Tuesday, January 27, 2004
Network Solutions: The Last Bastion of Consumer Privacy
The former monopolist domain registrar has blocked Google's new "whois" search feature where users could type in a shortcut in Google's search bar and find domain owner information.
Why? Because they want to protect us domain name owners from spammers, see?
"According to NSI's Mitchell, Whois look-ups pose a substantial threat to customers, whose e-mail addresses and phone numbers can easily fall into the wrong hands. In order to thwart abuse, the company has long set a daily cap on the number of times any third-party Web site can query its database. NSI will not specify that number, but Mitchell said that the company places the cap to deter spammers. "
So, it only took them seven years to realize their open database was a personal privacy debacle that needed to be fixed! Anyone who ever bought a domain name from Network Solutions sooner or later became painfully aware that any spammer could download essentially all phone numbers, addresses and other contact info.
So remember folks, buy your domain names at Dotster, GoDaddy or directNIC. But never, ever buy domain names from Network Solutions or Register.com. They still charge $35 for domain names, the same domain names that sell for as little as $7.95 from the little guys.
Isn't it Ironic, Don't You Think?
MSN became the last portal to unveil its own search toolbar. And sure enough, like Google and Yahoo's updated toolbars, the MSN Toolbar features a "Pop-up Guard." (That's a proprietary word to describe a feature that suppresses pop-up ads, in case you were wondering). You can bet there's a trademark coming.
And isn't that feature just rich with irony (yes, I think irony is the right word here, Alanis)? A company that accepts pop-up ads touting software that blocks its own advertisers' pop-up ads. Wow, that's pretty crappy not only to the users who have endured pop-up ads, but also to the advertisers paying Microsoft and its content partners who pay for them. Something's gotta give!
I suppose it's not as crappy as AOL's past shenanigans, an arrogant company that pioneered the pop-up ad by barraging its users with unsolicited ads, whose pitches you had to manually decline just to use the AOL service. Boy, you really have to want it to put up with that transgression. Or, as AOL probably assumed, their novice web surfers didn't know there was A Better Way. AOL finally caved to subscriber protests a few years ago and said they would stop making you jump through such hoops -- and then proceeded to boast about their pop-up ad killer feature in AOL version 8.0.
So that makes it pretty darn clear why just about everyone loves pay-per-click search engine text ads, and why Google is poised to become worth more than AOL ever dreamed after its upcoming IPO.
Monday, January 26, 2004
You Go, Beeb!
It seems the BBC has decided to run a little experiment: buying keywords on Google AdWords about interesting news topics in hopes of generating interest in its news offerings.
We love experiments like this. The keyword inventory is out there. Why not use it?
The Rapid Ryze of Business Networking
Further to the Orkut item: the following data surely must be indicative of something.
I had been a quiet, from-afar admirer of the online business networking concept, but hadn't done much about it after joining Ryze at the bronze level. Over a period of about six months, in the context of a pretty-much dormant account, I received three or so invites to join people's "friend list" on Ryze, and had sent out a couple myself. The profiles I browsed were of some pretty accomplished people, connected with other accomplished people. Most of them were younger than me and had seen more of the world and worked in more cool jobs by age 27 than most people will in a lifetime. Maybe it's all that networking that does it. Anyway, "neat," I thought, and then thought little more of it.
A few days ago, Google came out with -- or allowed itself to be affiliated with, I should say -- Orkut. In keeping with the coy dating-as-business or business-as-dating metaphors evoked by the likes of Friendster, Orkut claims to be an online community that can "expand the circumference" of your "social circle." Now there's a bit of mathematical double-entendre worthy of a would-be Trump intern...
Anyway, the important math is that within 24 hours after Orkut was opened to the public, I received three friendship invites by people who had already taken the trouble to fill in detailed profiles, add pictures, etc. Some already had a dozen friends on their list when I popped in... all with photos... looking at one another like some sort of geeky hypertext Brady Bunch.
