Situation Normal… Google Hegemony Continues

The revelation that Google continues to be the top search engine is up there with the Pope being catholic or the toiletry habits of bears. Yes of course, Google is king with a little over two thirds of explicit search going to Google sites… mostly What’s more interesting, perhaps, is that the race for second is getting less frantic. There was a time when Yahoo really seemed to care about search… sadly those days seem to be behind us. In a weird statistical fluke Yahoo passed Google in sheer page views last month, but before anyone pops too many corks over at Yahoo bear in mind that news or email page views are worth a tiny fraction compared to search page views… so, simply having more of them really doesn’t get you that much… Google’s revenue outstrip Yahoo’s by a factor of ten.

According to the latest Comscore data, Yahoo maintained its modest 11% market share as Microsoft (Bing) picked up a point. It is a little sad that Yahoo no longer seems to care as much, and doesn’t even include search as a strategic target. Bing is at least pretending to care and doesn’t seem satisfied with a touch under 18% market shares. The “also ran” category in search continues to be a race to oblivion between AOL and ASK, both of whom slipped a little in July. If I’m honest, I don’t honestly remember the last time I knowingly used either product other than to check that they are still alive and kicking. Weirdly, search is so valuable that even having one whole percent (like AOL) is still worth a ton of money, so hanging for grim death to an apparently meaningless market share is still worth doing. Meantime, the Google parade continues as they maintain a firm market lead with no meaningful competition in site… as always, it’s good to be Google.

Mine, Mine… Mine!

google_mineToday was one of those days when you take a quick peek at the calendar just to be sure it still isn’t April fools. Given the world of PR pain that Google has gotten themselves into as of late (with Google class, multiple cases in various EU courts questioning their honesty or money, the growing suspicion that they have been backing truckloads of data to the NSA), you might think they would steer clear of anything with any kind of creep or “ick” factor. Apparently not.

The latest offering from Big Brother is either their attempt to follow the Pinterest path, or evidence that someone over there has been hitting the sauce a little too hard. The word is that Google is now testing something called Google Mine. This has nothing to do with big data; rather the theory here is that it lets you catalogue your stuff, post pictures of it, review it share them with your friends through Google+ and even give that stuff away. It also allows for a wish list of stuff you only wished you had. Imagine if Craigslist hooked up with Facebook, and after a drug-fueled night of sexual abandon nine month later this popped out. I can imagine it being very useful to nosey friends or burglars… but apart from that… I’m not buying it.

As you may or may not know I’m not a huge fan of social media and would rather put a pin in my eye than use Pinterest… so I’m probably not the target demo… but seriously how self obsessed and vein would you have to be to think that the world cares about how great your vinyl collection is or how many shoes you have. Having said that I realize that Twitter is proof that there really are that many self obsessed people out there with enough free time to indeed catalog their sock drawer and share it with their friends. It’s all too easy to accuse Google of, once again, missing the boat and playing catch up by throwing their strangle hold on search behind their latest me too product.  When they do stuff that leverages their strength and offers real innovation and utility (like the crazy clever Google Now feature), they don’t always get the credit they deserve… other times they get picked on because nobody (especially the EU) likes a winner.  We will see how this latest me too project turns out.

Google Bug Watching for Beginners

Google watching is endlessly entertaining….today it got entertaining in an unexpected way. A geek with I’m guessing way too much time posted on Quora that some searches which should be impossible to resolve rather than returning no results at all actually return tons of porn.

This isn’t something the average user is likely to have come across accidentally, most people don’t do advance syntax based searches on Google…but if you did and asked Google for an answer to a logically impossible query like “-4 “1 4” in which you are essentially asking for results which don’t contain the number 4 but do contain the number 1 space 4, rather than returning no results in this case Google returns 808,000 results most of which (upon very cursory inspection) are porn links. This trick even works with “safe search” filter turned on. Weirdly, similar impossible queries like -4 “4” return no results and -4 “14” returns results which don’t have porn links.

Leaving aside what kind of extreme search jiggery pokery you would need to be doing to even find this effect it’s a hilarious bug. According to Google engineering post on the topic sadly it’s not a secret lonely nerd feature, it’s just a bug.  This is fascinating. We don’t often get to see explicit bugs in Google search in real time…especially not bugs of this magnitude. This presents interested parties with the opportunity to witness just how long the Googlies take to track down, fix and deploy a really clear bug in main search. I’m guessing less than two days. The clock is running, let’s see how long it takes.

