20 November 2013

Google's attempt to integrate YouTube and Google+ might hurt both services.

One thing that innovative companies try to do is push customers into the future that they envision.  Apple is a good example -- they're famous for writing off technologies as obsolete long before other companies (and, indeed, most customers) have done so, be it floppy disk drives or, more recently, optical drives.  While I tend to think of businesses in general as needing to serve their customers, in technology the roles sometimes seem reversed.  That is, it is the users who often seem to be along for the ride while the businesses are the ones in the driver's seat pursuing their own goals.  The ride can be a bumpy one, as Google is finding out as it tries to more tightly integrate its video sharing site YouTube and its social network Google+.

It's not hard to understand why Google wants every YouTube user to become a Google+ user.  It wants its social network to be competitive with Facebook.  In the long run, it would like Google+ accounts to BE Google accounts...that's the dream right there.  Just imagine it: every single user with a Google account on Google+, socializing, commenting, and posting all matter of digital content under one ID.  That's a potential problem for Facebook to be sure.  However, Google may be making a mistake in acting with its own interests at heart rather than those of its users.  While users virtually always resist change to some extent, technology companies are allowed to be innovative because they promise a somehow better future; the ride may be bumpy, but it leads to somewhere glorious in the end.  I don't think that Google has effectively made the case that its users will be better served by integrating their YouTube and Google+ accounts.  Indeed, I think that's really the core of the reason why there's been such a backlash against the move.  As it turns out, associating YouTube videos and comments with people's real names is not really a future YouTubers as a community seem to desire...many chose to use pseudonyms to begin with, after all, and I'd hazard a guess that relatively few people use YouTube primarily to follow people they know or to socialize in any meaningful sense.  Just what, then, does tying Google+ accounts with YouTube actually offer as a benefit to the users, particularly the ones who do not currently use Google+? The "how" in change always inspires a degree of confusion and annoyance, but the "why" in change is what really shapes user behavior and attitudes.  The widespread perception is that Google is seeking to integrate YouTube and Google+ purely for its own ends, and it's hard to dispute that.   

As I see it, the backlash could end up hurting Google in two ways.  The first is obvious: YouTube could suffer.  There are actually quite a few YouTube alternatives out there: Veoh, Vimeo, and DailyMotion come to mind immediately.  The problem with all those sites is that they don't have enough video creators to attract bigger audiences...and they don't have a big enough audience to attract more video creators.  Technologically, the pieces are already in place, though I'd say a couple of the sites I've checked out recently still have a few things to learn a few things about usability (sidebar video ads that play, with sound, WHILE people are trying to watching a video on your site is not a good thing at all).  If video creators and video watchers start defecting, YouTube's audience will slowly dwindle.  The second way the backlash could hurt Google is by devaluing the Google+ brand.  The early adopters of Google+ joined the site because it was new and cool.  They liked features such as Circles and Hangouts.  They liked being part of an online community that skewed towards their interests.  They liked being away from, frankly, the unwashed masses that populate Facebook.  Now people are joining Google+ because they feel like they have to do so, because they want to continue to use a hitherto unrelated site, because they just want nag messages to go away...how do you think those people perceive Google+ now?  Imagine if Facebook had started rolling out Facebook Login before Facebook was popular and it lead to people signing up to Facebook just so they could use some other site.  Would those users be inspired to use Facebook as a social network when it was something they had to join or would they just use it as a login at most?  Google will undoubtedly succeed in upping the Google+ user account, but whether they'll end up with a social network anyone will WANT to use is another issue altogether.

Inertia is perhaps the strongest force in Google's favor.  It's not easy for users to transition away from YouTube because it's such a dominant force in the user-created video space.  Even a less than ideal outcome such as people simply commenting less and uploading fewer videos might not be such a bad thing if total views are not affected to a notable degree.  Joe Blow, Google+ hater and privacy fanatic, may choose to cease commenting on YouTube and no longer post videos of his pet squirrel, but if he and others like him continue to view other people's videos on YouTube it probably won't make much of a difference.  Popular content creators are quite likely to keep using YouTube much as they have in the past because they have the most to lose by abandoning the platform and starting fresh somewhere new.                    