The same number of friend-vites in 24 hrs. as I'd received on a competing service in 6 months. Uh, oh! You're going to need more server capacity, Google!
Sunday, January 25, 2004
A Brief History of Social-Networking Sites
First, there was Friendster, the social-networking tool where people who want to meet people can meet people by invitation only (chicken or egg, anyone?). But it wasn't really the first social-networking site. It was really just a copy of some defunct site known as Six Degrees, or whatever it was called. Friendster then begot a bunch of other social-networking sites, which began to beget other types of social sites, such as job-networking sites, where you could turn to find a job from someone you've never met -- only if you got an invitation first (despite the "democratic" pretense, it's still who you know that counts, I guess).
Fast forward to last week. The first social-searching site, dubbed Eurekster (you know, Eureka + Friendster?) jumped into the mosh pit of "socialist" sites. I'm not quite sure what it's good for other than to spy on what your friends are searching for. At least, that's my understanding of it. I could be wrong.
Then, Google, the most original search engine of all time that supposedly tried to buy out Friendster for $30 million but was rebuffed, decided to create its own social-networking site called Orkut (It's named after the brilliant guy at Google who came up with the idea to copy the social-network site copycats). But, it's "beta," which means Google can always say it was an experiment if it goes down in flames.
So there you have it. Social-networking sites are spreading like wildfire. Surely there are millions of people chatting it up, meeting friends of friends and improving their lives and employment situations, but I have yet to meet one of them. In any case, venture capital is flowing to this latest flavor of the month. Will it ever pay off? Who cares, man! Let's party like it's 1999!
But why stop with completely socializing the Web? Maybe this socially themed fad will spread into the real world, a la Agent Smith in the Matrix Reloaded? Gasp! What if healthcare becomes socialized in the United States, the last industrialized country to have universal healthcare for all citizens? Perish the thought...
Monday, January 19, 2004
One to Watch: Topix
I've had some interesting exchanges with Rich Skrenta, ODP co-founder and now co-founder of Topix, a news search service with a particular strength in deep focus on local news and very specific categorized topics.
There seems to be some powerful technology under the hood that may help distinguish this contender from incumbents such as Moreover, Google News, and (in a slightly different vein), CitySearch. Keep your eye on it (or just use it... it really works well!).
Saturday, January 17, 2004
How will Google et al. Seek Permission?
More on the battle for approved, spam-free access to inboxes for targeted ads...
Advertising.com has a deal with, for example, Topica Email Publisher, which may help some publishers increase revenues easily while providing advertisers with targeting opportunities.
There are several email sending services out there who send large volumes of email, and the battle over partnerships like this is sure to heat up soon. If Overture or Google can't wrest such partnerships away from smaller players like Advertising.com, what's next?
Clearly, we could see companies like Yahoo or Google acquiring the Topicas of the world. Google likely won't do it -- too risky to divert that much from their core focus. That leaves Yahoo, and even more likely, companies like FindWhat, Infospace, and Marchex who already seem willing to run themselves like eclectic holding companies (viz. FindWhat's acquisition of shopping cart provider Miva Corp.) -- in the running for such properties.
With once again high-flying Internet stock available to be used as currency, it's about to get busy - and messy - for the accountants and bankers.
More on Email Ads and Google
Traffick readers already knew this, and David Krane of Google confirms that it's already happening. In any case, Lisa Baertlein of Reuters moves the AdWords-in-Email? story forward on a couple of fronts.
One key point in the Reuters article is that Sprinks had been one of the earliest PPC players to try email. Along with ContentSprinks and KeywordSprinks, they served DirectSprinks ads in email, as any subscriber to any About.com Guide newsletter knew. Since Google absorbed, then shut down, Sprinks, we've seen key Sprinks concepts reincarnated at Kanoodle following Kanoodle's hiring of former Sprinks execs including Lance Podell.
What it all likely means is that Google and Overture both have plans to march into the email advertising space in 2004. Given the financial markets' expectations for both Yahoo and Google, they may have little choice but to grab for their share of this revenue.
