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Web 2 Conversation: Robin Li

By - November 18, 2010

I found myself really engaged with Robin (CEO, Baidu) in this conversation, and I found his answers to some difficult questions – like doing business under the Chinese government’s rule – to be refreshingly honest.

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On Retargeting: Fix The Conversation

By - August 30, 2010

The New York Times published a story on the practice of retargeting today, entitled “Retargeting Ads Follow Surfers to Other Sites.” While not nearly as presumptively negative as the WSJ series on marketing and data, it’s telling that the story is slugged with “adstalk” in the URL. Journalists and editors generally dislike and mistrust advertisers – I know, because I am both an editor and a journalist, I’ve worked at places like the Times, and only after studying the business of media for several years (and starting a few companies to boot) have I come around to a more nuanced point of view. We can’t expect every editor to do the same.

But maybe I have an idea that can help.

As the Time piece admits, retargeting is not new. What seems new, the article concludes, is how much the practice has increased, to the point where people feel like they are being “stalked” around the web, often in a fashion that “just feels creepy.”

Well, as I’ve said a million times, marketing is a conversation. And retargeted ads are part of that conversation. I’d like to suggest that retargeted ads acknowledge, with a simple graphic in a consistent place, that they are in fact a retargeted ad, and offer the consumer a chance to tell the advertiser “Thanks, but for now I’m not interested.” Then the ad goes away, and a new one would show up.

The technology and processes required to do such a simple task are already in place. Most third party services which provide retargeting services already use the “i” logo in the creative, which when clicked tells consumers “why am I getting this ad.” Why not extend that to include a “not right now” button, one that allows the consumer to tell the ad he or she is not quite ready for this offer?

Screen shot 2010-08-30 at 8.04.52 AM.pngFacebook is already training us all toward this end with the “X” in the upper right hand corner of every ad on the site (see image at left). Why not modify this practice to mean “No thanks, not right now.” It’s the equivalent of telling a salesperson at a retail outlet “I don’t need your help right now, thanks.”

I’m far more likely to be open to a marketer who offers me a platform to politely say “no thanks for now” that one who pushes a retargeted ad on me to the point of irritation.

And when a consumer says “no thanks,” as any good salesperson knows, that’s an opportunity to learn. No rarely means no forever. Marketing is a conversation, one with more than one exchange. Just because the first one isn’t a sale, doesn’t mean the next one (or the one after that) can’t be. Especially if you have the good graces to know when to pull back into the wings for a while.

Just a thought.

AT&T Weighs In: Trust Us, We Know What You Want

By - August 15, 2010

So I’ve read this post – Wireless is Different (AT&T blog) – several times now, and while AT&T is a respected brand, I have to differ on this policy issue. In this post, AT&T’s policy folks weigh in on the Verizon/Google dust up, saying “it’s really hard to do what we do and therefore we need to be seen as different.”

I’ve heard this before, a million times, and I don’t buy it. As I recall, it’s what the telcos said back in the mid to late 1990s, when they noticed the Internet eating up their wired (before wireless data) network, and didn’t want to be consigned to being “dumb pipes.” They complained that it’s really, really hard to do the kind of high quality, low down time service required for phone calls, and that the Internet was getting a free ride on all that hard work they did to lay the pipes, routers, and QoS (quality of service) processes down that allowed the Web to blossom.

Now that we’re going from wired to wireless, these same folks don’t want “the open Web” to happen to them again all over again. If they have to compete in an open marketplace, with the best applications and services on neutral ground, well, they’ll just be consigned, once again, to a commodity service layer with low margins. That’s their greatest nightmare. It’s far better to have a monopoly position as a gatekeeper to all our bits: to decide who can compete, and take tolls all along the way.

Ugh. Look at the way AT&T defines the debate in its post: “In order to provide consumers with the high quality wireless broadband services that they demand, wireless carriers must to be able to dynamically manage traffic and operate their networks in an environment free from burdensome, arbitrary and unnecessary regulations.”

In other words, *we* know what’s best for you, *we’ll* provide the services you want and need, so don’t *you* worry your pretty little head about things like, well, starting companies on a level footing, or providing services over our networks that we’ve not already pre-ordained or blessed.

Again. Ugh.

AT&T, this can’t stand. I appreciate you for many reasons, and I am a customer many times over. But this can’t stand and I hope the FCC has the backbone to do the right thing.

No Quaero: Good Luck With That, China

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China has announced it will build a state run search engine to compete with, no wait, dominate and overrun, its own semi-autonomous upstarts Baidu (CEO Robin Li is coming to Web 2 this year) and Yahoo-backed Alibaba (CEO Jack Ma came in years past).

All I can say is “Good luck with that, China.”

If search engine share is seen as equivalent to vote counts at a rigged election, I have no doubt that the Chinese state engine will have a commanding share within a year. But in the hearts and minds of sophisticated Chinese users, there will be no doubt as to what the state run service is really all about. Control.

