Google Destroys Rap Genius’ Search Rankings As Punishment For SEO Spam, But Resolution In Progress

Goolge Vs Rap Genius

Google hit back hard today after it learned lyrics site Rap Genius had been using dubious SEO tricks to attain top spots in search results. Now RapGenius.com doesn’t appear on the first page of results for a search of “Rap Genius”, and popular queries like “Jay-Z Holy Grail Lyrics” don’t bring up the startup like they used to. [Update: But the two companies are working on a resolution.]

Founded in 2009, Rap Genius is a lyrics and text annotation site. It lets users provide their own explanations for song lyrics, religious texts, legal documents, images, and more that other users see when they hover over snippets of text hosted on the site. The startup lept into the limelight when it received a massive $15 million investment led by Andreessen Horowitz in late 2012.

Known for their foul-mouths and outrageous behavior, the Rap Genius founders had been riding high over the last year as their site climbed into prominent and lucrative slots in Google search results. For a sense of how ridiculous these guys are, check out our on-stage talk at TechCrunch Disrupt NY where founder Mahbod Moghadam apologizes for telling Mark Zuckerberg to “suck his d*ck”.

But earlier this week, Rap Genius invited bloggers to join its “Rap Genius Blog Affiliate” program. John Marbach, the founder of email filtering startup Glider, emailed in asking for details, and Rap Genius offerered to tweet links to his blog in exchange for him placing a series of links to Rap Genius’ Justin Bieber lyrics on his blog. The links were designed to trick Google into giving Rap Genius better result rankings on searches for lyrics to songs from Bieber’s new album — sure to a be popular searches this season.

Screen-Shot-2013-12-23-at-3.29.13-PM

Marbach then revealed Rap Genius’ unscrupulous tactics by publishing the email it sent him in a widely read blog post, prompting Google’s webspam czar Matt Cutts to announce “We’re investigating this now” on Hacker News. Rap Genius apologized in an open letter to Google, asking for the enter lyrics site category to be examined, implying shady SEO tactics were common amongst its competitors.

Rap Genius Search Results

That apology doesn’t seem to have gotten it very far, as Google this morning practically swept Rap Genius out of its search results. Previously, Rap Genius was appearing at the top or close to the top of search results for queries of popular rap songs and the word “lyrics”, for example “Kanye West Flashing Lights Lyrics“. It would even sometime appear high in simple searches for artist and song names.

Now, you won’t find Rap Genius for that query until the fifth page of results, likely further than anyone would look. For evidence of how serious the punshment is, adding “Rap Genius” to the end of that query actually makes Rap Genius appear even deeper down the results on the sixth page.

And just to make sure it was clear, Google banished RapGenius.com to the bottom of the sixth page of results of searches for “Rap Genius”.

Becoming practically unsearchable could be a huge hit to Rap Genius’ business, which depends on Google search referral traffic. Without that traffic, it will be much harder to grow its user base, collect new annotations, and potentially monetize with ads down the road.

Whether Google’s reaction was too tough is a matter of opinion. Gaming search results with spammy SEO tactics is certainly deplorable, but wiping Rap Genius off of top result pages for queries that include its own name is pretty harsh. Whether the startup deserves it or should get a lighter punishment depends on your perspective regarding the sanctity of Google search results. We’re awaiting a response from the Rap Genius founders, and have been promised a statement shortly.

Update: Rap Genius’ founders have provided this statement, indicating they’re working with Google on being returned to better search result rankings:

“We are working with Google right now to resolve this. They’ve been really great, helping us identify changes we need to make, even on Christmas. We’re working on it as fast as we can, and expect to be back on Google very soon.

It sucks to be off Google for us and for the thousands of our community members who have worked so hard to create what’s often the best search result.

We hope everyone who reads this will take a little time out from their Christmas and head to Rap Genius and sign up so you can contribute your knowledge on your favorite subjects – becoming a member of our community makes the site way more fun. Merry Christmas”

Looks like Rap Genius and Google might come to some compromise where Google restores at least some of the startup’s search result ranking juice in exchange for it cleaning up its act. We’ll have more details on the outcome of the talks as soon as possible and are awaiting a response from Google.

Google Destroys Rap Genius’ Search Rankings As Punishment For SEO Spam, But Resolution In Progress

Goolge Vs Rap Genius

Google hit back hard today after it learned lyrics site Rap Genius had been using dubious SEO tricks to attain top spots in search results. Now RapGenius.com doesn’t appear on the first page of results for a search of “Rap Genius,” and popular queries like “Jay-Z Holy Grail Lyrics” don’t bring up the startup like they used to. [Update: But the two companies are working on a resolution.]

