R.I.P. Google+ 2011-2013

Our correspondent, writing from Moonbase Alpha looks back at the troubled life and eventual death of Google+

google plus

With the tumbleweeds that greeted Google’s announcement that it is closing its social project ‘+’ it’s hard to remember that for a few short weeks in 2011, our forefathers were enraptured with this web curio. I took some time out to talk to the surviving members of the team behind the project.

I first caught up with Joe McDingle – now a spry 38 year old in a Florida retirement home, but still with a youthful twinkle in his eye. In 2011, he was in charge of naming and marketing the project

It was 2011. I guess we were all just a bit young and stupid

“Well we chose a stupid name!” he laughs, slapping his knee on his colourful check trousers. “It took Microsoft nearly two decades to realise that Microsoft could never use its brand outside of Windows and Office. We used to get out kicks shouting “Bing!” at Microsoft employees at conferences, but Hell – it worked! We should’ve learnt that lesson ourselves with Google Video. Google always meant search. That was the brand.”

McDingle now believes that the “+” name was a mistake that should never have happened.

“Oh we had critics from the get-go. People said it was difficult to use – how do you even type it? – and no-one dared to point out to the board that Google+ would mean nothing to the man in the street. At best, they’d probably guess it meant extra search features.” He is equally scathing about the choice of +’s internal modules.

“Huddles? Well that was Alvin’s [Kuriesha – Google ops manager at the time] idea. I wanted to call it something that people would understand like ‘chat’ or something. But they’d bussed these marketing guys in and they said it had to be futuristic and we were overruled. Just like ‘friends’ and ‘groups’ became ‘circles.’ He stops for a glass of water and looks out of the wistfully out of the window. “Still, it was 2011. I guess we were all just a bit young and stupid.”

But +’s problems weren’t just limited to its branding. Alvin Kuriesha himself now admits that the launch plan was deeply flawed. Today, he is in charge of Google Hatstand – the new dating service for Google users – but back in 2011, he was the idealistic ops manager who came up with the launch strategy.

“You have to understand that back then it was all about playing to shareholders and keeping the stock price up.” He chuckles at the memory. “Of course, no-one would run a tech company like that these days, but back then that’s all there was.”

Everyone’s got a Google profile and the advantages of that over a Facebook or Twitter account are just so obvious.

+ was initially rolled out to selected journalists, bloggers and geeks. The reason, Kuriesha now explains, was to get coverage.

“Of course Sullivan [Danny Sullivan – then just a lowly blogger] wasn’t a regular customer! He was tech all the way to his fingertips. And he had this blog or something that had, like, hundreds of readers. So it made sense to let him in on it first, because he’d get it. And then he could tell his readers about it and… well. You get the idea.”

The theory, according to Kureisha, was that positive early press reports in the tech media would percolate out through naive, untrained journalists covering tech in the mainstream media who would be unable to grasp anything more than the point that this was somehow like Facebook. They in turn would do the heavy lifting work of explaining the project to the lay public who would then lap it up like slavering simpletons.

The press immediately saw the potential, but somehow the public failed to grasp the implications for their real life sharing activities

“Even now I don’t know why it didn’t work the we way thought it would. It worked wonders for Wave [Google’s massively popular chat/email tool]. There was a famous video of developers whooping and hollering when Wave was being demo’d and the guy typed things and they appeared onscreen practically in realtime. When that went viral, we knew Wave was a hit because it really explained the product. + seemed so logical to us that we thought the same thing would happen.”

Of course, history now shows that this never happened in the way that Google insiders had envisioned. The cachet of being invited to preview + certainly garnered column inches and the attention of the tech bloggerati but it turned out that actual people didn’t really care.

“It’s funny,” Kureisha says. “People just love sharing stuff. And people love Google. So why no-one bothered to share things on Google is just a mystery to me. Everyone’s got a Google profile and the advantages of that over a Facebook or Twitter account are just so obvious. All your friends are on Google. All of them!”

