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Why Data Matters, Another Interesting Signal: Direction Requests

By - May 09, 2011

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Greg Linden, a friend to the site back when I was writing the first book, is writing more lately, and he’s got a great post about Google Maps data that highlights why we’ve decided to focus on “The Data Frame” for the Web 2 Summit this year.

Greg notes that Google has a new signal to which it can pay attention, thanks to Google Maps. And while I’m sure Greg could have figured this out on his own, he didn’t have to, because some Googlers have already published their findings in a paper titled “Hyper-Local, Direction-Based Ranking of Places.”

In short, the paper posits that when people signal their intent to go from place A to place B, they are creating the equivalent of a link, or a vote, for the place to which they are requesting directions. Pretty clever. As Greg notes:

…certain very large search engines have massive logs of people asking for directions from A to B, hundreds of millions of people and billions of A to B queries. And, it appears this data may be as or more useful than user reviews of businesses and maybe GPS trails for local search ranking, recommending nearby places, and perhaps local and personalized deals and advertising.

What Greg (and I) found surprising is that Google hasn’t been leveraging this new data signal in its current Maps (and other local) products. It’s clearly a strong signal, and one that could inform all sorts of social context as well. Can you imagine finding out others who have asked for similar directions, and then connecting you to them in some way? I sure can.

I’d also love to see a heat map of directions in real time, overlaid in time, space, and social graph.

Data like this mashed up with reviews, real time traffic, and more will be extraordinarily useful. Food for thought.

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Book Review: In The Plex

By - April 20, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

By - March 30, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

+1: Google Figures Out a Way To Leverage Search.

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Google today did something smart in social – they offered a human way to do something they had already offered – the ability to indicate your approval of a search result. Previously, you could push a result up or down, but that action was not social in nature. Now you can “+1″ a search result, so as to indicate the result was good and/or valuable to you. That recommendation is then translated to others in your social graph.

Cool! But I sure wish it integrated with Twitter, at the very least. And man, it’d sure be powerful if it worked with Facebook. Wouldn’t it, now?! But from what I can tell, that will NEVER happen.

Instead, “+1″ is going to become Google’s version of the “Like” button from Facebook – the post is very direct about this:

But the +1 button isn’t just for search results. We’re working on a +1 button that you can put on your pages too, making it easy for people to recommend your content on Google search without leaving your site.

Because it’s directly tied to Google’s most powerful asset, search, I think this move has some serious legs. Site owners will want to put the button on their site – even if they have no idea how or even *if* those “+1s” will aid ranking in organic Google search. I can tell you this: Spammers will have a field day with this one, though I imagine the button will be gated in some way (perhaps to push it, you have to be logged into a Google account). In any case, it’s a smart way to leverage Google’s core strength.

Game on.

(BTW, over at Boing Boing, we’ve used “+1″ as a way to indicate agreement in email threads for years, a remnant of older email systems long since forgotten. That practice is alive and well at FM as well. Funny how Google picked up on the same notation.)

This Is News? JC Penney and Link Farms

By - February 13, 2011

nytgoog.pngAs I read this NYT story on JC Penney’s black hat link farms, I felt like I was in a way back machine – I mean, five solid pages of copy about … old school low-rent link-spam sites? Really?

I dunno, if this is news, the news is getting stale. The never-ending battle between Google and link-buying outfits is as old as search itself. The story told in the Times’ piece sheds absolutely no new light on the tale, despite leading with lines like “the digital age’s most mundane act, the Google search, often represents layer upon layer of intrigue.”

I read the piece eagerly, expecting that it would turn up a smoking gun – proof that either someone at JC Penney knowingly paid black-hat search optimizers, or proof that someone at Google knowingly looked the other way as JC Penney, a major Google advertiser, employed these tactics. Either would have been big news.

But nope, nothing like that. Just yet another story about tactics that have been around forever, and rounds of denials that anyone knowingly did anything wrong. I do find it rather odd, given how unsophisticated the tactics were, that Google didn’t catch such an obvious and widespread link farming operation, but the Times’ didn’t push into that angle, essentially giving Google a pass (citing the “Web is really big” defense).

