Google and Skype

OK, I’m confused. As part of keeping ahead of the game I check in with Google in other countries, Canada is often the test bed for US roll outs so it’s always worth checking in from time to time. When I was doing that the other day I noticed something which I haven’t seen before so I thought I’d share. It’s no secret that Google took along hard look at buying Skype last year. There was an internal political power struggle worthy of a movie which went all the way to the top. Eventually they dropped out and Microsoft picked up Skye for $8.5 Bn and they have subsequently announced that they will merge Skype into or replace Windows Messenger. So why, I wonder, when you search for a business on Google Canada do all the numbers light up as Skype dial numbers. If I click a number my Skype tells me I’m about to dial an international number, I assume if I’m in Canada I could make a free Skype call locally. It’s not obvious to me what’s in it for Google for them to promote a Microsoft product as prominently as they are in this Canadian results set, featuring Google Voice would make more sense. If they roll that out to the much larger US market, especially on mobile devices that would be a much more compelling move. Meantime Google had a great Q4 last year with revenues up substantially even though click prices continue to trend down, driven down by lower mobile click prices. On that topic, still no announcement from the Googleplex on their new mobile ad product…it’s coming for sure but no announcement yet.

Flipping Out

It’s not often that I gush about anything. I’ve been in the biz for a good while and any number of gee whiz ideas pass my desk every day, I have seen dozens of “next Googles” and the vast majority are seen then never seen again. So when someone recommended Flipboard for iPad to me recently it took me a while to get round to actually installing the ap. I’m late to the party these guys launched last summer. For a guy who lives online I hate a lot of the online experience. I don’t like reading stories on websites and I find next page navigation annoying and the ads intrusive and boring. Flipboard is a brilliant answer to those problems. Essentially you tell it what you are interested in and it fetches content which matches your interest and presents it in a clean elegant magazine like format. It makes reading and navigating stories seamless and simple, as the name suggests it allows you to flip between stories and sections. It also allows you to log into your Facebook and Twitter feeds and displays that content again cleanly and elegantly formatted. It turns your Twitter feed into your own magazine and makes your Facebook a much more engaging experience.

The result is a simply brilliant way for you to digest online content on your tablet. It’s so slick and so elegant and easy to use I think it could seriously impact other parts of our online engagement. I could see the paradigm overflow into search. Imagine searching on your tablet and flipping between results as opposed to traditional search and click navigation. It’s been a while since we have seen a significant improvement in search results and how we navigate them. Adding the ability to present the results formatted elegantly and simply with flip navigation is intriguing. To an extent Google has been heading in this direction by aggregating data from sites and presenting them in the right rail of the results set. This is controversial with many content producers because if the answer has been scraped and displayed by Google which obviates the need for end users to click through from the results set. Take a look at the results for the “Query Jodie Foster“the right rail presents images, a biography, key film data and other key personal and career data. It’s a short conceptual step to make those results flippable. Meantime, if you have a tablet be sure you download Flipboard to make it twice as useful.

Facebook Steps Up Search

If you follow my random musing you will be aware that I’m not a big fan of Facebook. Unlike most people I know I don’t spent hours a week (or day in some cases) updating my thoughts, posting pics of cats etc etc. I also have a limited pool of friends in real life and thus an even more limited number on Facebook…it speaks volumes to my world that I have 168 friends on FB and over 1,000 connections on LinkedIn. In any event last week the good people at FB announced the beta of their new Graph Search…and not surprisingly it’s highly social. Since its limited beta I haven’t laid hands on it yet but from those who have it appears to be an interesting departure.

Essentially FB is mining its vast database of people, their interests and connections and is looking to answer questions posed from the interest and experiences of people in your world. It’s an interesting idea but I doubt my shallow friend pool would be able to answer most or even many the huge array of questions I pose to Google every day. To be useful they will have to include (I would think) many more data points from much wider than just my circle. That kind of makes of sense and could indeed be a great source of answers and feedback. It also represents a very tasty opportunity for advertisers. By adding search to the mix on top of all the other social interest and activity data FB has been accumulating over the past years FB will be able to offer ‘intent‘ as well as oodles of back ground data. For example let’s imagine I’m planning a Maui vacation, the new FB search could give me opinions on hotels from friends who have been along with potentially highly targeted ads from hotels and activity providers. Where it gets especially interesting is that where I am a keen butterfly collector FB might target potential vacation activities around butterflies in Hawaii even though I didn’t originally search for anything to do with bugs. The opportunities are endless.

