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Saturday, November 13, 2004

So What's Your Favorite FireFox Extension?

As you probably know by now, FireFox is the browser that's hotter than Pac-Man fever. One of the best features of FireFox is the dozens of extensions that expand the functionality of this already nimble browser.

My favorite extension thus far is called McSearch Preview, although I'm not sure why it's called that. This extension inserts website thumbnails alongside of the search results of all major engines. I never thought this capability would be very useful, but I find it surprisingly so.

What's your favorite extension? Please include the download link and a brief explanation of why you like it!

Posted by Cory | | | Permalink

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Thursday, November 11, 2004

As Promised, MSN Releases Sincere Search

Tried the new MSN Search today, as you, dear reader, surely have done by now, too.

Capsule summary...

Is it good? Yes.

Is it cool? Yes.

Is it better than Google Search? In some ways, no. In other, important, ways: YES.

Using the product feels like a bit of a trip back in time, to when AltaVista came out with Raging Search. Or perhaps, much earlier, to a less cluttered, less spammy time, when information wanted to be found.

The MSN product clearly aims high, right at where search enthusiasts live, offering advanced features right out of the gate without making the interface confusing for the average user. Unlike AltaVista Raging Search, they haven't used the term "search enthusiast market" in their publicity. (Then again, what publicity? It seems to amount to leaking news on purpose to mainstream news outlets, feeding info to John Battelle, and posting cryptic comments on this blog.)

Ultimately, you're dead if you literally go directly after the elite as your market, but you do need to impress the elite and avoid talking down to the mass market if you hope to maintain credibility with an emerging generation of "always on" young users.

Google (and MSN is following the same route) targeted the elite as a PR strategy, but won over the mass market with ease of use. MSN may similarly win over the mass market because they understand that this market is growing ever more sophisticated. You can't get away with marketing to people who barely know how to turn on their computer. If Tara and Chris and Gary like it, chances are that more users might give it a whirl too. As of this writing, neither Tara Calishain nor Gary Price have had much to say yet. Chris Sherman's first assessment seemed cautiously lukewarm.

When playing with this new toy I could have thought I heard strains of the Moonglows' 1954 classic, Sincerely, drifting through the air. I harkened back to a simpler time, when search engine indexes weren't riddled with spam. When they didn't expect the user to be a complete dumbass (as we certainly saw with previous versions of MSN Search). When features were pleasing and information was plentiful.

Trying my Osler.com examples from last night, I found certain areas where MSN Search demonstrated clear superiority over Google Search. Power users have long lamented the fact that Google shows only a tiny proportion of which sites "link to" any given site when you use the link:www.example.com nomenclature. For Osler.com, Google displays 91 inbound links. MSN Search gives you the Fully Monty: it says 2,300. (The present site shows around 1,000 inbounds on Google Search; MSN Search gives us credit for 11,500. Now that's comprehensive.)

The sample search for "Douglas Rienzo" served 63 results on MSN Search. The top three results were journal articles or mentions; the fourth was Rienzo's bio at Osler.com. Google found 41 results. The disparity may be neither here nor there. A closer analysis would be required. Google's ranking had put Rienzo's bio at the very top.

With personalization sliders enabled on MSN Search to privilege freshness of page, Rienzo's bio falls to the eleventh result on the page, from fourth. It never rises higher than fourth no matter how "static" the setting.

Clearly, neither ranking is "correct." Users who know that they're looking for fresh articles would of their own accord adjust the setting. Those looking for static biographical pages on company websites might use different settings. All the more important that Microsoft is previewing this personalization technology. It's available by clicking on the "search builder link" from the MSN Search Beta home page, and then clicking on "results ranking." Up pops the interface with three "sliders," exactly the one that Gary Price stumbled on earlier.

