Newspapers and search advertising

When searching, I am always interested to see who is paying for the sponsored ads for my query. A while back I searched for some information on the Cory Lidle plane crash and was completely surprised to see iVillage and the New York Times paying for my attention:

Cory Lidel search ads

My initial assumption was that most people today use search to obtain information, regardless of the type. In the case of news, or other recent communications, Google or Yahoo will not be ranking recent stories within the first day. For late breaking news, a large newspaper can effectively solve this information gap by paying a few cents per click. After talking about this with a few people, I came up with a number of different reasons newspapers could be turning to search advertising:

  • Search gap: People tend to use search for most of their information, and a few cents can grab a lot of attention when you are a news source people recognize.
  • Higher monetization: Ads on Google and Yahoo! clock in at lower values than one page view on the news site.
  • Reader acquisition: In the world of online news, it is tough to differentiate, so paying for readers could pay off when acquired readers convert to regulars.
  • SEO: Someone on-staff has a budget to use on attracting traffic, and search advertising seems like a good use of funds. A few clicks turn into a few links, and there you go.

What happens when our news outlets start paying for readers? This may be an example of the right hand not talking to the left, but the fact that the New York Times, of all newspapers, is the first I saw using search marketing makes me think a little differently about the master of mass media. “All the news that’s fit to print” is now a few degrees closer to “Viagra, Levitra and Cialis” in my head, but maybe this is just a temporary phenomenon. It feels like a major shift in the way news is disseminated, but I might be jumping to conclusions.

Watts music closes

It is a sad day for DJs and electronic music producers. The website of Watts Music, America’s largest distributor of dance vinyl, has announced it is officially closed for business. Most people have never heard of Watts, even if they are a DJ, but they have been directly responsible for moving tons and tons of vinyl every year from Europe to America and vice-versa.

Just to give you perspective, I run a small label with some of my friends, and when we release a record, we look to distributors to buy up some of our stock and move it to stores overseas and domestically. In a couple of cases Watts has been there for us, and probably for thousands of other little labels. Without them, we have even fewer options: Forced Exposure and Syntax most likely. Under the pressure of the closure of Watts, competition for these smaller distributors will get even more intense, and labels like ours will have no option but to turn to fully digital distribution. This means that our days of making records is over, unless we’re prepared to pay for the production, marketing and shipping costs of every copy.

In the next few months the breadth and depth of vinyl at your local record store will start to dwindle. Labels that were being distributed by Watts will have to seek other means, and in some cases they may be forced to stop shipping internationally. Within a few months I would guess that their effect will be fully visible, where DJs find it hard to get their favorite labels without ordering on the internet. It’s hard to say how this will impact the electronic music scene, but it is bound to have a large and immediate effect.

For such a big distributor to close is a powerful omen: vinyl is dead. Well, in the US anyway. Rest in peace.

Explanatory algorithms

There is a trend in recommender systems that I think is extremely interesting: systems are starting to explain themselves. The first place I noticed this was at Amazon in their personal recommendations section, at the bottom of a given suggestion:

Amazon recommendation

In this case, Amazon recommended Moon Palace because I had rated another book by Paul Auster. This makes perfect sense, namely I rated something by an author, so the system recommended other books by the same author. The second place this popped up was at the new social music service iLike. Every time a user views another user’s profile, the system calculates a compatibility score based on how similar your favorite artists are, as shown here:

iLike recommendation

In this case, I share interest in the bands ESG, TV on the radio, et al. with this user, so our compatibility is high. When I share more popular artists like Miles Davis or Bob Dylan, my compatibility score is lower. This makes sense since rarer bands suggest a closer connection. Last.fm has added a similar feature called Taste-o-meter.

What’s interesting about these examples is not the algorithm, some augmented form of collaborative filtering, but rather in the way that the algorithm explains itself to the user. Many years ago, with the likes of Firefly and CDNow showing off the power of recommender systems, this sort of behavior would have been considered crazy. Showing to users elements of how your algorithm works? What if they reverse engineer it and copy your methods and copy your system and steal all your users?!

Not likely. For most intents and purposes, recommender systems are within wiggling distance of each other. Netflix is holding a contest to see if theirs can be improved, offering a cool $1M to anyone who can show a 10% gain over their current algorithm. While the current leaderboard shows the best contenders at a 4% gain over the original algorithm, Netflix does not expect people to make the 10% gain necessary anytime soon, suggesting the contest could run until 2011. But companies like Amazon and iLike are making improvements through the way that these algorithms are explained.

Explanation creates understanding, and understanding leads to trust.
What if all systems started to take this approach? We mostly assume that search providers keep their ranking algorithms in a 6-foot safe behind a wall of lasers, but at the same time Google is starting to release more information about PageRank through various systems. Someday we might have search results that explain themselves, while keeping the special sauce away from SEO geeks and spammers. Imagine if a top search result said “This result is first because: your search term was in the title, the author is a well known writer, and the host is a reputable newspaper.” I would probably say “that makes sense,” and in turn I would trust that system even more.

Flickr spam email

I received a strange email this morning, addressed to my blogdex email address which has nothing to do with Flickr, but exceptionally high SpamRank:

From: Dee ([email protected])
To: [email protected]
Subject: question about your photo

I’ve accidently found your photo at a flickr and i’m very
interested in it.

Can you tell me what place i can see in the background of
it?

wbr, Danny

Where “your photo” is a link to http://www.fri91.net/flickr,html. At the outset this appears to be a Flickr phishing scam; while on the train without a connection I was convinced I’d find a Flickr login screen when I followed the link to “my photo.” And you know that when your service is getting phishing scams, you have arrived.

The truth is much stranger. Go ahead, click the link. It’s not going to hurt you. In a sort of janky way, Barry has copied some of Flickr’s code and design along with some of his own “edits.” The page is hosted on a Norwegian soccer club’s website. The links on the page lead to tjhallett1’s Flickr data. The email domain is a fish food company. This piece of spam is a stumper.

The full email is here.

Update: Andy explained to me that this is, indeed, a scam. DO NOT visit the link in IE, it is some sort of Activex control hack. More details here and a virus definition describes the functionality on AusCERT.

It appears that this email is using the credibility of a site like Flickr and its community to get people’s attention and clicks. It’s no different than preying on people with the possibility of Anna Kournikova pictures.