Where it gets a little scary (OK more scary) is where FB starts returning stuff I may have posted in results to people I don’t know. I’m not entirely sure that I want my thoughts on a topic which I may have thought I was only sharing with my friends to complete strangers. I’m sure all this is handled in the small print of FB privacy regulations, but honestly when was the last time you actually ready any of them.  If you want to see an example of how weird and potentially worrying this might get do a search on FB for “Bondage Club.” You will get a list of multiple interesting locations and strangely (to me anyway) public posts which lead back to the profiles of folks posting on those sites. For an absurd but disturbing example the “Total Submission Gay Furry Yiff and Bondage Club” (in the UK of course) has publicly available posts from multiple people which link back to what appears to be perfectly average FB pages. I don’t know these folks and could care less what they may or may not do in their spare time….but do you think that these fellows would be overjoyed to know that I’m writing about them and pretty much know where they live and with a couple of other searches on public search engines I was easily able to find exactly where they do live and in one case who lives with them? Now multiply that use case by a billion users when the Graph Search fully rolls out….I have to imagine that a whole lot of people may not want to be the answers to questions posed by people they don’t know. Watch this space.

How Google Maps Can Change Your World View

Fresh from his recent victory over the evil forces of the FTC Google’s Eric Schmidt arrived in North Korea this week on a “private Humanitarian mission” with New Mexico’s Governor Bill Richardson. The message he brought for Mountain View was essentially that ‘the Internet is good, cell phones are good and if you hope to have any shot at dragging your economy out of the mire, you have to get with the program.’ Excuse me while I hold my breath….nope no change visible yet. Here in the glorious west we regard access to those tools as a birth right, in other countries not so much, indeed just before Christmas a good sized chunk of the worlds less free countries attempted to stage a coup on the web which would have allowed regimes which want to even greater control of the web in their countries. It’s certainly laudable to even make the effort to talk to the insane clown posse currently running that poor benighted state and if it contributes towards getting several American activists currently jailed there free then even if the State Department didn’t appreciate the effort it was worth a shot.

Ironically Google Maps has contributed to the discussion. Here’s an exercise for you to try. Go to Google maps and type in “North Korea.” Take a look at it zoomed out so that you can see China to the north and South Korea to the south. At first you might think there is some kind of error because the entire country seems to be feature free. The weird thing is that although there are some roads and towns none of them show up in ‘map’ view…you have to flip to satellite view to see anything. My guess is that North Korea just doesn’t publish any maps (why would you need to know…it’s not like you are going to visit). As a comparison now type in “Gobi Desert” next to North Korea it seems to be a hot bed of roads and towns. Now search for “Pyongyang” again, nothing visible in ‘map’ view but in ‘satellite’ mode you can see the city in as much detail as any other. Now pick and area and zoom in…there is no street view (of course) but you can zoom in to see more than you probably ever thought you might want to. What do you see…rather what don’t you see? For comparison jump back to the Gobi Desert….search for “Ulaanbaatar” (an awesome word in Scrabble when stuck with too many vowels… if it weren’t a place name). Zoom in to Ulaanbaatar and you will clearly see the thousands of traditional circular Yurts the Ulaanbaatarist live in…and between them and on the roads you will see lots of cars…not as many as in LA or DC…but many. Now take another look at Pyongyang….I did a very quick scan and in what I assume is downtown Pyongyang I counted maybe a dozen cars on the road a few more parked here or there.

What’s fantastic is how easy and accessible Google Maps makes getting a different kind of perspective. What’s sad is how little chance Google chief really has of moving the dial on a country which is essentially a prison camp without any cars.

Ha! Called It!

