Review: I’m Feeling Lucky – The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59

I'm Feeling Lucky: The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59I’m Feeling Lucky is an entertaining look at Google’s start-up days by Douglas Edwards, a marketing professional who was Google’s 59th employee. Edwards tells a story about being brand manager in a company where marketing wasn’t much valued. This could be described as unenviable, if not for the value of the stock options he received which should have made even the worst of his experiences bearable in retrospect.

Edwards portrays himself as a hapless naive soul in over his head, which makes for a fun narrative. There are plenty of good anecdotes, like the time when Matt Cutts’s wife had the idea of baking free “porn cookies” as a reward for everyone who helped test the new Google porn filter – “Search for porn, get a cookie” was the unmissable incentive. There’s also an account of the challenges of establishing Google in China, when Edwards is sent there to find a new Chinese name for the brand because “while Yahoo’s name translated as ‘elegant tiger,’ ours was rendered with characters that meant ‘old dog.’”

The section about how the company reacted on and after September 11th is really fascinating. I remember at the time wondering what the decision-making process was behind the content which appeared then on the Google homepage and it’s interesting to see this explained.

Since the story ends over six years ago, when the author left Google in April 2005, it doesn’t provide an up-to-date insider’s view of how Google operates today. However, there’s still a lot here which is helpful for understanding the issues the company now faces. There’s a vivid picture of the culture clash between engineering and marketing in an engineering-lead environment and some memorable vignettes of bosses Larry Page and Sergey Brin – such as the following anecdote, where Sergey sets out his ambitions for Google’s future:

“Speed is an issue for me,” [Sergey] said, “… If search engines were faster and better, they could be integrated into your thought process.” He saw Google becoming an invisible component in every user’s decision-making, not just a tool for finding a particular fact. Apparently “brain-integration” was one of our hitherto undisclosed corporate goals.

Sergey’s stated aims for Google becoming an “invisible component” in every user’s decision making is revealing – given that recent critiques like Siva Vaidhyanathan’s “The Googlization of Everything” and Eli Pariser’s “The Filter Bubble” have lamented the effects of Google’s “invisible” personalisation and default options in shaping the way people are now receiving news and other information.

Another fascinating section for current concerns about the company comes from the discussion of attitudes towards privacy issues. Now that governments across Europe are legislating on providing explicit opt-outs for tracking cookies, it’s interesting to see the stated reasoning behind Google’s initial cookies policy. Edwards writes:

What if we let users opt out of accepting our cookies altogether? I liked that idea, but Marissa [Mayer] raised an interesting point. We would clearly want to set the default as “accept Google’s cookies.” If we fully explained what that meant to most users, however, they would probably prefer not to to accept our cookie. So our default setting would go against users’ wishes.

…so it was better not to open the issue up at all. The vehemence of management insistence that there were no privacy issues with Google indicates that they were very aware that privacy concerns could be a serious problem – such as in the following account of Sergey’s reaction to early PR problems with Gmail:

Sergey paced the office like a tiger in a tiny cage, commanding us to set up a war room to deal with the problem, demanding we put up more information on the site, and insisting that we tell everyone, “There is no privacy issue.”

The conflict between Google’s need as a company to make money out of mining user-supplied data for ad personalisation and it’s desire to portray itself as a friend of user privacy is obviously something which continues to this day.

There’s also an interesting account of how Google’s original social network “Orkut” got set up, in a section called “The Antisocial Network”, which shows how Google lost out on an opportunity to compete with Facebook early on.

Edward’s narrative overall is undeniably rose-tinted, but he doesn’t avoid criticism of Google where it’s due – as in this part of his closing analysis:

Is Google secretive? No question. Arrogant? Maybe. Tone-deaf to the concerns of the very users it claims to serve? Occasionally. But evil? I don’t think so.

This is a fun read for a business/tech book and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone’s who’s interested in Google, search or the history of the web.

I’m Feeling Lucky – The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59 is written by Douglas Edwards and published by Allen Lane.

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Review of Googling Security: How Much Does Google Know About You?

