August 22, 2007

Brazen highway robbery in Nebraska

Filed under: advertising, fun, random — Rakesh Agrawal @ 10:45 am

You see a sign advertising gas at $3.09 a gallon. You pull in and fill up. After filling up, you realize that you were charged $3.59 a gallon for the same grade of gas. Bait and switch? Sounds like it. Illegal? Apparently not in Nebraska. The fine print on the sign said the $3.09 price only applied at select pumps.

That’s what’s happening in North Platte, Neb. A Conoco station is advertising a low price, but that price only applies for two of its pumps.

Under state law, the signs — which show in smaller print that the lower-priced gas is available only at certain pumps — are not illegal as long as gas is available at the lower price at even one pump, according to Steve Malone, administrator of the state Weights and Measures Division.

At a difference of 50 cents a gallon and using a conservative estimate of 60,000 gallons a month, that’s an extra $360,000 a year. Because the Conoco is located just off the Interstate, repeat business isn’t a huge concern.

The owner of the Conoco station refused to comment on his deception. In a a classic race to the bottom, the BP station nearby has also adopted the shady practice.

“I personally don’t like doing it,” [an owner of the BP station] said in a telephone interview. “They (the Conoco station) were pulling more people in to their station. It got to the point that in order to get any business we had to match what they were doing.”

It’s a tough situation. Be honest and lose business to the cheating sleazebag down the road. Or cheat your customers to stay “competitive.” A friend asked how I’d handle it. I’d probably start by advertising my prices with a big sign that says “AT ALL PUMPS”. If that didn’t work, I’d add a sign that said “UNLIKE THE CONOCO”.

via Consumerist

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August 21, 2007

Google introduces embeddable maps for your Web site

Filed under: google, maps, mashups, web 2, web 2.0 — Rakesh Agrawal @ 4:18 pm

In the latest incarnation of widgets that let users slice-and-dice content, Google Maps is now allowing users to embed maps on Web sites. Several of Google’s other properties allow users to embed content, including YouTube’s embeddable videos and Picasa’s slideshows.

Unfortunately, doesn’t let me embed content. But you can take a look at an example on this demo page I created at Ning. This example uses a custom map that I created using Google’s My Maps feature. Google lets publishers customize the size of the map.

The embeddable maps should be a boon to small business owners looking to incorporate maps on their Web site, complete with a picture of your business, nearby landmarks and easy access to turn-by-turn directions.


More on: Google, maps

On newspapers, Osama bin Laden and Google

Filed under: google, journalism, media, newspapers — Rakesh Agrawal @ 3:03 pm

The Los Angeles Times weighed in on the new Google News feature which allows sources quoted in stories to respond. After a bizarre lead — “Many publishers consider the Internet, and Google in particular, a greater threat to their livelihoods than Osama bin Laden” — the paper goes on to slam the practice concluding that Google’s efforts are “not journalism.”

It may not be journalism in the traditional sense, but allowing sources to comment on stories that they were part of can help further the quest for truth, which is the purpose of journalism.

Journalists and news organizations have for a long time fought to prevent the transparency and accountability into their work that they demand of government and other corporations.

Instead of fighting such attempts, the media ought to embrace transparency. They should link to original sources whenever possible. This includes press releases, audio from phone or in-person interviews, government documents, etc. For too many stories, it will reveal that the “reporter” has done little more than move paragraphs around from the press release. For other stories, a reader will be able to determine that a quote was taken out of context or the meaning significantly altered. Good. These kind of practice needs to be exposed.

And there will be plenty of stories where the additional content adds credibility to the story and provides more depth for readers who are passionate about the topic.

This kind of transparency will help to increase the credibility of good media organizations and damage the credibility of those who play fast and loose with the facts or take dangerous short cuts.

The Times worries that the comments section in Google News “is likely to be larded with spin, hype and obfuscation” and “won’t help readers separate the factual wheat from the public-relations chaff”. As long as sources are clearly identified, I trust the readers to make that distinction on their own.

As the gatekeepers of what goes into print or on the air, news organizations have historically had tremendous power over the public’s perception of events. Regardless of what Google News does, the Internet has dramatically changed that by giving sources and the public the opportunity to respond. Dan Rather found out the hard way when bloggers exposed serious concerns about the authenticity of documents used as the basis of a report on Bush’s service records.

