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Monday, May 31, 2004

Taking Stock of Gmail

Most people lucky enough to be test driving Gmail have probably formed their opinions about Google's radical webmail service by now. I know I have.

After my laptop died a few weeks ago, I was forced to use a series of other computers for two weeks. Because I needed to be able to access my work e-mail from multiple computers, the perfect solution was to temporarily redirect all of my work-related e-mails to my Gmail account. Thus, I was a heavy user of Gmail for a few weeks and was really able to get up close and personal with it.

Here's what I liked:

1. Threaded conversations - It takes a while to get accustomed to this different way of viewing e-mail threads, but it really makes more sense when compared to a series of disconnected e-mail replies in Outlook.

2. Labels and stars - I still haven't used these features very efficiently, but I like their functionality.

3. Lightning-fast search - Searching through mail in Yahoo Mail or Outlook can be arduously slow. Although I only have a few thousand e-mails for Gmail to pore through, it seems extremely fast and accurate.

4. Automatic checking for new mail - Finally, a webmail service gets new mail without me having to trifle with extraneous button clicking!

5. Address Autocomplete - As opposed to Yahoo's clunky feature, this one works like a charm. Just start typing a few letters, and Gmail matches a name or address you've sent mail to.

Here's what I didn't like:

1. Default settings - I couldn't figure out how to change many of the default settings that I didn't like. For example, there are no "reply" links at the top of the message. And, the brief message headers are hidden by default. You have to click "more options" to see them. I can't think of any benefit to hiding them by default since I almost always look at the "to" address, "from" address, and so on.

2. Message filters - It seemed to take more effort than necessary to create and manage filters.

3. Receiving attachments - Attachment downloading seemed a bit buggy to me. A client sent me an Excel spreadsheet, and even though there was a paper clip icon in the inbox view, I couldn't see the actual attachment in message view.

4. HTML e-mail messages - I remember reading something about this on EmailSherpa.com, I think. Most HTML e-mail newsletters get shredded by Gmail, for whatever reason. I like the fact that Gmail strips out non-standard fonts, but there should be some sort of compromise on advanced e-mail formats.

If I had to give Gmail a letter rating, I would give it a straight B. It is certainly a breath of fresh air, but Google obviously has some tune-ups to make.

Posted by Cory Kleinschmidt




Monday, May 24, 2004

Dotomi Won't Fly

Top three reasons why flavor-of-the-week ad tech Dotomi will not work:

  • It's push technology slyly using the "permission" lingo

  • Sounds too much like "Inktomi"

  • Sounds too much like "Dot Bomb"

Three reasons why it might work anyway:

  • X% of the population actually want to be distracted

  • Founded by the ICQ founder - say no more

  • This business just loves to prove us wrong!

Posted by Andrew Goodman




Saturday, May 22, 2004

Will Google's Seach Application Be Successful?

CNET's Stefanie Olsen seems to doubt it. She cites Microsoft's overwhelming ownership of the desktop and past failed efforts by desktop search applications as the reason why Google's bold invasion of Microsoft's turf could very well be doomed to failure.

Now, while I appreciate and understand her reasoning, I'm not sure I agree with her conclusions. Microsoft has owned the PC desktop for decades, and there have been plenty of successful applications, even after Microsoft has co-opted their features and integrated them into Windows.

For example, Symantec's pcAnywhere seems to be going strong despite the fact that Microsoft integrated a remote control for PCs into Windows XP in 2001. The same goes for WinZip. You just have to remember that Microsoft doesn't always implement the same feature the same way as a competitor who has a different vision and a compelling business model. Another example is Google's upcoming Gmail. It may be just another webmail service, but having evaluated it for a few weeks now, I can safely say it is very unlike both Yahoo Mail and Hotmail (which is owned by Microsoft).

I believe that the old adage of "build it (better) and they will come" holds true here. Google's "Puffin" will be a solid success. And not just because the next version of Windows probably won't hit shelves for two more years.

Posted by Cory Kleinschmidt




Wednesday, May 19, 2004

A Lotta Huffin' and Puffin' for Nuffin'? Or a Showdown with Microsoft?

Hi, Google here. How's it going? That's a nice-looking desktop you've got there. Mind if I have a look around?

With increasing signs that Google is planning to challenge Microsoft for control of a large portion of the computer user's daily experience, it might be interesting to harken back to our inaugural column about the portal wars from 1999.

