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What’s eating Google’s brand?

Back in 2005 when I started work at Yahoo!, the internet was a very different place.  It was an exciting time, web 2.0 was a technological and philosophical step-change for online services. We had cleared our palates of the bad taste left by the silliness of the dot com implosion.

Social networks weren’t mainstream in the way we would understand them now – though there were social networks prior to the the then nascent Facebook. Instant messaging was just starting to move on to mobile devices and were more a source of ‘presence’ information – whether someone was free or not than mobile messaging. Instant messaging on the desktop was big and everyone thought that Skype actually worked really well at the time.

We were conscious of security, but again Skype promised privacy and security (except in China) through secure encryption.  The 800LB gorilla in the room was Google. Yahoo! had managed to survive the dot com bust and subsequent 30+% drop in online advertising revenues because of the Yahoo! Dating business. Even in a recession people still need love. By comparison, Google had been on a tear, Adwords promised marketers greater transparency where they money had gone and what action had been derived from their advertising spend. There were even some nice charts that they could cut-and-paste directly into a PowerPoint presentation.

Google’s impact was much bigger. Yahoo! had pioneered search with Jerry Yang and David Filo’s directory in the mid 1990s. You can still find an iteration of the directory at Yahoo! here. In 1999, the front page of Yahoo! still reflected that directory heritage, as you can see from this screen shot
Yahoo! early morning of March 3, 1999
By the time I joined Yahoo! we had a search page that looked much more like the clean design of Google’s search page. The product was comparable in performance to Google as well, it just wasn’t Google; which is what most UK web users wanted.
Y! search late 2005
We struggled to get media mentions for Yahoo! in comparison Google’s coverage wrote itself: Google spots Jesus in Peruvian sand dune | The Register. Products like Lycos’ IQ service didn’t get the attention they deserved because if it didn’t come from Google the digerati weren’t interested.  At the time Google had 70% or so of the share market, rumours I heard at the time from colleagues were that up to 95% of searches from Yahoo!’s UK office actually used Google – which foreshadowed Google’s European dominance.

Google’s dominance could be said to have peaked around 2006, social was starting to appear and consumers started to learn the downside of what beta meant as services started to disappear or become amalgamated into other products. Services that they wove into the fabric of their online life disappeared. Tools that helped them work became less useful as functionality was dialled back.

I have compiled a list of products that Google has launched and closed and ignored US-only products. There are some specific omissions:

  • Deja News had been already shutdown by the time Google acquired the company, Google sucked the service’s Usenet archives into Google Groups
  • Google launched ‘Click-To-Call’ twice. It was closed down for the first time in 2007 and was trialled again in April 2010
  • Hello was a Picasa-based picture file transfer app similar to ‘send file’ on your favourite instant messaging platform, it was axed in 2008, but it always felt like a feature to me rather than a product
  •  SearchMash always was a testbed for different search user experiences. It was not a product by any stretch of the imagination
  • Google PowerMeter was a piece of software from – the charitable foundation set up by Google
  • Google Directory used data pulled from the Open Directory Project, it just ranked them using its algorithm
  • Google Pack was a marketing ploy and possible revenue generator rather than a consumer product per se

A number of businesses that Google got involved with where acqu-hires:

  • Aardvark
  • BumpTop
  • DocVerse
  • Dodgeball
  • fflick
  • Gizmo5
  • Jaiku,
  • Meebo
  • Picnik
  • Postini
  • Quickoffice
  • Slide
  • Zingku

Spun-out / rebranded  products

Product name Date of launch (DD/MM/YYYY) Fate
Google body 15/10/2010 Google Body was part of Google Labs. It was handed over to Zygote Media Group on October 13, 2011.  It is now called Zygote Body. The source code is available under an open source license
Google gears 31/05/2007 Removed from Google’s product set, Gears was released under a BSD license. News of Google’s migration away from Gears broke in November 2009

Discontinued products

Product name Date of launch (DD/MM/YYYY) Fate
Google answers 04/2002 Google has taken a number of runs at Q&A services. Google Answers shut down was announced on November 28, 2006
Google deskbar 06/11/2003 Google Deskbar came out of Google Labs; it put a Google search box inside the chrome of the operating system, allowing consumers to Google not just from inside the browser, but also productivity software.  It was discontinued on May 8, 2006. A similar feature was incorporated into Google Desktop Search.
Orkut 24/01/2004 Facebook-like social network that used to be popular in India and Brazil.
Google desktop 14/10/2004 Searched across the computer similar to Spotlight in OS X and a web search box a la Google Deskbar. Desktop also had Konfabulator-like web applets that provided information on weather, news etc. It was announced that it would be discontinued on September 2, 2011
Google Notifier 2005 I can’t find a specific date in 2005 when Notifier was launched. It let desktop users now when an event was due on their Google calendar or an email available in Gmail
iGoogle 05/2005 Discontinued on November 1, 2013
Google talk 24/08/2005 Google’s VoIP client, replaced by Google Hangouts on May 2013
Google reader 07/10/2005 Google closed down Reader despite the outcry from users. According to Google it had a loyal but declining user base so shut it down on July 1, 2013
Google page creator 24/02/2006 A simple way of web publishing, which Google replaced with Google Sites in September 2008.
Google notebook 10/05/2006 Google Notebook was a bit like a proto-Evernote. Content was exported to Google Docs on November 11, 2011 and the service disappeared by July 2012. On March 20, 2013, Google launched a similar service called Google Keep
Google brower sync 08/06/2006 Rolled out of Google labs as a way of synchronizing settings, passwords and bookmarks across say work and home computers running the Firefox browser. Google’s Chrome browser has a similar function and shutting this function down would have been designed to persuade consumers to jump ship when it was discontinued in June 2008.
Google image labeler 31/08/2006 Google copied the idea behind Carnegie Mellon’s ESP game to find a better way to teach its search what images were. Since it depended only on common answers from two random players, it prevented foul play so to speak. It was shut down on September 16, 2001
Google code search 05/10/2006 Vertical search looking at open source code on the web, announced for shutdown on January 15, 2012
Google website optimiser 10/2006 Free website testing tool to enable site owners to get more value from their site. Discontinued on August 1, 2012
Google question & answers 28/05/2007 Google’s latest attempt at a Q&A service was ran as localized services in Russia, France, international English and China through a partnership with Tianya. It was closed down on June 23, 2014
Knol 13/12/2007 Kind of similar to Squidoo in that it allowed experts to develop a sphere of content as user-written articles. It was announced on November 22, 2011 that it would be shut down.
Google friend connect 12/05/2008 A social media profile that was exportable (possibly as a widget), what Wikipedia called a social networking script. Google signaled it was killing it off on November 23, 2011 to make way for Google+
Google health 20/05/2008 Centralised personal health record service. It didn’t get to the UK but did influence David Cameron’s thinking on health IT. Discontinued January 1, 2012
Google lively 08/07/2008 Google Lively was a way of creating a SecondLife-type environment for conference calls – one of the reasons why IBM was so interested in SecondLife in the first place. Lively was discontinued on December 31, 2008
Google insights for search 05/08/2008 Google Insights for Search was merged with Google Trends on September 27, 2012
Google latitude 05/02/2009 Location aware social application, similar to Dodgeball that Google had acquired and closed down. Latitude itself was shut down on June 10, 2013
Google squared 12/05/2009 Google squared provided some of the functionality of Wolfram Alpha, in particular adding structure and relationships to apparently unstructured data sets. It was shut down on 05/09/2011
Google wave 27/05/2009 Google Wave was a hybrid communications platform that allowed document collaboration and a mix of email and messaging. Google Wave was culled in a batch of ‘spring cleaning’ announced by Google in November 2011. Source code from Google Wave was released under an Apache license.
Google fast flip 14/09/2009 Provided a flip board type of experience aggregating content from 39 news partners. It was axed on September 5, 2011
Google building maker 13/10/2009 Allowed users to model existing buildings for inclusion in Google Earth as a 3D model. Shut down announced on March 13, 2013
Google dictionary 12/2009 Google Dictionary was launched as a standalone product after being a feature in Google Translate. It was shut down without warning on August 5, 2011. Google has a dictionary function build into search using ‘define:”
Google buzz 9/2/2010 A social network that integrated into Gmail, it was discontinued on December 15, 2011.
Google cloud connect 24/2/2011 Google Cloud Connect was a Microsoft Office plug-in that allowed you to easily save documents to Google Docs. It was discontinued on April 30, 2013
Google schemer 18/11/2011 An invite-only clone of 43 Things was shut down on February 7, 2014
Quickoffice 05/06/2012 (date Google acquired the company) Quickoffice was an established mobile application when Google acquired the company, discontinued on June 29, 2014

