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Archive for the ‘social media’ Category

Three (good) Indian blogs that you probably don’t read

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Time to post something different for a change than the regular longwinding ones.

Shashikant’s tiny world: He posts across a wide variety of topics covering technology, the economy and other aspects of current affairs. He has something that is desperately lacking in most of the Indian blogosphere: a perspective that is not a wannabe version of the popular western ones. If only he would change the circa 2001 blogger template to something more contemporary, but I can hardly complain since I read the full feed in an RSS reader. And, no, I am not linking to him because he’s linked to me.

Gopal Vijayaraghavan: Gopal works for Yahoo! and is one the leads for the PHP APC cache. That does not mean he posts only about profiling PHP code and race conditions in it. He also writes about movies (from a very non-critic and normal viewer point of view) and a lot of other non-tech related things. The only minus point is that he does not allow comments on his blog.

Cleartrip blog/Hrush: I know this is a corporate blog, probably disqualifying it from being considered as a normal blog. But most of the content on the blog is penned by Hrush Bhatt, Founder & Director, Product and Strategy for the company. Other than the fact the blog is one of the best and the most open blogs among Indian corporates, he also gets additional brownie points from me for quoting two bloggers in the web data sphere that I follow closely: Danny Ayers and Joe Gregorio. Minus point: Not updated frequently enough.

While on the topic of blogging, I was wondering recently if the only major difference that blogging has brought to the platform is that being biased is no longer uncool? These days, I tend to switch off from any discussion that aims to figure out the biases of mainstream media. The fact of the matter is that everything and every human being is biased and we are conditioned by our biases.

The only difference is that it used to be cool to claim that you were unbiased as a media entity. When you report from the field, you are supposed to stick to the facts and not colour it with your biases. I think this is quite badly misplaced. While, as a blogger, it is cool for you to be biased. In fact, you are encouraged to come clean on your biases than cover it with a veil faux neutrality. Other than that, if you take out the scale and economics of the matter, there is hardly any differentiation: Both sides have bad reporting, band language and myopia to the obvious.

Interesting and hypothetical over-the-top question of the day: Can you imagine a newspaper filled with op-ed writers?

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Written by shyam

August 29, 2007 at 9:26 am

Posted in Blogs, India, social media

Online Networking: Opportunities and challenges

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Why is everyone in the online space running crazed rolling out one social networking product after another these days?

Has technology suddenly found out the real altruistic reason for its existence — to bring all of humanity under a single digital umbrella that will allow everyone to easily communicate and identify with each other? Cheap potshots and the silly sarcasm apart, the reason why everyone is falling over each other is quite simple: the industry has gotten a whiff of its ultimate elixir in online networking: the end of the perpetual quest for ‘sticky’ content and users.

So, how exactly does online networking differ from other regular content properties? Let us take a look at a couple of the distinguishing factors:

Discovery: Unlike regular online content, online networking helps you find much more than a piece of text to read or pictures to ogle at. It helps you find new people with similar interests, new things to do with people who share the similar interests and also find new communities that will help you enrich yourself alongside people who share similar likes and themes. The Facebook News Feed is one of the best examples of this, even though it had a very controversial debut on its network. Till then, in other popular networks, you had to manually go and track each community joined by a contact and any other action performed by him/her. It is now next to impossible to evade the river of context that flows all around you because of the News Feed.

Context: The above-mentioned discovery element is encapsulated by containers of context that help you find them. You can find them through music you may like, through photos you like clicking and other numerous common themes. Even in the PhD paradise called Google, there are limits to context that is determined by the algorithm. For instance, even Google News can classify the data only into a handful of categories and most personalized and suggested content on the internet (like Findory) are still not up to scratch when it comes to discovering related content at the individual’s level. Even with an extremely good element of artificial intelligence in your system, you still can’t beat the quality of linked and contextual linkages that is generated with actual intent by human beings.

