Posts about google

To a faster — and distributed — web

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Last May, shortly after Facebook announced its Instant Articles, Google held its first Newsgeist Europe and I walked in, saying obnoxiously (it’s what I do): “Facebook just leapfrogged you by a mile, Google. What you should do now is create an open-source version of Instant Articles.” Richard Gingras, head of Google News, has long been arguing for what he called portable content. I had been arguing since 2011 for embeddable content: If content could travel with its brand, revenue, analytics, and links attached, then it can go to the reader rather than making the reader come to it.

Today, fairy godmother Google delivered our wish — thanks to Gingras, Google engineering VP Dave Besbris, and media partners inside and outside of Google’s European Digital News Initiative. Hallelujah.

Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) — as you can see from Google’s definition on Github, above — a simple way to dramatically speed up the serving of web pages (on mobile and on desktop) through several means, including:
(1) a shared library of web-page functions so that they can be cached and called and not downloaded with every new web page;
(2) the opportunity to cache content nearer the user — with Google or not and inside apps on user’s devices;
(3) the beginnings of advertising standards to get rid of some of the junk that both slows down and jumbles the serving of web pages; and
(4) the sharing of some functions such as gathering data for analytics.

Note that the publisher’s revenue (that is, ads), analytics (that is, user data), brand, and links stay with the content. Google emphasized again and again: It’s just the web, done well. It’s just a web page — but way faster. A link is no longer an invitation to wait. A link is just a next page, instantly and fully visible.

You can get a demo here. So far, it’s just a sample of about 5,000 new pages per day from the launch partners. Open that URL on your phone. Search for something like Obama. Go through the carousel and you should be amazed with the speed.

But I think AMP and Instant Articles are more than that. They are a giant step toward a new, distributed content ecology on the web … and a better, faster web, especially in mobile.

Here are a few ways I see this changing the way content operates on the web:

Imagine an aggregator like Real Clear Politics or an app like Nuzzel. Now, every time you click on a link, you have to load a browser and all the cruft around the content on a page. Now, the page — every page made to the AMP standard — can load *instantly* because the architecture and functionality of the page can be prefetched and cached and the content can be cached closer to the user — and the advertising and analytics will not be allowed to screw up the loading of the page. So the experience of reading an aggregation of content will be like reading a web site: fast, clean, smooth. If I were in the aggregation business, I would build around AMP.

Imagine starting a new media service without a web site but built around content meant to be distributed so it goes directly to readers wherever they are: on Twitter (via users’ links there), on Facebook (in a community there), on Nuzzel (through recommendations there), and elsewhere — via Reddit, Mode aggregation, Tumblr, etc.

Now there are a few key things missing from the AMP architecture that will be critical to business success. But they can be added.

The first is that user interest data needs to flow back to the content creator — with proper privacy transparency and consent built in! — so that the publisher can build a direct relationship of relevance and value with the user, no matter where she is encountered. That is more complicated but vital.

The second — and this is a lesson I learned working with shared content and thus audience in the New Jersey news ecosystem — is that we must value and reward not just the creators of content but also those who build audience for that content.

That’s a small matter of deal making. AMP is built with *no* need to make deals, which is critical to its quick adoption. You make your content AMP-ready and anybody can serve it instantly to their audiences with your business model (advertising, etc.) attached. But there’s no reason two publishers can’t make a separate deal so, for example, the Washington Post could say to the Cincinnati Inquirer: You can take our AMP-ready content with our ads attached but we will give you your own ad avail or we will give you a reward for the traffic you bring us and we can share a special, co-branded page. The Post is already getting ready to distribute all its content in Facebook. It is using its owner Jeff Bezos’ Amazon to distribute itself, too. (Speculation is that these alone will have it leap past The New York Times in audience.) Why not use AMP and make deals to reward other quality news services on the web to be its distributor? That is the new newsstand. That is the new site-less web.

I also see the opportunity to make AMP-ready modules and widgets that can be collected and aggregated *inside* web pages.

