Posts about 30dayswwgd

Hacking education: Google U

I’m lucky to be at a great Union Square Ventures session on hacking education today. I believe education will be restructured radically and that will be accelerated out of the so-called financial crisis. You can follow tweets at #hackedu; Union Square will put up the entire transcript later.

In honor of hacking education, I’ll put up all of the Google U chapter in What Would Google Do? (the rest after the jump):

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Who needs a university when we have Google? All the world’s digital knowledge is available at a search. We can connect those who want to know with those who know. We can link students to the best teachers for them (who may be fellow students). We can find experts on any topic. Textbooks need no longer be petrified on pages but can link to information and discussion; they can be the products of collaboration, updated and corrected, answering questions and giving quizzes, even singing and dancing. There’s no reason my children should be limited to the courses at one school; even now, they can get coursework online from no less than MIT and Stanford. And there’s no reason that I, long out of college, shouldn’t take those courses, too.

You may suspect that because I’m a professor, I’ll now come out of this litany of opportunities with a rhetorical flip and demonstrate why we must preserve universities as they are. But I won’t. Of course, I value the academy and its tradition and don’t wish to destroy it. But just as every other institution examined in this book is facing fundamental challenges to its essence and existence in the Google age, so is education. Indeed, education is one of the institutions most deserving of disruption—and with the greatest opportunities to come of it.

Call me a utopian but I imagine a new educational ecology where students may take courses from anywhere and instructors may select any students, where courses are collaborative and public, where creativity is nurtured as Google nurtures it, where making mistakes well is valued over sameness and safety, where education continues long past age 21, where tests and degrees matter less than one’s own portfolio of work, where the gift economy may turn anyone with knowledge into teachers, where the skills of research and reasoning and skepticism are valued over the skills of memorization and calculation, and where universities teach an abundance of knowledge to those who want it rather than manage a scarcity of seats in a class.

Who’s to say that college is the only or even the best place to learn? Will Richardson, who teaches fellow educators how to use the internet in the classroom, wrote an open letter to his children, Tess and Tucker, on his blog, Webblog-ed.com: “I want you to know that you don’t have to go to college if you don’t want to, and that there are other avenues to achieving that future that may be more instructive, more meaningful, and more relevant than getting a degree.” He said education may take them to classrooms and lead to certification but it also may involve learning through games, communities, and networks built around their interests. “Instead of the piece of paper on the wall that says you are an expert,” he told his children, “you will have an array of products and experiences, reflections and conversations that show your expertise, show what you know, make it transparent. It will be comprised of a body of work and a network of learners that you will continually turn to over time, that will evolve as you evolve, and will capture your most important learning.”

If that is what education looks like, what does a university look like? I asked that question on my blog and entrepreneur and technologist Bob Wyman (who works for Google) responded by abstracting the university and identifying its key roles: teaching, testing, and research. I’ll add a fourth and unofficial role: socialization. Let’s examine them in reverse order.

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WWGD? – The scientific solution to the world’s problems

“They are doubling down on the technocratic approach,” Siva Vaidhyanathan, who’s writing The Googleization of Everything, said in today’s NY Times responding to news that Google.org will focus its philanthropy more on its own science and technology and integrate its charitable arm more with the company. Agreed.

But then he adds in the Times: “The habits and ideology of the company will lead the philanthropy rather than the needs of the communities or the planet.” No, I think it’s actually more hubristic than that: Google believes its technology, science, methods, and intelligence are best suited to solve the needs of the planet.

On its blog, Google.org head Larry Brilliant said – as he announced that he’d be moving to corporate to become philanthrop evangelist and would hand over the foundation to long-time Googler Megan Smith:

During our review it became clear that while we have been able to support some remarkable non-profit organizations over the past three years, our greatest impact has come when we’ve attacked problems in ways that make the most of Google’s strengths in technology and information; examples of this approach include Flu Trends, RechargeIT, Clean Energy 2030, and PowerMeter. By aligning Google.org more closely with Google as a whole, Megan will ensure that we’re better able to build innovative, scalable technology and information solutions. As a first step, Google has decided to put even more engineers and technical talent to work on these issues and problems, resources which I have found to be extraordinary. In this global economic crisis, the work Google.org is doing, together with our many colleagues around the world, to help develop cheap clean energy, find and fight disease outbreaks before they sweep the globe, and build information platforms for underserved people globally, is more important than ever.

In moment such as that, we see how Google think its ways can solve big problems. And maybe they’re right. We can only hope so.

