About a year and a half ago I set out to solve a painful problem I face several times a year: A close friend or a family member’s birthday is approaching — what gift do I buy them? I always wished I had this magic tool to suggest the perfect gift, a gift tailored specifically for that person. So I thought, why not hack it myself?
So I did. After some thinking I decided on the following approach: I’ll connect the user (gifter) via Facebook, ask for as many permissions as possible so I can get as much information about their friend (giftee), and semantically analyze the giftee’s profile (Thanks, Zemanta API). As a result I’ll have a set of themes (semantic entities), ordered by importance, that should represent the giftee’s personality. I will then use the semantic analysis to query against a gift catalogue and find the most suitable gift personally matched for the giftee. This should work like a charm, shouldn’t it?
I picked Amazon as the gift catalogue off course. It has a huge inventory of products, a very useful API, and… an affiliate program.
So I launched the 1st version of Gnift, and I immediately got very lucky. My submission to KillerStartups has been picked by someone from UrbanDaddy and a story about newly launched Gnift has landed in the mailboxes of several thousands UrbanDaddy subscribers, resulting in several hundreds new Gnift users — Exactly the playground I needed to test and tune the magic algorithm.
After some time and some algorithm enhancements I could very clearly see what was happening: The personal analysis seemed to work extremely well. Much better than I expected. For example, I have a friend who is going to Yoga classes, raising two dogs, and trekking in the weekends. Gnift analysed his Facebook profile as [Yoga, Dogs, Trekking]. In many cases Gnift even managed to order the semantic themes significance in accordance with the person’s real life preferences. So far so good.
However, the second part, the gift matching against the catalouge, well… to that same friend mentioned above Gnift suggested [Yoga Mat, Dog Training Book, Camping Tent]. At first glance that looks fine isn’t it? I mean, it’s suitable right? contextually in place, semantically positioned, isn’t it? or maybe just a bit superficial?
So the person is practicing Yoga alright, but is a Yoga Mat really a good gift for them? Can you imagine someone unwrapping a package and joyfully discover a Yoga Mat? a Dog Training Book just because he’s raising dogs? Isn’t that a little forced? A Camping Tent? Is it possible that the gift matching process was missing something? Maybe it lacked… a soul?
It so happens that when I wanted to actually buy a gift to that friend of mine, I brainstormed with another friend and we both got original and finally bought him a Beer Machine. And… he simply loved it! How come Gnift couldn’t come up with that suggestion based on the person semantic analysis?
At that point I realized that you simply can’t get the right gift by querying a gift catalouge API with the top semantic themes representing a person’s interests. It just doesn’t work.
But there must be a right way. So if it’s not matching people’s analysis to gifts, what can it be? Maybe matching people’s analysis to… other people’s analysis? I mean, let’s say I stumble upon a person with a very similar semantic analysis as my friend’s, this means they must have at least somewhat similar personalities. Does this mean that other person would love a Beer Machine as well?
This was something I really wanted to experiment with. Now I didn’t need the gift catalogue no more, but instead I needed to know what a subset of the users in my database consider a perfect gift for themselves. When I have that information I will be able to match any person’s semantic analysis against that subset, find the ones who are the closest and suggest the gifts they want to that that person to whom a gift suggestion is being searched for.
At first I thought Amazon wishlist will do. Those contain information of what people actually want, what they wished they had, and in practice, what they want their friends to buy them for their birthdays. If I can uniquely connect an Amazon wishlist to a Facebook account in my database… I can’t.
My second idea was Pinterest. Pinning something is like adding it to a wishlist sort of thing. If I pin something and you are similar to me in personality, wouldn’t you like to get what I’ve pinned as a gift? But Pinterest doesn’t have an API…
So what could I do?
Having nothing else in mind, I decided I might as well try simply to ask people to provide the information voluntarily. Or almost so… So I revived Gnift, and right now if you want to search for the perfect gift for any of your friends there’s something you’re asked to give in return. You’re being asked to let Gnift know what you liked as a gift or would have liked. Then your profile is analyzed, and added to the pool of people Gnift can match against. When a similar person to you is searched on Gnift, they are suggested the same gifts you liked.
