09 October 2008

Hexolabs is stretching the limits of YouTube.

When you think YouTube, you think "Video." Some people go to YouTube for funny pet antics, some go to it for news, some go to it for vlogs, some go to it for copyrighted content...but it's mainly video stuff that drives people to the site, apart from the ubiquitous "song + photo slideshow" offerings. Interaction to this point on YouTube has largely taken the form of communication between people -- through comments, messages, and video responses -- rather than direct interaction between people and the videos themselves. Hexolabs, an India-based mobile company, doesn't seem to think that YouTube needs to be such a passive experience. They have utilized YouTube's annotation feature set to produce one of YouTube's first interactive games. Who would have guessed that YouTube might ever become a GAMING platform?

Hexolabs' game is called "A Car's Life." It follows the animated adventures of a car travelling through a simple black and white world. To advance to each successive level, the player/viewer must click on the annotation link that crops up on each video; if you fail to click the button in time, you get to watch the car suffer a terrible demise. The button is really merely a link to the next video in the series -- you can certainly watch the videos out of order. In fact, you can "win" the game without even playing if you want. Because the link to the next level disappears very quickly, you may well find yourself tempted to cheat -- the link is fully clickable if the video is paused. Once I knew where the link was going to appear on each level, I personally didn't find it too hard to win the game the "right way." All in all, I enjoyed the experience, mostly because it forced me to change the way I view YouTube. It's amazing how a feature like annotation can create a whole new world of possibilities. As a game, "A Car's Life" is obviously very simple and more of an experiment than a polished product, but for a YouTube game in 2008 it's fantastic. If you enjoy the visuals of the game, you might want to give some Vectrex games from the 80s a try -- for some reason, I kept thinking of "Armor Attack" while I was playing around with Hexolabs' creation. I know what I'll be playing for the rest of the day...

I'm sure we haven't seen the last of gaming on YouTube. It will be interesting, though, to see if game development is something that will be encouraged or discouraged by the corporate overlords. One could argue that gaming on YouTube makes the site less pure as a video destination -- "A Car's Life" is cool because there aren't many YouTube games right now, but if you want to play online games there are tons of sites out there that'll let you do that to your heart's content. Personally, I welcome the chance to do something a little different on YouTube from time to time.

01 October 2008

AOL Video's P & G Classic Soaps and Google's News Archive show us that even the ephemeral can be eternal online.

For too long, great content has been discarded hastily for convenience's sake. While many people have stacks of National Geographic magazines in their attic, only the most determined of collectors would dare archive their local daily newspaper. Considering that some of the longest running soaps have thousands of episodes, few of even the most obsessive of soap opera fans are able to relive all of their favorite storylines at a whim. The main obstacle to collectors of the past was a simple lack of physical space; newspaper collectors had only so much attic space and soap opera fanatics could only store so many VHS tapes. Even those brave enough to start such daunting collecting tasks faced serious archival problems related to the natural degradation of physical media. The digital age has made both space and the degradation of physical media much less of an obstacle, but some so-called ephemeral content has been quite difficult to find in digital form. Luckily, AOL and Google are helping to change all that.

AOL Video has featured classic soaps from Procter & Gamble Productions such as Another World and Texas for some time now. Soaps have a very uncertain future when their television runs end. SOAPnet is a cable channel entirely devoted to soap operas, both classic and current, but not every cable subscriber receives it -- I don't, for instance. DVD releases for classic soaps are limited, in part because of the sheer mass of recorded material we're dealing with when it comes to soaps. While best-of collections of favorite episodes might work for sitcoms, it's not a good approach for soaps where the continuity between episodes is very important. There's really no better way to view old soaps than online and on-demand, which is what AOL Video provides as a free, ad-supported service for soap fans. AOL's P & G classic soap collection is not exactly a complete archive of any of its featured series (bear in mind that many episodes of the older soaps no longer exist), but there are hundreds and hundreds of episodes available for viewing. It does annoy me that AOL Video doesn't offer a air date sorting option so that episodes can be conveniently viewed from oldest to newest (that's what new viewers will probably want to do), but I can't feel too angry because without this service some of this content would not otherwise be available. Kudos to AOL and P & G for helping keep classic soaps alive.

Old newspaper content has always been more available than classic soaps, but they've been buried in morgues controlled by the newspapers or stored on microfiche and microfilm in our libraries. What Google's News Archive does is make old newspapers and magazines much more accessible than they ever have been before. The amount of material already available is staggering -- there seem to be many different groups working on digitizing old newspapers, including Google itself. While Google is aiming to make much of this content available for free (monetized through ads of course, with revenue shared with the content providers), some content providers have opted instead to make their archives available on a pay per view basis. Helpfully, the Google News Archive's advanced search lets you limit your search results by price -- if you don't restrict your search to free articles, you may find it hard to avoid being inundated by New York Times PPV articles. There is lots of really interesting content available to be found here, including classic ads, even if you stick with the free stuff, and the archive is only going to keep growing. To me, this project is an example of Google at their best; say what you will about the company's dominant position in the Internet economy, but you cannot deny that they really do strive to make as much of the world's information available freely online as possible.

It's never been a better time to be a scholar, especially if your particular area of study happens to be classic soap operas or vintage advertising. Thanks, AOL and Google!

30 September 2008

Blogger has a splogger problem.

One of the reasons I love searching with Google is because I can remember what it was like searching the Web before Google came to be. While AltaVista was a decent search engine, I can't say too many nice things about many of other early search engines that I used to use. Even AltaVista couldn't keep spam from showing up in the first page of results sometimes. Although Google is not unfriendly to "thin" affiliate sites that don't have much content, I rarely come across the machine-generated, keyword stuffed junk that used to clog up the lesser search engines of years gone by while searching with Google. Nonetheless, the junk is still out there, and lately I seem to be running into it more and more often for some reason.

Unfortunately, a lot of the machine-generated, keyword stuffed junk being posted on the Web these days seems to be posted through Blogger. Google Blog Search is a good way to find splogs, no doubt because it indexes most Blogger content very quickly. Try a search related to the financial industry for particularly good (and by good I mean spammy) results. Blogger seems to be a convenient target for sploggers because it is a free service, allows for the unlimited creation of blogs, and is largely monitored by the community. Unfortunately, the very things that make Blogger an awesome blog creation and hosting tool make it appealing for spammers as well. Google seems to take spamming pretty seriously (as they should, since nothing makes search engines look worse than bad search results), and so Blogger has tried to combat the sploggers in various ways, including by requiring new blog creators to solve a captcha. Still, the spam persists; perhaps splog detection is best left for humans. Most native speakers can spot nonsensical machine-generated spam drivel "written" in their language a mile away so it makes sense for Google to offer an easy way to report spam Blogger blogs. I've recently reported a few very obvious splogs I've stumbled across so I'll soon find out if Blogger responds to spam reports in a timely manner.

As someone who has been trying to make money online for many years, I can well understand why spammers do what they do. Still, I can't exactly sympathize with their "plight." As much as I wish I was making a living purely online, I wouldn't want to make a career out of annoying people and junking the Web. I want to write content for the Web because I love the Web. I love being able to conduct a search on most any topic that will lead me to find something relevant to my query. Sploggers, though, don't love the Web; they want to disrupt the search process by putting junk between the searcher and what he wants to find. Some of them still no doubt make good money doing just that, but hopefully Google will be able to make this increasingly more and more difficult in the future.

05 September 2008

Google Notebook is great for clipping the Web, but it's not the perfect online notebook just yet.

I've become quite the enthusiastic user of Google Notebook over the past few months. As averse as I am to browser clutter, I've nonetheless installed the Google Notebook Firefox extension. I use my Google notebooks to write to-do lists, take notes on my favorite blogs, clip images and text discovered while surfing, and store ephemeral material of all sorts. It has proven to be one of the most useful Google services to me, but I wouldn't exactly call it "feature-rich." Then again, a notebook app probably shouldn't be the most complex of things. The genius of Google seems to lie partly in their ability to give people what they really need right away. The bells and whistles may be slow in coming, but Google's products are always effective for simple uses right out of the box. Google Notebook is a great example of this.

