Archive | July 2011

New Look Google Account Page: More Trouble for Facebook

So Google are really ringing the changes. The new Google look and feel has arrived on the Google profile/account page. At first blush, it’s all about the shiny new corporate look, but there are a few telling additions.

Data Liberation

Google are allowing you a means to export all your stuff out of your Google account into  portable zip files. What use a ported Google Stream file is at this point is anyone’s guess – but I have an idea: more of which later.

3rd Party Integration

You’ve long been able to connect your Google profile to 3rd party accounts. It has never done anything more than put a link on your profile – and the number of accounts you can connect to is slightly limited (my erstwhile colleague Slater noted some quirks around this a while back). Nontheless, it’s got a bit of shine on it now – and Facebook is now the top choice. Again, I think there’s a reason to this.

So far so dull… but

Minor changes. But these are signs that Google are taking their bid to kill Facebook very seriously indeed. A couple of weeks back, I mentioned how Microsoft created a strategy to take down Lotus Notes way back in the Stone Age. Perhaps the most cunning part was to make it possible to import and export things into MS products from Lotus products. This lessened the fears that people had about moving platforms: that they would lose, or have to redo, a tonne of work they’d already done.

You can now export data from Google+ and Facebook. So how long before you can import? I’m prepared to bet not long at all. Critically, I’d put money on Google moving first and announcing that you can import your Facebook data – whereas Facebook will resist. Both for obvious reasons.

From a PR perspective, that will put Facebook on the back foot and they’ll have yield and give you the option to import Google+ data. While that will mean nish all to most people, it will have the critical effect of making the change seem a lot less scary than it does know – the subtext being: “You can just hop between the two accounts as easily as you like. Nothing to worry about.”

That’s a BIG barrier to adoption of Google+ taken care of right there. I was dismissive of Google+ a couple of weeks ago, and I still think that Facebook is still holding the power here, but Google is playing siege warfare here. Facebook are camped out in their hilltop fortress right now, but how they take the fight back to their besiegers is suddenly a little less clear than it was.

Metro.co.uk – most pisstaking popover ad ever?

I know that sites need advertising to survive. I also know that overly intrusive advertising can kill the user experience.  Check out this visual nightmare from Metro.co.uk  that I was presented with when trying to read about the fat sleeping benefits supervisor that Lucien Freud made a star – a full 850x1025px of  graphical madness. “Less is more” is clearly not a memo that reached the boys at Metro / O2.

Thanks guys!

Google Closes Google Labs: All Your Internets Belong to Them

I’ll repeat what I said before: the new Google is all business. The announcement that Google Labs is closing  is a big fat stamp of approval on that opinion.

I think Google’s playful persona has really been more of a marketing tool than anything else for a few years. I went to the Dublin Googleplex a couple of years back and while I noted the much vaunted ‘fun rooms’ I also noted that they were entirely devoid of staff. Even back then, that struck me as a company playing lipservice to fun but where the actual culture was a whole lot more professional and business focussed.

As I noted last week, the closure of Google Health and Google Power Meter, the end of the Wonder Wheel and the new interface in general says that Google is growing up. Like any business there are bits which make money and bits which don’t. The remorseless logic of commerce says: “bin the bits that don’t”.

It’s interesting to contrast that with the likes of Groupon (“in the toilet“) and even Twitter who are still living in a dotcom, IPO mindset. Google is a proper business beholden to its shareholders, and pissing money away on fun and non-commercial frippery never plays well with investors.

Their stake in the ground is this: search and social. Google+ now looks like a lot more serious play than it did even when it launched. While other projects get the chop, someone is staking their reputation at the company that they can go toe to toe with Facebook so it’ll be interesting to see how Google’s attempt at land grab goes. While they talk it up as a serious long term investment, the clock is already ticking (and personally I don’t think it last. I will eat this blog post if I’m proven wrong).

What can we tell from this? That Google should be bracketed alongside Microsoft – if it isn’t already – as an infrastructure rather than a mere supplier. The next time they ban a site and tell you that it’s in the interests of users, don’t buy it: everything is in the interest of shareholders now – even stiffing legitimate sites to generate headlines.

You wanna play on the internet in 2011? Make friends with Google and take what they give you.

Why Google Aren’t Buying Twitter

Disclaimer: I’m no fan of Twitter

Google partnered with Twitter to bring the world real time search a couple of years back (which I slammed at the time) and that arrangement has quietly lapsed recently – which has led to speculation this week about whether the search giant is or should be opening their wallet for an acquisition.

I suspect not.

