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.