Posts tagged well
On the surface, Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference last week was all about new developer tools—well, that and some upcoming features in Mac OS X and iOS, its computer and handheld operating systems. Step back, though, and you can see the outlines of something much bigger: a hint of how Apple sees its future beyond smartphones and tablets.
Brace yourself, because it looks momentous. Think of it as Apple’s plan for your new iLifestyle.
Gathering The Clues At WWDC
Some folks already live deep in the Apple ecosystem. But those iPhones, iPads and Macs were just the first step. Apple now looks to be laying a foundation for a much bigger and more pervasive platform that will bridge iOS and Mac OS X, and move outward from there to encompass practically every aspect of its users’ lives.
It all starts with developers. After years of restrictions, Apple offered numerous software changes that will start opening up its tightly controlled operating software in still-limited yet significant ways. It showered iOS developers with 4,000 new APIs (see our API explainer) and new access to long-desired functions. For instance, apps will be able to communicate with each other, reaching outside those limited and isolating “sandboxes”; they’ll also be able to tap the identity-verification functions of the TouchID fingerprint scanner introduced in the iPhone 5S last year.
The changes will make apps more useful and open up possibilities for new app-based innovations. And that process could get a boost from Swift, Apple’s new programming language, which is designed to make building iOS apps fast and easy work.
Meanwhile, Apple also took initial steps toward some entirely new fields—preliminary moves that are easy to discount because Apple didn’t draw that much attention to them.
In a “blink and you’ll miss it” portion of the presentation, Apple offered a (very) brief glimpse of HomeKit, its iPhone-driven foray into smart homes. The company didn’t offer many details at the time, and its developer document on the HomeKit framework is also fairly sketchy. But the idea is to cut through the clutter of scattershot connected-home approaches by providing a common protocol for automated lighting, climate and security systems so that “third-party apps”—i.e., on the iPhone—can direct them.
In a similar way, HealthKit aims to create a central repository for the jumble of data collected by health trackers and fitness apps, one that can be of use to both you and your doctor.
The big notion in both introductions is “unification.” That word is key to Apple’s plans.
What Apple Aims To Fix
There’s tremendous opportunity in smart homes, mostly because no one has managed to make them work well for the average consumer. In that sense, the connected-home industry is essentially broken.
Right now, wiring up your home involves wading through way too many complex decisions. Should you do it yourself or let Comcast manage it for you? You have to sort through standards (Zigbee? Z-wave? Insteon?) and weigh other options (hub or no hub? Wi-Fi or Ethernet? Throw in your lot with a single manufacturer or mix and match products?). Further complicating things is the fact that most of these approaches are incompatible, so heading down one path essentially means you have to start all over if you change your mind.
Apple has a knack for stepping into nascent, chaotic markets and imposing order with a streamlined offering that, often enough, turns into a blockbuster hit. It’s clearly betting it can do exactly that for smart homes. As the company put it in its developer documentation:
Home Kit makes possible a marketplace where the app a user controls their home with doesn’t have to be created by the vendor who made their home automation accessories, and where home automation accessories from multiple vendors can all be integrated into a single coherent whole without those vendors having to coordinate directly with each other.
Likewise, Apple wants to bring together the piecemeal information gathered by health and fitness apps and make sense of it all. There’s a lot of data from step trackers, heart rate monitors, smart clothes and such, and not all of it lines up.
See also: Why The Quantified Self Needs A Monopoly
In Apple’s vision, the iPhone will match up the metrics and fill in gaps where it can. Actually deriving meaning from all that data in ways that are useful to healthcare providers is a trickier proposition. So the company partnered with the Mayo Clinic and other healthcare centers for their expertise.
It’s not a stretch to think Apple will pull together its health and smart home initiatives. You can easily imagine HealthKit collecting data from connected health gadgets around the home, like digital scales and blood pressure monitors. That makes it a short hop from automating our lights to managing our health and wellness.
Take things just a step further, and Apple’s systems could learn our behaviors and anticipate what we need before we know it ourselves. Lights might change to a soothing color when the system knows I’m tense. My devices could power off automatically because bedtime is near. Diet notifications might land on my wrist as soon as I open the fridge between meals.
Now extrapolate just a bit farther—after all, Apple probably has. A few months ago, it got behind the wheel with CarPlay, its first attempt at pushing iOS into the automobile dashboard. A few months from now, CEO Tim Cook is expected to introduce a new wearable device. So instead of relying on other companies’ electronics, there may soon be a sweep of Apple products all plugging seamlessly into the iLifestyle.
What Apple Gets In Return: The New iLifestyle
Supposing Apple does unify the car, the wrist, the pocket and your desk to manage your home and your health, there’s no way around the fact that it’s going to know a lot about you. An awful lot. And if that’s Apple’s end game, there’s no doubt it will set privacy advocates on edge.
That’s where TouchID—currently, the iPhone’s somewhat gimmicky fingerprint scanner—might alleviate some privacy fears. So far, most talk about this biometric authentication has focused on whether it could be used for mobile security or payments. (PayPal is reportedly exploring that very notion.)
But TouchID could also easily emerge as the guardian of your digital lifestyle by requiring biometric proof of your identity before unlocking your health data or home controls—even your car. (That might be an especially compelling proposition should Apple mount the scanner on an iWatch.) The likely consumer message: You can trust the system because your literal hearts and homes are safeguarded by your own fingerprint.
None of this will happen overnight, of course. But Apple has laid down a serious iLifestyle foundation. Now all it has to do is deliver on it—and convince people that an Apple-branded way of life is what they wanted all along.
Images courtesy of Flickr users Jon Rawlinson (Apple store logo), Mackenzie Kosut (Apple home with view), Fauzan Alfi (Apple gadgets), Philipp Zumtobel (iWatch concept), Blake Patterson (Tim Cook in motion). Carplay image courtesy of Apple.
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Posted by n8ngrimm
The eCommerce SEO community is ignoring a huge opportunity by focusing almost exclusively on Google. But Google is the biggest search engine, right? Actually, if you are in eCommerce, Amazon should be far more important to you than Google, because it has roughly three times more search volume for products.
