Proximity Creeping Up On Us

The good people at Google have just released an interesting App for Android which turns the heat up even further on the whole proximity thing. The App (called Field Trip) offers you interesting data, trivia, reviews etc of places near where you are standing to your phone without you asking for it. They are fronting it with historic data, reviews from Zagat etc. I’m sure initially it will have just that…probably not a huge amount of coverage but it’s a start. Whilst they may not have a vast amount of local trivia right out the box what they do have is hundreds of thousands of local advertisers who would arguably be relevant to you as you pass by with your android phone running this App. As an iPhone user I don’t have the opportunity to try it out yet so I can’t give you a firsthand review, but it meshes nicely with the Passbook feature of iOS6 from Apple. In both cases it allows content to be delivered to you based on where you and your phone are standing, sitting or driving. The Apple application is focused initially on airline tickets, loyalty cards and the like but in both cases I’m predicting within six months you will be getting polite alerts on both operating systems from companies you know and like or perhaps even ones you don’t have a relationship with to stop by and take advantage of this or that offer since you are in the neighborhood.

On a side note we have to hope that before Apple turns this on full bore they fix up their new map App. It’s a pretty impressive tool and the turn by turn GPS navigator voiced by your friend Siri is very impressive (if I were Garmin or TomTom I’d be reaching for the scotch by now). However, it’s so buggy that Tim Cook the Apple CEO actually apologized to users for making such a pig’s ear of the release. I imaging Jobs would have had firing parties at dawn. I was in DC the other day headed to the airport when I checked how long it would take to get there. My iPad running Google Maps thought Dulles was 35 minutes away iPhone thought over 90 minutes. Ahem Sir you could walk there in that much time….close but no cigar.

Have a great weekend!!

A Mixed Bag of Goodies

XXX???

It’s been a weird week in search with many things happening or showing signs of happening which could have significant long term impact. Let’s get the most important one out the way first. A while ago iCANN released the .XXX TLD for adult content. We now have www.search.XXX as a search engine completely devoted to porn. Yes folks we have achieved porn Nirvana. The more cynical might claim that nothing has really changed because search has always been devoted to porn. Not so though. Over recent years the search guys have be pushing adult content down or off the results page entirely. That’s perfectly reasonable for folks not looking for that kind of content…but has made life a little more difficult for those in search of nooky….happy porn surfers you now have your very own nude beach….enjoy!

A View of the Ocean

Going from the ridiculous to the sublime Google turned 14 released Ocean View for Google Maps which ads some nice under water panoramas of places you probably will never visit. It feels a bit like the actions of someone who (as my mother would put it) has more money than sense.

Fine For Microsoft?

On the hard news side it looks like the EU is gearing up to actually fine Microsoft for forgetting to include the browser choices they were required to deliver in Windows 7 (…Ooops..) and that fine could be 10% of their revenue. The EU is still apparently in deep talks with Google about their monopoly in search in Europe…which also has plenty of room to turn nasty…the EU hates monopoly..especially evil monopolies which emanate from the US.

“Klout” A Deal

In Yahoo/Bing land they have just cut a deal with Klout to include Klout scores in Bing results sets (Not sure I really care) but it will be interesting to see what difference it makes. Unbelievably there are rumors surrounding Yahoo that they might take Google back to power their search. Yahoo dumped Google back in 2004..it was ugly…Yahoo kept the kids. If they take them back Google will own roughly 80% of US search and closer to 90% globally….pick the monopoly bones out of that EU!

This Is A Job For….The Search Police

I have a story for you today which I’m pretty sure nobody else has noticed….especially nobody in Mountain View, Redmond or Sunnyvale. The Senate Commerce Committee is currently wrestling with the annoying problem of Moving Brokers. This is the service/scam where companies advertise a low cost moving service but don’t reveal that what the client thought was the entire moving fee was in fact a ‘binding deposit’ and if the customer wants to get their stuff delivered they have to pay the moving company additional fees. I agree it’s an obnoxious scam and one that ironically one of my sons fell prey to only recently. He ended up paying more than the quote (actually I paid more than the quote but who’s counting?) The committee is seeking to remedy it by asking the search engines not to return results from these offenders. Much of the business they land (naturally) comes from search and the committee has convinced themselves that these bad actors and somehow ‘gaming’ the system to get top rank. Any cursory inspection of the results for these kinds or queries reveals that there are indeed several (to my mind anyway) clear examples of spammers using black hat ‘SEO’ techniques to get their results to the top. Some of the other results may be bad brokers hiding behind well produced content rich sites. It’s very hard to tell….and that’s exactly the point.

