Suing Google…and Other Ludicrous Activities

bev stayart levitra google search

I’m not a huge fan of the legal process. I have been frivolously sued too many time to find it funny… indeed I received notice of a case where today which, once I picked myself up off the floor, I forwarded to my tame attorney to add to his to do list. The case of Beverley Stayart, a poster child of lost causes, rose to prominence again recently when she failed in her doomed-from-day-one suit against Google… again. What’s at issue here is the auto complete feature, which attempts to guess what you are looking for by adding popular or related searches to what you are typing. Years ago when this feature first came out, it inadvertently linked Ms. Stayart with the brand “Levitra” – which is of course a popular drug used in the management of ED.  Why she was linked to it… who knows… but she was offended by the linkage and sued Yahoo in 2009 and appealed in 2010, then Google and others then Google again. She lost her last case a week or so back.

If you search for my name you will find it linked to the truck engine Duramax, and Wegnams the grocery store. In the first case a Tim Judd races for their team, the second Tim Judd is their IT manager. I have no problem with either and since I’m 5 of the top 6 results offered by Google, I don’t think the auto fill matters either way. Ms Stayarts case hinged on some pretty thin arguments which she has failed to convince any court of competent jurisdiction, and I’m pretty sure that in a country without contingency based lawyers (or her being CFO of a law firm which happens to share her last name), her case would never have made it past first base… allegedly.

The irony is, allegedly, because she brought all those cases to argue the point that her name has indeed become irrevocably linked to that auto suggestion… indeed the most likely thing she will ever be searched for or written about in authoritative places is exactly this case. Had she left it alone it would have probably auto corrected years ago. It’s Schrödinger’s Cat for the search industry. The more you protest, the more content about the issue is created, and the more you will be linked to exactly that issue. This feature has been used for evil purposes more recently where concerted efforts have been made to link a person or name with something very bad. Interestingly where this has been noted it tends to be deemed “spam” and goes away on it’s own reasonably quickly… human intervention, or just because stuff happens… who knows? What you can be 100% sure of, and I know this because I used to work for a big search engine and had exactly these conversations, is the moment the legal process is introduced then nothing will change or get better until the case gets decided. It is far better to suggest to a search engine that it is being spammy in a result, or point out how it’s being spammed.  Search engineers are a very proud breed (they would have to be to have that little social life…just kidding guys). Point out a mistake or a problem nicely (say at a search technology conference or on twitter) and it mysteriously goes away… sue them and the grownups take over… and now you have to take on fair use and the first amendment… and you will never win.

Targeting Twitter

Good news from Twitter today for those of us looking to reach potential customers where they hang out online. The explosive growth of social media in recent years should (in theory anyway) have been a Godsend to any advertiser looking to make a personal, and hopefully effective, connection. The problem is that despite all the hoopla and excitement, the verdict still seems to be out on social engagement as an effective medium. Today’s announcement from Twitter that it will allow advertisers, especially small businesses, to target by interest, gender and device represents another step in the right direction. The use case they point to is (for example) a golf products company who might want to target people who follow Tiger Woods.

It certainly seems like a good idea. My concern is that, as far as I can see so far anyway, it doesn’t allow for geo targeting which would be problematic for a bricks and mortar local business looking to drive foot traffic or a plumber looking for more clients in their service area. In our experience, a good majority of local businesses only want local clients… running a national campaign would be potentially wasteful. We have tested with social media multiple times, but for the kind of results we are looking for it simply doesn’t convert as well as search does by significant margins… orders of magnitude in some cases. Is it likely that this Twitter approach will work any better, only time will tell. There are some reasonably good stats out there, which indicate that for the kind of local and time sensitive clients we serve the more immediate level of Twitter engagement scores better than the more passive Facebook engagement.

Whether either will rise to anywhere near the level and target-ability of search remains to be seen. The complicating factor here is of course as always, mobile. As mobile usage continues to explode, the available real estate for any kind of advertising declines. Social media has sprinted to mobile devices; indeed so, that Facebook was caught so flat-footed with mobile contributed to their stock problems last year. All the signs are that end users are resistant to ads in their mobile social experience. They don’t mind it quite as much in search, as frequently the commercial result is the right answer to the question. It will be interesting to see if squeezing albeit targeted ads into the limited Twitter real estate on mobile devices will fly. We will certainly test it out and we will keep you posted.

