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RSS Update: Not Dead, But On The Watch List

By - January 30, 2012

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!

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Put Your Taproot Into the Independent Web

By - January 24, 2012

(image) This article - Early Facebook App Causes Is Being Reborn As A Polished Web Site For Good – caught my eye as I was nodding off last night (thanks so much for moving the web into my bedroom, Flipboard. No really.)

Now, it didn’t catch my eye because of its subject – Causes – but because of what its subject was doing: refocusing its business back out on the Independent Web, from its original home in the zoological garden that is the Facebook platform.

This is indicative of what I believe will become a trend over the next year or so, barring moves by Facebook to stem the tide (I’ve heard tell of far more “weblike” canvas pages coming, for instance). Companies that have planted their presence too deeply into the soils of Facebook are going to realize they need to control their own destiny, and move their focus and their core presence back into the independent waters of the open Internet (think Zynga “project Z”, for instance). Listen to Causes VP Chris Chan on the decision to move back to Causes.org:

As the years have progressed the web has gotten a lot more social, and it makes more sense to have our own brand and site. We can still be ‘on’ Facebook in the sense that we plug into News Feed and fan pages, but having our own brand gives us full, top to bottom control over the product experience, something that we think is critical for building the best tool possible for organizers to create campaigns for social change.

That “full, top to bottom control” means a lot more than just the chrome finishes on your website. It means controlling all the data created by interactions on that site, including if and how you share that data with your consumers and your partners (including Facebook, of course).

In seminars, writings, conferences, and speaking gigs around the world over the past couple of years, I’ve started using a phrase when asked my opinion of what a brand’s social strategy might be, in particular when it comes to Facebook. The context is nuanced (I’m a fan of integrating Facebook into your brand efforts), but the point is simple: If you are a brand, publisher, or independent voice, don’t put your taproot into the soils of Facebook. Plant it in the independent web. (A bit more on this can be found here).

Now, that doesn’t mean “don’t use Facebook,” not at all. I think Facebook is an extraordinarily important part of the Internet ecosystem, and having a robust presence there is a critical part of any brand (or company’s) strategy.

But Facebook is a for profit, advertising and data-driven company. If you seat mission critical portions of your business inside its walls, you are driving value to Facebook – and you are presuming the trade, in terms of traffic and virality, will come out on balance favoring you. I wouldn’t count on that. Facebook will always have more data than you do about how consumers use the Facebook platform, and will always be able to leverage that data more effectively.

Not to mention, have you checked out Facebook’s terms of service when it comes to using data derived from its platform? Here are a few choice terms that come from a quick perusal (sources are here and here):

- You own your own content, but you grant Facebook license to use it as well.

- You may only request user data needed to operate your app (if you create a Facebook app as part of your presence on Facebook).

- You may not use data collected in your app in your other advertising efforts (including ad networks).

- You may not integrate analytics from third party sources into your efforts inside Facebook. Facebook, however, can gather data from how your app or page is used for their own advertising programs.

- Facebook reserves the right to do exactly what you’re doing at any time – if you create a killer new app inside Facebook, and it takes off, Facebook can decide to do the same thing. (Clearly Facebook isn’t motivated to do this if it angers a major advertising partner, but this term does give pause).

- Facebook reserves the right to market your work in Facebook’s own promotional efforts.But if you want to promote what you are doing on Facebook across third party advertising networks out on the Independent Web, you must get written permission.*

(I’ll be writing more about terms of service in general in another post). 

Now, I don’t think Facebook’s terms are particularly crazy, they’re written by lawyers looking to protect and  preserve as much value as possible for Facebook as a corporation. They have the right to do so, and they are quite open and transparent about their policies.

But it drives me crazy to see major brands using expensive television time to drive consumers to a Facebook program that lives exclusively inside Facebook. (I imagine the reverse is true when Facebook executives see those same ads). I’m sure it works in the short term – you get folks there, they “like” or “follow” your brand, and they engage in whatever promotion or campaign is currently running. But if that campaign, promotion, or program lives only on Facebook, well, good luck deriving all the value you possibly can from it.

If that same program lives out on the Independent web – your own site, on your own domain, with your own platform – then you own all the data and insights, and you can broker those assets back into a Facebook page, or anywhere else you may care to. It doesn’t work the other way around. Imagine trying to replicate the value you create in a Facebook-exclusive program into, say, Google+ or Twitter, or in a major buy across an agency trading desk. Not with the terms outlined above.

It’s not like Facebook is stopping brands from leveraging the service out on the open web – that’s the point of the Open Graph, after all (and it’s what Causes is using now). Facebook knows that independence is critical to the future of the Internet, and has created tools to insure it’s a major player there. My advice: use those tools inside your own presence on the web. But put your taproot into soil that you control, soil that is shared by the millions of other independent voices on the web. That insures you’ll be part of a free and open ecosystem where serendipity and opportunity can create wonderful new possibilities.

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*Thanks to my researcher, LeeAnn Prescott, for analysis of these terms. If I’ve gotten any of this wrong, I hope folks from Facebook and/or my smarter-than-I-am readership will correct me, and I’ll update this post accordingly. 

Also, an important caveat – I am founder and Chair of a company that promotes the Independent Web, and operates a significant network for the purposes of advertising. 

It’s Not About Search Anymore, It’s About Deals

By - January 14, 2012

As in, who gets the best deal, why didn’t that deal go down, how do I get a deal, what should the deal terms be?

This is of course in the air given the whole Google+ fracas, but it’s part of a larger framework I’m thinking through and hope to write about. On the issue of “deals,” however, a little sketching out loud seems worthwhile.