Does it work better? Truly, I can’t tell yet. I’d be happy if you can give it a shot and maybe write some comments.
I’m a hacker. And a surfer (Surprisingly, not such a rare combination). About a year ago I decided I’ve had enough with the poor quality of real time surf reports. Advanced surf forecasts are available, some surf cams on various beaches are installed, and yet without having a precise view of the surf at any given moment, I found myself too often wasting precious time (otherwise spent hacking) driving to the beach to find poor surfing conditions, or on the other hand, dismissing the drive just to be sorry later when I got the “dude, it was pumpin so awesome, u should have come!” line from someone who did surf.
So I developed [the 1st version of] SwellPhone, a service for “producing and consuming real-time surf reports” in my declarative way of describing it. I reckoned that if I give the surfing community a tool to share photos and videos of the surf that they take just before or after surfing, I will revolutionize real-time surf reporting. Hell, why not? You have a smartphone right? Why not point it to the surf, take a video or photo and help other surfers tell the surfing conditions?
It was a noble idea. It even got to the front page of HackerNews. But I was so naive… Everybody wanted to “consume” the surf reports alright. Just about everybody. However, No one was willing to “produce” a surf report. Absolutely no one. And without anyone producing, there was nothing to actually consume.
I was trying to crowd source surf reporting. But the crowd simply didn’t want to source. Crowd sourcing sucked.
I let SwellPhone linger and diverted my energy elsewhere…
Until some day, when while at Intsagram, I stumbled upon this pic of a cute little girl in the Maldives, and it made me laugh, so I Gimped it to express my thoughts:
Then I took another look at the pic and it hit me: Any surfer within a driving distance from this awesome tube who would get to see this photo in a timely manner after it had been taken, would simply leave everything and rush to surf there. Dude, this is not a pic of a cute girl. This is a surf report!
Wait, it’s taken from Instagram, do they have an API? Yes, they do!
Wait, do they geo tag the pics? Yes, they do!
Wait, do they timestamp the pic? Off course they do!
Wait, is there sufficient inventory of pics around known surf spots at any given time? Well, sometimes there is!
Hooray! SwellPhone can rise again! This time though, without the reliance on the crowd to source pics to SwellPhone. People already take thousands of pics of their kids, tanned legs and bellys, gorgeous looking girlfriends/boyfriends, and let’s not forget the empty beer bottles stuck in the sand. All of them have some view of the surf in the background. For us surfers, this is the foreground…
All in all, it was a lesson to me, and I learnt something. Crowd sourcing can sometimes suck. But that doesn’t mean the data you need is not already sourced in some other manner.
I recently pitched Triond to a founder of another web company. As usual, I started by explaining the problem that Triond solves. When I got to the part where I’m stressing that out of 133 million tracked blogs, only about 7 millions are really active, my listener replied with – “and that’s 7 million too many… I bet you too get a lot of rubbish submissions…”
Apparently, He didn’t highly appreciate the quality of user generated content. This made me think (again) about the question of what quality content is, especially in regards to user generated content.
User generated content is very disruptive to the standard perception of content quality. Just up until a few years ago, most of us were used to consume only content that was produced by professional editorial systems. Whether on TV, newspapers, books or even the internet in its infant years, the content that end users consumed was filtered out and edited by professionals that were implementing a somewhat narrow range of methodologies to their work. The limits were very clear and very accurately defined, and the result was a very unified style and spirit of content across all platforms.
The question of whether a content you were exposed to was a quality one never rose in those times. It was clear that if the content is out there, then it is of at least a minimal quality, otherwise – it wouldn’t have been there. The only thing that was left for the consumers to do in regards to evaluating content quality was to fine tune their consumption standards within a very narrow spectrum. The brand under which the content was published became the content’s seal of quality, and acting as the gate keepers of our content world, professional producers and editors made our content consuming experience safe and secure.
They did, however, narrowed our choice tremendously.