At that time, Google wasn't even on the radar, although it had gained some early notice as a cute new search technology.

Microsoft surely was a contender for portal supremacy, and not just because it owned MSN, but because it wanted to control pretty much everything about your daily process and workflow, as it had for what seemed like forever. We all know how that's gone. Yes, on the surface, Microsoft is still on top of the technology world. But as a result, most of us have suffered from horribly inefficient lives due to their inability to execute on promises to create new versions of their products that will fix what's broken about the daily computer experience. Whether it's Linux, or Apple, or an alternative browser, or a congenital fear of Outlook Express, the anything-but-Microsoft movement seems to be gaining steam.

Back in 1999-2000, we had high hopes here that Yahoo would be a visionary company that would perhaps make the "portable desktop" a reality. They got halfway there, and may still make it now that GMail is showing them how it's done.

So essentially it's now looking like a three-way race for deep control of user habits, with AOL increasingly looking like an also-ran fourth and Lycos hilariously but irrelevantly stepping up with their free 1GB of email storage, just for old-times', it's-fun-to-offer-more-for-less-like-it's-1999, sake. No longer is it just about a number of "media companies" battling for who has the nicest looking home page, or the most compelling fantasy football game, or, dare we say, the biggest inbox. It's about the BIG picture. Which of the major contenders here will control the agenda; which can see into the future? (Not Lycos, obviously.)

But the old boring questions about who has the best email, calendar, search, message board service, etc. really are kind of interesting. Who can knit all this stuff together properly? Yahoo can come close, but they're not quite a technology company, remember, they're a "media company." Close isn't bad -- it still means you can be a multi-billion-dollar brand.

So now it looks to some like it's shaping up to be a two-way race. A race for what, we're not quite sure, but a two-way race nonetheless. Microsoft is all about knitting things together, however obnoxiously. And let's face it, about half the planet is about to take GMail for a spin, and from that platform other features (calendar/PIM, etc.) can grow. That's good both for users (GMail is fast and has clever features) and Google (if it's cool enough people will pay for a premium version, so this makes Google less dependent on ads).

Not too long after we naturally ignored Google in our initial review of the portal contenders of 1999, it raced past others like AltaVista to become the best search engine. Four years after that, it has finally stopped arguing with reporters who have insisted that with so many diverse services, it was becoming a "portal." And now, perhaps, it wants to be even more than that.

What was that old canard? That search isn't "sticky"? Ha, ha. Turns out it was, and is.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




Monday, May 17, 2004

How Not to Do It

Clicking through Yahoo News for my requisite morning Brad Pitt story, I noticed a small banner ad for Gomez Advisors, "The Internet Performance Measurement Company": "download our latest white paper."

The landing page isn't exactly the most persuasive. Who ya gonna call?

I'll leave the Yahoo ad sales team to explain to us why this appeared at the bottom of an entertainment news article.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




Friday, May 14, 2004

This is a Test of the Blogger Commenting System

Readers with eagle eyes may notice that we have temporarily disabled our Haloscan comments while we test out Blogger's new comments feature. Please try it out and let us know what you think!

Posted by Cory Kleinschmidt




It's All Fun and Games Until Someone Loses Their Rankings

So pustule-ware artists WhenU have had their search rankings, um, "re-evaluated" by Google and Yahoo because they were using cloaking techniques in an attempt to generate higher rankings for reprinted articles that gave favorable press to the company. Put simply, it's called spamming the engines, and you shouldn't do it. No matter how much the client pays you.

WhenU places the blame on the "New York search optimization firm" that did the work.

A question and a comment... (1) wonder who that company is? I suppose there are a lot of New York search engine optmization firms; (2) don't blame a contractor for doing work that you obviously approved of.

Too many companies seeking higher rankings in search engines are willing to look the other way at the tactics used to achieve them. Sorry, it's your responsibility if you fail to do due diligence on your vendor's tactics.

In most cases, though, it's being done with the full complicity of the client. Undoubtedly that's the case here.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




About Those Google Desktop Rumors

There have been various rumblings in different publications speculating that Google will target the desktop to take the battle for search dominance straight to Microsoft's home turf.

I'm not sure what this might entail, but think about this for a minute: What if Google launched a full-blown web browser, complete with all sorts of Google-only features built in? My guess is that Google could swipe at least 25% of the browser market share within one year.

Perhaps the Google Toolbar and Deskbar are merely tests for larger things to come? What do you think?