This is a big deal. It’s not just about speeding up the web. It’s about unbundling the web and web sites. If we in media are smart in exploiting its opportunities and if AMP and Amazon and others gather together around a single set of standards — which is quite possible — if we add more data smarts to the process, this could be big for us in media or for upstarts in garages. Your choice, media.

AFTERTHOUGHT: How should Facebook respond? I would suggest they have nothing to lose by joining the standard so publishers can publish both ways. I would also suggest that Facebook can now leapfrog Google by helping publishers with interest data and user profiles — that is where the real value will be.

What Would Alphabet Do?

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You’d expect me to say this but Google’s transformation into Alphabet is a brilliant move that enables Page, Brin, and their company to escape the bonds of their past — They’re just a search company. Why are they working on self-driving cars and magical contact lenses and high-flying balloons? — and go where no one has thought they would go before.

To Wall Street and countless bleating analysts — not to mention its competitors and plenty of government regulators — Google was a search company, though long ago it became so much more. I don’t just mean that it also made a great browser, the best maps, killer email, an open phone operating system and some of the best phones, and a new operating system (and the damned fine computer I’m writing on right now) — and that it acquired the biggest video company and the best traffic data company. I don’t just mean that Google has for a long time really been the powerhouse advertising company.

No, Google long ago became a personal services company, the post-mass-market company that treats every user as a customer it knows individually. That is the heart of Google. When they say they “focus on the user and all else will follow,” they mean it.

But Google was also a technology company, working on projects that didn’t fit with that mission.

So this move lets Page and Brin move up to the strategic stratosphere where they are most comfortable. It lets them recognize the tremendous job Sundar Pichai has been doing running the company that is now “just” Google. It lets them invest in new experiments and new lines of business — cars, medical technology, automated homes, and energy so far, and then WTF they can imagine and whatever problems they yearn to solve. It lets them tell Wall Street not to freak at a blip in the ad market — though, of course, the vast majority of the parent company’s revenue will still come from Google’s advertising business.

A journalist asked me a few minutes ago whether there was any risk to the change. I couldn’t think of any then. I suppose one risk is that this will only freak out especially European media and regulatory technopanickers, who will now go on a rampage warning that — SEE! — Google does want to rule the world. But what the hell. They were going to do that anyway.

A few weeks ago at Google I/O, I had the privilege of meeting Page. To introduce myself, I said that I wrote a book called What Would Google Do?. “Oh, I remember,” he said with impish grin and then he asked: “What would Google do? I want to know.”

See, I don’t think even Larry Page knows what Google — er, Alphabet — will do. He is now setting himself up for discoveries, surprises, exploration, experimentation, and a magnificently uncertain future. Who wants a certain future? That’d be so damned boring. So horribly conventional.

Disclosure: I own Google — er, Alphabet — stock. And I now lust after Alphabet swag.

How (not) to interview

Here’s an object lesson for journalism students in the art of the interview.

Poor Sundar Pichai, the No. 2 at Google, sat down for an interview with a New York Times technology reporter, only to find himself bombarded with the same question a half-dozen ways, to wit: Aren’t mobile phones bad for us?

First question: “Do you see mobile phones heading down a path of social unacceptability? Do we have a problem of overuse?”

After acknowledging that phones can do good things — goddamned miracles, I’d say — the reporter came back to his plaint: “But then people start doing things like checking their email at dinner. Are there things Google is doing to return people to where they are and reduce the temptation to look at their phone?” Like everything else, isn’t this your fault, Google?

Sundar tried to politely deflect: “You’re asking questions that have nothing to do with technology. Should kids check phones at dinner? I don’t know. To me that’s a parenting choice.”

The reporter tried again. And then again: “As you have risen in the ranks at Google, have you noticed that people use their phones less in meetings with you?”

And again: “Have you done anything to ease back? I have a policy that I’m not allowed to walk around the house with my phone. It has to stay in one room.”

