free html hit counter The Web As Platform Archives | Page 3 of 25 | John Battelle's Search Blog

Hold Hands or Die Apart

By - May 05, 2013

I’ve been a bit slow to update this site lately, as my return to Federated Media, and preparation for the CM Summit and OpenCo NYC, have pretty much eaten up all my time lately. But I did want to repost a few things I have written elsewhere, starting with this article in Ad Age, written two weeks ago.

Titled Publishers, Ad-Tech Firms, Marketers Need to Connect, Build Trust (no, I didn’t write that headline, if I was in charge, it might have been “Hold Hands or Die Apart” – pageviews, ya know?), the article argues that our industry is not yet prepared for what the market is going to demand – solutions that integration adtech and brand marketing. Here’s a sampling:

Something troubling has jumped out at me. There’s an extraordinary asymmetry of information among these three important players in our industry, and a disturbing sense of distrust. Brand marketers don’t believe that ad-tech companies view brands as true partners. Ad-tech companies think brand marketers are paying attention to the wrong things. And publishers, with a few important exceptions, feel taken advantage of by everyone.

Here’s a representative sample of things I’ve heard:

“If I had it to do over again, I am not sure I’d be in publishing. You can’t win over the machines.”
“Brand marketers are wasting their money. If they’d just get smarter about data, they’d realize content doesn’t matter — what matters is leveraging what you know about a customer. They’ll never get it. “

“The Lumascape has devolved into a pay-per-click machine. Tech companies are too full of themselves. I don’t trust them. It’s a “black box.’ “

“Agencies and technology companies are leveraging their data advantage to arbitrage publishers’ inventory — and even their marketing clients’ spend — so as to pad their bottom lines.”

“I won’t put any of my inventories on exchanges — the last time I did, CPMs were so low it was embarrassing.”

This isn’t a pretty picture. But even as I hear statements like these, I also hear story after story about how data-driven marketing practices are working. Publishers like Forbes, Ziff Davis and Weather.com have seen revenue from “programmatic premium” rise to as much as 20% of total top line, up from 5% or so just a year ago. (Programmatic premium is the practice of running premium inventory through programmatic channels in ways that “protect” that inventory, such as building private marketplaces or adding publisher first-party data.)

Smart marketers are leveraging ad tech to drive real brand lift, conversion and sales. And a platoon of top ad-tech companies are preparing to go public in the next 12 months, hardly a sign that they have business models built on shady business practices. (We’d do well to recall that Google went public one year after “click fraud” was considered pervasive in the search marketplace.)

What we have here is a failure of communication and shared values. The brand marketers I speak with acknowledge that they don’t understand how to map their brand-building skills to the offerings of ad-tech companies. The ad-tech companies confide that they don’t understand the motivations of brand marketers (nor do they believe it would be profitable to try).

For more, head to Ad Age. 

 

  • Content Marquee

We’ve Seen This Movie Before…On Traffic of Good Intent

By - April 26, 2013

(image) Back in 2005 I whipped off a post with a title that has recently become relevant again – “Traffic of Good Intent.” That post keyed off  a major issue in the burgeoning search industry – click fraud. In the early days of search, click fraud was a huge problem (that link is from 2002!). Pundits (like me) claimed that because everyone was getting paid from fraud, it was “something of a whistling-past-the-graveyard issue for the entire (industry).” Cnet ran a story in 2004 identifying bad actors who created fake content, then ran robots over AdSense links on those pages. It blamed the open nature of the Web as fueling the fraudsters, and it noted that Google could not comment, because  it was in its quiet period before an IPO.

But once public, Google did respond, suing bad actors and posting extensive explanations of its anti-fraud practices. Conversely, a major fraud-based class action lawsuit was filed against all of the major search engines. Subsequent research suggested that as much as 30% of commercial clicks were fraudulent  - remember, this was after Google had gone public, and after the issue had been well-documented and endlessly discussed in the business and industry press. The major players in search finally banded together to fight the problem – understanding full well that without a united front and open communication, trust would never be established.

Think about that little history lesson – a massive, emerging new industry, one that was upending the entire marketing ecosystem, was operating under a constant cloud of “fraud” which may have been poisoning nearly a third of the revenues in the space. Yet billions in revenue and hundreds of billions in market value was still created. And after several years of lawsuits, negative press, and lord-knows-how-much-fraud, the clickfraud story has pretty much been forgotten.

Sound familiar?

