TechFuga and News Aggregation

TechFuga launched a new version today and among the many improvements in the service are better clustering, search, and an interesting feature called “upcoming news” that attempts to surface news that is not yet popular but signals popularity movement.

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I like these services because they efficiently surface interesting news that is domain specific (e.g. tech, politics, sports, etc.). In many ways they represent a future for media as well because aggregation is demonstrating itself to be a bigger lever for publishers than organic traffic growth. You could almost say that aggregation is a perfect compliment to search, whereas search surfaces results based on specific keywords, aggregation surfaces results based on domain.

There is a legitimate debate about the legitimacy of purely machine driven aggregation. Gabe Rivera, who I consider a legitimate authority on this subject, explained this in great detail back in December when he announced that Techmeme would be augmenting their service with human editors.

The problem is context and relevance. Current mainstream aggregators determine this through extracting key words from unstructured text, building giant dictionaries that help derive context and then examining link patterns. Semantic search technologies go a step further by building triples that attempt to bring great context to unstructured text entities.

The problem with current relevance technologies is that entity extraction, done well, is hard and small errors magnify into gaping mismatches from the user perspective, there is the stale news problem where old news is resubmitted based on perceived relevance, and link patterns are prone to surfacing a lot of the stories that are just identical because they all trace back to the same source. Link analysis also doesn’t work very well in domains where there isn’t a lot of linking, like among food publications, which examples why aggregation sites tend to focus on technology, sports, celebrity news, and politics/current events.

Semantic technologies offer an appealing future but make no mistake about it, these technologies are demanding from a development standpoint. Freebase attempts to circumvent the semantic challenges by relying on existing data sets that have already been organized (e.g. wikipedia) and a community based approach that allows for massive data organization according to domains while not relying solely on a machine approach to the semantic problem; but Freebase is a database at it’s core that can be used by other services to build context, it is itself not a news or content aggregation site.

Despite all the challenges with news aggregation, the fact remains that this is a very logical approach for publishers and users alike. By clustering related content together and presenting it with an appealing user experience that moves content up/down based on popularity and relevancy, we all benefit.

Why the TechCrunch Economy Will Falter

Reading yesterday that AppLoop has apparently shut down impressed upon me a fundamental flaw in the startup economy promoted by a wide swath of pundits and proponents, that starting is more important than sustaining.

Now, we’re hearing rumors that the startup is in trouble, and they appear to hold some truth. For one, the company’s website has been down for the past two days. Worse, a quick glance on Twitter suggests that the service’s downtime is also causing iPhone apps using AppLoop libraries to crash.

[From Is AppLoop Fading Already?]

I don’t have an agenda in singling out TechCrunch and truth be told I greatly admire the brand that Mike has built from scratch but the fact remains that more than anyone else TechCrunch has become a the standard bearer for the high velocity coverage of the web 2.0 brand of startup. Their hit and run coverage, often caustic as it is complimentary, does not offer a methodical or comprehensive approach to assessing merits and weaknesses and this is all too common in the startup economy where layers upon layers of assumptions are taken at face value.

Having launched NewsGator’s iPhone app service I can tell you from experience how complicated this product area really is. The idea that a container app into which you pump any RSS feed would be something to build a business on is highly suspect on it’s surface, you don’t even need to do much digging to figure that out. There are the issues of content aggregation (multiple feeds), fair use of other content sources (often not provided in full text anyway), the AppStore insertion process, app hosting requirements that raise issues about data center operational requirements when content feeds are taken into account, and a thousand other issues.

TechCrunch covered the launch of this self-service product a mere 75 days ago, 6 months ago for the advertising service, and it is already shuttered. What does that say about the mountain of coverage they were able to garner when they became available in a closed beta form? If the point is to amplify events then we are no better than agents of the PR industry, but if the objective is to present coverage that blends facts and opinion based on critical analysis, then the AppLoop case presents a compelling example of why tech blogs have not yet risen above their role as cheerleader and promoter.

