Facebook: Killing with Ads, Sucking at Search

Facebook has suffered many bloody and frequently well-deserved beatings over recent months, ever since their less than well-managed IPO. So it’s a nice change to note that FB absolutely killed their last quarter posting over 50% Y/Y growth… and predictably, it’s pretty much all coming from mobile. We see similar things in our part of the world. Before their recent release of more closely targeted mobile campaigns and ads in the news feed, advertising on FB was something akin to shouting out of your window in the hey general direction of a crowd of passers by. Their new offerings clearly do work much better, and even highly targeted local folks like us can use them with a reasonable degree of success. The big brands typically slow to jump into any new media have finally figured out that FB is here for the long haul, and are lavishing display revenue on them… which also can’t hurt.

Where they continue to ignore staggering opportunity, with what feels like obdurate blindness is search. Don’t get me wrong, they do process a lot of searches (some sources say about a billion per day), but their search revenues are less than 8% of Google’s… even though they have an enormous fraction of the civilized world heavily engaged in their products. Their blind spot revolves around intent. Google works because search terms let them figure out what people want right now. FB collects massive amounts of target-able data, but just because I play tennis does not mean that I’m looking for a new racket right now. Wilson might well target tennis ads at me as I post about my kids and dogs… but that’s not the same as a search for “Wilson Hyper Hammer.” Their solution is to use the opinions, interests, posts, and pictures of the people I know to answer my questions about tennis rackets. Put simply, it sounds silly…what if I don’t have any tennis playing friends? What if they don’t know anything about that racket? It makes more sense for things like restaurants and hotels (even then we have Yelp and TripAdvisor), and by all means blend in relevant feedback wherever you can find it – like what Google tries to do with Google+. But, relying on their Social Graph to answer questing where the Graph has no content is (IMHO) just dumb.

Facebook has the users and it has a pretty huge amount of queries that is typically serves poorly.  Having proven that they can do mobile and display and get pretty good results, why don’t they put a team of their brightest and best and come up with a killer search which answers every question and is augmented by the Graph as it grows… but then… what do I know?

Meet the New Boss…Same as the Old Boss

Search at Yahoo has languished somewhat since Bing took over their search back in 2008 after a failed bid by Microsoft to buy Yahoo. There has always been an antitrust concern about the search on Yahoo being powered by Google…so I was interested but not that surprised to read today that Google contextual ads will now start showing up on Yahoo properties and more importantly Yahoo mobile traffic. To be clear this isn’t the same as main search on Yahoo being taken over by Google, rather these are contextual AdSense ads displayed on billions of Yahoo web and mobile pages…which will presumably represent a significant revenue opportunity for Yahoo.  It makes perfect sense as Google’s ads are generally more valuable than Yahoos and they have a larger stack of advertisers to play with. At the core of the deal is the dramatic growth of mobile. Millions of people use Yahoo mobile content to keep them up to date with news, celebrity, finance sports and email. Google has a much stronger mobile platform so adding Google mobile ads to the enormous Yahoo mobile inventory. Google doesn’t (yet) have the kind of vertical interest Yahoo boasts so that’s likely to be an upside for them both.

Google survived an  FTC investigation into monopolistic practices last year and is still under scrutiny in the EU, so making a move which further centralizes Google commercial control could be thought of as ballsy.. but in a race to grab as much real-estate as possible before the new Search at Facebook gets out of short pants it makes perfect sense.

Social Discovery is Out to Get You

I don’t like social discovery, at least I don’t want people who don’t know me but might share interests discovering me without me looking for the attention. So the rumors swirling around Facebook and social discovery are interesting. The inside word is that a high octane team from Facebook including ex Googler Peter Deng and folks from Glancee a location based company FB acquired in 2011 are working full tilt on an Ap to be with eager mobile FB users sometime in March. It looks like the App will ‘know” and alert your when one of your FB friends is in your near vicinity even if the App isn’t running. I can imagine that this might generate “friend spam” where (for example) you are friends of folk you work with your phone constantly letting you know that your friends are nearby.

Where it gets really interesting is how the app will likely go beyond just friend discovery. If taken to a logical conclusion this may allow advertisers to reach out to users who have some level of engagement with their brand such as a ‘like’ with a brand message or offer. In this use case as you pass Starbucks they might hit you up with a special offer or coupon. Given FBs horrible record with end user privacy issues the key question will be “will they be able to withstand the temptation to reach out and spam us with offers and deals”.  Either way the smart device in your pocket is about to get even more chatty….and potentially annoying.

Yahoo On the Mend?

