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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.

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Larry Page Makes His Case

By - April 05, 2012

Given the headlines, questions, and legal actions Google has faced recently, many folks, including myself, have been wondering when Google’s CEO Larry Page would take a more public stance in outlining his vision for the company.

Well, today marks a shift of sorts, with the publication of a lenthy blog post from Larry titled, quite uninterestingly, 2012 Update from the CEO.

I’ve spent the past two days at Amazon and Microsoft, two Google competitors (and partners), and am just wrapping up a last meeting. I hope to read Page’s post closely and give you some analysis as soon as I can. Meanwhile, a few top line thoughts and points:

– Page pushes Google+ as a success, citing more than 100 million users, but still doesn’t address the question of whether the service is truly being used organically, rather than as a byproduct of interactions with other Google products. I’m not sure it matters, but it’s a question many have raised. He also doesn’t address, directly, the tempest over the integration of G+ into search.

– Page also does not directly address the issue of FTC privacy investigations into the company, not surprising, given any company’s response to these investigations is usually “no comment.” However, Google might have explained with a bit more gusto the reasons for its recent changes.

– Page tosses out another big number, this one around Android: 850K activations a day. Take that, Apple!

– Page uses the words “love” and “beauty” – which I find both refreshing and odd.

– Page also talks about making big bets, focusing on fewer products, and how it’s OK to not be exactly sure how big bets are going to make money. This is a topic where Google has a ton of experience, to be sure.

More when I get out of my last meeting….

On The State of Google’s Advertising Business: Neal Mohan at Signal SF

By - February 29, 2012

If you’ve been reading Searchblog, you know I’ve been writing quite a bit about Google, privacy, and the advertising business. All of those topics are going to be coming together in my interview with Neal Mohan, VP Product at Google, on the Signal SF stage next month.

Neal oversees display and mobile advertising for Google, and works directly with the company’s entire advertising stack, a formidable lineup of products that include the Doubleclick ad server and exchange businesses, AdSense, the Invite Media demand side platform, the pending AdMeld supply side platform, AdMob, and much more. Given the tempests over Google’s integration of its privacy policies, the integration of Google+ into Google search, and Google’s circumvention of Apple’s Safari browser, it’s bound to be quite a conversation.

Register for Signal:SF here (we’re closing in on a sell out), and please leave any questions or comments you might have for Neal below. I’ll be listening and integrating your input. Also, below are a few more links for you to peruse on the topic of Google and its advertising business (as well as that of its main competitor now, Facebook).

Risk and Riches in User Data for Facebook (NYT)

Google: Calling Our Ad System Closed is ‘Ridiculous’ (Digiday)

Search Still Drives Google, but Display Ads a $5 Billion Business (AdAge)

New Display Ad Push Adds to Bag of Tricks (WSJ)

Study Finds News Sites Fail to Aim Ads at Users (NYT)

Google to Pass Facebook in Display Ads in 2013: eMarketer (eWeek)

‘Do Not Track’ won’t halt data flow (Boston Globe)

Google On Defensive Yet Again In Snafu Over Ad-Tracking In Safari Browsers (paidContent)

Google sugarcoated privacy policy changes to mislead users, group charges (ZDnet)

A Sad State of Internet Affairs (Searchblog)

Apple Gets Into (App) Search

By - February 26, 2012

It took longer than I thought it would, but it’s finally happened. Apple’s admitted that it needs real search to bring it’s tangled app universe to heel, and purchased Chomp, a leading third-party app review and search service.

Nearly two years ago I wrote this piece:  Apple Won’t Build a (Web) Search Engine. From it:

…but it will build the equivalent of an app search engine. It’s crazy not to. In fact, it has to. It already has app discovery via the iTunes store, but it’s terrible, with no signal that gives reliable results based on accrued intent.

What Apple needs is a search engine that “crawls” apps, app content, and app usage data, then surfaces recommendations as well as content . To do this, mobile apps will need to make their content available for Apple to crawl. And why wouldn’t you if you’re Yelp, for example? Or Facebook, for that matter? An index of apps+social signal+app content would be quite compelling.

What Apple will NOT do is crawl the entire web.

