A Very Social Moment #NBCAGT

It’s fascinating to watch an old dog learn a new trick… almost as much fun as watching him chew toffee. The incident I refer to was my experience at the Pantages Theatre in LA. If you haven’t been there it’s an excellent old theater in the unfashionable end of Hollywood where the homeless meet to mingle. I was there to watch a recording of Americas Got Talent. Ever since Howard Stern (blessed be his name) joined the show, I have become a firm fan of its eclectic mix of dancing dogs, jugglers, comedians, and singers. A long time a go I worked at a TV studio for a year. I was mostly the “Studio Gopher” (Gopher Tea, Gopher coffee, lunch, etc), but I did get to see a lot of recordings and it’s almost shocking to see how little the entire process has changed in 30 years. It’s still lots of very important people talking into headsets and ordering the poor benighted studio audience around; much like the guards at a WWII POW camp… come here … go there… no food or water for you… stop screaming!

The tickets were free and I’m always looking for interesting and exciting new places to fight with my lovely wife at, so we grabbed a hotel and went on an AGT adventure. On a side note, I used a new app called “Hotel Tonight” to get a room. It only sells hotels for that day, and doesn’t start selling until 12 noon local. Unlike Hotwire, it let’s you see the hotel before you commit. It has some decent deals and the price actually dropped as I was booking.

We arrived at the theater to begin several hours of waiting in line in the sun and general hanging about before we were brutally strip searched by the camp guards, given a change of clothing, deloused, tattooed, and finally admitted to the theater to be further bossed around.  I was actually pleasantly surprised at how they managed the process of recording the acts, the delays between each contestant were manageable and the audience wrangler did a good job of keeping us reasonably entertained. At the beginning of the recording, they asked the entire audience to learn a simple mini dance routine to “living in America” for use in the opening credits (maybe). It was all fun and games for the first dozen or two runs but by the time we had passed 20 the natives were getting restless… we were about three more forced repetitions from an all out camp uprising.

So what about the old dog learning new tricks? Well, it wasn’t much of a trick…but it was interesting to watch. The audience is patrolled for the entire show by what can only be described as video bouncers. They watch avidly for anyone trying to sneak a pic or video of a dog dancer or belly dancer (yes we had one and yes she went through to the next round). Any attempt at video is leapt upon, water cannons are turned on the audience the offending person is dragged out, beaten senseless and in some cases water boarded on stage. However in a massive break with tradition, they did allow the audience to video the judges’ progress from the back of the theater to the stage. In fact, the audience is actively encouraged to do that… and post the pics or videos on their Facebook, Twitter, Vine or Instagram. In a further concession to the real world, all the busy and bossy crew wore t-shirts with #NBCAGT emblazoned across the back. They plugged the heck out of the Hashtag, and from the number of followers and tweets they are getting it seems to be working reasonably well. In my video (attached) of the King arriving, it’s interesting to note that you can hear cheers from the crowd but not much applause… for the simple fact that you can’t clap when you are recording… and fully 75% of the crowd was recording.

What would have been much more interesting would have been for them to let the crowd film anything they wanted, publish, and be damned. What I suspect would have happened is they would create tons of buzz on the show long before its real broadcast driving people who want to see the event in HD, as opposed to shaky phone cam – but baby steps still count as progress.

Keeping up with Google

As an avid Google watcher it’s been almost a full time job just trying to keep up with the guys. There are probably a good dozen Google related stories moving and shaking as we speak. In broad terms you can classify these developments as falling into several themes.

The PR Battle

Google used to be cute, now it’s a monster which eats it’s own and grinds the face of its critics into the dirt… a perfectly logical progression in business, but it’s clear Google themselves have a problem being seen as the ogre they are rather than the cool kids they think they should be. Putting aside the fact that the German authorities just hate Google and all things Google, the German regulators have just handed down the largest fine they were able to for the reckless collection of non-map data as they built the German street view component a few years back. Although Google claimed it was a problem caused by over enthusiastic geeks; the Germans weren’t having any of it. Indeed, they made it clear in their ruling that had they had a larger book to throw at them, they would have been happy to oblige. At almost the same time, Eric Schmidt continued to defend Google’s legal but creative way of reducing taxes as much as they can. The BBC chewed him up and spat him out, and other media rushed in to pile on. The Brits love paying taxes, so for them to see Google gleefully avoid paying taxes they can legally avoid, it makes them see red.

