Posts about google

The responsibilities and opportunities of the platform

Technology companies and news organizations have a lot to learn from each other about the responsibilities of running platforms.

I have been arguing that news organizations should reimagine and rebuild themselves as platforms for their communities, enabling people to share what they know and adding journalistic value to that. As such, they should study technology companies.

But technology companies also need to learn lessons from news organizations about the perils of violating trust and the need to establish principles to work by. That, of course, is a topic of conversation these days thanks to Twitter’s favoring a sponsor when it killed journalist Guy Adams’ account (later reinstated under pressure) and its abandonment of the developers who made Twitter what it is today.

One question that hangs over this discussion is advertising and whether it is possible to maintain trust when taking sponsors’ dollars — see efforts to start as a user-supported Twitter; see Seth Godin suggesting just that; see, also, discussion about ad-supported NBC ill-serving Olympics fans vs. the viewer-support BBC super-serving them. I have not given up on advertising support because we can’t afford do; without it, my business, news, would implode and we’d all end up with less and more expensive media and services. So we’d better hope companies getting advertiser support learn how to maintain their integrity.

In the discussion on Twitter about Twitter’s failings in the Adams affair, Anil Dash suggested drafting the policy Twitter should adapt. Even I wouldn’t be so presumptuous. But I would like to see a discussion — not just for technology companies but also for media companies and governments and universities of institutions in many shapes — of the responsibilities that come with providing a platform.

For the opportunities and benefits of building that platform are many: Your users will distribute you. Developers will build and improve you. You can reach critical mass quickly and inexpensively. As vertically integrated firms are replaced by ecosystems — platforms, entrepreneurial endeavors, and networks — huge value falls to the platforms. It’s worthwhile being a platform.

But if you lose trust, you lose users, and you lose everything. So that leads to a first principle:

Users come first. A platform without users is nothing. That is why was wrong for Twitter to put a sponsor ahead of users. That is why Twitter is right to fight efforts to hand over data about users to government. That is why newspapers built church/state walls to try to protect their integrity against accusations of sponsor influence. That is why Yahoo was wrong to hand over an email user to Chinese authorities; who in China would ever use it again? Screw your users, screw yourself.

I believe the true mark of a platform is that users take it over and use it in ways the creators never imagined. Twitter didn’t know it would become a platform for communication and news. Craigslist wasn’t designed for disaster relief. That leads to another principle:

A platform is defined by its users. In other words: Hand over control to your users. Give them power. Design in flexibility. That’s not easy for companies to do.

But, of course, it’s not just users who make a platform what it is. It’s developers and other collaborators. In the case of Twitter, developers created the applications that let us use it on our phones and desktops — until Twitter decided it would rather control that. If I were a developer [oh, if only] I’d be gun-shy about building atop such a platform now. Similarly, if a news organization becomes a platform for its community to share information and for others to build atop it, then it has to keep in sight their interests and protect them. So:

Platforms collaborate. Platforms have APIs. They reveal the keys to the kingdom so others can work with them and atop them. Are they open-source? Not necessarily. Though making its underlying platform open is what made WordPress such a success.

In the discussion about Adams and Twitter, some said that Twitter is a business and thus cannot be a platform for free speech. I disagree. It is a platform for speech. And if that speech is not free, then it’s no platform at all. Speech is its business.

When a platform is a business, it becomes all the more important for it to subscribe to principles so it can be relied upon. Of course, the platform needs to make money. It needs to control certain aspects of its product and business. I don’t think anyone would argue with that. But if it keeps shifting that business so users and collaborators feel at risk, then in the long-run, it won’t work as a business.

Platforms need principles.

All this can, of course, be summed up in a single, simple principle: Don’t be evil. That’s why Google has that principle: because it’s good business; because if it is evil, it’s users — we — can call it out quickly and loudly and desert it. As Umair Haque says, when your users can talk about you, the cost of doing evil rises.

There are other behaviors of platforms that aren’t so much principles as virtues.

