Google to ComScore: You owe us $15-billion

Earlier this week, comScore released a report looking at Google’s click-through rates for January, which showed a precipitous decline — and that in turn caused a similar precipitous decline in the company’s share price, slicing about $15-billion or so worth of market value from the stock in a single day’s worth of trading. Now, the traffic-measuring company says that it has looked more closely at the report and come to the conclusion that the decline was the result of Google’s attempts to improve the quality of the ads that are generated when people do a search.

The slide in Google’s shares wasn’t all comScore’s fault, of course. In some ways, it was like the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Investors have spent the past few months getting progressively more and more concerned about the U.S. economy and the effects of a recession on online advertising — and Google is the poster child for online advertising, since that makes up about 90 per cent of its revenues, and therefore justifies about 90 per cent of its multibillion-dollar valuation. All those fears were crystallized with the comScore report.

Still, it seems more than a little disingenuous for the company to be coming out with a fuller investigation of the click-traffic results after the horse has already stampeded from the barn, in a sense. Couldn’t comScore have seen this one coming? Given the nervousness around online ads, the news that click-through rates had fallen by 7 per cent in a single month was almost sure to set off a firestorm. It might have been nice to throw a few of those caveats in there at the time. Oh well — a billion here, a billion there. C’est la vie. I’m sure Google will get over it.

Video interlude: FreshBooks on the road

As some of you may know, Mike McDerment — CEO of FreshBooks.com, the excellent online invoicing company based in Toronto — is a personal friend, and a fellow organizer of the mesh conference (about which more details should soon be forthcoming; cross your fingers). For some insane reason, he and a couple of the FB team decided to fly to Miami and rent an RV so they could do a road trip to Future of Web Apps and SXSW. And they created a blog for the express purpose of tracking their journey.

I’m not quite sure how to describe this venture, except that it seems a little like what might happen if you crossed Easy Rider and Hunter S. Thompson’s Where The Buffalo Roam with National Lampoon’s Vacation. Anyway, be sure to check out their adventures, and the videos they will be posting with various software superstars along the way. And to put you in the mood, I’m posting a video clip that they led off with — the incomparable work of Jack Rebney, who is also known as the World’s Angriest RV Salesman (Warning: turn down the sound if the kids are around).

Homeless voicemail: Only in the Valley

Never having been to San Francisco, I don’t know what the calibre of the city’s homeless population is like vis a vis the Toronto homeless. It’s possible that many of the San Francisco down-and-out are merely in between public relations jobs, or are biding their time waiting for another senior VP spot to open up at a dot-com — the kind of thing you might need, say, a free voicemail account for. Google says it is providing all of the homeless with their own lifetime voice number via GrandCentral, the Web telecom venture it acquired last year.

I guess homeless people in San Francisco don’t need blankets the way homeless people in Toronto do, and they probably don’t need food either. Presumably there’s lots of second-hand golf pants and mesh shirts and whatnot lying around for them to wear as well, so they’ve got that covered. What they really need is voicemail. And maybe an assistant to answer the voicemail, but I can tell that Google is starting small. Maybe they’ll build up to the assistant thing. And maybe the next move will be free paper-shredding for those important documents.

I just know that someone is going to tell me that voicemail will help homeless people get social assistance, and maybe get an apartment or at least a room, and that lots of government departments require you to have a phone number, etc. etc. And maybe all of that is true. But social agencies have been handling that for years. Will free voicemail help? Maybe, maybe not. It sure helps Google look good — and yet, it seems almost absurd on the face of it. Why not just invite them to the Googleplex for a day of free gourmet lunches and foosball games in the cafeteria?

The Semantic Web’s biggest problem

Paul Miller has a new column at ZDNet that’s all about the Semantic Web — or Web3.0, as some like to call it — and he’s got a post up about an interview he did with the Father of the Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, in which Sir Tim says that all of the various building blocks required for the Semantic Web to start functioning are there, and all that’s needed is for some people to start putting those blocks together. There’s no question that Sir Tim is right, from a technical point of view. But what’s really missing is magic — something that is going to pull people into it.

Let’s face it — the biggest problem with the Semantic Web is that it’s as boring as dry toast. It’s all about plumbing and widgets and data standards, all of which have names like FOAF and TOTP and SIOC and whatnot. It’s right off the dork-o-meter. The Lone Gunmen from The X-Files would have a hard time getting interested in this stuff, let alone anyone who isn’t married to their slide rule or their pocket protector. The things that the Semantic Web would make possible are fascinating and in some cases very appealing — it’s just getting there that’s the hard part.

A related problem, I would argue, is that not enough people even know what the word “semantic” means. I’m sure lots of people hear the term and either have to go look it up, or are left wondering what the hell people are talking about. And even when you know that the word refers to meaning as represented in language, or knowledge as represented in data, you’re still not much further ahead — it’s meta-data, or meta-knowledge. Not exactly warm and fuzzy, or easy to explain over a beer (or ten).

HTML and Web protocols are pretty boring too, but eventually they were able to do something that made people sit up and notice. What are those things going to be for the Semantic Web? I haven’t got a clue, but I’m glad Sir Tim and others are hard at work on it. For what it’s worth, I had a nice chat last year with the Father of the Web (who told me if someone other than the Queen refers to him as Sir, they have to buy a round of drinks), and we talked about the Semantic Web too.

Why intellectual property doesn’t exist

Cory Doctorow, the Canadian author and former Electronic Frontier Foundation staffer, has written a piece for The Guardian that essentially mirrors my own thoughts on the term “intellectual property” — in effect, that it is a dangerously loaded phrase. There’s no question that it sounds really great, and has the added appeal of encapsulating a whole bunch of different principles in a two-word phrase. At the same time, however, it encourages (perhaps even forces) people to think about creative content in a distorted and fundamentally wrong-headed fashion.

Why? Because there’s no such thing as intellectual property in the same sense as we think about physical property. You can steal my car, or my wallet, and that deprives me of those things in a very real way, which is why doing so is a crime. But you can’t steal my idea any more than you can steal my thoughts. And in some cases, taking my idea and adding to it will actually make it better, which is why we have principles like “fair use” and “fair dealing.” There’s no such concept as “fair driving,” where you get equal access to my car (believe me, you wouldn’t want it).

“If we’re going to achieve a lasting peace in the knowledge wars, it’s time to set property aside, time to start recognising that knowledge – valuable, precious, expensive knowledge – isn’t owned. Can’t be owned. The state should regulate our relative interests in the ephemeral realm of thought, but that regulation must be about knowledge, not a clumsy remake of the property system.”

As Cory notes, this doesn’t mean that creators don’t have an interest in the uses that get made of their content. They clearly do, and rightly so. But as I tried to argue during the whole Lane Hartwell debacle, that interest doesn’t exclude all other interests, including the interests of society as a whole in encouraging creativity and freedom of speech. What we really need to find is a better way of balancing those things.