In theory the plague of algorithmic releases Google has unleashed in the past year or so (Panda, Panda II, Penguin etc) was supposed to deal with such blatant spamming. Whilst it has certainly impacted the bad actors significantly (and in so doing hurt the good guys quite a bit too) it’s clearly still a long way from solved. It’s interesting that the Senate took this opportunity to get involved. We would more typically see them summoning the search guys to the hill to be raked over the coals for monopolistic behavior or privacy infringement. What they are simply asking for in their actually well reasoned letter is for the search engines to do a better job. It looks like a reasonable request but it’s really like asking me to lose 50lbs…it’s simple but not easy. The dirty secret is that whilst it is harder for the lazy or incompetent to spam high value terms the determined can still do it. If the bounties are high then the incentive is there to misbehave.

The search engines have always claimed that they don’t police individual results rather they set algorithmic tests of quality which raise or lower all boats. There are excellent DMCA reasons for doing this but in cases where high value Spam is this obvious how hard would it be to tweak an algo which looked for the obvious bad acts carried out by the bad guys in specific high value verticals and ban their domains as opposed to attempting to fix the few by boiling the ocean of all search…..not rocket science I’m betting.

I have moved many times over recent years and it’s a painful process. Perhaps the hardest part was getting quotes from viable suppliers. They guys you might want to use hide behind submission forms which trigger ruthless and dogged pursuit by sales guys who always want an in person meeting, which makes it so much easier to just book the job online from a smaller site who might be a bad broker in disguise. If I could go through my house and fill out a form with enough info so that one of the big guys could take my booking and not trigger that sales pursuit I would have done it. Instead I did it online and got caught.

Miss Moneypenny….Get me the Search Police stat!

The Do Not Track Mess

Most of us either haven’t head of Do Not Track of if we have we probably think it’s something to do with an anti hunting group. In fact it’s the product of the White House led privacy initiatives of a year or so ago where browser manufactures committed to enabling a Do Not Track feature on their browsers which would mean that advertisers couldn’t follow them around the web serving ads based on user identified behavior. The classic use case is that I search for a Honda Civic on Google today and for the next week or two I see ads for Honda Civics where ever I go on the web. As someone who makes their living in digital advertising I love the idea, privacy advocates…not so much. I get that it feels a little creepy but really…how bad is it? I’m going to see ads whatever I do…it’s a Do Not Track feature not Do Not Advertise. Frankly, I’d rather see ads which I might actually be interested in rather than a random assortment of ads which have no relevance to me at all.

Others don’t share my sunny attitude so the browser manufacturers have been adding DNT features to their browsers over the past few months. Google has finally caved as last man standing and just released the feature in their latest developer release. That’s tough for Google because they make the vast majority of their money through advertising and this online stalking or “remarketing” feature has been a growing revenue stream for them for a while. This is the proverbial Turkey voting for Thanksgiving. The market is fairly closely divided with Chrome and IE pretty much tied at 33% each in the US with IE taking close to half the market worldwide. With DNT there is a difference between having it and having it turned on. Most users don’t tamper very much with their browser settings (which is why MSN still has any traffic at all) so if a browser is shipped with it turned off so that only the geeky can figure out how to turn it on it will remain pretty moot. Microsoft has said that they will ship their Windows 8 Browser with this enabled and others in the online world (like Apache) are attempting to stem the tide by say that they will ignore them. I think it’s a safe bet that Google will ship with this feature turned off in spite of the PR black eye that will no doubt deliver. In any event we can expect the Tracking controversy to remain a hot topic and will in good part control what ads we see over the next few years.