In an online networking scenario, every single connection is led by context. I am connected to (or I identify with) another person on my network in a variety of ways: geography, interest, work place or something else. That kind of sanitized, structured and relational data beats the pants off what any algorithm can do. Instead of being led by the algorithm and its vagaries, the connections can now be refined by it. If data in massive networks like Facebook can be mined, you can predict, with good enough probability, things that I or you would be interested in and the people you or I are likely to hook up with. None of this is possible on a regular news website or on a discussion forum, where you just consume the data and go home. There is hardly any way to connect or engage another person who has a lot of similarities with you. Hell, you can’t even know if there is another person with similar traits who has read the article at the same time or any other time.

Sticky != icky: To build any good and successful online property, you need a healthy mix of repeat visits and new visitors. Organic growth in traffic and usage is the lifeline of any online property and a steady percentage of it in your total traffic is always a sign of a property in good health. If this recipe is seasoned with more than 50% of return visits and a good page view per user number, the chances are that you would have by now on your hands a very successful website that has oodles of sticky content. What this essentially enables you to do is to grow on both counts: in terms of existing usage and in terms of new usage, with and new users steadily being converted to regular users.

The trouble is that this is a hard one to pull off with generic content sites, which tend to have a high number of regular visits, a low percentage of new visitors (the one hit wonders and the even-driven flash mobs) and low-ish page view per user number. Every time you check your Facebook inbox or your Orkut scrapbook what it does is to add another page view to the website’s page views and chances are that most online networking users are more likely to refresh their profile and message pages a lot more, compared to their actual email inboxes or a news website. And this lust for the page view love fest is from which the many new online networking love children are born.

The opportunity for new players

Uniquely addressable users: Unique users are like legendary golden geese in the online trade. And well-established networking communities are like mosquito larvae infested catchments of standing water filled with these users: they buzz with feverish activity and multiply in every possible manner and more rapidly than what you could ever imagine. Moreover, to make your profile work in such scenarios, you need to provide information that is every advertiser’s endless wet dream. You are voluntarily providing the kind of information to help profile yourself that collected otherwise would result in the companies doing that being dragged to court.

For example, if you check my profile you can see that I am currently part of the India network, that my location is uniquely identified as New Delhi, that I am single and you can also figure out my tastes in music, books, movies and political views. This is all structured and uniquely addressable data, broken down to the most granular of levels. If you don’t believe me, take a look at what Fox Interactive Media (FIM) has been up to recently. In an interview with Silicon Alley Insider, Mike Barrett, Chief Revenue Office of FIM, says they have figured out improved delivery methodologies for targeting based on such data and are looking to price these ads at a 20-30% premium, compared to regular banner ads. That is the kind of number any business person with half a business brain would find hard to say ‘no’ to.

The Indian online Godots: Yes, we revisit the pet target audience of every new product launch these days, the part of the billion who are not yet online, who probably won’t even know what online is at this stage of the game. We are constantly waiting for them to come and make us all rich. If you ignore such niggles that tend to rudely invade our digital fantasies, there is a fair bit of merit in the argument/expectation. We are diverse in ways you can’t even start to imagine. You can address the whole of India in terms of a nation, regions, language, caste, religion: the list is endless. Ergo, the opportunities to slice and dice the market are also endless. That is, once it manifests. So a lot of this is a punt on the future. Who knows whether it will pay off or not.

The social operating system: When Facebook launched F8, their platform to let third party applications interact with their users, it changed the rules of the game in such a way that every other online networking website is now falling over each other to release a similar product. Other than the nice positive for Facebook of shoveling off the burden of building a stream of new features to gullible souls who now do it for them for free, it has also now established a virtual operating system within the Facebook context that is now a decent launch pad for new sites and products. Once networks like Facebook become the start page/OS of the future it is going to be a hard ask to launch a new product without spending insane amounts of money (example: the bigadda.com creatives).

