November 29, 2006

Rooftops and Google Maps

Filed under: aol, google, local search, maps, yellow pages — Rakesh Agrawal @ 3:36 pm

I was flying into Atlanta yesterday and as the plane descended to the runway, I noticed that one of the buildings on the ground with a giant bullseye on it – Target. Next to it, there was a building with a giant BJs and another with a big Lowe’s logo.

A few years ago, I saw the Northwest logo painted on the roof of Northwest Airlines headquarters near Minneapolis. It was a novelty back then.

Google Map with Target image

With the increasing use of aerial images in local search applications such as Google Maps, the rooftops take on new importance. On this map of the area near O’Hare, there’s no question where Target is. (If you’re going to Target, pick up their slick MP3 gift card.)

Last year, when launched, they painted a giant logo on the grass in the center of campus. Now, you have to know what you’re looking for.

This brings up a couple of questions:

  • How long until Google, Mapquest etc. allow you to digitally “paint” your rooftop? This would save on maintenance costs and make it so you don’t have to wait for the image to be updated. (The Northwest logo is an old logo. It could be an outdated image or maybe they haven’t repainted the roof.)
  • Will competitors be able to buy your rooftop?
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Focus groups – the view from the other side of the glass

Filed under: aol, google, research — Rakesh Agrawal @ 2:59 pm

I’m spending most of this week watching focus groups. It’s one of my favorite parts of my job. It’s a chance to see how real people react to the products that we create. I get to hear from people who don’t have Treos, couldn’t care less about how many megabits per second their broadband connection offers and have never heard of flickr, or digg. The people who represent about 95% of my users.

There’s the predictable – within 5 minutes of the first group being seated, one of my colleagues pointed at a participant and said “He’s going be to the dogpile user.” Sure enough, he was.

There’s the unpredictable. One of the respondents, who was exactly the target demographic for the product being tested, clearly understood the concept and the benefits surprised me when she said she wouldn’t use it.

And then there’s the dichotomy between what people say and what they do. Nearly every respondent complained about how the sponsored links on search engines were irrelevant and cluttered the experience. Yet Google generated more than $9.3 billion in revenue last quarter.

November 28, 2006

Don’t text me

Filed under: mobile, wireless, wireless data — Rakesh Agrawal @ 5:35 pm

I’ve had more and more friends texting me lately and I’ve had to explain to them how much I hate text messaging. It’s inconvenient, unreliable and costly.

Here’s a typical exchange:

“R u there already”

“Y, u”


This exchange takes a lot longer than if the person just called me. If I happen to be in my car when someone texts, it could be another 45 minutes before he gets a response.

Text messaging is a great deal for the carriers – a text message uses very little network capacity compared with a voice call and they charge a lot more for it. The exchange above would cost me 45 cents; a call is essentially free.

At Sprint’s a la carte rate (15c per message), it would cost more than $2 million to fill a 2GB iPod Nano. Or, a whopping $60 million to fill a 60GB hard drive. And that’s being extremely generous, assuming that each message is the maximum of 160 characters. If the messages were the average 8 characters in the example above, the cost would be $1.2 billion to fill the hard drive.*

It’s not just the money, of course. It’s also about the principle. I can’t think of another scenario where someone else initiates an action that forces you to pay money. Even with cell phone calls, you can see who is calling for free, before deciding to accept the charges.

It’s annoying to pay for text messages from friends; it’s downright wrong to have to pay for texts from spammers. Text messaging would be much more acceptable if the person who sent the message paid for its delivery, as is the case in Europe. At a minimum, carriers should let you block certain numbers from texting you – for free.

I could call Sprint and have them turn off all incoming text messages. But the networks aren’t good about informing the other party that the message didn’t go through. If you call my number and my phone number has been disconnected, you’ll get a recording telling you that. If you text me and I have blocked text messages, there’s often no such message; you’ll just assume I received the text and was ignoring you.

Then there are times when texting makes sense – I’ve used it at conferences or in bars where I couldn’t talk or there was a lot of background noise. There are also alerts that I’m willing to pay for, such as flight delay information.

