Google’s Real Problem

There’s some interesting chat about whether Google is in trouble, although none of the pieces ask the question that I think is the most important one. BusinessWeek points to the fact that none of its new products are really gaining traction, which may be less down to the quality of those products — Earth, Finance, Chat etc — and more down to the fact that the whole point about Google for most people is keeping things simple:

The problem is that every time Google branches out, it struggles with the very thing that makes its search engine so successful: simplicity. The minimalist Google home page offers a stark contrast with the cluttered sites of key rivals Yahoo and MSN. People go to Google to find information fast. So Google can’t showcase its plethora of new products without jeopardizing this sleek interface and the popularity that generates a $6 billion geyser of cash from search ads. But the lack of exposure for its new products means only 10% of Google visitors use it for anything other than Web and image searches, says Hitwise.

To that I’d add the fact that it’s not just about exposure. Most people use the Internet for simple things, like finding stuff. They’re just not that interested in other things, however much we’d like them to be.

Meanwhile Robert Scoble wonders aloud why there is no real Google presence at the Gnomedex conference, a select gathering of developers and dweebs. And someone called SlashChick writes along the same lines as BusinessWeek, pointing out that Google’s approach of allowing employees to use 20% of their time developing new ideas may be fine when it’s a private, smallish company, but now it’s getting big won’t work so well if those projects make only a few hundred thousand dollars for the company. Alongside the earnings from AdSense, assigning employees to maintain these products will be hard to justify:

Once Google realizes they have to cut back and only continue development on the projects that did “stick”, inevitably, they will crush a few of their developers’ hearts. I have a feeling some of those developers may even become jaded and go out and start their own companies (sort of like the many software companies spawned by former Microsofties in Redmond.) Those companies may even grow to become quite successful. Hmm…

Good points, and it’s interesting to see how this view leaves Google vulnerable. Of course, it only needs one of these products to be vaguely as successful as search to draw enough users to justify it. And perhaps Google is hoping that one of its Microsoft-killers will kick in, and then the tables will be turned.

But all this rests on the idea that Google Search and AdSense continue their symbiotic relationship. The first provides dominant search, the second provides dominant ads that (for the most part) come from people using Google Search. AdSense would never have been successful were it not for Search, since the latter gets the eyeballs, the former brings in the cash. But what happens when one starts poisoning the other? What happens if AdSense starts to undermine the efficacy of Search? I’d argue this is already happening: web spammers are already successfully manipulating search results so that users visit their AdSense-laden web sites. This is happening with both ordinary search and News Search. Despite the obvious conflicts of interest here, most worrying for Google’s shareholders is the idea that its search engine may not be good enough anymore. Is this what’s keeping Google’s developers away from Gnomedex?

Scoble Shift

Robert Scoble, Microsoft blogger and the subject of a couple of Loose Wire WSJ columns in the past, has quit Microsoft for PodTech, a podcaster and videocaster. Techmeme, the technology bloggers’ portal, is full of the news. It’s as if the Pope has quit his day job and joined AC Milan.

There’s lots of speculation, but Scoble says there was no acrimony, no scrimped expense accounts, and lots of effort on the part of Microsoft to get him to stay. For sure the loser in this is going to be Microsoft. While there are thousands of other Microsoft bloggers, none of them had Scoble’s long leash and roaming brief. For many people, especially opinion formers and early adopters, Scoble was Microsoft — more than Gates or that other guy, whatsisname (Ballmer – ed). As Mathew Ingram of the Globe and Mail puts it: “Flack or not, corporate shill or not, I think he has single-handedly done more to humanize Microsoft than all the millions of dollars spent getting Bill Gates to kiss babies or hug orphans or whatever they do to make MSFT seem less like the Borg.”

It will be interesting to see how this pans out for Scoble, and for Microsoft. Will Microsoft continue to feed Scoble the inside dope that is the staple of his blog? And if so, will he appear more or less credible as a result? Will Microsoft move to fill his shoes by hiring another high profile blogger, or move one of the 3,000 other bloggers into his unique slot? Will Microsoft revert to the Evil Empire in the eyes of the technology community, or has Scobe succeeded in convincing it that this view was outdated and unfair?

I think Scoble is a pretty unique character, and it was partly his ebullience and personal approach — not just his Microsoft access — that won him fans. That will make it harder for Micosoft to replace him, and it should make it easier for him to move his brand and followers somewhere else. (As a footnote it’s interesting that while most folk outside geekdom have never heard of Scoble, his move did get some coverage from mainstream media. Here’s one from Reuters, used by The Washington Post website.)

