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August 31, 2006


Interesting to read of the launch of Browzar, a web browser (actually, a wrapper for the IE HTML rendering component in Windows) which doesn't store auto-complete info, browsing history, or (most significantly) persistent cookies. So another blow for the web analytics industry - though I predict that Browzar will remain a relatively minor player in the browser world.

Even those people who use it will probably use one of the more mainstream browsers for most of the time, since Browzar will disable the auto-login features on which so many people rely so as not to have to remember a hundred passwords. But if I were in charge of web analytics for a porn site, I might be a bit more worried.

(Thanks to Slashdot)

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Measuring Web 2.0

Eric Peterson has an interesting post on his blog about a couple of ideas he's had for measuring 'Web 2.0' usage - by which he means sites that use AJAX for in-page events, and (in particular) mashup other apps or web services.

Essentially, Eric suggests two methods:

  1. Web service apps (e.g. Google Maps) implement the ability to have a user identifier passed in when they're called, and then expose an API to extract usage data for this identifier at a later date, which can then be rolled into the usage data for that user on the calling site
  2. Apps expose an API for passing in a tag destination URL and a user identifier which the app will ping with activity data for the user (so that the app can contribute usage data to whichever web analytics app the creator of the mashup is using)

I think both of these ideas have merit, but the second seems way more practical to me, since there would be an enormous overhead in retrieving the usage data - the analytics tool would have to pass in a list of user IDs which could be millions long.

We went through this kind of pain at WebAbacus when a client implemented a SOAP API for retrieving CMS data; because the API was designed to return information about a document at a time, it was appallingly slow when you wanted to retrieve data about thousands of documents in one go.

The challenges facing the second approach are also considerable, but manageable. The key thing would be constructing the right tag request with the information in it. The method that Eric suggests is too primitive; a better method would be to pass through the name of a JS file that the remote app could include, and the name of a JS function that would be called. But there would still be the problem of capturing the individual events within the app.

A third method that Eric doesn't suggest is to implement an API in the remote app which can pass back usage events to the 'main' app, which can then log them using its own measurement technology. My home-grown knowledge of JavaScript becomes fuzzy at this point, but I know there would be some issues with passing activity data from one site to another (most mashuppable apps place themselves in an iframe, which is technically another site). The other challenge would be a security/privacy one; apps which were prepared to pass click info to calling pages would potentially be open to attack from malicious sources.

Some of this comment is to miss the point of Eric's post, which is to propose some standards for Web 2.0 analysis and reporting; something I wholeheartedly endorse.

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August 23, 2006

J.L. Halsey Acquires ClickTracks and Hot Banana

News reaches me that marketing technology & services firm J.L. Halsey has acquired ClickTracks and Hot Banana.

It looks like J.L. Halsey is rounding out their e-marketing management & analysis capabilities. They'll need to keep acquiring, though - I predict they'll go for a bid management tool next. The Search Works, perhaps?

The acquisition also confirms my previous prediction that the independent web analytics industry is disappearing - being absorbed by bigger players in areas like online marketing, or, occasionally, merging.

My congratulations go to John Marshall, ClickTracks CEO, and his team. I've known John for a few years since he was in the running to be WebAbacus CEO; we've bumped into each other on the web analytics circuit (mainly at e-metrics summits) ever since. John, if you're reading this, I'll buy you a drink next time you're in Seattle, or I'm in Santa Cruz (could be a little while).

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August 22, 2006

Want to buy Kiko?

In a piece of rather sad news for the AJAX/Web 2.0 movement, online calendaring application vendor Kiko is putting itself up for sale for $50,000, via (of course) eBay. Seems that they couldn't get traction in their space and so have decided to throw in the towel.

The founders of Kiko have written some interesting comments here, here and here about their decision to close the business rather than plug on in the face of increased competition from, in particular, Google Calendar.

Comment on the internet has focused around the product's apparent lack of a business model, though this is rebutted by the team involved, who are quick to point out that it's easy to snipe from the sidelines. By their own admission Kiko was compromised by them becoming side-tracked and making some poor decisions (such as hiring decisions).

But as someone who's been in a start-up environment, I can't criticise anyone for making mistakes like these - at WebAbacus we made a number of poor hiring decisions (and even poorer decisions not to fire, or not to fire quickly enough) which definitely held us back; and it's always difficult to maintain focus when you'd dance naked for the first person to offer you $100 to do so.

I must say though that if I'd been assessing the ability of Kiko to succeed, I'd have been nervous (very nervous) about the big players entering the market with something extremely similar. Google has done it, Microsoft will do it, Yahoo! will do it; shared calendaring is one of those essential services which is rapidly becoming part of the basic computing infrastructure for users.