This philosophy works well because a good chunk of Google users will probably not need (or use) anything beyond the basic features already available. They're happy, and they should be. It's only when you want to do something in Notebook that you can't that you feel disappointed. Ultimately, I do think one should at least be able to do anything productive that you can do with a paper notebook with notebook software; Google Notebook is already far superior to a paper notebook when it comes to capturing material from the Web, and its online sharing options beat sneakernet sharing any day. Google Notebook isn't ahead of its paper cousins in all aspects, however. For instance, calculations are easy to do in a paper notebook, but they should be even easier to do in Google Notebook considering that even Google Search has a built-in calculator! Unfortunately, Google Notebook doesn't seem to have calculator functionality at the moment, so you'll have to do your calculating elsewhere. This is disappointing for those of us who work with numbers in our online notebooks. The lack of a drawing utility in Google Notebook is an even worse omission. Paper notebooks are great for sketching diagrams, maps, and graphs, not to mention random doodling -- Google Notebook just can't compete with that at this moment. I expect those features and more to be included in future iterations, but for now it might be wise not to go completely paperless.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention Zoho's notebook solution here because at this point I think it actually captures the whole notebook experience a bit better than Google Notebook. It already has a drawing utility -- quite a good one, in fact. It also incorporates the idea of pages; that might seem unnecessary in a purely online environment, but I have to admit my Google notebooks would probably be easier to read if I didn't add new notes to the top of some of my notebooks and to the bottom of others. On the downside, Zoho's product does look a little busier and more complex than Google Notebook; I don't really mind that. Still, it will pose a continuing challenge for Google to hold on to its trademark simplicity while still adding features to all of its products.

21 July 2008

Wikia Search and Google must both deal with the Established Site Effect.

I think one of the main reasons people feel hesitant about embracing Wikia Search is because it turns search into a popularity contest. While people are undoubtedly more effective than any algorithm at detecting spam and irrelevant content, in aggregate they are probably not going to be as effective at discovering and organizing new content. Human-edited search results are naturally going to reflect the Web as Internet users know it already -- established sites will rank higher than the rest simply because more people know about them. What if something new and super-relevant to a particular query comes along, though? Can it displace a less relevant but highly popular site in the search results for that query? I have some serious doubts about whether it can, and it's a big problem because search is one of the primary ways Internet users discover new content. If search just reflects the "same old thing," then that's all many people will ever see. A lot of new but very good content will just languish in obscurity.

It's not like purely algorithmic search engines don't have to deal with this same issue, though. Google attempts to tackle the problem by placing a premium on fresh content (for instance, new blog posts), allowing them to show up alongside the big, established sites. Indeed, the Google algorithm is more complicated than some people give it credit for; it's not ALL about links by any means. I'm not sure if this blog has ANY inbound links to a particular individual blog post, but people still occasionally find my posts when they search with Google. Whether that is a good thing or not is another issue! Still, Google undoubtedly lets established sites have a significant edge over their competition -- as time goes on and the big sites get more and more and more links, it may well become harder and harder for sites to start from scratch, utterly linkless, and still get noticed. Honestly, I found it easier to get people to read my stuff in 1997 as a 14 year old than I do now despite the fact that the Internet user base has grown so much bigger in the past 11 years. Obviously I need to get my infectious teenage energy back if I ever hope to make it big on the Web!

It's one thing to notice that there is a problem -- it's another to actually come up with a solution to the problem. I think Google has a better handle on this issue right now than Wikia Search does, which is understandable considering that WS is the new kid on the block. Google's fresh content and relevancy boosts let even sites lacking in links be seen. If the trend of more and more content being produced continues, though, I'm not sure it will be possible for every site to have its day in the sun. It may already be a necessity for webmasters to diversify beyond search (social media anyone? Sorry, just asking!). When it comes to Wikia Search, I think webmasters themselves are going to have to stake out a claim for their sites personally. The community will ultimately decide what sites should reign supreme for particular queries, but individual webmasters are probably going to be the ones who will be the first to suggest their own sites as being relevant for long-tail keywords. The worst thing Wikia Search could do right now is discourage people from promoting their own content even though self-promotion is another threat to the search engine's usefulness. Will people who have an aversion to self-promotion be able to get their content noticed on WS if their sites aren't already really popular? I rather doubt it, unfortunately, though I suppose Wikia Search could try to give an algorithmic boost to fresh content at the risk of upsetting the community.

I wonder if Wikia Search should really be considered as a continuation of the spirit of the Open Directory which is still an excellent resource. Organization problems have limited the Open Directory's growth -- it just doesn't index enough of the Web to be listed in the same sentence as Google. However, for general queries the results on Open Directory are often on par with or superior to that provided by Google: humans really are excellent at organizing relevant information. Because Wikia Search can have as many editors as it does users, perhaps it will have the manpower to keep up with the Web's ferocious growth, but Google's ability to intelligently index both established and non-established site alike with great speed gives it a definite edge over every human-powered Web index at the moment.

30 June 2008

Wikia Search is well worth watching.

I've been playing around with Wikia Search quite a bit lately and have enjoyed the experience immensely so far. My initial reaction to the new project was rather negative -- I don't know about you, but I honestly expect to see good results immediately whenever I use a search engine. If it's a new engine I'm checking out, then I basically expect to see two things: relevant results for my queries (they don't necessarily have to be the best to begin with) and my own web projects in the index. The latter expectation seems not to be realized more often than not, especially since the SEO guru guys have made me terrified of submitting my own stuff anywhere. "You'll end up in the sandbox, man!" Wikia Search didn't impress me at first because my first searches didn't yield me relevant results. Where was the algorithm? Where was the automated sorting through the chaff that would help me find the needles in the haystacks of the Net? It felt a lot to me like using one of the early search engines when you really never did know what you were going to get, especially for obscure searches.

I've changed my tune after spending more time actually using Wikia Search. It is similar to Wikipedia in that it depends on contributions from people in order to work. A Wikipedia without people doesn't have articles; a Wikia Search without people doesn't have good search results. The search engine is still in alpha, but as it develops and grows I feel confident that the search results will get better. What surprised me the most about my experiences with Wikia Search was how fun it was to use it. Wikipedia lets everyday people play the role of encyclopedist; this project lets them play the role of Internet librarian. I loved going through my bookmarks and adding what I thought the best pages in various categories were to the Wikia index. It was really interesting to think from a query-level perspective and to decide what pages answer a given query best. It was also interesting deciding what description to write or quote for each site. People are going to really have fun with this after they give it a chance. In time, People Search Power could perhaps outperform most machine-driven algorithms. For now, though, Wikia Search is a small-scale affair and it doesn't yet have the community manpower to give consistently good results every time.

It must be acknowledged that spam and overly aggressive self-promotion could greatly damage Wikia Search's results. I've already encountered some of it, in fact. At the moment, the search results are very easy to game: one high rating will take a page to the top of the listings for many queries, for instance. There needs to be an active community of searchers to keep this under control; it'll be a big problem if spammers discover Wikia Search before the rest of the Internet community does. On the other hand, the very fact that a page can rise to the top so quickly should drive people to Wikia Search. I can totally imagine webmasters arriving in droves to claim their sites' long-tail keywords; that could become a required ritual for all SEO types eventually. So long as the pages are relevant to the query, then this behavior can actually make the search engine better. Spam unrelated to the original query is just bad news, though -- there's no way to put a smiley face on that.

Should Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft be concerned about this new kid on the search block? To be honest, I think they should. This is a new way to handle search that has some real potential. There is no Google, Yahoo!, or Microsoft search community to compete with what Wikia is building, and it'll be difficult for any of the big search engines to outsource their search results to the public without those results suffering in quality for some time. Just look at Wikia Search right now: a lot of the results are really bad. Google couldn't get away with delivering such bad results and still keep its position atop the search engine charts, but since Wikia Search doesn't have a position to maintain the bad results are OK for now. A set of early adopters are already building up Wikia Search; by the time other people start noticing it it'll probably be much better than it is now. It should be noted, however, that a Google Experimental Search project already has been done which allowed test users to play around with the order of search results and allowed them to rate results positively or negatively. So Google is at least thinking about either community search or personalized search; knowing Google, they're probably thinking of both things. Whether it be a Google killer or not, Wikia Search is quite a cool project that people interested in search should definitely keep watching.

20 June 2008

Don't put all your eggs into one Google account.

How much do you rely on one account? If you're like me, the answer is, "Quite a bit." Until recently, I had just one main Google account as well as a separate AdSense/AdWords Google account. That main Google account was associated with my Blogger blogs, my Gmail email, my online docs on Google Docs, my notes on Google Notebook, and more. Certainly, it is convenient to do things this way -- I haven't had to worry about multiple user names or passwords. Unfortunately, it's a bit risky to do things this way for security reasons. One compromised password could really shake your online life up very badly!

What made me change my ways was my sudden realization that I was using the same account both for my blog and to archive my blog posts. I used to blog on Blogger and store copies of my posts on Google Docs, but I've been using the same Google account to access both services. Although I also backup my blogs elsewhere, the idea that a hacker or Google glitch could take out both my blog and one of my main backups for my blog simultaneously was very upsetting. Obviously, no one ever tries to organize his or her online life in a fundamentally insecure way, but Google accounts and other single logins linked to multiple services make it very easy to focus on convenience and forget all about security. Chances are that nothing bad will ever happen to your Google account, after all, so this tradeoff might seem to be acceptable. It's still too risky for my taste, however. I've decided to change my ways, and I recommend that you do the same if you feel you are depending too much on one account.