For today’s 30 Days of WWGD? snippet, here’s an excerpt from the chapter about Google.org’s technocratic method brought to the energy and environment: the essential scientific optimism of invention as a means of solving problems:

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Here is our one example of an industry being remade in Google’s image that is not hypothetical. Google?.org, the company’s philanthropic wing—supported with 1 percent of Google’s equity and profits—is trying to reinvent the energy industry and with it, our energy economy. It is funding companies and research looking for ways to make power that will cost less than that generated with coal. Their geeky name for the initiative: RE

Unlike Google?.org’s other projects—devoted to early warning of health crises, better management of public services, and entrepreneurial growth in the developing world—RE

At the World Economic Forum meeting at Davos in 2008, I attended a forum at which Google’s founders presented their energy vision and I came away with a sense of how they would manage other industries and even how they would run the government (more on that later). It gave me a window into the engineers’ worldview. Just before this Google?.org forum, I had attended a session with Bono and former Vice President Al Gore. They presented their core causes: extreme poverty, debt forgiveness, and disease for Bono; the planet for Gore. The two men tried to insist to the powerful in the great hall that their causes were complementary—can’t solve one without addressing the other, they agreed—but in truth, they were competing for the political and economic attention of the governments and corporations there. Gore spoke with passion, even anger, as he insisted that the way to attack global warming is carbon taxes, regulations, prohibitions, sacrifices. He delivered the environmental agenda we’ve often heard, and did so with authority and determination.

Then I went up the mountain to hear the Google team—founders Page and Brin with Google?.org executive director Larry Brilliant. The contrast was stark. To summarize if not oversimplify their vantage points: Where Gore demands taxes and regulation, the Google team proposes invention and investment. Gore and company want to raise the cost of carbon—the cost of polluting—whereas the Google team wants to lower the cost of energy. I’m a bit unfair to Gore, for he would argue that the proceeds of his taxes would fund technology development. But Google doesn’t need tax dollars. If it were a country, its $20 billion revenue would rank it about 80th in gross domestic product. It can invest in energy research on its own.

Still, we see different worldviews at work. “You can’t succeed just out of conservation because then you won’t have economic development,” Brilliant said. “Find a way to make electricity—not to cut back on it but to have more of it than you ever dreamed of.” More power than you ever dreamed of. Create and manage abundance rather than control scarcity—as ever, that is the Google worldview. Whereas Gore talks about what we shouldn’t do, Google talks about what we can do. There we see the contrast between the politician’s brain and the engineer’s. Google people start with a problem and look for a solution. They identify a need, find an opportunity, and then systemically, logically, and aggressively attack it with innovation.

Page explained that there is a market now for green energy at 10 cents per kilowatt-hour. Some people and companies want to buy it, though it is expensive, because they want to do good or need good PR. But the true market cost of energy is still far below that. Google?.org wants to find a way to produce renewable power at three cents per kilowatt-hour, cheaper than coal, which not only gives them a good deal but also shuts down dirty coal plants.

If it succeeds, the foundation would change Google’s business and other entire industries, starting with autos. With energy that cheap, Google?.org envisions cars plugged into the power grid, solving the problem of pollution from burning gasoline and changing the political balance of oil power (though they point out that the power grid is in woeful need of an upgrade). Google is also supporting an electric-car initiative called RechargeIT, which is trying to accelerate the adoption of plug-in hybrid cars. As a demonstration, Google is converting its own fleet of cars to modified, plug-in Toyota Prius hybrids. Google set up web pages for every car to display data about its energy efficiency—we know how Google loves data. Those cars are plugged into solar-powered charging stations on Google’s campus, where the company was producing 1.6 megawatts in solar power by 2008. “It’s been great,” Brin said. “It produced shade. It reduced cost.” Google created a platform for electric-car devotees to make YouTube videos and place them on a Google map, demonstrating popular support and demand for the cars. Google clearly believes it can help create a market for plug-in cars—and why not? It has created new markets for technology and advertising. . . .

If Google did run a power company, what would it look like? It would give us all the power we could use at the best price possible, and then it would find ways to take advantage of that. Google could use the power grid itself to distribute the internet and that, too, would help Google, creating more advertising revenue, which could be used to subsidize the cost of our power and access. Google would give us data about our use of power—especially as more appliances become internet-connected. Imagine if every house were to have a web page detailing power usage by every device, as Google has done for its cars. That data would tell us how to conserve (if we even needed to anymore) and it would tell Google how we live (which, in aggregate, will make Google smarter). In his book Hot, Flat, and Crowded, Thomas Friedman proposed a similar future with connected devices that manage their own power. If we can generate our own homemade solar, wind, or geothermal power, I have no doubt Google Power & Light would create a marketplace for us to sell power to the grid or donate it to charities. Power could become not only a new market but a new currency.

