Hey Yahoo! Forget MSFT, GOOG. Change the Search Rules.

These I wish I knew the moment I was turned off on Yahoo and what the root cause may be, but I no longer use anything Yahoo (except my Flickr account if you want to count that).

Vince DeGeorge, on FriendFeed

I was doing the same thing until I started using delicious as a search tool. Finally realized how powerful it was, and have been using it since.

Shaun McLane, on FriendFeed

I have previously written that Delicious search is one of the best ways of searching for things when a standard search doesn’t pull up what you are looking for. After Google, it is my favorite “search engine.”

Michael Arrington, TechCrunch, Delicious Integrated Into Yahoo Search Results

The latest news is that Microsoft is reaching out to Yahoo again. In fact, a couple reports (here, here) say that Microsoft wants to buy Yahoo’s search business.

Before any such transaction occurs, it seems worthwhile to think about what Yahoo could do with its existing assets. The three comments above are insightful. Yahoo is slowly losing share of mind, although it’s existing base of users will be around for a while. At the same time, there are nuggets in the Yahoo empire.

Search via del.icio.us ranks as one of those nuggets. Another nugget? Yahoo! Buzz. According to ReadWriteWeb, Yahoo! Buzz has surpassed Digg in terms of traffic, and its demographics better reflect web users.

Yet, Yahoo struggles against Google in the highly lucrative search market. Google increased to 67.9% of searches in April 2008, compared to Yahoo’s decline to 20.3% of searches.

What should Yahoo do? Stop playing Google’s game. Rewrite the search rules by embracing the social web fully, leveraging the social media assets it has.

And in doing so, demonstrate an aggressive path to make Yahoo a social media titan.

A Proposal for “Socializing” Yahoo Search

In January 2008, TechCrunch ran a post with a preview of del.icio.us integrated with regular Yahoo search results. Included in the search result links would be stats that tell a user:

  • Number of del.icio.us users who bookmarked the page
  • The top tags they used on the page

Both of those stats appear to be clickable. By clicking on the number of users stat, I assume a user would be taken to the del.icio.us page showing the users who bookmarked the page. If one clicked a tag, you’d land on the del.icio.us page for all web pages with that tag.

That’s a good start. But Yahoo can do better. Below is a diagram that shows how Yahoo can use its existing assets, combined with a good dose of the new social media experience, to radically change search:

Here’s a breakdown of what’s going on with the proposal.

Search Rankings

From what I’ve read, Yahoo has pretty much caught up to Google in terms of search performance. That means the use of links and clicks to rank websites is pretty common across the two search engines. However, Google does have the advantage of three times the traffic, which makes its insight into what’s relevant better than Yahoo.

But Yahoo has its own in-house advantages: del.icio.us and Yahoo! Buzz. Both address shortcomings in the links and clicks rankings for search engines:

  • Links require a media site or blogger to take the time to link. These links are insightful, but lack the broader reach of what Web users find relevant.
  • Clicks occur before a searcher knows whether the landing site is valuable. They don’t describe its usefulness after someone has clicked onto the site.

With del.icio.us and Yahoo! Buzz, Yahoo can tap into users sentiments about websites in a way that Google cannot. These insights can be used to influence the ranking of search results.

Search Results – Your Friends or Everyone

Here’s where it can really interesting. Notice I keep the general search results outside the influence of what your friends think. I think that’s important. A person should see results outside their own social circle. Otherwise, it will be hard to find new content.

But there is real power in seeing what your friends find valuable (e.g. see FriendFeed). So Yahoo should let you easily subscribe to other people for content discovery. Yahoo already has a head start on letting you set up your subscriptions:

  • Yahoo Mail
  • Yahoo Instant Messenger

In addition to that, you should be able to easily subscribe to anyone who publicly shares content they find interesting. Both del.icio.us and Yahoo! Buzz have public-facing lists for every user of what they bookmark or ‘buzz’. After viewing those lists, I should be able to easily subscribe to these users.

Once your network is developed, it becomes a powerful basis for improving information discovery.

Search Results – Associated Tags

Whenever tags are available from del.icio.us, they should be visible for each web site shown in the search results. This is what TechCrunch previewed. What do tags tell a user?

  • A way to discover other sites that might be relevant
  • Context for the web site
  • That someone thought enough of the web page to actually tag it

Tags should come in two flavors: everyone and your network. Clicking on a tag should display the top 10 associated sites right on the search results page. For more sites associated to the tag, the user is taken to del.icio.us.