Posted by Cory Kleinschmidt




From the "Day Late, Dollar Short" Department

With its Windows XP Service Pack 2, Microsoft is finally going to rectify weaknesses in its operating system that allow unscrupulous jerks to install spyware (a.k.a. drive-by downloads) on unsuspecting users' PCs: Microsoft to Battle Spyware (Wired News).

Expected to be released this summer, the Windows XP Service Pack 2 update will contain no fewer than five new security features designed to ward off the unauthorized installation of software via the Internet, according to Microsoft officials. The company hopes the features will not only quell the growing number of complaints from consumers about Windows XP's susceptibility to spyware, but will also save businesses millions of dollars in tech support calls.

It's such a coincidence because Andrew and I were just discussing the fact that Microsoft could virtually shut down spyware if it would just get off its collective butt and fix Windows to prevent this kind of crap. This spyware nonsense just should not happen, and I blame Microsoft for wasting the time of probably millions of people who have been affected by spyware.

They've essentially sat on the sidelines for years and allowed this practice to persist without lifting a finger to help. It's about time they cleaned up their own mess.

Posted by Cory Kleinschmidt




All the News... And then Some

Thursday was a busy day for search engine news. CNET's done a nice job summarizing the day's news here: Net search wars heat up.

Let's see, we have Yahoo upping its free mail accounts to 100 megs with paid users getting virtually unlimited storage (ouch, Gmail!); Google launching Google Groups 2, a competitor to Yahoo Groups; Yahoo stealing CNN from Google; Google's debuting of image ads in AdSense; and more. I have to say it's a bit much to take in!

Posted by Cory Kleinschmidt




Thursday, May 13, 2004

Google. Banners. In the Same Sentence.

This is a very significant announcement, since, as most are aware, Google doesn't really do pictures and flashy stuff. Until recently, it's been pretty much all about text.

Yes. As of now, Google's into the rich media game. [Here's a look at the available creative formats now available to AdWords content-targeting advertisers.]

But let's get serious. Although this will shake up the media buying and selling business just as PPC text listings already have, it's actually somewhat evolutionary, and won't come as a surprise to anyone who's looked at the competitive realities of the online advertising business.

We've already seen Google's beta of Froogle. Pictures of products. We've seen what they do to spruce up the site on holidays. Cute drawings. We've seen Sergey and Larry in nearly every business magazine. Photos, photos, and more photos. And we've seen little graphics on the site to denote Google News items (stylized newspaper icons, etc.)

This tells me two things.

First, Google's "beliefs" and "principles" are adhered to more dogmatically on Google Search than elsewhere in their suite of products and services. This is as much for positioning and clarity purposes as it is about not "doing evil." (There's nothing evil about a graphic, just unstrategic and unwelcomed by search engine users.) In short, they're brilliant marketers. This became quite obvious to me when I observed the development of the Adsense program for content publishers. Google simply did not apply the same standards to that implementation as they did to the AdWords program itself. No minimum relevancy cutoff, no particular emphasis on the user experience outside of some vague sense that text was less obtrusive than a banner. Obtrusiveness was something that Google clearly cared more about vis-a-vis Google's own site than what happened on content partner sites.

After all, publishers need to make their own business decisions about how to sell media on their own sites. The existing AdSense program gave them few options, and trapped publishers in an orthodox, singular approach to listings which limited them to a smaller-than-optimal pool of potential advertisers.

Second, then, it proves that there were major shortcomings all along to the content targeting program. It was pretty good for users, but not much good to many publishers who still have plenty of advertisers who'd love to see their rich media banners up there. Some advertisers apparently still believe in branding by spending as much money as possible on campaigns that make an emotional impact. It shouldn't be the publisher's job to talk them out of that.

Bottom line: this is a step forward for Google's revenue picture and an addition of much-needed choice for publishers. It's a huge threat to some of the online ad brokers who currently trade in rich media. Some users may feel it is a step backward. So, you can expect the preponderance of early press reports to focus on the "critics" of the new program, claiming that it's a "step backward" for Google, when in fact it's quite the opposite. You might even hear some say that it's "evil." Since the "not doing evil" thing was actually balderdash all along -- more about clarity in setting the tone for Google Search and what users could expect from it (as mentioned above, arguably more marketing-driven than principled) -- this seems more like a much-needed injection of market choices for publishers and advertisers. They don't have to show the banners, and if the revenues produced by the rich media aren't robust, they won't. No one's holding a gun to their heads.