What user generated content did, was allowing anyone with content creation aspirations to walk pass the gate keepers and have their content out there, proposed to end users for consumption. Without the gate keepers, everything suddenly became legitimate, and the filtering mission was handed over to the consumers themselves. Having no training at all at content quality evaluation, confused consumers needed to either avoid user generated content at all, develop a sharp quality sense of their own, or – start relying on the innovative tools that started to appear in order to help measure content quality.
Those came in many forms, starting with the very basic Google’s PageRank algorithm that measured quality by numbers of incoming links, continuing with social bookmarking sites like del.icio.us that measured quality as number of people’s bookmarks and later on with social voting sites like digg, reddit and stumbleupon that simply let the crowd push what they consider as quality content to the top.
Engagement volume, expressed by the number of comments or ratings for a unit of content became another measurement for quality, and the latest trend is that people are becoming a content seal of quality themselves, simply by recommending content to their friends and followers using Facebook and Twitter.
If you stick to the traditional methods of content quality measurement, you would probably miss all of these posts. Are these content items of low quality? I’m not sure how a traditional editor would answer that. I’m sure though, that if you ask the hundreds of thousands of viewers of these articles or the thousands of the engaged people who took the time to comment or click ‘I Like It’, they would say “no.”
The traditional method of evaluating content quality is not dead. It is still in use by the professional publications and it does a great work of quality assurance. It still acts as a seal of quality for a major portion of content consumption. It did, however, became just a single method, one out of many others used to measure content quality and it is becoming less relevant as more people are getting used to – and are more willing to – consume content whose quality is measured differently.
So what is quality content? I don’t think I can answer this question. Once there were editors whom you could ask and they would determine the content’s quality. Today, I don’t think any single person can actually provide an answer. You have to take the content out there and let the web decide for itself.
The RightMedia Problem
The advertising exchange model is very promising and great in theory. Letting publishers put their display ad inventory up for bidding by advertisers really sounds like something that can improve efficiency both on the publishers and advertisers end. In practice however, things are different.
RightMedia is probably the largest advertising exchange today. Yet, publishers still use it mostly for their remnant ad space, allocating their quality ad space for other advertisers and top tier networks. Advertisers – completely aware of this fact – prefer to spend their display budgets with established and reputed ad networks, and leave RightMedia bidding for the smaller advertisers and networks. The result is that the average CPM on the exchange is low.
It seems that the exchange still didn’t reach a critical mass that will bring the breakthrough in its performance. The only way for the exchange’s average CPM to increase is by adding more advertisers and publishers into the game. Only then will publishers allocate quality ad space to the exchange, and large advertisers and networks will come along.
How does an ad exchange grow?
The Microsoft Lesson
According to Yaron Galai, who had suggested Microsoft to offer a 200% rev-share to all publishers, growing an advertising network – and I believe rules apply here for ad exchanges as well – is by growing the publishers base:
While the advertisers are the ones paying for everything, acquiring advertisers is a secondary concern for an ad network. A distant second. The #1 key to making an ad network work is the publisher side. Even though the publishers are being paid, it’s much more difficult to win publishers than it is to win paying advertisers.
Whether or not someone at Microsoft have read Galai’s post, it seems that they had followed his advice. They realized the only way to win market share over Google is by attracting Google’s publishers – not advertisers. So the rumor about an high-paying AdSense alternative spread and many publishers were eager to join once the private beta tag is off. Few weeks later though, when Microsoft opened up pubCenter for the public, payout has dramatically sunk.
RightMedia shouldn’t be learning anything from Microsoft about publishers retention. However, with acquisition in mind, Microsoft’s experience can serve as a good lesson for RightMedia . Tempting publishers works. If RightMedia could only find a way to tempt publishers to join, it will be able to grow its publishers base and advertisers will follow.
But there’s a catch – unlike Microsoft, RightMedia can’t simply double or triple publishers payout. Being just the exchange manager, RightMedia is not involved in the money flow. In the exchange, money flows directly from advertisers to publishers and not via RightMedia as the middle man. RightMedia is not in a position to offer any financial benefits for their publishers.