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[Note: Google recently announced PowerMeter, which begins to do these things.]

A portfolio instead of a diploma

Teacher Mark Pullen wrote on his blog great thoughts on students leaving school with portfolios instead of just diplomas. The next day, he was reading What Would Google Do? and found that we agreed on this, I’m happy to say. Mark’s ideas:

After 13 years of work getting a K-12 education, why is it that all a student has to show for it is (if things go well) a diploma?

It seems to me like our goals should be so much different, such as:

In writing: students should have a very rich blog with hundreds of quality posts on it, as well as several major self-published pieces and several other items that were genuinely published by outside sources (editorials in the local paper, columns for a trade magazine, etc.)

In science: students should have at least one patent and/or at least one invention that they’ve actually created a prototype for (or, better, that has had copies of which have actually sold)

In math: students should be able to balance a checkbook, understand how to stay out of debt and avoid credit spending, and understand how to interpret biased statistics and advertisements correctly; they should also be able to solve any real-world math problem they may encounter in life (figuring out the reduced cost of having improved gas mileage, determining the amount of interest that would accrue on various home loans, figuring out which jar of peanut butter costs less per ounce, being able to make two-thirds of a batch of something, etc.).

In social studies: students should be able to read every article in the newspaper and understand (when applicable) the article’s significance and the historical events that have led up to the event being described. When applicable, students should also understand the geography of the location(s) being discussed, as well as the religious and political backgrounds of the people groups involved

Finally: students should be heading to their post-K-12 life with a plan for the future, rather than just heading to college because everyone is doing it. They should have an extensive understanding of a significant number of careers in their preferred field(s) of study as well.

Kind of cool: a patent instead of a sheepskin.

As a second 30 Days of WWGD? snippet for the day (because I’m a bit behind), here’s the bit from the book that Mark quoted:

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Perhaps we need to separate youth from education. Education lasts forever. Youth is the time for exploration, maturation, socialization. We may want to create a preserve around youth—as Google does around its inventors—to nurture and challenge the young. What if we told students that, like Google engineers, they should take one day a week or one course a term or one year in college to create something: a company, a book, a song, a sculpture, an invention? School could act as an incubator, advising, pushing, and nurturing their ideas and effort. What would come of it? Great things and mediocre things. But it would force students to take greater responsibility for what they do and to break out of the straitjacket of uniformity. It would make them ask questions before they are told answers. It could reveal to them their own talents and needs. The skeptic will say that not every student is responsible enough or a self-starter. Perhaps. But how will we know students’ capabilities unless we put them in the position to try? And why structure education for everyone around the lowest denominator of the few? . . . .

The next role of the university is testing and certification: the granting of degrees and anointing of experts. The idea of a once-in-a-lifetime, one-size-fits-many certification of education—the diploma—looks more absurd as knowledge and needs change. Are there better measures of knowledge and thinking than a degree? Why should education stop at age 21? Diplomas become dated. Most of what I have done in my career has required me to learn new lessons—long past graduation—about technology, business, economics, sociology, science, education, law, and design. Lately I’ve learned many of these lessons in public, on my blog, with the help of my readers. That is why I urge other academics to blog and be challenged by their public. I believe that should count as publishing. Blog or perish, I say.

Our portfolios of work online, searchable by Google, become our new CVs. Neil McIntosh, an editor at the Guardian, blogged that when he interviews young candidates for online journalism jobs, he expects them to have a blog. “There’s no excuse for a student journalist who wants to work online not to have one,” he wrote. “Moreover, the quality of the blog really matters, because it lets me see how good someone is, unedited and entirely self-motivated.” Our work—our collection of creations, opinions, curiosities, and company—says volumes about us. Before a job interview, what employer doesn’t Google the candidate (a practice banned by law in Finland, by the way)? Our fear is that employers will find embarrassing, boozy pictures from spring break, but that’s all the more reason to make sure they also find our blogs and collected works. . . .

Google Air?

As I sit in SFO waiting to go to EWR, I’m seeing that Continental is taking a few good steps down the road to Googlification or at least transparency. When I check on the flight status, I can now see where the incoming equipment is and judge for myself how credible my departure time is. For years, I’ve asked gate agents for that information and now Continental is giving it to us. Yeah.

Also, the airline is publishing openly the list of stand-bys for seats and for business-class upgrades (using just three initials) so people know just where they stand. Now imagine that with this information, we passengers could start a marketplace around them: Maybe I can buy somebody’s upgrade or window seat.