Multiple Uses for Search

isabella-stewart-gardner-museum stolen artThe Isabella Stewart Gardner museum is probably my favorite small museum. If you are ever in Boston, and have a spare half day, you should find time to visit. It’s quite enchanting. Twenty-three years ago today, it suffered the worst private property theft in the form of a brazen raid which netted $500 million in stolen art…mostly old masters. Having given up on finding the perpetrators (and the statute of limitation is now up in any case), the FBI has launched a site which gives detailed info on the art in the hope that it will show up for relevant searches prompting someone out there to do a double take when they spot an old master at a flea market. It’s not exactly a new idea, the FBI has had a searchable stolen art site… a horrible stolen art site… but a site nevertheless. The problem with the site is you have to know what you are looking for before you can check… which is almost exactly the definition of how to design a useless search product…  which is pretty much exactly what we’d expect from a search designed by a government body. It would be a lot more interesting if the FBI worked with Google to extend their very interesting Google Goggles product to match and index against the FBI database. That way, at the flea market you could snap a pic and have Google check it for you.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, an adult interest site has just released data of the most popular porn queries worldwide. Lord knows how they came up with their data… an exhaustive search process no doubt. The results are hardly surprising, except for the popularity of gay search terms in countries where all things gay are either frowned upon or flat out banned. I can offer no insight into why searches, for activities that you can get stoned or hanged for, are so popular (aside from the obvious). But, it’s another interesting insight provided by search.

RSS RIP

Okay, I’ll admit it I’m more than a little ticked off at Google today. I fully realize that is about as meaningful as being mad at the weather (and as effective), but on PI day and Einstein’s Birthday, Google killed Google Reader. My lovely wife asked me this AM, “what is Google reader and why do I care?” Reader is the RSS platform which a ton of cool and interesting, but not typically very commercial, stuff is based. It’s the glue behind things like Digg and Reddit (my wife Loooves Reddit), and Google just announced that it goes away on July 1st.

Google has made a tradition of trying out lots of stuff and letting it run for a while. Then, either expanding it or shutting it down depending how it does. Not everything they do makes money, but the stuff that does makes absolute fortunes for them. Reader never made much money (as far as I can tell they never really tried to make money with it), but it was widely available easy to plug into as a way to manage RSS, and it worked really well. It worked so well that lots of other folk hung businesses around it. When it’s gone, unless someone like Digg or Reddit steps up and develops an open source replacement, it will likely stick a stake through the heart of RSS as a whole.

What makes me sad (apart from the likely impact it will have on stuff I love like FlipBook), is that the money it costs Google to keep this excellent public service going has to be absolutely minimal. The other day I blogged about the trivial $7Million dollar fine imposed on them by states AG for collecting personal data they shouldn’t have been. I don’t think this is a spiteful revenge act on the part of Google to a society, which doesn’t anymore always worship its every move, but taking away one of our best and most useful public service components feels a bit mean. I’d be happy to trade Google Translate (bablefish works fine), the useless Google talk, and maybe Fusion Tables (whatever the heck they are), for the beating heart of RSS. Once Reader is gone, how much longer will RSS last?

Google Reader, RIP, RSS Dies

The Five Hour Fifteen Minute Fine

Google pays fine for street view cars collecting data
I keep pretty current with all things search, yet even I was a little taken aback by the fine on Google just announced today. In this case, the attorneys general of 38 states settled with Google by fining Big G seven million dollars. Any Google watcher will initially be surprised that Google settled at all. Google is famously combative, they took on and took down the FTC before Christmas, and if you come after them you had better have a great case and deep pockets. In this case the states AG had exactly that. What Google is being fined for is a by-product of their Street View project. Back in 2008-2010 when they send goofy looking cars to photograph everyone’s house from a pedestrian point of view the cars also collected other data like your emails, financial records, browser behavior, and for all I know your inside leg measurement, from unencrypted WiFi connections.

Putting aside the question “who in their right mind leaves an unencrypted WiFi connection out there (remember it was a few years back)… the bigger question in my mind would be, why on Earth would you equip a fleet of cars with the infrastructure needed to harvest data which you have always said you weren’t trying to capture? A street photo is not financial data; browser behavior is not a street photo. Google used the (oops) defense. It claimed it collected WiFi data because of “rogue code” mistakenly included in the software by a lone engineer. Yeah right. I think a better, more honest and quite reasonable, answer would have been “Back then we thought it might be cool to map as much data as we could since we were in the neighborhood anyway we took what we could find.  The team working on it was over zealous, we collected more than we intended, we never wanted or used the data, we have destroyed it and we will work hard to preserve private data doing forwards.”

