Google’s take on the customer journey

These days, the customer journey has grown more complex. Before making an online purchase decision, a customer may engage with your brand through many different media channels over several days. This tool helps you explore and understand the customer journey to improve your marketing programs.

via The Customer Journey to Online Purchase – Think Insights – Google.

There are several interactive charts on that post, all of which reveal some interesting characteristics on how customer interactions vary based on the channel of engagement, by industry and region.

Real progress in artifical intelligence


Finally, however, in the last decade ­Hinton and other researchers made some fundamental conceptual breakthroughs. In 2006, Hinton developed a more efficient way to teach individual layers of neurons. The first layer learns primitive features, like an edge in an image or the tiniest unit of speech sound. It does this by finding combinations of digitized pixels or sound waves that occur more often than they should by chance. Once that layer accurately recognizes those features, they’re fed to the next layer, which trains itself to recognize more complex features, like a corner or a combination of speech sounds. The process is repeated in successive layers until the system can reliably recognize phonemes or objects.

via New Techniques from Google and Ray Kurzweil Are Taking Artificial Intelligence to Another Level | MIT Technology Review.

Gmail Contacts finally becomes useful

Image representing Gmail as depicted in CrunchBase
Image via CrunchBase

If you’re a Gmail user like me, 2008 seemed like a lost year.  Google did give us the Google Labs features, many of which were nice tweaks, but there wasn’t a significant improvement to the core application.  2009, as you know has been quite different.  We’ve seen the addition of many significant features, with offline sync being the most important.  Google added another ‘missing link’ in the communications hub with a task manager, which in its current state is a bit underpowered – but we can always hope for improvements.

One of the most frustrating parts of Gmail’s communications hub has been Contacts.  When first introduced (I believe last year), Contacts seemed to add all sorts of random contacts from inbound emails that I received.  When I dug around to find where they were coming from, many of these new ‘contacts’ were plucked out of emails that had large lists of people attached to them.  Most of these folks weren’t really my contacts, but Google thought they were.  This was just one of many frustrations I had with Google Contacts.  Just as with the core Gmail application, however, Google has begun to remedy shortcomings in Contacts in 2009.  A few days ago, Google announced true Contact (and Calendar) syncing with many smartphones.  Along with that announcement has come a steady set of changes to Google Contacts.  Today, Google has added four more, very significant, improvements to the Contacts function.  Here are two of my favorites:

Official Gmail Blog: Four changes to Gmail contacts

3. Remove people from My Contacts
You can finally move contacts out of the My Contacts group — especially useful if you’re planning to sync your contact list to your phone. Prune the contacts you don’t want synced to your phone from My Contacts (click “Groups” and then “Remove from My Contacts”), and they won’t get synced.

4. Search across all contact fields
We’ve heard you loud and clear, and contact search now works much better: instead of just searching contact names and email addresses, it now includes phone numbers, notes fields, and mailing addresses as well. So, if you’re visiting the Bay Area and looking for friends to catch up with, you could try typing “650” or “415” in the contact manager search box.

Contacts, it seems, are finally becoming useful. Along with the Activesync feature that went live a few days ago, I can finally consolidate my contact information to a single source and not have to maintain a separate list for my iPhone and Gmail. This is great news!

Now, make Google Contacts (and Gmail) an interaction hub
Contacts would become substantially more powerful if I could see my entire relationship with a contact in that view.  Google lets you query recent emails interactions with a selected contact, but we know that entire relationships aren’t captured in emails.  I’d like the ability to add date stamped notes to each contact – so I can record other interactions with people.  I’d also like the ability to connect Google Calendar events to contacts.  And, while you’re at it, connect tasks associated with contacts as well.

So far, 2009 has been a busy year for the Gmail team, and it looks like we’ll see a steady pace of improvements for Gmail.  Hopefully, they see the value of extending Contacts beyond a simple electronic Rolodex and into a powerful contact interaction hub where users can truly capture many aspects of their relationships with their friends and contacts.

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Tim O’Reilly discusses web 2.0 and cloud computing

Oracle CEO Larry Ellison tells customers that ...