The Pied Piper of Local

The recent iPhone5 was being watched avidly by locally oriented folks for the introduction of an NFC chip to the phone to turn your iPhone into a swipe payment device. Sadly it wasn’t there, so we will have to wait for the next slightly thinner, slightly faster slightly more cool iPhone6 for that much needed feature. Buried deep amongst the other “slightly better’ features which I really don’t care that much about, is an entirely new feature which I do think will make a significant difference. The Passbook feature comes as part of the new operating system and it’s potentially a game changer. There has been much hoopla touted about rewards and coupons being made available to folks based on where they are. The ideal scenario is that you walk into your favorite coffee shop and your phone tells you that cookies are half off for the next hour….it sounds simple but it has eluded the market …till now.

To date major brands have tried to use Twitter for this kind of deal push and it works to an extent, but the App based loyalty programs available so far really only work if the App happens to be running…which is a huge pain in the phone. The new Passbook feature lets you accumulate your electronic coupons, tickets, boarding passes and cards in one place so you won’t have to fish through your pocket book for those loyalty cards or coupons. That’s both useful and convenient but the Passbook also opens the iPhone up as a real time proximity coupon delivery device. Apple is famously stuffy about who it works with and what those partners can do but it’s a pretty good bet that some time real soon when you sign up with some kind of affinity program or you when you follow a brand you will be asked if you would like to receive notices of special deals through Passbook.

The cool factor comes in when you add in proximity. Just how close you are to a particular location to trigger a coupon will vary based on the kind of offer. The cookies makes sense when you are right inside the coffee shop, whereas a nail salon might push an offer to clients on a wider basis on the grounds that they are more likely to drive to the location. In both cases the end user does not have to have an App running to get a notification on the lock screen that there is a relevant and perhaps very close offer to consider.

I think this could be huge, it could be bigger than the deal of the day nonsense and will likely force every loyalty and coupon play to get on board or go under. We can be sure that Android will have a similar feature in the next release or two so we are looking location based offers becoming very common very soon (I think propinquity ubiquity has a nice ring to it). Apple doesn’t need this feature to build their business so my expectation is that they will do it carefully and right so we don’t get deal spammed out of existence and they have the massive user base needed to make this relevant right out of the box. It could even lead to a ‘Pied Piper effect’ where a deal gets launched and leads to a crowd of deal hunters following to the location like the famous rats of Hamelin. Remember….you heard it here first.

Psst Mark….The Money Is Over Here

I don’t use Facebook much…I’m too old, too busy, have no friends etc etc, but I realize I’m almost alone in that respect. Something close to 20% of humanity uses it and about half of them spend all the spare time they can on it. One reason I don’t use it much is the search is horrible. It’s not just bad..it’s horrible. What’s worse is that it goes against the search behavior a good chunk of the same humanity has been trained in over the past decade or so. Let me illustrate the point.  Go to FB and search for “Samsung 3d TV” you get a splashy Samsung  page with great info about which people liked the TV. Then try the search “Golf Pro Temecula CA” the results here feature one Kyle Dalton. I now know more than I ever wanted to do about this fellow….but he appears to be a realtor who really really likes golf. There were no useful results or ads from any sources. Let’s assume I was one of the 10% of humanity who spends most of my life hanging out on FB and I wanted to check prices on a new TV or improve my laughably bad golf game I would have to leave FB to find an answer to my pressing questions. The fact that I have to do that simply beggars belief. Given the sheer volume of eyeballs FB has, making those same eyes go to the effort of looking someplace else simply to get information or buy something is sheer commercial lunacy.

If you try very hard you can force FB into giving you a results set powered by our friends at Bing but even that doesn’t carry ads. This has driven me quietly crazy for some time now so I was intrigued to see in the interview which Zuckerberg gave to Techcrunch this week in which he feels FB is “uniquely positioned” to go after search. Really? D’ya Think? I get that FB is a movement dedicated to the world getting along, and I get that Mr. Z has a vice like grip and a mission…but meantime would it kill FB to give the 10% of humanity who show up there every day anyway a decent search as well as saving the world? Estimates vary but there is certainly an easy 2-5 Billion dollars to be picked up for FB without them doing anything other than negotiating a killer deal with a search giant. The obvious candidate would be Google. They have the most advertisers, the best product etc etc. Google may think twice about that as they clearly see FB as a massive online threat but one of the key drivers for their early success was that they used to power the search at Yahoo. Eventually people figured out that they could get Google search without waiting for the Yahoo ads…and the rest is history.

