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On Colossal Squids, Google Now & Betaworks


Betaworks will launch Digg Search in 2014.

Trend 1: Google is not a publisher’s friend.

Optify, a software company designed to work with advertising agencies, recently reported that “39% of search traffic from Google now has search terms withheld.” If a publisher does not know what search terms matter, then what is the point in investing resources into optimizing content for search? The news gets worse.

Buzzfeed’s Aswini Anburajan posted the following chart - spanning January 2011 to March 2013 - comparing referrals from Facebook and Google to publishers on the Buzzfeed Network (Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, Daily Beast, Time, Sports Illustrated, US Weekly, Rolling Stone, … over 300 million people globally):

Google referrals are down by more than 30%. Referrals in March 2013 are similar to July 2011. Why is this the case? Anburajan writes that it is difficult to explain this trend, but it is probably safe to assume that people are discovering content via multiple social networks, such as Twitter and Pinterest, as well as via news apps, such as Flipboard or Pulse.

Anburajan is on to something, but social is only part of it. Google’s behavior is to blame.

Trend 2: Google would rather be your best friend.

Google Now recently launched for iOS. Android users are familiar with this product designed to deliver you “the right information at the right time.” The intro video to Google Now leads the user to believe that Google Now is your personal assissitant alerting you to a freeway accident on your typical morning route to work, offering new driving instructions to avoid traffic, letting you know if your NBA team won last night, as well as recommending a new place to grab breakfast on your alternative way to work.

This is a fundamentally different way to interact with Google’s products as the user is no longer the catalyst in a traditional sense. Instead of visiting a Google product - Search, Maps, Zagat - Google is coming to you based on your real life behavior. Megan Garber writes:

The responsive relationship between user and data that [Google engineer Andrea] Huey is describing -- the conversational default -- is "kind of the next step for where search is going," Scott Huffman, Google's vice president of engineering, told me. Google's engineers, he said, have long been preoccupied with the idea of search not just as a box on a screen, but as a personal, and personalized, assistant. And "as we thought about it," he says, "a really great assistant brings you information before you ask for it."

According to Garber, Google wagers that new interfaces, such as voice recognition and Glass, will make it possible to converse with Google as opposed to barking instructions to Google (though plenty of people will enjoy shouting at Google, just watch people use Siri).

What does this mean for publishers? Is it possible to SEO a headline to millions of personal assistants? Personal assistants will only be effective if they can manage thousands to hundreds of thousands of inputs. SEO works because there are hundreds, not hundreds of thousands, of key terms people primarily rely on.

In the present, Google’s best answer to an inquisitive publisher is to be more active at Google+ since it is the infrastructure of the future. If a Google user adds The Huffington Post or Buzzfeed to a circle, then their personal assistant will be able to take that into account. This is not what publishers want to hear. Google+, while a stronger network than many people believe it to be, is not Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr or Pinterest. Publishers are operating on thin margins as is and they can not afford to take a hit by being forced to rely on Google+ to find readers.

Trend 3: Betaworks is more than a rebound relationship.

Betaworks offers a variety of products to catered to publishers. This includes: Chartbeat (real-time analytics), Social Flow (social media publication management), (shortened URLs), Digg (aggregation, promotion) and now Instapaper (time-shifting). With the launch of Digg Reader (RSS with social elements) this summer, Robinson Meyer points out that

Betaworks has its tentacles in nearly every part of how stories are made, read and measured.

For those unfamiliar with Betaworks products, Meyer’s piece nicely explains an article’s lifecycle in the Betaworks ecosystem. Publishers, ranging from The Atlantic to Buzzfeed, are increasingly turning to Betaworks when they used to turn to Google.

Take Google Analytics as an example. In early April, Alexis Madrigal tweeted:

Madrigal as one of the sharpest minds in digital publishing and notice that he even includes Adobe’s Omniture, but not Google Analytics. Plenty of publishers still use Google Analytics, but Chartbeat is on its way to becoming the default analytics platform. This is their sole business. Google is not in the business of providing analytics to publishers. See their recent decision to withhold search terms.

