(image) I don’t have Siri yet – I’m still using my “old” iPhone 4. But I do have my hands on a new (unboxed) Nexus, which has Google Voice Actions on it, and I’m sure at some point I’ll get a iPhone 4GS. So this post isn’t written from experience as much as it’s pure speculation, or as I like to call it, Thinking Out Loud.
But driving into work yesterday I realized how useful voice search is going to be to me, once I’ve got it installed. Stuck in traffic, I tried searching for alternate routes, and it struck me how much easier it’d be to just say “give me alternate routes.” That got me thinking about all manner of things – many of which are now possible – “Text my wife I’ll be late,” “Email my assistant and ask her to print the files for my 11 am meeting,” “Find me a good liquor store within a mile of here,” (I’ve actually done that one using Siri on my way to a friend’s house last weekend).
I’ve written about this before, of course (see Texting Is Stupid, for one example from over three years ago), and I predicted in 2011 that voice was going to be a game changer. It clearly is, but now my question is this: What’s the business model?
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.
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:
Not since Google’s 2004 filing have so many journalists sped-read one document at the same time, eager to glean any possible insight unique to their particular point of view or publication and rush to post it before anyone else.
Yes, I’m one of those journalists, I suppose, but I know I have to read this thing for any number of reasons, so I may as well use the race as an excuse to force myself into action. I certainly won’t be the first to post, because I had to play pundit on Bloomberg TV this afternoon.
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.
Last week I spent an afternoon down at Facebook, as I mentioned here. While at Facebook I met with Blake Ross, Direct of Product (and well known in web circles as one of the creators of Firefox). Talk naturally turned to the implications of Google’s controversial integration of Google+ into its search results – a move that must both terrify (OMG, Google is gunning for us!) as well as delight (Holy cow, Google is breaking its core promise to its users!).
Turns out Ross had been quite busy the previous weekend, and he had a little surprise to show me. It was a simple hack, he said, some code he had thrown together in response to the whole Google+ tempest. But there was most certainly a gleam in his eye as he brought up a Chrome browser window (Google’s own product, he reminded me).
Blake had installed a bookmarklet onto his browser, one he had titled – in a nod to Google’s informal motto – “Don’t be evil.” For those of you who aren’t web geeks (I had to remind myself as well), a bookmarklet is “designed to add one-click functionality to a browser or web page. When clicked, a bookmarklet performs some function, one of a wide variety such as a search query or data extraction.”
When engaged, this “Don’t be evil” bookmarklet did indeed do one simple thing: It turned back the hands of time, and made Google work the way it did before the integration of Google+ earlier this month.
It was a very elegant hack, more thoughtful than the one or two I had seen before – those simply took all references to Google+ out of the index. This one went much further, and weaved a number of Google’s own tools – including its “rich snippet” webmaster tool and its own organic search listings, to re-order not only the search engine results, but also the results of the promotional Google+ boxes on the right side of the results, as well as the “typeahead” results that now feature only Google+ accounts (see example below, the first a search on my name using “normal Google” and then one using the bookmarklet).
After Blake showed me his work, we had a lively discussion about the implications of Facebook actually releasing such a tool. I mean, it’s one thing for a lone hacktivist to do this, it’s quite another for a member of the Internet Big Five to publicly call Google out. Facebook would need to vet this with legal, with management (this clearly had to pass muster with Mark Zuckerberg), and, I was told, Facebook wanted to reach out to others – such as Twitter – and get their input as well.
Due to all this, I had to agree to keep Blake’s weekend hack private till Facebook figured out whether (and how) it would release Ross’s work.
Today, the hack goes public. It’s changed somewhat – it now resides at a site called “Focus On The User” and credit is given to engineers at Facebook, Twitter, and Myspace, but the basic implication is there: This is a tool meant to directly expose Google’s recent moves with Google+ as biased, hardcoded, and against Google’s core philosophy (which besides “don’t be evil,” has always been about “focusing on the user”).
We wanted to see how much better social search could be for consumers if Google chose to use all of the information already in its index. We think the results speak for themselves. Specifically, we created a bookmarklet that uses Google’s own relevance measure—the ranking of their organic search results—to determine what social content should appear in the areas where Google+ results are currently hardcoded. That includes the box on the right; the typeahead; and the indent under the first result for brand searches like “Macy’s” or “New York Times”.
All of the information in this demo comes from Google itself, and all of the ranking decisions are made by Google’s own algorithms. No other services, APIs or proprietary data stores are accessed.
Facebook released a video explaining how the hack works, including some rather devastating examples (be sure to watch the AT&T example at minute seven, and a search for my name as well), and it has open sourced the codebase. The video teasingly invites Google to use the code should it care to (er…not gonna happen).