Go read this piece: Facebook+Spotify: An ‘Unfair, Insider, Anti-Competitive’ Relationship…

It’s a common lament: A small developer who feels boxed out by whoever got the sweet deal. In this case, it’s on Facebook, but we all know it happens inside the Apple store as well (whoever gets top billing, gets sales).  Closed ecosystems controlled by one company create this dynamic. There’s only so much real estate, and the owner of the land gets to determine the most profitable use of it.

Google now appears to be acting the same way, cutting Google+ a “deal” so to speak, giving it the best real estate for all manner of search queries. That’s not how search was supposed to work. Search was supposed to reflect the ongoing conversation happening across all aspects of the Internet. If you were that small developer, you worked hard to get your service noticed on the web, and as it picked up a following, search would notice, start raising your profile in search results, and a virtuous loop began. Is that concept now dead?

Search isn’t supposed to be about cutting a deal to get your company’s wares to the top of relevant searches. In my reporting over the past week, most of my source conversations have been about failed deals – between Google and Facebook, or Google and Twitter. But search is supposed to be about showing the best results to consumers based on objective (or at least defensible and understandable) parameters, parameters *unrelated to the search engine itself.*

With Google Search Plus Your World (shortened by many to SPYW, which is just laughably bad as an acronym), it’s rather hard to tell the two apart anymore. When I wrote last year that Google = Google+, I meant it from a brand perspective. I didn’t realize how literal it’s become. Because with SPYW, all I’m getting is Google+ at the top of my results. I know I can turn SPYW off, and I probably will. Or, I can bail on Google+ altogether. But there is a real conundrum in doing so – more on that in my next post.

Some are arguing that search is no longer about results anymore, and that for years search has pretty much been about paid inclusion anyway (either paid through SEO,  or paid through ads, which increasingly don’t look like ads). That now, Google is focusing entirely on getting you an answer, and surfacing that answer right there on the results page. Perhaps the “right answer” is best found through cutting deals.

But I hope not. Because for me, search is a journey, not an answer.

This SPYW story has raised so many questions, it’s rather hard to sort through them all. I guess I’ll just keep writing till I feel like the writing’s done…

Related:

Hitler Is Pissed About Google+

Google Responds: No,That’s Not How Facebook Deal Went Down (Oh, And I Say: The Search Paradigm Is Broken)

Compete To Death, or Cooperate to Compete?

Twitter Statement on Google+ Integration with Google Search

Search, Plus Your World, As Long As It’s Our World

Google Responds: No,That’s Not How Facebook Deal Went Down (Oh, And I Say: The Search Paradigm Is Broken)

By - January 13, 2012

(image) I’ve just been sent an official response from Google to the updated version of my story posted yesterday (Compete To Death, or Cooperate to Compete?). In that story, I reported about 2009 negotiations over incorporation of Facebook data into Google search. I quoted a source familiar with the negotiations on the Facebook side, who told me  “Senior executives at Google insisted that for technical reasons all information would need to be public and available to all,” and “The only reason Facebook has a Bing integration and not a Google integration is that Bing agreed to terms for protecting user privacy that Google would not.”

I’ve now had conversations with a source familiar with Google’s side of the story, and to say the company disagrees with how Facebook characterized the negotiations is to put it mildly. I’ve also spoken to my Facebook source, who has clarified some nuance as well. To get started, here’s the official, on the record statement, from Rachel Whetstone, SVP Global Communications and Public Affairs:

“We want to set the record straight. In 2009, we were negotiating with Facebook over access to its data, as has been reported.  To claim that the we couldn’t reach an agreement because Google wanted to make private data publicly available is simply untrue.”

My source familiar with Google’s side of the story goes further, and gave me more detail on why the deal went south, at least from Google’s point of view. According to this source, as part of the deal terms Facebook insisted that Google agree to not use publicly available Facebook information to build out a “social service.” The two sides had already agreed that Google would not use Facebook’s firehose (or private) data to build such a service, my source says.

So what does “publicly available” mean? Well, that’d be Facebook pages that any search engine can crawl – information on Facebook that people *want* search engines to know about. This is compared to the firehose data that was the core asset being discussed between the parties. This firehose data is what Google would need in order to surface personal Facebook pages relevant to you in the context of a search query. (So, for example, if you were my friend on Facebook, and you searched for “Battelle soccer” on Google, then with the proposed deal, you’d see pictures of my kids’ soccer games that I had posted to Facebook).

Apparently, Google believed that Facebook’s demand around public information could be interpreted  as applying to how Google’s own search service was delivered, not to mention how it (or other products) might evolve. Interpretation is always where the devil is in these deals. Who’s to say, after all, that Google’s “social search” is not a “social service”? And Google Pages, Maps, etc. – those are arguably social in nature, or will be in the future.

Google balked at this language, and the deal fell apart. My Google source also disputes the claim that Google balked at being able to technically separate public from private data. Conversely, my Facebook source counters that the real issue of public vs. private had to do with Google’s refusal to honor changes in privacy settings over time – for example, if I deleted those soccer pictures, they should also be deleted from Google’s index. There’s a point where this all devolves to she said/he said, because the deal never happened, and to be honest, there are larger points to make.

So let’s start with this: If Facebook indeed demanded that Google not use publicly available Facebook data, it’s certainly understandable why Google wouldn’t agree to the deal. It may not seem obvious, but there is an awful lot of publicly available Facebook pages and data out there. Starbucks, for example, is more than happy to let anyone see its Facebook page, no matter if you’re logged in or not. And then there’s all that Facebook open graph data out on the public web – tons of sites show Facebook status updates, like counts and so on in a public fashion. In short, asking Google to not leverage that data in anything that might constitute a “social service” is anathema to a company who claims its mission to crawl all publicly available information, organize it, and make it available.