On the way out to San Francisco, when I sat in Newark enduring the dreaded ATC delay (but the airline let me sit out that delay in the airport and not on the tarmac — and I tweeted my gratitude), I was using the Samsung-branded plugs (and also I tweeted my gratitude). Later, I found another tweeter saying that she had been sharing a power tower with me (which led to a sniggle from another tweeter) and wondering whether I was watching my name. I responded and said that I wish she’d said something. We missed each other until we both tweeted on the other end of the trip. Today, I saw her tweet about flying back to New York; I asked whether we were on the same flight; we weren’t, but I warned of more ATC delays today.

Now imagine that we have internet access on the plane and in the airport. So we could start a Twitter hashtag for every flight: #CO449. We can gather around that and meet each other, arrange to share cabs on the other end, get recommendations for restaurants and hotels and events, and maybe even manage that marketplace of seats.

That’s what I write about in the book, imagining the Googley airline. So that’s today’s 30 Days of WWGD snippet:

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In contemplating how to remake an airline with Googlethink, I had just about given up. What can one do with such a commodity service, particularly one that has deteriorated so badly? Air travel’s business model today is based on overselling seats, billing us for checking bags, charging for pillows and pretzels and just about everything they can think of but air, jamming planes to the point of torture, treating customers as prisoners who can be kept on runways for hours without the food and water an inmate is allowed, and withholding information—all the while raising prices. Google couldn’t fix that. No one could.

But then I applied Google rules about connections and the wisdom of crowds with Zuckerberg’s law of elegant organization and my own first law and asked how travelers on planes, trains, and ships or in hotels and resorts could be given more control (of anything but the cockpit, of course). And I wondered, what if passengers on a plane were networked? What if a flight became a social experience with its own economy?

Start here: Most of us are connected to the internet on the ground. Soon, we’ll be connected in the air as planes, like hotels, finally get wireless access (after earlier failed attempts). Wi-fi is good for airlines because they will have something new to charge us for and because it will keep passengers busy and perhaps less likely to grumble and revolt at delays (though we might just blog and Twitter every problem and indignity as it occurs). Once connected with the internet, passengers could connect with each other. It would be easy for the airlines—or passengers themselves—to set up chats and social networks around flights and destinations so we could hook up before and during a flight. We could organize to share cab rides once we land, saving each other money. We could ask fellow passengers for tips about restaurants, museums, and stores and ways to get around. If the wi-fi were reasonably priced and if there were electric plugs at our seats, we could also spend hours happily playing games with each other.

Back when the 747 was introduced, it was supposed to offer lounges where passengers could hang out together. That didn’t last long as every inch was soon crammed with revenue-producing seats. Lounges are supposedly set for a comeback in the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A380 superjumbo jets. So imagine if in our onboard, online social network, we could find people we want to meet—colleagues going to the same conference, travelers with shared interests, future husbands and wives—and we could rendezvous in the lounge. The flight becomes a social experience.

I know this vision sounds far-fetched given our current experience of air travel. But play along. Socialization could be a key to decommodifying the airline. What if passengers chose to fly on one airline vs. another because they knew and liked the people better? BMW drivers mingle with each other on Facebook; Lufthansa passengers could do likewise and they’d have more in common—shared affection for travel and for a destination. Remember: Your company is the company you keep. Your customers are your brand. Airlines might want to encourage more interesting people to fly with them because interesting passengers would attract interesting passengers. Airlines could offer discounts and benefits to people who are active and popular in the social network. Today, airlines offer only seats: commodities. What if, instead, they were to offer experiences and societies? I know, the last thing we want most of the time is to get stuck with a talkative twit in the next seat. Maybe that’s because, by the time we get on a plane, we’re in rotten moods. Suspend disbelief still. Imagine returning to the days when we met interesting people in chance encounters in the air. Maybe passengers could choose to sit next to each other. Next to the right talker, I might tolerate a middle seat. It would probably have to be David Letterman or Oprah sitting next to me. But it could happen.

These passenger networks raise the possibility of creating a new economy around the flight. Airlines could set up auction marketplaces for at least some seats, as JetBlue began doing experimentally on eBay in 2008: What’s it worth for you to fly to Orlando next Monday? Rather than buying seats only from the airline, if late-booking passengers could also buy seats from fellow customers in an open marketplace, that could solve some of the airlines’ overbooking problems, reducing the need to pay bumped fliers. Yes, speculators could arbitrage seats, but if they’re paid-for and nonrefundable, what problem is that for the airline? Resellers become market makers. This exchange sets a new market value for seats that in some cases will be higher than the airlines’ own fares.