The Risks for the new players

Targeted advertising on such profiled networks are still not up to scratch and the technology is still being developed. Current delivery technology is based on either IP geo-location or tracking cookies, neither of which are right now in a condition to exploit an extremely finely defined profile like a 27-year-old girl who likes Harry Potter, lives in India, with a soft spot for Archie comics. The point is made more elaborately in the Mike Barrett interview and is surely a cause for concern, but I am also sure it is something that will be fixed over time. But till it gets fixed, advertisements on these networks tend to end up being seen as irritants and not a patch on the contextual advertisements that Google has spoilt everyone with.

Low Yield: On a related point, while online networking websites account for huge page views, the CPMs, click throughs and conversions are abysmal on the inventory. When you have pages and pages of content resembling lolcat lingo on some of the more popular networks, it is not surprising that even Google’s engines put up their hands and admit defeat. I can’t remember or find the story, but someone (from Google?) had once commented that a lot of impressions on Myspace was junk and did not amount to much. So it is kind of obvious that traditional methods of advertising are not going to work too well in this segment and the way Facebook is going about it, by inserting them in the News Feed, is bound to help them accumulate bad karma at a rapid rate from the users. In short, the page views are there, but a fair percentage of it is not really worth much.

Switching costs/exit barriers: The value of any network is directly proportional to the connections you have on it. Existing users have a lot invested in terms of their connections, ratings, groups etc in the older networks. Half the grunt work in switching to a new network is to find the old contacts once again. The problem is addressed to a minor extent by the email account-based importers, but that in itself creates more problems because it requires a one-to-one mapping between your profile email address and the profile email addresses of your friends. It is a problem that can only be solved by true interoperability and that is a pipe dream of the most unrealistic kind.

Identity: Bill Gates on Myspace need not necessarily be the same Bill Gates on Orkut. For that matter, neither the Myspace Bill Gates nor the Orkut Bill Gates are likely to be the famous Bill Gates from Microsoft. At some point, our core digital identities will be consolidated into a single space, much like how Openid works, but none of the networks support Openid as of now and as a result, since identities are not portable, it will eventually create yet another high exit barrier for the users.

On a final note, there would arise the obvious question as to why do crazy deals like Google gulping up Myspace’s inventory and Microsoft signing a deal with Facebook on similar lines happen? A lot of that has to do with volumes and the rest of it with presence and Google did goof up terribly with not buying out Myspace when they could have earlier for a tiny sum compared to what they are paying FIM now. Even with the junk page views, the volumes these networks pump in terms of sheer page views are enormous and if you are in the advertising space you’d want a bite of that, even if that bite feels a bit empty once it hits the stomach.

This is a space where everyone — content creators, sales people, advertisers, content distributors — can feel where the action is going to be. But how it will unravel is something that will be only revealed with time.

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Written by shyam

August 13, 2007 at 7:27 pm

A Brijj too far

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When I started writing this sort of a review, I honestly wanted to rip Info Edge apart for releasing such a sham of a website. Having read a lot of what Sanjeev Bikhchandani has written and said over time and having seen Naukri grow into the robust company that it is today, I had considerably greater expectations from Brijj. But I’ll hold my horses, tone down the criticism and look at the larger picture, that the blame is almost universally spread out among the Indian internet landscape. Our idea of innovation is to look at the hottest 50 websites out there in the west, pull elements from each of them and promise to do everything, including an unconditional end to global warming, and hope nobody notices that beyond the stellar messaging (email for body builders, email for stupid people, anyone?) the product is the same wine in the same bottle.

Of course, a lot of Indian internet companies are profitable and in a good shape and at least in theory that should drive innovation across the board. But we seem to be happy to wait for the next big thing to fall from the western landscape, lap it up, spit it out and hope the audience here picks it up and voilà, you have a shortcut to near-instant profit. The strangest thing is that even here where there is hardly a decent business model online beyond the traditional banner spots, you get to hear almost endlessly about Web 2.0 and the like from within and outside the trade almost like it is the gospel that fell straight off the money tree.

