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Friday, January 21, 2005

Ticker Shock from Yahoo

Now Yahoo gets a deskbar of sorts, with the My Yahoo Ticker beta (thanks John B.). Um, can someone remind me again why anyone would want an annoying animated ticker distracting you while you work / shop / read / listen / watch?

The only redeeming quality I see in this is the RSS newsreading capability. But the real estate is so tiny that it's useless. I'm convinced the only good way to get RSS feeds is as a sidebar to the browser or e-mail client.

Posted by Cory | | | Permalink

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A Method to Google's Madness?

In a lengthy LA Times piece titled "Free-for-All Could Pay Off for Google" (via Yahoo News), reporter Chris Gaither goes in-depth about Google's acquisition and relaunch of Picasa, the photo organizer software.

A key section of the article helps explain Google's surprise acquisition, now in version 2.0, which is offered as a free download:
Picasa didn't have the luxury of giving away its software when it was part of Idealab, the high-tech incubator in Pasadena that initially funded the photo services company. To Idealab Chief Executive Bill Gross, Picasa seems like one piece in Google's grand plan to house people's e-mail, photos and other digital files in addition to launching their Web searches.

"I think Google wants to be the place where you store your life," he said.

"What they're doing is brilliant. They are using each of their services to promote their other services very well."
I wouldn't argue with that assessment. I will admit to being puzzled by this move when it happened last year, but as Google's strategy begins to unfold in the public arena, it does make sense.

It's fun to see Google explore these unconventional areas to see if they can bring the "Google experience" to other online features besides search and e-mail. But, they really must be careful not to take their eye off the ball in terms of search. Microsoft will stop at nothing to destroy Google and will be watching closely for sings of weakness.

On a related note, Danny recently wrote an epic comparison of Picasa 2.0 and Adobe Photo Manager. If you're a recreational photographer, you might be interested.

Posted by Cory | | | Permalink

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Thursday, January 20, 2005

MS Office Outlook Live - That's What I'm Talkin' About

If you're a webmail user (and if you're online, you probably are), you might be interested in Microsoft's announcement today of Microsoft Office Outlook Live.

It seems what MS has done is combine the rich-client functionality of Outlook with the portability and flexibility of web-based e-mail, in this case Hotmail. Pricing is almost 60 bucks a year, but is discounted 25% until April 19, 2005.

It's hard to believe that it's taken the portals so long to introduce this hybrid e-mail service. I've been praying for Yahoo to do something like this for years. I find the online webmail interface to be extremely limiting, even after several impressive upgrades at Yahoo Mail and Hotmail in years past.

Yahoo fans got taste of such functionality when Yahoo last year snapped up Oddpost, "a web-based email and news aggregation application that combines the rich, responsive interface of a desktop program like Outlook with the available-from-anywhere convenience of a web mail service like Hotmail," according to the Oddpost FAQ page.

And before that acquisition, webmail users lucky enough to get invited to try Gmail got another glimpse of a better webmail solution. I'm still not sold enough on Gmail to make the switch fully from Yahoo Mail, but I'm waiting for Google to introduce external POP3 account access, and then I just might.

But, if Yahoo relaunches its mail service this year using Oddpost technology, as promised on July 9, 2004, I might never switch... unless, of course, Google creates their own hybrid service. Oh, my head hurts.

Posted by Cory | | | Permalink

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MSN Search Interface Leaves Much to be Desired

Yes, the new MSN Search is here, and it's a Big Story. But, if Microsoft truly wants to build a better search engine than Google, it needs to work on a few things. Specifically:

1. The Search home page. What's with the giant blue box surrounding the keyword search textbox and buttons? It makes you feel constricted or something. I appreciate the attempt to make the page clean and simple, but I would lose the blue box. It doesn't seem harmonious with the overall page.

And because they chose the same blue box as the header on the search results pages, the links to other search types (Web, Images, etc.) are white. That's a bit disorienting to me. It doesn't feel right.