Reminds me of a highly touted, and now forgotten, European effort to start a continental search engine called Quaero. You don’t remember it? You are not alone. Fortunately, you hang out with search geeks like me. Here’s my final piece on that albatross.

It can’t be a lot of fun to run Baidu right about now. Makes me wonder if Google knew this was coming when it chose to step out of China. If it didn’t, man, does it look smart now.

Or Maybe It's Really About (Google) TV…

By - August 11, 2010

Screen shot 2010-08-11 at 8.48.02 AM.png

Yesterday I posted some thoughts on the Google-Verizon framework, offering what turns out to be a pretty widespread sensibility, at least in the punditocracy, that this whole thing feels off, not like Google, counter to the brand.

There had to be another reason Google would do this, something super important that forced its hand, something so crucial to its own perceived future that it would be willing to upset its core brand advocates.

But what? I wrote: “it gives me the sense that the two parties are colluding in some way, creating and/or obscuring potential loopholes which will allow side deals in other parts of their business.”

I then suggested this had to do with Android. And perhaps it does.

But a very well placed source just sent me a thoughtful note, and it immediately stuck a nerve. Perhaps this has not to do with Android as much as it does the future of television.

Google TV, according to those that see it, is very very powerful stuff, and a major weapon on Google’s war with Apple (not to mention Microsoft and others). It’s streaming, interactive HD with the web folded into it (and it’s based on Android). And to work, it will need a fast lane on the ol’ info superhighway. Screen shot 2010-08-11 at 8.52.45 AM.pngA really fast lane. And perhaps, preferential treatment to boot.

Might Google petition that Google TV is an “Additional Online Service” outside the protected net neutrality framework it’s developing with Verizon? Such a service sure would drive subscriptions for Verizon and customers and advertisers for Google.

Hmmm. I think I’ll ask.

Second (Day) Thoughts on Google-Verizon Framework – Isn't This All About Android?

By - August 10, 2010

Today’s Washington Post has a second day editorial from the CEOs of Verizon and Google on their proposed legislative framework first announced Monday. Here it is:

Eric Schmidt and Ivan Seidenberg – From Google and Verizon, a path to an open Internet

I read this article three times and I am still not sure what exactly the two are trying to express, or what problem they are trying to solve. Are Google and Verizon in violent disagreement, but together have decided they can live with this compromise? Did the FCC ask the two to sit in a room and not come out till they had an agreement? If so, why?

And what kind of agreement is this? What’s the predicate? What obstacle stands in their way such that they had to get in the room in the first place? Is it really an enlightened attempt by two giants to further debate around a key policy issue? Or is it something else?

As it stands, this piece feels written by committee, and while it may not be fair to say this, it gives me the sense that the two parties are colluding in some way, creating and/or obscuring potential loopholes which will allow side deals in other parts of their business. In particular it raises my eyebrows as it relates to mobile, which the two companies suggest should be outside the framework. This feels forced. Something else is up. Does this have to do with Android, which has become to Verizon what the iPhone is to AT&T? Apple, after all, has pretty much got AT&T pinned down (though lord knows net neutrality ain’t gonna fly in Steve Jobs’ version of the Interwebs). I imagine Verizon, whose partner Google is well known for its pro-net neutrality stance, is not too happy with how the chess game might have played out. Did Verizon force Google into this position?

Because the position feels, well, not particularly “Googley”.

I’d love to be wrong. But this piece doesn’t make be comfortable. I’ll keep digging in, and if you have seen anything that might enlighten me, let me know. The proposal is here. More links as folks start to digest the news:

Google-Verizon plan: Why you should worry (Salon) Dan Gillmor’s analysis. In essence, he is arguing that the framework creates two Internets, one open and public, but over time ignored as an investment platform, the second private and fast, but expensive and dictated by corporations. Ick.

Google-Verizon Pact: It Gets Worse (HuffPo) A rant from the Free Press, which has been all over this since the beginning. Biased, but compelling.

Google and Verizon Offer a Vision for Managing Internet Traffic (NYT) The Times’ news take. Sums up the concerns pretty well.

Google Has A History of Agonizing. Will This Be a Chapter, or A Conclusion?

By - August 09, 2010

The Wall St. Journal has a compelling story about Google executives, including Page and Brin, struggling with the vast amount of actionable data available to the company, and what to do about it, even before Facebook pretty much forced the Internet giant to play their hand. A must read.

If any of you recall Google’s agony over China, its entry and then its withdrawal, this will certainly sound familiar.

Google Takes One More Step Away From China

By - June 29, 2010

Google today announced another step in its protracted divorce from China – to satisfy regulatory and license requirements, it’s no longer directly serving results from its Hong Kong based (and uncensored) engine onto its site. Instead, it’s directing users to the Hong Kong site, in essence, creating one more click for users to go through before accessing its service.

