a change to its algorithms, and all of a sudden some sites would see their traffic plummet (other sites sometimes saw the opposite occur). It seemed to those injured that the only way to get their Google traffic back was to buy Google AdWords – corporate greed laid bare. This story played out over and over, to the point where the weather events started to get names, just like hurricanes do. (The first was called Boston).

Early last year Google made a major change to its algorithms that penalized what it believed was lower quality content. Dubbed “Panda,” the changes targeted “content farms” that cranked out SEO friendly pages as AdWords bait. This had dramatic effects on many sites that specialized in “gaming” Google. It also hit sites that weren’t necessarily playing that game – updates like Panda often create collateral damage. Over time, and as it always does, Google fine-tuned Panda until the ecosystem stabilized.

I believe that Facebook is now learning how to manage its own weather. I don’t know the Dangerous Minds website well enough to know if it deserved the drop in traffic that occurred when Facebook had its Panda moment. But one thing does strike me as interesting to note: A significant drop in traffic means a particular site is losing audience that has proactively decided to click on a link inside their newsfeed. That click means the person leaves Facebook and goes to the the Dangerous Minds site. To me, that’s a pretty serious sign of engagement.

However, one might argue that such a signal is not as important to Facebook as internal ones such as “liking” or “sharing” across the Facebook network. To that end, I am sure we’ve not heard the last round of serious grumbling that Facebook is gaming its own Edgerank algorithm to benefit Facebook’s internal goals – to the detriment of the “rest of the web.” Be they publishers or folks like George Takei, who after all wants to push his Facebook fans to any  number of external links where they might buy his books or sign up to meet him at the next Comic Con, the rest of the web depends on “social traffic” from Facebook. The question is, should they optimize for that traffic, or will their efforts be nullified in the next Edgerank update?

Facebook is learning how to tread the delicate line between its own best interests, and those of its users – and the Internet That Is Not Facebook. Google does this every day – but it has a long history as a distributor of traffic off its main site. Facebook, not so much. Over time, the company will have to decide what kind of a relationship it wants to have with the “rest of the web.” It will probably have to start engaging more openly with its own ecosystem, providing guidance on best practices and how to avoid being penalized. This is a practice that took Google years to hone, and many still think the company has a lot of work to do.

Regardless, Facebook is now making its own weather. Now comes the fun part: Trying to predict it.

Help Me Stop HubAdverts Dot Com!

By - October 19, 2012

I’ve been working with my site design partner Blend to try to track down a spammer who has taken my entire site and repurposed it as their own, replete with tons of ads and a clear intent to draft off Searchblog’s quality content (if I do say so myself) and, most likely, its pagerank as well.

The site is “hubadverts.com” and no, I’m not going to link to it. Each of my posts is ripped off as a URL including that domain – if you click on the domain, you get a scammy feeling ecommerce site. But at “hubadverts.com/on-data/” for example, you will see a recent post of mine, scraped in its entirety.

The funny thing about this site it that it scrapes my full text RSS feed, then rebuilds my site. Then it has spammy sites trackback to the rebuilt site, and leave comments there. Oddly, those trackbacks and comments are emailed to me as if I was the WordPress administrator of the site. Of course, the last thing I am going to do is try to log into the back end of the site, because that would give the spammers access to the backend login information of my own site. It’s phishing and blackhat SEO all rolled into one!

The “news hub” where my ripped-off posts reside includes an ad urging folks to “Unblock the Pirate Bay,” which concerns me, because just writing this post probably is inviting a DDOS attack. But I don’t think ripping off my site and damaging my reputation is defensible, and I’m speaking up about it.

I emailed Toni Schneider, the CEO of WordPress, for advice, and he suggested I change my RSS feeds so the scrape includes attribution. I did so, and sure enough, now the spam site attributes Searchblog and links back to it. (I am very fortunate to have Toni as a colleague!). However, while this proved the site was scraping my RSS feed, it doesn’t solve the problem. Toni suggested some other remedies, which we are looking into, but he also suggested I do what I’m doing now: Public shaming. After all, the site is violating my non-commercial Creative Commons license, and quite possibly damaging my own pagerank – Google doesn’t like it when spammy sites are seen as linking to you, and it hates duplicate content.

So I want it stopped. But a lookup of the site’s owners show the listing is private – I don’t have anyone to go after. And the site itself is an endless mousetrap of scammy ecommerce sites, among other things.

Hence, I’m asking you, the Searchblog readers, who are always smarter than I, to help me figure out a way to make this right. Any ideas?

Bing Tries Harder, But For Me, It’s A Draw

By - September 06, 2012

It’s not easy being number two. As a marketer, you have limited choices – you can pretend you’re not defined by the market leader, or, you can embrace your position and go directly after your nemesis.

For years, Bing executives have privately complained about how hard it is to “break the Google habit,” even as they refused to market directly against Google. They were Avis, always trying harder.

No more. Today Microsoft announced its “Bing It On” challenge, a direct descendant of the iconic Pepsi challenge more than 30 years ago (the fact that I still remember that marketing campaign, and feel good about it, is a testament to its power).

