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That's TWO Ads On Google's Homepage

By - January 06, 2010

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I remember the time when Sergey and Larry swore they’d never have ads on the homepage of Google. Last month I noted a big one for Chrome. Today there’s an additional one. Now that’s TWO ads! Google has its own products to market now, and it’s using it’s biggest firehose of attention to tell folks about them. Both are major new fronts in very large wars: Mobile and OS/Browser.    

How do you think this will effect its core brand?

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Fast Flipping Off Amazon's Kindle

By - December 16, 2009

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Everyone knows Kindle is a closed development platform (IE, there’s not an app environment that lets developers make the Kindle platform better). Today I saw the news that Google has doubled the number of publishing partners who are now leveraging the company’s “Fast Flip” e-reader software, and it got me to thinking.  

First, Fast Flip is software that runs anywhere the web runs, including mobile apps. It has an Android and iPhone version, and I’m sure there will be a RIM version soon. And when Apple’s tablet comes out, and any other ebook/netbook competitor to Kindle, I’m sure Fast Flip will be there. Fast Flip is a web native app, and it plays nice with the web, from what I can see. And Google is clearly interested, as a company, in fostering developers to build out on its various platforms, from Android to Chrome to Google’s App Engine.

To my mind, this means Google is now in competition with Amazon not just for books, but for all professional publishing products. While it’s true that publishers can and have developed versions for Kindle, the fact that it’s not an open platform means Amazon has a chokehold on what gets to be on the device. I doubt FastFlip will ever live on the Kindle – though it’d be a win for all if it did, I imagine. And I also doubt that the Kindle, anytime soon, will work in an easy way with the web ecosystem, the way FastFlip seems to (I need to use it more, but it makes sharing and social actions easy, for example).

Another way to think about it is that both Kindle and FastFlip are operating systems for reading packaged goods content. Hence, they compete for the marketplace of people who need those services. Of course, the web is the underlying OS, but FastFlip works like a newsstand of sorts, letting you easily browse products and dive in when you want.

As I noted in my earlier Kindle rant, I find a e-reader like the Kindle ideal for reading periodicals. I wonder, might Fast Flip might steal that market away from Amazon? Might FastFlip become an OS standard on next generation e-readers, netbooks, and mobile phones? A lot depends on whether publishers feel like they can trust Google as an newsstand agent. That’s an open question, to be sure.

I’m not as up to speed on this stuff as I’d like to be, so if I’m missing something, let me know.

Some background reading on all of this: (Credit, Oil, IT, and) Paper Ain’t Free, So Don’t Waste It.

What's Up?

By - December 13, 2009

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(This piece was written for the BingTweets blog and is part of an ongoing exploration of search underwritten by Microsoft. See my series on the interplay of search and decisions here, here, and here. I wrote the piece below before today’s web-wide conversation about content farms, but I think it’s related. We need new frameworks for search, and real time points us toward one potential path.)

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The rise of real time search (just this past week, Google rolled Twitter, Facebook and Myspace data into its results) has everyone buzzing. Of course, BingTweets was the first real time mashup from a major player in search (and Microsoft has already announced its intentions to go further), but we’re just at the start of where real time search might go. What might things look like a few years from now?

In my last BingTweets post (Decisions Are Never Easy) I posited the idea of a real time service that connects us to each other based on expertise. So if I wanted to talk with someone who was an expert in buying classic cars, the service would find that expert and connect me to him or her.

I think real time search is a step toward building an ecosystem that makes such a service possible. But we have to get out of our current modes of understanding search interfaces to really grok how this might work. At present, we still see search as a modal dialog box, where we type in a request, then wait for an answer. As different search interfaces develop, new opportunities arise. We’ve seen a fair amount of innovation in search interfaces lately (here’s more on Pivot, for example), but real time data presents a significant challenge.

We can see the challenge in the companies most directly responsible for feeding data into the real time search index. Twitter recently changed its opening question from “What are you doing?” to “What’s happening?” That subtle shift invited a much more robust set of potential responses to be poured into the service (and subsequently parsed by search services). And Facebook just this week announced it will make all of its members’ status updates part of its universally public feed. Its question? “What’s on your mind?”

I recently heard from a reliable source inside Facebook that there are 40 times more status updates daily on Facebook’s network than on Twitter. That’s a lot of data to parse, whether you are a search service, or a consumer of that service’s product. What might it look like?