To this day, Kureisha keeps an internal Google PowerPoint presentation about the benefits of +. Faded with age, but still legible, it includes several Venn diagrams and arrows pointing from box to box to illustrate how people talk to each other. He maintains that locked inside this presentation are the secrets that will finally make the public realise that Google IS social. From the quiet of his office, with its view of the California mountains, you get the sense that one day, this quietly determined man will be back to prove his point.

Perhaps, in the final analysis, + was just an idea ahead of its time.

New Google Interface

Update: 29.6.11 – others are seeing it out in the wild, so while it’s all still a big bucket test, it looks likely to roll out everywhere soon.

So… after various bucket testing of different interface bits, today I’m getting an entirely new Google. And goodness – what a change!

My first impression is that this is a conscious attempt to look more business-y. There’s a pale blue banner area at the top of the page, along with a black ‘toolbar’ from whence one can access one’s Google products, should one so desire. The colourful icons for ‘shopping’, ‘images’ and so on have a tastefully corporate grey treatment and the other sidebar links have been shorn of their underlining and blue colour. There’s also a Bing-like ‘search button’ with a lovely logo.

It’s all very…. late 90s Microsoft. Very tasteful. Very (dare I say it) bland.

Individual results also have a makeover.

The URL is moved ahead of the meta description and – saints be praised! – the cache has survived intact.

Looking back at Google as it first appeared, with it’s childlike, 60s, silicon valley vibe and colourful logo it’s clear just how far Google has come from a shed project to a Proper Corporation – no matter how much they try to charm us with their quirky logo treatments.

RIP Old Media

No one in their right mind would pay for the vast majority of newspaper content. Your choice has been reduced to:

  • Tits (n: mammary glands) and press releases
  • Tits (n: shrill newspaper columnists) and press releases

While each are entertaining in their own ways the world is hardly short of tits and opinion. And as these things are largely interchangeable they are effectively free and selling them is therefore almost impossible. Murdoch’s foolhardy attempt to put his content behind a paywall is half laudable, half mad.

But the flipside of the competition for your interest is a precipitous decline in serious reporting in the mainstream media.

Listening to Radio 4 while driving home recently, there was a report on progress at Fukushima. Having hauled in an expert from the IEAE the interviewer quickly got down to the most pressing issue: the “mood of the workers” knowing that the “whole world is willing them on”.

While I’m sure that makes for a moderately distracting human interest story, this is one of the flagship current affairs programs on the what is generally regarded as a beacon of journalistic quality. Fukushima has many dimensions to it that will strongly affect the future not just of the workers at the plant, but possibly of the world: European countries are pulling back from nuclear power in the wake of the event – including Germany – the industrial powerhouse of the entire European economy.

That’s a huge deal, and there is a very interesting story to explore there. Why a ‘disaster’ that has so far led to no directly attributable deaths can cause a kneejerk abandonment of a critical piece of energy infrastructure in a major economy, while almost simultaneously a localised health drama that has killed 35 people has been relegated to the “oh – is that still happening?” pile.

And of course almost all of the media also fell for a beautifulpeople.com press release/linkbait.

Dear media: get real.

Whilst people on Twitter were calling on the scam almost immediately, the damage to media credibility was already done. The BBC might have surreptitiously gone back and re-edited the story to look at the PR angle, but they still link to the site. And on other sites as mighty as The Telegraph and The Guardian, the story still sits there, generated a higher profile for the company and passing valuable link equity.

And these are the sites which, in themselves, Google is happy to call ‘authoritative’.

The claims made for journalism – that it is fair, researched, driven by truth and independent of distortion by power and money are yet again show to be hollow. News coverage is now a commodity: name  the price you put on that coverage, and it’s yours for the taking.

SEO Strategy 101: Command and Control

In the first of a short series of posts, I’ll be looking at the nuts and bolts of the problems facing someone managing an SEO campaign.

The skills of SEO as a discipline are split among many different people. And the people actually interested in any given SEO campaign can represent a vast gothic array of  competing special interests. As the Oatmeal showed for designers, the bigger the cast of characters and ego issues, the harder it is to get from where you are to where you want to be.

