Monthly Archives

April 2008

Information overload in the web era

By | Blogging, Content, Facebook, Google | 15 Comments

Information overload appears to be a growing problem for people in the web era. Today on Techmeme there is a post entitled Web2.0 Expo Preview: Torture by Information Overload:

Now that the first burst of enthusiasm for social networking has died, people are realizing that web 2.0 is actually a huge time sink.Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and Plaxo may have helped foster community and communication, but they’ve also added immensely to the flow of often-interruptive messages that their users receive, leading to information overload and possibly a nasty internet addiction.

They even go on to talk about an internet addiction clinic.

This problem applies to online news sources as well as social services.

The answer to the problem of information overload is simple – don’t read it all!!

To borrow a concept from Stowe Boyd the best way to think about all the feeds and news and status updates is as a river of news. You look at it when you can and sample what is going past at that moment. You don’t worry about missing stuff – if it is important people will write about it again and you will pick up on it the second, third or fourth time round.

I heard this idea from Stowe when I first met him at a LibraryHouse conference in London a couple of years ago and at the time I was unconvinced. At the I thought the way to get the best out of the blogosphere was to pick the best blogs and try to at least glance at every post.

But as the number of blogs and posts that were in the unmissable category expanded it all became unmanageable. My reading became a chore. I all but gave up on blogs like Techcrunch and Mashable because there were simply too many posts.

But now I have a river approach using tools like Techmeme and Feeds2, a feed reader that filters posts for me – and I pick the best stuff out of the river. I sample many more content sources and stay more up to date with news than I did on the old model.

I think this is the way forward for all of us – good content sources are multiplying, and we want to be part of more and more networks. You can only manage that sort of volume with a river approach.

It works for status updates as well as blogs. The people sidebar in Flock has my Twitter updates and status updates from Facebook friends flowing by in a single stream, and I use FriendFeed in a similar way.

If I’m right then tools like Netvibes and Google Reader will give way in popularity to smart aggregators and filters like Techmeme and Feeds2. Techmeme is great for news and Feeds2 is the way I follow the hundred odd blogs that interest me. In this second area I see a lot of scope for innovation – good social news sites have existed for a while, but no-one has cracked the personalised aggregator space yet.

Privacy: Cookies are not the issue

By | Uncategorized | No Comments

Posted by mobile phone:
Eric Schmidt said last week that despite its promises to the contrary when the DoubleClick deal was announced Google has made no significant progress in dealing with the privacy issues raised by cookies.

I’m happy about that.

This quote is from the front page of the FT this morning:

“Some Google insiders say that as the company’s understanding of ‘behavioural targeting’ has grown, some of its earlier fears about cookies have turned out to be simplistic, and it has become less clear that the practice raises big privacy concerns.”

I agree totally.

Privacy concerns from cookies are over-done. Moreover, cookies are an important part of the online ad mix – espescially as we wrestle with the issue of poorly performing social media inventory.

I would like to see companies like Google making the case in favour of cookies, instead of bashing them in an attempt to score cheap points in the privacy debate.

Schmidt’s latest statement is a step in the right direction.

Apologies for the lack of links and formatting. I posted this from my mobile.

There are over 300 ad networks

By | Advertising, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo! | 8 Comments

It seems every man and his dog is becoming an ad network these days. The latest to join this rather crowded party is Disney subsidiary In the words of the Wall Street Journal (no link due to paywall):

The business of brokering ads across clusters of Web sites has become one of the  most popular — and overcrowded — niches on the Web. The result is a glut of  networks competing with each other, confusing media buyers and guaranteeing that some sort of shakeout is inevitable.

This tells me now might be a good time for a roll up play (e.g. Index’s recent Adconian), but unless there is some very special secret sauce this is no space for an early stage venture backed company. It is far too mature and competitive – by the Wall Street Journal’s estimate there are around 300 companies calling themselves ad networks.

The fact that Google’s biggest strategic move right now is to enter this market (through Doubleclick) says something about how they see search, which in turn says something about the prospects for a Microsoft-Yahoo! combination.

The current phase of internet advertising definitely feels like it is entering the endgame, where success is all about scale and squeezing the pips.

Personal data stores

By | Consumer Internet, Search, Social software | 2 Comments

I have been hearing and thinking a lot about personal data stores recently. Three small examples: personal data stores are at the heart of VRM which I have been blogging about recently, yesterday I was learning about Y-Combinator startup WebMynd which is a clickstream history play (if you are reading please get in touch) and then this morning I have been reading about how personal data stores mean traditional search is dead:

Consider how much information you voluntarily provide on your Facebook profile. Now imagine if you could combine that with your Netflix renting and Amazon buying habits. Then throw in the suggestions of your friends and the pages you visit the most often. All those various sources of information about you are currently stored in different locations—on your computer’s browser history, on your Facebook page, on the servers for Netflix and Amazon—but just imagine how accurate a search could be if every time you had a query, the mass of data about you that exists on  he Internet could inform the results.

