When does a whisper become a shout?

It will be interesting to see whether there’s any kind of official response from Google (apart from Matt Cutts’ post) to the recent kerfuffle (or perhaps it’s more of a brouhaha) over the “tips” that have started appearing at the top of its search pages — the ones that direct people to download Picasa, or use Blogger. Blake Ross, a co-founder of Firefox, wrote a critical post about it recently, which Mike Arrington then responded to.

Blake’s point seemed to be that by promoting its own services on result pages, Google is unfairly using its search platform to hawk its own products, and that a company whose entire existence is based on the idea of search results and PageRank as a meritocracy — in other words, a process that drives the best results to the top over time — should have faith in that process and allow its own services to appear wherever they appear in the search rankings.

arrogance.jpg

Mike’s post expanded on this point, arguing that Google’s recent behaviour in that and other areas is a sign of Microsoft-like arrogance from the company, a criticism that my friend Mark Evans and others think is a little over the top. What is clear is that Google has grown to such a size that things people would previously have seen seen as innocuous — like small text links promoting the company’s products — all of a sudden seem like a huge deal.

I have a lot of respect for Blake’s position on the subject, and there are some excellent arguments back and forth in the comments section of his post (which the last time I looked contained more than 215 comments). But I think he and others — including Allen Stern at Center Networks — are being overly sensitive about Google’s tips. I think they are clearly set apart from the search results, and therefore are nothing but a harmless promo link (Danny Sullivan agrees with me).

It’s interesting to see how Google is being held to a much higher standard than another company likely would be, in part because it is so large now, and also because of its famous “Don’t be evil” motto — which is clearly causing way more trouble than it’s worth.

Google wins — because it doesn’t suck

LeeAnn Prescott from Hitwise has a much-discussed report about Google’s blog search getting a greater “market share of web visits” (Hitwise terminology for a combination of page views and visitors) than Technorati, the original blog search engine. This has led Om Malik, among others to write Technorati’s eulogy.

I’m not sure whether the ascendence of Google’s blog search spells the end of Technorati and/or Sphere — another blog search tool, which has done deals with media outlets such as Time magazine to put a “Sphere It” button on their stories — but I am sure of one thing. Google’s blog search is better for one very simple reason: It doesn’t suck.

I should qualify that. Technorati can be useful for searching specific terms, and using the “authority” ranking is not a bad tool. But when it comes right down to it, I agree with Erick searching for posts on a topic through Technorati is just not very useful — or not as useful as Google’s blog search. As Zoli Erdos and others have pointed out many times (here’s his latest roundup), Technorati also has numerous technical problems that continue to crop up.

hitwise.JPG

Searching related posts through Sphere, meanwhile, is quite honestly pathetic. Whenever I see a “Sphere It” button or link, I click it just to see what happens, and 99 times out of 100 it is a boatload of crap. I’ve seen links to things that literally don’t make any sense at all. Beside a blog post I recently saw a link that said there were over 1,000 related posts at Sphere, and I just knew that the vast majority were going to be functionally useless.

For the record, Mark Cuban’s IceRocket blog search isn’t much better. When I want to write about a particular issue, either on the blog or for a story at the Globe and Mail, I will almost always search to see if a blogger somewhere has linked to something that might present an alternative point of view or an interesting perspective — and I routinely wind up back at Google’s blog search.

Is it that Google’s algorithm is better? I’m not enough of a geek to know. You have to admit that Google knows search. And one thing I know for sure about their blog search: It is just better.

Update:

Mark Cuban, who is not only IceRocket’s founder but also clearly its chief evangelist, has posted several comments here defending his company’s blog search that are well worth reading. After giving it some thought, I would like to revise my original comment that IceRocket “isn’t much better” than Sphere. For some searches, it clearly is better — and arguably as good as Google. And no, I didn’t change my mind just because Mark beat up on me πŸ™‚

Update 2:

I spent some time on the phone with Tony and Martin of Sphere (who responded in the comments on my initial post), and I think that — much as I like the imagery — “boatload of crap” might have been a little harsh when describing Sphere’s results. As Martin points out, some of the searches, including ones that use blog posts of mine as the source, bring fairly targeted and relevant results.

I think the problem, at least from my perspective, is twofold: One, Sphere draws relevance from the entire post as well as from the rest of the blog — therefore, if a post is short and/or the blog writes about a lot of different subjects, then a Sphere search isn’t going to come up with results that are all that relevant (Tony says it didn’t work particularly well on Scoble’s blog for that reason).

What happens in those cases is that Sphere comes up with a lot of related posts, which is why on some blogs I see a Sphere widget that says “56,975 related posts” and the first thing I think is “bullshit — there can’t possibly be that many related posts.” (Tony agreed with me on that one).