The New York Times reported:
“In 2009, nearly a quarter of shoppers started research for an online purchase on a search engine like Google and 18 percent started on Amazon, according to a Forrester Research study. By last year, almost a third started on Amazon and just 13 percent on a search engine. Product searches on Amazon have grown 73 percent over the last year while searches on Google Shopping have been flat, according to comScore.”
When researching this post, I searched Moz.com for already-published material about ranking in Amazon. All I found was a
single Q&A with five responses and little information. Conversely, there are many, many questions on Moz about how to rank your Amazon product pages in Google. It’s all very Google-focused.
I joined DNA Response and the eCommerce vertical from the world of education lead-gen where most of our traffic came from Google. I empathize with the Google myopia from which most SEOs suffer. My goal with this post is twofold:
- First, I want to convince all of the eCommerce search marketers to spend a lot more energy optimizing Amazon.
- Second, I want to provide marketers with a basic understanding of Amazon’s organic ranking algorithm.
Due to the lack of existing content on this topic, I felt the need to be somewhat comprehensive. I will address several conceptual problems I encountered when switching from a Google-focused niche to Amazon then share everything I have learned about Amazon’s ranking algorithms.
(Side note: I would like to apologize in advance that many of the links in my article require an Amazon Seller Central login to view. Amazon requires a login for most of their seller resources.)
Table of contents
- Key Differences Between Amazon and Google
- Results Page Mechanics
- Ranking Factors
- Track your Progress
- Other Visibility Systems
- In Closing
This section is mostly theoretical. Amazon is a fundamentally different search engine than Google so my thinking necessarily evolved when I made the switch from optimizing websites in Google to optimizing products in Amazon.
Conversion vs. user satisfaction
Google built a search engine so they could sell ads. Amazon built a search engine so they can sell products. That creates a basic difference in how each measures success. Google is successful when you find your answer quickly because you will return, perform more searches, and click on ads. Amazon is successful when you to find a great product at a great price and buy it because you will return and buy more products. Google’s search success metrics will revolve around dwell time, click-through-rate, search refinement rate, etc. Amazon can measure success by revenue or gross margin per search. If Amazon can sell more products by rearranging their search results, they will do that.
Because the two search engines measure success differently, the metrics you analyze to predict rankings success change. When optimizing for Google you focus on improving user engagement metrics and building external trust factors, because those factors tell Google that the users it sends to your website will be happy. Happy users equals more money for Google. When optimizing for Amazon,
focus on improving conversion rates. More conversions equals more money for Amazon.
Structured vs. unstructured data
While Google has been encouraging site owners to add more structured data to their websites, the data in Amazon’s index is already completely structured. Here’s a screenshot of the page where a seller enters data about a product. Every field has a name, a definition, and sometimes a defined list of valid values:
Now compare that to the basic way to build a web page.
Site owners have a blank slate where they can express… anything. In Amazon, you need to give Amazon exactly what they want in the format they specify. Because Amazon has already determined the type of information you can give them about your product, spend time providing accurate and complete product data.
On-page vs. on-page + off-page
With Google you spend a lot of your time optimizing your off-page signals. You build links, manage a social media presence, and encourage brand mentions because Google is measuring those signals to calculate the popularity and trust of your website. While these activities may have secondary effects on a products ranking in Amazon (greater brand awareness creates more branded search leading to a higher sales rank and conversion rate leading Amazon to rank you higher), building a link to your blue widget page on Amazon will not directly improve its ranking for the search term “blue widget.”
On Amazon, that leaves you with optimizing for conversions, which can be frustrating due to the sparse user behavior data. Here’s all the data you get about user behavior on your listings.
Compared to an analytics package like Google Analytics, it’s nothing. You can’t even view a product’s page views or conversion rate over time without downloading one report per day, week, or month and combining it in Excel.
Compelling vs. unique content
When I first started working with online marketplaces I thought, “We need to write a unique description and bullet points for every marketplace we sell on or else Google won’t rank us well.” I didn’t realize that the bulk of our search traffic in Amazon comes from internal site search and Amazon doesn’t care if your listing has the exact same title, bullets, description, and images as another website. They just care if it converts their searchers into purchasers.
(By the way, I’m not saying that compelling and unique content are mutually exclusive.)
To properly interpret what a ranking means, you should understand the anatomy of a search results page. Like Google, Amazon’s search results pages can have several different looks depending on what type of search you entered.
Anatomy of the results page
Amazon has two formats for their results: a list view for searches in all departments and a gallery view when you search within a specific department or category. The list view contains 15 results per page (sometimes there are 16 results on the first page). The gallery results have 24 results per page.
Some other important elements of the results page are the filter fields in the left sidebar. When a user clicks on a filter, they will see a subset of the original search results. This is one reason why it is so important to complete as many fields as possible when you create a product in Amazon. For instance, Amazon will not know that a blue widget is blue if you don’t fill out the color map field, which means it will be excluded when a user filters to only show blue products.
Finally, there are sponsored products. These are pay-per-click results that show up on the bottom of a search results page. In my experience, if I would like my ad to appear for a specific query, I must include all of the words in the query somewhere in my title or bullet points.
Query string parameters
Amazon builds the URL of a search results page with query parameters much like Google. There are many parameters that might be used but I will review the three most useful. To learn more about the parameters Amazon uses, play around with the filter fields available in the left sidebar and watch how the URL of the search page changes.
field-keywords: Your query in the search bar
node: A numeric string identifying a node in Amazon’s taxonomy (category tree). To determine which number corresponds to which category, navigate to the category on Amazon and find the number Amazon uses in the node parameter in the URL. For instance, the node ID for the Electronics category is 172282. The node IDs are also available in Amazon’s Browse Tree Guides (Seller Central login required).
field-brandtextbin: This represents the brand field. This field is very useful if you want to track how well your product ranks among other products from the same brand. It will not return results if it is the only parameter you include in the search URL. To ensure that you see all products from that brand, include the brand name in the field-keywords parameter.
Here’s how it looks when you use each of these three parameters in one search:
That URL will search for blue widgets in the electronics category where the brand is pioneer.
