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A Funny Thing Happened As I Was “Tracked”

By - February 27, 2012

I’m still in recovery mode after the wave of Apple-defenders inundated me with privacy-related comments over this past weekend, and I promise to continue the dialog – and admit where I may be wrong – once I feel I’ve properly grokked the story. The issue of privacy as it relates to the Intenet is rather a long piece of yarn, and I’m only a small part of the way toward unraveling this particular sweater. (And yes, I know there are plenty of privacy absolutists rolling their eyes at me right now, but if you don’t want to hear my views after some real reporting and thinking on the subject, just move along….). lf you want to peruse some of the recent stories on the subject I’ve been reading, you can start with the Signal post I just finished.

Meanwhile, I want to tell you a little story about advertising and tracking, which is at the heart of much of the current tempest.

While skiing last week at my home mountain of Mammoth (the only place in California with a decent snowpack), my family and I stayed at a Westin property. It’s a relatively new place, and pretty nice for Mammoth – which is more of  a “throw the kids in the station wagon and drive up” kind of resort. It’s not exactly Vail or Aspen – save for the skiing, which I dare say rivals any mountain in the US.

Anyway, I stayed at the Westin, as as such, I visited the Westin site many a time during my stay for various reasons (I also visited before I came, of course, to research stuff like whether it had a gym, restaurant menus, and the like).

Now, besides visiting the Westin site while at Mammoth, I also visited Amazon.com, because I was looking to buy a particular adapter for my SIM card. I’m eager to try out the new Nexus Galaxy, but the SIM in my iPhone is a different size, and to use it in the Nexus, I need an adapter.

I didn’t end up buying the adapter, because I got distracted, but I did visit Amazon’s page for the device.

Now, why am I telling you all this? Because after visiting those two sites (Westin and Amazon), I noticed the ads I was seeing as I cruised the web changed. A lot. In particular, on my own site, which is powered by the company I chair, FM:

The ad at the top is from Amazon, with a picture of the very thing I almost bought. Now, is that creepy, or is that useful?

The ad on the side is from Westin, offering me a free night or $500 credit if I book another Westin vacation. Again, creepy, or …potentially a benefit?

This is “tracking” at work, and while some of us find it creepy, I find it rather benign. Both those ads are very pertinent to *me*, and one (the Westin) might even save me a lot of money – I love the idea of getting a free night at a place I’ve already stayed at and enjoyed (and I am a Starwood member, and stay at a lot of other Westins, so heck, I might just use that offer sometime soon).

Regardless of those specifics, it’s hard to argue that these ads are *worse* than the undifferentiated slop that once filled up ad space across the web. And that’s pretty much the point of cookie-driven advertising – that it use our data to offer up marketing messages that are, in the end, better than if the advertisers didn’t have the data in the first place.

After all, Facebook and Google offer up exactly the same kind of ads on their owned and operated domains – ads that are relevant to you – based on data you provided to them (the search term, or your Facebook profile). Somehow that’s OK, but when it’s done across the open web – well, then it’s “creepy.”

The problem, I think, is that we generally don’t trust these third-party advertising networks – we think they are doing nefarious things with our data, somehow screwing us, tracking us like hunted animals, creating vast profiles that could fall into the wrong hands. And the ad industry needs to address this issue of trust.

If you look at both those ads, it turns out the industry is doing just that. Each of the ads have an “ad choices” logo you can click to find out what’s going on behind the ad. Here’s what I saw when I clicked on Amazon’s “privacy” link:

This page clearly explains why I’m seeing the ad, and offers me an explicit choice to opt out of seeing ads like this in the future. Seems fair to me.

Here’s what I see when I clicked on the “ad choices” logo for the Westin ad:

That’s a popover, telling me that my browsing activity (I assume my multiple visits to Westin.com) has informed the offer. It tells me that an ad network owned by Akamai is behind the tracking and trafficking of the ad. And it offers me more links, should I want to learn more. I clicked on the “More information & opt out options” link, and saw this from Evidon,which Akamai uses to power its opt out and other programs:

This page offers a prominent opt out for the companies who served me the ad. it even offers a link to Ghostery, a service which I’ve used in the past to track who’s dropping cookies and such on my browser.

Now, I’m not arguing that this system is perfect, but it’s certainly quite a step forward from where we were a year ago.