It’s always a risk to ask consumers to test products blind, side by side, but Bing is doing it: Right here at “Bingiton.com.”

I bit and took the challenge – how did it go?

My first query has been my baseline for more than ten years – my own name (“john battelle“). Yeah, it’s a vanity search, but all of us have very strong opinions about what comes up when we put our names into search.

The winner? It was close, but Bing won. Its results seemed fresher – the Google screen had stuff about me from eBay and the BusinessWeek exchange in the first page (I never use eBay, and haven’t been active on that BusinessWeek page for more than two years). The Bing side also had my LinkedIn profile, which I consider important, though it also had an old picture of me flipping off the camera from 1998 (that’s getting very old), and a picture of a former business partner who isn’t me at all.

My second search – the misspelled (on purpose) “bset hotels sydney” made me question how the results were being delivered to the test site. Given how much I know about Google’s SERPs, it was pretty easy for me to tell which side was Google (it’s the left – the giveaway is the list of hotels with integrated reviews). But the results didn’t look quite like I was used to at Google. Here’s a comparison:

The main reason? This test had stripped out Google’s Maps feature for some reason, which certainly penalized the page from a visual and utility standpoint. Doesn’t seem like a fair fight.

So I gave that one a draw and moved onto another search.

Next up I tried a search I know both engines have had a bit of trouble with. I often lose the URL of my son’s boy scout troop, and have to search around for it a bit – it used to be buried in a nested Web 1.0 service, but recently was updated with its own URL, which unfortunately has terrible SEO. My first query usually doesn’t work, but it leads me in the right direction. It’s been a year or so since I’ve tried this (my son is older now), so I thought this might be a fresh search with some history to it. The query is “troop 43 larkspur california“.

The winner was most certainly Google. It found the old website (which has been impossible to find in the past) and the new one built in the last two years.

My next query was very utilitarian. My dad had a scare last night and is staying overnight at the hospital. I need to call the main line to check how he’s doing. So I entered “marin general hospital phone.” I figure if you put the word “phone” in there, the search engine should understand I need the phone number.

The Bing results had the number in the snippet of the first result. Google had it broken out clearly, but as the fourth result. Again, I know on Google I always get a map. But there was no map in these results. Also, I know that Bing prides itself on breaking out phone numbers, but I didn’t see the familiar Bing phone breakout box. Oh well, I had to go with Bing, because the information I needed was surfaced in the first result.

So going into my last search, it was two for Bing, one draw, and one for Google.

 

My last test was “winter rentals stinson beach” – a search I’ve done recently – and with some frustration – as I am taking a place there to write over the winter. I know what good results look like here, given I’ve done a lot of poking around already. It was relatively easy for me to pick a winner. It was Google, which filtered out most of the single home entries (I don’t want to find one home, I want to find listings with lots of them) and it also highlighted services and a local realtor I happen to know has the best inventory in the area.

So for me, the test concluded as a draw – two wins for Bing, two for Google, and one disqualification. Not exactly the two-to-one ratio in favor of Bing that Microsoft claims is the average, but then again, not bad either.

Remember, this is an entirely non scientific and subjective “test.” And of course, this test by its nature must exclude any personalization, search history, or other important bells and whistles that search engines use to tailor results to ongoing clients.

In the end, Bing proved to me that it deserves to be considered equal to Google for a variety of use cases. I don’t know if that’s enough to break the Google habit, but it certainly will get folks talking. And that’s an important part of marketing, isn’t it?!

What Is Search Now? Disjoined.

By - August 31, 2012

(image shutterstock)

Today I answered a question in email for a reporter who works for Wired UK. He asked smart questions, as I would expect from a Wired writer. (Some day I’ll tell you all my personal story of Wired UK – I lived over there for the better part of a year back in 1997, trying to make that magazine work. I mostly failed – but it’s up and running strong now.)

In any case, one question in particular struck me. The writer is preparing a piece on the future of search. (I’ll link to it when it comes out). What big problems, he asked, still plague search?

That got me thinking. Here’s my answer:

The largest issue with search is that we learned about it when the web was young, when the universe was “complete” – the entire web was searchable! Now our digital lives are utterly fractured – in apps, in walled gardens like Facebook, across clunky interfaces like those in automobiles or Comcast cable boxes. Re-uniting our digital lives into one platform that is “searchable” is to me the largest problem we face today. 

It may be worth expanding on that sentiment. When it broke out in the mid 1990s, the web was society’s first at-scale digital artifact.  It spread in orders of ten, first thousands, then millions, then hundreds of millions of pages – and on it went, to the billions it now encompasses. Everybody wanted to “be” on the web – a creator class started making pages and companies and services, a consumer class started “surfing” this vast new digital object, and our collective conscience marvelled at what we had created together: millions of small pieces loosely joined. And the key and unappreciated point is this: those pieces were indeed joined.

