Google & Innovation

Gems gleaned from Google’s recent Think Quarterly-The Innovation Issue:

  • Spark_with_imagination, fuel_with_data–Google Search user said they wanted 30 results per page but actual tests showed they preferred 10 results per page.  “[P]roviding 30 results was 20 percent slower than providing 10, and what users really wanted was speed. That’s the beautiful thing about data – it can either back up your instincts or prove them totally wrong.” Susan Wojcicki, The Eight Pillars of Innovation
  • Credible Mass.  “The insights of how many people like something aren’t enough. The credible mass will help us curate with a greater sense of credibility by tapping the insight of experts.”  Scott Belsky, Favorite Innovations
  • The Internet of Things. “[Embedding the web in things will] be most exciting when it’s not the expected stuff like consumer electronics, air quality monitoring or the dreaded internet fridge. It’ll be bottom-up innovation, when we stick some intelligence and connectivity in our saltcellars, our picture frames and our hats. Not because we have an overwhelming reason to do so but because we might as well, because it’s getting easier.” Russell Davies, Practical Magic

Google+, One Week Later

Last week Google+ had 10 million members.  This week it has 20 million members.  It’s rate of growth as a social networking platform is unprecedented, and it is still in beta and open only by invitation.  It allows more control over personal information than Facebook. Like any social networking site users must think through the privacy implications of using it.  For instance, its seamless integration with Picasa makes one’s shared albums more readily visible to people in one’s Google+ circles, so I changed the visibility of all of my Picasa albums to exert more fine-grained control over sharing.

I’ve had a Facebook account since the days when it was open only to .edu addresses but I’ve never truly used it. I explained to a friend why Google+ appeals to me:

Google+ is Facebook without the clutter and with privacy controls. It’s social networking where I don’t have to keep my eyes closed because 90% of my contacts are current or recent students with no boundaries and no discretion. It’s integrated with other Google products I use often. It’s the future.

Facebook users may love what it allows them to do (whatever that may be) but they don’t love Facebook.  The American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) just reported that “Facebook ranks as the lowest-scoring site of all companies measured, not just in the social media category.”  Reasons “could include the complexity of the user controls, the introduction of ads, and the privacy issue.”  Facebook’s genius was in filling a need, not anything intrinsic about the site’s architecture or design.  Google+ provides an alternative with different architecture, design, and policies, especially for those not heavily invested in Facebook.

New Web Toys

Two diversions have landed on my desktop this week: Google+ (thanks to a friend at Google), which is attracting positive reviews (read David Pogue’s here) even though it’s not officially open, and on-demand music site Spotify, open today in the U.S. after years of buzz from Europe (yes, I paid for the premium service).  Google+ intrigues me because I don’t use my Facebook account–most of my contacts are current or former students and I can’t get past the awkwardness of being around things neither they nor I want to know about the other–, the Facebook interface gives me a headache, I like how Google+ allows one to organize people into distinct circles, and I use Google search, Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Docs, and Picasa daily on my computers and phone.  Spotify plays everything stored on my computers and everything in its extensive online catalog on any networked device.  How extensive?  It has results for everything in this stream-of-consciousness search: Glenn Gould, Buddy Rich, Eddie Harris, Compared to What, Frank Zappa, Witchi Tai To, Seatrain, The Tubes, The Fugs, Blondie, Philip Glass, Leonard Cohen, Eric Burdon, The Roches, Ronnie Spector, The Ramones, Balkan Beat Box, Natalie MacMaster, Duke Robillard, Vassar Clements, and over 120 versions of Since I Fell For You.  (But not Seatrain’s Marblehead Messenger, alas)

In other words, I didn’t complete today’s To Do list.

The Invisible Hand and the Daily Me

In his 1995 book Being Digital Nicholas Negroponte came up with the term “The Daily Me” to describe news and information tailored to the recipient’s interests and biases.  In his 2002 book Republic.com Cass Sunstein explained the Daily Me as a filter:

It is some time in the future. Technology has greatly increased people’s ability to “filter” what they want to read, see, and hear. General interest newspapers and magazines are largely a thing of the past. The same is true of broadcasters. The idea of choosing “channel 4” or instead “channel 7” seems positively quaint. With the aid of a television or computer screen, and the Internet, you are able to design your own newspapers and magazines. Having dispensed with broadcasters, you can choose your own video programming, with movies, game shows, sports, shopping, and news of your choice. You mix and match.  You need not come across topics and views that you have not sought out . . . The market for news, entertainment, and information has finally been perfected. Consumers are able to see exactly what they want. When the power to filter is unlimited, people can decide, in advance and with perfect accuracy, what they will and will not encounter. They can design something very much like a communications universe of their own choosing.

In an article discussing the book Sunstein feared that “from the standpoint of democracy, filtering is a mixed blessing.”  He continued:

First, people should be exposed to materials that they would not have chosen in advance. Unanticipated encounters, involving topics and points of view that people have not sought out and perhaps find irritating, are central to democracy and even to freedom itself. Second, many or most citizens should have a range of common experiences. Without shared experiences, a heterogeneous society will have a more difficult time addressing social problems and understanding one another.

