Google & the Newspaper Crisis

This morning Wired’s Epicenter blog is running an interesting piece: Five Things Google Could Do For Newspapers. There’s some pretty interesting stuff in there, but my fear is that all of the suggestions are merely handwaving unless papers deal with the real problem – they don’t actually print enough real news. Newspapers made bets in the 90s and into the 00s that served (essentially) to divest themselves of the business of publishing the news, in many cases preferring wire services for the majority of news content. What (many) newspapers have become are reprinters of wire copy padded by a myriad of opinion, editorial, and marginally ethical fluff “journalism”.

What Google should do is to set up a fund to help struggling newspapers re-staff their news divisions and a deeply discounted consulting wing to help owners – who have made the bad decisions that got us where we are today – understand that their only real commercial value springs from factual reporting.

Distribution > Destination

Avenue A | Razorfish’s Garrick Schmitt has written a great post in the Digital Design Blog that riffs on information from their Digital Outlook report: Does the Home Page Still Matter?: Why Distribution Trumps Destination Online. Most of the web folks that I know have been working on this basis for some time now, but it remains important to underline that the old “get people in through the homepage” model is broken (and likely always was, it was just harder to figure out before).

Trying to force people into a specific usage pattern is a recipe for failure – trumped only by the mistake of trying to predict where users will come from in the first place. What does this mean in practice? Many things (and the conclusions in the post are right on), but two immediate things spring to mind:

  • Deep links have to provide context within the URL itself (i.e., be readable)
  • Don’t hide content in non-machine-readable formats that people can’t link to directly (and that Google can’t grok)

The online yellow pages sucks (not a surprise)

Just now I was trying to find a printing company near my house whose name I didn’t remember. So I did a search with the information I had and got a Pages Jaunes (i.e., Yellow Pages in French) listing: impression Montreal. It’s pretty obvious that these people are fighting like mad against the very nature of the web. First problem: though it was the only listing that in any way matched my search, what came up in Google was a terrible listing page, not their direct company page. So I searched the page for the street and finally found the listing and clicked through to it. And then it got worse.

The second problem? No web link. The company HAS a website (about which more later), but you’d never know that by looking at the Yellow Pages online listing. Third? They’ve disabled select-and-copy of text on the listing. Of course it was trivial to view source (though not via right-click) and get around this limitation, but c’mon, it’s 2008 isn’t it? Using silly javascript tricks to try and stay sticky is so 1997!

Unfortunately it got even worse once I had the name of the company and did another search in Google. The site only came up in the first page of listings when I searched for “Ipso-Facto Impression Numerique” rather than just the company name – and then when I finally got through to the link I found out why – their site is a craptastic flash-based site with background music and everything. Eek.

Microsoft offers to buy Yahoo

The big news this morning is that Microsoft has offered $44.6B to buy Yahoo, the figure representing a 62% premium on the share price at yesterday’s market close. It’s very unclear at this point what will come of this, but as a user I find it hard to see how such a tie-up could be beneficial to me. From my perspective, although MS has done some interesting things on the net, none of their initiatives have been focused on delivering the best quality of user experience or even innovation – their plays have seemed to by cynically based on scaling up so-so experiences and hoping that the brute force of that scale can make them important. What we learn from Google, however, is that though scale is important, it is deeply related to quality and innovation in a way that consumer software never was.

Update: Techcrunch has looked at some of the numbers.

The Big Guns and Data Portability

More from TechCrunch today as they have posted that Facebook, Google and Plaxo have joined the DataPortability Workgroup. Not quite sure what impact this will have, but it’s definitely worth following.

Spectrum News from the US

A couple of days ago we had big news about Canadian wireless spectrum – today, the news is from South of the border in the US. Google has long been rumoured to have been preparing to enter the auction, and today we learn that Google [has confirmed their] Spectrum Bid. The rumour mill will now turn to wild speculation about Google’s intentions for wireless spectrum should they succeed in winning at auction.

Google and the Social Graph

In my feed reader just now I noticed a brief mention by John Battelle: Paid Links, Selling Links… Not Good. When you click through to the article and to the Google help page – and remembering the commotion a couple of weeks ago about some complaints that people’s Page Rank had suddenly dropped – a very encouraging pattern is starting to emerge.

