The Idea Dude


Friday, September 29, 2006

Serious play

Haydn over at Mediangle carried an interesting post on role of "play" or "fun" in creativity and innovation. I agree with him that work is inextricably linked with reward usually material in nature. When there is an end goal like money, focus comes into play and your choices and paths are automatically narrowed. The balance is to ensure that we don't stifle creativity and innovation in anything we do. Usually this means going broad occasionally to check out our options before narrowing our choices. The path to creativity and innovation is to play. Playing frees the mind of specific goals allowing us to flex the possibilities and see where it takes us. When work is fun, it ceases to become work. Our perception of risk during play is far less than during work. Perhaps that is why there seems to be high levels of stress at work. We take failure much harder in that context.

The title of the post was inspired by an initiative by Lego, called Serious Play to introduce its marvelous building blocks into business and strategic thinking. There is an interesting notion that if we were busy with our hands, we actually think better too. I've been known to buy a couple dozen Lego kits as gifts to my software developers to try and encourage the culture that play and building blocks are essential components to building great software. Incidently, one of the greatest technology tools that allow us to play "what if" games was the good old spreadsheet, perhaps our best example of all about serious play.

A final thought is that Fast Company carried an article a while ago about why patients with heart issues usually fall back into bad habits after some good intentions following a heart attack. The idea there was that fear was not a great sustainer of good habits. Note the number of people who join gyms after Christmas to eventually abandoned expensive contracts. Fear drives us to change our habits but doesn't necessarily help us maintain them. Perhaps it is because we view them as chores or work that is forced upon us either by people or by circumstance. The ones that do go to gym regularly, diet religeously, practice piano with discipline are often driven by a passion and love for what they do. Ergo, they are not really working but playing.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

The state of US political blogs

As an exercise, we created new TheGoodBlogs categories to showcase US political blogs. You can find the page with both widgets here. Our observations were pretty least to us. Being Canadian, I can claim some impartiality to the whole process. Furthermore, to ensure we weren't being biased, we went straight to each official party website i.e. Democrats and Republicans.

Firstly, the Democrats... We were impressed they put the blog menu item first on the menu bar. They also included a list of blogs belonging to state parties (i.e. many states have their own blogs). Finally, they had list of political blogs that supported their party. There were over 50 blog links in total. That is what you see in the Democrat TGB widget. It was interesting that many state blogs were run on Blogger as a quick and easy way to get the blogs up. We were disappointed that some of these state blogs did not attempt to get unique URLs as part of their party brand but relied on as their home URLs.

Next, we looked at the Republicans... In contrast, the blog menu item was at the end of the menu bar. There were many links to RSS feeds to their own archives on a large number of issues. Missing was a list of State party blogs (we didn't take the time to search Google to see if state party blogs existed...we didn't because we didn't think we should have to in the first place). Finally, they had a blogroll of about 20 blogs. So the total of 20 blogs and the official party blog was what we included in the Republican widget. We noted that several of the links were either outdated (blogs not updated for 30 days) or discontinued, these we excluded. TheGoodBlogs criteria is that you must have blogged within 30 days to be included. This is symptomatic of many blogrolls in general (i.e. obsolete blogs) but something you would think corporate / political websites should do a better job maintaining since it reflects directly on the organization.

The action seems to be in the unofficial blogs of supporters and lobbyists where BlogAds is making a killing (they are incredibly dominant in political blog advertising and certainly changed our perspective on advertising in politics, yes there is money to made). In retrospect, it does make sense, many of these blogs have daily readership that puts even the most popular tech blogs to shame, i.e. they run into a couple hundred thousand views per day. There are also huge sums of money that are devoted to lobbying and advertising where promoting brand is as important as customer acquisition. i.e. success is not necessarily quantified by someone clicking and buying something. One thing you can count on is that political blogs are never dull, peppered with scandal, accusations, counter-accusations and satirical dissections of every political speech and interview.

Our perception is that while the supporter blogs can be very sophisticated, the official party/state blogs still lack sophistication. It is probably not incorrect to say it is a nascent media channel for them. It feels like blogging is a reluctant activity, a poor last place behind traditional avenues such as public speaking, television, radio and printed media. They should take engage the next generation of voters, they need to meet them on their turf and meet on their terms, in spaces like blogs, MySpace and other digital social spaces.

Note: we're working on some political satire sites too like MadKane who is a TGB member. Send us some of your favorites for inclusion.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Do you really know what your RSS feed is serving?

