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October 24 2011

The more you engage, the better the advice

This post is part of the TOC podcast series, which we'll be featuring here on Radar in the coming months. You can also subscribe to the free TOC podcast through iTunes.

Discoverability is one of the key issues that plagues the book and econtent world. The bad news is the situation is only going to get worse, particularly when you consider all the new publishing and self-publishing platforms that are vying for our attention. The good news is we're starting to see platforms like Goodreads helping you discover new titles that match your interests. Patrick Brown, community manager at Goodreads, tells us all about their new recommendation engine and some of the complexities of the algorithm behind it. Key points from the full video interview (below) include:

  • Recommendation engines are complex: The Goodreads engine has been in development for six years. (In fact, the Goodreads algorithm benefited from the competition Netflix had to improve their own algorithm.) [Discussed at the 2:50 mark.]
  • The more you use it, the better the advice: Goodreads obviously wants us all to engage with their service as much as possible. One benefit to doing so is that the recommendations served up will be more fine-tuned to your interests. [Discussed at 5:24.]
  • Serendipity can be found further down the long tail: Part of what makes the Goodreads recommendation engine so valuable is that they're not just recommending the latest bestseller on the topic. [Discussed at 6:40.]
  • Categories are broad today, but... : This initial release of the Goodreads recommendation engine uses large buckets (e.g., History, but not narrowed down to, say, WWII). Over time, the granularity, and therefore, the value of this aspect of the service will improve. [Discussed at 13:45.]

You can view the entire interview in the following video.

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September 30 2011

The search for serendipitous recommendations

This post is part of the TOC podcast series, which we'll be featuring here on Radar in the coming months. You can also subscribe to the free TOC podcast through iTunes.

Zite CEO Mark Johnson (@philosophygeek) recently sat down with Joe Wikert to talk about his company, how Zite's recommendation engine works, and how CNN is welcoming Zite into its family. Johnson also discussed serendipity, noting that it emerges, in part, from experimentation. "If you get it right 100% of the time, you're not doing a very good job," he said.

Highlights from the full video interview (below) include:

  • The CNN acquisition: "What's great about CNN is they're letting us remain independent, so I'm going to continue to be the CEO of Zite. We'll be a wholly owned subsidiary ... they bought us because they are also lovers of the product ... I think that they're really interested in letting us move forward, so you're going to see a lot of enhancements over the next few months — we now have the capital in the company to allow us to grow." [Discussed at the 3:28 mark.]
  • What makes Zite special: "One of the things Zite does is not just look at the subjects of the articles, but who wrote it, where it was written, how it was written ... With that we can inject an element of serendipity into your application, but still be pretty confident that they're the kind of stories you like. I'd also say, with any recommendation engine, if you get it right 100% of the time, you're not doing a very good job." [Discussed at 2:30.]
  • How Zite could extend into book-length content: "I think it would be really interesting some day to have excerpts of books in Zite and try to recommend books based on their excerpts. Or, you could even imagine us with the knowledge we have right now being able to recommend good books that go along with some of the short-form content that you've been consuming. There's lots of opportunity for us to work together with book publishers to help users find the right pieces of content for them — really what we are is a content matching engine." [Discussed at 11:13.]

You can view the entire interview in the following video.

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    September 16 2011

    Publishing News: Goodreads chases the recommendation Holy Grail

    Here's what caught my eye in publishing news this week.

    Has Goodreads nabbed the book recommendation Holy Grail?

    GoodreadsGoodreads purchased Discovereads about six months ago. This week, Goodreads finally put its acquired machine learning algorithms to use and launched a new book recommendation engine. As ReadWriteWeb explained:

    The site's new reading recommendations are generated using a set of propriety algorithms which look at over 20 billion different data points. Perhaps most importantly, it takes into account the stated preferences of of its nearly six million users, for whom rating books is already a key component of using the site.

    This giant dataset is what gives the engine its edge. Goodreads CEO and founder Otis Chandler gave an example in the press release, pointing out that Goodreads has "more than 174,000 ratings of the best-selling 'The Help' while Amazon only has around 4,400." But the algorithm doesn't stop at popularity — it digs deeper into readers' psyches, as pointed out on Mashable:

    The algorithm ... is largely based on what's on a reader's bookshelf and what other readers with similar bookshelves have enjoyed reading. It also takes into account why you liked a book. When a reader categorizes "The Help" as "historical fiction," the algorithm will react differently than when he or she classifies it as "racism."

