The search is over

Any regular reader of this blog will know that I’m a huge fan of the Register and Andrew Orlowski in particular for telling it the way it is. Perhaps with a little added sneering cynicism thrown in for good measure. Orlowski’s retrospective on the good old days of Google ‘Google abandons Search‘ is very much in this vein, marking the decision of Google to move away from authority-ranking (dubbed ‘Page Rank’ in El Reg)  and start including extensive ‘live’ social media content.

Of course, there are some catches in that last sentence. SEO experts will give you very different views on what relationship, if any, Page Rank had to actual page rankings (the term ‘Page’ refers to Larry Page not to web pages). And the ‘live’ social media in question may not be very alive at all, it’s probably turgid junk. But it is current and was generated by someone who likes to spend their time creating 140 character message so what the hell…

I’m sure Google’s still doing loads of fancy things to filter search results, but perhaps the leap that both Google and Bing have made to surface the latest, weakest content to the very top of their search results pages misses a point about why that content is generated in the first place. Which is that it was generated in a social context, not in the context of the whole web.

Whilst the content on Twitter is often unfiltered garbage, and an alarmingly high proportion of SPAM, it seems unlikely that many people are going to want to see it sitting at the top of their search results pages. And bear in mind, these results will not be filtered by being in my network. As it is, I mostly follow people on Twitter I actually know in real life and many of them still seem incapable of ever posting anything I’d like to read. But, listening to garbage is certainly easier to take when it’s generated by your friends and acquaintances.

And what is the equivalent of Page Rank (or any supposed Google technology to place a value on a piece of content)? It can’t be followers, follows, re-tweets. All of these things are thoroughly open to SPAM, and the formation of very narrow online groups.

Rather than venture further into the unindexed content which is on the web (some estimates put Google indexed content at 1% of total web content – see ‘Deep Web‘), as Google (and Microsoft and Yahoo) turn up the volume control on this often-vacuous content (ultimately from just a handful of sites), the effective change is much larger than has been reported – from a search-result world where quality and authority was valued to one where brevity, simplicity and speed are what matters.

Perhaps Google is trying to put us off vacuous micro-blogging content  through overfeeding. Or perhaps it has – as Orlowski suggests – finally thrown its hands up in the air and given up. Both seem unlikely. What’s the really evil possible answer? Perhaps they’ve realised that by filling the top left of the SERP with user-generated gibberish, user will have no choice but to click on the paid-result on the right.

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No vote

Whilst I entirely agree on Google’s position on Proposition 8 in California, the very act of Google coming out with a political opinion on an issue of this sort raises the question, again, of how comfortable we are with the power that Google has over our lives.

I don’t mean to sound overly dramatic, but for many users – at both ends of the technology sophistication spectrum – the internet is essentially Google. Soon, users will be able to use the company’s products to do virtually all digital lifestyle tasks: from running their mobile phones, to the entire act of surfing the web, managing their emails, images and address book, to how they access maps, many of the tools they use to work and so on. All of that whilst the company has the best technology to sift through and make use of all of the data on the web.

And god knows what they’ve got coming up next. They could they go into the enterprise with server products (a key part of their success so far has been knowledge about building their own bespoke servers and datacentre architectures; they already have the appliance product).

That would give Google almost everything –  if they’ve not got it already – and with virtually no oversight. Do we honestly think that if Google took a side on the presidential race in the states that it couldn’t sway the vote. What about if they came out for Proposition 8? Just because we happen to agree with their position, doesn’t mean we should ignore the incredible power they have manage to gain virtually overnight. And the risk of that power being misused.

What will happen now if pro-Proposition 8 websites start slipping out of Google? How can the company claimit is not influencing the results? What about if they were to ban Californians who’d expressed a preference for the amendment from their free services?

I’m not saying it’s going to happen, or that anyone at Google has even considered it. The important fact is that it could happen, and I have no idea what could happen next if it did.

The fact that Google is benevolent is not  a necessary truth. We could wake up tomorrow morning and find it had ‘gone bad’, as we saw with the shock reaction to clearly overreaching clauses in the Chrome EULA.

Page and Brin won’t live forever*. And they may not stay righteous so long either. So perhaps we should all be having another look at Alta Vista 🙂

 

* Unless they find a way to, which is not wholly unlikely.

When in Chrome

Here I am somewhere else talking about Google Chrome.

It’s uncanny

There's a graph so it must be true

Seth Godin here, picks up on a subject which Russell Davies discussed in Campaign last year. The Uncanny Valley. That topic is actually about when robotics (and the like) become too believable, and people begin to respond less well to them. How does this work in marketing?

