There are some blog post items which I look at, think long about and still wonder if I should even comment on. Not because it’s not an interesting topic but because I’m simply afraid to get the story wrong. These tend to be the more arcane and legally fraught areas of search and today’s missive is on just such a topic… OK deep breath.
Way back in the mid 2000s, Google started a project to scan and make readily available some (many… most?) of the printed books currently out of copyright. They started out by taking on the obvious targets like Peter Pan or Grim Fairy Tales and have relentlessly ground on through the years ingesting more and more material, by some estimates over 20 million books and counting. Having read the small print, it appears that Google is honoring the copyright notice on books still under that protection. However, in many cases the authors (especially for books still under copyright but currently out of print) have given permission so it’s possible to print and read a huge range of books which might otherwise only be find on the shelves of libraries at your leisure. On the face of it, it’s pretty close to a victimless crime; the books involved are either public domain or are being rendered immortal with the permission of their authors.
No good deed goes unpunished and pretty much as soon as Google announced the project they were assailed by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in the form of the Authors Guild. A protracted court case ensued, it’s been dragging its lawyerly feet through multiple courts ever since. I don’t pretend to understand the complicated machinations of the case… nor do most I’m sure. The legal case is a nightmare, indeed the parties tried to settle it a while back, and the judge who wanted to settle the crucial “fair use” component of the case threw out that attempt.
The case is back in front of the judge next month and many blood shot eyes will be peering at it to see if this time it gets decided. Some of the arguments seem themselves out of fiction. One is that Google scanning and indexing of the books is essentially “transformative” in the same way that rappers sampling other music does not breech copyright. Another is the argument that because Amazon samples books as part of its marketing process, it’s OK for Google to do the same… no I didn’t get that one either. Greater minds than ours will no doubt be brought to bear. Who knows, maybe a really useful way to extend and spread many kinds knowledge will be kept for us all… or maybe it will go the way of most other libraries nowadays… and become shuttered and empty.
The revelation that Google continues to be the top search engine is up there with the Pope being catholic or the toiletry habits of bears. Yes of course, Google is king with a little over two thirds of explicit search going to Google sites… mostly Google.com. What’s more interesting, perhaps, is that the race for second is getting less frantic. There was a time when Yahoo really seemed to care about search… sadly those days seem to be behind us. In a weird statistical fluke Yahoo passed Google in sheer page views last month, but before anyone pops too many corks over at Yahoo bear in mind that news or email page views are worth a tiny fraction compared to search page views… so, simply having more of them really doesn’t get you that much… Google’s revenue outstrip Yahoo’s by a factor of ten.
According to the latest Comscore data, Yahoo maintained its modest 11% market share as Microsoft (Bing) picked up a point. It is a little sad that Yahoo no longer seems to care as much, and doesn’t even include search as a strategic target. Bing is at least pretending to care and doesn’t seem satisfied with a touch under 18% market shares. The “also ran” category in search continues to be a race to oblivion between AOL and ASK, both of whom slipped a little in July. If I’m honest, I don’t honestly remember the last time I knowingly used either product other than to check that they are still alive and kicking. Weirdly, search is so valuable that even having one whole percent (like AOL) is still worth a ton of money, so hanging for grim death to an apparently meaningless market share is still worth doing. Meantime, the Google parade continues as they maintain a firm market lead with no meaningful competition in site… as always, it’s good to be Google.
Unlike most red blooded males in this fair country, the start of the football season does nothing for my blood pressure or happiness quotient. I will admit that when I lived in New England a few years back, and when the Patriots were pretty much unstoppable, I did join the party… but it was much more for the chips and dip than the sport. However, in a year or so I may be forced to pay a tiny amount more attention than usual to football. If you are a hard core NFL fan you may well have bought the DirectTV package in good part to gain access to the NFL Sunday Ticket package. That deal expires at the end of the 2014 season so it’s understandably already in-play and one of the earlier suitors is none other than our good friends at Google.
It’s an interesting idea, and one that may have legs. Google has been scratching (mostly with moderate/no success) at TVs for many years. They purchased YouTube back in 2006, and have built it into the second largest search engine, they have also built the monetization pace, especially in recent years. Other forays into more traditional TV have been markedly less successful with the debacle of Google TV in 2011 being the crowning ‘achievement’. Since then we have seen a plethora of TV devices from Apple TV to RoKu or Boxy boxes which have gained traction in good part because they give easy access to huge amounts of high quality lower priced streamed content. The recent over night success of Google’s Chrome Cast, which sold out in one day may have Google looking at this space more carefully.