Because everything we do on the web leaves a trail lots of information is being generated. All these ideas are variations on the theme of capturing that data in one place and then using that as the basis of a service. This concept is not new to technology – CRM was all about collecting customer data in one place and using that as the basis to revolutionise customer service, the whole data wharehousing and business intelligence space is about collecting and mining enterprise data more generally and you can even look on Google’s index of the web as another example.

The challenge for consumer oriented apps in this market is finding a way to make the data capture painless and deliver benefits when the data store is still small. This contrasts with the enterprise examples I gave above where CIOs convinced of the long term benefits invested considerable amounts of time and money in the expectation of future payback. That won’t happen at the consumer level.

As Webmynd clearly understand the way through this challenge is to build a great service which doesn’t depend on the data store to start with, but generates the data as a buy product. Then the service can start getting better once enough information has been captured.

Facebook topic tracker

By | Facebook | No Comments

Facebook have released a kind of equivalent to Google’s Zeitgeist, except that it only tracks the use of terms inside Facebook, as opposed to the whole web.  It is a fun tool which looks at how often words are used on people’s walls and tracks that over time.

This link should take you to a chart where I compared the use of the words ‘party’ and ‘work’ – I was wondering if ‘party’ might be on the decline and ‘work’ on the increase as more people use Facebook for professional purposes.  Unfortunately for Facebook it turns out both are in slow decline.

Google paid click growth slowing

By | Advertising, Google | No Comments

From Silicon Alley Insider:

Google’s (GOOG) US paid-click growth in March was as bad as in
February–up only 2.7%–rounding out a violent deceleration in Q1, says
Comscore (per Mark Mahaney at Citi). In all of Q1, Google’s US paid
clicks rose only 2% year-over-year versus 25% in Q4 and 48% in Q3.

On the face of it this looks like bad news in stark contrast to the good news on 38% UK internet ad spend growth in 2007, but for a couple of reasons it isn’t as bad as it first seems.

The ‘this isn’t so bad after all’ argument notes that the number of searches continues to increase (33% year-on-year to March) and says the decline in clicks is due to Google’s ongoing efforts to improve lead quality for advertisers and the experience for searchers, which has resulted in a much lower search to paid click conversion rate.  If this is right the quality of the clicks and hence the revenue per click will have increased – and Googles revenues will still be growing much faster than 2%.  Analysts’ consensus is for 25% revenue growth.  Results are out on Thursday, which will be interesting.

If this is true we should all be seeing our cost per click increase on adwords, but that will be offset by improved conversion rates.  I will start asking my portfolio if that is the case.

I buy the argument that the growth in paid clicks is slowing because Google is trying to increase quality, but I don’t think that development will be totally offset by an increase in the cost per click.  Rather, I think that up to now there has been a lot of rather pointless adwords activity which delivered little value to either advertiser or consumer, and that what we are seeing now is that activity tailing off.  Partly down to Google, but also partly down to people getting smarter about how they use Adwords, particularly in the face of a recession.

Either way I hope Google’s results match up to analysts expectations.  Otherwise I fear confidence in the internet sector will be badly hit, which is the last thing any of us needs.

Don’t believe what you read

By | Content, News | 2 Comments

I am reading Flat Earth News right now, a book in which Fleet Street journalist Nick Davies argues that much of what we read in our newspapers is simply copied unverified from the wire or from press releases.  To go further, as per the sleeve notes Nick has:

found that the business of reporting the truth [journalism] has been slowly subverted by the mass production of ignorance

I guess we have all gotten used to questioning what we read in the papers, particularly here in the UK, but the book has been a reminder to me that we need to form our own views on everything, even (or maybe espescially) conventional wisdoms.  The example Nick leads with is the millenium bug – a concept which started life in the media, developed a life of its own, caused many companies and governments to spend lots of money protecting themselves, but ultimately turned out to be a complete red herring.  Governments in countries like Italy and Russia which spent next to nothing protecting against the bug faired no worse on the night than governments in countries like the UK where we spent considerable sums.

Where it matters it is always best to form an independent view.  Moreover, if you have a contrary position, and you are right, that can be a great platform for a new business.  Or for me, it can be a great reason to get behind an existing startup.

Why am I blogging this today?

Because I learned from Communities Dominate Brands that even the Lonely Planet makes it up!

