October 31, 2006

Google’s Custom Search – a take on social search?

Filed under: google, personalization, search — Rakesh Agrawal @ 9:02 pm

I’ve been playing with Google’s Custom Search engine lately. In short, it lets you build custom search engines around a given topic. You can create your own search engine around toys, HDTV, restaurants, travel Web site — whatever interests you. It’s not a new idea; Rollyo and Eurekster have been doing similar things for a while. What makes this significant is that Google is doing it and the combination of the Google index, customization tools and monetization.

In about 10 minutes, I was able to create my own search engine about the search industry. It searches a number of blogs including Search Engine Watch, Kedrosky, Battelle and Zawodny.

Google makes it easy to create and customize the engine using a series of Web forms. I entered a list of sites I wanted to search, picked a name and filled in a few other fields. You can customize it further with an AJAX interface. You also get a cut of the ad revenue generated by the search engine.

You can also invite others to contribute to your search engine. I can see a lot of applications for group research projects. It also has the potential to throw buckets of ice water on any startup looking to pitch a vertical search engine to VCs.

One thing I would love to see is alerts on the custom search engine — when one of the sites I watch writes about a topic I’m interested in, I’d get an alert.

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October 30, 2006

YouTube’s other intellectual property issue

Filed under: google, intellectual property, YouTube — Rakesh Agrawal @ 8:22 pm

There’s been a lot of talk about the copyright issues that YouTube faces with the vast volume of clips that aren’t authorized by content creators. We’ve seen a number of licensing agreements for content. YouTube has also pulled unauthorized Comedy Central clips.

But there’s an issue with user-created content that has gotten little discussion: In many cases, the person holding the video camera doesn’t have rights to what they’re videotaping. If you video your family at Disney World, the Chrysler building, Guggenheim or a baseball game, you only have the rights to use that video for personal purposes.

Take this video on YouTube of the fountains at Bellagio. All of these entities potentially have rights involved:

  • The person who created the video.
  • MGM Mirage (the owner of the Bellgaio).
  • The composer of the song.
  • The performer of the song.
  • The designer of the fountain show.

Photographers and movie studios often pay site fees to shoot at such locations. iStockPhoto has a database for stock photographers that lists rights involved with many famous locations.

It’s only a matter of time before we see these locations asking for their cut.

YouTube pulls Comedy Central clips

Filed under: media, video, web 2.0, YouTube — Rakesh Agrawal @ 8:03 pm

YouTube has begun to remove Comedy Central clips from shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.

It’s unfortunate. Colbert’s show has been one of the leaders in embracing the Internet and engaging with viewers online. The Internet audience, and YouTube in particular, have been instrumental in building the audience for these shows. The YouTube clips were additive to my viewing of The Colbert Report on cable – I’d often forward links to friends of particularly funny episodes.

Many of the videos are still available on Comedy Central’s horrendous Motherload site. But it’s nowhere near as easy for users to search for, view and share clips from Comedy Central’s site.

I’m still hopeful that YouTube and Comedy Central will come to a revenue sharing agreement and that we’ll see authorized clips on YouTube.

October 28, 2006

Spoonfeeding the reporters

Filed under: media, newspapers — Rakesh Agrawal @ 9:50 am

It seems that more and more news stories these days are just the results of what publicists, leakers and political operatives spoonfeed to reporters, with very little investigation.

Take the latest salvo in the ugly campaign for Virginia Senate between George Allen and Jim Webb. Allen operatives provided steamy excerpts from Webb’s books, attempting to paint him as a misogynist. According to the Post:

“Allen campaign officials provided excerpts from the books — some of them depicting acts of incest and graphic sexuality — to the Drudge Report Web site Thursday night. … Allen’s aides, who have been trying to get other news organizations to write about the excerpts for weeks, issued statements saying the fictional scenes in Webb’s novels reflect poorly on Webb’s character and fitness for office.”

Once Drudge bit, the mainstream media had to pile on. From the coverage, it was clear most reporters were relying strictly on the excerpts provided by the campaign.

