28 September 2010

In a surprise move, AOL has acquired TechCrunch.

Of all the companies I cover on this blog, AOL has perhaps lost the most relevance to me personally in the three years I've been writing here. I've posted before about how they've killed off the sites of theirs that I used the most. AOL hasn't simply been shrinking, however. Just as Microsoft has reemphasized its position as a search company (second only to Google), AOL has strongly established itself as a content company. It owns some of the most popular blogs on the Internet, and it has embraced the idea of user-generated content with SEED and local content with Patch. Increasingly, Internet users may not even be aware they're using AOL services, but they're reading AOL's content (and viewing AOL's advertising) nonetheless.

AOL's content strategy has led it to take the bold move of acquiring the TechCrunch network of sites. That AOL would want to acquire a leading blog network isn't surprising at all -- it's totally consistent with its content strategy. However, it did surprise me that TechCrunch ended up being AOL's latest pickup. Just think about what TechCrunch covers...the Web, online business, startups, technology. AOL seems more like a natural target of a TechCrunch expose than a benevolent parent company -- indeed, coverage of AOL on TechCrunch has not always been exactly positive. This acquisition must make TC readers wonder what this acquisition means for the future of the site. Will it still be able to cover AOL with a critical eye? What about the multitude of other Web companies AOL does business with? Accusations of bias have always been hurled at TC liberally, but virtually any praise for AOL and its partners as well as any criticism of AOL's competitors is going to be viewed with great suspicion. For instance, I remember a recent post on TechCrunch written by a guest writer that included some unkind thoughts on Associated Content and eHow. If such a post was to appear now, I suspect many readers would think TC was simply pimping for SEED. TechCrunch will have to earn its reputation for independent thinking and commentary all over again now.

I'm not sure AOL is too worried about TechCrunch losing some of its street cred. For them, this is just another acquisition that is expanding their content network and their reach. Even if TC traffic drops a bit, it'll still remain a big blog -- eyeballs tend to be more important in the Internet business than "trust" after all. Since most of the staff (including Michael Arrington) will probably be sticking around for the near future, I imagine most of TechCrunch's regular readers will keep reading. I know I will.

12 September 2010

Google Instant is more annoying than useful.

Google became the world's largest search engine by making search simple and effective. Not only were prior search engines susceptible to attempts by spammers to game results (I can remember doing searches and finding pages in the initial results that were literally nothing but lists of random keywords!), but many also embraced the "portal" model whole hog and created extremely busy-looking homepages where the search box often appeared to be an afterthought. Google's basic, spartan design said one thing very clearly: "This is a search engine. You come here to search for things!" Even as Google has created or acquired all kinds of different services (rather like the portals of old used to do!), the Google homepage has stayed relatively simple and users have strongly resisted any changes to the basic search experience, such as the automatic inclusion of background images a la Bing. Indeed, you could go so far as to say that a lot of Google users don't really like change. As much as the big G would love to innovate, it risks alienating already perfectly satisfied customers with every alteration.

Google's current experimentation with Instant Search represents a huge risk. The basic premise behind it assumes that users resent the amount of time they waste typing search queries. If the search engine could "read their mind" so to speak and deliver them results without them typing full queries, time previously spent typing could be used clicking instead. Instant Search displays Google search results (and ads of course) as the user types in a query, changing as the user continues to type. I've read a number of positive reviews of the service, most of which highlight the time-saving aspects of Instant. It is something that may be particularly appreciated by mobile users whose devices are often not ideal for typing (once it is rolled out for mobile users, at least). There's also something undeniably interesting about how Instant changes the whole search experience -- suddenly, you're seeing search results you never asked for. You can come across some fairly interesting stuff totally unrelated to your intended search query; in a way, it makes search into a kind of content discovery game.

On the whole, however, my reaction to Google Instant has been very negative so far. When I search, I usually have a definite idea of what I'm going to look for and don't really want suggestions for the most part. I sometimes use Google's search query auto-complete feature to save time, but I've always found it easy to either use or ignore that feature as I desire. I know that my more obscure queries often won't have relevant auto-complete suggestions so I usually don't even spare them a glance. With Google Instant, though, I'm constantly aware of the searches Google is conducting as I type. It makes Google seem incredibly busy -- it's like a portal site that only comes alive when you start typing. I find the general experience jarring and even after many searches I still haven't gotten comfortable with it. As such, Google has actually made my search experience slower...now I have to turn Instant off every time I clear my cookies. Although I'm loath to change my search engine of choice, I have to admit the idea is getting more appealing to me by the day! I strongly think Instant would be better off as a non-default option. We'll see what kind of backlash against it emerges. Generally speaking, fixing something that isn't broken isn't a winning idea, and I don't really expect Google Instant to endure as a default option for too long.

17 March 2010

Is Google's new China strategy brilliant or suicidal?

Google's reputation for not doing evil has been greatly harmed around the world by its policy of censoring search results in China. In their defense, the Internet giant from Mountain View has argued that some Google is better than none at all for the Chinese -- ultimately, all Google has done is comply with Chinese law after all. Frankly, we couldn't dare expect more from the average corporation...Google's competitors are thrilled to roll over in what ever way they can to please the Chinese government. Google, though, has long tried to establish a reputation for NOT being the typical corporation. Their continued uneasiness with the censorship of their search results in China may, in fact, lead to Google's exit from the world's most populous nation.

