Live from Etech
March 18, 2005
Friday Watch: Despite howls from the deathbed, SEO's days really are numbered; SVW fans out to cover the geek cons; more ...
We had another scorcher of a week on the Watcher with coverage of two competing geek conferences. Nick Aster hit the ground running in Austin with this report on the SXSWi conference. And in San Diego, Richard Koman produced a veritable bit torrent of great copy from the O’Reilly Emerging Tech conference.
While folks like Odeo's Evan Williams made the SF-Austin-SF-San Diego circuit, the two cons neatly bifurcate geekspace. SXSW is the hipster and chickster web/UI/interaction design space, while ETech boasts a interesting mix of alpha geeks, A-list press (not counting SVW ;)), and unbuttoned biz types. One borg victim (black-clad, earpiece installed in head) paced the hallway near the pressroom yelling into his cell, "You would not believe the movers that are at this conference." And of course it was true.
One alphageek was heard to say, "This is the conference for business people who want to feel like they're at a hacker conference." But at $1250 a pop, all the geeks had speaking gigs and free passes.
. . .
On Mondays I like to start the week off with something “meaty.” And this week it was “soy-based” as the famously vegetarian Steve Jobs pushed ahead with Apple’s legal prosecution and persecution of three news blog sites. They had reported leaked product info.
The court ruling neatly sidestepped what was thought to be the key issue in the case: are bloggers journalists and inheritors of legal protections afforded to journalists? The judge said nobody was exempt from the law including journalists. And he said it many times. Yet much of the coverage of the ruling continued to discuss the blogger-journalist issue.
In any case, look for EFF to file an appeal in the Appelate Court very soon.
. . .
On Thursday I managed to upset some of the search engine optimization (SEO) community-—the hard working folks that try to help web sites land a link on the first page of Google search pages.
The entry explored the idea that the purity of search results would likely become the key differentiator among search engines. And that’s because Google is daily battling a massive effort by the SEO industry to pollute its search directory for commercial gain.
The recently launched shopping search site Become.com claims to have spam-proof page ranking technology at its core and I made the prediction that this would become the dominant factor, or metric, for all search engines.
The SEO-istars raised a banshee howl when they read the following:
“My position on SEO is that the sooner it dies the better-—it will free up a large amount of what is now largely wasted human effort, IMHO.”
Let me clarify things a little. I’m not against basic SEO techniques that prepare a web site for more thorough indexing by visiting googlebots. The wasted effort I’m referring to is the attempts by SEO-istars to dupe the googlebots and raise the perceived importance of a web site in the Google index. And I appreciate the times when SEO is used to correct a poor choice by Google which can list a clearly poor quality web site ahead of well established and respected web sites.
It is the application of SEO techniques to inflate the importance of mediocre sites that is BS.
Is this a harsh position? Yes it is. But what else can I say? I'll gladly step you through it. But, I’m also open to persuasion that there might indeed be legitimate value created in helping to fake the importance of a web site, and how this improves the Internet experience for millions of users.
I know that my contacts in the SEO world have been moving out of SEO or even throwing it in for free, and moving into other more promising online businesses.
Here are some more reasons why I much of SEO activity has little or no effect/value or future:
- The last time I checked nobody knew exactly how Google determines web site rankings. Therefore how can SEO-istars do what they claim they can do? Their SEO efforts can be little more than a blind stab in the dark--a scam masquerading as a promise to scam Google’s results.
- Even if everything were known about Google’s algorithms and the factors it considers in determining a web site’s importance, the use of that knowledge would flag a corrupted web site. It would be relatively easy to spot blatant SEO efforts to dress up mediocre web sites. Just one reason why Google knows who has been naughty or nice. It is not rocket science for Google to be able to spot the blatant signs of SEO boosting.
- Does the current state of SEO technology have the ability to deal with say, rotating algorithms, two or more that are run throughout the day? That would filter out the SEO spam nicely.
- Become.com is not a direct target of SEO attempts to dupe its search results, however, it has indexed millions of web sites that have been dressed up with a variety of SEO techniques targeting Google.
If Become.com is able to spot the SEO spam, then Google can spot it too. It's the algorithms that distinguish the two companies search results.
- Google could simply trawl the SEO online forums and collect the discussions of the SEO-istars and harvest the addresses of the web sites they mention they are promoting and blacklist them. Better yet, it could analyze those optimized sites to determine a “signature” made up of factors that indicate attempts to dupe. Then it can look for similar signatures on other web sites.
