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Why Microsoft can’t give up on search August 1, 2011

Posted by David Card in Uncategorized.
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Last week, a Reuters Breakingviews piece that was picked up by the New York Times generated controversy and counter-commentary over Microsoft’s struggling efforts in search. Breakingviews suggested that Microsoft abandon its money-losing search business and sell the Bing search engine to Facebook. This is a bad idea, even though Microsoft’s online business, mostly due to search, suffered a fiscal-year operating loss of $2.6 billion. Microsoft hasn’t cracked the code on how to make Bing a winner, though it has made incremental improvements in areas like user interface and social integration. But Microsoft has to keep at it, because it needs search for several reasons: 1) to defend its core platforms, 2) to compete with its biggest rival, Google, and 3) to solidify its ad business and open emerging revenue streams.

Defending the franchise

The foundation of Microsoft’s success has been the Windows platform: an operating system with APIs that powered an ecosystem and locked in developers, and that owned end users via its user interface familiarity. But search is the main navigation UI for the web, and it is playing an increasing role in desktop, application and local information navigation. Search can also set UI standards, and it threatens to wean users off their Windows dependency as cloud computing proliferates. Microsoft’s classic product strategy — integration — is one way that it can use Bing to hold off Google’s search UI incursions on Microsoft’s position in establishing cloud and enterprise APIs and services.

Competing with Google

Search is Google’s cash cow, and Google is Microsoft’s chief head-to-head competitor in a number of markets and in API platforms. Google’s massive profitability in search funds its efforts in applications, mobile platforms and online media (YouTube).

And what each company learns from search informs its efforts in machine learning, natural language development, personalization and e-commerce. Operating under the strategy that the best defense is a good offense, anything Microsoft can do to eat into Google’s search profitability forces Google into those other already-competitive markets.

Search marketers need a viable competitor to keep Google honest. Back in 2008, when Microsoft’s hostile $47.5 billion takeover offer for Yahoo threatened to consolidate search engine competition from three players to two, a Jupiter Research survey of advertisers and publishers showed that the majority of clients were worried about search advertising price increases. Think how much worse that could be if there were only one search engine. Realistically, Microsoft is one of the few companies that can afford the investment necessary in search.

Microsoft and advertising

Search is the biggest segment of online advertising, and it could be profitable for Microsoft if it can achieve scale. Microsoft believes that 10 to 15 percentage points more of market share would produce the necessary liquidity in its advertising marketplace, meaning better conversion rates and thus higher pricing (without gouging advertisers, because those results would convert better). If Microsoft were bigger in search, it could offer more accurate tools for advertisers trying to connect the dots across search and display advertising, producing more-valuable brand advertising analysis as well as targeting.

Contrary to what Henry Blodget thinks, Microsoft needs an ad business: It is likely that advertising will be a key source of cloud-based software revenues, especially for small businesses. After all, most consumer web businesses and cloud services get their money from a combination of fees and ads. Microsoft could create a marketplace of B2B services where search ads are one of the “currencies” buyers and sellers use. Another place where Bing could gain a toehold via integration is in mobile search, which may well pay off before mobile brand advertising, if Apple’s mobile ad network struggles are any indicator.

Finally, Facebook has plenty on its plate without trying to take on Google directly in search. It’s far more likely that Facebook hopes to continue to partner with Microsoft in search and advertising with social integration, while it concentrates on creating more valuable — and pricier — display ad inventory and sponsorships. In fact, the Microsoft-Facebook partnership’s continuing on its current course might just be Redmond’s best chance to gain search share.

Question of the week

Why should or shouldn’t Microsoft abandon search?
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Facebook and Google: lessons to learn from Myspace July 5, 2011

Posted by David Card in Uncategorized.
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Last week, News Corp. unloaded Myspace for a pittance. Understanding why Myspace failed to maintain its early dominance in social networking is critical to determining whether Facebook is similarly vulnerable, and whether Google+ is on the right track.

BusinessWeek’s cover story on the fall of Myspace blames the usual reasons: Rupert Murdoch lost interest, Myspace got a rep for sleaziness, it went through a crippling technology transition and users lost interest and migrated en masse to Facebook. Other critics fall back on the tired idea that Myspace’s do-it-yourself design led to garish personal pages that scared away mainstream users.

The real story? Myspace was done in by technology and business model failures that Facebook is explicitly countering. Google’s social strategy is less clear. Although Myspace embraced third-party developers’ apps and widgets, it never built out a robust technology platform of APIs and services they could use, let alone syndicate across other sites. And Myspace signed an initially lucrative advertising deal with Google that distracted it from cultivating relationships with “classier” advertisers instead of cheesy direct marketers, and from building out innovative social marketing programs.

Not every online media business has to be a platform, but an ambitious social network does, and it can’t ease up on the innovation pace. Myspace was never a very connected network: it focused on self-expression at the expense of communication and everyone “was in your extended network.” More like Geocities than Friendster, Myspace only recently adopted a feed-based UI.