The airline could use the exchange as a prediction market to forecast and maximize load. It might see a surge in demand for a destination, perhaps for reasons it could not predict (a new conference or festival, good media coverage for a getaway, a travel bargain, or currency fluctuations unleashing pent-up demand). With sufficient notice, the airline could add capacity, which would keep it ahead of arbitrageurs. The airline always controls supply and now it would know more about demand. Similarly, if a flight were light the airline could offer passengers alternatives at big discounts to enable it to cancel the flight and reroute equipment long before departure, creating savings at the bottom line. The airline would increase efficiency and profitability; the passengers would get a dividend; and the environment would get a break. An open and flexible social marketplace could transform the airline economy.

Hacking education

Educators – like musicians, journalists, carmakers, and bankers before them – won’t know what hit them. But as sure as change is overtaking every other sector of society, it will overtake education – as well it should. Our cookie-cutter, one-pace-fits-all, test-focused system is not up to the task of teaching the creators of the new Googles.

I’m one among many who believe that there are huge opportunities in education, not just to change and improve it but to find new business opportunities. That’s true especially now, as the economic crisis forces people to reconsider and change paths. Note the post below about increased applications at journalism schools. A friend of mine who works in a community college is seeing a surge of people coming back to school to finish degrees and buff up resumes.

I’ve seen this commercial a few times with its stirring call for change and expansion of education. It comes from for-profit Kaplan University (a division of Washington Post-Newsweek; indeed, the division that subsidizes the newsrooms there; as journalism becomes more educational, I believe the can find synergies beyond financial ones). Kaplan is arguing that its for-profit schools can give students more practical, more useful education in more ways:

Here’s another Kaplan ad:

Now see this statement of need by students at Kansas State in the digital ethnography class of the amazing Michael Wesch:

I put those up in the wrong order. The students show the need; Kaplan thinks it has a solution.

For today’s 30 days of WWGD?, here are snippets from the beginning and end of my chapter on education, Google U:

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Who needs a university when we have Google? All the world’s digital knowledge is available at a search. We can connect those who want to know with those who know. We can link students to the best teachers for them (who may be fellow students). We can find experts on any topic. Textbooks need no longer be petrified on pages but can link to information and discussion; they can be the products of collaboration, updated and corrected, answering questions and giving quizzes, even singing and dancing. There’s no reason my children should be limited to the courses at one school; even now, they can get coursework online from no less than MIT and Stanford. And there’s no reason that I, long out of college, shouldn’t take those courses, too.

You may suspect that because I’m a professor, I’ll now come out of this litany of opportunities with a rhetorical flip and demonstrate why we must preserve universities as they are. But I won’t. Of course, I value the academy and its tradition and don’t wish to destroy it. But just as every other institution examined in this book is facing fundamental challenges to its essence and existence in the Google age, so is education. Indeed, education is one of the institutions most deserving of disruption—and with the greatest opportunities to come of it.

Call me a utopian but I imagine a new educational ecology where students may take courses from anywhere and instructors may select any students, where courses are collaborative and public, where creativity is nurtured as Google nurtures it, where making mistakes well is valued over sameness and safety, where education continues long past age 21, where tests and degrees matter less than one’s own portfolio of work, where the gift economy may turn anyone with knowledge into teachers, where the skills of research and reasoning and skepticism are valued over the skills of memorization and calculation, and where universities teach an abundance of knowledge to those who want it rather than manage a scarcity of seats in a class. . . .

On its official blog, Google gave advice to students, not about where they should learn but what they should learn. Jonathan Rosenberg, senior VP of product management, blogged that the company is looking for “non-routine problem-solving skills.” His example: The routine way to solve the problem of checking spelling would be use a dictionary. The non-routine way is to watch all the corrections people make as they refine their queries and use that to suggest new spellings for words that aren’t in any dictionary. Rosenberg said Google looks for people with five skills: analytical reasoning (“we start with data; that means we can talk about what we know, instead of what we think we know”); communication skills; willingness to experiment; playing in a team; passion and leadership. “In the real world,” he said, “the tests are all open book, and your success is inexorably determined by the lessons you glean from the free market.”

Rosenberg’s best advice for students and universities: “It’s easy to educate for the routine, and hard to educate for the novel.” Google sprung from seeing the novel. Is our educational system preparing students to work for or create Googles? I wonder.

[Thanks to Fred Wilson for the headline to this post]

30 Days of WWGD: What Google does to brands

Mike Masnick at TechDirt (via @mattcutts) is spot-on as he dissects Wall Street Journal managing editor Robert Thompson’s complaint on that sad Charlie Rose Flintstones show that Google devalues everything. Masnick argues – and I agree – that Google does precisely the opposite: It adds value.

