Google + Yelp: The Annotated World Is Coming

When Google says it wants to organize all the world’s information, people often assume the “world” really refers mostly to the Web, and maybe books. But if the search giant can be criticized at times for wild ambition, it means what it says about the “world” part.

With the possible acquisition of local business review site Yelp, being reported by TechCrunch and the New York Times today, Google would take another of many recent steps toward making real-world locations essentially searchable. The notion of an annotated world, one in which location technologies, the Web, mobile devices, and ubiquitous sensors create and reveal information about real places, is one I heard years ago from Esther Dyson. Jeff Jarvis brings up the potential that Google could make such an augmented reality, as it’s now called, an actual reality on a wider scale:

Thus Google becomes a doorway to the annotated world. Everyplace has information swirling around it; Google organizes it and motivates and enables us to create more information for it to organize.

And, not least, Google could offer local ads against all that information, which often isn’t on the Web because local businesses often don’t have a Web site. In other words, Yellow Pages 2.0 (but with blue, red, and green too).

Now, whether Google will indeed be the central organizing force here is far from certain. As Om Malik and others point out, Google + Yelp could get shoved aside by Twitter + Foursquare (the location-based social network). If such a mashup works, the immediate feedback on local businesses could be powerful for people and for advertisers.

That won’t happen right away, if ever. But if there’s even a small possibility of such hybrids or alternatives emerging, I have to wonder whether the reported $500 million price tag for Yelp might be a bit much even for Google. Not to mention, Google should be leery of allegations of pay-to-play reviews and intimidation on Yelp, even if Yelp has denied them, because a backlash against Google’s power is already well underway.

But if Google has struggled at anything, it’s at building viable communities, and Yelp is certainly one. With $22 billion in cash and a demonstrated willingness to spend a lot to buy community-oriented sites (like YouTube for $1.65 billion), Google will surprise no one if it closes the deal anyway.

UPDATE: Now it appears the deal is off, according to TechCrunch. It’s not clear what happened. Did Yelp decide it could do better than a $550 million reported deal, or go public instead? Or did Google decide that price was too high, coupled with the uncertainties? Google at times has shown surprising restraint in assessing acquisitions, seeming to pass when the price goes too high. But I wonder if another factor is that it has been wary (YouTube aside) of moving too far into hosting its own content, which is what it would be doing with Yelp. Whether that proves to be admirable or short-sighted isn’t yet clear.

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Another Round of Privacy Changes From Facebook–Can’t It Stop Chasing Twitter?

Like millions of other Facebook members today, I was asked by the social utility to check my privacy settings. Changes in these settings had been announced last week by CEO Mark Zuckerberg, but they started rolling out today. Members will be able–actually, are required–to choose whether to share updates, photos, and other items on Facebook with just friends, friends of friends, or everyone. And they can choose what individual items to share, or not, with specific people. The clear default, from my and other people’s experiences, is to make more of this activity public.

This is the latest of a series of moves intended to encourage members to open up. But while it might work to prompt most people, who never change their privacy settings, to be more public, I think there’s a lot of risk for Facebook. And I don’t mean just from privacy hawks, who raised objections today.

For me, and for many people I interact with on Facebook, the service is the best way to share their lives with specific people, not the world–and we absolutely love it for that purpose. Many of my friends on Facebook avoid Twitter precisely because it’s so public and they don’t want the whole world (or, say, their boss) to know what they’re doing. Me, I love Twitter when I want to say something publicly, but even I’m wary of inflicting my personal life on my 3,500–plus followers–and sometimes, frankly, it’s none of their business because most of them are professional contacts, or at least readers who I think expect only occasional strictly personal observations.

While Facebook is providing pretty granular controls over what gets shared with whom, I’m skeptical most people will bother using them. It’s just too much work. So by introducing more ways to share things more publicly, Facebook risks muddying its essential value proposition.

