The Quest for Content 2.0

When your first – and most profitable – product is content agnostic, you can be forgiven for not thinking about content. Resources are rallied around the flagship, beefed up and a superstar is born. The superstar, over a period of time, meanders into the cash-cow category and the quest starts afresh for that Superstar 2.0. Quite the same seems to be happening out at Google. We are getting a bit ahead of ourselves though – let’s first tale a quick lowdown on the landscape

Eric Schmidt, ex CEO of Google speaking to Forbes named Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Google as the four horsemen in the tech leaders pack (he used the accounting firm Big 4 metaphor). I do not have the gall to challenge Schmidt (except that the world of tech is a funny one and while this true now and in the short term, the medium term could throw up surprises. And in world of high tech the only other thing more foolish in predicting the long term is actually believing it). So we go with Schmidt’s assessment and look at the four knights in their shining armor. Facebook is a platform company – its monolithic, multi-purpose, multi-tenanted social platform is its strength. It is hugely sticky, quickly scalable and does not have to bother about content because the users are filling that bit up in a frenzied pace. Apple has long ceased to be a technology or a software company. Many argue – and with merit – that Apple is a hardware company raking in big bucks from selling super elegant, easy to use, irrationally priced hardware. Peel that layer back and the effort at owning content is apparent. Apple has been at it for a while to create a good ecosystem that allows content creators connect with content consumers. Its Achilles heel however has been that it is as yet a distributor platform for the content – it does not quite own it (and neither have been very successful in binding mass content creators into economically sound contracts. The movie studios’ refusal to play ball with Jobs was one reason why Apple TV never quite took off). Turning to Amazon we find ecommerce being a dominant source of its current revenue yet a perceptible change towards content. It is signing book deals to beef up its ebook content (content that it owns and not merely distributes) and some of the 70% of enterprise value that Amazon has from ecommerce is around content that it has closer ownership of (like Kindle Direct Publishing platform). So where does that leave Google?

In a bit of a fix, I would argue. Google’s key strength has been taking truckloads of content – not its own – indexing them and creating smart algorithms that bubble up the most relevant when you are looking for something. Searching someone else’s content, that is. There is a whiff of change though at Google in terms of understanding the power of content. Google Finance was an early example where the firm applied software skills on publicly available content or content provided by data vendors. Google Public Data Explorer is another example of the same approach – take reams of content (mostly abundant content from the public domain) and add value to it by applying a smart software layer. An adjacent approach has been to embed content in form of ecommerce via the Andriod Marketplace as embodied by the recently launched (and tepidly received) music service. But will Google ever try monetizing these in a manner different from how it relies on search for monetizing?

That is a multi-million dollar question and I would bet on that happening in the following manner. Google will go after content acquisition in areas where content is becoming commoditized and hence less valuable to the current owners. Google’s super smart engineers will then bring their technology and engineering competences to bear and create insights out of data in a manner that data owners cannot. It will allow that holy grail of content insight – commingling proprietary data with public to glean specific and localized insights. The firm has already trained its guns on primary sources of public data (the World Bank, OECD and such) and I suspect that momentum will continue and encompass primary sources that monetize their content (exchanges, central banks). It will not surprise me if Google at some point in time seriously takes a look at acquiring a pure-play content company

Content was once king – it perhaps still is but in an indirect manner. Consumers are not willing to pay for vanilla content. The value exchange point has shifted to either gleaning out intelligence out of the content at scale or delivering the content at precise workflow points to consumers. The obituary of content has been a touch premature as was celebrating its status as King early. Content is important but not in the form it is produced – a different entity needs to breathe life, and ergo economic value, into it

Thanks Google

In my earlier post, I had ranted about the icons that go against feed identifiers in Google Reader (that wasn’t the only thing I ranted about but yes, they did look like 1990s). I was pleasantly surprised today morning that Google has started showing brand thumbnails against the feeds. That’s good.

Before: 1990s style icons












With Brand Icons


Lipstick on a Pig

Google was the pioneer of simplicity in UI. The company that made billions had a rather strange website – a big text box to accept your search string. It later went on to doodles, which became an instant hit. Simplicity was key, which was fine so long as someone was zealously guarding that cornerstone of design philosophy

Google’s approach to product development has been a mixture of organic and inorganic development. Google unleashed its engineering expertise in the form of Labs onto assets, extending their capabilities. In that process it succumbed to the “UI is too important to be left to engineers” syndrome. The Gmail user interface looked very different from Google docs (which had inconsistent UIs amongst its own components as some of them came via acquisitions) and Google Reader had a different look, feel and navigation. So it was natural that Google stepped into an area not exactly its strength – designing UIs to make them consistent. It dealt itself either a weak hand or set for itself a low bar by defining the coverage of consistency to imply just the look

Google users were slowly pushed these UI updates with the login page to a Google service being the first. Then other services took over. Notice the first inconsistency in this consistency drive – the login page has a big blue button while other services have red. Users ignored such glitches up until Google brought out the new-look “Reader” – a service that allows RSS aggregation and sharing

My Twitter timeline was a first warning that things did not go as planned for Google. After a quick check, I can understand why. The first rule of UI refresh is not to apply lipstick on a pig. The user interaction on Google Reader was always dated – one reason why services like Flipboard and Zite pretty much took up the reading experience leave Google with just the menial task of fetching. And Google passed up an opportunity to redo the design to not just make the service consistent with its brothers but also more modern and egg the reader to stay on by making reading easier. Instead, other than changes in fonts (oversized ones in the main column – Jesus Chirst!) the only other thing I see is a shroud of white all around. Improving user experience to induce more reading (or more +1’ing if Google was after that) was surely not a design objective

(click to see larger, clearer image)

And Google, for reasons they know best, chose to retain a list of keyboard shortcuts on the right panel, leaving the rest of the real estate – copious one – totally blank (adding to the already dominating whiteness of the page)

Ability to aggregate content from publishers that expose them via a common protocol was a tough problem to solve several years ago. No longer so, unfortunately. As Google bets big on its social gambit it has to understand somewhere that it is effortless usability much rather than astute engineering that greases the wheels of social interaction