Posts about 30dayswwgd

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 has done. Or you can join networks with other specialized niches to reach critical mass, as 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:

* * *

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, 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.

Book as process, not product

I had an absolute ball at Jeff Puliver’s Soccomm confab today not just presenting What Would Google Do? – the PowerPoint – but turning it into a collaborative brainstorming session and jokefest imaging the Googley restaurant.

I didn’t have to ask for suggestions about what makes a Googley restaurant, the room of hypersavvy online social folks started yelling out suggestions and it just got better from there. I saw video cameras going and I hope someone recorded it; the ideas and gags were great (some ended up on Twitter). There was discussion about a marketplace for food, about people who send more business to the restaurant eating for less, and more. And there was one joke about Google having us eat cookies so it knows where we go and another about – pardon me – analyzing the toilet bowl as a source of user-generated content. (Cue rim shot.)

At the end of it, I said this is why books need to become more processes and less products, because the room wrote a great chapter, just as you did on this blog about insurance, which is today’s 30 Days of WWGD? snippet (snippets, actually):

* * *

As I was researching this book, I wrote on my blog that I had come up against a few industries I thought were immune from reform through Googlification. Insurance topped my list (we’ll get to the others shortly).

Insurance is built on getting us to take a sucker bet—a bet even we want to lose. Nobody wants a reason to collect collision, fire, flood, health, or certainly life insurance. Worse than Vegas, we know that insurance companies stack the deck against us; that is the foundation of their business. If we don’t collect, we are losers (we’ve lost our money). If we do collect, we’re still losers (something bad happened). If the insurance company pays out too much and goes out of business, then those of us who paid in still lose. We can’t win. The industry has to suspect that we are liars, making us prove our misfortune and reluctantly giving us back the money we put in the pool. They make the economics overcomplicated so we don’t know just what suckers we are and so we keep making safe bets—safe for the insurance company. Our relationship with insurance is, therefore, necessarily adversarial and built on mutual mistrust. How incurably unGoogley.

My readers disagreed. A few dozen of them left comments on my blog arguing that insurance can reform, and they showed me how. Here are excerpts from the conversation and my education. (Let this chapter be an object lesson in the power of open, collaborative thinking.)

The first comment came from Seth Godin, author of Purple Cow, Small Is the New Big, Tribes, and other business best sellers, who scolded me: “Think bigger, Jeff!” He provided a few examples of social insurance. First:

20 Korean families pool finances and open businesses one at a time?.?.?.??each member of the group has a huge incentive to help each business succeed, so they can get the money when it’s their turn. Imagine insurance being created in a coordinated fashion, with each member of the coop working to decrease the risk of everyone in the pool.

A commenter from France, Bertil Hatt, said the Mutuelle Assurance Instituteur France (MAIF) lives by some of these principles of mutual benefit, providing insurance as well as services, such as home and child care. Premiums are higher than average, she said, but lower for the young, the poor, and students. “How can they make it?” she asked. “Thanks to an implicit contract: When you get richer, you stay with them not only for the service, but because you believe in their way.” Insurance becomes a collective, though private, good.

Godin next talked about smart devices that might need less insurance. Cars with better brakes can cost less to insure if they keep us safer and also cost less to repair and to warranty—which, again, is a form of insurance. Godin took the idea a step farther and suggested that “smart products come with their own insurance because they’re so much better and talk to each other.”

When cars know where they are and where trouble might be, or when they integrate with each other and their drivers and the roads and the police, shouldn’t insurance get better? . . .

Scott Heiferman, founder of Meetup, also brought historical perspective to the discussion, writing a brief manifesto for change in the coming decade, chock full of hip blog references (the “social graph” to which he refers is what Mark Zuckerberg calls the architecture of personal connections on Facebook):

Historically, when people are free to assemble & associate, they self-organize insurance, cooperatively. Later it became the centralized, professionalized industry we know today. I predict there’ll be some kind of massive craigslistification of insurance by April 27, 2018. It’s about de-institutionalization—not from the government borg (social security), not from the corporate borg (AIG). The New Social [graph] Security. Decentralized, self-organized. Not just DIY, but DIO (Do It Ourselves). That is the big theme for everything now.

There is the great promise and power of the Google age: DIO. . . .