Sunstein’s provocative premise generated a fair amount of commentary.  My Google search of <“cass sunstein” “republic.com” “daily me”> produced 825 “relevant” results and the concept of the Daily Me continues to resonate, but without great vigor–only 480 relevant Google hits.

Perhaps it should resonate more.  It came immediately to mind when I read this passage from Sue Halpern, Mind Control & the Internet, The New York Review of Books, 23-Jun-11:

The [Google] search process, in other words, has become “personalized,” which is to say that instead of being universal, it is idiosyncratic and oddly peremptory. “Most of us assume that when we google a term, we all see the same results—the ones that the company’s famous Page Rank algorithm suggests are the most authoritative based on other page’s links,” Pariser observes. With personalized search, “now you get the result that Google’s algorithm suggests is best for you in particular—and someone else may see something entirely different. In other words, there is no standard Google anymore.” It’s as if we looked up the same topic in an encyclopedia and each found different entries—but of course we would not assume they were different since we’d be consulting what we thought to be a standard reference.

Among the many insidious consequences of this individualization is that by tailoring the information you receive to the algorithm’s perception of who you are . . . Google directs you to material that is most likely to reinforce your own worldview, ideology, and assumptions . . . In this way, the Internet, which isn’t the press, but often functions like the press by disseminating news and information, begins to cut us off from dissenting opinion and conflicting points of view, all the while seeming to be neutral and objective and unencumbered by the kind of bias inherent in, and embraced by, say, the The Weekly Standard or The Nation.

The insidious difference, of course, is that we construct our own Daily Me through some degree of conscious choice, while personalized searches use our choices invisibly to define responses.  Reading The Wall Street Journal editorial page spikes your blood pressure so you get news feeds from The Huffington Post.  HuffPo makes your brain hurt but Fox News makes sense.  You care nothing about politics but Lolcats get you through the day. You make an affirmative decision about what to read, what to visit, what to ignore.  While I know that SEO games search results, I assumed that if Glenn Beck and I did the same Google search at the same moment we would obtain the same results.  I’m alarmed that that”s not necessarily the case.

Power of the Press

Last fall the New York Times reported on the abusive tactics of DecorMyEyes.com, seller of designer eyeglass frames.  The site’s owner, Vitaly Borker, intentionally practiced horrible customer service, figuring that customer complaints on online consumer advocacy sites would raise his site’s profile–more mentions of the company’s name, more links to the site, more buzz for search engines to pick up–and generate more business.  His insight was true, for a while.  Google’s search algorithms did not adequately distinguish between positive and negative references to a site, so any press was good press.  Until it wasn’t.  The Times reported that when one customer complained about receiving counterfeit frames and said she’d call her credit card company after the site refused to resolve the problem, someone identified as Mr. Russo said

“Listen, bitch,  . . . I know your address. I’m one bridge over” — a reference, it turned out, to the company’s office in Brooklyn. Then, she said, he threatened to find her and commit an act of sexual violence too graphic to describe in a newspaper.

The Times reported that the site’s campaign of threats, retaliatory lawsuits, and harassment continued for months.  Borker freely admitted what he did:  “I’ve exploited this opportunity because it works. No matter where they post their negative comments, it helps my return on investment. So I decided, why not use that negativity to my advantage?”

Here’s why not.  The Times story prompted Google to revise its algorithm to prevent this type of gaming, and prompted law enforcement to investigate Borker’s practices and bring criminal charges.  A few weeks ago the Times reported that Borker pleaded guilty “to two counts of sending threatening communications, one count of mail fraud and one count of wire fraud.”  He’ll be sentenced on September 16.  Under federal sentencing guidelines he could receive 5-6.5 years; his lawyer expects a sentence of 12-18 months.  Another case in which the Internet amplifies the consequences of stupidity/a failed moral compass/poor judgment.

Black Hat SEO

Last Sundays NYTimes ran great story about the “dirty little secrets” of search optimization.  Curious about J.C. Penny’s remarkably high-ranking  during the holiday shopping season for a variety of searches (<grommet top curtains>?) the Times engaged an online search expert to figure out why.   His conclusion:  it was “‘Actually, it’s the most ambitious attempt I’ve ever heard of. This whole thing just blew me away. Especially for such a major brand. You’d think they would have people around them that would know better.”  Someone–not it, said J.C. Penney, which fired its SEO consultant–“paid to have thousands of links placed on hundreds of sites scattered around the Web, all of which lead directly to JCPenney.com.”    Said the Times, “[w]hen you read the enormous list of sites with Penney links, the landscape of the Internet acquires a whole new topography. It starts to seem like a city with a few familiar, well-kept buildings, surrounded by millions of hovels kept upright for no purpose other than the ads that are painted on their walls.”

millions of hovels kept upright for no purpose other than the ads that are painted on their walls–cyberspace, John Perry Barlow’s “new home of Mind,” circa 2011.