There are two easy solutions for this problem that I have started exploring, and neither involve a tape drive. Diversification is the name of the game here. Google explicitly allows people to have multiple Google accounts. Thus, instead of having your blog, email, and docs linked to one account you could link them to two or three. This protects you quite well against hackers, but it might not effectively protect you in the case of a catastrophic Google data loss. Here is where the other giants and the rest of the Web can come to your rescue. For instance, I've decided to start using Zoho to store some of my online documents so I don't rely on Google Docs entirely. There are alternatives for almost every online task; to me, it makes perfect sense to take advantage of the Internet's awesome collection of free stuff by spreading my important online tasks across a myriad of online services. This isn't to say one shouldn't prefer one service to another -- that's human nature. Instead, what I'm arguing is that everyone should have a backup plan. Your online life is important, so why would you take it lightly? Although spreading yourself and your data too thin can have negative productivity consequences, this can be minimized if you designate one service as being preferred and others as being backups. For instance, I'm planning to continue using Google Docs more than Zoho; Docs is going to be my primary service and Zoho will be my backup. If Docs goes down or a Google account of mine gets compromised, I'll start using Zoho more. If nothing bad happens, which is likely, I'll just stick with Docs.

18 June 2008

Google Analytics' site overlay feature is back in action.

What do you do when a favorite feature on a web app you use just doesn't work anymore? I generally ask myself, "Is it me?" I try to use the feature on different browsers. I reflect on what I've installed recently on my computer. I peer suspiciously at my ever-growing list of Firefox add-ons. Then I usually decide, "Well, it's probably their fault. They'll fix it sooner or later."

They usually do fix it, too...sooner or later. In the case of the site overlay feature on Google Analytics, the fix came in later rather than sooner for me. I can't tell you when I noticed that something was awry with the overlay, but it's not been working for me for several weeks at least. If you don't use Google Analytics, you may not know what the site overlay does -- it essentially gives you a picture of your web site which shows what links your visitors are clicking. In the case of this blog, my users tend to recoil in horror from it soon after they visit, closing their browser windows without clicking anything. I guess I should have taken web design a bit more seriously... The site overlay can be quite useful for a webmaster who wants to understand what links his or her visitors are really noticing and clicking on; it's a fantastic tool both for letting you know what is working at the moment and also for helping you decide how you should link out in the future. Is everyone ignoring your affiliate links in your sidebar? Well, maybe it's time to start including a few within your blog posts. Anyway, you can imagine how distressed I was at not being able to see which of my links my visitors weren't clicking on. Whenever I'd open the site overlay, I'd see the usual overlay transparency over my site but no click data whatsoever would be displayed.

It seems that I'm not the only person who has had problems with this feature of late, but I get the distinct feeling that not everyone was affected. To tell you the truth, I think the reason it wasn't working was my fault based on what I've been reading online. Strangely enough, though, my laziness seems to have paid off because the overlay feature started working again without me having to do anything. That's really what I want to have happen; I don't want to have to complain about bugs that might actually be caused by me...I just want everything to work again. Kudos to the Analytics team for doing the work and sparing me from having to do anything.

14 June 2008

The new Yahoo and Google deal lets Yahoo do what it does best.

Understandably, many people are disappointed that Yahoo is outsourcing some of its search advertising business to Google. The very fact that Yahoo can reasonably expect to make more money by doing this is testament to the fact that Google does search advertising better than Yahoo does. To some, any partnership with a direct competitor is a capitulation. I don't quite see it like that. Unlike any deal offered to Yahoo by Microsoft, this partnership with Google lets Yahoo keep both its search business and its advertising business. It lets Yahoo be more profitable in the short term which should please the stock market. Perhaps most importantly, it lets Yahoo focus on the things it does best.

While Microsoft seems to be realigning itself to focus on search, Yahoo would be wise to concentrate on content. In many content areas, Google is not a competitor to Yahoo. There is no Google Games or Google Sports or Google Autos, for instance. As long as Microsoft is concentrating on search and closing other services, Yahoo faces no real competition from that corner either. Microsoft does have a decent chance to overtake Yahoo in terms of search share, but even that is iffy as I think Yahoo's search engine is currently better than Windows Live Search. There's certainly no reason why Yahoo cannot continue to carve niches for itself when it comes to content. Of course, Yahoo will still have to compete with all of us independent publishers, but it's got the resources to win that fight. (I'm already surrendering!)

Meanwhile, Yahoo can try to quietly resuscitate its advertising business. It will still be selling advertising on some of the most visited pages on the planet: its own! It will also be handling long-tail and international search ads while Google maximizes profits on the most lucrative searches. This is a time for Yahoo to experiment and build a strong worldwide advertising base. One of the most neglected of Yahoo's properties, the Yahoo Publisher Network, should be a given a much needed shot in the arm. It is time for it to move firmly out of beta territory, accept international publishers, and become the AdSense alternative people thought it would become. This is stealth stuff, though, that should be done in the background. Plenty of people think that Yahoo is essentially finished in the advertising business; they think of it as being just a really big AdSense publisher now. That's not such a bad thing to be, but Yahoo doesn't need to forsake its advertising ambitions just because it's trying to boost its short-term revenues. Although advertiser interest will be tough to reignite, I think Yahoo could eventually find itself in a stronger position to handle search and content advertising sans Google a few years down the line. A lot of house cleaning needs to be done, though, or history will simply repeat itself.

In short, the rumors of Yahoo's demise are greatly exaggerated. There's a lot Yahoo can still accomplish on the Web. It will find it challenging to hold on to advertisers and its workforce over the next few months, but I predict that once the Google deal is put into practice (barring governmental interference) and revenue starts rolling in the pressure will be off and the rebuilding and renewal can begin in earnest.

12 June 2008

Is Microsoft a search company now?

I recently chastised Microsoft for suddenly pulling the plug on two of its web projects, but now I'm starting to see the method in Microsoft's madness. Don't get me wrong -- Microsoft still deserves to be chastised. It's just that I think I have a better idea of what the company is planning regarding its web business. Microsoft seems to be realigning its web strategy...towards search! This move definitely bucks traditional wisdom according to which the search market is already pretty well locked up by Google. Evidently Microsoft sees an opportunity that others have missed.

Still skeptical? To me, this realignment towards search is the only way I can explain Microsoft's recent moves. Let's begin with last year's launch of the Live Search Club, the site that rewards people for playing games that just happen to force searches. This was a roundabout way of getting more searches conducted and more people using Live Search. This project is still going strong -- I regret that I missed the opportunity to write up the double tickets promotion that took place yesterday. I participated even though I'm still unhappy about the Live Search Books and Live Expo closings. On to 2008. The biggest Microsoft story of the year of course has been its attempted acquisition of Yahoo which just happens to operate the Internet's second most popular search engine. Soon after that failed, Microsoft started talking to Yahoo about another possible deal, which might include an acquisition of Yahoo Search and other selected properties but not the rest of Yahoo. I'm sure Microsoft had more in mind than just increasing its search share when it started bidding for Yahoo, but had an acquisition of Yahoo's search business happened it would have left Microsoft in control of the second and third most popular search engines. If Microsoft had just wanted eyeballs, it probably could have acquired AOL more easily and more cheaply; search was definitely a motivating factor in all this. In May, Microsoft announced its Live Search cashback program which allows users to get some money back on their purchases. Similar to the Live Search Club, Live Search CashBack gives people incentives to search, but like any rebate program it only works when purchases are made. Why just reward people for searching when you can reward them for doing what you really want them to do? Advertisers should love a search engine whose users like to buy stuff. This is not a surefire success by any means -- cashback might spoil people to the point that they will come to expect to get money back off every online purchase (and it does cost Microsoft potential revenue if nothing else), and the whole thing could end up just attracting bargain shoppers instead of the wide base of people Microsoft is probably hoping to draw to its search engine. Perhaps the real genius of this move lies in the timing: rough economic times have turned many former shopaholics into bargain shoppers so any and all cashback programs will be welcomed by many. At any rate, cashback should increase Microsoft's search share and encourage a lot more spending...good for the economy, good for Microsoft. If really successful, cashback could have a disruptive effect on search advertising and perhaps force other search engines to offer similar programs. I don't expect to see that happen; rebates have been around for an awful long time, after all. It's not like Microsoft is trying something people never dreamed was possible, but the concept of combining rebates with search is a little bit new. Most recently, Microsoft made a deal with HP which will put a Live Search toolbar on new PCs starting next year. Nothing really special about that -- all the search engines make deals with PC manufacturers. It shows Microsoft is serious about search, though, and every such move is going to increase its search share.