In contrast, Facebook launched APIs early, syndicated them offsite with Connect, Likes and Comments, copied and/or acquired its feed – and pushed it, despite initial user resistance – and is a leading contender as a unified communications hub. Google’s first social technologies were flawed as platforms: Orkut was a standalone effort, Wave was too complex, and Buzz had no central viewing place or reason to participate. Now, Google appears to want its innovative, communications-oriented Google+ to gain traction among digerati users before it shows any APIs, but its distributed +1 Like-button wannabe has a better pitch for publishers (use it and improve SEO) than for users.

On the business side, Facebook has surpassed Myspace’s early lead in ad targeting, though it’s still highly dependent on low-priced cost-per-click advertising. But Facebook is building relationships with brand advertisers and agencies through an advisory council and social marketing test bed. Moreover, Facebook collects ad revenues and virtual currency fees from its apps ecosystem members, something Myspace never mastered.

Meanwhile, some of Google’s social impetus is defensive, geared to protect its paid search business by ensuring access to social “signals” for ranking search results. While it’s currently unconnected to Google+, YouTube counts as social media and is signing big deals with premiere advertisers and experimenting aggressively with video ad formats. Unlike Facebook’s social platform, Google’s search, maps and mobile platforms offer its ecosystem a ready-made revenue stream from Google’s ad networks, a boon for developer relationships and lock-in. Presumably, Google will offer that for its social platform. I’d give Facebook an A for its social tech platform and a B- for its social media business model. Google gets an incomplete on both fronts.

As for Myspace, it’s been acquired by Specific Media, a top-ten online ad network that already reaches 79 percent of the U.S., according to comScore. Myspace’s user information will be useful for Specific’s ad targeting, although Specific says it’s more interested in becoming a media company like Yahoo than in Myspace’s data. Myspace had some interesting ideas on curating entertainment content via professional and semi-pro editors – if Specific is smart, that effort won’t succumb to layoffs.

Myspace doesn’t seem poised to regain much past glory. Under Specific, it could survive as a low-cost, medium-sized entertainment portal. It still gets about 30 to 35 million monthly users in the U.S. and has fairly strong relationships with the music industry and Hollywood. If it works hard on sponsorships and can secure access to some entertainment exclusives, it may be able to overcome the baggage of its tarnished brand.

Question of the week

Why did Myspace fail, and what does that imply for Facebook and Google+?

How to Rate Network Effects in Social Media May 23, 2011

Posted by David Card in Uncategorized.
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Part of the excitement driving LinkedIn’s IPO last week comes from investors associating social media with network effects. You know, the principle that the value of a network increases dramatically with the number of its participants. That’s the engine that drove Windows and eBay, not to mention the public telephone network. Markets with network effects tend to have explosive growth and can end up with winner-take-all market share.

But not all effects are equal, and assessing the valuations and competitive positions of social media companies depends on knowing which network effects are actually at work and how those could play out.

Types of Network Effects in Social Media

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry wrote a thoughtful piece on network effects last week for Business Insider; it includes some analysis on how companies focused on market niches eat away at generalists who benefit from network effects. And as Matthew Ingram notes, network effects can work go ways: For example, Facebook supplanted MySpace, which supplanted Friendster.

Looking closer, there are several different types of network effects that work in social media:

  • Core network effect utility: There’s a difference between economies of scale and the magic of adding connections to a network. Groupon is building a user base, a sales force and relationships with thousands of merchants, but until it uses its sales data to offer personalization, targeting and other marketing programs to merchants, it won’t achieve much beyond scale. Even then, once critical mass is achieved, additional connections don’t add as much.
  • Viral growth: LinkedIn and Facebook initially grew their networks the old-fashioned way: Users invited other users to join. Viral pass-along is a key growth driver for social commerce and games, but now services and apps can hitch a ride on existing social networks, leveling what was once a steep playing field.
  • Business model that reinforces the effects: Gobry’s wrong about Google. While there are minimal network effects for its search users, there are huge ones for its advertising network. Google’s $25 billion in extremely profitable search advertising depends on attracting advertisers to its dominant search audience and insuring a liquid marketplace via bidding and enforced relevance to create an unbeatable paid search business. Plus Google lets developers using its services and APIs tap into that revenue stream with minimal effort.
  • Participant lock-in: Technology platforms create positive business opportunities for developers. But they can also achieve customer lock-in for their originator by making those same developers dependent on APIs. End users can be locked in, too, via familiarity (e.g., the QWERTY keyboard) and data storage (e.g., contact info, photos, message repositories) that raise switching costs for members.

network_effects

Source: GigaOM Pro

As illustrated in the table above, here’s how network effects are shaping competition in selected social media markets:

  • Social graph: Though there are network effects aplenty, consumers tend to belong to multiple networks (Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare), meaning would-be data miners must target multiple data sources. And the industry is only just beginning to harness that collection of big data into reliable revenue streams.
  • Likes and log-in networks: Facebook was smart to hang Likes and Sign-ins off its Connect network, as each feature complements the others and assists in distribution; now LinkedIn and Google are trying to do the same. Bolting an ad network on top of those networks could provide missing revenue reinforcement.
  • Social commerce: As noted, most social commerce is more scalar than social. Without the additional services for consumers and merchants previously mentioned, single-market entry barriers and switching costs will remain low.
  • Unified communications: A cross-channel communications hub would sponsor habitual consumer usage. But so far, interoperability requirements have restrained the potential to lock in customers.
  • Social games: Many social games don’t depend on competition between users to be fun. Facebook’s distribution channel and cross-vendor virtual currency enforce interoperability — that’s good for growth but bad for Zynga’s or Playdom’s user lock-in.

Based on that framework, Facebook is well-positioned to build on its influence and add revenue streams. Its platform is a legitimate beneficiary of network effects, even in the face of competition from tech worthies (Google) and startups. LinkedIn has a solid business, but its platform aspirations remain just that: aspirations. Besides viral growth and some network utility, it’s not clear that other social networks (Twitter, Foursquare, Instagram) have network effects behind them.

Question of the week

Where are the real network effects in social media?

Predicting Twitter’s Best Business Opportunities April 5, 2011

Posted by David Card in Uncategorized.
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Last week, Twitter’s original CEO, Jack Dorsey, confirmed he was re-joining the company to head up product development. Dorsey returns to Twitter to correct some mistakes and address backlash from vocal digerati and, more importantly, from members of the Twitter ecosystem. Blogger complaints killed Twitter’s QuickBar, an iPhone app feature with a badly executed advertisement. Soothing the companies trying to build businesses around Twitter APIs will be more difficult. Twitter partners and competitors alike want to see how Dorsey will align Twitter products with its best business opportunities.

Dorsey laid out some of his early thinking at a Columbia University appearance. He conceded Twitter needs to be clear about its platform and product direction, and advised third-party Twitter developers to stay away from mainstream client apps. Rather, they should focus on integrating technologies like geolocation, recommendations, filters and mobile sensors. Actually, Dorsey acknowledged that Twitter client maker TweetDeck was great for a minority of high-value Twitter power users. Twitter itself, he said, should focus on attracting and serving more mainstream users — the ones that are consumers of Twitter content rather than creators.

Serving Mass-Market Consumers

Developing for the masses will help Twitter continue its evolution from an incestuous microblogging tool for techies, journalists and social media professionals into something a lot like a broadcast medium. ComScore tracks about 20 million U.S. monthly users of the Twitter site (undercounting mobile and client access, perhaps by 20 percent). One API watcher says the vast majority of Twitter accounts follow fewer than 10 others. Twitter must fix that if it’s going to bring value to mainstream content consumers.

Twitter’s history leads it to focus too much on connecting users to other users, rather than users to topics. Its first-screen promotions to “see who’s here” and view “Top Tweets” link to people or brands, or to individual tweets. Popular “Trends” displayed through a local filter on a user’s personal page is more topical, and more in line with mainstream online media approaches, where current headlines, “most popular” and local news/weather/events lead. Mass sites tell me “most popular” is far more effective in generating clicks than “related items.” Dorsey should prioritize collaborative filtering over complicated content management taxonomies.

But Twitter should also collect channels of topics to help unsophisticated users follow more relevant feeds. Twitter already partners with Sulia to deliver curated topic channels to other media companies based on Sulia’s editorial and algorithmic analysis of expert content. It should use those topic and time-driven channels itself. Twitter could promote recommendations with a smarter version of Twitscoop’s real-time topic cloud.

What About Advertising?

Though its ad platform is a product, Dorsey didn’t say much about revenue generation at Columbia. He admitted it was a challenge for marketers to tie together Twitter’s three current ad formats: Promoted Trends, Promoted Accounts and Promoted Tweets. Lately, Twitter has been telling advertisers to concentrate on Promoted Accounts and Promoted Trends at the expense of Promoted Tweets that run in a user’s feed.

In theory, the site takeover approach of a Trend could mimic timely, mass-reach advertising used by portals like Yahoo and AOL to great success for movie studios and holiday-themed sales. But a Promoted Trend now is a barely highlighted little text unit. Twitter’s attempt to feature it on the QuickBar attracted derision from digerati, who complained of its lack of relevance (and who probably use TweetDeck on their desktops, anyway). A smarter play would be a flashier ad unit on the Twitter.com site, where mainstream users congregate.

Better contextual targeting could alleviate some of the complaints about relevance. (Promoted Tweets show up as a result of Twitter searches.) If Twitter doesn’t want to manage a targeted ad marketplace, it could draw on the expertise of OneRiot, a company that’s trying to build a real-time ad network for other Twitter clients.

Question of the week

How should Twitter prioritize product development?