I just don’t buy the “rogue coder” defense… (BTW The Rogue Coder Defense would be a great title for a Big Bang Theory episode)… with “rogue” teams fitting “rogue” WiFi data collector systems into thousands of “rogue” vehicles which were then scouring the country uploading non existent data to “rogue” servers. Why is it I can’t beat a speeding ticket but Google can sell that ration of nonsense to 38 states AG? The topper for all this silliness is the fine. Google does roughly 32 Million a day. The laughably small $7 Million dollar fine will take roughly 5 and a quarter hours to earn out… oh well… I wasn’t using my forth amendment rights anyway.

Harvard Crimson Faced

harvard dean cheating scandalIt’s fascinating to watch the good people at Harvard twist in the breeze caused by their current search scandal. At the center of the controversy are the searches they did on the email of several Harvard Resident Deans. Resident Deans are what most regular schools would call “Resident Advisers” they share accommodation with students and offer advice. Harvard essentially admitted that it had searched through the Harvard (as opposed to personal) mail of several advisers looking for the source of a leak to media of information from the Harvard board about how students caught cheating might handle the accusation. The theory was that a resident Dean had forwarded it to students and either the Dean or the students had leaked it to the media.

“No one’s e-mails were opened, and the contents of no one’s e-mails were searched by human or machine”

What strikes me as horribly disingenuous is their claim that they only searched the titles of email, presumably hoping that they would find a note titled “FWD: Don’t leak this to the media it’s about student cheating“. Harvard insists, “No one’s e-mails were opened, and the contents of no one’s e-mails were searched by human or machine”. They did indeed track down the leaked info to an email on the subject forwarded by a Resident Dean to two students accused of cheating.

The kerfuffle, is of course, centered around privacy. How could an institution as traditionally liberal as Harvard engage in such authoritarian snooping? It turns out they do, because they can. It’s the same answer that would be given by the vast majority of businesses anywhere. Email is not the confessional. If you use company email on company servers or another tool (such as Skype) on company servers or on company time, you can have no real expectation of privacy… get over it and move on. Nobody, not even a Harvard Dean, is immune from their communication being searched by their employer without notice or permission. Harvard says “that under some circumstances, the university can search a faculty member’s Harvard e-mail accounts, but that the faculty member must be notified beforehand or soon after“. “Or soon after” is effectively exactly the same as “not at all”.

Search pervades and invades our lives at pretty much every level. Mostly for the good, it allows us access to information and convenience like never before. The flip side is that the Internet is now your permanent record.

The Distraction Conundrum

I’m easily distracted… always have been. Had I been born in the 80’s rather than the 60’s, I’d probably be a life long Ritalin user. My internal hamster is running a mile a minute and if what’s happening right now isn’t getting to the point fast enough I reach for the zapper… I have often thought how neat it would be to have a human zapper, which allows you to fast forward through lackluster conversations. This impatience extends to media. I was raised in the UK on commercial free BBC TV and radio with the result that I am physically unable to sit through more commercials than the concise 30 seconds offered by the brilliant people at HuluPlus. I’m clearly not alone in this; media companies and advertisers are in constant conflict with consumers who don’t want the distraction. Placing ads anywhere, especially on social media, draws cries of outrage from consumers who have gotten used to the price of admission being free… both from cost and distraction.

Wallace-and-GromitSo, it is with interest that I started playing with Vine recently. If you haven’t tried it already you are probably using an Android phone… so far it’s only available on iPhone and iPod Touch. What this cunning, but evil little App does is allow you to create six second long stop-motion micro movies on your iPhone. If you ever watched Wallace and Gromit, or anything by Ray Harryhausen, you will be familiar with this technique. It’s very easy to do and kinda fun, but in the same way that Twitter drove the wannabe witty commentators to compress their deathless prose into 140 pithy characters, so Vine is going to turn a good number of us into six second animation crazy people. The app allows you to post direct to your twitter feed or Facebook, and it’s pretty addicting. I haven’t had the nerve to post my first efforts yet, but I’m working on it.