That’s a problem. And not only for RightMedia, but for any ad exchange out there. How can an ad exchange tempt publishers?
Why OpenX Will Win
If an ad exchange can’t compensate their publishers with money, it may never grow. Only an ad exchange that is able to offer another type of compensation, a service or a added value perhaps, has chances to appeal to publishers. OpenX is such an exchange.
Wait a second. Isn’t OpenX an ad serving solution?
Well, it is. OpenX is an open source ad serving software that is becoming very popular. It disrupts the ad serving business by eliminating a great portion of the ad serving costs. Disrupting is great, but OpenX is a business and needs to make money on its own. Having already a big (and steadily growing) amount of publishers, with a very close affiliation to their advertising space, it was only natural for OpenX to eventually launch an ad network of some sort. Better yet, it decided to take the ad exchange path.
Though still small, I believe OpenX exchange has better chances to make it. It has a large base of publishers enjoying a free or very cheap ad serving solution, whether as an hosted solution or as a stand alone installation. Converting those publishers to participate in the exchange may be much easier for OpenX than it would be for RightMedia to find new publishers out in the cold market.
In a sense, OpenX is not an exchange that offers an added value. It’s an added value that offers an exchange. And that’s why they’ll eventually win.
Many times, the first question I am asked about Triond is “What does Triond do?” Sometimes, I’d rather the first question be, “What problem does Triond solve?” After all, problem solving is how it all began for Triond.
To understand the problem that Triond solves, let’s begin with the birth of user generated content.
Introducing a near zero-cost distribution model, the web completely revolutionized the traditional publishing industry. Servers delivering webpages on demand to browsers around the world turned out to be much cheaper than the old method of printing- shipping- delivery-selling. The web enabled a much cheaper and more effective publishing process.
Now that publishing costs were down, a lot of web publishers arose. The demand for writers increased, and more writers than ever before were given the chance to have their writing published. In the meantime, users found themselves generating online content through their participation in communication applications, such as public email lists, forums and message boards. The concept of user generated content became more viable.
Yet, there wasn’t any online application that allowed you to express your creativity, knowledge and expertise for the initial intent of consumption by end users. Publishers were still in control of this type of content generation. However, even with the boom of online publishers, there were many more people wishing to be published than there were publishers willing to publish them.
This growing demand encouraged the second revolution: Web 2.0.
No other activity marked the beginning of the web2.0 era more than blogging. While web1.0 eliminated the distribution costs, web2.0 eliminated the technology costs. The content management systems and web publishing tools that enabled online publishing were mostly proprietary and expensive during the first web era.
Web2.0 introduced the free or nearly-free blogging platforms. All of a sudden, anyone with the slightest understanding of operating a computer and a web browser could operate their own publishing service. If you couldn”t find a web publisher willing to publish your work, just publish on your own. Better yet, now that you have the chance to publish on your own, why even bother looking for a publisher?
And so blogging began.
Has Blogging Proven to be Successful?
The blogging revolution has been tracked and analyzed by Technorati almost since it began. Every year, Technorati publishes the “State of the Blogosphere” report that analyzes blogging from many different aspects.
At first, you may be astounded to know that Technorati has tracked 133 million blogs since 2002. That’s a very impressive number. But watch as the numbers shrink significantly when describing the actual activity. In the 120 days before the report was published, as few as 7.4 million bloggers had posted new posts. That’s only 5.5% of the tracked blogosphere. Narrow the count to seven days, and the figure shrinks to only 1.5 millions – a mere 1.1% of the blogosphere.
Those figures reveal two significant facts:
- Blogging is something that millions of people were willing to try.
- Most of them – however – churned.
125 million churns translates to 125 million disappointed individuals. That makes blogging one of the most disappointing activities on earth.
Generally, blogging is perceived to be rooted solidly in web culture. Well, apparently it is not. It did leave its mark on a huge number of people, and there are many successful blogs that have a very significant impact in their niche. However, a 95% fallout rate is not something that represents a phenomena with a lot of traction. If email and instant messaging, for example, had the same churn rate, they wouldn’t be where they are today. It seems that even social networking – the younger web2.0 brother of blogging – has experienced more traction.