The Chrome Cast widget is the size of a USB thumb drive and plugs right into the HDMI socket of your TV. The price point of $35 seems to have cleared the ‘low enough not to be an issue’ hurdle nicely. It plays the content Apps like Netflix and Hulu+ in HD beautifully, so adding an NFL Google App which only runs on the Chromecast widget might be an effective way to drive both Chrome Cast sales and the presence of a Google content App to act as a De-facto Google TV station. With the right Apps, you can live without live TV and you really don’t need a cable TV bill.
If you look at the recent media landscape, you see media giants burdened with traditional production and distribution costs, advertising commitments, and increasingly fractured audiences (TV and radio alike) competing with non traditional upstart content delivery platforms like AppleTV and Chromecast which can deliver HDTV over broadband distributing high quality low cost content to both wide spread and highly targeted audiences. Much of the best TV programming is coming from high cable number independents like AMC, even as the PodCast is pulverizing the smoking remains of ‘terrestrial’ radio. There are a lot of viewers out there who would never fully cut the cable TV cord because there are a few things which they really want to see which are exclusive to cable. If Google could secure an NFL deal, maybe that’s another well deserved nail in the coffin which contains the bloated remains of traditional media.
Some time in the early 2000′s… probably 2001, back when I used to work for one of the emerging search engines, I was drafted to give a presentation to the American Library Association… or perhaps it was the Association of American Librarians… I don’t recall exactly which. I do recall the meeting happened in New York City at some place lined with marble and was eerily quiet. It felt appropriate that such an august grouping should meet in such a tranquil venue. In any event, I had been asked along as a representative of one of these upstart search engines. Although the meeting was cordial, I received something of a drubbing at the hands of those very nice people. I have no idea what I presented, but I’m sure it included diagrams featuring cloud shaped objects representing the Internet and vague explanations of how we managed to index and search as many as a billion internet pages in split seconds. As I type that brings back happy memories of the race to create the first billion page index… I think we got there first, but Google passed us shortly after and they are still going at roughly 50Bn and counting.
The consensus opinion back then was that these upstarts wouldn’t catch on and would never replace the expert guidance and knowledge base of the traditional librarian. A decade or so later, that doesn’t sound like such a safe bet. I was reminded of that far off time by a couple of recent developments. The first is worthy and I have to imagine a crushingly dull report on articles about search engines and the impact of search written by librarians over the past decade or so. From the summary I zipped through, it sounds like they managed to cram in most of the stages of grieving into roughly the first five years of the last decade. The started with Denial, which was pretty much when I met them and worked their way through. Anger (how dare they…don’t they realize we have qualifications in this field?) to Bargaining (If we let them do the pop culture stuff we will focus on the hard intellectual areas)… through Depression (How long ’till I can retire?) to Acceptance (OK it’s here, how can we help people become better searchers).
The other development which I thought nicely underscored these changes is the recent introduction into the main search results by Google of content from scholar.google.com. This is a specialized index of content which has been around for a while. In general, it appears to be well researched longer articles which are heavily cited by other sources. Not every search will trigger this kind of result. For example, a search for Amanda Bynes generates typical news and gossip results focusing on the unfortunate antics of this young lady. However a search for Alcohol Induced Psychosis yields a group of scientific and medical articles from the Scholar index above the other results. Back in the good old days (by which I mean the early 2000′s), the level of depth and quality of research would typically only be found at an academic library under the steely gaze of your friendly local neighborhood librarian… now, it’s there for free any time day or night on Google… but do you feel smarter?
Permit me if you will, to divert from my usual inane ramblings about all things search to comment on today’s startling announcement. Jeff Bezos the brilliant founder of Amazon has just bought the mighty Washington Post for $250MM of his own money. Back before I went dot com in 1999, I did a decade working very closely with major newspapers all over the world. As I recall, The Post was never a client of ours so I never got to spend quality time there, but the NY Times, Boston Globe, Star Tribune (the list goes on and on) were and I spent many happy years working with the amazing people which pull off the daily miracle; which is the News Paper business. I decided to get out, not because I didn’t have a great job or didn’t enjoy it, but despite the booming ad revenues and circulation it seemed to me that the writing was on the wall… and it didn’t look great. So I quit my nice job and joined a Internet Search Engine start up… the rest is history. Throughout my time in search I have kept several friends in the news business, and if you cut me I still bleed ink… but man, it is tough to see how the mighty are fallen. To fully understand the level of apocalypse this industry has experienced, you need look no further than this striking… indeed terrifying graphic which shows news paper revenues adjusted for inflation.
