Google, The Portal, in New Land Grab

The portal wars are back! This time around, perennial winner Google isn't battling it out with Yahoo, AOL, Microsoft, and, er, Excite and Snap.

Rather, it's left with the rather easier task of sucking the oxygen out of the rooms vertical players like Zillow try to breathe in, and then battling any potential public image drawbacks to its growing status as a vertical-devouring meanie.

In the wake of Google's entry into the aggregation of property listings, Hitwise's Heather Hopkins notes the importance of the vertical: last week, 2% of Google traffic was sent off to listings in the real estate industry.

This brings up the potential contradictions and disingenuousness of the search engines' efforts to tout the merits of what's being called Universal or Blended search. The "death of the ten blue links" is a sexy way of dismissing clunky old search results pages and opening the door to a new age of more context-sensitive search results, to be sure. But when directly asked if the strategy isn't a way to keep more users on their own properties rather than sending them to those "downstream" sites Hopkins et al. spend their careers following, the search engines generally indicate something to the effect that they would never contemplate such a thing, or would "weigh these decisions in light of what's best for the user." Perhaps. But as predicted, Google's moves into blended search have done little to increase traffic (for example) for any video streaming site but YouTube. You can often extend that principle to other elements of these blends.

As Hopkins notes astutely: "The real question for Real Estate websites is whether (and when) property listings will be included in the search engine results page on Google.com." The search engines have plenty of alibis handy for their land grab behaviors -- for example, they've built out a variety of metasearch and aggregation models (such as Google Video and Yahoo Video) that offer due credit to a variety of third party providers. But the real power comes from that first page of SERP's -- the ones we keep such close watch on with heat maps and Google Analytics referral statistics (when they do refer traffic downstream, that is). Google isn't sending you from Google.com to some other provider of news headlines; it's sending you to Google News.

The powerful utility of the new tools tends to soften the fact that the major search engines are essentially moving back to a walled garden concept reminiscent of the old AOL, minus the wall and the subscription fee.

In the meantime, data providers are left with difficult choices: do I give all of this data/power to large centralized players with little hope of a formal agreement, let alone any explicit conversation or setting of positive expectations about outcomes? (In the tradition of Google Base and the public relations strategy around that: "Here it is. It's really important. Go nuts.") It's this ambiguity that has led more observers to refer to Google as little more than another "scraper site".

Ironically, such accusations are sometimes levelled by the purveyors of similar quasi-scraper schemes. It takes one to know one. In real estate as in so many verticals, any land grab is going to be reminiscent of a scene from Goodfellas. Arguably, though, sites like Zillow have made great headway in connecting personably and directly with homeowners; encouraging them to voluntarily join in an information exchange and convincing them persuasively of that benefit. Google has done nothing of the sort.

At the end of the day, I think (hope?) the search engines recognize the dangers inherent in leaving originating data sources and content providers devoid of traffic and income, so it is a matter of how much traffic they continue to send along to third party vertical players, rather than being an all-or-nothing scenario. Taken too far, companies that purport to be dialed into their core competency in "search" -- the implied mission being to send traffic downstream to originating content providers who've made heavy investments in content and community -- would morph back into walled-garden, AOL-thinking portals.

Eric Schmidt on the new world

Here’s video from the Aspen Ideas Festival responding to my question about what follows the industrial age. It’s much better than my limited report on it below:

More of Kai Ryssdal’s very good interview with Schmidt here.

Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia all Over 100 Million Strong – What Now for Online Communities?

Guest post by Alan Haburchak

The morning of day two here at the Personal Democracy Forum conference was all about online communities, what they mean, how they can be used and what they say about culture and global culture and society today. Randi Zuckerberg (the other Zuckerberg), Facebook's head of marketing was up first and talked a little bit about how communities have arisen on on Facebook that have lead to real-life movements like the anti-farc protests that occurred in Colombia last year. But other than pointing that that that group had used social media to organize, she didn't have much more to say.