20 May 2013

Can Yahoo find a place for Tumblr?

The big tech news of the day is that Yahoo's board has approved a $1.1 billion cash deal to acquire the blogging platform Tumblr  This deal, should it go through as is expected, represents an interesting about-face for Yahoo.  After all, this is a company that has shuttered a number of services focused on publishing user-generated content in recent years, including a blogging platform (360).  Thus, it’s no surprise that the rumors of this acquisition have been greeted with a good deal of skepticism.  In many ways, Tumblr does not on the surface appear to be a very good fit given Yahoo’s corporate culture.  Tumblr is a freewheeling platform where web comics, animated GIFs, adult content, teenage angst, and political activism have all found a home.  One could argue, based especially on its diversity of content (and the animated GIFs), that Tumblr is the GeoCities of the 2010s, but Tumblr is an even freer environment than GeoCities was, especially given that Tumblr bloggers can monetize their content.  Traditionally, Yahoo has frowned on adult content and barred users from making money using their platforms.  Yahoo also skews old while Tumblr skews very young.  That’s a reason FOR the acquisition from Yahoo’s perspective, but it doesn’t mean that there isn’t going to be a severe culture clash coming down a line.      

If there’s any reason to be hopeful that this acquisition just might work out, it’s Yahoo Voices.  That, too, is a service that specializes in user-generated content and was the result of an acquisition (Associated Content).  Essentially, it’s an article and video site powered by contributions from users.  For years, I would just about never run into Yahoo links on search engines apart from news stories on occasion.  Thanks to Yahoo Voices, those virtual encounters happen much more often now.  The actual material posted on the site varies widely in quality, as is to be expected.  From where I sit, though, it seems like a fairly successful site for Yahoo (though I have no clue as to whether or not it is a financial success).  The Voices comparison is even more appropriate when one considers it is an earning platform for writers and video creators.  I have a hard time imagining the Yahoo of 5 or 10 years ago running such a site.  Perhaps Yahoo really is changing.   

Arguably, Yahoo’s best chance at pulling off a successful Tumblr acquisition would be to let the site run more or less independently.  The fewer the changes, the smoother the transition will be for users.  Let some unconnected Tumblr users a year from now still not realize there was an acquisition because the site from their perspective works just as it always did – that’s the hallmark of a successful acquisition!  On the other hand, Yahoo does want to profit from acquiring Tumblr in some way.  The platform could no doubt be better monetized, but this will have to be done with subtlety to avoid angering the user base.  Tumblr as a company was extremely reluctant to monetize precisely because it realized its users might revolt at a wide deployment of ads or a sudden focus on paid services.  If nothing else, Yahoo hopes to be linked with Tumblr in the public mind – the corporate overlord also wants to be perceived as cool, hip, and young or at least as cooler, hipper, and younger than it was before the purchase.  It wants to be a company which is believed to have a vision and a mission, a business which makes moves with purpose and must be taken seriously.  In short, Yahoo wants to be relevant again – a true giant on the Web.  I wouldn’t necessarily bet against them.

24 July 2012

Will Google Docs' submergence into Google Drive pose a branding problem for Google?

Google Docs users who have not yet opened up Google Drive accounts have been greeted by an ominous sounding message every time they login to their Google Docs account for some time now: "Google Docs will soon be upgraded to Google Drive. Google Drive will be the new home for your files."  A message like that brooks no space for disagreement -- your docs WILL have a new home, whether you like it or not.  There was perhaps no way Google could introduce Google Drive without annoying someone, but it's not hard to understand Google's reasoning here.  Drive, as a universal cloud storage platform, is a place to store everything from documents to media to software.  Google Docs documents are a part of many people's digital lives; it wouldn't make sense for Google Drive to not provide users a convenient way to access their Google docs.  Since it was a given that the two services would be integrated in some way, the next logical step was to simply fold Docs into the more universal storage service, Drive.  Why would you stop at just letting people store documents in Drive when you could allow them to conveniently create and edit them inside the service too? Granted, Google could have allowed Google Docs to coexist as a partner to Google Drive -- that's what change-averse users undoubtedly would have preferred -- but Google's been all about reducing supposed "dead weight" lately.  I'm not surprised that Google is picking the option of combining an old service with a similar new service as opposed to letting Docs linger on while Drive attracts a larger user base.