Some things needed changing. Facebook’s regional groups were becoming so large as to be meaningless, so it’s understandable that it’s doing away with them.

But for all the transparency Facebook is implicitly suggesting its members embrace, the company could have been more transparent with its own intentions. As Danny Sullivan explains, it’s not at all clear to users why they should change their privacy options. In fact, it wasn’t even clear when I went through the process what I had actually changed. At first, Facebook indicated that I had made some things fully public that I had specifically opted not to. Then when I checked the settings, they had retained my previous choices. I think.

Fact is, this isn’t so much about giving people more privacy, as laudable as it is that Facebook is providing more controls. It’s more about Facebook trying to blunt the rising popularity of Twitter and providing a truly searchable real time web index, as Mark Hopkins puts it on SiliconANGLE, that can rival the utility of Google’s index. The more public the information is, the more usable the data is for better targeting of ads, which is what will Facebook must provide to live up to its huge valuation.

I’m just not sure Facebook will be able to escape its heritage as a place where friends share stuff with real friends, not where people share stuff with the wide world. For now, at least, its fitful moves to expand its appeal still don’t quite add up. As Twitter’s wild growth shows, it’s simply a lot easier for people to use a different service for what is really a fundamentally different purpose, rather than trying to shoehorn that activity into Facebook’s existing service.

Zuckerberg surely realizes that the far simpler choice would have been to suck it up and buy Twitter when it could and run it as the separate, public-facing service that it always has been. But I suspect it’s too late for that now. So now the question is whether it’s also too late for Facebook to change its stripes.

Google: Don’t Even Think About Beating Us in Search

For months, many people have been saying that Google wouldn’t be able to compete with the rising pack of startups (and behemoths like Microsoft’s Bing) providing results that include tweets from Twitter, status updates from Facebook, and other real-time information.

Today, Google essentially quashed those claims. The search giant said it will be providing real-time search that draws not only on Twitter (with which it announced an earlier deal to get data feeds), Facebook and MySpace (with which it announced agreements today to index public updates) but also other Web sources. And it’s providing those results among the main search results, not just in a specialized section like Bing.

As many others have reported, Google’s demo at its big search event today was impressive. Items posted just seconds ago showed up on various searches, scrolling out on the screen in real time. (Apologies for not providing real-time liveblogging on the event at the Computer History Museum this morning; my netbook simply wouldn’t connect to the WiFi there.) Here’s a first look provided by Google:

Google’s real-time search isn’t perfect yet. As John Borthwick (backer of many real-time startups, including Twitter), noted in a tweet today, the user interface is messy. In fact, I believe Google VP Marissa Mayer said it’s likely the interface for real-time search will evolve.

Although real-time search is quite important, Danny Sullivan rightly notes that it’s probably not the key battleground in search for the next few years. That would be personalized search, which uses people’s location, previous searches, and other factors to provide search results tailored to each person’s inferred interests or intentions. Google thrust that into the forefront Friday by making personalized results the default.

Real-time results aren’ t only new feature Google announced today; in fact, others could prove more important. The company extended its voice search, which allows spoken phrases in English and Mandarin to produce search results, to Japanese. And it introduced an experimental service in its Google Labs called Google Goggles that lets you snap a photo of something and produce results based on matching with some 1 billion images in its index.

All this underscores a clear theme I heard when I wrote a recent story about Google’s continuing efforts to improve search. Google search leaders sounded supremely confident about their ability to stay ahead of rivals–so confident that it gave me pause and made me wonder if they were becoming overconfident. That’s still possible, but even if you might wish for more potent competitors, as many people do, it’s clear that Google is ceding little ground in its effort to stay on top in search.

Amit Singhal, a Google Fellow in charge of the core search ranking team, sought to cement that leadership when he said today, “Light can travel around the world in 1/10th of a second, and we won’t rest until the speed of light is the only barrier to getting good search results to you.” In other words, catch us if you can.

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