“Twas the Blog Before Christmas”

It’s nearly that time…I don’t think I’ll be posting much over the break, so here’s what probably amounts to my final post for 2012. Looking back over close to 100 blogs throughout the year it’s striking (to me anyway) just how much happens in our space and how much that impacts the real world around us.

This year we have seen mobile usage and commerce explode worldwide but especially in the US. We typically lag the front runners by a year or two and this year mobile finally made it happen. Over all mobile search volume went from less than 10% to (by some reports) closer to 25% of traffic and it’s possible that mobile will outstrip desktop next year..a full year earlier than expected. At the same time local traffic grew dramatically. That’s perhaps not that surprising given the growth in mobile, but as the guys who have been saying that local is the next big thing I take a certain amount of satisfaction in the 30-50% local intent query numbers we are seeing.

2012 saw the reshaping of social after the debacle of the Facebook IPO. There is still a lot of opportunity in social and more recently there has been some encouraging data on how social may eventually monetize. What I find most intriguing is the idea of using social signals from the relatively few who do engage socially with a product or service to generate a profile of what a customer might look like then target that potential customer in volume through search and social media….it’s complicated and sometimes slightly creepy stuff.

In 2012 Google continued to rule supreme in spite of multiple assaults for “evil” behavior at home and abroad. As I type the FTC is wrapping up it’s investigation into Google and it looks like big G will skate unharmed on their home turf, they may yet have a tougher job convincing their tougher critics in the EU. I feels like almost every day there is some new announcement or development which makes out engagement with the real world as expressed through the virtual world of search and mobile deeper, richer and sometimes scarier.

The world we serve, that of driving new clients to huge numbers of local businesses through search and all kinds of new media has become both more exciting and much more complicated. Given the plethora of media the choose from (search, SEM,SEO, social, local display and mobile to name but a few) and the continued decline of traditional media it’s becoming almost impossible for the average SMB to navigate that complexity. We solve for that by using all those new media on a massive scale to drive the high quality leads the local businesses need. We spent much of 2012 developing the machines needed to make that happen reliably and at scale, 2013 will be the year that hits big.

On the grander scale our industry has enabled revolution and reform and has been attacked by tyrants around the world. We have created enormous amounts of new wealth (and destroyed quite a bit with Facebook). Search is becoming pervasive and in some ways invasive. The mobile device is becoming the prime way of engagement for many more activities and with recent developments in both Apple and Android location based commerce (L-Commerce) will likely become ubiquitous in 2013 changing our world yet again.

For my self, on Leap Day I married my last and final wife, saw my oldest son graduate college and working with our team of hard working, inspired and inspiring people we reshaped our business to lead the upcoming local revolution. I trust your year was equally happy and productive. I wish you and yours a wonderful Holiday Season….Merry Christmas to all…. and to all a good night.

Being Evil

I have been in search for what feels like a lifetime but is in reality a little over a decade. Way back in the day when Microsoft terrorized the tech world and earned the fear and loathing of most tech folk Google was cute as a puppy and dedicated to doing good…indeed “Don’t be evil” was their informal company motto. Back then there were many heinous things perpetrated by the mad and bad on us humble net citizens. We were subjected to browser capture and constant bombardment from pop ups and spam. Over the years much of this net thuggery has been eliminated in good part because the sources of income online have become centralized and in good part controlled by the major advertiser aggregators Google and Yahoo/Bing. So it was with some festive irony that I read the account of Google’s acolyte in the UK Sarah Hunter defending Google against attacks from British Parliamentarians recently. The line I like the most was “we are not the bogeyman of the Internet”…I don’t often LOL but I did then.

There are arms full of accusations being brought to the stake to which Ms. Hunter has been shackled and several honorable members would clearly like to see her and her fellow Googlers burnt alive. Something which especially annoyed the Brits (who love to pay taxes of all kinds) was the elegant way Google perfectly legally avoided paying over $300 million in taxes. The fact that Eric Schmidt defended that as both legal and praiseworthy “Capitalism” really annoyed some of the left tier members. The Brits fundamentally don’t like red in tooth and claw Capitalism…it’s thought of as rather lower class and worse awfully American to try to make lots filthy lucre. I disagree which is a good part of why I’m writing this from SoCal not South London. Add to that the accusations that Google is skewing their results in favor of their own listings and is over all monopolistic and all around beastly, it’s been a tough week for Google in the UK.

