OMG….Google Looses Defamation Suit

This post is a little inside baseball but bear with me…the implications are potentially important. Google (and other search engines) have always defended themselves against accusations of defamation by claiming that they are algorithmically and innocently aggregating and passing along content which other people have come up with as search results. When I used to work for a search engine we used to maintain (as did others) that we would only respond to instructions from a court with valid jurisdiction to remove content. Simply filling a complaint would not get us to change the results as there would lie madness…with a potential for us to be deluged with complaints. In the relatively rare cases where we did receive instructions to remove specific content we were happy to comply.

So it was with some interest that I read that Google has just lost a case in Australia where they received a complaint correctly filled out about their image search which implied that someone who was not connected with the Oz underworld was in some way a gangster. The court felt that the defense that Google algorithmically generates results was reasonable until the problem was brought to their attention. What’s surprising and important is that the court felt that them receiving the complaint (as opposed to a court ruling)  and not acting on it n cases where that content is harmful or potentially defaming was in of its self harming. US law EU law is different to Australian. They won the case against the web results complaint on a technicality because the complainant wasn’t filled out correctly. Google is under attack in both jurisdictions on multiple fronts. It would only take a judge to see the logic of this case and rule in a similar way in the US or EU for all hell to break out…we will have to watch this space, this could be interesting.

DNT D.E.A.D

One of the strong points which Microsoft has been touting to anyone who will listen of late is that it’s latest browser IE10 is delivered by default with the Do Not Track (DNT) feature enabled. There has been concern for some time around how much of our online behavior is tracked by advertisers. The DNT initiative which was championed by the White House amongst others was supposed to address this.  The problem for advertisers like those signed on through Yahoo or Google is that with DNT turned on in a browser Yahoo or Google can’t offer the targeted campaigns focused on behavior or intent which they can offer with DNT disabled.

Yahoo has just announced that it will ignore DNT flags in IE10…so if you are an advertiser through Yahoo you will still be able to buy behaviorally targeted campaigns on IE 10. It’s an understandable commercially driven decision where Yahoo puts the interests of its advertisers ahead of privacy concerns. What’s fascinating is the convoluted argument Yahoo makes to justify its position. In short they argue that DNT should only apply when an end user explicitly sets the switch…not because it was set as a default by a browser. The vast majority of users never futz with settings and select the default DNT off installation. They also argue that ignoring DNT allows them to offer a wide range of non commercial content targeted on end user interest.  It’s a clever argument, but the corollary might be that popup and virus blockers should only apply when users explicitly choose to block those items. You could argue (and many do) that the default should be DNT in all cases with users having to enable tracking for it to apply. Google has already indicated that they will deliver Chrome with DNT functionality but off as default. Firefox and Safari also allows users to choose to enable DNT if they want to….but are also delivered with DNT off.

So it looks like DNT is pretty much dead in the water….or at least holed below the water line. Google says it will respect it where it finds on because the end user enabled it. In any event IE’s browser share is now down to about 22% which means DNT will not apply to roughly 78% of browsers minus the handful of end users who figure out how to turn it on minus the fraction of advertisers delivered by Yahoo….let’s call it a round 85% of advertisers who are effectively free to continue to track in a DNT world.

Say it Aint So!…

If you follow this blog you will be familiar that I’m a Brit by birth and an American by choice,  have been in the US for the past 16ish years. In any event I was absolutely rocked to my Brit core by the breaking Jimmy Savile story. The chances are you haven’t heard of Jimmy Savile until recently. He was massive in the media from the late sixties until he retired a year or so back. He died recently at age 84. If you didn’t grow up in the UK in the 70s/80s it’s hard to explain his standing. At his height he was as famous and beloved as Lucille Ball and Ryan Seacrest combined and as prominent in children’s charity as Jerry Lewis, not as big as Oprah but close to. He had a huge prime time TV show called Jim’ll Fix It in which he made the dreams of thousands of people (mostly kids) come true every week. He was lavished with accolades and awards from the British establishment and was iconic of the BBC and all it achieved…and he was a predator on an epic scale.

In truth I never liked him, I thought he was fake and creepy and I used to joke about his evident (and I thought unhealthy) interest in children. It appears that over a long career at the height of celebrity he molested something between three and four hundred children during his time as a beloved champ of good causes. This makes the Penn State scandal look like a minor misunderstanding between friends. To make matters worse the BBC apparently knew about the problem at least at some level and covered it up. When a BBC documentary program tried to run an expose it got squashed.

