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Monday, July 30, 2007

NowPublic Now Really Rolling

Vancouver-based NowPublic, a "crowdsourced" news site, got ink today for closing a hefty round of funding. Among other things, this is a healthy rebound morale-wise for the so-called "citizen journalism" sector (not that NowPublic wants to call itself that, but others have to have a name for the sector) in the wake of BackFence suspending operations.

Good summary here at Searchviews.

As some of us were musing about the future of media over the past couple of years, Tippett and co. were actually doing something about it. The reason the trend will succeed in a general sense is in keeping with many of the trends we're seeing: old media can't and won't show us everything. Admittedly, some of what we want to see (uncovered parts of golf tournaments; concerts; odd angles and candid shots of famous people) might have a certain illegal "bootleg" or intrusive/trivial "paparazzi" quality to it, but the point is, it's a trend that's tough to hold back. What we're seeing now is only the tip of the iceberg.

So as usual ZDNet's Donna Bogatin (cited in the Searchviews piece) is on the wrong side of an issue! Most of what's on NowPublic, she says, is pretty much just me-too reactions by bloggers to events already covered by major news organizations. Hmm. That's certainly not what we'd want to see, granted, but it's the huge potential that seems to have investors and media players so interested/worried.

Harkening back to some media studies I remember: the big problem with television news was always this notion that what "existed" in the world was only what they chose to show. The media "searchlight" only shone on a few events, and the rest was darkness. In contrast to everything that's going on, that was in reality more like a pinprick of light.

And then we woke up one day, and boy did that seem lame when there are a billion camera phones.

Surprisingly, the advent of 24-hour cable news did very little to improve on that situation. Drawn-out rehashes of the same stories *still* leaves most of the news unexamined and most of the images unshown.

The power of the photojournalist has been plain since Eddie Adams' famous photo from the Vietnam war resonated back in America in 1968 (shown below).


Is it more or less likely that such imagery will come to light if hundreds of thousands of "pro-am" photojournalists are involved in "global blanket coverage"? More likely, of course. It even distributes the risk. If there are a million "journalists," good luck kidnapping a few "key journalists" if you're one of the thugs of the world.

NowPublic is aiming high - as it should. And it's interesting to note that this could be compatible with what traditional media offer - or at least with their wish to improve. No one can watch all that stuff, so there still needs to be an interplay between a massive supply of news, editorial judgment, and variegated demand.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




LookSmart's "We're Not Dead Yet" Act Attracts Few Spectators

Somewhat submerged in the news about Wikia acquiring Grub to move forward with an open-source-flavored search project to rival Google is the news that Google lost the contextual ad contract with Wikipedia powered sites to non-rival LookSmart, who now offers a contextual ad product.

Household name, publicly traded, with at least a few million dollars left to burn, and now with a toe in the door of a multibillion dollar business long chased by the top players. You might think: if a startup wanted a quick fast track towards further development of its upstart ad network, why not engineer a reverse takeover of LookSmart, change the name of the company, restructure, and let the good times roll? If nothing else, LOOK still has a sizeable database of advertisers. It probably has some handy buildings and lease agreements that figure to be underutilized unless someone figures something out soon.

Evidently, this kind of deal isn't imminent, as no one is making any suggestions of anything of the sort. Even with bubbling news, LOOK strains to trade 100,000 shares in a day. The company releases Q2 earnings later this week.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Sunday, July 29, 2007

Exhaustion Leads to Nostalgia: How Far into this Vortex Are We Willing to Go?

Are we self-referentially Diggifying ourselves into a huge hole of sophomoric irrelevance?

It's my birthday, so after getting to eat anything I wanted... I get to say anything I want.

Jason Calacanis has become exhausted with his routine, which included far too much Facebook "friend-making," so he just declared Facebook bankruptcy.

Personally, I'm fine (thanks for asking)... but that's because maybe I haven't bitten as hard on the bait as some. When you've got a certain goal of Web 2.0 supremacy it's tempting to get drowned in it. If you've got a long-term approach to implementing projects, and some offline life still left, maybe you resist a little harder.

So I had to ask myself what's going on after Danny posted a 4,200-word Thoughts on Sphinn, Two Weeks In.

To be positive about this, Sphinn's probably as interesting as many of the forums ever were, and it's only been a couple of weeks. We all grapple with signal-to-noise mechanisms, and the forums have their cliques and their crapp and you can't visit them all. Sphinn was a bold try for something better. But insofar as the act of clicking "yay" on someone's link fails to pose any type of intellectual challenge, the majority of us members of the "real discussion preferring" community are likely to move on after a brief stop by. Sphinning stories is dangerously similar to lurking. It's passive - not constructive.

Rae Hoffman had the audacity to post something about Sphinn being a popularity contest, and then some expected debate followed on. I loved Rae's thoughts until I realized that it was a critique of the complaints of people who are "whining" that it's a popularity contest! Rae's point seems to be that if you don't have something called "SEO chops" or "social media spamming chops" or whatever it is, then you're just an unskilled loser. Sour grapes. An unskilled loser at spamming the spamosphere, anyway.

Hmm. But I'm not trying to get my mug to the top of Sphinn. I'm trying to get customers to buy drills, travel, lightbulbs, enterprise software, and... you know... products and services. Like Mike Grehan, I'm hopefully in business because there's more to life than a thin concept of what some consider to be "SEO chops" -- for example, the real-life corporate marketing that the Threadwatch gang recently took Mike to task for, for being so silly to make his living from.

Years ago, I might have been drawn into the debate, but now there is much less chance of being drawn into that or any number of other longwinded discussions (for which, again, I once had so much appetite). In this case it's because it seemed like Rae's polite question had a very definite and obvious answer: of course Sphinn is a popularity contest! But unlike Rae, I don't seem to think it's "whining" to point out that it's not the kind of popularity contest that results in a useful experience for any reader outside of the self-reinforcing circle. I never cared who Dugg what article to the top, and how it was done, either. I didn't know anyone with a full-time job who really partook of the exercise.

