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7 posts from November 2005

The Search, by John Battelle

The Search is a book about Google, the search industry and where it is heading. This book has been in the top 5 on Amazon’s Computers & Internet list from the day it was published. Being a big fan of Google and the search space in general, I couldn’t resist giving it a shot.

To be honest, I nearly put the book down after the first couple of chapters. Battelle goes on and on about the history of search and other less than interesting topics. I wasn’t really hooked on this one until I was more than a hundred pages into it. I’m glad I didn’t give up, though.

The heart of the book talks about the true reach of search and how it can be applied outside the traditional computer space to put a new spin on old products. Battelle gives a good example where your Google history is merged with your TiVo (or other DVR) viewing/recording tendencies. The combination of these two areas leads to a new approach to TV content delivery with more targeted programs and commercials. For example, would you subscribe to a free or reduced rate cable/DVR system if it meant you had to watch some (reasonable) number of highly relevant commercials each month? I would. (The relevancy of those commercials is determined by what you’ve searched for on Google, what shows you tend to watch, etc.)

As you’ve no doubt read elsewhere, the era of the mass targeted advertisement seems to be coming to a close. It’s not as effective today for P&G to put an ad for Tide on the nightly news as it was 20 years ago; P&G probably hasn’t helped their cause by offering a zillion different versions of Tide, but that’s a separate issue… Battelle sheds some light on how advertising becomes more focused like a rifle shot rather than the shotgun approach we typically see today. I also wonder if that doesn’t open the door for companies who wouldn’t typically advertise this way today: It’s ridiculously expensive for a publisher to produce a television ad for a book in today’s model, but does it become more viable when they know the ad is viewed by a smaller, more targeted audience of prospects who, by their search and viewing trends, tend to be more likely to buy this sort of book?

Privacy was another interesting issue tackled in this book. My opinion is, “Do I really care who knows what my search and website visitation history looks like?” Heck, if it helps me find an answer quickly or saves me a buck, I’m totally open to sharing this “private” information. I figure if you’ve got nothing to hide, why worry? Thanks to all those frequent buyer cards on my keychain, I already make my purchasing habits known at grocery stores, bookstores, pet stores, etc., so why not allow my Amazon and other online purchases to be tracked as well? If you’re going to give me a discount you can have my data.  As you can see, I’ve never quite bought into the arguments presented by all those privacy advocates who are trying to “protect” me.

Battelle also talks about capturing clickstreams and how they can be used to help solve problems. Just as Amazon uses their various recommendation programs, based on the buying habits of other customers, why can’t Google help me figure out which of their search result links are the ones most clicked on? Which site did previous Googlers wind up at in the end and spend the most time on? Perhaps that sort of information could be rolled in to Google’s PageRank algorithm in the future.

My advice: Pick this one up, but don’t be afraid to skip the first 4 or 5 chapters.


Amazon’s “Compare Similar Items” Feature

Amazon seems to be experimenting with this interesting feature that allows you to do side-by-side comparisons of books. As of this morning, the button to access this only seems to pop up below the covers in a list of Top Sellers (e.g., Computers & Internet Top Sellers, Business & Investing Top Sellers). Click on the button and a small window pops up listing two other titles Amazon feels are worthy of comparison to the title you’re viewing. For example, the pop-up list for Freakonomics includes The World is Flat and Blink. Select any combination of those three titles from the list and Amazon displays a nice comparison page listing title, cover, availability, average customer review, sales rank and a brief description. So, what’s missing?…

How about the ability to search for index entries? For example, I’m looking at Google books and I want to see which one has more coverage of AdWords. Why not add a text entry field in that comparison pop-up window where I can search for an index entry or two? The results page would then show all instances of “AdWords” in the indexes of the books I’m comparing. I can see that one title has twice as much coverage of AdWords as the other, so I know which book is right for me.

Amazon has the ability to do this. After all, in order to support their Search Inside feature, they’ve scanned in the full contents a huge number of the books they sell. Why not connect this functionality with the comparison feature? It’s been proven many times over the years that indexes and index comparisons are an important step in the purchasing decision. Table of contents (toc’s) reviews are right up there too. Maybe Amazon could add a search option for toc’s in the comparison pop-up as well.

This simple enhancement not only adds to the attractiveness of the Amazon shopping experience, but it again helps them turn a perceived weakness (you don’t have the books in your hands to compare them like you would in a physical store) into a strength (let Amazon’s system do the comparison for you).