In truth, I don't think the transition to Google Drive is going to be all that difficult for most existing Google Docs users. You can, after all, simply refrain from storing anything other than Google Docs documents on your Google Drive and continue on as usual -- the experience of working with documents online hasn't really changed.  If you want to take advantage of the new desktop app, syncing, and extra storage possibilities, those options are now open to you.  Theoretically, it might seem like there will only be winners and mildly annoyed neutrals here.  Existing users aren't losing anything because of the switchover while Google has the opportunity to attract many more users who just want a place to store their digital stuff.  Who loses?  

If there is any danger in this move for Google, I think it's going to be related to the branding of Google Drive vs Google Docs.  Google Docs is a perfectly named Web service.  I could mention it to people and say a few words about it and they would quickly understand what it's used for.  Of course Google Docs is for collaborative online document creation and editing!  Google Drive doesn't sound like that kind of service at all, though...it sounds like a place for storage.  If someone told me he wanted to work on a document with me via something I hadn't heard of called Google Drive, my first thought would probably be that we would be exchanging Word files and taking turns editing and reuploading them (something we could do about as easily, if not more so, over email).  It just doesn't bring to mind the thought of editing documents online collaboratively -- it sounds passive versus active.  How existing Docs users perceive their new Google Drive accounts may well change over time, too, especially if they start using their drives to store more than documents.  Will you combine documents for work or school with music or video files on the same Google Drive or will you use different Google Drive accounts for different use cases in the same way that people often have different Gmail addresses for work and personal correspondence?  Alternatively, will you start using a Google Docs competitor, like Zoho, to manage online documents and store other files on Google Drive?  
Undoubtedly Google Drive has the potential to appeal to a considerably larger pool of users than Google Docs ever could.  After all, everyone has SOMETHING digital they want to store, but not everyone is interested in storing, editing, and sharing documents online.  However, it wouldn't surprise me if Google Drive's success in the cloud storage wars comes at a cost in the online documents space.  Services that seem more "docs-oriented" can now brand themselves as being "serious" alternatives to lighthearted, consumer-oriented Google Drive.  If people perceive Google Drive as being more like a digital playground and Zoho or another competitor as being more like a digital office, I suspect a lot more lab reports and sales figures will be stored outside the Google ecosystem.  This trend will only be accelerated if Google is perceived as having stopped trying to improve its Docs services -- a real possibility, I think, since I suspect most Google Drive users will not be using the service to create documents and Google will naturally be focused on trying to keep its new core user base happy.

21 February 2012

Will users tire of the walled garden?

If I were starting this blog from scratch right now, I would almost certainly have to include Facebook on my list of Internet giants. In terms of sheer size as well as significance, Facebook deserves a place right up there with Google and Microsoft, and it should probably be listed ahead of AOL and Yahoo. However, Facebook doesn't really fit the "giant" paradigm that I created back in 2007. I envisioned an Internet where big companies were actively competing with each other, user by user, by creating new, innovative, and useful services. I took it for granted that users would pick and choose what services they liked regardless of what company offered them: a user might, for instance, use Google for searching, Hotmail for email, and Flickr for photos. Facebook is different in that it has a core product (social networking) that it builds all of its other services around. If you're not interested in social networking on Facebook, you are essentially outside Facebook's sphere.

Of course, most of us are inside that sphere nowadays. I often hear Facebook compared to the portals of old because of the way it seeks to draw (and keep) users in rather than send them out into the outside Internet. Certainly, it does do that -- you don't really need to leave the environs of Facebook.com if all you want to do is talk to your friends, share some photos, or even enter a sweepstakes. However, Facebook is also seeking to bring the outside Internet in in a way the portals didn't succeed in doing. Increasingly, users login to other sites with their Facebook IDs, comment on blogs that run Facebook Comments, and, when they find something online they think is cool, Like Web content on Facebook. Unlike many of the older portals, Facebook seems to recognize the dynamism of the Internet. Rather than try to keep users confined in the walled garden of Facebook.com, FB is trying to expand that garden to encompass much of the Web. Leaving Facebook.com doesn't mean you actually leave Facebook.