The closure of Google Reader felt to me like a water shed moment. Google Reader had come along and eviserated the current marketplace for RSS readers, though the size and reach of the Google network. Names like Fastladder and Bloglines. Once the competition was demolished Google then withdrew of the sector and a scramble of cottage industry services sprung up to try and fill the gap; my personal favourite being Newsblur.

I suspect and have heard others suggest that Google has a problem getting users to use and commit to new services. I don’t think that Google Wave’s issue was consumer commitment, but poor product design, but the lack of adoption for say Google+ screams consumers and early adopters could be indicative of a wider wariness of the general public to invest their data and time in a new Google service. This maybe part of the reason why Google seems to be gradually extracting Google+ from its product matrix; just a few days ago no longer using Google+ author ranking in search.

If one looks at Google+ versus other services in Google Trends we can see a similar level of interest to say Google Reader, something that Google has already admitted was a non-viable product.

Google finds itself in a more normal internet brand marketing position: asking consumers for brand permission to innovate so that consumers will engage with their new products and services. Having been on the other side of that fence I realise what a challenge that can be.

More information

Lycos IQ
Lovely Jubii-ly | renaissance chambara
IAC | Ask and the social web | renaissance chambara
Open source intelligence | renaissance chambara

Google Click To Call
Google Tests Phone Numbers In AdWords Ads | SearchEngineLand

Google Reader
Reader May Have Died To Feed Google+’s APIs | Co.Labs

Google Answers
Adieu to Google Answers | Google Official Blog

Google Deskbar
Google’s Deskbar; Search Engine Forums Spotlight | Search Engine Watch

Google Lively
Be who you want on the web pages you visit | Google Official Blog

Google Questions and Answers
Baraza turning read only | Google Help

Google Groups
How to Search Today’s Usenet For Programming Information? | Slashdot
Google’s Abandoned Library of 700 Million Titles (UPDATED) | Wired
Google Begins Fixing Usenet Archive | Wired

Google Wave
More spring cleaning out of season | Google Official Blog

Google Gears
Stopping the Gears | Google Gears Blog

It’s Over: The Rise & Fall Of Google Authorship For Search Results | SearchEngineLand

The ALS ice bucket challenge post

I was going to write a post on the ALS ice bucket challenge but Thomas Gessemer said pretty much everything that needs to be said on this Bloomberg video.

I am waiting for this to start appearing on agency presentations trying to seduce clients with promises of free advertising.

Key takeouts

  • To allow organic opportunities to engage
  • Have a real-time relationships with supporters
  • Don’t get obsessed with the numbers
  • Social is key to spot opportunities ‘white swan’ rather than ‘black swan’ events and then rallying followers around it. Which is tough when you work in an area where this is hard to justify. Don’t expect to see it happening around prisoner rehabilitation for instance


Intent and digital marketing

Back when I was at Ruder Finn, I gave variations of the presentation below

Google’s zero moment of truth echoes the merits of an intent-based approach.

A content desert?

I started thinking about the idea of a content desert for a few reasons:

Experian Marketing Services put out a really nice whitepaper out in June as part of their ConsumerSpeak series called Millennials come of age. One graph stood out to me; the split across generations between traditional and digital media consumption.
media diet
On the face of it, two things struck me, consumption of online media increased between millenials and generation X – but not in a way that makes them radically different – . There was also a marginal increase in overall consumption between generation Y and generation X. Is this due to media literacy, less commitments or they were having to work harder to get a similar amount of value from their media consumption?

We had a focus group in the office looking at the personal media consumption habits of 18 – 24 year olds with an interest in sport. One of the things that came out of this was that they would only buy a magazine about their favourite sport if they were getting on a long plane journey. They thought it was ‘too expensive’ to spend £4 on a magazine. A colleague who sits near me loves the magazine and gets a lot out of the long form articles published in it. He uses these articles as social currency, in the office and with friends. However the panelists that we met felt that they could get everything they needed from sources that they perceived to be of equal quality via free online media.