Links are value. Content without links is valueless because it is unseen and cannot be monetized. Content with links gains value both because it has an audience that can be monetized and because it gains credence in Google PageRank, which equates links with value. That is the basic precept of the link economy.

I wonder whether what Thompson was trying to say instead was that Google devalues brands. I’ve argued lately that media thought their brands were magnets because we readers had to go to them, to find and buy their products. But now, those brands have to come to us. They must think distributed. This is how I lead off that chapter in the book:

Most companies think centralized, and they have since the decline of the Sears catalog and the dawn of the mass market. Companies make us, the customers, come to them. They spend a fortune in marketing to attract us. We are expected to answer the siren call of advertising and trudge to their store, dealership, newsstand, or now, web site. They even think we want to come to them, that we are drawn to them, moths to the brand.

Not Google. Google thinks distributed. It comes to us whenever and however it can.

When we discover a brand’s content – through search or links – the value of the brand is no longer that it drew us there but instead that it helps identify the content once we find it – as in, ‘Oh, yes, The New York Times has reporters and editors and so I know how to judge its content.’ Brands used to be magnets; now they are labels.

So Thompson’s subconscious complaint may instead be that Google devalues his brand as an independent determinant of value: ‘It’s in the Journal, therefore it will attract readers and advertisers.’ Now, instead, a brand’s content has to succeed in more of a meritocracy: the content has to be good enough to attract links and audience.

But sometimes – often – when people land on content through search, they find out what they want to find out and answer their questions and don’t notice what it was that gave them that. They got what they wanted via Google. That is the problem for media brands.

So here’s today’s What Would Google Do? snippet, from a chapter called, Google commodifies everything:

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In the earliest days of the web, I watched focus groups where users thought there was this amazing new company that had acquired all the content you could imagine about every subject possible, as if from the merger of a library, a newspaper, a magazine, and a weather service. That company was Netscape. It merely made the first commercial browser that took readers to those other companies’ sites. But Netscape got the credit.

Today, that amazing brand is Google. People go online looking for something, find the answer, and often don’t know where they found it. Google found it. They’re savvier today and know that Google doesn’t own all the content it links to. But that doesn’t matter, so long as they find what they want—and Google is damned good at that. That’s great for users but bad for brands. Here you work your buns off creating a brand online; you build technology and staff to maintain your site; you spend a fortune on marketing and search-engine optimization to get people to find it; you tell advertisers how many users come to your page and like your brand. But in the end, huge numbers of users don’t recall coming to your site and don’t credit your brand. When I worked on newspaper sites, we knew we had more users than the research said. The problem was, when users were asked where they had seen a piece of information that could have come only from us, they often couldn’t remember. Google found it for them. Google diluted our brands.

Google has turned commodification into a business strategy. Content is commodified: Google makes it just about as easy for you to find what I’ve written on a topic as what Newsweek has written. Once was, brands organized information but now Google does. Media are commodified: Google places marketers’ ads on sites without telling them where the ads will appear. It places those ads not as an ad agency would—on the basis of the audience size, demographics, trust, or value of a media brand—but on the coincidence of words on a page. The value of the ad depends only on how many people click on it. Thus the media brand behind the content where the ad appears becomes less critical and less valuable. Even the audience is commodified: There’s little that distinguishes one of us from another—not age, income, gender, education, interest, all the things advertisers historically paid for. Everybody’s like everybody else. We’re just users. We might as well be pork bellies. And advertisers are commodified: Their text ads look alike, without their expensive logos and brand messages. You’d think they’d object, but they don’t mind because they pay only for clicks. Google has cleverly reduced the risk in advertising, so advertisers let Google drive.

It isn’t all bad. The leveling of the playing field the internet and Google engineered also made it possible for a tiny store selling a niche product to find its ideal customer or for a mere blogger to swim alongside big, old media. But in that process, it’s ironic that our unique identities, personalities, brands, qualifications, interests, relationships, and reputations as publishers—the values the internet enables—can be lost even as we can be found via Google.

What do we do about the threat of commodification? One smart response is to play by Google’s rules and take Google’s money as About.com has done. Or you can join networks with other specialized niches to reach critical mass, as Glam.com has done. Or get people to link to you and talk about you because you’re just so damned good, as Apple does. Or place your ads on highly targeted sites where you know your customers are, sponsoring that mommy blog with free baby food for loyal readers. Develop a deep relationship with your constituents so they come back to you directly, not just through Google search but by using social services such as Facebook. Serve the niche well rather than the mass badly.

30 Days of WWGD? – Google shops

TechCrunch giggles wondering what the new Microsoft store will be like: “Will it be wall-to-wall Vista boxes? Will you have to sign a license agreement to get in? Will they avoid the color “BSOD blue”?”

