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March 2007 Archives

March 2, 2007

Yahoo Singing News

I thought this was a joke when I first heard it a while ago. I'd been making wisecracks about Yahoo News doing a sock puppet version for a while and figured I was confusing myself with some kind of meme-echo. No, it seems like this is actually real:
Yahoo! is hoping a quirky take on the news will strike a chord as its next original programming effort.

The Web giant confirmed Wednesday that it will launch a new initiative before the end of this quarter that will feature a journalist-cum-crooner who will sing the news.
    -- Hollywood Reporter (via PaidContent)

I know a lot of folks over at Yahoo and they're great. I actually feel really bad every time I lob a rock at them. Plus they give me all kinds of grief over how negative I'm being. And what do I know, The Daily Show is the most watched news show for a certain age segment, so maybe with Youtube viral distribution and whatnot this singing news show will be some kind of real hit.

But on another level, it's just wrong. It's not "Yahoo News". The Daily Show isn't a brand extension from World News Tonight, it's over on Comedy Central where it belongs. Singing news isn't news, and singing news doesn't scale. It may be a great show, but making little musical productions come out of this company with such a proud heritage as a valley tech titan is almost too much for me to bear. Yahoo has truly lost its way and needs to fix it right now.

Serious Yahoo engineers -- quit before further damage is done to your resumes. I will hire you. Google will hire you. Someone will hire you. You will be happier in an org that values tech and scale and algorithms. Where your boss comes by and chides you for not having met with the patent attorney lately to try to file some stuff. Get out of there!

March 3, 2007

Hank's Career Advice

I had a couple of jobs in college. They were both computing related; one was in the data center as a user consultant. I was terrible at helping people, really awful, I would insult the users and tell them to look things up in the manual themselves so they'd remember it better, and wouldn't have to ask next time. But I needed the extra privs and quota on the VAX to write my game and I knew my stuff so they kept me around.

My other job was as a VAX sysadmin for a market research firm in Chicago. My boss there, Hank, was a witty guy and he gave me all sorts of startup advice that I still think back on to this day. I asked him how he became the owner of a little survey firm in Chicago and he said "bad career move." Heh.

One thing he said really stuck with me. He said that, even if I wanted to start my own company, I should first go work in a really big place, to learn how they do things. They'll teach you all the industry knowledge that you'll need later. He also said if I didn't work in a big place, I would never be able to comprehend how completely messed up on the inside they can be. And that knowledge would be useful if I was a little company trying to compete with big fish later on.

I didn't work for big fish for a just a little while, I spent about 15 years there. Commodore, AT&T's Unix System Labs, Sun Microsystems, and the whole Netscape-AOL-Time/Warner slow motion train wreck. Sun had 30k employees when I was there. Netscape was 2500 heads in 1998 but after the AOLTW merger there were over 200k employees company-wide. I think of my 4 years at AOL as my MBA. I did stuff outside of work too, I ran a commercial game on the side, released a lot of open source software, I had a T1 into my house in New Jersey and was running a little ISP hosting thing. But the corporate education was uniquely valuable.

For one thing you're exposed to the breadth of industry best, and worst, practices. You don't have time in a startup to stop and take an internal 2-day Managing Within the Law class. That kind of training is routine for new managers at big places though. What does ISO 9001 accreditation involve, what kinds of terms are standard in an SLA, how do you deal with vendors, how are deals done, why is the QA manager always so pissed off. Good things to know. :-) Plus the opportunity to work with a large number of people and form contacts that can be useful later.

You need to spend time in the belly of one of these whales to develop an understanding of how big companies "think". Beyond little cliches of wisdom, it's a more general kind of knowledge that lets you empathize with and predict the way big companies behave. Groups of people have emergent behavior separate from any of the individuals. You have to be able to understand the drives and patterns of how this emergent group "thinks" to understand its actions.

VCs need to be especially vigilant, if they haven't logged time inside a product org. They get a vast store of knowledge and wisdom from having a great vantage point to see so many deals and follow so many business, from start to whatever end they come to. But if you haven't spent time trying to turn gears in the belly of the beast, it can be like trying to coach without ever having played the game.

Sometimes we see job candidates come in, bizdev, sales, programmers, across the board, who have never worked in a really big place, and you can tell. Of course if they're good we want to pitch them to work here and figure we can train them and they'll learn, but a lot of times what they really need to do is go soak in a big place for a while to develop their game.

So if you're starting your career, make sure you spend some time in a top quality bigco. Pick one where your profession is front and center. If you're a programmer don't do it at a company that isn't about software tech. That means don't be in the back office at a trading firm in NY. Other guys are the stars there. Get yourself to the mecca of your industry, wherever that is, and get hired by a biggie. Don't be a consultant. You don't learn to live inside an org on an hourly clock. You need skin in the game. (If you're still in college, don't wait tables or deliver pizzas. Get a job related to your career.) Soak it up and then you can move up, or move on. :-)

March 4, 2007

Random AOL user search tool

I had been using the dontdelete site to search the AOL user search data which was released last August. AOL's release of this data generated a storm of controversy, which lead to a bunch of staff resignations for the folks involved over there. Still, their idea that this data is a really valuable research tool for the world was correct, and folks at the big shops like AOL, MSN, ASK, and Google all have quality data like this to work with. The rest of us didn't, but now we do. Thanks AOL guys. You took one on the chin for us and we are grateful!