    Goodreads' algorithm and dataset allows it to not only provide recommendations of similar books (ala BookLamp, Amazon, et al), but also suggestions that teeter closer to the Holy Grail of recommendation: serendipity and discovery.

    Hearst goes multi-platform with HTML5 web design

    Good HousekeepingHearst took the digital publishing bull by the horns and launched a redesign of its website — using HTML5. It also indicated it would pursue the same path for most of its other sites.

    One of the major benefits of designing with HTML5, of course, is the cross-platform utility it allows (see comparison screenshots over at ReadWriteWeb). Another advantage is the interactivity, which Hearst is embracing fully. In an interview at Folio, Eric Gullin, Hearst's group director, called out the the rotating promotional player on the home page at

    This slide show or rotator is touch enabled, depending on the device you're using, and that's one of the things that's wonderful with HTML5. We can use HTML5 to have it work the way we would like it to work depending on the device the reader has.

    But that wasn't all of the exciting HTML5 news this week ... delivers news in HTML5

    Boston GlobeYes, another newspaper launched a website that will be behind a paywall (I'll get to that part in a minute), but the intriguing thing about the launch of was pointed out on page two of a post:

    ...the site is based on HTML5 "responsive design," an app-like offering that reflexively re-sizes depending on the device and screen. Everything from the front page to the photo galleries to the HTML5 crossword puzzle ... is designed to work via browser. That includes a "MySaved" feature that allows users to save stories via the browser on one PC or device and not only open them in another, but quickly save them for offline reading on a new device. It even works in the experimental browser on a Kindle ...

    I'm impressed, and I'm not the only one excited about the HTML5 design. Nieman Lab was quick to point out this design might just allow the newspaper to bypass the 30% cut Apple takes from subscriptions. I'm certain other news organizations are bandying that tidbit about their conference tables.

    As for the paywall part of the site ... the plan is to continue running, the original free site, but move about three-fourths of the newsy content to the new and ask people to pay $3.99 per month (print subscribers get free access). The fact that they're going to offer breaking news, 20 new blogs, and some news content on the free site, as mentioned in the paidContent post, might work against them. There's also a fun three-step process posted at The Evolving Newsroom to estimate how well it will all turn out (hint: that HTML5 crossword puzzle and the photo galleries mentioned above might factor in heavily).

    TOC Frankfurt 2011 — Being held on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2011, TOC Frankfurt will feature a full day of cutting-edge keynotes and panel discussions by key figures in the worlds of publishing and technology.

    Save 100€ off the regular admission price with code TOC2011OR


    August 18 2011

    August 03 2011

    How online bookstores should get social

    This post originally appeared on Joe Wikert's Publishing 2020 Blog ("Should Online Bookstores Go Social?"). It's republished with permission.

    As I walked through a local brick-and-mortar bookstore the other day I overheard this exchange:

    Customer #1: This is why I don't always buy online. I love holding and flipping through books.

    Customer #2: Me too, but I really like spending time in the store and seeing if I can get any good recommendations while I'm wandering around.

    That's so true. Shopping in person can have a social element to it, but shopping online is always a solitary experience. To be fair, I don't make a habit of bothering other customers in the bookstore but there have been times when I've asked their opinion, particularly if I overhear them saying something I'm interested in or if I see them picking up a book I'm considering. Then there are the in-store clerks: I've gotten valuable pointers from store personnel countless times.

    What's the analog to that in the online bookstore? There isn't one. Sure you can read through product reviews but that's not the same as talking realtime with other customers or a clerk.

    Online bookstores have gotten along just fine despite this brick-and-mortar advantage, of course. But if online stores enable this functionality would it lead to an even richer shopping experience? I think so.

    Goodreads screen
    By tapping fellow shoppers and staff for recommendations, online bookstores could supplement their search, purchasing and personalization tools.

