When does a whisper become a shout?

It will be interesting to see whether there’s any kind of official response from Google (apart from Matt Cutts’ post) to the recent kerfuffle (or perhaps it’s more of a brouhaha) over the “tips” that have started appearing at the top of its search pages — the ones that direct people to download Picasa, or use Blogger. Blake Ross, a co-founder of Firefox, wrote a critical post about it recently, which Mike Arrington then responded to.

Blake’s point seemed to be that by promoting its own services on result pages, Google is unfairly using its search platform to hawk its own products, and that a company whose entire existence is based on the idea of search results and PageRank as a meritocracy — in other words, a process that drives the best results to the top over time — should have faith in that process and allow its own services to appear wherever they appear in the search rankings.

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Mike’s post expanded on this point, arguing that Google’s recent behaviour in that and other areas is a sign of Microsoft-like arrogance from the company, a criticism that my friend Mark Evans and others think is a little over the top. What is clear is that Google has grown to such a size that things people would previously have seen seen as innocuous — like small text links promoting the company’s products — all of a sudden seem like a huge deal.

I have a lot of respect for Blake’s position on the subject, and there are some excellent arguments back and forth in the comments section of his post (which the last time I looked contained more than 215 comments). But I think he and others — including Allen Stern at Center Networks — are being overly sensitive about Google’s tips. I think they are clearly set apart from the search results, and therefore are nothing but a harmless promo link (Danny Sullivan agrees with me).

It’s interesting to see how Google is being held to a much higher standard than another company likely would be, in part because it is so large now, and also because of its famous “Don’t be evil” motto — which is clearly causing way more trouble than it’s worth.

Google wins — because it doesn’t suck

LeeAnn Prescott from Hitwise has a much-discussed report about Google’s blog search getting a greater “market share of web visits” (Hitwise terminology for a combination of page views and visitors) than Technorati, the original blog search engine. This has led Om Malik, among others to write Technorati’s eulogy.

I’m not sure whether the ascendence of Google’s blog search spells the end of Technorati and/or Sphere — another blog search tool, which has done deals with media outlets such as Time magazine to put a “Sphere It” button on their stories — but I am sure of one thing. Google’s blog search is better for one very simple reason: It doesn’t suck.

I should qualify that. Technorati can be useful for searching specific terms, and using the “authority” ranking is not a bad tool. But when it comes right down to it, I agree with Erick searching for posts on a topic through Technorati is just not very useful — or not as useful as Google’s blog search. As Zoli Erdos and others have pointed out many times (here’s his latest roundup), Technorati also has numerous technical problems that continue to crop up.

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Searching related posts through Sphere, meanwhile, is quite honestly pathetic. Whenever I see a “Sphere It” button or link, I click it just to see what happens, and 99 times out of 100 it is a boatload of crap. I’ve seen links to things that literally don’t make any sense at all. Beside a blog post I recently saw a link that said there were over 1,000 related posts at Sphere, and I just knew that the vast majority were going to be functionally useless.

For the record, Mark Cuban’s IceRocket blog search isn’t much better. When I want to write about a particular issue, either on the blog or for a story at the Globe and Mail, I will almost always search to see if a blogger somewhere has linked to something that might present an alternative point of view or an interesting perspective — and I routinely wind up back at Google’s blog search.

Is it that Google’s algorithm is better? I’m not enough of a geek to know. You have to admit that Google knows search. And one thing I know for sure about their blog search: It is just better.

Update:

Mark Cuban, who is not only IceRocket’s founder but also clearly its chief evangelist, has posted several comments here defending his company’s blog search that are well worth reading. After giving it some thought, I would like to revise my original comment that IceRocket “isn’t much better” than Sphere. For some searches, it clearly is better — and arguably as good as Google. And no, I didn’t change my mind just because Mark beat up on me 🙂

Update 2:

I spent some time on the phone with Tony and Martin of Sphere (who responded in the comments on my initial post), and I think that — much as I like the imagery — “boatload of crap” might have been a little harsh when describing Sphere’s results. As Martin points out, some of the searches, including ones that use blog posts of mine as the source, bring fairly targeted and relevant results.