From the perspective of someone opposed to censorship and fearful of its spread, I'm thrilled with Google's change of stance. Google already has a massive amount of "geek cred" for owning the best search engine around and lots of other cool online services, but the company has just picked up a whole lot of new social cred. Google's decision, though, could have lasting financial consequences. Baidu remains the top search engine in China, but Google has captured a decent share of Chinese search engine traffic. While other companies are clamoring for access to China's growing marketplace, Google appears to be heading for the exit door. Google is potentially giving up on a lot of searches that won't be conducted and a lot of ads that won't be bought or clicked on if no agreement can be reached with the Chinese government. On the flip side, people who view this move as essentially a positive, anti-censorship stance are only going to like and perhaps use Google more. I'm seriously contemplating purchasing Google stock in the future, and I'm someone who typically loathes stocks that don't pay dividends. It goes without saying that I also feel prouder to use Google services now. Can the good will of those in the world opposed to censorship really counterbalance the loss of all that Chinese traffic? Frankly, I don't think so, but Google will still thrive in many markets thanks to its superior services and this gain in international goodwill will provide it an additional boost.

Just how international the search engine business is going to be remains to be determined. Google might not do business in China in the future, but I find it highly unlikely that Baidu will successfully penetrate European or American markets in a significant way, either. The rest of the world is a very big place, and Google is a leading player in the search engine world in most other places. China is an important market, to be sure, and in the future may indeed be the most important market...but if you have the rest of the world in your pocket, even losing China may not be such a big deal. There's also the not impossible scenario of China changing its policies and becoming more closed off to the rest of the world. Some backlash against economic liberalization is inevitable; ever-rising real estate prices and spotty social services can hardly be pleasing to sincere Communists. It's conceivable, though unlikely, that a lot of foreign companies may find themselves kicked out of the country or regulated to death should China's embrace of capitalism turn chilly. In that case, Google can be said to have gotten out while the getting was good.

The best case scenario for Google would be for its disappearing act in China not to be permanent. A different attitude towards censorship by a future Chinese government could reopen the market to Google. I have no doubt they'd be hot on Baidu's (or whoever else fills the Chinese search void in the meanwhile) heels in no time, even if they're shut out for a few years. Google's credibility gain has after all been felt in China as well -- they're frankly about the most prominent and believable voice to speak out against censorship recently. I put much less stock in what governments say about China because they always have an axe or two to grind. It's easy for a government to publicly complain about censorship or human rights abuses when what it is really concerned about is China's currency peg...that's part of how governments bargain with one another. Google, in contrast, has much to lose by taking such a strong anti-censorship stance. I don't expect Google's gamble to pay off immediately, but I also wouldn't be shocked if the company's brave move earns it a place in a history book or two a few decades from now.

13 January 2010

Is MTurk keeping up with the competition?

I've long felt that Amazon's Mechanical Turk is one of the coolest projects undertaken by any of the giants. However, Amazon has been slow to update their online marketplace for work. Two years ago, I wrote a post on this blog suggesting two specific changes: one, I thought tasks should be categorized for the convenience of the workers, and two, I thought workers should be able to blacklist employers. Neither change has been implemented. The process of cycling through the available tasks remains slow and painful. Worse, scammers have increasingly started using MTurk to make money on the backs of workers by using many accounts and not paying even for good work. Amazon's limited enforcement of MTurk has been increasingly exposed and exploited.

Amazon's conundrum is that Mechanical Turk is a small component of its overall business. It makes some money, no doubt, but arguably not enough to justify putting more workers on the project. I suspect that's also why changes such as the ones I've suggested have been slow in coming. This leaves the door open for smaller, more nimble competitors who would actually be thrilled with those profits that seem small to Amazon. "Task" sites like MTurk seem to be cropping up at an accelerating pace; even worse news for Amazon is that they actually seem to be getting better. MTurk is still by far the most popular of the bunch, but if Amazon continues to be complacent that lead may slowly erode.

Right now, the new task sites offer one primary advantage over MTurk: they can pay people through PayPal, which means many international users are able to make money with them. MTurk allows users from around the world to join, but only Americans and Indians can withdraw cash...the rest of the international brigade have to be content with redeeming their earnings in the form of Amazon shopping credit. Microworkers, the most popular alternative to emerge so far, offers another powerful advantage: they actually have customer service that looks after the workers as well as employers. Case in point: I was actually able to get a task that was wrongly rejected reversed on Microworkers. That would be utterly impossible to do on MTurk! Microworkers also has a more sensible attitude towards rejections than MTurk: workers can be banned from completing tasks for a certain amount of time if they have too many rejections but they are given the opportunity to straighten up their ways. On MTurk, if too many requesters ban you in a certain time period, you're gone for good. Bear in mind that some of these banning requesters are themselves fraudsters. While Microworkers is the best MTurk competitor at the moment, myLot is another site to keep an eye on. They've long been a site which pays users for posting discussions, uploading images, and commenting on the news and blogs, but last year they opened up a tasks section to complement their other offerings. Because myLot offers multiple ways to earn, it's an attractive site for online workers who can divide their time between discussions and tasks.

I'm still waiting for the first tasks site to come along with a good categorization system, similar to what is seen on freelancing sites. You don't need to be a genius to figure out many online tasks can be grouped by category: transcription, article writing, SEO (social bookmarks, linkbuilding, and such) , data entry, signups, etc. Wading through huge lists of uncategorized jobs is a waste of time for workers and discourages them from specializing in particular tasks. I think the site that adopts such a system will have a big advantage. I haven't completely given up on MTurk implementing something like this, but I have a feeling it's more likely that one of the hungry young dogs, like Microworkers, will do it.