Founded in 2009, Rap Genius is a lyrics and text annotation site. It lets users provide their own explanations for song lyrics, religious texts, legal documents, images, and more that other users see when they hover over snippets of text hosted on the site. The startup lept into the limelight when it received a massive $15 million investment led by Andreessen Horowitz in late 2012.

Known for their foul mouths and outrageous behavior, the Rap Genius founders had been riding high over the last year as their site climbed to prominent and lucrative slots in Google search results. For a sense of how ridiculous these guys are, check out our onstage talk at TechCrunch Disrupt NY where founder Mahbod Moghadam apologizes for telling Mark Zuckerberg to “suck his d*ck”.

But earlier this week, Rap Genius invited bloggers to join its “Rap Genius Blog Affiliate” program. John Marbach, the founder of email filtering startup Glider, emailed in asking for details, and Rap Genius offerered to tweet links to his blog in exchange for him placing a series of links to Rap Genius’ Justin Bieber lyrics on his blog. The links were designed to trick Google into giving Rap Genius better result rankings on searches for lyrics to songs from Bieber’s new album — sure to be popular searches this season.

Screen-Shot-2013-12-23-at-3.29.13-PM

Marbach then revealed Rap Genius’ unscrupulous tactics by publishing the email it sent him in a widely read blog post, prompting Google’s webspam czar Matt Cutts to announce on Hacker News, ”We’re investigating this now.” Rap Genius apologized in an open letter to Google, asking for the entire lyrics site category to be examined, implying shady SEO tactics were common amongst its competitors.

Rap Genius Search Results

That apology doesn’t seem to have gotten it very far, as Google this morning practically swept Rap Genius out of its search results. Previously, Rap Genius was appearing at the top or close to the top of search results for queries of popular rap songs and the word “lyrics,” for example “Kanye West Flashing Lights Lyrics.” It would even sometimes appear high in simple searches for artist and song names.

Now, you won’t find Rap Genius for that query until the fifth page of results, likely further than anyone would look. For evidence of how serious the punshment is, adding “Rap Genius” to the end of that query actually makes Rap Genius appear even deeper down the results on the sixth page.

And just to make sure it was clear, Google banished RapGenius.com to the bottom of the sixth page of results of searches for “Rap Genius.”

Becoming practically unsearchable could be a huge hit to Rap Genius’ business, which depends on Google search referral traffic. Without that traffic, it will be much harder to grow its user base, collect new annotations, and potentially monetize with ads down the road.

Whether Google’s reaction was too tough is a matter of opinion. Gaming search results with spammy SEO tactics is certainly deplorable, but wiping Rap Genius off of top result pages for queries that include its own name is pretty harsh. Whether the startup deserves it or should get a lighter punishment depends on your perspective regarding the sanctity of Google search results. We’re awaiting a response from the Rap Genius founders, and have been promised a statement shortly.

Update: Rap Genius’ founders have provided this statement, indicating they’re working with Google on being returned to better search result rankings:

8698091273_475f659390_c“We are working with Google right now to resolve this. They’ve been really great, helping us identify changes we need to make, even on Christmas. We’re working on it as fast as we can, and expect to be back on Google very soon.

It sucks to be off Google for us and for the thousands of our community members who have worked so hard to create what’s often the best search result.

We hope everyone who reads this will take a little time out from their Christmas and head to Rap Genius and sign up so you can contribute your knowledge on your favorite subjects – becoming a member of our community makes the site way more fun. Merry Christmas”

Looks like Rap Genius and Google might come to some compromise where Google restores at least some of the startup’s search result ranking juice in exchange for it cleaning up its act. However, at least some of the decreased visibility is likely to stick around for a long time, impeding Rap Genius’ business. We’ll have more details on the outcome of the talks as soon as possible and we are awaiting a response from Google.

For more on the never-ending insanity and adventures of Rap Genius, check out:

Disrupt On-Stage Video: Rap Genius’ Co-Founder Apologizes To Zuck (Then Says They’ll Be Bigger Than Facebook)

Video Interview: Ben Horowitz And The Founders Explain Why A16Z Put $15M Into Rap Genius

Rap Genius Is Getting Into Breaking News Analysis With News Genius

Rap Genius Reveals One Of Its Business Models Will Be ‘Enterprise Genius’ Collaborative Tool

Google/Motorola’s New Moonshot “Spotlight Stories” Is A Mobile Virtual Reality Movie Medium

PicMonkey-Collage-Spotlight

Spotlight Stories is a new artistic medium Google and Motorola Mobility launched today that puts users inside an animated featurette if they spin 360-degrees while watching their phones. The first Spotlight Story “Windy Days” by ex-Pixar moviemakers suddenly appeared on Moto X phones today, and depicts a mouse chased by a hat around a forest you can look around.