* Note to class action lawyers: These numbers don’t take into account that a 2GB iPod and 60GB hard drive don’t actually offer the full amount of storage advertised.

November 27, 2006

Happy Cyber Monday

Filed under: media — Rakesh Agrawal @ 4:38 pm

If you believe the incessant media hype, today is the biggest online shopping day of the year. Not true.

Cyber Monday is a fiction created by a flack for the retail industry perpetuated by much of the mainstream media. But it does give the morning shows something to talk about coming off the slow news of Thanksgiving weekend.

A cheap chic MP3 player

Filed under: consumer electronics, ipod, mp3 — Rakesh Agrawal @ 4:07 pm

My favorite MP3 player this year is small, lightweight, doesn’t hold a lot of songs and doesn’t come from Apple. You can only get it Target. A testament to Target’s marketing savvy, it also doubles as a $50 gift card.

The player (minus the retractable earbuds) would fit inside an Altoids tin. The design has an Apple-like simplicity and elegantly incorporates the Target bullseye. It has a 64MB memory chip, enough for about 15 songs. Loading up songs is easy – just plug the included cable into your computer’s USB port and drag the songs over. (You can also use it as a thumb drive.) Sound quality is pretty good. The player is powered by a replaceable AAA battery.

Target's slick new MP3 player

Despite being a flash player, the player I got doesn’t survive shakes very well. As far as I can tell it’s probably a loose contact in the power switch or battery compartment.

On the back of the player is a bar code that serves as the gift card. Just scan the player to pay for your Target purchase. It’s somewhat impractical as a gift card. (It won’t fit in a wallet.) But its uniqueness makes it much more interesting than the typical gift card. I could see loading up the player with songs tailored to the giftee.

As a marketing guy, my one disappointment is that the bullseye is decorative – it doesn’t, for example, play one of the songs from Target TV commercials.

I was thinking last week that with the drop in price of storage it wouldn’t be long until companies gave away MP3 players. I just didn’t it expect it to be on Sunday.

November 20, 2006

Mint tries, tries again with dollar coin

Filed under: random — Rakesh Agrawal @ 10:07 pm

The U.S. Mint will be issuing new dollar coins starting around President’s Day. With the failures of the Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea dollars it’s unlikely that the new presidential coins will do any better. The presidential series has the additional issue that some presidents aren’t well-liked.

Until vending machines, parking meters and other coin operated machines readily accept the coins people won’t see a reason to use them over the dollar bill. The manufacturers of these machines (and more importantly, their buyers) won’t see a need to accept the coins until a significant portion of their customers adopt the coins.

The only way to ensure adoption is to withdraw the paper dollar from circulation, which Congress has been reluctant to do.

Also working against the coins is the credit card companies and their continuing efforts to get people to use credit cards for low value transactions by using RFID technology or waiving signature requirements. Some examples:

  • As municipalities replace individual parking meters with a machine on each block, more of them are accepting credit cards. (Parking meters are the primary machines that drive my coin usage.)
  • At the AOL cafeteria VISA and MasterCard transactions under $25 don’t require a signature.
  • Mass transit systems now accept credit cards, even for single fares.

Abuse risks with Google click-to-call

Filed under: google, local search, maps, yellow pages — Rakesh Agrawal @ 9:35 pm

R. Franklin pointed me to a blog entry by Lauren Weinstein about the potential risks of a service like Google’s click-to-call

Because Google doesn’t verify that the number you enter belongs to you, it is easy to use the service for pranks and to harass people.

A relatively benign use would be to have the service call people in the middle of the night and have the business blamed for waking up someone. A more serious scenario would be to have the service connect someone to an escort service. (“Honey, why is there a call from an escort service on the caller ID?”)

This type of use is less dangerous than some of the caller ID spoofs out there because it connects the recipient to a known number. For example, having someone connected to Bank of America will likely just cause confusion and can’t be used for phishing.

But there is enough potential for causing trouble that it’s worth exploring mechanisms to address it.