The "personalization sliders" were a thrill to use for this search enthusiast. It may sound like a small thing, but setting them in my own way allowed some typically hard-to-find pages to bubble up to the first and second pages of the SERP's. But this feature does not yet go far enough. Since one of the key benefits of such personalization will be to stamp out spam, other variables should be controllable to really put the advanced searcher in the driver's seat. If a common spam technique du jour is high keyword density or stuffing keywords into h2 heading tags, then the savvy user might want to have a suite of settings which include discounting such techniques. Such a user might want to cycle through three or four searches quickly to see if they can uncover different information on the first couple pages of SERP's. Kind of like personalized metasearch - searching the same index, but with different algorithmic weightings.

As the closing bars of "Sincerely" continued to waft eerily through the room it morphed into harsh cover versions of the same song, and a sad premonition overcame me. This is as good as it's going to get for MSN Search. We wish them all the best, because a search tool this good will help a lot of users find the information they need. But MSN's index has yet to be put to the acid test; has yet to be pummelled with a systematic stream of spam. And the very reason they've come up with certain features (like better disclosure of all inbound links) is because they're way behind in the race, so they have to give us what we actually want, instead of what some corporate strategist thinks we should want.

The participation of this feisty "upstart" in the search wars certainly does put a strange spin on things. Wasn't it always Microsoft that sat back and refused to update its products because they had a virtual monopoly? While Google's pace of innovation has been breathtaking, they've resisted making certain changes or releasing certain information in order to avoid tipping off the competition -- or worse, simply because they can. So has Google already become like the Microsoft of search (not, as Battelle correctly insists, its Netscape)? Have they become fat, happy, and arrogant? A little company from Redmond hopes so.

MSN's sincere little search engine should blow the lid off and cause Google to do a little bit of soul-searching about how its core product serves an ever-more-sophisticated user. But the MSN Search technology will have to be very good if it's to get through even the first year of its life without being shown up as just another easily spammable wannabe.

Posted by Andrew | | | Permalink

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Billions and Billions Crawled

Google attempts to mute Microsoft's buzz by announcing that its index has jumped to a colossal eight billion pages. The company isn't offering many details beyond pointing out that they "continue to innovate on the crawling side of the business," as one official put it. Certainly there are a number of obvious ways that Google could be finding additional pages, given its various overlapping products (eg. conversion tracking, Blogger, AdSense, toolbar, Froogle). Perhaps there are some non-obvious technical advances involved as well in following links on dynamic sites, etc.

Assuming the pages in it are useful, a huge increase in index size is a happy event. Some time ago I conferred with a large law firm, Osler, Hoskin, and Harcourt (osler.com). They had trouble getting all the pages on their highly dynamic site indexed. As much as one might want to scold the company for having such a hard-to-spider site, the more pages Google can find *without* them having to rework their site, the better. And better for the consumer. This site is full of articles and resources, as well as listings of lawyers and their bios.

Today, I noticed that on key queries valued by the company, like "business law canada," osler.com now ranks #3 (behind some public-domain and library resources), and finally ahead of the tiny immigration law company from upstate New York that used to routinely rank first on this query.

Looking for Douglas Rienzo, a partner in the Osler firm? Two years ago, when I searched for particular associates and partners, the only Google mentions of their names were pointing anywhere but the Osler site. Now, the top results are bios that appear on Osler.com, with contact info. This is neither here nor there, but it does prove that a lot more important pages on the massive Osler site got spidered and well-treated by Googlebot.

It's impossible to gauge search quality on just a couple of example searches. But it is heartening to see that on some queries, like "business law canada" -- to say nothing of "Douglas Rienzo" -- the results are now better, not worse, than they were two years ago.

Chris Sherman wonders, does this increase in index size portend the release of new search features or perhaps a significant rejigging of the ranking algorithm?

Can I be first to dub the next cataclysmic Google re-index? We're at about the one-year anniversary of the algorithmic imbroglio that was "Florida."

Let's call the next big one "Ohio."

Posted by Andrew | | | Permalink

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Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Is it News? Microsoft Search to Exit Vapor-Land Tomorrow

Word seems to have leaked out quite handily to every major media outlet: Microsoft will launch its new search index tomorrow.