And there’s no certainty that service will be allowed inside China, as the regime is clearly not pleased with Google’s failure to roll over. Google’s license to do business inside the country apparently expires tomorrow. This move was clearly intended to convince China that Google is living by the letter of Chinese law. I’m not sure that matters, and it may effect Google’s other businesses – Maps, for example.

Meanwhile, Google’s main competition, Baidu, which as a homegrown company has no such issues, has gained marketshare at Google’s expense. CEO Robin Li will be at Web 2 this Fall, a rare appearance and one certain to be newsworthy.

Here’s Google’s blog post.

It's Official – Apple Kicking Google Out of iWorld

By - June 09, 2010

I’cover5_06.gifve written extensively about iAds here and here, and one question I raised has to do with Apple’s policies with regard to third party data and ad networks, in particular AdMob.

As All Things Digital notes today, Apple this week “clarified” its policy with regard to third party networks, and it’s hard to read it as anything other than a direct declaration of war with Google. In short, third party ad networks can run in AppWorld, but only if they are “independent”. Put another way, sorry AdMob, you’re not welcome here. (I interviewed AdMob CEO at the CM Summit Monday, and asked him about this. This was before the policy was clarified, but he seemed pretty certain Apple would do this.)

I think this is shortsighted and wrong. I also think it’s classic Apple. It’s a re run of the Us vs. The World mentality that forced the Mac into a corner back in the late 1980s. This time, Google plays the role of Microsoft, but it really doesn’t matter. Apple won’t let anyone play in their iWorld who might pose a competitive threat.

This is all we need now – a major platform war, with marketers and developers having to pick sides, cost of development, ad serving, analytics, and marketing services at least tripled (one process for Android, one for iPhone/Pad/Touch, one for Microsoft or Palm/HP or…. ). That’s not what the web is about. It’s disheartening.

AdMob’s response is here. From it: “This change threatens to decrease – or even eliminate – revenue that helps to support tens of thousands of developers. The terms hurt both large and small developers by severely limiting their choice of how best to make money. And because advertising funds a huge number of free and low cost apps, these terms are bad for consumers as well.

Let’s be clear. This change is not in the best interests of users or developers. In the history of technology and innovation, it’s clear that competition delivers the best outcome. Artificial barriers to competition hurt users and developers and, in the long run, stall technological progress.”

What do you think?

Google's New Mission? "To Organize the World's information (Unless It Starts With "i") ….."

By - May 13, 2010

googmission.pngI had a good call today with Dennis Woodside, who runs North American Sales for Google, and Susan Wojcicki, who runs products. Both are long timers at Google, Susan is pretty much a llfer – she joined in 1999.

Both are joining me on stage at the CM Summit next month, a first for Google to have ad products and sales represented in one onstage interview. We had a great catchup and prep for the conversation, which I think will be enlightening.

After we hung up, I contemplated my earlier posts about Google’s brand, and realized I had forgotten to talk to them about one question that’s lingered in my mind for some time. In essence, it’s this: “What is Google’s brand to you? To your customers?” Then I imagined their response – something along the lines of “our mission hasn’t changed – we’re still focused on organizing the world’s information, and making it universally accessible.”

True – that mission certainly covers most of what Google does today (though it’s a mouthful for the average consumer to grok). But then something struck me – and its name was Apple.

Allow me to explain. Earlier in the day I was in the offices of Adobe, meeting with various folks and talking business. Apple was very much on everyone’s minds given Adobe had just launched its “We (Heart) Apple” and “We (Heart) Open” campaign (see my post here).

All this was stewing in my head as I contemplated Google’s mission on the drive home. And it struck me – Google was born back in the late 1990s, when it seemed inevitable that everything – all the world’s knowledge – was going to be on the web, eventually. It was just presumed that the web would swallow the world – and for ten years, it largely did.

But in the past year, that world has fractured, and increasingly, a new planet has emerged, one that is best represented by Apple. It’s the Planet of the Apps, and while it’s rich in experience, data, and information, it’s largely sealed off from Google’s (or anyone else’s) search spiders.

This is another way of pointing out what folks have called the SplinterNet or the Fractured Web, but somehow, I found it rather poignant to think that Google’s ambitious mission is, in a very real sense, threatened by Apple’s approach to the world. No longer can we assume that “The Web is the World” – because increasingly, it’s not.

This is due, in part, to Google’s own ambition – had it stayed a pencil – just search – Apple probably would not see the company as a threat. I wondered to myself, as I drove home from San Jose, whether Apple would let a third party search engine, one that was not competing for mobile, location, commerce, media access, etc – crawl its App World and bring it out into the light?

I’m starting a dialog with folks from Apple on Friday. I’ll ask. I’m guessing the answer is no, but it’s worth a shot. One can dream, after all. I’ve been doing just that for 25 years in this industry, and I’m not going to stop now.