Keeping the top sites on the search results page is important to make people use the functionality. Leaving the search results page just to see the sites associated to a tag will cause adoption to drop signficantly.

Search Results – Associated People

Each web page in the search results will show the number of people who have (i) bookmarked the site; or (ii) Yahoo! Buzzed the site. These numbers give a direct indication of how many people, not websites, found the web page valuable.

Clicking these numbers displays a list of the people, along with their most recent activity. This gives users a sense of whether they want to subscribe to a given user or not.

Search Agent

Once users perform a search, they will be able to subscribe to new content matching their search results. These subscriptions can be based on different criteria:

  • Any new content matching the search term (Google does this via Google Alerts) or a tag
  • Any new content matching the search term/tag and bookmarked by someone to whom the user subscribes
  • Any new content matching the search term/tag and Yahoo! Buzzed by someone to whom the user subscribes
  • Any new bookmarks or Yahoo! Buzzes by someone to whom the user subscribes

New content notifications occur via email or RSS. RSS can be anywhere, including on the user’s My Yahoo page. Again, FriendFeed has shown the power of these content streams.

Final Thoughts

My little post here isn’t the only idea someone could float. But it does at least address taking Yahoo much more deeply into the social media world, where users drive the value.

Yahoo revealed details of a proposed del.icio.us integration back in mid-January. And then nothing. Yahoo previewed Yahoo Mash, a new social network in September 2007. And then…nothing. The last post on the Yahoo Mash blog was January 11, 2008.

Yahoo has so many amazing assets. Search, email, portal home page. Several beloved social media apps (Flickr, del.icio.us, Upcoming). Yet they have not put them together into a cohesive strategy and experience.

And now, talk of selling the search business? C’mon Yahoo. You’ve got too much going on to give up yet. Stop playing by others’ rules. Make your own rules with the amazing assets you have.

*****

See this item on FriendFeed: http://friendfeed.com/e/1b07226a-b51b-f386-fbb8-bdaece83e9fe

Imagining an Email Social Network

Email has been proposed as a nearly ready-to-go social network. Just how would that work?

In September 2007, Om Malik asked Is Email The Ultimate Social Environment? And in November, Saul Hansell wrote, Inbox 2.0: Yahoo and Google to Turn E-Mail Into a Social Network. Both looked at the idea that email providers have most of what was needed to build their own social networks. There is potential there, but it’s not a slam dunk.

The Social Network Stack

If an email system is to become social, it needs to address the social network stack. To keep things simple, let’s assume there are three parts to the social network stack:

  1. Self-Expression = who you are, what you like, what you’re doing
  2. Relationships = people connections, of all different types
  3. Interactions = how you engage your network

Within each part, there are components that define the experience of the social network. This diagram describes those:

Self Expression: Email Needs a Profile Page

There isn’t a profile page in email systems. You log in, and you see your email. Adding a profile page really shouldn’t be too hard for Google or Yahoo. Even issues of privacy for the profile page are quite manageable for the two Web giants.

Apps on the profile page? Google’s got iGoogle widgets and OpenSocial. Not a problem.

Yahoo has demonstrated with its durable portal that it can pull together information from different sources. Wouldn’t be too much of an issue for them either. According to the New York Times’ article, Yahoo’s Brad Garlinghouse already has an idea for the profile page:

In this vision, people have two pages: a profile they show to others and a personal page on which they see information from their friends as well as anything else they want, like weather or headlines.

Relationships: They’re in the Emails, But Handle with Care

This is the biggest advantage the email providers have: they know your relationships. They’re sitting on a mountain of information about people’s connections to others. As the New York Times’ Saul Hansell wrote:

Web-based e-mail systems already contain much of what Facebook calls the social graph – the connections between people.

This is the killer advantage Yahoo and Google have over other social networks. They know your connections right off the bat. And that’s not all. They know how often you email those contacts.

Imagine how this could work:

  • Email frequency is used to set your initial relationship level with someone else. Lots of recent back-n-forth means strong bond. Lots of one-way emails to you means it’s a company. Few two-way emails means you have a weak relationship.
  • Your address book categories – personal, work – can become relationship definition metadata.
  • If you don’t have your email address book organized by relationship types, the email provider analyzes the words to categorize the relationship. Romantic, friendship, professional. Yes, this is Big Brother scary, but Gmail already does this to display ads. Still, if not done right, this might backfire big time.