It should. Because the same movie is once again playing, but this time the problem has migrated to the open ecosystem of programmatic display. As anyone who’s studied the LUMAscape knows, we now have a VC-fueled industry worth billions, with many players primed to go public in the coming year or so. And the original search players – Google in particular, but also Microsoft and Yahoo! – are also major actors in this new industry.

My post from January of this year - It’s Time To Call Out Fraud In The Adtech Ecosystem - summarized the new breed of fraud in our industry, and recently, many publications  have intensified their coverage of the topic. In late February, I invited a handful of adtech CEOs to a lunch where we discussed the issue, and everyone at the table – from AppNexus to Google, OpenX to MediaOcean – agreed that it was time to address the problem head on.

And that’s how we got to the news  this past week that the IAB is standing up a task force on “Traffic of Good Intent.” I’m proud to be a co-chair of the group (and yes, the name does come from that 2005 post in these pages). This time around, there are many more players, a much larger industry, and a far more complicated ecosystem. But it’s worth remembering that bad actors always take advantage of open systems. It’s up to us to unite and drive them back. We should all be trading in traffic of good intent – real human beings, engaged with real content and services across the Internet. Our customers, partners, investors, and our good company names depend on it.

I look forward to the work.

The First 60 OpenCos in NYC, Visualized

By - April 22, 2013

Just got this up on our site, which is close to opening general admission (free to the public). So proud. Many more to come, but the deadline to sign up is soon, so if you want to be part of the movement, head here. More on OpenCo NY here.

Reporters Need to Understand Advertising. But Should They Be Making It?

By - February 17, 2013

(image) I know that when I do write here, I tend to go on, and on – and those of you who read me seem to be OK with that. But sometimes the best posts are short and clear.

That was my thought when I read Journalists Need Advertising 101 by Brian Morrissey, writing in Digiday last week. In fewer than 500 words, Morrissey issues a wake up call to those in journalism who believe in the old school notion of a Chinese wall between editorial and advertising:

What’s crazy is journalists seems almost proudly ignorant of the business of advertising. …it’s time journalists take a real interest in how advertising works. I’d go even further. It’s time they get involved in making it. Hope is not a strategy, as they say, and it’s better to deal with the world you live in rather than the world you wish you lived in.

Morrissey goes on to state that the banner ad – the staple of content-based business models for the past 20 years – is “going to zero,” and that the future of the business is in native, integrated content marketing. Journalists, he reasons, need to understand this and get with the program – which means helping to create the content for advertising.

Now, if you’re read me closely, you probably can imagine me nodding my head enthusiastically (though I think display is here to stay, in a renewed model). After all, I’m the one who wrote On Thneeds and the “Death of Display”  and The Evolution of Display: Change Is Here, For Good last year. I’ve been on about “native” for more than six years. The company I started in 2005 has been executing native programs since 2005. FMP has a “CM” practice that works with nearly half of the Fortune 100 doing content marketing and native advertising placements. Scores of our top publishers regularly make content for brands. And now that I think about it, it was a decade ago that I taught courses on the business of journalism to graduate students at Berkeley – because I believed that ignorance of business models spells doom for the fourth estate.

So I generally agree with Morrissey’s points – but with one possible caveat. I fully believe that great creators of content should be, well, creating great content on behalf of brands. The best filmmakers are also the best creators of 30-second spots, after all. But I wonder whether journalists – if defined as reporters who cover beats on a full time basis – should be making branded content if it conflicts with what they cover. A reporter’s contract with their audience is this: I will give you straight information about my beat, and I will not be unduly influenced by those I cover. It’s very hard make that promise if you are also being paid to make content for the brands you cover. Of course the truth is that anyone being covered by a reporter will try to influence them in any number of ways. But money complicates everything. The conflicts are deep – and it puts your audience’s trust at risk.

So should a reporter who covers, say, the auto industry full time, be creating marketing content for auto industry brands? I think we can debate this question. We used to live in a world of hard and fast, hierarchical rules. Now, we live in a world of communities who can and do attempt to understand each other. This is a good thing – a reporter can make his or her own decisions, explain them to an audience, and if the community accepts the result, all is well.

Whether or not you think it’s OK for reporters to create branded content about the industry they cover, I absolutely believe that reporters (and their editors, if they have them) certainly should be reviewing content created for that industry, and providing input on whether the content will resonate with the audiences and markets those reporters know best. And any media company that employs reporters should certainly have a content marketing function (if you don’t, why, give me a ring). Without input from publishers, branded content can fall flat, and fail to truly connect with an audience.