First, let’s see what Amazon themselves say about how they rank products. This is an excerpt from a help file in Seller Central titled,
Using Search and Browse (Seller Central login required).
“Search is the primary way that customers use to locate products on Amazon.com. Customers search by entering keywords, which are matched against the search terms you enter for a product. Well-chosen search terms increase a product’s visibility and sales. The number of views for a product detail page can increase significantly by adding just one additional search term – if it’s a relevant and compelling term.
“Factors such as price, availability, selection, and sales history help determine where your product appears in a customer’s search results. In general, better-selling products tend to be towards the beginning of the results list. As your sales of a product increase, so does your placement.”
Several statements in those paragraphs are very illuminating. First, search is the “primary” way customers find products. I interpret this to mean that most of the time, Amazon users will perform a search before purchasing. If you want your products to be found on Amazon you must think about search. Second, Amazon mentions some of the data they use to rank products. Specifically they mention the search terms, price, availability (meaning inventory levels), selection (not sure what that means), and sales history.
I will expand on each of these factors and include several more where I have observed an effect on rankings. To further clarify the type of effect each factor has on rankings I separated the factors into two categories:
performance factors and relevance factors. A performance factor improves rankings by showing Amazon they will make more money by ranking the product, a relevance factor shows Amazon that a product is relevant to the search of a user.
Performance factors are pretty simple. Amazon wants to rank the product that will generate the most profit for them at the top of each search result. Each of these factors will indicate to Amazon that a product will sell well when ranked well.
This is a pretty obvious factor to mention, albeit a difficult factor to improve with confidence. Amazon does share units and sessions but does not provide enough data to run A/B tests or even control for specific traffic sources. To find conversion data in Seller Central, navigate to Reports >> Business Reports >> Detail Page Sales and Traffic. Make sure the Unit Session Percentage column is visible. This is simply the number of units ordered divided by the number of sessions your listing received.
Amazon’s Definition of a session is:
Sessions are visits to your Amazon.com pages by a user. All activity within a 24-hour period is considered a session.
If your offer is competing with other offers for the same product, be sure to weight your units ordered by your buy box percentage. Otherwise, you product will look like it converts more poorly than it actually does. Amazon will show you all of the sessions a listing received regardless of who was in the buy box but they only show you the number of units ordered from your seller account. If you had 50% of the buy box for a time period you probably received half of the total orders for the listing. Therefore the unit session percentage reported should be half of the unit session percentage observed across all sellers.
Amazon strongly encourages sellers to follow their image guidelines. On their image requirements page they encourage sellers to upload images larger than 1000×1000 pixels (the size required to activate their zoom feature) by saying, “Zoom has proven to enhance sales.”
By including images that meet Amazon’s guidelines, you will ensure that your listings are not suppressed (which kills all sales) and possibly increase conversion rates. As Amazon stated on their Search and Browse page, more sales equals better rankings.
Price often strongly influences conversion rates and units sales. If the price on Amazon compares well to the same product offered on other websites and retail stores, comparison shoppers will be more likely to buy from Amazon and vice versa.
Also consider how your product’s price compares to other products in the same category. My company used to sell a battery-operated vacuum pooper scooper that cost $150. It never ranked very well for searches like “pooper scooper.” I believe this was partly because every other pooper scooper costs between $10 and $20. If customers are used to paying $10 for a pooper scooper it takes a lot of convincing for them to shell out $150. Amazon either observed a low conversion rate and did not rank the product or predicted a low conversion rate and did not rank the product. Either way, the price probably kept our $150 pooper scooper from ranking well.
Amazon will analyze the following fields to determine if a product is relevant to a search.
The title of a product is one of the most important places to include keywords. Amazon suggests incorporating the following attributes in product titles.
- Brand and description
- Product line
- Material or key ingredient
What they do not mention, probably because they want to discourage keyword stuffing, is that you should include an important keyword in the product title. A title is also critical for earning a high click-through-rate and conversion rate by clearly stating what the product is. Since sales factor prominently in ranking, keyword-stuffed titles that discourage users from clicking will ultimately harm your rankings.
As an example of an optimized title, we sell a mineral sunscreen called Brush on Block. In addition to the brand/product name we want to make sure to include the keyword “mineral sunscreen” in the title. It helps users understand what the product is and it’s a valuable keyword. Our title is Brush On Block Broad Spectrum SPF 30 Mineral Powder Sunscreen.
The brand field in Amazon appears here on the product page. It will always link to a search result of more products from the same brand. When you list products, always include the proper brand name. It is very common for consumers to search for products based on their brand name, so be sure to include the correct one. If a product has multiple brand names you could use, use Google’s Keyword Planner to see which brand is searched most frequently.
Bullets and description
Anecdotally, the bullet points seem to be more influential on search rankings than the description. One of our clients has a line of products with a celebrity’s name attached to the product. After doing some keyword research in Google, we found that there were several popular ways to search for the celebrity’s name. There were many books written by the celebrity already ranking for these versions of their name. The day after including the celebrity’s name in the bullet points, our products began to appear on the second and third pages of results.
If you are used to keywords for SEO and PPC, it’s easy to use the “search terms” fields on Amazon incorrectly. I’ve even seen articles written by industry experts that provide sub-optimal advice for using these fields. If you have a Seller Central account, the
Search and Browse help page is worth reading. I’ll summarize what they say as well as give some examples share a few main points here. First, I’ll spell out the guidelines:
- There are five fields that accept 50 characters each.
- You do not need to repeat any words
- Commas will be ignored
- Quotation marks will unnecessarily limit your keyword
- Including multiple variations of the same word is unnecessary
- Including common misspellings is unnecessary
- Order of the search terms may matter
- Do include synonyms or spelling variations (e.g. include sun screen and sunscreen)
When I first started filling out search terms fields in Amazon, I would have done something like this:
Search Term 1
Search Term 2
Search Term 3
Search Term 4
Search Term 5
Applying all the rules above, you actually want your fields to look like this.