All this leads me to believe that we haven't seen the last of the search wars. Still, I still don't necessarily think it is wise for Microsoft to scale back its other web projects just to focus on search. How many people use Google Docs more than they use Google's search engine? I would bet a fair number do now. How many people use Flickr or Delicious more than Yahoo's search engine? Lots. In fact, plenty of people who use those services don't search on Yahoo at all. Microsoft will be at a disadvantage if its competitors have hundreds of destinations that each attract users while it places all of its eggs in just a few baskets. The closings of Live Expo and Live Search Books just give users reasons to go elsewhere. Still, I predict Microsoft's search engine share will increase in the coming months. I could see them overtaking Yahoo, perhaps by next year, if they continue to be creative and aggressive. At the moment, though, I think the search share rankings accurately reflect the qualify of each search engine: Google is better than Yahoo which is better than Live Search. Live Search is decent now, but there's still too much crap that rises to the top there and too much of the Web it doesn't index. All it takes is one search that doesn't guide you to what you're looking for to cause you to think about changing search engines. As long as Google does search better, it will be hard for people to abandon it no matter how many carrots the other search engines dangle.

10 June 2008

AOL wants your two cents at the Opinion Place.

I imagine that Google or Yahoo could become killer market research companies if they wanted. They certainly both have large and diverse audiences which could meet most any demographic need. For now, unfortunately, you're out of luck if you want to be paid for giving your opinion to Google and Yahoo about anything other than Google or Yahoo. I suppose I can understand why it might not be that appealing for a company to do market research by working with another big company, possibly a competitor. Microsoft wouldn't want to call up Google Surveys in order to research how people are using Office, for instance. That's likely the reason why so many small market research companies are thriving by working with some very big companies from all kinds of industries.

For some reason, AOL is the exception to the rule I just suggested. They're a big company, but they still do market research in partnership with DMS Research. AOL's survey site Opinion Place is one of the best sites of its kind. The way it works is simplicity itself. First, you go to the site and create an account. You'll be asked fill in a fair bit of personal information as that is the only way you can be hooked up with surveys that target specific demographics. You'll also be asked how you wish to be compensated for your participation -- I like the payments by PayPal myself, but AOL subscribers and frequent fliers might prefer credits or miles to cold, hard e-cash. Then you can take a survey. It's a very straightforward process; sometimes you're matched with a survey, and sometimes you're not. After all is said and done, Opinion Place will let you know when you can take another survey.

Taking surveys probably won't pay your Internet bill, but it is a fun way to burn some time and earn a little extra cash at the same time. It's actually useful work you're doing as well, as your answers will, in aggregate with the answers of many others at least, influence the products and services companies provide. You also sometimes get to find out about cool "coming soon" stuff through surveys; sadly, you are generally strictly forbidden from discussing anything top secret. To give a non-specific example, I once got to test out a beta version of what has become one of my favorite multimedia sites as part of my participation in a survey. Surveys are pretty cool!

I've often felt that the big Internet companies are so keen to make money off the little guy that they forget that they can sometimes profit right along with the little guy if they're willing to work with him. Amazon understands this; that's why they have their affiliate program, Mechanical Turk, and the Honor System. Google gets it; that's why AdSense is open to everyone. Making money with most other big Internet companies isn't quite so easy if you don't want to apply for a job. AOL has successfully transitioned from an Internet service provider to a web content provider, but their business model is still largely based on profiting from an audience that consumes rather than produces. This being the case, I must commend AOL for showing a willingness to do business a little differently when it comes to the Opinion Place. Thanks, AOL, for providing a great opportunity for people to share their opinions and earn a few extra dollars in the process.

09 June 2008

Microsoft is in retreat mode.

Not too long ago Microsoft was on the verge of becoming a much bigger Internet company. It was about to acquire Yahoo, about to finally give Google some real competition...but the Yahoo deal never happened and Microsoft's web presence has been shrinking or at least narrowing ever since. I think it is likely that Microsoft is still intent on acquiring Yahoo somewhere down the line, but for now they seem to be too busy decimating their own web properties to worry about decimating Yahoo's. Maybe they're just streamlining or refocusing, but shutting down two major projects in two months is not what I expect to see from a company that allegedly wants to dominate the Internet.

The first victim was Live Search Books. I remember thinking what a gutsy move this launch was back in 2006 because Google Book Search already existed and already rocked. Microsoft was essentially saying they could go toe-to-toe with Google and perhaps even do book digitization and search better than Google. The abrupt closing of the site in May made it clear that Microsoft couldn't be competitive in this space. What puzzles me is that surely Microsoft couldn't have believed that such a project would ever be a lucrative moneymaker. They had to know going in that this needed to be about providing a useful service, creating good will, and showing their ability to compete with Google. At what point did Microsoft decide, "Well, it doesn't matter if we no longer provide a useful service, destroy the good will we've built hitherto, and show that we can't compete with Google." It's just strange to me...very strange.

June's abandoned child was Windows Live Expo, Microsoft's foray into the online classifieds business. Classifieds seems to be a tough business to break into -- even Yahoo's site wasn't able to survive. Still, someone has to challenge Craigslist sooner or later. Microsoft evidently decided it wasn't up to the task. Personally, I thought Live Expo was appealing visually and easy to use. Its weakness and probably the reason it was shut down is that it never became a huge site. Not being a huge site is a real disadvantage in the classifieds space; people want to be able to browse local listings no matter where they are, and that just isn't possible if people from all over aren't selling stuff. Perhaps the fact that Craigslist isn't a direct Microsoft competitor in other areas, unlike Google, influenced this move, though that type of thinking didn't save Live Search Books. Both sites probably had difficulty generating revenue, but Microsoft should have known from the start that neither site was likely to be profitable from the beginning...especially not a freaking book search site! At the end of the day, closing any site is a sign of weakness and a message to your user base saying, "Don't trust us!" Microsoft may have big pockets, but it needs to develop more staying power if its online projects are ever to reach their true potentials.

25 May 2008

Who will search the microblogs?

I noticed something interesting when I was searching for Jaiku related blog posts with Google Blog Search recently. Many of the results of my search weren't exactly what I was looking for -- I wanted to read long-form blog posts related to Jaiku -- but they were nonetheless quite relevant to my search term. Instead of just giving me blog posts about Jaiku, Google also gave me returned actual microblog posts on Jaiku. To me this is interesting because Google seems to be treating microblogs and blogs as similar entities that can both be searched on Google Blog Search. Personally, I tend to think that microblogs and blogs are quite different species and that search engines should treat them accordingly.

Why shouldn't microblogs and blogs be lumped together? I'm looking at this issue primarily from a searching perspective. When I do a blog search about something, I expect to find more or less developed articles and/or collections of links. I'm not going to be satisfied with a sentence or two that happen to contain my keyword(s). If I'm looking for long-form content, microblogs appearing in my blog search results are simply noise. Even if I did want microblogs to be in the mix, filtering the useful microblog postings from the chaff is an unusually difficult challenge. Useful blog posts will attract links on the outside Web; useful Twitter postings probably won't, though they might be responded to more. How does a search engine compare blog posts having inlinks with Twitter tweets that aren't linked to? Does one give more weight to Twitter folks who have more followers or more links to their Twitter feeds than others? While intelligent and useful searching of microblogs is important, I don't think the solution involves treating conventional blogs and microblogs as if they were the same. Instead, I think we need "conversational search" that is just for microblogs, forums, and any other searchable forms of online chat. Thus far, the giants have been slow to recognize this need.

You might well ask yourself, "Is this really necessary?" After all, don't search engines search everything...isn't that what they're supposed to do? Sure. When I go to a search engine, I do expect to see everything in the general web index. Specialized search -- be it image, video, blog, or whatever -- makes things easier for me when I really want to narrow things down, though. If I do a general web search for tennis, then I expect to get a bunch of different stuff back: tennis news and results, the rules of the game, shops selling tennis supplies, etc are all appropriate first page search results for my very broad query. If I do a blog search for tennis, then I expect to get back more opinionated but still well-developed content. I don't expect just the news and results, but rather different personal takes on the news and results. I don't expect to find stores, but rather opinions about the stores and general posts with affiliate links. If I do a microblog search, I'm looking for small morsels of content: "Tennis sucks," "Tennis rocks," and "Tennis is hard on the knees." A tweet might convince me to start following someone and make a new friend. Alternatively, maybe I'm searching the microblogs just so I can explore a kaleidoscope of thought. Are people liking tennis more or less these days? Microblog search can give us a more personalized picture of shifting opinions than Google Trends can. No search engine can read minds, but I think it's safe to say that someone who is looking for blog posts about tennis does not want his search to lead him to a "Tennis sucks" microblog post. That post could be just what someone else is looking for, but I think more often than not microblog posts will just be adding noise to blog search engine results. This isn't a problem if we have conversational search.

There are already some quite decent Twitter search engines out there. At least one of them, Summize, unabashedly says that conversational search is what it does. The problem I'm seeing with these engines is that they're only searching Twitter right now. Twitter is the top dog in the microblogging world, for sure, but that doesn't mean other conversations should be ignored. As I mentioned earlier, I even think forum posts should be a part of conversational search (after all, they ARE conversations!). They already quite often show up in general web search results and have often helped me solve very specific problems; frankly, forums have proved a lot more useful to me personally over the years than microblogs have so far. There are other conversations going on elsewhere on the Net that could be indexed: for instance, I think IRSeek, which searches IRC chats, is a great service though it's been somewhat controversial. A really good conversational search engine will look for conversation everywhere and index it like mad.