It’s a horrible story on every possible level. The ramifications run right to the top and I suspect that by the time the bloodletting is done the BBC will be on life support. The weird thing is that in an odd dark way it’s almost a relief. If I have thought about Mr. Savile at all over the past decade or two it was to reflect that the other shoe never dropped. Gary Glitter is in jail for child pornography, the Catholic Church is in disgrace, Michael Jackson is dead but Jimmy Savile was still there with his ludicrous silver lame suits, catch phrases and huge cigars a beloved national icon. Now over night …he’s not. Somehow that feels like a kind of justice has been served. Not real justice, we can’t give those poor abused kids back their childhoods or peace of mind…but at least he will go down in history as a twisted monster not a smiling hero…and that feels better.

Opting Out of Yellow

It’s not often that I LOL when reading anything. The other day I did when the author used the phrase ‘treeware” as in hardware, firmware,software and for the archaic paper component “treeware” very funny….I intend to steal that phrase and claim it for my own. For years I have called yellow books ‘dead tree products’ and the process of moving the book from my front door to recycling is often the only exercise I get. The accumulation of treeware on door steps is symptomatic of the crazy mess the yellow books find themselves in. Most people are somewhat aware that yellow pages have been suffering horribly with the decline in their core business over recent years. What most don’t realize that central to their problems are greatly exacerbated by the debt they accumulated a decade or more ago when times were great and many groups went on buying sprees to build huge publishing groups. Now the advertisers have gone but the debt remains. I read the other day that in order for Dex to complete their deal with SuperMedia either their debtors will have to agree to a restructuring or both of them will have to go bankrupt (again) to complete the deal. Similarly Hibu in the UK  (formerly Yell) have suspended debt repayments until they restructure their financials causing their stock to plummet by over a third.

It’s not all bleak news. The yellow book industry has just proved that they are able to deliver an elegant end to end online experience through the recent launch of www.yellowpagesoptout.com. It’s a bold move and one which the Association of Directory Publishers is to be commended for making.Simply by registering I was able to opt out of receiving the five yellow books which litter my front yard. A couple of clicks and I was done….I’m now a treeware free zone!

Street Fight …Not and Windows 8 Search

I was excited to attend the Street Fight conference in New York this week. I even moved flights to get to NYC ahead of the Hurricane Sandy. Street Fight pulled the plug on the entire event Sunday morning and looking at the forecasts and the impact so far it’s entirely understandable. Just in case you haven’t come across it Street Fight is all about “Hyperlocal.” Hyperlocal is the catch phrase Du Jour for all things local. It looks at content, commerce and strategy for all things local and has a nice edge about the industry….which can be a bit dry and dull. They have an excellent daily roundup of all things local and if you don’t already subscribe you probably should. They have rescheduled to mid January and I’ll be there then. Good luck to all those in the path of the storm…stay safe we on the West coast we’ll be thinking of you.

Meantime Windows 8 was announced and although I haven’t managed to lay my hot little hands on it yet they do look to have done some very interesting stuff around the new search. The whole Window 8 paradigm offers a range or key tasks as objects on the desktop rather than a list of items or programs. The new search follows a similar theme. The traditional Bing is still available but the new Bing is optimized to work with new Microsoft Surface OS devices and I do like the way they present results as a matrix of easily clickable cells rather than the traditional list of blue links. The way the results work is interesting also. It lets the user push the results bar to the side and navigate within search without the constant back and forth of traditional search. Bing also has a range of search Apps which let you focus on a topic like travel or images. I think it’s an interesting paradigm and I look forwards to working with it.