I'll change my tune in a second, of course, if they start to sell pop-ups.

As buyers of the ads on behalf of clients, we still have a wish list for the AdSense program. We still don't see the ability to control our ad delivery by publisher, by category, by channel, etc. When Google finally gets that figured out, they and their publishers are going to profit even more, because larger advertisers can and will outbid one another just to have their banner ads appear prominently on particular sites. This auction model, so profitable already for major players in the PPC space, is still only half-baked. There is still room for plenty of growth.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Yahoo WebRank Toolbar: A Bad Idea Whose Time Has Come?

Danny Sullivan is missed at SES Toronto (get well soon everybody), but according to our sources, has been making time to keep up with his usual busy writing schedule this week. And his past writings still come up on ClickZ when it's their time.

Today's ClickZ article expresses Danny's clear misgivings about the idea of a Yahoo "PageRank-tool-bar-like" feature. Webmasters spent far too much time obsessing about the PageRank meter in the Google Toolbar. (This article may be a republished version of something that previously appeared on Search Engine Watch.)

One thing about it: if you don't download the Yahoo Companion, or simply remove it due to desktop overload as I did some time ago, then you'll never see the page ranking meter even if Yahoo does proceed with it. How many toolbars can one person use?

Like Danny, I'm also very curious as to whether Microsoft will come along with a similar thing. As well, Netscape and Alexa (now owned by Amazon) are amongst the long list of other companies who have vied for attention in this "browsing companion that gives you info about the sites you're on" (how's that for mid-SES coherence?) market. There should be new ideas coming out here that might really help users quickly judge the worth or relevancy of pages.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




Friday, May 07, 2004

Blindsided Google Responds to Gmail Privacy Concerns

The login page of Gmail now sports two prominent links:

A few words about privacy and Gmail.

Read Gmail reviews and comments.

This, of course, comes as a result of Google's sluggish response to the media's overblown concerns about Gmail's supposed privacy intrusions. As you probably know, Google's upcoming webmail service pays for itself with AdSense ads that match the content of the e-mail being read by the user. The media had a heyday as they always do with privacy issues while totally missing the point, and Google didn't respond very quickly to quell privacy advocates' fears.

Perhaps only search engine marketers understand that there's nothing serious to worry about, that this contextual-ad practice is nothing new and that it's a fair trade for 1 gig of e-mail storage?

Posted by Cory Kleinschmidt




Sunday, May 02, 2004

Market Efficiency: Can Financial Markets Learn from EBay?

Fund manager (and former chairman of a division of E*TRADE) Doug Steiner, in an article in this month's ROB Magazine, recounts how he and his partner went ga-ga over EBay and Google AdWords when they looked high and low for great examples that might be used to spur reform in the financial markets.

After reviewing the sorry state of real financial markets in living up to the market ideal of transparency in pricing and non-favoritism in rules and policies, Steiner looks at EBay and AdWords, concluding that "like eBay, Google provides a venue, transparency and customer traffic. ... So, the fittest and boldest are surviving on-line by minimizing price spreads and maximizing transparency and efficiency. Why is it that financial markets are only accepting this idea under duress?"

Of course, this isn't quite true. A recent letter to the editor of Business 2.0 zeroed in on precisely this point, criticizing the pro-EBay bias in a recent Biz 2.0 article which spoke of this level playing field. The correspondent, a project manager for Sears.com, assured readers that EBay was in no way a level playing field, insofar as he had not only met with EBay's VP of Sales as well as its CEO, but also had ongoing access to tech support, sales strategy support, and a range of perks and advantages that didn't accrue to "Joe Schmoe selling his 14.4 drill." Similarly, although the rules and policies of AdWords apply equally to 99.5% of advertisers, I don't see it written down anywhere that they must apply to all advertisers. This is why Google's careful not to set too many rules that are too easy to pin down. Rather, they base everything (such as minimum clickthrough rates and pricing for AdSense) on "proprietary formulas." Part of the reason for this may be so that they can more comfortably just toss the rulebook out the window for their top twenty or so revenue generators.

