December 18, 2006

Show me the ads

Filed under: advertising, video — Rakesh Agrawal @ 8:33 pm

I like ads. At least some ads. When I’m watching programs that I’ve recorded, I sometimes will rewind just to see an ad. These are usually ads from creative advertisers like Target and Apple.

Occasionally, I want to share ads with others. In my blog post on Comcast’s video on demand trial, I wanted to link to a Comcast ad I’ve seen where a young boy tells his younger brother about how “back in his day” they had to get in the car, drive miles to a video store and wait in line to rent a movie.

Finding ads online isn’t easy (except after the Super Bowl).

Apple has many of their ads online, but I couldn’t Target’s or Comcast’s on their Web sites. I did find the Target Christmas ads on YouTube, including my favorite. JWT has a collection of very creative ads on, including this one for Scruffs.

I want to help spread the word. I’d love to see companies put the ads up on their Web sites and make them available as embeddable modules. Sure, people will use the modules to trash bad ads, but it’s another exposure.

About these ads

MovieBeam’s (sort of) video on demand

Filed under: consumer electronics, media, movies, video — Rakesh Agrawal @ 7:44 pm

Imagine a Tivo that could only record one channel, would only record shows that the networks thought you might be interested in, charged you every time you wanted to watch something and then would delete it whenever it wanted. Doesn’t sound very appealing, does it? That’s exactly what the movie studios have created with MovieBeam.

MovieBeam is a dedicated settop box that allows you to watch movies in your living room. The promise is your choice of up to 100 movies, with up to 10 new movies delivered to your box each week. Among the gems currently available on my box: Nacho Libre, The Bachelor, Don Juan de Marco and BASEketball. Selection of movies is clearly an issue.

Movies are continually beamed to the device using excess space in over-the-air analog TV broadcasts. That is one of the key problems with MovieBeam: it requires users to correctly position an antenna. I found that differences of even a centimeter or two make the difference between receiving movies and not. Although the instructions say that an indicator will light when the signal is lost, I haven’t seen it despite twice having lost signal for several days.

In order to use MovieBeam, you should have a home phoneline. With some difficulty, I was able to get it to work on a Vonage line.

The box costs $100. Movies cost $2-$5 depending on whether it’s a new release or not and whether you want to watch in HD. You have to finish watching within 24 hours of buying.

As it is currently executed, the service is a dud. The lack of selection and the difficulty in actually getting content on the box are tough to overcome. It’s an idea that might have worked a few years ago, but with the rise of video on broadband is unlikely to go anywhere. (MovieBeam is part-owned by Disney. According to their Web site, Disney “incubated” it for four years.)

But there is a silver lining – the hardware and UI are very good. The box has an Apple-like elegance and is packed with high end feaures, including HDMI and component video outputs, digital optical and coaxial outputs, a USB port and an Ethernet port.

The on screen UI is crisp, intuitive and very visual, nicely incorporating elements like movie trailers. A very nice touch: if you hold down the up/down buttons on the remote the list of movies scrolls faster. It’s infinitely better than Comcast’s On Demand interface.

The Ethernet port is currently inactive. (Which is odd, considering that there’s a prominent Linksys logo on the box.) But if you were to re-write the software to deliver a Netflix-size selection of movies over Ethernet instead of what the studios shove down to the box over the air, it has potential. While you’re at it, you could add support for music and photo playback.

Even then, you face the stiff competition from cable settop boxes. They’re essentially free to use, serve multiple purposes and are installed for you by the cable guy. With these challenges, MovieBeam is likely to face the same fate as another high-profile Disney venture.

Comcast tests early release movies on demand

Filed under: apple, media, movies, video — Rakesh Agrawal @ 6:58 pm

Comcast is testing the release of movies on settop boxes at the same time they are released on DVD, according to The New York Times. The tests are being conducted in Pittsburgh and Denver. The big winners in such a system? Consumers, Comcast and the movie studios. Potential losers include Blockbuster, Netflix, retailers such as Target and Wal-Mart and premium movie networks such as HBO and Showtime.

Movie studios have typically followed staggered release windows in an attempt to maximize the revenue generated by a movie. Movies follow a long path: first-run theaters, second-run theaters, DVD, pay-per-view, pay movie channels, network TV. Although these windows have shortened considerably in the last few years, they are still in widespread use.

With simultaneous release, consumers win with greater flexibility. On the day the DVD is released, they can now buy the DVD, rent the DVD from a video store or Netflix, or watch it on their set top box.

Blockbuster is clearly feeling the heat. From the Times story:

Blockbuster, which could be hurt by the success of simultaneous release, said that the sales and rentals of DVDs represent the largest revenue stream for the studios and “we believe that they will be very cautious in introducing any new less profitable service that could be cannibalistic to the rental and retail channel.”