Six months into her new job Marissa Mayer the new queen of Yahoo was able to tell some reasonably good news to investors in her Q4 results call yesterday. Yahoo saw their first uptick in revenue for a good while as Mayer shared the good news from the annual meeting of the great and good in Davos Switzerland last week. She pointed to two clear areas of focus for the newly invigorated Yahoo. Not surprisingly mobile is one of them. That makes a huge amount of sense as mobile is rapidly catching up with the desktop. For all its failing Yahoo has a ton of great content which million of people go to each day for their daily dose of sports, news gossip etc. Making that content mobile and personalized for their millions of users through apps and targeting ads around that offers a significant opportunity for revenue growth. However, the other focus Mayer pointed to is search….yes really search. I have been in the search business for about a million years and back in the day Yahoo powered its own search. Then they brought in the cuddly friendly guys at Google to power it for them (under a powered by Google brand) to run their search for them. Their assumption was that people would use Yahoo for everything including search. Back then before high speed connections users could either sit and wait for a yahoo results page encrusted with ugly ads to load or they could hop over to Google and have a fast clean ad free search result from Google. Weirdly I remember discussing this with several Yahooligans at the time and they honestly didn’t think it would be a threat. A decade or so later…they aren’t quite so sure.

Yahoo ceded search to Microsoft’s Bing a while back so for Yahoo to attempt to gain a stronger position in search without even owning the technology is incredibly ambitious. Doing search well is hard, doing it as well as Google does given the 30 trillion pages Google indexes is incredibly hard. Google has beaten off legal challenges for their rivals and the FTC and become both a noun and a verb…it’s tough to beat a competitor which has become the name for the activity. The mobile opportunity is probably more compelling. When I just checked there are about a dozen separate Yahoo apps out there. The question is can Yahoo weave those separate strands into a strong unique mobile user experience…before Facebook does? The jury is out on that. Certainly Yahoo has done a better job than Google whose mobile news app is just horrible. Their biggest problem is that Google has become the way that most of us navigate the chaos of the Internet and Facebook has become the way we share pics of our kids….all that’s left is mobile, and the clock is ticking on that too.

Flipping Out

It’s not often that I gush about anything. I’ve been in the biz for a good while and any number of gee whiz ideas pass my desk every day, I have seen dozens of “next Googles” and the vast majority are seen then never seen again. So when someone recommended Flipboard for iPad to me recently it took me a while to get round to actually installing the ap. I’m late to the party these guys launched last summer. For a guy who lives online I hate a lot of the online experience. I don’t like reading stories on websites and I find next page navigation annoying and the ads intrusive and boring. Flipboard is a brilliant answer to those problems. Essentially you tell it what you are interested in and it fetches content which matches your interest and presents it in a clean elegant magazine like format. It makes reading and navigating stories seamless and simple, as the name suggests it allows you to flip between stories and sections. It also allows you to log into your Facebook and Twitter feeds and displays that content again cleanly and elegantly formatted. It turns your Twitter feed into your own magazine and makes your Facebook a much more engaging experience.

The result is a simply brilliant way for you to digest online content on your tablet. It’s so slick and so elegant and easy to use I think it could seriously impact other parts of our online engagement. I could see the paradigm overflow into search. Imagine searching on your tablet and flipping between results as opposed to traditional search and click navigation. It’s been a while since we have seen a significant improvement in search results and how we navigate them. Adding the ability to present the results formatted elegantly and simply with flip navigation is intriguing. To an extent Google has been heading in this direction by aggregating data from sites and presenting them in the right rail of the results set. This is controversial with many content producers because if the answer has been scraped and displayed by Google which obviates the need for end users to click through from the results set. Take a look at the results for the “Query Jodie Foster“the right rail presents images, a biography, key film data and other key personal and career data. It’s a short conceptual step to make those results flippable. Meantime, if you have a tablet be sure you download Flipboard to make it twice as useful.

Facebook Steps Up Search

If you follow my random musing you will be aware that I’m not a big fan of Facebook. Unlike most people I know I don’t spent hours a week (or day in some cases) updating my thoughts, posting pics of cats etc etc. I also have a limited pool of friends in real life and thus an even more limited number on Facebook…it speaks volumes to my world that I have 168 friends on FB and over 1,000 connections on LinkedIn. In any event last week the good people at FB announced the beta of their new Graph Search…and not surprisingly it’s highly social. Since its limited beta I haven’t laid hands on it yet but from those who have it appears to be an interesting departure.

Essentially FB is mining its vast database of people, their interests and connections and is looking to answer questions posed from the interest and experiences of people in your world. It’s an interesting idea but I doubt my shallow friend pool would be able to answer most or even many the huge array of questions I pose to Google every day. To be useful they will have to include (I would think) many more data points from much wider than just my circle. That kind of makes of sense and could indeed be a great source of answers and feedback. It also represents a very tasty opportunity for advertisers. By adding search to the mix on top of all the other social interest and activity data FB has been accumulating over the past years FB will be able to offer ‘intent‘ as well as oodles of back ground data. For example let’s imagine I’m planning a Maui vacation, the new FB search could give me opinions on hotels from friends who have been along with potentially highly targeted ads from hotels and activity providers. Where it gets especially interesting is that where I am a keen butterfly collector FB might target potential vacation activities around butterflies in Hawaii even though I didn’t originally search for anything to do with bugs. The opportunities are endless.

