Since I posted my call to action last week, nearly 600 folks have raised their hands and told me they’re reading this site via RSS. That’s pretty good, given my actual request was buried under 500 words of rambling conjecture, and my Disqus commenting system went down for portions of the first day. Not to mention, my RSS feed has grown by about 90% since the last time I posted the request, yet the number of comments (plus Tweets and other responses) was three times higher. It was the most comments I’ve ever gotten on any post, period.
So I think it’s fair to say the call was answered (we missed the overall number by about 85 votes, but there’s still time). For at least a very vocal minority of readers, RSS is still a critical tool. But, reading through the comments, it’s clear RSS has major issues, and that no one is really expecting those issues to get resolved. Most of you depend on Google Reader, and feel like the Google+ integration has been a step backward. And those of you who are publishers feel like Feedburner (also a Google product) is neglected and untrustworthy, and that there are simply no good monetization tools.
But a ton of you thanked me for making my feed full text, and I won’t be stopping that anytime soon. Thanks all, and if you haven’t left a comment on the original thread, please do! If we get to 664, I’ll feel somehow more complete!
About 14 months ago, I responded to myriad “RSS is Dead” stories by asking you, my RSS readers, if you were really reading. At that point, Google’s Feedburner service was telling me I had more than 200,000 subscribers, but it didn’t feel like the lights were on – I mean, that’s a lot of people, but my pageviews were low, and with RSS, it’s really hard to know if folks are reading you, because the engagement happens on the reader, not here on the site. (That’s always been the problem publishers have had with RSS – it’s impossible to monetize. I mean, think about it. Dick Costolo went to Twitter after he sold Feedburner to Google. Twitter! And this was *before* it had a business model. Apparently that was far easier to monetize than RSS).
Now, I made the decision long ago to let my “full feed” go into RSS, and hence, I don’t get to sell high-value ads to those of you who are RSS readers. (I figure the tradeoff is worth it – my main goal is to get you hooked on my addiction to parentheses, among other things.)
Anyway, to test my theory that my RSS feed was Potemkin in nature, I wrote a December, 2010 post asking RSS readers to click through and post a comment if they were, in fact, reading me via RSS. Overwhelmingly they responded “YES!” That post still ranks in the top ten of any post, ever, in terms of number of comments plus tweets – nearly 200.
Now, put another way this result was kind of pathetic – less than one in 1000 of my subscribers answered the call. Perhaps I should have concluded that you guys are either really lazy, secretly hate me, or in fact, really aren’t reading. Instead, I decided to conclude that for every one of you that took the time to comment or Tweet, hundreds of you were nodding along in agreement. See how writers convince themselves of their value?
Which is a long way to say, it’s time for our nearly-yearly checkup. And this time, I’m going to give you more data to work with, and a fresh challenge. (Or a pathetic entreaty, depending on your point of view.)
Ok, so here’s what has happened in 14 months: My RSS feed has almost doubled – it now sports nearly 400,000 subscribers, which is g*dd*am impressive, no? I mean, who has FOUR HUNDRED THOUSAND people who’ve raised their hands and asked to join your club? I’ve WON, no? Time for gold-plated teeth or somesh*t, right?
While it’s true that nearly 400,000 of you have elected to follow my RSS feed, the grim truth is more aptly told by what Google’s Feedburner service calls my “Reach.” By their definition, reach means “the total number of people who have taken action — viewed or clicked — on the content in your feed.”
And that number, as you can see, is pathetic. I mean, “click,” I can understand. Why click when you can read the full article in your reader? But “view”?! Wait, lemme do some math here….OK, one in 594 of you RSS readers are even reading my stuff. That’s better than the one in 1000 who answered the call last time, but wow, it’s way worse than I thought. Just *reading* doesn’t require you click through, or tweet something, or leave a comment.
Either RSS is pretty moribund, or, I must say, I am deeply offended.
What I really want to know is this: Am I normal? Is it normal for sites like mine to have .0017 percent of its RSS readers actually, well, be readers?
Or is the latest in a very long series of posts (a decade now, trust me) really right this time – RSS is well and truly dead?
Here’s my test for you. If I get more comments and tweets on this post than I have “reach” by Google Feedburner status, well, that’s enough for me to pronounce RSS Alive and Well (by my own metric of nodding along, of course). If it’s less than 664, I’m sorry, RSS is Well And Truly Dead. And it’s all your fault.
(PS, that doesn’t mean I’ll stop using it. Ever. Insert Old Man Joke Here.)