Some things in life we set to auto and forget about it. Like our alarm clocks, insurance premiums....and RSS feeds.

Well, maybe you shouldn't forget about your RSS feeds. Today we found a couple of members had entries that looked suspicously old. Upon investigation, we found out that bloggers using the new Blogger beta unknowingly had their RSS feeds changed. i.e. the old system of atom.xml or rss.xml were obsolete and replaced with a new feed url. What this means that it broke all RSS subscribers who had the old url.

The plot thickens because if you had given out a secondary feed like Feedburner, you were not immune because Feedburner like everyone else also relies on the same url (which no longer works for those using the Blogger beta). Two scenarios ensued, the secondary feed crawlers either breaks as well (as it did in one case) or just kept returning the last known copy (in another case). The end result is the same, rather devastating if you didn't know about it, you either lost readers who thought you had closed your blog or removed your blog because it wasn't getting new content. BTW: having blogs that are too large may cause your feed not to be processed as well. The limit on Feedburner the last time I looked was 250k. During our stint at TheGoodBlogs we've also seen host blog sites return bad RSS xml because it messed up or because there was something in the content that confused it.

So the moral of the story, RSS feeds are like your window washer fluid, tire pressure etc. We tend to forget about it but you should really check to see if it's doing what you think it's doing once a week. Better still, subscribe to your own feed (yeah, sounds kooky doesn't it).

Monday, September 25, 2006

Returning to simplicity

A weekend of battling with Windows after a number of unfortunate events pertpetrated by an over-eager son gave me an interesting spin on the complexity of today's technology. Windows and it's associated applications has gotten incredibly large and complex, a sign of maturity and success. Exporting the Windows registry alone results in a file greater than 60MB. There was time when the whole Windows installation probably didn't take as much space.

There's another rule of thumb that says 90% of your users probably only use 10% of the features most of the time. But in a bid to be competitive and to generate upgrade revenue, we continue to load up our applications with tons of features and tweaks most of us will never need. Perhaps that is why there is such a surge towards Linux, because it is simple, fast and most of all understandable. Unix? understandable? that's what the world has become! It is probably fair to say that there are less chances of applications interfering with each other than in Windows. For example, who would have figured out the installing a set of tools on my son's Windows machine would result in the machine not being able to assign a drive letter to my USB storage device. Two seemingly unrelated things teamed up to cause a anomaly I'm sure has hundreds if not thousands of others gnashing their teeth in a similar way.

There's beauty in simplicity especially if it is inherent in the underlying architecture. Think fractals where the basic building blocks are mathematically clean yet the most complex of objects can be created which are beautiful in their final form. That unfortunately cannot be said about most of the software on my machine that combine maliciously to torment me probably because of something I did in a previous life. Incidently, the battle is starting to migrate to your web page where similarly widgets do battle with each other for space, bandwidth and CPU as noted by Mathew Ingram in his quest to find the ultimate widget.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Mass niches, the long tail dissected

One of the buzz words of the 90's was one-to-one marketing and mass markets. One of our observations is that the Long Tail is really about mass niches. It's an appropriate title but it does make our lives a little more difficult. Bloggers are very protective about their blog and rightly so, they view it as extensions of themselves, it is for many their public personas. Accordingly, they worry about who they promote (although, ironicly, they have absolutely no control who Google promotes in their ads and we've seen some pretty funny stuff because of incorrect interpretations of blog content by Google ads). In reality, two technology bloggers seemingly talking about the same stuff could be two totally different people with different tastes in food, music, clothes etc. So are good blogs about good content or good writing, probably a bit of both. But it is about relevancy.

The key to personal growth I believe is to ensure that your circle isn't subsumed by another circle of interest but intersects with it. So you have something new to bring to the table and so does the other party. Hopefully, that is what TheGoodBlogs can bring, diversity through discovery. Otherwise I think the world would be a pretty boring place if every technology blogger only talked about Techcrunch vs Techcrush. I've learnt long ago, you can't please everyone all of the time, as long as we can please all of the people some of the time, we're doing well. That's one of the reasons, we've not yet gone down the path of bloggers selecting the content they want to promote. For the most part, 90% of your readers are anonymous, it is better to give them a random sample that has some intersection of your interests as a means of driving interest and traffic. As such, we provide a very complementary service to blogrolls, favorites, and other widgets that appear on your blog. The voice of the blogosphere is like a 1000 violins the resulting music is interesting because of each one brings a unique tone not because they all sound the same.