Boy…I wish I could pick sports like I can pick search! If you have been watching the news today in addition to the Fiscal Cliff going away (something I have been saying to any of my friends and family who would listen would happen since before the election) the FTC just threw in the towel in their investigation of Google. Not only did I call that they would get off effectively scott free they also gave up the minor concessions I said they would a few weeks back. Most significant of those are concessions around key patents they own which will prevent them from trying to claim ownership on pretty much every part of the mobile economy.

Whilst this isn’t a huge surprise given the commercial and lobby power Google commands the message is clear: The new and mobile economy is too important to mess with, even if that means protecting that the uncrowned king from assault from his resentful, truculent Lords and Barons. The fact that the commission apparently waded through 9 million pages of documents and testimony and came up with a conclusion that there was no “there” there is hilarious…what an enormous waste of effort….they could have read the firm warnings sent by the Google greats and their Silicon Valley supporters and saved a forest or two of trees. Actually I ran the math…if we figure they printed ten sets of documents during the investigation at 80,000 sheets of paper per tree they killed roughly 1,000 trees…so more of a copse than a forest…but you get my point.

Meantime in an echo of yesterday’s blog the Chinese have rather surprisingly just shut down Gougou.com. Ironically for a site which is clearly trying to copy even Google’s name they have been shut down for allegedly promoting too much pirated content in their results sets. This has to be a horrible blow to the parent company Xunlei who were planning to float on one of our exchanges. I guess they could try to re-launch but planning to drive traffic by being the next hot spot for the content pirates no-longer seems to be a viable business model. If this points to China taking other peoples intellectual property more seriously that has to be something we can all take heart from.

Still Destroying Major Markets; Internet Turns 30

The Internet was more or less officially born Jan 1st 1983. Back then I was just out of college selling advertising for a major London magazine using a rotary dial phone and paper index cards. It feels like a million years ago. Back then we enjoyed creative content through, commercial soaked radio stations, dead tree products like newspapers, network TV, vinyl records or tapes and VHS all of which we paid through the nose for through commercials or fairly large stacks of dollar bills. The networks could deliver vast prime time audiences, record companies, newspapers and movie makers were rich and powerful media giants and if you wanted to find something you had to go look it up at the library. A year or so later as a wet behind the ears sales guy if I wanted to send a sales letter I dictated it to a secretary and send it by snail mail.

As we start 2013 we are looking at a radically different landscape. Mobile will probably surpass desktops in terms of users and search, music has devolved to a medieval state where the only way for minstrels to make money is to play live for a line audience and movies are headed that way too. Newspapers are barely worth the paper they are printed on, the yellow book industry is almost gone, content piracy continues to impact multiple markets and as always the web mediates these processes. In spite of the fact that Google removed over 50 million URLs from their results last year (mostly in response to appeals from RIAA) it’s results continue to be chock full of pirated content and the sites promoting “sharing” through torrenting continue to feature ads served by the major search engines and ad networks.

An interesting side effect of this slow rolling revolution is the impact of the web on advertising as a whole. For example; I recently purchased roughly 75 episodes of Big Bang Theory on iTunes to watch on long flights. Each episode costs about $1 and buying them saved me watching or zapping through roughly 15 hours of ads. I have seen believable data which puts my value as an ad viewer at about 5c per 30 second commercial. That mean that by spending $75 to own the content the network lost about $18 of advertising, a pretty good deal for the network even factoring in fees to iTunes etc. This equation of trading dollars for interruption through platforms like iTunes, Netflix and Amazon Prime will likely continue to drive the advertising world half insane in 2013. Add to that that the pervasive but confounding social media it’s clear that the Internet will continue to confuse advertisers who traditionally move at a glacial pace.

At the same time the web has obliterated music, yellow books and newspapers it has given birth to massive new markets, freed us from the sway of media giants who often don’t have our best interests at heart, facilitated real social and political change and as a bonus allows us to live pretty much commercial free if we choose to. It has put the information of a large chunk of humanity at our finger tips and allows us to be much more connected with family and friends if we choose to be. I experienced this myself just last week in London. By some oversight I didn’t have the UK added to my data roam program, so I found myself in London unable to call, search, navigate or email for as long as it took me to resolve with Verizon….about 6 hours. Those were 6 of the most uncomfortable and confounding hours I have experienced recently. After 30 years the Internet married to mobility has truly addicted many of us to the point where being without it is just about unthinkable. Hi, I’m Tim and I’m and Internataholic….Hi Tim!  Here’s to the next 30 years

“Twas the Blog Before Christmas”

It’s nearly that time…I don’t think I’ll be posting much over the break, so here’s what probably amounts to my final post for 2012. Looking back over close to 100 blogs throughout the year it’s striking (to me anyway) just how much happens in our space and how much that impacts the real world around us.