Unfortunately the dontdelete tool doesn't seem to work anymore. Smells like someone loaded it into mysql and the database isn't running anymore or something. So I hacked up a quick little replacement for the purpose I was using it it for, browsing a random user session. I based this on my joke code, so it would be fast. It's fast! 2-3ms to return a random session from the 577,663 available.

Why is this useful... When you get past the voyeuristic fun, I've found that it's actually really hard to think up representative random searches to try out search engines to see how they do. I've never been very good at this; someone sends me to a new search engine, and I type 'skrenta', and then I go blank. Mike typed 'britney spears' when I showed him AskX. The problem is that 'britney spears' has been hand-optimized at Yahoo, Google, MSN and ASK, because there are guys just like us working at all of those companies. It's supposedly a popular query category, it's obviously monetizable, and it's easy to license the AMG or Muze data and make them better. But I have this nagging suspicion that 'skrenta' and 'britney spears' aren't serving me very well to take effective soundings of a new engine's quality.

Hence my random search tool. Real users type such gonzo stuff into the search box. You can't make this stuff up, which is the point. I included fresh-window links to a basket of other SE's, so you can see how the query does on different engines.

My all-time favorite so far: [will anastasia hurt my pregnancy]

Easy for a human to correct! You know what she means ("anesthesia", i.e. what are the risks of pain meds during pregnancy, getting an epidural, etc.) But no search engine can do that phonetic correction yet based on the greater context of the sentence. Maybe Powerset is working on stuff like this.

Give it a try here:

Skrenta's random AOL user search tool

March 7, 2007

Getting Stuff Done: Activation and Method

"Today I'm gonna show you how to drive a sports car. First, you need a lot of money!"
I'm a sucker for cheeseball motivational platitudes. I caught the bug a long time ago watching late nite TV when a commercial for Tom Vu came on. "I came to this country with nothing. Now look, I have all this!" He was standing in front of a rolls-royce parked in front of a mansion with a bunch of women in bikinis.

What amazed me about his commercial was that the appeals were general inducements to do something, anything. They weren't specific to attending his seminar. It was like 90% of the commercial was designed simply to make the viewer want to do something, and to raise the viewer's energy level. At the end it told you to go to his free seminar to find out more.

Unfortunately, in Tom Vu's case, the method was a scheme to acquire and flip distressed real estate. But that wasn't what interested me. Sure, there are a lot of schemes to try to make money. Going to a Tom Vu real estate seminar was a pretty sketchy way to go about that. But it is true that, for whatever you want to do, you have to want to get started before the method even becomes an issue.

Related: Black Hat SEO's Do it fucking now.

March 8, 2007

Blake's Blackberry Boredom tools

Blake told me he was using my aol random user query from his Blackberry while he was out somewhere waiting for his wife or something, since he found the queries interesting/amusing. But the page was too heavy to really work well on a blackberry because of all the links in the table I had to try the queries on various search engines.

So I've made two stripped-down anti-boredom tools for Blake. One is a lightweight version of the aol random user session tool. The other one is joke. Warning: since the jokes are from the 70's CMU tops-a joke file, there are many offensive ones. Ones that used to be offensive but have gotten even worse given the progress of time. Do not view these jokes if you can be offended by written material in any way.


March 9, 2007

Freebase: one to watch

Holy smokes, this is cool. A new startup called Freebase, founded by computing gods, is taking on web search, with a Google Base-like database, but built with an open, ODP-like model.

A new company founded by a longtime technologist is setting out to create a vast public database intended to be read by computers rather than people, paving the way for a more automated Internet in which machines will routinely share information.

Mr. Hillis first described his idea for creating a knowledge web he called Aristotle in a paper in 2000. But he said he did not try to build the system until he had recruited two technical experts as co-founders. Robert Cook, an expert in parallel computing and database design, is Metaweb.s executive vice president for product development. John Giannandrea, formerly chief technologist at Tellme Networks and chief technologist of the Web browser group at Netscape/AOL, is the company.s chief technology officer.
    -- Start-Up Aims for Database to Automate Web Searching, by John Markoff.

Danny Hillis is a computing legend, having founded a company to produce the Connection Machine, one of the first massively parallel computers and a very slick piece of work. John Giannandrea ("jg") was a Netscape founder, and recently CTO of Tellme, which built a massive voice-recognizing telco application. He runs a tier-1 colocation business as a side hobby to his day jobs. Not just vision here but deep technical implementation experience.