According to a sprawling look at the new technology by Wired’s Steven Levy, Spotlight Stories was first dreamed up by Motorola Mobility’s Advanced Technology And Products (ATAP) moonshot division before it was acquired by Google. The search giant poured extra funds into building out the new mobile storytelling format.

Appearing today on Moto X phones behind a red sombrero icon, the Windy Days Spotlight Story lets viewers rotate their body left while holding their phone to look left, and rotate right to look right within the animation. It creates an immersive experience similar to the self-directed cut scenes you can look around in that appear in some first-person shooter games like Call Of Duty.

The Motorola Spotlight Player is also available for download from the Google Play store. You can watch a preview and demo of Windy Days below.

The team who built Spotlight Stories includes former DARPA director Regina Dugan, and her deputy Ken Gabriel. Once hired by Motorola Mobility, they recruited several Pixar veterans including Oscar-winning moviemaker Jan Pinkava, animator and director Doug Sweetland, and character developer Mark Oftodal, who constructed the plot for Windy Days. The team of 40 also includes Coraline designer Tadahiro Uesugi who sketched the concept art for Windy Days, and Jon Klassen, a Caldicott-wining illutrator, who fleshed out the look.

Since users choose what they see in a Spotlight Story, no two people’s experience is exactly the same. A viewer could watch the Vaudevillian comedy of a wind-blown hat chasing a little mouse, or gaze elsewhere around the nature scene.

What looks like a panorama below is actually a 360-degree still from Windy Days, showing what one might see if they spun in a circle while watching.

“These aren’t prerecorded scenes you’re sitting through,” Gabriel told Levy. “It’s a world rendered in real time based where you are in the story, what you’re looking at, what your physical orientation is.”

Levy reports that Motorola may open the Spotlight Stories platform to other artists, but wouldn’t specify when or how that would happen.

The project shows that while tech giants can use their power to index information, connect us, transport us around, or make us live longer, they can also use innovation to delight us. Hand-held devices full of powerful chips, bright screens, and sensors to detect our movement may unlock new forms creative expression, not just new utilities.

[Images via WiredAndroid Headlines]

WTF Is Waze And Why Did Google Just Pay A Billion+ For It?

waze animated front

The tech industry has seen its fair share of acquisition whoppers lately, with Salesforce acquiring ExactTarget for $2.5 billion this month, and Yahoo putting the icing on its acquisition spree by snatching up Tumblr for $1.1 billion. But the news today that Google is buying popular iOS map and navigation app, Waze, (reportedly for around $1.1 to $1.3 billion) is a little different.

While the prices are similar and Tumblr may well have seen interest before Yahoo swooped in, rumors have been swirling around Waze for months. First it was Apple with a reported ~$500 million bid, then it was Facebook that was said to be kicking Waze’s tires at $1 billion, before Google swooped in, upped the ante and closed the deal.

In fact, Israeli publication, The Globes, reported that Facebook execs were committed enough that they flew to Israel and were in the middle of serious (albeit stalling) negotiations when Google showed up.

What’s This Waze Everyone’s Blabbin’ About?

Founded in 2007, Waze is an Israeli and Palo Alto-based developer of free mapping and turn-by-turn navigation apps for iOS and Android. Since its launch a year later, Waze has raised $67 million in outside funding from a number of prominent Silicon Valley firms (including Kleiner Perkins), as well as Horizons Ventures in Hong Kong, and has grown to 110 employees — with the majority of its staff in Israel and around 10 or so in Palo Alto, including CEO Noam Bardin.

Amidst a flood of third-party mobile mapping apps that have emerged since, Waze is today pushing 50 million users (up from 30 million in October) and has managed to find a steady growth curve thanks to its unique crowdsourcing formula. Rather than assiduously map out every single road, lane and byway, Waze relies on its millions of users to act as traffic cops, field ops and cartographers, flagging and recording updates on accidents, bottlenecks and traffic as they drive. It sucks in and aggregates this realtime user data (on speed, location, routes and so on), using it to build out and refine its own maps and to calculate the best possible routes (and re-routes) for its drivers, among other things.