This stuck with me for a few days, then I realised why I kept churning it around in my mind. It reminded me of the kind of dialogue and decision-making process that was made by poorer people around food and nutrition. A mix of skewed value systems and economics brought a food desert into these areas.

I wonder if we aren’t seeing the same thing in the media industry, whilst we know that Buzzfeed and their ilk provide easily-consumed low-quality content usually about first world problems or childhood nostalgia – are generation Y merely getting the media that they deserve? Will there be a content desert?

A few things give me hope that there may not be; Vice Media is building the global news network that is defining the 2010s in the same way that Aljazeera defined the post-9/11 world and CNN defined the end of the cold war. Although you could argue that with Vice the bill is paid by branded entertainment on behalf of sponsors like Nike and Intel.

Television has entered a new golden era in dramas; will media companies take the opportunity to reinvigorate factual programming?

Reflections on digital China

wearesocial put together some of the best slideware together in terms of macro-dgital numbers country-by-country.

Slides and numbers only tell some of the story, so I wanted to reflect on some of the data points in the slides.

  • China boasts a mobile penetration of 91%, however many people have two or more phones which means that mobile phones aren’t quite as ubiquitous as the number appears
  • Desktop internet usage still occurs in internet cafes, often inside a factory complex like Foxconn’s facility in Shenzhen or off the high street of major cities where gaming is a popular pastime, this puts a slightly different complexion on the European-looking numbers for Shanghai and Beijing
  • One thing that is noticeable about Chinese broadband internet connections is that whilst they have bandwidth (which averages just over 3.45MB/s according to the slides), it also has a lot of latency – due to the systems put in for local legal and regulatory compliance. Latency is important because even a small amount (just 0.025s) can adversely affect the call quality on a voice over IP call
  • Mobile internet is very popular, partly because it is the only internet access that a lot of people have. The popularity has come at a price for mobile operators including infrastructure costs (so they have banded together to build a joint network of base stations) and reduced SMS traffic (WeChat’s rise has reduced SMS to just 2% of its former value)
  • QQ has 808,000,000 accounts, at least some of these are actually business accounts. A Chinese business operating on e-commerce will have a QQ IM account for synchronous communications and file transfers, alongside an email address (which will get checked less frequently) and a phone number
  • The search market statistics quoted show user promiscuity in their search habits, partly due to the fact Baidu had taken a more measured approach to mobile search
  • The e-commerce numbers fail to show the market dominance of Alibaba with its TaoBao and TMall retail platforms. TaoBao alone has half a billion registered users, the vast majority of which would be in China
  • WeChat has some 600M domestic registered users. Again some of these accounts will be corporate accounts, there are many inactive accounts if these numbers are to be believed. Each account will be attached to a mobile phone number

Moves on social platforms

Over the past few years things have been set in motion that are changing social now:

  • The rise of smartphones. I have owned a smartphone for the past decade and a phone / PDA combo for a decade and a half. Originally I had a Nokia 6600 smartphone that nestled in the hand and used a joystick for navigation, but it took the touch screen of the iPhone and Samsung Galaxy to really blow up the smartphone market
  • The rise of mobile messaging. By 2006, I had used Skype and Yahoo! Messenger on a mobile phone, but these were legacy networks that moved from the desktop on to other devices. At the time, messaging was more about presence, was a person accessible or not when I would go to call them; rather like Novell’s directory was used with early IP telephony office networks
  • The pitfalls of truly open social. Blogging had warning signs of what could happen with social that was too open. Heather Armstrong of had been fired in 2002 for saying the kind of things online that would have made typical Facebook wall content. Secondly, Facebook moved from being the preserve of your classmates to including: parents, grandparents, siblings, work colleagues or curious HR people

Younger and not so young people are seeing the benefit of instant messaging that is designed around mobile devices. OTT messaging services like Kakao Talk and WeChat allow for group discussions allowing ad-hocratric decisions like what film to watch at the cinema to be made on the fly.

Probably just as important was that the lack of a legacy base in the applications allowed them to be designed mobile first, providing a focused elegant user experience.
All of this provided a compelling use case, which also meant increased engagement at the experiences of desktop-orientated social networks.

In Korea, Facebook has made slow steady progress, helped mostly by a security breach at local network Cyworld. In comparison, KakaoTalk came from nowhere to 90% penetration of the Korean market. This change has also happened in China, it is hard to understand how fast traditional networks like Sina Weibo and Kaixin001 have been left behind by Weixin (WeChat).

“This is a new phase for social media in China,” said Hu Yong, a journalism professor at Peking University. “It is the decline of the first large-scale forum for information in China and the rise of something more narrowly focused.”

In reality Sina Weibo hasn’t been social media in the way we understand it in the west. Most of the accounts tend towards passive consumption, Weibo acts like a stream of news. This makes it hard to estimate how many accounts were ‘real’ and how engaged the audience was. Anecdotal evidence suggested that riends still used Sina Weibo to get celebrity gossip and news but moved to private channels for interaction.  The New York Times considered this shift in China to be one of an issue to do with freedom of speech rather than a broader social movement towards conversations closer to the ‘email’ age.

More information
An Online Shift in China Muffles an Open Forum –

Google I/O: who is Google trying to disrupt?

Google I/O this week played out like a science fair trying to be an Apple keynote. It was interesting for me to watch to try and discern how this will affect commercial rivals.
Made it to Google I/O "extended". Now what do those guys in Mtn View have to share? #google
The most obvious casualty of this move is not Apple or Microsoft but the Java language that Android’s application language is very similar to. Java was touted in the mid-1990s as a write-once, run-anywhere development language and pops up in surprising places. A variant of Java ran most of the pre-iOS smartphone games. It provided a development environment for early web applications including those used in the enterprise. Java had developed a strong footprint in consumer electronics that Android is now looking to usurp. Oracle had worked hard to support Java for embedded devices ever since it released the first Java development kit for OSX a couple of years ago.

Microsoft has already failed in mobile devices, having spent billions of dollars to maintain a toe hold – this situation may change over time, but for now Microsoft isn’t a relevant player in mobile devices. So Microsoft would be more threatened by Google’s integration of its internet services into Android, than by Android itself. Gmail has become a development platform in its own right and Google is providing enterprise users with unlimited storage for $10 a month. Microsoft’s web services business has been growing rapidly to challenge the current market leader Amazon. Every part of that business from Azure cloud computing to hosted Exchange server functions are threatened by Google’s recent announcements.