And lest you be deceived by the academic aura:

Based in San Francisco, Metaweb Technologies, Inc. was spun out of Applied Minds, Inc. in July, 2005 to build a better infrastructure for the Web. Metaweb was founded by Danny Hillis and funded by Benchmark Capital, Millennium Technology Ventures, Omidyar Network and other prominent investors. It is led by battle-hardened alumni of Netscape, The Internet Archive, Alexa, Tellme, Intel and Broderbund.

How long has Danny been around? He's even in the joke file, with a koan about marvin minsky:

In the days when Sussman was a novice Minsky once came to him as he sat
hacking at the PDP-6. "What are you doing?", asked Minsky.
  "I am training a randomly wired neural net to play Tic-Tac-Toe."
  "Why is the net wired randomly?", asked Minsky?
  "I do not want it to have any preconceptions of how to play."
  Minsky shut his eyes,
  "Why do you close your eyes?", Sussman asked his teacher.
  "So that the room will be empty."
At that moment, Sussman was enlightened.
      -- Danny Hillis

These guys are the stuff, I would watch very closely. :-)

Nifty OJR unconference March 30

Robert Niles of USC's Online Journalism Review sent me a ping about the unconference they'll be hosting later this month:

Last month, I posted a note to OJR.org's discussion board inspired by your blog post on the WeMedia conference: http://www.ojr.org/ojr/discussion/55/

Since you were so forceful in your comments, I thought you might be interested in hearing about a conference that OJR is hosting later this month: http://www.ojr.org/ojr/conference/

Our theme is "An Introduction to Entrepreneurial Journalism Online." The event does not feature traditional panels, but is run in a discussion-driven Unconference/BloggerCon-type format. And we're not interested in academic, theoretical discussions led by people who have never produced a successful website. Our focus is practical, with people who are actually making independent online media work talking with those who want to do the same.

I hope that you might consider joining us, or perhaps spreading the word about the event.

Thank you,

Robert Niles
Editor, USC Annenberg Online Journalism Review

I've always been a huge fan of OJR, and this looks like a fun crowd to spend a Friday in LA with. I'll be there. :-)

March 12, 2007

Being a programmer in NY

If you are in Boston, Austin, Raleigh-Durham, Silicon Valley, or Seattle, as a programmer you have a lot of choices of where to work. In New York, the choices are investment banks, some hospitals, advertising agencies -- but not technology companies. There are very, very few technology companies in New York.

But New York is still the largest city in America, and there are an awful lot of programmers who are stuck in New York because their wife is going to medical school, or their family is there, or they just love the city, or they want to do improv theater and this is the best place to do it -- millions of reason why a programmer might find themselves in New York. Every programmer wants to work at a product company because it is so much better than working as a slave in an investment bank. And there were none in New York.

We would go to parties, and we'd find geeks, and they'd say, "Do you know of any software product companies in New York where I can work?" And we would say, "Ge, no. I can't really think of any." This is what programmers would talk to each other abut: how can I get out of the investment bank in New York? So part of our model was, "Let's create a fun place for us to work, since we are stuck in New York City. Create a software company specifically in New York City."
    -- Joel Spolsky, Founders at Work

I worked as a programmer in NJ in the early 90's, for a spinoff of AT&T. They were doing heavy software development on Unix. There were high paying jobs with big cash bonuses in NYC, but they were in trading firms and investment banks and stuff like that. It's really different being a product company, where the technology IP is front and center, vs. being part of the back office or operations staff of a firm that makes its way doing stuff other than product development.

When I came out to the sfbay to visit a friend I was blown away by all the logos we passed driving down the road. Company after company that I'd heard of, all lined up. I thought, this is great, even if one of these places goes out of business, I can get a job across the street. So I moved.

Founders at Work, as others have mentioned, is really a great read. Highly recommended if you're interested in reading war stories from the early days of a wide range of startups.

March 13, 2007


I'm in the Wall Street Journal today, with a story about our purchase of Topix.com for $1M and the SEO issues related to moving the domain.

The story has caused a bit of blog buzz, given the quoted price for the domain and the open acknowledgement of the SEO concern for us. Predictably, the two responses are:

- Isn't that a lot of money to spend for a domain?
- Should you really be so dependent on SEO for traffic?

Back in 2003 when we were looking for a name, we came across Topix.net. The name 'topix' really fit what we were trying to do, it was a heck of a lot better than the other names we'd come up with. It turned out we could buy the name from a South Korean squatter for $800. So we took it.

Of course I knew we were breaking one of the rules of domain names, which is never get anything besides the .com. But I thought that advice might be outmoded. In the early days of the Netscape browser, if you typed a word into the URL bar, the browser would automatically append ".com" onto it if it wasn't already a domain. But the browser doesn't do that anymore.

Since those early day, there have also been a flurry of alternate top level domains released. .tv, .info, .fm, all of the country domains, and so forth. Surely, the advice that you had to have a .com wasn't as relevant anymore?