Focus, Focus and Focus

Google used to throw off pet and or goofy projects with gay abandon… now not so much. Indeed they are thinning the herd. They let their digital children persist of kill them off depending on revenue and potential, and or the phase of the moon. Recently they have been killing products at a faster clip than usual. They killed off their very popular RSS reader, and last week they axed the Google Affiliate Network… to the consternation of many who have scratched out a living in this industry. The affiliate network wasn’t a huge contribute, but it’s interesting that they axed the product which was (presumably) profitable. The logical successor to the late and not very lamented GAN, is the shopping search they introduced last year as a paying service. That’s an enormous opportunity which will likely eclipse the rather clunky GAN…indeed it’s probably already done that.

Colonizing the Future

Google won the search war by doing one thing supremely well, and “borrow” anything else they may need.  They pretty much invented the search category and have benefited enormously from that initial win. The classic example of this strategy is the ad product, which they built on their first empire. That platform is powered by an auction bid platform, which they simply stole from Overture (then Yahoo). They spent good parts of the next year or so in court settling with Yahoo. That legal process allowed them enough room to solidify their market share so that even though they were paid fortunes when they settled, Yahoo lost. The odd thing is that although they innovate like crazy, they rarely get it right in house and have to use their checkbook to play catch-up. They missed video (and bought YouTube), they missed social media with the awful Google Buzz and have foisted Google Plus on a reluctant world. Apple beat them to the punch on phones, and Android is a good copy – albeit under legal attack.  ITunes rules paid downloaded content; Google play is a distant second place.  They missed local reviews and couldn’t buy Yelp. They missed classified to Craigslist, and the quilter market to Pintrest. The list goes on. The list is complicated by the sea changes underway in both how we experience all things digital (mobile, iPads, etc), and the places we go to search (Amazon represents a huge threat to commercial search).

All this puts them under what I have to imagine is intense pressure to second-guess the future to consolidate their hegemony. Google Now is interesting as a potential digital assistant, which will follow you around and be your constant digital helper. Google Glass represents a new category… and maybe their first, truly new category, useful digital overlay. Some are skeptical but I’m already a believer (after a fashion). My new car has a rather cool Heads Up Display feature; where it projects basic travel data and directions in the screen so that you can gauge your speed etc. without ever taking your eyes off the road. After only a week or two of using it I’m hooked. As long as Google Glass comes in my prescription, I’m going to be an early adopter.

Google Cleaning House on Download Guys

download toolbar now

The download space has been a lucrative area for many years. Cain slew Able because Able had downloaded some stuff onto Cain’s PC and given him a Malware browser infection. Way back in the day, it was possible to covertly get a browser object onto a end users browser, then traffic ads against it from Google amongst other folks. In the mid 2000’s, Google started getting more and more stringent on what they would approve before they would power a downloaded app with their search results. Each change made it harder and harder to get a Google feed to monetize with.

In the new privacy rules announced by Google earlier this month, they have pretty much put a stake through the heart of anyone relying on Google to monetize their downloads. The changes are pretty sweeping; a download must:

  • Be pre-approved by Google
  • Offer one-click, complete uninstall
  • Provide clear, full disclosure and transparency to people about what is being installed and what changes are being made to their devices
  • Install itself on only one browser per download
  • Be bundled with and distributed by only reputable parties who comply with our policies.

As barriers to entry go, these are so high as to be visible from outer space. The download guys have always been uneasy bedfellows for Google, and these most recent changes have essentially kicked them out of bed entirely. I’m sure it’s theoretically possible for a toolbar to get approved and maintain a user base under these conditions but it’s an uphill task.

On the grounds that even the blackest cloud has a silver lining this should be good news for Yahoo. The download guys will pretty much be forced to move their traffic to Yahoo who will be happy to monetize at a lower rate than Google, and at a worse revenue share. It won’t kill the space… it’s far too lucrative for that, but it will make it tougher to do any kind of business in volume. It makes me nostalgic for the good old days of 2003.

