Previous month:
June 2005
Next month:
August 2005

9 posts from July 2005

Blog Search Engines

I’m glad I’m not the only one who is greatly disappointed with the state of blog search tools. I use Technorati every day and I often have no idea what it’s telling me. Are the search results the most recent posts? Are they the posts that have the most links back to them? Are they from the most popular blogs? If so, how is that measured? I periodically check the “Technorati Rank” of The Average Joe and scratch my head. For example, although traffic on and links to The Average Joe have dropped a good deal since I reduced my posting frequency, the Technorati Rank has actually gone up. How could that be when there are so many new blogs being launched every day/week, ones which no doubt have higher traffic/link rates than The Average Joe?

OK, I’m sure all that information is buried somewhere in Technorati. There are probably also loads of ways to configure the search results. I really don’t care. I want something that’s as simple and reliable as Google. Here’s a better way of stating it: Why do I generally find what I’m looking for in the top 2 or 3 links in the Google results but I often have to sift through page after page of Technorati results before I find what I need?

The reason I say I’m not alone in this frustration is because of a BusinessWeek article entitled Looking for a Blog in a Haystack (registration required). The article notes that Jason Calacanis put a plea out to Google and Yahoo! to help on the blogging search front. Blogs are referred to as “the fastest growing segment of the web” and the posts “are perfect for the kind of targeted advertisements favored by search engines.”

I would love to see a Google search results page that had a separate area for blog results. Or, if you prefer to search blogs exclusively, why not have a Google subsite that’s dedicated to just that?

The article talks about the difficulties of blog searching and how the results should be sorted. Questions like these are asked: “Should it simply be the most recent? Or from a popular blogger? Or perhaps a blogger already bookmarked by the user, or even by those on the user’s buddy list?” I figure if Google gets involved, they’ll do it right and I won’t even have to ask those questions – as noted above, I’ll probably just find all the most important, relevant results at the top of the page.

I agree with Jason Calacanis: Google, Yahoo!, where are you?!


The Great Unpublished Management Survival Guide

Who is Bill Swanson? He’s the CEO of Raytheon and he wrote a 76-page book of executive wisdom…but never sought to have it formally published. Instead, he’s passed it along to the top management team at Raytheon and it has also found its way into the hands of other CEOs and business leaders.

What’s so special about this? I’ve only read portions of it on blogs and in the July issue of Business 2.0 magazine, but what I’ve read is extremely relevant to my job and I’ll bet you’ll find it is to yours as well.

One of my favorite points is:

Look for what is missing. Many know how to improve what’s there, but few can see what isn’t there.

How many times have you sat in a meeting/presentation, listening to others picking apart “the numbers” or “the bullet points” when you realize that the most important item is being completely overlooked, it hasn’t been mentioned and that it’s not even part of the discussion? How many times have you been in a meeting where someone is presenting a solution to a problem that simply doesn’t exist?

Here’s the full list of Bill Swanson’s 25 Unwritten Rules of Management:

1. Learn to say, "I don't know." If used when appropriate, it will be often.

2. It is easier to get into something than it is to get out of it.

3. If you are not criticized, you may not be doing much.

4. Look for what is missing. Many know how to improve what's there, but few can see what isn't there.

5. Viewgraph rule: When something appears on a viewgraph (an overhead transparency), assume the world knows about it, and deal with it accordingly.

6. Work for a boss with whom you are comfortable telling it like it is. Remember that you can't pick your relatives, but you can pick your boss.

7. Constantly review developments to make sure that the actual benefits are what they are supposed to be. Avoid Newton's Law.

8. However menial and trivial your early assignments may appear, give them your best efforts.

9. Persistence or tenacity is the disposition to persevere in spite of difficulties, discouragement, or indifference. Don't be known as a good starter but a poor finisher.

10. In completing a project, don't wait for others; go after them, and make sure it gets done.

11. Confirm your instructions and the commitments of others in writing. Don't assume it will get done!

12. Don't be timid; speak up. Express yourself, and promote your ideas.

13. Practice shows that those who speak the most knowingly and confidently often end up with the assignment to get it done.

14. Strive for brevity and clarity in oral and written reports.

15. Be extremely careful of the accuracy of your statements.

16. Don't overlook the fact that you are working for a boss.

* Keep him or her informed. Avoid surprises!

* Whatever the boss wants takes top priority.

17. Promises, schedules, and estimates are important instruments in a well-ordered business.

* You must make promises. Don't lean on the often-used phrase, "I can't estimate it because it depends upon many uncertain factors."

18. Never direct a complaint to the top. A serious offense is to "cc" a person's boss.

19. When dealing with outsiders, remember that you represent the company. Be careful of your commitments.

20. Cultivate the habit of "boiling matters down" to the simplest terms. An elevator speech is the best way.

21. Don't get excited in engineering emergencies. Keep your feet on the ground.

22. Cultivate the habit of making quick, clean-cut decisions.

23. When making decisions, the pros are much easier to deal with than the cons. Your boss wants to see the cons also.

24. Don't ever lose your sense of humor.

25. Have fun at what you do. It will reflect in your work. No one likes a grump except another grump.

If you want more than just this simple list, sign up at this link and Raytheon will send you a free copy of the book.