Facebook is currently at war with Yahoo over several outstanding patent issues but wouldn’t a deal with Y! be a great intro towards making love not war? It would also be a great intro to marriage talks..but that may be a little ambitious. Beyond the immediate revenue jump FB would acquire they would have another even stronger component to add to their plans. One reason FB has been so heavily clobbered by the market of late is the fact that the world is going mobile and they have been horribly slow in coming up with how FB will make money in that space. Adding mobile search to the mobile FB experience is a screamingly obvious option. If I’m already on my mobile FB account why should I have to change App just to book a table for dinner or find a price to get my brakes fixed. There is a sack in the corner of the room packed with bullion and finally it looks like Mark might actually have found time to drive the forklift over and pick it up….Psst Mark….

iPhone 5……..Searching Better by Degree?

Having just followed the blog feature by feature iPhone announcement I’m struck by the incremental impact this may have on search. Some will doubtless criticize Apple for a product which is only better by degree…a bit thinner, a bit longer, a bit faster (maybe a lot faster), a better camera, better sound, better microphone the list goes on. What I’m more intrigued by are the incremental incursions into search iPhone 5 points to. Apple has added Siri to the iPod Touch, its added Siri coverage to many of the kind of queries that are central to search such as sports, movies and restaurants. None of these incremental additions are complete game changers on their own, just as arguably none of the individual features make the iPhone5 a game changer but they point to a growth in App based engagement which means we are searching in many more places than we ever have and on many more devices. The Kelsey projections have desktop search surpassing desktop inside of two years. Apple was focused today on what they rather neatly call a “post PC” world. The tablet part of that world is already heavily Apple centric with a 68% market share but interestingly they also claimed that the  “Our notebooks rank #1 in the US in market share for the past three months.” These trends point to the continuing struggle for dominance between Microsoft, Google, Apple and increasingly Amazon. Search is one of those key battle grounds. Apple has historically never been a search leader yet in a Post PC world there may be very little stopping Apple becoming an inadvertent search leader….one incremental feature at a time.

Auto Completely Confusing

Search Auto Complete has been helping the lazy or dimwitted for several years. As you type a search long before you complete the phrase Google starts to suggest what you might actually be searching for and in some cases it displays results for what you might be looking for on the page before you have finished typing. It’s a neat feature but has recently been featured in some interesting online controversies.

The perpetual battle between content owners and those wishing to pirate that content has been fought in the trenches of search for several years it’s now moving into the search bar. Last year an attempt to make it illegal for search engines to return potentially copyright infringements in search results was defeated in the US but it remains a hot topic. They should. Search engines are not the police of the internet…they are the road signs. Most search engines comply with notices from courts of competent jurisdiction to delete offending content. However a critical reason for search engines ability to function at all is the fact that in DMCA and other legislation they are granted safe harbor provided that they are searching not curating the content with human editors. So were Google to (say) come up with a huge service packed with content taken without permission from thousands of content owners which was managed and maintained by them (like You Tube) they might get into legal hot water.

In any event the search engines have adamantly opposed this kind of legislation as unfair and unworkable. A couple of months ago Google announced that they would be factoring in DMCA take-down notices when calculating results, the theory being that sites with potentially problematic content would be punished. That’s an interesting departure and leans somewhat towards them ‘curating’ content, but this time algorithmically by weighting that factor into the equation.

Another wrinkle has surfaced in the equation as Google has stopped filling out auto complete for several leading torrent site like thepiratesbay.org. I have to imagine that simply not filling out the last few characters of someone trying to come up with the full name of thepiratesbay will have little or no real impact on the down-loaders but I guess it points to a certain willingness on the part of Google to make the job of those down-loaders very slightly more difficult.