This vision came from my readers. They applied the internet’s new ways to old problems to see what could be improved. They believed that more transparency in marketplaces would yield greater value. They believed that adding social elements—the interests and pressures of a community—would increase value. They told me that handing control to the market would increase trust, and insurance is about trust. So they proposed networks of mutual need and service that diminish if not eliminate the middlemen.

I’m proud to say that I didn’t come up with these ideas. My generous readers did. They were my insurance against an empty chapter.

30 Days of WWGD? – The googley restaurant

I’m a few days behind on 30 days of WWGD? Sorry; took the weekend off. Today’s snippet: imagining the Googley restaurant:

* * *

What would a restaurant run according to Googlethink look like—other than being decorated in garish primary colors with a neon sign, big balls for seats, and Fruit Loops and M&Ms on every table?

Imagine instead a restaurant—any restaurant—run on openness and data. Say we pick up the menu and see exactly how many people had ordered each dish. Would that influence our choice? It would help us discover the restaurant’s true specialties (the reason people come here must be the crab cakes) and perhaps make new discoveries (the 400 people who ordered the Hawaiian pizza last month can’t all be wrong?.?.?.??can they?).

If a restaurateur were true to Googlethink, she would hunger for more data. Why not survey diners at the end of the meal? That sounds frightening—what if they hate the calamari?—but there’s little to fear. If the squid is bad and the chef can hear her customers say so, she’ll 86 it off the menu and make something better. Everybody wins. She’ll also impress customers with her eagerness to hear their opinions. This beats wandering around the tables, randomly asking how things are (as a diner, I find it awkward and ungracious to complain; it’s like carping about Grandmother’s cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving). Why not just ask the question and give everyone the means to answer? Your worst diner could be your best friend.

The more layers of data you have, the more you learn, the more useful your advice can be: People who like this also like that. Or here are the popular dishes among runners (a proxy for the health-minded) or people who order expensive wines (a proxy for good taste, perhaps).
If you know about your crowd’s taste in wine, why not crowdsource the job of sommelier? Have customers rate and describe every bottle. Show which wines were ordered with which dishes and what made diners happy. If this collection of data were valuable in one restaurant, it would be exponentially more valuable across many. Thinking openly, why not compile and link information from many establishments so diners can learn which wines go best with many kinds of spicy dishes? If you want to be courageous, why not reveal that people who like this restaurant also like that one? Sure, that sends the other guys business—it’s linking to them—but in an open pool of information, they will also send business back. Nobody eats at the same place every night (well, there was the time when I went to McDonald’s entirely too often). Even a restaurant can think as a member of a network in a linked information economy.

Networks force specialization. In a linked world, you don’t want to be all things to all people. You want to stand out for what you do best. That’s why chef Gordon Ramsey focuses the menus of the restaurants he fixes on his show, Kitchen Nightmares, so they know the business they’re in. Serve your niche instead of the mass. Do what you do best.

Now, as Emeril would say, let’s kick it up a notch: Open-source the restaurant. Put recipes online and invite the public to make suggestions and even to edit them on a wiki. Maybe they’ll suggest more salt. Maybe they’ll go to the trouble of cooking the dish at home, trying variations, and reporting back. In the early days of the web, I worked on the launch of Epicurious?.com, the online site for Gourmet and Bon Appétit magazines, where I was amazed to see people share their own recipes—there’s the gift economy—and also share their comments and variations on the magazines’ recipes. For example, a Gourmet adaptation of a bakery’s recipe for Mexican chocolate cake brought suggestions to replace the water with espresso (many commenting cooks liked that idea, tried it, and shared their endorsements); double the cinnamon; add Kahlua or rum to the glaze; use cream-cheese frosting instead of the glaze; use neither topping but serve it with whipped cream and berries; toast the nuts; substitute milk and orange juice for buttermilk; coat the cake pan with cocoa powder (helps with the sticking, you see); and even add cayenne pepper (pepper?). With these adaptations, you could argue the dish is no longer the same; could be better, could be worse. I’m not suggesting that recipes or menus become ballots; see the preGoogle rule about too many chefs spoiling the broth. It’s the chef, not the public, who will be held to account if the cake is too peppery. So I’ll violate Jarvis’ First Law—I won’t hand over complete control. But why not gather and use the wisdom of the dining room? A good restaurant has people who appreciate and know good food. It should respect their taste and knowledge, the Google way. . . .