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May 13 2011

Search Notes: Trying to understand Facebook's whisper campaign

Earlier this week, it seemed clear that the top news in the world of search would be the announcements that came out of Google I/O. But yesterday came word that Facebook had launched a "whisper" campaign against Google. While juicy gossip doesn't completely trump shiny gadgets, it certainly holds its own.

Does Facebook know Google runs a search engine?

Yesterday, the Daily Beast told the story of how Facebook had hired a PR firm to pitch anti-Google stories to reporters and bloggers. Facebook wanted the world to be just as outraged as they are about Google's invasion of our privacy — wait, what?

It seems that the crux of Facebook's argument was that Google organizes information about people and makes it easily accessible through its search results. (I'm fairly sure Google isn't keeping this particular feature secret.)

Facebook focused on Google's "Social Circle" results. In a statement, Facebook said:

We wanted third parties to verify that people did not approve of the collection and use of information from their accounts on Facebook and other services for inclusion in Google Social Circles — just as Facebook did not approve of use or collection for this purpose.

The PR firm Facebook hired had previously sent emails trying to drum up reporter interest. Accusations included:

Google's robots scour the web for people's social connections on different websites. These connections are then stored in a collection people's connections on different websites. This collection is then mined, creating connections between people on different websites, that those people never intended and can't control.

Google Social Circles automatically enables people to trace their contacts' connections and profile information by crawling and scraping the sites you and your contacts use, like Twitter, MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, Yelp, Yahoo and many others, likely in direct violation of the Terms of Service for those sites, unless those sites have partnered with Google on this "service," something else users ought to be aware of.

Google is a search engine. Its entire purpose is to enable users of the Internet to navigate the web's content in a structured way. Any site that doesn't want to make its content available to search engines can simply indicate as such in a robots.txt file. Or pages can be made even more private by placing them behind a login.

Facebook's CTO and COO both previously worked at Google, so one assumes they have an understanding of how search engines work.

In 2007, Facebook decided they were pretty interested in having Google's robots "scour" their profile pages so those pages would be easily available to Google searchers (and in turn Facebook could get more traffic).

Danny Sullivan over at Search Engine Land goes through the details of exactly what Google is indexing and how, but the bottom line is that search engines index the public web. Social networks and other sites have an established way to opt out.

The Chromebook arrives

The Samsung 5 3G Chromebook
The Samsung 5 3G Chromebook.

And now, on to the gadgets! At Google I/O this week, Google announced its new Chrome laptops. Part tablet and part computer, the Chromebooks are instant-on, 3G -enabled, and they have tons of battery life. The drawback? You can't run traditional client applications on them. This is cleverly noted as a benefit in the Chromebook announcement:

At the core of each Chromebook is the Chrome web browser. The web has millions of applications and billions of users. Trying a new application or sharing it with friends is as easy as clicking a link. A world of information can be searched instantly and developers can embed and mash-up applications to create new products and services. The web is on just about every computing device made, from phones to TVs, and has the broadest reach of any platform. With HTML5 and other open standards, web applications will soon be able to do anything traditional applications can do, and more.

Maybe so, but as of right now, Google Docs just doesn't offer the things I need to do in Excel and Powerpoint.

Google music and movies

Google's goal of "organizing the world's information and making it universally accessible" has made its way into movies and music. You can now rent movies on YouTube (3,000 titles for now) and Google is finally launching its music product, although at the moment you can only upload your collection and stream it.

Beyond text search

Google GogglesThe future of search, in the short term, is about moving beyond textual input (the search box) and textual results (web pages). On the input side, Google has launched a new version of Google Goggles (which uses visual input). I love the idea of Goggles, which lets you point at things to search for information about them.

On the output side, Google has launched a kind of street view for the interiors of stores.

One day, this will all be connected. As I'm walking down the street and see a girl wearing a cute skirt, I'll be able to point my phone at it and find a store that has the skirt hanging on a rack for sale. Ah, the future.


March 10 2011

Search Notes: The future is mobile. And self-driving cars

In the search world, the last week has been all about mobile.

Foursquare 3.0

FoursquareAt SMX West on Tuesday, Foursquare's Tristan Walker gave a keynote where he talked about expanding Foursquare as a customer loyalty and acquisition platform for business. To that end, they've launched new social and engagement features (just in time for SXSW!).

How is this related to search? Here's the key sentence from Foursquare's 3.0 announcement:

For years we've wanted to build a recommendation engine for the real world by turning all the check-ins and tips we've seen from you, your friends, and the larger foursquare community into personalized recommendations.

Foursquare's new "explore" tab lets you search for anything you want (from "coffee" to "80s music") and provides results based on all the information Foursquare has at its disposal, including places your friends have visited and the time of day.