I still think that last sentence will remain true. It’s my hope that Apple continues to develop Chomp and help “real search” – the kind I describe above, to happen in iOS.

Thinking Out Loud About Voice Search: What’s the Business Model?

By - February 10, 2012

(image) I don’t have Siri yet – I’m still using my “old” iPhone 4. But I do have my hands on a new (unboxed) Nexus, which has Google Voice Actions on it, and I’m sure at some point I’ll get a iPhone 4GS. So this post isn’t written from experience as much as it’s pure speculation, or as I like to call it, Thinking Out Loud.

But driving into work yesterday I realized how useful voice search is going to be to me, once I’ve got it installed. Stuck in traffic, I tried searching for alternate routes, and it struck me how much easier it’d be to just say “give me alternate routes.” That got me thinking about all manner of things – many of which are now possible – “Text my wife I’ll be late,” “Email my assistant and ask her to print the files for my 11 am meeting,” “Find me a good liquor store within a mile of here,” (I’ve actually done that one using Siri on my way to a friend’s house last weekend).

I’ve written about this before, of course (see Texting Is Stupid, for one example from over three years ago), and I predicted in 2011 that voice was going to be a game changer. It clearly is, but now my question is this: What’s the business model?

I hate to pick on Google, but it’s worth asking the question, given how it dominates mobile search: What happens to the AdWords business model when a large percentage of mobile searches are done using voice? Given we don’t look at our screens while using voice commands (pretty much the whole point, no?), how will Google make money from voice search?

It’s an interesting question, but not for Apple – Apple doesn’t make money through search ads, so it can give voice search away for free, and use it as a benefit of buying and using the hardware device (which is where Apple makes its coin, after all). And from what I can tell, Apple uses Yahoo, Wolfram, Yelp and others to populate Siri’s search answers, not Google. I’m sure there’s a direct reason for that: Google probably wanted some kind of fee from Apple, and I’m guessing Apple had little interest in paying. (I also don’t know if Apple is paying Yahoo, Wolfram or Yelp, if any of you do, please let me know…)

Now, Google does have one model in market that could translate to money in voice search – what it calls “Click to Call.” This is the ability for businesses to integrate direct phone calling into their mobile ads. I don’t know if that model is integreated into Voice Actions, but I’d be surprised if it didn’t show up soon (I can imagine Google’s version of Siri asking “Would you like to call this business now?”). And while that should prove a decent revenue stream, it won’t cover the majority of voice searches. And Google isn’t a company that likes to give away search without a monetization strategy.

What do you think such a strategy might be? Could we even imagine the return of “paid inclusion” – where voice search results are returned based on who pays to be part of the results? Sounds far fetched, but at the right scale, it could work.

I’ve not done much thinking about this, but I bet some of you have. What do you say?

What Might A Facebook Search Engine Look Like?

By - January 16, 2012

(image) Dialing in from the department of Pure Speculation…

As we all attempt to digest the implications of last week’s Google+ integration, I’ve also be thinking about Facebook’s next moves. There’s been plenty of speculation in the past that Facebook might compete with Google directly – by creating a full web search engine. After all, with the Open Graph and in particular, all those Like buttons, Facebook is getting a pretty good proxy of pages across the web, and indexing those pages in some way might prove pretty useful.

But I don’t think Facebook will create a search engine, at least not in the way we think about search today. For “traditional” web search, Facebook can lean on its partner Microsoft, which has a very good product in Bing. I find it more interesting to think about what “search problem” Facebook might solve in the future that Google simply can’t.

And that problem could be the very same problem (or opportunity) that Google can’t currently solve for, the very same problem that drove Google to integrate Google+ into its main search index: that of personalized search.

As I wrote over the past week, I believe the dominant search paradigm – that of crawling a free and open web, then displaying the best results for any particular query – has been broken by the rise of Facebook on the one hand, and the app economy on the other. Both of these developments are driven by personalization – the rise of “social.”

Both Facebook and the app economy are invisible to Google’s crawlers. To be fair, there are billions of Facebook pages in Google’s index, but it’s near impossible to “organize them and make them universally available” without Facebook’s secret sauce (its social graph and related logged in data). This is what those 2009 negotiations broke down over, after all.