Target made similar overtures when Disney started selling movies on iTunes.

Video-on-demand is the future of movie consumption; it will make the assinine HD-DVD vs BluRay battle moot. As iTunes, YouTube and even the TV networks’ Web sites have shown, people want to watch what they want when they want.

VOD still needs some tinkering:

  • Comcast’s interface for selecting movies is terrible. It’s bad enough now when the selection is limited; it clearly won’t work when you have tens of thousands of movies.
  • Movies must be watched within 24 hours of purchase. This should be expanded to 72 hours.
  • Movies disappear when their pay per view window is over. After that you either have to get the DVD or try to catch it on a premium network.

December 17, 2006

Making the most of search engine traffic

Filed under: advertising, google, search, seo — Rakesh Agrawal @ 8:14 am

News organizations are actively playing the SEO/SEM game. If you do a search for “Iraq War“, “taco bell“, “litvinenko“, you will get both organic results and sponsored links from major news sites. The sites take different approaches to where they send the traffic:

  • AOL News sends you to the main news page, regardless of which link you click on.
  • sends you to a story about the topic, but not necessarily the most up-to-date story.
  • sends you to a page about the topic, with constantly updated information. Here are their destination pages for “iraq war” and “litvinenko“.

Is it worth it to spend 5c or more on a sponsored link? Given current RPMs on news sites, it only makes sense if you can develop a relationship with the user. Just getting a single page view on a story would be a terrible ROI.

The approach helps foster a relationship.

But the best example I found was on CNET’s In this case, it was for an organic link. Ironically, they’re doing more to optimize organic traffic than other sites are for users they pay for.

When clicking through from Google, I was presented the story that was indexed. Embedded in the story is a box that shows the latest stories related to the topic and offers an option to set an ongoing alert based on the original search term. The “Welcome Google User!” part might creep out users who don’t know how referrers work, but other than that, it’s a solid implementation.

Oddly, this article from two years ago is the first search result for the term “aol layoffs”.

Screen grab from showing alert box

December 16, 2006

Metro puts real-time train information on mobile devices

Filed under: mobile, mobile search, transit, wireless, wireless data — Rakesh Agrawal @ 1:22 pm

Metro is now offering access to real-time information on trains on its redesigned mobile site ( This is the same information that’s displayed on station platforms, indicating the time until the next several trains.

You can bookmark the pages for your favorite stations, making it very easy to quickly get the information. If I know the next train isn’t for another 7-8 minutes, I can make better use of that time. In other cases, like late at night when service is infrequent, I’d take the subway over a cab if I knew that the next train was in five minutes.

It has quickly become one of my most frequently used mobile applications.

Oddly, the same information isn’t available on Metro’s Web site. (You have to use a WAP emulator to access the site.)

Searching for Web talent

Filed under: advertising, aol, newspapers — Rakesh Agrawal @ 12:22 pm

I’m in the process of hiring two Senior Product Managers for AOL Search. The people I hire will be working on two very exciting and truly innovative products that have the potential to significantly improve the way more than 40 million people search. I am looking for creative people with 5+ years of experience on consumer Internet products.

I was thinking about the best ways to find the people I want:

  • Newspaper classifieds? Expensive and a waste of time. The people I want to hire don’t use classifieds.
  • Major job boards like Monster and Career Builder? Too much clutter and spam. I tried doing a search on Monster and after entering my search criteria, I got an interstitial that said “You are Guaranteed* to receive Cash in the $100,000 Great Student Loan Payoff™ upon qualified registration and reduce your monthly student loan payments by up to 45%!” I regularly get spam to my monster and careerbuilder email addresses from people who think I want to sell life insurance.
  • Craigslist? Sure, why not. It doesn’t cost anything, and the recruiters will filter the resume spam for me.

The best way to reach the people I most want to hire is blogs. The best candidates are the ones who stay up-to-date on the industry. The people who read GigaOm, Zawodny, Matt Cutts and TechCrunch, are the kind of people I want to hire.

We’ve already posted the jobs on GigaOm. It’ll be interesting to see how that works.

And if you’re interested in applying, here is some more information:

  • I highly value creativity. These jobs are more about innovation and problem solving than project management. You will, of course, have to launch products. But if your skill set is mostly program management and you prefer a regimented approach, you’re not likely to be a good fit.
  • Work experience in search is not a requirement, but definitely a plus.
  • You must be comfortable working with people who are far away. Much of my development team is in Ireland. You will probably go to Dublin 1-3 times a year. Our Dublin team is a lot of fun and usually show us a good time.
  • The jobs are based at AOL headquarters in Dulles, Va. If you don’t live here, we’ll move you.
  • From the folks in HR:

    AOL is an equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate on the basis of age, color, disability, marital status, national origin, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, veteran status or any other classification prescribed by applicable law. Federal regulations require that AOL report aggregate information regarding the race/ethnicity and gender of job applicants to the federal government on a regular basis.