Google’s announcement of a smart TV come games console would threaten neither Microsoft nor Sony will be particularly worried by Google’s plans for an Android-powered games console, at least for now. It is interesting that Google thinks there still a market for games console casual gaming rather than just for the zealots. This could be a winner if Nintendo became a developer and abandoned the Wii U – similarly to SEGA’s retreat from the games console market after the Dreamcast console.

The expansion of Android and related web services puts Amazon squarely in the frame as a competitor – however this is not a pushover for Google. Amazon has a strong position in digital goods and is the number one player in web services. In addition, Amazon (unlike Google) isn’t restricted in China, which will be one of the main makers of, and main markets for the products that Google is looking to put Android inside. Amazon has crashed and burned as a traditional e-tailer in China with just over 2% market share; web services and digital content could give the company a second wind. Outside China, Amazon already has the payment details of more high-spending consumers than Google, which gives Amazon the edge in the living room.

Whilst Google probably hasn’t set out to ‘kill’ players in the wearables sector, wearable hardware companies are likely to face rapid commoditisation as Android makes it easier to design wearable hardware. This hollowing out of the market will be similar to what happened to handsets before Samsung managed to prevail through the scale of its resources. The challenge will be if they can differentiate on superior industrial design and maintain a premium price, or move into providing web services that support compatible devices –  a direction where Nike seems to be moving with its Nike+ Fuel Lab.

The closer integration of Samsung and Google’s development efforts was probably the most interesting movement at Google I/O. Google’s divide-and-conquer strategy works when you have a number of evenly competitive players, but Samsung rapidly built scale and used its vertical integration to its advantage driving Motorola and HTC to the edge. Sony consolidated its hold on Sony Ericsson and LG have been grimly hanging on against its rival chaebol. Samsung tried to expand control of its eco-system with new applications, services and two new OS over the years – Bada and Tizen. Samsung partnership announcements including the integration of KNOX, represented a degree of detente between Samsung and Google – at least for the moment. This alliance puts other Android handset manufacturers like LG, Sony and HTC at a further disadvantage. It is less clear what this will mean for those developers who Samsung has persuaded to support their Tizen platform. Will that work have been wasted?

The integration of KNOX will also affect the core enterprise business of BlackBerry, providing yet another reason for not purchasing BlackBerry devices or server software.

The further expansion into the home is Google trying to hammer the nails into the cross that consumer electronics companies like Sony, Sharp, JVC and Panasonic are already attached to. However, Google would need to build rapport with Chinese companies like TCL; yet companies TCL is less likely to want to get on the Google train for a few reasons:

  • China is one of the largest markets for home consumer electronics, yet Google can’t play
  • Many of these companies are vertically integrated and already have lower-tier handset manufacturer within the group who aren’t getting much love from Google already and some of these manufacturers are already playing with other Android-based distributions. They may even create forks from the open source distribution that is the basis of Google’s Android
  • A tighter relationship with a content provider will be more important than tying into Google – particularly as Google services face an increasing crackdown in China
  • A tight relationship with a payment provider will be more important than tying to Google – Tencent or Alibaba

Google needs to find a way to address these issues, or partner with another player like Tencent which would take a lot of corporate manoeuvring; any partner maybe careful (if not leery) after they can see how Google’s relationship with Apple went south. Google may not be the barbarian Microsoft of the 1990s, but the organisation is now so big and complex that it could easily crush a partner thoughtlessly.

More information
It’s A Java Embedded World | Dr Dobb’s – I guess I am showing my age, but if feels strange that it isn’t Dr Dobb’s Journal or DDJ anymore
China Top B2C Websites Market Share in Q1 2014 | China Internet Watch
Android TV hands-on: Google makes a new play for the living room | The Verge
Google announces Drive for Work with unlimited storage at $10 a month | The Verge
Google Opens Gmail, Making It More of a Platform for Developers | WSJ
Google previews Android apps running on Chromebooks | TNW
Razer’s making a gaming ‘micro-console’ with Android TV, available this fall | Engadget
Google Introduces Android TV, Its New Platform For Smart TV Apps And Navigation | TechCrunch
Google Unveils Ambitious Android Expansion at Conference | New York Times
Nike+ Developer Portal

Pushing the reset button on heavy web pages

I am continually gobsmacked by site with ludicrously long page load times because the web page is so big, often 50MB+. This takes an appreciable time to load even with a good broadband connection. On a wireless connected tablet, a mobile connection or in high latency fixed networks like China, consumers are incentivised to click away.

Taking a mobile first approach, encourages lean web design. On a fast network, these pages will load almost instantaneously.

More information
Not addressing the “Chinese Firewall” can haunt luxury commerce | Luxury Daily
18 pivotal web design trends for 2014 | Econsultancy
A Guide to Understanding Page-Speed Tests | WebMonkey

Connection planning: rebooted

Marketing as with most business disciplines oscillates in terms of its fads. For instance, brands like Coca-Cola are looking to move away from regional marketing management infrastructure to doing more from the centre with the local countries.

I felt however that rebooking at what has gone wrong in many respects with connection planning seemed to be particularly resonant, particularly when developments like programmatic media-buying, whilst having a number of merits propagate the assumption that media is merely a container for marketing messages.

How should connection marketing be rebooted? As a process, with a set of values  rather than a separate discipline and job title. Learning from our own and other people’s prior mistakes and making new ones.

CML Earth: the sudden disappearance of a social network in the night…

Yesterday Novartis Oncology sent out an email to the subscribers of a small global community called CMLEarth.

Dear Subscriber,

Since the launch of CML Earth in December 2008, the mission of the social network has been to provide members of the CML community with a place to give and receive support, make valuable connections and share personal experiences, and connect with members for further support.

At this time, Novartis Oncology, sponsor of CML Earth, has decided to close the social network. The platform is not optimized for current technologies (such as mobile devices and tablets), which compromises the user experience and lessens the value of the platform.

Thank you for your participation, dedication, and support of the CML community.