Blackberry Hacks

If you own a Blackberry you need a copy of Blackberry Hacks, period. I picked up a copy the other night and have been flipping around in it ever since. I was very impressed with the variety of hacks they featured in the table of contents.  There are so many hidden features, shortcuts, etc., available on the Blackberry and the best ones seem to be covered in this book.

Kudos to the team at O’Reilly for publishing this gem. I also offer them a tip of the hat for beating my group to market with our own upcoming Blackberry book. I hate it when that happens!


Mark Cuban’s Vision to Eliminate Print Piracy

One of my favorite bloggers, and part-time NBA franchise owner, Mark Cuban, has an interesting post that describes how content owners should wise up and share the advertising wealth to discourage print piracy. I’m not sure I buy into it.

His argument rests on the notion that a blogger/website author would be better off putting a link to the original content (and receiving an affiliate advertising payment) rather than putting the content itself on their blog/site. That may be true, but are the big, successful online content sites really likely to pay out for this sort of traffic generation? If you’re The New York Times, which is his example, do you really feel you need the incremental traffic from the zillions of (infrequently visited) blogs and websites out there? Even if a blogger steals content from one of your articles, aren’t some significant number of those blog visitors still likely to hop over to the Times website to see the content as it was originally presented? I don’t know about you, but I don’t always trust the content I see lifted and posted on the blogs/websites I visit every day.

I like Cuban’s vision on this, but I don’t see it working that well in practice. I think a fellow named Adam summed it up pretty well with his comments:

Good plan, but big media doesn't like sharing revenue. NYTimes, for example, always is a top search engine result because of its content. Most of the cut & pasted text is forums/blogs and most people view it as common courtesy to give a link back to the content creator.

NYTimes and other news outlets have created their own brands, where is the need to share? If you want to make money off syndicated news you can go buy an AP feed and see if you get get ranked in some news search engines, it's very simple.

Even though I don’t think this idea will fly, I do like the notion of him buying my former hometown Pittsburgh Pirates. Now that would make for some interesting baseball!


Berrett-Koehler Publisher in Fast Company Magazine

Here’s an interesting article about and up-and-coming publisher named Berrett-Koehler, based in San Francisco. (You’ll need either a subscription or a code from the November issue to read the article, unfortunately. They apparently keep the current month’s content under wraps like this. So if you’re willing to wait till the December issue arrives, you can read the article for free…)

I’ve posted before about the risk/reward decision, especially on advances and royalties. These guys operate exclusively on one end of the extreme and don’t offer author advances. The article also talks about the partnership Berrett-Koehler builds with their authors. I’d like to think we strive for the same relationship on my team, but I can see where Berrett-Koehler goes further with better use of collaborative blogs on each title, “author days” (where authors come into the publisher’s offices to pitch their ideas), etc.


Life Hackers – New York Times Magazine

Here’s an interesting article by Clive Thompson that recently appeared in the New York Times Magazine. I found it intriguing because, like most people, my workday is constantly being time-sliced by far too many activities and interruptions.

This article really touched a nerve with me. I’m definitely the guy with all the Post-It Notes spread across his desk. I’m also the one who uses multiple monitors in an effort to widen my virtual workspace surface area. I only hope Microsoft does indeed start building some of these pie-in-the-sky ideas into Windows…


Bookscan -- Week Ending 10/30/05

Here’s a breakdown of the top 750 titles in the computer/tech category for the most recent week:

1. Pearson/Penguin            30%
2. Wiley                             29%
3. O’Reilly                          18%
4. Microsoft Press              12%
5. Osborne/McGraw-Hill        5%

Comparing that to my last Bookscan post for the week ending 9/18, Pearson is down 3 points, Wiley is flat, O’Reilly is up 2 points, Microsoft Press is up 1 point and Osborne/McGraw Hill is flat.

Out of the top 20 titles for the week, Wiley had 9, Microsoft Press had 4, Pearson and O'Reilly each had 3 and Osborne/McGraw-Hill had 1.

Office (and individual Office application) topics remained strong, representing 8 of the top 20 titles.  Programming is next with 3 titles, followed by Windows, QuickBooks and Photoshop, all with 2 each and Mac, PC Hardware and eBay each had 1 title.

A closer look at the Office list shows that Microsoft Press and Wiley each have 4 of the top 8 titles for the week.