Sticks and stones may indeed break bones but serious fines can hurt, so whilst the name calling for being a little evil around the edges may be smart there is a danger that if Google doesn’t get right with the EU (much worse than just the Brits as there are angry Germans involved and you know how that can go) and come to some kind of rapprochement to settle the two years of investigation by stinking foreigners which Google has recently been enjoying things could turn nasty. If the EU goes after them and wins the standard fine is 10% of revenue off the top…a mere $4Bn. That may sound a bit farfetched but it’s the same threat Microsoft faced back when they were public enemy #1 and they settled with the cheese and sausage eaters. It appears the price of evil has gone up.

A Very Mappy Christmas

The recent hoopla over the return of Google Maps to iOS has focused on the accuracy, splendor and coolness of their revamped app. I have to agree it’s terrific. I’m fairly frequently critical of Google in these pages (nothing like biting off the hand that feeds you) but I will happily give credit where it’s due with this new app. However (you knew there was a however coming right?) it raises a set of larger and perhaps more interesting questions beyond how gosh darned neat the thing is.

So very much of what we do is essentially local. Much of the hoopla surrounding the space this year has been to do with local. It seems like every other company (including my own) is essentially trying to solve the local dilemma. We have location based apps for pretty much everything from reviews and coupons to directions and deals. Millions have spent on geo-fencing to allow stores to pull of the ‘Minority Report” greeting individual customers with appropriate messages as they enter or pass their stores. Millions more have been spent building user bases for coupon or loyalty programs so we can get offers from our favorite coffee shop. Reviews have long been a mainstay of all things online, add the exploding world of mobile to that and we have a valuable and high energy mix.

Pretty much all of the above can be best experienced with a smart mobile device and a really good map app. Google maps is just that. So in 2013 look for Google to further expand their reviews and check in options way past just the Zagat they purchased. I’d expect them to add a checking and review feature probably closely tied to a virtual geo-fence program offered to members of many loyalty programs. Look for coupons and daily deals pushed to your map app together with offers from Apple’s Passbook and or Googles Maps/Fieldtrip. The ability to pay with your mobile device although missing from iPhone 5 is already in some handsets and is likely to be in many more in the very near future. Either way, maps are central to all things local and Google has snatched the crown back. 2013 should be interesting.

Online Cold War Heats Up and Boils Over

I reported a week or so back that there was an obscure and opaque conference happening in Dubai which might have significant impact on Internet access, search and beyond. As always the battle was between the totalitarian bad guys (Russia, China and the Islamic dictatorships etc) and the countries of the West. Although the ITC conference was originally designed to regulate traditional phone service it has evolved into a potentially global online regulatory organization. There was much discussion and behind the scenes machination with dueling memos and much fighting around language most of which didn’t even mention the Internet but could be used to regulate.  The short read is that the bad guys were looking for a global treaty which they could use and hide behind to allow them to regulate free speech under the disguise of regulating against spam, porn and other bad stuff.

In a move culled straight out of a Dr. No plot the axis of Internet Evil attempted to push through language giving states pretty much Carte Blanche to regulate the Internet and under keen encouragement of Google, Verizon and other good guy lobbyist at the event the US led a walkout of 54 “good guy’ states which effectively scuppered the entire thing….for now.

It’s unlikely that this issue will stay down. The Internet is a big scary thing to people who would rather that their people be kept quiet an ill informed. It has fueled or at least empowered revolution in a good number of despotic hell holes this year and will likely do so again in 2013. Although incredibly dull, this issue deserves more attention than it gets. If the next phase of the Arab Spring gets set back to winter because their government is able to shoot down Twitter the chattering hoards in the west will be horrified. We averted that option last week…for now.

The Dunblane Solution?

