Saturday, May 3, 2008

Yahoo pipes out a challenge to Google

There is so much information circulating throughout the web in the form of XML feeds that it's hard to keep track of it all. However, Yahoo wants to make it easy for ordinary web surfers to pick the eyes out of it all and organize it into a custom made useful format with tools from a website called Yahoo Pipes.

As Yahoo says on its website, Pipes is a hosted service that lets you remix feeds and create new data mashups in a visual programming environment.

According to Yahoo, the usefulness of the huge volume of XML feeds available to web users has been limited because users are restricted to feed readers which can access the information from one feed. However, Pipes allows users to take the data from one or more feeds and use it to build new applications.

On its site, Yahoo provides examples, such as: Pasha's Apartment Search pipe, which combines Craigslist listings with data from Yahoo! Local to display apartments available for rent near any business.

It's basically an application that had to happen in the Web 2.0 environment in which bloggers and posters are becoming one person news sources and news aggregators are picking up all the information on specific topics as fast as it can be posted.

Yahoo Pipes aims to provide ordinary web users with the ability to take the plethora of available data and develop new information applications, such as Pasha's Apartment Search pipe, which will have value for a variety of segments of the global Internet community.

While there have been queries raised about copyright issues of using proprietary content to create new applications, Yahoo, like Google, appears intent on re-writing the rules of content and publishing in the virgin territory of the Web 2.0 space.

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Crowd Wisdom vs. Google's Genius

by Catherine Holahan

Can the wisdom of crowds trump the genius of Google? The founder of Web encyclopedia Wikipedia believes it not only can, but it will. Jimmy Wales, the man behind Wikipedia, which ranks among the top 15 online destinations worldwide, plans to launch a new search engine in the first three months of 2007. He believes the project, which is called Wikiasari, could someday overtake Google as the leader of Web search.

Like Wikipedia, the new search engine will rely on the support of a volunteer community of users. The idea is that Web surfers and programmers will be able to bring their collective intelligence to bear, to fine-tune search results and make the experience more effective for everyone. "If you search in Google, a lot of the results are very, very good and a lot of the results are very, very bad," says Wales. What that shows, Wales says, is that mathematical formulas alone do not produce consistently relevant results. "Human intelligence is still a very important part of the process," he says.

People can contribute to Wikiasari in one of two ways. The first is by enabling ordinary computer users to rerank search results. When a user performs a search on Wikiasari, the engine will return results based on a formula akin to Google's own Page-Rank system, which determines relevance by counting the number of times other Web pages link to a specific page, among other things. Unlike Google, however, users will then be able to reorder the results based on which links they find most useful by selecting an edit function. Wikiasari's servers will then store the new results along with the original query. When the same query is made in the future, Wikiasari will return the results in the order saved by most users.

"Google-Killing" Potential

Web users with programming knowledge have a second way to contribute. Wikiasari's technology is based on Apache's open-source Web search software Lucene and Nutch, and Wales plans to unveil all the company's computer code to the outside world. This kind of open-source development is in sharp contrast to the approach of the leading search engines, which do not release their search ranking formulas. Yet Wales contends that his open approach will ultimately prevail, because anyone any place in the world can weigh in with tweaks to Wikiasari's code to help return more relevant results.

Google has proven to be a fearsome competitor, however, against some of the most powerful companies in technology. In recent years, Google has increased its lead in search over Yahoo! and Microsoft's MSN, despite vows from both companies to catch up. Google controlled 49.5% of the searches in December, up from 43% two years earlier, according to Nielsen/NetRatings. Meanwhile, Yahoo has 24.3% of searches and MSN, the third highest ranking search engine, controls just 8.2% of searches. Microsoft's share of the search market has slipped from 14% two years ago, despite a technology revamp and a multimillion-dollar ad campaign. If the searches that Google performs for Time Warner's AOL and News Corp.'s MySpace are added to the equation, its lead is even greater.

Though the Wikiasari project is scheduled to debut in the first quarter of next year, Wales suspects it will take roughly three years of user input before it has enough information to become a real competitor to the top search engines. "I wish I could write a Google-killing project in three months, but it is going to take a little bit longer than that," says Wales. "We will have something up in '07, but it won't be very good or interesting. It will be a starting point for people to play with."

This Time, It's Profitable?

Wales bases his three-year timetable on the amount of time Wikipedia took to really take off. That project launched in 2001 with about 100 articles. It now has more than 6 million articles in a variety of languages, according to Wikipedia's own Wikipedia entry. Though the trustworthiness of its user-supplied content is hotly debated, at least one study showed it is now nearly as accurate as other encyclopedias and frequently used by scientists.