Search Term 1
|brush on block mineral powder sunscreen sunblock|
Search Term 2
|sun screen protection spf 30 suntan lotion tan kid|
Search Term 3
|baby spray face child family natural skin sport|
Search Term 4
|cream boat women men infant spf30 travel small|
Search Term 5
|solar defense uv facial sensitive babies|
No word is repeated, there are no variations of the same word and I’ve used as many characters as possible for maximum exposure.
The search terms fields do influence ranking on Amazon. As an easy-to-prove example, one of our clients identified a common spelling of their brand name with only a single, outdated result. After adding the term to the Search Terms fields in all of their products, all of their products began to appear for that spelling of their brand name within an hour.
I have not seen anything published about Amazon using seller names to build their search results, but I have seen a few situations that lead me to believe your seller name is used in Amazon’s organic search algorithm:
Situation 1: We sell a line of cell phone cases. There are over 17 million cell phone cases listed on Amazon. I have no idea where ours rank, but it’s nowhere near the top. However, if I search for “cell phone case” + our seller name, I can see all of our cell phone cases close to the top of the results.
Situation 2: We sell some workout DVDs. These do not rank very well amongst the 242,000 results for “workout,” but when you add part of our seller name (it’s made up of two words), you can see our workout DVDs on the first page of results.
Both situations demonstrate that Amazon is using your seller name as part of the content they index for search results. It may not be a good idea to change your seller name to optimize for your top keyword, but it will be used in search.
Now that you know what factors Amazon is using to rank products it’s time to get to work. Remember to track your progress to see if your changes help or hurt your rankings. There is a relative lack of testing between ranking factors on Amazon compared to Google, so act with care. To track rankings, I made a simple Google Spreadsheet (which can be improved upon, I’m sure),
Here is the process I use to record rankings every day.
- Make a copy of the spreadsheet so you can edit it.
- Enter the ASINs you would like to track in column E (Don’t edit columns F through H).
- Keep a list of Keywords you want to track in column J.
- Copy the first keyword from Column J and paste it into cell B1.
- Wait a few seconds for the spreadsheet to load the top 240 ASINs returned by Amazon.
- When Columns A through C are full of data, you should see your rankings in column G.
- In the example spreadsheet, I would highlight columns E3:H5 and copy
- To store the data, go to the Historical Data tab and paste values at the end of the table.
- To paste values only, right click the first empty cell in column A, mouse over “Paste special,” and click on “Paste values only.”
- If you do a normal paste, it will preserve the formulas and look wrong.
To analyze rankings changes over time, I download the file as an .xlsx, open it with Excel, highlight the table of data on the Historical Data tab and insert a pivot chart.
(Disclaimer: This spreadsheet uses scraped data from Amazon. Amazon may change the structure of their pages at any time, and if it does, this sheet may stop working. If this data is important to your business, make sure you understand the xpath used to scrape Amazon and are ready to fix it if Amazon changes its HTML.)
Here are a few other factors that may help increase your sales or ranking. I do not have any explicit statements, studies, or experience proving a relationship but they are worth trying out. I would encourage you to study the effect of these fields on rankings and sales.
Next to every search result is a list of attributes that allow users to filter their results. For your top keywords, make sure your product has a value filled out for each category of fields to ensure your product is still visible when users filter by color, size, or any other attribute. The Category, Eligible for Free Shipping, Brand, Avg. Customer Review, and Condition fields are visible on most search results.
More reviews and better ratings might lead to better sales. Most products that rank well for broad searches have many reviews but it is difficult to tell if the good reviews lead to more sales or if high sales volume leads to more reviews. You can encourage more reviews by emailing your purchasers and asking them to leave a review.
best sellers lists and reports a listings best sellers ranking for relevant categories on the listing page. This can be a quick way to see how your products’ sales histories compare to similar products.
What if you could combine the sales histories of several similar products into one? Well, maybe you can. If you sell a product with several size or color options you can list them as a variation and combine them into one listing. While Amazon will combine the reviews from all listings onto the new listing, it’s unclear whether this leads to better rankings by combining the sales histories of the different options.
For instructions on configuring your products as parent/child listings, see the
Creating Parent/Child Variation Relationships page in Seller Central (login required).
We have observed several products with significant search volume for the manufacturer part number (MPN). Check with the manufacturer to make sure you have the correct MPN on your listing.
There are so many topics related to selling on Amazon that I cannot possibly cover them in one blog post. I would like to mention that even with the best organic optimization you can still have poor sales for a product if you don’t understand how to win the Amazon buy box, maintain a good seller rating, or keep inventory in stock. There are a lot of good resources that already exist on these topics.
I hope that, as a community, we can continue to study and educate ourselves on Amazon’s algorithm. It’s a more important search engine than Google in the world of eCommerce, and it continues to gain market share in the US. Ignore it at your own risk.
Did I miss anything? Do you have any questions about your company’s products? Ask away in the comments or get in touch with us at DNA Response.
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YouTube announced the released of a new tool today that assesses the level of video quality that your Internet service provider is capable of streamin YouTube videos. If you live in the US or Canada, you can use the Google Video Quality Report tool to find out how well your ISP stacks up. If you often run into issues with videos buffering, then this report will shed some light as to why. The report will also offer tips to make YouTube play better. If your ISP isn’t streaming videos at the level of quality you would like, you can also use the tool […]
The post New YouTube Tool Reveals How Well Your ISP Can Stream Video by @mattsouthern appeared first on Search Engine Journal.
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Last week saw a flurry of speculation on the future of Google+ after the head of Google+, Vic Gundotra, announced his departure. The question raised most often is whether Google+ is going away. Although some are reporting that G+ will kill the product side, the platform (in terms of data collection…
Please visit Search Engine Land for the full article.
In just two months since Facebook dropped $19 billion to buy WhatsApp, the five-year-old mobile messaging app on Tuesday announced its active user base has grown to more than half a billion people.
On February 17, the day it was acquired by Facebook, the company said it had 450 million monthly active users worldwide and over 320 million daily active users.
“In the last few months, we’ve grown fastest in countries like Brazil, India, Mexico, and Russia, and our users are sharing more than 700 million photos and 100 million videos every single day,” WhatsApp said on its blog. “We could go on, but for now, it’s more important that we get back to work.”