Oh, jeesh. I imagine the reporter getting Grandma’s telephone table from the front hall and tying an iPhone to it. Some of us would say that eliminating the need for wires was progress.

It’s not hard to see what was happening here: The same reporter had an “analysis” published the same day on devices and programs to get users to crack that addiction the reporter thinks we have to our phones. He interviewed Pichai and decided to make a blog post out of the transcript, giving us a window to the sausage factory. The writer wanted a quote for his story. So he did what reporters often do: He asks the same question over and over … until he gets the quote he wants for his story. That’s how interviews are too often held: to fill in a blank the writer has already made rather than really listening and being open to new information and new angles.

When a reporter does this to me, I finally say: You can ask the same thing as many times as you want but I’m not giving you the answer you want. Corporate executives trying to make nice can’t do that.

Playing leapfrog and werewolf with Google and Facebook

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First Google made its friendship pact with eight old, European publishers, vowing to innovate together. Then Facebook leapfrogged Google — by a considerable distance — launching its Instant Articles with nine publishers, old world and new, inviting them into its mobile News Feed and helping them make money to boot. Now it’s Google’s turn to leapfrog Facebook. We like this game.

That opportunity for publishers — to build upon these positive steps — is what I, for one, emphasized this weekend in more than one session at Google’s excellent gathering in Helsinki, Newsgeist Europe, an unconference where we the participants chose what to talk about. Among other topics, we chose to talk about what Google could do for news, about Facebook as the new distributor — and sometimes editor — of the news, and about at least one idea to take advantage of that new reality.

That idea is something Google News chief Richard Gingras and I advocated at the last Newsgeist in the U.S., something I’ve been working on for years: the containerized, embeddable article that travels to any site with brand, revenue, analytics, and links attached. In other words, let’s take what Facebook has done with Instant Articles and open it up to any creator and any embedder. I was delighted to hear serious discussion of the notion at this Newsgeist, opening the door to reimagining the distribution of news so that instead of always requiring and depending on our users to come to us, we can now take our news to them.

Now there are many many issues and questions around this model, and you can count on a circleful of journalists to raise them all: how distributed news affects the business of journalism and how both creators and distributors can share in the value they make; the power and responsibility our new distributors hold over the dissemination of information and whether they will act as protectors of news or as censors or catalysts for cat lists; whether creators will get the specific user data they need to build relationships of relevance and value with the people they serve (that is the key issue, I think).

But if we’re honest with ourselves, we will recognize that the horse — and the article — have left the barn. Facebook was already a primary source of audience — links and clicks — for news. Now it will be a key distributor of complete content. You can bet that others will follow, taking what they already have — Twitter with its cards; Snapchat with Discover; Amazon with the Washington Post on its Kindle; Google and Apple with their newsstands — and finding ways to embed content with business model attached into the streams they deliver. Note also that we could find ourselves in a nightmare of publishing content 20 ways on 20 platforms using 20 CMSes in 20 business deals that we don’t control, struggling to make sense of too little data from each.

Publishers could take the lead and create open-source standards and structure for distributed news. But news publishers have proven to be awful at collaborative consortia (see: NCN) and worse — much worse — at technology. And this is no trivial task, as Repost.US learned when it couldn’t sustain its wonderful rendition of the embeddable article (for reasons I explore in Geeks Bearing Gifts). If we’re going to do this, we need help.

Who will help? I suggested Google, which could build the structure openly, adding its own services — ad sales, ad serving, hosting — as options. In the discussion, some feared that Google’s direct involvement beyond funding the project out of its European bribery — er, I mean innovation — fund would give the service cooties. Gift horse: mouth. Well, then Facebook could open up its lovely platform and CMS and make it possible to embed Instant Articles anywhere.

Note well the position that news publishers are in now. And a fine position it is: Google, Facebook, and potentially other powerhouses are finally competing for our affection to keep the wolves — that is, European regulators — at bay.