Branded content has to match its audience, and it must add value to the conversation. And most importantly, sponsor relationships must be clearly communicated. So how to do it? Branded content needs an understanding of the market, the talent to create content in that market and the ability to place its content in front of the market. If you want to be in a fast moving conversation, it’s damn hard to do all that without editors and reporters. As Morrissey points out, the flat-footed Scientology mess shows what happens when the Chinese wall between advertisers and publishers is overly imposed.

But let’s address the elephant in the room: should brands be asking reporters to make content for brands they directly cover? It’s debatable, but I’d argue it’s probably not a good idea.

Of course, this may be a question of degree. Is it OK for a reporter to write branded content if it’s not about the brand, but merely underwritten by the brand? That happens a lot already, to the point where it seems almost uncontroversial (although many “traditional” journalists decry the practice). What if the reporter writes content for a brand they don’t cover directly, but is in the industry they cover? Can auto industry reporters, for example, create content for other areas not on their specific beat, like say, for an auto insurance brand?  Is it only OK if they write whatever they wish to, editorially, but not alright if they are told what topics to cover?  I could go on for quite a while…

I’ve given a ton of thought to these issues, but it strikes me our industry hasn’t really codified a clear set of principles on the matter. And for content marketing to really thrive, we certainly should.

Perhaps a start to this conversation is the distinction between a reporter who covers a beat full time with a promise to an audience of unbiased point of view, and a strong voice in the industry who lives or dies based on their individual point of view, but isn’t a full time reporter working for someone else.  This has been a long standing point of contention since the rise of bloggers – what is a journalist, anyway? Is a blogger who regularly expresses a strong point of view on a particular industry a journalist?

Lord knows tons of folks have weighed in on this topic, but here’s my shorthand: I think everyone and anyone can be a journalist, especially bloggers. But not all journalists are reporters. There’s an important distinction here, and it’s one worth maintaining. I write a journal – this site. It has my opinion, my point of view, my voice and analysis, and every so often, a piece of reporting. But I am not a full time reporter. I believe readers are smart: They understand when someone (like me) is a voice in a particular industry. They also understand that someone with a passion who writes a site on food, or style, or entertainment, isn’t a beat reporter covering those issues full time, but rather a smart voice saying whatever they care to say, whenever they care to say it. If that person decides to take on sponsored work, that’s fine. If  the content they create is disclosed, of high quality, adds value to their community, and puts food on the table, everyone wins.

This is naunced stuff, and worth airing out. As content marketing becomes a standard in our industry, we need to open up this dialog and be willing to learn from each other. I look forward to the ongoing conversation.

The 2013 Summit Arrives: Bridging Data And Humanity

By - February 11, 2013

Some of the more than 25 speakers already joining us at the 2013 CM Summit.

Over on the brand spanking new CM Summit website, we’ve announced our initial speaker lineup and progam theme for the 2013 event – Parting the Clouds: Bridging Data and Humanity.

This is the seventh annual CM Summit, the fifth as an anchor conference for New York’s Internet Week. It’s a direct result of nearly a year of work on my book, and inspired by research into the programmatic, data-driven world of advertising technology as well as some very deep roots in brand building and digital media.

The speakers are an extraordinary bunch – and this is just the first group. There are many more to come. For any of you who have been to previous events I’ve curated, you know we really sweat the details – in particular the intellectual framework of the program itself.

More on the theme:

In a scant few years, data has become a critical driver of business decisions – and increasingly, a fundamental currency of all human endeavor. But to marketers and consumers alike, “data” is often a poorly defined term that can elicit confusion, anxiety, and even fear.

Our society has embarked on a historic conversation around the role of data in business, government, and our personal lives. In the seventh annual CM Summit, we’ll seek to define just what data really is, and how we might bridge the concept of data to not only marketing, but to a deeper understanding of culture and humanity.

We will create more than 3.6 zettabytes of data in 2013 – roughly 565 gigabytes per person on earth. And that rate is doubling every two years as we adopt ever faster and more innovative devices – in particular, mobile devices untethered to one “desktop” or even one “phone.” Ten years ago, the very idea that someone might map their “social graph,” tweet their “status,” or “check in” at a location was unthinkable. Now it’s commonplace. What might be common ten years from now, as we begin to monitor our health in real time, and place sensors in our homes, automobiles, clothes and wallets?

How do we get our arms around such abundance and complexity? And how can businesses position themselves to compete in such an environment? 2013 will mark the CM Summit’s most ambitious and far reaching program. Rooted in the firmament of digital marketing, the event will reach out to explore the human implications of data, algorithms, mobility, and technological progress. In the past ten years, the marketing industry has built one of the most intricate ecosystems imaginable, with real-time bidded exchanges and powerful layers of algorithmic logic, all driven by massive storehouses of data. And while this ecosystem began with the desktop web, it’s spread to encompass mobile, video, and even search. At the Summit, you’ll meet the people behind this world, as well as the agencies, marketers and brands who power it.