Of course, the very phrase "conversation search" implies that microblogging is all about conversations. Truthfully, it isn't always. You can certainly tweet about anything you want without having any followers. You can also Jaiku haikus to your heart's content -- in that case, you're microblogging to express yourself, not to conversate with others. In such instances, perhaps those particular microblog posts would be more at home amongst traditional blog posts rather than forum posts and IRC logs. Perhaps, then, "conversational search" isn't the answer, but I still think we need a way to conveniently search microblog posts and that it is best to segregate regular blog posts from microblog posts. Whoever does it will have to tackle some tough questions. I already mentioned the difficulty in determining how to rank microblog posts. What about the difficulty in actually determining what a microblog is? I assume this determination would be based on platform (for example, Wordpress = blog while Twitter = microblog), but if someone writes really short posts on a Blogger or Wordpress blog isn't that person really microblogging instead of blogging? Anyway, it'll be very interesting to see if one of the big Internet companies will tackle this problem or if one of the independent search engines will dominate this still fairly fringe interest instead. Google seems to be the most natural home for conversational search to me, especially since it has its own microblogging service which needs to be promoted more, but it would be a good addition to Yahoo! Search or Live Search as well.

20 May 2008

Twitter may be down frequently, but Jaiku is always in beta.

Twitter has quickly become the king of the microblogging world. The darling of early adopters, Twitter is increasingly attracting mainstream Internet users as well. It should keep growing, too, because people are going to want to use the same service as their friends are already using. Twitter does have a weakness, though, and it's not something it can hide: it goes down, and fairly regularly at that. For the most part, Twitter users have proven to be an understanding lot; many of them realize that Twitter is an independent venture that has grown very big very quickly. Still, there's little that's more annoying than an unreliable communications network; Twitter's downtime ought to be fueling competition in the microblogging world.

Google's microblogging acquisition, Jaiku, has not taken advantage of Twitter's weakness. Although still frequently mentioned as being Twitter's primary competitor, Jaiku hardly offers a refuge for those seeking a more reliable microblogging alternative. If you want a Jaiku account, you have to go to the website, request an invitation, and wait. (You could also get invited directly by an existing Jaiku user, but invitations are limited.) If you want a Twitter account, you go to the website, signup, and start tweeting. By the time Jaiku sends you an invitation, you could already have built up a network of Twitter friends. Granted, Jaiku is in beta, still a work in progress. Google has missed the boat by not putting more resources into its microblogging platform; there may never again be as good a time to build up such a service. In all likelihood, Twitter will overcome its uptime issues and consolidate its position as the top microblogging service. Jaiku may have to settle for second place or worse if it doesn't come out of beta soon or at least start allowing open signups.

On the other hand, it is indisputable that Google achieved a lot of success following a similar strategy with Gmail. The invitation-only model there created massive amounts of interest prior to the service opening up. There isn't such a huge drive for Jaiku invitations as far as I can see, and I think this is largely due to the perception that Jaiku is not that different from Twitter. Gmail quickly gained a reputation as being something revolutionary; Jaiku, on the other hand, seems to be widely considered merely a pretty Twitter alternative. Additionally, I think many people are going to prefer to stick to one microblogging service; in contrast, few people seem to have just one email address nowadays. I could be wrong, but I think Jaiku would be better off if it were open and out of beta.

12 May 2008

Yahoo! tracks backlinks where Google fears to tread.

If you've ever created a web site, you've also probably gone to the search engines to check to see who, if anyone, is linking to you. If you use both Yahoo! and Google, you've probably noticed a big difference in number of links to your site that these two engines are reporting. Although Google is the world's most popular search engine, Yahoo! is much more thorough when it comes to counting backlinks. Indeed, many people who use Google as their main search engine use Yahoo! only to look for backlinks -- it's great to be the best at something, isn't it?

I'm not so sure Google even wants to be the best backlink counter on the Net, however. The "no-follow" attribute that is added to more and more links these days is part of the problem. I totally understand why Google doesn't want paid links and spammy links to improve a site's ranking in the search results, but I don't like the idea of the Google bot seeing a link attribute and saying to itself, "Well, I won't look there." The Google bot is supposed to look everywhere. It should know about every link on the Web, in my opinion, whether those links be no-follow or do-follow. If people want to keep their content off the search engines, robots.txt and password-protecting pages are methods that still work. Granted, no-follow makes the process of avoiding the Google bot easier -- it even has the effect of democratizing the process because users of Blogger and Geocities and other similar services as well as non-technically inclined web publishers everywhere can easily utilize no-follow links. Still, the Web is basically a public place, and I'm just not convinced at all that that many people want to have their content on the Web freely accessible to all but still hidden from search engines. After all, people who want to share content within a group but not with the outside world can use services like Google Docs and Blogger to do just that and totally control who can access their content. In my opinion, no-follow shouldn't be taken too literally; the search bots should still follow, but they should only consider do-follow links to be "votes" for a given website that need to be reflected in the search result rankings. As no-follow begins to be used more and more by people who simply don't want to pass PageRank around (except, perhaps, to their own sites and to their friends' sites), I think it'll become only more important that search engines know where all links on the Web lead.

Yahoo's more open-minded attitude towards no-follow lets webmasters and other interested parties find links, no-follow or not, that Google doesn't seem to even know exist. It's really not just about no-follow; Yahoo simply takes tracking and reporting links in general more seriously than Google does. When I go to Google and type in "link:del.icio.us" I want to find out who is linking to the world's biggest social bookmarking site. Google does find more than 400,000 links, so that's plenty to keep me busy and an indicator of just how popular Delicious has become. When I go to Yahoo! Site Explorer to explore del.icio.us, however, I find over 33 million links which is on another level. The difference in reported links is staggering for all sites, large and small. I still like Google for search better than Yahoo overall, but when it comes to counting links Yahoo! has a clear edge. Eventually, that link advantage could help Yahoo improve its search as well.

08 May 2008

Microsoft and Yahoo! have reembraced the status quo.

So the deal that seemed fated to so many never actually happened: Yahoo! and Microsoft remain separate companies, competitors rather than allies. As I've noted before, I think this is best from the user's perspective. I have a feeling it might be best for the two companies as well; true, there was a chance that the combined entity could pose a serious challenge to Google, but I felt there was also a chance that it could prove the downfall of Microsoft if they mismanaged their newly acquired properties. Personally, I never quite subscribed to the theory that the combination of Yahoo! and Microsoft automatically creates a major Google competitor -- it really would just create a larger competitor to Google in the short run for sure. People unhappy with the ensuing changes caused by the combination could have very well ended up migrating to Google, making Google actually a little bigger than it was prior to the deal. In Microsoft's defense, I will say that they surely viewed the acquisition as just one part of a long-term Internet strategy that would involve much more.

It didn't happen, though. All those bloggers who were so sure a deal would take place were wrong. Many financial analysts were wrong. I realize that I was also pretty wrong to take what those people were saying so seriously. Even though I'm not an expert on business acquisitions, I'm going to take any prediction of an impending deal with a grain of salt from now on. Sometimes, the experts can't really use their knowledge to make good predictions because a particular situation is unusual. Few seemed to consider how much Yahoo! did not want to be acquired and also that there would be some resistance to the deal within Microsoft as well. Understandably, I'm feeling quite skeptical now that the common expectation has become that Microsoft will launch another bid later this year after Yahoo's stock price has declined. This time, I'll believe it when it happens and not a moment before.

YouTube's Partner Program has adopted a closed model.

One of the things I admire about Google AdSense is that it is simultaneously one of the world's most open advertising networks and one of its most successful. This "open" model for advertising online has always made sense to me -- why wouldn't you want your ads to be seen by the largest number of people possible? -- but few networks can provide the considerable administrative and enforcement manpower needed to ensure that advertising will continue to work for both publisher and advertiser. AdSense and AdWords aren't perfect, but they do still work for a lot of people, including me.

Google decided to follow a very different route to sharing revenue with the video publishers of YouTube. The YouTube Partner Program requires prospective earners to meet three criteria before they can join and start making money with their videos: publishers need to put out "original videos suitable for online streaming," they must have the legal right to upload whatever they are uploading, and their videos must be popular. The last point is what this post is about, though the first two help explain why the third exists. If you are a budding video publisher, you probably would rather not do as YouTube is forcing you to do. Why would you want to put out a bunch of videos, wait to become popular, and only then start monetizing your work? Given the sudden (and often brief) explosions of popularity that online videos are prone to, waiting to be accepted into the program means losing revenue. You might well wonder, then, why YouTube won't just accept anyone who doesn't violate the terms of service into the partner program. Why can't it be easy like AdSense?

