March 21, 2009

15 people I’d want to have dinner with

Filed under: random — Rakesh Agrawal @ 12:10 pm
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March 19, 2009

Facebook drives 6MM people to Friendster!

Filed under: facebook, google, search, social networking, statistics — Rakesh Agrawal @ 1:25 am

That headline is kinda, sorta true. If you buy shoddy analysis from misinterpreted data.

Like a recent piece from Henry Blodget, mass inflator of the Web 1.0 bubble. He is at it again with a piece on Facebook being a Google Killer. He points to RBC Capital Markets analyst Ross Sandler’s “analysis” of Facebook’s incredible growth and comScore data on entries and exits.

This is the kind of incessant hyping that inflated the housing bubble we’re all suffering through now — assuming that extreme rates of growth will continue.

The 1427% growth cited for Facebook starts from an insignificant base. With Google’s 468MM uniques in 2006, the only way for Google to have grown 1427% would be to reach every man, woman and child on earth. And it certainly couldn’t sustain that growth into the future, even if a lot of couples got really busy really fast.

Blodget also points to comScore’s entry/exit data to bolster his case. Here, he falsely equates correlation with causation. comScore’s entry/exit report doesn’t necessarily mean that site A drove traffic to site B. It just means that after someone went to site A, they went to site B.

If you go from Facebook to Google, it counts as an exit from Facebook and an entry to Google. It doesn’t matter whether you clicked on a link in Facebook to go to Google or not. You just happend to do those two things. Given that a lot of people use both Google and Facebook, any big site will show up on both entry/exit reports for any site.

Blodget says:

Fully 19% of Google sessions now come from Facebook, up from 9% a year ago.  At the very least, this will likely give Facebook the leverage to negotiate a sweet referral deal at some point.

Nope. Those people are going to Google anyway, without any prodding from Facebook. Google would be stupid to pay for that traffic.

comScore’s entry/exit report is one of the most useless reports they generate and really difficult to interpret. The only real curiosity in the Facebook data is this: 6MM people go to Friendster after they go to Facebook?

Yet another issue with RBC’s graph is that it doesn’t take into account duplicated reach. The combination of Google and Facebook is not 99% of worldwide uniques, because there is a high degree of overlap between the two sites. RBC analysts evidently don’t know how to use the unduplicated reach feature of comScore’s reporting tools.

That’s three huge flaws in one report. Sadly, that’s not uncommon. Analysts and journalists frequently ignore methodology while chasing killer headlines.

Thanks to @carolalene for the pointer on the comic.

March 16, 2009

More bad news for newspapers: hotels going green

Filed under: hotels, journalism, media, newspapers, travel — Rakesh Agrawal @ 8:09 am
The Four Seasons in Austin requires guests to opt-in for newspapers.

The Four Seasons in Austin requires guests to opt-in for newspapers.

This picture should send shivers down the spines of executives at USA Today headquarters in McLean, Va.

For at least as long as I’ve been traveling for business (13 years and counting), a USA Today in front of the hotel room door in the morning has been a given. It just shows up. There’s fine print in the check in folder that says that USA Today will be delivered and if I don’t want it, I can tell the front desk and get a credit of 75 cents a day. Because I do what most people do — nothing — USA Today gets to count me as paid circulation.

At least 60% of the time, the only people who see that USA Today are the person who drops it off in front of my room and the maid who throws it away. I’ve already gotten my news from my laptop and from the TV that was showing CNN while I was getting ready.

I’m surely not the only one, and hotels are catching on.

Hotels have been steadily greening their practices while cutting costs: changing sheets only between guests, changing towels only when guests leave them on the floor, providing new toiletries only when guests have used up the previous batch.

Cutting back on newspaper delivery is the next step. This year I’ve started encountering hotels that ask me at check in whether I want a newspaper. The Four Seasons in Austin has gone a step further: if you want a newspaper, you have to put a hang tag on your door before 1 a.m. And you have to remember to do this every night of your stay.

As with Web defaults, you can guess what happens. Most people do what I do: nothing. On my floor early Sunday morning, I saw three newspaper hang tags (out of about 40 rooms). Not even a free copy of the Sunday New York Times enticed people. They were easily outnumbered by the “do not disturb” hang tags.

There are a number of unknowns: how many rooms were occupied, do the hotel’s demographics shift considerably during SXSW, etc.

But the fact that an increasing number of hotels no longer consider newspapers an essential part of their service is bad news for the newspaper industry.