I do wonder how much value this really has though. Email address books are used to kick start your enrollment into social networks like Facebook. It’s not hard to import these.

The assessment of your email connections – strength and type of relationship – is cool, but don’t you know that already? Arguably, such analysis really is a way to save time on making your own decisions about these relationships. But if you’re engaged with your network, you’re probably going to take control of this.

Subscribe or Dual Opt-In: Twitter or Facebook? FriendFeed or LinkedIn? The recent stars on the social apps scene have a subscribe model. Your can read the updates of people on Twitter and FriendFeed, just by declaring that you want to. Pretty wide open. But a key factor here: when you join Twitter or FriendFeed, you do so knowing that anyone can read your updates. People with whom you email never had that expectation. So every user either needs to opt-in to having their updates read by their email contacts, or you must send a friend request to whomever you want in your social network.

Type of Relationship: Friend, common interest, professional? This is another one that requires thought. I’ve argued previously that different social networks are good for different types of relationships. Being a one size-fits-all is not easy. It requires a decent amount of management for the user: do I share my kids’ pictures with my colleagues and the people in my Barack Obama 08 group? Dedicated purpose social networks make managing the different aspects of your life easier. Otherwise, all your co-workers will know your political preferences, party pictures and relationship status. Email providers have all of your email contacts; they need to either pick a focus for their social networks or let users create their own types.

Interactions: Watch Those Activity Streams

Most of the Interaction stack is well within the range of Google and Yahoo. Yahoo’s been in the groups business for a long time. Google relaunched the JotSpot wiki as Google Sites. A wiki can be a good group site.

Apps were already discussed under self-expression. Messages? Of course – this is email.

Activity updates are an interesting concept. The biggest current activity in email apps is…email. But I’m not sure those qualify as updates you want broadcasted:

Should emails be shared?

Emails are pretty private, aren’t they? Not really something people will want to broadcast out to their social network…

Google and Yahoo could integrate activity streams from other parts of their social networks pretty easily.

So What Are Email’s Advantages as a Social Network?

I’m not sure there are intrinsic advantages email enjoys that make it superior as a potential social network. Rather, it has these two user-oriented advantages:

  • People wouldn’t have to go to a lot of trouble to set them up. Just present them with the opportunity when they log in to their, with very few clicks or decisions initially.
  • We tend to check our email daily, hourly. So recurring engagement with your social network is a lot easier than with destination social networks.

That being said, Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Bebo, Ning and FriendFeed have a tremendous head start and brand. They also have clearly defined, different experiences.

If they choose to roll out their own social networks, Google and Yahoo will start ahead of the game. But success won’t be because of the email. It’ll require a differentiated social network experience. Just like anyone else entering the space.

Improving Search and Discovery: My Explicit Is Your Implicit

Two recent posts on the implicit web provide two different takes. They provide good context for the implicit web.Richard MacManus of ReadWriteWeb asks, Aggregate Knowledge’s Content Discovery – How Good is it, Really? Aggregate Knowledge runs a large-scale wisdom of crowds application, suggesting content for readers of a given article based on what others also viewed. For instance, on the Business Week site, you might be reading an article about the Apple iPod. Next to the article are the articles that readers of the Apple iPod article also viewed. MacManus finds the Aggregate Knowledge recommendations to be not very relevant. The recommended articles had no relationship to Apple or the iPod.

Over at CenterNetworks, Allen Stern writes that Toluu Helps You Like What Your Friends Like. Toluu lets you import your RSS feeds and friends who have also uploaded their RSS feeds. It applies some secret sauce to analyze your friends’ feeds and create recommendations for you. Stern finds the service a bit boring, as all the recommendations based on his friends’ feeds were the same.

In the case of Aggregate Knowledge, the recommendations were based on too wide a pipe. The implicit actions – clicks by everybody – led to irrelevant results because you essentially the most popular items. In the case Toluu, the recommendations were based on too narrow a pipe. The common perspectives of like-minded friends meant the recommendations were too homogeneous.

Both of these companies leverage the activities of others to deliver recommendations. The actions of others are the implicit activities used to improve search and discovery. A great, familiar example of applying implicit activities is Google search. Google analyzes links among websites and clicks in response to search results. Those links and clicks are the implicit actions that fuel its search relevance.

Which leads to an important consideration about implicit activities. You need a lot of explicit activity to have implicit activity.