Btw, if you don't already subscribe to Business 2.0 magazine, you should.  It only costs $10 for a 2-year subscription.  Higher math tells me that's less than 42 cents per issue.  You'll definitely get at least 42 cents worth of information in each issue...


Amazon Search Inside the Book and Google Print

Stephen Wildstrom has an interesting article in the 7/25/05 issue of BusinessWeek called The Web Hits the Stacks. He talks about Yahoo! and Google’s efforts to digitize the large number of reference works found at your local library. This brings up an interesting debate with publishers and authors alike: Just how much commercially published content should be freely accessible via search engines?

Amazon’s Search Inside the Book program was launched in October 2003. Although not a lot has been said about the program recently, Amazon generally says that they’re likely to sell more copies of a book in the program than if it’s not in the program. As a publisher, I see the benefits Search Inside the Book offers. For my money, the most important benefit is that it gives the online shopper the ability to browse the book, which is something you take for granted in the brick-and-mortar experience. Once you find the book with the right mix of content you’re looking for, the hope is that you’ll hit the “Buy” button and make a purchase.

How does this compare to the Google Print model? As with Google’s core search tool, the interface is great: clean and efficient, just what you’d expect from Google. But when I go to Google, or even think of Google, I’m not really in a buying state of mind. I’m there to get information, hopefully enough information to solve whatever problem I’ve got. I’ve bought loads of books from Amazon. On the other hand, I don’t think any of the thousands and thousands of visits I’ve made to the various Google properties has directly resulted in a sale.

Based on this personal experience and bias, I’m not that enthusiastic about putting my books into the Google Print program. What’s your opinion? Am I being too narrow-minded or is it right to question the risk-reward relationship with Google Print?


Author Tip: Royalty Advance and Hourly Rates

A lot of new authors in the computer book segment often come with a consulting background. Hourly rates of $50, $75 or $100+ aren’t uncommon. The temptation is to try and negotiate an author advance that produces at least at least the same hourly rate as the author’s consulting work. Let’s take a look at why that’s a bad idea…

In order to analyze this, we need to make some assumptions. Your mileage may vary, of course, but I’ll assume a $10K advance and a 3-month writing schedule during which the author has to spend 20 hours per week on the book project. The 3-month schedule is approximately 13 weeks, which means the author invests 260 hours (13*20) in the manuscript, which is probably a low estimate. Divide the $10K advance by the 260 hours and the author has earned $38.46/hour. As a full-time job, this rate annualizes to just under $80K. An author who is used to making an hourly/annual rate higher than this might be disappointed with the $10K advance.

Before you abandon the project, consider two things. First, if you’re going to write a computer book, it might be best to look at it as something that’s “above and beyond” your normal job, not something that replaces it. In other words, don’t quit your day job, because the book project is likely to net out to a lower hourly rate. A lot of authors treat book projects as a way of supplementing their income, adding to their credentials, etc. That’s a healthy way to look at it.

Secondly, you might just earn some royalties down the road, beyond the advance. Talk to your editor to get their thoughts on the likelihood of how long it might take for the advance to earn out. Make sure they’re not just trying to tell you what they think you want to hear. Ask for examples of similar/related titles, but keep in mind that some of this information is confidential – you wouldn’t want your editor sharing your income specifics with another author, right?

If you pick the right project, write a great book and time the market right, you might produce an income stream that lasts beyond the advance. Just keep in mind that a lot of computer books don’t earn much beyond the advance, and some don’t even earn out the advance.


Freakonomics

I just finished reading this one. On a scale of one to ten, I’d give it a nine. However, I’ve got to admit that I don’t necessarily agree with all the correlations, summaries, etc., the authors present. Rather, the thing I like most about this book is the fact that it makes you think. I also liked it because it looks at unusual data from many interesting angles. Examples?

How about the business of real estate? Ever wonder if your real estate agent may have tried to sell your house quickly, at too low a price, just to make a fast buck? The data presented here certainly supports that notion. It also shows how that same real estate agent, when selling their own house in the same neighborhood, will generally wait longer for a better price. Real estate agents get picked on elsewhere in the book as well. The chapter entitled How Is the Ku Klux Klan Like a Group of Real-Estate Agents? talks about how information abuse tips the scale in favor of your local agent.

Other highly fascinating observations and claims are made about teachers (do incentives cause them to cheat?) drug dealers (why do most still live with their moms?) and even parents (is it good to obsess over having enough books in the house, putting the kids in the “right” school, etc.?)

I can see why this one is currently a bestseller. The writing style is smooth and engaging, the material is well thought-out and the observations are made from a fresh perspective.