It was that joining – through links, of course – that made search possible, that created what is unquestionably the most powerful and lasting new company of the past 20 years – Google.* But as I wrote in Why Hath Google Forsaken Us? A Meditation, Google’s core model – built on the open, linked world of the web – is under threat from the advance of the iPhone and the app, the Facebook and the Path, the automobile console, the Xbox, the cable box, and countless other “unlinked” digital artifacts.

Google knows this. Why else invest so much in Android, in Google+, in Motorola (it’s not just phones, it’s also cable boxes), in self-driving cars, for goodness sake? Google wants a foothold wherever digital information is created and shared, and man, are we creating a sh*t ton of it. Problem is, we’re not making it easy – or even possible – to link all this stuff together, should we care to.

Which takes me back to that core question the Wired reporter asked me: What’s the biggest problem plaguing search? In short, it’s that our digital world is no longer small pieces loosely joined. It’s also big chunks separate and apart. And that makes search – in its most broadest interpretation – damn near impossible.

Which leads to another question: What then, is search? Of course, the Wired reporter asked me that as well. My answer:

Search is now more than a web destination and a few words plugged into a box. Search is a mode, a method of interaction with the physical and virtual worlds. What is Siri but search? What are apps like Yelp or Foursquare, but structured search machines? Search has become embedded into everything, and has reached well beyond its web-based roots.

So we all search now, all the time, across all manner of artifacts, large and small. But our searches are not federated – we can’t search across these repositories, as we could across that wonderful, vast, loosely joined early world of the web. We’ve lost the connection.

Call me a fool, but I think the need for that connection will be so strong, that in time, we’ll sew all our digital artifacts back together again. At least, I certainly hope we will. Right now, it ain’t looking so likely – what with patent wars, wagon circling by big platforms, and the like. But I’m an optimist – and I hope you are as well.

* Sorry but Facebook isn’t there – yet. And Microsoft and Apple, well, they may make a play for that crown either 20 years ago or 20 years hence, but if you ask me for the most important company ever that launched as a native web business, the answer is indisputably Google.

 

 

 

Here We Go Again: The Gray Market in Twitter and Facebook

By - August 07, 2012

So, casually reading through this Fast Company story about sexy female Twitter bots, I come across this astounding, unsubstantiated claim:

My goal was to draw a straight line from a Twitter bot to the real, live person whose face the bot had stolen. In the daily bot wars–the one Twitter fights every day, causing constant fluctuations in follower counts even as brands’ followers remain up to 48% bot–these women are the most visible and yet least acknowledged victims…

There it was, tossed in casually, almost as if it was a simple cost of doing business – nearly half of the followers of major brands could well be “bots.”

The article focuses on finding a pretty woman whose image had been hijacked, sure, but what I found most interesting (but sadly unsurprising) was how it pointed to a site that promises to a thousand  followers to anyone who pays…wait for it…about $17. Yes, the site is real. And no, you shouldn’t be surprised, in the least, that such services exist.

It has always been so.

Back when I was reporting for The Search, I explored the gray market that had sprung up around Google (and still flourishes, despite Google’s disputed attempts to beat it back). Fact is, wherever there is money to be made, and ignorance or desperation exists in some measure, shysters will flourish. And a further fact is this: Marketers, faced with CMO-level directives to “increase my follower/friend counts,” will turn to the gray market. Just as they did back in the early 2000s, when the directive was “make me rank higher in search.”

Earlier this week I got an email from a fellow who has been using Facebook to market his products. He was utterly convinced that nearly all the clicks he’s received on his ad were fake – bots, he thought, that were programmed to make his campaigns look as if they were performing well. He was further convinced that Facebook was running a scam – running bot networks to drive performance metrics. I reminded him that Facebook was a public company run by people I believed were well intentioned, intelligent people who knew that such behavior, if discovered, would ruin both their reputation as well as that of the company.

Instead, I suggested, he might look to third parties he might be working with – or, hell, he might just be the victim of a drive-by shooting – poorly coded bots that just click on ad campaigns, regardless of whose they might be.

In short, I very much doubt Facebook (or Twitter) are actively driving fraudulent behavior on their networks. In fact, they have legions of folks devoted to foiling such efforts.Yet there is absolutely no doubt that an entire, vibrant ecosystem is very much engaged in gaming these services. And just like Google had at the dawn of search marketing, Twitter and Facebook have a very – er – complicated relationship with these fraudsters. On the one hand, the gray hats are undermining the true value of these social networks. But on the other, well, they seem to help important customers hit their Key Performance Indicators, driving very real money into company coffers, either directly or indirectly.

I distinctly recall a conversation with a top Google official in 2005, who – off the record – defended AdSense-splattered domain-squatters as “providing a service to folks who typed the wrong thing into the address bar.” Uh huh.

As long as marketers are obsessed with hollow metrics like follower counts, Likes, and unengaged “plays,” this ecosystem will thrive.

What truly matters, of course, is engagement that can be measured beyond the actions of bots. It is coming. But not before millions of dollars are siphoned off by the opportunists who have always lived on the Internet’s gray edge.