Send an email with your resume to:

email address

You should also know why my email address is an image.

Please also send in your resume through official channels. The requisition number is 70899.

Update: I have filled one of the positions, have one more open.

Where does DC want to go today?

Filed under: airlines, travel — Rakesh Agrawal @ 9:25 am

Kayak mapI was playing with Kayak and found a feature that’s interesting to explore – a map of where people want to travel. You enter an airport and it will show you the top 25 searched for destinations from that airport.

It’s fun to compare, say Atlanta, Ga., with Vancouver, B.C. There are even substantial differences between Washington National and Dulles.

Route lines are color-coded so that you can pick out which routes are more expensive. One nit I would pick is that the color coding is relative to the other destinations on the current map. On one map a route that is red could be $250 and on another map it could be $1,000.

If looking at the map gets you in the mood to travel, you can limit the results to those that fall in your price range or timeframe.

The travel business generates so much data; it’s great to see someone putting that data to good use. Now they just need to come up with a catchy name for it. Travelocity isn’t using Dream Maps anymore.

December 13, 2006

NBC’s Horny Manatee (SFW)

Filed under: advertising, television, video — Rakesh Agrawal @ 6:21 pm

Conan O’Brien stumbled into another great example of viewers interacting with and reshaping what appears on broadcast TV. This one happened when Conan ad-libbed the URL after a segment in which an FSU manatee appears in front of a Webcam.

According to NBC’s legal department, the network must buy any URLs that are mentioned on air that don’t already exist. (Otherwise someone could buy it and put indecent material on it.) Conan tells the story in this follow up.

Conan asked viewer to send in art work to fill the new site. People have sent in thousands of pictures, drawings and animations. One even created a video game.

The site has received more than 4.5 million hits in the short time it has been up. The story also made it to The New York Times. That’s the kind of buzz any marketer would love.

December 12, 2006

Geotagging the precise location

Filed under: consumer electronics, flickr, geotagging, gps — Rakesh Agrawal @ 8:40 pm

Picture of Garmin GPS unit on my wristI upped my nerd rating this weekend by hiking the Billy Goat Trail with a GPS attached to my wrist. It’s a trail just a few miles from DC, so I wasn’t worried about getting lost. I just wanted the exact location of the pictures I took, so that they could be mapped accurately.

You can see the results on this map of the Great Falls area. The two pictures toward the bottom and the cluster of five on the left are from this trip. With more pictures, you could compile a visual exploration of the trail. (The cluster of five pictures off to the right are pictures from a previous hiking trip, pre-GPS.)

Geotagging the way I did this is a tedious process:

  • You take a picture of the GPS unit.
  • You correlate that picture with the picture of the subject (this can be done by timestamp).
  • After uploading the picture, you manually enter the data.

Compare this with date and time information. The vast majority of digital cameras automatically include the time a picture was taken in the metadata attached to an image. That makes it easy to flip through photos in a calendar view.

With the rapidly falling price and shrinking size of GPS chips, I’d like to see camera manufacturers embed a GPS chip in the camera and have the camera automatically record the location in the image file.

(If you’re laughing at the slow pace on the display, you should know that the Billy Goat Trail is mostly rock scrambles.)

Spams, scams and search

Filed under: research, spam — Rakesh Agrawal @ 6:18 pm

During the last two weeks, I spent much of my time in focus groups on search. While I can’t talk about the concepts we were testing, one thing that struck me was the degree to which people viewed all of the concepts through fear of being spammed and scammed.

  • Will people be able to use this technology to take over my machine?
  • Will I get a virus?
  • Will I get spammed?
  • Will this cause popups?
  • How will advertisers use this to hijack me from what I really want to do?

Although reaction to the concepts varied by demographic, the fears were universal.

Of course, we’ve designed the new concepts to proactively address spams and scams. But many of the industry-standard practices for eliminating spams and scams have the unfortunate effect of increasing the barriers to adoption.

CaptchaTake digg as an example. The people with the greatest economic incentive to post stories on digg are spammers. To thwart spammers, digg has implemented security mechanisms such as CAPTCHAs. As the spammers and scammers get better defeating CAPTCHAs, the CAPTCHAs get harder. (On the CAPTCHA at right, my success rate is 1 in 3.)

These types of security measures increase the burden of submitting to digg to the degree that only the most motivated people bother to do it. On a given day, I will read 6-12 stories that I consider digg-worthy, but it’s just too much trouble to digg them.

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