Passing the Google Analytics Individual Qualification

Last week I finally got around to taking the Google Analytics Individual Qualification and passed with 94%.  See my test records and certificate.

I reckon the test should be reasonably straightforward for anyone who uses Google Analytics regularly. The trickiest part for me were the multiple choice questions where you need to select “all that apply” and aren’t sure how many you have to tick. I think these were probably where I lost my 6%. :(

Tips for passing are:

  • Make sure you carefully watch the video lessons in Google’s Conversion University. Nearly all the questions I was asked could have been answered from the information there.
  • Pay especial attention to the sections on e-commerce tracking and AdWords integration if you don’t use these features yourself, as you’ll definitely be asked questions about them.
  • Also read an up-to-date Google Analytics book, as there were a few questions I wouldn’t have known the answers to just from the Conversion University videos. I read Justin Cutroni’s Google Analytics from O’Reilly during the week before the exam. This was only published in August, so doesn’t contain outdated information, and packs a lot of content in a concise form. (O’Reilly books also have an advantage at the moment of being available really cheaply in the iPhone App Store – if you can bear the finger-strain of all the page swiping.) Alternatively, you could try the second edition of Brian Clifton’s Advanced Web Metrics with Google Analytics. (See this review of the previous edition which I wrote a couple of years ago.)  The Google Analytics Channel videos and anything written by Avinash Kaushik are also very worthwhile for additional background study.

Below are a few links to “exam tips” posts in other blogs which I found helpful when preparing for the test:

Review: Advanced Web Metrics with Google Analytics

advanced web metricsAdvanced Web Metrics with Google Analytics by Brian Clifton is a good introduction and excellent long-term reference for anyone who needs to implement Google Analytics on their website.

Google Analytics has become a very popular web metrics tool – not least because it’s free (although there is  a limit of  five million page-views per month if you don’t have an AdWords account).  It has a great feature set – including site and map overlay reports, customizable dashboards, easy cross-segmentation of data and two-click integration with AdWords. It’s also quite easy to set up and use – in terms of basic functionality at least. However, when you need to go beyond the basics you’ll need some guidance and this book certainly provides plenty of help for many of the issues you are likely to face.

Part one provides an introduction to web analytics, including discussions of the pros and cons of using page tags vs log files, the use of cookies and privacy issues.  It concludes with a high level overview of Google Analytics, describing its key features and how it works.

Part two continues this overview with an introduction to using the Google Analytics interface and a discussion of ten important first-level reports to ease the reader into the more detailed coverage of implementation issues in part three. This is the most technical section and includes advice on best practices for configuring Google Analytics for your site and a whole chapter of hacks for dealing with areas not covered by the default reports.

Part four is possibly the most useful part of the book, since it looks at how to use the data you’ve gained via Google Analytics to drive real-world website improvements. This includes helpful advice on how to engage non-technical colleagues in your improvement efforts. I particularly liked the section on monetizing a non e-commerce website, which tells you how to get the most out of Google Analytic’s e-commerce features even if you don’t have an e-commerce site. There’s also a discussion of Google’s Website Optimizer – a tool for undertaking multivariate tests on your site which looks really useful.

The book ends with an appendix of recommended further reading including books, web resources and a long listing of web analytics blogs.

The author certainly gets very technical at some points – particularly when delving into the use of regular expressions and discussing complex modifications to the GATC. However most of the book  should still be comprehensible and useful to a non-techie marketing or management audience.  Indeed, if they persevere they can then use the book to beat their technical staff over the head by quoting the bits where particular implementation details are described as being easy for good webmasters to accomplish.

Admittedly, most of the information you’ll get here is also available online somewhere for free. However, it’s scattered around web analytics blogs and forum posts and many people who could benefit from it are not going to have the time and/or the perseverance to seek it all out. Even if you know all the hacks cited already, the convenience of having them collected in one reference book is still a great benefit. Over and above having a lot of neat tricks, the book presents a coherent approach to the whole business of analytics which makes it worth reading for anyone who needs to undertake web metrics on a professional basis.