A good platform is transparent. Black boxes breed distrust.

A good platform enables portability. Knowing I can take my stuff and leave reduces the risk of staying.

A good platform is reliable. Oh, that.

What else?

Calling Dr. Google

I should have listened to Dr. Google. I woke up Sunday morning with the dregs of a cold so I went back to sleep. An hour later, I woke up with a new pain on my right side about an inch down and three inches over from the navel. Given who I am — chronic hypochondriac and a certified Google fan boy — I searched Google for appendicitis.

By reputation, Google — and the internet — should have returned bogus, dangerous, uninformed, unauthoritative advice from cults, and witch doctors, and Demand Media. But it didn’t. It gave me the NIH, WedMD, the Mayo Clinic, (yes) Wikipedia, and other good and trustworthy sources. It gave me more than enough good information to check and cross-check and then diagnose my new pain correctly.

But I didn’t listen. First, I really am a hypochondriac. More than once, I’ve thought I had appendicitis, forgetting that it can’t occur on the left side. And even I am struck by the absurdity of my recent medical history, all documented here: atrial fibrillation, prostate cancer, thyroid cancer; surely, lightening is bored with me. I further had listened to those — including doctors and nurses — who pooh-pooh listening to Google. So I thought it prudent to wait and see whether this got worse, as I assumed appendicitis would, or turned into something else or nothing — in which case, I wouldn’t be embarrassed with a diagnosis by Dr. Google.

All day, the pain advanced. I repeat: This was a new, a unique pain to me. At 530pm, my wife and I went to a cocktail party at a friend’s house that I’d been looking forward to. Fifteen minutes and one sip in, I knew I was in the wrong place, ready to succumb to hot flashes and God knows what else. I went home and drove to the hospital.

I think I can pinpoint the exact moment my appendix burst: at 730pm when I was going through the process of insurance, an even greater pain swept through me. In the emergency room, I was given pain medication, thank goodness, and tests, including, at some length, a CT scan. The scan eventually came back saying that I not only had a bloated appendix but also that it was “perforated.” Now if they were sure the appendix had burst, the normal course, I was told, would have been to send me home with IV antibiotics for two weeks to clean up the sure infection that was just starting in my gut; then I’d return and they’d deal with it.

Luckily, very luckily, I had a hot dog doc who doubted the extent of the oozage, given the freshness of my pain that morning, and so he decided to operate. At 2am, he started. He did, indeed find gunk in my belly and had to spend extra time flushing and vacuuming it up through three small holes in my belly — one in the navel — for his arthroscopic instruments (two fewer than were needed for my robotic prostate operation). I was minus yet another body part — I need some more spares! — and lucky for it. Tuesday afternoon, after much IV antibiotics and pain meds, I went home.

Now here’s the moral to the story: If I had gone straight to the emergency room at 10 that morning or anytime that afternoon, I’ll bet my appendix wouldn’t have burst and I would not have had the extra risk and trauma and uncertainty.

I should have listened to Dr. Google. All the good Doc did was send me to good docs — not junk sources; note well that it’s in Google’s interest to give us quality and that is why its search algorithm has been changing for our benefit (there is no such thing as neutral search and I don’t want it if anyone ever invents it). It gave me the information I needed to make an important decision and tell the doctors what they needed to know to make a diagnosis.

I — of all people — should not have doubted Dr. Google’s healing power. Sorry, Doc.

So much for the penny press

The New York Times raised its daily price to $2.50 today. I thought back to the penny press at the turn of the last century and wondered what such a paper would cost today, inflation adjusted. Answer: a quarter.

Screen shot 2012-01-02 at 11.09.10 AM

So, in inflation-adjusted current pennies, The New York Times today costs 10 times more than a newspaper in 1890. Granted, Today’s Times is better than a product of the penny press. But is it worth 10x? Should it cost 10x?