Now I'm seeing that some experienced members of the SEO (never broader marketing, of course) community, like my good friend Jill, are getting into the Sphinn game. But does it take a genius to see that Jill, a well-known search engine promoter, is posting her content on the site for search engine promoters, and then soliciting friends and other similar folk to vote for her story? I mean it's not exactly like Joe Rutabaga, a genuine consumer of media to be used for building his retail business just sort of stumbled across Jill's article and said - "hey, wow, check out the amazing resource I just came across!" It's that latter sentiment that grand experiments that Google PageRank (and heck, let's say, even Digg) were premised on. Not so for Sphinn. Everyone knows what the game is, and the game players are playing the game the way it's always been played - just among themselves. Must we?

So a word to the wise (outside the circle): in a community of professional SEO's and Digg-gamers and consummate self-promoters, anyone deciding to devote an intern or small army of pals to "Sphinn" inconsequential stories will be flooding the channel with rehashed linkbait dressed up to look like news. Those who choose not to play will either be relatively invisible, or will be forced to round up their cousins and college classmates to dream up linkbait and click voting buttons. "The community" decides what's newsworthy? Hugely problematic assumption that it'll be anything but a community of professional Sphinners.

I love grand experiments so of course am in some awe of how quickly Search Engine Land has grown from a content standpoint, and I'm also impressed at the amazing initiative it takes to build and configure a particularly cutting-edge online community.

But the increasing and well-placed focus on the community and the wisdom (or at least comprehensiveness) of crowds means potentially one major loss: an abdication of editorial voice.

Tapping the community's input to fill major gaps in knowledge is a given: on a grander scale of the networked transparent world, it's going to happen. It's happening in every vertical, and it's going to be really bumpy getting to the place we want to go. Anyone who is an advocate of this long term project as I am, though, has to be hypercritical of the weak attempts we see all over the place. Apparently we're still in the era of Chefmoz (and about 500 other restaurant review sites) (Chowhound provisionally excepted) where some cousin of the business owner logs in, posts an unverifiable comment about the fantastic brunch he ate at Joe's, and that's the only review you see up there. Yelp is helping to bridge that gap, etc. - but long story short we have a long way to go. (Hey Rae, sorry I just whined about the guy spamming the restaurant site, but nope, I don't respect his "chops".)

The debate about whether Squidoo is a cool new sharing platform, or a place where many good voices could get overshadowed by opportunistic spammers, is similarly telling. This stuff is difficult to achieve even if the goals are lofty. And for now, Squidoo is both of the above. It's actually kind of a neat reminder that About.com was both flawed and better. By limiting the number of guide slots, and appointing *The* Guide to X, you create a slightly less chaotic universe of go-to experts who are accountable to their readership. Several well-known search marketing leaders gained profile as Guides (to search, skiing, and search, respectively) -- Chris Sherman, Elisabeth Osmeloski, and Jennifer Laycock.

So thinking about all the sandboxes I plan not to play in out there, and wanting to ward off Calacanis-like hospitalization...that's when I harken back, back, back, all the way back... before Search Engine Watch even had a forum... before very many folks were even blogging... back to when the Search Engine Watch newsletter was firmly under Danny's control, to when it was his collection of insights, articles, and links that helped us simplify a rapidly-growing pile of information. Remember how you anticipated the arrival of that publication? Probably because it was possible to use a wildly oversimplified metaphor for understanding how we were assimilating the info. Danny "knows" all this stuff, and we're going to "find out" about it. Whatever, it worked.

How in the sophomoric world o' Digg are we to understand what it means to "know" anything? Who is creating much of anything beyond a weak 500-word list of something constructed explicitly as "linkbait"? After coming to "know" that Jill is a well-respected expert by coming across her no-doubt-useful linkbait (already knew it), what good is that doing me or Jill? Or did I bother to find her linkbait at all, because it was competing against a bunch of other people's linkbait?

By contrast...

Today, there are still handy encapsulations -- "news products," if you will, that get built through a combination of editorial discretion and automation, in varying degrees. (Google News is such a thing, for example.) A better abstract idea for automation of news aggregation including community input as a scoring mechanism has yet to conclusively prove itself as a definitively superior way to help the busy reader. (Mainly because the community scoring mechanisms are unreliable.) In fact, thus far, to me the opposite is true. Techmeme is extremely popular, and has an "arbitrary encapsulation" flavor to it. But many of us have taken to it because, to cite that popular marketing slogan for the ages, "it removes all the guesswork."

That said, it appears that even Techmeme's apparent evenhandedness is potentially driven by an echo chamber effect. Even here, then, it seems that additional editorial backbone might be required to ward off what amounts to an unfair advantage for sites and blogs with a certain linkage or authority structure they've gone out of their way to build for that very purpose. (Scoble and Cutts as sophisticated spammers :) ). A friend recently told me that Techmeme's creator, Gabe Rivera, had asked him if this site, Traffick.com, was a spam site! Because it showed up on Techmeme quite often. (I'm guessing the question was actually a well-intentioned one, because there is a lot of duplicate content floating around. Once whitelisted, a quality site can't be trumped by duplicate content -- a manual process that is actually possible within a vertical, and that makes a Techmeme visit fairer to quality publishers than, say, a Google Search.) In any case, if Gabe has this question about appearance frequency coming from a solid B-minus-lister blog (A in some people's hearts), then he's going to have to ask whether all those A-List sites, especially those built by savvy popularity-trawling bloggers post 2005, are really as substantively worthy as his current algorithm has us believe.

Maybe we can never return to an era of just a few authoritative voices in any industry. That's not the point, exactly. But isn't it just a little bit troubling that the A-Listers of today are so often devoid of substantive editorial authority beyond merely being passionate champions of the echo chamber itself? Isn't it troubling that authoritative voices are prematurely and voluntarily submerging their important thoughts and building platforms that basically say -- "whatever you guys think."?

I think I'll be happier when the "crowd" doesn't completely drown out the original editorial voices -- like Danny. Author of story #48 on someone's hotlist, Sphunn 17 times, never did put the asses in the seats... I mean the kind you have to pay for.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Friday, July 27, 2007

Start Memorizing Those Twelve Steps Now...