For me, it’s a bit like when you meet someone at a conference, or when they come for a job interview, and you suddenly realise they’ve been reading your blog. But Godin and Davies are talking about when companies do this to consumers using just a few data points. Using just a couple of snippets of information, companies can start getting all ‘aren’t we good friends’ and ‘first-name-terms’. It’s particularly freeky when the company in question is somewhere you’ve only shopped once, or someone who makes some crappy facebook app you installed years ago.

Godin says, “The relevant issue here for marketers is what happens when our databases and predictions get too good”. Of course, most companies are still struggling to spell their customers’ names right, so we have a while to go yet before creep factor sets in.

From a direct marketing point of view – as I mentioned here – the fundemental flaw to the reasoning appears to be this assumption that faking it is ever going to really work – not because we haven’t got big enough databases or models, but simply because the cost of doing it well (e.g. all the variations of tone, copy, proposition etc) would become too expensive. There’s always also the issue that many communications are best done in a transparently public setting – people need to know not just that they’ve seen it but that their friends, colleagues and neighbours have seen it too. What’s the point having an iPhone if no-one else knows how cool it is?

And we also run the risk, it seems to me, of displaying to the customer just how much is being written down. Privacy policies can feel very abstract until you start to actually have the bredth of what is stored played back to you (it’s a very interesting experience for example to have a look through your Google history). If the government knew this much about us, we’d never put up with it.

The spirit of privacy laws is actually pretty instructive here. Data should only be kept and used where that use can be justified. Should the people I bought a collander off in 1992 still be mailing me collander deals now? Obviously not, and frankly they’re wasting their time as much as mine.

Counter-intuitive perhaps, but companies should be looking to throw away as much customer information as they can, while maintaining the information which genuinely improves customer service. A little more of this disipline could make the move towards greater customer intimacy, actually feel like a benefit for the customer.

Ins and outs – a redefinition of digital marketing

First ever banner

Remember the first website you built. I remember doing them at university a bit but they were really awful. And then I did one for the company I worked in. And then, rather suddenly I was running a company that made them. And in the start people would argue about everything. Should there be persistent navigation? were all-flash sites bad? how about skip-intros? What about those ticker things that used to flash across the page?

And how should you do the coding? Make sure all your fonts are fixed size, and be brilliant with tables. Remember: It’s all about the home page.

And then accessibility was a thing, and then standards. And then we started sneering at people that couldn’t build a website without using tables, or who used fixed fonts. And then it was all about buttons and big fonts. And for a while there, it all seemed to be about being ugly, and then simple, and should it even have a logo any more? And wasn’t persistent navigation a bit tired, and surely users are now clever enough to navigate more complex interfaces.

Every year we think we’ve codified one more chunk, got closer to having all the design patterns sorted out. And every year we get new and – it has to be said – interesting challenges to think about. Does save make sense any more? Do we even care about the home page any more? Is Google your most important user?

Well I think the next one’s going to be bigger, more conceptually difficult, require more complex teams to figure out, and be the beginning of the end of the period where you can work out what to do by just looking at your competitors. It will also be a bitter showdown between the big web agencies (who build where the user ends up) and the digital marketing agencies (who try to get them there), finally standing squarely on each others’ turf.

Because the next phase is where we let go of the concept of domain. It’s about thinking about the users’ lifecycle as needing managing before they even get to you. It’s a question about thinking about the opportunities to capture intent in more than search engine landing pages. And it’s going to be a question of becoming a lot more sophisticated in thinking about what content you will share, how you will consume and repurpose content, and how your users will see your brand.

Possibly my favorite factoid about the internet is that 50% of all searches on Yahoo! (and they must love this) are for the word ‘Google’. In a world where the average punter doesn’t know – or doesn’t care – to this extent, but they are willing to tell Google or all of their facebook friends that they’re looking for a new car or interested in a boob job, the way in which we concieve of capturing and converting intent just became a whole lot more interesting. And so did CRM (or rather the management of a users lifetime value), and so did sales and service.

Early approaches, especially behavioral targeting of advertising have looked like privacy invasions – or as google would have it, ‘increased relevance’. Privacy will be an issue, but skills and dexterity are the main problems and it will be fascinating to see who’s got the most of those. Not advertising agencies, of course, but quite possibly the media agencies, the digital marketing agencies who are a bit more interested in the detail, and of course, the marketing teams in large corporations; not to mention digital media owners like WordPress (scroll down for relevance targeted links!).

Third time lucky

3.0

Amelia’s amusing analysis of Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 came coincidentally on the same day that I was at a conference thingy and had been having exactly that discussion: what was 2.0 and how much of it was pure marketing sentiment. I couldn’t disagree more. I think 2.0 is a radical shift in society. It is, as Amelia says the shift from an internet of geeks and possibility to an internet of the mass market and reality.

What, if anything, 3.0 means is another matter. Clearly there is a quasi-technical meaning being discussed (as on the Wikipedia page), but surely we should be concerning ourselves instead with the social impact of these changes.