So for today’s snippet from What Would Google Do?, here’s a snippet from the chapter on retail, starring Gary Veynerchuk.

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Most of what Vaynerchuk does—or what our dream restaurant would do—could be done in any establishment. Why not expose a store’s sales data so I could use that information when I shop? Why not expose my own sales data to me and make suggestions on that basis? Why not gather and share reviews of products so I can make the best selection for my needs and leave happy? Why haven’t local stores followed Amazon’s lead with these services? In his book The Numerati, Stephen Baker says that retailers are only just beginning to think of ways to exploit the data they have about us—like having our shopping carts make personal recommendations.

My wife and I sometimes ask our supermarket to stock a product, but that’s a rare encounter with spotty results. Shouldn’t the store have forums where customers could ask for products and managers could see when those requests reach critical mass? I know, this suggestion ignores one fundamental economic factor in grocery and other retail businesses—that brands pay fees for shelf space that contribute to stores’ bottom lines. But I have to believe that a store that sells me what I want to buy will be better off than a store that sells me what someone pays it to sell.

No local store or chain can compete with the just-in-time, inventory-light efficiency and limitless selection of an internet retailer. So I wonder how the role of the local store changes. Perhaps it becomes more of a showroom run by or for manufacturers. Rather than selling the merchandise right there, it might offer easy ordering and earn a commission. In the chapter on publishing, I looked at printing books on demand. In the chapter on manufacturing, I ask how cars should be sold post-Google. If I were a merchant—a department store, a chain, a local retailer—I’d hope to find a way to curate unique merchandise for my customers as eBay and Etsy?.com do for theirs. Maybe a store, like a newspaper, needs to become less a one-for-all clearinghouse of commodity goods and more a pathway to what I really want.

Perhaps a store, like a restaurant, can become a community built around particular needs, tastes, or passions. Look at the data that is created and shared at Netflix and Amazon through sales rankings, automated recommendations, and customers’ reviews. Now imagine starting direct conversations among these people. What could be unleashed when Vaynerchuk’s customers and fans talk with each other, asking and answering questions, sharing opinions, finding new value in their association with and around him? It’s hard to imagine such a community forming around a tire store, of course. But it’s not hard to imagine many others where communities could grow: athletic stores (my local store promotes running clubs’ events and Nike is holding its own races around the world to encourage such communities to form); food stores (where an instant community of olive-oil fans can gather around choosing which brands to order); electronics stores (if I can read ratings of TVs at Amazon, why can’t I see them when I’m in Best Buy?); garden stores (anybody know how to keep the deer at bay?); hardware stores (let’s share open-source plans for playhouses); toy stores (any advice for a grandparent buying an eight-year-old boy a video game?); and clothing stores (H&M should have a dating service: “Size 4 petite seeks 34-inch waist, 34-inch inseam, 42-long—no khakis, please”). . . .

The internet has caused me to go to stores less often. I can’t remember my last time in a department store. The mall, where I once browsed, now bores me. Wal-Mart’s size scares me. I still enjoy Apple stores but that’s often for the education and the free wi-fi and sometimes for the opportunity to ask a fellow cult member for advice. Stores have become dull. Their merchandise is the same and they have less selection than I find online. They are stocking fewer items and running out more often. They charge higher prices than I can find searching the internet. Sales clerks give me less information about products than I can get from Google and fellow customers. And I have to drive to stores, using ever-more-expensive gas and time.

The store’s salvation is its customers. Rather than treating the internet as a competitor, retailers should follow Vaynerchuk and use it as a platform. Enable your customers to help you stand out from the crowd. Why should I go to your sneaker store, car dealership, or wine store to buy the exact same merchandise I can find in a thousand stores and sites just like yours? Price will no longer get me there; I can find the best prices by Googling, not driving. Good service? That should be assumed. Information? I’ll trust it more if it comes from the community of shoppers. How can you connect with that community? How—to follow Zuckerberg’s law—can you help them organize? How—to follow Vaynerchuk’s law—can you build a ball field where they want to play? Turn the store inside out and build it around people more than products. Your customers are your brand. Your company is the company it keeps.

A Googley lawyer?

In What Would Google Do?, I argue that lawyers can’t be Googley, mainly because they have to do what clients want and can’t be transparent. In Twitter, lawyer Kevin Thompson said he disagreed, so I tweeted back asking him to define a Googley lawyer and he taped his reply:

I do make the point in the book that lawyers, like their ungoogley brethren, PR people, can improve their business with Googlethink and with a flow of information afforded by the internet. But Thompson pretty much agrees with me that lawyers can’t hand over control as the internet demands.