This post is a little off my typical beat, and I won’t attempt to link it back to search. When 9/11 hit although I lived in the US at the time I was flying to Germany, trapping me 4,000 miles from home watching on CNN and wondering why. Now in the shadow of the Newtown massacre like everyone else I’m asking how and why. I don’t have any insights, but permit me to draw a parallel from the UK. In Britain we have traditionally not been big gun owners, we have no second amendment no strong tradition of gun ownership. It used to be possible to get guns after pretty stringent checking, but until I moved to the US I (like most Brits) had never touched a gun…and didn’t really miss them.  Back in 1996 just a few months after I moved permanently to the US, a mentally ill guy who had obtained four handguns legally, walked into the Dunblane Elementary School in Scotland and murdered 16 children and one adult.

The stunned outrage then was similar to the grief, disgust and anger we have recently just experienced over the Newtown killings. What happened in the UK is what won’t happen here: A top level inquiry was held and as a result the UK passed legislation which banned the private ownership and use of Handgun. That ban is so absolute that the UK no longer has an Olympic shooting team. Bank robbers can still get hold of hand guns or sawed off shotguns, but the crazy and enraged can’t get hold of weapons to make themselves notorious with.

I’m going back to the UK after Christmas to visit family and friends. When I’m there I will (as always) be struck by how similar we are as nations. We drive the same cars, we enjoy much of the same food, music and TV, we laugh at most of the same dumb jokes and love our kids in exactly similar ways. The UK is larger than most Americans believe. The US has roughly five times the population of the UK (which is geographically about the size of Texas). Last year if the US had had the same size population as the UK it would have experienced roughly 6,000 gun fatalities from all causes. In the same year in a similar country with similar people who do similar things and love their children just as much as we in the US the total fatalities from guns in the UK was just 150. The largest subset of those 150 were suicides. The converse of that math would be that if the UK were the same size as the US there would have been 750 gun deaths not the 27,000 which happened. That is the single largest difference I can think of between our great countries….in no other ways can I come up with a difference in which either country is thirty six times larger or smaller than the other.

I realize that even given the horror of recent events there isn’t the political will in the US to do what the UK did. The second amendment and the NRA will prevent that. However, as a side thought I watched the movie Lincoln over the weekend and I had an idea. The movie brought home the death and destruction of weapons even back in the 1860’s. I wanted to suggest as a compromise that I’d actually be OK if the second amendment allowed anyone who could pass the test to own the kinds of firearms contemplated when the founders framed the Constitution. We should indeed have the right to bear black powder based front loading muskets …just a thought.

Christmas Comes a Little Early for Google

Last month I reported that the FTC would sometime soon be giving a ruling on Google’s alleged Monopolistic practices. At the time I said that legislating for a monopoly in a market as fluid as the current search space and

“I suggest the FTC strike a deal to the effect that Google will clearly label all advertising from any source and will undertake not to unfairly promote their own products above others….then let the market vote with its feet.”

From the reports getting leaked from the closing discussions it looks like I pretty much nailed it. The FTC won’t be ruling that Google is or isn’t a monopoly and in return Google will improve their labeling of other people content and make it easier to switch ad campaigns from Google to other competitors. That last component is a late addition which makes little real difference, anyone seriously involved in CPC marketing is already managing campaigns across multiple engines. There will also be some patent provisions in which they will not attempt to block mobile commerce with some of the patents they have recently acquired.

The one remaining fly in the festive punch bowl is (as always) the EU. The European equivalents of The FTC have a long track record of beating up on US companies which they regard as monopolistic and have been at war with Google for most of the last few years. They seriously impacted Microsoft (back when they were top dog). There is a serious possibility that Google will lose and may get some pretty Draconian limits imposed. Of course once the appeals process is all said and done even those sanctions may be out dated by the dash to mobile, the continued growth of search beyond the desktop Apple and Amazon and the next three trends which emerge at the speed of technology rather than the speed of the EU legal process.

Either way I feel reasonably smug.