Fry’s and Micro Center, But Not CompUSA and BestBuy…

Thanks to my job as well as my interests in technology, I tend to visit most of the major tech stores on a regular basis. I don’t think anyone would argue with the fact that computer books occupy a smaller portion of the store at CompUSA and BestBuy today than they did a few years ago. In fact, not only is the space smaller, but the books are also generally hidden in one of the lowest traffic areas of the store.

This is the result of the tech downturn, the loss of so many tech jobs, the more tech savvy customer base, etc., right? Lower demand means less shelf space in the store. Sounds fair. But if that’s the case, why do smaller chains like Fry’s and Micro Center have such enormous book sections?

I’m not suggesting that larger book sections at CompUSA and BestBuy would have a huge impact on the computer book market... But, I wonder if part of the diminishing book sales picture at these accounts is a self-fulfilling prophecy: They see sales drop, so they reduce the space, causing sales to drop even faster.

I love shopping at stores like Fry’s and Micro Center, mostly because they seem to have broader selections of a lot of things, not just books. They’re smaller chains, of course, but they seem to attract more of the hard-core techie than some of the larger chains. Maybe the “big guys” could learn a thing or two from the smaller players.

What’s your opinion? Are the CompUSA/BestBuy customers considerably different from the Fry’s/Micro Center ones, at least when it comes to books?


Dave Taylor’s Advice for New Authors

If you’re an aspiring author, be sure to read Dave Taylor’s latest post. I tend to agree with him on most of this, but my experience is a bit different…

Way back when, about a million years ago, I actually wrote a few computer books. I wouldn’t say I ever had “writer’s block”, but I guarantee you my output varied greatly from day to day. On the one hand, it’s good to divide the total number of pages by the number of days you have to write, and come up with an average. Just be careful that you don’t get overly focused on the result.

Some days I could produce 10 or more pages of pretty decent manuscript…or at least I thought it was pretty decent. Other days I might have a hard time cranking out 3 pages, even with a couple of short program listings included to help boost the page count total. As a result, I don’t think Dave’s college journal exercise of writing 3-4 pages per day would have worked for me – the results would have been terrible some days and definitely uneven over the course of a week/month.

We’ve had a number of authors chime in on other subjects…would any of you like to share your experience on writer’s block, number of pages per day, etc.?


The Amazon Product Page: New & Improved

Earlier this year I commented on the crowded look of the Amazon product page. For the past several months Amazon has been experimenting with a number of different solutions to this problem. The design they’re using today first appeared a couple of months ago and then disappeared until recently.

I like what they’ve done with this new look. It’s much cleaner than the old design. Something as simple as making the cover image larger goes a long way towards making this a much more attractive interface. It’s nice to actually be able to read some of the details on the cover (without having to click and enlarge it). It’s also a treat to be able to scroll up and down the page without being distracted by all the items they used to cram into the left and right panels.

Amazon has always done a fine job letting their customers add content to the product page. Like most Amazon customers, I find myself spending way too much time reading customer comments before making a buying decision. I don’t know when they started this, but I recently noticed they’ve added another way for customers to add content to the page. Have you seen the little “Share your own customer images” link below the cover on the product page? Examples are few and far between, but you can see how this works on the Adobe Photoshop CS2 for Photographers page; hover over the customer image thumbnail and a larger version appears in the cover area.

Given that very few customers are uploading images with this feature, just how valuable is it? I think it has a ton of potential. Sure, in the computer book area maybe it will only be effective with digital photography books, but what about other areas? Home & Garden is a great candidate. If you just finished a project using a book you bought from Amazon, isn’t it tempting to show off your handiwork by uploading a picture of the results? Pets are another great example. People love their dogs, cats, etc., and will undoubtedly love to share pictures of them with just about anyone.

As it currently works, all you can do is upload images and rate them. If this takes off though, Amazon would be wise to turn it into a visual discussion forum where customers/readers can provide the story behind the picture. This would also enable prospective customers to ask questions, get answers, etc., and add more of a community feel to Amazon.


Blink

I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, Blink. As the dust jacket says, “Blink is a book about how we think without thinking, about choices that seem to be made in an instant – in the blink of an eye – that actually aren’t as simple as they seem.” I was skeptical at first but it’s a fascinating read.

I was reeled in by the many interviews and supporting stories Gladwell offers throughout the book. My favorite is the one about diagnosing heart attacks in the Cook County Hospital in Chicago. It’s a perfect example of where “less is more”: the more information doctors gathered about a patient’s symptoms and history, the less likely they were able to correctly diagnose the problem.

There’s also an interesting study on focus groups and how easily they can be led astray. He points out the obvious and not-so-obvious flaws that led to the disaster known as New Coke, for example.

This book should be required reading for anyone with marketing responsibilities, but I’d also suggest it for anyone interested in how the mind processes snap decisions.