Fubar: Second Life for boozehounds?

I'll let you decide. I should get out more, so you won't see me at the "fubar".

Posted by Andrew Goodman




Musings on the AdWords Auction: Hotchkiss and Googlers

Ad quality junkies won't want to miss this interview with Nick Fox and Diane Cheng. Apparently they didn't get the memo that the term "user" is outmoded! :)

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Thursday, July 26, 2007

Neil Patel's Dilemma

OMG, I just caught this one. A cartoon over at Search Engine People. That kills me! I think it's safe to say that neither Neil nor the "oldtimer" pictured to his left retired at 9:00 p.m. at SES Toronto 2007.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Users Face Well-Meaning 'Intervention' from the Tech Elite

One of the weirdest memes to crop up in awhile is the sudden declaration by some experts that they hate the term 'users'. "I hate being called a user"! Well, really, are you really being called one? To say, for example, that "Joost has x00,000 users," is just making practical use of a label - shorthand for "whatever those individuals are."

And when working on user interface dilemmas, here's a flash: user is still a perfectly fine term! It doesn't need to be all-encompassing or perfect, any more than "consumer" ever was.

In academia, it's common (dating back thousands of years, but particularly common in the modern era) to use what C.B. Macpherson called a "model of man" that adopts explicit simplified assumptions about abstract individuals and their likely behavior. The discipline of economics is largely built on a simplified human model called homo economicus. Importantly, it doesn't have to be true to be useful.

The claim that we shouldn't call would-be user of various Internet protocols and interfaces (including specific websites and apps) "users," because "we don't call people who use the phone 'users' - the Internet is now 'used' by everyone!" is nonsensical. For starters, I defy you to compare my experience attempting to navigate and decide whether to make, say, a purchase, including my response to layouts, fonts, colors, messaging/copy, credibility elements, ease of interaction, and other testable aspects of a landing page, cart, etc., to using a telephone!

More to the point, modeling a fictional character called a "user" calls them what they are (artificially, but also, importantly, leading to real-life improvement in interfaces) in a narrow sense, much as an academic viewpoint starting with "as a woman" or "citizens" or "buyers and sellers" or "the poor" or "the law profession" must impose an artificial order on reality just in order to carry on a conversation.

For Thomas Hobbes, individuals in the state of nature (a hypothetical place without laws) were contentious bodies vying for supremacy, prone to a never-ending "war of all against all." Entertaining stuff that Hobbes attempted to derive from "first principles."

But our contemporary modelers of men are much more prosaic. Jakob Nielsen simply narrates his real-life failure to be able to complete a task with a software interface. Qua user, Jakob was stymied. This in his role as user. He argues that his advanced experience with user interfaces suggests that if he can't complete the task, a high proportion of users of this software will fail to complete the task also. This probability of catastrophic failure makes the software close to useless.

So what are we supposed to contrive to call these folks? Lovers of software? Software-seeking Jedi? Clickerati? IP-dogs? Jeesh.

Nope. As far as I'm concerned, for homo interactivus, user experience vernacular still applies.

Sing it, Styx.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




When Second Place Isn't Bad

Look out Youtube, here comes Veoh.

Edit: As I posted this, I came across the news that senior Yahoo ad platforms exec Steve Mitgang has been appointed Veoh's CEO, replacing founding CEO Dmitry Shapiro. This one looks magnetic!

Hmm, so who will buy them out? :)

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Look Harder, PeekYou

Oh, the perils of releasing a "beta" product before it's ready for prime time.

Remember Terence Pua and Project Napa? Me neither. But seriously, the idea was promising at least. It would be a "biography" protocol that would grow in accuracy over time, to enable people search. If the information became reliable enough, maybe it could be syndicated, so that anytime a person was mentioned in - say - a news article, you could drill down and get the full dossier on the individual mentioned. The project didn't get far.

Recall though that Project Napa was floated way back in 2000 - even before Wikipedia was founded (2001)! Wikipedia not only seems to make the "growing bio" concept somewhat obsolete (at least from a process standpoint -- Wikipedia makes no claim of course to building dossiers on a billion unremarkable nobodies), it also points to some of the shortcomings of the model of "non-authoritative" user-built databases.

PeekYou is the latest in a line of people search tools clamoring for attention. (ZoomInfo is another you may have heard of.) It was started by the founder of some of those "Rate My"... sites -- RateMyTeacher, RateMyProfessor, etc.

Is PeekYou the next Wikipedia? MySpace meets something-I-haven't-thought-of? Or is it another Project Napa?

Today, so many of these startups are coming out and overlapping -- with MySpace and Facebook profiles, genealogy sites that seem to want to stretch their mandate ever further, and personal info shareable with all, etc. -- it becomes very easy to throw up your hands and say: why, exactly, should I believe this particular platform will ever create a database that will be reliable and comprehensive enough to bother with? And secondly -- why should I help build it?

Done right, these sites could be extremely useful, I suspect. Current versions in the marketplace are often no better than high-volume scrapers (I know my company info is on ZoomInfo, lifted from my website) monetizing with the usual AdSense and banner routine.

The tension between a single authoritative piece of information and the wisdom (or at least comprehensiveness) of crowds continues. Meanwhile, the beta of PeekYou.com sucks. I looked up a few friends, some of whom aren't exactly tough to find info on. Jill Whalen, for example. There are four other Jill Whalens listed, but not her. Unless our Jill's been hidin' out in Texas!

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Tuesday, July 24, 2007

SuperPages Adds Video Ads

Today, Superpages.com is announcing the rollout of a "documercials" program that allows small to midsized businesses to enhance their local listings with professionally-produced video clips.

The program will initially be limited to Seattle, LA, and the Bay Area.

How it works: a team of professional videographers visit on-site and take up to an hour of video, editing this down to a promotional clip of short duration, available when viewing a business listing at Superpages.com. At press time, I wasn't able to nail down a price list.

