Widget Master

November 2, 2007

By Victoria Murphy Barret

RockYou is Silicon Valley’s latest Web sensation. It exists solely thanks to the recent rise in social networking sites. RockYou creates frivolous, mini Web applications that exist on social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook. RockYou’s popular Superwall, for instance, lets Facebook folks put graffiti–words, photos, videos–on their “walls,” which are public sites where members post messages. Another, called Zombies, encourages people to “bite” friends. Virtually, of course. No joke.

Since RockYou’s founding two years ago, 90 million social networkers have downloaded its applications. For this, RockYou is making more than $100,000 a month in revenues showing ads alongside its mini-applications for brands like AT&T and Sony, as well as by plugging other developers’ mini-apps (for a fee). The pitch to advertisers: We are where the kids hang out. Yet RockYou doesn’t know much else about its customers. Facebook doesn’t share data about members’ ages, locations, education or anything else it might know.

Jia Shen, the 27-year-old co-founder of RockYou, sat down with Forbes.com recently to talk about how to make money selling snack-size software and what Google’s new open platform means for Facebook and MySpace.

Forbes.com: How did RockYou begin?

Jia Shen: We started two years ago noticing that everyone on MySpace was trying to “bling out” their pages. But there was no easy way to do it. We decided to put together a slide show tool. It took one week to build. I worked while I was on vacation in Japan. In one month, we had 100,000 people using it. Then in three months there were one million.

Impressive growth. But were you making any money?

None. You can’t advertise on MySpace. Facebook changed that. So now we’re like any other Web site: We make money on page views. Sony Pictures wanted to promote the film Resident Evil and used our Zombies application for a sweepstakes event.

We also advertise other applications and take a cut. Yahoo! created an application that lets you post music videos on your Facebook profile page. Yahoo! had 8,000 downloads after one month, which is pretty slow. We started promoting the application in banners above our own applications. In a single day on our network of applications, Yahoo! got 120,000 downloads.

What is your initial reaction to Google’s new open platform for social networks?

We’ve been helping Google for a while on this. In theory, it should be very cool. We tested it out with an application called Emote (This is a collection of happy, sad, flirty smiley faces). Before all these networks required different code, and it took us three days to re-write the same application for Facebook to get it to work on Orkut. With the new standards, it took us just 30 minutes to make the same application work on Plaxo. The real test comes two months from now. How many companies will really give us real estate on their Web sites?

Will Google’s open platform give a boost to less popular social networks like Orkut, Friendster and the Hi5?

Sure, if it yields them more applications, it gives people more reasons to flock to their sites. Web traffic isn’t yet a zero-sum game

Is this bad news for Facebook? Will developers spend less time on Facebook apps?

People are making real money on Facebook. So there’s risk in going elsewhere. Am I really going to spend time going after Orkut’s Brazilian audience? I’m more likely to focus on the U.S. market. Facebook is still growing nicely.

Do you worry that the social networking sites, particularly Facebook, will start launching their own applications and compete with outside developers?

It is always a worry, but something that we’ve lived with since day one. MySpace eventually built a competing slideshow, but we already had big penetration, with a diverse set of widgets. Facebook does do little feature creeps here and there. But everything they’ve done so far has been non-competitive.

What will Microsoft get from its deal with Facebook? (Microsoft announced in October a $240 million investment for a 1.6% stake in Facebook, and is serving ads on the site.)

This isn’t traditional brand advertising. But my belief is that Microsoft didn’t want only access to the ad network. Microsoft wanted to make sure no one else got Facebook. (Google was reportedly bidding.)

What were you doing before RockYou?

I came to Silicon Valley in 2000 after majoring in computer science and electrical engineering at Johns Hopkins. The first start-up I landed at failed in three months, so did the second. I thought I was the kiss of death.

But I have a short attention span, so it was fine by me. This company is changing so much I may as well be working at a different place every three months.

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Yahoo’s new social job network: Kickstart

October 31, 2007

by Harrison Hoffman

Yahoo is looking to change the game with their new social job network, Kickstart. They are currently conducting research surveys among college students to find out what they think of this new service. Yahoo asks this question to the participants, “Wish you had an ‘in’ to find the job of your dreams?” Kickstart is all about finding that “in.”