Further Reuters speculation about Google's relationship to email -- the notion that Google might someday offer free e-mail to compete with Yahoo Mail and Hotmail because they've registered the domain Googlemail.com -- is neither here nor there. More likely, Google simply didn't like the fact that another company had registered this name. Based on a complaint served in July 2002, an arbitrator ruled ["Panel finds in favor of Complainant Google Inc. and against Respondent Dot Name Communications and ORDERS, as a remedy, that the Domain Name be transferred to Google Inc."] that it was confusingly similar to Google's trademark, so Google took ownership of the name.
If Google did roll out an e-mail service, it would have to be something distinctive lest they risk trivializing the Google brand.
For now, this is still a story about advertising; specifically, the battle amongst various generations of agencies, middlemen, and technologists over a large swath of still-up-for-grabs online ad inventory.
Thursday, January 15, 2004
Need More Inventory?
Then you might consider trying Advertising.com's new pay-per-click bidding system that shows ads in a variety of creative formats around the web, including banners.
With a baffling range of such options now being rolled out to take on traditional ad middlemen like Doubleclick and leading PPC services like Google and Overture, it looks like there will be plenty of work for agencies in coordinating media buys. That's slightly ironic considering that the purpose of these ad networks is supposed to be to "roll up" an advertiser's campaign into one tidy package.
In light of this, further consolidation of the myriad players in the PPC field is logical and seems to be assured.
Brand of Blah?
Marketer and site designer Jim Kukral wonders why usability guru Jakob Nielsen doesn't hire a designer for his functional-but-bland website. The answer is simple: brand.
Some sites hire accomplished designers and architects who can integrate brand feel with usability, persuasion, and smooth sales processes. Others eschew the designers; Google famously did so because, in the words of one co-founder, "we're not designers and I don't do HTML." As the world has noticed, a functional design like Google's can effectively tack on design elements (eg. cute cartoons) after the fact anyway.
So that's Jakob's story. His site is him. It's part of his identity. A Purple Cow. Some webmasters even borrow the design and then credit him with it. Moral of the story: design and brand go hand in hand... even the idea of having a really simple, boring design.
Portals. They Mattered Then. They Matter Now.
Kevin Lee explains a bit about why Yahoo's revenues are up a healthy 132 percent over a year ago: they who control the traffic win.
What's this? That Internet traffic and especially navigation became consolidated in a few leading properties (portals) has tremendously far-reaching consequences?
Could it be that the analysts, pundits, and journalists out there (present company excepted) failed to understand that dynamic when they gave Yahoo up for dead (repeatedly between 2000 and 2003)?
So Wired founder and former Industry Standard CEO John Battelle is writing a book about search. It's not nearly as interesting as the cultural anthropology of donuts, but if anyone can bring life to a topic focusing on the various strange subspecies of technogeeks and street hustlers who can't get enough info about search engines, it's surely Battelle.
What kind of world do we live in where, on his blog, a former famous CEO is now using the name "Danny" in the same way that others in the search industry do... no last name needed?
It's a bit of a strange thing to watch unfold. Those of us who started tiny and focused heavily on one corner of the tech world -- online navigation -- never imagined that someday, we'd be running along more or less parallel lines (being asked to publish or speak about, blogging to a small but loyal audience, etc., all on the user's passion for and the business of being seen in Google, Yahoo, etc.) as folks who, when we came on the scene, were considered reverentially as something akin to royalty. I mean, Wired. It seemed like big stuff at the time, even though deep down, we thought most anyone with the same connections probably could have produced the same breathless chronicles of the brave new wired future.
I say "never imagined" that we'd gain any kind of foothold with a website that consisted of a few pages of tutorials and articles... but then again, I admit that (after rejecting the name SearchEngineWatchWatch.com) in christening the site Traffick (then: The Guide to Portals... now: Minding the Search Engines' Business... same deal, more or less), it did cross my mind that the names "Wired" and "Traffick" were similar.