Your CML Earth Team

CML Earth was designed to support a small global community of patients, healthcare professionals and patient families – all of whom were dealing with a rare form of leukaemia (Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia).
What’s interesting about this is:

  • How sudden the shutdown seems to have come
  • Where was a migration strategy?
  • That there wasn’t an opportunity to hand the community over to the members, nor a migration strategy articulated to say form a Facebook group, there are a number of existing groups on there

It also is a classic example of the transitory nature of platforms. What seemed hip just a few years ago is now a technology that is no longer supported (Adobe Flash, Microsoft Silverlight – not that Silverlight was ever hip outside Redmond, WA).

It was even odder, that this decision was not shared on the home page of CML Earth, here is a screen shot that I took this evening
CML Earth

Great primer on Chinese social media platforms

Imagination has put together a great presentation which is an ideal primer on the Chinese online environment.

A CliffNotes-style guide to The New York Times Innovation report

The internal Innovation report by The New York Times leaked widely and has been reported on, mainly in how it reflected the internal politics that led so the departure of Jill Abramson from the paper. It has also been heralded as document of importance in the industry. Given the nature of the document I decided to do page-by-page commentary on the report (so that you don’t have to read all 96 pages). I read it once first of all to get an overall picture of it and then made notes on a page-by-page basis as I read it a second time in more depth. Below are the notes that I made on the second pass through the document:

Page 3 – The memo starts by outlining its faith in the quality of the journalism at The New York Times. I think that this may be their first flaw as later they compare themselves unfavourably to outlets such as Yahoo! News which implies general news coverage is a commoditised product and The New York Times isn’t providing enough analysis of sufficient value to share.

Page 4 – This is an executive summary of recommendations, most of which are quite prosaic. Develop the audience, strengthen the news room through working with other parts of the business and develop a newsroom strategy team. First up, developing the audience focuses on growth; there isn’t a mention about the quality of the audience – which would matter to advertisers. Strengthening the newsroom as described shows a willingness to bend the journalism / sales Chinese wall to breaking point.

Page 5 – A graph of what I presume is monthly unique visitors under the headline of “…But Many Competitors Are Growing Faster” calls out Huffington Post and Buzzfeed as competitors who are outstripping The New York Times in reader traffic. There are no qualifying demographics for this; in the print space would The New York Times compare itself with The New York Post? Both are newspapers but both have different demographics.

Page 6 and 7 - “Our Proposals, In Brief” basically reiterates pages 4 and 5.

Page 8 – “Our Mission (And How It Evolved)” explains the methodology behind the report. Having read it, there were a couple of knowledge sources that didn’t seem to have been tapped, but that would have been useful.  Interviewing some of the media agencies to get their takes on media consumption trends, looking at external data sources such as comScore, Nielsen Net Ratings and academia such as the MIT Media Lab, Annenberg Journalism School and the Berkman Center for Internet & Society to peer further into the future.

Page 12 – the start of the “Growing Our Audience’ section starts with a users guide to the report which basically explains the filters they used in writing and presenting the report in order to dumb it down for the readership.

Page 14-15 – contrast moves in the news media industry with moves at The New York Times.  The three big NYT moves were:

  • Redesigning
  • Ravaging and rebranding The International Herald Tribune as The International New York Times (this alone would have precipitated a need for a redesign or reengineering of the  The report itself calls The International New York Times a launch
  • The rollout of native advertising described as a ‘new world’ giving it a romantic heroic quality rather than it having been demanded by media buyers and becoming the norm

The New York Times is facing the classic disruptee problem, trying to re-orientate itself for the digital age whilst change churns around it. The report treads lightly rather than scaring the bejesus out of its readership  (who are likely part of the problem and need to get on board with a radical attitude adjustment and become part of the solution).

Page 17-18 is interesting as the document sets out “A Competitor Cheat Sheet”:

  • Buzzfeed
  • Circa
  • ESPN
  • First Look Media
  • Flipboard
  • Vox
  • Yahoo! News

Here was a few of my takeaways from that list:

Circa and Flipboard are aggregators with a bit of smarts behind them. These are disrupting the editorial process. I would argue that this goes back further than Circa to email newsletters like Dave Farber’s Interesting People or conferences on The WeLL. Neither of these are new and a news room should have recognised and evolved with this years ago.

ESPN is particularly interesting as this is a traditional media company that has embraced digital particularly well, highlighting a failure of imagination and gumption in management.

I think that First Look Media is less about the disruption of news media by digital technology and more about younger consumers being hungry for a reboot of news journalism. This is the reason why Shane Smith and company have moved style and culture magazine VICE successfully into news journalism; showing up major news organisations on their coverage of North Korea and the situation in Ukraine.

Again there is no questions about whether these companies have the right type of audiences, merely the size of the audiences attracted.

Finally a good piece of news for Marissa Mayer at Yahoo!. At least The New York Times thinks that her efforts are delivering business difference, I was surprised to see Yahoo! cited as a competitor news source due to the brand positioning. Yahoo! has been experimenting with original news on-and-off for the best part of a decade such as The Hot Zone which featured reportage from journalist Kevin Sites back in 2005/6.

Page 23 – highlights three graphs under the heading “Tough Trends”. In contrast to the soft soap language that accompanies the charts the data is displayed in a manner to ‘cut to the chase’ and it is important to bear this mind when reading a chart.

Home page visitors had almost halved over three years. This could be due to changing usage patterns has The New York Times introduced its paywalls. Overall page views showed a less aggressive rate of decline. Time spent on the site dropped by a third which I suspect again is a function of the digital paywall The New York Times introduced. I try and only pick my 10 articles a month carefully to maximise the utility of it.

It was also interesting to see a drop in mobile readership using the iPhone app.

Page 24 – there was one quote that stood out for me:

“The hardest part for me has been the realisation that you don’t automatically get an audience,” said Janine Gibson, editor-in-chief of The Guardian’s website. “For someone with a print background, you’re accustomed to the fact that if it makes the editor’s cut – gets into the paper – you’re going to find an audience”

I think that this rationale is based on a logical fallacy, that if a paper is put into the hands of a reader it will be devoured cover-to-cover. I would flicking though a paper analogous to skimming past links without clicking.

Digital now makes this more apparent which is where Gibson had her satori that content needs to be promoted to an audience on digital platforms.

The authors of the report split their view of competitors into content and delivery mechanisms:

But BuzzFeed, Huffington Post and USA Today are not succeeding simply because of lists, quizzes, celebrity photos and sports coverage. They are succeeding because of their sophisticated social, search and community-building tools and strategies, and often in spite of their content.