It’s metaphorically convenient that the favorite recreational activity at Newsgeists is a game called werewolf, which is all about mistrust. Suspicion has been the basis of the relationship between publishers and platforms. That atmosphere of wariness and warring was brought on by a campaign waged against Google by German publishers Axel Springer and Burda, using their considerable political clout to enlist politicians to pass laws and launch antitrust investigations disadvantaging the American technology giant. Google’s peers — Facebook, Amazon, Apple — are well aware that Old Europe’s pitchforks could be launched at them next. So though I did not like the tactic — because it is leading to dangerous if unintended consequences that could imperil an open net as well as European innovation — I must give credit where credit is due, to Springer and Burda, for bringing Silicon Valley to the table if not to its knees. Credit to Google and Twitter for talking. Credit to the publishers that are working with each, seeking peace in the kingdom. Group hug.

Now the game shifts from werewolf to leapfrog. Now we in journalism get to stand back and see technology titans jump over each other to bring benefits to news. But we’d best not stand back too far. We journalists and publishers must collaborate with the platforms as we demand that they collaborate with us. And as they teach us about technology, we must teach them about journalism.

By that, I mean that as platforms take on the role of distributor and (I lament this word) gatekeeper for news, we must help them understand the responsibility they are assuming. Mark Zuckerberg cares about a connected society. Does he also care about an informed society? I believe he does — witness his proper pride at seeing his platform being used by freedom fighters. Now Facebook must find the courage to publish and protect uncomfortable news, for real news, impactful news is almost always difficult news. It must fight to be open to diverse and often dissenting voices and viewpoints in the face of pressure from censors and tyrants, which will surely grow now that Facebook is carrying more news that matters. And as Facebook benefits from the content — the journalism and service — that publishers provide, then it does bear some responsibility to consider their business needs (and I’m delighted that Facebook did just that, offering publishers revenue with distribution via Instant Articles).

My friends Emily Bell, Jay Rosen, and George Brock have written about these concerns, as have I. I don’t think any of us would expect Facebook to produce all the answers overnight; indeed, we should not want them to make these decisions alone. What we do expect of Facebook, Google, and the other platforms is an open and substantive conversation about these principles. And they should expect from us a spirit of generosity and collaboration. We all now recognize that we live together in an ecosystem of information, technology, and service. We must build and maintain it together.

Unconferences, innovation funds, education, and especially new products like Instant Articles will help do that. But group hugs aren’t enough. We don’t just need to embed articles. We need to embed and educate people on both sides of this cultural divide who can understand and translate the differences and, more important, find opportunities of mutual benefit. These are not merely ambassadors doing biz dev and PR. They don’t just make each side smarter. They must make shit happen. They must build things. That means having technologists in the management of news companies and journalists in the product stream of technology companies.

I can imagine countless ways in which collaborative technologists and journalists can build great services for the public we serve. Traveling articles are just one example, a starting point. There were others raised at Newsgeist.

At this point, I know what many will say in the comments wherever links to these thoughts appear: “Well, I just don’t trust Facebook/Google/etc.” “They will pull the rug out from under us.” “They will never do what we want.” “They will serve their own interests.” Well, of course, they will serve their interests. They are businesses. But it’s no longer accurate to say that they cannot also benefit us or that they will not listen. Who’d have imagined — many at Newsgeist confessed they couldn’t — that Facebook would not only invite publishers into its precious stream but also let them keep 100% of the ads they sell for the privilege. Who’d have imagined that even Springer’s Bild would sign up for the deal? Who could have pictured the warm and substantive interaction of journalists, publishers, and Googlers this weekend in Europe?

The sensible, mature, productive way to enter negotiations is not to stomp away. The smart thing to do is to craft business terms. That’s what I teach my students. What would make you do a deal with the titans now that they are willing to talk? What would protect you against your concerns? What do you have that they want and what do they have that you want? Where is their mutual benefit for your businesses and — here’s the only thing that matters in the end — for the people we all serve?