Well, we got our answer when our very first press story came out. This was in March 2004 when we got a front page business section launch story in the Mercury News. They gave us sweet coverage since we were the only startup to come out of palo alto in months (this was just as the dot-com crash was beginning to thaw). Unfortunately, while the article clearly spelled "Topix.net", the caption under our photo -- the most visible part of the story after the headline -- called us Topix.com. Someone had transcribed the name and mistakenly changed the .net to .com, out of habit, I suppose.

Since that time we've built up quite a bit of usage, and much of it return visitors who have bookmarked one of our pages, or become active in our local forums. But still, we continued to have issues where someone will assume a .com ending for the name. Mail gets sent to the wrong address, links to us are wrong, stories incorrectly mention our URL.

Beyond that, as part of some frank self-evaluations we were doing around our site and how we could make it better, and the brand stronger, we ran some user surveys and focus groups. "What do you think of the name?" was one of the questions we asked. The news was good & bad; people actually really liked the name 'topix', but the '.net' was a serious turn-off. It confused users, it made the name seem technical rather than friendly, and it communicated to the world that "we didn't own our own name."

So our choice was to 1) live with it, 2) move to a completely new name, or 3) try to go buy the .com. We'd talked to the owners of Topix.com since day 1 of our existence. They were a successful Canadian business, they were actively using the name for their business, and didn't really need to sell. In essence, the negotiations to buy the domains, while recently completed, actually took over three years.

So I brought up the question with our board. This is going to be expensive, should we look into it? They were very supportive. Their take was, if we were going to invest in our brand, and in having a better connection with our users, as opposed to remaining a geek-tool or just getting SEO traffic, that we'd want to make sure the brand was top-tier.

While the cost seemed expensive, in the context of the dollars behind our partial acquisition and funding -- $64M -- it wasn't really that large. Furthermore, unlike other marketing spends which tend to be a quick shot of attention which dissipates, this would be an asset which we'd own forever. Names are critically important on the net, and if we were ever to hope for having a mass audience, it made sense to at least own our own name.

So we decided to fix this issue once and for all, and we got the name.

What about SEO?

Now to the second question... How dependent should we be on SEO?

Contrary to what Danny Sullivan says, we have never thought of ourselves as primarily a news search engine, but rather in the mission of aggregating audience around localities. We have over 50 feeds of professional content available on our site (full text articles that we have the rights to display), including content from Reuters, the AP, and Tribune. Furthermore, an increasing fraction of our content and traffic is occurring in our local community forums. This is content 100% unique to Topix and is a very sticky service for us with our users.

But we do rely on SEO for what we think of as new user trials. Our goal is not to rely on this traffic, but rather to get as much adoption as possible. The fraction of "trials" that we convert to "return users" is our purest guide to how well the site is delivering value to our visitors, and the goal for all of our product initiatives is to increase this fraction.

To say that a content site should not rely on search engine traffic -- most of which comes from Google -- is naive. The web is 10 billion pages now, with a single point of entry. That's the web the way works. If you want to have a web business, you have to acknowledge this reality.

Sites such as Wikipedia, Answers.com, About.com and TripAdvisor receive massive amounts of traffic from search engines. I would think that 50% would be a low guess. About, Answers.com and TripAdvisor are big businesses, and they would be completely clobbered if users stopped being able to find them from Google. This is not unusual; it is the norm. Barry Diller talked about the importance of SEO to his sites in his keynote at a recent conference.

Sometimes retailers get hosed because the city decides to re-pave the street their business is on. The street is infrastructure. Like it or not, Google is infrastructure on the net now. They're the source of all the foot traffic. The three words in retail are "location, location, location." The three words online are "search engine optimiziation." It means the same thing.

The good news is that, as we sign more and more users up into our community system, Topix should become less reliant on external traffic. But it's never going to be the case that we're not going to want our content to be findable by someone looking for it, from the place everyone starts -- Google.


March 14, 2007

Don Dodge on YouTube...and "Linden's Curse"

Most of you know I was a VP at Napster back in 2000 when the RIAA was suing us. I learned a lot about "fair use", DMCA safe harbors, take down notice rules, and the enormous penalties for copyright infringment. These laws are tough and there is no wiggle room.

Forget all the rationalizations about how YouTube really helps promote the content and Google is providing a great service to help users find it. The courts will hear none of it. What matters is the law and the facts...and they don't look good for Google.

Google should have taken my advice and just done an exclusive advertising deal with YouTube. Google is all about advertising. They didn't need to acquire YouTube to accomplish their advertising objective.
    -- Don Dodge, "I told you so"

I actually went through this movie myself at AOL Music. My team was running Netscape Search when my boss said Steve Case didn't think search was interesting and if I wanted a career at Netscape I should lead this "Tiger Team" to deliver a subscription music service for AOL by xmas 2000. This was in June or something so there were only 6 months to build everything. My first question was "What about the rights to the music?" I was told, "Don't worry about the rights. We'll get the rights. Just build it."

So we built it, but it never shipped. No rights. We even built 2.0. It was great. It went out to an AOL user beta audience, but it never shipped either. We couldn't even get the rights to Warner's catalog, which post-AOLTW merger was part of our own company. I went to New York and LA as part of big negotiating teams and got to meet with music executives. Ron Grant lead one of these teams, he was great, really impressive. But we never got the rights.