Yahoo Kickstart connects college students with alumni at the companies that they are interested in. As you can see in the screenshot above, this student’s “in” at Nike is an alumni named Dave Bottoms. Dave has expressed an interest in helping out students and connecting with alumni. He also knows one of your friends, went to your school, and shares a common interest with you. That’s a really powerful networking tool. Presenting specific connections like this adds a whole new value to this job network.

Aside from showing your “in,” company pages also provide some useful information about the company as a whole, broken down into key points such as industry, size, location, contact, and description. Anyone who is connected in any way with that company is also displayed.

As you might also expect, everyone who signs up with Yahoo Kickstart gets their own profile page, where you can build a mini resume and add a quotation to give the profile a more personal feel. Everything here is pretty standard for a social network, but there is a definite professional focus, much like LinkedIn. The personal profile isn’t anything revolutionary, but it certainly gets the job done in this situation.

The third and final main component to Kickstart is the university page. This is very similar to what Facebook does with their “network” pages. It displays some basic information about the school and provides space for discussions, bulletins, and events.

Yahoo Kickstart is currently a concept and is being researched, so the things that you see in these screenshots may or may not make it into the final product. When I asked Yahoo for a comment on the service, they responded by saying,

“…We’re continually checking the pulse on customer response to potential concepts on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes our research leads to the development of new product offerings, but not all concepts we research are formally developed and rolled out to our larger audience.”

I personally think that Kickstart is a really solid concept and that it’s a possible game-changer in the professional networking space. Hopefully we’ll see Yahoo kickstarting some careers in the near future.

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Searching For The Better Ways of Finding Things on Net

October 29, 2007

By David H. Freedman

Tui Stark is searching for a vacation paradise and can’t find it. Googling “snorkeling beaches blue water” turns up listings for scuba diving, real-estate firms, rafting outfits. So Stark, a photography stylist in Needham, Massachusetts, turns to Quintura, one of many upstart search engines, which allows her to focus the results on snorkeling. “The Google results just had too much stuff I wasn’t looking for,” she says. “I wanted to zoom in on the best snorkeling beaches.” And within seconds, Quintura delivers.

That’s a bad result for Google, which is more vulnerable than you think. By virtue of dominating Web search—Google draws 60 percent of all searches worldwide, says market-research firm comScore, with Yahoo a distant second at 14 percent and mighty Microsoft limping along at 4 percent—Google has not only become the reigning heavyweight of the online world, but it has also transformed advertising, riled governments and sent tremors through Wall Street. As of last week its stock was valued at $200 billion, more than five times that of Yahoo’s, and nearly three quarters of Microsoft’s. Now it’s threatening to shake up the trillion-dollar corporate-computing and wireless-communications markets.

Despite spending billions trying to diversify beyond the straightforward search offered on its stripped-down, almost childlike home page, Google reaps about 60 percent of its outsize revenues and more than 80 percent of its profits from ads on that page, according to analysts’ estimates. That means the company’s success continues to hinge on the dominance of its simple search. There are no guarantees that its dominance will last. It is threatened by a massive worldwide effort to build a better search, involving giant high-tech rivals, governments in Europe and Asia, and hundreds of tiny start-ups founded by academic wunderkinders much like Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the Stanford graduate students who founded Google in 1998. And it’s also dependent on an online public that may make up the most fickle market in history, an audience whose interests are already showing signs of wandering outside the search box.

Google may well be able to continue its charmed life by holding onto its search lead and getting its non-search businesses to kick in more profit, and Wall Street is certainly betting that way. But the computer world has a way of bringing seemingly golden brands down to earth with surprising speed, as Lotus, Novell, AOL and other firms have discovered. It’s not farfetched that five years from now we may wonder why everyone thought Google was such a big deal. “Google has won the first stages of the Web-searching race,” says Trip Chowdhry, an analyst with Global Equities Research in San Francisco. “It won’t win the next one.”

History shows how quickly search leaders can lose their way. The race kicked off in 1995, when researchers at Digital Equipment Corp. (remember them?) figured out how to store the words on Web pages as an index that lent itself to lightning-fast searches. The resulting AltaVista search engine quickly became a favorite home page for early Web users, and seemed destined to rule search. But in 1998 word started getting around about a new search engine from a tiny company with a goofy name that sometimes returned more-useful results, and by 2000 Google was the search engine to beat. Yahoo, with a stunning lack of foresight, put Google’s search box on its home page that year, burnishing Google’s reputation with Yahoo’s tens of millions of users. Microsoft, caught napping, wouldn’t even enter the search-engine race in earnest for another three years. When Google tweaked its business model by linking ads to searches and charging advertisers only when searchers clicked on them—an approach it copied from rival online marketing firm Overture—it converted its search box into a money machine. Right now that machine is producing $15 billion a year, of which almost $4 billion is profit.