What Makes Blogging So Disappointing?
People don’t get disappointed unless they have preliminary expectations that aren’t met. Understanding what were bloggers expectations from blogging may shed some light about the reasons for their general disappointment.
Technorati asked bloggers for the reasons they blog. Reasons and expectations are quite parallel in this instance:
Considering more than 95% of bloggers were disappointed and as a result churned, we can assume that in 95% of the cases certain expectations weren’t met. So we can go on and generalize that bloggers are disappointed because:
- They don’t feel that they are being read enough
- Their expertise and experiences are not being shared with as many people as they hoped
- They aren’t meeting and connecting with like-minded people
- They aren’t being published or featured in traditional media
- Their resumes are not being enhanced to the extent they desired
- They don’t make as much money as they were hoping to make
This is not so surprising. It is very pretentious to expect all those things to happen simply because you write something and publish it on your blog. Writing alone is not enough.
Bloggers are not Publishers. They are Writers.
Herein lies the failure of blogging as a method. It extracted the technology from traditional publishing and provided a platform that anyone could use, but that’s the only thing it extracted. It did not provide all other components that are vital for effective publishing, just the naked technology. Blogging provided the platform and expected bloggers to come up with additional services themselves.
In other words, blogging forced writers to become publishers. Effective publishing incorporates a lot of elements: writing, editorial, marketing, distribution, sales, monetization, optimization, communication and much more. However, bloggers are not publishers. They are simply aspiring writers. Bloggers who weren’t willing to take on tasks other than writing, and furthermore, to become good at those tasks, didn’t stand a chance.
Triond: A New Approach for User Generated Content
With these millions of disappointed people in mind, my partners and I looked for a solution. We decided to implement a new approach for user generated content, something completely different from blogging. Something that will enable writers to be published effectively without forcing them to become full scale publishers.
And so we created Triond, our approach to solving the problems associated with blogging.
Did we suceed? You tell me.
In-text advertising is a controversial niche advertising market that on one hand has huge reach and on the other hand has absence of big players. It was a virtual paradise for in-text players during the last several flourishing years, but how will this niche market survive the downturn?
What is In-Text Advertising?
In-text advertising according to wikipedia is:
A form of contextual advertising where specific words within the text of a webpage are associated with advertising content.
In-text advertising is not a new type of online advertising. In its primitive form, it dates back to the early 2000’s when a company named eZula distributed an adware client that turned words into links while surfing. Later on, VibrantMedia launched intelliTXT, probably the first ever online in-text advertising product. When eZula morphed into Kontera, they joined VibrantMedia as a leader the in-text advertising market.
The basic idea behind in-text was to bridge the traditional separation between content and ad space derived from the newspaper advertising industry. Advertising was merged into the content itself. Kontera explains this nicely in their website:
In 1982, to increase the sagging sales for Reese’s Pieces, Hershey’s accepted a product placement deal in Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.”. After Elliot used Reese’s Pieces to lure E.T. from his hiding place, Reese’s Pieces experienced a 65% increase in sales and succeeded in reinvigorating the brand. Though this wasn’t the first case of product placement, it is one of the best examples of increasing sales and supporting brand marketing objectives through contextually relevant product placement.
Low click-through rates on graphical banner ads, in contrast to the relatively high rates and conversions of CPA ads embedded as text links, gave an additional push to in-text innovation during the early days. In-text innovators tried to implement an online advertising service that could take advantage of those high click-through rates from textual links.
In-text advertising was, and still is, somewhat controversial. For the content consumer, it may not be so obvious that a hyper link is a sponsored ad. Some publishers and critics claim that these links are deceiving in nature, and users’ reactions are mixed. I believe this is the reason that in-text advertising is not embraced publicly. Market leaders are also aware of this.