This crowdsourced data, driver-sourced mapping, community curation and citizen traffic reporting adds an interactive element to the user experience, which not only quickly becomes addicting, but tends to be more accurate thanks to its obsessive (and often geeky) army of reporters relaying traffic data and updates in realtime. The crowdsourcing model also (in theory) helps make it easier for Waze to offer more accurate re-routing info when you inevitably miss that left turn at Albuquerque — something the majority of apps struggle with (even Google) thanks to the amount of stress these realtime calculations and calibrations (and processing) put on the app and its infrastructure.

In other words, it’s a tough problem to solve, and the more realtime feedback and data you have on routes, etc., the better the experience is for drivers.

So, this, along with enabling drivers to tap into social layers, view realtime fuel prices, nearby gas stations, points of interest and use hands-free navigation (all of which adjust to your location as you drive), have enabled Waze to become an attractive alternative to native navigation apps. Which is impressive, considering its native competitors came with your phone when you bought it, so they’re already there, a finger tap away. As it is with apps no matter the category, to compete, there has to be a significantly higher value proposition, otherwise you’ll just stick with what’s on your phone.

How It Attracted The Big Three

As Jordan recently pointed out, the so-called “Map Wars” have become increasingly intense among the big mobile tech companies. For the Average Joe, while a navigation and mapping app probably won’t be the reason you buy one phone over another, a reliable, easy-to-use map app is key to a good mobile experience. After all, we use our maps and navigation apps so frequently — rely on them, really. For that reason, it’s no wonder Facebook, Apple and Google are all scrambling to one-up each other.

For Apple in particular, when the company was rumored to be checking out Waze, it was still stinging from the embarrassing premature release of its own native mapping and navigation app, which was so bad it drew a fairly unprecedented public apology from Apple CEO Tim Cook. With Apple Maps hitting the App Store half-baked, acquiring a popular and arguably far-more-accurate navigation app would have made sense. Hopefully Apple’s decision to pass on Waze isn’t a product of the company believing it can just build a better app internally. Sure, maybe it can, but that would also just smack of the same hubris/lack of perspective that led them to think Apple Maps was good enough to be released in the first place. (You think Steve Jobs was satisfied with “good enough”? Hell no.)

As to Waze and Facebook: The Social Network has been loudly stepping up its mobile game, including the recent launch of its much-ballyhooed half-operating system for Android (or “apperating system,” if you prefer Geek Speak), which comes amidst a laundry list of other mobile updates, shifts and product releases it’s made of late. After all, mobile is becoming an increasingly important part of Facebook’s bottom line. For Facebook, being able to offer a reliable, popular mapping app as a “native” part of its Android experience might have given potential customers a reason to take a second look and put a jolt into the lackluster adoption of Facebook Home.

Google’s situation is a bit different, as it already has a world class map product. For all intents and purposes, Google Maps set the standard and Google might as well have invented consumer-facing digital navigation (All apologies to MapQuest, of course.) I mean, what other company can you name that has sent out a fleet of hilarious-looking, seeing-eye cars to map each and every street? We now take it for granted that we can pop over to Google Earth and instantaneously “fly anywhere” on the planet to “view satellite imagery, maps, terrain, 3D buildings, from galaxies in outer space to the canyons of the ocean.” Which is ridiculous.

Why Google Won Out

In a blog post today, Waze CEO Noam Bardin gave a little insight into the mutual motivations for Waze (and for Google CEO Larry Page and Google GEO VP Brian McClendon, specifically.):

“We are excited about the prospect of working with the Google Maps team to enhance our search capabilities and to join them in their ongoing efforts to build the best map of the world,” he said, before revealing that “nothing practical will change” after the acquisition, and that Waze “will maintain [its] community, brand, service and organization.”

But that doesn’t really say much, so while both companies aren’t laying out all the gory details yet, below are a few of the reasons why Google was willing to shell out the big bucks and why it should be giving Apple, Facebook and everyone else map-shaped fits.

Geography.

Israel has a long, celebrated history when it comes to technology and R&D, and its startup economy, which is already one of the strongest in the region, continues to evolve and produce great companies. But with the exception of Cisco’s $5 billion purchase of NDS, Waze represents one of the largest exits for an Israeli-born company in recent memory. Especially consumer.

But more importantly, Google, as with every tech company, is now well aware of Israel’s talent pool. In the past, it’s scooped up native startups like Labpixies and Quicksee, and it already has a presence in Israel, including its recently-launched program for local entrepreneurs. With most of Waze’s staff based in Israel, Google wants to maintain the current set up, as it makes Israel’s strong R&D and emergent talent pool that much more accessible.

Less About The 50M, More About The Data.

It’s not unusual for companies to make acquisitions for their users, especially if that traction and user base is significant (and its users are on the younger side). Yahoo’s acquisition of Tumblr is a perfect example. But, with Google already owning arguably the most popular navigation app in the U.S., it’s not exactly dying for more users. Though certainly 50 million users doesn’t hurt.