See also: Who needs newspapers?

More on: newspapers.

March 15, 2009

Who needs newspapers?

Filed under: journalism, media, newspapers, web 2, web 2.0 — Rakesh Agrawal @ 12:45 am

I read two thought-provoking pieces this week on the decline of newspapers from voices outside the newspaper business and one Really Dumb Idea from a voice on the inside.

Author Clay Shirky, Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable:

When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.

Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.

When we shift our attention from ’save newspapers’ to ’save society’, the imperative changes from ‘preserve the current institutions’ to ‘do whatever works.’ And what works today isn’t the same as what used to work.

ODP/DMOZ creator and veteran geek, Rich Skrenta, The news medium has a message: “Goodbye”:

Every so often there’s a story about about a technophobe executive so out of touch a secretary has to print out their email every morning so they can read it on paper and dictate replies.

That’s what the print newspaper is, of course. Why on earth would you print all that stuff out? Over a hundred pages, most of which you’re not going to read, with the crease down the middle of the front page photo, story jumps everywhere, a carbon-footprint disaster to produce, distribute and recycle. It’s absurd.

I once worked out some rough back-of-napkin estimates on the number of text bytes in the paper. It was only delivered once during the day, but if you average the bytes across the entire 24 hour period it came out to be about the rate of a 300 baud modem. The newspaper was the internet.

Both make essentially the same point: the newspaper is an accident of history whose time is just about up. Rather than try to figure out how to “fix” the newspaper problem, we should focus on what’s next.

A lot of the players in the news ecosystem have already done that. I’ve written before about how most newspapers are just repackagers of information.

Newspapers have long played to the middle, and not in a political sense. They put out essentially one product and hope that the average person finds enough of value in to subscribe. The cost of print means that you really can’t go into a lot of depth on a lot of topics. You can’t cover things that are extremely important to a few hundred people.

That worked when getting that depth was a difficult thing for readers. Now, infinite depth on just about any topic is a click away. For sports, finance and politics junkies, sites like, and are much better ways to quench their appetites.

In the meantime, the diehards in the newspaper business will come up with stupider and stupider ideas. Consider this story (via Blake Williams) about a personalized print-at-home newspaper:

MediaNews has been working with a technology company — Mr. Vandevanter would not say which one — to develop a proprietary printer for a reader’s home. It would receive and print a subscriber’s customized newspaper — with targeted advertising.

You have to have a new printer to help cut their printing and delivery costs! Maybe you’ll even have to buy special paper and ink so you can get that full broadsheet experience and can get that genuine newspaper experience of having ink rub off on your fingers. For real authenticity, the registration will be off every once in a while so that the pictures don’t look right.

And maybe, just maybe, you’ll be able to scan a link on the printed page with your CueCat to go to a Web site you find interesting.

March 13, 2009

Realtime Twitter search is not a Google killer, part 2

Filed under: facebook, google, search, seo, twitter — Rakesh Agrawal @ 12:00 pm

In the first part, I wrote about the fallacy of using people with thousands of followers to illustrate how you can get great results if you ask questions on Twitter.

In this part, I’ll focus on why the conversational nature of Twitter makes searching it effectively a hard problem.

Consider this exchange:

@CherylHaas: Celebrating my newly purchased iPhone. w00t!!! No longer a Luddite. App suggestions, please?
@rakeshlobster: yelp and shazam and Facebook

This is how people interact on Twitter. Partly because we’re lazy, partly because a lot of the interaction is done from mobile devices where typing is hard and partly because of the 140 character limit on tweets.

Between these two tweets, we have an answer to the query “iPhone app”. But Twitter Search treats these tweets independently. As a result, if you search for “iPhone app”, you’d get Cheryl’s question. Not very helpful.

If you search for “shazam,” you’ll get back my response. But there’s no context for it. The meaning of my response is lost without the context of Cheryl’s question. The question could have been “what apps are causing your iPhone to crash?” This happens in ordinary conversation on Twitter; when people are slow at responding and I get a “@rakeshlobster yes,” I’ll sometimes have forgotten the context.

This problem could be alleviated if Twitter presented threaded conversations. But then Google could just as easily index the conversation, as it does with Yahoo! Answers.

Another issue is that people don’t write for Twitter the way they write for search engines. Compare my tweet above with this post I wrote on my favorite iPhone applications. That was written with searchability in mind. There’s also a lot of shorthand on Twitter. @maryvale shortened “Nikon D80″ to “D80″ in her tweet discussing my last blog post.