Sure, the web is really big, but that’s pretty much the reason Google is so valuable – it figured out a way to make the web come to heel. I am surprised that Google didn’t catch this story before the Times did. There was nothing particularly sophisticated in the approach JC Penney took to get highly ranked, and it’s certainly embarrassing for Google that, in essence, all JCP had to do was hire someone to populate a few thousand spam blogs to get the job done.

I’m going to guess that more than a few folks are feeling the wrath of Larry Page today. I’d sure love to read the memo he must have sent around….

Me On Google Change

By - January 21, 2011

I did a short bit on Bloomberg (they have some amazing studios in SF on the water, had not been there, good to see my old pal Cory, who is now working there). Here’s the video:

Whoa!!! Larry Page To Take Over As Google CEO

By - January 20, 2011

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This just in…via WSJ:

Google Inc. said co-founder Larry Page will replace Eric Schmidt as chief executive, a surprise change atop the Internet giant.

Mr. Page will take charge of day-to-day operations as CEO starting April 4. Mr. Schmidt will become executive chairman of the company, focusing externally on partnerships and government outreach.

Moments after Google announced the change, Mr. Schmidt sent a message to his Twitter followers saying, “Day-to-day adult supervision no longer needed!”

Here’s the tweet.

Old timers will recall Larry ran Google before the founders brought in Eric back in 2001. Wow. More on this as it develops.

Update: Here’s Eric’s post announcing the change. From it:

For the last 10 years, we have all been equally involved in making decisions. This triumvirate approach has real benefits in terms of shared wisdom, and we will continue to discuss the big decisions among the three of us. But we have also agreed to clarify our individual roles so there’s clear responsibility and accountability at the top of the company.

Larry will now lead product development and technology strategy, his greatest strengths, and starting from April 4 he will take charge of our day-to-day operations as Google’s Chief Executive Officer. In this new role I know he will merge Google’s technology and business vision brilliantly. I am enormously proud of my last decade as CEO, and I am certain that the next 10 years under Larry will be even better! Larry, in my clear opinion, is ready to lead.

Sergey has decided to devote his time and energy to strategic projects, in particular working on new products. His title will be Co-Founder. He’s an innovator and entrepreneur to the core, and this role suits him perfectly.

As Executive Chairman, I will focus wherever I can add the greatest value: externally, on the deals, partnerships, customers and broader business relationships, government outreach and technology thought leadership that are increasingly important given Google’s global reach; and internally as an advisor to Larry and Sergey….

… We are confident that this focus will serve Google and our users well in the future. Larry, Sergey and I have worked exceptionally closely together for over a decade—and we anticipate working together for a long time to come. As friends, co-workers and computer scientists we have a lot in common, most important of all a profound belief in the potential for technology to make the world a better place.

And here’s live coverage of the earnings conference call, where the three are talking about the changes.

So what does it all mean? Well, I have to say that upon reflection, I’m not all that surprised. Eric has been at it for a decade, a very long time to be running a company, particularly one that has very headstrong founders in key positions of power. It’s quite interesting that Google did not look outside its ranks for a new CEO, instead doubling down on one of its original founders. I think it’s fair to say that Larry Page will not be a conventional CEO – he’s not been much of a public figure for the past ten years – Sergey is the more gregarious and press friendly of the two. It will be interesting to see if that changes, or if Page chafes at the relentless public demands of running a massively scrutinized public company.

It certainly makes for an interesting comparison to Google’s two other main rivals – Facebook and Apple. CEO questions have loomed large for both those companies – Apple’s Steve Jobs recently took a third leave of absence for health related reasons, and many have questioned whether Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was mature enough to handle the job of leading a high-flying public company.

But all three companies have the DNA of being founder- and product-driven entities. With this move, Google is confirming what many already knew, and preparing for the battle ahead.

Does Google Favor Its Own Services?

