The business of search.

In what I’m sure will be oft quoted, Joe Kraus, one of the founders of Excite, has started a blog about entrepreneurship. The reason I feel the need to quote him is related to a comment about a very highly placed person at Microsoft vehemently indicating that search was not a business.

That was back in 1995, and I was working for a search company at the time. We were making money on ads through web site, but we also sold enterprise search technology. Search was a business then. Yahoo was new, as was Excite, but Alta Vista didn’t exist yet. Companies were building portals – web starting points – that organized the information for the users in the ways they were expected to want to use it.

Then search and portals fell out of favor as a business, probably because it wasn’t driving lots of revenue and companies couldn’t succeed based on ad revenue alone. Then of course the internet bubble burst, and lots of consolidation happened.

But about that time Google appeared with spectacular search technology and the ability to find the answers. Google even became a verb, and provided many users with the definitive way to find things on the web. So search became a business again, as did search engine optimization, as marketers tried to find ways to make search engines treat them better. Even Microsoft now feels the need to do substantial search research.

So search, the business that wasn’t now drives a lot of revenue, and Google, the company that brought it back, has really changed the way people interact with the web. In fact, it is probably easier to find a site I liked by using Google, rather that setting a bookmark. Search, for many, is the first point of entry when they are looking for information.

Yet Eric Brill, a senior Microsoft researcher said that the search business may fall apart as search gets better at finding things, forcing advertising revenue to decrease. He also suggested that it will get cheaper and cheaper to build a search engine, to the point where the technology is commoditized. It is surprising though that, given the resources Microsoft is throwing at search, they have yet to get it right.

Comments like this assume that one type of search, keyword for example, is suitable. However there may be many more types of search, such as context or latent semantic analysis, that prove to be useful in some combination with keywords. Other suggestions have included combining search with social networks to enhance the searches based on what my friends are searching for.

Search is still in its infancy, and there will certainly be numerous ways in the future for us to find what we need.

Getting inside the customer’s head – really!

CalTech is doing a study using MRIs to look at brains to see how they respond to everything products to people. Called neuromarketing, it attempts to reveal how emotions react to stimuli such as advertising.

If the science turns out to be real, then is could allow marketers to design ads that directly stimulate emotions such as pleasure or fear. And eventually I can foresee portable scanners in places like car dealerships and model home sales offices to see just how much you really want that car or house. Luckily I can also foresee a market for scanner jamming devices which indicate the equivalent of a poker face.

Sometimes technology concerns me deeply. I’d like to keep my thoughts to myself for a little while longer thanks.

What are people searching for?

According to Search Engine Lowdown, David Scacco of Google says that 28% of Google searches are for a “product name”, 9% are for a “brand name” and 5% are searches for a “company name”. “Brand” keywords also have a 8x higher ROI than generic keywords. So nearly half the time people are searching for the name of something, as opposed to generic concept type searches.

This probably applies a great deal more to mature, well known products like BMW automobiles, or Oracle database software. However, if the user is looking for the solution to a business problem they have, I would think them more likely to grasp at some simple word combinations to try to find what they are looking for. Where users would now search for iPod (the brand), a couple of years ago they might have searched for “MP3 player”.

I wonder if Google tries to draw any conclusions from repetitive multiple word searches as to what people are searching for. It might be an interesting clue to future technology and perhaps culture.

The economics of local phone service.

David Weinberger is blogging the Bellhead Nethead conference, and posted this panel discussion about the Universal Service fee and whether it should be required of VoIP phones as well. The goal of the Universal Service fee was to provide access to advanced telecommunications services to all consumers at rates that are reasonably comparable to those charged in urban areas.

One of the participants comments that “One reason we’re 15th in broadband adoption is that our dialup rates (isp and phone service) are so cheap.” I beg to differ. I lived in a small rural town about 35 minutes outside of Boston where neither the phone company or cable companies felt there was sufficient revenue to be generated from broadband access. A small provider filled the gap at an initial cost of $500, and $60 per month, versus the more reasonable $40 per month in urban areas. That eventually changed when AT&T sold its cable division.

I’m in the process of moving to VoIP myself, but that is for home use. The truth is that I use my mobile phone far more than my home phone, and that is the number I give to people. I just forward the phone if need be. And throughout Europe, the penetration of cell phones is far higher. I expect that in the future my kids won’t even have home phones, which will alter the economics of local phone service as we know it.

Is another browser really necessary?

Everyone seems to think that Google is going to introduce a web browser, possibly called Gbrowser. While I am sure that they would do an excellent job, I question the wisdom of yet another web browser (YAWB).

I use Firefox, and I often encounter web sites (like Weightwatcher.com that I mentioned recently), that design their sites for one browser. Others are just not able to their sites with multiple browsers, and the introduction of more browser idiosyncracies will just complicate the problem.