In honor of lawyers, here’s today’s 30 Days of WWGD? snippet from the section on law:

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When I suggested on my blog that there were three industries immune from rehabilitation through Googlethink, my readers disagreed about one—insurance, which spawned an earlier chapter. But nobody disagreed about PR and law. I won’t turn this into a joke about flacks and lawyers—there are plenty of those already (go to Google, search for “lawyer jokes,” and enjoy). Instead, I’ll use this opportunity to examine a few of the key tenets and prerequisites of Googlification through the exceptions that prove the rules.

The problem for public relations people and lawyers is that they have clients. They must represent a position, right or wrong. As they are paid to do that, the motives behind anything they say are necessarily suspect. They cannot be transparent, for that might hurt their clients. They cannot be consistent, for they may represent a client with one stance today and the opposite tomorrow, and we’ll never know what they truly think. In a medium that treasures facts and data, they cannot always let facts win; they must spin facts to craft victory. They must negotiate to the death, which makes them bad at collaboration. It’s not their job to help anybody but their clients. They are middlemen. They won’t admit to making mistakes well; clients don’t pay for mistakes.

Having said that these folks can’t be reformed according to Google’s ways is not to say that they can’t use the tools we’ve reviewed to their own benefit. Some already do. Many lawyers blog (see a selection at Blawg?.com). Like venture capitalists, they find value in talking about their specialties, giving advice, attracting business, branding themselves, and sometimes lobbying for a point of view. Some can be counted on to cover legal stories with valuable experience, background, and perspective. Lawyers are a smart bunch who—surprise!—can write in English instead of legalese. Still, when a law blogger advises me to check my made-in-China tires for problems, I’m also aware that he’s on the prowl for class-action clients. Law is business.

Some lawyers have taken advantage of online networking capabilities to create virtual law firms, eliminating the cost of offices and reducing the overhead of office staff. According to the blog Lawdragon, Virtual Law Partners uses these savings to give its partners 85 percent of billing revenue vs. the usual 30–40 percent. Virtual PR and consulting firms also operate loosely, bringing in members of their networks as needed for clients and communicating and collaborating without offices. . . .

I’m sure lawyers and PR people—like real-estate agents—will be glad to tell me where I’m wrong and I welcome that discussion on my blog: Let’s have at it, and if there are ways to Googlify these trades, then congratulations. In the meantime, both fields need to watch out, for the tools of Google and the internet enable others to disintermediate, undercut, and expose them.

The law and its execution are aided by obfuscation. The internet can fix that. A small number of volunteers could, Wikipedia-like, publish simple, clear, and free explanations of laws and legal documents online. All it takes is one generous lawyer—not an oxymoron—to ruin the game for a thousand of them. I’ve seen a few such sites. They’re not very good yet—none worth recommending—but they’re a start.

Another trend that helps both lawyers and clients is the movement to open up laws and case law online, making them searchable and free. It is a scandal that the work of our own legislatures and courts is often hidden behind private pay walls. Westlaw and Lexis, the so-called Wexis duopoly, have turned our laws into their $6.5 billion industry. They add value by organizing the information, but others are now undercutting them. Forbes told the story of Fastcase, a start-up that uses algorithms instead of editors to index cases so it can reduce costs and lower fees to lawyers. Better yet, public.resource.org is fighting to get laws and regulations online for free. Patents are online now, and Google has made them searchable (go to google?.com/patents and, for entertainment, look up pooper scooper—aka “Apparatus for the sanitary gathering and retention of animal waste for disposal” or “perpetual motion machine” or Google itself). Laws, regulations, and government documents are prime meat for Google’s disintermediation.

Sometimes lawyers are employed merely to intimidate—but now the internet’s power to gather flash mobs enables those targeted by attorneys to return the intimidation. I’ve seen many cases of bloggers pleading openly for help against big organizations that are threatening or suing them. They received offers of pro bono representation from lawyers, often thanks to the Media Bloggers Association. The intimidators then received floods of bad PR. The internet doesn’t defang lawyers, but it can dull their teeth or bite them back.

I would like to see an open marketplace of legal representation—present your problem and take bids from lawyers who have handled similar cases, with data on their success rates. Legal representation can also be open-sourced. People who’ve been in cases can offer free advice and aid to others: Here’s how I dealt with my landlord and here are all the documents I used; feel free to copy and adapt them.
The goal is to free the law—our law—from the private stranglehold of the legal priesthood. Between putting laws and cases online and making them searchable, creating simplified legal documents anyone can use, holding weapons to fight legal intimidation, and creating a more transparent marketplace, we would not replace the legal profession with all its faults but we could create checks on its power.