The first two criteria for joining the partner program are essentially warning those who upload copyrighted content that they need not apply. Nonetheless, copyrighted content remains a big draw for YouTube; plenty of people upload it, and many more people view it. It is probably true that most video publishers who regularly put out original content that get a lot of views are going to be less interested in getting booted off YouTube and losing out on future revenues on their videos just so they can get some quick views by uploading copyrighted content. If your only video is thirty seconds of your baby sleeping, you might just be a little more tempted to try to make some quick bucks using someone else's work. Additionally, the fewer people that apply to the YouTube Partner Program the less the stress placed on the staff that must review the applications. Thus, YouTube has strong organizational and legal motivations for experimenting with a closed revenue sharing model.

In the long run, I do hope the YouTube Partner Program opens up to everyone. It shouldn't be harder than AdSense -- video content shouldn't be discriminated against just because video copyright issues are more of a hot button issue than web site copyright issues. As of now, this isn't a big deal because YouTube is such a force in the web video world; it has the audience already, so publishers come to it in droves. Still, some publishers will be tempted to monetize their videos in other ways and at other venues instead of trying to first prove themselves to YouTube in order to be allowed to make money. An easy way to monetize creative work encourages creativity, but barriers to entry, even minor ones, tend to dissuade it.

It's interesting that so many people still use free hosting for their original videos even when their videos are the main content of their sites -- bandwidth concerns seem to have created this situation which has put the hosts in a position to dictate the rules to the publishers. There is, however, plenty of competition in the video sharing world despite YouTube's dominance. The YouTube Partner Program will have to compete with Revver and other sites that might offer publishers a better deal (and a smaller audience).

01 May 2008

On Web 2.0, there are hundreds of ways to bookmark.

Just about everyone who uses the Web has at least a few URLs they need to save or need to be able to access quickly -- it's a very basic need, and has been since the very beginning of the WWW. Indeed, bookmarking has been a feature offered within the browser for a very long time. For just as long, however, people have been saving URLs in notebooks, in documents, and in link collections on the Web. Social bookmarking and other online bookmarking solutions have grown at a rapid pace over the past few years, but nonetheless many people still use their browser's bookmarking utility whenever they want to save something or go to a favorite destination on the Web. What is the future of bookmarking, then? Will there continue to be many online bookmarking sites? Will old-fashioned methods of bookmarking still continue to find widespread use?

I don't think browser-based bookmarking is in any danger. (I'm afraid my term "browser-based bookmarking" might be confusing -- the idea is that the bookmarks are stored on the local computer or local home/work network rather than on the external Internet.) It doesn't go without saying that a person would want to share his or her bookmarks with the general public, so social bookmarking isn't something that will appeal to everyone. Indeed, I doubt it is very wise to let everyone on the Internet know who you bank with and have credit cards with, so some bookmarks really are better kept private. You can still keep your bookmarks accessible only to you while still using web-based services, but it is more intuitive to store private data locally. Saving copies of your local bookmarks collection is also simple and straightforward. Additionally, browser-based bookmarking has the advantage of widespread acceptance; people whose bookmarking needs are already met inside the browser may not want to learn new interfaces and use new features even if they are really cool. I expect the browsers will continue to add features to their own bookmarking utilities to keep up with the online innovators as well.
Clutter-averse individuals may particularly try to avoid online bookmarking because of the browser add-ons/toolbars that bookmarking sites tend to encourage their users to download, though often the download is optional. The biggest advantage of online bookmarks, however, cannot be matched on the browser side of things: only online bookmarking can free bookmarks from a particular computer or particular home/work network. Still, plenty of people only surf the Internet at home or work on the same computers every day; what might be vital for the traveler and the college student isn't so necessary for others.

With that said, I am sure that online bookmarking is here to stay and I expect there will continue to be many competitors in this space who will do all sorts of cool things. People like me already use multiple online bookmarking sites as well as browser-based bookmarking -- yeah, bookmark junkies do indeed exist -- and I think that could very well become much more common in the future. I use all my bookmark collections a little differently. My Firefox bookmarks are a dozen or so sites that I use often and extensively; quick access is the name of the game. My Opera bookmarks contain more categorized links than many web directories; I've been building it up since I was a teenager. Indeed, I've even considered using it as a basis for a web directory more than once, but laziness has prevented me from acting on this impulse. It would make a great directory, though...nothing but quality links to very informative sites. On the other hand, the two bookmark collections I maintain on Yahoo! services would make pathetic web directories. On del.icio.us, I primarily bookmark individual blog posts and other "standalone" web content. Appropriately tagged, I can find this miscellaneous material anytime I want via the search utility; a lot of it I may never actually look at again, but that doesn't matter. In fact, I don't think I've ever gone through and purged my del.icio.us bookmarks of dead links -- if I realize something no longer exists then of course I'll remove it, but I never specifically set out to preen my bookmarks there. I do preen my local bookmark collections semi-regularly. Finally, I use Yahoo! Bookmarks to save interesting URLs I find on the Web so that I can figure out what to do with them later. Some bookmarks will be incorporated into a browser-based collection while others will end up on del.icio.us; most of them, though, will probably be looked at more closely and then discarded. So Yahoo! Bookmarks isn't a permanent collection of bookmarks for me; it's sort of the Ellis Island of my bookmarking world. I doubt that my way of doing things is the most efficient nor do I think I get the most out of any of the bookmarking methods I utilize, but I'm nonetheless quite satisfied with my present arrangement. I can't wait to think of new methods of organizing my bookmarks in even more places.

If anything, I suspect this post has shown that bookmarking can be a pretty complicated thing. The beauty is that the tools that are out there for allow us bookmarkers to bookmark how ever we want. You don't need to make it complicated if you don't want it to be; it's all up to you. Want to signup with a bookmarking service just so you can stash away your links to your favorite web games? You can do it while simultaneously keeping all of your serious links on another service or in your browser. Freedom is wonderful.

28 April 2008

In the age of AdBlock and NoScript, AdSense may have an advantage.

I think the only people who really like advertising are people who make money from advertising. Sure, ad watchers can get information or even entertainment from a well designed ad, but for the most part it is an interruption that disrupts an experience. A lot of people would like to see advertising done away with completely. People like that who surf the Web are increasingly using tools like the Firefox add-ons AdBlock and NoScript to block ads from their view. As someone who likes advertising primarily because he makes money from advertising, I am more than a little concerned over what will happen as more and more people start blocking ads on the Web. Will the numbers of ad blocking individuals be sufficient to shake up the Internet advertising world?

I fully expect there to be many more ad blockers in the future, targeted towards surfers on all platforms and of all nationalities. There will even be an "arms race" of sorts between advertisers and ad blockers, with each group trying to outwit the other. The question I'm not sure of the answer is how motivated the average surfer will be to block ads even when the tools to do so are readily available. We have to keep in mind that people on the Internet vary widely in their level of experience using computers and the Internet. For some, using a browser other than Internet Explorer is still a radical idea. Some don't install new programs knowingly at all, end of story. So there will always be an audience available to view ads on the Web, and its size won't be small. People also vary in their level of distaste for advertising as well; those who recognize that advertising actually motivates the creation of Web content and services may well tolerate it as a "necessary evil." Still, I think the outright majority of Web surfers are going to be open to the idea of blocking ads. It's not only those who find advertising annoying who will turn to ad blocking. For some, safety factors will be paramount -- NoScript, for instance, can block a lot of ads, but I think its most important use is to prevent malicious code from being executed. Since ads themselves can be vectors for transmitting malware, people concerned with surfing the Web securely are among the most likely groups of people to block ads.

Given that ads can be a security risk and that many are only useful to small groups of people, there are millions of surfers who would not feel a twinge of regret over blocking all ads from their lives permanently. After all, what have ad companies like Casale Media and Tribal Fusion done for THEM? Google AdSense is somewhat different, however, and it is primarily because of the size and variety of its publisher base. An Adsense publisher could be someone who just started a blog on Blogger one day for fun. In all likelihood, this publisher will never reach payout -- he may never even get a single regular reader. Nonetheless, he has published on the Web and had the experiences of signing up for AdSense, getting approved to run ads, and setting up the actual ads on the blog. This is a person who will look on AdSense a little differently compared to how he looks on every other ad company. If he ever decides to start blocking ads, he's going to be more reluctant to block AdSense ads than those from other companies -- after all, he's an AdSense publisher himself! AdSense's open policy is not embraced by all; plenty of advertisers, for instance, want no part of Google's "content network," preferring instead to advertise alongside search results only. I also strongly suspect that small-time publishers are more likely to resort to click fraud and commit other violations of AdSense guidelines than their more successful cohorts. Still, I think that the relationships AdSense has formed with millions of people could really pay off if there is an ad blocking related shakeup in the Internet advertising world.