Twitter isn’t monetised. In fact, Twitter will never be monetised. For a cash rich, ever-growing company like Google, buying something like Twitter would be relatively small beer but would serve no purpose other than gaining another infrastructure to support.

And my gut says that Google know that something’s in the water. Eric Schmidt was also talking this week about whether there’s a bubble in tech - which made me chortle seeing as I made the same suggestion not 4 days ago in these pages. The fact is that the global economy is likely to undergo some colossal reverberations in the next 18 months.

Why? I’ll show you why:

Outside the tech bubble, the storms are gathering. There’s a better than 50% chance that either the US or the Eurozone is going to suffer a fiscal shock bigger than 2008 in the next 12 months – and backdraft from that will pop any number of bubbles.

While the silicon valley venture capital scene is all still about those fluttering eyelashes and exciting start-ups like Groupon (actual business value: nil) Google are playing a smarter game, IMO.

As part of their new, more corporate look, Google also binned little things like The Wonder Wheel, Google Power Meter, Google Health, Google Realtime and so on. These represented interesting projects that were effectively unmonetisable. Aside from the halo effect, they added nothing to Google’s bottom line – and the fact that they’ve been dropped tells me that Google are battening down the hatches to ride out the next couple of years of major uncertainty. There’s no way in that climate that picking up a white elephant like Twitter makes any kind of sense (I think Google+ is a kind of hedge bet: if Facebook doesn’t make it through the crash, Google has put down a marker)

And for Twitter themselves? Well their own window of opportunity to sell out narrows every day. The second crash will wipe out lots of glitteringly hyped start-ups like Foursquare and Groupon – and more importantly Twitter’s notional market value. It will survive, but will be picked up for relative peanuts as a brand acquisition somewhere down the line.

And not by Google.

Google and Facebook remind us: The Dotcom Bubble Never Burst

Video chat is pretty cool and popular with certain demographics but it almost certainly makes no business sense. All the press announcements from Google and Facebook about it don’t change that one iota.

Video chat just isn’t that useful

The trouble? Most video chat is boring and/or awkward. Instead of just talking on the phone, you have to look at the other person as they try to remember they’re on cam and not let their dressing gown fall open or to start eating their bogies or letting their mouth hang open while eating Pringles.

Worse still if, like me, you’re ugly. I can project a charming persona easily enough over IM, but I just can’t pull that off if I you can see my sweaty head, big schneb, unshaven chin and the arresting visual deformities that cross my brow when I’m thinking.

If you’re desperate to get into someone’s knickers or catching up with a distant family member, those are just the hurdles that you have to find the moral fibre to overcome. Outside that, the novelty vs. usefulness figures are awful.

Sure, some hipster company somewhere runs video chat instead of a conference call – but that’s more because they’re still 23 and bother brushing their hair of a morning. The rest of us want to make rude hand gestures at the phone or roll our eyes contemptuously without being seen.

Phone calls and IM are better

Phone calls and IM still dominate the communication sphere for a simple reason: the tech is so simple and it accords us a little privacy to go about our business while chatting to someone. I can lie to you on IM about what meeting/phone call I’m not actually taking in a way that I can’t on video.

It’s still mainly the economics though, stupid

People look back at the playful era of the dotcom boom with a certain fondness and enjoy a chortle at those silly things that people did back then in their naivety as if these people were Edwardian simpletons. That mentality is, however, alive and kicking in 2011.

Fact: video chat is an unmonetisable expense.

  1. Search and social can be turned into money, because there’s data to work with: demographic or intent
  2. Video is still the most bandwidth-intensive format for communication
  3. No-one will be clicking ads when they’re ‘accidentally’ bending over to show their cleavage in a better light
  4. No-one will be clicking ads then they’re intensely watching someone else in the hope they accidentally bend over to show their cleavage in a better light

So in both cases, Google+ and Facebook have effectively announced that they’re increasing their cost of operation for no sound business reason other than “grab some column inches and hope”.

Imagine, say, that British Airways announced that all passengers would receive a free massage on all flights. Investors and the press would quickly mark them down as crackpots and start selling like hell. But hey! This is tech! It’s different! And awesome!

Assuming that the people running these companies aren’t actual mentalists, you’ve got to figure that they know this and understand that video chat just won’t become that common – and that this is actually just advertising hype rather than anything that anyone asked for.

That the blogosphere goes wild and no crappy “business angle” goes uncovered is, however, actually mental.

2011: Still Old Media Doesn’t Get it

“Both Google and Facebook offer their services to users apparently for free. But the services are not of course free. Both companies sell the information that users provide – in search data, or personal profiles.

