November 29, 2007

Technology in pop culture and geek trivia

Filed under: fun, google, random, twitter — Rakesh Agrawal @ 5:14 pm

In the last week or so, I’ve seen a few of our favorite geek topics appear in pop culture. Twitter provided key clues in CSI. The Simpsons finally got Tivo. Doonesbury featured Pandora.

Tuesday’s Jeopardy! had as the Final Jeopardy! clue:

This company’s name is a variation on a word coined by Milton Sirotta & used in the book “Mathematics and the Imagination”

Answer after the video.

Jeopardy! answer: What is Google?

Google is a variant of googol, which is the number 1 with a hundred zeros after it. Larry Page was in my high school class and was fascinated with googol even back then.

Two of the three Jeopardy! contestants got it right. The other answered Yahoo!

Yahoo, by the way, originally stood for Yet Another Hierarchically Officious Oracle.

Bonus question: What is the name of the first search engine developed by Larry and Sergey?

(Bonus question courtesy of Adam Lasnik.)

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Lake Tahoe and Reno pictures on flickr

Filed under: rocky's travel — Rakesh Agrawal @ 2:23 pm

Pictures from my trip to Lake Tahoe and Reno are online. Highlights of the trip were Emerald Bay, Virginia City and the National Automobile Museum in Reno. The museum is really the only thing in Reno I found worthwhile. Here is the map.

Reflections in the lagoon

November 28, 2007

Flickr places provides a wide-angle view of the world

Filed under: flickr, geotagging, maps, mashups, travel, web 2, web 2.0 — Rakesh Agrawal @ 3:43 pm

My friends who’ve seen me walk around with a GPS as I take pictures on vacation or hikes think I’m a little bit odd. But apparently, I’m not the only one. In the 15 months since Flickr officially supported geotagging, more than 35 million pictures have been geotagged — enough that they can launch Flickr Places to show them off.

One of my big complaints with most travel sites is that they downplay the visual and visceral elements that make travel fun. At Flickr Places, that’s front and center. Places offers a gorgeous travelogue of places around the world. You can see pictures, Flickr groups about the location and connect with photographers.

A tag cloud shows the top tags for an area; this sounds more useful than it is. Most places I searched came up with words like clouds, sunset, people, church. It’d be nice if the universal words were thrown out and the focus places on words that are unique or much more common for an area.

I’d also like to be able to zoom in on the map and see where the most photographed places are. (There are some data quality issues with this, but they’re manageable.)


Flickr also changed the way maps are presented. Although the maps and overall presentation are more visually appealing, some key functionality was lost. In the previous version, the map represented your search. If you zoomed in or out, the new map defined the boundaries. As a result, you could see new pictures that didn’t appear in the other view.

The World Map view now provides a tag visualization that shows the latest tags from around the world. (See my earlier coverage of World Explorer from Yahoo! Research.)

See also:

More on: flickr, geotagging

Google’s My Maps becomes Our Maps

Filed under: google, maps, mashups, web 2, web 2.0 — Rakesh Agrawal @ 2:52 pm

Google’s latest changes to My Maps allows you to collaborate on personal maps with others in much the same way you can share a Google Document or Spreadsheet.


You can also allow anyone to edit a map.

Group editing is great for maps that are too hard for one person to scale. Before this release, I started maps of free Wi-Fi and restaurants with outdoor dining. Now I can invite my friends and the public to help build out the maps. Although some of these data is captured by vertical players such as JiWire and Skyhook, the integration with Google’s Local Search brings it to a much wider audience.

Google could use the same platform to have users build out vertical directories to augment data from providers like InfoUSA by actively soliciting users to contribute places on specific topics. This is already happening on an ad hoc basis as users follow their passions and create maps.

We’ve seen news organizations use My Maps to cover stories such as the California wildfires. They could open that up to a collaborative process with their readers.

