Archive for February, 2010

Why Google Needs a New Trick

February 27, 2010

Microsoft’s CEO calls Google a “one-trick pony.” Google’s CEO responds, “I like the trick!”

The trick being referred to in Ken Auletta’s “Googled,” is, of course, search, and, by extension, the programs that monetize it. AdWords and AdSense are responsible for nearly all of Google’s $6.5 billion in annual profits.

It is a good trick. For now.

Today, Google’s bots and algorithms do a brilliant job crawling Web pages and organizing them into thorough, timely search results. If results are to remain thorough and timely, bots must crawl more — not just Web pages — more quickly and algorithms must account for more and increasingly more complex patterns. Google, and anyone in the business of organizing digital information, must manage a what’s-happening-now, what’s happening-here Web where people, networks and everyday objects are constantly exchanging data.

Since it’s loaded, Google can experiment with new products without having to worry too much about monetizing or even popularizing them. Sooner than later, however, it’s going to have to find another golden goose. Look at Google’s track record and you start to wonder whether it ever will.

Google does a lot of cool stuff and a lot of it’s very popular. But, when you think about it, it has as many strikeouts as hits, and its biggest hits — PageRank, AdWords, AdSense and Gmail — came early in its career.

Don’t forget that Google didn’t invent YouTube. It bought it after Google Video flopped. Also don’t forget that while Facebook and Twitter were taking off, Google’s Orkut (outside of Brazil and India) floundered. See, you never even heard of it. Google’s trying to catch up social-media-wise with Buzz, whose early reviews have been cool, some downright cold. Maybe it’ll do better once the privacy issues are sorted out.

Google’s seemingly boundless experiments increase the chances it will find the next PageRank or AdWords. But they also divide its attention, compromising its ability to recognize and respond to threats to its core product. The real-time search capabilities of Twitter, for one, seemed to catch Google off guard.

Twitter, poetically, is very much following the Google blueprint: Build something that’s useful, attract a critical mass of users and cash in — somehow. Twitter’s just beginning to enter step three and, surprise, its solution looks a lot like Google’s.

Twitter’s focus on users is also straight from the Google playbook. But Twitter takes it a step further by letting its users do the experimenting. It sits back, lets users play around, then formalizes what works and ignores what doesn’t. Twitter’s @ (used to mention another user and link to his or her feed), # (used to tag posts about a particular topic) and RT (used to indicate a user is re-posting something written by someone else) features were all developed by users.

I’m not suggesting Twitter’s going to overtake Google. For if Google’s focus is potentially too broad, Twitter’s focus is definitely too narrow. What might take down Google — or a least take it down a peg — are a bunch of Twitters, each doing a different thing better than the behemoth Google can. And wouldn’t that be the most user-friendly scenario? Smaller companies with a more singular focus tend to provide better customer service. They’re also arguably less vulnerable to data breaches. At the very least, users’ data would be diversified, lessening the potential damage one bad actor or one technical glitch could cause.

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On Hockey Auction Sites, Speed as Important as it is on the Ice

February 20, 2010

To study how auction Web sites are organized, I skated around two hockey memorabilia sites. While their approaches differed slightly based on the type of items being sold, on balance they were similar, each combining the visually centered browsing of traditional shopping with the ability to drill down to specific items in a minimal amount of clicks, no small matter for users when the auction clock’s ticking down. In this vein, no super hi-res images, Flash animations, videos, or other resource-heavy assets that could slow users were readily apparent.

NHL Auctions

The National Hockey League hosts an auction microsite where fans and collectors can bid on each other’s memorabilia as well as on items directly from the league and individual teams. The layout of http://auction.nhl.com provides users several options for browsing or searching items, giving the impression of a busy marketplace and increasing the chances users will find something they’re interested in. For example, logos for all 30 NHL clubs are spread over two rows at the top of the microsite home page. Clicking on one of them calls up a page listing all of the items available related to that particular team.

A Washington Capitals fan, I may not be interested in any of the “Editor’s Picks” or “Hot Items” featured directly underneath the logos, which on a recent visit were dominated by Olympic-related auctions and memorabilia for the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, one of the Caps’ rivals. If this was all I saw, I might be inclined to exit the site. But seeing the familiar Caps logo in its familiar place the end of the second row, since Washington comes last in alphabetical order, made be curious: “What cool Caps stuff are people auctioning?”

Clicking through pulled up 45 items, spread out over three pages of vertical lists, including pucks and jerseys signed by the Capitals’ Olympic stars, some items for former Washington players and a few tickets to upcoming games.