But likely there’s a stronger pull in the overlap of what the companies see as their perceived value. Waze doesn’t consider itself a “Mapping Company,” but a “Big Data Company.” And considering Google is out to organize the planet’s information, Google is practically the definition of Big Data (and helped invent MapReduce), even if it hates that label, as MIT Tech’s Antonio Regalado explains. What’s more, Google loves to experiment with different ways to visualize Big Data in its maps, and its new, updated Maps product keeps improving.

And, really, the mapping game is won on Big Data, isn’t it?

Because of its giant data set, and maturing mapping infrastructure, Google itself has begun to leverage that data to offer custom, personalized maps for its users — something that’s fundamental to the social, customizable experience Waze has sought to create. But, generally speaking, when it comes to realtime navigation, adjusting to the driver’s route as it goes, Google still feels more pre-programmed. Yes, it has improved in the newest version of Google Maps, but while it has colored traffic layers to show users degrees of traffic, it doesn’t seem on par with Waze’s in-route, constantly-updated traffic info. And it often doesn’t offer the same number of potential routes as Waze when a driver is, say, looking to avoid traffic.

These differences in user experience may seem small by themselves, but compounded, they could represent a big value-add to Google Maps down the road. Plus, Google’s design has become uniform in an effort to maintain a single user experience across its various properties. Waze’s design and user experience is more fun, liter and more interactive. Wazers can be religious about reporting traffic jams or speed traps, and Google knows that it can use that.

Social Driving

Waze gives Google the perfect opportunity to leverage Google+ and make Google Maps more social. The company has moving quickly to integrate its new social graph (Google+) across its products, but it’s not there yet. Waze, too, has been stepping up its social game, adding social functionality in October that allows drivers to see which of their friends are on their way to a mutual destination, gave them the ability to share drives, pickups, meetup spots and more easily communicate status from the road.

Waze also added Facebook single sign-on, which one can easily see Google replacing with Google+ authentication to drive more users to Google+. And Google+ could use some friends, lets be honest. With its Facebook integration, Waze gave users the ability to collect friends around a shared destination point, distribute directions to that group and use short cuts — all cool features that Google can continue to expand via Google+ (as it already added social search function in its new version of Google Maps).

The Big Potential Of Local Advertising

While it’s always working to be seen as some sort of next-gen digital utility provider, Google is first and foremost an advertising company. Really, many of its services’ main function is to help their customers get their ads in front of their users. Google advertising can be a key asset to Waze going forward as it looks to expand its own revenue potential and advertising platform.

Up until recently, Waze had put monetization on the backburner, focusing on growth and product. But, late last year, Waze rolled out its own Ad product, which is essentially a “location-guided ad platform for local business owners and big brands that want to attract the attention of nearby drivers.”

While Waze previously allowed users to quickly tap and swipe through its categories to locate nearby gas stations, for example, its new ad product aims to take that to the next level. Rather than simply plastering display ads all over your phone’s already-limited surface area, Waze wanted to create a system where local businesses (and chains) can claim their spot on its maps, while sending out targeted messages and “native” ads to people who are already driving nearby and already happen to be looking for a local place to eat, for example.

Waze’s advertising product gives brands like Dunkin’ Donuts access to a self-serve advertising platform, where they can “set, change and measure their mobile advertising campaigns,” along with features like “local search advertising and advanced targeting.”

Who does that remind you of?

Many of the big tech companies have been looking to make a splash in local, whether it’s Foursquare, Yelp or Facebook, and many more are trying to get there. These three companies in particular can tap into geo-location data via check-ins and local search, but none of them can hold a candle to Google’s scale.

Yes, Google+’s local business pages may not quite have the same adoption as Facebook Pages, but the company is working hard to shore up the gap and make G+ a destination, digital real estate that’s actually valuable to local businesses. Though it doesn’t have the traffic yet, it’s getting harder and harder to ignore Google+. The company has an enormous dataset on local businesses, listings, contact information, hours and so on and they’ve capitalized on that to cater to local advertisers looking to reach customers as they search for related keywords, etc.

Local, mobile advertising spend in the U.S. is expected to skyrocket over the next few years, making Google’s vast index of local businesses and search extremely valuable to Waze, and to an extent, vice versa. Although adding this search and its accompanying massive dataset and processing on the backend may lead to a more cluttered user experience (and its hard to imagine Google will never touch Waze’s UI), Google can also give Waze the kind of search functionality and integration that it’s still missing.

Game Over?

