Snapchat has added one of its biggest new features in recent memory with the addition of Context Cards, which will be reached through a swipe up on a Snap tied to a specific location. The Context Cards will offer various additional details about the place, and also provide links to ride sharing and restaurant booking services as well as information like address, reviews, and so on. This is yet another move by Snapchat beyond its original limitations, along with the addition a while back of outbound linking from Snaps. What both of those features offer is a way to add additional detail and context to a Snap beyond the limited photo/video formats Snapchat has supported natively. It’s also an interesting alternative to voice assistants, bots, and other ways to add context to what’s currently happening on screen without the user having to type text into a search box. The feature certainly lends itself well to monetization opportunities in future too, whether advertising or revenue sharing with the initial or additional partners. However, as with other Snapchat features, it doesn’t feel particularly tough for others to emulate if successful.
Also worth noting, briefly, is the fact that Evan Spiegel, who has rarely done press interviews, did not one but two as part of the launch of this feature, as a sort of follow-on to his recent comments that he realizes he needs to do more public communication now that Snap is a public company.
The two halves of this story have been bouncing around for a while now, but it seems they’re finally official. We’ve been hearing for some time about plans to end Google’s “First Click Free” policy, which gave newspapers the option of making their paywalls porous to search users or forgoing traffic from search, and its replacement is now being announced. It stops punishing publishers for not offering free access to articles, while giving publishers more granular control over how many free news items users of Google search get before they hit the paywall. At the same time, Google is talking (again) about plans to help news organizations drive subscriptions. As I’ve said repeatedly, both Facebook and Google are viewed with distrust by the news industry, but the former has at least been visibly acknowledging the tension and seeking to do something about it, while Google has been slower to act. It’s good to see it finally making changes now, although the subscription tools won’t debut until next year are are still not being spelled out in detail.
via New York Times
This is just a quick follow-up on yesterday’s item on Google’s second proposed remedy to the finding that its Shopping search feature violates the EU’s competition laws. Google has now begun rolling out the changes that were reported but not officially confirmed by the company, and the EU’s stance is still that it will have to wait and see how the changes pan out before it rules on whether the fix is acceptable. The separation and opening up of bidding to other companies certainly leaves the door open to similar remedies in the other cases pending at the European Commission as well as other areas it may choose to investigate, including Maps, News, and so on, which would create much more far-reaching effects for Google than this change alone. It’s going to be a tough few years for Google in Europe.
After its initial proposal to address the European Commission’s concerns over its Shopping search feature apparently failed to pass muster, it appears Google is now offering to separate its Shopping search business from its core search business in the EU, and force it to bid for ten slots above the regular search results alongside other comparison shopping services. The reporting here from Bloomberg makes it sound like Google might still get more formal approval of its proposal, despite the EU Competition Commissioner’s remarks to Bloomberg last week which suggested that it would have to play things by ear. This solution will certainly seem less fishy than the first proposal, which I said had significant issues, but it’s still not clear whether it will meet the approval of either the EU or Google’s competitors. Certainly, Google is now going to have to bid for slots it previously received for free, which will dramatically change the economics of the Shopping search in the EU. But as long as Google has exclusive rights to its past data about the results from those links in the past, it will continue to have something of an unfair advantage over competitors in knowing what to bid for them in future.
Apple has quietly switched the search back end for its Siri voice assistant and what used to be called Spotlight search to Google, after relying on Bing for several years. Bing will continue to provide the image search results in Siri, but is otherwise being replaced by Google. That’s a fascinating turn of events after several years of Apple removing Google from various elements of its built-in systems, from switching to its own maps to elimination the YouTube app to offering a variety of alternative default search providers in Safari, to this use of Bing behind the scenes. Although there’s obviously been some speculation that money was a factor here, and it may well have been, I suspect this ultimately comes down to wanting to provide the best possible experience in these various settings, and that means using Google. That’s ultimately the same reason that Apple hasn’t switched away from Google as the default search engine within Safari in Western markets – Google is the gold standard, and everything else still comes up short. I do wonder if this is part of a quiet renewal of the longstanding relationship between the two companies, which always prompts speculation about Apple replacing Google as the default. That certainly seems less likely now, as Apple in its brief public statement on this news has emphasized the need for consistency across experiences within iOS and macOS, suggesting that Google is here to stay as the default search option in Safari. That’s a big win for Google and a big loss for Microsoft, for which Apple’s partnership was a rare bright spot on mobile, while it continues to take decent share on the desktop by virtue of Windows’ dominance there.
This seems like a totally bizarre stance from the EU’s Competition Commissioner in response to Google’s proposed remedy to its alleged abuse of its dominant market position. Google is reported to have offered an auction to fill the Shopping slot it previously occupied exclusively, and Margrethe Vestager says her office won’t approve the remedy as such, but will wait to see whether it works in the market. That’s enormously unfair as an approach because it means Google could act in good faith, believing it’s proposed an adequate remedy, only to find out much later than it hasn’t and is subject to back-dated fines. Given that the European Commission found that Google violated its rules, it should surely also be the arbiter of whether the proposed remedy fixed things or not. And allowing the comparison shopping services that prompted the investigation in the first place to be the judges instead seems particularly unreasonable given that they have a vested interest in continuing to extract concessions from Google. I said when the proposed remedy was reported last week that I thought it unlikely to be sufficient, but to leave Google in legal limbo on this point just isn’t reasonable. It gives the impression that the EU has an axe to grind with Google and wants it to suffer rather than simply providing the legal clarity it should be entitled to.