And no, I didn’t opt out of anything. Not because I founded an Independent web advertising and content company (FM), but because frankly, I think the ads I’m getting are better as a result of this ecosystem. And I’m getting benefits I wouldn’t have had before (a free night at the Westin, a reminder to go get that SIM adapter I hadn’t yet bought). And, frankly, because this is all happening on the Independent web, insuring that small sites like mine get a chance to benefit from the same kind of value that Facebook and Google already have as “first party” websites – the value of my data. (More on this point in later posts, I am sure).

Now, if these companies end up doing evil, wrongheaded, or plain stupid things with my data, I’m going to be the first to opt out. And there’s plenty more we have to do to get this ecosystem right. But I thought it instructive to lay out how it’s working so far. And so far, I don’t find it anything but benign, if not actually useful. What do you think?

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Obama’s Framework for “Consumer Data Privacy” And My “Data Bill of Rights”

By - February 26, 2012

It sort of feels like “wayback week” for me here at Searchblog, as I get caught up on the week’s news after my vacation. Late last week the Obama administration announced “Consumer Data Privacy In A Networked World: A Framework for Protecting Privacy and Promoting Innovation in the Global Digital Economy.”

The document runs nearly 50 pages, but turns on a “Privacy Bill of Rights” – and when I read that phrase, it reminded me of a post I did four years ago: The Data Bill of Rights.

I thought I’d compare what I wrote with what the Obama administration is proposing.

First, the Administrations’ key points:

Individual Control: Consumers have a right to exercise control over what personal data companies collect from them and how they use it.

Transparency: Consumers have a right to easily understandable and accessible information about privacy and security practices.

Respect for Context: Consumers have a right to expect that companies will collect, use, and disclose personal data in ways that are consistent with the context in which consumers provide the data.

Security: Consumers have a right to secure and responsible handling of personal data.

Access and Accuracy: Consumers have a right to access and correct personal data in usable formats, in a manner that is appropriate to the sensitivity of the data and the risk of adverse consequences to consumers if the data is inaccurate.

Focused Collection: Consumers have a right to reasonable limits on the personal data that companies collect and retain.

Accountability: Consumers have a right to have personal data handled by companies with appropriate measures in place to assure they adhere to the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights.

And now my “Data Bill of Rights” from 2007:

- Data Portability. We can take copies of that data out of the company’s coffers and offer it to others or just keep copies for ourselves.

- Data Editing. We can request deletions, editing, clarifications of our data for accuracy and privacy.

- Data Anonymity. We can request that our data not be used, cognizant of the fact that that may mean services are unavailable to us.

- Data Use. We have rights to know how our data is being used inside a company.

- Data Value. The right to sell our data to the highest bidder.

- Data Permissions. The right to set permissions as to who might use/benefit from/have access to our data.

Comparing the two, it seems the Administration has not addressed the issue of what I call portability, at all, which I think is a bummer. Nor does it consider the idea of Value, which I think the market is going to address over time. It does address what I call editing, anonymity (what I should have called “opt out”), use, and permissions.

What the administration added that I did not have is “security” – the right to know your data is secure (I think I took that for granted), and “Focused Collection” and “Respect For Context,” which I agree with – don’t collect data for data’s sake, and we should have the right that data collected about us is being used in proper context.

Given how much this issue is in the news lately, as well as the overwhelming response to my post last Friday about Google and Apple, I’m getting as smart as I can on these issues.

Further coverage of the Administration’s move at RWW: Obama Administration Sides with Consumers in Online Privacy Debate and Paid Content Big Tech, Obama And The Politics Of Privacy as well as Ad Age, which is skeptical: Did The White House Just Thread The Needle On Privacy?

Larry Page’s “Tidal Wave Moment”?

By - February 07, 2012

Who remembers the moment, back in 1995, when Bill Gates wrote his famous Internet Tidal Wave Memo? In it he rallied his entire organization to the cause of the Internet, calling the new platform an existential threat/opportunity for Microsoft’s entire business. In the memo Gates wrote:

“I assign the Internet the highest level of importance. In this memo I want to make clear that our focus on the Internet is crucial to every part of our business. The Internet is the most important single development to come along since the IBM PC was introduced in 1981.”

The memo runs more than 5300 words and includes highly detailed product plans across all of Microsoft. In retrospect, it probably wasn’t a genius move to be so transparent – the memo became public during the US Dept. of Justice action against Microsoft in the late 1990s.