Scobleizer, Microsoft And Waggner

Robert Scoble, the Microsoft blogger whom I wrote about in a recent column, has scaled back his accessibility to the media (thanks Steve Rubel). From now on, journalists’ requests for interviews are forwarded to Microsoft’s main PR company, Waggner Edstrom.

Robert and the other bloggers at Microsoft have been a breath of fresh air for journalists like me trying to get a bit of a grip on a company that has, I have to say, been somewhat patchy in the way it deals with media questions. I do hope that the transparency of Scobleizer and other Microsoft blogs will not be tempered, and that Redmond understands the extraordinary benefits of making employees part of the company’s PR machine, not just farming it out to people who are always saying they’ll get back to you, and never do.

Knowledge Management, Corporate Blogging, and Scobleizer

This week I wrote a couple of pieces on Knowledge Management for the Far Eastern Economic Review — a sort of overview of KM for the layman, and a column on corporate blogging, centred around Robert Scoble. (Both are subscription only, I’m afraid. The WSJ version of the column will appear here next week.) Here’s a taster:

ONCE UPON A TIME there was an evil bespectacled king called Bill who ran nearly 98% of the world, imposing on it bloated software solutions and enslaving it in usurious licensing agreements. Resentment of Bill was so widespread that all the king’s public relations and philanthropic works couldn’t put his image back together again. Then, one day, along came a rather chubby computer marketer called Robert Scoble who, via his on-line journal, or blog, turned it all around. Suddenly everybody liked the king again and bought all his products. (Well, at least, they didn’t resent him quite so much, and even spoke to him at parties.)

Anyway, I wanted to thank everyone who helped me get my brain around KM, and my apologies to those I couldn’t include in the piece, and to those who feel I got it all, or any of it, horribly wrong. As a journalist, I can honestly say writing about KM is not easy.

X1 and NewsGator Get Together

X1 Technologies, Inc., the hard disk indexing guys, have teamed up with NewsGator Technologies, the RSS-in-your-Outlook guys, to allow fast searches through your subscribed RSS feeds and Usenet newsgroups.

This basically involves an extra element in X1, which “lets a user sort through the aggregated messages and find the content they want, narrowing and displaying results as they type the search terms.  Results are displayed in the X1 preview pane for a quick read or, with a double-click, can be
opened in Outlook.” For now, folk buying X1 Search get NewsGator, which normally sells for $29, free. NewsGator users can buy X1 at a 30% discount.

So how good is this? Robert Scoble, the Microsoft blogger, adds his seal of approval in the X1 press release, calling it “a little bit of Longhorn for you before it ships”. I’m a bit more cautious: Although I’ve written glowingly of both products before, I’ll air a confession: I don’t use either on a regular basis. Why? First off, I’m not a big Outlook fan. It’s big, slow to load, and doesn’t do things I want it to. I use it for contacts, but not for email, so having RSS run through Outlook doesn’t really make sense for me.

And X1? I think X1 is an excellent product, and the guys behind it have raised the bar in terms of listening to users and making something that really works well. Are they there yet? I don’t think so. A couple of things holding me back: It’s not powerful enough to launch or store complex searches and its file viewer is nice but doesn’t remember changes to the way you view data. Don’t get me wrong: For ordinary daily use it’s perfect, but if you’re a power searcher, I don’t think it’s the one. Yet.

Will blogging keep the mainstream media in line?

Here’s a very interesting piece from Mark Glaser on the Adopt-A-Journalist movement, otherwise called Watchblogs. “The so-called “watchblogs” are generally anonymous bloggers who have taken it upon themselves to read each report from a particular presidential campaign reporter and then critique it for factual errors or bias,” Glaser writes. “If they gain traction, watchblogs represent another step in the evolution of reader feedback and media criticism, and they have the potential to improve the work of journalists.”

Speaking as a journalist, all I can say is: yikes. I don’t mean it’s not a good idea: Journalists can benefit from people reading and commenting on their stuff (most journalists assume no one reads their stuff, let alone looks for the byline to see who wrote it), and, particularly in political campaigns, misperceptions can become embedded if there is not some kind of oversight and balance. I just worry, along with Daniel Okrent, the new public editor at The New York Times, who Glaser quotes as saying: “There does seem to be a great deal of naivete [on some watchblogs] about how newspapers work. It can lead to an incomplete impression, that someone was making a conscious effort to turn the news one way or the  other, when in fact it’s that someone was on a deadline or something had to be cut.”

Here’s another interesting case. TechDirt, an excellent and industrious blog, has taken a close look at wire service Reuters’ coverage of a speech by Howard Dean’s former campaign manager, Joe Trippi, who resigned recently. (This may well be the most blogged event ever, according to those present.) Reuters’ lead is this: “Internet activism that thrust up the Howard Dean U.S. election campaign later hobbled the organization’s ability to respond to criticism in the weeks before the primaries, Dean’s former campaign manager said on Monday.”