Google is trying to get in this space with Latitude and Hotpot. After all, how can Google possibly hope to offer the same quality search results for "wifi coffee" without data about what kinds of coffee houses you and your friends frequent most often? This is personalization based on overall behavior, not just online behavior, and it's both fascinating and creepy to think about the logical next steps.

Unfortunately for Google, they missed a huge opportunity to get in on this space early when they acquired Dodgeball and effectively killed it, causing the founders to leave Google and start Foursquare.

Bing is also investing in mobile/local search, the latest being "local deals" on iPhone and Android (although not yet on Windows mobile).

Where 2.0: 2011, being held April 19-21 in Santa Clara, Calif., will explore the intersection of location technologies and trends in software development, business strategies, and marketing.

Save 25% on registration with the code WHR11RAD

Continued growth in mobile

According to discussion from a recent local online advertising conference, mobile advertising could become the dominant form of online advertising by 2015. About 5% of paid search is currently mobile, and that number could double by year's end. Google has about 98% mobile search share in the United States and 97% of mobile search spend.

Google says mobile search accounts for 15% of their total searches, distributed as follows:

  • 30% - restaurants
  • 17% - autos
  • 16% - consumer electronics
  • 15% - finance and insurance
  • 15% - beauty and personal

Continued discussion of Google's "content farm" update

As discussed last week, Google's algorithm change impacted 12% of queries and the talk about it has not died down. I wrote a diagnostic guide about analyzing data and creating an action plan and Google opened a thread in their discussion forum to get feedback from site owners.

Self-driving cars!

OK, maybe this isn't really search, except that it's coming from Google, but it's self-driving cars! We live in the future!

Search Engine Land's Danny Sullivan took some video at TED of the cars in action, including some footage inside an actual self-driving car.

Surely flying cars are next.

Got news?

News tips are always welcome, so please send them along.


March 03 2011

Startups get social with browser extensions

HeyStaksWajam.pngAs Google and Bing try to increase reach in a battle over who displays what social elements in search results, search engine add-ons are emerging to bring all social network results together.

Start-up HeyStaks Technologies launched its social search Firefox extension March 2 at the DEMO Spring 2011 conference. The extension works in tandem with established engines, displaying social results in a section above the regular search results. The product is built around "staks," which are described in a company press release:

Users can create "search staks," collections of the best Web pages from a group of users on a particular topic; these "staks" can be made public and easily shared with colleagues and friends via email, Twitter, etc., or kept private or shared on an invite-only basis.

The product provides an effective solution for users who share a common goal or shared interest, allowing them to search the web in a collaborative fashion using mainstream search engines, to make their searches much more effective by keeping the content relevance of results high.

Example of a HeyStak stak
An example of a HeyStak "search stak"

Another startup, Wajam, also recently launched a search extension. Wajam scours networks like Facebook, Twitter and Delicious and results are displayed horizontally across the top of search results.

Example of a Wajam result
A Wajam search result

The Wajam site says they're currently "oversubscribed," but several reviewers have mentioned if you send them a tweet (@wajam) requesting a subscription, or like them on Facebook, the wait isn't too long.

HeyStaks is available as a Firefox add-on and an iPhone app. The Wajam extension is available for Firefox, Chrome, Safari and Internet Explorer. Apps for the iPhone and Android are pending.


February 25 2011

Smaller search engines tap social platforms

BuzzFeed.pngAs the major search engines work to integrate social components into their search algorithms, it's interesting to also see niche engines tapping those same social networks for targeted results.

BuzzFeed, for example, recently launched its Pop Culture Search Engine to search pop-culture memes. It searches in a viral sort of way — the more "buzz" a story gets on social media platforms, the more likely it is to appear in the results. They also use this traffic indicator as a basis for isolating quality content.

Foodily is another targeted engine. It aggregates recipes from around the web and integrates the information with your friends' comments, recommendations, tips and recipes from Facebook. This approach creates more of a community environment for foodies, setting it apart from straight-up recipe search engines such as those on, Epicurious, or Food & Wine. Foodily can also search for recipes that don't contain certain ingredients. If you're allergic to garlic or out of milk, this feature might come in handy. (Note: Google's new Recipe View also allows you to select ingredients.)

February 23 2011

Social search gets closer to home

As search engines like Google and Bing scramble to best one another in developing algorithms to allow social media results to appear in internet searches, another company has taken the social search concept a little more personally.


Greplin has just come out of beta testing — and landed $4 million in additional venture capital from Sequoia Capital. The service searches social media closer to home: your Gmail, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google Docs and Calendar, Twitter and Dropbox accounts.

As we connect with more and more people on more and more platforms, this sort of search can come in handy. If one were to, say, misplace a link from one's editor (I will not confirm nor deny) and that link could have been sent over any one of the above communication portals, it could take quite a long time to manually hunt it down. Having a search tool to locate it in seconds (it didn't take more than two seconds, actually) can bring a whole new level of efficiency to the work day.