Of course, it's a very viable (just ask Seth at DeepMetrix) business plan to build a niche piece of technology and then sell it to one of the big players; but it's a fine line between surfing just in front of the big wave and being crushed by it. And if there are only n possible buyers for something like this, and n+1 (or 2, or 3) start-ups trying to sell their stuff on, someone's going to be disappointed.

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August 18, 2006

What were they thinking?

By now the story that AOL has released the search phrases used by over half a million of its users has gone round the web a hundred times. AOL themselves have admitted that they screwed up in letting this data out into the public domain in what was, apparently, an honestly-meant attempt to reach out to the academic community. But late to the party as I am on this (remember: this blog is your first stop for last week's news), I could hardly run a blog about data and analytics and not make some sort of comment.

AOL claimed (originally) that because the data was anonymised, it couldn't be linked back to individuals. But an article in the New York Times [requires registration] disproved that.

A number of sites have sprung up to help you explore and chuckle at the data. But there's some pretty alarming stuff there: searches like "how to kill your wife", for example.

Working as I do for MSN, there's very much a sense of "there but for the grace of God..." about this; though I have to say whoever thought this would be a good idea at AOL is in serious need of having their head examined. But the data that organisations like AOL, MSN and Google hold on searches is tremendously valuable - and dangerous in the wrong hands.

Update (22/8/06): AOL has fired two of the people responsible for the leak, and their CTO has resigned. And the Electronic Fontier Foundation has filed a complaint against AOL with the FTC.

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August 17, 2006

So Much Fanfare, So Few Hits

Interesting article in Newsweek about whether Google will succeed with its non-search products, and an interesting counterpoint blog post on why it dosesn't matter.

(Thanks to Slashdot for the heads-up)

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August 15, 2006

Going up in the world

I'm writing this post from 33,000 feet in the air, about half of the way into a flight from London Heathrow to Seattle. My watch (still on London time) says it's 10pm - the clock on my computer (Seattle time),2pm. So part of me is telling me that I should be getting on with work, whilst part of me tells me that it's 10pm and that I can justifiably kick back and relax. So I'm satisfying both voices (to an extent) by engaging in that most satisfying noodling-around-masquerading-as-work activity, blogging.

In the wake of this week's scares about security (particularly on planes flying from the UK to the US), I thought I'd add my thoughts to the million or so other bloggers who've done the same. Maybe I'm the first to do it from mid-air, though, because today's the first day since the crisis began when laptops have been allowed back on planes.

So how did I get on, literally and figuratively? Pretty well, up until I got on the plane: I dropped my bag off within about 10 minutes (thanks to BA's online check-in service), and was through security within about another 20 (oddly, they're searching every other passenger; I guess maybe they're hoping the terrorists travel in pairs). 

So I bought some lunch, had a coffee, did a little work, suddenly realised the flight was boarding and dashed to the gate, got on the plane (after being frisked a second time) and found my seat. This has been pretty efficient, I thought. My flight should leave more or less on time.

But then the fun started. One thing that's not been on the news (or not that I've noticed) is that every flight departing for the US has to get its entire passenger list vetted by the US authorities before it can take off. Our captain assured us that this would take no more than an hour and a half. In the event, it took about two and a half hours. By the time we took off I had almost lost the will to live.

Apparently the cause of our delay was that it took quite a long time to check some of the passengers' backgrounds, which implies a reasonably detailed level of data being retrieved (given the speed of data access these days). If I were making a movie of this process, I'd have a computer screen with a big list of the passengers' names in red, slowly turning green as each passenger's background checks out (there'd probably be a big, fast-moving animation on the screen, perhaps of hundreds of faces on passport photos, to illustrate that some serious data retrieval was going on in the background). The ones left at the end would be the troublemakers. The really bad ones would start flashing, or something, and then I'd cut back to the plane itself with the worried-looking crew staring at a little map of the plan on a PDA, with certain seats flashing red, and then to the occupants of those seats, looking nervous...

Anyway, I'm getting carried away. The serious point I was going to make was that this process is a sort of certification process. The computer pulls enough information from the back-end databases to decide that passenger A is green, whilst passenger B is red (or even - horror - flashing red). The data comes from trusted sources, so put together it's a bit like a certificate. So what if there was the option to have your identity 'certified'?

I'll explain what I mean. Ahead of travelling, you submit a bunch of information about yourself to the authorities (name, address, social security details, employer, bank details, etc). They go through this info and 'certify' your identity (based upon your passport number) as being trustworthy. In return, you get an easy ride through security, and your identity takes less time to check out when you're waiting on a plane on the tarmac.

The process would be a lot like having your web server's SSL certificate certified - the certificate is electronically signed by a trusted third-party (e.g. VeriSign, the trusty organisation that brings us the Crazy Frog) and, on that basis, your browser decides - quickly - that it can trust the server itself.