Google has always taken the soundness of their systems very seriously, but I don’t think it’s coincidental that Google seems to be addressing some of the issues surrounding paid links and the like more seriously now that Facebook has made some aggressive strides into the advertising world. I think someone at Google realizes that alongside and within its ranking and presentation via search of the whole web, they also – without Orkut or OpenSocial or anything else – already have a “social graph” embedded in their databases – and one that has already proven to be more valuable than closed social networks’ social graphs.

The initial promise and reality of blogrolls (say, pre-2003), after all, was that they served as a way to declare, publicly, that such-and-such a blogger was someone you either knew or respected personally. That is the social graph right there, and Google’s always had it. The best part? There was a cost to adding someone to your blogroll (time, dilution, etc.), which served (somewhat) to pare down those lists and make them more accurate representations of bloggers’ personal preference.

The important thing about the social graph is that to be valid and useful as a commercial endeavour, connections must accurately reflect a person’s authentic relationship, whether that be with a friend, an issue-related BOF, a colleague, or anyone else. To date this has been the strength of Facebook – they made it easy for people to add friends, but through the News Feed (among other things) added a cost to doing so – which has (so far) tended to “purify” people’s contact lists in a way that MySpace’s and others’ lists never were.

Facebook is winning (by some measures) because users’ networks more closely resemble real-life relationships – Facebook isn’t, by-and-large, a friend-adding contest. Anything Google can do to ensure their results are accurate and reflect authentic relationships is likely as important in the long run as anything they do with OpenSocial. (Now if only they would do something about all of the spam blogs on Blogger).

An update on OpenSocial

Today Google announced that MySpace, Bebo and SixApart are all joining OpenSocial in addition to the initial group that was reported two days ago. I was under the impression that Six Apart was already on board, but MySpace is the biggest news here anyhow.

This news makes the story even bigger than it already was, but I’m not sure that it checkmates Facebook, or even that it’s an aggressive move against them. I presume they are welcome to join OpenSocial. If there’s a checkmate here, it might be Microsoft whose king has been toppled. The MS investment last week in Facebook was based on a valuation that to a great extent relied on the perceived lock-in that Facebook has on its users. If that lock-in disappears, it completely changes the game.

Even more interesting for me than the Facebook-Microsoft angles to this are some of the unheralded partners in OpenSocial – particularly Salesforce.com and LinkedIn. Facebook is phenomenal at what it does, but what it does well is quite limited to “real” non-business social relationships – and despite what many have proposed, I don’t think there was a way for Facebook to route around that. OpenSocial, with both business-focused and personally-focused partners, has potential for growth in far more directions than Facebook has.

One question: whither OpenID? One of the great promises of OpenSocial is federated digital identity plus profiles… Can/will Google make this happen in a way that will keep communities that have thought long and hard about this happy? I sure hope so.

YASN? Not really (whew)

Michael Arrington (in TechCrunch) has posted a piece about a new social network (-ish) site coming from Google: OpenSocial To Launch Thursday. He has posted a fair amount of detail:

What they haven’t done is launch yet another social network platform. As more and more of these platforms launch, developers have difficult choices to make. There are costs associated with writing and maintaining applications for these social networks. Most developers will choose one or two platforms and ignore the rest, based on a simple cost/benefit analysis. Google wants to create an easy way for developers to create an application that works on all social networks.

From what I’ve read, this seems like a big bet on Google’s part, but a bet that’s very much worth making. And one that I hope they can win. The trick, it seems to me, will be to make the system sophisticated (and non-grabby) enough for big developers with lots of existing users to join in the fun, but also make it accessible for very small developers and hobbyists. There’s still a large long tail out there beyond who Facebook has signed up, and if Google can grab that as well as the existing users of large sites like Linked In, they might just have something worthwhile – and game-changing.

Update: Here’s Marc Andreessen’s take on OpenSocial from his perspective as the founder of Ning, a site that allows anyone to create their own social network.

From Jaiku: We’re joining Google

The word today is that Google has bought Jaiku, the social/presence/messaging service that competes with Twitter and others. Here’s Google’s announcement of the news from their blog. As others have noted, it’s interesting that GOOG chose Jaiku over Twitter, which was co-founded by a guy (Evan Williams) who co-founded an earlier Google acquisition, Blogger.