- The best way to optimize a web site is to de-optimize competitors that hold higher value page ranks. It should be relatively easy to assassinate a competitor’s page rank by creating cloaked duplicate pages, setting up numerous back links and other factors that Google looks for and punishes with a lower page rank. I’m not saying this is happening, but it could and therefore probably is.
A message for web site owners: Web sites should be optimized for the user not for a searchbot. Invest in making your web site more relevant to its intended users/customers. After all, your goal is to boost revenues and that is done by creating relevant and compelling web sites for customers.
In this emerging Internet 2.0 world transparency is what is valued. Talk the talk and walk the walk and you will be rewarded.
If you do that, the googlebot will award you with a better ranking, but more importantly, your customers will become your evangelists. Value is always recognized and shared on the Internet.
March 16, 2005
[etech] SVW gets an early pre-launch look at Odeo, the slick new podcasting service from Blogger.com founder Evan Williams
Thursday at the O'Reilly Etech conference Evan "Evhead" Williams will demo Odeo, a new service that strives to make it much easier to find, listen to, and create podcasts. When I talked to Evan last week in San Francisco, he expected to offer invitations to everyone in the audience at Etech.
As of this writing, though, it's not clear if Odeo will be able to make good on that offer on Thursday. However, it won't linger in beta for years. he plans to have it out of invitation-only mode after a few weeks before going to open beta and then to full 1.0 release in a speedy fashion. "We won't be like gmail and be in beta for a year," Ev said, referring to his former employer Google, which bought his Blogger.com business.
Podcasts are simple audio files delivered via RSS. There is no streaming of the media, podcasts are downloaded to the user's computer in the background, allowing the files to be transferred to portable digital music players (hence the name.) The idea is that podcast content is perfect for listening to in a car or on the subway when you just don't feel like NPR.
Ev is very excited about the possibilities for grassroots radio production through podcasts.
He's also seeing great interest in his new company, but that is frankly less interesting to him than the opportunity to push the podcast form further out into the mainstream.
"It's not that I'm not interested in the business model, startup thing," Ev said as we sat in a corner at Mission bar Medjool, "but the bigger picture is let's make it easier, let's take it the next level and a business will come out of that."
While podcasting is getting a lot of hype and a lot of media attention right now, the actual uptake is still incredibly small. Even among bloggers the number of people actively listening to podcasts is estimated to be tiny. "Podcasting is so nascent right now," Ev said. "Lots of people have done great work in writing software and defining the medium and its evolved much faster than blogging did -- but it’s still not nearly something you can point your mom to. That's what really interests me -- making it accessible and easy and enabling distribution to and from non geeks."
Odeo consists of three modes -- listen, subscribe, create. The idea is to allow users to accomplish all three of those goals within the web browser. Odeo operates as an aggregator, audio player and bare-bones recording studio. When you login, you can play specific shows in the browser, add individual podcasts to a queue or subscribe to "channels" (that is, feeds).
"We want to take as much audio content as there is and make it easy to find and easy to point to and easy to listen to," he said.
Creating podcasts has been the least ready-for-prime-time aspect of the medium, because users have to figure out how to record and edit digital audio, learn about production techniques, upload files, and generate RSS feeds.
At the base level, Odeo offers the functionality of Audioblogger, the voicemail-based recording system created by Noah Glass, Ev's partner in Odeo. With "audblog," you can do personal or conference call recording by just making a phone call.
The real sweet spot, though, is Odeo Studio, a simple recording option in Odeo, which offers a blend of "higher quality sound and more production value but without the difficulties of learning a professional audio package."
In Odeo Studio, you can use built-in sound effects or record or upload your own. There's no mixing facility. The mix happens when you play various effects during live recording. Hitting "publish" adds the recording to a feed and uploads everything to Odeo's servers.
Since Odeo's concept is to be the one-stop finding-listening-recording podcast stop, the plan is also to host the audio that users create, which Ev admits is a substantial cost. "We plan to buy bandwidth in bulk."
The business model is three-fold:
- Offer free basic hosting and charge for premium hosting, based on bandwidth usage. "If you're Adam Curry and getting 50,000 downloads a week, we're probably not going to host that for free."
- Sell advertising into popular content (a la radio) with some sort of revenue-sharing arrangement. "We're not going to auto-insert advertising into your content without your permission. We see ourselves as a platform to allow advertisers and content producers to get together." Still, he said, "there may be an option for auto-insertions in the future, "but I want content creators to be happy -- you'll definitely get something for that," such as free hosting.