Now, let me make some introductions, to your right of this post, you'll see a couple of great bloggers just wanting to share something interesting. Go on, click on one, you'll never know what the next blog may bring...

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Blogging for dollars

We've all been sold the story reminiscent of the Gold Rush days. Create a blog, get a Google Adsense account, put our literary skills to the test and sit back and wait for the dollars, kaching! actually it's klunk! the sound of reality hitting the floor. Sure there a lots of people making serious change running blogs or websites with Adsense but there are a lot more that don't! Here are some of the things you should know about great Adsense success stories and why it works against really good bloggers.

  • Volume. volume. volume. The CTR (click-through rate) of Adsense pages are usually 1% or less. If you are 4% or more, you're probably a very niche market and darn lucky to have found the niche. What it tells us is to make reasonable money, you need visitors, lots of them. The reason why Google is laughing all the way to the bank is because with adsense on a couple billion pages, they only have to make 1%. It's like everyone in the country giving you 1c.
  • Time. To get volume, you need content, lots of it so Google searches find you. Others build forums to make people come back repeatedly. Whether you're building a community or content, the magic number seems to be 18 months or more. Simply a matter of perseverance.
  • Money. The serious players buy Adwords and advertise through other channels, join link farms, directories etc. Needs an investment to get volume.
  • Focus on specific topics. People who click through Adsense ads are usually people who are looking for product and found your page but didn't get enough so clicked through the ads. There's an unspoken rule that says the point of the page that hosts the Adsense ads is not to satisfy the visitor. In fact, dissatisfaction is probably a key driver for successful adclicks, i.e. I looked for something, didn't find it on your page and so tried one of links. Pets, finance, consumer reviews are good candidates, religion and politics less so.
  • Optimization. The successful ones spend a large amount of time experimenting. Blending the ads into the content. Figuring out where it fits best on the page to make money. Choosing content that has a great chance of returns. The point is, you tweak the page and you tweak it often.

So where does that leave the good blogger. They tend to write about stuff that interests them not stuff that may result in an adclick. They put stuff they care about at the top, pictures of their dogs, blogrolls, etc. The ad is not prominent. The biggest problem of all, is too many interesting things going on in the blog. They may be good stuff (like archives, blogrolls, links in your stories, subscribe to RSS etc.) but they take a slice of the attention pie and clicks away from your Google ads. Remember the dissatisfied customer syndrome, give them a reason to stay, i.e. great stories, links to other stories etc. they won't be clicking elsewhere.

So this isn't about discouraging you as a good blogger from making dollars from ads, it is about setting expectations and knowing that how you behave as a good blogger may not be consistent with you as a great salesman.

So the moral of the because you want to...that is really the ultimate reward.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Are we the Napster for blogs?

Haydn, over at TheMediangler always has some thought- provoking insight into the state of the Internet. I wanted to combine his recent post on where content was going with what we are achieving at TheGoodBlogs. Blog aggregators, like search engines, are great in what they do but getting exposure is the issue. One might argue that as blog aggregators grow, they are not unlike search engines except they control a small pool of contributors in the interests of quality. Ergo, the issue is always about quality vs volume. At some point, to be successful, they will have to grow and volume will affect quality and reintroduce the concept of the long tail.

TheGoodBlogs is based on the premise that the long tail exists in part because of exposure. The growth of the Internet and the billions of content pages in all its wild and chaotic state means that most content (good or bad) are never seen. How many RSS feeds can you read in a day? How many newspapers do you subscribe to? You get the picture...if not the blog :). The limiting factor is time and not enough of it. TheGoodBlogs doesn't replace your search engine or your blog aggregator but it is network based promotor of blogs. As the blogger billboard on every blog, we are able to introduce new bloggers to readers in a very convenient and unintrusive way. Convenience is perhaps a good word to describe us. It doesn't require a reader to search Google or Yahoo and doesn't require the reader to visit their blog aggregator or read a long aggregated feed. It's there if you have time and the interest.

The best part is the success of the network is up to the members, the more members, the more diversity and readers the bring to the network solving the issue of scalability and bloggers being pushed into obscurity by volume. In the two months since we started our private beta, we have promoted our bloggers close to a million times! (Janet Jackson's what have you done for me lately! comes to mind)Getting readers to click through is not in our control, it is up to the blogger to place us in a spot that is seen by his/her readers and to have titles that are compelling. "Links of the day" may not be as compelling as "Google crushes YouTube!" (example only!). It would be hard for any blogger to argue that being part of the a million exposures is a bad thing especially when they need to no work and pay no money.