I think that this division is particularly interesting. Firstly, content is complementary to and indivisible from search and social strategies that these people may have. Secondly, the last bit of the quote dismisses the ‘snackable’ nature of these content formats, when in reality this might be part of their success.

Page 25 – features a bit of future gazing on how with the right contextual information available, content could be serviced just-in-time to a mobile device from the paper’s news section, alongside archive content like restaurant reviews etc. There is also an ongoing challenge in managing that data to keep the context fresh and relevant – for instance knowing restaurants close or move location.

Page 26 – “Our Proposals, In Brief”. I am shocked that the current technology used by the paper to support it’s newspaper seems to not used to tag or structure the vast amount of data published to date.

Page 27 – is an explanation of ‘deep linking’ without mentioning that terminology once. The concern about readers not going to a home page or a section page is interesting, these are print paradigms put into pixels; yet on page 26 the authors had pointed out that one of the paper’s CMS limitations was that it was structured to reflected just this kind of print view.

Page 28 -30 – talks about using curation to highlight older relevant content that can be used to provide context for a newer piece or timely collection. This raises the lifetime value of archive content because of the increased option for ad inventory to be viewed. I know this might sound obvious, bit it was obviously a revelation for the authors.

Page 31-32 is a basic schooling in the scientific method  of experimentation – presumably to inspire innovation in the report readership.

Page 33-35 look at how clustering coverage around common interest collections can increase readership

Page 36 “Balancing Act: One-offs vs. Replicability” compares and contrasts The New York Times blockbuster approach to big digital projects versus competitors who build tools that they can use again and again; in order to maximise technical investment. An example of this would be Quartz’ Chartbuilder.

Page 39-40 – The New York Times reimplemented a function to allow readers to follow columnists. Some of the data on the page would make me question the value of a prominent journalist in terms of the amount of loyalty and fan base that they can build. This is basically advocating that the journalists cultivate fame and a fan base. It would have been interesting to explore a bit more the dynamic between the newspaper brand and the journalist brand.

Page 41 – talks about structured data and tagging. What I am surprised didn’t come up was the topic of folksonomies which could have been an answer to the ‘tag famine’ that they paper seems to suffer from. For instance, no tag for Benghazi despite the fact this was a story that would run-and-run.

Page 43-44 – “Promotion” talks about social. Here’s what it says about email newsletters:

Other competitors, like The Atlantic and Politico are also using emails as direct channels to readers. This basic tool has become one of the most popular and efficient ways to cut through all the noise of the social web and reach readers directly.

The New York Times already does use email marketing. This us and them view of journalists and the audience lacks subtlety. It neglects to take into account that some of their readers are tastemakers or curators that their friends tap into. Influencing people who can propagate content links even further is a relatively easy win. RSS seems to be the Rodney Dangerfield in this picture getting no respect. Whilst there aren’t prolific RSS usage amongst the masses, it is often used by curators and as pipework for aggregators like Feedly or Flipboard.

Page 45 – what becomes apparent is that linkages such as social sharing analytics isn’t being used to drive editorial decisions. The twitter metric of engaged fans in a chart that compares The New York Times to other media outlets is interesting. What does ‘engaged fans’ mean in this content?

Page 49-54 – “Connecting” is about The New York Times getting closer to the reader as a corporate brand:

  • User-generated content
  • Expand Op-Eds
  • Events
  • Using reader data to know them better

Page 55-59 – “Strenghtening Our Newsroom”. I was gobsmacked reading this section. The New York Times seemed to be way behind peers like The Telegraph in terms of using data for the news room. Secondly, they have a consumer insight group yet didn’t have this expertise to help drive editorial decisions as a proxy reader’s champion.

Page 60-70 – discuss what the authors call reader experience. This touches on content but also goes into how the content is manifested and the user experience. In a world where data journalism is freely bandied around, I can’t understand the gulf here. Back when I used to work at Yahoo! tweaking user experience was a major part of the creation process across the Yahoo! network properties.

Page 71-74 – The New York Times editorial team don’t seem to network with peers and keep abreast of industry developments. They hadn’t been thinking about how to change news reporting to remain current and relevant.

Page 75-77 – is a simple explanation of the ‘fast failure’ model of innovation.

Page 78-80 – outlines the cultural challenges that the editorial team need to scale in order to be able to change the organisation. A lot of this mirrors what reporters would have written about businesses in mature economies adapting to change. Integrity seems to have been interpreted institutionally has embracing a luddite philosophy.

Page 81-87 – “Digital First” isn’t exactly a new concept it has been the clarion cry of news media groups for years.  It is concerning that they even have to have a boxout defining what is means to be digital first on page 82.

Page 88 -90 “In Their Own Words: Digital Departures” looks as the reason why digital journalist have been leaving the paper. These outtakes from what amounted to be exit interviews reflected the need for a flatter structure and more agile business.

Page 91 – One quote said it all for me when they talked about talent “Winning The Talent Wars”:

We need makers, entrepreneurs, reader advocates and zeitgeist watchers.

How can you have a news organisation that is that lacking in curiosity amongst it’s journalists that the above statement needs to be said?

More information
The leaked New York Times innovation report is one of the key documents of this media age | Nieman Journalism Lab
Mondo Vice: going backwards to bring news media forwards
Quartz Chartbuilder on Github

Algorithmic Accountability and other Big Data issues

In the past, what is now included in the envelope of big data resided with just a few organisations. The story of big data started with the US government. The government used a young company called IBM and their punch card technology to help tabulate their census data. Punch card technology started in the textile industry, where industrial revolution-era jacquard looms manufactured complex fabric patterns. Punch cards also controlled fairground organs and related instruments. It was with early tabulating machines made by IBM and others that started to change the world as we know it.
Computer History Museum
When the mainframe came along governments used them to manage tax collection and to run the the draft for Vietnam. It came a key part of the US anti-war protesters to destroy machine readable draft cards. (The draft card destruction didn’t affect the draft process. But burning the draft card was still an offence and some people underwent punishment.)

Also around this time, the credit agency was coming into its own in the US. Over a period of 60 years, it had gradually accumulated records on millions of Americans and Canadians. The New York Times in 1970 described the kind of records that were held by Retail Credit (now known as Equifax):

…may include ‘facts, statistics, inaccuracies and rumors’ … about virtually every phase of a person’s life; his marital troubles, jobs, school history, childhood, sex life, and political activities.