This decline is even clearer when you take into account the relatively modest $250MM paid by Bezos for one of the nations great publishing institutions. Back in 1933 when the current owners purchased the title out of bankruptcy they paid $825,000. If that value had kept up with inflation it would have cost Bezos nearly $15BN big ones. That he only paid 6% of the inflation adjusted price gives you some idea of the straits the industry is now in. I’ve admired Mr. Bezos for many years. He’s clearly a genius and I love, his products. Anyone that can take on our space and conquer it as he has, has to be a force to be reckoned with. He’s a visionary who thinks big, indeed he’s working on his own space program complete with a Texas based launch facility and mission control.
Forbes says he’s worth over $25Bn, so for him to put down what amounts to 1% of his net worth on the project, is similar to a regular Joe buying an ATV. We have a grand old tradition in the US of rich and powerful men owning huge chunks of media, at least in part as a political mouth piece. Murdoch has been the poster child for this on the right, but News Corp owns much more than just the print titles, so it going to be tougher for Bezos to make an empire out of The Post print titles alone. If I had to rank the challenge of getting a man into orbit or making the grand old institution of The Post successful again, or getting a man into low earth orbit, I’d be hard pushed to pick the easier option… but he certainly deserves credit for taking the project on.
Google has been getting into many more things than just search for many years. Over the same period of time they have been fierce defenders of the kind of open Internet that allows the kind of innovation that has allowed the space to flourish. The government body chartered with the policing of that freedom is typically the FCC. That much maligned body, who I always associate with their long term persecution of Howard Stern, has regulated that Internet providers may not prevent their subscribers from attaching ‘non harmful’ devices to their network. In other words, if you wanted to hand a small home server off your network to allow all your family access to the content you have purchased online, your ISP couldn’t stop you. Google has been a long-term supporter of this open Internet “net neutrality” approach to the growth of the web, and they have benefited from it greatly over time.
Not Surprisingly the FCC has taken them to task and is asking Google to please explain what on God’s good green earth they are thinking of. Their restrictions are doubly puzzling given that only a few months ago they were lobbying for net neutrality from an exactly opposite position. No doubt many lawyers will now rush in argue both sides. Although this feels like a very geeky minor point, in fact it’s potentially a huge issue. If Google wins they will pave the way for our ISPs to significantly limit what we can do with the ever-expanding bandwidth we are paying for. I worked hard for that bandwidth, and I’d like to keep what I do with it up to me not my ISP.
If you work in the online space, it’s hard to avoid the Russian influence… and it’s not typically good. Much of the fraud comes from our friends in Russia; indeed the word “hacker” has almost become synonymous with “Russian.” Back in the late middle ages, when I worked for one of the major search engines which specialized in non US search traffic, we took a serious look at doing a Russian search. It was an extraordinarily complicated and challenging project that was further complicated by our inability to figure out who we should be selling the product to or how we’d get paid for our efforts. At the time, the leader in the still very early Russian market was Yandex… and it has pretty much stayed that way since then. Yandex has pulled off a feat that very few companies can boast… they kept Google to a minority market share. They remain clear leaders at 62%, with Google lagging a distant 37% behind Yandex.
The reason I bring this up is that the search world just marked the passing of one of its founders. Ilya Segalovich, CTO and one of the co-founders of Yandex, died in London last Thursday (or Friday…there was apparently some confusion) at just age 48 from meningitis; which was a complication from the stomach cancer he has been battling for some time. In Russia the average male life expectancy even now is only 64.3 years, so dead at 48 isn’t quite as shockingly young as it would be in the US, but it’s still somewhat shocking to see one of our own dead at such an early age.
Yandex (a name created by Ilya from “Yet Another Index” in a homage to Yahoo “Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle”) has become a Russian success story worth in the region of $10Bn today having raised over $1Bn a few years back through that rarest of things… a successful Russian IPO. For them to conquer the linguistic craziness of Russian, a language so complicated that the past tense of “truck” is “Yellow” (or some such madness), and make it a commercial success with Google breathing down your neck is very impressive. How Yandex will fare without the technical genius of Segalovich is anybody’s guess. How would Google Fare without Brin? We know how Apple is doing without Jobs and it’s less than perfect, we will see how Yandex gets over this sad loss.
Facebook has suffered many bloody and frequently well-deserved beatings over recent months, ever since their less than well-managed IPO. So it’s a nice change to note that FB absolutely killed their last quarter posting over 50% Y/Y growth… and predictably, it’s pretty much all coming from mobile. We see similar things in our part of the world. Before their recent release of more closely targeted mobile campaigns and ads in the news feed, advertising on FB was something akin to shouting out of your window in the hey general direction of a crowd of passers by. Their new offerings clearly do work much better, and even highly targeted local folks like us can use them with a reasonable degree of success. The big brands typically slow to jump into any new media have finally figured out that FB is here for the long haul, and are lavishing display revenue on them… which also can’t hurt.