We’ll continue our tradition of rigorous, in depth interviews, practical case studies, and eye-opening “high order bits” that will challenge traditional thinking and provide context for doing business in a data-driven world.

We work hard to earn your time and money, and I hope you’ll consider supporting this, the only executive conference I’m doing this year. It’d mean the world to me. Register here. I hope to see you in New York!

It’s Time To Call Out Fraud In The Adtech Ecosystem

By - January 26, 2013

A confusing landscape = ripe opportunities for fraud.

As part of research I’m doing both for the book and for my upcoming conference (the CM Summit, more on that soon), I’ve been in pretty extensive conversations lately with dozens of key players in the advertising technology industry. I find the ecosystem that has developed  to be fascinating, complex, and ripe with opportunity (and deeply important to the future of our society, not just marketing). I’ll be writing about it quite a bit in coming months. But before I do, I wanted to call out a growing issue that our industry will have to tackle sooner rather than later.

Just as in the early, wild west days of search (1999-2004), the programmatic advertising business – a multi-billion dollar marketplace growing faster than search, video, or anything else for that matter – is riddled with fraud.

That’s what many very reputable sources have told me in great length over the past few months. It’s something of an open secret, and more and more people are speaking out against it. Here’s Federated Media’s Walter Knapp on the problem, back in March of last year:

The great thing about the Internet is that it is built on the foundation of openness — from the way the domain system works to the way content and publishing are increasingly democratic. The core technologies embrace openness, sharing, linking and the ability to consume content across devices and across wired or wireless connections. Unfortunately, the openness we depend on in the digital media business is also available to people who can (and will) take advantage of this openness and exploit it for their own selfish wants.

Knapp notes two forms of fraud – ad injectors, fraudulent browser plugins that take over ad calls; and the practice of inserting an entire site into a 1×1 pixel hidden on high traffic but low quality sites featuring porn or music lyrics. Both are examples I’ve heard about over and over in my reporting. A third involves “stacking” ads one behind the other, all playing video to completion, often playing in inactive tabs. A fourth features refreshing ad calls on accelerated schedules or in inactive tabs. Yet another involves running as many ads as possible out of view, simply to gain “view through attribution” on a closed loop success metric.

More people are starting to call these practices out. AppNexus CEO Brian O’Kelly prominently featured the issue of fraud in his blog post celebrating his company’s recent $75 million funding, and what he intends to use it for:

Quality We will continue to invest in cleaning up the advertising marketplace. We’re proud of our anti-piracy stance, and our 5x volume growth this year indicates that you don’t need to serve on BitTorrent sites to be an ad platform company. We are investing heavily in fighting fraud, porn, malvertising, and malicious toolbars, and we are actively working on viewability tools.

Programmatic industry watcher AdExchanger puts it this way:

AppNexus’s pledge to invest money in ad quality issues is worth calling out. The issue is becoming more pervasive as companies emerge to exploit the vulnerabilities of real-time traded inventory to data and impression fraud, malvertising, and other nefarious practices. Fraudulent activities aside, the emergence of robust ad verification and viewability tools means display ad marketplaces and buying platforms must keep a clean nose.

It’s true that many folks are working on addressing the issue, including the IAB. But the bad actors are currently far ahead of the good guys, and worse, many in our industry are turning a blind eye, hoping the problem goes away in time, without too much publicity. Why? Well, nearly everyone gets paid from fraud – the publishers, the exchanges, the data providers, and the agencies. Even the marketers,who are footing the bill, feel like they are getting value – because the success metrics they’ve set up are being  met.

But fraud hurts the ecosystem in a massive way. It means that low quality, invisible, or purely fraudulent inventory is holding down the average value of the entire marketplace – hurting high quality, engaged publishers in the process, stunting investment in quality content.

Over and over, I hear that the reason CPMs (the amount of money a marketer is willing to pay for one thousand advertising impresssions) are so low is because “there’s infinite inventory.”

Hogwash. There’s only so much time in the day, and only so many pages where actual human beings are really paying attention, and the web (including mobile) is growing at a finite pace. There are even fewer places where marketers can be assured of quality, engagement, and appropriate context. It’s time we focus on identifying them, and ridding ourselves of the true source of “infinite inventory” – fraud.