See also:

November 20, 2007

Google Maps tackles the last block problem

Filed under: google, local search, maps, satellite navigation, street view, web 2, web 2.0 — Rakesh Agrawal @ 12:49 pm

A longstanding problem with online maps and navigation devices is that your destination is often not where they say it is. When you reach the “destination”, you’re often a few hundred feet from where you wanted to be. There are three common reasons for this:

  • No one has walked every street and identified where each address is. Addresses are approximated based on standard numbering schemes. On a block that goes from 200 to 300, 250 will be placed in the middle.
  • Businesses sometimes use vanity addresses. The business may have an address on Madison Avenue in New York, but the real entrance is off less glamorous 54th Street.
  • The business address is incorrect or malformed in the database.

Google Maps is now tapping users to help fix this problem. Users can edit the location markers for a given address. To prevent abuse, any movements greater than about 600 feet are moderated.

This is especially helpful for addresses that are incorrect in the Google database or can’t be accurately geocoded. These appear on Google Maps with a circle to mark the location and a warning.

The Pentagon Post Office is listed with an address of “The Penagon, Arlington, VA 22201″. As a result, it appears about three miles from where it really is. I was able to move it to the correct spot, on top of the Pentagon. Because this is more than 600 feet, the change will be moderated. I’ll be watching to see how quickly that happens. (Update: Google has since removed the Pentagon Post Office record altogether.)

Pentagon Post Office on Google Maps

If this feature takes off, it will make Google’s Street View feature much more useful. Right now, when you pull up a Street View of an address, there’s a good chance you won’t see the business you were looking for because it shows a view of the approximated location.

More on: Google, maps, satellite navigation

November 19, 2007

Searching outside the search box

Filed under: facebook, search, social networking, web 2, web 2.0 — Rakesh Agrawal @ 11:24 am

A large untapped opportunity in social networks is connecting people with information they’re looking for.

I was flying home this weekend from Lake Tahoe and connected in Salt Lake City. While I was there, I updated my Facebook status to indicate that I was in Utah for the first time.

Later that night I received a message from my friend Dean:

hey Rocky, whatcha doing in the beautiful, bizarre state of UT?

I lived there for a year after AOL. Let me know if you need any tips on where to go while you are there.

Salt Lake City AirportWithout doing a search, I had information coming directly to me from someone I knew. I was just in Utah for 90 minutes, so I didn’t need any tips. But when I go there for real, I now know to begin my search with Dean.

By distributing information needs through our network, social networks allow us to tap into a large base of knowledge from known sources.

Services like Yahoo! Answers allow you to ask questions, but Answers is largely anonymous. Too many of the answers devolve into insults and name calling and it’s hard to tell if people know what they’re talking about. There is also an incentive problem: I don’t participate in Yahoo! Answers because I don’t have enough time to answer questions for random strangers. But I’m happy to answer questions for friends.

LinkedIn’s Answers product usually delivers better results by posing questions just to your network. And because I know these people, I can easily assess the credibility of their answers. LinkedIn’s professional focus is a bit limiting; I wouldn’t pose questions about vacation plans there.

If I were really going to Utah, I suppose I could spam everyone I know with an email asking if anyone knew anything about Utah. The passive approach of updating my Facebook status is more socially acceptable.

For now, this relies on my friends seeing my status message and responding. It was more or less random that Dean saw my status message. As social networks get smarter (and get more data), the request can be routed automatically to the people likely to have a good answer. My status message could be displayed more prominently to friends whose profiles indicated that they’d lived in or visited Utah.

Marketers can also be part of the conversation. Facebook allows you to become a “fan” of a company or a product. If I become a “fan” of United Airlines, they could send me information about their Utah service or upcoming sales. I’d love to hear about any great deals to Park City this winter.

More on: Facebook, search

See also:

November 18, 2007

Ethernet everywhere

Filed under: advertising, fun, marketing, random — Rakesh Agrawal @ 12:36 pm

Ethernet-enabled urinals at The Local

Yup, that’s an Ethernet jack above the urinal. I saw this at my friend Kieran’s pub, The Local in Minneapolis.

No, I didn’t try plugging in.

Here’s what the jack is really used for.

November 7, 2007

That’s what puppies look like on the inside

Filed under: random, travel — Rakesh Agrawal @ 9:12 am

After more than 12 years of heavy business travel, I thought I’d seen it all.