The lists utilize effective interaction design, automatically putting the soonest ending auctions on top but allowing users to reverse this or reorder by price or bid count via a prominently displayed drop-down menu; tagging each listing with the number of bids, current price and a thumbnail logo and name identifying the seller; and placing the same light blue “bid now” icon used on the home page on the far right of each listing.

An autographed Alex Ovechkin stick caught my eye. Clicking “bid now” calls up the item’s individual page, which offers a few more details, including the bid increment and precisely how long until the auction ends, down to the second. Counting down in real time, in red characters no less, this promotes urgency, motivating the user to bid.

If somehow a user resists and isn’t ready to bid, he or she can get a closer look at the item by clicking “larger view,” bookmark the auction, e-mail a friend about it or ask the seller a question.

Dangle.ca

The home page for Canadian auction site Dangle.ca (http://www.dangle.ca) is less cluttered — the larger, more prominently positioned search bar is helpful — offering fewer details on featured items and slightly fewer ways to engage potential bidders. This is probably a sensible tradeoff as, judging from the dominance of rarer, older memorabilia, the site seems to be catering to more serious collectors, who are likely to appreciate a clean presentation and be motivated to browse or search on their own, often seeking very specific types of items.

My Caps have only recently become popular in Canada, thanks mostly to the electrifying play of two-time MVP Ovechkin, so, I shouldn’t count on too many Washington items on a Canadian site, especially one leaning toward older items. But let’s say I’m looking for a Caps program from 1974-75, their inaugural season.

Clicking on “books and programs” under “hockey memorabilia” in the left side navigation returns 19 pages of items, like the NHL site sortable by price and number of bids but by default appearing in ascending order of auction time remaining. As on the home page, listings give up some detail — who’s selling an item isn’t revealed until clicking through to the item’s individual page, for example — for a cleaner design.

When I visited, auctions for a bunch of Montreal Canadiens programs were ending soonest, and I didn’t see any Caps programs anywhere near the top. Deciding I’d be better off searching than browsing, I typed “Capitals” into the search bar. A ’74-’75 program was not among the four results, but a ’97-’98 media guide, the season Washington made its only Stanley Cup finals appearance, was. Pretty cool. The item page offered less — and less apparent — interactivity than the NHL site, though presented the preview image big enough so that the somewhat hidden link to the larger version wasn’t essential.

I Believe in the New Media Revolution — Or Do I?

February 20, 2010

Nowadays, every company is a media company. Production and distribution tools are accessible for even the smallest organizations. Companies know that if they are not leveraging these tools to build relationships with potential partners and clients, their competitors will be. This is good news for me and my classmates as we enter the job market. Our degrees are in communications, but we can apply them in virtually any field.

I like that I have options. This safety net is one reason I enrolled. But it’s not the reason. I enrolled foremost so that I could stay in the field I love, journalism. I feel that strong, independent news media are essential to the civic health of communities and that new media can produce journalism as good as — if not better than — this country’s ever seen. To borrow one of the more successful — but still parodied — slogans of my native Baltimore, I BELIEVE. And I want others to BELIEVE. But maybe I shouldn’t. Not completely. Maybe I should embrace what media scholar Robert W. McChesney calls “healthy skepticism.”

For all the talk of the Internet as a great empowerer, as a great uniter, isn’t it equally as plausible, McChesney argues, that it will be a great marginalizer, a great isolater?

Um, sure. For all the people getting ahead with new technology there are people without access falling behind. For all the people using the Web to connect with the world around them there are people using it to shut the world out.

Good reasons for me to spit out the new media Kool-Aid. Not because technology’s leading us to some kind of hell on Earth instead of the heaven more commonly imagined. But because it’s leading us somewhere in between. And because the more heavenly people assure themselves tomorrow’s going to be the more hellish it’s going to become.

You see, it is not enough to merely believe. While a passive majority goes on believing the Internet is going to be great for the greater good an active minority will make it great for itself and bad for everybody else, all the while fanning the majority’s naivety.

True believers act on their beliefs. And routinely question them.

Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewbain/ | CC BY 2.0

Journalism and Democracy: It’s Mutual

February 12, 2010

Perhaps journalism passed a valentine to democracy one year: “Psst, I like you, too.” That democracy digs journalism, the whole school knows that. That it’s mutual, not everyone guesses.