The “Recommend this on Google” hover box at the bottom is new, I’ve never seen it before (then again, my ads are usually from FM). It’s what we in the biz call a “social overlay” or a “social ad” – and as far as I can tell, it’s only available to those advertisers who use Google AdSense.
Why am I on about this? Because some weeks ago, Facebook told a bunch of advertisers and third parties (FM was one of them) that it was no longer OK to integrate Facebook actions into third party advertisements. This was always in their policies, but everyone was pretty much ignoring it – including most of the largest advertisers on the planet. After all, it’d be pretty hard to tell major television advertisers to stop asking viewers to “Like us on Facebook”. But for some reason, Facebook recently decided enough was enough online, and won’t let folks do exactly the same thing – with interactive functionality – online. You won’t be seeing ads on any site that integrate Facebook Likes, Shares, or other verbs, unless the advertisers paying for those ads have cut special deals with Facebook. (Or, of course, unless Facebook launches its own ad network…)
And yes, my sense of why Facebook might all-of-a-sudden-restrict advertisers or their partners from using Facebook actions in their ads stems from my prediction that Facebook is going to launch a competitor to AdSense, and that Facebook will want to differentiate its competitor by making “FaceSense” the only place across the web where you can run ads that drive Facebook social actions – Likes, Subscriptions, Shares, Recommendations, etc.
Because of this, I recently asked Google whether it would impose the same kind of restrictions on how advertisers might integrate Google+. I got a nuanced and careful response – Google doesn’t support it now, but is open to the idea in the future.
I’m thinking Google can differentiate itself by not acting like Facebook, but instead allow any advertiser to integrate “+1″ into their ads, regardless of where that ad runs – be it a direct buy on ESPN, an independent web player like FM, or, as seen above, a buy on Google’s own AdSense service.*
Anyway, it’s worth thinking about as we plot the strategies of the Big Five – what will their policies be relating to corporate speech and social services? So far, the answer is “not sure.” Worth asking Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon, come to think of it….I can’t imagine, for example, that Apple welcomes Facebook icons integrated into its iAds product – but then again, Facebook now doesn’t allow it anyway. Which seems to me a violation of some corporate right to free speech – but I digress. For now.
* If you’re wondering why is AdSense on my blog these days, well, I’m getting more traffic than we thought I would in January, and AdSense is picking up some of the extra impressions. Thanks for reading – I’m honored.
It’s been a while since I’ve posted a book review, but that doesn’t mean I’ve not been reading. I finished two tomes over the past couple weeks, Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near, and Stephen Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From. I’ll focus on Kurzweil’s opus in this post.
Given what I hope to do in What We Hath Wrought, I simply had to read Singularity. I’ll admit I’ve been avoiding doing so (it’s nearly six years old now) mainly for one reason: The premise (as I understood it) kind of turns me off, and I’d heard from various folks in the industry that the book’s author was a bit, er, strident when it came to his points of view. I had read many reviews of the book (some mixed), and I figured I knew enough to get by.
I was wrong. The Singularity Is Near is not an easy book to read (it’s got a lot of deep and loosely connected science, and the writing could really use a few more passes by a structural editor), but it is an important one to read. As Kevin Kelly said in What Technology Wants, Kurzweil has written a book that will be cited over and over again as our culture attempts to sort out its future relationship to technology, policy, and yes, to God.
I think perhaps the “weirdness” vibe of Kurzweil’s work relates, in the end, to his rather messianic tone – he’s not afraid to call himself a “Singulatarian” and to claim this philosophy as his religion. I don’t know about you, but I’m wary of anyone who invents a new religion and then proclaims themselves the leader of it.
That’s not to say Kurzweil doesn’t have a point or two. The main argument of the book is that technology is moving far faster than we realize, and its exponential progress will surprise us all – within about thirty years, we’ll have the ability to not only compute most of the intractable problems of humanity, we’ll be able to transcend our bodies, download our minds, and reach immortality.
Or, a Christian might argue, we could just wait for the rapture. My problem with this book is that it feels about the same in terms of faith.
But then again, faith is one of those Very Hard Topics that most of us struggle with. And if you take this book at face value, it will force you to address that question. Which to me, makes it a worthy read.
For example, Kurzweil has faith that, as machines get smarter than humans, we’ll essentially merge with machines, creating a new form of humanity. Our current form is merely a step along the way to the next level of evolution – a level where we merge our technos with our bios, so to speak. Put another way, compared to what we’re about to become, we’re the equivalent of Homo Erectus right about now.
