John Battelle, author of "the Search" gave a talk at eBay on Tuesday. The first part of the talk was about stuff he covered in his book, and after that there was a great Q & A. Most of his talk was about Google, so that was the topic of most of the questions. Here are some of my notes from the Q & A:
Q: Google is the darling. Is it changing -- is Google becoming the new Microsoft?
John: When I first started reporting on Google, when people were realizing that Google was a new center in the valley, there were strong reports about how arrogant the company was. VCs were pissed, partners were pissed, and I thought the “worm had turned” then. Then the IPO happened, and they had a reprieve for about a year. Their quarterlies keep killing, but recently the company’s world has gotten so much bigger -- they have to talk to and deal with countries and world leaders, not just other companies, but they are not quite ready for that yet. Example: Google Print -- they just decided to do it their way. I agree with the approach, but not with how they are going about it. I see lots of challenges ahead for them. I think it would be better for them to get "socked in the stomach" soon, so that they can recover from it.
Q: Other than Google and eBay, what other "young" companies are intriguing to you?
John: They just keep getting bought [laughter]. Examples: Del.icio.us, Flickr. As the chair of Web 2.0, I see lots of companies. The most interesting ones are the ones who are building communities who are excited about what the company does. I am deeply interested in what is happening in publishing and the relationship between author, publisher, and audience. MySpace - really interesting company. Not as valuable as paid search, but still very interesting. Media is one of the first industries to feel the knee-buckling effect of internet distribution.
Q: Beyond advertising, do you see anything else that will be a sustainable revenue model for content?
John: You have to look at how it can scale. Users don't want to manage 40 subscriptions. John has suggested to media companies that they talk to Yahoo and Google to make a premium media channel. Make APIs so that the companies can easily load content into it. Media companies are terrified of this model, because it means the good stuff wins. Danny Hillis has been a big proponent. It’s kind of like radio, but with good accounting.
Q: Any comments on the shift in authority from publishers to bloggers?
John: PageRank was born out of this line of thought -- finding the citation to any given page. Authority has a long history in search. Publishers have been proxies for authorities. The New York Times has been the authority. With the Web, authority is accorded based on attention. I think this is fascinating because it shifts power from the publisher to the author. Also, authority is with the peers, as it is in the academic world.
BoingBoing is the most linked to blog on the Web. I’m the "band manager" of BoingBoing. They needed revenue early on, and so I went to advertisers to ask if they wanted to advertise. 3 out of 4 bid to advertise, because BoingBoing was an authority. This demonstrates the power of Web 2.0. ETech theme is "The Attention Economy." It used to be about "eyeballs", now it is "differentiated eyeballs."
Q: Which areas are the right and wrong ones for Google?
John: Be Apple and iTunes. Be the distribution channel. There is an opportunity there, but they don't like the idea of the Business Development deals that are required to get this done. Google Local is an example of the unwillingness to host content. There is a big difference between Local on Yahoo and Local on Google in this regard. They need to bring human beings into a conversation sometimes. They need to have courage to be a moderator or facilitator of those conversations.
Q: Every time Google does something, all the competitors follow. All these big companies seem to think Google has a big plan, and if we don't do something they will charge ahead. But does Google really have a grand plan?
John: I wish I had an answer. I think they (Larry and Sergei) have a vision about where they think everything is going to be, but I don't think they have a plan. I don't think they are a planning company. Microsoft had the overarching plan back in the late nineties. Lots of people from Netscape are at Google, and they surely learned from that experience with Microsoft.
Q: If Google is to get knocked off its perch, who does it?
John: The consumer, because of a loss of trust. There are lots of other companies that could pick up the slack. This is unlike how it was with the OS market. It’s possible that Google will either accidentally or intentionally do something really stupid that will make people wake up about the privacy implications. Other possibility: blindness to the culture. We have a deep fear in the culture of Matrix like scenarios of technology run amok. Google has at its core the desire to create AI. This is the place where people who make that want to work. Something like this could happen.
Q: Why is Google sticky when others provide the same experience?
John: Same reason eBay is sticky -- the brand. Imagine your first good Google experience. The half life on that experience is very long -- years. Even if another site gives you the same quality, you don't trust other sites. In blind tests, users prefer the results from “Google” even the test has been set up to get the same results on each site the user is testing.