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I, for one, welcome our new newsstand

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Facebook just gave publishers almost what I was wishing for. It is enabling news companies to go to readers where they are (we used to call that home delivery), embedding their articles, photos, videos — and ads — in users’ streams of attention and keeping all the revenue they sell or a share of the ad revenue Facebook sells. They call it Instant Articles because it saves users the time of clicking on links and waiting for web pages to load. It’s a start, a good start.

I wish that Facebook would also work to share data about users at their option so news companies could serve those users with greater relevance and value and learn to build relationships with the public as individuals and communities rather than as a mass. Here, I suggest how that could happen. For now, Facebook is allowing publishers to track some usage data. One thing at a time.

In Facebook’s blog post announcing the deal, its chief product officer, Chris Cox, says: “Fundamentally, this is a tool that enables publishers to provide a better experience for their readers on Facebook. Instant Articles lets them deliver fast, interactive articles while maintaining control of their content and business models.”

The post continues: “Along with a faster experience, Instant Articles introduces a suite of interactive features that allow publishers to bring their stories to life in new ways. Zoom in and explore high-resolution photos by tilting your phone. Watch auto-play videos come alive as you scroll through stories. Explore interactive maps, listen to audio captions, and even like and comment on individual parts of an article in-line.”

I await much gnashing of teeth over the deal. Actually, I don’t have to wait. My Twitter feed was peppered yesterday with fretting over Facebook and news, for example:

Sigh. What are we supposed to do: ignore the audience on Facebook, stomp our little feet, and take our balls and go home, expecting users to always follow us to our home pages? Last week, I had this discussion with my students, trying to get them to focus on the business terms of a negotiation with Facebook over embedded content. It was hard to get some of them past typical media emotions: not liking or trusting Facebook, worrying about rugs being pulled out in the future. These are deal points that can be negotiated. And at least Facebook wants to negotiate.

Indeed, at last, both Google and Facebook are ready to talk. Two weeks ago, Google signed a friendship pact with eight European publishers. Now Facebook has made its deal with nine — take that, Google! — publishers, not just in squeaky-wheel Europe but also in America: The New York Times, National Geographic, BuzzFeed, NBC, The Atlantic, The Guardian, BBC, Spiegel, and Bild. Note that the last one, Bild, is owned by Axel Springer, which has led the European war against Google, forcing it — and by extension, Facebook — to come to the table.

This is good news for news. At Facebook, the head of product — which is the center of power at a technology company — has made it clear that news matters to the company. Late last year, Facebook released new products for news media. Meanwhile, Google is promising to develop products with publishers and give grants for innovation and this weekend, it is holding its second Newsgeist summit in Europe (I will be there).

This is only a start. Further negotiation is needed to assure trust and more strategic benefit to news companies. And there is much serious discussion that must be held with these technology companies about their responsibility not to publishers but to society. For now these platforms are taking on the role of not only distributing but even editing the news the public sees. These are not easy questions with easy answers.

If news and technology can come to terms, we can begin to reinvent journalism in a distributed world with new business models. I’ve been suggesting that publishers consider starting new services — and new businesses — inside Facebook if the company will make that feasible. We in media can’t do it all by ourselves anymore. We are no longer monopolies in control of content and distribution from top to bottom. We now live in ecosystems where we must work with others. Get used to it. Find the opportunity in it.

LATER: On Facebook, appropriately, my friend Emily Bell asks five questions about the Facebook deal. OK, I’ll take the quiz:

1. How much revenue will this return to NYT vs its other distribution strategies?

First, given that Facebook allows publishers to place their own ads on their content and keep 100% of that revenue, then on an article-by-article basis, the revenue should be a wash. Except that if the paper recognizes a big bump in incremental circulation, then this is additional revenue. If the paper chooses to let Facebook sell the ad and take a revenue share, then I assume it does so because Facebook can get higher revenue and thus it’s a revenue increase.