The 140 Character Video Is Six Seconds Long

By - January 24, 2013

Twitter announced its integration of Vine today, and to put not too fine a point on it, the service is, in essence, a way to create a video tweet. If a text tweet = 140 characters, then a video tweet = 6 seconds. More details over at TNW, but this announcement is quite consistent with my post earlier this week: Portrait of Twitter As A Young Media Company.

I’ve long pined for the time when video enters the grammar of our ongoing communication on the web. This is Twitter’s bid to frame how the medium might join the conversation. It’s not a new idea – I guess 12 Seconds was three years early and six seconds too long – but it’s an idea whose time may have come. I’ve seen the iOS app, and it’s very slick, allowing for seamless pauses and cuts. And man, is the example on Twitter’s blog (embedded here) cute. I could stare at it for a long time…well, no, wait, I did stare at it for a long time. I bet you are too. Video is very … engaging when done well.

Advertisers, sharpen your six second pencils. Here’s another native format for you to consider….

Facebook Is No Longer Flat: On Graph Search

By - January 15, 2013

A sample Graph Search result for the query “friends photos before 1999.”

By now the news is sweeping across the blogosophere and into the mainstream press: Facebook is doing Search!

Well, not so fast. Facebook is not doing search, at least not search Google-style. However, the world’s largest social network has radically re-engineered its native search experience, and the result is not only much, much better, it’s also changed my mind about the company’s long term future.

Yesterday, Tom Stocky, Facebook Product Management Director, and Lars Rasmussen, Engineering Director, gave me a sneak peek of today’s much anticipated announcement (it’s gonna be a phone! A new Newsfeed! A big acquisition!). So as to not bury the lead, Facebook has built what it’s calling “Graph Search,” a solidly conceived structured-search service which leverages the company’s massive trove of personal data in any number of new ways (some obvious, some nuanced, and some glaring omissions). But before I get to the details, I want to write about why this matters so much.

Prior to seeing the new search, I was not certain Facebook would ever live up to the hype it has accrued over its short life. It’s a good service, but it’s flat – over time, it struck me, people would tire of tending to it. They set up their social graph, toss a few sheep, poke some pals (or not), “like” this or that (often off-domain), waste hours on Farmville, and then…engagement drops slowly over time. I’m also not a fan of Facebook’s domain-specific approach to the world, as many of you know. Facebook’s new search doesn’t address Facebook’s walled garden mentality (yet), but it nails the first issue. Once this search product is rolled out to all of its members, Facebook will no longer be flat.

This is a big deal on many fronts. First and foremost, Facebook has an engagement problem, particularly in markets (like the US) where its use has become ubiquitous and many of its original users are two, three or more years into the “Facebook habit.” While the company doesn’t talk about this issue, I am confident it’s real (in private conversations with people at Facebook, it’s called the “set it up and forget it” problem). If people do not constantly feed Facebook with engagement, its value attenuates over time. As the service slows in overall growth, engagement with its current base becomes critical. New connections are the lifeblood of a service like Facebook. Without a steady stream of meaningful Likes, Friend Requests, declared Interests, and such, the platform would wither.

Put another way, Facebook needed a service that layered a fresh blanket of value over its core topography. Graph Search is it.

Zuckerberg’s Engagement

One sign of how important this new search is? According to the folks I spoke to yesterday, Facebook’s mercurial founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg calls Search the “third pillar” of the company’s service, elevating it to the level of Newsfeed and Timeline, the two most important new features since Facebook’s launch (Open Graph is probably up there as well, but it’s true value remains locked up until there is mortar connecting it all, which Search could well be).

A team of engineers and product folk have been working on Graph Search for more than a year, and Zuckerberg has been engaged with them the entire time. The team has been in “lockdown” – a exclusive state of focus on one product so as to ship it as quickly as possible – for the past 34 days. Lockdown is a time honored and rather prestigious occurence inside Facebook, dating back to Zuckerberg’s original Facemash dorm room programming outburst. During the Search team lockdown, Stocky told me, he and Rasmussen got plenty of 2 AM emails and unexpected late night visits from the CEO.

In other words, this is A Really Big Deal for the company.

Why? Well, a quick tour of the product will explain.

What Is It? 

Graph Search subsumes Facebook’s previous search offering, which was extremely weak and focused mainly on the use case of navigation (finding people and pages).  The new service takes full advantage of the face that Facebook is, at its core, a massive structured database of tagged entities. The initial beta “indexes” four main types of these entities: People, Photos, Places, and Interests. Over time, I am told, Facebook will expand its index to include all Facebook posts and even the Open Graph – which means the “rest of the web.”