- Sell premium content. "Audible has shown that a significant audience is willing to pay for non-music digital audio," said Ev, who counts himself a loyal Audible customer. "I think there's a lot of potential in non-book forms as well. There are a lot of things I would be willing to pay to get in audio form even if they're available for free on text form. ... If we can create a critical mass of listeners then we can aggregate the content and make it feasible for content creators to have a revenue stream from content without having to build payment mechanisms, without subscribers having to have accounts at 100 places."
Look for more details on Odeo when Ev speaks at Etech Thursday and screen shots become available.
March 15, 2005
[etech] Analee Newitz: Sex laws drive innovation
EFF evangelist and techsex columnist Annalee Newitz is holding forth at Etech on the history of the camouflaging of pornography and sex toys, and how this drives development of free speech and privacy technology. She starts with the equation: "Everybody wants porn + nobody will admit it + everybody loves tech = innovating ways to look without being seen."
She starts with talking about how yesteryear's vibrators were a kind of camouflaged technology. "I only use it for therapeutic purposes," reads an ad from 1910. In the 1920s, you saw porn showing people using vibrators for sex, when they were eventually outlawed, until they came back in the 1960s and 70s as actual sex toys.
One of the driving forces behind VCRs was the porn industry. The VCR became a way of camouflauging porn consumption. Before 1976 you had to go to a theatre -- local people knew you were going to theaters -- a very public experience. Now people could watch dirty movies in their own homes. The adult industry flocked to this new technology. A cheap way of disseminating porn.
Obscenity law. The standard is the Miller test, which says: it has to appeal to prurient interest; has to be offensive "based on contemporary community standards", and have no "social, literary, artistic or scientific value." Broadcasters are under "decency" laws which are stricter than "obscenity" law.
Before VCRs, porn called attention to itself much more (titles on marquees, people can see who's going to the theater, etc.). Now that it's a more private affair, you're going to have fewer complaints about it; it's less visible. The law pushed people towards the adoption of these technologies.
Meanwhile back on the Internet, quality wasn't very good. (She shows an ASCII art image from www.asciipr0n.com.) "Porn built the Internet. It's such an obvious use of the medium; because it's so private and widely available. It broke one of the prongs of the Miller rule (contemporary community standards): it's unclear what the "community" is when you're downloading and uploading to and from everywhere in the world.
Important obscenity cases:
- ACLU v Reno (1997), which struck porn bans from the Communications Decency Act (the Internet can be indecent).
- US v Extreme Associates (2005). This site may redefine obscenity on appeal.
- Nitke is challenging obscenity provisions of the Communications Decency Act: what are "community" standards?
Private past/anonymous futures. It's likely that Congress could require porn sites to geographically locate users. So some workarounds:
- prepaid porn cards
- user-friendly anonymous proxies (Anonymizer)
- Anonymizing networks like Tor ("Roger did not design this for porn; but it is my prediction that people will use it for porn.")
- Anonymous IM - Off-the-record messaging: www.cypherpunks.ca/otr/
Annalee's bottom line is that "what's good for porn is good for free speech." And: "Today's porn tools are tomorrow's human rights protections."
[etech] Yahoo Launches 'Tech Buzz' game, an experiment in meme markets
At his session today at Etech, Yahoo Labs head Gary Flake introduced the Tech Buzz Game, a joint project between Yahoo Labs and O'Reilly Research. The game is a demo of a "fundamentally new type of auction," Flake said.
He explained that there are many ways to get opinions, including individual opinions, expert opinions, voting, electoral college, markets aggregate opinions. Markets are a system where people who perform well earn more votes (dollars) than people who don't.
With the Tech Buzz Game, "We're allowing people to make bets on what will be the winning emerging technology trends." As an example, Flake offers this question. When Apple releases Tiger, the new version of OS X, when will search queries for Tiger overwhelm searches for Panther? If you bet right, you'll earn more fake dollars and you'll be able to make more bets.
You can buy long or short to make bets about what's going to be hot.
The underlying computer science idea for this market is called dynamic pari-mutuel auction. Flake said: "This is a fundamentally new type of auction. If this doesn't revolutionize auctions it will revolutionize gambling."
From the game's FAQ page:
The Tech Buzz Game is a fledgling research project and demo, rather than a full-fledged Yahoo! product. We've launched the game now for a variety of reasons:
- To see if search buzz (including spikes and trends) can indeed be predicted by the collective wisdom of crowds in a market To provide an index of "what's next" for technology enthusiasts
- To separate the wheat from the chaff among the various technologies that O'Reilly is constantly watching and tracking; to measure which forces in the technology industry are truly disruptive and which are mere flashes in the pan
- To discover how Yahoo! Research Labs's dynamic pari-mutuel market mechanism behaves in the "wild"
- To investigate opportunities around predicting trends in search engine behavior, and how they relate to events in the real world
- Last but not least, to entertain and engage ETech attendees and other participants in the game
To play the game, visit the Buzz Game page.