In the tech world, reporters who misquote a source can pretty much count on having the source call them on it in a post on the source’s blog (or in a comment on the story itself). It’s only a matter of time before other industries catch on.

Recommended reading:

August 20, 2007

Revolutionizing journalism education at Medill

Filed under: journalism, media, newspapers — Rakesh Agrawal @ 6:26 pm

Chicago magazine has a piece on the challenges facing John Lavine, the new dean at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism as he sets a new course for teaching journalism.

“It would be unethical for us to educate you to only be able to write,” [Lavine] said. “It would be like sending you out with your left arm and your right leg tied behind your back.”

After taking over as the leader of Medill earlier that year, the new dean had vowed to “blow up” the old curriculum at what has long been considered one of the best journalism schools in the country. He declared that students needed to be immersed in “new media”—Web sites, videos, filmstrips, video games, and podcasts. And the new curriculum would emphasize an understanding of “audience”—who the customers are, what they want, how to reach them. The concept of marketing—widely disdained by ink-in-their-veins journalists—would assume a key role in the teaching program.

I graduated from Medill in 1995. I was fortunate to take a class called Newspapers of Today & Tomorrow. That class placed a heavy emphasis on prototyping and knowing the audience. It also gave me the freedom to explore online newspapers, leading me to launch The Daily Northwestern online.

Given today’s $35,000 annual tuition and the challenges facing the media business, I’d be hard pressed to encourage someone to go into a program that only taught writing and editing. As it is, I’m constantly encouraging my friends in the media business to learn about their audiences, engage with their readers and learn new ways of telling stories.

If no one wants to read your work, it doesn’t matter that you know “who” from “whom.”

comScore redefines search, Google wins bigger

Filed under: aol, facebook, google, metrics, search, statistics, yahoo — Rakesh Agrawal @ 3:47 pm

ComScore is changing the methodology for its qSearch market share ratings. Instead of just counting search activity at the major search engines, comScore is expanding the definition of search to include searches at sites such as Wikipedia, eBay, Amazon, MySpace, Mapquest, Craigslist and other vertical players.

Searches across multiple tabs for the same search term will also be counted separately. For example, if you search for “hurrican dean” in Web search and then click the tabs for news and pictures, that will be counted as three searches.

For those who were hoping this might shrink Google’s share of search, think again. Under the new methodology, Google’s share grew 6 points in March compared with the old methodology. The additions to Google (which include YouTube) are greater than all of TimeWarner’s search traffic (which itself benefits greatly from the addition of Mapquest).

Here is a comparison of core search and expanded search metrics based on July 2007 data:

Core search Expanded search
  1. Google
  2. Yahoo!
  3. Microsoft
  4. Ask
  5. Time Warner (AOL Search)
  1. Google (Google, YouTube)
  2. Yahoo!
  3. Microsoft
  4. Time Warner (AOL Search, Mapquest)
  5. Fox Interactive (MySpace)
  6. eBay
  7. Ask
  8. Craigslist
  9. Amazon
  10. Infospace

Using the expanded definition, Ask drops from #4 to #7, being passed by TimeWarner, Fox Interactive Media (MySpace) and eBay. TimeWarner moves up from #5 to #4, based largely on Mapquest traffic.

The numbers don’t seem to include Facebook, which according to its blog does more than 600 million searches a month. If that number were comparable to qSearch data, Facebook would be at #5 in the expanded search.

More on: AOL, Google, Yahoo!, Facebook.

Disclosure: I used to work at AOL Search.

August 14, 2007

Rewriting your corporate history on Wikipedia

Filed under: web 2, web 2.0, wikipedia — Rakesh Agrawal @ 11:17 pm

WIRED has a story about companies rewriting their history on Wikipedia. The story is based on Wikipedia Scanner, a tool from Cal Tech grad student Virgil Griffith that allows you to look up anonymous Wikipedia edits from a specific company’s computers. Among the companies who apparently edited their own Wikipedia entries are Diebold (removing criticism of its voting machines), Wal-Mart (outsourcing, employee wages, etc.), Exxon (that Valdez thing) and Microsoft.

Some of this appears to be transparently self-interested, either adding positive, press release-like material to entries, or deleting whole swaths of critical material.