Rule Britannia…Online, Anyway

The UK was late to the online party. The way that the monopolistic phone system worked meant that back when dial-up was king it was simply too expensive to get online for many people. I clearly remember a decade or so ago being quite shocked to see 800 numbers in commercials and on billboards rather than the WWW addresses I had grow so used to seeing in American equivalents. Over more recent years Blighty has caught up with a vengeance, the average Brit seems to spend pretty much all the time they possibly can immersed in their mobile phone. Even given the Brits online addiction I was still a bit surprised to read recently that according to Ofcom (which is the relevant QANGO) Brits spend more online than anyone else….in the world.

Brits on average spend a shocking 48.5 hours a month online and spend over $1,600 per year doing online shopping. The 48 hrs per month number seems high but much of that is spent watching TV on mobile devices 46% of respondents said they did that on a regular basis. The “Telly” is a national obsession in the UK. They still have relatively few channels to choose from (most households have less than 6) and half of those will be BBC and commercial free….but the quality of the programming is spectacularly good and many Brits have long commutes typically on public transportation which means that a lot of TV is watched on trains and buses….it’s a readily observed phenomena.

The online shopping number is high, but seen in the context of the British shopping scene it’s not as surprising. Most Brits live in suburbs of large cities on in smaller more rural locations. Although there is great shopping in most big city centers many suburban or rural locations are poorly served and once you get past the enormous numbers of pubs, mortgage companies, thrift shops,banks,fast food outlets, beggars and shoe shops which seem to make up most of Main-street UK the actual shopping choices can be pretty lame. Actually it’s worse than lame.

Most British main street shopping areas (“High Streets” in UK speak) weren’t planned shopping areas; rather they started out as the center of a small town which eventually merged into a large city. Outsiders make the mistake of thinking of cites like London as one entity when in fact they are a really a large number of what used to be independent smaller towns which have sprawled into each other. The shopping experience is typically awful. Car access is limited or none (I defy you to drive through Oxford without entertaining thoughts of suicide). What limited parking they do have is typically expensive and patrolled by psychotic parking meter zombies. Shopping isn’t fun.  In contrast browsing online and getting stuff delivered is a much more relaxing experience. Add to that the British love of a bargain it’s not surprising they have take to online shopping so wholeheartedly. It’s good to see that we still lead the world at something.

The Internet Cold War

There may be something more mind crushingly dull than representatives from every country in the United Nations arguing about the regulation of the Internet but I can’t think of it right now. In a world where everything becomes a proxy for bigger political issues….it would be comical if it wasn’t worrying.  The World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) is happening right now in Dubai. The great and the good of the Internet are fighting over whom and how the Internet should be regulated. Predictably the totalitarian regimes like China and most of the Arabian countries are pushing to give governments absolute control of all things online where are the western block countries are pushing for what amounts to no regulation at all anywhere. Interesting. In a debate which harps back to the UN of the 70s the Russians are attempting to introduce language about the Internet without even using the term “Internet” which immediately prompts the Americans to bring in language to neutralize the Russian language. The Saudis are threatening to bring back in the very restrictive language that was previously negotiated away if they don’t get their own way.

I have no idea where this will end up. It’s all a little moot in my mind because even if the UN agrees a reasonably fair and open regulatory framework I doubt that will stop the Axis of Evil countries and their friends from doing exactly what they always do; regulate the information their people can find online. In a related story if you are in China you can now (finally) search for the name of the leader of your country Wen Jiabo. The Internet and search in particular is famously hard to regulate but it’s not stopping governments all over the world from trying to squeeze the djin back into the magic lamp.

On an entirely unrelated point (unless your regard Apple as a totalitarian regime) Google Maps is back on the iPhone. I did quite like Apple Maps, the turn by turn feature was really good….but when I was in the middle of DC recently and the Apple app told me that I was 3.5 hours to the airport (a mere 2.5 hrs too long )I figured there would be changes. I have heard stories that Apple is in a mad tear to update and upgrade the local data they are using in their map app. The problem is (as I have pointed out on many occasions) local data is in good part just garbage…out of date or just wrong in many cases. Google drove and photographed pretty much every street in the nation over several years and I have to imagine as part of that process they checked and updated a lot of the data. Apple proved the old computing adage Garbage in Garbage Out…and Google maps came back…Yipee!