However, there is a key difference between Wikiasari and Wikipedia. While Wikipedia is a nonprofit, Wikiasari is a for-profit venture by Wales' company Wikia Inc. Wales has received some high-powered backing for his venture—$4 million in funding from Bessemer Venture Partners and Omidyar Network. Bessemer was one of the original investors in Internet phone phenom Skype, and Omidyar Network is the investment vehicle of Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay. E-commerce giant Amazon also put money into the company earlier this month. (Contrary to one published report, Amazon is contributing only money, not technology.)

Wikiasari will serve ads along the right side of the search results page, says Wales. Like Google, the ads will be related to queries and clearly marked as sponsored links. The presence of ads could make the kind of users who contribute to Wikipedia respond differently to Wikiasari. After all, contributing to Wikipedia is seen as something of a selfless act in support of a nonprofit that exists solely to benefit the Web community. Supplying information to Wikiasari, on the other hand, will benefit Wikia and its advertisers.

Other Community Experiments

Wales doesn't think people will care. As proof, he uses the example of Red Hat, a public, for-profit company that relies on Linux's free, open-source operating system and user collaboration. The company made $105.8 million in the third quarter of this year, up 45% year over year. "It's all about free licensing and sharing your work with others," says Wales. "They don't care about people making money; they care about people taking their work and locking it up."

Even if people do contribute, that doesn't mean Wikiasari will eventually become leader of the pack, or even one of the leading players. The major search engines know that links alone are not infallible indicators of the best results. Both Yahoo and Google have experimented with ways to involve the community to refine their own search products. Yahoo, for example, has its Answers property that relies on volunteer users to supply information related to specific queries. Similarly, Google has allowed people to vote on results by clicking on a smiley face on its toolbar for good results and on a frowning face for bad ones. Google shut down its own answers service, with real people responding to questions, in November.

Search's Next Level

Other companies have tried to incorporate human intelligence in search results. StumbleUpon, for example, has a toolbar that shows users which pages in Google, Yahoo, or any other engine's search results have been rated favorably by its community based on the users' interest. The 3-and-a-half-year-old company, funded in part by Ram Shriram and Rajeev Motwani, two of the investors who initially backed Google, has grown from 500,000 users to 1.65 million users in the past year alone. "Algorithmic search can only get you so far," says Dave Feller, StumbleUpon's vice-president of marketing. "The info from other people can get you to the next level."

StumbleUpon's ambitions may suggest what the future holds for Wikiasari. Feller says that the company would be open to partnering with a Google or Yahoo. With Google's $140 billion market cap, it could even buy such a toolbar company to enhance its own results. Wales may have dreams of taking on Google with his new Wikiasari project. But he may end up developing a search engine that will make Google—or one of its rivals—that much more effective.

Holahan is a writer for in New York.

Monday, April 28, 2008

How Clickfraud Works

Louise, a disabled housewife, plays a bit part in a ring of online fraudsters.

She spends her days at home in Ohio entering queries in obscure search engines and then clicking on the ads -- over and over again.

Louise's illicit clicks cost advertisers untold amounts of money. But she doesn't care because some of their losses eventually trickle into her pockets to help pay for her prescription medicine.

"All that mattered was that I needed the money," Louise said, explaining why she leaped into a career of fraud last year.

Louise, who asked that her full name not be used because of the questionable nature of her work, is not alone. Armies of average citizens have been lured into similar fraud rings by come-ons to earn money from home.

Their work is known as click fraud, a problem that has bedeviled Internet giants Google and Yahoo in recent years. Its rise has eroded confidence in the lucrative search advertising business, which is expected to generate more than $6 billion in revenue in 2006, according to eMarketer.

Internet advertisers pay companies like Google and Yahoo every time someone clicks on their ads. In addition to placing ads on their own properties, Google and Yahoo distribute them to other Web sites and share any revenue with the owners.

Some Web site owners try to inflate the money they collect by hiring others to surreptitiously click on the ads. The theory is that spreading the clicking between different individuals in different locations provides better cover from Google's and Yahoo's fraud detection software than automated iterations of click fraud.

Various studies have concluded that between 10 and 20 percent of all clicks are fraudulent. About half of them are never detected, costing advertisers a fortune, according to several online advertising executives.

An entire subset of Web sites has emerged whose sole purpose seems to be fraudulent. They tend to be obscure search engines, portals and Web domains for sale that feature mostly advertising.

Shadowy companies

Many rely on shadowy companies to provide the manpower necessary for the scam. These companies recruit Internet users, some of whom don't realize what they're doing is illegal.

Louise said she was lured into the world of click fraud because her back problems make a regular job impossible, and she was short of cash.