I am hesitant to post this because I know from my own experience that there is, on any given subject, deep and compelling research and analysis available in the blogosphere. My complaint is really that just like in all media segments the blogosphere has become brand centric and despite a lot of rhetoric about long tails the fact remains that coverage is disproportionately tilted to a handful of sites. How do we accomplish the greater good of aggregating the best and brightest coverage instead of just amplifying the loudest voices?

If all we care about is starting things then the tech economy will eventually falter because at some point you have to answer the critical question “why do you matter?”. This simple question should be at the top of the list whenever any company or product is written about, I know that it will be for me going forward.

Digg’s Recommendation Engine

We’ve been developing filtering technologies based on behaviors and expressed likes/dislikes. It’s hard stuff and one thing is evident, relying on a single mechanism or ideology for recommendations is a strategy fraught with risk.

If you rely on active participants, people training the recommendation engine, you simply won’t get the data inputs necessary to deliver good recommendations. It’s equally true that if you rely simply on historical behaviors you will end up with a recommendation engine that breaks easily when an outlier condition is observed. Anyone who have purchased a random gift item for someone on Amazon knows exactly what I am referring to, the suggested items list gets polluted.

The user experience is also a sticky subject because the recommendation results have to ride alongside the main content or be easily navigated. The simple fact is that users want recommendations as something extra rather than the main experience. The challenges that Digg’s recommendation engine is experiencing are representative of what I am talking about, a less than stellar user experience that reflects UI and more significantly, recommendation results.

After using it for quite some time, like most such ideas, I find it utterly useless. I use Digg in the following way: I check out the front page and the upcoming Technology section for interesting stories. The recommendation engine merely gets in my way, making me go through a couple of extra clicks to get what I want (whenever Digg doesn’t automatically log me in, which is often). The stories that the recommendation engine feeds me seem completely random; standard categorization by topics works way better, and checking only what’s recommended feels like I’m missing out on good stories.

[From So, How’s That Digg Recommendation Engine Been Working For You?]

Personally, I’m a big believer in the value of recommendation engines as a feature which augments a primary user experience and am impressed by the progress we have made on this front. In many ways this is running in parallel to efforts to surface related content because both efforts require building metadata about content that includes key entities, categories, sentiment, and additional taxonomy data that helps narrow the content focus.

It’s also true that there can be too much of a good thing and users have little patience for a system that returns volumes of links and excerpts that are essentially identical, therefore it’s essential to have a filtering mechanism that attempts to surface just the best content according to quality and popularity filters.

I have long contended that nobody ever says “I need more content” or more sources, but this is often asserted as a way of saying “I need better content” in that content is being discovered, filtered and then presented in a manner that helps people find the things that they did now know they did not know. We’re getting there.

Dapper MashupAds Turn Your Website Into Contextual, Display Ads

This is a great example of what is possible when you enable widgets with a communication mechanism (as in communicating with other data elements) and take advantage of microformats. Great work by the Dapper team, this is a very novel solution (in all fairness, it is essentially what AFC is doing, so novel is subject to interpretation).

The most important ad for a company or brand is its Website. So why not use that Website to generate ads? Dapper, a startup that can create a feed from any Website, is applying its technology to generate contextual, display ads from the constantly changing content on an advertiser’s own site.

[From Dapper MashupAds Turn Your Website Into Contextual, Display Ads]

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P2P Loans Runs in the SEC

This is an interesting story at the intersection of regulatory oversight and technology enabled business models. Personally, I really like the P2P startups but I wonder about the potential for abuse in these networks and the backing company’s willingness to regulate the markets if the net effect is to reduce activity.

But this so-called peer-to-peer lending, which until recently seemed that it might offer a reliable source of money in this calamitous economic environment, is now experiencing a squeeze of its own.

[From Lending Alternative Hits Hurdle – NYTimes.com]

More on this topic (What's this?) Read more on Loans at Wikinvest

GE Drops Google, Selects Zoho

I agree with Daya on two points, Google Spreadsheets is a disaster and Zoho is a remarkable company that has defied the odds to become the leader in online productivity apps. With 1 million users, before this 400k GE agreement, they have outmaneuvered everyone else.