In 2000, give or take, Internet royalty gave way to mortality, in the publishing world as elsewhere (by all means, read James Ledbetter's book on the "short, absurd life of the Industry Standard,") but it was the noisy ascent that lured dreamers of a lesser stature (such as your humble Traffick co-founders) into dipping a toe into this world.
It's a world we continue to watch with some awe, and it's been berry, berry good to us, in ways we never might have expected. It's actually energizing to see someone of Battelle's talents and intellect zeroing in on this industry. News and views in any niche can become routinized.
John, we could use you as CEO of Traffick.com, but at present we're short on VC largesse. How does $1/yr. sound to start? We can offer a generous option package.
Wednesday, January 14, 2004
So I'm in the card store yesterday and I see this whole section full of super-tactile, hippy-dippy greeting cards. Apparently hippies don't have many birthdays. Most of the cards are aimed at more generalized life phenomena such as "To My Son, I Love You."
Could it be? Yes! It's Blue Mountain Arts! Remember, those folks who had the little card business, had their son design a website, and before long, were selling their e-cards business for three-quarters-of-a-billion-dollars-worth of inflated Excite stock?
Go figure. To a billion dollars and back, and after the dust settles, the result seems to be considerably wider distribution of those distinctive textured paper cards? Way out, man. But can they do a little animated reindeer dance? I thought not. Not just yet, anyway.
Tuesday, January 13, 2004
New Traffick Article:
Froogle Reaches One-Year Milestone
By Adam Eisner - 1/13/2004
A year after Google launched Froogle, its beta shopping search engine, both the notoriety and the quality of the product have improved. And just like last year, Google recently made some key changes in quiet fashion during the holiday season – most notably integrating Froogle search results into Google’s.
Saturday, January 10, 2004
MSN Makes Personalized Portals Interesting Again
As much as I have disparaged MSN as a viable portal in the past, I've got to hand it to Microsoft with their revamp this week of the MSN portal. Microsoft has completely re-architected MSN (on the .Net platform, it seems), and it takes full advantage of the more sophisticated tools available in 2004.
The MSN home page is impressive enough, with its elegant Flash billboard displaying stories of the day in vivid photography. But, where MSN really shines is the My MSN page, where user's can personalize their portal experience.
I'm not convinced that MSN has the same depth of content that My Yahoo boasts, but it certainly does make up for any content shortfall -- either real or perceived -- with a far superior presentation of content modules. You can even drag them around the page!
Another interesting development was the announcement also this week that eBay would join with MSN to bring My eBay inside a content module inside My MSN. That's right -- you'll be able to view and manage your bidding activities inside an integrated content module on another portal. I don't know exactly what kind of technology is behind this capability, but I'm guessing that it's another example of web services finally showing us what they can do.
All in all, I give Microsoft credit for taking portal technology to the next level. None of this would have been possible two years ago. Now, I'm hoping that Yahoo follows MSN's lead and renovates their outdated portal platform.
Thursday, January 08, 2004
Kanoodle Expands Distribution
The addition of former Sprinks GM Lance Podell is already paying dividends for Kanoodle. They've just reached a contextual sponsored listings agreement with CBS Marketwatch. CBS Marketwatch was one of Sprinks' higher-profile distribution partners.
Tuesday, January 06, 2004
Google Hires Investment Banks for IPO
Google came one step closer to going public yesterday when Bloomberg reported that the search engine had hired two investment banks to arrange its IPO.
Both Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. have been hired to help the company with the process, which often involves several investment banks. The company could go public as early as springtime.
According to the article, the fees generated from the IPO could be as much as $280 million.
Monday, January 05, 2004
Jupiter Analyst Calls AdSense a 'House of Cards'
Has Nate Elliott been drinking the same water I do? (Actually, I've switched to a mellower brand now, but others seem to be moving in the opposite direction.) The Jupiter Research analyst just wrote a scathing indictment of Google AdSense, in which he lambastes Google for not allowing advertisers to bid separately on contextual ads. These ads, as advertisers began charging in earnest last August (galvanized by a presentation by Brad Byrd at Search Engine Strategies), are said to have a lower ROI than the regular search listings. Elliott calls for Google to do what Overture just did not 24 hours ago: to decouple the bids on contextual ads from the bids on search network ads (see previous blog entry).