Let's review the progress of this "news" story:
  • Many search enthusiasts have already tried out the preview version of the product.
  • Anonymous Microsoft supporters (their IP addresses resolve to a subterranean facility near Dayton, Ohio) have posted comments on this blog for several months of the "look out baby, here it comes!" variety.
  • Research expert Gary Price stumbled on a page he evidently wasn't supposed to see, displaying advanced features such as "personalization sliders" that seem to outgun Google's beta personalization. This is a topic we've reported on previously in this space. The page was quickly removed. Will such advanced features be public yet? Or ever?
  • Today's news is telling us that there will be news about this tomorrow.
As with most other things Microsoft, when Microsoft's new search engine launches, it won't be news. The question is, will it be any good? Will it be disruptive? Or just good enough? And most importantly: will you use it?

Posted by Andrew | | | Permalink

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Google Dips Toe in 'Reseller' Channel

Google has taken the first step towards acknowledging the role of webmasters, Search Engine Marketing consultancies (SEM's), and agencies in spreading the gospel about its AdWords paid search advertising program. The company has announced a new program dubbed Google Advertising Professionals, which offers new tools and resources as well as a training and certification component.

"We've opened the door to programmatically recognizing the ecosystem," said Sukhinder Singh, Google's General Manager of Local Search and Third-Party Partnerships.

The most welcome development for those managing multiple accounts will be a new interface called My Client Center, offering SEM's the ability to oversee all accounts under their management with a single login. (No billing flow-through will be necessary to access client accounts, just permission from the client to do so.)

The program will be heavy on learning. Google will offer training modules and tips for increasing one's AdWords campaign management business. In addition, PPC advertising professionals will be given the chance to take an exam in order to become qualified Google Advertising Professionals. Those who pass with a grade of 75% or more will qualify to display a Google Advertising Professionals logo. The time-limited exam will cost $50 and "is intended to be rigorous," emphasizes Singh. Additional hurdles required before being permitted to display the logo include 90 days of experience using the My Client Center interface, and a modest $1,000 total spent within the interface.

To those who might think of this initiative as aimed at mainly small webmasters, Singh points out that the programs will benefit professionals who work at companies of varying sizes. Moreover, since this is just the first step in Google's now-formalized approach to encouraging and training what amount to resellers, Singh agrees that "there is the opportunity to differentiate further," adding more features and different streams in future. "For some time now, Google has recognized that there have been thousands of third parties doing this [promoting AdWords to their clients] organically on their own," says Singh.

This recognition has not yet translated into a formal triage of small-timers vs. big spenders, it seems, even if one is aware that big spenders have important informal relationships with Google salesforces. For now, Google's initiative seems intended to ensure basic competence amongst those advocating PPC marketing, while giving them some resources to better do their jobs. These include tips on what to charge for professional services. This handy primer does come off a bit funny given the high percentage of Googlers who are much more intimately familiar with the world of salary and options than they are with the much grittier realities of open marketplace competition. Maybe it's a good thing that Google doesn't get too esoteric with discussions of the business models of your average webmaster, as that reality could be sobering enough to make one want to come up with a better business idea, like, say, starting a new search engine.

If Google Advertising Professionals are tantamount to resellers, formalized recognition in the form of reseller commissions can't come too soon. For now, Google has no stated plans to offer such commissions, but one assumes that could change.

Posted by Andrew | | | Permalink

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Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Rising Online Ad Tide Lifts Many Boats... Even Microsoft's!

Steve Ballmer says Microsoft will double its online ad revenue in five years. Might we suggest they pick up the pace.

Posted by Andrew | | | Permalink

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CNN Covers FireFox

You know something is gaining serious public mindshare when it's covered in mainstream news sites. Now that FireFox has officially released version 1.0, big news outlets like CNN are taking note.

Of course, that might be because CNN is owned by Time Warner, which owns Nestcape, which owned Mozilla, which created FireFox. But, I'm willing to bet that FireFox 1.0 is big enough news that other major news sources will soon be covering it.

Posted by Cory | | | Permalink

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