Birthday Ramen!

Did you know that today is Momofuku Ando’s birthday? He’s the guy who invented instant ramen, and he would be 105 if he was alive today. You might have learned all this if you’d clicked on the Google doodle that most people saw today:


I didn’t see that.  Since I share Momofuku’s birthday, I saw this:


The alt text – “Happy Birthday, Jim!” – confirmed that this was for me. It’s no mystery how Google found out – I’ve probably volunteered the information dozens of times given all the Google products I use. It was still the creepiest happy birthday I got today.

Why Google wins

Google is one of the most ubiquitous companies on Earth.  It’s not just where we often start out looking for information (even if we end at Wikipedia), it’s in our emails, phones, tablets, and browsers.  Google’s success comes from mining data from all those points and selling advertising based on that information.  It’s products are easy to use and useful.

But when Google makes its point that you should use their products, they don’t mention all that.  They don’t say, “Hey, everyone’s using Google!  Get your Google today!”  They don’t even present their products as superior to their competitors – a strategy others have tried.

Google tells a story.  Check out this video of a lost Indian boy who used Google to find his long-lost family:

With attention and political energy turning to the 2014 election over the next six months, this is a good concept to keep in mind.

Private Issues

In a recent post on ViralRead, I listed five technology issues that will be hot-buttons in the next six to eight months.  Privacy was at the top of the list.

The NSA/PRISM revelations have exposed that Federal authorities can pull information from technology companies.  For many Americans, the concept of a little surveillance in exchange for thwarted attacks is a fair trade.  Hammering the Obama Administration on the facts of this “scandal” likely won’t be a long-term political winner, and the Administration can’t scale back terrorism investigations while blood still stains the sidewalks in Boston.

And here’s a dose of reality: the “personal” information that the government was getting from the likes of Facebook and Google?  It’s information that people volunteered.  Google doesn’t know anything about you until you search for “Winged Monkeys in Chaps” – even if you’re totally only looking it up for a friend.  Facebook only has pictures of your kids when you upload them.  Your cell phone only triangulates your location via GPS after you buy the phone.  These creature comforts may seem difficult to live without, so we buy the products, use the services, and participate in the networks.  We should understand there are consequences to giving our data to a third party.  It’s not bad that we do it, but we need to be careful.

It is a short jump, though, from “Wow, look at all the stuff the NSA got from Facebook!” to “Hey, why does Facebook have all this stuff in the first place?”  Suddenly, tech companies are the easy bad guys.

This possibility is a likely reason Google is fighting to tell everyone what they forked over to the NSA.

Why Microsoft’s Bing Ads Suck

An ad for Microsoft’s Bing search engine came on TV last night.  The message, obviously, is that Bing is better than Google:

That’s a cute commercial, but it will never allow Microsoft to topple Google’s search dominance.  Neither will the “Bing It On” challenge commercials that demonstrate Bing’s supposed superiority.  Compare Bing’s factual analysis of which search engine is better with this:
Google’s commercial tugs at your heart strings.  Forget about searching for Chinese delivery places or a good deal on hardwood floor installation; Google is there with you while you live your life and save your treasured memories.  It’s an effective emotional appeal, which keeps Google’s TV presence more appealing than Microsoft’s. Microsoft got this back in 1995, when they used the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up” to roll out the then-new Windows 95 and its Start Button.  Commercials of the time were low on the facts of the new operating system but heavy on the new frontiers offered by the new generation of computers.

Googlizing Campaigns

If you caught the tail end of the Roger Hedgecock show on Friday night, you may have heard me chatting with guest host Matt Lewis about the use of data in campaigns.

Much has been written in the past few weeks about the amazing things the Obama 2012 campaign did in identifying and turning out voters.  Just as much has been written about the Romney campaign’s failure to do the same thing, but it isn’t quite as fair.  There were many reasons Obama won, but the ability to take advantage of more channels of information to identify voters was a big part of it.

The private sector has been doing this for years.  For advertisers like Google and Yahoo! and e-commerce sites like Amazon, knowing what you do and  where you click online is their bread and butter.  It helps them put products in front of you that you’re more likely to buy, because they don’t make money if you don’t click.  Obama’s team was better at adapting those techniques to the campaign world.

What I didn’t get to talk about with Matt do to time constraints was the fact that Republicans can take a great deal of solace in the fact that these aren’t new magical spells being cast by technological wizards.  These are old hat tactics that can (and probably will) help Republicans with in the next campaign cycle.  For years, the advertising dollars have been moving toward personal advertising (like online ads) which can present content to an audience with much greater precision than mass advertising.

Romney adviser Stuart Stevens was ridiculed for saying that Mitt Romney ran less of a national campaign than Barack Obama, but he’s right, and Obama was right to do it.

The Googlization of Government

Rep. Tim Huelskamp has been banging the drum on a proposed Health and Human Services rule that would mandate insurance companies share patient data with the federal government.  The purpose of the program ostensibly noble – the administration wants to collect as much data on health care as possible to determine.  But Huelkamp correctly notes that data is not always secure.  Companies and governments lose personal data on customers and citizens periodically.

In a related story, Google revealed that the US government asks the search company for more user data than any other government on the planet.  In fact, there were more requests for Google data than there were wiretaps on phones last year.