In all, Louise said she works with 20 recruiters. They send her up to 600 e-mails daily that include links to the search engines that she is supposed to visit and use.

"I have always been a search freak, searching for anything from computer wallpaper to illness symptoms to recipes," Louise said. "Now I just get paid for them."

The services automatically track how many search engines Louise visits. For each click, she earns a fraction of a cent, or around $6 per day.

She doesn't know who is behind the services, though she suspects that some of her bosses are in China. Others who have signed up with similar services said they appear to be operated from Turkey and Poland.

How much money the bosses make is anyone's guess. The potential could be enormous if they recruit enough members. They're notorious for failing to pay their members what they owe them and then disappearing.

Shuman Ghosemajumder, who handles trust and safety for Google, dismissed the idea that the mom-and-pop fraudsters are having much success bilking his company and its advertisers. The techniques they use, he said, are unsophisticated and present little challenge to his company's automated fraud filters.

Mountain View's Google maintains long lists of dubious Web sites and filters out suspicious clicks that come from them. The company routinely issues warnings to Web site owners and then exiles them from its advertising network if they don't change their ways.

Fraudsters use a number of techniques to stay under the radar. Routing their foot soldiers to search engines via e-mail is one of their tricks.

Ghosemajumder said that the fraudsters may be able to use such a technique to hide the fact that an inordinate amount of clicks is coming from a single source. But he insisted that his company monitors hundreds of other signals, any one of which could raise a red flag.

Smaller distributors of online advertising, Ghosemajumder suggested, may be more susceptible to fraud because they have invested less in counter measures.

His comments were echoed by Gaude Paez, a spokeswoman for Yahoo in Sunnyvale. Her company's filters are adept at detecting fraud and that it has discounted billions of clicks over the years that were suspect, she said.

Joe Rosenbaum, an attorney who leads the e-commerce practice for the law firm Bryan Cave, said that individuals who engage in click fraud risk criminal charges or civil suits. However, the law may not be so clear in other countries, where many of the ringleaders are believed to be based, he said.

In any case, Rosenbaum said, Internet companies are probably only interested in getting the big fish, not housewives making pocket change. But determining where the kingpins are located and getting local authorities to cooperate is an uphill struggle, even if there are laws that can be used to prosecute them, he said.

In the United States, Google is known to have sued just one company, Auctions Expert International of Houston, for click fraud, a case that was ultimately settled. Yahoo is not known to have filed any suits.

Transparency needed

Samir Patel, founder of SearchForce, a San Mateo maker of software that allows companies to manage their online advertising campaigns, said that advertisers are concerned about click fraud and think that Google and Yahoo can be more transparent about it. For now, little information is available to his clients, he said, even though some of them are spending $5 or $10 per click.

"Google and Yahoo can definitely do more," Patel said.

As it is, the only way for the advertisers to uncover the scope of click fraud is to go through their computer logs, line by line. If they see an inordinate number of clicks from obscure Web sites, they can ask Google or Yahoo for refunds.

The effort to shut down mom-and-pop fraudsters is being helped by a small cadre of volunteers. They do so out of duty and self interest.

They say the surreptitious work of the fraudsters taints a related but legitimate industry known as "paid to read." That industry has existed for years and revolves around companies paying Internet users small amounts of money to visit Web sites in hope that they will eventually sell them something.

Message boards devoted to the paid-to-read industry are a cacophony of accusations between members who claim to be the good guys and those who say that defrauding prosperous companies such as Google and Yahoo is fine.

Verne Kopytoff, SfGate.Com

Click Fraud : Judging the Scope of the Problem

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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Can Think Of A Good Domain Name? Someone Can.

PickyDomains.Com is a perfect example of how to turn one's talent into a profitable business. With ever expanding Internet and tens of millions existing websites, finding an available domain name that's not already taken by cybersquatters can be a real nightmare.

But one man's problem is another man's solution. Rather than to shell out hundreds or thousands of dollars for a domain name on the aftermarket, an increasing number of web entrepreneurs turn to professional "domain namers".

While most naming agencies charge a non-refundable fee that can be as high as $1500 for a corporate domain, one service that unites 17 professional domain namers from countries like United States, Russia, Australia and New Zealand, decided to offer a risk-free service that costs only 50 dollars per domain.

After 50 dollars are deposited, clients start getting a list of available domain names via e-mail for a period of 30 days. If they see a domain they like, they register it and notify the service about domain acquired. The individual, who came up with the name, gets $25, the other half going to the service. If no domain is registered, the money is refunded in full.

While the idea is brainlessly simple, it appears that PickyDomains.Com has no competition with its risk-free business model. But that is almost certain to change as more people find out that finding available domain names for other people can be a profitable business.

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