TechDirt’s Mike has then compared it with the accounts given by two bloggers, Howard Rheingold and Ross Mayfield. His conclusion: “…it certainly looks like Reuters is the one doing the spinning here, taking a few quotes here and there out of context to make their point. With the bloggers’ notes, you can see the context of what’s being spoken about, and the Reuters report gives none of that. I’m not one who believes that bloggers are a “threat” to journalism, but the contrast here shows a perfect (if a bit scary) example of just how easy it is for the press to spin things to make their point.

Robert Scoble, a blogger from Microsoft, takes it a bit further. He agrees with Techdirt, saying the “spin doesn’t match the speech”. He goes on: “This was like listening to a two-hour speech and then ignoring almost all of it so you can write the story you want to write in the first place. Why go to the conference then?”

I can quite understand why people say these things, and I am optimistic that blogs may help provide a different point of view to traditional media. And I think Mike has made clear that he’s not out to flay the media and promote blogs as an alternative to traditional media. And Robert has a point: Journalists often do have a preconceived idea of the story (we’re taught to do that) which they sometimes stick to doggedly in the face of uncontrovertible evidence to the contrary. But, speaking as a journalist (and one who used to be with Reuters for nine years) I think it’s worthwhile to try to get a clear fix on what journalists are required to do in their line of work. A journalist’s job is not to summarize a speech, say, nor, necessarily, to take the line that is presented in the speech. If we did that, stories would be boring and journalism would be little more than ‘journalism of record’. A journalist’s job is to take what he/she thinks is the most newsworthy information from an event/speech/interview and present it in a news story. What that newsworthy bit is, is of course subjective.

A news story is a very formulaic presentation of the material that often, for those present at the event being described, bears disconcertingly little resemblance to what happened. It’s a format honed (or distorted, depending on your point of view) by centuries of newsgathering, and I quite sympathise with those who think it’s warped and bears little relationship to reality. But it’s not spin. Spin is what PR people, flaks and others do. Journalists take an angle. That’s what the journalist is doing when she/he writes their story up and focuses on one aspect of it. Not everyone is going to agree that the angle taken was the right one; that’s where news judgement kicks in. But spin is what someone with an interest in the outcome puts on information in the hope of influencing a journalist; an angle is what the journalist thinks is the ‘sexiest’ take on the story. (Of course if a journalist has been spun, so that the spin becomes the angle he/she adopts for the story, they end up being one and the same. But the distinction, I think, remains an important one.)

I’ve looked at the blogs and looked at the original report and one could certainly argue for more context, to his remarks, as Mike has suggested. But only if Reuters misquoted Trippi, or quoted him out of context so the meaning of his words were twisted, would the story be wrong. But it’s also instructive to see the quite different angles taken by other news organisations: AP, for example, focused on whether to give all the email addresses Dean’s campaign has gathered to the Democratic Party. The LA Times went with the idea that Trippi lost money on the whole thing, while Wired led with Trippi’s claim that it was a beta test of a political revolution. This is an example of a story that had no clear news angle, leaving it open to the reporters to focus on what they will.

Perhaps that in itself is a reflection of the gulf between the way traditional media focuses on things, and how bloggers and others might do it. I think the idea that bloggers focus on what journalists write more closely is a good step forward, but those who do it need to have a strong understanding about what a journalist’s motives and tools are. The reason why there is a ‘news angle’ which may be quite different to what the those at the center of the event may consider to be important is because, somehow, journalists have to filter out anything that’s not new and find what is, whether or not those present consider that to be the most important element. That’s what news is.

That said about angle/spin, a lot of factual errors creep into news stories, usually as background. A journalist, under time constraint and with limited resources to hand, may end up throwing in a few lines of background which tend to entrench errors or slants that should be noticed and corrected. Glaser points to an interesting role played by Campaign Desk, which was set up to “help correct the record before a mistake was taken up by the pack”. Already, Glaser writes, Campaign Desk helped correct the record on Wesley Clark’s opposition to the war in Iraq after Matt Drudge made it look like Clark supported it. This sort of thing is helpful.

In the end bloggers may provide an important missing element in the news process: alternatives sources of information. Those who want to hear everything that Trippi said now have some good resources to fall back on, thanks to the dozens of bloggers who blogged his speech. That enables those interested enough to trawl through the blogs for more information. For the rest of the world, however, they need a filter, someone to distill what he said and take out of it an interesting angle that somehow pushes the story forward. That’s what journalists are for. Until something better comes along.