Google Bug Watching for Beginners

Google watching is endlessly entertaining….today it got entertaining in an unexpected way. A geek with I’m guessing way too much time posted on Quora that some searches which should be impossible to resolve rather than returning no results at all actually return tons of porn.

This isn’t something the average user is likely to have come across accidentally, most people don’t do advance syntax based searches on Google…but if you did and asked Google for an answer to a logically impossible query like “-4 “1 4″ in which you are essentially asking for results which don’t contain the number 4 but do contain the number 1 space 4, rather than returning no results in this case Google returns 808,000 results most of which (upon very cursory inspection) are porn links. This trick even works with “safe search” filter turned on. Weirdly, similar impossible queries like -4 “4″ return no results and -4 “14″ returns results which don’t have porn links.

Leaving aside what kind of extreme search jiggery pokery you would need to be doing to even find this effect it’s a hilarious bug. According to Google engineering post on the topic sadly it’s not a secret lonely nerd feature, it’s just a bug.  This is fascinating. We don’t often get to see explicit bugs in Google search in real time…especially not bugs of this magnitude. This presents interested parties with the opportunity to witness just how long the Googlies take to track down, fix and deploy a really clear bug in main search. I’m guessing less than two days. The clock is running, let’s see how long it takes.

Meet the New Boss…Same as the Old Boss

Search at Yahoo has languished somewhat since Bing took over their search back in 2008 after a failed bid by Microsoft to buy Yahoo. There has always been an antitrust concern about the search on Yahoo being powered by Google…so I was interested but not that surprised to read today that Google contextual ads will now start showing up on Yahoo properties and more importantly Yahoo mobile traffic. To be clear this isn’t the same as main search on Yahoo being taken over by Google, rather these are contextual AdSense ads displayed on billions of Yahoo web and mobile pages…which will presumably represent a significant revenue opportunity for Yahoo.  It makes perfect sense as Google’s ads are generally more valuable than Yahoos and they have a larger stack of advertisers to play with. At the core of the deal is the dramatic growth of mobile. Millions of people use Yahoo mobile content to keep them up to date with news, celebrity, finance sports and email. Google has a much stronger mobile platform so adding Google mobile ads to the enormous Yahoo mobile inventory. Google doesn’t (yet) have the kind of vertical interest Yahoo boasts so that’s likely to be an upside for them both.

Google survived an  FTC investigation into monopolistic practices last year and is still under scrutiny in the EU, so making a move which further centralizes Google commercial control could be thought of as ballsy.. but in a race to grab as much real-estate as possible before the new Search at Facebook gets out of short pants it makes perfect sense.

Google is Racial Profiling?

You can’t make this stuff up. I checked the calendar and it’s not April 1st. According to a story I found in the Boston Globe Latanya Sweeney a Harvard University academic noticed that when she searched for herself on Google or more precisely a site powered by Google search she received ads back for (amongst other things) criminal back ground checks for her name. She then did a more extensive test and actually wrote a research paper which found that distinctively “black” male first names are 25% more likely to return an ad from instantcheckmate.com offering background or criminal record checks than traditionally “white” names. She doesn’t draw any conclusions other than that this could be problematic for people of color….but the allegation that Google is somehow racially profiling is in the mix.

Of course even a cursory examination of the facts (as opposed to the hilarious conspiracy theory) is (allegedly) that instantcheckmate.com is in fact targeting what it believes to be ‘black’ names with ads for criminal background checks as opposed to more generic services for ‘white’ names. Google racially profiling would be a much better story.  The same thing would apply were I targeting Russian fur hats or nesting dolls to people with Vladimir for a first name.  It is a sad reflection on our society that (according to federal statistics) black males are seven times more likely to end in jail than their white non Hispanic peers. Logically that makes them more likely to have a criminal record, so it makes a twisted kind of common sense to target uniquely black male names with criminal background checks advertisements….but it’s not the Google Geeks doing it.

Social Discovery is Out to Get You

I don’t like social discovery, at least I don’t want people who don’t know me but might share interests discovering me without me looking for the attention. So the rumors swirling around Facebook and social discovery are interesting. The inside word is that a high octane team from Facebook including ex Googler Peter Deng and folks from Glancee a location based company FB acquired in 2011 are working full tilt on an Ap to be with eager mobile FB users sometime in March. It looks like the App will ‘know” and alert your when one of your FB friends is in your near vicinity even if the App isn’t running. I can imagine that this might generate “friend spam” where (for example) you are friends of folk you work with your phone constantly letting you know that your friends are nearby.