But this isn't necessarily so, in my opinion. As a group, the "content targeting" ads definitely seem to underperform, and a separate bidding system would be a welcomed by most of our clients. But these placements shouldn't be viewed as a class. Some content targeting ads are more "navigational" than others (I believe there is a continuum of how content is presented, and some is more like search, and some demands much higher attention levels and CTR's than others). Thus a low bid on content targeting might prevent the savvy advertiser's ads from showing up on a really prestigious publication that converts well.
Elliott is quite right on the general point, but in the context of a column with AdSense ads hovering above his photo on the ClickZ site and a big Google sponsor banner to his left -- to say nothing of Jupiter's typically understated delivery -- Elliott writes some pretty strong stuff. That's a mite surprising considering that the point could have been made by simply saying "Google, too, should decouple bids on contextual ads." Elliott argues, in part:
Google must create a separate marketplace for bidding on AdSense ads. Contextual advertising will be a very large business. At appropriate prices it can be a very effective advertising tool. Forcing advertisers to pay inflated prices can only stunt the business's growth and hurt Google's reputation as a fair and friendly company.
Wow! What about Overture's forcing advertisers to endure low-quality and/or unethical partner traffic over the years (such at that emanating from Gator)? Anyone who's been observing knows that Google's been considerably more willing to offer opt-outs on its various ad distribution features than their competition has. I guess this just goes to show that when you're an industry leader, your missteps get magnified as customers begin to set the bar very high.
A small part of me suspects that Elliott already knows something and that Google will roll out the me-too feature tomorrow. Another part says that the challenge is much greater than that, and that Google will want to go one or two better than Overture on this front, so it will take months before we see a more powerful set of content targeting features for AdWords advertisers.
I do believe Google will listen to Elliott's (and Byrd's, and my) points about the content targeting program. In some ways it feels like deja vu all over again. I recall posting this rant on December 3, 2002, back when Google was still imposting artificially high "special minimums" on keywords in certain industries:
That skewing of the marketplace (artificially and arbitrarily setting prices high, rather than leaving them low to attract early entrants and letting the auction process mark prices up) does Google no favors in the long run, and hurts advertisers in the short run, because it deters them from giving Google AdWords a fair shake to see if it performs well.
Real estate agents know this principle well (just ask any home buyer who recently bid 15% over market on a home). In a hot market, instead of trying to squeeze people by setting a prohibitive price, you generate action on a property by setting it a bit lower. When all those bidders get to see what a great property it is, they start fighting amongst themselves, mind games take over, and the seller makes out like a bandit. IMHO, Google should create action on its keyword properties by dropping the artificial keyword bid minimums immediately. With all minimums set at the true minimum of five cents, some advertisers will get ridiculous bargains and ridiculously good ROI from their ads, which will create positive word of mouth.
It did take Google some time to "study" the issue, but soon enough, after tinkering with lowering them, they dropped the minimums entirely.
It's highly unlikely that progress with the top pay-per-click companies' feature sets is frozen in time. Many more small enhancements will be announced by all of them in the coming year. And hey, there are still some pretty good bargains in the pay-per-click ad space if you look closely.
Friday, January 02, 2004
Overture "Decouples" Bids on Contextual Ads
Overture just sent a note to advertisers which included the following announcement:
"For the first time, you will be able to bid separately on Content Match keywords, decoupling them from your Pay-for-Performance bids on the same terms. This gives you greater control of your spend and return-on-investment on this product."
Hats off to Overture. Ads are worth more or less to advertisers depending on where they appear. Allowing advertisers to adjust bids separately to maximize ROI from contextual ads is the right thing to do.
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