YouTube’s Prankster Engineer Keeps Google’s Video Site Humming

YouTube's Billy Biggs

YouTube’s Billy Biggs

From Forbes magazine’s annual innovators list:

You probably don’t know his name, but Billy Biggs is one of the people who has helped keep Google on Forbes’ list of the world’s most innovative companies.

In the third annual version of the list out today, Forbes highlights nearly a dozen next-generation innovators who are expected to create the products and services these companies will be counting on to remain innovation machines.

Biggs, a software engineer at YouTube since Google bought the video site in 2006, has had a hand in most of the major projects there already. But at just 35, he will be called upon to create many more. Overall, he says, his work is about “making sure the systems are built for the future and we’re able to build cool things”–even if he doesn’t yet know what they will be. Here’s a closer look at his work:

Billy Biggs likes to say pranks are his full-time job at YouTube, Google’s video service. For April Fool’s Day 2010, for instance, he and a few other software engineers created a new video display format called TEXTp. Ostensibly aimed at cutting network bandwidth costs, it turned YouTube videos into colorful streams of text characters.

Don’t let those hijinks fool you. Labeled a “hidden gem” by a former YouTube executive, Biggs has had a hand in nearly every major technical project there since Google bought it in 2006. His work as principal architect for YouTube’s computer systems and software and its website is credited with helping YouTube reach an industry-leading 6 billion hours of video a month viewed by more than a billion people.

That massive audience has put the site in a position to challenge television for consumer attention and marketer budgets–just as TV faces many new challenges to its reign as the world’s most popular entertainment medium. …

Read the rest of the story.

Why Are TV Makers Pushing Cadillacs When We Really Want Ferraris?


Samsung shows off huge new TV (Photo: AFP/Getty Images via @daylife)

Are TV makers going the way of Detroit in the 1960s? In what many, including those who didn’t bother to attend, are calling a boring Consumer Electronics Show, the star attractions seem to be leviathans such as Samsung’s and Sony’s new 84-inch TV sets. Even they apparently is not amazing enough, because Samsung is promising a 110-inch model later this year.

Size isn’t the only way they’re big, either. Those 84-inchers, which one Sony executive had the audacity to call “Ferraris,” costs $25,000, more than I will ever pay for a car, let alone a TV. And they have more pixels than my never-acute eyesight can ever process–even if there were content created for them, which there isn’t.

Seriously, guys, I’m not buying another TV for a very long time. The screen I’ve got is as big as I can fit in my living room, and that’s not going to change. Even if I did have a bigger living room, a big-ass 84-inch TV would feel faintly embarrassing, like tractor tires on a little pickup.

What’s more, not a single Smart TV feature, no matter how cool, is going to sway me to pony upwards of a thousand dollars for a new set to replace a perfectly fine screen. I’ve got TiVo, I’ve got Apple TV, I’ve got Roku, I’ve got Google TV, and probably there’s some other add-on device I can’t even remember. All of them offer more features and apps than I will ever use.

All of this makes me think of those road hogs of the late 1950s and early 1960s that Detroit insisted on manufacturing shortly before those cheap little imports ate their lunch. The fact is that more and more TV watching is occurring on much smaller screens, especially tablets. The sofa spuds of today don’t drive Cadillacs. We want Ferraris, or even Priuses. …

Read the rest of the post at The New Persuaders.

13 Questions For 2013 In The World Of Online Advertising

questionsCross-posted at my blog The New Persuaders:

For the past few years, I’ve offered predictions here and on The New Persuaders for what’s likely to come in the next year. This year, I’m going to shake it up and throw out a few questions instead. I think I know the answers to some of them, but if many won’t be answered definitively by year-end, they remain top of mind for me and probably for many others in online media and advertising.

So in this, the first full week of the new year, here are some questions to which I hope to start finding answers:

* Will image advertising finally take off online? I have to believe that as people spend more and more time online instead of reading print publications and watching TV, brand marketers will want and need to reach them there with ads that are aimed at creating consideration for later purchases, not just eliciting an immediate sale like Google’s search ads and too many banner ads. We’re already starting to see signs of such advertising with the early success of Facebook’s Sponsored StoriesTwitter’s Promoted Tweets, and YouTube’s TrueView ads–not to mention the explosion of tablets, which provide a lean-back experience more compatible with image advertising. This won’t be a sudden change, since brand marketers and agencies don’t move quickly, but you can’t tell me there aren’t going to be increasingly compelling ways for brands to influence people online.