If Google has been able to crush its search competition, it’s not because it has perfected the art and science of Web searching. Far from it. Google is what the industry calls a “second-generation” search engine. First-generation engines like AltaVista found Web pages containing words that matched the user’s search words. Google’s innovation was to further rank a Web page by the other pages that link to it, on the somewhat shaky assumption that if a page is much-linked-to, it must be useful. Charles Knight, an analyst who runs the AltSearchEngines Web site, notes there’s a plethora of good ideas for what a third-generation engine might bring to the party, and no shortage of companies trying to prove those ideas. “Each has shown they can do some aspect of a search better than Google can,” says Knight.

Yahoo, for one, has been frantically working to leapfrog Google. One new feature of its engine provides search-term suggestions that pop up as soon as you start typing your query—a possible antidote to the frustrating process of having to keep repeating a search with different terms in order to find helpful results. (Google reminds you of searches you’ve previously typed in.) Another offers shortcuts to following up on certain types of popular searches. Typing in a movie title, for example, brings up a trailer and local showtimes; typing in “restaurants” and a city narrows down the choices by neighborhood, cuisine or popularity. More is coming, says Vish Makhijani, head of search for Yahoo. “We’ll know when you’re ready to make a reservation versus when you’re just doing research, and we’ll let you make the reservation right there on the search page,” he says.

Microsoft, too, is eager to provide new ways to merge its Windows Live Search with other online and PC-based tasks. So far the company hasn’t taken advantage of the dominance of Windows to drive search traffic its way, but that will change, says Microsoft’s search chief, Brad Goldberg. “We’ve just begun integrating search in a meaningful way with our assets,” he says. “We’re working on ways to capture what the user is doing and carry it into the search experience.” In theory, that could mean a Microsoft search on “Coke” would give an accountant financial information on the Coca-Cola Corp., while a student writing a term paper on health and diet might get the nutritional rundown on a can of soda.

In fact, the biggest competitive hurdle for Yahoo and Microsoft is not that their searches don’t work as well as Google’s, but that people just don’t try them as often. According to a recent Nielsen/NetRatings survey, the gap between Google, Yahoo and Microsoft narrows when you look at the percentage of users of each site who keep returning—79, 69 and 65, respectively. A University of Michigan study released in August shows that Yahoo passed Google in customer satisfaction in the past year.

Google has already been relegated to also-ran status in several key markets worldwide. It gets less than 2 percent of queries in Internet-happy South Korea, and 17 percent of the queries in China, the world’s most important emerging online market. The company has also been trounced by local competition in Russia. Google dominates searching in Western Europe—82 percent of queries come its way in Germany—but the German and French governments plan to put up $165 million and $122 million, respectively, for search-engine research. In Japan, not only is Google running behind Yahoo, but the government is reportedly pumping some $125 million into local search efforts. Meanwhile, notwithstanding rumors of a forthcoming phone, Google hasn’t yet established leadership in the mobile-phone search market, expected to be lucrative.

Yahoo, Microsoft and governments aren’t the only ones seeking a cure for Google envy. In 2005 and 2006, venture-capital firms injected $350 million into 79 search-related start-ups. Knight tracks no fewer than 1,000 search contenders, mostly U.S.-based, that have something to recommend them. Among the features that he and other experts believe might be hallmarks of a third-generation search engine:

Word smarts. Some search engines, like Hakia, the forthcoming Powerset and Sydney-based Lexxe, are trying to go beyond matching your exact query words—they seek to get a sense of what you’re looking for and pull up the best pages based on an understanding of their content. “In most cases the document you want won’t contain all your search terms,” notes Rohini Srihari, a University of Buffalo computer scientist and CEO of Janya, an Amherst, New York, company specializing in searching for counterterrorism leads. “And if you’re looking to discover who or what has suddenly become a hot topic, you won’t even know what search terms to use.” A smart search engine might know that when you plug in “Paris,” “Tokyo” “New York” and “hottest restaurants” that you’re looking for popular new restaurants around the world.