Alongside this internal corporate drama I'm reading in the press about Napster getting nuked from space, how it's so bad that the Hummer-Winblad VCs who touched it are going to be personally sued. Ye gods. Rich's take-away: music biz sucks! No fun there.

Don's words ring true.

See also what I'm going to start referring to as "Linden's Curse": YouTube is not Googly

March 15, 2007

Ries, Reeves and the USP

Miller has paid an enormous price for its countless line extensions over the years. Miller could have been the number one brand of beer in the U.S.

Miller Lite was the first light beer in the mind. But instead of giving its new light beer a powerful new brand name, Miller Brewing chose a terrible generic name, Lite.

To compound the error, the verbal confusion between 'Lite' and 'light' forced the company to rebrand its new light beer Miller Lite.

Who hands a bartender their order written on a napkin? Verbally, Lite and light are indistinguishable. Tragic.

There's another problem, too. When you saddle a beer with a diet word like light, you undermine its manliness. Miller made multiple mistakes all at once and it has cost them dearly.

    -- Laura Ries, Warning: Massive line extension can kill you

I've loved the Ries branding ideas since reading The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding several years ago. Al Ries invented product positioning, which goes hand-in-glove with the concept of the USP -- the Unique Selling Proposition -- that Rosser Reeves pushed. I've been reading the original Reeves "Reality in Advertising" from 1960 (sparked by a comment here) and his points about the USP and penetration in advertising totally agree with the Ries "own a word in the mind of the customer" rules on branding. Between Reeves and Ries you take away rules like trying to push two or more features in a production position will lead to disaster. You can have a successful product with a main feature you're communicating, but then add another benefit to your messaging, and end up communicating neither credibly, and muddling your brand image in the process and losing share. USPs fell out of favor after Reeves but the case studies they present all ring true to me. Time to bring back the USP.

March 16, 2007

Skrenta on Naming

Would Google have been as successful if it had been called BackRub?

Before 'Google', that's what Larry's project was called. And yes, that's Larry's hand.

Even in 1997, names were tough. I've been registering names since 1991 and it has always seemed hard to pick a good name for a new service. Larry wanted to register 'Googol.com' but it was taken, so he took the misspelling. This was fortunate, since 'Google' is friendlier, and the misspelling makes for a stronger brand.

Google was a great service, positioned ideally to focus on quality despite an initially smaller index, against existing dominant services which were being poorly tended by their owners. And the name was great!

But what if Larry had left the original name, and called it BackRub? BackRub, despite the geek reference to link analysis, is icky, suggesting an intimacy with the product that most consumers probably wouldn't want to have. Would the takeoff rate have been as high?

* * *

The most vivid 'unfortunate name' example I can think of is Yggdrasil Linux. Yggdrasil was the first Linux distribution on CD-ROM, put out by then-college student Adam Richter. This was back in the early 90's, when if you wanted to run something Unix-like on commodity 386 boxes, your choices were UnixWare or BSDI for thousands of dollars. Yggdrasil was $30, and Adam was getting tons of mail with checks enclosed in his dorm room. A flurry of positive press followed his launch.

It was way-early for Linux, but to be the first distro -- to have the chance at being the official one, starting years before Red Hat and everyone else... Yowsa that would have been cool. But the name! Ouch. No one could remember it, speak it, or spell it. "Wtf?" "It's supposed to be the Norse tree of life... Unix source tree... Get it?"

It's not fair to beat up on Adam, I was around then and I wasn't starting a Linux distro, so he gets points for actually launching the thing. And his successors ("Slackware") didn't do much better with their names. But that's what makes it tragic. The choice of the name could have been all the difference between launching something that would grow into the next enterprise OS provider, or not getting any traction.

* * *

When we launched GnuHoo.com in 1998, we figured it would be a success if we got 1,000 editors to eventually sign up. We had 1,000 editor signups in the first three weeks, with little promotion. GnuHoo was a great name. It had the entire business concept in six letters -- open source yahoo. It rhymed. It was short. Our users loved it.

The only problems were the 'Gnu' and the 'Hoo'. First the cease & desist came from the Free Software Foundation. We changed it to NewHoo. That was a great name too. Then the cease & desist came from Yahoo. We were in the midst of selling the project to Netscape, and they didn't care about our fledgling brand, so that wasn't an issue, and once the sale was complete we renamed the project.

Which contributed greatly to a fade into obscurity. It was variously called "directory.mozilla.org", "dmoz.org" (after mozilla said they didn't want to have anything to do with us, they were just about browsers), "Netscape Open Directory", the "Open Directory Project", and the ODP or just DMOZ. We built the largest directory of the web, with 6M hand-edited sites, the thing was 4X bigger than Yahoo's directory, the data was used (and still is today) by all the major search engines. But we were like ADM. "We're in everything you eat!" But the weak and fuzzy naming really killed public awareness.