Time will tell whether TheGoodBlogs will live up its promise. We are encouraged because we do hear comments from our members that their readership and activity on their blogs have increased. Many bloggers themselves find it convenient to see new content on their very own pages. It is their very own random RSS aggregator right on their own blog!

So what is TheGoodBlogs? perhaps we are the napster of blog aggregators. For bloggers, it is about blog promotion. For readers, it is about blog discovery. For us, it is about creating a company that may impact and change the blogosphere even if it is in a very small way. No man or blogger need be an island anymore.

BTW: for TGB members, you'll notice a slightly new look to the widget on this blog, the cleaner and newer look will be available to all members shortly. Yeah, I know, many of you hate orange but as my son would say, "But I made you look, didn't I!". Honestly, we don't intend being the ugly duckling of the Internet so stay tuned as we become one with your good blogs!

Monday, September 18, 2006

A directory for Web 2.0 junkies

Go2Web20 has a fascinating collage of Web 2.0 company logos all on one page. It would be interesting how many are still alive and kickng. Should be lots of fodder for blogger commentary.

We're about to change the look of TheGoodBlogs, it will allow the users to customize the widget to their blogs a little easier without us losing our branding and making it blend more with their blogs. The science of getting people to click through a site is amazing. Or should I say art. It seems that the key is not to create bright flashy logos, borders etc. Although it grabs the readers attention, many shy away because they perceive them to be ads and not worth clicking through. Google has observed that by understating the Google block and making it blend with the text (same color, inline) etc. has a better chance for readers to click through. I guess it is a credibility thing. Readers on your site have implicitly given you some credibility and trust and are likely to click through your content as opposed to being taken somewhere else. More later as we learn from TheGoodBlogs widget.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Holding out for TheGoodBlogs

Times Square was a source of inspiration for me, two and a half months ago. I watched thousands of tourists and locals stare at the giant billboards, mesmerized by the color, size and vibrancy of the displays. If only we could command the same attention for bloggers everywhere who had pretty neat content but no means to make themselves heard, left drowning in the blogosphere. Aren't the readers of our blogs, tourists and locals too? What bloggers needed was a champion, someone who could shout their cause, better still, create a community that was self-empowered. The idea within Tealeaf's head and mine soon found its way to our hearts. It became our passion. TheGoodBlogs was born.

I finally found time to take that the moment, saved in digital form, and add my vision which is the picture you see here. I know I will use this as my inspiration. When the road is not clear, our intent will nevertheless be unwavering. To become the Times Square for blogs so all can behold and marvel at you the blogger and your creativity.

I can hear my rendition of Bonnie Tyler's - "Holding out for a Hero"

Where have all the good bloggers gone
And where are all the blogs?
Where's the street-wise Hercules
To fight the rising odds?
Isn't there a white knight upon a fiery steed?
Late at night I toss and turn and dream
of what I need.
I need TheGoodBlogs

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Is Web 2.0 about MySpace or TheirSpace?

They say there is no such thing as bad press. If MySpace's intention was to garner attention by being controversial, they succeeded. Now that they are under a cash umbrella, the ambitious beast is unleashed. According to Peter Chernin, MySpace no longer looks fondly upon the folks who helped build his social empire. All the little Web 2.0 startups that helped the MySpace mushroom grow are now seen as parasites and must be eradicated. Forget that fact that it is these startups that made MySpace so customizable (dare I say palatable) allowing people to...well, create their spaces. Jolly poor form. If TheGoodBlogs ever reaches such dizzy heights I hope I remember this post. Never forget where you came from...

Web 2.0 is about people connecting to people. How do you build a community, one relationship at a time. I find it really interesting that TheGoodBlogs are viewed in so many different ways. Some get it right away...the only way for the long tail to become relevant is for bloggers to promote each other. Others think it is great because there is fresh content on their pages for returning readers. Yet there are others who worry about whether they have a choice in promoting which blogs. Frankly, if you have less than 1,000 visits a day, that should be the least of your problems. Blogging is like charity, the more you give, the more you get! Strange concept isn't it, but it works. TheGoodBlogs is more than a tool, it is a community, it provides a valuable service and it addresses a well-known pain.

Blog-on, baby, blog-on!

