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.