Another great thing about "NewHoo" was that it repositioned Yahoo by its very existinence: "New Yahoo". In other words, Yahoo's directory is all rotted to hell and uses an old model, come over to this new, better way to do the same thing. Of course Yahoo had to kill the name. But if you can reposition a competitor with the very introduction of your name/tagline/USP, well that's the triple word score.

* * *

Skrenta's Name Rules

  • .com must be free. :-|
  • Don't base on common words, or combos made out of common words. 'Topix' actually fails this test, since 'topics' is too common. 'Yahoo' is a word, but a rare one. 'Excite' was too common a word to work as a strong brand. 'Live' is a terrible name because it is way too common.
  • Creative misspelling turns it into a stronger brand and trademark (Googol -> Google, Flicker -> Flickr).
  • Look out for phonetic->spelling ambiguities. Too many can be a red flag. If there are just a few, see if you can stake out all the misspellings yourself, so you can install redirects. Flickr needs Flicker to redirect the type-in traffic. For "NewHoo" we had domain squatters taking "nuhoo", "nuhu", "noohoo", etc. Not critical but will save you annoyance later.
  • Try to state the USP of your product in the name. Base the name on the benefit to the user, not its features.
  • Try to look for something with an emotional connection instead of just riff on the a mechanical description of the product. Hit the Wikipedia 'random page' button to get name ideas rather than the thesaurus.
  • Think about whether your name aspires to be a verb or a place. Google and Zillow are verbs, Myspace is a place. Make sure your name works for its goal.
  • If the name has good sonorous aspects, like alliteration, consonance, assonance, etc. that is plus. They will help people to remember your name, and like it better. StubHub, FogDog, YouTube.
And finally...if you can't think of a name, and you have the resources (say in a funded startup), I would absolutely spend the bucks and hire a good naming/branding firm like A Hundred Monkeys (disclosure: we've worked with the hundred monkeys at topix, they were great.) They're going to come up with a better name than the ones you've thought up. It will be worth it in the long run. Naming fees are cheap compared to the total investment in your product, to your engineering budget, to your marketing budget, and a good name can be a strong wind at your back. The name is the cornerstone of both your product and your marketing. Get a good one!

* * *

The Name Inspector has a great blog that focuses on tech startup naming. Would love to see him analyze the search engines that got big -- Lycos, InfoSeek, AltaVista, Excite, Yahoo, Google ... maybe even LookSmart. :-)

March 20, 2007

Ranting like a madman

So I go to lunch with a friend, and I'm giving him a dump of some of my current thinking in an area. I talk for like an hour and a half. He talks too, but I talk a lot, and really fast, but it's good stuff, and he seems convinced and is tracking it. But all the while, some small sub-part of my brain that is listening to myself speak is thinking to itself that I sound like a bloody madman. I ask the dude what he thinks of my rant-arc but he seems impressed by the material. So I go back to the office and tell Bob that story. Bob knows my rants. "So do I sound like a madman?" He thinks for a moment, and there's a pause, and some kind of fleeting expression, and then he responds, "Well, no..." :-)

March 21, 2007

'I am my own grandfather' and AT&T

Does anyone else see all the new AT&T advertising and get creeped out? It was bad enough that AT&T wasn't even AT&T anymore after the breakup. Everyone knew old ma bell, the phone company, the one from the old SNL skit. Ma bell used to make solid phones that never broke. Not the pieces of junk in stores with the AT&T logo on them now.

But then AT&T went away. It was sad, they were such a cool brand, with their deathstar logo, even with all the scar tissue like NCR it still commanded power and respect. They invented the transistor and Unix and stuff after all. Gone.

But now they're back from the dead, reanimated by some 1/7th offspring that ate some of its siblings, and now its parent. I need a better story to welcome this monkey's paw walking frankenstein brand corpse back into my house. Something better than the billboard on 101 that tells me they're "reinventing television". Huh? Didn't I used to pay some cable bill that said AT&T on it? That must be what they mean.

(I've stolen the idea of this headline and Mark Twain quote below from some other blog, but I can't find it now to quote/link. Sorry. The other parts of the brand rant are all mine though. :-)

I married a widow with a grown daughter. My father fell in love with my step-daughter and married her, thus becoming my son-in-law, and my step-daughter became my mother because she was my father's wife. My wife gave birth to a son, who was of course my father's brother in law, and also my uncle for he was the brother of my step-mother. My father's wife became the mother of a son, who was, of course, my brother, and also my grandchild for he was the son of my daughter. Accordingly, my wife was my grandmother because she was my mother's mother-I was my wife's husband and grandchild at the same time- and as the husband of a person's grandmother is his grandfather- I AM MY OWN GRANDFATHER!
      -- Mark Twain.

March 24, 2007

Inevitable gunk creep

The whole reason I come to this page is to avoid the las vegas neon of the front page. It used to be the clean, google-like search box only page. But pieces of the homepage keep accruing here too. Not so clean anymore.

