21 July 2007

Fun and prizes are at the Live Search Club.

I love it whenever a company, in the course of promoting its own products, lets consumers profit as well. Microsoft's Live Search Club is an online gaming web site with a few unusual features. First of all, all the games are word games and all integrate search results from Live into the gaming experience. For instance, you might be playing Flexicon, the Live Search Club's crossword game, and want to see if one of your answers is correct: your answer will be checked and a Live search will be conducted related to your answer. More usefully, you might be unable to figure out an answer and so you could use the hint feature to automatically do a Live search on a helpful topic. Another slightly unusual feature is that Live Search Club users can earn points ("tickets") by playing the games and redeem them for a wide variety of prizes, including Zune MP3 players and Windows Vista...that's where the consumer profiting comes into play.

In my opinion, Live Search Club is a phenomenal idea! It simultaneously builds good will and brand awareness for Microsoft's web properties and gets people searching Live more because it is integrated with the games. The games are honestly fun, too, and they fit well with the growing trend of casual gaming as each game takes only a small amount of time to play -- at most 15 or 20 minutes, I'd estimate, and some games can be played in about 5 minutes or less. My favorite game by far is Flexicon while my nemesis thus far is Chicktionary...but honestly I like all the games at least a little bit. Yes, even Dingbats, the game that spits in your face for playing it by only rewarding you with 3 tickets after successfully completing a puzzle. It is possibly true that Microsoft is using the Club as a way to generate more searches, as this article alleges. Personally, I'd prefer if searches were only performed when I ask for a hint, because I almost never pay attention to the searches that show up after I input and check an answer...so much searching just slows the games down.

A few days ago, I redeemed some tickets for my first prize: a 256 MB Memorex travel drive. My prize supposedly will arrive in September, but I've yet to receive the promised confirmation email so I'm not exactly waiting for it with bated breath. What I'd really like is an XBox 360, but it actually requires more tickets to redeem than anyone has ever earned through the site according to the Live Search Club leaderboard...indeed, it requires more tickets than can be earned until more puzzles are added. Whether or not the Live Search Club will be my gateway to an XBox 360 remains to be seen, but I'll certainly update this blog to let everyone know if I receive my travel drive in September!

17 July 2007

Yahoo!, Google, and branding your ad network.

Yahoo! operates so many web properties that it is perhaps inevitable that the company will not develop all of them to their full potential. I find it disappointing, though, that there is not more integration between the Yahoo! Publisher Network and Yahoo!'s other web services. It is still fairly common for people to build their first web page on Yahoo! GeoCities. Some are now setting up their first blogs on Yahoo! 360°. At least some of the people who everyday become content publishers for the first time using Yahoo! web services will likely end up among the professional web publishers of tomorrow. Yahoo! has a perfect opportunity to interact with these web gurus of the future by letting the little guys of today join the Yahoo! Publisher Network and earn a few cents or more with their content. Unfortunately, GeoCities forbids ads on its free pages other than those imposed directly by and for Yahoo!, and the Yahoo! Publisher Network is restricted to those webmasters who own their own domain. In short, Yahoo!'s perfect opportunity is a missed opportunity. GeoCities and 360° users will have no more reason to join the Yahoo! Publisher Network in the future than they would have had they used other services. Yahoo! has its reasons for acting as it does, no doubt: click fraud, an especially attractive temptation for small fry, would be a nightmare to police, and Yahoo! makes money by selling premium hosting on GeoCities which enables GeoCities users to escape Yahoo!'s ads. If Yahoo!'s ads were the users own ads, GeoCities users might not be so eager to get rid of them.

Another web giant takes a very different approach to hosting and to its ad network. Google's Blogger and its free webspace provider GooglePages both allow users to place AdSense ads on the blogs and web sites they create. On Blogger-hosted blogs, at least, AdSense ads are an exceedingly common sight. Google's path is good in at least two ways. First of all, Google has created an environment that encourages its users to create content and also to plaster Google ads on that content, bolstering AdSense's already enormous reach. Secondly, Google is introducing new webmasters and bloggers to AdSense early on. As some web publishers move their content away from Google servers, they will quite likely take AdSense with them because they are already familiar with it. AdSense's biggest enemy may ultimately be itself, as there is a great deal of chatter on the Internet about AdSense being too willing to ban publishers for alleged fraud.