It’s a rather compelling argument, but a bit hard to swallow, for many reasons. We’re rather used to evolution taking a very long time – hundreds of generations, at the very least. But Kurzweil is predicting all this will happen in the next one or two generations – and should that occur, I’m pretty sure far more minds will be blown than merged.
And Kurzweil has a knack for taking the provable tropes of technology – Moore’s Law, for example – and applying them to all manner of things, like human intelligence, biology, and, well, rocks (Kurzweil calculates the computing power of a rock in one passage). I’m in no way qualified to say whether it’s fair to directly apply lessons learned from technology’s rise to all things human, but I can say it feels a bit off. Like perhaps he’s missing a high order bit along the way.
Of course, that could just be me clinging to my narrow-minded and entitled sense of Humanity As It’s Currently Understood. Now that I’ve read Kurzweil’s book, I’m far more aware of my own limitations, philosophically as well as computationally. And for that, I’m genuinely grateful.
Last week I spent an afternoon down at Facebook, as I mentioned here. While at Facebook I met with Blake Ross, Direct of Product (and well known in web circles as one of the creators of Firefox). Talk naturally turned to the implications of Google’s controversial integration of Google+ into its search results – a move that must both terrify (OMG, Google is gunning for us!) as well as delight (Holy cow, Google is breaking its core promise to its users!).
Turns out Ross had been quite busy the previous weekend, and he had a little surprise to show me. It was a simple hack, he said, some code he had thrown together in response to the whole Google+ tempest. But there was most certainly a gleam in his eye as he brought up a Chrome browser window (Google’s own product, he reminded me).
Blake had installed a bookmarklet onto his browser, one he had titled – in a nod to Google’s informal motto – “Don’t be evil.” For those of you who aren’t web geeks (I had to remind myself as well), a bookmarklet is “designed to add one-click functionality to a browser or web page. When clicked, a bookmarklet performs some function, one of a wide variety such as a search query or data extraction.”
When engaged, this “Don’t be evil” bookmarklet did indeed do one simple thing: It turned back the hands of time, and made Google work the way it did before the integration of Google+ earlier this month.
It was a very elegant hack, more thoughtful than the one or two I had seen before – those simply took all references to Google+ out of the index. This one went much further, and weaved a number of Google’s own tools – including its “rich snippet” webmaster tool and its own organic search listings, to re-order not only the search engine results, but also the results of the promotional Google+ boxes on the right side of the results, as well as the “typeahead” results that now feature only Google+ accounts (see example below, the first a search on my name using “normal Google” and then one using the bookmarklet).
After Blake showed me his work, we had a lively discussion about the implications of Facebook actually releasing such a tool. I mean, it’s one thing for a lone hacktivist to do this, it’s quite another for a member of the Internet Big Five to publicly call Google out. Facebook would need to vet this with legal, with management (this clearly had to pass muster with Mark Zuckerberg), and, I was told, Facebook wanted to reach out to others – such as Twitter – and get their input as well.
Due to all this, I had to agree to keep Blake’s weekend hack private till Facebook figured out whether (and how) it would release Ross’s work.
Today, the hack goes public. It’s changed somewhat – it now resides at a site called “Focus On The User” and credit is given to engineers at Facebook, Twitter, and Myspace, but the basic implication is there: This is a tool meant to directly expose Google’s recent moves with Google+ as biased, hardcoded, and against Google’s core philosophy (which besides “don’t be evil,” has always been about “focusing on the user”).
We wanted to see how much better social search could be for consumers if Google chose to use all of the information already in its index. We think the results speak for themselves. Specifically, we created a bookmarklet that uses Google’s own relevance measure—the ranking of their organic search results—to determine what social content should appear in the areas where Google+ results are currently hardcoded. That includes the box on the right; the typeahead; and the indent under the first result for brand searches like “Macy’s” or “New York Times”.
All of the information in this demo comes from Google itself, and all of the ranking decisions are made by Google’s own algorithms. No other services, APIs or proprietary data stores are accessed.
Facebook released a video explaining how the hack works, including some rather devastating examples (be sure to watch the AT&T example at minute seven, and a search for my name as well), and it has open sourced the codebase. The video teasingly invites Google to use the code should it care to (er…not gonna happen).
