What’s going on over at the G? First we had a story in the New York Times about the strange persistence of JC Penny in the top spot on searches run on great variety of topics. This streak of good luck lasted for months, right before the Christmas holidays, and nobody at GHQ noticed what was going on, which is odd in itself, dontcha think? Well, the usual investigation took place and it turns out that JCP was not just lucky. It was getting some mysterious help from Person or Persons Unknown to boost its website into the Golden Ten, the top sites scored by Google, below which it is said few people look. Google’s anti-spam guru announced that the boost was coming from what he called “content farms”, a concept that not many people were able to define with anything like precision. It seems that a Content Farm is an operation designed to produce low quality content in large quantities, often larded with ads, in an effort to drive searchers toward certain preferred sites or product outlets. Or, at least something along those lines. Whatever they are, Google’s agin ‘em, and the company promised punitive action against those spammers who had polluted the results, such punishment to include demotion or even removal from search results altogether. Then last week there was another announcement from Google about changes to the ranking algorithim , the program which determines “relevance” by the presence of absence of certain chararcteristics. It was a non-confession confession that spammers had been dumping poor quality content into search results for a while, and the company was counterattacking. This is serious business, literally. Google has built a multi-billion dollar operation on search, something which was at one time a rather esoteric pursuit limited to specialists, but which now is a common feature of daily life, at least in the US. It was able to do this well because it claimed, with some justice, that its relevance ranking tools were so superior that users could be confident they were getting the very best answers. This made advertising on Google very attractive, and off we went to the races. Of course, this reputation drew challengers who tried, just for the hell of it, or for money, to promote some less worthy pages into the top ranks. Google noticed, and reacted. The attackers changed approaches, and the battle was joined. Goolge pretty much has had the lead but the JC Penny episode and the recent spate of crummy results has led to musings about the company’s losing its edge, or about its getting complacent regarding its methods. Anyway, the spammers now have their full attention.
Everybody hates the QWERTY keyboard. Everybody knows that it was designed for a mechanical typewriter, with keys placed in such a way that a rapid typist wouldn’t be able to hit too many keys too many keys too quickly. There have been about lebendyleben schemes for better layouts to replace QWERTY. They have all failed, even though each was probably an improvement over QWERTY, and even though some of them were very good indeed. Rational layout, close attention to man-machine interaction science, reduced cost due to fewer repetitive strain injuries. None of it mattered. Because the installed base of the QWERTY layout is so large, immense even, new schemes have almost no chance of getting anywhere. This is a direct contradiction of the “better technology always wins” dictum. Technology Review has a story on yet another attempt to dump QWERTY from the throne. It’s impressive, but I think it will join the others as an interesting ‘also ran’, something you see in a museum. Of course, there’s always the chance the masses will rise up and demand a better deal. But, just think: anybody who learned QWERTY can use any keyboard-like input device anywhere in that part of the world using the English language character set. That’s a big advantage.
Wired News is unhappy with the elements of the subscription policy announced by Apple last week. The story notes that there are several points which seem vague, and there is even a SJobs mail message (at least, it’s supposed to be from The Chief) stating that the apparently restrictive elements don’t apply to content publishers at all, but only to software publishers. Somebody is not listening, as usual. Publishers are still grousing about the 30% hack that Apple will take from sales, but the writer states that this has been the going rate for Apple app developers all along. It’s not really surprising that it was extended, perhaps merely on reflex, to publishers. The writer goes further to say that the publishers would swallow the thirty percent, but what really burns them is the inability to collect user data, to use for targeted adds, promos and the like.
Systematic reviews, what’s not to like? Well, like ‘democracy’ or ‘liberty’, a lot depends on what’s meant and on how it’s done. Sytematic reviews of the literature about the efficacy of a certain therapy for example are great ideas. The topic is usually of some importance, the availabe views vary, often pointing in contradictory directions, the potential for establishing the “best evidence” very great. But, beind the phrase ‘systematic review’, what is actually going on? The people at PLoS have decided that pre-registration of systemtic reviews is a really good idea. Just as pre-registration of clinical trials is a good idea. Registration has to be in a database open to examination by the public and the protocol has to be made known before the first patient is enrollled. So, with the SRs. There will be a site called PROSPERO, and authors about to undertake a review should deposit there a description of what they want to do and how they intend to do it. When the time comes to publish the results of the review, editors can check the profile in PROSPERO to compare the plan with the outcome, as an aid in deciding whether to publish. The PLoS editors set forth their views in an editorial, below.
I noted last week that Google followed Apple in opening ways for periodical publishers to get their content onto tablet format devices. The Apple plan is pretty much a Diktat, and takes a sharp 30% bite off the top of sales. And there is a non-compete provision, blocking the delivery opf content elsewhere at rates lower than Apple’s. That’s the deal: take it or leave it. Google is playing nice and offering One Pass, a varied subscription plan which gives publishers a greart deal of flexibility in setting prices, offering different subscriptions (per year, per month, etc), and also makes data on customers available. This last is strictly verboten in the Apple scheme. So publishers are in kind a cleft stick. If they go with Apple, they get access to the current Ipad user base, which by now is well into the millions. They give up a lot, though. If they go with Google, the terms are much more generous, but that luscious Apple customer base is out of reach. So, how desperate are they to get to those customers existing right now in AppleLand? Are publishers willing to be bossed around and humiliated? Maybe, but maybe Apple overplayed its admittedly strong hand. Here’s more:
The legenday jazz pianist George Schearing died in New York recently at the age of 91. Born in London, Shearing studied music, despite his blindness, and was discouraged from formal study by a teacher who saw his singular gift for improvisation, and urged him to work on that. Later in life, he realizes that he had missed a great deal by skipping classical training and went back to get what he had missed. He performed works by Mozart and Bach in concert settings. Shearing made his rep and his fortune with a particular sound he had devised, relying on the contributions of other instruments to reinforce the piano sound. Vibraphone, guitar, bass and drums all played in conjunction with Shearing at the piano. Although well known in Britain, Shearing realized that in the US he would be just another good jazz pianist unless he came up with something special and that something was the unique sound yielded by all the instruments playing together. Lullaby of Birdland was his signature composition, but almost anything he did had good sales. Shearing broke up the group in the late 70s, as he wearied of the same shtick and as jazz declined in popularity. Listening to Shearing on the radio, late at night, up in the thickets of the Niagara Frontier, was as close to sophisticated cool as a skinny, insecure teenager could get. It conjoured up smokey lounges, wet streets of a great city late at night, interesting people, a new non-skinny, secure identity. It soundled like endless possibilities. George Shearing was a first-class musician who brought joy to millions. He will, as the saying goes, be missed.