Where it gets really interesting is how the app will likely go beyond just friend discovery. If taken to a logical conclusion this may allow advertisers to reach out to users who have some level of engagement with their brand such as a ‘like’ with a brand message or offer. In this use case as you pass Starbucks they might hit you up with a special offer or coupon. Given FBs horrible record with end user privacy issues the key question will be “will they be able to withstand the temptation to reach out and spam us with offers and deals”.  Either way the smart device in your pocket is about to get even more chatty….and potentially annoying.

Digital Migration Into Uncharted Waters

So what’s a marketer to do? If you keep an eagle eye on Industry trends you will see some interesting and conflicting trends. The continued migration of dollars away from traditional media continues at pace. A survey from the American Marketers Association shows a 20–30% of respondents plan to move money with (as usual) newspapers being top of the hit list. Digital media in general and social in particular are slated to be the beneficiaries although mobile is lower than I would have expected. However, all is not necessarily sweetness and light. Although marketeers are trending to digital many of them remain confounded by the efficacy of the new medium. In another survey from Vizu another set of marketeers are unsure of how effective it is. In the survey fully two thirds of those surveyed were bullish on social media in general but unconvinced of ROI….a hold out 6% are convinced that it doesn’t work at all..

We are a little different to many marketeers. We don’t do brand support we do results based marketing only. If we don’t get the phone to ring we don’t get paid. We have tried social media as a direct response channel in many different ways with spectacularly underwhelming results. In many ways our hands are tied in that we can’t create social content on behalf of our advertisers and are frequently limited in how we can use logos etc. Mobile is the other large and growing beneficiary of the digital migration and the jury is out on that too.  In our testing of mobile ad delivery search works…and works pretty well. Our testing with mobile display is quite different. Thousands of clicks which don’t result in any calls. Our experience of search targeted media indicates that it takes from 3 to twenty clicks to drive a successful call. Thousands of clicks with no calls indicates that the clicks aren’t from people looking for a product or service.

So as the migration continues marketeers are faced with developing channels which either don’t convert or are much harder to track than traditional media. Part of this complexity is the old marketing adage that half of advertising is wasted but we don’t know which. Digital media exposes exactly what does and doesn’t work…and maybe it’s close to three quarters of all media spend is wasted…and we can now tell which works.

Yahoo On the Mend?

Six months into her new job Marissa Mayer the new queen of Yahoo was able to tell some reasonably good news to investors in her Q4 results call yesterday. Yahoo saw their first uptick in revenue for a good while as Mayer shared the good news from the annual meeting of the great and good in Davos Switzerland last week. She pointed to two clear areas of focus for the newly invigorated Yahoo. Not surprisingly mobile is one of them. That makes a huge amount of sense as mobile is rapidly catching up with the desktop. For all its failing Yahoo has a ton of great content which million of people go to each day for their daily dose of sports, news gossip etc. Making that content mobile and personalized for their millions of users through apps and targeting ads around that offers a significant opportunity for revenue growth. However, the other focus Mayer pointed to is search….yes really search. I have been in the search business for about a million years and back in the day Yahoo powered its own search. Then they brought in the cuddly friendly guys at Google to power it for them (under a powered by Google brand) to run their search for them. Their assumption was that people would use Yahoo for everything including search. Back then before high speed connections users could either sit and wait for a yahoo results page encrusted with ugly ads to load or they could hop over to Google and have a fast clean ad free search result from Google. Weirdly I remember discussing this with several Yahooligans at the time and they honestly didn’t think it would be a threat. A decade or so later…they aren’t quite so sure.

Yahoo ceded search to Microsoft’s Bing a while back so for Yahoo to attempt to gain a stronger position in search without even owning the technology is incredibly ambitious. Doing search well is hard, doing it as well as Google does given the 30 trillion pages Google indexes is incredibly hard. Google has beaten off legal challenges for their rivals and the FTC and become both a noun and a verb…it’s tough to beat a competitor which has become the name for the activity. The mobile opportunity is probably more compelling. When I just checked there are about a dozen separate Yahoo apps out there. The question is can Yahoo weave those separate strands into a strong unique mobile user experience…before Facebook does? The jury is out on that. Certainly Yahoo has done a better job than Google whose mobile news app is just horrible. Their biggest problem is that Google has become the way that most of us navigate the chaos of the Internet and Facebook has become the way we share pics of our kids….all that’s left is mobile, and the clock is ticking on that too.

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.