This essay started out as an explanation for Google’s foray into personal portal pages, but morphed into “a comprehensive breakdown of the state of RSS, taxonomies, advertising, and how it relates to the future of Google.” What follows is the result of several months of observation, notes and contemplation.
Important = Face-time
I’m going to say this very simply: Google is successful because Google works on projects that are important. I don’t mean this in the sense that they work on philanthropic tech projects that warm our hearts. I mean something a bit more practical, a bit more marketable and a bit more profitable.
The first part of Google’s mission statement states that they want to organize the world’s information. And while that is a lofty goal, the nice thing about a mission like that, is that it can tell you what the world thinks is important. And if you’ve got the right resources (and they do) and if you’ve got the right data (clean data, lots of data), it can tell you what’s important definitively. Not what should be important, not what will be important, what is important. Presently, real-time and to the world.
On the internet (in addition to fun and sex), what’s important now equals face-time. Let me repeat: important = face-time. Ask any successful web business, it is a precious, precious commodity. Anything new in the internet community that gets face-time gets the attention of anyone interested in making money. Advertisers and spammers understand this concept very well. You cannot sell to people who do not pay attention. And that’s what makes google so successful, they work on finding the important things that demand attention. They work on face-time.
A cursory look at several of Google’s projects reveals a bit about how the company collects and repackages their knowledge of face-time :
- Google Zeitgeist · displays not only the most popular things the world is looking for, it seems to know whether it’s a place, an idea, or even if the people that are being searched have blonde hair (semantic processing anybody?)
- Google News · not just what events the press thinks is important, but by seeing who’s using Google News Alerts, they see what news people think is important
- Google Suggest · preemptively gives users the important things to search for
- Google Maps / Google Local · helps them know the important places
The New Blog
Currently, Google uses page rank technology and all the information they gather about their users to calculate what’s worthy of face-time. One of the variables that makes page rank so powerful, blogs, is weighted significantly in their calculations because who’s better at knowing what’s getting face-time than the faces themselves?
Unfortunately, Google’s well of good data is being poisoned by the likes of comment spammers, trackback spammers and adsense mongers. And while Google, the other search engines and the blog software community have been fighting the good fight with ideas like nofollow, Typekey and stop gapping, I think Google knows that when it comes to blogs, they’re losing the semantic ground. And I think they’ve known this for a long time, because for the last year Google has been resting their hopes on a new medium of information—really simple syndication. The technologically capable know it as RSS.
If you think about it, RSS feeds are a librarian’s wet dream (and make no mistake that Google is essentially a library, check that mission statement out again). An RSS feed is a blog distilled to its core essence. If you look at the output of an RSS feed in a reader, you’ll see no comments, no trackbacks and (for the most part) no design. It’s the better blog. It’s pure data.
And so RSS feeds provide Google all the goodness of blogs without all the semantic garbage that might come with a system open to users that are not the content provider. RSS feeds provide Google clean data, good data and thanks to wide-spread adoption by companies and the major blog software entities, lots of it.
It’s a good bet for Google to invest in RSS, because the reason we give feeds so much of our face-time is because they give us exactly what we need to know from the voices we want to hear from as soon as it happens. For those of us that have adopted RSS feeds, gone are the days of wasting time making the rounds through over 100 bookmarks just to see who might have said something new. Gone are the days of waiting for the few obsessive compulsive bloggers who actually did that to post their findings so the rest of us could stay informed. Subscription makes it easy. Subscription makes it efficient. Even though broadband technology is getting faster, the pace of information development is forcing internet surfers to skip the eye-candy for the luxury of skimming.
The New Search
In addition to improving their search results, I think another reason Google is embracing RSS is because they don’t want to have to compete with it. Here’s a little insight from Marcel van Leeuwn, CEO of YEALD:
“Information access comes in different product categories and search is only one of them. The category of search engines hasn’t decreased in value and relevance; it’s just that the category of RSS feeds has increased in value and relevance … From an information value point of view, RSS feeds are the cherry picking in information access. And they gain share of user time at the expense of search. “
That is a huge statement. If RSS is getting face-time at the expense of search, Google has something to worry about. And it makes sense. From personal experience, I know my daily routine to keep up with the information overload doesn’t really involve searching anymore, but subscribing. Thanks to services like del.icio.us, Technorati and Digg.com, people are spending a lot less time actively searching and more time passively reading what’s being updated in their readers.
And so imagine my surprise when I started reading from news services that Google created Personal Pages to compete with Yahoo’s portal services. I think the analysts have it all wrong. I don’t think Google really feels threatened (or has ever felt threatened) by portal strategy. I think what they’re afraid of is the rise of applications that seem to be tracking importance and trends better than search. In the race to find what deserves face-time, services like del.icio.us, Technorati and Digg.com in combination with the rapid adoption of web apps like bloglines, newsgator, feedster and kinja are making Google’s search seem very, very slow. And it’s all being accomplished with RSS technology.