Greplin's basic service is free, but there are fee-based upgrades that offer more indexing space and access to additional search parameters, such as Google Apps, Yammer and Evernote.

5 assumptions about social search

As any comp sci major knows, data is nothing more than a pile of facts. It takes meaning to turn data into useful, meaningful, actionable information.

And applying meaning to a pile of data is exactly what's behind the recent partnership between Facebook and Microsoft's Bing. The idea is to use social information to select the most relevant search results from the staggering data pile that is the Internet.

Instead of assigning relevance to a given web page the old-fashioned way — because of, say, how many hits it received, or how many times your search phrase occurs in its tags, or how much the page's owner paid to have it appear at the top of the search result stack — the Facebook-Bing partnership aims to use a new relevance factor: What your friends like.

The reasoning goes like this: Most of us turn to our friends for recommendations when we want to hire a plumber or buy tickets to a play. By tapping into the websites our Facebook friends have surfed to and "Liked," Facebook and Microsoft hope to be able to serve up search results that are more meaningful. Rating content based on what other people think isn't new, of course. Amazon has been doing it for years. The thing that makes social search different isn't just that it attempts to rate content — it's that it attempts to rate content based on the opinions of people you know and trust.

And therein lies the rub.

Social search makes five assumptions that may or may not turn out to be accurate:

1. That "Liking" something is relevant to all (or at least most) searches

If you're researching a mobile phone purchase, you might care what your pals think. If you're looking for the most reliable, comprehensive site for prescription drug interactions, "relevance" probably means something other than popularity.

2. That a single click can convey what someone actually meant when they "Liked" a site

The popularity of the "Like" button (currently on an estimated 2 million web pages) is due in large part to its ease of use. Just a quick click gives people the emotional satisfaction of getting to weigh in on something, of getting to make their voice heard. Trouble is, clicking doesn't really tell you a whole lot. Did your pal like the site design? The product being hawked on the site? The company? The picture of the celebrity endorser next to the "Like" button? Or did his cat jump on his desk and step on the mouse by accident? There's no way to know.

3. That you trust the people who clicked "Like" (or even know them)

It's possible to create multiple Facebook accounts even though they violate the terms of service, and some users are quite indiscriminate about accepting friend requests. As such, there’s a chance that some of your Facebook friends are duplicates — and that others are folks you’ve never met. Both of these factors can diminish the relevance of recommendations.

4. That the people companies say "Liked" something actually did click a "Like" button

If we're extending the real-world scenario ("I care what my ex-workout-buddy thinks about that pair of shoes I want to buy") we could do worse than consider the real-world case of the aluminum-siding salesman who insists that all of your friends and neighbors are already buying ("Come on, you're the last holdout on your block!"). In other words, it's not inconceivable that companies who pay a little extra may turn out to be "Liked" just a little more often by your Facebook pals than sites who don't pony up. After all, how many of us are going to contact all of our friends to confirm?

5. That people won't get weirded out by having their Facebook and web-surfing worlds collide in such a visible way

It's been a long time since industry pundits (and Facebook members) were up in arms over Connect, a Facebook technology that shared member information with third-party websites on an opt-out basis. The fact is that Facebook's partnership with Bing (and other websites) does the same potentially scary thing: It melds what you and your friends do on Facebook with everything else you and your friends do on the web. The jury's still out on whether the average Facebook member realizes that what he "Likes" today could show up in his boss' search results tomorrow — and if he'll care.

Whether or not social search turns out to be useful for the average web user, there's no question that it will be successful for Facebook — which is perhaps more to the point. Facebook's deal with Bing virtually guarantees mass adoption of the "Like" button. If getting a good search ranking requires webmasters to get their visitors to click their "Like" button, that's exactly what they'll do. And that's great news for Facebook, whether or not Joe Searcher ends up better off.


February 22 2011

Search Notes: Paid links don't pay off

Americans conducted 18.2 billions searches in December 210. We use search to research products, get advice about our health, find local businesses, and track down government resources. Search is a ubiquitous part of our lives, technology, and our business strategies.

With that in mind, I'll be offering up a weekly roundup of what's happening in the world of search. I'll primarily focus on unpaid (organic) search, not advertising — both what's happening with the search engines and with searcher behavior.

That said, here's what recently caught my eye in the search space.

J.C. Penney and Forbes run afoul of Google's guidelines

The core focus of Google's search team is to provide the most relevant and useful results possible to searchers. This effort is complex and includes all kinds of things, such as working to store a comprehensive index of the web, understanding searcher intent from just a few words in a query, and using a variety of signals to figure out what pages web users like the most.