While Google may look skeptically on the government requests for information, the HHS program sounds like something out of Google labs – aggregating data about users of the health care system to ensure better future outcomes.  Just as Google has multiple touch points where it meets its users (search, YouTube, Android, Gmail, etc.), so does the government.  What if they started connecting the dots?  We send tax returns in each year, so the IRS knows how much we make, where we live, whether we own or rent, what we do for a living.  On a state level, readily available voter registration data tells them how often we vote and may even give them a good idea how we would vote, based on primary voting history.  That doesn’t even get into people who participate in federal programs for medical help, student loans, social security, or public assistance.  And it doesn’t take into account the possibility of government looking elsewhere for data.  Today it’s Google, but a host of other companies are out there looking at what you but, what magazines you subscribe to, how often you gas up your car, and what TV shows you watch.

Eventually, other government agencies could follow the same model as HHS, expanding their data points on each citizen.  That’s when it could get really interesting, especially if some enterprising staffer in some agency realizes all the information that’s pouring in.  Imagine if the roadblocks between executive agencies came down, all the data was in one big pile?  The administration could be an even more voracious consumer of data, and use if to create detailed analyses of national trends, attitudes, and issues.  Here’s a video representation of how this might look:

A campaign or company wouldn’t use available data to recruit new customers or make life better for existing ones.  When I go to Amazon or Best Buy’s website, they look at what I’ve bought in the past and make recommendations; it’s simply good business.  An executive agency, which is supposed to strive for efficiency, would pick up on this trend as a way to streamline government services.  The difference, though, is that if you’re creeped out, you can always shop somewhere else.



Facebook officially goes to Washington

Since at least 2009, Facebook has kept an office here in Your Nation’s Capital, but the company became an official part of the DC community this week when their PR consultant got caught trying to recruit bloggers to write anti-Google stories.

As consulting snafus go, this is pretty mild – especially when a reading of the original emails suggests that the PR consultant was not doing anything wrong, underhanded, or illegal.  This isn’t Jack Bonner’s “contractors” cooking up fake letters, it’s a PR person recruiting someone to sign an op-ed – in other words, exactly what they are paid to do.

The problem is they asked the wrong person.  Sure, Chris Soghoian lists himself as a “security and privacy” researcher.  But the name of his blog is “Slight Paranoia.”  That’s the type of blogger who asks questions about why you’re barking up his tree and encouraging him to take a public stance against Google.

The situation highlights how  trying to wage public affairs battles anonymously can backfire.  Clearly, Facebook wanted to sling mud without getting their hands dirty.  But they had a legitimate point about Google and privacy.  Google collects an enormous amount of information on people, many times without users understanding how they are sending that information.  People have had beefs with Facebook on privacy, but the information you put out on Facebook is information you actively put on the internet; if the world suddenly knows you like My Little Pony and Elmer’s Glue it’s because you signed up for a Facebook account and clicked “like” on those pages, you sick, pathetic degenerate.

Facebook isn’t the only big player going after Google; both MicroSoft and AT&T have put big money into public policy campaigns taking shots at everything from privacy to intellectual property.

Like those other companies and many others in all kinds of industries, though, Facebook figured out that the government’s activities could impact their business.  Because they tried (through their PR agent) to get too cute, Facebook’s message on privacy is obscured because of a tactical misstep.

Welcome to Washington.

Google bomb squad: New election, old tactic

Politico related Tuesday morning how liberal activists are bringing the awesome power of the Google to bear on Republican opponents:

Chris Bowers, campaign director for the Daily Kos, is launching a behind-the-scenes campaign against 98 House Republican candidates that attempts to capitalize on voters’ Google search habits in the hopes of influencing midterm races.

Bowers wants the Daily Kos’ thousands of participants to dig up little-noted or controversial news stories about the candidates that could hurt their chances with undecided voters. Users would click on the links and blog about the stories with the goal of boosting their rankings on search engines, so that undecided voters will discover them more easily.

These activists are… well, we don’t know who they are.  One might say their identities could be  somewhat “shadowy.”  They aren’t necessarily based in the districts in which they are campaigning, so I assume you could call this group “outside” activists.  But regardless of what one calls this shadowy outside group, one must admit that they have every right to make their voice heard, right?

In all seriousness, though, this “new” tactic isn’t all that new at all (for a couple years, searching for the the term “miserable failure” famously brought up links to President George W. Bush’s profile thanks to a similar effort).  A more valid question is what good this tactic will do – and its main value may be as a team-building exercise to start getting the Democrats far-left base back involved.  That may not mean much in two weeks, but you can bet that Democrats will be looking to re-take the majority on the morning of November 3 – and that means they will need these types of activists to fuel excitement and energy just as the Tea Party groups have done for the Republicans.

It’s still a Google world

Today’s announcement that Facebook and Bing are joining forces is being hailed as a major blow to Google.  But before we start chiseling a headstone, let’s think about Google’s week so far:

All this adds up to the fact that Bing may lap Google in the search battle, but that’s swiftly becoming less important to Google’s business model – which has always been about collecting data from different points of your daily life and using that to serve you ads.

Maybe the wind farm doesn’t obviously fit into that (although, their servers crank up an awful lot of heat and use lots of electricity to crunch all your data).  But turning the family TV room into a Google-fueled den and knowing exactly where people are driving are both pretty advantageous for an advertising company.  The possibilities for each of these technologies in 20 years is mind-blowing.

Facebook will continue to be valuable because of the value it offers in organizing our relationships, but Google remains one step ahead in its quest to organize (and monetize) the world’s information.