In the meantime, labor rates have risen (a Timesman today lives better than a Timesman then) but production technology has become far more automated and efficient (no more typesetters, proofreaders, compositors, engravers, stereographers, mailrooms, or “rubber rooms” filled with unneeded pressmen). And the advertising value of newspapers has increased exponentially.

On the one hand, there’s less competition today. The New York Times is essentially a national newspaper monopoly (the Wall Street Journal and USA Today are different beasts). That should enable it to raise its price to such a premium. On the other hand, what’s really at work, of course, is that there’s much more competition today: the entire web. That would drive the paper to lower its price.

Instead, today it raises its price — by a whopping 25% over its old daily price of $2. That’s because it is trying to support an outmoded economic model. The myth of legacy media — rich while it lasted — was that every reader saw every ad so the paper charged every advertiser for every reader. That’s how scale paid off. Those are the economics that led to the rise of the penny press.

Online, that myth has been punctured: (a) every reader does not see every ad, and (b) advertisers pay only for the ads readers see (or in Google click on), and (c) there’s abundant competition. That’s what confounds legacy media folks: “If I get more audience and have more effective advertising, why am I not being paid more?” Because you’re operating by media laws that are now outmoded. You’re still operating under an industrial economy built on scarcity. That’s what makes you think you still have pricing power.

You need to find opportunity in entirely new models, in the new scale, in abundance. Google finds value in scale by taking on risk for the advertiser (who pays only for clicks) and by increasing relevance by putting ads everywhere. Facebook finds value in relationships and data about them and it doesn’t sell content but does use content as a tool to generate more data about users and their interests.

In their day — a century ago — newspapers found new ways to exploit scale. Today, net companies exploit scale in new ways. Google, Facebook, and Twitter are the penny press of today. Only they cost even less.

BTW, thanks to the very good Times Machine, we can see that The Times started life at a penny, which rose to four cents and then back down to a penny by 1900 — because it wanted scale.

Rat poison

The Google/Motorola deal is lawyer repellent. Or rat poison, if you prefer. It is a tragic and wasteful by product of our screwed-up patent system. Just this year, $18 billion is being spent not on innovation and invested not in entrepreneurship and growth but instead in fending off lawsuits. Damn straight, we need patent reform.

Having said that, this is good for Google and Android and its ecosystem. That’s why HTC, LG, and Sony all released statements praising the deal. Google isn’t going into competition with them. Google is buying them protection to defend against Apple, Nokia, and other patent holders and legal thugs.

The net result is that Android can now explode even more than it has already. I imagine — I hope — there were other companies in other fields — cars, appliances, TV, devices of all sorts — that were waiting for some security so they could add connectivity to their devices, using Android.

Google wins because, as I’ve been saying, the real war here is over signal generation: Google, Facebook, and to an extent Apple and telcos and others want us to generate signals about ourselves — who we are, where we are, what we want, who we know, what we’re looking for, where we’re going — so they can better target their content, services, and advertising. Mobile is a great signal generator.

But I’ve also been saying that mobile will become a meaningless word as we become connected everywhere, all the time. Who’s to say or care whether we’re connected with a phone as we walk, through our car, on our couch via the TV, in the kitchen via the iFridge, or at the desk (remember that?). Mobile=local=me.

I disagree with those who say that Google had hardware envy vis a vis Apple. Google went into the hardware business and was smart enough to get out. I imagine that Google will operate Motorola as an independent entity; it won’t become Googley. Indeed, I can imagine Google spinning off the product arm, keeping the rat poison.

So this is a good if unfortunate deal to have to be done. That’s my take.

What Google+ adds to news

To paraphrase Mark Zuckerberg, it is too soon to know what Google+ is. But I’ve been trying to imagine how it will and won’t be useful to news. You should add rock salt to anything I say, as I thought Google Wave would be an important journalistic tool. With that in mind, a few opening thoughts:

* Google+ likely won’t be good for live coverage of breaking events because its algorithm messes with the reverse chronology, promoting old posts when they get new comments. It doesn’t favor the *latest* the way Twitter and liveblogging do and live news is all about the latest. I don’t see Andy Carvin making the switch.