One such value signal has historically been the linking structure of the web. A page that a lot of sites link to might be a pretty useful page. Understandably, links in ads are excluded from this value signal.

Google has published guidelines (as has Bing) that basically say that if sites try to manipulate the signals that Google uses in ranking sites, Google might remove those sites from their index or reduce their rankings.

Some of these tactics are obvious. We've all come across web spam — pages with no value at all — and it makes sense that search engines would remove these pages entirely. But then there are sites that are legitimate businesses and do have value. Google takes action when they find these sites are trying to manipulate the algorithms in order to preserve the integrity of the search results.

The New York Times published a story last weekend that outlined how seemed to suspiciously rank number one in Google for every possible query. On closer investigation, it was found that the site had a lot of external links that had been brokered through a paid link network. These weren't advertising links. They were links intended to artificially increase PageRank (Google's calculation of value from the web's linking structure).

JC Penney search result
Screenshot of the JCPenney's organic search results.

Google took action and plummeted in the search rankings. J.C. Penney promptly fired their search engine optimization agency. In a piece on Search Engine Land, I detailed what happened, and how to avoid a similar fate.

Just as that was cooling down, Forbes outed itself for being on the other side of a link scheme. was selling links for PageRank (rather than advertising) at least as far back as 2007. Google took action; Forbes fixed the situation. But then last week, someone from Forbes posted in the Google webmaster discussion forum that they'd received a notification from Google (Google sometimes sends these notifications to verified owners in webmaster tools) about "artificial or unnatural links on your site pointing to other sites that could be intended to manipulate PageRank." He posted because he was stumped as to what those links might be. TechCrunch soon pointed them out and Matt Cutts, head of webspam at Google, posted in the forum that the links identified in the TechCrunch article did indeed violate Google's guidelines as they apparently were links coming from a paid link network (different than the one used to buy links to, but a similar idea). Cutts said:

If I could recommend a single post that discusses our policies against buying/selling links that pass PageRank, I would recommend [this]. That post discusses why we think paid links that pass PageRank are a bad idea and gives a timeline with pointers to posts that we've done in the past about this topic.

Cutts recommended that Forbes remove those paid links and then file a reconsideration request with Google.

Forbes then posted a statement on their own site that "there was a period of time in the past when Forbes did sell links through a partner. This is no longer the case, and we began removing those links late last year." They noted that some links still exist on the site, and that was an oversight.

The lesson? If you operate a business online and rely on search traffic as a primary acquisition method, make sure you have a good handle on everything that goes into operating a business online, including the guidelines published by the major search engines. If you hire an agency to help with this, make sure that agency is one that follows the guidelines. And be patient. Success from unpaid search may take longer when you don't use tricks to manipulate the search algorithms. The upside is that the search traffic you acquire won't be at risk of drying up at any moment.

Bing gains slight market share, redesign its toolbar

According to comScore, Bing went from 12% to 13.1% search market share in January (and Google dropped from 66.6% to 65.5%). All Bing-powered searches (including Yahoo), are at 24.4% share and Google-powered searches are at 69.4%. This is good news for Microsoft, who has been investing substantial resources in search.

Bing toolbar
Screenshot of the Bing toolbar

Bing also launched a new version of its toolbar that features dropdown elements that make it more like a portal than a toolbar. You can keep up with your stocks, get weather information, play games, and see Facebook activity right from the toolbar.

Bing's reasons for investing in such a fancy toolbar are likely two-fold. If you use the toolbar a lot, you're likely to search directly from it, and that means you're not using Google to search. And as became clear if you watched the Colbert Report a couple of weeks ago, search engines use toolbar data to gain insight on how people search. One data point Bing uses is clickstream information, includingwhat searchers click on when using Google. The more clickstream data Bing has, the more informed their search results can be.

Chrome's personal blocklist lets you block sites from Google search results

The community at Hacker News has been asking for a way to block sites from appearing in search results, and Google has delivered. Matt Cutts posted there that the feature was a direct result of a request from Hacker News. Just install the Chrome extension, click "block URL" under any search result, and you'll never see that page again.

Google adds more social signals to search results

If you specify your social networks in your Google profile, your search results will now show when those you're connected to have shared that content. For instance, pages that those you follow on Twitter have shared in tweets may get a rankings boost in your search results. This makes your search results not only more social, but also more personalized. It's yet another way that we all see different results.

Here's some more coverage on Google's inclusion of social signals:

Upload your own data to Google Public Data Explorer

Google's Public Data Explorer lets you access, analyze, and visualize large data sets. Now you can upload data sets of your own for sharing and visualization. Google is also looking for partnerships with "official providers" of public data for the directory. Anyone who is working with large datasets should check this out, as Google has made it easy to work with and it provides some great visualizations.

Got news?

News tips are always welcome, so please send them along.

November 29 2010

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