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.

Google is Racial Profiling?

You can’t make this stuff up. I checked the calendar and it’s not April 1st. According to a story I found in the Boston Globe Latanya Sweeney a Harvard University academic noticed that when she searched for herself on Google or more precisely a site powered by Google search she received ads back for (amongst other things) criminal back ground checks for her name. She then did a more extensive test and actually wrote a research paper which found that distinctively “black” male first names are 25% more likely to return an ad from offering background or criminal record checks than traditionally “white” names. She doesn’t draw any conclusions other than that this could be problematic for people of color….but the allegation that Google is somehow racially profiling is in the mix.

Of course even a cursory examination of the facts (as opposed to the hilarious conspiracy theory) is (allegedly) that is in fact targeting what it believes to be ‘black’ names with ads for criminal background checks as opposed to more generic services for ‘white’ names. Google racially profiling would be a much better story.  The same thing would apply were I targeting Russian fur hats or nesting dolls to people with Vladimir for a first name.  It is a sad reflection on our society that (according to federal statistics) black males are seven times more likely to end in jail than their white non Hispanic peers. Logically that makes them more likely to have a criminal record, so it makes a twisted kind of common sense to target uniquely black male names with criminal background checks advertisements….but it’s not the Google Geeks doing it.

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.

Google and Skype

OK, I’m confused. As part of keeping ahead of the game I check in with Google in other countries, Canada is often the test bed for US roll outs so it’s always worth checking in from time to time. When I was doing that the other day I noticed something which I haven’t seen before so I thought I’d share. It’s no secret that Google took along hard look at buying Skype last year. There was an internal political power struggle worthy of a movie which went all the way to the top. Eventually they dropped out and Microsoft picked up Skye for $8.5 Bn and they have subsequently announced that they will merge Skype into or replace Windows Messenger. So why, I wonder, when you search for a business on Google Canada do all the numbers light up as Skype dial numbers. If I click a number my Skype tells me I’m about to dial an international number, I assume if I’m in Canada I could make a free Skype call locally. It’s not obvious to me what’s in it for Google for them to promote a Microsoft product as prominently as they are in this Canadian results set, featuring Google Voice would make more sense. If they roll that out to the much larger US market, especially on mobile devices that would be a much more compelling move. Meantime Google had a great Q4 last year with revenues up substantially even though click prices continue to trend down, driven down by lower mobile click prices. On that topic, still no announcement from the Googleplex on their new mobile ad product…it’s coming for sure but no announcement yet.

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.

Ha! Called It!

Boy…I wish I could pick sports like I can pick search! If you have been watching the news today in addition to the Fiscal Cliff going away (something I have been saying to any of my friends and family who would listen would happen since before the election) the FTC just threw in the towel in their investigation of Google. Not only did I call that they would get off effectively scott free they also gave up the minor concessions I said they would a few weeks back. Most significant of those are concessions around key patents they own which will prevent them from trying to claim ownership on pretty much every part of the mobile economy.

Whilst this isn’t a huge surprise given the commercial and lobby power Google commands the message is clear: The new and mobile economy is too important to mess with, even if that means protecting that the uncrowned king from assault from his resentful, truculent Lords and Barons. The fact that the commission apparently waded through 9 million pages of documents and testimony and came up with a conclusion that there was no “there” there is hilarious…what an enormous waste of effort….they could have read the firm warnings sent by the Google greats and their Silicon Valley supporters and saved a forest or two of trees. Actually I ran the math…if we figure they printed ten sets of documents during the investigation at 80,000 sheets of paper per tree they killed roughly 1,000 trees…so more of a copse than a forest…but you get my point.

Meantime in an echo of yesterday’s blog the Chinese have rather surprisingly just shut down Ironically for a site which is clearly trying to copy even Google’s name they have been shut down for allegedly promoting too much pirated content in their results sets. This has to be a horrible blow to the parent company Xunlei who were planning to float on one of our exchanges. I guess they could try to re-launch but planning to drive traffic by being the next hot spot for the content pirates no-longer seems to be a viable business model. If this points to China taking other peoples intellectual property more seriously that has to be something we can all take heart from.