The challenge this very cool App, and the social integration it brings with it, goes beyond the interest it may generate in millennial cineasts or middle-aged goof balls like me. In the same way twitter declared 140 characters to be the required length for any conversation (commercial or otherwise), so Vine and the compressed media featured on Hulu is driving the attention span and the media window ever closer. Advertisers are responding by attempting to build their brands into successful vehicles much like Hyundai and the Walking Dead. That’s a show where no matter how horrific the zombie attack may be, you can be sure that our heroes will escape in a weirdly clean Hyundai… makes perfect sense. I’d much rather be trying deal with zombies in a shinny new Hyundai rather than (say) a Humvee. Mobile is further compressing the real estate available to target. The end product is an audience which is highly fragmented, talking to itself or just the people it likes, consuming media on multiple screens often in time shifts who is increasingly intolerant of the distraction commercial messaging creates.

What was that?… Sorry, I wasn’t paying attention.

Microsoft Dodges a Bullet

microsoft windows7 fineIf you are old enough you may recall when everyone loved to hate Microsoft. They appeared to have the kind of arrogant monopoly powers which are normally attributed to third world dictators (BTW RIP Hugo Chavez…turns out not only the good die young after all) or more recently Google. Whilst the US regulators never really did humble the Redmond Giant it’s own litany of missed opportunity and dropped balls (Search, mobile, social etc etc) have rendered it if not humble then at least a little shame faced on occasion…only Sony has lost dominance in more market sectors in the last 20 years. Back when they were still an evil empire the EU imposed an anti monopoly deal on them which required that they offer users of Windows alternate browsers to the God awful Internet Explorer when they install Windows or take delivery of a new machine. Unfortunately when they launched Windows 7 (SP1) they “forgot” to include the option to choose and continued to forget to include the option for 15 months. The fact that the EU was relying on Microsoft policing its self (as opposed to occasionally installing a Windows product and checking that the option was there) is testament to how lazy and dumb public servants can on occasion be.

Eventually even Windows spotted this “glitch”and having apologized profusely we all sat back and waited for the EU to impose the nearly $8BN fine they could in theory impose. As it turned out they actually fined MS less than 10% of that ($732MM) today. I actually heard the collective sigh of release from my office thousands of miles away. I’m sure if MS checks behind the sofa cushion they will find enough to pay the ticket.  The kicker to this comic opera story is that once again the EU will rely on Microsoft to police it’s self going forwards…..to quote my good friend Hedwig of Angry Inch “I laugh, because I will cry if I don’t.”

Search Can Be Dangerous to Your Health

Freshly back from vacation and other assorted adventures I was catching up on search stories and there are some head scratching items out there. What seems to be happening is that the role of search as a measure of intent is potentially getting criminalized. Here’s a couple of examples:

You are probably familiar with the Cannibal Cop trial which is currently happening in New York. It’s an incredibly creepy and weird story which surrounds either a bunch of fantasists or would be murdering psychopaths. My personal experience with the police is that it could easily be either (possibly both) but a good chunk of the police case centers around searches done by the accused. Leaving aside simple questions like “why didn’t he use an anonymous browser like Chrome Incognito” (oh no wait he’s a cop) the larger question is does the mere fact that someone is searching for something online can that search be used against them in a court of law. Do you in fact have a first amendment right to search for ways to kill and cook a woman. Taking that to it’s logical conclusion does searching for Silence of the Lambs on Amazon make you part of Hannibal Lectors fan club?….where do you draw the line?

There’s an interesting regulatory question which could also end in search based Jail for somebody. This tracks back to our good friends at the FDA. If there is any example of our tax dollars at work to a fault it’s the FDA. Whilst they are happy to allow meat processors to feed pink slime to our children they are fanatically keen to be sure that no herbal product ever make claims that it do more than gather dust on your bathroom shelf. The issue here is where herbal companies who are not allowed to make any claims for efficacy link their products with disease conditions with things like meta data on web pages which gets those products found for disease relates searches. Pretty much any medical related search will bring up unconventional solutions to the problem. The other use case they are bothered by is where on a companies own website a search for a disease term brings up product which the retailer would like to link to that disease but can not make legitimate disease claims for.  I would have thought that anyone (even a cannibal cop) with a modicum of common sense would read the warnings and might figure out that the supplements which are coming up in the results aren’t FDA approved drugs….but you never know.

The billion dollar question this raises is can the FDA attempt to regulate search in that way. If they can where does it stop? Google was recently cleared of FTC violations are they going to be up before the FDA now for including herbal products in results sets for disease queries. Could merely doing the query “cure for cannibalism” get me hard time in the Big House….it’s OK I just did that query Incognito.