Is Google a content company now?

I know it’s been a couple of days since this was announced, which in blogosphere terms is a lifetime ago, but something about the announcement of a deal between Google and “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane continues to puzzle me. Actually, a bunch of things about it puzzle me — and not just the fact that (as Valleywag points out) this deal was originally talked about almost a year ago. I guess I’m having trouble wrapping my head around the idea.

Just to recap, the cartoonist and the search engine have teamed up to offer, well… I don’t know what to call them except maybe cartoon “webisodes” — a series of 50 two-minute clips that will be distributed through Google’s AdSense program and will be collectively known as Seth MacFarlane’s Cavalcade of Cartoon Comedy. As described (both of the times it has been announced), the clips will be animated and will carry advertising in some form, whether banner or pre-roll/post-roll. MacFarlane has called them “animated versions of the one-frame cartoons you might see in the New Yorker, only edgier” (notice he didn’t say funnier).

I guess my problem — if I have one — is that this deal seems to be neither fish nor fowl. It’s not so much that it blurs the line between TV and animation and the Web, because I’m all in favour of that kind of line-blurring in digital media. It’s more that Google and its advertising program seem like an odd fit with an artist like MacFarlane; even just writing a sentence like “the deal between the search engine and the cartoonist” reminds me of that old saying about the fish and the bicycle. What are these two things doing together?

Are the clips that Seth creates content or advertising? They will be distributed through AdSense, and carry ads, but they aren’t technically advertising (to blur matters even further, Seth will create special versions of the clips for advertisers). In many ways, this is the kind of thing that Yahoo might do, and in fact has done, in the past — creating content or contracting with someone to create content, although without the advertising piece. Does that mean Google is becoming a content company, and if so, is that necessarily a good thing?

Microsoft says Yahoo is GFP: Good for parts

According to the Wall Street Journal, the seemingly interminable Microsoft-Yahoo dance has taken a new twist: Microsoft has apparently approached large media entities — including Time-Warner and News Corp. — about joining up for a run at Yahoo, with the ultimate intent of breaking the company into its component parts. I have to say that this makes total sense to me, and in fact, I would argue that such a deal makes even more sense than either a Microsoft takeover of the entire company or a Microsoft acquisition of Yahoo’s search operations.

If Yahoo were a patient at a hospital, the physician in charge might already have scrawled “GFP” on its chart, which to other doctors and nurses is a sign that things are not going well and the patient is “good for parts” — meaning organ donation, etc. (and yes, doctors really do that kind of thing). If nothing else, the past couple of years have shown that while Yahoo has many good assets, the company as a whole is not working. It is trying to do too many things at once, some of its strategies conflict with each other, and there’s an overall lack not just of visionary leadership but (I would argue) of basic functional decision-making ability. In other words, a prime candidate for organ donation.

If such a deal actually came to pass, Microsoft could acquire the search technology and assets that it needs to get out of its distant third-place position in search and search-related advertising, and a media partner could acquire some of Yahoo’s media-related assets — Yahoo Music, the video-related operations, Yahoo News and Yahoo Finance and so on — and other parts of the company could be auctioned off or just shut down. When a company struggles for as long as Yahoo has, it is often (but not always) a sign that it has simply outlived its usefulness, and needs to be either fundamentally restructured, sold or broken apart. I think Yahoo’s time has come. And even Fred Wilson seems to think so.

Oh Canada — not too bad, eh?

I don’t want to get all patriotic on you or anything, but I came across a couple of tributes to our home and native land (okay — my home and native land anyway) and they were sufficiently funny and yet true at the same time that I couldn’t help but take note of them. One was a guest post on the Queen of Spain’s blog by Meg Fowler, and while it’s entitled “Ten Things That Are Better About Canada,” it isn’t really about why we’re better than the U.S. or anywhere else, I don’t think — just why things are pretty darn good. My favourites include:

— Our national bird is tastier than yours.

— We know the secret to feeling rich — turn all your currency into gold-coloured coins!

— Our national flag is a leaf and two bars — something you can find in any town we have, too.

— We have more trees than we have McDonalds. And more hockey rinks than Wal-Marts. And more donuts than cops.

Nice job, Meg. And the other piece was a guest column in the National Post by a U.S. executive named Dave Burwick, who is leaving his tour of duty in Canada to head back to the U.S. and came up with his own list of things he loves about this country, including some thoughts about how hockey is a metaphor for our culture (and no, it doesn’t have anything to do with Don Cherry, thank God). Some selections:

— Hockey Night in Canada: One of the last communal TV events left anywhere.

— Eating a peameal sandwich every Saturday at 7 a. m. during my son’s hockey practice.

— Raising a family right in the middle of the city, and knowing they’re safe.