So if background checks are going to become a regular feature of air travel, it would speed things up if regular travellers in particular could certify their identity so that their background checks came out really quickly. You would have to agree to the certification process having access to a range of data which it might not even have access to now (e.g. bank data), and there would need to be a robust certificate revocation process (in case someone with a previously blameless record falls into a life of crime), but it could at least allow people to take a proactive approach to improving their security experience whilst flying. You could have fast-track security - and even dedicated flights themselves - for certified individuals. This would at least avoid the controversy surrounding existing proposals for targeted security, which (as one commentator put it succinctly) run the risk of introducing a new crime of 'flying whilst Muslim'.

There are all sorts of horrible privacy implications (though a well-designed certificate system should be able to mitigate some of these), and now I've written this little thesis, I'm not sure I agree with it or would sign up for it, but it's certainly an interesting idea (well, I think so). What do you think?

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August 14, 2006

Another day, another tool...

Lulu at the fair My quest for the perfect blogging tool may be of limited interest to anything to anyone other than me, but I'm excited today to learn of the release of Windows Live Writer, a new tool from my colleagues in the Windows Live team which makes it easy (at least I hope so - this is my first post with it) to create good-looking blog posts without having to suffer your blog provider's HTML-based authoring interface.

(By the way, the picture with this post - included to test WL Author's image-insertion capabilities - is an entirely unrelated one of my daughter at an impromptu fairground in Kensington Gardens).

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August 08, 2006

Second Life

Second_lives_414x259 Have just finished watching a very short Channel 4 programme about Second Life – featuring a woman who not only makes a healthy living selling jewellery, flowers and all sorts of other stuff inside the ‘game’, but also met her husband (rendered on-line as a rather trendy-looking blue metallic robot, rendered in real-life as a rather scruffy-looking geek), which prompted me to write the blog entry about Second Life that I’ve been meaning to write. Turns out that I’m hardly ahead of the curve on this – the BBC’s Newsnight current affairs programme was broadcast from Second Life back in January.

So what’s my insight? Well, there’s been much written about how Second Life will transform the world; here are a few thoughts about the impact it will have on marketing, particularly online marketing. Apologies if you’ve heard these before.

Firstly, let’s think about who’s going to be spending most of their time inside Second Life. I predict an inverse-square distribution of time spent in the game; or, put another way, 20% of users (‘residents’) will spend 80% of the time in the game. In fact, I reckon the skew could be even wider (perhaps something like 5%/95%). This means two things:

  • The people who spend most of their time in the game will be less engaged with the off-line world;
  • Most people who have a Second Life avatar will spend comparatively little time in the game.

The first of these is a delicate version of the criticism voiced by my wife when I mentioned the marketing opportunities in Second Life: “But all the people in there will be no-life geeks; so you won’t be able to sell them anything other than beer and pizzas”. Now, beer and pizzas are big business, but she probably has a point. These folks are perhaps too busy spending (and probably earning) Linden Dollars to respond to First-Life marketing very much.

For me, the second, much larger group is the more interesting one. These are people who may duck into Second Life occasionally to see a ‘live’ performance by a new band, or to visit an interactive tie-in for a TV show (geek threshold notwithstanding). I was interested today to discover slrul.com – an implementation of the Second Life API by Linden Labs (the game’s makers) that allows you to hyperlink directly to a position within Second Life. So I can envisage a future where an appreciable proportion of the population have access to Second Life (perhaps via some kind of visitor avatar, removing the need to register and create an avatar) and make frequent short visits to specific places within the world.

Once there, there’s the opportunity to start to build a profile of those visitors, and serve them marketing in the online environment which would be customised to them. I haven’t spent a lot of time in Second Life, but I’ve not yet seen much branded advertising; there’s an opportunity to use the same advertising real-estate in the game to serve different ads to two (or more different people – much as the same creative position online can be used to deliver different ads to different users today.

There’s more to come from me on this topic, but I’m going to close off this post now, as I have other stuff I have to get on with. Any thoughts?

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August 04, 2006

Blogging from Word

So, I haven’t posted on this blog in a while – must try harder. My only excuse is that I’ve been away on holiday for a few weeks (after finishing at Foviance) and then running around a little getting new laptops etc up and running now that I’m on board at Microsoft.

Or maybe it’s the fact that, despite my generally high regard for it, I don’t much like the blogging interface for Typepad? It sure could use a Web 2.0 redesign – it’s painfully heavy to use, with endless server round-trips and no anychronous interface elements at all (it’s funny how quickly you get used to the pleasures of things like backpack once you start to use them).

My wife uses a little (and horribly buggy) app called RocketPost for her blog. But it really is the most unreliable piece of software I’ve ever used, and not even free. So I’m excited by the new blogging functionality in Word 2007, which I’m using (I never thought I’d say this, but there are many other wonderful things about Word 2007, but I won’t go into them here).

Having said that, if this post fails to make it into my blog, I shall edit it to remove the kind words in the paragraph above. But if it does work, maybe I’ll be able to blog a little more frequently in future.

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