[etech] Jeff Bezos Announces open search RSS
Recovering nicely from the first awkward demo moment of Etech, Amazon boss Jeff Bezos announced OSRSS, for Open Search RSS, a small set of extensions to RSS that enable vertical search.
In his demo he showed that you get a very different set of results depending on which database you search. "If you search the Web for 'Vioxx,' you'll get the impression that Vioxx is about class action lawsuits. If you search the medical database PubMed you'll get very different results" -- specific medical and pharmacological results. "PubMed actually does sophisticated translations from search term to specific medical terms."
When a searchable database uses the OSRSS code to identify itself, it becomes essentially a "channel" to A9, and users can select which databases they want to see results from.
OSRSS consists of three simple extensions to RSS that simply state total results, a starting index, and number of items per page.
So now A9.com is essentially a web-based aggregator of OSRSS feeds. Think of it as My Yahoo for vertical search. And, Jeff says, "I doubt very much whether A9 will be the only site that wants to" aggregate vertical searches.
Applied Minds is apparently a geek's version of Monster Garage. It's headed by Thinking Machines inventor Danny Hillis. He's showing the maximod, which has "every legal receiver band and maybe some others," infrared cameras, and even the ablility to inflate and deflate tires from inside the vehicle. "Something like this we just do for fun."
Now he's showing a toy, where you can remix bits of things together. He's showing a ray gun, a helicopter and a car, which can all fit together and it works as a single unit.
It's not just all silly stuff. They are working on cancer research by doing mass spectrometry on blood, in order to identify all the proteins in the blood sample and then try to figure out why certain drugs work on some patients but not others. (I think.)
"I've always wanted a paper map that you could keep zooming out, since I was a kid. So I built this and showed it to the mapmakers." He's showing a video of him demo'ing his mapzoom product at a mapmakers conference. He just brushes his hands across a table-sized horizontal screen that looks like it's about 5' x 3'. "The cool thing was how much emotion I got from the mapmakers. I had people literally come up to me in tears. And you guys think you're geeks." This project speaks to the emotional connection mapmakers have with physical maps.
My mouth is agape at the next video, which is a physical map which actually changes shape to show topography. Mountains rise, valleys drop. That is cool.
He is proposing a different model of the Internet. If you look at how ebay or amazon or a wiki or a blog works, it isn't publishing. Its contributors put data up; and the publisher has a way of generating a view of that data. What's wrong is that the individual databases are not shared databases. Everybody contributes to a shared database and has their own way to visualize slices of that data.
"I think another thing will emerge, which is that this is about the sharing and rendering of the public database." But now he's out of time.
[etech] Opening sessions: Remixing everything
Live from Etech ... In his introductory remarks to Etech, Rael Dornfest is talking about "the hacking imperative," the amateurization of looking into how technology works. It used to be just uber-hackers would look under the hood; now average people are putting new hard drives in their TiVOs. Rael is promoting the "remix" term rather than "hacking," because it's more conversational.
Rael offers a whole slew of landscapes that are being remixed:
Remix your music. Music buyers: "We like your product so much and we hate your format so much we're willing to break the law to remix it." The industry wasn't listening, customers weren't listening -- Apple was listening. If you're customers are rapidly prototyping something new for you, someone else will listen.
Remix your TV. Tivo leaves things open enough so that - wink - you can do the 30-second skip. Networks introduced one-minute error. Tivo added another
Remix your network. Wifi hackers untether everything. Hotspots spring up like dandelions. Airport Express. "turn it on and wait for the light to go green.
Remix your movies. Video on demand works. BitTorrent suddenly seems surprisingly (logically) interesting.
Remix your data. Small items loosely joined. No one talks about creatiing e-commerce engines anymore.
Remix syndication. RSS allowed Yahoo to turn into My Netscape. Turnabout is fair play.
Remix your bookshelf. Amazon. Google books. Internet Archive/Bookmobile.
Remix the browser. Firefox! The darling on the IT and the family sysadmin.
Remix brick and mortar. Use Amazon to search meatspace. Instore pickup is right around the corner. Even if there's a huge Walmart, it effectively disapears from the landscape.
Shaw: "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable man adapts the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."