    Let's say you're searching your preferred .com for books about one of my favorite topics, the New York Yankees. Wouldn't it be cool if part of the screen listed other shoppers currently browsing the online store who have a history of buying books about the Yankees? They'd appear in a frame just like you see with instant messaging apps and you could initiate a quick chat with any of them about a book you're considering.

    Before you privacy advocates get too wound up I'd like to point out that this service is something you'd have to opt into. If you prefer to shop without chatting with anyone you'd simply leave this service disabled. But if you're interested in talking to others with common interests and would love to get their recommendations this service is for you.

    The service would automatically include your purchase history, excluding items you may not want to make public or just showing topics/areas of interest, not specific titles. Think of it like an overlay of your Goodreads shelf with a chat service, built right into the online bookstore.

    As a consumer I'd love to have access to something like this. As a publisher I'd get even more use out of it. You could do real, live customer research anytime you want to (assuming the right customers are currently logged in).

    Forget about the customers for a moment though and let's think about the in-store clerk. Wouldn't it be cool if there were virtual in-store clerks available to chat with, ready to make a recommendation or answer your questions? You might figure it makes no sense for an online bookstore to add to staff just to have a bunch of subject matter experts online for customer inquiries. I agree, but this is where the brick-and-mortar stores could use it to their advantage ...

    Think about B&N, for example. There are hundreds of stores open from about 9AM ET till about 10PM PT each day. That's 16 hours each day and every store has one or more in-store clerks on the job at any given time. Connect the in-store computers to this service so that the NY clerk who manages the sports section and loves baseball gets notified when I have a general question about Yankees books. The clerk steps over to the computer and joins me in a chat session. The in-store employee now adds value to the online bookstore experience as well.

    I'm just scratching the surface on this idea. How about making it more compelling with badges and credits earned for answering customer questions? Better yet, how about including an affiliate program so that if my recommendation results in a purchase I get a cut of the transaction?

    Then there's the ebook side of this. How about letting me send you an excerpt from a book I'm recommending? If it's a better sample than the one the publisher made available it only increases the likelihood of generating a sale. And if it doesn't, the retailer should be capturing all this information and using it to follow-up with that customer to nudge them again on that book (or other related books).

    I'm convinced social will play a crucial role in the future of search in general and I also see a terrific opportunity for it to add to the online book buying experience. How about you? Would you be interested in something like this if your favorite online bookseller implemented it?

    TOC Frankfurt 2011 — Being held on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2011, TOC Frankfurt will feature a full day of cutting-edge keynotes and panel discussions by key figures in the worlds of publishing and technology.

    Save 100€ off the regular admission price with code TOC2011OR


    November 05 2009

    Three Paradoxes of the Internet Age - Part Two

    Individual perception of increased choice can occur while the overall choice pool is getting smaller

    This gem from Whimsley makes the point - with extensive statistical modeling supporting the argument - that our algorithm-obsessed, long tail merchants are actually depleting the overall choice pool despite the fact that as individuals we may be experiencing a sense of more choice through recommendations engines...

    Online merchants such as Amazon, iTunes and Netflix may stock more items than your local book, CD, or video store, but they are no friend to "niche culture". Internet sharing mechanisms such as YouTube and Google PageRank, which distil the clicks of millions of people into recommendations, may also be promoting an online monoculture. Even word of mouth recommendations such as blogging links may exert a homogenizing pressure and lead to an online culture that is less democratic and less equitable, than offline culture.

    In short, the long tail has gangrene at its extremity - the niche. More disarming is the conclusion that it isn't just the output of our recommendation algorithms that is leading to what the author calls "monopoly populism"and the end of niche culture:
    "The recommender "system" could be anything that tends to build on its own popularity, including word of mouth...Our online experiences are heavily correlated, and we end up with monopoly populism...A "niche", remember, is a protected and hidden recess or cranny, not just another row in a big database. Ecological niches need protection from the surrounding harsh environment if they are to thrive. Simply putting lots of music into a single online iTunes store is no recipe for a broad, niche-friendly culture.

    The network effects that so characterize Internet services are a positive feedback loop where the winners take all (or most). The issue isn't what they bring to the table, it is what they are leaving behind.

    here is a link to yesterday's post: More access to information doesn’t bring people together, often it isolates us.

    Tomorrow: The myth of personal empowerment takes root amidst a massive loss of personal control.

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