Yet this controversy served another purpose. It appears to have prevented the big players from joining the market. The absence of Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and AOL allowed VibrantMedia and Kontera to increase their distribution and control over this niche-market. In fact, VibrantMedia and Kontera have become so dominant that regardless of their niche, they are both considered to be among the top advertising networks today. With impressive numbers such as 42% US reach for VibrantMedia and 34% US reach for Kontera, they have proven that publishers do end up implementing in-text advertising, regardless of how controversial it may be.
When the online advertising industry started to flourish we saw many other networks launching their in-text services. These networks were all trying to get in on one of the only niches from which the big players were absent. Exponential’s EchoTopic, AdBrite’s Inline Ads, Clicksor and others are examples of these smaller networks.
None of these companies threatened VibrantMedia and Kontera. But on the other hand, none of them relied solely on in-text.
The lack of real competition from the big guys had its drawbacks. It didn’t drive VibrantMedia and Kontera to increase their efficiency. One of the strangest things to me is that neither company introduced a self-service interface for advertisers. Both still rely on their sales force and target only large advertisers. Moreover, they seem to prefer sharing their CPC revenue with other providers over getting higher rates themselves. Kontera is known to link its ads to Yahoo CPC ads:
The company also has access to thousands of advertisers through a partnership with Yahoo.
We can assume VibrantMedia does the same.
Now with this economic downturn upon us, the in-text advertising market is fragile. Because it is a controversial niche market, it may be one of the first cut from an advertiser’s budget. Moreover, as their partners begin to focus on their core business rather then nurture their in-text partnerships, VibrantMedia and Kontera will realize that relying on deals with other networks may have been a major error. Perhaps they should have developed direct relationships with advertisers as well.
Launching a self-service option for advertisers could help, but it may be too late. Advertisers traction is hard to gain in this environment.
The apparent solution for both companies is acquisition. Yes – their valuation may not be as high as it was last year, and yes – maybe they will not be hurt so badly from the downturn. But after all, they are VC funded start-ups looking for an exit and this downturn could be precisely what they need – a special opportunity for them to be acquired by a big player, despite the in-text controversy.
Lately, Google has demonstrated an increasing willingness to experiment with innovative, questionable and controversial advertising products. Just a few days after launching expandable ads, they also announced behavioral targeting. They are becoming more aggressive in penetrating advertising in new ways. This is understandable since Google started laying off employees and shutting projects down, proving it is not immune to the downturn. Don’t be surprised if Google enters the in-text market as well.
The question is, will Google acquire an existing player? Or will they develop their own product?
Google has shown that it acquires companies either for their distribution (YouTube, FeedBurner) or for their technology (Urchin). The bad news for VibrantMedia and Kontera is that Google neither their technology nor their distribution.
While in-text technology is not a known Google product, it may have already been developed. Even if it wasn’t, it’s not difficult for them to do. I don’t believe that Google will aquire VibrantMedia and Kontera for the amount they would like to see, especially when the technologies are so similar and could be implemented much better by Google themselves.
As for distribution, Google’s publishers network is much bigger than both VibrantMedia’s and Kontera’s. This certainly does not justify an acquisition.
So Google won’t be acquiring any of them. Who will, then?
Maybe another network will see value in their technology or distribution. Lately, Yahoo is a mystery, which leaves us with Microsoft – a great candidate for the first buyer in this market. They have the cash, they wish to expand their ad network reach, and they may be interested in in-text advertising. And, they already are working with Kontera in some capacity, which could be a catalyst for acquisition.
The Future of In-Text Advertising
If Microsoft ends up acquiring Kontera, another player (AOL? IAC?) will follow and acquire VibrantMedia. In this case, Google won’t sit on the sidelines; they will launch their own in-text advertising solution for sure. By the time we’re out of this downturn, all major players will run in-text advertising, thus legitimizing it for the future.
So all in all, if these predictions play out, the downturn will serve in-text advertising well. It won’t be lead anymore by relatively anonymous companies, and it may loose some of its charm, but it will become a legitimate way of advertising and will gain public acceptance.
And what if my predictions are wrong? Can the in-text market survive? What do you think?