The bottom line is that Sphere is still trying to find the best method, just as Google and IceRocket are. I appreciate Tony and Martin taking the time to talk to me about it, especially after I dumped on them.

Are you interested in the web and want to join in? Learn more about web hosting options for businesses or individuals. Check out small business email hosting and other services like outsourcing microsoft exchange.

Sure, I’d love a free Ferrari, but…

Just checked in with Techmeme after a few days of eggnog and tobogganing, and what did I find but another ethical dilemma brewing, this time courtesy of Microsoft (although Edelman appears to have played a role as well). I predict that the blogosphere-as-ethical-minefield meme will continue to be a hot topic in the year to come, if only because there seem to be a ton of unresolved issues, not to mention a vast difference of opinion on what’s right and what isn’t.

Reading through the various posts on it, like Joel Spolsky’s or Judi Sohn’s at Web Worker Daily — who wins the prize for my favourite headline, with “There ain’t no such thing as a free laptop” — and the comments on some of those posts, including the ones at Brandon LeBlanc’s blog (he got one of the free Microsoft laptops with Vista but didn’t say so for a few days), it seems as though some people think keeping the laptops is just fine, and others think it is a heinous crime.

As with many of the other ethical issues the blogosphere is wrestling with, this one also occurs in traditional media, particularly in the technology area, where reviewers are often given software and hardware to test. Sometimes the understanding is that the reviewer will keep it (if it isn’t of huge value), but in the vast majority of cases it is sent back. Are there reviewers who keep things they shouldn’t? Sure there are. Does it affect their credibility? Who knows.

bribe.jpg

Ed Bott thinks that bloggers should be able to keep the free laptops, and says he isn’t going to lose any of his faith in the credibility or trustworthiness of Brandon LeBlanc or Long Zheng as a result of them keeping it. His argument is that trust is something you build up over time, and that it takes more than a free laptop to demolish it — and I would agree, to a point.

But I also think that a blogger trying to build up credibility and win an audience is fighting an uphill battle to begin with, and accepting freebies without disclosing them is a very slippery slope, and that’s why my position on PayPerPost has also been that payment is fine provided it is disclosed. The FTC seems to agree, given its recent decision on word-of-mouth marketing.

As Tony Hung points out at Deep Jive Interests in this post on PayPerPost buying Performancing, bloggers want to be compensated and many people don’t see anything wrong with that, and neither do I, provided it is disclosed. Anything else, in my opinion, is on the slippery slope. If you think you’re able to keep your footing on that slope, be my guest — but don’t be surprised if you wind up at the bottom.

Happy ChristmaHanuKwanzivus to all

Just a quick note to my legions of devoted fans to say that posting will likely be sporadic over the next few days, as a result of the combined holidays of Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanzaa and Festivus — all of which I have chosen to celebrate, in an attempt to accumulate as many presents and as much food as possible. If you have a lot of time on your hands and want to stroll through some Ingram family photos from the past year, our digital Christmas card is here. Best wishes (of whatever season) to all of you.

xmas17a.gif

And now, the standard disclaimer, as approved by my solicitors:

Please accept with no obligation, implied or implicit, my best wishes for an environmentally conscious, socially responsible, low stress, non-addictive, gender neutral, celebration of the winter solstice holiday, practiced within the most enjoyable traditions of the religious persuasion of your choice, or secular practices of your choice, with respect for the religious/secular persuasions and/or traditions of others, or their choice not to practice religious or secular traditions at all together with a fiscally successful, personally fulfilling and medically uncomplicated recognition of the onset of the generally accepted calendar year 2006, but not with due respect for the calendars of choice of other cultures whose contributions to society have helped make Great Britain great not to imply that Great Britain is necessarily greater than any other country and without regard to the race, creed, colour, age, physical ability, religious faith or otherwise or sexual orientation of the wishee.

Continue reading “Happy ChristmaHanuKwanzivus to all”

Good luck with the Google-killing, Jimbo

Update:

Mike Arrington posted what he says is an exclusive screenshot of a Wikia search page, but Jimmy Wales has said that Mike’s post is all wrong and that the screenshot has nothing to do with what he’s working on. In a comment on Rex Dixon’s blog, Mike says that his source is pretty good and he thinks what he saw was an early version of Wiki Search. Meanwhile, Rich Skrenta has said that Jimbo is also interested in reviving the Open Directory Project in some way — another attempt at people-powered search that has fallen on hard times (hat tip to Techdirt for the link).