By - January 19, 2011

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

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

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

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

So am I.

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

Make My Baby – Is The Baby Facebook? Updated: No, It's Myspace…

By - January 18, 2011

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Over the weekend, as I pondered an eMarketer report estimating Facebook’s advertising revenue at $1.86 billion (seems low), I wondered to myself: When will Facebook start to drive the kind of widespread graymarket activity which proved Google’s immense worth? Or will it ever?

Allow me to explain. Back in the days when Google and its rival Overture were on the rise (this would be pre-IPO for Google, so around 2002-3), an army of small time arbitragers were gathering, leveraging Adwords (and in 2003, Adsense) to make money in any number of ways. But the basics were pretty easy to grok: Say you could purchase a click on Adwords for the term “cute kitty” for fifty cents. And say further that when someone clicked on your Adword, they’d show up at a third-party site, and 10 percent of the time, they’d follow instructions to fill out a mortgage application. And say that further, you could sell that filled-out application to a lender for $15.

If you do the math – ten clicks costs you $5 on Adwords, but you make $15 for selling that lead, which converts one in ten times – it explains why a huge business sprang up around Adwords and Adsense. If you are paying attention, redirecting attention from cute kitties to mortgage brokers will pay extremely well. The same proved true for all manners of lead generation, from cel phone plans to life insurance to automobiles.

It’s legal, but it leaves a kind of queasy feeling in your stomach, don’t it?

Now, just that feeling has risen up around Facebook advertising in the past (in particular around social gaming), but I was waiting for it to break out full blown into the “real world” outside of Internet ponziland. When would Facebook become a hotbed of affiliate arbitrage across the board? To me, that would be a sign that Facebook was breaking out just like Google did in 2003.

So it’s funny how this story from RWW breaks just this weekend. And funnier still how it’s all about Google’s competitor, Bing, which has changed the economics of the Internet advertising ecosystem by pricing conversions well above previous floors. It’s all just too rich. Literally. (Google’s Matt Cutts points this out in his own way right here).

The details: RWW found the fact that a random website called “Make-My-Baby.com” was the third largest advertiser on Facebook in Q3 2010. Turns out, it’s an affiliate play driven by Microsoft Bing bounty money. In short, Microsoft offers a certain amount of money, per user, to anyone who can convert that user into a Bing customer. The company behind Make My Baby, Zugo, seems to be a vintage arbitrageur. In fact, Zugo hasn’t even updated its terms and conditions, which date back to 2009 and seem cut and pasted from a program they ran in England doing for Ask.com that they are now doing for Bing.

Clearly, Zugo has found that buying ads on Facebook pays well. The question remains, however, whether that is true for a whole new class of arbitrageur.

Ah, me loves me some Interwebs.

Update: Bing has terminated its relationship with Zugo, SEL reports. And Zugo was using MySpace inventory, NOT Facebook….

Google Instant Isn't Opinion, Apparently?

By - December 13, 2010

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I was just reading this piece from Fast Company: Top Google Engineer: Google Instant Has No Brand Bias, and this quote struck me:

“What we do at Google and what we’ve done for years is to not inject any subjectivity into these algorithms,” says Amit Singhal, Google Fellow and head of the company’s search quality, ranking, and algorithm team. “We didn’t want to introduce any bias into the mathematical modeling–our modeling is predicting, given a letter, what’s the probability of completion.

Singhal is speaking about Google Instant, which has apparently accused of bias in its suggested search algorithm. I believe he’s speaking the truth – that when it comes to whatever is suggested, it’s pretty much all math, save a few human-coded exceptions around porn, etc.

But the problem Google has is that when it says one thing about one algorithm, it resonates around all others. This is the curse of PageRank – one ring to rule them all, at least in the minds of most consumers. And in that sense, it directly contradicts Google’s take on the “objectivity” of algorithms, as I discussed here. In short, it’s in Google’s interest to say algorithms are protected speech (opinions), and therefore protected by the First Amendment.

Apparently, that doesn’t apply to Google Instant. Hmmm.