What nobody will tell you is that most Web 2.0 companies in India today are neither successful nor feasible in both the long and the short run, including the latest string of Ruby on Rails-powered monstrosities, which often don’t have user bases that don’t extend beyond the developer’s immediate family and a string of former and current lovers. From that point of view, the ‘copy from west and paste here in the east’ routine may sound like a good and easy idea, but it is a malaise that will end up leaving us behind like cheap clattering Chinese imitations before soon. I think someone has to wake up, ground some good beans, brew some strong stuff and smell a whole lot of it.

Now to the product at hand: Brijj

On the surface, Brijj picks out the best of Facebook in terms of presentation (the squeaky clean lines, funky Javascript, Ajax etc) and marries it with the best of Linkedin (references, plug ins for Outlook, Outlook Express etc). But that’s where the similarity and the theory ends. Neither does Brijj have the stupendously awe-inspiring backend data wizardry that is the hallmark of Facebook, nor does it have the professional-friendly feel of Linkedin. For existing users of people networks, the lack of what are considered as standard features also stick out like a sore thumb.

For example, there is absolutely no granular privacy settings in terms of who gets to see what and how much. I am assuming that a lot of it is controlled by who you are a friend of and who you are not a friend of, but there’s hardly any easy way to figure it out. Beyond a few clicks and a handful of links, there is nothing to discover about the website. There is just no surprise factor. It looks and feels like a low cost carrier and the killer blow comes in when you see the best done page: product comparison — where you get to see what the different membership options are. And that is a dead giveaway of the shortcut to profit route, when you are crystal clear about your pricing options and are relatively clueless about the rest of the website.

On the technical front, the site is a bit rough around the edges. The server signature is the standard “NWS” or Naukri Web Server, which is actually Apache under the hood, running PHP and possibly one of the MVC frameworks. There are some duplicate meta and doctype declarations all over the place (UTF-8 or iso-8859-1? Make up your mind!), possibly due to some unfortunate soul including a default editor template in some controller file. There is almost certainly only a limited amount of QA done on it (other than a basic copy check) and page titles and meta tags are the same all over the place. And at least in the logged in home page, there is an invisible DIV with a certain Sonal Mehta’s (apparently, an HR manager at Infy) email and phone number hard coded into it.

So what’s the verdict? I am afraid unless Info Edge puts some real hard work into it and revises/refreshes the product, this will end up in the dustbin before soon. In any case, I can imagine the company having real pressure on it to diversify, especially after their successful listing. With 99acres and other properties not doing too well and still being huge cost points that gnaw away at Naukri’s healthy constitution, this won’t come as a relief in breaking the one hit wonder curse. Positioning-wise, I can’t see too many existing users moving over to this. The switching costs are way too high and the features are way too less and honestly, it all feels a bit too amateurish.

Info Edge is also making critical mistakes like not having a common registration database among its properties. Who on earth wants to maintain yet another login in an already troubled world of products where there is almost nothing that goes by the name of interoperability. I am assuming that at some point Info Edge will roll into Brijj, the muscle of Naukri’s database, but they have again erred gravely by not having it on from day one. It would have stood out as a major differentiator to any other similar product and this is again made considerably difficult because of users having to maintain two different identities on Naukri and Brijj.

Written by shyam

August 9, 2007 at 8:33 pm

Dude, who stole my page views?

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Why does traditional media, including the online ones, struggle so much against user generated content (yes, as a matter of principle and whatever else you can hate the phrase for all you like) and non-traditional media generated content? Beyond the fact that most of the Youtubes are full of content produced by the traditional monsters (note to traditional media: your content discovery model is toast, find a new one or have one shoved down your throat with excessive force), the nagging little problem for the oldies is the cost structure. It is just way too expensive to produce the content they produce, while the average Joe with an N95 on the street might end up producing something that will blow you out of the water on any given day.