“One carpet is room enough for four beggars, but the whole world not room enough for two sultans.” Or, so says the proverb. Well history is full of examples of outfits that just could not get along. Apple and Google have been scowling at each other for some time now. The latest chapter in the parade of frictions centers around the respective “pay for digital content” plans each company is offering. Apple has told content providers that “you vill do zis und zis, und ve take 30 percent.” That’s a nice bite. The day after Apple released its ultimatum, Google rode into town on a unicorn, scattering rainbows, batting its eyelids and saying: “why don’t y’all come play with us…. we’re your friends and no 30 percent”. Publishers are anxious to move to some digital platform in addition to or instead of their regular outlets. But, they feel they have to be very careful before signing anything, and they want to look around for the best deal. Apple has taken the stance that the providers need Apple more than Apple needs the providers, hence the thirty percent. But, they may have been a little hasty. It’s hard times in the publishing biz. Lots of aspirin bottles and “dead soldiers” and dirty glasses littering the counter tops as execs try to figure out where all this is going. Pick A? Pick B? Pick A and B? How much will this cost? It never quits.
One of the two leading chain booksellers is restructuring. That means, first of all, that a lot of people are going to be out on the street. It also means that a number of places customers have grown used to visit for a little quiet time while the Old Man is endlessly cruising the aisles at Lowe’s, checking out the latest power drill or something, will no longer be available. How the company got into this mess is up for debate, but somethings are clear. They seemed to have missed the point of digital publishing somehow. Barnes&Noble fielded their own E-reader to compete with the Kindle from Amazon. But Borders muffed it all. The company had no branded e-reader, and they carried a fistful of also-rans to try to fill the niche. Then, there was revolving door management, CEOs coming in and going out, like governments in the Third Republic. And, they had too many stores. I guess it all came home to roost at the same time. I think the Depression (let’s stop fudging on that one, shall we? The last time cities and states faced bankruptcy was in the 1930s, during the Great You Know What) didn’t do them any good, and people with money avoided what was obviously a pretty sick puppy. I hope they come out of it, as I always had a soft spot for them. We used to buy music from them, at a store in Darkest Houston, way back when the CD was a hot item. The Kingdom of Publishing is said to be disturbed at this news, but I rather doubt it is a surprise. A kind of Death Watch has been going on for a while now. I wish them well.
On Sunday, the New York Times had a long story in the business section about an investigation it had initiated into what seemed a very strange series of events. Somebody had noticed that in Google searches for almost anything related to domestic everyday life, such as clothes, shoes, housewares, etc. JC Penny’s web site would appear right up at the top. We are not talking about “sponsored” links…for pay ads, in effect. These results came from “natural” search. So, the Times guy started to dig and the outcome was more than a little surprising. It led the reporter into the seamy side of search engine optimization. That’s the bag of tricks professional optimizers use to place their clients’ sites as high up in the magic top ten links Google display in its hit list. There are White Hat and Black Hat optimizers; the first use recognized and allowed methds, and the second use, well, “other means”. How all this is done and what the payoff can be are detailed in the article, which is certainly worth a read. Anybody who works with search engines professionally will know most of this, but it’s interesting to see a lot of it synthesized and available in one place. Google doesn’t like being messed with, and in the current case, it likes even less the fact that the campaign went on for months, right before the Christmas holidays, apparently unnoticed by anybody on their staff. The heads-up came from outside, and that must have really ticked them off. Google can get tough on cases like this. The G punishes the offender by dropping its site way, way down on the hit list. Google is in a running battle with spammers who try to high-jack search results, either to show their hacking chops, or for money. The company’s ranking algorithm is the most closely guarded secret since the D-Day landings, so capturing it would certainly be a major coup in hackerdom. But the commercial motive seems more likely to me. Read it for yourself:
Well, it finally happened. On Feb. 3 to be exact. The last remaining internet address was assigned to somebody or something, and that’s the last onion in the larder. What happens now, you ask? Well, IPv6 is going forward, sort of. In a story appearing on the Technology Review site, v6 will have plenty of addresses. The 4 billion in v4 are not a patch on the size of the addressing scheme in v6, which is measured in octillions. A number of service providers have not done much with v6, because it’s a cost matter. Their current business situation is fine, but changing it to accomodate v6 would require a lot of money. The two schemes won’t map one to another easily, so I guess every current address would have to be reassigned in the new version. Lots of people are sore about this, because there was no surprise element. Sure, 4 billion addresses sound big back in 1990 or something, but since then many more users, and the devices of those users, have come along needing addresses. Foot-dragging and reality ducking took over and companies whistled past the graveyard, as they hoped something would turn up, as Dickens’ Mr. Micawber put it. But it didn’t. Current users on v4 should be ok. The problem arises with the assignment of new users and new devices. As the saying goes, you do it now, or you do it later.