I think the problem, at least from my perspective, is twofold: One, Sphere draws relevance from the entire post as well as from the rest of the blog — therefore, if a post is short and/or the blog writes about a lot of different subjects, then a Sphere search isn’t going to come up with results that are all that relevant (Tony says it didn’t work particularly well on Scoble’s blog for that reason).

What happens in those cases is that Sphere comes up with a lot of related posts, which is why on some blogs I see a Sphere widget that says “56,975 related posts” and the first thing I think is “bullshit — there can’t possibly be that many related posts.” (Tony agreed with me on that one).

The bottom line is that Sphere is still trying to find the best method, just as Google and IceRocket are. I appreciate Tony and Martin taking the time to talk to me about it, especially after I dumped on them.

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Sure, I’d love a free Ferrari, but…

Just checked in with Techmeme after a few days of eggnog and tobogganing, and what did I find but another ethical dilemma brewing, this time courtesy of Microsoft (although Edelman appears to have played a role as well). I predict that the blogosphere-as-ethical-minefield meme will continue to be a hot topic in the year to come, if only because there seem to be a ton of unresolved issues, not to mention a vast difference of opinion on what’s right and what isn’t.

Reading through the various posts on it, like Joel Spolsky’s or Judi Sohn’s at Web Worker Daily — who wins the prize for my favourite headline, with “There ain’t no such thing as a free laptop” — and the comments on some of those posts, including the ones at Brandon LeBlanc’s blog (he got one of the free Microsoft laptops with Vista but didn’t say so for a few days), it seems as though some people think keeping the laptops is just fine, and others think it is a heinous crime.

As with many of the other ethical issues the blogosphere is wrestling with, this one also occurs in traditional media, particularly in the technology area, where reviewers are often given software and hardware to test. Sometimes the understanding is that the reviewer will keep it (if it isn’t of huge value), but in the vast majority of cases it is sent back. Are there reviewers who keep things they shouldn’t? Sure there are. Does it affect their credibility? Who knows.

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Ed Bott thinks that bloggers should be able to keep the free laptops, and says he isn’t going to lose any of his faith in the credibility or trustworthiness of Brandon LeBlanc or Long Zheng as a result of them keeping it. His argument is that trust is something you build up over time, and that it takes more than a free laptop to demolish it — and I would agree, to a point.

But I also think that a blogger trying to build up credibility and win an audience is fighting an uphill battle to begin with, and accepting freebies without disclosing them is a very slippery slope, and that’s why my position on PayPerPost has also been that payment is fine provided it is disclosed. The FTC seems to agree, given its recent decision on word-of-mouth marketing.

As Tony Hung points out at Deep Jive Interests in this post on PayPerPost buying Performancing, bloggers want to be compensated and many people don’t see anything wrong with that, and neither do I, provided it is disclosed. Anything else, in my opinion, is on the slippery slope. If you think you’re able to keep your footing on that slope, be my guest — but don’t be surprised if you wind up at the bottom.

Happy ChristmaHanuKwanzivus to all

Just a quick note to my legions of devoted fans to say that posting will likely be sporadic over the next few days, as a result of the combined holidays of Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanzaa and Festivus — all of which I have chosen to celebrate, in an attempt to accumulate as many presents and as much food as possible. If you have a lot of time on your hands and want to stroll through some Ingram family photos from the past year, our digital Christmas card is here. Best wishes (of whatever season) to all of you.

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And now, the standard disclaimer, as approved by my solicitors:

Please accept with no obligation, implied or implicit, my best wishes for an environmentally conscious, socially responsible, low stress, non-addictive, gender neutral, celebration of the winter solstice holiday, practiced within the most enjoyable traditions of the religious persuasion of your choice, or secular practices of your choice, with respect for the religious/secular persuasions and/or traditions of others, or their choice not to practice religious or secular traditions at all together with a fiscally successful, personally fulfilling and medically uncomplicated recognition of the onset of the generally accepted calendar year 2006, but not with due respect for the calendars of choice of other cultures whose contributions to society have helped make Great Britain great not to imply that Great Britain is necessarily greater than any other country and without regard to the race, creed, colour, age, physical ability, religious faith or otherwise or sexual orientation of the wishee.

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