Here’s an embed:
It’d be interesting if millions of people adopted the tool, however I don’t think that’s the point. A story such as this is tailor made for the Techmeme leaderboard, to be sure, and will no doubt be the talk of the Valley today. By tonight, the story most likely will go national, and that can’t help Google’s image. And I’m quite sure the folks at Facebook, Twitter, and others (think LinkedIn, Yahoo, etc) are making sure word of this exemplar reaches the right folks at the Federal Trade Commission, the Department of Justice, Congress, and government agencies around the world.
Not to mention, people in the Valley do care, deeply, about where they work. There are scores of former Google execs now working at Twitter, Facebook, and others. Many are dismayed by Google’s recent moves, and believe that inside Google, plenty of folks aren’t sleeping well because of what their beloved company’s single-minded focus on Google+. “Focus on The User” is a well-timed poke in the eye, a slap to the conscience of a company that has always claimed to be guided by higher principles, and an elegant hack, sure to become legend in the ongoing battle of the Big Five.
As I’ve said before, I’m planning on spending some time with folks at Google in the coming weeks. I’m eager to understand their point of view. Certainly they are playing a longer-term game here – and seem willing, at present, to take the criticism and not respond to the chorus of complaints. Should Google change that stance, I’ll let you know.
We aren’t very far into the year, and signs of this coming true are all around. The “Occupy” movement seems to have found a central theme to its 2012 movement around overturning “the corporation as a person,” and some legislators are supporting that concept.
We’ll see if this goes anywhere, but I wanted to note, as I didn’t fairly do in my prediction post, the role that “The Corporation” played in my thinking. I finally watched this 2003 documentary over the holidays. Its promoters still maintain an ongoing community here, and it doesn’t take long to determine that this film has a very strong, classically liberal point of view about the role corporations play in our society.
If you can manage the film’s rather heavy handed approach to the topic, you’ll learn a lot about how we got to the point we’re at with the Citizens United case. Obviously the film was made well before that case, but it certainly foreshadowed it. I certainly recommend it to anyone who wants the backstory – with a healthy side of scare tactics – of the corporation’s rise in American society.
But while there’s probably much to say about the earnings call – in particular whether Google’s core CPC business is starting to erode (might that be due to Facebook, Wall St. wonders?) – I’m more interested in Google’s jihad against samesaid competitor, a jihad called Google+.
And in the earnings call, Google+ was identified as one of the shining stars of the quarter.
Here’s a quote from the press release, the very first quote, attributed to Larry Page. I’ve highlighted the parts where Google+ is mentioned.
“I am super excited about the growth of Android, Gmail, and Google+, which now has 90 million users globally – well over double what I announced just three months ago. By building a meaningful relationship with our users through Google+ we will create amazing experiences across our services.”
You getting that? The lead quote had to do with Google+, pretty much, not the company’s earnings, which ended up being a miss (Google is blaming fluctuations in foreign currency for much of that, and I have no idea whether that’s true, false, or silly).
But here’s my question: When is Google going to release actual engagement numbers for Google+? Because in the end, that’s all that really matters. As I have written in the past, it’s pretty easy to get a lot of people signing up for Google+ if you integrate it into everything Google does (particularly if you do it the way they’ve done it with search).
But can you get those folks to engage, deeply? That’d be a real win, and one I’d give full credit to Google for executing. After all, it’s one thing to get the horse to water…another to have it pull up a chair and share a few stories with friends.
Now, Page did talk about engagement in his comments today, but as far as I can tell, it was not specific to Google+ (though it was crafted to be easily conflated, and in reports I’ve seen across the web, it has been). He certainly led with Google+, but this is what he said:
“Engagement on + is also growing tremendously. I have some amazing data to share there for the first time: +users are very engaged with our products — over 60% of them engage daily, and over 80% weekly.”
Er….so you’re saying the folks who use Google+ use *Google* a lot. That’s not surprising – most of them came to Google+ because they were already using Google a lot. But what about minutes per month usingGoogle+? I’m guessing if Google had good news on that particular front, they’d be trumpeting it in a more direct fashion.
Look, I’m being critical here, and perhaps unfairly. But like many others, I’m a bit baffled by Google’s moves last week around search integration, and I’m looking forward to Google addressing the mounting criticism from not only its competitors, but its fans as well. So far, the company has decided to ignore it – both in its earnings calls, and in my own communications with company representatives. That only leads to speculation that Google is doing this on purpose, to get to critical mass with G+ before, cough cough, apologizing a month or so down the line and “fixing” the approach it’s taken to search integration.
I’m going to be down there soon, talking to key execs in search and, I hope, at Google+. There are always more sides to the story than are apparent as that story develops. Stay tuned.
(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?