It’s one thing to ask that Google not use Facebook’s own social graph and private data to build new social services – after all, the social graph is Facebook’s crown jewels. But it’s quite another thing to ask Google to ignore other public information completely.

From Google’s point of view, Facebook was crippling future products and services that Google might create, which was tantamount to an insurance policy of sorts that Google wouldn’t become a strong competitor, at least not one that  leverages public information from Facebook. Google balked. If Facebook’s demand could have been interpreted as also applying to Google’s search results, well, that’s a stone cold deal killer.

I certainly understand why Facebook might ask for what they did, it’s not crazy. Google might well have responded by narrowing the deal, saying “Fine, you don’t build a search engine, and we won’t build a social network. But we should have the right to create other kinds of social services.” As far as I know, Google didn’t chose to say that. (Microsoft apparently did). And I think I know why: The two companies realized they were dancing on the head of a pin. Search = social, social = search. They couldn’t figure out a way to tease the two apart. Microsoft has cast its lot with Facebook, Google, not so much.

When high stakes deals fall apart, both sides usually claim the other is at fault, and that certainly seems to be the case here. It’s also the case with the Twitter deal, which I’ve gotten a fair amount of new information about as well. I hope to dig into that in another post. For now, I want to pull back a second and comment on what I think is really going on here, at least from the perspective of a longer view.

Our Cherished Search Paradigm Is Broken (But We Will Fix It….Eventually)

I think what we have here is a clear indication that the search paradigm we’ve operated under for a decade or so is broken. That paradigm stems from Google’s original letter to shareholders in 2004. Remember this line?Our search results are the best we know how to produce. They are unbiased and objective, and we do not accept payment for them or for inclusion or more frequent updating.

In many cases, it’s simply naive to claim Google is unbiased or objective. Google often favors its own properties over others, as Danny points out in Real-Life Examples Of How Google’s “Search Plus” Pushes Google+ Over Relevancy and others have also detailed. But there is a reason: if you’re going to show results from all other possible contenders, replete with their associated UI and functional bells and whistles (as Google does with its own Maps, Pages, Plus etc.), well, it’s nearly impossible now to determine which service is the right answer to a particular person’s query. Not to mention, you need to put a deal in place to get all the functionality of the service. Instead, Google has opted, in many cases, to go with their own stuff.

This is not a new idea, by the way. Yahoo’s been doing it this way from the beginning. The contentious issue is that biasing some results toward Google’s own products runs counter to Google’s founding philosophy.

I have a theory as to why all this is happening, and I don’t entirely blame Google. Back when search wasn’t personalized, Google could defensibly say that one service was better than another because it got more traffic, was linked to more (better PageRank), and so on. Back when everyone got the same results and the web was one homogenous glob of HTML, well, you could claim “this is the best result for the general population.” But personalized search has broken that framework – I lamented this back in 2008 with this post: Search Was Our Social Glue. But That Is Dissolving (more here).

With the rise of Facebook and the app economy, the problem of search has become terribly complicated. If you want to have results from Facebook in your search, well, that search service has to do a deal with Facebook. But what if you want results from your running app (I have hundreds of rides and runs logged on AllSportGPS, for example)? Or Instagram? Or Path, for that matter? Do they all have to do deals with Google and Bing? There are so many unconnected pieces of the Internet now (millions of apps, most of our own Facebook experiences, etc. etc.) that what’s a good personal result for one person is not necessarily good for another. If Google is to stay true to its original mission, it needs a new framework and a massive number of new signals – new glue – to put the pieces back together.

There are several ways to resolve this, and in another post, I hope to explore them (one of them, of course, is simply that everyone should just go through Facebook. That’s the vision of Open Graph). But for now, I’m just going to say this: The issues raised by this kerfuffle are far larger than Google vs. Facebook, or Google vs. Twitter. We are in the midst of a major search paradigm shift, and there will be far more tears before it gets resolved. But resolve it must, and resolve it will.

Compete To Death, or Cooperate to Compete?

By - January 11, 2012

(image) **Updated at 3 PM PST with more info about Facebook/Google negotiations…please read to the bottom…**

In today’s business climate, it’s not normal for corporations to cooperate with each other when it comes to sharing core assets. In fact, it’s rather unusual. Even when businesses do share, it’s usually for some ulterior motive, a laying of groundwork for future chess moves which insure eventual domination over the competition.

Such is the way of business, particularly at the highest and largest levels, such as those now inhabited by top Internet players.

Allow me to posit that this philosophy is going to change over the next few decades, and further, indulge me as I try to apply a new approach to a very present case study: That of Google, Facebook, and Twitter as it relates to Google’s search index and the two social services’ valuable social interaction datasets.

This may take a while, and I will most likely get a fair bit wrong. But it seems worth a shot, so if you feel like settling in for some Thinking Out Loud, please come along.

First, some abridged background. Back in 2009, on the Web 2 Summit stage of all places (yes, I was the emcee), Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter announced a flurry of deals, some of which were worked out in a last minute fury of negotiations. Early in the conference Microsoft announced it would incorporate Twitter and Facebook feeds into its new search engine Bing. Not to be outdone, Google announced a deal with Twitter the next day. However, Google did not announce a deal with Facebook, and the two companies have never come to terms. Meanwhile, Microsoft has continued to deepen its relationship with Facebook data, to the point of viewing that relationship as a key differentiator between Bing and Google search.

All of these deals have business terms, some of them financial, all with limits on how data is used and presented, I would presume. Marissa Mayer of Google told me on the Web 2 stage that there were “financial terms” in Google’s deal with Twitter, but would not give me any details (nor should she have, frankly).