That’s right. Democracy needs journalism. And journalism needs democracy. Should have known. But, even growing up reading the newspaper, studying journalism in high school and college, working in the field for five years, and now returning to school to study journalism under the umbrella of interactive media, I didn’t. I didn’t, at least, give it much thought.

Democracy needs journalism because a representative government requires an informed electorate. Less obvious is why journalism needs democracy. Liberal media scholar Robert W. McChesney explains in “The Political Economy of Media.”

“Unless there is a citizenry that depends upon journalism, that takes it seriously, that is politically engaged,” McChesney writes, “journalism can lose its bearings and have far less incentive to do the hard work that generates the best possible work.”

The synergy between democracy and journalism, then, is at once troubling and reassuring given the transitional periods the two institutions currently find themselves in — in the United States, at least. It suggests deficiencies in either could bring the other down. But it also suggests that improvements in either could lift the other up.

It’s been a bit yo-yoey as of late. Two years ago things started to get real ugly for newspapers. At the same time, those papers were writing about a surge in political participation and the election of a president promising a new kind of politics. Now, the hard realities of governing have produced the same old partisan bickering. At the same time, new media upstarts that came of age during the presidential campaign are solidifying their voice.

Where things settle depends heavily on the actions of my generation. Idealistic and technologically savvy, the Millennials provide reason for optimism. They are civically engaged, as campaign ’08 showed, but not just in politics, but in community service as well.

On the journalism side, Millennials are well-suited to run the kind of values-driven news organizations The Reconstruction of American Journalism co-author Michael Schudson suggests will carry the industry forward.

In a speech Thursday, Schudson alluded to the journalism-needs-democracy argument, saying that journalism’s so-called golden age was a byproduct of Civil Rights, counterculture and post-Watergate activism. He offered that that era might have been a high watermark, but also that in today’s maturing information economy journalism is capable of many great things.

Sites like TalkingPointsMemo, ProPublica and VoiceofSanDiego, Schudson said, according to prepared remarks, “are springing up, and growing, and providing effective journalism, including original reporting, and so providing effective models for the future.”

My Favorite iMedia Idea? The Tag Is It

February 7, 2010

Functional and unobtrusive, it’s everything that itchy thing in the back of your shirt is not. So simple, so flexible, the organizational tag is a staple of the social Web and one of the most efficient tools users have for forming communities and cutting through informational clutter.

The tag is an influential interactive media tool less for what it is than for who creates it. What it is is a hyperlinked adaptation (pdf) of the database keyword librarians have used for years. Who creates it is anybody. Not a librarian. Not a scholar. Not an editor. Absolutely anybody. And that’s what makes it such a great idea.

The bottom-up organizational power of the tag lets dozens of strangers, with remarkably minimal effort, accomplish what would be a gargantuan, prohibitively expensive task for even the best-resourced, best-run organizations. Clay Shirky explains this concept in-depth in his 2008 bestseller “Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations.”

Delicious founder Joshua Schachter is widely credited with introducing the Web 2.0 tag, and his popular social bookmarking site is as good a place as any to get a feel for what it can do.

Yahoo!, which purchased Delicious in 2005, was one of the first companies to try to organize the information explosion that is the World Wide Web. Its initial solution, still online, was a hierarchical , professionally edited directory. It’s well organized and well annotated, but can never overcome the limitations and biases of its editors. The editors cannot possibly know about as many sites Yahoo!’s users collectively know about, and, even if they could, they could never catalog them as quickly as the users themselves could. Moreover, as logical as the directory’s categories are, there are any number of other groupings that are equally logical, and to any given user, more logical, as the ones the editors came up with.

The user-generated tag frees databases from these limitations and biases. I can go on Delicious and share a friend’s freshly pressed blog post on how to make the perfect crab cake, tag it “recipes,” “crab cake” and “seafood,” while a grandmother in Louisiana does the same thing with her friend’s new crab cake post. No way an edited directory would have indexed our friends’ amateur posts this quickly.

Then say other users bookmark the recipes and they add tags like “maryland cooking,” “louisiana cooking,” “how to” and “shellfish.” All classifications that would help users who would appreciate the crab cake recipes find them. Such secondary classifications would be more difficult to incorporate into a rigid hierarchical system, assuming its editors could even think of as many classifications as a diverse group of users.

An additional benefit of tagging — which, in the context of the social Web cannot be overstated — is that it connects not only ideas, but also people. Seafood fans can see who’s been doing the tagging and discover users with similar culinary interests. Every day online communities, and sometimes offline communities, are born this way. Nice for cooking clubs, yes, but potentially revolutionary for social and political movements.