Huh?

That’s right. Implicit activities don’t exist in a vacuum. They start life as the explicit actions of somebody. This is a point that Harvard’s Andrew McAfee makes in a recent post.

Let’s take this thought a step further. Not all explicit actions are created equal. There are those that occur “in-the-flow” and those that occur “above-the-flow”, a smart concept described by Michael Idinopulos. In-the-flow are those actions that are part of the normal course of consumer activities, while above-the-flow takes an extra step by the user. A couple examples describe this further:

  • In-the-flow: clicks, purchases, bookmarks
  • Above-the-flow: tags, links, import of friends

Above-the-flow actions are hard to elicit from consumers. There needs to be something in it for them. Websites that require a majority of above-the-flow actions will find themselves challenged to grow quickly. They better have something really good to offer (such as Amazon.com’s purchase experience). Otherwise, the website should be able to survive on the participation of just a few users to provide value to the majority (e.g. YouTube).

So with all that in mind, let’s look at a few companies with actual or potential uses of the explicit-implicit duality:

Google Search

In an interview with VentureBeat, Google VP Marissa Mayer talks about two different forms of social search:

  1. Users label search results and share labels with friends. This labeling becomes the implicit activity that helps improve search results for others. This model is way too above-the-flow. Labeling? Sharing with friends? After experimenting with this, Mayer states that “overall the annotation model needs to evolve.” Not surprising.
  2. Google looks at your in-the-flow activity of emailing friends (via Gmail). It then marries the search histories of your most frequent email contacts to subtly alter the search result rankings. All of this implicit activity is derived from in-the-flow activities. For searches on specific topics, the more narrow implicit activity pipe of just your Gmail contacts is an interesting idea.

ThisNext

ThisNext is a platform for users to build out their own product recommendations. They find products on the web, grab an image, and rate and write about the product. Power users emerge as style mavens. The site is open to non-members for searching and browsing of products.

ThisNext probably relies a bit too heavily on above-the-flow activities. It takes a lot of work to find products, add them to your list of products and provide reviews. It also suffers from being a bit too wide a pipe in that there’s a lot of people whose recommendations I wouldn’t trust. How do I know who to trust on ThisNext?

Amazon Grapevine

Amazon, on the other hand, has a leg up in this sort of model. First, its recommendations are built on a high level of in-the-flow activities – users purchasing things they need. This is the “people who bought this also bought that” recommendation model. Rather than depend on the product whims of individuals, it uses good ol’ sales numbers (plus some secret sauce as well) for recommendations. This is a form of collaborative filtering.

Amazon Grapevine is a way of setting the pipe for implicit activities. The explicit activity is the review or rating. These activities are fed to your friends on Facebook. One possibility for Amazon down the road is to use the built-up reviews and ratings of your friends to influence the recommendations it provides on its website. Such a model would require some above-the-flow actions – add the Grapevine application, maintain your account and connections on Facebook. But these aren’t that onerous; the Facebook social network continues to be an explicit activity that has high value for individuals.

Yahoo Search

Yahoo bought the bookmarking and tag service del.icio.us back in 2005. It’s hard to know what, if anything, they’ve done with that service. But one intriguing possibility was hinted at in this TechCrunch post. The del.icio.us activity associated with a given web page is integrated into the search results. Yahoo search results would be ranked not just on links and previous clicks, but also on the number of times the web page had been bookmarked on del.icio.us. And, the tags associated to the website would be displayed, giving additional context to the site and enabling a user to click on the tags to see what other sites share similar characteristics.

This takes an above-the-flow activity performed by a relative few – bookmarking and tagging on del.icio.us – and turns it into implicit activity that helps a larger number of users. But with the Microsoft bid, who knows whether something like this could happen.

The use of implicit activity is a powerful basis to help users find content. Just don’t burden your users with too much of the wrong kind of explicit activity to get there. Two factors to consider in the use of implicit activity:

  1. How wide is the pipe of implicit activities?
  2. How much above-the-flow vs. in-the-flow activity is required?

In Praise of Inertia: MyYahoo Still #1

Over at TechCrunch, they’ve got a post up discussing the top six personal homepages. #1? MyYahoo. MyYahoo has been around for quite a while. 6-7 years? It’s an oldie, but still a goodie. It’s my homepage.

There are others on the list. #2 iGoogle looms as the big scary challenger. Given Google’s success over the past several years in other arenas, it’s surprising they haven’t taken the #1 spot here as well.