In short, there is a big difference in how Yahoo! and Google use their free hosting services. For Yahoo!, hosting seems to be an end in itself. Google, in contrast, uses its hosting services to promote and brand its ad network.

10 July 2007

Mechanical Turk has a bright tomorrow.

Amazon's Mechanical Turk is a marketplace which lets people who have small online tasks that need to be done and people who wish to do small online tasks come together. Turkers can often choose from a wide variety of tasks including transcriptions, image tagging and marking, trivia question writing, and information gathering. At present, the site works pretty well, especially for those with tasks to do as they can get away with offering very little money (task payouts are generally measured in cents rather than dollars, though keep in mind that you might be able to complete many tasks in a short amount of time). I use the site regularly and I expect some groups of people, such as college students whose variable schedules make steady employment difficult or stay-at-home parents who are looking for online revenue streams, will become heavy users of Mechanical Turk in the future if they are not already. At the moment, what is holding the site back (and it is still in beta) seems to be some aspects of its interface.

To be more specific, at present looking for tasks means cycling through a long list of every task on the site. This includes tasks which a given turker might never consider doing. You can organize the list in a few ways, but in all cases the entire list is generated with the exception that those tasks which the turker is not qualified to do (a qualification can often be earned by completing a qualification test but also could be linked to something like the geographic location of the worker) can be filtered out. What I would like to see is the option for workers to blacklist some employers or task types so that they do not have to see tasks from those employers or those task types again in the future. A task categorization scheme is much needed. Some workers undoubtedly specialize in some tasks, such as transcription -- it would make sense for these workers to be able to enter a transcription section and see all available transcription tasks from all employers. This will make things a lot easier for the workers!

Recently I've noticed a proliferation of tasks by bloggers in which a small amount of money is paid for a turker to make a comment on a blog. This is an excellent use of this marketplace, in my opinion, because it allows the turker to do something he or she might enjoy doing anyway and get paid for it. The way Mechanical Turk is set up enables a turker to "view" a task before completing it, so typically the turker will be able to see what blog he or she is being asked to post on before accepting the task. So, the potential is there for people interested in a certain areas to post comments to interesting blogs related to those areas and get paid for it. The bloggers and turkers both win!

I'm hesitant to make grand predictions on a blog so young, but here's one nonetheless: Mechanical Turk will improve the interface and will become huge. OK, one addition to that: if Mechanical Turk itself does not come huge, some other similar service will. There are just too many tasks that can be done online and too many people who are hungry for online work for these needs to go unfilled. Someday, it's going to be big business!

07 July 2007

In2TV is AOL's rough diamond.

AOL's big move from Internet access provider to Internet content provider has, in my view, been generally well thought out. There have been hiccups -- that horrible public release of search results last year, for instance -- and there is certainly resistance against the AOL brand from disgruntled customers and veteran Internet users who still recall with horror the first deluge of the AOLers upon their once pristine network. Nonetheless, AOL offers a lot of good services and still has positive name recognition among millions of users. Like Yahoo!, AOL is too focused on safely providing to users what it thinks they want, an attitude which can hinder innovation sometimes. In2TV is a nice example of AOL innovation at work: the content is terrific, the idea is superb, and the execution is flawed.