Original post:

I’ll say this much: Jimmy “Jimbo” Wales, founder of Wikipedia, has no shortage of hubris. Instead of saying he plans to launch a “social” search engine using Wikipedia-style co-operation strategies, he comes right out and tells the Times that he’s gunning for Google. Why not reach for the top, right? So Google has a few thousand PhDs and about $40-billion in cash. Big deal.

Like many people, my first impression of Jimbo’s new idea was that it has a really dumb name: Wikiasari, a Hawaiian-Japanese hybrid that is likely to irritate people from many different cultures. And my second impression was that Jimmy has a bit of a mountain to climb with his “social search” proposal. As Pete Cashmore at Mashable notes, this kind of thing has been tried before, and more or less, well… failed.

search.jpg

In a comment on Niall Kennedy’s post about Wikiasari, Greg Linden of Findory — which finds relevant blog posts and news articles based on things you have read before — points to a piece that Chris Sherman wrote at SearchEngineWatch awhile back about social search and how it doesn’t really work all that well, especially as the Web continues to grow.

No matter how many people get involved with bookmarking, tagging, voting or otherwise highlighting web content, the scale and scope of the web means that most content will be unheralded by social search efforts. The web is simply growing too quickly for humans to keep up with it.

That doesn’t mean that social search efforts aren’t usefulÒ€”in most cases, they are. It simply means that people-mediated search will never be as comprehensive as algorithmic search.

Mashable also makes a good point, which is that a social search engine could easily wind up being just as distorted by ulterior motives as a service like Digg is, since there would be even more incentive to get to the front page of search results. Wikipedia is already criticized for the way its internal group of editors control entries from behind the scenes. What if their actions meant the difference between hundreds of dollars and millions of dollars in advertising?

Jimbo also takes a whack at Google’s search results in the Times piece, by saying that if you search for something like “Tampa hotels” all you get “is crap.” But I searched for Tampa hotels and got half a dozen totally relevant listings for hotel directories, local Tampa search sites and so on. How is that not relevant? And how would people-powered search provide anything better for me if I wanted to find a good hotel? Jimmy’s got a bit of work to do.

Sometimes the truth just slips out

(cross-posted from my media blog)

In a recent blog post, Anil Dash of SixApart wrote about the fallout from a comment that Seagate CEO Bill Watkins made to Fortune magazine, in which he said that his company’s products help people “buy more crap and watch porn.” The comment — which was made during an informal dinner with bloggers and reporters in San Francisco — apparently got Watkins into some hot water within the company, and so he sent out a memo to employees saying:

Unfortunately, and unwisely, I also used pornography as an example to illustrate a point. Fortune Magazine chose to focus narrowly on this example in their headline.

They are in the news business and eager to get their reader’s attention and I should have known better. Even though I believe Fortune’s headline writers took my comments out of context, I want you to know that I am sorry if this has in any way offended anyone.

As the original Fortune piece noted, Watkins is well known for being a colourful personality who likes to speak his mind. Some of those writing about the incident, incuding commenters on the followup post on Fortune’s The Browser blog, are afraid that the magazine’s choice to feature the quote prominently (including in the headline) might dissuade Mr. Watkins and other CEOs from being candid.

speak out.jpg

That may be — but it’s unlikely. What’s more likely is that the Seagate CEO feels completely comfortable with what he said, but issued the memo as a face-saving measure. After all, his comment wasn’t as bad as the one Ratner Jewellery CEO made in 1991, when he said (among other things) that a decanter set his company sold was cheap because it was “total crap.” The company’s share price fell by almost a billion dollars and he was soon the ex-CEO.

As Anil notes in his post, the Seagate incident was the result of a series of otherwise reasonable decisions: Watkins jokes around with bloggers at dinner, Fortune spots a salacious and funny quote, and an editor highlights it (editor Jim Ledbetter discusses his decision in the comments on the followup item). The Seagate CEO then says he is sorry, and life goes on.

Update:

John Furrier of Podtech has posted a comment to say that he was at the dinner with Watkins, and that he described in a post here that he thought Fortune blew the Seagate CEO’s remarks out of proportion.

Warning: Deep link at your own risk

When it comes to the Web, it goes without saying that being able to link to things is kind of important — in fact, it’s a little like saying the ability to make the wheels turn is kind of important when it comes to driving. No linking equals no Web. So it’s not surprising that so much attention has been focused on a ruling out of Texas that seems to declare linking illegal, unless the person who owns the content that is being linked to agrees.

The case in question involves a site called Supercrosslive, which was sued for linking to audio streams from another motocross site called SFX Motor Sports. The latter claimed that by “deep linking” directly to the podcasts, Supercrosslive was depriving it of the revenue from ads that visitors would have seen (and presumably thought about clicking on) if they had made their way through the website to the podcasts themselves.