Apparently, these companies mostly sell their (your) information to advertisers who mine the data in order to target consumers more effectively. But, despite fervent declarations about transparency, in fact, it’s very hard to find out exactly to whom they sell the data or what the “data miners” do with it. McDonald’s or the CIA? We’re not told, even though it is information about us that they are trading.”

So sayeth the Guardian. Given their political stance, it’s little wonder that they immediately leap from ‘advertisers’ in the generic to “McDonald’s or the CIA” in the specific. In the gothic imaginings of the left, The CIA and McDonald’s are handy ciphers for Government and Capitalist evil respectively – which pretty much informs the tone of the whole post.

In fact, neither Facebook nor Google sell your information to anyone. Instead, they allow advertisers to target you through information freely offered by you. And it’s all done at an aggregated level. In, well, the same way that the Guardian itself operates.

“We also ask some further, voluntary questions so we can gain a clearer understanding of our users. Your responses help us to sell appropriate advertising space and so keep the site free. They also enable us to personalise services for our users. We do not share this information with third parties unless you have specifically consented to this.”

No-one at Glaxo Smithkline is sitting there reading specifically about me. Or you. Or anyone. They have, however, instructed Facebook to show an ad for washing powder to any male between 30 and 45 who talks about trousers. Just as Google sells search slots based on, well, searches.

But hey – if you’d rather do it the old way and just get blanketed with formless, unpersonalised mailshots – don’t use Google or Facebook!

PR Triumph vs. Boring Analytics

If you’re a small online player trying to punch above your weight with traditional PR, 2011 is the year to start questioning that particular route to market. Firstly it’s been an interesting and revealing few months for the meeja as we’ve come to know it. As its once-mighty institutions are revealed to be hollow shells, even the perceived value of ‘news’ coverage has to be in decline.

Secondly, for web-based businesses who are in a position to directly measure the impact on their site (rather than just nod their way through a collection of press-cuttings) the impact of dead tree coverage of web businesses is shown to be pretty poor.

An 8 page colour pull-out in the Sunday Times might set phones ringing, but will deliver next to no impact on site traffic without amazing optimisation. And this isn’t speculation: I have seen it with my own eyes. Beyond a vague and contentious blip in daily direct visits and type in traffic for the brand there was zero effect on the site overall. No lasting uplift in traffic or conversions through the site. And, of course, until technology improves a little, there’s no way to capture SEO juice from dead tree coverage.

An isolated example? Here’s some screenshots of what a 2 page spread in a Sun pullout (daily readership: 7,5920,000!) did for traffic on the day it was published.

Brand Searches

The branding was featured extensively in the Sun coverage – but there was no discernible activity in brand search activity.

Domain Type-in Searches

OK. Clearly a discernible uptick here – the brand was mentioned primarily as the domain name in the coverage. But look at the scale. Type-ins went from a normal daily average of 10 per day to a whopping 20 on the day of publication.

Direct Traffic

Perhaps a small increase in people coming directly to the site – but the number is at best equal with other random spikes during the preceding few weeks.

SEO

Coverage was strictly analogue. The story didn’t even reach the digital version of the Sun, so there was neither traffic nor linkjuice to be had. Perhaps had the story reached that level of penetration into the paper’s coverage this blog post would have a different tone.

And in the meantime…

I set up an AdWords campaign to tackle the same theme. This was for two reasons:

  1. To pick up residual traffic from people who’d seen the story on the train and gone to research it on their PC at work/wherever.
  2. To widen the coverage to tangential subjects and themes that didn’t appear in the press story.

It was a very limited affair – 13 keywords and 2 ads and a daily budget of just £50. Despite that, it is now clearly outperforming the Sun in terms of response.

The brand has been seen by far fewer people (the hundreds, rather than the millions) but of those hundreds, there has been a much more immediate and direct involvement with the brand.

Measuring a couple of events in Analytics has demonstrated beyond doubt that people are interacting with the site in a highly targeted fashion through this channel in a way that seems highly unlikely that The Sun delivered.

A small note

If any PR companies are reading this, I’d just like to make it clear that it was a great PR scoop for us – a new, small business – to get that kind of coverage. There’s certainly no doubting the effort and skill that went into getting us there, nor the positive tone of the coverage.

There is no criticism implicit in this post of the PR activity itself, just an airing of doubts about whether the trad PR model is the best fit for a companies who operate mainly in the SEM/SEO spaces.

Conclusions?

PR works on the principle of brand exposure. See the brand a few times in reasonable context and you have a brand presence which you can then exploit to sell your wares more easily.