And that banner at the top telling me to upgrade to IE7 (which I've explicitly disallowed in Windows Update) actually crawls down the screen from the top with an annoying animation effect.

I made the mistake of letting Windows Update give me IE7 on one of my machines. I had firefox installed everywhere, but that was the straw that pushed me over to using firefox by default. IE7 is going to do wonders for Firefox adoption.

March 26, 2007

How to beat Google, part 1

Our entire industry is scared witless by Google's dominance in search and advertising. Microsoft and Yahoo have been unsuccessful at staunching the bleeding of their search market share. VCs parrot the Google PR FUD machine that you need giant datacenters next to hydroelectric dams to compete. They spout nonsense about how startups should just use Alexa's crawl and put some ajax on top of it. Ye gods.

Grow a spine people! You have a giant growing market with just one dominant competitor, not even any real #2. You're going to do clean-tech energy saving software to shut off lightbulbs in high-rises instead? Pfft. Get a stick and try to knock G's crown off.

So here are my tips to get started. These are all about competing with Google's search engine. Of course G is big business now and does a lot of different things. Their advertising business is particularly strong, and exhibits some eBay-like network effects that substantially enhance its defensibility. Still, even if you're going to take that on too, you have to start with a strong base of search driven traffic.

  1. A conventional attack against Google's search product will fail. They are unassailable in their core domain. If you merely duplicate Google's search engine, you will have nothing. A copy of their product with your brand has no pull against the original product with their brand.

  2. Duplicating Google's engine is uninteresting anyway. The design and approach were begun a decade ago. You can do better now.

  3. You need both a great product and a strong new brand. Both are hard problems. The lack of either dooms the effort. "Strong new brand" specifically excludes "search.you.com". The branding and positioning are half the battle.

  4. You need to position your product to sub-segment the market and carve out a new niche. Or better, define an entirely new category. See Ries on how to launch a new brand into a market owned by a competitor. If it can be done in Ketchup or Shampoo, it can be done in search.

  5. Forget interface innovation. The editorial value of search is in the index, not the interface. That's why google's minimalist interface is so appealing. Interface features only get in the way.

  6. Forget about asking users to do anything besides typing two words into a box.

  7. Users do not click on clusters, or tags, or categories, or directory tabs, or pulldowns. Ever. Extra work from users is going the wrong way. You want to figure out how the user can do even less work.

  8. Your results need to be in a single column. UI successes like Google and blogging have shown that we don't want multiple columns. Distractions from the middle with junk on the sides corrupt your thinking and drive users away.

  9. Your product must look different than Google in some way that is deliberately incompatible with their UI, for two reasons. One, if you look the same as them, consumers can't tell how you're different, and then you won't pull any users over. Two, if your results are shown in the same form as Google's, they will simply copy whatever innovations you introduce. You need to do something they can't copy, not because they're not technically capable of doing so, but because of the constraints of their legacy interface on Google.com.

  10. Your core team will be 2-3 people, not 20. You cannot build something new and different with a big team. Big teams are only capable of duplicating existing technology. The sum of 20 sets of vision is mud.

  11. Search is more about systems software than algorithms or relevance tricks. That's why Google has all those OS programmers. You need a strong platform to win, you can't just cobble it together as you go like other big web apps.

  12. Do not fear Google's vast CapEx. You should wish maintenance of that monster on your worst enemies. Resource constraints are healthy for innovation. You're building something new and different anyway.

March 27, 2007

Adding people makes all software better

Tolles pointed out yesterday, that in spite of my apparent obsession with google's pure algorithmic approach to organizing the world's information, that all of my personally successful projects have involved a strong social aspect to the software:

first micro virus - arguably social software :)
monster - first user-designable MUD
usenet newsreader - usenet was a huge early net.community
DMOZ - massive community success to build a web directory
Topix - huge uptake in the local community over the past year

Greg Sterling even sagely commented on my how-to-beat-google list that "A distributed editorial staff is in there somewhere."

It does seem that, no matter what you're trying to build, adding people into the mix seems to make the software better. Software is cold and shallow, people humanize it, and the public can provide wonderful extensibility and depth to a system that your cube-bound programming staff would never be able to match. Fred Wilson had the seminal post on this with his "All software should be social."

The only caveat I would add is that it's often much harder than it looks to scale the social architecture. You can get early usage takeoff quickly by throwing the doors on your system open and letting people in. But regulating quality, rejecting spam, and keeping out the various bad actors who inevitably show up once a system gains audience is essential for a service to grow beyond its initial early adopters and have a shot at a mass audience. It's pretty common for social services with early promise to crap out after they attract enough traffic to be worthy of spamming and to draw the trolls. If quality falls while the user base grows, the size of the community served becomes self-limiting.

This is why all of the successful social sites have back rooms full of reviewers, scanning every uploaded photo, reading every user flagged post, trying kill-list keyword searches against their own services to look for bad stuff. It's why Craig Newmark describes himself as a "customer support representative" at Craigslist.