It’s a testament to inertia. Not inertia in any negative sense, like laziness or user ignorance. Rather, inertia as a reflection of human sensibilities and value systems. Something called the “9X problem“.

Harvard professor John Gourville put forth the idea of the 9X problem. The gist of his thesis: “a mismatch of 9 to 1 between what innovators think consumers want and what consumers actually want.” The mathematical term “9X” actually does have a little math behind it. And that math is key to understanding the 9X issue.

First part of the 9X equation is based on our comfort with what we have. Things we already know, things that we have invested time in learning and using, have a high psychological value for us. They satisfy some need. We’ve learned their strengths, and live with their weaknesses. When we compare something new to something we already have, we tend to overweight the value of what we already have by 3X. It’s a little scary to give up what you know.

Second part of the 9X equation is based on our natural skepticism about claims made for new things. This probably resonates for most of us. I know I tend to dismiss most commercials and advertisements. This is a healthy trait of people – otherwise we’d all be getting duped left and right. But it also means that we underweight the value of features for something new by a factor of 3X.

Multiplied together, this gives us the 9X factor.

This is powerful stuff. It means new things really have to deliver healthy gains in benefits. Some examples of “9X masters” come to mind. Google was such a leap forward in search relative to its competitors: very relevant results, clean interface. Apple’s iPod just blew the doors off other music players in so many ways. Honda’s reliability and fuel efficiency were miles ahead of Detroit in the 1980s and 90s.

But there are plenty of other cases where good products failed to dislodge incumbents. Supposedly, many other search engines have attained search results parity with Google. I wouldn’t know…I still use Google exclusively. And so do many others.

So there’s the 9X problem. It’s actually a really interesting concept. If you’re doing a startup, can you do in it a way that does not force someone to give up an existing “thing” they like? That way, you only have to deal with the 3X new product benefits underweighting problem?

9X is really about inertia. MyYahoo fulfills a personalized homepage need: news, email, stocks, sports, weather, etc. iGoogle, Netvibes and others have really nifty options for their pages. But have they delivered 9X the value?

The key is to hook your users. Once you get them, it’s hard to lose them. On that note, how about adding my little blog to your RSS reader? You can remove it any time you want… 😉

Pay By Touch and The Peanut Butter Manifesto

In November 2006, Yahoo executive Brad Garlinghouse’s email to senior management was leaked to the Wall Street Journal, and subsequently picked up by bloggers. In the so called “Peanut Butter Manifesto”, Garlinghouse decried the “lack a focused, cohesive vision for our company”. The email takes the company to task for having too many initiatives, and for failing to integrate various acquisitions. The money quote:

“I’ve heard our strategy described as spreading peanut butter across the myriad opportunities that continue to evolve in the online world. The result: a thin layer of investment spread across everything we do and thus we focus on nothing in particular.”

In light of Microsoft’s bid for Yahoo, the Peanut Butter Manifesto continues to resonate as an issue for the company. Which brings me to Pay By Touch.

Pay By touch raised a lot of money, a whole lot. And Pay By Touch went after “myriad opportunities”. Here’s a list that I am drawing from memory:

  1. Biometric authentication
  2. ACH payments
  3. Credit card processing
  4. Personalized marketing
  5. Healthcare
  6. Online authentication
  7. Online debit payment
  8. Loyalty card management
  9. Financial institutions
  10. Government
  11. Paycheck authentication

The above are verticals. There were also channel-specific efforts as well: multi-lane retail, single-lane retail, international. So there was a lot going on.

The problem with any Peanut Butter Manifesto company is that:

  • Engineering cannot satisfy all the requirements needed for the initiatives
  • The ability to focus on one area, try things out, make mistakes, correct and iterate is drastically diminished, which kills an emerging technology company
  • Senior management cannot focus attention on the various initiatives for funding, sales and strategic moves

One might wonder how Google pulls it off. They certainly are into a lot of things. Here’s the secret: they absolutely own a market (search & ads) that prints money for them. They then get the luxury of trying different things. Microsoft has the same thing with its Windows and Office franchises. GE owned…light bulbs? Well they owned something a long time ago.

So let’s look at these two Peanut Butter companies. Yahoo is subject to a hostile bid. Pay By Touch is in bankruptcy.

As Garlinghouse stated at the end of his email: “stop eating peanut butter.”