Fumbles and Features for Search and Social Network Firms

It feels like Thanksgiving was just yesterday, but of course that didn’t slow down some of our favorite search engines and social networks – well, except in one case. Here’s a quick round up of some of the good, bad, and ugly news currently breaking about Yahoo, Facebook, and Google.

We’ll start with Yahoo for something uglier than a day at the mall on Black Friday. Actually, this is about Black Friday’s Internet cousin, Cyber Monday. There have been projections for a while that shoppers would spend more money purchasing gifts online on the Monday after Thanksgiving this year than they did on the same day last year. So you’d think that Yahoo Merchant Solutions, formerly known as Yahoo Stores, would be ready for this rush of business, right?

Wrong. More than 10,000 online merchants and their customers felt the pain as Yahoo’s shopping cart software crashed. The first signs of the problem showed up around 8:30 AM, with shoppers receiving an “Error Message During Checkout,” according to the Yahoo Merchant Solutions System Status Page. Apparently the problem continued until well after 5 PM, when Yahoo posted that it was still investigating the issue.

The problem was not resolved until almost 7 PM that evening. Yahoo stated at the time that it had made configuration changes. “All merchants are able to accept orders at this time with slower than expected performance. We are continuing to investigate and make additional changes to optimize the checkout experience. Additional updates will be provided as they become available.”

Yahoo Merchant Solutions may be up and running now, but how does Yahoo propose to make up for the damage to its merchants? Cyber Monday is supposed to be the day that everyone does their holiday shopping online from work. The system was down during the very same hours that most people work. In short, merchants using Yahoo’s system lost more than eight hours of absolutely prime time traffic. It’s estimated that merchants saw $700 million in online sales this year from Cyber Monday; you can imagine how little of that went to those 10,000 hapless merchants who had every right to believe that Yahoo would come through for them and have its act together.

So far I haven’t been able to find any details regarding a fuller reaction from Yahoo. Will the company at least apologize to the merchants? Offer some kind of credit for the down time? All I know is that Yahoo has 10,000 angry merchants on its hands, and I’d be very surprised if some of them aren’t checking out systems from other companies – like Google, for example – that might be more reliable when it counts.

{mospagebreak title=Facebook Privacy Invasion}

Perhaps what happened to Yahoo and its customers should merely be considered “bad,” because when it comes to “ugly,” it’s hard to top Facebook’s Beacon advertising program. At last report, forty-four companies are participating in the program. Until Facebook finally had a sudden outbreak of common sense, it went like this: if you’re a Facebook user and you buy something from one of the participating merchants, the information is published to your Facebook friends. In other words, you become an advocate for the brand to your buddies, whether you want to or not.

Can you opt out of the program? As originally created, yes, but it wasn’t easy. A small pop-up appeared on your screen and gave you 20 seconds to click the box and tell Facebook you’re opting out of the program. After 20 seconds, the pop-up vanished, Facebook assumed you agreed to participate in the program, and acted accordingly. Up until recently, there was no “global opt-out” of the program that would allow Facebook users to block it entirely; more on that in a bit.

Did this make Facebook users upset? Do people eat leftover turkey sandwiches after Thanksgiving? Grassroots political action site MoveOn.org has a petition posted that protests Facebook’s Beacon program. There is also a protest group on Facebook started by MoveOn that reportedly attracted more than 47,000 members.

In response to the protests, Facebook started by claiming that “the MoveOn.org-led group misrepresents how Facebook Beacon works.” Facebook claimed that since the information is not exposed publicly, but only to a user’s friends, it isn’t an invasion of privacy. But a “friend” on Facebook isn’t exactly the same thing as a friend in real life; Facebook users could have thousands of “friends,” many of which they naturally aren’t all that close to.

Facebook then claimed that it “already has made changes to ensure that no information is shared unless a user receives notifications both on a participating website and on Facebook.” But in fact, if Facebook has made any changes at all to its program, those changes are less than obvious. Wendy Davis, reporting for Media Post Publications, mentions the reaction of a Facebook spokesman when pressed about the nature of the changes. “We fixed a technical issue to be sure the first notification fully displayed since some users were missing it.”