I understand Google’s desire to expand their grasp of the desktop, but perhaps they could do that by striking and agreement with an existing browser like Firefox or Opera, and minimize the pain for net users everywhere.

A virtual assistant for mobile folks.

Intel has a pretty cool idea for a virtual assistant for mobile users that they call Persona. Their research paper uses a travel example to contend that reformatting data and user interfaces for mobile/PDA access still makes it difficult for the user to deal with.

Instead they suggest the concept of a virtual assistant that can assess the complex information and reduce it to a few simple choices on the part of the user. For example, rather that forcing the user to check schedules on their PDA, change car rentals and hotels, and inform colleagues, Persona can instead prompt the user with just a few flight options, dealing with everything else in the background.

In fact, as site like Expedia or Travelocity has the capability to do a lot of this already, and would merely need to be exposed as a service for mobile network operators, perhaps through the Open Service Access (OSA)/Parlay specification. Imagine reducing your travel headaches to a simple one screen selection on your mobile handset.

Don’t spit on me.

As if spam wasn’t enough, no we need to worry about spit – spam over internet telephony. It seems that unscrupulous companies could send 1000 messages per minute over VoIP.

I haven’t got my Vonage phone yet so I’m not sure how they would deal with that. I would like to suggest that they log all of my incoming voice mails and allow me to filter out or automatically delete numbers I don’t recognize. It would also be useful to create rules for numbers that I want to block. This kind of filter would be very useful on my non-VoIP phone as well. It would be nice if my local exchange carrier provided some of those services as well.

My weekends are full of spam.

It seems that all of the spam providers save up their messages and send them to me on the weekend. They are primarily pornographic in nature, with a few mortgage and viagra ads thrown in for good measure. All of the messages indicate clearly that they are in compliance with the CAN-SPAM act, but the porn certainly isn’t as it does not identify itself with the text “Sexually Explicit” in the subject line.

I still use Microsoft Outlook for email. I love Thunderbird, but still find the integrated mail/contacts/calendar/tasks/journal in Outlook quite useful. Yet when I tried to create a rule to automatically delete the messages I realized that Outlook is completely inadequate when it comes to defining the rules. A good deal of the spam comes from different ids within the same domain, so I set out to block the domain. Unfortunately, Outlook does not provide a method to select a domain name. It claims to be able to check for specific words in the sender’s address, but when I tried it failed to recognize the domain.

So I’m stuck manually deleting my email spam for now until I find a better way.

How you recruit says a lot.

In Electronic Recruiting News, John Sumser says:

Candidates should be treated like people. Seems simple enough.

He goes on to describe how to do just that, such as describing the hiring process (how long, what’s involved), and staying in touch with relevant information. Yet it is stunning just how few companies make the attempt to treat candidates like people.

I live in a small high technology community about an hour west of Toronto, Canada. Since moving here two years ago I have had occasion to deal with several companies in the area or all sizes, for both consulting engagements and full time work. I have met and interviewed at these companies up to the CEO level, and usually through several meetings. Yet not a single one of these companies have ever bothered to contact me regarding the status or my contract or recruitment. Even if I just wasn’t the right candidate, a simple phone call to let me know that I was being eliminated would seem to be common courtesy. This was the case even in companies where I had been referred by an employee, and no feedback was given to them either. In some cases I was able to get a status by being proactive, in another case a contract offer was withdrawn – a fact of which I was informed by email two days after I had contacted the company about it.

Contrast that with what happened to me this past week. On Monday I send a cold call email to a company called Redknee, a provider of network-based mobile applications in Toronto. On Tuesday their Human Resources department contacted me, telling me they would like to speak to me regarding a position they had available. After a very pleasant and forthcoming phone screen interview on Wednesday, I received a call asking if I could come for a few hours next Wednesday to meet with their executives. Their recruiting process was quick, efficient, informative, I was treated extremely well and the staff clearly shared not only the good, but also the bad and what they were doing to correct it. I also cold called a staff member and got a very similar analysis.

The upshot of all of this is that I’ve only dealt with the Human Resources department at Redknee, but I feel that if they treat potential candidates this well, then they must treat customers even better. The company seems to have a pervasive good attitude toward the people it deals with. Whether I end up working there or not, I would feel comfortable recommending the company to others.

Conversely, with the companies that did not feel the need to treat candidates with even the most basic courtesy, I cannot help but wonder whether or not the attitude is a reflection of how the company deals with its customers. How a company treats both existing and potential employees says a great deal about the culture of that company.

To those of you who have dealt with Redknee, I would love to hear your comments.

Small is beautiful.

I’m the kind of guy that likes to use the smallest laptop possible to work on, so I guess that size matters with computing, and small is good. If you long for the days of compact efficient software, rather than the bloated products so prevalent today, then you should take a look at tinyapps.org.