The app economy, on the other hand, is just plain invisible to anyone. Sure, you can go to one of ten or so app stores and search for apps to use, but you sure can’t search apps the way you search, say, a web site. Why? First, the use case of apps, for the most part, is entirely personal, so apps have not been built to be “searchable.” I find this extremely frustrating, because why wouldn’t I want to “Google” the hundreds of rides and runs I’ve logged on my GPS app, as one example?

Secondly, the app economy is invisible to Google because data use policies of the dominant app universe – Apple – make it nearly impossible to create a navigable link economy between apps, so developers simply don’t do it. And as we all know, without a navigable link economy, “traditional” search breaks down.

Now, this link economy may well be rebuilt in a way that can be crawled, through up and coming standards like HTML5 and Telehash. But it’s going to take a lot of time for the app world to migrate to these standards, and I don’t know that open standards like these will necessarily win. Not when there’s a platform that already exists that can tie them together.

What platform is that, you might ask? Why, Facebook, of course.

Stick with me here. Imagine a world where the majority of app builders integrate with Facebook’s Open Graph, instrumenting your personal data through Facebook such that your data becomes searchable. (If you think that’s crazy, remember how most major companies and app services have already fallen all over themselves to leverage Open Graph). Then, all that data is hoovered into Facebook’s “search index”, and integrated with your personal social graph. Facebook then builds an interface to all you app data, add in your Facebook social graph data, and then perhaps tosses in a side of Bing so you can have the whole web as a backdrop, should you care to.

Voila – you’ve got yourself a truly personalized new kind of search engine. A Facebook search engine, one that searches your world, apps, Facebook and all.

Strangers things will probably happen. What do you think?

Update: Facebook’s getting one step closer this week…

 

It’s Not About Search Anymore, It’s About Deals

By - January 14, 2012

As in, who gets the best deal, why didn’t that deal go down, how do I get a deal, what should the deal terms be?

This is of course in the air given the whole Google+ fracas, but it’s part of a larger framework I’m thinking through and hope to write about. On the issue of “deals,” however, a little sketching out loud seems worthwhile.

Go read this piece: Facebook+Spotify: An ‘Unfair, Insider, Anti-Competitive’ Relationship…

It’s a common lament: A small developer who feels boxed out by whoever got the sweet deal. In this case, it’s on Facebook, but we all know it happens inside the Apple store as well (whoever gets top billing, gets sales).  Closed ecosystems controlled by one company create this dynamic. There’s only so much real estate, and the owner of the land gets to determine the most profitable use of it.

Google now appears to be acting the same way, cutting Google+ a “deal” so to speak, giving it the best real estate for all manner of search queries. That’s not how search was supposed to work. Search was supposed to reflect the ongoing conversation happening across all aspects of the Internet. If you were that small developer, you worked hard to get your service noticed on the web, and as it picked up a following, search would notice, start raising your profile in search results, and a virtuous loop began. Is that concept now dead?

Search isn’t supposed to be about cutting a deal to get your company’s wares to the top of relevant searches. In my reporting over the past week, most of my source conversations have been about failed deals – between Google and Facebook, or Google and Twitter. But search is supposed to be about showing the best results to consumers based on objective (or at least defensible and understandable) parameters, parameters *unrelated to the search engine itself.*

With Google Search Plus Your World (shortened by many to SPYW, which is just laughably bad as an acronym), it’s rather hard to tell the two apart anymore. When I wrote last year that Google = Google+, I meant it from a brand perspective. I didn’t realize how literal it’s become. Because with SPYW, all I’m getting is Google+ at the top of my results. I know I can turn SPYW off, and I probably will. Or, I can bail on Google+ altogether. But there is a real conundrum in doing so – more on that in my next post.

Some are arguing that search is no longer about results anymore, and that for years search has pretty much been about paid inclusion anyway (either paid through SEO,  or paid through ads, which increasingly don’t look like ads). That now, Google is focusing entirely on getting you an answer, and surfacing that answer right there on the results page. Perhaps the “right answer” is best found through cutting deals.

But I hope not. Because for me, search is a journey, not an answer.