The auto complete feature is based on which terms are frequently searched. For example if you type in “Mitt Romney” Google suggests  “Mitt Romney Mexican, Mitt Romney VP and Mitt Romney Tax Return” the Tax return aspect is obviously problematic as might be the fact that “work at home scam” is an auto complete which pops up as soon as you type “work at home.” This has caused quite a lot of pain and suffering for companies which have (for better or worse) become inextricably linked with a specific search terms. There have been cases where there have been concerted efforts by political enemies to link a rival with a politically damaging topic like prostitution or drugs. I have also seen some pretty convincing case studies where unscrupulous SEO companies have organized auto complete campaigns where they managed to ‘trick’ search engines into auto correcting to a brands advantage. It’s less clear how many searches it takes before a phrase becomes an auto-complete and although I’d love it if the search ‘Tim Judd‘ auto completed to ‘Tim Judd’ search genius I’m not holding my breath.

The Gulliver Problem

Our collective search roost is owned and pretty much ruled by Google. We mere acolytes have to hope that the Google gods treat us well for being well behaved. Certainly in the US although there have been hearings on their monopoly I’d say the consensus is that nobody has to use Google and if you don’t like them or their product use Duck Duck Go, Bing or some such. In other parts of the world they have a more robust attitude. As a Brit I’m certainly familiar with the more managed business climate which prevails in the UK/EU world. In that just because you have achieved market dominance doesn’t mean that you can exploit it ruthlessly to the exclusion of potential competitors. That “it’s not fair” climate has led to a rash of pending complaints against Google in the UK, the EU and further afield spots like Brazil and India. There seems to be a growing consensus that Google is stacking the deck in favor of its own products and services and in lands where the state has a tougher hand in the game than the US this stuff is frowned upon. The key question is whether these suits typically filled by tiny search companies seeking to tie the giant down will have any meaningful impact in the long term.

The complaint is essentially two fold, first that Google is favoring its own products and thus excluding competitors and that they aren’t labeling their own results as being from their own properties. The first complaint is tough to define and police. In many cases Google claims that they may exclude or play down results from a particular provider because the results offered by that provider are poor quality of overly loaded with ads. That’s fair enough as far as it goes, but it clearly goes beyond that. For example the query “Hotel New Orleans” yields a good array of hotels and sources of hotels, including results from their own hotel product right at the top of the results. It’s also labeled ‘sponsored.’ What’s more interesting is that Orbitz is dead last on page one and I couldn’t find anything from Kayak or Hotwire in the organic results on the first five pages. I did find them well represented in the paid ads.

Google could go a long way to at-least pacifying some of these complaints by simply flagging content from their own properties as such in the results set. It’s unlikely they will be able to stop the onslaught from the search Lilliputians entirely by better disclosure but it may help. The question of where this or that particular source of third party content should rank is much trickier, and one that I have to imagine Google doesn’t want decided by EU Mandarins, that issue is likely to get bogged down in the courts for many years to come.

Up the Amazon Without a Paddle?

We use search for just about everything, Google has famously become a noun, a verb and who knows..is about to become an adjective too. Whilst it’s awesome to find out things like (after watching Clinton last night) which amendment would we have to repeal in order to re-elect him (the 22nd) it makes its money from shopping searches. Those shopping searches have traditionally come from desktop users using Google to price compare for both online and offline purchases. However there is an interesting argument emerging that says that Google might end up duking it out with an unexpected rival…not Yahoo! or Bing or even Duck Duck Go….but Amazon. The little book seller who could has become the unexpected gorilla in the room in online sales and may end up as an inadvertent search gorilla too. With the continued growth of mobile devices and the increasing trend for users to cut out the middle man and go straight to Amazon to compare and shop there is at least some danger that Google will be left holding the proverbial 22nd amendment query baby while the shopping search goes straight to Amazon.

Obviously this isn’t going to hurt the mighty Google badly anytime real soon.  Amazon revenues are in the same ballpark as Google but their margins are much thinner. However Google’s juicy margins are driven by shopping searches and the average price per click Google is achieving has been in pretty steady decline for a year. As I reported in an earlier post the move to mobile is driving this trend more than any other single factor. To add insult to injury mobile users are increasingly bypassing Google entirely and comparison shopping on shopping apps like Amazon….it will be interesting to see how this plays out.