The more one starts to drill down into the motivations for the acquisition, it gets easier and easier to justify the one-billion-dollar price tag. And, although it’s rarely said of big-ticket acquisitions like this, it almost seems as if it’s a steal. Rather than having an excellent map and navigation product fall into the hands of one of the other big players that (desperately) needs it, Google has taken its already stellar Maps product and added a younger but potentially equally valuable one.

And while Wazers may worry about its new owner tinkering (and screwing) with the app’s current experience and interface, it’s more than likely that any significant changes or integrations are still a long ways out. Plus, as my homeskillet and colleague Greg Kumparak points out, Google can immediately start getting value out of Waze’s realtime traffic data and its on-the-go re-routing prowess — both of which Google needs and both of which can potentially be integrated into Google Maps without spoiling Waze’s user experience.

Ultimately, however, if the “Map Wars” are more than just hype drummed up by the media and if its outcome has any significant bearing on their mobile strategies, than this seems like a fairly big loss for Facebook and Apple. It almost seems as if it would’ve been worth it just to keep Waze out of Google’s hands, but again, there’s a big mobile landscape beyond Maps. Regardless, after the Waze-oogle deal, Apple, Facebook and everyone else are now swimming upstream against a stronger current.

Google Admits It Spams The Hell Out Of You In New Gmail Commercial

Google Spam

Got so many Google+, YouTube, Google Offers, and Zagat emails you want to scream? Google’s got you covered. No, it’s not sending you less spam. It’s organizing your spam into tabs! Google’s blatant attempt to cross-promote its bevy of services in the video for the quite possibly awesome new Gmail inbox leaves it seeming like a sketchy foreigner who just needs $200 to wire you your lottery winnings.

Yes, of course you can configure all your email notifications settings, but that’s the cheater’s way to inbox zero.

Google could have used some generic stand-ins for the emails that would get filtered into Gmail’s new social and promotions tabs, but instead it went with its own products. Maybe Gmail’s new tabs can’t recognize the unnecessary alerts Facebook and other social networks send as “social”, but showing an inbox with 10 straight alerts from Google+ and YouTube isn’t very flattering.

It’s a curious choice considering the general, long-standing weariness about the tech giant using its girth of products to promote [or unfairly favor] its other properties. Pumping Google+ in Google Search results was bad enough.

Now I want to be clear, these criticisms come from a place of love. Your staff deserves to have their work honored by videos that make it shine, like this beautiful one for the new Hangouts messenger.

What stuns me is that after whole teams of engineers and designers spend months carefully crafting a product, it can get carelessly marred or misrepresented when the company tries to make a commercial out of it. Facebook’s Home ads make it look like it will endlessly interrupt your time with your family. Spotify’s first TV spot appears to show someone crowdsurfing across of a sea of zombies in the post apocalypse.

I know secrecy is sooo important when it comes to big product launches like the snazzy new Gmail, but it seems to me that tech companies could stand to do a bit more private field testing before they show their videos and commercials to the world. Otherwise, you end up with “And that’s why chairs are like Facebook.”

[Image Credit]

Google Embeds March Madness Bracket In Search, Because Screw Sports Sites

Google Basketball

Who wins basketball games is an immutable fact. No one owns that information, so why should some random sports sites get the windfall of traffic as millions of sports fan search Google for the NCAA March Madness bracket? In Google’s latest application of making the world’s information universally accessible, it’s now embedding the bracket at the top of a variety of search results.

Once upon a time, websites would fight SEO wars to be the top result for the most basic questions like “What time does the Super Bowl start?”, or “When is St. Patrick’s Day”, or “San Francisco weather”. But taking answers that no one technically owns and burying them behind an extra click made Google an unnecessary kingmaker. It was also a waste of time for everyone. Wasting time and playing favorites isn’t Google’s jam.

Well, except that it has no problem crowning itself king of information. So Google software engineer Dan Vanderkam and his team built the March Madness bracket right into results for “Basketball bracket”, “March Madness”, “NCAA tournament” and other related searches. The embedded bracket instantly gives you each game’s round, teams, rankings, date, and time, score, and winner. The expandable embed is even richer than Google’s college hoops plan for last year. Meanwhile, Yahoo buries a janky looking bracket deep down in the results, and Bing just gives me a list of links when I search for “March Madness Bracket”.

If you want deeper information, skip down to Google’s results from NCAA.com, Huffington Post, and SBNation. But if all you want to know is who’s playing when and if your winner predictions came true, Google’s got you covered instantly. Google does the same for a variety of information, from flights to Olympic medal counts to biographies through its Knowledge Graph.