That may change if searching Twitter takes off, but it would also change the nature of Twitter. I’ve been experimenting with adding more keywords in my tweets. For example, when I dropped my laptop, I originally wrote:

“laptop hinge broken. argh. it’s pretty, sleek and light. and extremely delicate.”

But then I added in the “toshiba portege r500 is”. It’s more searchable, but it makes the conversation sound stilted and robotic.

Another challenge with searching Twitter for information is that a lot of the value in Twitter is not in the tweets, but in what the tweets point too. With the extensive of URL shorteners like TinyURL and, even the minimal keywords are lost.

Beyond the content difficulties in search, there are the related issues of search order and authority.

The results that you get back are sorted chronologically and are highly dependent on when you search. Although the “best” answer for a search can fluctuate over time (one of my criticisms of Google is that its algorithms don’t do enough to counter the effects of Web rot), for most searches it doesn’t vary dramatically over the course of a day or a week. A notable exception would be queries like “what’s a good party at SXSW right now?”

As with asking questions of the Twitterverse, searching Twitter doesn’t provide any guidance as to whose answers are better than others. Searching Twitter is in someways like stepping back 15 years in search technology, before search engines widely used off-page clues and link authority to rank results.

Some suggestions have revolved around developing authority rankings based on number of followers, number of tweets, etc. The problem with that is that no one person is an authority on everything. A search result from Om Malik (@Om) on telecom should be ranked much higher than a result from Om on migration patterns of birds in Africa. Review sites like Amazon and Yelp have devoted a lot of energy to helping people determine which results are valuable. Twitter will have to develop something similar.

Despite today’s issues, the immense amount of data that Twitter and Facebook are collecting could be used to build a better, more spam-resistant search engine. The marriage of search and social networks has the potential to get us better and more credible answers, while also increasing our connections to our friends.

More on: Twitter, Google

Disclosure: I worked with several members of Twitter’s search team at AOL Search. While I don’t believe in the current hype in the blogosphere about Twitter as a Google killer with the current technology, the guys I know are very smart and I look forward to seeing what they do next.

March 8, 2009

Realtime Twitter search is not a Google killer

Filed under: google, search, seo, social networking, twitter — Rakesh Agrawal @ 6:08 pm

There’s been a lot of hype lately about “realtime search” using Twitter being a Google Killer. John Battelle talked about it in searchblog. Mike Arrington talked about it in TechCrunch.

There are two scenarios that have been talked about with Twitter and search: using Twitter to ask questions of the Twitterverse and using Twitter search to search Tweets.

In the first scenario, you send out a Tweet looking for information. An example is a Tweet by Om Malik on Feb. 2 at 7:02 p.m. “suggestion for great Indian restaurant in or around Palo alto. needs to be authentic”. Within a few minutes, he got a bunch of responses. (I recommended Amber India in Mountain View, which was a frequent recommendation.) By 8:19 p.m. Om was “eating at amber India in mountain view.”

Wow! Send out a query and you can get answers from real people right away. Who wouldn’t want that?

Not so fast.

This reminds me of latenight TV commercials for miracle diet drugs. You see pictures of people who have: lost 75 pounds in 8 weeks! lost 10 pounds overnight! gone from a size 24 to a size 6 while eating cake and sitting on the couch! You usually see a line of fine print that says “results not typical.”

That’s exactly the case here. You get atypical results when you have tens of thousands of followers as Om (23,000+) and Battelle (11,000+) do.

I posted a Tweet yesterday Looking for good wineries in napa. Focus on ambiance and red wines.” To give the Tweet extra chance of success, I posted it using Twinkle, an app that adds a location layer to Twitter. Given the nature of my query, my friend network and location in the Bay Area, I expected success. At 200+ followers, my follower count is well above the median for Twitter.

Three hours later, I got one response from a friend. By that time I’d already decided which wineries I was going to visit. Hardly a Google killer.

Suppose for a moment that I just picked a tough query. What if I’d gotten a dozen responses?

Then the problem becomes how I decide which of those responses are better than the others. Many queries have qualitative components: “What’s a good winery in Napa?” “Is the Nikon D80 a good camera?” The value of the answer depends on my needs as well as the expertise of the answerer.

With a typical search result, you have a number of clues as to quality of the answerer. If something appears on the first page of Google, presumably a lot of people have found that resource valuable. If I get a page from dpreview, I can see that they’ve reviewed hundreds of other cameras, so they probably know what they’re talking about.