Webb responded that the work was fiction and was taken entirely out of context. He pointed to a book written by Lynne Cheney. “You can read Lynne Cheney’s lesbian love scenes if you want to get graphic on stuff,” he said.

The Post writes:
“Her book is out of print and difficult to find, but independent reviews describe it as highly sexual and “steamy” and mention lesbian characters.”

Difficult to find? Try searching for “lynne cheney sisters”. The first result contains a link to download the full text of the book.

October 25, 2006

Post-it to self: Don’t Google people any more

Filed under: google, intellectual property — Rakesh Agrawal @ 7:39 pm

Google’s blog has a plea for users to not use Google as a verb. Just as we’re not supposed to Jet Ski or Xerox, Google’s lawyers would appreciate it if we stick to using Google as a noun.

There is a worse fate than becoming as indispensable as Kleenex: becoming as irrelevant as Polaroid.

This discussion is giving me a headache. I think I’ll take some aspirin.

Pick your own World Series

Filed under: media — Rakesh Agrawal @ 6:45 pm

I was driving home tonight and heard a promo on XM for tonight’s World Series broadcasts. Listeners have their choice of four programs:

  • The Detroit feed
  • The St. Louis feed
  • The network feed
  • The Spanish language feed

It’s another indicator of the increasingly fragmented media world.

October 15, 2006

Searching for the holy grail

Filed under: airlines, customer service — Rakesh Agrawal @ 10:03 am

United keeps moving my cheese. In a few days, United is dramatically increasing the number of miles required for a free award ticket to Australia. Trying to beat the increase, I called up United to try to book tickets. (I would book online, but United has one of the worst award booking interfaces in the industry.)
Knowing that seats are hard to come by I was prepared to be flexible. The agent asked when I wanted to travel.


“You don’t have a specific date in mind?”

“The tickets are probably hard to come by, whenever you can find them.”

After about 10 minutes of typing he has worked his way to mid-February and lets me know he’s still working. Another 5 minutes or so and he has exhausted the month.

“How about March?” He puts me on hold. It could be worse; at least I get to listen to “Rhapsody in Blue”.

After another 10 minutes or so, he comes back on the line to tell me there are no seats available in the entire month of March.

Probably sensing that I was about to say, “What about April?” he said “There’s a problem with my system. Would you mind calling back?”

All told, 24 minutes of agent time spent on a fruitless task.

If the airlines are going to allocate such few seats to award inventory, they should at least make it easier to find what is available. There’s no way in the United system (according to the agent) to find the next available date. He had to search each day individually.

Where’s the business model in providing better tools?

  • Reduced call center expenses. The 24 minutes the agent spent with me was time that could have been spent generating revenue.
  • Decreasing the liability of miles. Airlines record miles as a liability on their balance sheet. It’s in their interest to fill seats that would otherwise go empty.
  • Prevent the collapse of their micro economies. Think of each frequent flier program as a micro economy. The more airlines devalue their miles by raising award levels or making available seats hard to find, the less the public will care about accumulating miles. This can turn into a significant problem for the airlines, because they make a lot of money selling miles to partners such as credit card companies. Chase/BankOne/First USA has been one of United’s biggest backers during its bankruptcies, largely because of the promotional power of Mileage Plus miles in driving wallet share of Chase VISA cards.

October 14, 2006

When free costs $687.50

Filed under: media, newspapers, personal finance — Rakesh Agrawal @ 12:05 am

Bank of America made headlines this week when it announced that it was offering free equity trades for customers who put $25,000 in deposit accounts.

Customers in the Northeast who put $25,000 in to such accounts get up to 30 free equity trades a month. The news sent shares of discount brokers E-Trade, Schwab and TD Ameritrade tumbling.

There’s got to be a catch, right? Of course there is. This is as close as the media got to uncovering it:

“Knowing there is no free lunch, consumers look carefully at the whole picture,” Charles Schwab told USA Today.

I found the catch in less than five minutes on the BofA Web site: the $25,000 doesn’t count toward your investment. At most brokerages, all of your stocks, bonds, mutual funds, savings count toward meeting discount thresholds. Under the BofA offer, you have to set aside $25k in BofA savings or checking accounts and then have additional money to actually use for the free trades.