Fast forward to the middle of last year, when the Google/Twitter deal was set to expire. At about the same time as renewal was being negotiated, Google launched Google+, a clear Facebook and Twitter competitor. For reasons that seem in dispute (Google said yesterday Twitter walked away, Twitter has not made a public statement about why things fell apart), the renewal never happened.

And then yesterday, Google incorporated Google+  results into its main search index, sparking a debate in the blogosphere that rages on today – Is Google acting like a monopolist? Does Facebook or Twitter have a “right” to be included in Google results? Why didn’t Google try to negotiate inclusion with its rivals prior to making such a clearly self-serving move?

Google execs, including Chair Eric Schmidt, told SEL’s Danny Sullivan that the company would be happy to talk to both companies to figure out ways to incorporate Twitter and Facebook into Google search, but clearly, those talks could have happened prior to the G+ launch, and they didn’t (or they did, and did not work out – I honestly have no idea). When Danny pointed out that Twitter pages are publicly available, Schmidt demurred, saying that Google prefers to “have a conversation” with a company before using its pages in such a wholesale fashion (er, so did they have one, or not? Anyway…). He has a point (commercial deals are de-rigueur), but…that conversation happened last year, and apparently ended without a deal. And around we go…

What’s clear is this: All the companies involved in this great data spat are acting in what they believe to be their own self interest, and the greatest potential loser, at least in the short term, is the search consumer, who will not be seeing “all the world’s information” but rather “that information which is readily available to Google on terms Google prefers.”

The key to that last sentence is the phrase “what they believe to be their own self interest.” Because I think there’s an argument that, in fact, their true self interest is to open up and share with each other.

Am I nuts? Perhaps. But indulge my insanity for a bit.

The Cost of Blinkered Competition

Back in the Web 1.0 days, when I was running The Industry Standard, I had a number of strong competitors. It’s probably fair to say we didn’t like each other much – we competed daily for news stories, advertiser dollars, and the loyalty of readers. The market for information about the tech industry was limited – there were only so many people interested in our products, and only so much time in the day for them to engage with us.

My strategy to win was clear: We’d make the best product, have the best people, and we’d win on quality. When I heard about one of our competitors badmouthing us, I’d try to ignore it – we were winning anyway: We had the dominant marketshare, the most revenues ($120mm in 2000, with $21mm in EBIDTA), and the best product.

Then something strange happened: an emissary from a competitor called and asked for a meeting. Intrigued, I took it, and was surprised by his offer: Let’s put our two companies together. Apart, he argued, we were simply tearing each other down. Together, we could consolidate the market and insure a long term win.

I considered his idea, but for various reasons, we didn’t take him up on it. I felt like we had the dominant position, that his offer was driven by weakness, not intellectual soundness, and I also felt that a combination would require that my shareholders take on too much dilution.

Two years later, both of us were out of business.

Now, I’m not sure it would have mattered, given the great crash of 2001. But what is certainly true is that I could have thought a bit deeper about what this fellow was proposing. Back in the days of print-bound information, we were essentially competing on what were publicly available assets: stories, particularly interpretations and reportage around those stories, and people: writers, editors, ad sales executives, and management. Short of combining companies, there wasn’t really any other way for us to collaborate, or at least, so I thought.

But perhaps there could have been. It’s been more than a decade since that meeting, and I still wonder: perhaps we could have shared back-end resources like operations, publishing contracts, etc. and saved tens of millions of dollars. We’d compete just on how we leveraged those public assets (stories, people). Perhaps we might have survived the wipeout of the dot com crash. We’ll never know. Since those publications died, the blogosphere has claimed the market, and now it’s far larger than the one we lost back in 2001. Of course I started Federated Media to participate in that model, and now FM has as large a revenue run rate as the Industry Standard, across a far more diverse market.

Why am I bringing this up? Because I think there’s a win-win in this whole Google/Facebook/Twitter dust up, but it’s going to take some Thinking Differently to make it happen.

Imagine Twitter and Facebook offer efficient access to all of their “public” pages – those that its users are happy to share with anyone (or even just to their pre-defined “circles”) – to Google under some set of reasonable usage terms. Financial terms would be minimal – perhaps just enough to cover the costs of serving such a large firehose of data to the search giant. Imagine further that Google, in return, agrees to incorporate this user data in a fashion that is fair – ie doesn’t favor any service over any other – be it Twitter, Google+, or Facebook.

Now, negotiating what is “fair” will be complicated, and honestly, should be subject to iteration as all parties learn usage patterns. And of course all this should be subject to consumer control – if I want to see only Twitter or Facebook or Google+ results in particular searches (or all results for that matter), I should have that right.

And this leads me to my point. Such a set up, regardless of how painful it might be to get right, would create a shared class of assets that would have to compete at the level of the consumer. In other words, the best service for the query wins.

That’s always been Google’s stated philosophy: the best answer for the question at hand. Danny gets to this point in a piece posted last night (which I just saw as I was writing this): Search Engines Should Be Like Santa From “Miracle On 34th Street”. In it he argues that Google’s great strength has been its pattern of sending people to its competitors. And he upbraids Google for violating that principle with its Google+ integration.

It doesn’t have to be this way. It’s not only Google that’s at fault here. Facebook won’t share with Google on any terms, Facebook and Google have not been able to come to terms on how to share data (more on that below*), and Twitter clearly wants some kind of value if it is to share its complete firehose with the search giant. Imagine if all three were to agree on minimal terms, creating a public commons of social data. Yes, that would put Google in an extreme position of trust (not to mention imperil its toddler Google+ service), but covenants can be put in place that allow parties to terminate sharing for clear breaches which demonstrate one party favoring itself over others.