Facebook: The Key To Growth
This is not the first time that an app has seen a major pop in users after it was acquired by Facebook. When Facebook bought Instagram in April 2012, the service boasted some 30 million users. In one month after the deal, Instagram gained 20 million new users. By July, Instagram grew to 80 million active users. Adding an Android app in addition to its iPhone app certainly helped, but the Facebook effect is a definite reality. Instagram managed to increase its user base by more than 10 million users on average per month.
WhatsApp seems to be having a similar growth spurt, gaining roughly 25 million users each month since the Facebook deal was announced. Even for an app with astronomic growth like WhatsApp, those are impressive numbers.
It’s clear that WhatsApp has the legs to grow in both developed and emerging markets, especially as a cheap alternative to SMS. The chart below from analytics firm comScore (which doesn’t include WhatsApp’s fifth year of existence) shows just how much the service had grown prior to being bought by Facebook.
At this rate, it should only take less than a year for WhatsApp to reach a billion users worldwide.
Facebook is still in the process of completing its $19 billion purchase of WhatsApp, which included cash and various stock options. The deal has been approved by the Federal Trade Commission but still needs international regulatory approval before the purchase can become final.
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SEO: Why Amazon's Navigation Works So Well
Judging by the number of Google searches for which Amazon ranks, it's easy to see that Amazon is doing a lot right when it comes to search engine optimization. It's hard to pinpoint one thing that Amazon does well in regards to SEO, but its navigation …
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Dennis Crowley’s vision for Foursquare extends way beyond the check-in.
The cofounder of CEO and Foursquare envisions a future where our mobile devices learn our behavior and provide suggestions for events, or what to eat for dinner based on a taste profile the company has developed by observing our behavior over the years. People will spend less time on decisions and more time on experience, because our phones can make them for us.
The simple act of “checking-in,” or sharing your location data with friends on various social networks, does more than alert followers to where you are—it creates a data point that contains significant personal information about you and the businesses you patronize. Foursquare’s aim is to turn that data into new services for you—and its advertisers and partners, of course.
Foursquare check-ins help map out the physical space of buildings, businesses and organizations around us, often with more accuracy than Google Maps or other location services. By using the data of 45 million users, the company has created a kind of crowdsourced map, or as the company calls it, “venue polygons.”
Beyond mapping location data around the world, Foursquare is also mapping interests—in the process, profiling its users based on where they eat and shop and what they say about their experiences. The company learns your habits—what restaurants you like, when you visit them, and what you order. Using a variety of tactics like sentiment and time analysis, Foursquare can build a cache of personal information it then uses to provide you with suggestions on where to go in the future. (Some of those suggestions will be delivered on behalf of Foursquare’s advertising partners.)
The idea of your mobile device telling you where to go next is still fairly new. The company only rolled out real-time suggestions last fall. Foursquare is still experimenting with how to deliver the best possible suggestions in hopes of ultimately turning your mobile device into the friend that plans your next night out.
I sat down with Crowley to talk about the decision engine Foursquare is building, and how that factors into the future of anticipatory computing.
Building The Check-In
ReadWrite: What was your idea behind Foursquare? Where did you see it when it began compared to now?
Dennis Crowley: Back in 2009, I had a company before this that we brought to Google called Dodgeball. It was very much about how to use mobile phones, awareness of where all your friends are, and the way they’re moving through the city. We were working on that project at Google before we left, and we realized that even though check-in was really interesting in the right tense, what was really interesting was if you had all this check-in data going back months or years. What could you do with that?
Could you predict the types of places that people would want to go to and can help people find places and neighborhoods that their friends have been to that they’ve never known about? That was early exploration with Foursquare. Now we fast forward; this company’s five years old, and it’s a big part of what we’re doing.
How do we make software for mobile phones that enables people to find discover all these hidden gems in the real world that are all over the place, and could be in your neighborhood, they could be round the corner from where you work, or could be in a new city? How could we get all the signal that we’re getting from all over the world to help people find these awesome things that are in the real world?
RW: Can you talk a little bit about Foursquare demographics?
DC: We’re at 45 million users at this point, and we still see somewhere between 5 and 6 million check-ins per day. In 2009, 2010, we had that explosive growth in Japan, and were surprised to see it picked up all through Europe and through Southeast Asia. If you look at it now, there are three markets that are growing very quickly, which are Brazil, Russia and Turkey.
We’re all the point now where our revenue model in the U.S. is working very well, with six different revenue generating products, four of them advertising-based. How do we take those advertising products, and bring them to the international markets that are proving to be very successful for us? Can we monetize those markets as well? It’s a big part of a lot of stuff we’re thinking about this year.
RW: We talked earlier about the Foursquare API. Something like 50,000 developers have accessed it. How do you work with developers or encourage developers to implement Foursquare for either locations services or other parts of the application?
DC: A lot of the usage of the API is tagging the places. So it’s [like], I took a photo, a video, soundfile, creating a blog post here, which is great. I think there’s a lot of other things that can be done with the API.
Some of the interesting [uses] with Flickr, for example, you can tie your Flickr photos to your Foursquare. Pinterest is using Foursquare places to power your custom list. With Uber, you can say “Hey pick me up at JFK,” which is powered by the Foursquare data set. That stuff is pretty great.
Early on, we were really selling the API to folks—not with money, but like, “Hey, you should use our platform, it’s better than what’s out there.” It was tricky in the beginning, but now it’s the default location database that people use. It’s really rewarding for this team to see an app of the week that people are talking about on TechCrunch, and see they’re doing something with location and using the Foursquare API.
RW: So the API has been open for as long as Foursquare existed?
DC: Since the summer of 2009. I remember Naveen [Selvadurai, cofounder of Foursquare] and I had to decide: do we want to build an Android app, or an API? If we build the API we can get an Android app out of it. And we got a Blackberry app, and a Windows app. And 10 other things got built on top of it. Then it blossomed into a huge developer community.
RW: So going back to the location-based services, sometimes I try to get my friends to use Foursquare, and people are a little worried about security. What do you think about security? What would you tell somebody who says that?