Publishers like Betaworks products. Take a look at most URLs tweeted by major publishers, ranging from Reuters to Gawker, you will find “social flow” in them. To be clear, this is not an advertorial for Betaworks, but it is important to establish that Betaworks is not a flash in the pan software company. They are building long-lasting relationships with the largest publishers in the world.

Betaworks acquisition of Instapaper fits their business model. Instapaper will allow Betaworks’ data team to learn more about reading and sharing behavior. It also provides another avenue for Betaworks to learn about the consumer market by selling a product to readers as opposed to editors and journalists.

Prediction: Digg Reader x Betaworks’ Data = Digg Search

If Google wants to be your personal assistant, Digg wants to be your homepage.

Digg works because they hired talented editors and journalists and let them peek into the internet’s plumming. Digg’s editorial staff watches what URLs are picking up steam on Twitter (share/impressions measured via, Social Flow in addition to data purchased from Twitter and StumbleUpon) and what URLs people are actually spending time with (engagement measured via Chartbeat and soon-to-be Instapaper). Check out today’s homepage (~1pm EST):

Digg is leading with stories from Fast Company (Doritos tacos), Scientific American (computer viruses) and The Atlantic Wire (Boston marathon). The majority of Digg’s readers (and Americans) do not subscribe to Fast Company or Scientific American, but they are likely to read these articles. Being source agnostic is a key element to what makes Digg work. Their staff is faster at identifying the most interesting content because they have access to vast amounts of real-time data.

Digg Reader allows Betaworks to scale this effort.

When Google announced that they were shutting down Google Reader, Betaworks quickly came to the rescue with Digg Reader. Over 18,000 people signed up to help Digg work on this product (answer survey questions, possibly beta test). Digg’s most recent survey collected responses from over 8,600 people. Most interesting, over 3,400 said they would pay for a Digg Reader.

If Digg Reader receives a warm welcome from the press and is reasonably priced, many people will shift from the No to the Yes column. Momentum, features, and community will bring people into the Digg Reader fold. Why does this matter for search?

Google Reader was my first personal assistant. When I moved to Los Angeles in 2007, I created a Google Reader folder titled Los Angeles. This folder was comprised of over a 100 food, apartment/real estate, neighborhood, local news, and music blogs. I would regurally scan headlines, but the primary utility of this folder was search. When I wanted to figure out where to go out to dinner or where to consider moving to, I would search this folder as opposed to By limiting my database, I usually received better results.

Google decided my free labor wasn’t of value. Do not expect Digg to repeat this mistake. They already have over 3,000 people ready to pay for a tool providing Betaworks with even more data.

Digg’s survey suggests that there is a community of active media consumers (and producers) in waiting. These individuals understand social, read an excessive amount of content and are the first to sign-up for new products. This community will help build a search engine for publishers.

In order to make this work for effort work for all publishers, Digg needs to expand beyond national stories. When it concerns national news, such as the Boston Marathon bombing, Digg’s national staff will be able to select the best content. But what about last night’s shootings in Chicago?

Currently, Digg has the staff to understand and publish what is trending nationally. With a reasonable investment, Digg can start to provide this service to select cities, such as Chicago. This requires Digg to hire more staff, which is not scalable throughout the United States.

Instead of staffing regional hubs, Digg Reader will allow Betaworks to scale using free labor. People will subscribe to RSS feeds, organize them in folders, comment, share, favorite and tag content because it makes their lives better. Betaworks can combine this data with their existing resources to map out what news and information is relevant throughout the United States.

Digg Search won’t be perfect, but neither was my Google Reader Los Angeles folder. Betaworks is a Colossal Squid. With the launch of Digg Reader, they will be intimately connected to readers, writers, editors and publishers.

Publishers will embrace Digg Search. Betaworks is their partner, while Google is a hybrid ex/frenemy.

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