In2TV is essentially Internet video's answer to Nick-at-Nite. It is an increasingly vast repository of old television shows and some public domain films. Its strength is the quality and quantity of its library: its offerings range from the Hanna-Barbera classic Scooby Doo to the anime classic Bubblegum Crisis, from the philosophical drama Kung Fu to the slapstick comedy of the Three Stooges, and from the recent flop Joey to the perennially popular Gilligan's Island. Episodes are viewable on demand and registration is not required for viewing. With a lineup like it has, In2TV can rival many television stations. How, one might ask, could it possibly go wrong? Actually, if In2TV works for you, you'll probably be delighted with it -- it's certainly one of my favorite web sites! The trouble it is it may very well not work for you. Windows Media Player is a requirement, a definite minus for non-Windows users! The video content is only licensed to be viewed inside of the United States, so that restriction alone eliminates most of the world's population from the potential In2TV audience. Playback is not always smooth -- I've experienced my fair share of frozen videos, endless ad loops, and other unpleasantness. Serious problems have even required me to reinstall Windows Media Player twice. I keep coming back, though, because In2TV's content rocks, and on an average visit I don't experience too much difficulty in seeing what I want to see.

I'm not sure the problems I mentioned will ever be "resolved." Since In2TV is advertising-supported, it makes sense that it be targeted to an American audience so long as that is what the advertisers want to target. Perhaps with time the appeal of a world market will also draw in internationally-minded advertisers. It is also doubtful that In2TV's restrictive technology will change any time soon -- since AOL doesn't own the rights of the video content it is broadcasting, DRM-friendly solutions are necessary to keep the copyright holders happy. Nonetheless, as long as there are plenty of media hungry American Windows users out there, In2TV ought to thrive. I know I'll be watching!

03 July 2007

A prodigal webmaster returns to the Web and has experiences with major and minor search engines.

May of 2007 was a momentous time in my life because it was towards the end of that month that I finally returned to the Web as a content publisher after a six year vacation. My first new site was a simple blog -- that, naturally, would prevent me from discovering exactly how much or how little of web design I actually remembered. Having created the blog and regularly posted to it for a couple of weeks, I decided it was time for me to share my site with the world. Although I've not been a web publisher for some time, I never gave up my addiction to devouring web content so I maintain a large selection of search engine and directory bookmarks. One by one, I went through the collection of links I'd assembled over the years and submitted my new site to each search engine and directory that would allow me to do so for free. And then...I waited.

I was not so naive as to be waiting for hits -- my past experiences as a webmaster taught me well how elusive those things can be. Instead, I was waiting to be indexed. I was keenly interested in how my site -- a content-rich but not at all search engine optimized blog -- would be received by search engines, especially the majors. To my surprise, Live Search added me very quickly to its index. Yahoo! soon followed suit. Google alone of the three majors scoffed at me. As the weeks turned into a month, I feared I'd fallen into what I'd heard other webmasters speak of with horror and loathing: the Google sandbox. As it turned out, my experience with the sandbox was relatively innocuous -- my blog was soon featured obscurely in the Google index after about a month. Google also did the best job of exploring my site out of the major search engines.

My experience did make me think twice about the search engines I use on a regular basis, though. I've used Google as my primary search engine since 1998, and I've largely been pleased with the search results I get from Google. I'm too interested in the Internet not to play around with other search engines from time to time, but at the end of the day I've basically been a Google search guy for the last nine years. My experience as a returning webmaster taught me an important lesson, though: Google doesn't necessarily have the freshest index around. There are doubtless thousands of websites in queue waiting to be introduced into the Google index...and these sites may well already be indexed by Live Search and/or Yahoo! That is potentially a chink in the Google armor; I expect my search engine to keep up with a World Wide Web that is growing rapidly. Admittedly, I would not trade irrelevant search results for fresh content -- I unreasonably want both relevancy and freshness, but relevancy is more important to me than freshness, so as long as Google continues to usually give me good search results I'll probably continue to use it as my primary search engine. However, Live Search and Yahoo! have definitely given me something to think about, and I've begun using both search engines more.

I was a little surprised by something else, too: the smaller search engines appear to generally be overburdened. It seems like it takes longer to get listed by them than by the big boys, which makes me question if they have the resources to be competitive in the search engine world. Choice is good, but search engines that don't actually index the web aren't particularly useful to anyone, especially someone who is seriously searching for information.