DC: People think that Foursquare has a tendency to know where you are all the time. We’ve made it very explicit—it’s when you check into places. That’s when we share externally, when we share with your friends, Twitter, Facebook.
So I think most people that have been like, “I don’t know if that’s for me,” maybe they don’t fully understand the product or the privacy model, which is a little bit our fault. Maybe we haven’t done the best job in the world communicating that.
Overall for people who use the service everyday we very rarely if ever hear complaints of, “I didnt mean to share this.” That’s the whole point of the check-in. It hasn’t been a big thing for us.
Our Mobile Devices Will Tell Us Where To Go
RW: Let’s talk about anticipatory computing. What does Foursquare envision people doing before or after the check-in?
DC: The check-in is a means to an end in a lot of ways. It’s a mechanism by which people tell us about the real world. Google has this amazing knowledge and understanding of what’s going on in the Web, and where to find stuff in the Web because they have software robots and crawl the links.
We do that for the real world, but we don’t have robots. People go out and and experience places and tell Foursquare about it, and Foursquare can have a great understanding of the real world.
We know about the shapes of places, we know which places are interesting in the morning versus the afternoon, and the seasonality of them. Are they trending up or down? Is it less popular on Wednesdays or Saturdays? What are the brunch places in this neighborhood that your friend has been to that none of your other friends have been to? It’s a really powerful data set.
What we wanted to do with Foursquare since the beginning, before Dodgeball, we were thinking about what you do when this thing [points to phone] is smart enough to understand what you like and what you don’t like. What direction you want to be walking and what places are interesting to you and what aren’t.
How do you pop things up in front of you so you don’t have to be on the phone all the time? All the goodness of Foursquare is locked in a thing which is hiding in your pocket. So how can we get Foursquare to wake up at various times and then let the user know, “Hey we found something awesome around the corner that you didn’t know about,” or “Hey, you just sat down at this restaurant, you have to order this particular dish.” The mechanism that we are using right now, your phone buzzes and you take it out of your pocket, and you’re like, “Oh Foursquare has something cool to tell me about this place, this neighborhood, this moment.”
We think about how this is going to change over time. Is it always going to be in the phone? Will it extend to your car? Will you be wearing it on your wrist, or your face? If you’re asking me about the Foursquare API, what can it do?
Right now we’re powering a whole bunch of apps that are helping people make sense of location. Eventually I think the Foursquare API will be powering a whole bunch of hardware devices, and a whole bunch of different things that are designed to give people really strong contextual awareness.
Everything we’ve been doing in the last 4 or 5 years has been leading up to things like this. We can run software in the back of your phone. We can push messages to screens that don’t just live in your pocket but live elsewhere.
RW: For people that aren’t necessarily familiar with contextual awareness or anticipatory computing and suggestions, can you explain to a Foursquare user why these notifications will be beneficial and what data Foursquare is using to suggest the local coffee shop?
DC: It’s a little bit of everything. The number one signal is probably the check-in history that you have. Every time a user checks into a place, it gives Foursquare an understanding of, do they like this place more than this place, this neighborhood, more than that neighborhood, this time of day more than that time of day? Do they like to go to a lot of new places? Or the same places?
We have a really good understanding of a lot of users because the Foursquare community has given us a lot of check-in data. For brand new users, if those users have some friends that are also on the service, you can take advantage of that. Even though I may not have a lot of check-ins in Chicago, a lot of my friends have been there, so I can draft off the places they’ve been to. What are the places that all my friends have gone to here? Which suddenly makes the city more accessible.
What we’re starting to get is, what can we know about a specific user’s specific interest in specific places? Do they go to these places all the time because they like the steak frites, or the bourbon cocktails or because they like cheap hot dogs or beer? How do we understand?
We’re doing a lot of work here to make this stuff a reality. How do we understand the specific things in specific places, and how do we steer people to specific things that are similar to those things at new places or neighborhoods or unfamiliar context.
We have so many signals coming in and out of our database. We can use all of that to personalize our search recommendations.
The Marauder’s Map
RW: So it’s not just the location—it’s also the tips, the sentiment analysis and taking and analyzing all of the data people provide Foursquare?
DC: It’s our ability to go through the one thousand tips that were left at any bar on the corner here to tease out, These are the 5 things that are most interesting here. People talk about: great beer selection, Irish car bombs, the curry fries and fish and chips. And those are the things that will gravitate to the top of the list, because people talk about them all the time.
Then we can associate the sentiment with each of those things and see everyone talks about this in a positive light, so that thing is really good. Everyone talks about this in a negative light, so let’s push those tips down.
The moment my phone locks into a restaurant and it stays there for 5 or 6 minutes, the app that’s running in the background [can recognize] the phone stopped— it takes like 6 minutes to figure out it’s at Puck Fair. And then it’s like: what are the things that are interesting here? It’s the beer selection, it’s the curry fries, it’s the fish and chips; so let’s pop open the phone and let the user know that this is the thing that is the most interesting about this particular place.
It feels really magical when that stuff happens. It’s also still kind of primitive. Even though we have this amazing technical accomplishment that we’ve done, and this amazing technology base that allows us to do that, there’s a lot more work that needs to be done to make it feel personalized, and to make everything feel super special.
I’ve talked in the past about how Foursquare should be a version of Harry Potter’s Marauder’s Map—this external awareness of what people are doing and where they’ve been.
How do you make social networking tools that can be active when you’re not? How do you make things run in the background and make this ambient awareness of what people are doing, or the way that they’re moving, or are they close or are they far? And I think that’s what fascinates all of this team. When you do this stuff right it feels like super powers or it feels like magic. That’s what we shoot for.
No Longer Just A Social Network
RW: Do you even consider yourself a social network? I was looking at my own phone and I have Foursquare in the travel bucket instead of social.
DC: We’ve always had a social networking component, and it’s one of the things that drives our model. But really it’s about search and discovery. How can Foursquare take all this data that users have been giving us over the last 5 years, and how do we recycle that and give it back to people in the form of, “Hey we know something about this neighborhood that you never would have known otherwise,” and it turned out it was an awesome coffee shop recommendation that made your day.