But for now, users can search across four main categories, using a slick set of intuitive verbs (“lives,” “like,” “work,” etc.), nouns (“San Francisco,” “Indian,” “restaurants,” “friends” etc.), prepositions (“before,” “with,” “in”) and pronouns (“who,” that,” etc.). This makes for a richly structured set of results: “Friends of friends who live in San Francisco and like Indian restaurants,” for example. Or “Friends who have been to Ireland,” or “Photos of friends before 1990.” Once you get the hang of it, the possible pivot points are endless, and the results are quite intriguing.

Stocky and Rasmussen, both ex-Googlers, walked me through a few intriguing use cases, one of which harkens back to one of Facebook’s original use cases – dating – and another which looks forward and presents a threat to LinkedIn’s current strength: Recruiting.

Let’s say you’re single, and you’re interested only in dating engineers who are also friends of your friends. With Graph Search, it’s ridiculously easy to find “friends of friends” who are also engineers. (And single, of course). You can look at their pictures, profiles, interests, and then ask for an introduction from whichever of your pals happens to be connected to one who looks like a good prospect (you could also just “poke” the guy if you wanted to…). Want only C++ programmers, or Indian C++ programmers, or  Indian C++ programmers under 35 years of age? Done.

Or, let’s say you work at, I dunno, Google. And you want to recruit product management talent from, say, Facebook. Again, the best way to get to that talent is probably a friend. So why not do a search for “friends of friends who work at Facebook and are product managers”? Why not, indeed.

One can imagine such functionality will create a lot of new engagement on the service. And not just from people “friending” prospective beaus or hires. Recall that when Google burst onto the scene, it prompted a dramatic response from owners of web pages, who immediately began rewiring their sites to be optimized for search. Similarly, Facebook’s Graph Search will incent Facebook users to “dress” themselves in better meta-data, so as to be properly represented in all those new structured results. People will start to update their profiles with more dates, photo tags, relationship statuses, and, and, and…you get the picture. No one wants to be left out of a consideration set, after all.

Facebook Gets More Weather

Last year I wrote a post titled “Facebook Is Now Making Its Own Weather.” The focus was on Facebook’s Newsfeed, and how an economy of value was now in place to game Facebook’s “edgerank” algorithm, which determines what stories show up in a person’s feed. With Graph Search, I expect a similar ecosystem will emerge. All of a sudden, two things will be true that previously were not: Facebook users will be using search, a lot, creating liquidity in Facebook “SERPS.” And secondly, there will be significant perceived value in being included in those search results, both for individuals (I want to be considered for that job at Google!) and for companies/brands (I want to message to anyone looking for a job!).

While Graph Search is in very early beta, I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by predicting that it won’t be long before Facebook integrates a product that lets marketers purchase ads in these new search results. It already has a similar product, which is by default included in suggested searches (the “auto completed” queries suggested to a user as they enter terms). At the moment, however, paid listings are not included in search results. They will be. Which means, of course, the rise of a native SEO/SEM ecosystem inside Facebook. Add in Open Graph search across the web, and presto…Google’s got some serious potential competition. (Well, not exactly presto. Incorporating Open Graph is going to take some serious chops and time. But still…).

Even without incorporation of Open Graph or Posts, Graph Search is going to change the game for brands and people on the Facebook service. As I watched Stocky and Rasmussen put their product through its paces, I couldn’t help but wonder how much new traffic the product will drive around the Facebook Platform. Will Facebook be watching “conversions” – clickthroughs from search results to profiles and pages? Of course they will! Will Facebook report those referrals to individuals and brands, much as Google Analytics does for webpage today? Not yet…but wait for it. It’ll come….

 What’s Missing: Sharing Results

I’ve already noted that Graph Search does not index content (posts) or the Open Graph, though I’m told that’s coming. But the big miss, from my point of view, is the inability to share search results.

Share search results? Who’d want to do that? Well, in web search, very few of us. That’s because with rare exception, open web search is not an inherently social action – it’s private and it’s ephemeral. But inside the walls of Facebook, it’s definitionally so. In fact, I’d argue that every single “result page” in Graph Search is a “media object” in its own right. If you search for “pictures of friends before 1990,” for example, you get the equivalent of a Pinterest board of your friends’ childhood shots. Wouldn’t you like to post that on your timeline so your pals can see it? Better yet, wouldn’t you like to export it to Pinterest or Tumblr? Of course you would (but, alas, I don’t expect Facebook will allow it, under cover of “protecting user privacy.” More on that in a second.)