A GE spokesperson who did not want to be identified said their decision was based around issues of personal and corporate privacy, functionality, support, features and Zoho won hands down. The spokesperson said the Google application was intrusive and the ads started to become a nusiance. I tested both applications today. Google Spreadsheets was a disaster. I have not noticed any major change with it over the past year. However I would encourage you to try both products to get a feel before you choose one.

[From GE Drops Google, Selects Zoho]

Zoho’s product portfolio is broad, very broad, and it further highlights how well this company just “gets shit done” because none of these products are crippled or feature bare. What I like best about Zoho is that in a business obsessed with who is going to buy so-and-so, these guys have gone for it and are building a real brand.

Simply put, Zoho owns this category, everyone else is an also ran.

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Wachovia @ Office 2.0

Wachovia Bank presented a case study featuring their use of a Microsoft Office Sharepoint Server (MOSS) at the recently held Office 2.0 event. Based on my anecdotal feedback, this was one of the more talked about presentations at the conference.

It’s worth watching all 50 minutes of the video to see how real customers are looking at collaborative solutions and how they measure the success of such initiatives.

Well Under the Radar

I am attending the Under the Radar conference at Microsoft’s SV campus today and my first impression is that there is a real resurgence here. The team at DealMaker Media did their homework, not only are these companies very under the radar but they are also really exciting.

The other aspect of today’s event that I find meaningful is that they have articulated the intersection of content, publishing, games, and creation with their agenda. This in itself is interesting because of the cross-pollination that is occurring as companies that monetize with advertising are increasingly using all four elements as strategic levers in their business plans.

One theme that emerges throughout the conference is syndication, a good example of this is AudioMicro which is very much like stock photo services except it is for audio tracks. GumGum is another stock syndication deal but one that focuses on images and the licensing requirements that online usage imposes, but while they say they are competitive to Mochila, I just didn’t see that.

Keibi was, I thought, the most interesting company on the publishing panel but I think they are positioned somewhat awkwardly. I kept wanting to call them a brand monitoring solution even though their solution deal with the placement of ads in user generated content that may be inappropriate. Too many social networks and applications that reside in social networks that depend on advertising forget that advertisers really do care where their ad content is showing up, Keibi gives them control of placement and in effect manages a big risk for brands. Very cool stuff, I could totally see this being applied to widgets.

33Across is an analytics app that helps advertisers and marketers identify influential online users. I like this one a lot, reminded me of Nabbr. This company will get funded if for no other reason than they have a kick ass team with deep advertising and digital media experience. Sometrics also fell into this category and it’s likely to be a sector that sees a great number of companies emerge.

Comedy.com, the long tail for online comedy. Fun, but it’s a serious business and over lunch I heard from Larry Marcus about how it works and why it is different than Funny or Die. Dizzywood is a children’s community and I have to say that, as a parent, there just aren’t enough of these sites, especially for children at the very low end of the age spectrum. I was checking out ZooKazoo just last weekend but it is up in the 7-10 age group, I just don’t see very young kids doing this.

MediaForge is widget enabled advertising…. right up my alley. I really like their campaign-based approach to managing a process, as opposed to providing a technology. We are doing this at the client level but I’d sure like to be able to offer it as an automated process solution.

I ran into Salim Ismail in the hall and noticed his badge said PutPlace, which made me want to go check it out. I guess you could call it life streaming, but it feels like it could be more useful than that.

The graduate circle of previous companies includes well known companies such as Loomia, Wetpaint and SocialMedia Networks.

It’s been a while since I have been to a conference that featured so many companies that I found exciting and new, even though many of them are variations on a theme there was still a freshness about them. Debbie and her team did a great job hosting this Under the Radar.

NYTimes Reader

The NYTimes Reader is available for the Mac.