Voting-machine company Diebold provides a good example of the latter, with someone at the company’s IP address apparently deleting long paragraphs detailing the security industry’s concerns over the integrity of their voting machines, and information about the company’s CEO’s fund-raising for President Bush.

The text, deleted in November 2005, was quickly restored by another Wikipedia contributor, who advised the anonymous editor, “Please stop removing content from Wikipedia. It is considered vandalism.”

It’s not just corporations; religious groups and politicians are also cleaning up their own images. See WIRED’s Threat Level to view and vote on the most shameful spin jobs.

What’s amazing is that they’re not even trying to hide it; the changes are being made from trackable locations. If the same changes were made from a coffee shop, they wouldn’t be directly trackable.

There’s no direct evidence of intent. It could be corporate policy to edit Wikipedia for public relations or it could be an employee who takes the initiative without company approval. Or it could just be someone goofing off on company time: “One CIA entry deals with the details of lyrics sung in a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode.”

AOL launches improved mobile search

Filed under: aol, local search, wireless, wireless data — Rakesh Agrawal @ 10:10 am

AOL’s mobile searchAOL today released its new beta of mobile search. Congratulations to rockstar developer Alan Tai and product manager Farhan Memon. Alan did much of the initial prototyping on his own time while we worked to get approval.

I pushed the strategy on this, so it would be inappropriate for me to review it. See Om’s blog for more details.

I’ve long believed that you need to design for the medium. Shovelware didn’t work when we were first trying to put content on the Web; it won’t work now. The old version of AOL’s mobile search took the same 10 Web results you would get on a Web browser and shrunk them down to fit a mobile screen. That didn’t work.

People are in a different state when they’re mobile. Most people aren’t going to do research for a term paper or browse real estate listings on their cell phones. (Not least because most of the sites won’t work well when shrunk down to fit a mobile device.) The new mobile search is designed around answering the questions that people are most likely asking when they’re out and about: What’s the weather like? What’s the phone number for the local pizza place? What time is the movie starting?

Then there are the issues of limited screen space and difficulty in entering data. Time to answer is especially critical in mobile. This product was designed to get people answers to common mobile queries as quickly as possible.

August 11, 2007

Google’s $4.55 bag of cookies

Filed under: advertising, fun, google, random — Rakesh Agrawal @ 9:32 pm

Vending machine priced by grams of fat, Google, San Jose, California.jpg, originally uploaded by gruntzooki.

I was visiting my friend Adam at Google yesterday and he pointed out a vending machine in Google’s Building 43. A vending machine on the Google campus? Isn’t all of the food free? Most of it is. (Thanks for the free lunch, Adam!)

This machine is an exception. And unlike most vending machines, the food is priced based on how bad it is for you. Items high in fat and sugar cost more. The most expensive item I saw was a $4.55 bag of Famous Amos cookies. (You can see it at the right end of the second row.) It’s a terrific way to illustrate the externalities that we don’t take into account when buying food.

I would love to see schools use something similar to illustrate healthful eating habits to school kids. That could be the compromise position between parents who want to ban vending machines and vending machine companies that want nutrition education. (It will never happen.)

Food marketing is based on increasing profits and not health. At restaurants, convenience stores and similar places, they do whatever they can to get you to consume more because it adds straight to their bottom line while it adds straight to your waistline.

I once heard a professor on a radio show asking if an 8″ pizza costs $10, how much should a 16″ pizza cost? Most people would answer $20, because they (incorrectly) thought that the 16″ pizza is twice the size of the 8″. The “correct” answer to the question was $40, because a 16″ pizza actually has 4x the area of an 8″ pizza.

He’s clearly a math professor. The marketing and profit maximization answer is somewhere around $14. Most of the cost of the pizza is in telling you that they sell pizza, the fixed costs of operating the store and delivering it to you. The incremental cost of a 16″ pizza versus an 8″ pizza is negligible. The bulk of the extra $4 is pure profit. The goal is to set the price difference low enough that you feel like a chump if you buy the 8″ pizza.

Marketers also use naming to influence your consumption. Five Guys, a hamburger chain on the East Coast, offers a choice of a “Cheeseburger” or a “Little Cheeseburger”. What guy is going to order the “Little Cheeseburger”? On the other coast, In-N-Out Burger doesn’t provide a financial incentive to consume more. Their combos cost the same as the individual components put together.