But, of course, the value isn’t only in the direct ad sales. It is also in the potential to start a relationship with a new customer leading to other revenue: traffic to and ad revenue from visits to the publisher’s site and, in The Times’ case, subscriptions. This is more unknown. I recently spoke with a publisher who started putting videos on Facebook — no revenue yet — but found that they drastically increase the number of people who follow the publisher there, which, it’s hoped, leads to more business in the long run. We shall see.

All this is why I think it’s vital that we begin calculating the lifetime value of individual users and relationships, so we can calculate all this.

2. Who bears the publishing risk for the pieces FaceBook publishes?

That’s a different question in the U.S. than elsewhere. In the U.S., we are blessed with a First Amendment for digital, Section 230, which gives Facebook safe harbor.

Legalities aside, we know that Facebook does take responsibility for policing content, including that from publishers, according to its community standards [as if there could be one standard for one community in the world — but that’s another discussion]. At the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, there was much discussion of Facebook penalizing the respected Scandinavian paper Berlinkse for photos with nudity appropriate both to its journalism and its culture. This, of course, is disturbing: Facebook as editor; Facebook as censor. This is why, as I suggest above, it is urgent that we have a substantive discussion with and about Facebook — and Google and Twitter — in regard to their roles potentially as gatekeepers. That is why they need to have more sophisticated voices inside their organizations to grapple with these significant issues.

3. How will it change the NYT’s digital journalism given that richer interactive presentations won’t work in this format?

But then again, Facebook is providing new functions appropriate to its platform. We must learn to present news appropriate to platforms, use cases, and user contexts. Katie Couric doesn’t do a thirty-minute show on Snapchat Discover; she delivers what is appropriate there. Same goes for this. The Times and these other publishers should find ways to present news in new ways for new uses.

4. How much data does the NYT get access to from FB?

This is *the* key question. As I made clear above and in earlier posts, I believe we in news *must* get information about our users that enables us to serve them with greater relevance and value and thus to extract greater economic value in return. Now I have heard people from *many* technology companies say in response to this idea that publishers wouldn’t know what to do with that data if they had it. True, tragically true. But therein lies an opportunity for these technologists: teach us in media how to build and serve and extract value from relationships with known individuals; cure us of our mass-media ways … please.

5. How much further is FB likely to go in turning itself from a platform to a publisher? Will it hire editors, other journalists etc?

Facebook, Google, Twitter, et should not and should not want to become publishers, in my view. It creates tremendous channel conflict. It invites antitrust scrutiny. It limits the scope of the content they can present.

That said, I do think that these companies need to import editorial sensibilities — particularly about professional standards and ethics and the issues outlined above. So far, that hasn’t worked terribly well. I do not think that editors should be imported as news cops or consultants. I think they should be integrated into the process of product development, where relevant, to bring a better sense of both the opportunities and the responsibilities.

And while I’m involved in a seminar with my friend, the good Prof. Bell, let me add this from her on Twitter:

My answer: Yes, or we are doomed.

Last weekend in the German magazine Focus, a guest commentator argued that publishers in Google’s friendship pact had made a Faustian deal with the devil. (I’d link to the article but I can’t because, like an riddle in an enigma, it’s trapped inside a paywall inside a PDF.) This professor is essentially urging journalists and publishers to become digital isolationists. I say that is both impossible and irresponsible. The means of production and distribution in media made a small oligopoly of rich and sometimes monopolistic owners sole proprietors of the entire chain of value, from reporting to presentation to production to distribution to sales. Well, my friends, those days are over. Over. Once again, we have no choice but to operate inside the new ecosystem of users’ choice and we have no choice but to find new ways to sustain our work. Somebody I know wrote a book about that.

ONE MORE THING: So Facebook’s Instant Articles are available only in iOS? Really, Facebook? Really? So what are the more than half of us using Android phones? Chopped liver? Shit. Here I defend the new product and I can’t even see it. Garg.