How do we do that in a way that is proactive as opposed to having the user think about Foursquare, take their phone out of their pocket and do something? That’s going to be huge. Anticipating people’s intent, or anticipating people’s downtime or interest in ambient data and our ability to serve up really smart things about particular spots.
I don’t know any other companies that are approaching it as seriously as we are. There’s so much data that we’ve collected over the last couple years, so much technical infrastructure that’s designed to solve this one specific problem. We have a really nice head start over pretty much everyone else in this space.
RW: How often would I get a notification that says, “Oh, I see you’re walking down Broadway, I suggest you check out this art gallery.” What can someone expect for this future of Foursquare?
DC: We have the ability to do it often. I’m running a version of Foursquare on my phone that is very aggressive about the pings we send. What we’ve done for most users is we turn their dial down a lot because not every place is super interesting, and not everything interesting is brand new.
When you stop at a place, especially if it’s a new or interesting place, or someone has left a tip there, when you’re at the right place at the right time, then it pops up and says, “While you’re here you need to try this dish.”
That happens to me regularly, which is awesome. We can do that for people once a week, twice a week. At this stage where we are, I’m very happy about that.
The Future Of Foursquare
RW: How do you use Foursquare personally? Obviously you’re testing things all the time, but beyond that.
DC: I check into most of the places I go. I like to keep a record of the places I go, the social history is a part of it. I find a lot of places and share them with people. If I go someplace and I order something and say it’s awesome, then I’ll write a tip and share it with 4 or 5 people and say, “You have to try this fried chicken.”
I leave lots of tips, almost everywhere I go, I try to think of the one little nugget I want to leave behind for users to discover, and once a day or couple days I go through my Foursquare history and say, “I’ve left a tip at this place and this place.”
I found a really cool restaurant outside of the city this weekend, and I went to the ballet earlier this week and I have a great tip I left: “Make sure you read the program before the thing starts so you know whats going on.” [laughs]
RW: Do you think that there’s any company that has the amount of data on people at the scale that you do? It seems that there’s no one that rivals you with the personalization factor.
DC: Google has a lot of data about folks, and Facebook has a lot of data about folks. I think those are the two that are really being smart about putting this data to use and building amazing consumer services on top of it.
But remember, a lot of Google’s data comes from search queries on Web, or on phone, and a lot of the Facebook data comes from the news feed—it comes from what you’re doing with social connections, what you Like and don’t.
I think Foursquare data is super unique. It’s peoples’ relationships with places—it’s very specific. That’s one of the things we’ve done really well for the past five years or so, we knew that was our space. We’ve always stuck to that.
There were many opportunities in the company to say, “Why don’t we do this thing, or why don’t we do check into TV shows?” We kind of laugh at it now, but that was a big decision in 2009, 2010. Are we the check-in? Or are we people’s relationships to things in the real world? We were always doing the real world thing.
RW: Do you think how people use their mobile devices in the future is going to be reliant on their location? When you go out somewhere you get a notification that says, “I guess you’re going to the movies—why don’t you see this?” Afterwards, it says, “Why don’t you go to this restaurant?”
I just know I personally use my mobile phone when I’m on the go more than being sedentary at the office or at home. Is that what you’re building Foursquare to head towards in the future?
DC: How do you build super powers into software? It’s the ability to know: the text messages you get that are annoying, and what do you want to do tonight. Foursquare is a mix of those things.
It’s like, this is where people are and these are the things that are interesting. You can imagine Foursquare will be very prescriptive: “Here’s what you do, go two blocks up and over, and go to this place and get the fried chicken. After you leave, go to this bar and get a drink and then go across the street.”
How much fun is it to go out with someone who really has a plan? How do we do this with software? How do we take all the experiences that your friends are talking about, all the things going on in New York or LA and put that in the format that is very easy to tease content out of?
RW: I feel Foursquare has solved my biggest problem. I’m that person who’s like, “What are we going to do tonight?” I always joke that my biggest decision of the day is figuring out where I’m going to eat dinner.
DC: If you me and Brendan [Lewis] all go to Google Maps and search for dinner or food, we’re all going to get the same results. That’s insane. It should be different based upon who you are, what you’ve done, your relationship to the place and what you were doing yesterday and what you’re supposed to be doing 3 hours from now.
All that contextual information lives in here [picks up mobile device]. It’s just a matter of teasing it out and cross checking it with a bunch of other results. We’re knee-deep in solving that problem, we just haven’t. There’s a little bit of a lack of awareness of how really good Foursquare is at solving search and discovery problems.
I think 2014 is the year in which we address a lot of those issues and start to change people’s perceptions.
Images courtesy of Foursquare
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ReadWriteReflect offers a look back at major technology trends, products and companies of the past year.
In mid-December 2013, Bitcoin took one of its most dramatic nosedives yet. Following a crackdown on yuan-to-bitcoin deposits in China, the price of one bitcoin dropped below as $540, less than half of its all time high in late November, $1,242. (It’s since bounced back to around $730.)
Bitcoin’s true believers aren’t treating its latest gyrations as a cause for panic. It’s not the first time Bitcoin crashed hard, and it’s not going to be the last. But it’s a further reminder, in case you needed one, that Bitcoin is volatile, and what it’s supposedly worth today may bear no relation whatsoever to what it’ll be worth tomorrow.
It’s been a big year for Bitcoin, the unlikely currency that started as a fad for cryptology nuts and ended as a mainstream obsession that had many of us all closely following its rollercoaster highs and lows. But the biggest impact of Bitcoin so far has not nothing to do with its actual value. Rather, the year of Bitcoin we’ve just been through has fundamentally changed the way we think about money.
In 2013, Bitcoin’s hold on the mainstream was undeniable. Even the most Luddite media organizations could no longer ignore the popular cryptocurrency. Each time Bitcoin crashed—first in April; then, after the Feds cracked down on Mt. Gox; and once more, after the Feds closed illicit marketplace Silk Road—it soon came back stronger than ever.