Indeed, I would advise any ad network to at least consider starting a free blog or web hosting service in which the only ads permitted would be served by that particular ad network, with revenue shared with the web publisher. Such a move creates good will and increases the network's reach at the same time. It could even give those ad networks a little bit of an edge in the (perhaps) difficult times that loom ahead.

25 April 2008

I feel a little weird using Yahoo! now.

Most people seem to think a Microsoft acquisition of Yahoo! is essentially inevitable. Not even Yahoo!'s recent positive revenue report has changed many minds. It's always a dangerous thing to trust Internet "experts," but I have no reason to distrust the many voices that are forecasting a merger between these two mammoth companies. I, too, expect the acquisition to happen, but Yahoo!'s energetic fight for its life has at least kept the possibility of another end of this story possible. During this waiting period, life has gone on at both Yahoo! and Microsoft even though both companies' futures are up in the air at the moment. Both companies are busy unveiling new projects, improving old ones, and building new business relationships. For me, though, nothing has felt quite the same since Microsoft's bid was first announced.

Every time I visit the Yahoo! homepage or a Yahoo! service I find myself inevitably thinking, "Will this still be here after Yahoo! is bought by Microsoft?" For the most part, I think the answer to that question will prove to be yes, at least when it comes to popular Yahoo! services. I can't help but wonder how things will change, however...that things will change dramatically I know. Even if a particular service isn't axed outright, it might be neglected and eventually fade away into oblivion, or be dropped suddenly when it becomes apparent it doesn't fit well into the new owner's plans. What if a service that will be axed or will be neglected and left to die happens to be one I really like? This whole thing really sucks for the userbase. Yahoo! already feels dead to me -- I find myself using Yahoo! services less and less, all because I don't feel like I can count on Yahoo! to be there for me in the future. It's almost as if Yahoo! announced it was going out of business and would no longer be around...that's how I feel. I know that Yahoo! IS going to be around in some form even after this weekend's busy negotiations, but I just don't know if it'll be anything like the Yahoo! I used to use. I don't think I'll be able to shake this feeling off until the deal is either done or taken off the table. Will I be able to survive a hostile takeover attempt by Microsoft?!

Hulu is a serious competitor to In2TV.

Despite the buzz that surrounded the launch of Hulu, I really didn't expect the site to quickly become one of my favorites. I welcomed its arrival; one can never have too many high quality video sites, after all. I was more or less expecting a site that would regurgitate a lot of content already found on its partners' sites, however, rather than a site that offered an amazing mix of old and new television content, movies, and classic sports. I wasn't prepared for the awesomeness of Hulu. It blew me away.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Lost in Space, The A-Team, classic NBA games...wow. I can burn some serious time on that site, and I have. It's not like Hulu is the only site offering television content on the Web, though. AOL's In2TV is a similar site that I've written about in the past. I remain a fan of it, and to have both In2TV and Hulu and all the other video sites online right now makes this an awesome time for video mavens. We can think of Hulu and In2TV as being equivalent to TV channels for the Web. Your particular web channel lineup might include Joost, YouTube, and/or any number of other video sites, but regardless of the particular bunch of sites you use it is becoming increasingly clear that the high speed Internet user is soon going to be able to legally access more video content online than he/she can through TV. It's no wonder that many people are shifting away from cable and satellite TV given the richness of available online content; I don't see myself taking THAT step as long as I can afford cable TV, but getting off the cable/satellite grid is now a viable choice even for people who don't like to be bored.

As loyal as I feel to In2TV, I must nonetheless acknowledge that Hulu has leapfrogged ahead of the older site. Simply put, Hulu just works. It's offering a seamless video watching experience that replicates the television watching experience. High quality video, high quality content, high quality performance. In2TV just works most of the time, too, but the rest of the time it doesn't. The last problem I had with In2TV is that my videos would skip ahead after a commercial break, forcing me to miss a big chunk of whatever I was watching -- that's not exactly the best way to endear me to the advertisers! I'm also none too sure of how dedicated AOL is: for some reason, an episode of Babylon 5 ("Signs and Portents") on the English version of the site is in Spanish, and has remained in Spanish despite user complaints. It's one thing to build a great site, but it can only remain a great site if it is maintained. I unfortunately get the feeling that In2TV is on auto-pilot at the moment. Hulu might follow the same path eventually, but, for the moment, it has In2TV beat. Since they don't offer the same content, though, it makes sense to use both depending on what you want to watch. In this case, competition is awesome for the end user.

14 March 2008

AOL shows its worldwide and social networking ambitions by acquiring Bebo.

Social networking is a bit of a strange Internet scene. MySpace and Facebook, rather than some site backed by a major Internet company, became the giants of this space, the darlings of Web 2.0. MySpace was ultimately acquired by News Corp (they are approaching "giant" status I think) while Facebook has thus far maintained its independence. The giants have all dipped their toes into the social networking pool, but MySpace and Facebook have comfortably remained on top of this increasing crowded web sector. The latter social networks have the advantage of having a huge audience already, but I think the giants have made a few mistakes that have limited the popularity of their social networks. In particular, I think Yahoo! and Microsoft have been hurt by their insistence on combining blogging and social networking together. Personally, I like Google's approach best of all because it has both a blogging platform (Blogger) and a social network (Orkut). Although blogging is a common feature of social networks, blogging and social networking don't always go together. In my experience, most people who use social networks don't blog, and a big chunk of those who do blog don't post more than a few times a year (sounds a little like this blog, huh?). Of course there must be some social networkers who do take blogging as seriously as their contacts, but they are definitely part of a minority. On the other side of things, regular standalone blogs often have few social networking functions at all -- even comments can be disabled at a blogger's discretion (at the other extreme, there are also blogs which people read just for the comments!). Google allows bloggers to socially network if they want to (by filling out their profiles and checking other people's profiles out) on Blogger, and perhaps eventually Orkuters will be able to have their own Orkut blogs if they want to; bloggers, at least, can have their cake and eat it, too. On the other hand, Microsoft's Windows Live Spaces and Yahoo! 360 are examples of the other approach of strongly combining social networking with blogging. AOL arguably has been involved in social networking far longer than any of the other giants, and social products remain a core focus of its business. Still, AOL has opted to acquire Bebo, a social network similar to MySpace and Facebook that is quite popular in the UK and Ireland. In my opinion, this is a good acquisition for at least a couple of reasons.

First of all, Bebo is a bonafide social network. AOL is definitely in MySpace/Facebook territory now, rather than the nebulous space occupied by Microsoft and Yahoo! with their social networking/blogging hybrids. With this acquisition, AOL has gained not only another web site, but also a large audience located in countries that perhaps are not as exposed to the AOL brand on the Web as they could be. That "exposure factor" is as I see it the second major benefit that AOL is accruing thanks to this purchase. AOL doesn't quite have the international brand recognition that Google and Yahoo! have right now -- the Bebo acquisition could be the start of a much more worldwide approach from AOL.

With that said, it's going to be tough for anyone to actually challenge MySpace and Facebook. AOL certainly has the resources to market Bebo in countries where other social networks are currently more popular, but convincing people to join yet another social network is not an easy task anymore. It's more important for now that AOL just be involved in this space -- the Bebo acquisition alone has in my opinion allowed AOL to leapfrog over Microsoft, Yahoo!, and Google as far as social networking is concerned, and that's nothing to sneeze at. It'll be interesting to see if the other giants start to develop their own in-house social networking offerings more aggressively and if they too decide to make an acquisition or two in response to this big move by AOL.

13 March 2008

Google Docs helped me graduate from college!

Have you ever wondered just who out there is using Google Docs and what they are using it for? Personally, I rarely run into links to Google Docs documents, spreadsheets, and presentations on the open Web, but there's no question that it has become a very popular service. I strongly suspect that an awful lot of people who use Google Docs use it to store information relevant to them, but end up never sharing it with others even though the ability to share is supposedly Google Docs' killer feature. For a long time, I myself was one of those non-sharing types; in fact, I still use Google Docs for such things as archiving my blog posts and storing weapon/armor stats from a MUD that I play. I don't bother to share stuff like that, even though the information isn't particularly private or dangerous to share. Similarly, I think a lot of Docs' early adopters use the service to calculate their car's gas mileage, write to-do lists, and other similar small tasks.

However, I'm happy to say that I have also used Google Docs on an important collaborative project. As a science major at a small university, I generally submitted my experimental data to my professors in paper form, though I did email out a fair number of Excel spreadsheets during my academic career. This worked fine because, although I often worked with other people in the lab to collect data, the data analysis process was something I did independently of others. As a graduating senior, I was given a slightly different task than what I was used to. Another senior and myself were asked to collaborate on a project not only by working together in the lab but also by analyzing and writing about the data we collected. It didn't take me long to realize that Google Docs could help my team out a lot. As it turned out, my partner had never used Google Docs before, but he was willing to give it a shot. An adventure began!