Once you are a brand, PR becomes a natural part of everything you do: your every move is reportable and interesting to the press and public and you’ve probably got budget to finesse the coverage to suit your needs.

But, as a cost, PR is a long term activity. Monthly retainers are part of a picture that then expands to include junkets, offline stunts and the inevitable costs of managing things, brainstorming ideas and so on.

But for a lot of web businesses – particularly start-ups – that model just doesn’t wash when you look at cold hard figures.

If money is tight, don’t necessarily become entranced by your picture in the paper and consider spending the money on PPC.

Guerilla PPC

In a world of ever-shorter attention spans and when the ad space is ever more polluted with “me too” messages, it’s hard to get a message out to lots of people at short notice and low cost.

One method is what I’m loosely calling “guerilla PPC” – something we’ve been trialling ourselves with interesting effects.

The principle runs thus:

  1. Take the day’s biggest news story
  2. See if anyone is running PPC against it already
  3. If not, fire up a quick and dirty campaign
  4. Try and tie it back to brand messages
  5. Take some exposure, some traffic and (perhaps) some links / coverage

For a direct example, Thomas Cook have used this method this week with an amusing skit on the Carlos Tevez situation (HT: Stu Bamforth).

Benefits

  1. You can get uncontested presence on big volume terms at relatively low CPC levels
  2. You might get a little bit of positive buzz within the industry
  3. You associate your brand with humour and wit

Downsides

  1. Might not fit with your existing brand messages
  2. Some news stories are just too risky to touch
  3. Response rates are likely to be pitiful unless backed up with landing pages/actions etc
  4. Must be repeated over time to get the necessary exposure to actually build a brand

Should you bother?

In the main, there is little actual tangible benefit, but a little skit can put the brand in front of tens of thousands of people for an actual cost of a couple of quid. It drips a brand message in front of them and every little helps when you’re in the establishment phase.

But perhaps most importantly of all, it gives you a little something to smile about on days full of horrible news.

My Contempt for the Press

The press, we are told, is the exposer of hypocrisies, purveyor of the truth, defender of liberty and champion of justice. Rarely does a day go by when the media won’t claim victory for itself in the personal or professional ruination of Person X or Person Y, who has been found wanting in the cold stare of press indignation.

How hollow and shabby do those claims ring in 2011?

Well this week, we see that The Sun and The Mirror are charged with contempt of court for portraying an innocent man as “lewd” and “creepy” during the investigation of the disappearance of Joanna Yeates. He had been arrested for questioning at the time of the investigation but the courts found that the coverage of his arrest was so prejudicial as to potentially render a fair trial impossible. They were not alone: The Telegraph still carries a page rife with innuendo:

“However, another former pupil of Mr Jefferies, David Gawain, said: “He had a tendency of wanting to get his own way. If you had not done your prep or other things like learning poems, he used to shout at you. I went to his flat with my English class once and he began shouting at us because we were not behaving ourselves.”

We also now know that The News of the World were prepared to sanction the ‘hacking’ (although the phrase – popularised in the media – is also inaccurate) of the phone of missing Milly Dowler.

In the same case, 6 newspapers now face charges of contempt of court by their coverage of the case. which caused the collapse of a second prosecution of Levi Bellfield: again for the prejudicial nature of their coverage

Less seriously, but no less tellingly, the press rushed to cover the “beautiful people Shrek virus” story which was, of course, nothing more than a got-up piece of PR puff which they swallowed gladly and regurgitated over their front pages while the EU balances over the edge of a continuing economic precipice which could yet bring ruination to us all.

The ‘quality’ end of the press also finds its nose rubbed in its own do-do this week. Johann Hari has been exposed as a plagiarist. He might dance on the head of a pin with his explanations but outside the media circle, all we say was another liar exposed at the heart of our media.

So far from purveyors of the truth, the media stands exposed as peddlars of lies, corrupters of justice, destroyers of lives.

The press think that you are simple, manipulable and often vile. Sometimes, the expression of their contempt for you is very direct. Andrew Marr, now revealed to be a hypocrite of the first water, spoke publicly about bloggers last year:

“..so-called citizen journalism is the spewings and rantings of very drunk people late at night. It is fantastic at times but it is not going to replace journalism. A lot of bloggers seem to be socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy, bald, cauliflower-nosed young men sitting in their mother’s basements and ranting “

Even if not expressed so directly, the likes of The Sun, championing such constructs as ‘white van man’ is nothing more than contempt with another face. The people who write for the Sun are highly educated, highly trained and work in an intense, technological field. The very notion that they share anything in background and outlook with the man on the Clapham omnibus is laughable.