Were such a public commons to be created, then the real competition could start: at the level of how each service interprets that data, and adds value to it in various ways.

Four years ago to the month, I wrote this post: It’s Time For Services on The Web to Compete On More Than Data

In it I said: It’s time that services on the web compete on more than just the data they aggregate….

I think in the end, Facebook will win based on the services it provides for that data. Set the data free, and it will come back to roost wherever it’s best used. And if Facebook doesn’t win that race, well, it’ll lose over time anyway. Such a move is entirely in line with the company’s nascent philosophy, and would be a massively popular move within the ouroborosphere (my name for all things Techmeme).

Compete on service, Facebook, it’s where the world is headed anyway!

Two and a half years ago, as it became clear Facebook’s “nascent philosophy” had changed (and as Twitter rose in stature), I followed up with this post: Google v. Facebook? What We Learn from Twitter. In that post, I said:

 

I think it’s a major strategic mistake to not offer (Facebook’s pages and social graph) to Google (and anyone else that wants to crawl it.) In fact, I’d argue that the right thing to do is to make just about everything possible available to Google to crawl, then sit back and watch while Google struggles with whether or not to “organize it and make it universally available.” A regular damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario, that….

For an example of what I mean, look no further than Twitter. That service makes every single tweet available as a crawlable resource. And Google certainly is crawling Twitter pages, but the key thing to watch is whether the service is surfacing “superfresh” results when the query merits it. So far, the answer is a definitive NO.

Why?

Well, perhaps I’m being cynical, but I think it’s because Google doesn’t want to push massive value and traffic to Twitter without a business deal in place where it gets to monetize those real time results.

Is that “organizing the world’s information and making it universally available?” Well, no. At least, not yet.

By making all its information available to Google’s crawlers (and fixing its terrible URL structure in the process), Facebook could shine an awfully bright light on this interesting conflict (of) interest.

Thanks to Google’s inclusion of Google+ in its search index, that light has now been shone, and what we’re seeing isn’t all good. I’m of the opinion that a few years from now, each and every one of us will have the expectation and the right to incorporate our own social data into web-wide queries. If the key parties involved in search and social today don’t figure out a way to make that happen, well, they may end up just like The Industry Standard did back in 2001.
But not to worry, someone else will come along, pick up the pieces, and figure out how to play a more cooperative and federated game.
*Update: I’ve heard from a source with knowledge of the Facebook/Google negotiations over integration of Facebook’s data into Google’s search index. This source – who while very credible does come from Facebook’s side of the debate – explained to me that during the 2009 negotiations, Google balked at Facebook’s request that Facebook data be protected in the same fashion as it is in Facebook’s deal with Bing. In essence, Google claimed no way to keep data within circles of friends in the context of a Google search. According to this source: “Senior executives at Google insisted that for technical reasons all information would need to be public and available to all.” But the source goes on to point out that in Google’s own integration of Google+, Google does exactly what it claims it could not do with Facebook data. “The only reason Facebook has a Bing integration and not a Google integration is that Bing agreed to terms for protecting user privacy that Google would not,” this source told me.
Also, and quite interestingly, Google also refused to agree to a clause which stated that Google could not use the data to build its own social network. Now, this is where things can get very dicey. It’s very hard to prove whether or not a company is using the data in particular ways, and had Google agreed to that clause, it might have severely limited its ability to build Google+. What is clear is that Microsoft agreed to Facebook’s terms.

Search, Plus Your World, As Long As It’s Our World

By - January 10, 2012

Perusing my feeds today, I saw this post from Google’s blog:

Search, plus Your World

In the post, Google extols the virtues of incorporating results such as “your personal content or things shared with you by people you care about. These wonderful people and this rich personal content is currently missing from your search experience. Search is still limited to a universe of webpages created publicly, mostly by people you’ve never met. Today, we’re changing that by bringing your world, rich with people and information, into search.”

OH MY GOD! thinks I. GOOGLE IS FINALLY WORKING WITH FACEBOOK!

Nah, just kidding. What’s really going on is that Google is fully incorporating Google+ into its index. It’s as if Facebook doesn’t exist.

Now, I’ve been on this one before, and I’m sure others will point it out, or simply roll their eyes and call it a dead issue. Dead because we all know that Google hasn’t made peace with Facebook, and therefore is not crawling Facebook data, nor integrating Facebook results into its core search product in any other way than what’s absolutely necessary (ie those lame public Facebook profile pages). Facebook, in turn, has not made most of what happens inside Facebook available to search engines. It’s a standoff, because neither company really knows how to value the other company’s partnership.

And it sucks for the web. The unwillingness of Facebook and Google to share a public commons when it comes to the intersection of search and social is corrosive to the connective tissue of our shared culture. But as with all things Internet, we’ll just identify the damage and route around it. It’s just too bad we have to do that, and in the long run, it’s bad for Facebook, bad for Google, and bad for all of us. (BTW, Google also doesn’t show Twitter or Flickr results either, or any other “social” service. Just its own, Google+ and Picasa.)

Google addresses this issue in a SEL piece today:  “Facebook and Twitter and other services, basically, their terms of service don’t allow us to crawl them deeply and store things. Google+ is the only [network] that provides such a persistent service,” (said Google exec Amit) Singhal. “Of course, going forward, if others were willing to change, we’d look at designing things to see how it would work.”

Er, something tells me hell will freeze over first. Google’s already failed to get a data deal done with both Twitter and Facebook. I doubt they’ll take another run at it soon, though I wish they would.

Instead, we have the deepening trend of each of the Internet Big Five trying to be All Things to All People, creating a World That If Only You’d Use Exclusively, You’d Never Have To Leave.