2. The "Next" button. It's more difficult to navigate the search results pages than it should be because MSN's "Next" button is just a simple text link, tucked away in the bottom right-hand corner. It should be more prominent and easier to click.

3. The Search Results link color. The blue they've chosen is a bit hard to read, I think.

4. The Search Results font size. Too. Damn. Big. And I never thought I'd say this, but the sponsored link font size is too small. I'm betting MSN would see a higher clickthrough rate on their PPC ads if the font size there matched the font size of the natural results.

5. Search Relevancy. I don't why other industry watchers are saying that MSN's new search results seem just as relevant as Google's. I disagree. Maybe I'm just too accustomed to what Google tells me is relevant, but in some limited tests, I've found that MSN's relevancy is considerably lower than Google's and even Yahoo's.

Despite my critiques, I'm actually impressed by MSN's new search engine. I'm sure Microsoft will continue improving it as time goes by. And who knows, maybe MSN's introduction of the Search Builder will help spur Google to jazz up its aging interface as well!

Posted by Cory | | | Permalink

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Monday, January 17, 2005

Outta Beta

Different rumors and pre-announcements are leaking onto various forums. And news reports speak of a "growing proportion" of MSN Search users being defaulted to the beta of the "new MSN Search," which many of us enthusiasts have been using for awhile now.

Sources inside the company confirm that the full switchover will take place tomorrow, with "90-95%" of users soon being taken to the new search, with 100% not long off.

Unsurprisingly, word has it that Microsoft has tested various configurations with a view to revenue maximization. But more importantly, it's fairly obvious (according to observers who have looked at things like job postings) that Microsoft's pay-per-click results, currently served by Overture, will simply be taken in-house.

But what might happen in the interim? I'd guess that Microsoft will keep the page relatively uncluttered this year and even deliberately take a hit on revenues from PPC, since a big share of those revenues would be going to competitor Yahoo, which owns Overture. Indeed, I'd expect Microsoft to keep a pretty clean search results page for some time to come in a bid to grab market share from chief rivals Google and Yahoo.

Posted by Andrew | | | Permalink

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Firefox 2.0 by End of 2005 offers up some scuttlebut about future vesions of Firefox:
Now that Firefox is firmly establishing itself in the browser market (download graph), we can look forward to subsequent milestone releases by the Mozilla Foundation. Firefox 1.1 (Dubbed "Deer Park") is slated for release in March of this year, and will be the end result of the post 1.0 "Aviary Branch - Trunk" merge. Mozilla also plans to release 2 additional milestone builds of Firefox before 2006. (With Fx 1.5 "The Ocho", and "Firefox 2" being released near year end).

On a related note, Firefox keeps popping up in major media sources left and right these days. The latest is BusinessWeek, with an analysis piece called "Mozilla Is Gaining on Godzilla." Heh, cute!
... analysts say Firefox could have an outsize impact on the Net's future. If Mozilla and the other non-Microsoft browser outfits hold their own or gain share, the 15% of Web sites that aren't completely compatible with non-Microsoft browsers will come under pressure to design their sites to open Net standards. That way, Microsoft won't be able to control how content is presented on the Web.

It would also create opportunities for competitors to sell rival Net software - since Microsoft wouldn't be able to take advantage of the links between Windows and its Net programs. "We're not out to get Microsoft," says Mozilla Foundation President Mitchell Baker. "Our goal is to offer people a better experience so the Web remains open, and people actually have a choice."

Posted by Cory | | | Permalink

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Google and Dark Fiber: There's Something Eerily Logical About This

For any major portal-like entity to guarantee continued access to consumers' daily information consumption patterns, they'll have to worry about the potential to be blocked by various telecommunications and broadcast monopolies around the world. I've firmly believed this for some time.

Did you know, for example, that Microsoft has stakes in cable companies all around the world? That story has been mostly, er, buried for the past six years or so. Once in awhile, you hear about Microsoft and TV, but probably not nearly as often as warranted.