This SPYW story has raised so many questions, it’s rather hard to sort through them all. I guess I’ll just keep writing till I feel like the writing’s done…

Related:

Hitler Is Pissed About Google+

Google Responds: No,That’s Not How Facebook Deal Went Down (Oh, And I Say: The Search Paradigm Is Broken)

Compete To Death, or Cooperate to Compete?

Twitter Statement on Google+ Integration with Google Search

Search, Plus Your World, As Long As It’s Our World

Google Responds: No,That’s Not How Facebook Deal Went Down (Oh, And I Say: The Search Paradigm Is Broken)

By - January 13, 2012

(image) I’ve just been sent an official response from Google to the updated version of my story posted yesterday (Compete To Death, or Cooperate to Compete?). In that story, I reported about 2009 negotiations over incorporation of Facebook data into Google search. I quoted a source familiar with the negotiations on the Facebook side, who told me  “Senior executives at Google insisted that for technical reasons all information would need to be public and available to all,” and “The only reason Facebook has a Bing integration and not a Google integration is that Bing agreed to terms for protecting user privacy that Google would not.”

I’ve now had conversations with a source familiar with Google’s side of the story, and to say the company disagrees with how Facebook characterized the negotiations is to put it mildly. I’ve also spoken to my Facebook source, who has clarified some nuance as well. To get started, here’s the official, on the record statement, from Rachel Whetstone, SVP Global Communications and Public Affairs:

“We want to set the record straight. In 2009, we were negotiating with Facebook over access to its data, as has been reported.  To claim that the we couldn’t reach an agreement because Google wanted to make private data publicly available is simply untrue.”

My source familiar with Google’s side of the story goes further, and gave me more detail on why the deal went south, at least from Google’s point of view. According to this source, as part of the deal terms Facebook insisted that Google agree to not use publicly available Facebook information to build out a “social service.” The two sides had already agreed that Google would not use Facebook’s firehose (or private) data to build such a service, my source says.

So what does “publicly available” mean? Well, that’d be Facebook pages that any search engine can crawl – information on Facebook that people *want* search engines to know about. This is compared to the firehose data that was the core asset being discussed between the parties. This firehose data is what Google would need in order to surface personal Facebook pages relevant to you in the context of a search query. (So, for example, if you were my friend on Facebook, and you searched for “Battelle soccer” on Google, then with the proposed deal, you’d see pictures of my kids’ soccer games that I had posted to Facebook).

Apparently, Google believed that Facebook’s demand around public information could be interpreted  as applying to how Google’s own search service was delivered, not to mention how it (or other products) might evolve. Interpretation is always where the devil is in these deals. Who’s to say, after all, that Google’s “social search” is not a “social service”? And Google Pages, Maps, etc. – those are arguably social in nature, or will be in the future.

Google balked at this language, and the deal fell apart. My Google source also disputes the claim that Google balked at being able to technically separate public from private data. Conversely, my Facebook source counters that the real issue of public vs. private had to do with Google’s refusal to honor changes in privacy settings over time – for example, if I deleted those soccer pictures, they should also be deleted from Google’s index. There’s a point where this all devolves to she said/he said, because the deal never happened, and to be honest, there are larger points to make.

So let’s start with this: If Facebook indeed demanded that Google not use publicly available Facebook data, it’s certainly understandable why Google wouldn’t agree to the deal. It may not seem obvious, but there is an awful lot of publicly available Facebook pages and data out there. Starbucks, for example, is more than happy to let anyone see its Facebook page, no matter if you’re logged in or not. And then there’s all that Facebook open graph data out on the public web – tons of sites show Facebook status updates, like counts and so on in a public fashion. In short, asking Google to not leverage that data in anything that might constitute a “social service” is anathema to a company who claims its mission to crawl all publicly available information, organize it, and make it available.

It’s one thing to ask that Google not use Facebook’s own social graph and private data to build new social services – after all, the social graph is Facebook’s crown jewels. But it’s quite another thing to ask Google to ignore other public information completely.