— Surviving a minus-30-degree day in downtown Winnipeg, and how it made me feel more alive.

I took a bike ride this afternoon through the Rouge River valley and into Pickering, out to Frenchman’s Bay — where some people were sunbathing, some were kite-surfing in the shadow of the giant Pickering nuclear plant, and some were sailing or kayaking — and along the way I saw hundreds of people walking, biking, picnicking, playing football, throwing a Frisbee, and just generally having a great time on a beautiful day. They were many different shades, from pale white to off-white to various shades of brown and black; some were wearing shorts, some dresses, some salwar kameez and some the hijab and chador and even burqa. And they were all Canadian. Happy Canada Day.

Powerset: Hail Mary pass? Updated


The much-rumoured Microsoft acquisition of “natural-language search” startup Powerset is now official, with a statement from MSFT and one from Powerset. Mike Arrington says that sources close to the deal tell him the rumoured $100-million asking price is in the ball park. Not bad for a company that has virtually no actual operating business.

Original post:

Matt Marshall over at VentureBeat says he has it on good authority that Microsoft is planning to make an offer for Powerset, the “semantic search” startup that has been in stealth mode for quite awhile now, popping up only long enough for a party or two, and recently poked its head out with a small-scale demo of its technology as a Wikipedia search engine. The rumoured dollar value for this deal? $100-million. If true, that would be a hell of a payday for something that hasn’t really shown much in the way of spectacular results so far, and is based at least in part on 30-year-old technology that the company licensed from Xerox’s PARC labs. TechCrunch says the deal could still be derailed by the Microsoft-Yahoo mess.

Of course, for a company like Microsoft, $100-million is chicken feed — Bill and Steve find that kind of money stuffed under the couch cushions when they vaccuum the Microsoft HQ. And the idea of an acquisition has been around before, with rumours floating here and there. It’s a painfully well-known fact that Microsoft’s search is a distant third place to Google and Yahoo, which is one of the main reasons the software behemoth continues its on-again, off-again (currently on-again) pursuit of Yahoo’s search business. If it could use Powerset to add natural-language search tools to its arsenal, that might help to close the gap with Google — although as Danny Sullivan has noted many times, we’ve been around this particular racetrack many times before.

News flash: Flash websites still suck

It’s been a veritable geek flash-mob — in more ways than one — since Google announced that it will now be able to search and index Flash files on the Web, thanks to a special player that Adobe has created for it and Yahoo to use. The player effectively acts like a regular user, clicking on the various buttons or dragging sliders or whatever, in order to reveal all of the content trapped within the Flash widget or page. As far as I can tell, the only thing the Adobe player won’t be able to simulate is a pissed-off user clicking away from the page altogether, because the Flash widget or movie is so annoying and/or completely useless.

I’m no SEO magician, but I also have to wonder (as Erick Schonfeld does) whether the ability to search through Flash files is going to be that great for websites, since the main thing that gets you higher in Google search results is the number (and quality) of links that you have to your content. Are people all of a sudden going to start linking to the content inside a Flash widget, or boosting their links to a page because it has searchable Flash now? I don’t think so, although I could be wrong.

But the biggest fly in the ointment for me is the simple fact that most Flash websites are — not to put too fine a point on it — crap. The technology is occasionally used to good purpose, but more often than not is a cheap and cheerful way to make a site look interactive and fun, while simultaneously robbing it of any usefulness and overdosing on eye candy. Disagree? Feel free to tell me so in the comments.

Warner joins Nokia’s “Comes with DRM”

Nokia now has three of the Big Four labels signed on for its upcoming “Comes With Music” service, which is expected to launch later this year. EMI hasn’t signed up yet, but apparently it is planning to. Although the terms of the deals are unknown, Nokia has reportedly paid the record companies millions of dollars for the right to offer some of their songs for download, and will build some of that cost into the price of Nokia handsets. Not surprisingly, Warner boss Edgar Bronfman Jr. is full of visionary enthusiasm for the project:

“Nokia’s Comes With Music service will be a significant step forward in the evolution of digital music. It’s the first global initiative to fundamentally align the interests of music companies with telecommunications companies.”

Who knows, maybe this time all of Edgar Jr.’s pronouncements about a revolutionary step in digital media will actually come true — unlike, say, his similar pronouncements about the benefits of a merger between Seagram and French media conglomerate Vivendi, a deal that would eventually vaporize billions of dollars in shareholder value, along with a substantial chunk of his Montreal-based family fortune. But let’s not dwell on that. And I’m also not going to mention how Edgar has repeatedly pledged that he has “gotten religion” about the need for progress in the music industry, only to repeatedly demonstrate the exact opposite whenever it comes time to actually do something.

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