As I was waiting at the security checkpoint at Dulles yesterday, I saw a woman almost put a carrier with three puppies through the X-ray. Fortunately, a TSA agent saw it and had her take them out.

November 5, 2007

Marketing on social networks

Filed under: advertising, facebook, marketing, social networking, web 2, web 2.0 — Rakesh Agrawal @ 9:20 pm

Social networks like MySpace and Facebook are among the leaders in user engagement, with many users returning daily and some visiting many times a day. They’ve almost reached the same level of engagement as email* and have double the engagement of news and sports sites. Yet they present a special problem for marketers: the content is so compelling that few people bother to look at the ads.

The ads have been poorly targeted banner ads or Facebook’s “flyers.” The flyers target a specific network, but even those frequently miss the mark. I’m in the Northwestern network and frequently get ads for coffee shops near the campus in Evanston.

The future of marketing on social networks is getting users to create and distribute advertising information for you.

Two of my favorite Facebook apps are MyTech and HotLists.

MyTech is an application from CNet that allows you to publish your technology purchases. Here’s a screenshot from my profile:


My friends can see what I’ve bought and how I’ve rated it. The purchase and review appear on my mini-feed. (Facebook will soon change the rules on its news feed, allowing the review to also get distributed in my friends’ news feeds.) The Facebook platform and MyTech are enabling word of mouth well beyond the people I talk to on a regular basis. The personal connection also allows my friends to get more information on a product by asking someone they know.

Another great application is HotLists from the makers of HotOrNot. The HotLists application allows you to associate yourself with brands. Here is mine:


Who is going to associate themselves with brands?

Lots of people, if you make it easy enough. We do it every day when we wear a Product(RED) T-shirt, drive a BMW or put white earphones in our ears. On Facebook, HotLists’ statistics page shows that more than 38,000 people use the application every day; about 3.8 million have it installed.

A natural extension of the HotLists application is a brand recommendation engine that suggests brands you might be interested in based on the brands you’ve already selected.

This won’t work for all brands. I don’t see people putting Metamucil or Depends on their Facebook profile. But it can work for brands like Keen. Whenever I wear my Keens, it’s a conversation starter with other Keen fans.

My brand attributes also imbue the brands I choose. People who know how much I travel know that Briggs and Riley makes luggage that can travel a million miles.

* This is based on the general U.S. Internet population; in the college audience, social networks have likely exceeded email in engagement.

November 3, 2007

The power of location in presence

Filed under: facebook, google, gps, lbs, maps, social networking, wireless, wireless data — Rakesh Agrawal @ 10:55 am

I travel frequently and have friends scattered throughout the country. I usually do a bad job of keeping track of who is where, who has moved, etc.

Last week I was in Boston. As I headed out to dinner, I updated my Facebook status:

Rocky is heading to dinner in Cambridge

Later that night, I got a Facebook message from a friend I haven’t seen since high school. He lives in Cambridge and wanted to get together.

Email from Chike about Cambridge

Unfortunately, the message arrived after I had gotten back to my hotel.

This almost-connection was facilitated by Facebook’s social graph and status updates. Next time I’m in Boston, I know to look Chike up. Twitter, Jaiku (acquired by Google) and Pownce can be used in the same way. But none of them know geography; they require that someone look at the message and determine that Cambridge is nearby. A friend who lives in Los Angeles is just as likely to see that message as someone in Cambridge.

There are a number of companies trying to turn that missed connection into an actual connection. Among them are Loopt, uLocate and Whrrl. Google purchased a pioneer in the field — Dodgeball — but hasn’t done much with it. (Dodgeball’s founders very publicly left Google, complaining that they couldn’t get engineering resources.)

Although the details vary based on site, you can publish your location from the Web or a cell phone. You can also see where your friends are on a map. I could have checked a map before I headed to Cambridge to see which of my friends were nearby. Some services will even alert you when a friend is nearby.

More on: location-based services, maps

Disclosure: I have a consulting relationship with uLocate.

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