Editing. No matter how clever a computer program, it will never match a human brain for determining quality and relevance. Some new search engines, including Mahalo and ChaCha, rely in part on human editors or guides to pre-cull the most relevant pages for some searches. You’ll probably get more select results than on Google—but only if your search terms are among those the editors have explored.

Focus. Google searches everything—but you don’t want everything. You’ll actually get more relevant results with a search engine that indexes a much smaller number of pages, as long as the pages are on-topic. Trulia searches out homes for sale, Healthline lets you plug in symptoms to track down possible causes and treatment, Globalspec’s searches are aimed at industrial engineers, Like.com offers pictorial product searches, and Spock specializes in information about people.

Guided queries. It’s hard to guess which search terms will do the best job, but some search engines help by suggesting terms, as do Yahoo and a start-up engine called Accoona, or by grouping results into categories that focus on the desired topic, as do Ask.com and Clusty. Type “spears” into Ask.com, for example, and it will suggest you steer the topic in either the pointy or pop direction; Google just mixes them up. A number of cutting-edge engines, including France’s KartOO, KooltTorch and Quintura—founded in Moscow and now based in Virginia—display the categories in graphic maps that visually suggest which categories are likely to be the most useful.

Community. NosyJoe, Squidoo and Sproose allow other users to help determine which pages are most useful, cutting down on the often irrelevant and spam-ridden results that come up via Google’s link-counting approach. Wikia, which has ties to the online, everyone-can-chip-in encyclopedia Wikipedia, is working on a search engine based on user contributions, and the Web-page bookmarking service Del.icio.us, bought by Yahoo in 2005, allows searching through everyone else’s labeled bookmarks to find relevant pages.

Right now all these underdog search engines (except Ask.com, the No. 4 search site) have a combined share of less than 5 percent of all queries, according to Knight. But even if one or more of them starts to gain traction, does Google really have to worry about being bested by some obscure search engine, given its longstanding, widespread popularity? After all, Microsoft continues to dominate software, in spite of persistent claims that better alternatives like Apple and Linux are out there. Google’s dominance, however, is different from Microsoft’s. The costs of dumping Windows can be intimidating, between setting up new hardware or software, retraining and lost productivity. What’s to keep someone stuck on Google? “The moment someone proves themselves better than Google, people will switch in a heartbeat,” Srihari says. Just ask anyone who was at AltaVista in the late 1990s.

Google isn’t waiting around to be AltaVistaed. Its smaller challengers can’t hope to match the company’s massive investments in computing infrastructure, said to include more than 450,000 servers. So be prepared to wait an annoying three seconds or so for results on some of the wanna-be search sites, compared with Google’s blink-of-an-eye speed. And with $12 billion cash on hand, Google can buy hot companies that pose a threat, much as it plopped down $1.65 billion last year for YouTube, whose video search crushes Google’s popularity. “Google was buying tiny search companies at the rate of two per week at one point,” says Knight.

Even $12 billion and the billions more Google could borrow wouldn’t buy all the world’s search competition. The performance gap won’t be hard to narrow for a hot new company freshly fueled by investors. In the end, Google has to have a better search to stay on top. Thus its army of software engineers is looking at every wrinkle in search, insists Google’s research director, Peter Norvig. “I guess we’re paranoid,” he says. They’ve already injected several new technologies into its search—for example, results take into account results you’ve clicked on in the past, provided you’ve signed up to have your searches tracked. You can type in your query in plain English, get suggestions for search-term refinements, or do any of more than 40 specialized searches, including movies, government Web sites, patents, airline flights and human faces. Google just doesn’t advertise any of these features, or make them plain. Although it’s clear Google is capable of plenty of search innovation, there’s a reason the company sometimes acts as if its hands are tied when it comes to implementing next-generation techniques. “People don’t want radical change from us,” says Matt Cutts, head of search quality at Google. “Our biggest task is ensuring simplicity.”

It’s true, most mainstream searchers do tend to value the stripped-down, no-brainer elegance of a thin box that takes a few words and delivers straightforward results. Given that a growing number of queries are being funneled to alternative engines, there are clearly plenty of power searchers willing to accept a little complexity in return for better results. It wouldn’t take a smash-hit new search engine to steal Google’s thunder; the damage could take the form of a slow leak of searchers to a variety of engines that each have some special appeal. Another threat to Google may be online social networking sites such as MySpace and LinkedIn. “We’ll likely see dozens or hundreds of specialized search engines that collectively chip away at Google’s dominance,” says Brant Bukowsky, founder of Plus1 Marketing, a search consultancy.