Well, start with the use case. Why might we want to query a real time search index? My first answer is simply this: To find out “what’s up.” Now, there are nearly endless refinements of that general concept: What’s up with the smoke I can see in the mountains behind my house? What do people who bought the Palm Pre recently think of their new phone? What bands are playing in Chicago this weekend that I might like? What’s up with Jahvid Best, will he play in Cal’s bowl game? All of these questions are variations on the theme of “What’s up?”

Given the right approach to interface, algorithms and filters, all of these queries can be answered by real time search.

(more at BingTweets….)

Google Is Failing More

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Paul points it out as a failed dishwasher search. Mike complains about automated content as does RWW. And we all have experienced it: The Google ecosystem is failing more – failing to get us what we think we want. Failing to not frustrate us. Failing at the more complicated queries we are throwing at it. Failing to be the Google that we came to love back when the web was small and Facebook was a way for Harvard geeks to try to get laid.

Now, Google’s ecosystem is ripe for a quick buck – “content farms” that build article pages cheaply to make a quick buck off AdWords. But these articles, at least for a portion of us, don’t really provide the answers we are looking for. (thanks @thejames for the pointers.)

As Paul puts it in bemoaning his fruitless attempt to use Google for a researching a dishwasher purchase:

This is, of course, merely a personal example of the drive-by damage done by keyword-driven content — material created to be consumed like info-krill by Google’s algorithms. Find some popular keywords that lead to traffic and transactions, wrap some anodyne and regularly-changing content around the keywords so Google doesn’t kick you out of search results, and watch the dollars roll in as Google steers you life-support systems connected to wallets, i.e, idiot humans.

Google has become a snake that too readily consumes its own keyword tail. Identify some words that show up in profitable searches — from appliances, to mesothelioma suits, to kayak lessons — churn out content cheaply and regularly, and you’re done. On the web, no-one knows you’re a content-grinder.

The result, however, is awful.

Yes, it often is. But I’m not worried about this. Audiences always route around that which they don’t want, and when something better comes along as a navigational interface, we’ll pick it up, and quick. If Google doesn’t figure this out, someone else will, and the cycle will repeat.

The truth is, we’re asking far more complicated questions of search than we used to, and we’re expecting the same magic we used to get back when the web had magnitudes of order less content. Back in 2002, when we put “dishwashers” into Google, we’d probably find someone’s blog who was talking about his favorite models. Now, we have five hundred or more attempts at gaming the keyword itself, each promising a potential answer, but rarely delivering it – at least not if we have a complicated question in mind. For simple answers, content farms most likely do a fine job. But the truth is, we are not asking many simple questions of search. We’re expecting a lot more.

And in the end, this is a good thing. Our expectations drive innovation, and I can sense a major breakthrough is coming. To my mind, the essential element required for that breakthrough is human in nature. We need a new framework for search, one that allows us to leverage our inherent ability to converse. And from what I can tell, it’s closer than we might think.

2010 is going to be a very interesting year.

Google's Real Time Rolling Out

By - December 08, 2009

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Google’s real time search integration, announced at Web 2 in October, is rolling out (good coverage from SEL). It’ll be integrated as “Latest results.” I’ll be watching how this effects the traffic referral ecosystem across the web – that’s the key. Will Twitter grow? Will Google start to obviate some refers it’s now sending to Facebook? Or will the opposite occur?

Google’s announcement is here. NYT coverage is here.

Google Wants Your Small Biz To Barcode Itself

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Google has launched a “Favorite Places” program to jumpstart its local search business. I like the moxy, but the ecosystem is lacking a clear dose of “Why Should I Do This,” at least from the point of view of the business. Or the customer, for that matter. The program has the same “Church lady dancing to rap” feeling that marks nearly all of Google’s socially-driven products.  

If Google is serious about this space, they best buy Foursquare, pronto, and let the folks there take over.

What Are The Conversion Rates for Google's "First Click Free"?

By - December 01, 2009

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Google today announced a new policy in its ongoing attempt to reach detente with an increasingly querulous publishing industry. (For background, read Mashable’s piece).  