A few weeks back, when Google filed its proposed response to the European Commission’s investigation into its Shopping feature, I suggested that there were only a few ways in which it might comply with the Commission’s requirements: “kill its Shopping product entirely in the EU; relegate it to either the organic or paid slots on a page rather than giving it the current prominent placement it enjoys; or create a broader “comparison shopping” section above the regular search results featuring both its own and competing services.” In the end, it sounds like what Google has proposed is a combination of those things – allowing other comparison shopping sites to bid to appear in the Shopping section where its own results currently appear exclusively, while placing an artificial cap on its own maximum bids to avoid dominating the results after the change.
The latter highlights the unlikelihood that the solution will be palatable to Google’s competitors or the EU – either it forces itself to sit out entirely from the bidding process, or it will regularly beat out competitors. Google knows better than anyone else what placement in that slot is currently worth, because it’s the only company that’s ever occupied it, and it therefore enjoys an unfair advantage. It could therefore set arbitrary caps in line with what it thinks those slots are worth, allowing competing companies to take the slots it doesn’t want to and reserving the best for itself. Either this has to be an open marketplace, in which case Google’s massive scale will likely allow it to beat out competitors for every slot it actually wants (as the WSJ points out it already does in many cases), or Google has to be excluded. This is where I go back to the solutions I proposed – either open up the Shopping slot in a similar fashion to Microsoft’s Windows browser choice options, or do away with the feature entirely. This proposed solution seems unlikely to pass muster with the EC.
Bing Adds Fact Check Summaries to News Search Results (Sep 18, 2017)
I saw this story first thing this morning and originally eliminated it as a candidate for inclusion on the site because it felt so marginal – it sometimes seems as though Google is the overwhelming leader in search and Bing such an also-ran that it doesn’t merit covering. But the reality is that Bing has somewhere over 20% market share in search in the US through a combination of apathy from users of Microsoft operating systems or browsers and active preference, so it’s not as marginal as it might seem, for all that Google gets massively more attention in this space. At any rate, the news is that Bing is adding a little fact checking feature to its news search results, but in a somewhat unsatisfactory way. Rather than flagging potentially false news itself, it will instead highlight the conclusions of fact checking articles from sites like Snopes when they happen to appear in search results. That’s a pretty tame and potentially not very helpful way to flag fake news, and I’d hope that Microsoft eventually goes a little further and puts links to fact-checking sites directly in the preview for dodgy news articles. Google’s version of the feature goes a little further but putting the fact check article at the top of the listings for at least some searches, and that seems like the right way to go here.
via The Verge
This article is a bit of an oddity – the Wall Street Journal reporting on the Wall Street Journal – but the news itself is important: Google is relaxing the policy that currently penalizes sites like the Journal which no longer allow Google searchers to view an article linked from search results for free. Since the Journal instituted that change, it’s seen traffic from Google (which in turn is likely a big chunk of total traffic) drop enormously, because sites that don’t participate in Google’s “first click free” program are penalized in search results. This is yet another sign of a softening at Google towards news organizations, which have been increasingly critical of its (and Facebook’s) power over them, though Google still seems to be months if not a year behind Facebook in coming around and making serious concessions.
Baidu Q2 Results Rebound Significantly From Recent Weakness (Jul 28, 2017)
Microsoft is adding some clever AI-powered image recognition, search, and automation features to the latest version of its Windows Photos app. It doesn’t sound like there’s anything here that will exceed the functionality of existing apps from Google or Apple, but just achieving parity would be a big step forward for Microsoft, which has always been bafflingly slow in addressing people’s needs to manage their photo libraries. Given how many people must store their photos on Windows computers, this is something Microsoft should have addressed long ago. Nokia was another company that always emphasized photography and yet never gave people a great way to manage the pictures they took on their phones, so the fact that Microsoft didn’t jump on the opportunity when it acquired the devices business from Nokia was another odd omission. At any rate, Microsoft now seems to be taking some of these advanced consumer features more seriously, as evidenced by the fantastic video creation tools in the forthcoming version of Windows, and these Photos changes are another positive move in this direction. This is low-hanging fruit as Microsoft looks to burnish its consumer and creativity credentials.