From Google’s point of view, Facebook was crippling future products and services that Google might create, which was tantamount to an insurance policy of sorts that Google wouldn’t become a strong competitor, at least not one that  leverages public information from Facebook. Google balked. If Facebook’s demand could have been interpreted as also applying to Google’s search results, well, that’s a stone cold deal killer.

I certainly understand why Facebook might ask for what they did, it’s not crazy. Google might well have responded by narrowing the deal, saying “Fine, you don’t build a search engine, and we won’t build a social network. But we should have the right to create other kinds of social services.” As far as I know, Google didn’t chose to say that. (Microsoft apparently did). And I think I know why: The two companies realized they were dancing on the head of a pin. Search = social, social = search. They couldn’t figure out a way to tease the two apart. Microsoft has cast its lot with Facebook, Google, not so much.

When high stakes deals fall apart, both sides usually claim the other is at fault, and that certainly seems to be the case here. It’s also the case with the Twitter deal, which I’ve gotten a fair amount of new information about as well. I hope to dig into that in another post. For now, I want to pull back a second and comment on what I think is really going on here, at least from the perspective of a longer view.

Our Cherished Search Paradigm Is Broken (But We Will Fix It….Eventually)

I think what we have here is a clear indication that the search paradigm we’ve operated under for a decade or so is broken. That paradigm stems from Google’s original letter to shareholders in 2004. Remember this line?Our search results are the best we know how to produce. They are unbiased and objective, and we do not accept payment for them or for inclusion or more frequent updating.

In many cases, it’s simply naive to claim Google is unbiased or objective. Google often favors its own properties over others, as Danny points out in Real-Life Examples Of How Google’s “Search Plus” Pushes Google+ Over Relevancy and others have also detailed. But there is a reason: if you’re going to show results from all other possible contenders, replete with their associated UI and functional bells and whistles (as Google does with its own Maps, Pages, Plus etc.), well, it’s nearly impossible now to determine which service is the right answer to a particular person’s query. Not to mention, you need to put a deal in place to get all the functionality of the service. Instead, Google has opted, in many cases, to go with their own stuff.

This is not a new idea, by the way. Yahoo’s been doing it this way from the beginning. The contentious issue is that biasing some results toward Google’s own products runs counter to Google’s founding philosophy.

I have a theory as to why all this is happening, and I don’t entirely blame Google. Back when search wasn’t personalized, Google could defensibly say that one service was better than another because it got more traffic, was linked to more (better PageRank), and so on. Back when everyone got the same results and the web was one homogenous glob of HTML, well, you could claim “this is the best result for the general population.” But personalized search has broken that framework – I lamented this back in 2008 with this post: Search Was Our Social Glue. But That Is Dissolving (more here).

With the rise of Facebook and the app economy, the problem of search has become terribly complicated. If you want to have results from Facebook in your search, well, that search service has to do a deal with Facebook. But what if you want results from your running app (I have hundreds of rides and runs logged on AllSportGPS, for example)? Or Instagram? Or Path, for that matter? Do they all have to do deals with Google and Bing? There are so many unconnected pieces of the Internet now (millions of apps, most of our own Facebook experiences, etc. etc.) that what’s a good personal result for one person is not necessarily good for another. If Google is to stay true to its original mission, it needs a new framework and a massive number of new signals – new glue – to put the pieces back together.

There are several ways to resolve this, and in another post, I hope to explore them (one of them, of course, is simply that everyone should just go through Facebook. That’s the vision of Open Graph). But for now, I’m just going to say this: The issues raised by this kerfuffle are far larger than Google vs. Facebook, or Google vs. Twitter. We are in the midst of a major search paradigm shift, and there will be far more tears before it gets resolved. But resolve it must, and resolve it will.

Top Searches of 2011 Start Coming In, and They Remain Vapid

By - November 28, 2011

Bing released its top searches of the year today, continuing the trend of presuming the year ends before December begins (watch for Yahoo and Google’s lists in the next week or so). Once again, the data is utterly uninspiring and shallow. I mean, did we really not know that the US is fascinated with celebrities and iPhones?

This is becoming something of a trope for me, but given all the data to which search giants like Microsoft and Google have access, I’d love to see some real data science being applied – find us the conceptual scoops, the insights, the second and third order trends. Is that too much to ask?