It strikes me that Larry Page at Google could have written such a memo to all Googlers last year. Of course, Page and his advisors must have learned from Microsoft’s mistakes, and certainly don’t want a declarative memo floating around the vast clouds of Internet eternity. Bad things can happen from direct mandates such as those made by Gates – in the memo he mentions that Microsoft must “match and beat” Netscape, for example, words that came back to haunt him during the DOJ action.

Here’s what Page might have written to his staff in 2011, with just a few words shifted:

” I assign social networking the highest level of importance. In this memo I want to make clear that our focus on social networking is crucial to every part of our business. Social networking is the most important single development to come along since Google was introduced in 1998.”

I very much doubt Page wrote anywhere that Google must “match and beat” Facebook. And unlike Gates, he probably did not pen detailed memos about integrating Google+ into all of Google’s products (as Gates did – for pages – declaring that Microsoft must integrate the Internet into all of its core products.)

But it’s certainly not lost on any Googler how important “social” is to the company: all of their bonuses were tied to social last year.

So why am I bringing this up now? Well, I’ve got no news hook. I’m just doing research for the book, and came across the memo, and its tone and urgency struck a familiar note. The furor around Search Plus Your World has died down, but it left a bad taste in a lot of folks’ mouths. But put in the context of “existential threat,” it’s easier to understand why Google did what it did.

Unlike the Internet, which was a freely accessible resource that any company could incorporate into its products and services, to date “social” has been dominated by one company, a company that Google has been unable to work with. Imagine if, when Gates wrote his Tidal Wave memo, the “Internet” he spoke of was controlled entirely by, say, MCI, and that Microsoft was unable to secure a deal to get all that Internet goodness into its future products.

That seems to be where Google finds itself, at least by its own reckoning. To continue being a great search engine, it needs the identity and relationship data found, for the most part, behind Facebook’s walls.

I’ve written elsewhere about the breakdown of the open web, the move toward more “walled gardens of data,” and what that does to Google’s ability to execute its core business of search. And it’s not just social – readers have sent me tons of information that predict how mobile, in particular, will escape the traditional reaches of Google’s spidering business model. I hope to pore through that information and post more here, but for now, it’s worth reading a bit of history to put Google’s moves into broader context.

It’s Not Whether Google’s Threatened. It’s Asking Ourselves: What Commons Do We Wish For?

By - February 02, 2012

If Facebook’s IPO filing does anything besides mint a lot of millionaires, it will be to shine a rather unsettling light on a fact most of us would rather not acknowledge: The web as we know it is rather like our polar ice caps: under severe, long-term attack by forces of our own creation.

And if we lose the web, well, we lose more than funny cat videos and occasionally brilliant blog posts. We lose a commons, an ecosystem, a “tangled bank” where serendipity, dirt, and iterative trial and error drive open innovation. Google’s been the focus of most of this analysis (hell, I called Facebook an “existential threat” to Google on Bloomberg yesterday), but I’d like to pull back for a second.

This post has been brewing in me for a while, but I was moved to start writing after reading this piece in Time:

Is Google In Danger of Being Shut Out of the Changing Internet?

The short answer is Hell Yes. But while I’m a fan of Google (for the most part), to me the piece is focused too narrowly on what might happen to one company, rather than to the ecosystem which allowed that company to thrive. It does a good job of outlining the challenges Google faces, which are worth recounting (and expanding upon) as a proxy for the larger question I’m attempting to elucidate:

1. The “old” Internet is shrinking, and being replaced by walled gardens over which Google’s crawlers can’t climb. Sure, Google can crawl Facebook’s “public pages,” but those represent a tiny fraction of the “pages” on Facebook, and are not informed by the crucial signals of identity and relationship which give those pages meaning. Similarly, Google can crawl the “public pages” of Apple’s iTunes store on the web, but all the value creation in the mobile iOS appworld is behind the walls of Fortress Apple. Google can’t see that information, can’t crawl it, and can’t “make it universally available.” Same for Amazon with its Kindle universe, Microsoft’s Xbox and mobile worlds, and many others.

2. Google’s business model depends on the web remaining open, and given #1 above, that model is imperiled. It’s damn hard to change business models, but with Google+ and Android, the company is trying. The author of the Time piece is skeptical of Google’s chances of recreating the Open Web with these new tools, however.