A study from Oxford University suggests that people who read news articles they find through search engines or social media have much poorer recall of the names of the publications than those who visit those sites directly. Those finding articles through search recalled the names correctly 37% of the time two days later, while those going through social channels recalled 47% correctly, compared with 81% for direct visitors. That’s entirely what I would expect anecdotally, but it’s still stark, and a good indicator of why news organizations seem so unhappy with the role of companies like Google and Facebook even though they seem little pacified by those companies’ efforts to better meet their needs. At root, this isn’t just a monetization or traffic problem but a fundamental disintermediation of the relationship between these publications and their audiences, which causes much lower brand recall and loyalty and removes much of the power to drive traffic from the publications themselves. That’s pretty much impossible to fix, and that’s a challenge both for news publishers and for the platforms, which would like to smooth things over with them but are relatively powerless to do so without big changes in the way they operate. However, the details of the study are well worth reading too – the differences aren’t consistent across publications, suggesting that at least some have broken through the challenges of aggregation and established distinctive enough brands for themselves to achieve recall anyway, so there is at least some hope. The whole article here is well worth a read.
Google announced its Jobs search vertical last month at its I/O developer conference, but it’s now actually launched the feature live for users (this is a good example of how launch announcements are often vague or completely silent on the point of timing, and it’s always worth checking that detail). The search feature works pretty much as you would imagine, for now at least merely aggregating search listings on existing big job search sites, though there’s no guarantee Google won’t eventually seek to disintermediate the legacy players and do more of the heavy lifting itself. After all, if users are already coming to Google for search results, why not encourage employers to list directly on Google over time? It’s also worth noting that Google has been reported to be working on a recruitment service for companies, for now decoupled from the Google search engine, but clearly a potential fit with it in time.
Alphabet was the third of the big three tech companies to report earnings today, and one of two (along with Amazon) which saw a very favorable response from the market to better than expected results. Its growth was strong once again off the back of ongoing positive ad revenue trends and a second straight quarter of strong growth in Other revenue in the Google segment, which includes its hardware sales. However, whereas Q4 saw something like $600-700 million in hardware sales, Q1 saw a much smaller bump from hardware – likely around $300 million. Other Bets revenue – mostly from Nest, Fiber, and Verily – continued to grow rapidly (47% year on year) though losses also grew. Google’s traffic acquisition costs continue to rise fairly rapidly due to the increased payments Google has to make for mobile search traffic acquisition (notably on the iPhone) – it rose from 8.5% of revenue from Google’s own sites to 10.4% in one year. Meanwhile, clicks or their equivalents on ads on Google’s own sites continue to rise rapidly, while the cost-per-click continues to fall due to the rise of mobile and video advertising. So far, the former is more than offsetting the latter, and there’s no indication just yet that there’s an end in sight. But Google’s own sites now contribute over 80% of total ad revenue, while third party websites running Google ads are down below 20% and the gap between the two continues to widen as Google continues to be far more successful driving growth on its own sites. That’s a reflection both of a deliberate strategy – Google’s margins on its own sites are much higher – but also of the broader trend away from traditional desktop display ads and towards mobile, search, and native advertising.
★ Google Makes Tweaks to Search to Combat Fake News (Apr 25, 2017)
Google Crushes Site Traffic By Scraping Content (Apr 18, 2017)
Google Forced to Unbundle Services from Android and Open to Search Competitors in Russia (Apr 17, 2017)
The EU is currently taking action against Google over what it sees as anticompetitive practices including bundling of its own services and blocking competing ones from being pre-installed in Android. As such, this Russian case takes on more importance than it might otherwise have, because it presents one possible outcome of the EU case, which is forcing Google to unbundle its own services from Android and allow competing search engines like Yandex to be pre-installed. That’s certainly a possibility in the EU case too, and would mirror the action taken years ago against Microsoft over browsers in Windows. If that were to happen, I’m skeptical many people (or OEMs) would choose alternative search engines on an Android phone, but it would potentially threaten Google’s Android business model, which is entirely about the apps and services it runs on the device (and the advertising they enable). For what it’s worth, as I wrote in this piece at the time the EU action was announced, I still think it’s misguided.
Google Turns Image Search into an E-Commerce Funnel (Apr 13, 2017)
Google’s search advertising business is increasingly under threat from other sites pre-empting Google searches with their own search functions in specific areas, among them Amazon in e-commerce and Pinterest in fashion and other categories. As such, Google recently beefed up its image search function to serve up related results from its Shopping feature, and now also shows related images which show fashion products in use alongside other clothing or accessories. All of this is algorithmically generated without human curation, and leans on Google’s AI and machine learning technology. Google is going to have to get better and better at serving up results in these various categories if it’s to fend off the threat from the specialists, but if starting elsewhere has already become a habit for some users, they’ll never even see these Google advances.
This is the second fake news-combatting announcement this week, after Facebook’s announcement about teaching users how to spot fake news yesterday. This is one of the broadest and most direct steps Google has taken in this area, and will specifically flag particular news articles or other sites with an additional link to a fact checking site such as Snopes or PolitiFact with a brief summary of who is making a claim and whether those sites consider it to be true. This is somewhat similar to Facebook’s effort to flag fake news, but the big difference is that it will be done algorithmically through special markup those sites will use, which will be picked by Google’s crawlers. That should mean that at least in some cases Google will flag something as false long before Facebook will, and I’d hope that Facebook would move to do something similar over time too.