One solution is to only display the business’ number on the caller ID when the user is logged in and has verified that the number is associated with their account. For some people, this will raise privacy issues with Google having phone numbers associated with their account.

Calls to numbers not associated with the account (or from unauthenticated users) would have a Google number displayed on the caller ID, with a preamble that says something along the lines of “This is Google’s click to call service. Please hold to be connected to the business. If you did not initiate this call press 1 for more information.”

November 19, 2006

Google Maps adds click-to-call

Filed under: advertising, google, local search, maps, yellow pages — Rakesh Agrawal @ 8:54 am

Google Maps now offers a free click-to-call service. When you see a phone number, you can click a “call” link, enter your phone number and Google will call you and the business.
google click 2 call
The feature worked flawlessly; my phone rang almost the instant I entered my phone number. The number of the business showed up on my caller ID, making it easy to make another call. (Like when I get lost on the way.) Google Maps displays live session information on your call.

It’s unclear what number shows up on the business’ caller ID, but Google says “We do not share your phone number with the business you are trying to reach.” A special privacy notice applies to this feature.

Given that the percentage of times I call a business I look up online is in the low single digits, I don’t see making much use of it. With domestic long distance free on most calling plans, the biggest benefit is saving you the effort of entering 10 numbers on your phone.

But it is another distinguishing feature that puts Google even further ahead in the local search space. If Google can get users to adopt the behavior, it opens up a new stream of advertising revenue from local businesses.

Some enhancements I’d like to see:

  • Ability to store multiple phone numbers with 1-click to call work, home, cell.
  • A toolbar plug in that would scrape a Web page for phone numbers and let me call any number on the page.
  • A call log that shows businesses I have called (with the requisite options to not store any numbers, to clear the log and to delete individual entries).
  • Seamless calling of multiple businesses. As I disconnect from one business, let me queue up a call to the next one. This is especially useful when doing research. It pretty much only saves you the trouble of hanging up and picking up again, but as long as we’re optimizing…

November 17, 2006

Charities getting smarter about Web fundraising

Filed under: web 2, web 2.0 — Rakesh Agrawal @ 6:56 pm

My friend Tricia is racing in a charity triathlon in a few months. I was pleasantly surprised to see Tricia’s smiling face when I clicked on the donation link in the email. It adds a personal touch that I’m sure increases contribution rates.

It wasn’t long ago that charities refused to accept credit cards online and forced people to mail in checks, creating a significant barrier to contributing. Most charities have realized that the higher volume of frictionless online transactions more than make up for the costs of credit card processing and Web hosting.

Now I’ll be really impressed when a charity offers a module that Tricia can embed on her myspace page that shows her progress to the goal.

How much is a TV show worth?

Filed under: apple, television, video — Rakesh Agrawal @ 6:46 am

As I was playing with various ways of watching TV this week, I came across a number of different pricing models:

  • Live broadcast TV – Free with lots of commericals.
  • Broadcast TV on DVR – Free with lots of skippable commercials. These shows can be saved indefinitley.
  • Network Web sites – Free with a few, nonskippable commercials. (I did use the commercial breaks to check email and use the bathroom.) Must be online to watch.
  • iTunes download – $1.99 per show. Save indefinitely.
  • Google Video download – Price varies. Save indefinitely.
  • On Demand – In my market, Comcast offers some NBC and CBS shows On Demand. CBS shows, including some in HD, are free. NBC shows cost 99 cents. It’s unclear from the Comcast interface how long you can “keep” TV shows, but most movies can be watched for up to 24 hours. The show selection for both networks isn’t as wide as in the other forms.

Add to all this the ability to buy collections of shows on DVD a few months later.

For my money, broadcast on DVR is the best bet, primarily because I want to watch an HDTV quality picture on my big screen TV. iTunes is the least likely because of its higher pricing. In most cases, saving a TV show indefinitely isn’t something I need to do, so there’s no reason to pay the premium. But I can see using each method in different circumstances.

The clear loser is the scheduled programming model.  I watch what I want, when I when want.

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