SEO falls between many stools, and there are many people who would like to stick their oar in at any time. Establishing control over these competing forces is absolutely necessary to implement any successful strategy.

Here are the likely cast of characters and some of the things that motivate them. In future posts, we’ll look at how you can talk to each of these people and how to understand your way around the maze of conflicting opinions and loyalties.

  • Developers….
    …build the site, implement changes as asked of them and futz around in obscure programming languages for fun. No-one understands the mechanics of the site better than they. They can be your best friend to get things done.
  • Development managers and account managers…
    …oversee the work of developers and often are the first port of call when looking to make site changes. They can make things happen on the development front and offer their opinion as to why taking various courses might helpful/unhelpful.
  • Marketing managers…
    …generally exist in companies with an offline presence. Often their knowledge of the web – particularly in technical terms – is extremely limited, but they have great creative instincts.
  • SEO Agencies…
    …provide capacity and knowledge that often you can’t find in-house. Within an agency, there are a variety of specialist roles, although many SEOs will flirt with them all to various levels.
    • Account Managers…
      There to report back to you on the workings of the agency, be the first point of contact for issues around the campaign.
    • On-site Experts…
      The guys with a technical eye on your site  who should understand the structure of the site and how Google will see it, what shortcomings the site has and a bunch of ideas to remedy them.
    • Linkbuilders…
      …are out in the field building links to your site. Like, duh.
    • Strategists
      Most SEO companies have a ‘figurehead’ attached to them – normally either the founder or the public face in general. These guys do the ‘big picture’ stuff and are great pools of knowledge from their speaking gigs,
  • Designers…
    … are increasingly involved in the actual production of websites. No longer do they slice and dice photoshop files to hand over to their minions, but they are directly coding the front end of the site – which increasingly has an SEO impact
  • PR…
    …will be out and about pushing the value of your brand and your stories into the media. Oftentimes (although the situation is improving) they are hardcoded into offline channels and don’t/won’t interact with blogs and social media
  •  Stakeholders…
    …are people with direct interest in the site’s performance. This could be the owner of the business itself, advertisers, resellers or users.
  • Assorted busybodies…
    …are an inevitable fact of life. Just because someone was hired to make the tea doesn’t mean they won’t have an opinion on your SEO. That’s just life and in most jurisdictions murder is illegal.

How To Establish Control

Committees kill decisions. You only have to look at the way the Bank of England is dealing with one of its primary responsibilities – keeping inflation below 2% through the use of interest rates. Instead of vesting decision making in one person, a committee of experts talk shop every month and then vote to do nothing. Their record is awful, but what do you do when you’re faced with a committee? You can’t sack all of them and the lines of responsibility just aren’t clear enough to decide who to apportion credit and blame to: do you sack the people who keep voting against interest rate rises?

While they’re busy killing the economy and ruining people’s lives, you just have to run an effective campaign. Simples!

Rule one: avoid committee decisions

With SEO, many of the people with fingers in the pie will have opinions – many of them valuable. Your SEO agency might want to talk about conversion rates. Your designer might want to talk about image replacement for content. Even so, a proliferation of ideas is a surefire way to make sure nothing gets done and you just can’t have everyone running around waving their hands in the air competing for your airtime.

Rule two: establish who does what

A good SEO campaign means ensuring that everyone knows what they are responsible for and it is all coordinated in one place – and preferably through one person. That means:

  • In-house SEO Manager
    Sets strategies and targets and is ultimately responsible for how the site performs
  • Link builders
    Either in-house (unlikely) or external agencies whose sole responsibility is acquiring links according to the direction of the SEO manager in terms of anchor text, quality metrics, volume and budget
  • Content writers
    Tasked purely with producing content to the direction of the SEO manager
  • Developers/Development Agency
    • Make changes to the site for SEO purposes according to the direction of the SEO manager
    • Keep the SEO manager in the loop with all other changes to the site

Rule three: establish KPIs

It’s amazing how few SEO campaigns have even the most basic set of measures. Are we chasing traffic? Rankings? Sales through organic channels? A lot of campaigns descend into a kind of melange of all of the above. Often, this is because the SEO is so outsourced that agencies focus on whatever makes them look best: if the rankings are poor, then they might look at traffic overall. If both are poor, perhaps the conversion rates look good. All very logical to them, but distracting to the main goals.