As mainstream coverage grew, an increasing number of small businesses hurried to accept Bitcoin, in part because it requires far lower transactions fees than credit or debit payments. On this year’s Bitcoin Black Friday, held the same day as regular Black Friday but with Bitcoin, nearly 300 merchants participated. BitPay, which processes Bitcoin transactions for business, processed more than 6,000 plus transactions in a single day and called it the most popular day in the history of Bitcoin commerce.
On January 1, 2013, the price of a single Bitcoin was $13.51. As the price fluctuated into the thousands over the course of the year, speculation drove the price and coverage into a frenzy.
Stories of Bitcoin millionaires, who’d found forgotten, unspent wallets of the cryptocurrency, only spurred an increasing number of newbies. When I bought Bitcoin in person, my seller told me that the higher Bitcoin’s profile, the more beginners enter the community.
“The membership [of the Bitcoin Users’ Group] probably has a mathematical correlation between the number of attendees and the price of Bitcoin,” he said.
In an age where people fetishize technology and convenience, banks are one of the stodgiest parts of our infrastructure. Bitcoin appealed to people who don’t see why we should still wait over the weekend for a bank to process a transaction, or why the government can deny your donation to Wikileaks. At its most successful, Bitcoin changed our global conception of what makes up a currency.
Why Bitcoin Can’t Do It Alone
However, for all the strides Bitcoin has made forward, 2013 has also shown that world governments can easily squelch the currency’s growth.
Proponents of Bitcoin are drawn to the cryptocurrency because it was designed to act outside of any governing body’s jurisdiction. Unlike dollars or yuan, which are printed and controlled by governments, bitcoins are mined by their users. And thanks to the blockchain, a ledger of every bitcoin transaction that has ever taken place, there’s no mystery about how many there are or where they’ve been. Bitcoins are private, but they aren’t secret.
But, if you’re not mining bitcoins yourself, you need to acquire them by exchanging government currency at a Bitcoin exchange such as Mt. Gox, Bitstamp, or BTC China. And when government money is involved, government cooperation is required.
Bitcoin got its biggest wake-up call in mid-December, when the People’s Bank of China froze yuan-to-bitcoin deposits to China’s largest Bitcoin exchange. The price plummeted.
Bitcoin has every ability to recover if BTC China is able to come to a compromise with the PBOC. Unfortunately, China isn’t the only country that has rejected Bitcoin as a currency. Germany, France, Korea, and Thailand have all looked unfavorably on Bitcoin. The European Banking Authority, Switzerland, Poland, and the U.S. are still undecided. Even if Bitcoin isn’t in their hands, their decisions on cash-to-bitcoin transfers could affect its future.
The U.S. indecision has already caused difficulty for Bitcoin ATMs and vending machines. While a Robocoin ATM for bitcoins is operating in Canada and a Lamassu bitcoin vending machine is now functional in Finland, neither maker has yet complied with necessary U.S. financial regulations. The companies blame the lengthy regulatory process.
See also: How To Sell Bitcoin—Legally
In October, the first U.S. client to buy a Lamassu obtained legal counsel and began the process of registering as a money transmitter, but is still caught up in legal limbo. The Senate’s November Bitcoin hearings helped to improve Bitcoin’s standing with lawmakers, but still proved only that government regulation is inevitable.
And at its worst, Bitcoin has given lawmakers reasons to question it. According to a 2013 users’ survey, 16 percent of Bitcoin spending went toward narcotics and other illegal goods. A Bitcoin assassination market has popped up to target world leaders—so far, fortunately, without any result. (Though you know the Secret Service must be taking a keen interest in that.)
Bitcoin has been accused of being a bubble, but it doesn’t exist in one. Outside factors could easily bring it to its knees.
The Legacy Of Bitcoin
2014 may not see the end of Bitcoin, but it will certainly see the end of Bitcoin as we know it.
Soaring valuations have made Bitcoin more of an investment asset than a transactional currency. Why spend your Bitcoin if it’s just going to increase in value the next day? And indeed, whether they’re being hoarded or lost, a full 64 percent of bitcoins have never been spent.
This just makes crashes like the mid-December one all the more upsetting to investors. Bitcoin has little intrinsic value and is backed chiefly by people’s belief in it. If that belief were to falter, investors would be left with nothing.
If you read Satoshi Nakamoto’s white paper on Bitcoin, it’s apparent that today’s inflated bitcoin-as-investment model is never what the anonymous founder(s) intended. Bitcoin was designed to be a peer-to-peer cash system with no third party arbitrator. Bitcoin wasn’t designed to be an investment asset, and it won’t last as one.
According to Andreas Antonopolous, founder of cryptocurrency company RootEleven, many of Bitcoin’s staunchest supporters believe Bitcoin is in for a change, and that’s not a bad thing. In his opinion, Bitcoin is either going to stabilize at a far lower value, or it will fail—clearing the way for a successor among the many hundreds of altcoins waiting in the wings.
Even if Bitcoin as a currency experiences more crises, he said, the invention of the blockchain—the universally shared record of all Bitcoin transactions—can support future currencies and other applications, forever changing the global culture of money.
“A trans-national currency without borders, without government interference and without political controls is now possible. As more people become aware of this, it changes the relationship between money and the state, money and individuals and eventually between individuals and their government. Bitcoin as an invention will survive even if Bitcoin the first currency fails.”
In this reporter’s opinion, Bitcoin itself won’t last. But the innovations that Bitcoin has brought to our financial transactions—increased privacy, a public ledger, censorship-free cash and freedom from a stodgy third party—are what it will truly be remembered for. Years later, when we’re using the latest and most stable digital currency yet, these inventions will still be going strong.
No matter what happens in 2014, Bitcoin has already left its mark. The cryptocurrency is not without its many flaws, but it has brought one major success: our concept of what a currency is has changed forever.
Photo by Zach Copley
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How well do you know Del Mar? Take this quiz
Here’s a trivia primer on the little town “where the turf meets the surf” lovely Del Mar. To test your knowledge of your hometown, answer “True” or “False” to the following nine statements. The correct responses will help you start the new decade off with appreciation and insight for the way things are today! 1. Del Mar was named by early settlers from south of the border who set up seaside …
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