And I’m totally fine with that. Publishers should seek to succeed through depth, commentary, visualization, analysis, research, and personality, not just SEO. I don’t search because I want links, or results. I want answers, and as long as Google stays dedicated to giving them to me, I’ll keep coming back. Information just wants to be free, man.

[Image via the hilarious Toothpaste For Dinner]

How Google+ Punk’d The Oatmeal

The Oatmeal Punked

Since The Oatmeal draws comics like 5 Ways To Fight A Crack Whore, the kids down in Mountain View figured they could play a joke on him.

This summer the artist wrote that Google+ comment threads sound like *crickets*, poking fun at the social network’s lack of engagement. He also criticized not being able to “set up a fancy profile URL so I don’t have to link people to http://plus.google.com/blergasdf1234 thimbleturdorgasm99meatpoopypoop xv9donkeypie ” — a made-up, ridiculously long string of random characters.

Yep, you saw a “turd orgasm 99 meat poopy poop” in there. But hell hath no fury like an engineer scorned.

In retaliation, the Google+ team didn’t cite its user growth stats or give an excuse for why there are no custom profile URLs. Oh, no, that wouldn’t be nearly witty enough for the search giant’s brainiacs.

Instead, they just redirected http://plus.google.com/blergasdf1234thimbleturdorgasm99meatpoopypoopxv9donkeypie back to The Oatmeal author Matthew Inman’s Google+ profile “https://plus.google.com/100193529331792590881/posts” . Congrats, Matt, you’ve now got “donkey pie” at the end of your own special Google+ vanity URL.

Maybe his comment threads won’t be such a ghost town now that anyone who types in the joke URL will be able to put the comedian in their Circles.

The best part might be that somewhere in the Google+ code is a little comment to future engineers about the redirect, noting “Don’t take this out, we’re fucking with The Oatmeal.”

Check out TechCrunch’s coverage of how The Oatmeal earned a bunch of money for charity by telling a trademark troll’s mom to go have sex with bears.

Could Google Delete Copyrighted MP3s From Gmail? ‘Only In Extreme Cases’ It Says

gmail

Some rather inflammatory news has been making its way around the web today: a user posting on the Pirateweb message board has accused Google of removing copyrighted MP3 music files from a Gmail account — possibly using the scanning services that Google employs to block illegal content on YouTube, possibly using something else.

Shocking if true, so we went to Google to get a response. And the short answer is: no. Or not, at least, just like that.

Perhaps it’s the confluence of other things — Google’s upcoming privacy policy changes, and murmurs that Google could remove illegal content that people store in their Google Music digital lockers — that make this story sound plausible.

But a spokesperson from Google has come back to us with a denial that it is doing anything of this kind.

However — and this might be a worry for some who store all kinds of things in Gmail — he also left open the possibility that Google could do something like this “in extreme cases,” for example, in response to court orders.

“We do not go into or interfere with user’s Gmail accounts, except in extreme cases, such as in response to court orders. Emails, data and files contained in Gmail are users’ private information.”

Before you read too much into that, he also pointed out that the scanning service used with YouTube is only used there:

“Our Content ID service, which enables us to scan uploaded YouTube videos for copyrighted material, is only ever used on YouTube. It does not work on our other products, including Gmail.”

The original note raising the issue was published last week. The user, one Honey Escreveu, said that a folder she kept in her Gmail account, which contained MP3 files for copyrighted music, suddenly got deleted. It’s not clear whether those were legally-owned files or not. The only two MP3s that remained in her Gmail, apparently, were for “unsigned indy artists” who are not on YouTube.

So, the jury is still out on whether Honey got the wrong end of the stick, is a hoax, or really has seen the phantom disappearance of her files. If the latter, we are still none the wiser about where the music has gone.

Montblanc Takes Google To Court To Obtain Identity Of, And Sue, Counterfeit Advertisers

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Google has been going to great lengths to keep advertisers who sell counterfeit goods online out of its AdWords program, but as far as Montblanc, the Germany-based maker of ‘writing instruments’, watches, jewelry and whatnot, is concerned, they ought to be doing more. Montblanc-Simplo GmbH, as the holding is called, is taking Google to court in an effort to obtain the identity of a certain – or more – persistent counterfeit goods seller(s).

TechCrunch has obtained the court documents, which make for an interesting read.

Montblanc says it has received numerous complaints from customers who’ve been misled by keyword ads that appeared on Google.co.uk. According to the complaint, many were tricked into purchasing counterfeit Montblanc products from websites that were specifically designed to look like official Montblanc communication channels.