This year we have seen mobile usage and commerce explode worldwide but especially in the US. We typically lag the front runners by a year or two and this year mobile finally made it happen. Over all mobile search volume went from less than 10% to (by some reports) closer to 25% of traffic and it’s possible that mobile will outstrip desktop next year..a full year earlier than expected. At the same time local traffic grew dramatically. That’s perhaps not that surprising given the growth in mobile, but as the guys who have been saying that local is the next big thing I take a certain amount of satisfaction in the 30-50% local intent query numbers we are seeing.

2012 saw the reshaping of social after the debacle of the Facebook IPO. There is still a lot of opportunity in social and more recently there has been some encouraging data on how social may eventually monetize. What I find most intriguing is the idea of using social signals from the relatively few who do engage socially with a product or service to generate a profile of what a customer might look like then target that potential customer in volume through search and social media….it’s complicated and sometimes slightly creepy stuff.

In 2012 Google continued to rule supreme in spite of multiple assaults for “evil” behavior at home and abroad. As I type the FTC is wrapping up it’s investigation into Google and it looks like big G will skate unharmed on their home turf, they may yet have a tougher job convincing their tougher critics in the EU. I feels like almost every day there is some new announcement or development which makes out engagement with the real world as expressed through the virtual world of search and mobile deeper, richer and sometimes scarier.

The world we serve, that of driving new clients to huge numbers of local businesses through search and all kinds of new media has become both more exciting and much more complicated. Given the plethora of media the choose from (search, SEM,SEO, social, local display and mobile to name but a few) and the continued decline of traditional media it’s becoming almost impossible for the average SMB to navigate that complexity. We solve for that by using all those new media on a massive scale to drive the high quality leads the local businesses need. We spent much of 2012 developing the machines needed to make that happen reliably and at scale, 2013 will be the year that hits big.

On the grander scale our industry has enabled revolution and reform and has been attacked by tyrants around the world. We have created enormous amounts of new wealth (and destroyed quite a bit with Facebook). Search is becoming pervasive and in some ways invasive. The mobile device is becoming the prime way of engagement for many more activities and with recent developments in both Apple and Android location based commerce (L-Commerce) will likely become ubiquitous in 2013 changing our world yet again.

For my self, on Leap Day I married my last and final wife, saw my oldest son graduate college and working with our team of hard working, inspired and inspiring people we reshaped our business to lead the upcoming local revolution. I trust your year was equally happy and productive. I wish you and yours a wonderful Holiday Season….Merry Christmas to all…. and to all a good night.

Being Evil

I have been in search for what feels like a lifetime but is in reality a little over a decade. Way back in the day when Microsoft terrorized the tech world and earned the fear and loathing of most tech folk Google was cute as a puppy and dedicated to doing good…indeed “Don’t be evil” was their informal company motto. Back then there were many heinous things perpetrated by the mad and bad on us humble net citizens. We were subjected to browser capture and constant bombardment from pop ups and spam. Over the years much of this net thuggery has been eliminated in good part because the sources of income online have become centralized and in good part controlled by the major advertiser aggregators Google and Yahoo/Bing. So it was with some festive irony that I read the account of Google’s acolyte in the UK Sarah Hunter defending Google against attacks from British Parliamentarians recently. The line I like the most was “we are not the bogeyman of the Internet”…I don’t often LOL but I did then.