Rule four: simple reporting

Discussion-point documents are entertaining to read and fun to argue about around a table. But in reality, clarity is the watchword. For the linkbuilders, a list of links bought is all that is necessary and not some running commentary about the shape of the market. For content writers, which articles were asked for and which were produced. For development work, either deliverable specs with a cost attached or a ticketing system should suffice.

The SEO manager can then look at these as separate entities and quantify and assess each one in isolation.

Summary

There’s a tonne more to be said about the intricacies of inter-agency dynamics and the kinds of personality drivers that make dealing with an SEO campaign such a frigging nightmare in many ways, but the overriding principles are – and must be – clarity of purpose.

So the next time the guy who designs your flyers phones you up to say he couldn’t find you on Google for [obscure keyphrase] and asks to share his ideas with you: put the phone down.

Google Tracking UPS Deliveries???

I keep getting coldcalled by 0845 459 3215 (and I’m not alone, apparently). Because I’m a prick in these matters, I just hang up on them, but their persistence is getting annoying, so I thought I’d look up who they are.

Google gave me the answer (see above) but also fired in this little titbit.
UPS tracking code
The UPS tracking bit on top of the regular SERPs goes through to the UPS website and prefills the order tracking form (whatever package this was has expired or is invalid or something, before you check!)

I can only imagine that this is the format of UPS tracking codes as well as the standard format for UK phone lines, but it seems a bit presumptuous for Google to take a guess that I’d use Google to search for a tracking code instead of going to the UPS website.

Is this something that UPS themselves are promoting, I wonder?

The workings of the postal system are pretty vague to me but I also wonder what – if any – privacy concerns this raises. If I’ve order a bride-in-a-box from an ex-Soviet Republic, the last thing I want is the world to start getting access to details of my order. And I certainly don’t want UPS sharing that kind of information with Google in the first place.

Cache in Hand? The New Look Google

I’m currently getting a new look Google. Such things aren’t uncommon – with the vast amount of traffic Google gets, and the depth of the usage data they collect they can easily test new features to millions of people at a time without affecting aggregate experience of the site.

Their design process is actually very boring and iterative. Having hired a genius like Doug Bowman, Google then spent 3 years ignoring his advice and testing 40 shades of blue to see which had the highest clickthrough rates. And this is why your Google is still pretty much your Dad’s Google. White background. Blue links.

Today’s iterative test – the one that I’m seeing – looks like this. As ever, it’s a small evolution.

new google design

  • The URL of the site is moved up under the title of the link
  • Much more white space between individual links
  • The ‘cached’ and ‘similar’ links are gone..

Wait…. what?

Yep. The ‘cached’ feature isn’t there. While the other stuff is tedious design-by-measurement stuff and ‘similar sites’ did nothing useful, the cache is one of the most important things you can use to give you a flavour of what Google is seeing when it looks at your site.

  1. It acts as a record of the code – giving you an easy way to catch out developers who tell you that “the site was always like that”
  2. It acts to show you when Google last visited – giving you a feel for the rate of spidering your site gets and also helping  you to establish whether or not Google has actually noticed the last batch of changes you made to the site.
  3. It acts to show you whether Google is actually showing the page as intended – and that any funky Ajax the designers/developers have build into the page isn’t causing any grief for the spiders

Anyway, Google aren’t reading this and don’t care anyway: but please don’t take my cache away!

Minor additional chortle: when I worked in Ripon, I got results skewed to Manchester as my default. Now I’m in Harrogate, I’m getting Leeds. Personally I suspect Google are trying to force users to supply geo-data by forcing the little “change location” link into lots of searches to draw up a more accurate map of regional IP addresses. Which is clever, when you think about it. Or sinister.