* Can advertisers and publishers make ads more personal without scaring people? That’s the $64 billion question, and it likely won’t get answered in full this year. It’s easy for headline-hungry politicians to make a big deal out of Facebook’s latest privacy gaffe or the Wall Street Journal’s or the New York Times’ latest scare story about an ad that followed somebody all over the Web. That’s especially so since Facebook really does push the privacy envelope too far at times, and too many advertisers idiotically chase one more sales conversion at the cost of scaring off hundreds of others or inviting onerous legislation. But making ads more useful to each individual person is not only crucial to online commerce, it’s potentially better for most consumers as well–seriously, I don’t need to see another ad for a fitness center or a new credit card, but that ad for Camper van Beethoven’s new CD had me in a split-second. The answer lies in these two words, everyone: transparency and choice.

* Will mobile advertising work? Well, some of it already does, to hear Google and Facebook tell it. And while those already devalued digital dimes so far turn to pennies when it comes to ads on smartphones and tablets, this still feels more like growing pains than a crisis in online advertising. Sure, the screens are small and people don’t like to be interrupted in their mobile cocoons. So a different kind of advertising is probably needed–clearly, banners don’t cut it on a four-inch screen. But the value to advertisers of knowing your location and maybe the apps you’re using, coupled with knowledge of what your friends like–all with permission, of course–is huge. That permission may be really tough to earn. But if advertisers can offer tangible value, perhaps in the form of useful services related to what you’re doing or looking for or shopping for–and isn’t that the ultimate native ad?–people may loosen their hold on that information.

I have a lot more questions, but I’ve got to stop before too much of 2013 is gone.

Check out more questions at the full post.

The Mythical iTV: Steve Jobs’ Marketing Magic Is Still Alive And Well At Apple

From my blog The New Persuaders:

Image representing Steve Jobs as depicted in C...

Image via CrunchBase

Another day, another rumor that an Apple television may be coming.

Another recycled rumor, in fact. The Wall Street Journal reported this morning that China’s Foxconn, a major Apple supplier, is helping Apple test some prototypes for a large-screen television set. That follows similar (OK, identical) rumors a couple of days ago, last August, last May, and last December saying that Apple was enlisting Chinese suppliers to create an Apple TV set.

No surprise here, given that Apple CEO Tim Cook managed to stoke the fires of speculation last week by saying the company has “intense interest” in television. Of course, Cook himself said the very same thing last May, too.

So don’t hold your breath for an Apple TV that goes beyond the current Apple TV hockey puck. Even longtime Apple television forecaster Gene Munster at Piper Jaffray now says it won’t come before next November. And even then, it’s debatable how important a product it will be, since it’s widely assumed that Apple can’t add much to the current TV experience without deals to get access to live TV shows, or at least win the right to revamp the TV user interface to encompass the full range of pay-TV and Internet content available today. And those deals are nowhere in sight just yet.

But the new flurries of interest in the mythical machine point up something that should reassure Apple investors, at least: Apple cofounder Steve Jobs’ famous marketing magic is still at work at the company more than a year after his death.

Some investors have been worried about whether Cook, by all accounts an ace operations guy but not a showman like Jobs (as no one else really is, honestly), can keep Apple’s brand as blindingly shiny as it has been for so many years now. It’s time to give Cook credit for faithfully following Jobs’ playbook: Let fans wax on about how desirable a new Apple product will be, building demand to a fever pitch so that whatever comes out is guaranteed to get unparalleled attention. Indeed, a recent survey says they’re already willing to pay considerably more for an Apple TV–whatever it turns out to be.

No, Cook doesn’t yet deserve to be considered a master marketer like Jobs. But he’s off to a pretty good start.

Google Shuts Off TV Ads Business

From my blog The New Persuaders:

After five years of trying to sell ads on television using the automated buying system that works so well for its signature search ads, Google has finally given up. In a blog post this afternoon from Shishir Mehrotra, VP of YouTube and video, the ad giant said it will shunt the group’s staff to other projects:

Video is increasingly going digital and users are now watching across numerous devices. So we’ve made the hard decision to close our TV Ads product over the next few months and move the team to other areas at Google. We’ll be doubling down on video solutions for our clients (like YouTube, AdWords for Video, and ad serving tools for web video publishers). We also see opportunities to help users access web content on their TV screens, through products like Google TV.

The shutdown is clearly a disappointment for Google, yet another sign that its math-driven advertising systems don’t readily translate to traditional advertising. Back in 2009, the company shut down radio and print ad efforts for lack of interest.

Mehrotra’s not being entirely disingenuous when he says that Google’s efforts are better spent on online video advertising. After all, more and more TVs get connected to the Internet and more and more people watch TV shows on their laptops, smartphones, and tablets. With its Google TV project and its fast-growing YouTube video service, Google remains in a prime position to vacuum up ad revenues as big advertisers start to follow their audience onto the Web.