Thomas Kohnstamm, co-author of a dozen Lonely Planet guides to Latin America and the Caribbean, has written his own book. In it he tells how the life of a travel writer is one of poor pay, dealing drugs to make ends meet, cribbing information from other sources and, in one case, failing to visit the country he was writing about.

I used to like those books.

UK internet advertising market £2.8bn in 2007 and still growing fast

By | Advertising | 3 Comments

New IAB data reported in the FT today has the UK internet advertising market at £2.8bn in 2007 up 38% on 2006.

That is an incredible growth rate for a market this big.

The other piece of data reported is that internet advertising now accounts for 15% of total advertising.

That is well below the percentage of media consumed on the internet, which last I saw was at 30%+. Hence we can expect the market to continue to grow, and early signs are that internet advertising spend is standing up in the face of the current economic problems.

This market is made all the more exciting for me by the fact that despite the growth we have real issues to sort out – with poorly monetising social media inventory and declining effectiveness of display advertising to name but two.

Facebook as a tool for investor activism – the ying and yang of the internet

By | Facebook, Privacy, Social networks | No Comments

Reported in the FT this morning Canadian oil and gas engineer Brian Hunter is using Facebook to co-ordinate frustrated retail investors in the £33bn Canadian asset backed commercial paper (ABCP) market:

As a 53-year-old oil and gas engineer living in Calgary, Alberta, Brian Hunter might seem neither a likely Facebook enthusiast nor an investor activist.

Yet Mr Hunter has taken on both roles with gusto over the past two months, harnessing the soc­ial networking site as a potent weapon for disgruntled – but otherwise voiceless – investors in Canada’s non-bank asset-backed commercial paper market.

And it looks like he has been successful, from IA news:

The biggest single roadblock to a proposed restructuring of $32-billion of asset-backed commercial paper was removed on Wednesday after Canaccord Capital Inc. tabled an offer to buy back the stalled notes held by more than 1,400 individual investors.By meeting the demands of its retail clients, Canaccord virtually guarantees a favourable result when ABCP noteholders vote on the workout at the end of the month.

In general I welcome this sort of development. To often through history the voice of small investors and other disparate groups the world over has not been heard as they lacked the resources required to co-ordinate themselves and get their message heard in the media. That has all changed now as anyone with time on their hands can use free tools like Facebook for the co-ordination function and if they are successful in bringing other people behind their cause the media will pick up on it. For example, Brian Hunter spends twelve hours a day on Facebook managing his campaign, which otherwise costs him nothing.

What we have here is an example of oft talked about liberating side of the internet. It is great to give a voice to the little guy who has too often been shouted down by powerful vested interests.

But there is a dangerous side to this as well. It is cool that people like Brian now have a platform to make themselves heard, but the response should be based on the merits of their case, not the fact that they have managed to create a buzz in the media.

I know next to nothing about the Canadian ABCP situation and the motive of this post
is to make a general argument about the use of the internet as a
platform for protest rather than comment on an individual case, but there are elements of Cannacord Capital’s response to Brian’s Facebook campaign that suggest they may be thinking more about their reputation generally than the rights and wrongs of whatever happened in the ABCP market. To be specific, I’m talking about the action by a broker to cover the losses of it’s clients when a market hits problems and the fact that a call from the Cannacord CEO to a potentially suicidal investor was made public.

As the internet changes the dynamics of minority protest, the response to those protests will need to change. Up until now most protesters failed to get press attention and were ignored, while those that were lucky enough or connected enough to generate some column inches stood a much better chance of seeing their demands met. Going forward I think we should all judge cases much more on merit – and that includes both the media and the responding companies/institutions. Otherwise we risk being overwhelmed by over-vocal people with a grievance.

Further, as the little guy is no longer at such a disadvantage then the natural bias in favour of the underdog needs tempering.

All this will take time, and progress will not be even, but provided we avoid the pitfall described above I think this development is positive and society will come to function better as a result of improved communication between its various constituents.

To finish, I’m going to move to an even higher level of abstraction. The trends I’ve described above are part of a more general shift to improved flow of information and increased transparency, which is increasing the benefits of open-ness, transparency, and honesty versus old ideas of control and manipulation of news flow. With that, however, comes a responsibility to act with integrity, and that means avoiding or trying to ignore hype and hysteria and look through to the substance behind the facade.

In this post I have tried to explain how that plays out in the protest arena, but very similar arguments apply in the area of privacy. Collectively we have a lot to gain if everyone shares information about themselves on the web, but that will only work if we make a conscious effort to look at the whole of a person as expressed online and avoid the picking out the pieces that help us make our case – e.g. using small examples of poor judgement as a reason for not hiring someone should be avoided.