More on: Google

Why we love social networks

Filed under: email, facebook, social networking, web 2, web 2.0 — Rakesh Agrawal @ 8:56 pm

There was a comment in Paul Kedrosky’s blog last month asking about the real value of social networks:

Facebook, MySpace, I don’t get it: personalize a webpage template and exchange links, I mean friendships, with people.

Since I responded to the comment, I thought it was worth expanding on and posting here. Here are some of the key reasons I believe people have taken to services like Facebook.

Social networksPeople like to talk about themselves. (Including me.) The explosion in blogs is just one example. But blogging is a lot of work. You have to pick a blog platform, pick a name for the blog and write posts. Each post is a fair amount of work to assemble. (I spend 20-45 minutes on a post, depending on how much research is involved.)

At AOL, I talked frequently about microblogging — allowing people to quickly and easily express their thoughts without all the overhead of blogging. Lowering the bar increases participation.

That’s exactly what social networking sites do. I can go into the Flixster Movies app on Facebook, search for a movie, click a star rating and write out a one-paragraph review. The actors, title, summary and movie picture are pre-populated. By contrast, every time I come to WordPress I face a blank screen. It’s like the difference between a fill-in-the blank test and an essay question.

People want to feel connected, but they don’t want to do a lot of work to be connected. Social networks allow us to keep in touch with many more people than we could ordinarily keep track of. I have many former colleagues, college friends and other acquaintances who I want to stay in touch with. I want to know what’s going on in their lives, but I don’t have time to call and email everyone. One of my favorite applications is the slickr screensaver; it taps into flickr and lets me see the latest in my friends lives when my computer is idle.

These networks also help me discover common interests with people I know. When I visited Carl Kasell’s profile on Facebook, I found that six of my friends are also Carl fans.

There’s also the value of persistence: with changing email addresses, phone numbers, jobs, it’s not always easy to find someone. On LinkedIn and Facebook, I’m connected to the person, not the specific contact address.

Email today is a disaster. With all the spams, scams and other nasties, the closed environment on Facebook is a godsend. I know when I get a message on Facebook that it’s most likely not spam. There’s no chance that the message will get trapped by an overly aggressive spam filter (I get way too many false positives) — you’re more likely to reach me through a comment on my blog or a Facebook message than by email.

Discussions elsewhere have gotten out of hand. Pretty much any blog post or discussion that gets more than a few commenters on most sites devolves into personal attacks. When conversations involve real identity the discussion is usually (though certainly not always) more civil.

As the song goes, sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.

More on: social networking, Facebook

August 10, 2007

Virgin America takes to the skies; Chron doesn’t

Filed under: airlines, journalism, media, newspapers, travel — Rakesh Agrawal @ 12:51 am

Virgin America planeWednesday marked the inaugural flights of Virgin America, a new low-cost airline based in San Francisco. Virgin America is currently flying from San Francisco to Los Angeles and New York. This fall it will add flights to Las Vegas and Washington Dulles.

From all accounts, Virgin America is setting a new standard in airline amenities. (See some of my earlier coverage on Virgin America.) Many of Virgin’s amenities are especially appealing to geeks. The geek bible, Engadget, provides detailed coverage of the maiden flight from JFK to SFO. Their coverage includes 136 pictures.

WIRED also provides detailed coverage with additional photos.

Engadget and WIRED both had reporters on the inaugural flights. Engadget flew from New York and paid for the flight; WIRED flew from Los Angeles and took a freebie.

Based on the coverage in the San Francisco Chronicle, it doesn’t look like it had a reporter on either flight. It ran a piece with two staff photos and a Reuters photo from New York and an AP photo from SFO (!).

This is a huge business story for San Francisco and the Bay Area. The airline has added 500 employees (most based in the Bay Area) and expects to grow to 5,000. Yet the Chron got beat out by a gadget blog and a WIRED blog. Heck, I even considered taking the LAX flight and paying the whopping $44 out of my own pocket. (I couldn’t get the schedule to work out.)

I was at a panel discussion Thursday night sponsored by the Social Media Club featuring Kevin Rose of Digg, Evan Hansen of WIRED and Chris Tolles of Topix. The audience consisted of many in the old media who expressed worry about new-media types stealing their content. If they’re going to get beat like this, they won’t have to worry about that for too long.

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