(I’ve wished that I could have the option to get a stream only of newly submitted posts. Many have complained about the promoting of too much old stuff. Sergey Brin said on G+ yesterday that they’ve tweaked the algorithm to give less weight to comments from people you don’t follow.)

* G+ should be good for collaboration on reporting. When I ask a question, the answers appear with my question and subsequent responders can improve on earlier answers. With Circles, I can focus my questions on a specific group (e.g., VCs) and can benefit when their circles see their interaction with me — so long as I am not fool enough to disable sharing.

* If Google gets its synergistic act together and incorporates Google Docs — and some of the tricks from Wave — into G+, then this could be a very good collaboration tool for communities to gather together and share what they know. That’s the basis for news.

* G+ will be good for promoting content. The service isn’t yet open and I have almost more than 7,000 followers. Memes spread quickly on G+, but because of its time-bending algorithm, they also last longer if they spark conversation — that’s its plus side (no pun intended). Automated spewing of headlines likely won’t be effective, but conversing will.

* I see a big problem in the G+ restriction of one link per post. I find that sadly ironic. G+ is a service for sharing and links are the essence of responsible sharing, revealing the provenance of facts and giving credit. A blog post is a better vehicle for a well-sourced, well-linked post.

* G+’s identities likely won’t be as reliable as Facebook’s, as it is easy to create an account and identity on there are not the social pressures for authenticity. Then again, people will invest in their Google profiles, especially as they become more prominent in search (see what Google is doing with authors, broadly defined; I’m one of them in the test). I’m still trying to get my head around the play on identity among Google, Facebook, Twitter, and players yet to join in.

* G+ may be a good place to find photos from news, depending on whether witnesses favor putting them there or on Twitter or on Facebook or on Flickr and how well Google does at making them searchable.

I see that we will have to teach Google Plus at my J-school. Especially at the start, it will be valuable to have students brainstorm how they could use it. That’s the way journalists should approach every promising new tool.

What do you think G+’s uses are for news?

What did Google do?

Reuters asked for an op-ed on the handover at Google. Here it is:

The miracle of Google was that it could accomplish anything—let alone become the fastest growing company in the history of the world and the greatest disruptive force in business and society today—while being run by a committee, a junta, a council of the gods.

In management, as in every other arena of business, technology, and media, Google broke every rule and made new ones.

It should not be a shock that Eric Schmidt has stepped aside as CEO and made room for Larry Page. Schmidt was the prince regent who ruled until the boy king could take the throne while training him to do so. We knew that this would happen. We just forgot that it would.

When I interviewed Schmidt a few weeks ago and asked about pressure over privacy, China, and lobbying, he said, “This is not the No. 1 crisis at Google.” What is? “Growth,” he said, “just growth.”

Scale is Google’s greatest skill and greatest challenge. It scaled search (vs. quaint Yahoo, which thought it could catalogue this web thing). It scaled advertising (vs. the media companies that today don’t know how to grow, only shrink). It is scaling mobile (by giving away Android). It has tried to scale innovation (with its 20 percent rule)—but that’s the toughest.

How does Google stay ahead of Facebook strategically? The war between the two of them isn’t over social. The next, great scalable opportunity and challenge is mobile, which in the end will translate into local advertising revenue. Mobile will give Google (or Facebook or Groupon or Twitter or Foursquare … we shall see) the signals needed to target content, services, search, and advertising with greater relevance, efficiency, and value than ever. As Schmidt told broadcasters in Berlin last year: “We know where you are. We know what you like.” Local is a huge, unclaimed prize. The question is how to scale sales.

I have no special insight into the Googleplex. But I have to imagine that when the company’s three musketeers sat down and asked themselves what impediments could restrain their innovation and growth, they were smart enough and honest enough to finally answer, “us.”

As well as their holy trinity worked setting strategy and reaching consensus—the one thing I did hear from inside Google was that nothing happened if they did not agree—it has become apparent that Google became less nimble and more clumsily uncoordinated.