The luxury goods company subsequently turned to Google UK in an effort to identify the advertisers, who were bidding on keywords like ‘montblanc pens’, but according to the complaint, the search giant’s UK office has consistently said that they simply don’t have access to that kind of information, directing Montblanc instead to the U.S. mothership.

From the court docs:

Montblanc has attempted to determine the identity of the Advertisers through numerous alternative means, with no success. Because the identity of the Advertisers is in the exclusive possession of Google, and Montblanc has no other source from which to obtain the requested information, Montblanc has no choice but to file this Complaint in Equity for a Bill of Discovery in order to enforce its trademark rights.

Once Montblanc has identified the Advertisers through this Bill of Discovery against Google, it intends to file a lawsuit to enforce its trademark rights against the identified Advertisers. Without the requested information, however, Montblanc does not know who the Advertisers are and therefore does not know whom it needs to sue to enforce its trademark rights.

As Montblanc points out in its complaint, it has been using the ‘montblanc’ mark for a wide range of products since its founding in 1906, making it one of the world’s well-known trademarks.

Understandably, the company asserts that the sale of counterfeit goods, bearing the ‘montblanc’ trademarks, has caused it “significant reputational and financial harm”.

For the record, Montblanc acknowledges that Google UK has been responsive to its complaints in discussions dating back to September 2011, and that the search company repeatedly told them that they “removed the offending ads and taking action against the Advertisers”.

The only problem is that they keep coming back, and Montblanc is getting desperate.

From an earlier Google blog post, describing the game of cat and mouse:

AdWords is just a conduit between advertisers and consumers and we can’t know whether any particular item out of the millions advertised is counterfeit or not.

Of course, we do more than simply respond to brand owners’ removal requests. We use their feedback to help us tune a set of sophisticated automated tools, which analyse thousands of signals along every step of the advertising process and help prevent bad ads from ever seeing the light of day. We devote significant engineering and machine resources in order to prevent violations of ads policies, including counterfeiting.

In fact, we invested over $60 million last year alone, and, in the last 6 months of 2010, more than 95% of accounts removed for counterfeits came down based on our own detection efforts. No system is perfect, but brand owner feedback has helped us improve over time – as our system gets more data about ads it has misclassified before, it gets better at counteracting new ways that bad guys try to cloak their behaviour.

While our systems get better over time, counterfeiting remains a complex challenge, and we keep investing in anti-counterfeiting measures. After all, a Google user duped by a fake is far less likely to click on another Google ad in the future. Ads for counterfeits aren’t just bad for the real brand holder – they’re bad for users who can end up unknowingly buying sub-standard products, and they’re bad for Google too.

This makes sense; Google has nothing to gain from counterfeit advertisers in the long term.

In Montblanc’s view, however, Google should be more actively helping them determine the identity of counterfeit advertisers by handing over the contact and financial details they store – due to the nature of the AdWords program – so that the company can name them as defendants in litigation.

We’ll be following this case with eagle eyes.

(Photo courtesy of Luigi Crespo Photography on Flickr)

Real Augmented Reality Google Goggles In Prototype Stage?

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There have been whispers in the past of augmented reality goggles or glasses, but generally we have been able to dismiss them as exaggerations or concepts. The technology, while it isn’t unrealistic, simply isn’t quite there yet.

Apparently that hasn’t stopped Google: a new report is appearing corroborating earlier ones that they are working on a pair of augmented reality glasses. They’d piggyback on your phone’s connection and overlay information like directions, news, and so on.

Whether you think it’s a good idea or not, this kind of thing is going to come eventually, so it’s natural that Google would want to start girding itself for the approaching augmented glasses wars of 20XX.

The 9 to 5 Google report says they look something like a pair of athletic glasses, with a forward-facing camera and flash. The augmented reality bit is actually not a transparent display over one or both eyes, but a single opaque display on the side of one eyepiece (which eyepiece, and which side, were not specified). You operate it with voice or by moving your head around to navigate or select menu options.

Yes, not exactly the future we were expecting. I guarantee these things don’t look cool, either. But like I said, the technology isn’t there yet: cameras and processors aren’t small or fast enough, batteries can’t provide enough power, displays aren’t built for them, and computer vision isn’t good enough. Some of these things Google can work on, some they can’t. But the best way to have a product ready when the tech is there is to try to build one when the tech isn’t.

The glasses are apparently nowhere near done, unsurprisingly, and Google isn’t sure how to make anything out of them. A pilot program could be in the works, or it could continue to be an underground project, metamorphosing again and again until the market is ready. As it is, these things would be weird, expensive, and not particularly useful. In a couple years, though, who knows?

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