Is this useful to advertisers? Well, the first thing I thought of was that this professionally-produced video could be a real bargain if you could repurpose it and if Superpages' partner (the video production teams) is coming in with a cut-rate service. But there's not much talk about whether the cost here is justified in terms of user response, conversion rates on listings, etc.

The biggest limitation appears to be..., well... it's only available in the test markets.

Will Superpages' competitors (I'm thinking of Yelp and CitySearch, not the major search engines IMHO) rush to adopt this model? If advertiser demand is there and they can charge a premium for the listing (while facilitating video production at roughly break-even), then you bet they will consider it.

Superpages currently sports 18 million business listings in the United States.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Monday, July 23, 2007

Still Living in Desktop Hell?

Like anyone, I have a lot of documents lying around. Some of them reside on desktop computers, not filed away in a very organized fashion.

Inevitably, when a friend has a data loss event (computer virus, inexplicable OS issue, power outage, hard drive failure, etc. etc. etc.), they'll talk about all the lost data, and promise that next time, they'll get organized and set everything up for "proper backups."

Everyone talks about it. But only 10% of the people I know, at best, engage in this so-called "proper backup process."

And so many of the remaining 90% have a bunch of documents, including their entire sent and received email (yes they use Outlook), residing on their desktop. When the data goes bye-bye... poof! it's gone... even if you can get 50% of it back... it's still horrible.

I then realize, nearly no documents I've dealt with -- in the sense of conveying them to someone else -- are unfindable. I haven't used a desktop email client in 7 years. Everything I've sent or received is pretty much findable and archived online in my email inbox (unlimited storage) - without any kind of a strategy or plan for doing so. (Don't hold me to this -- I reserve the right to claim I can't find something if I am too lazy to really look hard.)

I promised my pal I wouldn't gloat, wag my finger, or preach... but it's really hard when you think of Outlook as "so 7 years ago." Why not make everything portable? Or even 95% of everything... which is all we can expect in the real world, of people who do not conform to the usual stipulations of how you "ought to" do it. (I'm one of those people.)

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Yes Seth I'm Definitely Looking for a Community Organizer!

So coincidental, this post by Seth's. HomeStars, the startup I'm working with, is looking for an online community organizer (and a few other related roles) for a test city to be rolled out shortly after the 2.0 version of the site rolls out for our original home site, Toronto. We don't even know the name of the position, but Local Community Evangelist is a candidate :).

Our primary and immediate need is in the Boston area. In the future, other cities will need similar people. In the meantime we're accepting applications from people from any city with a population of greater than 500,000, in case your enthusiasm fit into soft-launch plans. Roughly all you need is: online savvy; writing or marketing background or both; savvy and interested in home renovations; locally connected; outgoing, magnetic online and hopefully off. Suitable for a well-educated professional seeking flexible ("half time") employment, perhaps after a hiatus from the workplace seeking to re-enter the workforce with a vengeance. Pay: base plus bonus, based on qualifications. In smaller cities, pay will be lower.

Seth promised he'd try to hook us up, but if you want to connect directly, go here and mention this post along with your location.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




yuiop, but not qwert...

I sprained my left wrist on Friday. In a classic example of blogger oneupmanship, John Battelle has just weighed in with a broken hand. In the spirit of recovery, I'll be posting lightly for the next few days, though not as gingerly as John, no doubt.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Saturday, July 21, 2007

Further to the Slow, Agonizing Death of Email

Mitch Joel offers a thought-provoking post about his recent experience transferring his subscription-based email traffic over to a GMail account, to keep his workflow in order.*

This serves as a stunning reminder - though many still refuse to clue in - that the very premise of email marketing, email relationship management, permission marketing, etc., was in fact only a hair's-breadth away from spam. Think about that: the usual email management options given by emailers are basically saying: "we expect you to want to unsubscribe - that's a given, because we're bothering you." So they only give you that option, and put no effort into the footer messages or database functionality that would make an email address change a matter of routine.

So much for anticipated, personal, and relevant.

And now I'm reminded of the (email, of course) newsletter I recently received from a well-known marketing publication. A "case study" on a test of - get this - the efficacy of a campaign to capture email addresses from a pop-up. And part of the background context provided included an explanation of how tricky it is because you have to pique the user's interest before the tip of their mouse cursor literally gets to that little 'x' and closes the annoying box. Woohoo! Little wonder that - as Mitch points out - we fight an uphill battle in terms of a negative image associated with online marketing. As long as troglodytic "experiments" in methods of capturing email addresses (to be used for further intrusive purposes) are presented as business as usual, that battle will continue to be uphill.

Will some email "marketers" still be lamenting the decline of open rates in 2017? Probably not, because it's pretty tough to decline from 0%. :)


* - (Reading stuff like this, I routinely get jealous. It seems that I went through a flurry of rabid interest in signing up for stuff circa 1998-2001, and have had problems ever since. To be "better organized," I have two work email addresses, but the one that matters gets 10X the work-related email as the nice, quiet, spam-free one. So I have to keep the spammy one. Then there is the more recent-gen spammy one, that quite a few friends use, the GMail address. And then, the "main" GMail address that I use to organize a lot of stuff including my main work address, and leads and other information sent to me internally via forms. The threading capability and searchability of GMail have made keeping in touch with clients, the broader network, and close colleagues much easier. Without GMail I'd be in deep trouble. But I'm having little success breaking free from many of the media-based subscriptions (and PR pitches) that come to the main work address. This is the state you get into if you started out in a quote-unquote "job" without adequately distinguishing one role or form of communication from another...)

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Friday, July 20, 2007

Seeing Through the Bearishness About 'Hyperlocal'

Whether it's just cyclical investing fads, journalistic boredom, or recent business failures of startups like Backfence, I'm noticing a strange lack of enthusiasm for local and so-called "hyperlocal" online content and listings business models.

Meanwhile, in the offline hyperlocal space -- the one our friend Om Malik likes to laugh at -- business is booming. Or at the very least, many small media businesses are booming to the extent that the flow of offer books, business profiles, neighborhood newspapers, etc., far from drying up, continues to increase.