Google is working on two conflicting and competing operating system strategies, Android and Chrome. It bungled the launches of Buzz and Wave, not to mention Google TV. It is losing talent to Facebook. It needs clearer vision and strategy and more decisive communication and execution of it.

If it’s obvious to us it had to be obvious to them that that couldn’t come from Largey-plus-Eric. Google, like its founders, is growing up. It needs singular management. So let’s hope that Schmidt did his most important job well—not managing but teaching.

Now we will watch to see who Larry Page really is and where his own vision will take Google. Will he give the company innovative leadership and can Sergey Brin give it leadership in innovation?

I imagine we will see a new support structure for Page built from below now rather than from the side. I’m most eager to see how he will cope with speaking publicly for the company. Schmidt’s geeky sense of humor was not grokked by media. (When he set off a tempest in the news teapot saying we should all be able to change our names at age 21 and start over with youthful indiscretions left behind us, he was joking, folks. Really, he was.) Page is even less show-bizzy.

As for Schmidt: I have gained tremendous respect for him as a manager, thinker, leader. His next act will likely surprise us more than this latest act.

* * *

And here’s my appearance on The Takeaway this morning:

Lock up the kids, here comes the EU

If you want a sign that Google is past its prime, you got it today: The EU is investigating it for antitrust.

Remember Microsoft: The EU took 11 years investigating it — during which time, the web was born — and by the time it finished in 2004 and brought its mighty hand down upon the mighty Microsoft, the market had already done the job, thank you. Microsoft was a has-been, a joke as a monoplist, a laggard legacy company left behind by new technology, a threat to no one but itself.

Now the EU is going after Google. No surprise. One thing that has surprised me lately is the anti-Googlism (read: anti-Americanism, anti-capitalism) I’ve seen reflected in the nasty rhetoric over Google’s Street View. In my trips to Germany and talks there, I regularly heard that Google is too big (can someone please send me to the statute that defines big and thus too big?) — not too big to fail but too big to live in Europe. I’ve also heard people say they don’t want Google making money on them (but it’s OK for the corner store or the local newspaper to?).

Now the crows come home to roost with this EU investigation. But as Danny Sullivan argues in a wonderfully smart-assed and logical post, the EU is going after this search engine for acting like a search engine. When he searches for cars, Google has the audacity not to point to other search engines. It points to car sites! Bad Google, Bad.

And what if Google does point to its own businesses: YouTube, shopping comparison, Gmail, whatever. That’s business. Yahoo points to Yahoo; I’ve sat in meeting with them back in the early days of the web when they bragged about how they could point their “firehose” at their own stuff. The New York Times points to The New York Times. Microsoft links to Microsoft. So?

Remember that it was Google that created the ethic of search results untainted by business. Its model before that was GoTo/Overture, which *sold* search position. Analysts thought they were nuts — Commies, maybe — when Google decided *not* to tell search position out of some strange sense of ethics.

So now the EU wants to take Google’s own standard and interpret it against Google? Where the hell does this?

Last night, someone said to me something I also hear a lot: that search is a utility and utilities need to be regulated. Europeans reflexively regulate.

But Google isn’t a utility. There are plenty of other, competitive search engines. The fact that Google has 90+% penetration in Europe is the choice of the market, nothing Google did through unfair advantage.

And — shades of the Microsoft case — Google is being challenged now by other means of discovery: namely us sharing links through social means. Google is no longer the all-powerful Oz of the internet. The EU’s timing is impecable.

Now there is one arena in which Google does have much power: advertising. It’s not as effective to market on Bing as it is on Google. And I’ve said before — just yesterday — that I think Google would be wise to establish a Constitution and Bill of Rights and channel of appeal of its decision on advertisers so it cannot be accused of manipulating things behind the scenes through its sole power.

