Tuesday, 8 November 2011

The other reason for Google+

I'll start this one with admission; I like and use a lot of Google's products. I've got an Android phone, have been singing the praises of Google+, Google's my default search engine and GMail is fantastic.

Like US
antitrust regulators though, I'm starting to wonder if Google might have too much power. If Microsoft had a case to answer in the way that Explorer was been bundled with Windows, then wouldn't Google have similar issues with the increasing integration between its products?

Google has a large suite of products, despite recently closing down
Labs and many of them are tied very closely to its search engine.

Search Google for any term that could reasonably return a map and you'll get a map included in the results. A Google map, naturally.

That's fair enough; I was looking for Leeds and Google fetched me a map of Leeds. Maps can probably be included in a legitimate list of the things I might have wanted. Unless you really want to get picky (and if you're
Streetmap, then you probably do,) all Google's really doing is returning a graphical result rather than a text based one.

The trouble with this type of justification, is that you can push it into almost any sphere that the web touches. And the web now touches virtually every part of our lives. If I want to do
anything then you can say that I'm looking to do it. Which means I'm searching for it. Which means it's a legitimate product for Google to develop and cross promote from its search engine.

This is exactly the argument that Eric Schmidt is
pushing with regulators in the US.

"[W]hat is crucial to understand is that universal search results are not separate 'products and services' from Google.

Rather, the incorporation of thematic and conventional results in universal search reflects Google’s effort to connect users to the information that is most responsive to their queries.

Because of this, the question of whether we 'favor' our 'products and services' is based on an inaccurate premise.

These universal search results are our search service — they are not some separate 'Google content' that can be 'favored'."
(Eric Schmidt. Quote borrowed from The Register)

Google's search market share in the UK is over 90% according to Hitwise. That's a hell of a lot of potential abuse of a dominant market position. I'm not saying that Google is abusing its position - the legal work on my house move is costing quite enough - but if everything Google builds can be integrated into search because it's all one product, then where do you stop? Taking a broad definition of the term, virtually everything starts with a search.

If want to know about a location then I need a map, Google has maps so Google directs me to its own maps.

If I need a flight, Google has a new flights product, so I can be sent there rather than to Skyscanner.

If I'd like to call someone, Google has phones and voice and video chat.

It's difficult to think of any service-based category that Google couldn't decide to enter, develop its own product, cross-promote it from search and use that same Eric Schmidt argument as a justification. Google Legal? Google Estate Agents? Music? News? Why not? You're searching for information and content.

As much as I like Google+, I missed one of its primary benefits to Google the first time around and it only became clear when the black product bar arrived, that now sits on top of just about all Google products.

By closely integrating their product offer - essentially by making it all one product - Google are playing the same game that Microsoft tried to play with Internet Explorer. Compare Schmidt's argument above, with this Microsoft justification for bundling Internet Explorer with Windows.

"Microsoft stated that the merging of Microsoft Windows and Internet Explorer was the result of innovation and competition, that the two were now the same product and were inextricably linked together and that consumers were now getting all the benefits of IE for free"
(Wikipedia link)

Sound familiar?

Microsoft ended up in a compromise with regulators, that was likely a much better outcome for them than if they'd just stubbornly refused to un-bundle Explorer from Windows.

Google seem to be playing the same strategy: Integrate your products so closely that you can argue they're not actually separate products at all. In that context, Google+ needs to be a window onto everything that Google does. It also explains why you'd ruthlessly kill off Labs, which might otherwise be cited as hosting examples of off-shoot products that have nothing to do with search.

Google won't get away from an antitrust investigation completely unscathed but it seems to be a good strategy to ape Microsoft and try to avoid a ruling that's heavily weighted against what they want to do as a business.

For their part, US regulators need to recognise Google+ for what it is: not just an aggressive move into social, but a very clever defensive move to counter a future antitrust ruling.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Book Review: Moneyball

Continuing Wallpapering Fog's series of occasional book reviews, we have Moneyball, a book about baseball statistics and a team called the Oakland A's that I picked up on the recommendation of @AdContrarian.

I know very little about baseball, other than that I watched a game on TV in a hotel room in New York once and found it quite dull. Before reading Moneyball, I'd never heard of the Oakland A's, but none of that matters. Moneyball is a stunning piece of work.

Baseball is the background for a story about how to change a business. The huge number of games that get played and the set-play nature of the games make baseball a statistical goldmine, where a few amateur analysts had noticed that a lot of long-standing, established wisdom about the game, was wrong.

One team - The Oakland A's - take this knowledge, which was freely available to anybody with an interest and set about building a team based on what they can prove about the tactics and the types of players that win games. They turn on its head the idea that the team with the highest paid players will always come out on top.

Michael Lewis works potentially dry statistics into a fabulous narrative, interspersed with the life stories of Oakland's oddball players, who don't look like athletes and would be rejected on any traditional evaluation of whether they're suited to the game. Overweight, old, injured and with bizarre throwing actions, they're mainstream baseball's rejects, but they've got stats that say they can hit...

As I read Moneyball, comparable problems from business, marketing and other sports kept jumping out. You find that you break from the page to wonder if the management at Stoke City FC have read it, or to curse (having worked for a year at EMI) that more people in the music industry haven't. You can't help wondering how many of our own established marketing practices are wrong and which ones we could prove definitely are. Baseball's brimming with statistics and yet the task of breaking established ways of doing things is incredibly hard, even when the evidence is staring you in the face. Marketing's a black art at the best of times, where it's much harder to produce the battering ram of hard stats that at least point the right way.

For me, as a statistician, Moneyball inspires, by showing just what can be achieved by dispassionate analysis and is daunting in its illustration of just how hard you have to work, to make the changes you've proved need to be made. Baseball went thirty years before anybody with money and control of a team paid attention to the hard evidence that established tactics and the usual metrics that were used to value players actually harmed your chances of winning.

Once one team picked up this knowledge and started to apply it (via a General Manager who couldn't care about who he needed to fire, intimidate or cajole to get his way), years went by before other managers started to ask how they were being consistently out-performed by a team with only a third of their player budget.

In short, read Moneyball. You don't need to know anything about baseball (though a little understanding of a few key terms, like base stealing, helps) and I promise by the time you've finished it, you'll want to make changes to the way that you work. It's the best non-fiction book I've read this year, by miles.