Ick. Remember when Google used to be a neutral player that crawled the Whole Dern Web? So sad to see that era pass. It’s not Google’s fault, entirely, but it’s sad nonetheless.

NB: I should add that I am fully aware that the integration of G+, and *only* G+, into Google’s search service is a major win for Google’s fledgling social service. I’d expect a big bump in usage due to this, if the integration is done well (ie, doesn’t irritate users). It’s clearly “tying” in the sense of what Microsoft got slapped for in its DOJ antitrust case in the late 90s, but the context is different – Google doesn’t have a clear monopoly in search, just a pretty darn big one. If Microsoft really wanted to mess with Google, it could shut down Bing. Then Google might have some problems on its hands. Stranger things….

Predictions 2012 #6: “The Corporation” Becomes A Central Societal Question Mark

By - January 09, 2012

Amidst all the chaos, tragedy, and tumult that was 2011, I noticed one very clear theme: Most of us are struggling with the role corporations play in our society. The 14th Amendment (yes, the one that banished slavery) established corporations, in the US, as “persons” in the legal sense. In 2010, Citizens v. United sanctified corporations as equivalent to you and I in terms of political speech; in 2011, we began to see the impact of that decision on our political process here in the US (in short, follow the money).  The freedom to “associate in corporate form,” as it is termed in portions of the Citizens decision, is one I sense all of us are not entirely certain about. Corporations are utterly undemocratic organizations, and being a part of one is often not a choice, but a necessity. Does joining a corporation mean that you must defend that corporations’ point of view and now Constitutionally-protected right to speech?

Usually, at least in practice, the answer is yes. That corporation is paying your salary, and keeping food on your family’s table. Speaking out against it would be folly. This creates a tension in society that is clearly starting to surface. We overthrew the feudal system in the 1600s, and the theocracy in the 1700s. But currently, corporations play similar roles in many of our lives, either directly or indirectly.

Certainly the Occupy Wall Street movement is one expression of this tension, but I’m not certain it will be the only one. Corporations are arguably the most powerful institutions in human history, more powerful than all but the largest governments. If that sounds silly, remember that the cash and cash equivalent hoard of the Internet Big Five – $180 billion and counting – is larger than the GDP of all but 50 countries. And that doesn’t account for leverage. The top 1000 corporations in the US are holding nearly a trillion dollars in pure cash.

From a balance sheet prospective, corporations are in far, far better shape than just about every country in the world. Even as our personal incomes shrink on a per capita basis, and the world dips in an out of what feels like an eternal recession, corporate profits are up and up again.

This feels a bit out of whack. And while #OWS is one reaction to that dissonance, I’m not sure it’ll be the only one. I think 2012 is the year we all start to question the role corporations can and should play in our society, and doing so won’t (or shouldn’t) be seen as an indication of some leftist or political agenda, but rather as a reasonable outgrowth of how a thinking person sorts through the solution of some of our most pressing problems. Because at the end of the day, we can’t really solve those problems without organizing ourselves into commercial entities. The question, however, is simply this: Can we organize ourselves into corporations without ending up doing things that, if one were to judge corporations as people, would be considered amoral, evil, or psychopathic?

So far, the results are mixed at best. But I have a strong sense that we can and will do better when it comes to how we manage our corporations. And it starts with the industry we’re all part of. While it can be disputed endlessly as to its specific merits, Google’s informal corporate mantra of “Don’t Be Evil” was a watershed moment in the history of corporations. And as “The Information” becomes the most important currency in our culture, and the ability to code (and create great information-driven products) becomes its most prized skill, we’re seeing the rise of a new kind of corporate leader. Perhaps we’re shifting from corporate skillsets that value profit over all other metrics (psychopathic qualities which arguably led us to the financial crisis) to ones that value, well, doing well by doing good.

It could happen. But I’m not arguing it will in 2012. What I am predicting is that this debate will become central to our political and cultural conversation in 2012. It feels like it’s time to have it, without screaming at each other in the process.

And by the way, this is where corporate marketing comes in, in a critical way, but more on that in another post.

 

Related:

Predictions 2012: #1 – On Twitter and Media

Predictions 2012: #2 – Twitter As Free Radical, Swiss Bank, Arms Merchant…And Google Five Years Ago

Predictions 2012 #3: The Facebook Ad Network

Predictions 2012 #4: Google’s Challenging Year

Predictions 2012 #5: A Big Year for M&A

Predictions 2011

2011: How I Did

Predictions 2010

2010: How I Did

2009 Predictions

2009 How I Did

2008 Predictions

2008 How I Did

2007 Predictions

2007 How I Did

2006 Predictions

2006 How I Did

2005 Predictions

2005 How I Did

2004 Predictions

2004 How I Did

Predictions 2012 #5: A Big Year for M&A

By - January 05, 2012

(image) One of the things that pops out of the “Big Five” chart I just posted, at least if you stare at it a bit, are the places where each company needs to get strong, quickly. Apple is weak in social and one dimensional in ad solutions. Microsoft needs to improve its device products, build out its entertainment distribution muscle, and keep improving search share. Google wants to get better in productivity software, social, and payments. Amazon needs help in devices, social, and OS. Facebook has work to do in many areas, including devices, search, payment, and voice.

When the five largest companies in our space have a lot of needs, they tend to pull out the wallet and go shopping. Sometimes they buy their way into partnerships, but often, they simply buy.