Need we even talk about the likes of Jan Moir or Richard Littlejohn?

The charge sheet lengthens daily.

Contra Marr, we see bloggers holding journalism to account. From all parts of the political spectrum, bloggers  daily show up the media for what it is, exposing its lies and perversions. While no doubt personal ego plays a part, these people seek no power. They do not presume to be influencing policy or leading the country by the nose. It is they who are the truth seekers. They who fact check the media. They who act to express the discontent of people of all political persuasions.

I know and have known journalists. As individuals they are no more incorruptible or abnormal than you or I. They include good, honourable people as well as thieves and liars. Taken together, the form a terrifying cabal of untrammelled power and unwarranted influence.

We need a media with the power and the moral authority to speak truth to power and to question mercilessly the motivations of politicians and business in our interest.

In 2011, we don’t have one.

 

 

How Google can Beat Facebook

In one of my all-time favourite blog posts, from one of my all-time favourite bloggers Joel Spolsky outlined the challenges faced by the Microsoft Excel team back in the 80s. They were a long way behind Lotus Notes in terms of market share, and with their new product they had significant number of hurdles to overcome.

The solution was to break them down into a limited numbers, and devise a strategy to break each one individually.

Barrier Solution
1. They have to know about Excel and know that it’s better Advertise Excel, send out demo disks, and tour the country showing it off
2. They have to buy Excel Offer a special discount for former 123 users to switch to Excel
3. They have to buy Windows to run Excel Make a runtime version of Windows which ships free with Excel
4. They have to convert their existing spreadsheets from 123 to Excel Give Excel the capability to read 123 spreadsheets
5. They have to rewrite their keyboard macros which won’t run in Excel Give Excel the capability to run 123 macros
6. They have to learn a new user interface Give Excel the ability to understand Lotus keystrokes, in case you were used to the old way of doing things
7. They need a faster computer with more memory Wait for Moore’s law to solve the problem of computer power

At some point during this process, the number of people using Excel would suddenly ‘tip’ and leap over 80% in a very short time frame.

And history shows that’s exactly what happened.

People are saying today that Google+ can’t overtake Facebook (including me!) Well, that’s not technically true. There are big barriers, but taking Spolsky’s format, here are the hurdles that Google face.

Barrier Solution
1. They have to know about Google+ Easy. The media cover every tiny move you make and by choosing high-profile bloggers and industry people to trial the product, you can blanket the universe with coverage at little cost.Also: your homepage is the most visited page in the universe (hint!)
2. They have to get a Google Account Maybe tricky. The main entry point is Gmail – but that’s a pretty distant third behind Hotmail and Yahoo. Allowing members to invite non Gmail users is the best bet (although problematical already)Alternatively, open it up to non-Gmail users. Don’t treat Google Accounts and Google+ accounts as the same thing and allow sign-ups from other email providers.
3. They have to get their Facebook friends on there Facebook allows a data export. Make sure you develop an import facility. It’s a big jump, but doable.Create a Facebook app that integrates feeds – and an app for Google+ that integrates Facebook feeds.The more synchronisation between the two, the more you lure people into making a decision
4. They need all the things they expect from Facebook Raw functionality – status updates, adding friends etc is the easy part. Porting across Farmville, Bejewelled blitz etc is the real kicker. These are Facebook’s attention keepers.Developing and releasing an application API is an absolute must.Making it less restrictive than Facebook will encourage innovation and attract eyes.
5. They have to be able to take Google+ with them You need not just a mobile-friendly site, but a dedicated, super-slick app.
6. They have to learn a new user interface Make sure that Google+ behaves exactly the same way that Facebook does, with no crappy new conventions. Choose ‘groups’ over ‘circles’, for one thing.
7. They need patience and money Facebook aren’t going to just roll over. This is no cakewalk, so Google had better have deep pockets.

Make no mistake. Every one of these steps is hard, and without successfully completing them all, Google+ will fail.

People at this point like to drag out the whole “Google has the money…” argument, but no business – no matter how large – has endless patience with big-numbers projects. Google+ has a finite spell to get it right and Facebook are not exactly paupers.

Looking at it now, it is nowhere near ready to take on Facebook. I’ve been playing with it and it’s fine enough. It’s easy to use if you’re accustomed to Facebook, and is pretty clean.

But building up critical mass means a lot more than just convincing Scoble. Without an audience, and with no ‘fun’ elements beyond the Hangout facility, Google+ faces a very short timescale before it gets written off.

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