Monday, September 11, 2006

The mind bloggles

An interesting trend we noticed over the last short while is that tech bloggers have most of their traffic during the week, many drop dramatically over the weekend. On the other, the 'social' bloggers (people who blog about everyday life) tend to maintain their readership pretty evenly over the week including weekends. It makes sense when you think about, for many, blog reading is part of their profession and routinely done during work hours while catching up socially is like brushing teeth, you kinda want to do it every day. Which led us to conclude that some A-listers when dissected on a daily basis actually become B-listers on a weekend! As we reach out to more communities, it is very apparent that it's a case of different strokes for different folks. There is no one formula and we feel like privilege observers of a digital/social phenomenon we call blogging, dare I say, like hitchhikers in the Blogosphere. Quite mind-boggling or maybe I did mean the former.

I read Mark Evan's ( least I hope it was) comment about Web 2.0 now truly done. That would be shame, Tealeaf and I just got started! But the scenario is not unique and can be found in every facet of life. It is in the human gene to create and invent. If it weren't for the 1,000 failures, how would we find the one that succeeds. Start-ups in general (not just Web 2.0) are not discrete events or singularities, they are hotspots in the technology continuum. Each one that comes after learns from the one before. Life has its seasons, why should technology be different. My only problem with it all is that we too often can't discern value from hype and sometimes religeously following the A-listers, we perpetuate the emperor's new clothes folly.

I do have a lot of respect for all those who tried and failed. It takes guts, talent and dedication to work long days with little return and huge sacrifices. Whether you believe they were building to flip or too naive, these folks deserve our respect, because it's not for the money. Deep down, I think they do want to make a difference. They do want to leave a legacy. In our modern times, we judge success by the dollar sign rather than whether a contribution was made that took us down the technology yellow brick road one more step.

The question is...has Elvis 2.0 really left the building?

Sidenote: If you ever wanted to justify making every computer wireless enabled, here's a good one. Over the weekend, my home network was hit by lightning, not a power surge as one would expected but this one came through our cable system. It succeeded in demolishing my cable modem, 2 routers, one computer and crippled another. My notebook which was wirelessly connected at the time was spared an early demise. My trip to Best Buy was like a reunion as I reconnected with others also looking for network cards. So much for all power surge protectors I installed a while back, unfortunately, I left the backdoor open.

Monday, September 04, 2006

The death of blogging... grossly exaggerated despite the late summer malaise that has many bloggers wondering why they are still doing it. Being part of TheGoodBlogs puts us in a good position to ponder on such things. Indeed, our entire future depends on its longevity, blogging that is. Examination of blogrolls in conjunction with archives is an interesting exercise. You'll find so many blogrolls contain bloggers that have stopped blogging. Not those Sunday bloggers who created an account on a whim, but ones who have blogged for 2-3 years. They suddenly stop either entirely or they create new blogs as a testament to some significant change in their lives or simply just because... But for every blogger that stops, at least one or more steps up to take their place. Why? because the modern day blog is your personal soapbox, the only difference being your Central Park pretty much includes the entire universe. It is part of the human spirit to express, share, encourage, chide and vent, hopefully in public and hopefully near at least one listening ear. Blogging is as much for the blogger as it is for the reader.

On a related note, I still wonder at where RSS and syndication will go in future. I think its importance will be more apparent for the aggregators or people like us who build blog networks. What about your average blog reader, will they become feed junkies? Here's the part that makes very little sense to me at least. Apart from a very small population who have sufficient time to gather many feeds and read them everyday, does it really make sense for the rest of us, who lead busy lives and struggle to find time to comb through a dozen feeds in the hope they find something interesting. And then, what is the magic number, a dozen, 20? I would suggest that we subscribe to feeds as a paranoid mechanism in the hopes we won't miss out on a blog that once caught our eye. Yet once subscribed it is interesting how many of the feeds are followed religeously on a daily basis. I have 20 feeds on my Outlook and another 20 on my PocketPC, both are updated daily and both have not been read for quite some time. Not that the feeds were uninteresting, but simply I lack the time and discipline to devote an hour of my life every day to read a whole bunch of feeds. On the other, working with TheGoodBlogs and our beta testers, I invariably find something that is current, new and interesting. Hopefully, over time, others will attest to my experience. Perhaps, there is something in stumbling over a new blog or even just one entry that touches us. Ergo, the accidental blog...

For all those who think it is easy street to create a Web 2.0 company and flip it for a many dollars 6 months later, think again. It is incredibly hard work because the resources are short, the hours are long and the risks are high. Because we build the bridge as we walk on it, the need for speed and agility is both intoxicating and suffocating. But I remember the tabasco ad, and liken our endeavour to be the same, when we savour the moment, it burns like hell and we wonder why we're doing it, yet, it creates an addiction making us come back for more, again and again