Yahoo Surrenders Local

As I have mentioned in many previous posts I like Yahoo….I have always liked Yahoo. Back in the day when they were the cool kids complete with huge goofy purple chairs they didn’t let being wildly successful turn them into corporate monsters. They have famously had a horrible last few years with Google cleaning their clock in search and multiple other miss steps.  When Marissa Mayer assumed control it was clear that she had to pick the battles she was going to fight. Back when she joined in July I appealed to her from these very pages to put Local on her to “fix and focus on” list. I didn’t think for a moment she’d hear me (I’m not that delusional) but I was saddened a little to see in her recent discussions around Q3 results that Yahoo won’t be focusing on local going forwards.  It’s understandable, Yahoo local is broken. As one of the people who attempts to work with them on behalf of our clients they have been grinding to a halt recently. It would take an effort worthy of the New Deal to jump start the platform so it’s understandable that the resources might be further diverted from this red headed step child. Central to Yahoo’s Brave New World is (of course) mobile. Call me crazy but don’t local and mobile go together? The recent Apple Maps fiasco points at how hard it is to do maps and by adoption, local. Yahoo Local as a directory has been stuck without focus or a reason to thrive, and has missed the kind of location based innovation and reviews championed by FourSquare and Yelp. Could Yahoo have taken on local as a central part of their mobile strategy, probably. However if the end game for Yahoo is to land on the carrier deck of one of the other flag ships in the continuing online Battle of Midway being waged by Apple, Google and Microsoft it probably makes less sense to invest in something which could be improved with minimal cost by simply signing over the entire thing to another player like Bing.

A moment’s silence please in memory of Yahoo Local.

Back to the Future

Post PC World

In a world where according to the recent Jefferies survey mobile engagement has risen 35% whilst newspaper and magazine engagement has fallen 28% and 19% respectively we are dealing with more than a Post PC World, we are dealing with a mobile driven revolution.  There are credible projections from Cisco and Gartner that show over all mobile data growth to be up by 100x by the end of the decade. Against this sea change in user behavior and expectations  we should contrast the basic needs of the same users.

A Simple Phone Call

While some part of the lead gen industry may still have reservations, it’s clear that the end users don’t:  They are using their mobile devices (and there are yet more ways to engage with mobile in the works) for just about everything. They expect useful content and transact-able commercial messages. What’s fascinating about the mobile explosion (especially for the technology challenged SMB market) is that the most obvious deliverable through the vast majority of mobile devices is in fact the good old fashioned phone call…how very last millennium.

The tracked quality lead driven through multiple kinds of new media but experienced on the smart hand set is the emerging new normal. The great strength of this approach is that it resonates with even the most conservative and technophobic local businesses. There are many challenges around this trend back to a more call centric delivery approach. Prime of those is the inability of many SMBs to actually answer the phone and respond to opportunity in a timely and professional way. For larger businesses, grown used to a lead ecology driven by form submissions and email, the usability problems associated with mobile devices are a real problem. The solution of deploying call centers or distributed agents to respond to these conversations can generate their own sub set of problems.

What’s clear is that the call as a lead generation delivery mechanism flattens out the technological challenges of new media, at the same time delivering indisputable ROI to businesses of all sizes. Somebody pass me the flux capacitor.

The Search Secret Police

This post is a little inside baseball…it covers what only a few broken souls like myself could find remotely interesting…but it points to a wider somewhat weird situation in search. If you have followed search at all you will be familiar with the fact that one of the key indicators which the search engines use to score online quality is to count the links from sites which link to you. An entire industry dedicated to getting links to sites from other sites emerged almost from the beginning of search….it’s always been a key part of Search Engine Optimization. A year or more ago Google started focusing on the quality of the results they presented…they were getting what we call in the trade as “spammed to all hell.” In the Panda releases they attacked sites with minimal interesting content. Then came the Penguin releases. In this version of search they looked at who links to your sites and if they find sites which they regard as problematic linking to your site they may tar your site with the same spammer brush. That’s all well and good, but it’s tough to control who links to your site, it’s like controlling which stranger points at you from a crowd.  Of course the flip side of all this is that for many years web masters have sought out links to their sites from spammy domains and they have benefited accordingly. The solution is to do no harm…don’t look for links that don’t make sense…be virtuous and don’t be evil.

The Penguin release has caused all kinds of pain and suffering with web masters claiming that they have been impacted by bad actors linking to their sites. To solve this problem Google has released a “disavow” tool which allows web masters to submit the domains of sites which link to them which they believe could be problematic so that Google will ignore those domains when considering rank. That sounds reasonable, but there are some fascinating wrinkles….and if you are suspicious of Google (as many are) your paranoia might be tweaked by the following use cases:

Use case A: You were a little sketchy in the past (youthful exuberance) but have seen the light and gone straight recently. Back in the day you built links to your sites (as many folks did) but by submitting a disavow list to Google aren’t you perhaps doing a “self intervention” pointing out your past misdeeds…and might that in of itself get you noticed and perhaps impacted adversely. Is it better to stay quiet and hope nobody notices or throw yourself on Google mercy?