We actually ended up using Google Docs at every stage of our collaboration. While we were still working in the lab, we used spreadsheets to organize our data. After our time in the lab was over, we used Google Docs primarily to write collaboratively. In fact, the last bit of classwork we did in that last semester involved editing a Google document! It ended up working out great -- far better than I really expected considering that my partner was a Google Docs neophyte. If I ever go to graduate school, I'm definitely intending to make extensive use of online sharing and collaborative tools.

This experience really brought home for me just how powerful a thing Google has developed here. While Google Docs may not be a particularly feature-rich online office suite, its simplicity is a strength if all one needs to do are simple things. The simplicity of Google Docs made it easy for my partner to get started collaborating and sharing with me -- there was no significant learning curve that we had to cross because using Google Docs is pretty intuitive for people who have used office software before. Simply put, Google Docs just worked for us. We were able to get down to business right away and get our project finished. I'm not much of a collaborationist in my heart of hearts -- I tend to think groups are by their very nature inefficient and have endured working in them only because I rationalized them as a necessary evil. Google Docs and its competitors have, in my opinion, the capability and the promise to remove some of the evil of working in groups -- they can make a process that naturally tends towards inefficiency much more efficient. Thanks, Google -- you got me through college!

06 March 2008

Blogger is quietly archiving an important part of the Web.

I've felt for a long time that Blogger is a pretty underrated service. It may not have the plugins and third-party support that Wordpress has, but it has a set of features that meets most bloggers' needs and it is quite customizable for those who want to make their blogs unique. The point of this post isn't to praise Blogger as a quality piece of software, however; instead, I decided to write this post because I'm so impressed with Blogger as a web host. Google's big pocketbook has freed its web services from worrying overly much about the costs of bandwidth and storage space. Gmail's continually increasing storage capacity is an excellent example of this, but so is Blogger, as any blogger whose blog has survived a Digg or Stumbleupon traffic avalanche unscathed can attest to.

With web space no consideration, Blogger also has the freedom to never have to delete inactive accounts or blogs. What goes on Blogger stays on Blogger...forever! While some confessional sorts might prefer that their too-personal blogs descend into obscurity (they can always delete their blogs themselves if they really want to), keeping old blogs alive is a worthy endeavor that is tremendously useful to us Internet people. Personally, my biggest beef with Wordpress blogs has nothing to do with the software -- I just hate that so many people get inspired to start up Wordpress blogs with their own domain only to lose interest after a few months to such an extent that they're quite willing to let their blog die as soon as their hosting package expires. Unless some other service (like the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine) has archived these blogs, they will only live on in the hearts and minds of their readers and in the form of pesky dead links scattered about the Internet. Perhaps not every blog deserves to live forever, but I don't think anyone wins when a domain squatter takes over a blogger's former domain just because that blogger lost interest in maintaining his blog, died, or experienced some serious financial hardship. Archives at least give us, the Internet public, an opportunity to sift and search through a great deal of content and discover the really good stuff buried amidst the mundane. Blogger is a bit better than a typical archive because it also allows a returning blogger to bring an old blog back to life at any moment, whereas the Wordpress domainers who abandoned their blogs may have to renew their domains, repurchase hosting, and upload their content all over again.

This isn't to say that just because Blogger is great at archiving the blogosphere that everyone should use it. As I said previously, I do think Wordpress is great software and I wouldn't want my favorite Wordpress blogs to suddenly shift over to Blogger. Serious bloggers aren't going to be the people who let their blogs die, and many of them have quite significant financial incentives to keep their domains renewed and their hosting fees paid. I do sometimes wonder what will happen to the blogs I read after their creators die, but in many cases I think a friend or family member of the deceased blogger will take over and at least keep those archives up. Still, Blogger's commitment to archiving is in my opinion one of its best features, and those who want their content to be accessible on the Web for the foreseeable future would be well-served to at least consider starting a Blogger blog.

01 March 2008

A Microsoft victory could be a big loss for the Internet.

I'm not the biggest Yahoo! fan in the world at the moment, but I can't imagine the World Wide Web without its first giant. When I started to use Yahoo!, it was a very good web directory and nothing else. There were a few directory categories -- tennis was one -- that I monitored fairly religiously, visiting each new web site as it popped up. The Web was a lot smaller back then, but it was quickly becoming something great. Yahoo! let me feel like I was on top of something exciting, watching it evolve. As the years went along, I moved on to other search engines and used Yahoo! more for its other services. Still, I've never forgotten that I used Yahoo! long before Google existed, before Amazon had sold its first book online, and before Microsoft had any right to claim to be anything other than a software company.

Times have certainly changed. Yahoo! remains one of the most popular web sites in the world, but it has seemingly time and time again shot itself in the foot, mainly due to a lack of commitment to its own projects. I can't even say that Yahoo! has treated its enormous user base well; the same lack of commitment that has prevented the Yahoo! Publisher Network from becoming a real AdSense competitor is also going to deprive Yahoo! 360 users of the blogging platform they have grown accustomed to using. Meanwhile, Microsoft has successfully become something more than a software company; it has genuine ambitions of becoming the premier web company. Its offer to buy Yahoo! could lead a radically different Web. Google, at last, could face a strong competitor...but unfortunately it is the everyday user that will feel the changes most strongly.

A combination of Microsoft and Yahoo! would bring a lot of similar services under one umbrella. Some streamlining will be inevitable, and that means users will be forced to change services and jobs will be lost. Probably some huge services, like Hotmail and Yahoo! Mail, will coexist, but lesser used and suddenly redundant side projects would be suddenly in jeopardy, and I expect in most cases the more popular project will win out and either Yahoo! or Microsoft users will have to migrate. It is even possible that Windows Live and Yahoo! will begin to use a common database and algorithm for search. I really don't see much at all to get excited about here. While Google might have to deal with a more powerful competitor, the level of competition will actually decrease due to the loss of a big player. Innovation could very well decrease because there will be one fewer giant competing for an audience; the quality of existing services, such as search, could also go down for the same reason. Huge numbers of users will be forced to give up services they enjoy using. Of course, it still remains to be seen whether Yahoo! will be acquired by Microsoft or find some way to save itself; it'll be really interesting to see what happens, for sure, but I can't forget that this acquisition has far-reaching effects beyond the business world. Internet users are the people who will be impacted the most and have to deal with the New Web Order as they are seeking information and entertainment, doing business, and communicating with others on a daily basis online. They'll certainly lose out, at least in the short run, in the event of any acquisition.

Why I decided not to become a paid poster.

Although I've never been a huge fan of paid posts and understand why Google has decided to crackdown on bloggers that accept money for posts, I nonetheless seriously considered starting a blog which would feature the occasional paid post for several months. This might make me sound like a hypocrite, but I honestly thought I could do the paid post thing right. My idea was to start a reviews blog so that the paid posts would be essentially reviews of my sponsors' web sites and the paid content would fit in with the rest of the content more or less seamlessly. It would be no different than a sponsored TV show, I thought, and I promised myself that I would make sure the paid posts were as entertaining to read as any other posts. Google might not like my blog, but I thought other people just might.

Then one day I had an epiphany that changed my mind completely. I was reviewing Matt Cutts' series of posts on paid links; as usual, I agreed with a lot of Matt's points, but still had reservations about some of them. At some point -- I'm not sure if something Matt said really got to me or not -- I heard a little voice inside me whisper, "I don't want to be a spammer." Then it hit me like a ton of bricks: even if I managed to seamlessly combine paid posts with my regular posts and made them all interesting I'd still be contributing to the proliferation of overly commercialized content on the Internet. There's a definite place for commercial interests on the Web, but the more I think about it the more I feel that it is important to differentiate between the content and the advertising on a web site. Site visitors should know if they're seeing something just because a webmaster was getting paid to post it. If we look at my reviews blog example, the paid posts are posts that almost certainly would never have been written if I wasn't getting paid to write them -- instead of reviewing some deserving but obscure web site, I'd probably be writing about some get rich quick scheme or a company with plenty of money to burn. Companies with plenty of money to burn are very welcome to advertise on my web sites, but I've decided to keep my content my own. Of course, this decision makes my reviews blog seem a lot less likely to become lucrative so I may never actually create it...but at least I won't be churning out uninspired content for the highest bidder.

In truth, the paid links debate is something that will continue forever in all likelihood. The line between content and advertising is really blurry at times, and with ad blockers becoming more popular webmasters will be increasingly motivated to try to make money with their content in any way possible. One could use some of the same arguments that are used against paid links and apply them to affiliate links -- it's interesting that I have absolutely no qualms about throwing affiliate links all over my content if I happen to mention a book or CD or electronic gadget somewhere in that content. Such links are definitely incentivized, but the key point for me is that the links are just supplemental to the content of the site, not the cause or the bulk of the content. I would be mentioning the book or the CD or the gadget even if I had no affiliate links, so it's not a case of me junking the Web just to make a buck. It's a tough debate, and one in which I think a lot of reasonable people will disagree. As for me and my sites, though, we shall not disseminate paid content!