When you look at the math, the free trades are about as free as the free World Series tickets you can get if you buy a pencil for $800.

In the New York market, BofA pays 2.25% on their money market account. Compare that with the widely advertised 5.00% that Citi pays on their e-Savings account. Over the course of a year, that’s a difference of $687.50 for those “free” trades. You pay that $687.50 whether you make a trade or not. You’d have to make 60-70 trades a year to come out ahead.

If you put your money in BofA checking accounts, you do much worse. Put it in BofA CDs and you do better. If you’re investing for the long term, you’d want to put that 25k in stock funds for an 8-10% yield, making the free trades a much bigger loser.

In a world where financial products are becoming increasingly complex, the media need to do a much better of dissecting these announcements instead of repackaging press releases.

October 13, 2006

Fun with metrics

Filed under: advertising, statistics, web 2, web 2.0 — Rakesh Agrawal @ 7:49 pm

With AJAX, streaming video and other technologies making page views a less and less meaningful metric for Web businesses, Jeremy Zawodny asks what is the best metric for Web 2.0?There is no single metric that works across all sites.

Of course, that’s not the answer Wall Street, reporters, analysts or the boss wants to hear. A single metric makes it easy to compare things and to put together PowerPoints. Never mind that the data is often not what it purports to be.

Every time I dig deep into the details of comScore methodology, I’m stunned by how bad it is. For every comScore report I look at, I can tell you why Yahoo, Google, AOL or whoever is doing better or worse than the data show. (And I’m not talking about sampling versus actual measurement.) Of course, these numbers are quoted far and wide, both in the press and in internal company presentations.

The biggest problem with a single metric is that it can easily be manipulated to achieve the desired outcomes. Want more page views on your news site? Take a single story and split it across four pages. It’s a worse user experience and makes it harder for people trying to find articles with search engines, but you’ll get more page views.

The Post had a non-industry read on manipulating metrics:

“To eliminate unneeded cars, the county established a minimum annual mileage — 4,500 — and told its 11,500 employees and supervisors that any cars with odometers that did not meet that figure would be taken away.”

What happened?

Fairfax Employees Run Up Odometers To Keep Their Cars

October 12, 2006

Could YouTube have come from a large company?

Filed under: google, media, video, web 2, web 2.0, YouTube — Rakesh Agrawal @ 4:38 pm

YouTube is clearly one of the leading innovators in the online video space, dramatically transforming not only the way people consume video content on the Web, but also what kind of content they consume. You don’t need to look any further than this week’s purchase of YouTube by Google for $1.65 billion.

Could YouTube have come from a large company? Let’s take a look at some of the questions that would get asked along the way:

  • Will we get sued for copyright infringment? Will users upload pornographic/obscene/hate content? Much of the original content that drew users to YouTube was not uploaded by the copyright holder. Large companies are much more averse to the brand risk that comes from being associated with user uploaded content. For startups, a controvery has significant potential to drive awareness. (Think of the Lazy Sunday clip from Saturday Night Live.)
  • What’s the ROI? Will this help make the quarter? Streaming video in the volumes that YouTube does is extremely expensive in terms of both bandwidth and processor costs. The revenue potential is unclear and down the road. Resources can usually be allocated to projects likely to meet this quarter’s numbers.
  • Will this upset our partners or cause channel conflict? According to the Wall Street Journal, Target sent a letter to studio executives expressing concern about studios partnering with iTunes for digital movie downloads. Target controls 15% of big studio DVD sales.
  • Can it scale to 40 million people? Large companies have a tendency to build for enormous scale from day one, increasing the upfront development costs and the time to market. In many large companies developing a prototype that serves 1 user takes nearly as much effort as developing a full-scale product that serves 40 million.

Given all of these challenges, it’s unlikely that something like YouTube would originate at a large company.

But large companies have learned one big lesson from the music industry: let the startups serve as your free R&D divisions.

Instead of the sue-to-kill approach the RIAA took with Napster, studios and TV networks have been more tolerant of this generation of startups, watching and learning from companies like YouTube. The downside is that by ceding innovation to startups, they’ve created a formidable competitor.

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