Why Search is Done by Geeks Not Authors

I love search…in all its forms. I love the fact that even as data explodes we have a way to navigate and in some meager way comprehend the complexity and scale of knowledge. So I was excited to try out a new search which I came across recently called smalldemons.com. This is our guide to the “storyverse” (get it?) it’s a search platform which purports to offer insights and connections on books, authors, places and characters along the lines of “drinks found in James Bond novels” or “places in War and Peace”. It also has a neat Pintrest like feature which allows you to assemble a story board linking items, people and places from and around books.

My first reaction was ‘how cool’…no idea how the ex Yahoo and Facebook guys behind the site will make money but I love the idea. Then (being the annoying search guy I am) I started some cursory testing.

Place search: “Krishnapur” the city at the center of the fabulous indeed award winning”Siege of Krishnapur” no results.

Character Search: “Samuel Vimes” hero of many of the enormously successful Discworld novels. Lots of Samuel but no “Samuel Vimes”…at least not on the first pages.
Item search:  “Victory Gin” the gut rot drink for George Orwell’s 1984.… lots of “Victory” no “Victory Gin”

Shakespeare Search: “Damned Spot” from Macbeth…actually this is a funny result. First result a recent novel called “Damned” second result “Where’s Spot” the kid’s book.
Great but somewhat older novel search: “Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man” nothing relevant

Movie Quote Search: “You played if for her you can play it for me” from Casablanca….nothing close to relevant.

I promise those were my first eight searches at random from the rat’s nest of literary pocket litter which passes for my brain. I was somewhat saddened, especially when Google and Wikipedia (except for Wiki which missed the last one) both easily nailed every search. I actually love the idea of a search which does the cool kind of conceptual thinking and linking this site sets out to do. However, if they don’t even have phrase match search figured out let alone conceptual stemming then they have a ways to go. I was thinking I might make my first story board one called “People, places, books, references and things” which you can’t find easily using smalldemons.com…..but that would be unkind no?

A Google Pre-Announcement?

I have just returned from the ILM BIA/Kelsey conference in LA where the great and the good of the surviving Yellow Book industry meet to discuss the demise of their industry and figure out how they can construct a digital life raft to get at least the women and children away from the Sinking Yellow Titanic before the boilers explode. In any event it was good to catch up with a bunch of great folks and look ahead. Most of what was discussed has already been heavily covered in these pages but I found the Google session especially interesting. It’s always interesting to attempt to read the runes of any Google spokesperson. The focus on telling you what you already know (but with great slides) they assure you of your importance and how great it would be to work together. This is almost entirely unlike the actual experience of working with the big “G” but let’s not let details get in the way. The Kelsey conference is very hip and allows the audience to tweet in questions rather than call for the microphone. I took advantage of that opportunity and tweeted the following question to the Google Guy.

“Search is growing rapidly away from desktop yet Google doesn’t syndicate beyond AdSense, is Google missing an opportunity?”

The background to my question is simple: The past decade or so has seen Google establish a hegemony over desktop search. People go to Google.com to search and they experience AdSense contextual ads on web pages as they navigate the web. From a publishers point of view AdSense is not an especially valuable product and it’s pretty much impossible to get hold of a full blown Google powered search/ad feed. Google understandably wants to retain all of the revenue they can, which is exactly what happens when people search on Google. If Google syndicates advertisers they have to share revenue and be cautious that the quality of search remains high. All that is changing as mobile rapidly catches up with desktop. Search is now happening in mobile Apps and on mobile browsers and the current Google offering just don’t fit well….hence my question.

The answer I got was fascinating. First the Google Guy thought long and hard…he stared into the middle distance and gained some time by saying how good the question was. I hesitate to suggest that he was squirming…but it was close. Then he made it clear that Google doesn’t pre-announce products so he couldn’t really say much (which in of itself is saying a lot). He then went on to comment on how important emerging search sources are and how important they are to Google for growth.

That sounds to me a lot like Google has a new search and ad syndication product probably optimized for mobile to allow them to get a larger piece of that opportunity and reward high quality publishers for their traffic. You heard it here first.