Last quarter, Google raked in $925 million in profit, 28 percent more than the same quarter last year. The game is still Google’s to lose. Even Stark, who resorted to Quintura to find her snorkeling beach, still makes Google her first stop when she needs to track down a Web site. What, after all, would Google have to fear from a tiny company with a goofy name that sometimes returns more-useful results?

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Will mashups ever be mass market?

October 26, 2007

By Jack Schofield

 

When Microsoft boss Steve Ballmer spoke at last week’s prestigious Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco, he announced a public beta test version of Popfly to try to impress the crowd. Because it’s based on Silverlight, Microsoft’s alternative to Adobe Flash, it can certainly do some nice visual tricks. Its practical value is, of course, another matter.

Popfly is an online system where anybody can create a graphical web page, a mashup or a Windows Vista Sidebar gadget by “drag and drop” programming.

The term “mashup” comes from the music business where it is used for mixes made from two or more different songs. In web 2.0 terms, it means combining data from two or more sources. One of the best known mashups takes government crime figures for Chicago and plots them on a Google map of Chicago.

When Yahoo! launched a beta test site for creating mashups in February, it had the idea of streams of data being changed and combined: the result was Yahoo! Pipes. Popfly uses a different kind of imagery that’s much more like object-oriented programming. Everything comes in a red box or block, and you create your mashup by linking red blocks together.

The Popfly toolbox already contains dozens of blocks. Look under Display, for example, and there are blocks such as Bar graph, Carousel, Chat bubbles, Page Turner, Photosphere and Slideshow.

Other blocks offer streams of data, including RSS feeds of news reports, Twitter and Upcoming. There are also blocks such as Combine, Filter, Sort and Timer so you can do things with data along the way. If you can’t find the sort of block you want, you can create one.

Each block contains lines of computer code, so when you link them together, you are actually writing a program. What’s cool is that it doesn’t feel like it.

Popfly has lots of nice visual effects, but I found some things didn’t do what I expected, and it wasn’t always easy to see why.

For example, I did an extremely simple mashup to fish 100 random Paris Hilton pictures from a search engine, and display them in a mini-album on my Facebook profile page. Actually it showed only 20 images, and it didn’t display them on Facebook: it just put a link to the album on Popfly. It was easier to post it to a blog: even I can manage a one-line copy-and-paste operation!

There are several sites doing the same sort of thing as Pipes and Popfly, and Intel has just unveiled MashMaker, promising “Mashups for the Masses”. Google also has the Google Mashup Editor, which is only suitable for programmers. No doubt there will be many more.

Microsoft’s mantra is “developers, developers, developers,” and naturally it wants to make programming accessible to people with no programming skills.

Given enough pre-created blocks, I can imagine lots of people connecting two blocks, or even a few, if it does something they really need. But a mass market? I don’t think so!

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Yahoo Tries Social Networking… Again

September 19, 2007

Bob Hof of BusinessWeek just got an invite from Mike Speiser, Yahoo’s VP of community, to join its newest social network, called Mash, which have an interesting wrinkle: Other people can add stuff to your profile. The service seems aimed at young people. Many people are suffering from social-network overload. Facebook for a general-purpose network and LinkedIn for strictly professional stuff. People will add more if the social networks are really focused on small, discrete groups.

At MASH

  1. You can make starter profiles for your friends. Think: “first round’s on me.”
  2. You can leave your profile open to contributions by trusted friends.
  3. You can customize your — or your friend’s ) — profile with modules from a growing gallery of apps

And of course, there are extensive privacy controls in Mash and you set the boundaries that you’re comfortable with.”

Other features:

Not only can you customize your page and add modules, you can also edit your friends’ pages (with their permission). That means if you were my friend, you would be able to pimp my profile and ‘Mash Pet’, move and add modules on my page, contribute to my ‘about me’ and ‘my stuff’, and vice versa. But again, this is only if I let you ). You also can keep track of all the activity that occurs on your profile.

The Blurt is like a status…Your My Stuff is basically a blank, html-friendly module that allows you to you put as much *whatever-you’d-like* in there—images, videos, music and all. You can also click and drag modules to rearrange them on your page.

Module Gallery allows you to see other modules you can add to your page and your friends’ pages! (PimpMyPet, Translucency and YouTube are some of my faves).

There’s no search by names yet, so the best way to find your friends on Mash is by email.

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