Next up was Alec Ross, who serves as Senior Advisor for Innovation in the Office of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Ross explained how Sec. Clinton is re-imagining the idea of diplomacy to not just be able "white guys in white shirts with red ties" talking to each other, but rather a citizen-to-citizen approach. As an example he touted the State Department's SMS-based Pakistani-relief initiative that they pioneered earlier this year.

The really amazing highlight of the morning however was Michael Wesch, a cultural anthropologist exploring the impact of new media on society and culture. Wesch gave a shortened version of a presentation about YouTube as a cultural phenomenon, which he and 200 students at Kansas State University created. There is video of Wesch's talk at PDF09, though the quality is not ideal. The amazing thing was the collective joy in the room as everyone felt the hope that Wesch expressed for what online communities like YouTube might be able to create in the face of the pessemistic attitude that according to Wesch, had been cultivated among a lot of young people since the 1990s. Highlights from Wesch's presentation were his clips from the Free Hugs and MadV - The Message memes.

Finally the morning closed with Mark Pesce, know as a digital futurist, who talked about the inherrent potenital danger of what he called "ad-hocracies" on the web. As evidence, he pointed to the fight between Wikipedia and the Church of Scientology. Pesce's talk was intersting, discussing how because of their size, the members of the church were able to break the social contract of Wikipedia, ultimately leading to Wikipedia banning them from editing the site. Speaking after Wesch's emotionally charged YouTube presentation, Pesce's point came across as too academic, although important as internet communities reach critical mass.

Ultimately what I and I think most people will take away from this look at web communities is the sense of hope in was Ross and Wesch had to say. Diplomacy can be as simple and effective as sending $5 to someone in Pakistan who needs it from your cell phone, and while YouTube comments may be the worst thing on the internet, the ability of that community to be incredibly personal AND to inspire positive action en masse is amazing.

Google on Google

At the Aspen Ideas Festival, I got up to a mic to ask Eric Schmidt a question. No, it wasn’t, “what would Google do?” I wanted his reaction to a notion I’ve talked about here that has crystallized since I wrote the book: that we are going through something more than a financial crisis and more profound and permanent than a recession. We are shifting from the industrial era – and the age of mass production, distribution, marketing, and media – to what follows, a society built on knowledge and abundance. We are seeing the collapse of the auto, banking, and newspaper industries and large swaths of the the rest of media, retail, real estate, and others to follow. We’re not going to go back; the change is bigger and more fundamental than that. “Did I go too far?” I asked.

“Yes,” Schmidt said. “But you’re good at that.” He had been asked earlier how he felt about people constantly asking what Google could and would do about this problem or that. At that moment, he pointed to me and said that What Would Google Do? did that; it took the Google model and extended it. If Google is a metaphor for thinking differently, I am happy to be it,” he said and then demurred, “Google is a simple company.”

Then Schmidt reacted to my question and this is what’s fascinating to me: He said he wished I were right. He said that too much of our resource, people, government help and attention, measurement go to the legacy players, the big, old companies. He wishes that weren’t the case. He wants that change but fears we will return to old reflex. Innovation, he said, happens at small start-ups but they don’t get the resource and attention.

I asked whether Google could be Google only because it was new. He said it was because it worked in the open internet.

He told about being an engineer before Google and seeing whole businesses start because of a regulatory porthole in telecom called the T-1, the 1.5 meg line that wasn’t regulated like the rest of communication. If that ceiling hadn’t been there, he argued, our development of digital would have sped ahead by five years.

So I’m thinking about that: My view of the coming world order may be more a manifesto than a prediction. Hmmmm.

* * *

Here are some of my tweets and notes from Schmidt’s Q&A:

* Asked how he reacted on THAT day in September, Schmidt says, “I was scared.” Google took its cash out of banks to sovereign nations’ currencies
* He says he still doesn’t understand how we got into the financial mess: “the failure of information that got us to this point.”
* On recovery: “We’re on schedule. Because the people who got us into this told us that.”
* He reminds US that Google was not part of finance. “Had we been doing it we might have been measuring where all the money was.”
* “We already had our bubble… We had a great time. Next time, I’m going to sell at the peak.” He’s doing great stand-up.
* Asked whether we can innovate out of a recession, Schmidt said “recessions end on their own & politicians love to take credit.”
* Schmidt says the ups and downs will be amplified because there is more information.
* “You do not want the government to own your company… In many cases, they will turn out to be jobs programs.”
* He says simply that he hopes people will more likely say this (house inflation, Iceland’s economy) just “doesn’t make sense”
* Q: You guys are everywhere. Schmidt: “That is our goal.”
* “I learned awhile ago that the right way to run human systems is transparency.” Problems came from information hiding.
* Brian Lehrer asks schmidt where Google is so bit it needs to be regulated as a public utility. A: “no”
* I don’t know how to solve newspapers generic problem. He says they are working on products in this arena. (No more details.)
* “The internet is a great friend to small businesses.” He says Google does not favor big businesses and big businesses don’t like that. [I say: See news.]
* Asked abot Froogle, he says, “Why did you remind me.” Why didn’t it work? “It didin’t work because it just didn’t work. We celebrate our failure in the company because we want people to take risks.” [Me: There's the beta corporation.]
* “We love advertising.” 97 percent of Google’s revenue is advertising. “No, we love advertising revenue.” He said his board is looking for more legs to the stool and Schmidt says they do have other streams coming.

China blinks

I said in What Would Google Do? – and argued the point in a talk at Google in Washington – that Google and other technology companies have more influence than they know – and should use it – in protecting free speech and pressuring censorious governments. I see evidence of the strategy working – or hope I see it – in China’s decision today to delay its noxious Green Dam requirement for all PCs sold there. Government and companies put pressure on; China blinked.

Yahoo’s new CEO, Carol Bartz, said in July that it’s not her job to fix governments. But neither is it a company’s job to enable tyrannical governments in their tyranny. Technology companies from Cisco to Nokia to Siemens that have provided technology to enable censorship and tracking, and companies from Yahoo to Google that have handed over information about users to governments that use it to oppress citizens should be ashamed. And we need to shame them. We need to give them cover by demanding behavior that is not and does not support evil.

In a digital age, censoring the internet, stopping citizens from connecting with each other, and using the internet to spy on and then oppress citizens is evil. We shame companies that helped enable fascist regimes in the ’30s and apartheid in the last century. Is it time for technology boycotts? I’m not sure. But it is time for the discussion.

The responsibility of knowledge in news

I tweeted a few minutes that I wish YouTube itself would be curating and featuring video from Iran because only it is in the position to know whether the video came from Iran and whether it is a duplicate. I said that YouTube has a responsibility in the news ecosystem. Andy Scheurer questioned that: responsibility? Good question. Isn’t YouTube just a host? Can’t it be agnostic as to interests? No, I don’t think so, because YouTube has unique knowledge it can add to inform the discussion (e.g., this video isn’t from Iran or it’s a year old or this video is unique from Iran today) and to not add that knowledge becomes irresponsible, no? YouTube can’t just make the information transparent so we can figure it out because it also has a moral responsibility to protect the identity of those who are putting themselves in danger by uploading the videos to inform the world. That means they are the only ones who can verify at least some information about the videos for our benefit. So shouldn’t they?

Google to Hand a Huge Opportunity to Twitter?

Remember how Yahoo helped Google rise to prominence, then dominance, ultimately obliterating the search and portal brand that gave it that timely helping hand? If you've been in the industry less than five years, you don't. In 2001, Google's future was still far from assured. But the power its brand gained during its two-year partnership to display Google results on Yahoo did serious damage to Yahoo's brand, and bought Google the credibility it needed to move to top-of-mind as the world's leading search engine.

Is Google about to do the same favor to Twitter? On the surface, it seems that adding microblogging search capability that features mostly Twitter results would only benefit Google, by giving it equal or superior capability to the as-yet-to-be-honed Twitter Search. Another feature to solidify the world's leading search brand. So as for whether this helps Twitter do to Google what Google did to Yahoo: probably not. Google today is far more than Yahoo was in 2002-2004. Still, it's interesting to contemplate the possibility that a deal that looks only so-so for Twitter might have a salutary effect on Twitter's already strong brand, and turn out to be the mainstream exposure they needed to go from hot to white-hot.