Image via Wikipedia

Over the last few months I’ve been asked, a lot, by some smart folks on how web 2.0 and cloud computing are defined, and what their impact will be on technology as a whole.  Since both terms are used very loosely, and often times by marketers who aren’t knowledgeable in either field, web 2.0 and cloud computing have somehow melded into one concept for many people.  This, however, is not the right way to look at things.  In a recent email to a friend I put forth my thoughts on the matter, and was busy recrafting a post from that email until I read Tim O’Reilly’s post this evening.  As expected, his definitions are much better than mine.  He also goes on to develop a case for the future impact of both concepts for the technology industry:

Web 2.0 and Cloud Computing – O’Reilly Radar

I believe strongly that open source and open internet standards are doing the same [migrating the point of profit] to traditional software. And value is migrating to a new kind of layer, which we now call Web 2.0, which consists of applications driven not just by software but by network-effects databases driven by explicit or implicit user contribution.
So when Larry Ellison says that cloud computing and open source won’t produce many hugely profitable companies, he’s right, but only if you look at the pure software layer. This is a lot like saying that the PC wouldn’t produce many hugely profitable companies, and looking only at hardware vendors! First Microsoft, and now Google give the lie to Ellison’s analysis. The big winners are those who best grasp the rules of the new platform.So here’s the real trick: cloud computing is real. Everything is moving into the cloud, in whole or in part. The utility layer of cloud computing will be just that, a utility, without outsized profits.

But the cloud platform, like the software platform before it, has new rules for competitive advantage. And chief among those advantages are those that we’ve identified as “Web 2.0”, the design of systems that harness network effects to get better the more people use them.

Read the whole post, it’s worthwhile.

Google Insights is one sweet analytics tool

Google Insights

Image by Tamar Weinberg via Flickr

A couple of days ago, Google rolled out a new service called Google Insights for Search. The basic premise is that you can enter a search term, and Google will report back all kinds of useful data on that term, and related terms. There is an obvious use for advertising – the primary reason why the AdWords blog introduced the service – but it’s also very useful in monitoring trends on people searches, events, etc. Read more at their site:

Inside AdWords: Announcing Google Insights for Search

Today, we’re launching Google Insights for Search, a new product designed with the advertiser in mind. It provides more flexibility and functionality for advertisers and marketers to understand search behavior, and adds some cool new features like a world heat map to graphically display search volume and regional interest.

Like Google Trends, you can just type in a search term to see search volume patterns over time, as well as the top related and rising searches. You’ll also have the ability to compare search volume trends across multiple search terms, categories (commonly referred to as verticals), geographic regions, or specific time ranges.

The Powerset acquisition and what it means for Microsoft’s enterprise software business

Since the rumor about Microsoft’s $100M acquisition broke last week (now no longer a rumor, but a fact), I’ve had several people ask me on my take of where Microsoft is headed with this new tool in its search toolbox. First let me frame my angle here. Over the last four years I’ve worked in the small but interesting enterprise software space of knowledge management. One of the key elements of successful knowledge management is the ability to ‘find’ knowledge. As I recently wrote in a KM World article (Your Customers can Search, but do they Find?), finding implies a level of intelligence beyond simple keyword search. This is where natural language processing (NLP) technologies come into play. As with the field of knowledge management, NLP has been in and out of favor over the last decade. With the Powerset acquisition, Microsoft is clearly betting that NLP is not only back in favor, but Powerset’s brand of NLP is the best available in the market. That being said, here’s my take:

Most of the quick analysis of Microsoft’s move was focused too narrowly on the entire Yahoo acquisition drama, and Microsoft’s attempts to challenge Google, but Microsoft’s own Don Dodge stepped in with an excellent post of where the real potential of the Powerset acquisition lies:

1. Powerset technology is more about indexing the content and understanding its meaning, than the query itself. This has enormous implications.

