Jetlagged thoughts on Google

Its about 7am US west coast time as I start to write this post in Yojimbo. The person next to me on the plane has moved elsewhere so I could finally get to a power socket. My work IT system and a marathon of meetings conspired against me yesterday and fought me achieving anything of merit during normal working hours, so I worked through the evening instead. By the time I got home catching 40 winks wasn’t an option as I would have missed my taxi. So I stayed up, showered, packed my bags and spent some quality time with Liu Yi on Skype since I will be 13 hours behind her for the next few days.

I was pretty worn down by the time that I got into Heathrow terminal one, I decided to use the time to graze the media, so apologies if this post rambles or seems a bit surreal.

Looking at the coverage that appeared it looks like the Google media backlash has started, just as the Microsoft backlash started in the late 1980s. What was interesting is that the backlash was all about consumer privacy. The FTC have decided to kick the tyres on the Google / Doubleclick deal and Maurice Saatchi was whistling past the graveyard in a very unconvincing manner about how mathematical models like Google’s couldn’t predict people.

Whilst Saatchi told the truth at an individual level, behavioural targeting is becoming increasingly refined to allow narrower and narrower targeting. This isn’t some future, this is here and now. It isn’t just Google either. Some of my old colleagues used to talk about collecting more data than the Library of Congress as user information every day. This data was then cut-and-diced. Site layouts were tweaked and web users were allowed to run through the changed sites in ‘bucket tests’ like lab rats in a maze.

This data is very powerful for advertisers too, for instance internet to buy a car will probably generate a signature in terms of key words and search intensity in advance of the decision being made. Being able to understand what the consumer’s issues are, what stage the consumer is in the purchase process means that a car seller can provide the prospect with pertinent, relevant and timely information that is more likely to be valued by the consumer.

No more Glengary Glencross or aimless wondering around car showrooms drowning in a sea of choice. It does beg the question where’s the beef? A loss of consumer choice?

Indeed Barry Schwartz’ work that I discussed with regards to my own apathy on new web services indicates that this ‘lack of choice’ would actually be good for consumers.

Choice would be machine-filtered based on relevance and commercial realities, this is like having the best of both worlds between a 21st century equivalent of the traditional store keeper who knows his customers and tries to use his knowledge as a buyer to provide products that will meet their needs and delight them (if they can afford delight).

The kind of person who greeted you by name when you entered their store. At the same time this algorithmic store keeper gets to leverage the Long Tail phenomena.

Conversely, this lack of choice will result in more satisfied consumers because of the following factors that Schwartz outlined:

  • Choice produces paralysis
  • We end up less satisfied with more choices rather than fewer choices.
  • Opportunity costs: when you have more alternatives it raises the benchmark for satisfaction
  • Escalation of expectations

This all hinges around one thing of course: trust.

Do we trust Google, Yahoo! or whoever else it may be to collate our data and make these pertinent context-dependent suggestions?

Despite the FTC’s investigation, I’d say at the moment Google has that trust. Its relied on at an almost instinctual level, I no longer immediately go to call a friend with specialist knowledge when I have a problem. Instead, as my first line of enquiry I search my friend Google.

And the only way for that friendship to end is if I am betrayed or THINK that I have been betrayed by my algorithmic friend.

Already there has been an unsuccessful campaign by Ask.com to try and create doubt.

Ask failed in its self-appointed role as a modern-day Iago because it was not a credible source to start off with. The second problem for competitors to break my relationship with Google, is that since Google is search to me; their efforts run a serious risk of blowback with me as a consumer feeling distrustful of web search in general rather than just the Google brand.

Google doesn’t take my trusted friendship for granted and through having more services and continuous improvement has set the bar high for any new better friend that wants to come along. Rather like the Japanese motor industry has done to the Detroit Three (General Motors, Ford and Chrysler) with its kaizen technique, increased frequency of new models and customer-centric innovation (like energy efficient petrol-electic hybrid engines).

If the FTC really want consumer choice, they need to think less about shackling Google and more about how to foster disruptive technologies that will create a paradigm shift.

PS: If anyone is interested in meeting up for a coffee in San Francisco on Saturday morning, drop me an email.

Why the web has gone down the pan

I was inspired to write this post from a number of things that came together at the same time. I found it hard to find anything worthwhile posting about over the past few days because I was insufficiently inspired, particularly by online happenings.

Then there was Michael Arrington’s post on TechCrunch: Silicon Valley Could Use A Downturn Right About Now. Arrington’s article made me wonder if his April’s Fool bid for FuckedCompany wasn’t a wiser move than he realised.

Finally I was watching a video from a past TED conference by author Barry Schwartz on the paradox of choice and the seeds of a post analysing my disenfranchisement with the web started to crystalise.

Schwartz lists four factors that consumers face with increasing choice that seemed to map on to my experience within web services and social media sites:

  • Choice produces paralysis: the very plethora of similar services makes it much harder to choose and find the right service for you. This means that I am likely to ignore newer and better services
  • We end up less satisfied with more choices rather than fewer choices. It is easy to imagine that whatever service you use, you could have made another even better choice. This dissonance takes away from the satisfaction provided by the service
  • Opportunity costs: when you have more alternatives it raises the benchmark for satisfaction with a given service, since if you take the good bits of each rejected service you could end up with a benchmark that is nirvana, creating a huge WHAT IF
  • Escalation of expectations: as you become exposed to more services, your expectations of how good a web service should be went up

In essence, more choice reduces the possiblity of having a user experience that is a pleasant surprise, hence no more Eureka moment like I felt when first using Flickr.

Schwartz’ video made me feel better as I was better able to rationalise why I felt that the web had lost it.

Arrington is also right, though a downturn is a very expensive and distructive way of refreshing my web palate. With some noticable exceptions that I will have the good grace not to name-and-shame Kara Swisher has a more balanced assessment of the internet start-up environment here.

GreatAdvice: part one (of an occasional series)

Occasionally I get told great pieces of advice and now rather than forget them I have decided to put them down on this blog. Hell, why go through the pain when you can make a set of new original mistakes of your own.

If you are every forced into singing karaoke, California Dreaming can be sung on the same note. This piece of advice was given to me by a former colleague Dr Paul Abrahams who had worked for the Financial Times bureau in Tokyo. Here’s the lyrics so that you can get some practice in.

Now that client/colleague bonding/bizarre group humiliation ritual won’t be quite so bad.

Recursive experience

I had a pretty surreal moment yesterday. I usually listen to the Wall Street Journal Online Late Day Tech Briefing podcast since it gives you the main tech news sprinkled with a little market news. Together with an email from the San Jose Mercury’s Good Morning Silicon Valley blog, it marks the end of my day’s news gathering to keep up to speed with things.

I hadn’t listened to it for a few days since I had a friend who was going back to Hong Kong, so spending time with her took priority. I also have a screensaver called iQuote which provides a feed of the sayings of Steve Jobs.

Jobs is notorious for his focus on design and purpose and one of the quotes displayed is from a response to questions about whether a new feature was going to be included in the iPod he commented “We’re also working on it being able to brown bagels while playing music”.

So imagine my surprise when I was listening to the podcast when I head of the George Forman iGrill. A Heath Robinson-esque (US readers: Heath Robinson was a British contemporary of Rube Goldberg) barbecue grill with a ten watt speaker and a hook-up for your iPod, it was a surreal case of reality imitating sarcasm.