  • Expectations about data integration will go through the roof. Just as information became ubiquitous in 2.0, the joining and manipulation of data will become so now. Brands will have to respond to this. Expect some powerful movements in traditionally data orientated services, particularly FS.
  • The ladder of involvement will continue, with a new rung being added above ‘blogger’ or ‘publisher’ for ‘providers of utility’
  • Concepts of enterprises and the borders of corporations will continue to be challenged

Amazon and Google (and to a certain extent, Microsoft) have clearly started their engines to take advantage of this next generation with app development, elastic computing, utility computing and so on the subject of much debate this week.

There’s a powerful version of inverted marketing too (where consumers are rewarded for hand-raising) which feels like the inevitable consequence of abstracting and linking data.

How will it impact your brand?

Microsoft!

billgatesheadline

An interesting headline in yesteday’s Standard. Something tells me they haven’t quite got the hang of this internet thing.

The huge and hostile $44bn bid Microsoft has planned for Yahoo! will doubtless fuel the ongoing religious debate between the brands.

Google of course has come out with a statement that it has ‘serious concerns’ about the deal.

Bear in mind that this is the company that has been buying everything from video sharing sites to mobile phone companies, that is bidding for a chunk of the radio spectrum in the states, and recently bought one of the internet’s biggest advertising solution providers.

And yet, everything that Google does is met with blithe indifference, while Microsoft is accused of witchcraft and human sacrifice every time they so much as spend a billion pounds.

Doesn’t all of this make us think of what Hugh MacLeod is trying to do with the Blue Monster, allowing the 1,000s of Microsoft staff who – believe it or not – turn up for work everyday full of positive intent to tell their own stories rather than being at the mercy of their detractors and the press.

Setting the standard

opensocial

Is it just me, or is there something a little bit desperate in Google’s response to Facebook, Open Social? Amongst all this cooked-up debate about whether Facebook will join the Open Social platform, there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the attraction of the platform.

If no one invented another application for Facebook (another annoying Spam-ridden app like Vampires or Fun Wall), would it whither and die? Hardly. Whereas, there would have to be something pretty special written for Orkut, Friendster or MySpace and the rest to get me to go back to them.

Where are all these developers who want to develop for Facebook but don’t have the time because they’re too busy developing for MySpace and Linked in?

Bear in mind that Facebook’s Event application was put together by Zuckerberg himself in one night. Photos reportedly took one week and now outguns all other online photo applications put together.

It is not a shortage of development time but a lack of good ideas which is holding applications back. And more to that point, the apps that make Facebook great, are the ones which really do extend the social graph. It’s not a coincidence that 87% of app installs come from just 2% of the apps. The other 98% are just noise.

What I want to know is why the people at Google can’t just make Orkut not shit? Or take the position they already have with documents, email, search history and everything they know about everybody and find a genuinely new way to bring people together. Competing with Facebook on its terms seems an unlikely way to win.

Update:

Just found this excellent post from Lauren Cooney which asks whether Google might have ‘complex’ motives of its own. Just how linked is OpenSocial linked to Google IDs? Just how much of that social graph juice will find its way back onto Google’s servers. Perhaps not so much doing evil, but certainly keeping an eye on the future revenue streams.

Google it

Economist cover - Google

This week is Google week at the Economist. The very funny front cover (above), the main leader (pay walled) and a three-page feature. The point they’re making is that markets don’t know what to make of a company that says it’s not there to make money – especially if it’s the most powerful force in the most revolutionary medium since the printing press.

They also point out that high-minded morals may sound great now but how will they sound if Google ever has to deal with the down times which have recently affected – for example – Yahoo!. And they tell some interesting stories about what it is actually like to work at the GooglePlex; the vision for Google’s cloud-style computing architecture, that the very famous 20% rule never really happens and that by hiring a company full of hyper-geniuses, Google has some difficult HR issues:

…everybody there is a rocket scientist, so everybody everybody is also insecure…. and the back-stabbing and politics are reminiscent of an average university’s English department.

Fascinating stuff of course, as it was when the rest of us were talking about it several months ago (:-)).

Obviously managing the finest minds in the world (there’s now almost 14,000 Google staff) is going to be tricky. Eric Schmidt is pretty clear on that: “tech companies that are dominant have trouble from within, not from competitors.”

But nevertheless Google has the crown jewels. Many of the  finest minds in the world, an amazing scalable computer architecture, the brand and the audience. Demise seems a long way off yet. 

Better by beta

macy's in google street view

From the department of ‘in case you’d missed it’.

You really can’t turn your back on the Google chaps for five seconds. The latest addition to the mapping family, street view still needs a little polish but it’s going to be quite amazing, and they just keep getting the stuff out there, as quickly as they can get it done.

Also, not sure it’s entirely a privilege to be captured on the Google cameras: “John who’s that you’re with outside Macy’s?”