Here’s an embed:
It’d be interesting if millions of people adopted the tool, however I don’t think that’s the point. A story such as this is tailor made for the Techmeme leaderboard, to be sure, and will no doubt be the talk of the Valley today. By tonight, the story most likely will go national, and that can’t help Google’s image. And I’m quite sure the folks at Facebook, Twitter, and others (think LinkedIn, Yahoo, etc) are making sure word of this exemplar reaches the right folks at the Federal Trade Commission, the Department of Justice, Congress, and government agencies around the world.
Not to mention, people in the Valley do care, deeply, about where they work. There are scores of former Google execs now working at Twitter, Facebook, and others. Many are dismayed by Google’s recent moves, and believe that inside Google, plenty of folks aren’t sleeping well because of what their beloved company’s single-minded focus on Google+. “Focus on The User” is a well-timed poke in the eye, a slap to the conscience of a company that has always claimed to be guided by higher principles, and an elegant hack, sure to become legend in the ongoing battle of the Big Five.
As I’ve said before, I’m planning on spending some time with folks at Google in the coming weeks. I’m eager to understand their point of view. Certainly they are playing a longer-term game here – and seem willing, at present, to take the criticism and not respond to the chorus of complaints. Should Google change that stance, I’ll let you know.
But while there’s probably much to say about the earnings call – in particular whether Google’s core CPC business is starting to erode (might that be due to Facebook, Wall St. wonders?) – I’m more interested in Google’s jihad against samesaid competitor, a jihad called Google+.
And in the earnings call, Google+ was identified as one of the shining stars of the quarter.
Here’s a quote from the press release, the very first quote, attributed to Larry Page. I’ve highlighted the parts where Google+ is mentioned.
“I am super excited about the growth of Android, Gmail, and Google+, which now has 90 million users globally – well over double what I announced just three months ago. By building a meaningful relationship with our users through Google+ we will create amazing experiences across our services.”
You getting that? The lead quote had to do with Google+, pretty much, not the company’s earnings, which ended up being a miss (Google is blaming fluctuations in foreign currency for much of that, and I have no idea whether that’s true, false, or silly).
But here’s my question: When is Google going to release actual engagement numbers for Google+? Because in the end, that’s all that really matters. As I have written in the past, it’s pretty easy to get a lot of people signing up for Google+ if you integrate it into everything Google does (particularly if you do it the way they’ve done it with search).
But can you get those folks to engage, deeply? That’d be a real win, and one I’d give full credit to Google for executing. After all, it’s one thing to get the horse to water…another to have it pull up a chair and share a few stories with friends.
Now, Page did talk about engagement in his comments today, but as far as I can tell, it was not specific to Google+ (though it was crafted to be easily conflated, and in reports I’ve seen across the web, it has been). He certainly led with Google+, but this is what he said:
“Engagement on + is also growing tremendously. I have some amazing data to share there for the first time: +users are very engaged with our products — over 60% of them engage daily, and over 80% weekly.”
Er….so you’re saying the folks who use Google+ use *Google* a lot. That’s not surprising – most of them came to Google+ because they were already using Google a lot. But what about minutes per month usingGoogle+? I’m guessing if Google had good news on that particular front, they’d be trumpeting it in a more direct fashion.
Look, I’m being critical here, and perhaps unfairly. But like many others, I’m a bit baffled by Google’s moves last week around search integration, and I’m looking forward to Google addressing the mounting criticism from not only its competitors, but its fans as well. So far, the company has decided to ignore it – both in its earnings calls, and in my own communications with company representatives. That only leads to speculation that Google is doing this on purpose, to get to critical mass with G+ before, cough cough, apologizing a month or so down the line and “fixing” the approach it’s taken to search integration.
I’m going to be down there soon, talking to key execs in search and, I hope, at Google+. There are always more sides to the story than are apparent as that story develops. Stay tuned.
(image) Dialing in from the department of Pure Speculation…
As we all attempt to digest the implications of last week’s Google+ integration, I’ve also be thinking about Facebook’s next moves. There’s been plenty of speculation in the past that Facebook might compete with Google directly – by creating a full web search engine. After all, with the Open Graph and in particular, all those Like buttons, Facebook is getting a pretty good proxy of pages across the web, and indexing those pages in some way might prove pretty useful.
But I don’t think Facebook will create a search engine, at least not in the way we think about search today. For “traditional” web search, Facebook can lean on its partner Microsoft, which has a very good product in Bing. I find it more interesting to think about what “search problem” Facebook might solve in the future that Google simply can’t.
And that problem could be the very same problem (or opportunity) that Google can’t currently solve for, the very same problem that drove Google to integrate Google+ into its main search index: that of personalized search.
As I wrote over the past week, I believe the dominant search paradigm – that of crawling a free and open web, then displaying the best results for any particular query – has been broken by the rise of Facebook on the one hand, and the app economy on the other. Both of these developments are driven by personalization – the rise of “social.”