A key piece of the new policy has to do with changes to Google’s “First Click Free” program. From Google’s announcement:

One way we overcome this is through a program called First Click Free. Participating publishers allow the crawler to index their subscription content, then allow users who find one of those articles through Google News or Google Search to see the full page without requiring them to register or subscribe. The user’s first click to the content is free, but when a user clicks on additional links on the site, the publisher can show a payment or registration request. First Click Free is a great way for publishers to promote their content and for users to check out a news source before deciding whether to pay. Previously, each click from a user would be treated as free. Now, we’ve updated the program so that publishers can limit users to no more than five pages per day without registering or subscribing. If you’re a Google user, this means that you may start to see a registration page after you’ve clicked through to more than five articles on the website of a publisher using First Click Free in a day.

OK, I have some issues with all of this. First, why on earth do publishers need Google doing this for them? Google passes them a refer, and they can take that and do what they want with it. And they can surely create index-able “teaser pages” for their paid content as well. Publishers, stop asking Google to do the work you can and should own yourselves! Do you really need Google’s help here?

But that’s not what’s got me scratching my head this evening. My real question comes down to the whole “First Click Free” program itself.

Google clearly created this program to appease (or OK, if you want to spin it that way, to help) the publishing industry. Now it’s adding features that it says should help publishers close a loophole that is allowing Google users to get content for free.

That implies that folks are actively using Google as a tool to get free content. Is this really the case?

Perhaps, but I’d guess it’s a pretty low percentage of folks who actively try to get the Wall Street Journal by repeatedly searching on Google.

The really interesting question is this: Does “First Click Free” actually deliver a decent conversion of paid customers to media companies? (Know that by traditional marketing metrics, a decent conversion is pretty damn low – IE less than one half of one percent of people who see a paid offer actually converting).

Anyone out there have an answer?

Help Grok Pivot, A Novel Approach to Search Interface

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Microsoft has been kind enough to give me a limited number of invitations for readers of Searchblog to grok Pivot, which I wrote about here last week.  

In that post I promised to grok Pivot, then report back more here. Alas, Pivot is currently Windows only, and – alas – I am currently Mac only. I do have a couple of PCs in my house, but they are owned by my son and my wife, and it’s fair to say I’m not eager to to use them for experimental installs. My son in particular will kill me if I touch his machine (though I’m pretty sure he’s going to download Pivot before I ever do).

Anyway, those of you with a PC and a desire to check out a new approach to search, you’re in luck.

Head to the Live Lab’s Pivot page, and when you hit the download button, enter this code during the install process:

A1C8 7318 57F3 E92C

But hurry. This code expires after a certain number of you use it…..Tell ’em Searchblog sent ya, and please, let me know what you think. I wish I could play with it…

Update: There are some international use issues, from Gary’s email explaining it:

…we think your readers are encountering another issue which is summarized with a work-around at:

  http://www.getsatisfaction.com/live_labs_pivot/topics/no_setup_internet_connection

Basically, in order to release the Pivot as early as we did, we chose to defer fully internationalizing the code. As a result, Pivot will not cooperate with a system that is non-English and non-US. However, some of our users have reported that by changing the system defaults for language and location, they have been able to successfully install and use Pivot.

Just Give Me One Modal Dialog ….

By - November 22, 2009

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Back when I was reporting the book, I remember a meeting I had with Gary Flake, then the lead technologist at Overture, now a Fellow at Microsoft running Live Labs, responsible for stuff like Seadragon, Photosynth, and now, Pivot, an experimental approach to large datasets that attempts to rethink some fundamental approaches to what we understand search to be today.  

Back in 2004, I asked him why we couldn’t move forward in search interface, which struck me as a major issue (and still does). Gary looked at me ruefully and said something I’ve never forgotten: “If only I had just one modal dialog box…”

What he meant was that search, at that point, was a race for the best ten blue links, and anything that got in the way of that, like a modal dialog box that popped up and asked a refining question, would mean that a very large percentage of folks would abandon the search.

And abandonment of the search meant loss of revenue.

Google was just better at getting (approximately) the right first set of blue links, and hence, it won the first round of the search interface wars.

But things are changing. A lot.

I’ve notice lately that I’ve not been happy with search results, because, well, there’s just not enough refinement in the SERPS. But it’s not just the SERPS, its also the interface. I’ve written a lot about this, but in short, I’m frustrated with the way search does post declarative navigation. (OK, that’s totally geeky, but those of you who really care probably know what I mean).

And this is why I’m grokking Pivot right now, and let me just say this….this is worth grokking. So I am going to be doing just that over the next day or so…expect more soon.

If you’d like to grok Pivot, check out this presentation. You’ll need Silverlight….