In that sense, Google is not a utility. It is law. And laws require principles and means of appeal. That’s what I said yesterday and what I’ll argue again in this case. Google would be wise to be more transparent about its advertising rules and decisions (not its algorithms but its judgments) and open up that process to trusted outsiders. Google needs a court.

But now the EU is looking to take them to court. Oh, boy.

What should Google do?

Twitter was abuzz last night with links to the David Segal’s amazing NYTimes yarn of a bad internet actor who says he uses — and eggs on — customer complaints to get more links and mentions online, thus more Googlejuice, thus more business.

The Times didn’t go the next step to ask what Google should do about this. And Google didn’t help itself by dispatching only an unnamed spokesperson who then, Segal complains, didn’t send a followup email. Google would have been much wiser to have hooked Segal up with Matt Cutts, the company’s wizard in the game of bad-guy whack-a-mole, to discuss the options and implications.

It’s not as simple as it seems, for Google and its algorithms are now a set of laws of the web and if you intervene in one way, you may trigger the law of unintended consequences in another.

What if Google sensed the positive or negative sentiment in links and used that to guide its placement in search, as some suggested? Makes sense in the case of bad-guy Borker and his virtual eyeglass store. But as someone pointed out on Twitter last night, if Google did let sentiment affect rank, then what would it do with the negative links regarding Barack Obama or Sarah Palin, to Islam or GM? How would you write that law, remembering that the code is the law?

What if instead Google intervened in a case such as this and, seeing all the complaints, manually downgraded the guy in search? The first problem with that is scale: how do you find and investigate all the bad guys? The bigger problem is whether we want Google to be the cop of the world. Google has been sued by companies it decreed were link-bating spammer sites, downgrading them in search, while the sites said they were legitimate directories. This is the one case in which Google holds the power of God in a market and it’s a dangerous position to be in.

I have suggested before that Google should set up a jury of peers to adjudicate such cases. I didn’t use the verb “crowdsource,” for crowds can be gamed, as Mr. Borker amply demonstrates. But a trusted (cue Craig Newmark) jury could give Google distance from the decision. I say peers — fellow business people — because in cases such as this, their interests and those of Google and us, the users, are aligned: We don’t want bad guys to game search. Google, especially, wants to — in Cutts’ words — find more signals of quality and originality so its results are of higher quality and relevance.

What I’m really saying is that as Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other private players come to be the law of the land on the internet, they need to start acting like public players with Constitutions and Bills of Rights and the means of enforcement and adjudication with due process. I’ll be exploring this notion in Public Parts.

In the end, Segal’s story looks like a failure of search, Google, and the internet. The internet made it possible for a bad guy to win. Well, so does Wall Street.

But I don’t think this was Google’s failure (cue fan-boy accusations). The moral of the story should be that if you search Google for the name of Borker’s company, you see plenty of loud complaints in the results. The internet doesn’t nullify the First Law of Commerce: caveat emptor. When I had my now-legendary problems with Dell, I kicked myself for not doing a search of “dell sucks” before buying my computer. That’s my responsibility as a shopper. And, as I pointed out at the time, Google would have given me the information I needed. Ditto for the lady in Segal’s story. If I think of buying from a new vendor, I’ve learned my lesson: I search Google first because fellow customers, using Google, will help protect me.

That is the lesson The Times should have given its readers: Use Google to guard against those who would use Google.

P.S. In fairness to Dell, I should add that we made up and it became a leader in social media. I figure everybody who comes here knows how that story ended, but in case not….

: UPDATE: Google responded to the story and the problem; here’s the blog post explaining. The NYT does a followup, the last graph of which kind of deflates the entire story and its premise that being bad is good for business:

At the blog Search Engine Land, Byrne Hobart also wrote in a recent posting that the review-generating strategy was not the driver of Mr. Borker’s success. His analysis found that Mr. Borker benefited chiefly from various “black-hat tricks” to improve his site’s standing, including links from what he called auto-generated spam pages. He also found that the store was frequently linked to by mainstream media sites — The Times included — when references were made to high-end eyeglasses.