There are arms full of accusations being brought to the stake to which Ms. Hunter has been shackled and several honorable members would clearly like to see her and her fellow Googlers burnt alive. Something which especially annoyed the Brits (who love to pay taxes of all kinds) was the elegant way Google perfectly legally avoided paying over $300 million in taxes. The fact that Eric Schmidt defended that as both legal and praiseworthy “Capitalism” really annoyed some of the left tier members. The Brits fundamentally don’t like red in tooth and claw Capitalism…it’s thought of as rather lower class and worse awfully American to try to make lots filthy lucre. I disagree which is a good part of why I’m writing this from SoCal not South London. Add to that the accusations that Google is skewing their results in favor of their own listings and is over all monopolistic and all around beastly, it’s been a tough week for Google in the UK.

Sticks and stones may indeed break bones but serious fines can hurt, so whilst the name calling for being a little evil around the edges may be smart there is a danger that if Google doesn’t get right with the EU (much worse than just the Brits as there are angry Germans involved and you know how that can go) and come to some kind of rapprochement to settle the two years of investigation by stinking foreigners which Google has recently been enjoying things could turn nasty. If the EU goes after them and wins the standard fine is 10% of revenue off the top…a mere $4Bn. That may sound a bit farfetched but it’s the same threat Microsoft faced back when they were public enemy #1 and they settled with the cheese and sausage eaters. It appears the price of evil has gone up.

A Very Mappy Christmas

The recent hoopla over the return of Google Maps to iOS has focused on the accuracy, splendor and coolness of their revamped app. I have to agree it’s terrific. I’m fairly frequently critical of Google in these pages (nothing like biting off the hand that feeds you) but I will happily give credit where it’s due with this new app. However (you knew there was a however coming right?) it raises a set of larger and perhaps more interesting questions beyond how gosh darned neat the thing is.

So very much of what we do is essentially local. Much of the hoopla surrounding the space this year has been to do with local. It seems like every other company (including my own) is essentially trying to solve the local dilemma. We have location based apps for pretty much everything from reviews and coupons to directions and deals. Millions have spent on geo-fencing to allow stores to pull of the ‘Minority Report” greeting individual customers with appropriate messages as they enter or pass their stores. Millions more have been spent building user bases for coupon or loyalty programs so we can get offers from our favorite coffee shop. Reviews have long been a mainstay of all things online, add the exploding world of mobile to that and we have a valuable and high energy mix.

Pretty much all of the above can be best experienced with a smart mobile device and a really good map app. Google maps is just that. So in 2013 look for Google to further expand their reviews and check in options way past just the Zagat they purchased. I’d expect them to add a checking and review feature probably closely tied to a virtual geo-fence program offered to members of many loyalty programs. Look for coupons and daily deals pushed to your map app together with offers from Apple’s Passbook and or Googles Maps/Fieldtrip. The ability to pay with your mobile device although missing from iPhone 5 is already in some handsets and is likely to be in many more in the very near future. Either way, maps are central to all things local and Google has snatched the crown back. 2013 should be interesting.

Online Cold War Heats Up and Boils Over

I reported a week or so back that there was an obscure and opaque conference happening in Dubai which might have significant impact on Internet access, search and beyond. As always the battle was between the totalitarian bad guys (Russia, China and the Islamic dictatorships etc) and the countries of the West. Although the ITC conference was originally designed to regulate traditional phone service it has evolved into a potentially global online regulatory organization. There was much discussion and behind the scenes machination with dueling memos and much fighting around language most of which didn’t even mention the Internet but could be used to regulate.  The short read is that the bad guys were looking for a global treaty which they could use and hide behind to allow them to regulate free speech under the disguise of regulating against spam, porn and other bad stuff.

In a move culled straight out of a Dr. No plot the axis of Internet Evil attempted to push through language giving states pretty much Carte Blanche to regulate the Internet and under keen encouragement of Google, Verizon and other good guy lobbyist at the event the US led a walkout of 54 “good guy’ states which effectively scuppered the entire thing….for now.

It’s unlikely that this issue will stay down. The Internet is a big scary thing to people who would rather that their people be kept quiet an ill informed. It has fueled or at least empowered revolution in a good number of despotic hell holes this year and will likely do so again in 2013. Although incredibly dull, this issue deserves more attention than it gets. If the next phase of the Arab Spring gets set back to winter because their government is able to shoot down Twitter the chattering hoards in the west will be horrified. We averted that option last week…for now.