Use case B: You are in a fiercely competitive market with perhaps unscrupulous competitors, maybe your competitors with “disavow” your domains multiple times to Google on a ‘drop a dime’ basis to get Google to stare hard at your domains and perhaps hurt your hard won rank.

Either way this feels like something Google should be figuring out for themselves rather than call upon an industry they have consistently criticized for this kind of behavior to turn quisling on each other….even the term “disavow” has an Orwellian ring to it. What’s next perhaps “Freedom through Work“?

I Blow My Nose At You…..Filthy Google Dogs

I Blow My Nose At You…..Filthy Google Dogs.  You have to love the French….well actually as a Brit by birth I was trained to hate the French and all things Frenchy..it’s a mutual affection. We are forced to learn their language at school and are forced to endure their snooty waiters in restaurants especially now that the center of Paris is a short train ride from the center of London. So it was with some amusement that I followed the most recent episode in “Le Google Wars.”

The chance is you haven’t been following this fascinating debate. The long and the short of it is that France (as always) is dedicated to protecting their “culture” especially their news organizations, and see all things online especially all things American as a threat to their continued glorious existence. To provide funds to bolster their beleaguered news and arts industry they proposed a tax on online commerce especially search advertising aimed directly at the hated Google to repay them for the content plundered by Ze Damn Yankees.

This “Google Tax” has little real chance of passing as similar taxes have already been struck down but it’s made for some lively debate. Google defends its self by pointing out that it sends over 4 billion clicks to French media thus making it crucial for continued promulgation of all things French. The French pushed the issue and Google recently replied that they would be “unable” to accept such a tax and would be forced to stop indexing and linking to French sites in their index. I just did a quick check and it looks like there are about 4.5 Billion French pages in the index..including .FR, French Region and Language pages so it’s not a trivial threat. Imagine you suddenly had to live without Google? Mon Dieu! There would be rioting in the streets….or at least frowning in the coffee shops.

In reality I suspect this is all a storm in a tasse de thé. This has been a long running sore in the US and several other EU countries. Sabers and mice are rattled harsh words are exchanged and nothing really changes. Moaning about Google indexing your content without paying enough (or anything) is a lot like complaining about the weather in Paris. In the morning if you look out and can see the Eiffel Tower…it’s going to rain…if you can’t…it’s already raining.

Tough Day In Google Town

The Germans have a word for it…and it’s Schadenfreude. Literally translated it means ‘shameful pleasure’…a more useful definition might be the pleasure one feels in watching a good friend fall off a roof. In case you missed the story, owing to a monumental blunder (which I have to imagine is going to cost somebody very dearly) Google inadvertently released their Q3 2012 numbers minus several important items in the middle of the stock trade day.  The less than stellar numbers caused the stock to plummet 9% and they suspended trade while they figured out the snafu. Not sure whether Curly, Larry (Page) or Mo hit the publish button but the error over shadowed their earlier blunder when they published info about their new Chrome tablet ahead of the actual announcement. Guys…was there a party I missed last night?

Leaving aside the inadvertent hilarity (funnier than Binders of Women IMHO) part of the market reaction was driven by the trend in their core Pay Per Click business. I have mentioned in multiple other posts that Google has seen a long term depression of the average cost per click over a good while. It’s driven in good part by the explosion of mobile traffic which typically commands a fraction of the price of desktop clicks. The other factor depressing the numbers is the cost to acquire the traffic; the money they pay their partners for their traffic.

At the risk of going out on a limb here I think part of the problem (ironically) is Google’s fanatical focus on owning as much of everything directly and its profound suspicion of the larger online ad market. There is an ocean of search out there and it’s growing every day. Billions of search driven clicks coming from an enormous array driven by desktop and mobile devices. A great deal of this traffic from all over is not monetized by Google at all. Google has always wanted to own as much search as possible and that’s entirely laudable. They have also been incredibly fierce in protecting their advertisers from poor quality traffic…again entirely laudable. The net of those drivers is that whilst they do have the majority of the highest value search and advertisers they are so conservative about adding new or different sources of traffic they are potentially missing out on a lot of the growth in less conventional search, not bad search just not as conventional. That is likely to keep their cost of acquisition higher than it needs to be and reduce their overall PPClick revenue.  I have no illusions that Google will take my advice for a moment, access to their super high value advertisers will remain a virtual impossibility…but trust me there are hundreds of millions of good clicks which would mean hundreds of millions of incremental dollars going dramatically under monetized….and after today those dollars could come in handy.