My neighbourhood, Bloor West Village, supports approximately five neighbourhood (hyperlocal) newspapers, with three of them being actually delivered to the doorstep with some regularity. The flow of other free magazines, offer books, and "opportunities for advertisers to reach homeowners," continues to mount. Someone's got to be selling these ads, and someone's got to be buying.

Meanwhile some of the online plays in the local space are facing a tougher sell, ostensibly because either there is too much competition in the space, or because "businesses don't get it". And as a result, buzz about these companies is mixed at best, in the investor and analyst communities.

Meanwhile, some unknown is making a million bucks or ten million bucks a year for his little flyer or offer book company.

The source of the negativity, of course, is mainly based on sky-high expectations for these online plays! The "boring" offline ad companies fly under the radar, don't have to be cool, aren't ashamed of overstating the value of their ad space, and most of all, are more than happy not to scale beyond their own private ambitions. VC-backed online plays, and those owned by huge conglomerates, have to be big enough to create homerun-type returns, or to move the revenue and profit needle in significant ways within the bowels of $10b media or telecommunications conglomerates.

The astonishing thing is that quite a few of these will succeed to that improbable extent (see: Craigslist, Server Logs)... if they're willing to push through The Dip and stay true to what makes them far superior to the overstated, overrated, offer book and me-too community newspaper crap that flows to the doorstep. Certainly, belief is a big part of this scenario. If analysts like Malik are openly contemptuous of old media, perhaps that's healthy because the online crowd need something to build on their sometimes-wavering belief. You have to believe you're fighting to wrestle ad dollars away from a silly, wasteful, overrated old hulk of an industry.

However, that irrational fervor -- always useful in starting a new order of things -- clearly needs to be tempered. Many successful businesses are being built through partnerships with traditional media companies. And if you're looking to get acquired, as most startups are, you need relationships as well as an underlying threat to established models. Pure threat just incentivizes the old money to try to crush you - and certainly doesn't do much to encourage needed distribution partnerships.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Web 4.0: Rubel Indicts Self

Reaching a new pinnacle of self-generated self-referentiality, Steve Rubel swears off the self-inflicted Shiny Object Syndrome that's come to cause him the same grief it already caused everyone else. Zawodny's got it about right.

If you're looking for a good chuckle, have a look at my Search Engine Land column for today. No shiny objects, I promise.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




Thursday, July 12, 2007

Scobleizer, As Seen Post-Goodmanizer

I don't think I've ever tweaked Robert Scoble before, but I can't help but protest the tone of this musing on Facebook: "Imagine if advertisers could 'buy people'." I realize that's yanked out of context... but imagine a world where we can all still make money without imagining shit like that. I mean, I may be an advertiser, but I'm a people, too.

But in all seriousness, better contextual ads isn't really about buying people. It wouldn't be hard to implement. Unfortunately, Robert, you probably just gave someone an even more evil idea. Pay-Per-Friend will no doubt be hot on the heels of Pay-Per-Post. Pay-For-Cat and Pay-for-Firstborn might not be far behind.

And don't even get me started about the part where he name-drops that Jeremy Allaire, Stewart Alsop, and Marc Andreeson are on his Facebook contact list. Constantly having to prove yourself: this is life on the A-List?

Posted by Andrew Goodman




Squidoo Slap: Principles to Consider

Not enough time for the usual in-depth rant (lucky for you)... but jumping off Danny's excellent overview, I will assume that Google found within itself to ratchet down the value of Squidoo pages in the grand scheme of things. These incidents are unfortunate in the sense that anytime an entire publishing platform (like, say, "all blogger blogs") gets treated with undue suspicion, the quality of individual pages could be unfairly downgraded. We really don't know if they tackle such matters with algo tweaks, penalties, or some combination of the same, but if it's largely through penalties or special treatment (in a negative or positive sense) for certain classes or types of site, it leads one to imagine how many "special exceptions" get built into the overall ranking formula.

Anyway, when search engines try to look at this stuff, I think three principles might be at work.

1. Accuracy. If a certain kind of network of sites or pages is getting undue benefit due to the parent site's high standing or pagerank, or due to the interlinking that is improving authority of pages within the network, such that there's an incentive to join the network and create a large number of pages sending traffic to client and affiliate sites until this loophole is closed down (see: blog spam, guest books, link farms....)... then the SE must figure out a way to give the right amount of link juice or authority to pages within the network. How to not throw out the baby with the bathwater? I'd love to hear a detailed explanation of that process! I doubt it's possible.

2. Abuse. Related to the first point. Google sees a common source of abuse, it's just easier to clamp down on it and downgrade the whole lot. Selective downgrading requires a lot more work, although I'm sure there are ways to handle this (sandboxing of individual pages, or whatever).

3. The bigger picture of the known high-traffic universe and how a top SE has to know that universe and constantly evaluate which of the top sources of SE traffic are getting "too much" of the search referral pie. Tall poppies will be scrutinized, and it's this area that seems particularly tough to get a grasp on for those who may still think the Google world is 100% algorithmic. Related: SERP Staples: Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Very Early Plug for User-Generated Content Panel at San Jose

I'll be speaking on a new topic at SES San Jose on Aug. 23 - on user-generated content. The reality is, companies that have tens or hundreds of thousands of pages of *useful* content have a huge leg up in terms of natural search referrals. But how to get that, and have it be vibrant, usable, and interesting, without it being duplicate content purchased/syndicated from somewhere else?

