Is Facebook the Database of Un-intentions?

Facebook logoJohn Battelle once called Google the ‘Database of Intentions’. What he meant with that was that Google tracks the search terms that people type into its search engine. It catches what they are looking for on the web. Their intentions in other words, hence the ‘Database of Intentions’. It is precisely for this reason that Google works well for advertisers. Searchers have the intent of searching for something. They express their search by keyword and advertisers can bid for these keywords. Thus, advertisers get highly specific traffic directed to their websites at a fair price.

Let’s have a look at Facebook by comparison. As reported by TechCrunch, FlowingData ran an interesting article a few days ago, which showed the sort of applications that are available to Facebook users. Applications are provided by 3rd party developers and Facebook allows them to operate these applications on their platform. In a sense, the type of these applications gives a very interesting insight into the intent of Facebook users. Most interestingly, the vast majority of applications are classified as ‘just for fun’, followed by gaming. Those familiar with Facebook will understand what ‘just for fun’ means. These are all the vampire kisses, hugs, pokes and so forth. I can assure than when you get ‘bitten by a vampire’, there is no serious intent involved.

Today, I read an article by Bob Gilbreath. Bob is a marketing executive who reported on his experience of using Facebook as an advertising platform. Bob’s conclusion is damning. His results for both CPM (cost per impression) and CPC (cost per click) are below industry average, both for targeted’ groups within Facebook and for Facebook as a whole. You can read the whole and well written analysis on his blog. To sum it up: advertising on Facebook in his experience was worse than on any other normal website. Facebook is less effective than the industry average. This impression seems to be mirrored by others whom he refers to, including Chris Anderson, Fred Wilson and Nick Denton.

Wow. Worse than average? How is that possible? Isn’t the theory that social networks are supposed to be highly specific and effective in terms of the kind of traffic that they can send to advertisers?

I still believe that to be true. So maybe this was a Facebook specific problem? Thinking about this, it suddenly hit me. Facebook is the place where people go without any specific intent in mind. This is shown clearly by the kind of ‘just for fun’ applications on facebbok. Facebook users simply go to fool around, ‘just for fun’. Thinking back to Google’s, as John Battelle expressed it, ‘Database of Intentions’, maybe Facebook is the opposite of Google. Maybe, Facebook is the Database of Un-intentions.

If this rationale holds water, then this must make Facebook’s traffic the opposite kind of traffic to Google’s traffic. Given that Google’s traffic is the most valuable of the web, this would make Facebook’s traffic the least valauable. This could explain why advertisers seem to get such a low return on their money at Facebook.
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Don’t compete with Google where it is strong

Many start-ups are trying to usurp Google, over 1,000 in fact. In my view, most of them are likely to fail, because they don’t really add that much value. Here is why I think that.

Google (and live.com and Yahoo! Search, and ask.com) all fundamentally answer the same question a user has: “Where can I find…” This is very important. With Google, you fundamentally ask the question of “show me the most relevant websites where I can find the following keywords”. The vast majority of search start-ups out there do the same thing, to answer where you can find information. They just try to do it better. Frankly speaking, this is a lost battle. In order to take any significant market share, you would have to do significantly better than Google. That is a very hard thing to do. So, why bother?

I think a much better way of looking at this space is not to address the where question, but a different one. For example: “How do I…” Here, the user doesn’t want to know where to find information on a keyword, but wants an answer to a specific question. For example how to file a tax return. There is one company in this space that is doing well, it is called Mahalo. Jason Calacanis at Mahalo seems sometimes amazed about how much traffic the ‘how to’ pages at Mahalo get. To me, this makes a lot of sense. Human editors are very good at processing slow-moving content where insight is required. ‘How to’ matches that very nicely. Even I started using Mahalo for ‘how to’ questions, it actually works quite well. Have a look at the compete stats to see how much traffic they get overall.

Mahalo

I think there are many other questions search engines can answer. For example, you could ask “How good is X”. For example, I am convinced a review aggregation search engine would do extremely well. I cannot remember how many times I have typed in the name of a product and ‘review’ just to get to all the crap sites out there that list where I can buy stuff, when all I want is to see all the reviews on a product, regardless of where they originate from. How hard can it be to aggregate reviews from some 1,000 leading sites and to display that on a central site with back-links to the original sites? Some start-ups like testseek reevoo or buzzillions are going in this direction, but I think they don’t go far enough.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention the “What is…?” question. That has been covered by Wikipedia. Very difficult to compete with that.

I am sure there are many other examples out there that can work. In my mind, when you try to build a new search engine, don’t ask yourself how you can make the where answer better, rather ask what other questions would be really valuable that Google cannot answer.

The best way to compete is to not compete. Particularly not with companies like Microsoft or Google.

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Improved AdSense Lowers Google’s Revenue

AdSenseThis is also a very cool story.

Google has improved its AdSense product. This has directly led to a huge drop in the number of clicks which has immediately impacted Google’s stock price negatively.

You really need to be a ‘good’ company to pull something like that off. I think in the long run, this kind of behaviour will benefit Google greatly. Better products will lead to a better relationship with customers. And that will lead to more money.

Compare this with my last post on ‘Windows Vista Capable’. The difference in the DNA of Google and Microsoft is really quite remarkable.

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