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February 12, 2009

SMX West Keynote Conversation: John Battelle

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Last day, first session and it’s a good one. John Battelle sits down with Danny Sullivan to talk about search and other smart things. The livebloggers are out in force. We’re adorably efficient.

Just in case you missed it, Google Japan was penalized for buying paid links by Google itself. Good times. John says that they’re now in the sandbox. Dear John, jokes about the sandbox are so 2005.

Danny wants to start off talking about Google. He’s mentions he’s glad that the book is called “The Search” and not “Google”. John mentions that the publisher wanted to call it “Google google google googley google” but they compromised.

When John started to write the book, he thought of Google as a media company and search as the largest intersection of technology and media in the world. John tried to convince Eric Schmidt that he had a media company on his hands. They only had 900 employees at the time, back in 2001, and the change has been extraordinary. He got to watch as they grew up to 10,000 and since then he’s been watching from afar. They now have such an “ocean-boiling remit”.

What does John think about the people who are worried that Google is encroaching on them?

The model of the Internet has a lot of presumptions that are totally different and anathema to the previous model. Using music as an example: Distribution and access to distribution, as well as access to the tools to create the media. Both of those used to be very expensive and now they’re practically free. Napster was the Google of music. The music industry went through the seven stages of grief dealing with that. Now there’s Amazon and iTunes without DRM so he thinks they’re catching up. John thinks the newspaper industry is now going through the same thing. You have to learn how to make a buck while giving away your product. No one is going to pay for local newspapers anymore.

Should Google buy the newspapers?

There’s a reasonable argument to be made that Google and Yahoo have benefited from the content that’s been put on the Web by the traditional media companies. He thinks they’ve benefited even more by other sources (like us) [Does he mean SEOs? –Virginia] and none of us expect to be bought.

The newspaper model doesn’t work very well anymore but what the newspapers do is worthy of saving. [Heck yeah it is! –Virginia] Newspapers keep the government honest and the people informed. And Google should be doing more to support that sort of fourth estate. He doesn’t think that Google.com should buy the NYT but maybe Google.org should.

He thinks that the idea of journalism as a philanthropic organization makes people cringe. But that there is an argument there for that. It’s hard to make a profit in straight news so it needs to be supported.

John predicts that Microsoft will pick up search share and Google will lose it.

How does he see that happen? He did an interview with Ballmer recently that made him believe that MSN is really serious. He thinks that they’re going to grow by just buying search much like they bought distribution for Windows. It doesn’t mean that they’re going to keep the searchers if the product isn’t good but their engine is getting better and better.

Every time he talks to someone at Google, this is their one worry — that Microsoft will get into search. He doesn’t think Microsoft is going to pass Google this year and won’t predict when that might happen, if it does. He thinks that if it does happen, by anyone, that we’re going to be measuring search by different parameters, like including YouTube as a search engine or using Shazam on the iPhone to identify songs. He thinks search is splintering into a million apps and someone is going to win that. Everyone would like to win that, should that occur. He thinks that it’s going to take 10-15 years.

Search is still in the DOS era.

The first interface between man and machine was a completely non-grammatical language that no one (except geeks) bothered to learn. But that’s how you communicated with a machine. Then came Windows and Mac and now you’re at hunt and poke. It’s like being in a foreign country where you don’t know the language and so you just point and poke and people figure it out. The huge shift from there is the knowledge of the whole world being accessible. So now you need a new interface because pointing and poking isn’t going to cut it.

However, Search is still at the command line and he thinks it’s time for a new interface. Something natural language, it has to be natural language. He thinks this is why they launched Google411, so that they could build a database of phonemes. It’s not going to talk back to you, there’s no reason for it to do that.

Danny is taking a Twitter break. Hee.

So let’s talk about Twitter.

He wrote a post based on Twitter called From Static to Realtime Search.

If you get to a critical mass of people telling you what they’re doing, you’re getting to a database of intentions, just like search, and now you have access to an insanely useful database. You can go to Twitter and do a search on a car you’re planning to buy and see what people are saying. They’ve finally added a search toolbar onto Twitter.com so that you can do that. More than that, the actual 140 characters that you type in are in themselves a query.

He thinks the best reason to join twitter is ComcastCares. There’s a massive opportunity there.

There’s an important bridge to be made between SEM and traditional advertising.

At first, it was just the little guys. Then the big brands woke up to it and then the agencies woke up to it and they bought the search engines around at the time. There’s no holistic practice — it’s all verticals. Search can’t be a vertical, it needs to be an integral part.

They need to connect demand harvesting with demand creation. Demand creation is traditionally the realm of television but that doesn’t mean it can’t be search, and that needs to be tied in.

Television is an engaging media, when you watch American Idol, it’s engaging. Now imagine the same experience online. We need to think about what engaging means online. It’s where things are conversational. Digg is conversational. It needs to be that kind of media online. It needs to be invitational. You need to come to the dinner party, bring a bottle of wine, sit down and become part of the conversation.

His new book is going to be “The Conversation Economy” in order to look at what things are going to look like 10 years from now and how you join the conversation now. Comcast already does it, Dell does it.

[There’s a lot to mine in this keynote. Hard to recap all of it. Really good job.]

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