Of course that's what has made "UGC" so interesting as a business model. But what are the prominent UGC sites? Well, of course, it runs the gamut from forums, to photo sharing sites, to volunteer edited directories. When you think about it, the most familiar brand names online are often UGC-based. Some huge success stories include:
  • The Open Directory Project (dmoz) [human edited directory]
  • YouTube [without users video it's nowhere]
  • Flickr [without users uploading photos it's nowhere]
  • Yelp [reviews of local biz, especially lifestyle hotspots, restaurants, spas, etc.]
  • Craigslist [to the commercial/transactional side, but also stretches out to all kinds of classifieds including dating, jobs, etc. - the fact is, people have to write titles and descriptions for what they're selling... so... do this en masse and guess what, you get tons of search traffic]
  • Kijiji [eBay's recognition of Craigslist's power -- same basic biz model]
  • Wikipedia [of course]
  • TripAdvisor [user reviews of travel spots, accommodations, you name it]
  • Topix [adding community discussion of news items to its basic news search functionality]
  • PlentyofFish [dating, with no subscription fee - not only do they have reams of personals with descriptions, they have very active forums]
  • Usenet [ :) ]
And yes, any type of community would seem to count - Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, etc. - some are more accessible to search engines than others. There is obviously a user-to-user and viral component to growth that does *not* rely on search engine stumble-ins, too, but if you look at how some "classic UGC plays" like TripAdvisor grew, it was hugely dependent on long tail stumble-in search engine traffic.

Obviously the list could go on. Personally, I cut my teeth on some of the tech investing discussion forums dating back as far as 1996 (remember the differences between Motley Fool, Silicon Investor, and Raging Bull? Fool was more folksy and advicey at first whereas the latter two were more free-flowing... second and third movers in a space can grow quickly with very little investment if the community is active).

The job of search engines is often to find deep, relevant content on highly specific topics. UGC sites are often perfect fits for what searchers are looking for. Yet in the world of "SEO," talk is often a narrow, pinched description of "SEO-ifying" a corporate or small business website; or alternatively, of optimizing writer-generated and editorial-generated content for search engines. But the above are obviously the most wildly successful businesses you can imagine, when it comes to the potential for rapid growth through organic search referrals down the long tail. They have their own challenges and success trajectories, and as my friend Mike Grehan would say, it has nothing to do with an H1 tag.

I look forward to continuing this discussion.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Killer Jos. Louis Campaign

In my Winning Results book (two years ago, at least) I offhandedly mentioned the idea of rubbing peanut butter on your bald head as a way to draw attention to yourself in the increasingly crowded "I'm crazy about peanut butter" vertical.

But the bar today is much, much higher. Rubbing food on your bald head will not win you any type of award.

Jos. Louis (one of the Vachon cakes) is something you know well if you're from certain parts of Canada. For many of us it has that retro Pulp Fiction feel... when I was eight years old I might have played a game of hockey in the league I belonged to on CFB Ottawa (no I was not an army brat, my friend was), and then, bypassing the pickled eggs at the snack counter just their for show or for old men to have with beer, I'd help myself to a tasty Jos. Louis (although I've always preferred the Half Moon/Lune, chocolate flavor).

This entry into the Jos. Louis ("do something with this food other than rub it on your head") is a hoot. (Kind of a meta thing with creatives sitting around trying to come up with the best idea.)

Honorable mention to Jack Gatineau for resisting the temptation to rub Jos. Louis on his bald head.

From all this I learned that my French isn't nearly as bad as I thought, and that I prefer the more formal word "rondelle" as used by classy hockey announcers, as opposed to the franglais word "puck de hockey".

No word on any sister contest involving pickled eggs.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Yahoo, Cont'd

Further to the "how Yahoo can still be better than Google" dialogue, Jimmy Guterman smartly suggests that Yahoo could take back some brand momentum by positioning itself as the better embodiment of "non-evil" philosophies and practices. This is right on, I think. But the list of things that any large company needs to change is long and detailed. As long as the exercise doesn't turn into a dogma-fest, it would be a productive one, given that the loose definition of non-evil in a tech company is only a rough guide to boundaries that shouldn't be crossed, anyway, and Google has no monopoly on virtue.

In short, it's all relative, and I agree that leadership in online properties comes from having standards, be they in the environmental realm, in terms of usability, privacy policies, you name it.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




Tuesday, July 10, 2007

After the Page View: Can We Focus on the Question, Please?

Of course I agree with the great insights by Future Now guys Robert Gorell and Bryan Eisenberg on many questions of user engagement (though by necessity in my practice I use dumbed-down versions of what they do)... but there's something left out in the most recent round of responses to Nielsen finally putting the page view to bed as a meaningful audience engagement metric for the purposes of selling advertising space online.

Specifically, we still need (see above), a meaningful audience metric for the purposes of selling advertising online. (Probably several.) Let's assume for a moment I'm a large content publisher. Heck, assume I'm MSN. Maybe I'll sell ads in a variety of formats, based on advertiser demand. I'll need to price the ads in some way, be it on a formal rate card, through negotiation, or through an auction.

Or if you prefer, assume I'm a publisher of deep content and the operator of a pivotal resource online with a related light social networking component -- let's say it's called ILoveMyBackYard.com. I'm not a powerhouse, but all the outdoor patio vendors and such happen to be clamoring for ad space on the site. It's a quality site, so I can attract higher rates than "just AdSense." A good position to be in. How to fairly price the "inventory"?

I've got to make money. I don't want to sell subscriptions, because that limits openness and growth. So, in the mix of a variety of sponsorship and listing options, *based on heavy advertiser demand from those who simply want to include online display advertising as part of a broader online-offline mix*, I'll sell some display advertising.

First of all, (a) what's wrong with that? (b) if there's something problematic with the pageview due to AJAX, then we need to replace it with something. (c) if tabbed browsing and other perverse incentives mean it's not useful to measure time spent, then we need to replace it with something. (d) If certain events achieved by users are hard to prioritize fairly, then we need to replace it with something. And with all due respect, Robert, that something is not a sales pitch for persuasion scenarios! Remember, we were talking about my revenue needs as a publisher and community resource site, and the needs of media buyers 90% of whom may never want to figure out how so-called persuasion scenarios fit in with their preconceived notion of allocating a large media budget.

So meanwhile, in the offline world, the 30-second spot is not quite dead yet. Full-page newspaper advertisements and magazine ads are not dead yet. Far from it. Their online counterparts are doing pretty well, too.