Is Yahoo Loosing it?

I was at the Adtech show last week, meeting with the great and the good of the online advertising world, and it was to say the very least a very interesting few days. The largest single topic of discussion could be broadly characterized as “what’s up with Yahoo?” The current excitement comes from the changes we have all seen since their new fearless leader took charge. For the longest time, Yahoo and Google have pursued quite different search growth strategies. Google has focused on growing the Google.com brand, driving as much traffic to the mother ship whilst offering only the breadcrumbs of revenue represented by AdSense to the wider world. It is theoretically possible to get hold of a real Google search feed to offer to end users, but you have a stronger chance of being elected the next Pope after this new one than getting hold of one.

At the same time, Yahoo built a syndication network; where at one point, pretty much any site or tool with a pulse could offer Yahoo powered results to online searchers.  The results of the strategies speak for themselves… Google search giant… Yahoo not so much. Obviously that’s not the only thing that made the difference, but it was a factor. Yahoo, having taken the syndication route, did a pretty good job of doing that and in so doing spawned an entire industry of folk dedicated to offering Yahoo results to all comers getting chubby at the Yahoo buffet… then came regime change.

Marissa Mayer is a very smart cookie, and as an original Googler is no doubt used to the Google way. She shocked pundits early in her rein by down playing the importance of search in the future plans of Yahoo (search …smerch…who needs it!?), and supposedly spurred on by the denizens at Bing (who power Yahoo search), she has “set her cap” (I’m watching a lot of Game of Thrones right now so tend to lapse into old English on occasion) against syndication. High quality search traffic which used to score 8 all day long now scores 5 one day, then 7 the next, then 4.5, then nine. Clicks jump from 30 cents to 3, and back for no obvious reason. It’s not just us seeing this… all over AdTech sharp young men with shaved heads, and intense women with power purses were hurling themselves out of high windows or could be seen sobbing into their third Martini at lunch.

The net result of all this weirdness has to be that syndication revenues are cratering at Yahoo. That wouldn’t matter if they already had 68% of the market like Google has, but for a relatively distant third place which has relied on syndication for so many years, this change in strategy is a lot like the Republicans deciding that they don’t need the Old White Guy vote in favor of a rainbow TuTu… it’s cute… but the other guys already have that model and who is going to pay the bills? The hope in the conference was that someone would get bored or freaked out and things would return to normal… but if the new normal is this, the next AdTech San Fran may well be five guys outside the Starbucks at the Moscone center.


Facebook Home

The Germans have a word for it… Schadenfreude.  It literally means something like shameful enjoyment… the pleasure one takes in seeing a good friend fall off a roof… it’s also a terrific song in the show Avenue Q.  In any event I was guilty of the “S” word yesterday watching Google fall off the mobile roof. The guilty banana peel is the new app from our good friends at Facebook called Facebook Home. As far as I can tell, it only works on Android but what it does is let loyal Facebook users turn their mobile device into essentially a Facebook Phone. The home screen of the phone, and all the other places and apps which a phone might reach out to, can be controlled through Facebook. The millions of Facebookers using Android devices can now lead a much more highly integrated Facebook world… mostly at the expense of Google… and there’s not a whole lot Google can do about it.

One of the great strengths of Android is that it does allows apps to talk to each other and do just these kind of things. It’s very open and Google, unlike Apple, doesn’t police who can offer what in their store… so they are vulnerable to those kinds of integrations. I imagine there will be an immediate rush to adopt the new tool… after all many Facebookers are just rabid in their devotion to their craft. Once Facebook has taken control, it can set the defaults for things like search to its preferences. It’s a brilliant move essentially allowing Facebook to gain a substantial foothold in mobile without having to come up with an operating system, a handset, or a deal with a carrier. Facebook can essentially hijack android devices.

The real pleasure comes from watching Google, who so studiously ripped off iOS by Apple, getting a piece of their own medicine.  Steve Jobs was just furious when Android came out… indeed he had the Google guys over to yell at them from his death bed.  So to see Google’s beloved Android having copied Apple then built a significant market share so comprehensively hijacked (just as mobile is exploding) by the only people who could pull that off in a large enough volume to hurt them, does warm my cold dead heart very slightly. Ironically, were Google to release a similar product featuring Google+ I’d be prepared to bet that they wouldn’t get anywhere near the same traction. Google+ is famously a bit of a ghost town with many profiles adopted but not much going on… where as Facebook is still the place where the cool kids hang out… actually Twitter is where the cool kids go but you see my point.