But the playing field is still pretty darn level, and as a result, it's unleashing a flood of more efficient trade, be this in Royal Daulton figurines or the buying and selling of advertising. No wonder EBay + Google are worth a good $40-50 billion. If anyone's wondering what might be around the corner for companies such as these and the Internet sector in general: it's pretty easy to boil it down. Unleashing massive efficiencies in industries where massive inefficiencies still exist is something that will keep happening. Google might just pick an industry and have a go at it. As Larry Page commented in Google's recent unorthodox IPO filing: "Do not be surprised if we place smaller bets in areas that seem very speculative or even strange." Or, perhaps, bigger bets in very familiar areas like, say, the financial markets themselves(!) where the only strange thing is why some Stanford Ph.D.'s haven't taken them over yet.

Steiner concludes with:

"Next month, I'll continue with a goofy, yet all-too-true, comparison of shopping on-line for advice from psychics versus buying a standardized commodity that is traded in the billions of dollars every day: Canadian bonds. We'll see what dealers and regulators are doing--or not doing--to get you the best price."

LOL! You rock, Doug!

Posted by Andrew Goodman




Other Free Email Services Already Do "Creepy" GMail Things, Finds Tillinghast

MarketingVOX reports that Hotmail and Yahoo Mail may already be targeting banner ads to email content. Google's popularity may make it the "target du jour," but ad targeting technology is here to stay. In the final analysis, free web-based email is a voluntary program, like Air Miles. You give something to get something. Many consumers understand that, although it's probably the case that disclosure should be better. And P.S. - no one is reading your email. Unless, of course, the government is.

Since Yahoo Mail and Hotmail users quickly forgot about security and privacy flaps that arose over the past few years, one assumes that this brouhaha will fade into the background and GMail, too, will become just a part of the furniture.

When it comes to privacy, though, opinion seems to be increasingly sharply divided. It's possible, I think, that the online privacy debate may become more heated as users discover the extent of data collection and spying that has become commonplace at firms that are considered (and consider themselves) respectable. The past few days have been a minor personal hell for me after finding myself unable to remove a certain piece of nasty "malware" and a few of its "adware friends" picked up as a result of a drive-by download (while having my personal firewall temporarily disabled). Manual registry editing didn't do the full trick, but using a handy piece of software (won't name the vendor as I don't want to seem like I'm telling this story just to endorse software), I was able to get a full list of all the questionable files on my computer and in my Windows registry. (McAfee Virus Scan had not been able to find all of these items, and wasn't successful in cleaning or quarantining some of them.) Finally, after three days of having text ad links embedded on top of articles I was reading, new browser windows opening and my keyboard locking up, and even big banners for spyware remover replacing the "real" banners on Yahoo, I got everything straightened out.

To my surprise, the anti-adware scan showed that there were far more of the nefarious files lurking on my system than just the ones I'd recently inherited. In addition to some really bad-sounding ones I didn't know I had, spyware files from Claria and data miners from Alexa were far more extensive than I would have expected, and in the Alexa case, were on my computer even though I'd long ago uninstalled the Alexa toolbar. If this took me aback -- a user who can tell the difference between many of these vendors and recognize which ones are relatively non-evil -- it's not a stretch to imagine a great many Internet users becoming more savvy about security while simultaneously having zero concern for the "rights of advertisers," and thus developing a "no-tolerance" mentality when it comes to this stuff. I suppose that will mean that advertisers will have to get used to spotty data, and online companies that rely completely on ad revenue will always be smart to diversify into fee-based revenues or transaction-based models as well.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




Saturday, May 01, 2004

Revenge of the F'd Companies

BusinessWeek has a satisfying cover story this week (E-Biz Strikes Again!) that contends that the surviving "dot coms (doesn't that term sound so... derogatory?) are not only up off the mat, but they're landing serious punches on other industries ripe for conquering, like jewelry (Amazon just opened a jewelry store), hotel reservations, telecom, and others. Get this:

"Nearly 60% of the remaining public Internet companies made money in the fourth quarter of last year, based on standard accounting measurements. Those profits are luring investors back to the market. Venture-capital investments topped $5 billion in the first quarter for the first time in nearly two years, while 14 Net companies are registered to go public."

Sixty percent is a darn impressive number. Well, I hate to say we told you so, but... We told you so!

I've probably said this before, but I have to say again that it feels damn good to prove the following people wrong (these idiots are in no particular order):

Naysayers; F'd Company website creators; nattering nabobs of negativism at media outlets who wrote gleeful stories ridiculing Internet companies; stupid investors; stupid venture capitalists; and, um, if I'm forgetting anyone -- you know who you are.

Posted by Cory Kleinschmidt




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