As the interruption marketing world (not my favorite personally) moves towards an increasingly diverse ad mix, let's face it, ad folks are still filling spaces with ads and coming up with a fair formula to charge for that space. Insofar as it's a marketplace, it's their right to do this if there's a demand. The main scandal would be if the main metrics are so laughably primitive as to be "gameable" by the least scrupulous players. And often such players are the biggest-name publishers. So I'm in agreement with that part of Gorell's argument. Give me something I can reasonably fall back on like visitor counts and audience size. Beyond that it gets harder to measure user engagement, to be sure, so I proposed something like a "multi-point scorecard" as a potential helper metric, but at the end of the day, this is impractical.

I think the problem is, we're talking about too many things at once. There are quite a lot of rational scenarios for advertisers big and small to shell out for different kinds of listings and units online in places generic and specific. Advertisers will need to get more sophisticated about how well the ads "perform," but some really deep-pocketed ones are willing to just go for saturation tactics in key verticals, without over-measuring. So be it!

And meanwhile, for the average observer not in the process of transacting an ad buy, it just muddies the waters as the agencies like Netratings and comScore publish these broad-based "rankings" of web properties that we're supposed to look at. These have always been vanity metrics, easy to manipulate and ostensibly useful for impressing people at cocktail parties. I recently overheard someone from a long-defunct search engine company (still, sadly, in operation in shell form) mention that his company was a Top Ten Web Property in Canada! Did this mean he attracted a large crowd of groupies hanging on his every word? Absolutely not! People aren't stupid. They know a bunch of legacy page views from old personal homepages, and a gaggle of motley content acquisitions, can easily add up to a Top Ten Web Property (or more like "OK, OK, sixteen now, but we were ten for a month in 2006"), but that's irrelevant to most of us. Soon, I'm sure word will get out that some of the Netratings numbers factor in AIM usage where they shouldn't, (not that the word needs to get out, but I'm sure it will if it needs to).

I mean, when you think about it, the new "time spent" metric adoption by Netratings doesn't literally "hurt" Google, now does it? Nor will AOL get a "boost" in any tangible sense.

If we can agree on anything, the online ad world should be critical of easily gameable metrics, and should be wary of laughably unsophisticated measures relied on by ratings agencies that have this unwarranted godlike status. But my sense is that most sensible players already are.

But in a time of unprecedented supply and demand for online advertising, it might not be the best idea to split too many hairs as individual players try to practically execute on these vital transactions. Gullible advertisers who get completely ripped off have themselves to blame - but this has been happening on a grand scale for a half century, and online is more measurable than ever before. If Party A, Publisher wants to sell inflated page views to willing Party B, Advertiser, -- even after page views have been declared dead -- I won't lose a whole lot of sleep over it. I can't afford to let some online publishers' cynicism get to me -- although I came very close to going insane watching what unfolded in 1998-2000. :)

And if a few journalists wish to wildly misinterpret the time-spent metric, most will understand its limitations, so again, I'll sleep as soundly as ever.

I'd love to think that we have a mechanism in this place for taking Occam's Razor to the whole process (no, we won't be able to apply the razor to this rambling post, there's no antidote for that), and we do: it's called an auction. As distorted as some marketplaces might be in practice, in theory a good auction platform builder can facilitate an environment whereby advertisers are in total control of what they're bidding on. When advertisers control and monitor their own measures of success (be these time spent, events, conversions, etc.), they decide what happens to be significant to their business. Publishers that satisfy criteria sought after by more advertisers will thrive, and get paid more for their inventory. Today's auctions aren't perfect; Google, Yahoo, ContextWeb, Quigo, and others, are working to perfect the craft.

Not much has changed, then: the higher-level data proffered by NetRatings and comScore are all too easy to misinterpret.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Sunday, July 08, 2007

Florida Heads North

It appears that Richard Florida, author of the well-known book Rise of the Creative Class, is heading for Toronto. Word has it he'll be teaching at the Rotman School of Management and potentially involved with the MaRS Centre, an innovative research facility near the University of Toronto.

This is thrilling news especially to anyone like myself who believes this great city is on the edge of an explosion of progress, but not quite there yet. And I find it pretty telling that Florida is quoted as having said just this - that the city is "very close" to achieving great things - and that a spokesperson for a local cultural promotion outfit is quoted as implying that we're pretty much already there (note the difference in tone and attitude).

Apparent non sequitur: I couldn't help but notice, during a short stay in the Glasgow area (Busby by day, Glasgow by night), the impressive focus on the arts and the creative communities in that great city. Glasgow's one of those places that pretty much lives up to the stereotypes you may have of it: a long history of surprising prosperity and tremendous hardship; a gritty place, a place that lost its economic role to an extent in the process of deindustrialization, a place that doesn't have cachet (perhaps never did) but is doing wonderful things to attempt rejuvenation, starting with culture. (Heroic baggage handlers tackling terrorists might be only so-so PR in the short run, but probably good for long-term visibility, but I digress once again.) What immediately struck me, though, was the over-literal take on the concept of culture and the arts. The most vibrant "creative" community was creative in the literal sense of poetry, painting, and performance. The broader knowledge industries seemed conspicuously absent save for the usual satellite operations of large telecommunications companies and the like.

At the risk of sounding like a complete arts illiterate, I'd suggest that places like Glasgow, and to some extent Toronto, have more than their share of "creative" as literally defined. But as I'm sure an economic geographer type in the Florida vein would argue, a vibrant arts community is a necessary but not sufficient condition to attract the type of full-fledged creative cluster that drives economic, not just cultural, growth; one that leads to fuller and better employment, higher productivity, and the kind of tax base and philanthropic growth that can actually finance further public works (though, if we are to believe Florida, not sports stadiums or the opera) that will attract more of the valuable knowledge workers that drive economies.

The Glasgow example leads me to believe that Florida's 2002 book was a little too enamored of the concept of "nightlife" (cough, Glasgow's got plenty of that) as something that attracts the right people, who apply their talents to making economies modern and productive. The whole "piercings and weird hours stereotype" is, largely, just that... of course people who are *part* of the creative cluster will be diverse, but it isn't piercings, weird hours, or music festivals that just got Research in Motion a deal in China.