Great but I don’t get this entire initiative at any level. They position it as a way to enhance the reader experience but from my perspective it appears to be nothing more than a vehicle through which they can control access and charge a monthly fee.

Has a web-based experience been an obstacle for accessing NYTimes content? No, if anything the primary obstacles for the NYTimes have been self-imposed, their pay-wall and the now defunct Times Select program. The Times Reader is a technology exercise that reflects the NYTimes persistent view that people should have to pay for NYTimes content, in the face of declining subscription readership and overwhelming trend data to the contrary in the broader newspaper industry.

A lot of commenters are up in arms about the NYTimes use of Silverlight for the Mac version. This is something that the chattering classes will be up in arms about but the broader market will skip over, besides, Silverlight is actually pretty cool. The Mac community is interesting in this regard, we tend to value competition except when it comes from Microsoft, or put another way, would the Mac space really be better off if only Adobe were providing this essential technology? Would Adobe have open sourced Flash were it not for Microsoft?

This initiative will ultimately fail for the following reasons:

1) it’s something they have to maintain and enhance, e.g. lack of copy-and-paste.

2) they will have to incur a support cost associated with downloadable products, both in the customer acquisition phase and on an ongoing basis

3) the monthly subscription model is self-limiting in the long run because it limits your options on other platforms, such as mobile.

4) doesn’t do anything for you in your SEO efforts and monetization through search traffic

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Incrementalism and Pyrrhic Victories

Last month I wrote something called Incrementalism and the New New Thing that got quite a bit of conversation flowing. While largely an observation about Valley dynamics and a malaise I feel about Web 2.0, the fact is that it’s a lot more complex than that.

Last night I was catching up on some reading and came across an article about about how Blu-ray isn’t getting much traction among consumers and why. This is something I’ve written about before here and here, my thesis is essentially that Blu-ray is a dead standard even though it is technically superior and furthermore that their recent victory against HD-DVD is pyrrhic in nature because what they have won is arguably not worth winning in the end.

Shame about the timing. New technologies often take a while to get established, and Blu-ray is fighting for acceptance at the very moment that cash-strapped consumers are pulling back. Meanwhile, Apple (AAPL), Netflix (NFLX), and Amazon.com (AMZN) are launching downloading and other services that could make Blu-ray obsolete before it has a chance to get traction. “We see Blu-ray’s window of opportunity closing very quickly,” says Jagdish Rebello, a director and principal analyst of iSuppli, a research firm. “The question is: Does Blu-ray really matter?

In a nutshell, Blu-ray isn’t flying off store shelves because consumers on the leading edge of the market, Blu-ray’s primary market, are already on to HD video on demand and downloads and the increased costs associated with not just the Blu-ray player but also the content itself makes converting the market to Blu-ray a tough rock to push. Even more troubling is that converting the market to Blu-ray is forecast to add only 1% of growth to the overall market, which means that while the margins are better what is happening is that consumers are expected to buy less.

Blu-ray won’t change the fortunes of entertainment companies because by the time it goes mainstream the price points will fall to where plain ‘ol DVD is today. Just replacing DVD with a better DVD is not enough and after finishing this BW article it occurred to me how this can be appropriately applied to the web 2.0 incrementalism theme.

Fred Wilson linked to my post and, to paraphrase, stated that big problems are solved one step at a time, a point which would be difficult to disagree with. This is the nature of the conflict I have about this subject, we all want big problems solved but place little confidence in small startups who proclaim to change the world in broad brush strokes so I’m willing to grant that incremental steps are necessary even if not obvious where they are going.

I want big problems solved not by proclamation but by actually enhancing the quality of my life, which at it’s core is the bargain we strike with technology companies: we are willing to put up with glitches and gaps but only to the degree that progress is demonstrable and to some tangible end.

I have rewritten this last paragraph a dozen times, which reflects my own turmoil about this topic but I keep thinking that as either investor or consumer would I bet on Blu-ray or would I put my lot in with iTunes? Should something like Mint be just as good as Quicken or should it go in a direction that Quicken never imagined?