The question is will users actually play along with Facebook. My personal feeling is that no, they probably won't over time. There will certainly always be a need for social networks, but the people who are spending every waking hour on Facebook today aren't necessarily going to be the same people who are spending every waking hour on Facebook a year or ten years from now. Interests, lifestyles, and values change, and people get tired of the same old thing. If you're a daily Facebook user, then Facebooking your way through the Web is an easy and convenient thing to do. If FB is just another website to you, though, you may wonder why your Facebook ID should be your "passport" to the Web. There are huge downsides to letting one ID control your online world: perhaps the biggest is the fact that if your Facebook account is compromised all your stuff is compromised right along with it. Another big one is the privacy factor: how can you trust one company with so much data? I don't see any reason to believe that people want to do everything online on or through Facebook; the recent struggles of F-commerce show that users still see some value in keeping their online shopping antisocial.

And then there's anonymity, that thing that Facebook doesn't like. I actually think Facebook's much ballyhooed "real names only" policy will be a major part of its future decline. Let my own example serve as a cautionary tale. Some years ago, I started getting back into the BBSing scene. Long before I was on the Internet, I used my modem to connect to dialup bulletin board systems to download files, play games, talk on forums, get information, chat with others, etc. BBSes dimmed in popularity as Internet access became more widespread, but many still exist today and are actually accessible through the Internet. Anyway, I made the decision to simply let my real name be my user name on the new BBSes I was signing up for. I thought to myself, "Why not? I don't need to hide behind a user name...I'll just be me." Totally Facebooky, eh? There was no single moment in my BBSing experience that made me decide, "It's really a bad idea to use my real name online." Nonetheless, after a while I started to long for anonymity. There's a kind of burden to having everything you do online attached to your real identity. Every post, every action, linked for all eternity to you...I didn't like that feeling. If you're seeking fame or planning on making a living using your online identity, then "real names only" is a great policy. For the rest of us, it's a weight we have to carry on our shoulders; given enough time, I think many will be eager to shake it off. In a sense, we're already seeing this happen as it's become more and more common for people to create fake Facebook accounts for various purposes. Facebook can either double down on its anti-anonymity stance and push users away or relax it and become a less useful passport for the Web as a result. Either way, I think there are limits to how much of the Web Facebook can encircle.

23 April 2011

The Google Video scare shows the danger of trusting one online archivist too much.

I've often written about good services being shut down on this blog and, when I heard Google's announcement concerning the imminent closing of Google Video, I felt sure I had another sad tale to write about. However, I'm happy to say that, for the moment, cooler heads at Google have prevailed and their pre-YouTube acquisition video service will kept open indefinitely as the content is migrated to YouTube. I have to give credit to Google for taking its users' content more seriously than many other Internet companies. For instance, I can still access my notebooks on Google Notebook even though the service hasn't been accepting new users in a long time. It's good to know the company hasn't totally lost touch with its roots, but it's still disturbing that the initial decision was reached to begin with.

Whether it is comfortable with it or not, Google has evolved into one of the foremost archives of the Internet. It hosts millions of blogs on Blogger, many of which are long "dead." It stores the wisdom of the ages on Google Books. It has scores of old newspapers available for searching and viewing at the Google News Archive Search. Of course, it also is the major online video archive too since it owns both YouTube and Google Video. It is disturbing to think that some bureaucrat or accountant could decide a service is no longer worth keeping and with the stroke of a pen or the firing of an email lead to content created by thousands or even millions of people being destroyed. It's not like this kind of thing hasn't happened before -- look at how Yahoo! gleefully junked GeoCities and its 360 blogging service. The trust that so many of us place in big Internet companies to safeguard our content is probably misplaced. Yet we also have a huge need for archives online, all the more so since the amount of digital content being created daily is mindbogglingly enormous. I wonder how many people who posted their work to Google Video when it was still accepting uploads are now dead. Had Google not reversed their decision, much of the content those people created would probably have been deleted for good because they were no longer in a position to protect their own work.