In any case, Toronto has attracted a major asset in Prof. Florida, and we should count ourselves lucky for the spark he is sure to provide. His more recent book, of course, is titled Flight of the Creative Class: The New Global Competition for Talent, in some parts warning U.S. decisionmakers that many of the smartest young grads, and some old dogs to boot, are thinking of leaving the country to work in places their values will be respected. Moreover, he doesn't feel the educational system has its priorities in place. Somewhat autobiographical?

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Friday, July 06, 2007

The Dark Side of AJAXy, All-Seeing LinkedIn

Sorry bout the overwrought headline - thought if I started with a ZDNet vibe you might be more likely to read. :)

In the recent past here I've defended LinkedIn against critics. As the service grows, certainly it seems that many users must agree with me because I'm getting more requests to Link In than ever. Most people (OK, all) are using their real names; the profiles don't contain louche photos; no commentary on Kate and Becks and Posh and Pete, or whoever, either. It's a bit sad that I can't waste my time on Facebook or worse, but honestly, maybe that's for the best.

On a not-unrelated note, there's been a resurgence of talk by Very Important Bloggers considering declaring email bankruptcy due to the overload of the channel. On this topic, I think it completely misses the point that "very short emails" will improve the situation. When I'm dealing with real workflow, real business, or real re-acquaintance type communications, long is fine! It's the volume of nuisance mails and mails of unknown intent that bog me down. I won't be declaring bankruptcy but for many of those, let's just say they'll be marked Past Due for many months to come. In that case, don't email. Please call. Or ask someone I really know well to get in touch. Which brings us to LinkedIn.

There are, in spite of my attempts at optimism, some clear problems with LinkedIn.

1. You give people a "permission" channel, and they'll find a way to spam it. Make it searchable and categories, they can target their spam. Recruiters and other questionable interrupters have begun using this service to bother people. A variation on the trick is to have the bothering come from someone at the VP level at a major company. That looks like potential business development when all it is is a search for referrals for potential hires for qualified senior managerial positions. (And a great way to save the fee you'd otherwise pay the recruiting firm, but now I think you're spamming me directly instead of blaming the evil headhunters.)

2. Corporate espionage. Who you've just added to your list can tip off competitors about your business development efforts, private deals, and secret strategies. A friend had partnership talks with several large online properties. Her direct competitor became aware of this right away simply by spying on her LinkedIn profile. Maybe worse: sometimes you're not in talks with anybody, or up to anything in particular, but because of the timing of your new contacts being added, people jump to erroneous conclusions.

All fretting aside, many people have spoken about doing a "cull" of their LinkedIn list and eliminating people they don't seem to recognize or know well. You do so at the risk of offending people, of course, but think of the upside: now the relationships you do have become more meaningful. I think probably the worst reason not to do a cull would be that it looks like you have more friends or admirers if you leave more contacts on your list (a la Orkut: you have 353 "stars" and 448 "hearts," and many Brazilian pals!). So maybe I'll set aside an arbitrary number I hope to pare back to: 42.

The positives of LinkedIn are still there. You get current profiles, current email addresses, and lots more besides. It keeps a part of your life out of email. But like email, the channel surely needs to be managed.

As for linking into people at your own company... I think that completely misses the point. Why do people do this? Go for lunch, or at least coffee. If your company is really big, doesn't requesting to link in to some distant superior just emphasize your lowly status? Better to contact by conventional means, or to otherwise make yourself conspicuous (through achievement, etc.).

Is anyone else culling their LinkedIn list of relative unknowns? Drop me a line.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Thursday, July 05, 2007

Easing Back Into Civilization, Looking for Signal Over Noise

Readers of this blog may have noticed that I took two weeks for a vacation. As I rolled around ideas for my "first post back from Scotland," something like A Statement Concerning the Wealth of Nations in an Online World came to mind. Then, less ambitiously, I debated posting all 159 holiday photos.

But what better way to ease back in than not to post at all? Instead, I offer you a link to Mona's latest article on Search Engine Land asking whether Microsoft and Yahoo can catch up to Google, and another link to the Valleywag nontroversy over AdSense's genesis, upon which I mustered a blog-like entry in the comments area... but I can't link directly to the site now that it's flooded with traffic, after this CNBC coverage blows the situation further out of proportion. Siding with Valleywag, the CNBC writer, Jim Goldman, notes that Google released a "copycat" version of Applied Semantics' product, five months after Applied Semantics came out with it. Goldman senses that this "story" won't die. I disagree...

As my article at the time emphasized/proves, Applied Semantics was far from the only company working on this type technology, and Google's purported "copycat effort" actually was being beta tested only two months after the Applied Semantics release. At no time did the Applied Semantics founders claim that Google was aping them; they assumed, as any technology company would, that obvious and good ideas are generally working in parallel in Silicon Valley. They only offered a criticism of Google's abilities in this area, shortly before being acquired by Google. The AS technology proved helpful (in my wild guesses, more helpful than some are letting on) in accelerating Google's product development in this area at an early stage, and of course the domain parking partnerships helped Google to snare valuable market share that was in Overture's camp. These developments constituted a starter's pistol signaling a rather frantic race for publisher contextual ad market share. In chasing hard after it, Google caught Yahoo off guard (did they hear the gun?) and built a surprising lead by ignoring "premium" inventory, automating like crazy, and going for the long tail.

It wasn't all good, that race, but looking back on it you can clearly see the continuity of the race as it now proceeds through another evolution with a horribly inflated but appropriate Google acquisition of DoubleClick.

If you look at the financials, notice how Google's revenues from AdSense as a proportion of overall Google ad revenues rose rapidly to nearly half (indicating overenthusiastic growth), before dropping back to about 37% today (indicating consolidation and higher traffic quality, in preparation for what I believe will be rapid growth back to 50% or so).

Meanwhile, back at the ranch: the "Wojcicki lied" angle is a non-starter and a non-story. At least they're not saying she said she invented the Internet.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




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