Or take another example. Say you have a pal in Southern California who is despondent after being dumped by her boyfriend. You do a quick Graph Search for “single friends of friends under 30 who work in Los Angeles.” The results look pretty promising. Don’t you want to shoot them over to your pal with the subject line “Don’t despair, there are plenty of fish in the sea!” Of  course you do.

I mean, just a query like “Photos I Like” is a huge feature win for Facebook. And who wouldn’t want to post a montage of “Photos I Like” to their timeline? (Or, ahem, their personal blog?!)

For now, you can’t share the results of your searches with anyone else, and that’s a bug that should be a feature. When I brought up the issue, I was told that the privacy implications of sharing searches were extremely complicated. Because of past missteps and current scrutiny, Facebook is going to tread cautiously here (privacy was a central theme in Graph Search’s launch). I certainly understand why, but while those issues are sorted, I expect there are going to be a lot of screen shots of Graph search results being shared around the web.

Bigger privacy issues will likely arise around what might be called the Randi Zuckerberg principle – as in “Oh shit, I didn’t realize I’d show up in that circumstance!” Graph Search is going to expose all manner of privacy controls as super important, and send millions back to Facebook’s sometimes-confusing dashboards, so as to appropriately re-tool settings such that nothing untwoard shows up in this important new functionality.

And to me, this is a Very Good Thing. A couple of years ago, I wrote a post titled  The Rise of Digital Plumage in which I predicted that we’d all become habituated to “dressing” ourselves in structured data, so as to best present ourselves to the world at any given time. Graph Search is another important tool in our ever-growing digital wardrobe, one that motivates us to understand and manage the implications of our ever-expanding digital footprint.

Facebook just posted an announcement about its new search here.  The initial beta will roll out slowly, folks will have to ask to join a waitlist to get the service. I’ll be updating this post as the news is discussed and digested….

We Are (About to Be) As Gods. Can We Get Used To It?

By - January 14, 2013

Last month I finished another of my “must read” books - Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves, by George Church and Ed Regis. While the authors don’t veer into the religious, a reader can’t help but ponder the unknown and the supernatural – because the book rather calmly takes a fair amount of what we take for granted as pre-determined in our lives  - disease, death, the nature of how things become what they are – and without too much fanfare, declares them soluble.

Church is a highly regarded geneticist with dozens of innovations to his credit, Regis is a talented science writer. Church provides the book’s voice, authority, and personal anecdotes, Regis its structure and rigor.  The combination works, though the first few chapters are a bit rough if your high school chemistry is rusty. Each time I returned to it, I found myself enjoying Regenesis, and I can’t say that for many non-fiction books I’ve read lately.

Why? Well, in the main, because the subject matter is so … revolutionary. Church and Regis liken it to the “greatest story every told” – the story of life, how it came to be, and how we – as perhaps life’s most capable expression – are close to figuring out its essence and bend it to our will. As they write:

The appearance of DNA some 3,900 million years ago makes it the most ancient of all ancient texts.

Church and Regis lay out how the human race is taking control of the core mechanisms of biology – including DNA, protein expression, and even the creation living organisms, and then draw what they believe are inevitable conclusions:

…we stand at the door of manipulating genomes in a way that reflects the progress of evolutionary history: starting with the simplest organisms and ending, most portentously, by being able to alter our own genetic makeup.

But the impact of synthetic biology doesn’t stop there. Leveraging tools now in early stages in labs and for-profit companies around the world, we soon will be able to harness what we understand to be the very laws of nature – for example, the forces which conspire to turn an oak seed into a mighty tree. If we understand DNA and its expression entirely, then why can’t we program a seed that “grows” into a house? Or create swarms of bacteria that convert waste into clean energies? Or reprogram our DNA such that we never suffer from a viral disease?

In short, the potential of this relatively new science is mind-bending. And according to the authors, we stand at the brink of a massive leap forward – analogous to where we were with digital technology back in the late 1970s. And the connection to digital is more than analogy, it’s central: core to synthentic biology is the ability to turn DNA into information, manipulate it using computers, and then express it back out to biological agents. In fact,  this bio-information loop is fundamental to “Regenesis” – and to the field of synthetic biology itself. And while we may be accustomed to the exponential acceleration of digital information processing, it’s got nothing on our progress in genetic technology, which is accelerating at four times the speed of Moore’s law:

In 1980 commercial DNA synthesis services were available, at the going rate of $6,000 for a small amount of product, only about ten nucleotides long. They were used either to find valuable genes in cellular RNA or to synthesize them. By 2010 we could make a million 60-nucleotide oligos for $500. Just as the global appetite for reading DNA seems insatiable—growing a million-fold in six years and still increasing—the appetite for DNA synthesis, or “writing,” will probably grow similarly and go in many unexpected directions.