2. There are many lucrative markets for this technology…not just consumer web search.

The second point is worth noting first. Of course Microsoft will use Powerset to enhance its struggling consumer search properties, but incorporating Powerset into its many enterprise applications has as much potential as a consumer solution. The enterprise approach can manifest itself in two of Microsoft’s most critical corporate infrastructure properties, Sharepoint and Exchange. Once a clunky file sharing server, Sharepoint has evolved into a venerable knowledge management platform that can also handle many modes of collaboration. If Microsoft incorporates Powerset’s NLP into Sharepoint, that platform will emerge as a serious threat to many of the pure enterprise knowledge management, content management software vendors that currently dot these markets. Many of these vendors routinely sell their technology as a replacement for the inadequate built-in search for Sharepoint. A Powerset integration could change the equation. Additionally, incorporating Powerset NLP into Exchange, Microsoft’s anchor platform in the enterprise, could add a layer of intelligent search that has yet to be addressed by other vendors. While it may prove impossible to regain significant marketshare in the consumer world, Microsoft has a significant opportunity to consolidate control in the enterprise knowledge management arena. Powerset’s technologies could play an integral part of this consolidation.

Now, back to Dodge’s first point. Indexing and enabling textual search on content is a relatively old, and easy task. Grafting meaning to that index is where the game changes. Intelligent search, or search with an implied meaning, will return ‘answers’ as opposed to ‘results’. There is a significant point to be understood here. In the traditional mode of searching, search engines are designed to bring back the entire subset of content where there are keyword matches. This can result in hundreds, thousands, and often times hundreds of thousands of ‘hits’ that are returned. Google’s strength is identifying these hits and then representing the most popular results at the top of the result set. Intelligent search is different. In fact a good measure of intelligent search is how few results are returned. Since intelligent search first attempts to find meaning on indexed content, the resulting hits returned by an engine like Powerset should only include that content which is in context to the entered query. This can have a huge impact in enterprise deployments of traditional search, but as Dodge says in his post, the utility of receiving ‘answers’ can be extended beyond content search to include advertisement targeting, and other enterprise focused solutions.

While it’s too early to know exactly what Microsoft will do with Powerset, I think it is as important to watch the enterprise software angle on this acquisition as the consumer angle.

Yahoo is the big loser, but Microsoft isn’t far behind

Unless you were living under a rock, you probably know by now that Microsoft decided to walk away from an acquisition of Yahoo! late yesterday afternoon. A great behind the scenes view of what happened was posted by Kara Swisher here. Earlier this week, a much smaller – almost insignificant – deal apparently collapsed as Microsoft was unable to purchase Xobni for what seem to be reasons that are similar to the collapse of the Yahoo!’s deal. Both Xobni and Yahoo! folks had an uneasy feeling of being absorbed by the Microsoft borg (of course price had a lot to do with it too). Fred Wilson seems to agree that Microsoft’s perceived pariah image in the industry hasn’t subsided. In fact, it may be getting worse under the antics of Mr. Ballmer. From my vantage point, it seemed that most technology folks were uneasy with Bill Gates’ Microsoft, but still had some respect for it as he was one of them. Steve Ballmer’s Microsoft is a different beast. Ballmer is first, and foremost, a salesman. Sales folks aren’t well regarded in this industry. Add to that Ballmer’s hard charging, and strange persona, and many techies just feel uncomfortable becoming a part of the borg. So far Google has escaped this problem, mainly because it is still a technology driven company. The famous “don’t be evil” line comes from an ‘anti-sales’ plea during the early days at Google (listen to Marissa Mayer’s interview on KQED here).

Ballmer the salesman wasn’t able to put together the package, financial and otherwise, that would have closed the deal. Sure it doesn’t make sense to bid up the price of an acquisition, especially if you just bidding against yourself, but Swisher’s post exposes the massive cultural rift between Microsoft and Yahoo…for that matter Microsoft and most other technology companies. That same cultural rift seems to have been a major factor in the collapse of the Xobni deal as well.

So, the general consensus is that Yahoo! was the big loser in the three month long saga, but I can’t believe that anyone would think that, this past week, Microsoft was a winner, at least not yet. $50 billion unspent dollars are certainly going to be used somewhere else, but Microsoft’s failures this week mean that any possible acquisition target will be looking for a higher premium to deal with borg assimilation.

A quick thought on Google Sites

I’ve been working my way through Google Sites, while comparing it to the original JotSpot account I had. So far the feature that I miss most is the ability to email to a page on Google Sites. Emailing to a page in JotSpot made it possible to enable pages as excellent stores for files, notes, etc that were related to a given project. Anyway, just one bump in the road so far…