But it looks like Facebook finally saw the light, at least on this issue. Businessweek reported a discussion by company’s executives about changes to  Beacon. Some of the merchants in the Beacon program started to get cold feet. Facebook finally did give users a global opt-out, as reported by Computerworld, but users still aren’t happy. One user commented in a Facebook forum dedicated to privacy protests over Beacon that "On the opt-out page, it says that you will stop information from being posted to your profile" but it "does not explicitly state that Facebook will stop collecting the information transmitted from third party sites." Between rumors that Beacon collects data from non-Facebook data, questions over whether Blockbuster can be sued for its role in the Facebook program, and privacy advocates all but howling for Facebook’s head, the ugliness from this Beacon is likely to continue well into the new year.

{mospagebreak title=Yahoo Adds Structure to Searches}

You wouldn’t think that pull-down menus can work well for search, but Enetez, one of the search engines I reviewed recently, showed that it could work for certain kinds of searches. Now Yahoo wants to adopt the same structured search approach for certain queries. The new feature is not available yet, but it could be coming soon.

It should be coming very soon, in fact, to make the most of what Yahoo sees as its ideal purpose: online shopping. Ricardo Baeza-Yates, Yahoo’s vice president of research for Europe and Latin America, offered the example of a search on the phrase “mobile phone.” While the search engine would return the expected results for the phrase, a structured search would also offer pull-down menus that give the searcher a choice of brands, technologies and specifications, and other features.

If the user wants to take advantage of the structured search, he or she can make choices from the drop-down menus, and then click on search again. Yahoo then returns a list of phones that meet the user’s criteria, along with their prices and links leading to where the user can buy them. Of course, Enetez found more uses for structured search than online shopping, but it’s easy to see how applying this feature to this particular task could enormously increase its efficiency.

Yahoo plans to unveil other new features that should make searching faster and easier, but it faces an uphill battle. For instance, it is trying to create a network architecture that is distributed in order to speed up responses to queries. With data centers set up around the globe, local queries would be handled by local data centers, thus reducing the latency of the network.

Yahoo also hopes to tackle the challenge of semantic search. If you’re not familiar with this particular issue, it’s almost the Holy Grail of automated search: get a computer to understand the meaning behind the words on a site well enough to generate the most relevant results possible. This particular task faces more than one obstacle. Computers aren’t human – they don’t “think” like humans and they don’t understand language and meanings like humans. Take that challenge and multiply it by the number of languages in which web pages are written (human languages, not computer languages) and you begin to see the scope of the problem. I wish Yahoo luck, and I look forward to trying out the search engine’s new features as they’re released.

{mospagebreak title=More GDrive Rumors}

As more than one observer commented when this story came out, a “rumor” in the Wall Street Journal carries a lot more weight than a rumor printed anywhere else. The newspaper cited “people familiar with the matter” as saying that the search engine giant plans to start offering free storage to users on its hard drives. The service could store users’ word processing documents, digital music, video clips and images – in short, anything a user might store on his or her computer’s hard drive.

While many would use the still-hypothetical service for backing up their systems, it’s much better than a simple backup. Users could access the files they’ve stored with the service from any device that can connect to the Internet – another desktop computer, a laptop, even a mobile device such as a smart phone. A password would be required to access the files. Users would be able to share files online with their friends.

A certain amount of storage would be available for free, with more available for a fee, though no actual prices have been set. This would be in line with similar services offered by AOL, Microsoft, and other companies. At least the first gigabyte is always free, with greater amounts available for prices that are all over the chart. Omnidrive.com offers 50 GB for $100 per year; that same 50 GB can be had by the month from AOL with its Xdrive.com plan for just under $10 per month if you prefer to pay extra for the privilege of not committing for the full year. Smaller amounts are also available for lower prices.

One thing that Google does plan to do differently is simplify the process of storing files. Rather than going online and clicking through several screens to set everything up, Google aims to make the experience as much like saving something natively on a PC as possible. Google wants users to be able to upload and access files directly from their PC desktops. In effect, the web-based storage acts like just another hard drive.

The move fits in nicely with other Google services, such as Gmail, Calendar, Docs, Spreadsheet and Picasa, and might encourage their usage. But challenges remain. The Wall Street Journal cited such issues as “data privacy, copyright, the economics of adding storage capacity and the technical challenges of offering service without interruption.” With any luck, we’ll know what Google intends to do about those concerns in a few months, when the service is expected to go live.

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