It's clear we can't trust the beneficence of the Internet giants to keep our digital history alive. We need as many archives as we can get. So don't grow too dependent on the Big G or any one archiving entity. Keep local copies of all your own work. Consider uploading your stuff to multiple hosts. And above all else support serious archiving projects like the Internet Archive and Project Gutenberg. As a consumer, it's easy to grow accustomed to using one archive for one's viewing needs. That's OK -- we all have preferences. However, we have to accept that our favored archive may not be around tomorrow so it only makes sense to prepare ourselves for that possibility and do what we can to support the alternative options. In the long run, it's best for many different projects to shoulder the archiving load. That will mean that the loss of one partner in the struggle -- such as Live Search Books -- will not do as much damage.

01 March 2011

Google shouldn't copy Blekko.

Ranking the best content for a given search query has always been a difficult task. I have no quarrel with those who note that search engine optimization techniques have allowed inferior content to overshadow the good stuff to a certain extent. It's definitely not easy to run a search engine -- part of the job is staying one step ahead of all those people who would like to manipulate search results for their own ends and they are legion. However, I don't consider ignoring wide portions of the Web to be part of the job...if anything, it's an abandonment of a search engine's fundamental duty. If a search engine no longer indexes the accessible Web, it is partially blind. It doesn't itself really know what is out there and so it can't possibly be trusted to direct its users to the best content.

Thus, when the search engine Blekko opted to ban a slew of sites accused of being spam by its users, I was frankly appalled, and my consternation only grew as I read through the list of the banned sites. Freewebs (rebranded Webs now) was one of the victims...it is a free web space provider, for goodness sakes! Just as they did on GeoCities back in the day, people use Freewebs/Webs today to gain experience building and maintaining web sites for free. Kids, Internet novices, and cheapskates, listen up: Blekko doesn't think you deserve a chance to be seen. Somehow, an online dictionary and a petition site made the list, too. That many of the banned sites do host rather poor content is undeniably true -- there is a reason so many Blekko users branded content on these sites "spam." However, many of these same sites host good and useful content as well. Rather than seeking to rank individual pages on their own merits, Blekko decided to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Should this idea catch on, it will place a target on the back of every site that dares to allow its users to contribute content...every article archive, every free web host, and every blogging host is at risk because these sites by design cannot guarantee an across the board consistency to their content. Blekko at the moment is a rather insignificant player in the search world, but I know a dangerous idea when I see it, especially a dangerous idea that can be linked to a noble idea like fighting spam and worthless content. Search engines at their best encourage free expression because they allow every writer a spot in the index...perhaps any particular individual's voice is hard to hear amidst the din of the crowd, but heard it can be if only that right, magical set of keywords is entered into a search engine. That's why I love writing on the Web: no matter how obscure a blogger I may be, I'm still just a few words in a search box away from being read. At least until Blekko takes over, that is.

Google has recently responded to the demands of its users for better search results with a significant algorithmic change. When Google talks about reducing "rankings for low-quality sites," it's difficult not to see the influence of Blekko at work. For now, though, Google seems to be trying to do things the right way -- it isn't banning low-quality sites but rather just trying to rank them more appropriately. However, even this mission isn't quite right...Google should be able to find the good content hosted on ANY site. Branding a particular site "low quality" may be convenient, but if the high quality content hosted on a low quality site appears below the low quality content hosted by a high quality site search engine results will still be bad. Certainly some content does indeed deserve to be sent to the Void -- sites that intentionally host malware, for instance -- but "low quality" (ultimately a rather subjective valuation) sites may still be useful and certainly do not deserve invisibility. Hopefully Google will not forget that its users count on it to keep track of the entire Web, even those neighborhoods some consider to be on the wrong side of the tracks.