Monday’s Privacy Two-Fer

Another WSJ headline about a privacy breach:  Google Snared Emails During Data Collection It begins

Google Inc. acknowledged Friday the cars its uses to collect data for its online mapping service had inadvertently gathered entire emails and passwords, a disclosure that prompted the Internet giant to appoint a privacy chief and tighten its policies.  The Mountain View, Calif., Internet search giant said it wanted to delete the information as quickly as possible. It also announced several steps its (sic) would take to improve its internal privacy and security practices.

If a Sapling is Cut Down as Soon as it’s Planted . . .

One form of Chinese censorship is to block searches for “sensitive info” such as Tiananmen and Falun Gong. If a web post is made in a forest and no one can find it, does it convey information? Another is to scour domestic websites for sensitive info such as Tiananmen, Falung Gong, –and Google, and instruct webmasters to delete it.  Around the time that Google stopped censoring Chinese search results and began referring Chinese searches to its Hong Kong servers

[]he Chinese State Council Information Office . . . ordered all news sites to “carefully manage the information in exchanges, comments and other interactive sessions” and “clean up text, images and sound and videos which support Google, dedicate flowers to Google, ask Google to stay, cheer for Google and others that have a different tune from government policy.”

Rescuecom Relents

A few years back Rescuecom sued Google federal district court (N.D.N.Y.) for Lanham Act claims of trademark infringement, trademark dilution, and false designation of origin pursuant to 16 U.S.C. §§ 1114 & 1125.  Rescuecom’s claim rested on Google’s sale and use in its AdWords program of the Rescuecom mark, Rescuecom arguing that allowing its competitors to trigger views of their own ads in response to searches for Rescuecom violated its rights as a mark owner.  The trial court dismissed Rescuecom’s complaint on Google’s 12(b)(6) motion, ruling that Google did not use Rescuecom’s mark in commerce. Rescuecom appealed and in 2009 the Second Circuit ruled that its complaint did state a claim on which relief could be granted, reversed the trial court’s dismissal, and remanded for further proceedings.

Nothing happened in the case until last week when Rescuecom declared victory and dropped its suit.  Why it believed the post-Second Circuit status quo represented a victory is unclear.   (Sample headline, from Eric Sinrod’s columnRescuecom Delcares “Victory” Against Google:  Oh Really?)  Rescuecom explains that Google has changed its AdWord practices regarding use of trademarks and no longer suggests Rescuecom’s mark through its Keyword Suggestion Tool, and that it obtained what it wanted from the suit.  Commentators have responded skeptically to Rescuecom’s explanation.  Rescuecom is itself a defendant in a lawsuit filed by Best Buy, claiming that Rescuecom’s use of Best Buy’s “geek squad” mark in its keyword advertising violates Best Buy’s rights in the mark.  One commentator called Rescuecom’s position in the Best Buy suit as “intrinsically inconsistent” with its claims against Google.  Et tu, Rescuecom?

Google Street View in the News

Vancouver property owners and an arbor service have been charged with illegal removal of trees from the owner’s property.  A Vancouver bylaw requires property owners receive a permit to remove trees greater than 20 cm in diameter, and the owners have been charged with the unpermitted removal of over 20 trees.  The penalty for each violation can range between $500 and $20,000.   What caught my attention is that a vehicle taking photographs for Google Street View recorded the tree removal:  “[t]he photograph shows a truck on the site, along with a couple of workmen, tree debris, and a line of tree stumps along the length of a fence.”  A city spokesperson was not sure whether or how the Google photo would be used in the case.

Google Street View also figured in a Third Circuit Court of Appeals decision this week to reinstate the  lawsuit against Google filed by in 2008 Aaron and Christine Boring (seriously) for invasion of privacy, trespass, and other claims.  According to the decision

The Borings, who live on a private road in Pittsburgh, discovered that Google had taken “colored imagery of their residence, including the swimming pool, from a vehicle in their residence driveway months earlier without obtaining any privacy waiver or authorization.” They allege that their road is clearly marked with a “Private Road, No Trespassing” sign, and they contend that, in driving up their road to take photographs for Street View and in making those photographs available to the public, Google “disregarded [their] privacy interest.”

The trial court dismissed the Borings’ privacy claims (which it treated as claims for intrusion upon seclusion and unreasonable publicity given to another’s private life) “because the Borings were unable to show that Google’s conduct was highly offensive to a person of ordinary sensibilities,” and dismissed the trespassing claim because the Borings’ failed to allege facts showing that the trespass damaged them.    The Third Circuit affirmed the trial court’s decision on the ruling on the privacy claims, ruling as to both that “[n]o person of ordinary sensibilities would be shamed, humiliated, or have suffered mentally as a result of a vehicle entering into his or her ungated driveway and photographing the view from there.”   On the trespass claim the court noted that it is a strict liability tort and the trial court erred in apparently reading a damages element into the prima facie case of trespass.  The Third Circuit reinstated the trespass claim, noting however ” it may well be that, when it comes to proving damages from the alleged trespass, the Borings are left to collect one dollar and whatever sense of vindication that may bring, but that is for another day.”

Street View van has not visited my street.  Maybe someday.