For Church and Regis (and many others in the field), this is where the practice of engineering comes in. When the digital world exploded onto the scene in the mid 20th century, engineering wrestled it to the ground and helped us create extraordinary new things like computers and the Internet (and all their attendant applications), all based on having cheap, mass produced components like CPUs, hard drives, monitors, and the like. Biology has been stuck in a “pre-digital” age for much of the past century, but is about to burst forth as the strictures of engineering are applied. “Engineers normally had access to an ordered supply of well-defined, interchangeable, off-the-shelf parts, specification sheets, system plans, and so on,” the authors write. Until recently, such tools were not available to those who wished to construct life.

That, the authors argue, is about to change. (Church even goes so far as to encode his book – billions of times over – into DNA. Quite a parlor trick. You can read more about that here).

The book goes into far more than I’ve touched upon here. At times it preaches, or is flip, or dismissive of potential risk or counter-argument. But overall, this is an important work, one that introduces the basic elements for a debate I believe we’ll be having as society for the next few decades, if not longer. Because let’s face it, we’re not going to stop futzing with DNA, or computers, are we? So as Stewart Brand famously declared: We better get good at it.  

Other works I’ve reviewed:

Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age by Steven Johnson (review)

Super Sad True Love Story: A Novel by Gary Shteyngart (review)

The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers by Tom Standage (review)

Year Zero: A Novel by Rob Reid (review)

Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F. B. Morse by Kenneth Silverman (review)

Code: And Other Laws of Cyberspace, Version 2.0 by Larry Lessig (review)

You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (Vintage) by Jaron Lanier (review)

WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency by Micah Sifry (review)

Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress–and a Plan to Stop It by Larry Lessig (review)

Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson (review)

The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil (review)

The Corporation (film – review).

What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly (review)

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle (review)

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick (review)

In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy (review)

The Future of the Internet–And How to Stop It by Jonathan Zittrain (review)

The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century by George Friedman (review)

Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 by Michio Kaku (review)

 

 

Phones! Now With Multitasking! Why Mobile Is About To Have Its Web Revolution.

By - January 13, 2013


While at CES last week, I had the pleasure of moderating a panel with four extraordinary publishers – all FM authors. The topic was “2013 Trends” and I got to hear Anand Shimpi (of AnandTech), Brad McCarthy (of The Next Web), Elaine Fiolet (of UberGizmo) and Leander Kahney (from the Cult of Mac) expound on what they’d seen in Vegas.

It was a great conversation (and yes, I wish we got it on video, but alas, we did not, it was a private event for FM clients) – but one thing that Anand said really struck me. Mobile devices, he pointed out, were a few cycles behind their PC counterparts in computing power, but were rapidly catching up. A couple more generations from now, many of the “compute constrained” services that so far have been absent from mobile will start to emerge.

And that gives me hope in so many ways.

If you read me closely (and have a decent memory, which I do not), you will recall that I am no fan of the early mobile ecosystem. “AppLand,” as I’ve pejoratively called it, does not act like the web. You can’t easily link those little chiclets called apps together, you can’t share data between them, you can’t, as a consumer, enjoy the serendipity and wonder of what the open web brought the world in its first few iterations.

But I think that will change. As devices increase in power and capability, entrepreneurs and developers will push to where value lays unearthed, and they’ll most likely follow a well worn path.

One example? Multitasking.

I’ve been in this business a long time, long enough to remember when the idea of having more than one application running at the same time on a PC was a Very Big Deal. Apple finally rolled out that capability with its System 7 in 1991. Yes, you read that right – 1991! That was when you could run applications in separate windows on a Macintosh, making it easy to cut and paste between, say, Microsoft Excel and Word, or Adobe Illustrator and the Quark publishing package.

Given it was more than 20 years ago that you could, as a consumer, easily cut and paste between applications on a PC, it’s pretty funny to see how Samsung is currently marketing its Galaxy Note II “phablet” (or “Flablet”, as Leander called it on the panel). The heart of the commercial is this: You can run TWO apps AT THE SAME TIME! WOW! And you can cut and paste between them!

All I can say is this: If it’s 1991 in mobile land, that means just one thing: 1993 is right around the corner. The World Wide Web is about to hit mobile apps. It’s about time.