Hence my  fifth prediction for 2012: Expect Internet M&A to heat up, big time. It’s not just going to be the Big Five who drive this trend, it’ll be a whole mess of players looking to consolidate power and press into the double-digit growth market that is the Internet (and by Internet, I also mean mobile and enterprise, of course). Yahoo’s new CEO Scott Thompson knows how to buy companies and has a data focus, for example. That could mean competition to purchase marketing, ad tech, and data companies like Blue Kai, Quantcast, or MarketShare. MediaBank is on a tear and will be on the lookout for similar kinds of companies. IBM has a deep interest in the marketing tech world, expect Big Blue to make some big moves as well. And Twitter will certainly be flexing its muscles, now that it’s bulked up with nearly a billion in fresh capital.

If I had to name a few companies I expect to be in play amongst the Big Five, they would be:

Instagram. This searing hot proof-of-iPhone app is not only a strong social play, it’s a massive image and data goldmine to boot. I could imagine a bidding war for Instagram between Apple (which really needs a social win), Twitter (which could really use a strong photo play), Facebook (which might buy it to keep it out of Apple or Google’s hands), and Google (who would see it as a way to sex up Google+ and Picasa). Of course Yahoo would vie for Instagram as well, but I’m not sure it could win.

Pinterest. It’s social. It’s media. It’s data. Is it a mayfly? Perhaps, but I think it’ll be in play in 2012.

Square. Everyone loves small business, and everyone loves payments. Visa already owns a stake, but that won’t stop Dorsey from landing where he feels the fit is best. That might be Amazon.

Evernote. If any of the Big Five are looking to bolster their productivity suite, Evernote might pique their interest.

These are just off the top of my head, and I’m not a VC (or a daily tech reporter for that matter), so I’ll leave the rest to your imagination. Suffice to say, I predict 2012 is going to be a banner year for tech and Internet M&A. Who do you think will be swept up, and why?

Related:

Predictions 2012: #1 – On Twitter and Media

Predictions 2012: #2 – Twitter As Free Radical, Swiss Bank, Arms Merchant…And Google Five Years Ago

Predictions 2012 #3: The Facebook Ad Network

Predictions 2012 #4: Google’s Challenging Year

Predictions 2011

2011: How I Did

Predictions 2010

2010: How I Did

2009 Predictions

2009 How I Did

2008 Predictions

2008 How I Did

2007 Predictions

2007 How I Did

2006 Predictions

2006 How I Did

2005 Predictions

2005 How I Did

2004 Predictions

2004 How I Did

The Internet Big Five By Product Strength

By -

As I have written in previous predictions, I’ve been focusing on the Internet Big Five lately, and expect that to continue this year, as the group, collectively, are something of a “character” in my upcoming book (as is Twitter, the “free radical”). Other characters include “The Government” and “Corporations,” so expect predictions about those players in the next few days. But today, I want to focus on the Big Five as a whole. I’ve been staring at these companies, trying to understand their strategic imperatives, which is why I found myself making yet another chart.

This one focuses on core product lines where all (or most) of these companies are playing. For me, these product lines, taken together, are the basis of what we might call “the operating system of our lives.” And since the book is about how we will be leveraging our lives over digital platforms in one generation, it struck me as important to assess where each of the Big Five is right now (what they have already built) and where they are weak (what they need to build to compete).

Here’s the chart:

As you can see, I’ve laid out the same five companies, listed top to bottom by market cap. From left to right are columns of various product lines or offerings that I’ve determined are crucial areas that any player in the “OS of our life” must address. I’ve keyed each company against each product line with one of four scores, from “Strong” – where a company already dominates – to “Weak” – where a company either does not play, or has an anemic offering. The terms “Developing” and “Improving” demonstrate that the company is making progress in that area, from either a weak position (“Developing”) or a middling position (“Improving”).

The product lines I determined were worthy of inclusion mirrored many of the territories found in the Web 2 Summit Points of Control map, with some key additions. Starting from the left: If you’re going to be the “OS of life,” it helps if you have experience building operating systems. Next, it’s critical that you have the ability to distribute products and services, in particular entertainment, to folks on your platform. This means dealing with Hollywood, and the Big Five are in various states of disarray with regard to that issue. Third is Productivity Software, which some of the Big Five may well just punt on (Facebook and Amazon, perhaps). Fourth is Advertising Solutions – where all of the Big Five are either major players or developing solutions. Next are Tablets and Phones, which perhaps could also be called a distribution play but are far more than that. After that is Search, which kind of started this whole Web 2 thing back in the day – I gave Apple a “developing” here because of Siri, which I view as a search interface. Next up is Social, which is pretty self explanatory, Payment, a key point of control, and lastly Voice, which I believe (perhaps wrongly) as a critical aspect of user interface.

Why on earth did I go to the trouble of doing this? Well, because it helps me Think Out Loud about how these companies are going to play out over the next couple of years. If you buy that all of these companies need strategies in most of the areas I outline above, then looking for relative weaknesses and strengths of each is an interesting exercise. In fact, if you really squint, you may well see some patterns in future M&A (the subject of my next prediction post, in fact).

I could go on for pages about how I came to each score. For example, I gave Facebook a “developing” in OSes, even though the company really doesn’t have an OS like Windows or iOS. Why? Because I view Facebook as an OS layer on top of the Web, though of course not in the classic sense. And why did Amazon get a “developing” in Voice? Because it just bought a company in the space, just like Apple did with Siri in 2010. I’ll spare you the details of all the rest, but very much invite your comments on the chart. I labeled it “Draft 1″ for a reason. What categories of product did I miss? Were my scores fair? Comment away, please!

Update: I spaced on Xbox/Kinnect, and have updated the chart wrt to Ent/Dist for Microsoft, thanks for the input!

Predictions 2012 #4: Google’s Challenging Year

By - January 04, 2012

By some Mayan accounts, 2012 is not going to be a good year for any of us. But in this prediction, I’m going to focus on one company that will have a pretty crazy year: Google.