Google vs. del.icio.us
Let me give a concrete example based on our experiences here at Particletree. When we launched this site, we knew that the tutorials and information we were gathering and creating were good—that they would be somewhat valuable to the web development community. The problem was that we didn’t want this useful, time-sensitive information to sit around for days (or even weeks) waiting to be picked up by search bots and then found by people accidentally or when they were desperate for a solution.
So I proposed that we turned to del.icio.us to expand our readership. Every time something went up on the site that I felt would be good enough for a wider audience, I added it to my del.icio.us account with the appropriate tags and descriptions. Our goal was to try and get a feature on del.icio.us/popular by the end of July and to our surprise, we accomplished it in less than a week. After two weeks of diligent posting and tagging, Google gave us a little over 50 referrals while del.icio.us gave us over 700.
I think the reason del.icio.us is so successful at bringing the appropriate audience to good material is because they track the changing web by using people to calculate what is essentially “page rank.” They get access to decent fuzzy logic for a fraction of the cost and the democracy of the system allows anyone to get their idea of what deserves face-time into the system almost immediately.
Basically, tagging systems are wonderful breeding grounds for the principles contained in Malcom Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. They do a great job of gathering Salesmen, Mavens and Connectors all in one place. Mavens stalk the new entries on the front page and certain tag pages to filter through the chaos and find the latest treasures. The RSS feeds act as a sort of technological bridge/pseudo-connector to get the information to the real Connectors and Salesman. From what I’ve noticed, a good idea can make it into del.icio.us/popular in about 5 days, a good Salesman/Connector/Maven like Dave Shea or Jeffrey Veen can get a good idea into del.icio.us/popular in less than two hours.
Now, I’m not the only person to think about driving traffic via social bookmarks. The thing that’s tricky, though, about any audience building strategy is that it’s contingent upon actually having something good to offer. If it’s not worthy of face-time, it just won’t work, which makes sense. Of course, the ease of use of a system like del.icio.us would make it an easy target for a new generation of RSS spammers willing to manipulate the system. I’m hoping the del.icio.us team has plans for such a scenario.
The Response to RSS
Of course, the current implementations of RSS technology are only getting at the tip of the iceberg and this is to Google’s advantage. RSS technology could see a lot of improvement in user interaction and adoption. Couple weeks ago, Jeffrey Veen of AdaptivePath wrote on his blog about the usability problems associated with subscribing to feeds.
“Consider the user experience — Someone sees an orange button with an unfamiliar acronym, they click it, and the browser starts spewing undecipherable code. Peter wrote about this a while back, and considering how much excitement there has been in the blog world, little really has changed.”
But Jeffrey, that’s not really so. In addition to Apple’s approach to RSS in Safari (which Veen mentions), Yahoo, who has a considerably larger audience, has been taking a stab at the problem with their Add it to my Yahoo program.
For those that are unfamiliar with it, basically Yahoo is replacing those enigmatic orange xml links with their own buttons. It makes it easier to understand how to use RSS feeds (because my Yahoo is easy to understand) and easier to share RSS feeds because anyone can offer their feeds with their simple link. They’ve even gotten big sites like cNET and The Christian Science Monitor offering their buttons on their articles.
And if you’ve been following what the Microsoft developers have been brewing (and you should), they’ve got some nice tricks up their sleeves for personal search pages, bookmarks and RSS too. Their experimental iterations of start.com have a lot of people talking and excited about web development at Microsoft.
But what’s Google’s plan for RSS? Well, the thing is Google’s been working on an RSS strategy for a long time now. Matt Mullenweg and a host of other savvy / obsessive stat watchers have noticed Google’s bots have been searching for the location of index.rdf and atom.xml since at least April of 2004.
This preemptive crawling, I believe, will be the basis of their own version of a tagging system that replaces search terms for tags. It’s not much of a stretch to think that search terms are essentially tags/keywords/categories/shortcuts for describing content. If you want to see a good example of what I’m talking about, check out Gataga, a bookmark search engine that’s powered by social bookmarking services and an RSS feed for every search.
Once it’s all set up, I think Google is going to allow users to subscribe to search results as RSS feeds, which is not too different from signing up for their email alerts. And they’re going to let us subscribe to them, either on our own readers or via their web based RSS reader, Personal Pages. Because of this, I think the Personal Pages’ interface is going to see a lot of improvement over the next few months, including utilization of sweet Ajax technology to make the application very useful and very fast.
Well, that’s easy. AdSense for Feeds is why. There is no doubt in my mind that AdSense for Feeds will be their new cash cow and in order to make it work, they need to make sure RSS just works. They might even offer an AdWords-type program to their repertoire so they can offer services for sites that want to include feeds related to their site’s content. They might even offer a software solution. And even if none of these things come to pass, I think RSS has a very promising future and Google is going to make sure they do everything in their power to be the ones to usher it in.