People on the outside require more people on the inside. :-)

March 28, 2007

Re: How to beat Google

It's got to be a slow news day at ZDnet if apparent inconsistenencies in my blog posts over the past 4 months are news. :-)

Credit to Donna for actually noticing and calling me on it though. But to try to clear things up a bit:

Many interpreted my winner-take-all post from January to mean that I thought startups shouldn't attempt to compete against Google. Not at all. In fact, I think startups are the only chance against Google. You need some kind of disruptive or market-changing innovation to succeed, since Google is just so damn good. For a variety of reasons, I think it's really hard for big companies to do that kind of work internally.

The comments on how to beat google have been really interesting. In particular this livesearch.alltheweb.com thing is kinda nifty. I guess it doesn't look like a Google killer to me, but I like it anyway.

Also the folks on Threadwatch reminded me about the raffle model. Iwon.com used this and acquired quite a bit of traffic quickly. Basically you run a lottery and give a million bucks or something to a random user of your search engine every day. Now Iwon was icky and no one in the search industry likes to think like a sweepstakes marketer, but the idea does have some pull.

Think about it this way. Google collects billions of dollars from advertisers. They fund a lot of non-search stuff over there. Where else could that money go? How about a loyalty rebate program back to users? Marketers have proposed various attention-buying schemes over the years. That's essentially what your Safeway or Harrah's card is. It's paying you money in return for your behavioral data, and permission to market to you. Loyalty and cash back programs are really popular and sticky. Now 5% cash back on my searches is bupkus, but if you pooled together everyone's and gave it all to one person every day...

That's crazy talk, even for me. ;-)

March 29, 2007

Conservative coding

An expat investment banker in Brussels once told me that two non-native english speakers can often converse far more easily in English than a native and non-native speaker. That's counter-intuitive? Shouldn't the pair with the native speaker have an easier time?

It turns out that native speakers use a far broader footprint of the language, and reference all sorts of cultural idioms when they speak. And so the non-native speaker has no idea what they're talking about. But two non-native speakers are both using a smaller, common, conservative subset, so there are fewer misunderstandings.

* * *

Everything at topix is written in perl. That sometimes elicits the "What's up with that?" from techies. "Perl looks like line noise. Isn't your code hard to maintain?"

Well, as hard as anyone's I guess, but not because of the language.

We do crazy fun stuff in our system, like mmap'ing giant files with key-offset indices at the front, pulling out chunks of data, decompressing them, and thawing them into perl objects. We can do something like 6,000 of those a second on a regular box. We now have a scalable get/put service based on that running on a 500 node cluster. We do named entity disambiguation and all sorts of text analytics in perl. Performance isn't an issue, not from the language anyway. We worry about disk seeks and network latency and stuff like that. But not statement execution. There are a handful of functions that got written in C but it's pretty tiny.

"What about python and ruby?"

I think that anyone using perl, python or ruby is about 100X more productive than someone working in Java or C++. Within the three I don't really have strong opinions though.

If you choose to deliberately limit yourself to a subset of whatever language you're working in, code can pretty much come out looking the same in all three.

Trouble starts when you try to get fancy.

I see gee-whiz programmers often gleefully code wonderful stuff that no-one else can make heads or tails of. Certainly not the new junior engineer we just hired who was a sharp coder in two other languages, but just started learning perl a few weeks ago.

And the gee-whiz stuff doesn't buy much. You can trim out a few lines here or there, but often the complexity is more at the greater system level, and the performance has to do with the systems and algorithmic stuff. Obfuscating a few lines to leverage a language trick doesn't actually benefit the system, and it certainly doesn't benefit the other members of the team who might have to pick up that code later. Coding is social, it's not just a private dialogue between you and the machine.

I've known a lot of languages in my career. I've studied language design and written compilers. I see big productivity differences between classes of languages, but within the classes, not so many. But folks always seem to get religious about one vs. the other. Frankly, it's a red-flag. It signals idealism over pragmatism, a love of a particular toolset over a focus on the goals of the project.

Ulysseys is great if you want phd english majors to study your work for years to figure out what it means. But put the five dollar words away when you're writing the install guide for your new blogging package. Coding is the same way. Put the fancy stuff away and code for the rest of us mortals.

March 31, 2007

The Architecture of Mailinator

Fascinating description of the architectural evolution of the Mailinator service, from a what-you-would-expect sendmail connected to a web interface to mailboxes thing, to the current form. Which includes

  • Never touches disk - did away even with checkpointing!
  • Has its own simple smtp server to receive connections
  • Uses adaptive forgetting as a scaling tool
  • Deliberately manages smtp session length -- takes longer to accept mail when the server isn't busy, to slow spammers down, but goes fast when the server is loaded because it needs to. wow. Points for the idea, 10x score for actually implementing it :)
  • Optimized for "survival" above all other criteria

Well worth reading the whole thing through on the mailinator blog, there is is much wisdom here...

(via programming.reddit.com)

About March 2007

This page contains all entries posted to Skrentablog in March 2007. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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