He makes a good point. But to me, the real issue isn’t whether Google’s business model is under attack by forces outside its control. Rather, the question is far more existential in nature: What kind of a world do we want to live in?

I’m going to say that again, because it bears us really considering: What kind of a world do we want to live in? As we increasingly leverage our lives through the world of digital platforms, what are the values we wish to hold in common? I wrote about this issue a month or so ago:  On This Whole “Web Is Dead” Meme. In that piece I outlined a number of core values that I believe are held in common when it comes to what I call the “open” or “independent” web. They also bear repeating (I go into more detail in the post, should you care to read it):

- No gatekeepers. The web is decentralized. Anyone can start a web site. No one has the authority (in a democracy, anyway) to stop you from putting up a shingle.

An ethos of the commons. The web developed over time under an ethos of community development, and most of its core software and protocols are royalty free or open source (or both). There wasn’t early lockdown on what was and wasn’t allowed. This created chaos, shady operators, and plenty of dirt and dark alleys. But it also allowed extraordinary value to blossom in that roiling ecosystem.

- No preset rules about how data is used. If one site collects information from or about a user of its site, that site has the right to do other things with that data, assuming, again, that it’s doing things that benefit all parties concerned.

- Neutrality. No one site on the web is any more or less accessible than any other site. If it’s on the web, you can find it and visit it.

- Interoperability. Sites on the web share common protocols and principles, and determine independently how to work with each other. There is no centralized authority which decides who can work with who, in what way.

I find it hard to argue with any of the points above as core values of how the Internet should work. And it is these values that created Google and allowed the company to become the world beater is has been these past ten or so years. But if you look at this list of values, and ask if Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and the thousands of app makers align with them, I am afraid the answer is mostly no. And that’s the bigger issue I’m pointing to: We’re slowly but surely creating an Internet that is abandoning its original values for…well, for something else that as yet is not well defined.

This is why I wrote Put Your Taproot Into the Independent Web. I’m not out to “save Google,” I’m focused on trying to understand what the Internet would look like if we don’t pay attention to our core shared values.

And it’s not fair to blame Apple, Facebook, Amazon, or app makers here. In conversations with various industry folks over the past few months, it’s become clear that there are more than business model issues stifling the growth of the open web. In no particular order, they are:

1. Engineering. It’s simply too hard to create super-great experiences on the open web. For many high value products and services, HTML and its associated scripting languages, including HTML5, are messy, incomplete, and are not as fast, clean, and elegant as coding for iOS or the Facebook ecosystem. I’ve heard this over and over again. This means developers are drawn to the Apple universe first, web second. Value accrues where engineering efforts pay off in a more compelling user experience.

2. Mobility. The PC-based HTML web is hopelessly behind mobile in any number of ways. It has no eyes (camera), no ears (audio input), no sense of place (GPS/location data). Why would anyone want to invest in a web that’s deaf, dumb, blind, and stuck in one place?

3. Experience. The open web is full of spam, shady operators, and blatant falsehoods. Outside of a relatively small percentage of high quality sites, most of the web is chock full of popup ads and other interruptive come-ons. It’s nearly impossible to find signal in that noise, and the web is in danger of being overrun by all that crap. In the curated gardens of places like Apple and Facebook, the weeds are kept to a minimum, and the user experience is just…better.

So, does that mean the Internet is going to become a series of walled gardens, each subject to the whims of that garden’s liege?

I don’t think so. Scroll up and look at that set of values again. I see absolutely no reason why they can not and should not be applied to how we live our lives inside the worlds of Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and the countless apps we have come to depend upon. But it requires a shift in our relationship to the Internet. It requires that we, as the co-creators of value through interactions, data, and sharing, take responsibility for ensuring that the Internet continues to be a commons.

I expect this will be less difficult that it sounds. It won’t take a political movement or a wholesale migration from Facebook to more open services. Instead, I believe in the open market of ideas, of companies and products and services which identify  the problems I’ve outlined above, and begin to address them through innovative new approaches that solve for them. I believe in the Internet. Always have, and always will.

Related:

Predictions 2012 #4: Google’s Challenging Year

We Need An Identity Re-Aggregator (That We Control)

Set The Data Free, And Value Will Follow

A Report Card on Web 2 and the App Economy

The InterDependent Web

On This Whole “Web Is Dead” Meme

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!

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….