Both Facebook and the app economy are invisible to Google’s crawlers. To be fair, there are billions of Facebook pages in Google’s index, but it’s near impossible to “organize them and make them universally available” without Facebook’s secret sauce (its social graph and related logged in data). This is what those 2009 negotiations broke down over, after all.
The app economy, on the other hand, is just plain invisible to anyone. Sure, you can go to one of ten or so app stores and search for apps to use, but you sure can’t search apps the way you search, say, a web site. Why? First, the use case of apps, for the most part, is entirely personal, so apps have not been built to be “searchable.” I find this extremely frustrating, because why wouldn’t I want to “Google” the hundreds of rides and runs I’ve logged on my GPS app, as one example?
Secondly, the app economy is invisible to Google because data use policies of the dominant app universe – Apple – make it nearly impossible to create a navigable link economy between apps, so developers simply don’t do it. And as we all know, without a navigable link economy, “traditional” search breaks down.
Now, this link economy may well be rebuilt in a way that can be crawled, through up and coming standards like HTML5 and Telehash. But it’s going to take a lot of time for the app world to migrate to these standards, and I don’t know that open standards like these will necessarily win. Not when there’s a platform that already exists that can tie them together.
What platform is that, you might ask? Why, Facebook, of course.
Stick with me here. Imagine a world where the majority of app builders integrate with Facebook’s Open Graph, instrumenting your personal data through Facebook such that your data becomes searchable. (If you think that’s crazy, remember how most major companies and app services have already fallen all over themselves to leverage Open Graph). Then, all that data is hoovered into Facebook’s “search index”, and integrated with your personal social graph. Facebook then builds an interface to all you app data, add in your Facebook social graph data, and then perhaps tosses in a side of Bing so you can have the whole web as a backdrop, should you care to.
Voila – you’ve got yourself a truly personalized new kind of search engine. A Facebook search engine, one that searches your world, apps, Facebook and all.
Strangers things will probably happen. What do you think?
I’m going to add another Saturday morning sketch to this site, and offer a caveat to you all: I’ve not bounced this idea off many folks, and the seed of it comes from a source who is unreservedly biased about all this. But I thought this worth airing out, so here you have it.
Given that Google+ results are dominating so many SERPs these days, Google is clearly leveraging its power in search to build up Google+. Unless a majority of people start turning SPYW (Search Plus Your World) off, or decide to search in a logged out way, Google has positioned Google+ as a sort of “mini Internet,” a place where you can find results for a large percentage of your queries.(My source is pretty direct about this: “Google has decided that beating Facebook is worth selling their soul.”)
But to my point. An example of samesaid is the search I did this morning for that Hitler video I posted. Here’s a screenshot of my results:
As you can see, the Universal search feature kicked in, and put News results at the top. I know that news results won’t get me straight to the video, I want the YouTube or Vimeo page, not a story about the video. So I look to the results below. The next four results are from Google+. Right below the fold is the actual YouTube video. I didn’t see it on first blush.
So I found that video by clicking on someone’s Google+ post about it (see how the first one is purple, and not blue? That’s the one I clicked on). Some dude I don’t know posted it to Google+, I clicked through to his post (gaining Google another pageview), then clicked through the video to YouTube. That’s lame. That’s not a Googley search experience.
But if that’s how the world of Google works now, that means it’s very important that you tend your Google+ pages, so that you rank well in Google search. Google has pretty much gamed its own search engine to insure Google+ will succeed.
Now, this presents us all a conundrum. If a large percentage of people are logged into Google and/or Google+ when they are searching for stuff, that means Google+ pages are going to rank well for those people. Hence, I really have no choice but to play Google’s game, and tend to my Google+ page, be I a brand, a person, a small business…. are you getting the picture here? If you decide to NOT play on Google+, you will, in essence, be devalued in Google search, at least for the percentage of people who are logged in whilst using Google.
I dunno. This strikes me as wrong. I’ve spent nearly ten years building this site, Searchblog, and it has tens of thousands of inbound links, six thousand posts, nearly 30,000 comments, etc., etc. But if you are logged into Google+ and search for me, you’re going to get my Google+ profile first.
Seems a bit off. Seems like Google is taking the first click away from me and directing it to a Google service.
Now, if I decide to protest this, and delete my Google+ account, I better pray no one else named John Battelle creates a Google+ account, or they will rank ahead of me. And while Battelle is a pretty unique name, there are actually quite a few of us out there. Imagine if my name was John Kelly? Or Joe Smith?
Yikes. Quite a conundrum.
Again, just sketching on a Saturday morning. It’s a beautiful day, so I think I’ll stop, take a ride, and think a bit more about it before I write anymore.