Once up on a time, the only way to produce and distribute content online was to pump in a lot of money. Everything would cost a fortune: the wire copies that are required to pump in the non-unique stories, the reporters who would create the unique content and the editors who would package and publish it all online. Web hosting was expensive, technical support was expensive, there was no Blogger, WordPress or even Django and to publish content online you would probably have to create and maintain a content management system of your own.

Before it became the favourite pond of sploggers, Blogger, along with a host of other publishing websites decimated the high entry cost to publishing, personal or otherwise. Of course, the quality of content on the average blog was not quite at par with something that came from a media house’s stable. Where they scored was in terms of width and variety. 200 bloggers on the same platform covers a much wider area than 20 of the best editors sitting together and the monopoly was broken.

All you need now to get published is a domain, a web hosting account and the ability to use a browser, totaling something less than $130 for a year. And if you go about it in a smart way, you can easily break even and even generate differing degrees of profit. This is why you have slew of new online publications that don’t do much of end-to-end original content. It is much easier and cheaper to let the big guys do the heavy lifting; they will just latch on to it and provide that little bit of insight and background, which is mostly not allowed in a normal reportage. There is really nothing wrong with that model, it is an opportunity that the traditional media model has brought about. Nobody should feel any shame in making a living off it.

The average mainstream online media publication (the ones that publish 24 hours or close to it) employs something in the region of 20 – 30 people in production to keep the show going. Mind you, that number does not guarantee any exclusive content; they can comfortably cover most of the day’s events, but creating exclusive content is an additional effort on top of that. Making things even more difficult for them are recent developments like Google’s refusal to index wire copies from publications anymore, while the agencies themselves charge you extra for online usage rights. It suddenly reduces the footprint these publications have on aggregators and search engines.

So, is it really that a Paidcontent or a Gawker Media will be the New York Times of 2010? I am afraid not. They do use a marginally leaner model of generating content, but they are still based on the flawed old model, which is too costly to run and it just does not scale. This is just an interim where there is a bit of arbitrage in terms of the cost vs revenue equation for the new guys, compared to the old ones, but it is not going to last forever and this is certainly not the future.

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Written by shyam

July 29, 2007 at 11:33 am

Posted in Blogs, Media, social media

WordPress.com makes a million, blogs that is

with 6 comments

Congrats to the lads at Automattic on their anytime-now millionth sign up on WordPress.com. The company is the dark horse in the entire blog hosting business and they quietly go about doing their thing. And other than the long-forgotten misdemeanor of placing some icky ads on the WordPress homepage, Matt’s hardly put a foot wrong in recent times. And for a ‘virtual’ company (there is no real office these guys work from), they have accomplished some amazing feats:

1) Use cheap hardware and mostly open source software to deliver performance and reliability that far outstrips any expensive solution out there. The list of software used reads something like this: Debian/Ubuntu, PHP, MySQL, Litespeed, PoundWackamole, Spread, Nagios, Munin, Monit, NFS, Postfix, MyDNS. How often have you read about an unplanned outage on WordPress.com? You can get an idea of their set up at Barry’s blog.

2) Scaling out PHP and MySQL to support an operation of this scale. Okay, it is not quite the LAMP stack (Litespeed instead of Apache, read Matt’s comments here on the subject), but it does make the case that PHP, when done right can do incredibly well, both in terms of scale and performance, which is only augmented by this post by Steve Grimm on the Memcached list about Facebook’s architecture.

3) WordPress.com also has what could arguably be called the best user contributed text content repository online at this moment. There is such a wide variety of content — from technology to adult — that is of a pretty good quality. Excellent and pro-active policing of illegal content has also ensured that there is little spam within the network, a problem that is a growing problem on Blogspot.

With 7.5 million daily page views and 45 million unique visitors, they look more like an acquisition target by any of the big boys who would be drowning in a pool of drool of envy after seeing those numbers. Any guesses as to who they might be talking to/have already turned down?

In any case, way to go guys and keep the good stuff pouring in!

Written by shyam

May 16, 2007 at 8:52 am

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