Now, I’m not predicting the company will lose revenue or profits in its core business of search, but rather that Larry Page’s first full year as CEO will be challenging, due in part to decisions made (or not made) back in 2011, and in part to the inherent complications of the businesses where Google now plants its flag.

I’ve got candidates for what those decisions were (Google+ real names’ policy, buying all of Motorola Mobility, not elegantly stewarding Android, muddying the search waters by favoring its own properties), but I think they all boil down to one core thing: Google has often brought products to market before they were fully ready, then played catch up with the competition against a roiling tide of conflicted partners, grandstanding policy makers, and confused consumers. It all adds up to a massive challenge that I think will come to a head in 2012.

Witness Android: the platform needs a strong and steady product-driven hand behind it, but seems at the mercy of handset makers and carriers. There’s hope in the Galaxy Nexus, but that phone is way ahead of the Android pack, and I’m not sure the ecosystem behind Android is going to follow Google’s lead here. Not to mention the goat rodeo that is the patent mess in mobile – an enervating and expensive battle that is always one court order away from throwing a wrench in Google’s plans. In short, Android is a wonderful counterpunch to Apple’s iOS, but it’s also a massive cat-herding challenge.

Or ChromeOS/Book/Apps: Google’s basically taking on the entire netbook marketplace here (Macbook Air and Windows in particular), but is the company really ready to play the game that its competitors have owned for decades? Sure, you can change the rules (Google’s really selling a cloud-based approach to work, rather than a PC-based one), but you can be right on theory and wrong in practice: hardware and the enterprise don’t move as fast as the web in terms of adoption. The company’s strategy of partnering (with leader Samsung, in this case) is elegant, but not at scale. At the same time, Google is taking on Microsoft in cloud software, and while it’s got some impressive wins under its belt, this is not a market native to Google’s strengths. In short, it will be a massive challenge to manage this business to scale and succcess in 2012.

Or Google+: Google is justifiably proud of how quickly this service has scaled (reportedly to more than 60mm unique users a month, in just six months), but questions remain as to the service’s staying power. If you are Google, and you integrate your new service into everything you own and operate (Android, Docs, Search, YouTube, Picasa, etc), it’s not going to be difficult to get a ton of folks to try the service out. I’m pretty sure that Googlers made their “social bonus” last year, given the good initial numbers, but again, it’s going to be a real challenge to turn those initial visits into long term active users who forsake Twitter and/or Facebook.

Or GoogleTV (and by some extension, YouTube): Probably the poster child for “not market ready,” GoogleTV now has very high expectations for 2012, thanks to Chairman Schmidt’s recent comments. But while the company can cut deals to integrate GTV into every new digital set on earth – and through its Motorola purchase, into every Motorola box to boot – it can’t force the kitty-with-a-ball-of-yarn ecosystem of cable companies and Hollywood to get out of the way of making a great consumer product (and Hollywood is still hoping to win its legal battles with YouTube). Again: A massive challenge, one that I doubt anyone (including Apple) will figure out to great success in 2012.

Or even Google core search: Google’s bread and butter is a massive profit and revenue engine, and I don’t expect that to change in 2012. However, it’s slowly losing share to new modes of discovery like Twitter and Facebook, and Google  has struggled with how to incorporate those signals into its search service. It can’t come to terms with either of the two major social services over data usage (and presumably money), meaning it’s losing ground in relevance, freshness, and depth. Then there’s the shift to mobile and apps: the world of apps is not easily crawled (and like Facebook, Apple is not eager to let Google do so), meaning an entire new digital frontier is lost to Google’s spiders (I lament this for other reasons as well, but more on that later). And then there’s the need to promote core Google properties, from Places to Google+ to Finance to YouTube to…well, you get the picture. Even though the company claims no bias in its results, the fact is that its partners aren’t buying it anymore (Yelp comes to mind). Lastly, there’s Bing, which isn’t going to stop trying to steal share. Back in the glory days of Web 2, the Web was the only game, and Google was everyone’s dashboard to it. Again, it will be a major challenge to keep Google’s core search business ahead of the game – because the major underlying rules are changing.

I could go on (I haven’t even delved into privacy, intellectual property, and international policy issues, or competition in the ad stack from Facebook and others), but I think I’ve made the point: Google has entered a phase in its corporate life where its future rests on bringing elegant products into markets that are goat rodeos on good days, and snake pits on bad ones. Telecom, entertainment, social, search, advertising? Yikes. “Challenging” seems like a euphemism.

On the other hand, if any company has the resources, the talent, and the willpower to execute in so many challenging markets at once, it’s got to be Google. But this is a prediction post, so let me end with one: Given all Google is trying to do, it will have a major fumble in 2012, one that beats anything the company has done in its long (and mostly fumble-free) history. But hey, every good team fumbles, it’s how you recover that matters.  If I had to chose a shortlist for the ball dropping, it’d include Motorola, GoogleTV, and yes, even Google+, which given its high expectations might be set up for disappointment. We’ll see if I’m right a year from now.

Related:

Predictions 2012: #1 – On Twitter and Media

Predictions 2012: #2 – Twitter As Free Radical, Swiss Bank, Arms Merchant…And Google Five Years Ago

Predictions 2012 #3: The Facebook Ad Network

Predictions 2011

2011: How I Did

Predictions 2010

2010: How I Did

2009 Predictions

2009 How I Did

2008 Predictions

2008 How I Did

2007 Predictions

2007 How I Did

2006 Predictions

2006 How I Did

2005 Predictions

2005 How I Did

2004 Predictions

2004 How I Did