These records helped to vet people for job applications, bank loans and department store consumer credit. It was like a private sector version of the J. Edgar Hoover files. Equifax moved to computerise its records. One reason was to improve the professionalisation of its business. This also had an implication on the wider availablity of credit information. Computerisation led to the Fair Credit Report Act in the US. This legislation was designed to give consumers a measure of transparency and control over their data.

Forty years later, mainframe computers are still used to process tens of thousands of credit card transactions every second. New businesses including social networks, search engines and online advertising companies have vast amounts of data; unlike anything a credit agency ever had.

The recent The Social, Cultural & Ethical Dimensions of “Big Data” event held at New York University by the Data & Society Research Institute was important. Events like these help society understand what changes to make in the face of rapid technological change.

The Algorithmic Accountability primer from the event highlights the seemingly innocuous examples of how technology like Google’s search engine can have far reaching consequences. What the Data & Society Research Institute called ‘filter bubbles’. Personalisation of search will change that consumers see from individual to individual. This discrimination could also be applied to items like pricing. Staples has produced an algorithm that based pricing on location of the web user; better off customers were provided with better prices. One of the problems of regulating this area is first of all defining what an algorithm actually is from a policy perspective.

Algorithmic systems are generally not static systems but are continually tweaked and refined, so represent a moving target. During my time at Yahoo! we rolled out a major change to the search algorithm every two weeks on a Wednesday evening US west coast time. I imagine that pace of change at the likes of Google and Facebook has only accelerated.

The problem with many rules based systems now is that we no longer write the rules or teach the systems; instead we give the system access to large data sets and it starts to teach itself – the results generally work but we don’t know why. This is has been a leap forward for what would be broadly based artificial intelligence, but makes these systems intrinsically hard to regulate.
concern with data practices
Given all this it is hardly surprising that research carried out  on behalf of President Obama by The Whitehouse showed a high level of concern amongst US citizens.

More information
Jacquard Loom – National Museums Scotland
Separating Equifax from Fiction | Wired (Issue 3.05)
Data & Society | Algorithmic Accountability primer
This Landmark Study Could Reveal How The Web Discriminates Against You | Forbes
Websites Vary Prices, Deals Based on Users’ Information | WSJ
The 90-day review for Big Data | Whitehouse
Data & Society | Alogrithmic Accountability Workshop Notes
Digital Me: Will the next Cringely be from Gmail? | I, Cringely

My digital tool box

There are new useful sites springing up all the time so this is just a snapshot of the things that I use:

Service/category Description
Analysis / measurement
Domain Tools Paid for service site with some great free features including DNS look-up and the SEO browser, which allows you to see your web page the way a search crawler, would see it. This is really handy to use with clients who currently have a visual site or to just as part of a website audit.
Google Trends Google Trends is a cornucopia of data to inspire campaign ideas and provide insight into a brand truth. The best bit about it is that its free and unlike other Google tools like Adplanner it hasn’t been crippled as the company got mean over the past few years.
Mention A freemium product that augments the reduced service that Google Alerts now provide.
SocialMention A great free service to grab a snapshot of social activity. The most useful aspect of the service is getting an idea of the aggregated volume of conversations and most active accounts.
State State is a self-described social opinion network where you can see what consumers think about brands or products often represented by a handy sentiment curve. Ok so the data will be skewed because the audience is self-selecting and tech forward, but it’s also a handy gut check on a brand.
Sysomos MAP Ok so the agency subscribes to MAP, but it is such a useful part of my life. From new business to PR messaging and everything in between MAP is a major tool in our work. I found it more useful than Radian6 in terms of the quality of the information it provides Get some basic research and analysis done on a Sina Weibo account. It is all in Chinese so be sure to break out Google Translate as well!
TwitterCounter Does what it says in the name looks at the change in followers over a 90 day period of an account, which gives you an idea of performance. Handy for benchmarking against competitors or seeing how effective their activity has been.
Buffer Buffer allows you to preload updates for Twitter, a Facebook page or even Google+. It is simpler to use than Hootsuite and allows inputs from IFTTT
IFTTT IFTTT allows you to build simple workflows based on a web input for instance a post tagged on with a tag or an article in an RSS feed with a particular word. I have found it invaluable in my Twitter workflow. It is much more robust, but less sophisticated than Yahoo! Pipes
Jego Jego is a VoIP application brought out by China Mobile. Despite the payment mechanism being very clunky the service is really useful. It is what powers my Hong Kong number and I get a bundle of call minutes with it rather like Skype. The call quality can be very rough, but I suspect that they Chinese will lift their game over time.
Skype So the user experience of Skype isn’t as good as it used to be. The NSA now listens into all of your calls that don’t get dropped or leave you ending up sounding like a dalek. But Skype’s premium account does allow you to do a WebEx-type webinar on the cheap including multiple callers and sharing a presentation.
TallTweets Indonesians have a very distinctive Twitter culture. High profile account holders are often paid to tweet a long form message by brands. This is called a kultwit. TallTweets was one of the tools that they used; it slices long form messages down into a series of 140 characters that are transmitted one after the other to produce a continuous stream.
WeChat I can’t emphasise enough how useful WeChat is. It can be used on both a desktop and a mobile device, you can form groups on there; share content, do video calls. It is much better than the likes of Whatsapp or Viber in terms of functionality and quality of the service.
Flickr Flickr is one of the digital services that I have probably used the longest. At first I used it for image hosting for my blogs and I still do use it for that. But it is also so much more. It is a source of visual inspiration for ideas, brainstorms and even visuals for presentations. Flickr Creative Commons is one of the best examples of good stuff about the web.
Pinterest Apart from the copyright nightmare that Pinterest represents it is really interesting to search a topic and see what comes up as a kind of instant mood board.
Hacker News by Y Combinator Not exactly news, but a great set of curated content that taps into the web zeitgeist. It saves time so you don’t have to be trawling Stack Overflow or Reddit.
Newsblur I am a massive advocate of Newsblur. Since Livedoor closed down it’s English language RSS reader I have been using Newsblur instead. The service has a great iOS client (which is better used on an iPad if I am honest), and has native support of numerous sharing / social bookmarking tools including Pinboard. There is also an Android client and a third party Windows Phone client for those of you who are mobile masochists. Newsblur takes RSS in a number of clever new directions, you can train it to show you only the content that you want to see and provides the content in a number of views including the original website design (for when you want to understand the context of the coverage), or just text (which is handy when you are on the go). Newsblur costs a very reasonable $24/year.
Techmeme Techmeme is an aggregator that collates the mainstream news; it replaced Google News for me since it was more the zeitgeist than Google managed.
Twitter lists Twitter is a great tool, but you need to slap a filter on the fire hose. I do this through using lists to give me a pared down view of what I need to know between the links to Buzzfeed articles and yet another cat picture from my friends.
Basecamp Basecamp offers a cost effective way to organise / upwardly manage clients and share content. You just set up a different account for each project stream or discrete client relationship and off you go. It is free for 30 days if you are looking at something short term or $20 / month
DownForEveryoneOrJustMe A single page site that does what it says in the title, really useful
Google Drive I am not necessarily a great fan of creating a document within Google; it can sometimes feel unresponsive, particularly over a corporate network or where you are collaborating on a document. It is however great for building surveys, customer service question databases for managing social media accounts or holding a common set of passwords.
Hemingway Hemingway is like having an extra critical set of eyes go over your copy. I have started to use it for blog posts as a way of forcing me to look more critically at my writing and move away from my previous stream of consciousness approach.
iCloud Apple’s web services have been a part of my life since 2001. Apple at the time offered the first advertising-free IMAP email account, syncable address book and calendar based on WebDAV and hCard standards/formats. It has become less useful since Apple did away with iDisk
Mendeley If you’ve ever had to do some serious writing like a book chapter or a bylined article, having an application like Mendeley makes the process a lot easier. It is a mix of an application and cloud service that allows you to store citation materials, share with other writers and automatically build a bibliography within a Word document via a simple plug-in. Pretty much a must for journalists or corporate copywriters. Mendeley has a freemium model and at the top end, for just 11.99GBP/month you can have unlimited storage space
Noisli Noisli is a text editor designed to free you from distraction and is an essential part of my blogging workflow now. It’s white noise generation is also handy for when you want to get to sleep, I often leave my laptop logged in playing their rainfall noise when I am away and trying to get a good night’s sleep.
PDFEscape Online editing of PDF files
Pinboard Back in the day there was a service called that allowed you to store all your bookmarks in the cloud and put labels on them called tags rather than having to put them in folders. This allowed your bookmarks to exist in multiple categories. allowed you to search these categories. Unfortunately became and got crippled in a spectacular bout of shareholder value destruction overseen by numerous managers at Yahoo! who understood the price of everything and the value of nothing as Bill Hicks would say. Pinboard was created as a home for refugees like me and works as an augmentation of my memory and as a hopper for me to feed content into IFTTT.
Ribbet Ribbet is a basic online photo editor that does everything that I need a photo editor to do. Usually I use it for altering images for use in presentations.
Skip Skip is the app formerly known as ClipPick, it is basically multi-device / multi-screen cut and paste. Simple, easy, instantaneous. Like it or not the current mobile/tablet systems and PC systems aren’t particularly open, they tend not to work together well unless inside a particular vendor walled garden like Samsung, Sony or Apple.Skip breaks down those walls, it’s kind of like Google was in that once you start using it you couldn’t imagine life without it. Some really nice people in South Korea make it; show them some download love.
WeTransfer The simplest handy way of shipping files around. A lot of people find it hard to grasp the concept of Dropbox so the one-click approach of WeTransfer is really handy.
Planning tools / research
AcronymFinder Clients love TLAs and FLAs as professional shorthand, use AcronymFinder to work out what they are actually saying (TLA: three-letter acronym; FLA: four-letter acronym) Need to understand a former organisation? The Wayback Machine becomes particularly handy in understanding an organisation that has acquired or merged other businesses together.
CIA World Fact Book Surprisingly useful almanac of economic and infrastructure data from the Central Intelligence Agency. Everything from time zones to what the flag looks like.
Dogpile Dogpile is a meta search engine. It trawls a number of search engines rather than just Google to present you with potential answers
Eurostat database The European Commission pulls together a lot of research every year and gives it away to the likes of you and me for free. You can get some real gems that come in handy for campaign planning and ideation.
Federal Election Committee financial reports and data Handy when you are doing a search on likely reputational risks of clients. See whose campaign they donated to and the kind of issues that these people support.
Follower Wonk Probably one of the most useful Twitter tools out there which allows you to look at third party Twitter accounts and see which have common followers or not. Really handy for doing influencer mapping incorporating competitor thinking. It is part of the Moz series of products so costs, but is worth it.
Google search box Baidu talks a lot about the concept of ‘box computing’ where the search box is actually the gateway to other services, but Google has a lot of inbuilt services that people don’t realise. These services came from its competition with the likes of Yahoo! as it grew to be the online oligarchy that it currently is. More information on Google’s hidden features can be found in my Grokking Google series of posts
Infomine A handy augmentation to searching for research papers on Google Scholar
IPL2 An old school search engine a la the Yahoo! Directory of old that is curated by US librarians so is full of high quality links.
Ixquick A surprisingly useful and fast search engine, pull this out of the bag if Google isn’t giving decent results.
Similarsites Really handy for looking at influencers in a given sector once you have one, Similarsites can then be used to suggest others within a ranked system based on how close they are to the seed site you have used
The Economist World in Figures This used to be a free to access website and is now bundled up as a free iPhone and iPad application as an ideal counterpart to the CIA World Fact Book A surprising recommendation for research, but a quick search of is worthwhile as people will often have an email address on their profile. Either using a domain specific search on Google find someone’s profile or by exploring the tags.
Foursquare Foursquare’s explorer function allows you to search an area by category for people driven recommendations. I have found it useful because of the map driven interface. Foursquare replaced Dopplr in my travel folder after Nokia shut it down.
Open Rice Detailed restaurant recommendations for Hong Kong. Hong Kong locals are some of the most exacting food critics I know which means that the Open Rice database is uncommonly useful. I recommend downloading the Open Rice mobile apps.
Skyscanner and OnTheFly Booking flights can be a bit of a nightmare Skyscanner and OnTheFly provide background information to help you make the right choice of flight.

What services do you use that you would recommend, pop them in the comments section below