Indeed, YouTube especially has shown considerable traction in attracting new ad spending–$3.6 billion this year, by the reckoning of Citigroup analyst Mark Mahaney. As I wrote in a recent story, YouTube is where Google is placing its television-scale bets:

Now Mehrotra’s goal is to try to grab a big chunk of the $60 billion U.S. television business. But to do that, and fend off TV-content-oriented online rivals such as Hulu, YouTube has to become a bit more like conventional TV. To that end, it organized itself last year into TV-like channels, investing $100 million in cable-quality launches from Ashton Kutcher, Madonna, the Wall Street Journal, and dozens of others. More and more TV advertisers are being won over, says David Cohen, chief media officer at the media buying agency Universal McCann. “They’re getting marketers to think about YouTube as a viable outlet,” he says. 

Mehrotra, who last year became ­YouTube’s vice president of product, envisions millions of online channels disrupting TV, just as cable’s 400 channels disrupted the four broadcast networks. “We want to be the host of that next generation of channels,” he says.

In other words, Google’s strategy is to attack the TV ad business from where it’s strong instead of from where it’s not.

How YouTube Turned Into a Real Business By Making Ads Optional

From my story in MIT Technology Review:

In 2008, when Shishir Mehrotra joined YouTube to take charge of advertising, the booming video-sharing service was getting hundreds of millions of views a day. ­YouTube, which had been acquired by Google in 2006, was also spending as much as $700 million on Internet bandwidth, content licensing, and other costs. With revenue of only $200 million, YouTube was widely viewed as Google’s folly.

Mehrotra, an MIT math and computer science alum who had never worked in advertising, thought he had a solution: skippable ads that advertisers would pay for only when people watched them. That would be a radical change from the conventional media model of paying for ad “impressions” regardless of whether the ads are actually viewed, and even from Google’s own pay-per-click model. He reckoned his plan would provide an incentive to create better advertising and increase the value for advertisers of those ads people chose to watch. But the risk was huge: people might not watch the ads at all.

Mehrotra’s gamble paid off. YouTube will gross $3.6 billion this year, estimates Citi analyst Mark Mahaney. The $2.4 billion that YouTube will keep after sharing ad revenue with video content partners is nearly six times the revenue the streaming video service Hulu raked in last year from ads and subscriptions. And that suggests Mehrotra has helped Google solve a problem many fast-growing Web companies continue to struggle with: how to make money off the huge audience that uses its service free.

In 2008, Mehrotra was working for Microsoft and hankered to have his own startup, but he agreed to talk to a Google executive he knew about working there instead. He decided against it—but that evening he kept thinking about how the exec was frustrated that most ad dollars go to TV, even though nobody watches TV ads. Yet at his Super Bowl party two weeks earlier, Mehrotra recalled, guests kept asking him to replay the ads. Was there a way, he wondered, to make TV ads as captivating as Super Bowl ads, every day?

The answer came to him in a flash. …

Read the complete story in MIT Technology Review.

Why Google May Be Secretly Happy That Apple’s Dropping Its YouTube App From Next iPhone

From my blog The New Persuaders:

OK, so Apple will drop its YouTube app from iOS 6, the new version of its iPhone operating system due out this fall. Cue loud and histrionic coverage about Apple’s thermonuclear war, as the late Apple cofounder Steve Jobs put it, vs. Google and its Android mobile software.

Except it seems likely that script is off the mark. Here’s why: Most people may not realize it, but that YouTube app on their iPhones is actually designed by Apple, a holdover from the iPhone’s introduction in 2007, when all the apps were Apple’s and YouTube was a big draw. (So big that one of Apple’s original iPhone ads highlighted YouTube, as in the video above.) Problem is, since then, Apple has appeared to do relatively little to advance the app, which now looks old (almost as old as that TV used in the app’s icon, at least on my impossibly old iPhone).

Even more important from the point of view of Google and the pro content producers on YouTube, the Apple YouTube app doesn’t allow ads to be run against all those billions of videos views a month that YouTube draws on mobile devices. So search for “Lady Gaga” on your iPhone and what do you see? Well, Lady Gaga, but very little from official channels such as ladygagaofficial, which means very few official videos. Contrast that to a search on “Lady Gaga” on, and official videos are there, along with ads all over the place.

Why the huge difference? Because she can’t run ads on the iPhone YouTube app, and no ads means no money generated. Multiply that by thousands of artists, movies, and all kinds of content that advertisers want to run ads against–ads that will bring in up to $3.6 billion in revenues this year, by Citigroup analyst Mark Mahaney’s recent estimate for YouTube. Now you realize why Google may not mind much that the creaky old adless Apple app is heading for the trash can icon.

Read the complete post at The New Persuaders.