All Of A Twitter-verse

Jay Leno Jimmy Fallon TwitterI was at a conference recently and was entertained by a presentation from the CMO of Twitter taking us through how just, Gosh Darned marvelous Twitter is. I found it interesting that they were making the case that “it’s not just for news and celebrity.”  Funny… I’d of said it is exactly all about that. Away from news and celebrity, 81% of users have less than 50 followers and 75% of users follow less than 50 people. There are certainly a relatively small number of people who are followed by tons of people. Twitter collided with the news this week in a couple of ways, which reinforce it really is all about News and Celebrity. The SEC carried out an investigation into announcements or comments, which might impact investors from people involved in the company. They concluded that it is indeed OK for folks who work in public companies to use social media for announcements about the company provided that they tell all investors where the announcement will be made. Visualizing thousands of Wall Street types trying to figure out how to hash tag or retweet is hilarious. Always keen to make things easier for the “buy at 10 sell at 12 go home at 3″ brigade Bloomberg announced today that they will be adding tweets from companies to info about those companies on their screens. Luck WSJ types can sort by company, industry proximity to any Kardashian.

To reinforce that it really is all about news and celebrity, Twitter is being cited as an unindicted co conspirator to the recent re-death of Jay Leno as host of the Tonight Show. Leaving aside the inherent goofiness of the public execution (again) of the lantern-jawed late night hack, one of the key reasons for his demise is (supposedly) the modest Twitter following he has accumulated. Strictly speaking, Jay doesn’t have his own page but the Late show does and it garners a measly 500+ thousand followers. In contrast, his replacement Jimmy has over 8 million followers and is famous for viral videos. In terms of online engagement, he’s head and jaw ahead of Jay. The late night TV crowd typically skews old… or very old.  It’s unclear that Fallon will be able to bring with him any, or some, of his twitter flock… many of his crowd are no doubt out having fun when his show runs live.  In any event, the battle for the key 18-49 demographic has already been lost to the Daily Show and my personal favorite the Colbert Report. Had they broken ranks and made one of those guys the new king of late night, we would really have a battle on our hands… and remember, Twitter is not just for celebrity and news.

Google’s April Foolishness

OK, it’s that time of year… April fools, and as always the bright young things at Google have led the charge with a plethora of goofy gags. They have been doing this for so long that we have come to expect attempts at fun from the Mountain View pranksters and this year is no exception. I won’t waste your cycles with a detailed breakdown on the (I think) six hilarious pranks, but in no special order they include:

  1. Shutting down YouTube.
  2. A blue version of Gmail.
  3. A scent based search (presumably to go with Google Glasses).
  4. Silly Google Trends.
  5. Treasure maps on Google maps.
  6. A version of Google Wallet; which is able to print real cash.

Each spoof had real technology spent on it to stage, had videos with great production values, and each was less funny than the last.

In part, my grumpiness springs from the predictability and flat footedness of the humor (these after all are not people who were originally employed for their cutting edge wit) rather it’s the lavishness of the whole thing that has lodged in my nose. There is a Native American traditional ceremony called Potlatch. At these, the wealthy tribal principal involved either gives away enormous wealth or more spectacularly ceremonially burns great wealth in order to reinforce the position of the chief concerned.  When I was a little boy faced with finishing off my cabbage at dinner, my mother used the “there are starving children in India who would love to have that food.”  Like every kid I wanted to reply, “well mail it to them”… or some such smart remark. Today’s exuberant waste of resources on April foolery, only a week after Google announced that they were shutting down Google reader and by adoption striking at the heart of RSS, altogether smacks of Potlatch. Google, we get it… you are Mighty and Terrible.  Your wealth is beyond calculation and we should indeed finish our cabbage… but guys…you really aren’t that funny. Would it have killed you to axe a couple of these unfunny projects and keep Google reader around for the rest of us to use and enjoy… and we promise to laugh at your jokes next year.