There are a lot of permutations to work out in any attempt to project who'll wind up gaining an unfair foothold in the future digital lifestyle. Regulatory issues, business partnerships, and the patterns of huge capital investments need to be examined.

Not real surprising, then, that a company like Google has calculated these permutations and realized that they'll need to become something akin to a telco if they want us to be still Googling happily along in 2010.

On a related note: maybe AOL and those proprietary BBS guys from the 1980's were onto something. Private subscription services (in a much more sophisticated form) seem likely to make a comeback in a few years, but again, determining the patterns (and whether to call it wireless media, television, Internet, satellite lifestyle management, or what) is best left to those who make their living building these systems. It certainly won't be the "Internet with training wheels." Quite the opposite.

Posted by Andrew | | | Permalink

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AdSense Faces Extinction -- Unless Google Shakes Things Up

When Google's now-ubiquitous text-link advertising program debuted in 2003, it was widely praised as the ultimate advertising solution for highly trafficked sites that were hard to monetize, especially blogs.

Blogs are typically run by a single person or a small team of people, most of whom do not have the experience or ability to manage advertising programs. Therefore, AdSense opened a world to revenue for dedicated site owners who knew how to generate traffic but not dollars for their work. Webmasters would simply open an account, run the ad wizard, paste in a few lines of JavaScript code into their sites, and bingo! -- instant ads on your site. The ads displayed were perfect because they were similar to the content on said site.

It was the best of both worlds. And it worked pretty well for a while.

But cracks are starting to show in the AdSense facade because of:
1. Fickle interest in Google's uneven AdWords content targeting, which provides the source of the text ads, as well as the risk of PPC fraud that is causing many AdWords advertisers to shut off content targeting

2. The combination of lower clickthrough rates and fluctuating equivalent CPMs

3. Expanded options for publishers that didn't exist or weren't mature when AdSense arrived.

Then there are the questions of accountability on Google's part. How do you know that you're getting full credit for your clicks? How do you know that unscrupulous publishers aren't committing PPC fraud on your ads?

I don't have a full body of evidence to support this suspicion yet, but the signs are growing.

Many publishers are concluding that the risk of AdSense isn't worth it and realizing they can operate their own text-link advertising programs and generate far more revenue per month than with AdSense.

Then there are the many affiliate options (oh, the horror!). For popular blog sites, there's also the burgeoning BlogAds network. It's as easy to operate as AdSense and much more targeted and lucrative than AdSense. Another one to bear watching is RSSAds, which hasn't launched its service yet, but promises to allow publishers to monetize their RSS feeds. It's sort of an AdSense for RSS feeds.

Maybe Google's looking at something similar on their own. They'd be silly not to. Given Google's stated mission of blanketing online content with content-targeted ads, you can bet they will be watching that outfit closely.

It's too soon to tell if these factors will seriously threaten AdSense, but Google must surely be concerned. But even if Google can solve these problems, the concept itself still might not be the right solution.

For sites with a loyal following of repeat visitors, AdSense proves less useful to them over time, especially if the ads are essentially unchanged for long periods of time. Visitors will simply tune the ads out if they get too familiar with them.

All of this leads me to believe that AdSense is not long for the world -- unless Google makes major changes that restore the perception early on that AdSense was worth it for publishers. Here are some things Google can do:
1. Increase the revenue share to publishers

2. Provide more accountability so publishers know if they're getting the value they need

3. Provide more transparency and allow publishers to more easily "hack" AdSense to their advantage

4. Offer more customization options for the ad creative, such as randomizing the order or putting limits on how many times an ad can appear

5. For advertisers, make it even more compelling to choose content targeting. AdSense doesn't work unless there is a large enough stable of ads to display.

I'm not ready to write AdSense's obituary just yet. I'm confident that Google will acknowledge these risks and take steps to rectify them before too many publishers flee.

Posted by Cory | | | Permalink

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