Where they continue to ignore staggering opportunity, with what feels like obdurate blindness is search. Don’t get me wrong, they do process a lot of searches (some sources say about a billion per day), but their search revenues are less than 8% of Google’s… even though they have an enormous fraction of the civilized world heavily engaged in their products. Their blind spot revolves around intent. Google works because search terms let them figure out what people want right now. FB collects massive amounts of target-able data, but just because I play tennis does not mean that I’m looking for a new racket right now. Wilson might well target tennis ads at me as I post about my kids and dogs… but that’s not the same as a search for “Wilson Hyper Hammer.” Their solution is to use the opinions, interests, posts, and pictures of the people I know to answer my questions about tennis rackets. Put simply, it sounds silly…what if I don’t have any tennis playing friends? What if they don’t know anything about that racket? It makes more sense for things like restaurants and hotels (even then we have Yelp and TripAdvisor), and by all means blend in relevant feedback wherever you can find it – like what Google tries to do with Google+. But, relying on their Social Graph to answer questing where the Graph has no content is (IMHO) just dumb.
Facebook has the users and it has a pretty huge amount of queries that is typically serves poorly. Having proven that they can do mobile and display and get pretty good results, why don’t they put a team of their brightest and best and come up with a killer search which answers every question and is augmented by the Graph as it grows… but then… what do I know?
Google announced today its latest foray into the world of tablet devices with their new Nexus 7. After the horribly botched launch of the original Nexus, we have to hope this one goes better. On paper it’s a great spec, hopefully setting the feature bar higher and price lower for the other guys we really buy our tablets from… by which I mean Apple. I really don’t care that much, as long as I can play Stupid Zombies and watch movies perfectly on my iPad Mini. What I was a little miffed by is their announcement of the Chrome Cast widget. This looks like a fat USB drive and plugs right into the HDMI port of any TV. It then allows you to stream almost any content from pretty much any device over the local WiFi network for just $35, it’s a stroke of Genius.
My miffed-ness springs from my love affair with the classy, elegant Apple TV; which just got nailed by Google’s cute, trashy, and cheap friend. I have three of the little critters plugged into the HDMI on all my TVs and with them I can stream from iTunes, HuLu Plus, YouTube, HBOGO, and a multitude of other content sources… just like the new kid on the block. Hopefully this too will inspire Apple to get innovating again. It’s certainly another win in the eternal battle against merciless, and excessive, TV advertising. As you may recall… I’m physically allergic to most all advertising (ironic, given that it puts food on my table). The growth of alternate content providers like HuLu and Crackle; which deliver top-notch content with minimal (if any) advertising in the way is encouraging. The other night I was watching Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, which is an excellent vanity project by Jerry Seinfeld distributed on Crackle. Apart from some of the minor resolution issues, which occasionally pop up even in a Fios world, it was a pretty seamless experience. By no means as seamless as the iTunes experience, (which is quite superb) but pretty darned good. On that topic, the next thing we need is WiFi devices that drop off the network if they aren’t being used. Even with colossal bandwidth, by the time you tack on 4 iPads, 3 Apple TVs, a smart TV, an Xbox and four cell phones (the normal in my house), we are back to late 1990′s bandwidth. At any one time, most of those devices are not doing anything much… so why are they taking up any bandwidth? OK, let me get off my soapbox now and make arrangements to attend the Apple TV funeral… no flowers by request.
Google announced good but not spectacular Q2 numbers last week (if you can call $14Bn revenue “not spectacular”), and the Wall Street pundits will no doubt gnash their teeth over what could be considered a minor miss. I thought the fact that big G. is spending roughly $3Bn in revenue shares to publishers was fascinating. That’s a number they could so easily increase, and in doing so, drive their top and bottom lines even higher. However, instead of opening the flood gates a little wider and allowing a few more publishers to dine at the top table they remain determinedly focused on keeping as many marbles as they can, which in return limits their ability to grow as fast as the market would like. Truth be told, there is actually a ton of great traffic and revenue out there (including mobile) which Google is not taking advantage of. I completely understand and respect that they hold the quality of the product they offer to their advertisers sacred, but with the extreme checks and balances they have a place to be secure. The purity of the church could allow more in to dine, and greatly increase their own revenues at the same time.
The other striking Google data point is that it now serves roughly 25% of all internet traffic in the U.S. That’s kind of amazing… over 60% of us use at least one Google service every day and they serve more stuff per day than Facebook, Netflix, and Twitter combined. At peak usage (the evening movie spot), Netflix takes up about 30% of the US Internet. However, I guess if we average it all out and add in YouTube, it makes sense that Google does indeed carry that much load. That entire cost is essentially funded by Google Ad revenues, which has been under pressure of late… another good reason why the powers that be, might take another look at letting a few more of us mere mortals dine at the top table.