Where it gets a little scary (OK more scary) is where FB starts returning stuff I may have posted in results to people I don’t know. I’m not entirely sure that I want my thoughts on a topic which I may have thought I was only sharing with my friends to complete strangers. I’m sure all this is handled in the small print of FB privacy regulations, but honestly when was the last time you actually ready any of them.  If you want to see an example of how weird and potentially worrying this might get do a search on FB for “Bondage Club.” You will get a list of multiple interesting locations and strangely (to me anyway) public posts which lead back to the profiles of folks posting on those sites. For an absurd but disturbing example the “Total Submission Gay Furry Yiff and Bondage Club” (in the UK of course) has publicly available posts from multiple people which link back to what appears to be perfectly average FB pages. I don’t know these folks and could care less what they may or may not do in their spare time….but do you think that these fellows would be overjoyed to know that I’m writing about them and pretty much know where they live and with a couple of other searches on public search engines I was easily able to find exactly where they do live and in one case who lives with them? Now multiply that use case by a billion users when the Graph Search fully rolls out….I have to imagine that a whole lot of people may not want to be the answers to questions posed by people they don’t know. Watch this space.

“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.

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?

Stalking Made Simple

As I have mentioned many times in the past I’m not a huge fan of social media. Given my dislike of people and social situations in general that’s not entirely surprising. When I go to hell, I expect it to be an eternal ‘networking‘ session where I’m forced by little men with horns and forks to talk to complete strangers at trade shows. Having said that I do use LinkedIn and I have a Facebook page which I never post on. I welcome pretty much all invitations to friend or connect (because I don’t really value the platforms) and that has gotten me into trouble on occasion, where my maniacally social wife will grill me on who various women on LinkedIn or FB are….many of whom I actually barely know at all.

In any event I was looking at a new “people search” tool called ark.com which is currently lumbering up to the start. Their paradigm is to index the LinkedIn, Facebook and other social platforms so that users can search not for people they do know, rather it lets users specify the parameters of people they would like to connect with and approach them through the platform. If I were visiting Chicago and I wanted to play chess with a cat loving man of Vietnamese extraction who went to my old high school they could in theory hook me up….assuming that I and the aforesaid gentlemen happen to subscribe to Ark.com and the appropriate other interest or alumni programs.

This approach of using social media to hook up with people you don’t know but happen to be in physical proximity to is highly successful in certain areas such as the gay dating world where platforms like grinder.com facilitate exactly that kind of connection. Recent years have seen the launch of several other platforms which set out on the premise that it would be neat to be able to track down people you don’t actually know who may be nearby with similar interests but discovered that technology enabled stalking was problematic and have morphed into ways to track down people you do know instead.

The folks at ark.com are launching with colleges under the premise that if it worked for Facebook it will work for them, and maybe it will. In the event that it does start to take off I imagine Facebook will pull one of their famous programming all-nighters and will come up with an exactly similar solution which will allow existing FB users to discover people of like minds which they don’t currently know and that will be game over for our friends at Ark.com. Either way…I’m not playing.

Too Large To Sue?

The clock is counting down on the FTCs two year investigation of Google. The government has spent a hefty chunk of our tax dollars to see whether Google is a monopoly which acts against the interests of the market. A horde of heavily biased search ‘also ran’ companies has lobbied to have Google either sued (probably the largest action since Microsoft in the 90’s) or reach a deal with Google which would in their minds level the playing field. Word is that most of the FTC favors moving ahead against Google….but I wander if that really would do any good.

It’s a tricky situation. Google is undoubtedly a monopoly, but if you didn’t have search life would go on…no babies in incubators would die. However they are the fulcrum of a huge amount of the new economy so to have them favor their own projects and harm the competition could be a problem. What I found rather distasteful was the spectacle of Silicon Valley Congress people writing to the FTC suggesting that they back their tanks off Google lawn lest their actions harm the economy….really? Google is now too big to sue?

Google is a monopoly in terms of overall search traffic and especially in terms of the crucial commercial search market. They are aggressive and unwavering in their pursuit of their interests….but this is America they are allowed to be. I long since gave up trying to keep up with the endless parade of “next Googles” in search. The short answer is the next Google might be Facebook…or Apple.   Remember when Microsoft was an evil Monopoly…before browsers took so much of the desktop over…before Apple surged back and Google cornered search, before Microsoft got fat and lazy? There are serious threats to Google in the search world. If Facebook cuts a deal with Yahoo, Siri continues to grow, Amazon continues to establish mastery of shopping search and we continue our dash to mobile there will be ample opportunity for Google to step up or others to step in.

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.