As the CNET story makes clear, there have been a number of rulings that look at the issue of linking to illegal material, including a piece of software for decrypting DVDs, but there haven’t been many cases which suggest that linking to legal material could be forbidden by a third party. In fact, there have been several U.S. rulings that found linking — even “deep linking” — is totally legal, including this one.

links.jpg

On the surface, it’s easy to see the point that SFX is trying to make. It litters its website with ads, hoping that the people who want the audio clips will pass by them and generate some income, and then Supercrosslive links directly to the podcasts and allows people to bypass all the ads. For you legal beagles, there’s more discussion of the issues at this blog, written by one of Google’s senior counsel.

The important point, however, as Techdirt notes, is that there are any number of ways for the site to prevent someone from linking directly to or streaming the audio — they could require a password, they could only allow downloading, they could filter out direct links from Supercrosslive’s IP address, and so on. If you don’t want people to link to things, then there are any number of ways to achieve that goal.

Unfortunately, the Texas case (unless it is overturned) could set a dangerous precedent.

NBC should make Andy Samberg CEO

Like a lot of TV networks, NBC was cruising along happily ignoring the Internet as much as possible, until the “Lazy Sunday” video clip from Saturday Night Live hit YouTube almost exactly a year ago and caused what I like to refer to as a “holy crap” moment in the executive suites of the broadcaster. More than five million people watched the clip in the space of about two weeks. So what did NBC do? Told the site to take it down. In other words, the stupid pills kicked in.

To someone’s credit, however, NBC rethought this move and started taking Internet distribution seriously, setting up a unit called NBBC (the National Broadband Broadcasting Co.) to seed the Web with NBC content. And that leads us directly to the latest viral video hit from SNL, the musical satire called “My Dick in a Box”, featuring Justin Timberlake and Andy Samberg.

As the New York Times describes, NBC chose to put an uncensored version of the video on their site, and it is all over YouTube as well. I think it’s hilarious, and plenty of other people seem to think so too. The other skits with Justin Timberlake, including one where he plays a giant Cup o’ Soup street-corner vendor, are also worth watching, as is the segment with Jimmy Fallon called “The Barry Gibb Show.” All are available on the NBC site and elsewhere.

dickinabox.jpg

Like many people my age (don’t ask), I remember Saturday Night Live from way back — John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, etc. — and slightly less way back (Dana Carvey, Mike Myers), and I have periodically enjoyed newer versions of the show including such “stars” as Adam Sandler, Chris Farley and Ben Stiller. But like Ashkan Karbasfrooshan at WatchMojo, I have probably paid more attention to the show in the past year or so than I have in a decade, and that is almost single-handedly the result of Andy Samberg (and Chris Parnell, who got booted from the show in a recent purge).

Samberg, as the NYT story describes, came to SNL from a comedy troupe called Lonely Island, and brought with him several writers and producer types. Whether they have helped to boost NBC’s smarts when it comes to the Internet as well as making hilarious videos (the Natalie Portman one is also a keeper) is difficult to say, but I would argue that he has helped that network more than just about any senior executive you could name. He deserves a raise.

Google: Anti-trust case waiting to happen?

Depending on whom you talk to about Google’s share of the Web-search market, you are likely to get estimates of anywhere from 30 per cent to the upper 40-per-cent range. Rich Skrenta of Topix, however, says that the true number is closer to about 70 per cent, and that anyone who is currently running a Web business and is familiar with the search business already knows that.

In regular releases from the major traffic-measurement firms such as comScore and Nielsen NetRatings — including this one — Google is given a market share of 44 per cent and 49 per cent respectively. But Skrenta says that “Everybody involved in the search industry and everyone who actually runs a website knows these numbers are completely wrong.”

anti-trust.jpg

He describes how he “picked a basket of medium-to-large websites and looked at the inbound search traffic percentages using Hitwise,” and that Google came out with an average of 70-per-cent market share. Don Dodge notes that this could be a result of looking at search referrals versus raw searches, but I think that’s a bit of a red herring. The fact is that Google owns about 70 per cent of search that drives people to websites. And that is money.

Google has already been sued by someone who claimed that their business was being adversely affected by the company’s policies, and that this was illegal because Google had what amounts to monopoly power. If that sounds familiar, it’s because Microsoft was accused of pretty much the same thing in a federal anti-trust case that was launched in 1998 and dragged on for years.

Is Google a potential anti-trust target? Nick Carr has said he thinks so, and Mike Masnick at Techdirt has also said it’s in the realm of possibility. I don’t think that kind of claim has a hope of succeeding (and didn’t think that it made much sense in the Microsoft case either), but stats like Rich Skrenta is throwing around are likely to raise some red flags with the policy wonks in Washington.