With Twitter answers, I get limited information about the source and limited content.

In some cases, this is OK. I did a Tweet a while ago wondering if it was sunny at the Beach Chalet in San Francisco. You’d have to be a jerk to lie about the answers, there’s not much expertise required to answer the question and the answer fits within 140 characters.

But a query like “Is the Nikon D80 a good camera?” is tougher. If @maryvale says “yes, absolutely” then that’s all I need. I know her, I love her photography and I know she knows a lot about cameras. That doesn’t hold true for most of my other followers. And it certainly doesn’t hold true for people I don’t know at all. Someone may say “D80 is a piece of crap” because they would never consider anything less than the $2,000+ D700 or because they aren’t very technically savvy. A Tweeted answer doesn’t provide that context.

Part 2: Challenges of searching Twitter

More on: Twitter, Google

March 3, 2009

The hospitality industry gets more inhospitable

Filed under: hotels, travel — Rakesh Agrawal @ 9:06 pm

For an industry that markets itself as catering to the whims of its guests, the hotel industry sure goes out of its way to make a bad final impression. I just had a wonderful stay at the Westin Resort & Spa in Whistler, B.C. A super comfortable Heavenly Bed. A great room with a fireplace and kitchenette. A location right next to the slopes. Friendly service.

Keep your gear out of your roomYet my final impression of the hotel was sullied when I got my bill under the door the last morning. The bill had nearly $70 in charges for the “ski valet.”

Hotel policy doesn’t let you keep skis in your room. It makes sense: it keeps people from dragging wet gear through the hotel, keeps the hallways and rooms free of ski damage and reduces the hotel’s risk that someone trips and gets injured. What they don’t tell you is that they charge for it. Not when we checked in nor when we checked our skis.

When I complained at check out that the charge wasn’t disclosed, the woman at the front desk mentioned that they get that complaint regularly.

This is the latest in a long line of “gotcha” charges from this industry. Instead of being seen as valued guests, we’re seen as sources of “ancillary revenue.”

I’m not talking about the charges we’re all familiar with: anyone who uses the hotel phone for anything other than calling the front desk or concierge clearly doesn’t care about their (or their company’s) money, or minibar items that cost 5x-10x their retail value.

A few other gotchas that I’ve noticed recently:

  • Dynamic currency conversion. In this scam, which applies when traveling abroad, the hotel will automatically convert the amount of your bill into U.S. dollars. (At a horrible exchange rate.) Never mind that they could charge you in the local currency and have your credit card company do the conversion. (At a much better rate.) The credit card companies, not wanting to miss out on their cut, are now tacking on fees even if the hotel does the conversion to dollars. Most of the big credit card companies such as Chase, Citi and Bank of America tack on 3% for most of their cards. (Of the major card issuers, CapitalOne is a rare exception.)  Between the dynamic currency conversion and the credit card company, this can tack 8% or more on to your bill.
  • “Guaranteed” U.S. dollar rates. This is a related scam that I encountered at the Sheraton Centro Historico in Mexico City. I was guaranteed a rate of  USD $99 a night. But instead of charging my credit card in U.S. dollars, they converted the bill to Mexican Pesos. (At a horrible exchange rate.) The rate was about 5% worse than the credit card company rate. The hotel gets the benefit of protecting their revenue in a realtively stable currency while at the same time generating additional revenue by cheating people on the exchange. There’s really no reason that they couldn’t make the rate 15% worse or 50% worse.
  • The hidden room service markup. Room service is expensive. OK, we all know that. At the W Seattle, they disclose the delivery charge of $4 and the service charge of 22%. Fair enough; someone has got to bring the stuff up from the kitchen. What they don’t tell you is that they’ve also raised the menu prices of items $4-$5 above what they charge in the restaurant.

In many cases these charges don’t show up until you get your bill. If you’re in a hurry, you might overlook these charges altogether or not have time to contest them.

At least 3/4 of my hotel bills have some sort of unexpected charge on them. Often the discrepancy is $5-$15 — just in the sweet spot where about half the time I don’t bother to challenge them.

Unfortunately, I don’t see the situation with these gotcha charges getting any better. Faced with low occupancy and declining room revenue, hotels will be looking at every opportunity to extract more ancillary revenue.

Maybe they’ll even do what Ryanair’s CEO has talked about.

The Silver is the New Black Theme. Blog at


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