Advanced Web Metrics with Google Analytics by Brian Clifton is published by Sybex.

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Review: Googling Security: How Much Does Google Know About You?

Googling Security is an interesting examination of the privacy issues surrounding the mass use of web services. It’s not just about Google, but “covers many facets of the problem of web-based information disclosure as seen through the lens of Google’s tools and services.” The tone isn’t generally that of bashing a particular company – the author for example goes out of his way to praise Google’s “awesome suite of tools”. However, Google as the biggest supplier of online services is clearly an obvious focus for this sort of analysis.

Early sections include a high-level overview of information flows and leakage, data retention and profiling. The book then moves on to chapters on individual types of web service – search, communications, mapping and advertising. The conclusion is a section on countermeasures and a look at the future.

It should come as no big surprise to any averagely-informed web user that online email, mapping and office applications or cross-site web analytics tracking can compromise their privacy. (However, many people may not realise that Google and other web-mail providers explicitly do not guarantee to delete your emails from “offline” backup systems when you delete them via the web interface.) The privacy case against Google Maps and especially their Street View application has been particularly well covered in the media.

The more scary part of the book for many will be the section on search which reveals the extent to which people can potentially compromise their privacy by day-to-day use of search engines. The examples which the author provides from the data-set of search activity released by AOL are very effective at showing there’s a serious potential issue here. The details on finger-printing techniques and the degree to which you can be personally identified over time by your search queries alone are also eye-opening. There is an emphasis on the need to think about your online activity in aggregate rather than as a series of single transactions. Each transaction may give little away on its own but could reveal a lot when examined alongside thousands of others.

Suggested countermeasures include becoming a more informed user of web services, educating others and campaigning for regulatory changes or for companies themselves to take privacy more seriously. The technical suggestions include deleting cookies, employing proxies and encryption, avoiding registered accounts, etc. – but the downsides to all of these are also clearly stated.

In the end, the book is quite a depressing read since the online privacy situation looks like it will get worse in the immediate future and there’s no easy solution for improving things. Avoiding using web services cripples your ability to use the potential of the web effectively, as does obsessively employing privacy technologies. As the author points out: “A bulletproof, anonymous web-browsing experience doesn’t exist.”

Googling Security: How Much Does Google Know About You? by Greg Conti is published by Addison-Wesley.

Review: Building Findable Websites

Building Findable Websites: Web Standards, SEO and Beyond by Aarron Walter is a book that I’ve got a lot out of. Its full of useful material which should be of real practical help to people involved in any facet of a web project. It has a refreshingly holistic approach which looks at website findability in the widest possible manner, avoiding the narrowly doctrinaire perspective of some writings on web standards, SEO or accessibility and including lots of examples which are immediately useful in the real world.

His wide-ranging remit means that the book will probably be most appreciated by webmasters or web project managers whose roles involve them needing to straddle a range of disciplines. Web developers, designers or SEO gurus may perceive some of it as unfocused as it switches rapidly between generalist explanations and low-level technical examples, with topics covered ranging over coding, server administration, marketing tips and WordPress implementations. However, this variety appealed to me and should ensure that most readers are going to learn at least something new about areas they may not know so much about.

After introducing the author’s concept of findability as a discipline, the book starts by discussing markup strategies. The importance of web standards and accessibility are predictably emphasised, but there’s also a spirited defence of the benefits of web standards for SEO which is interesting. The book then moves into a discussion of server-side strategies for findability with advice on domain names, search engine friendly URLs, redirects, 404 pages, optimizing performance and controlling search engine indexing.

The middle section of the book discusses content creation for findability and then includes a whole chapter on findability for blogs. This was probably my favourite single section and includes lots of specific stuff about using WordPress. There’s then a chapter on adding search to your site. This discusses a range of options, including both free and paid-for solutions. For me personally, the most useful tip in the book was on page 156 in this section. Here you can find out how to implement Google Custom Search Engine so that users who don’t have JavaScript won’t get an empty search results page, without having to direct all users to search results hosted on Google’s site. The apparent reliance on JavaScript had been putting me off using Google CSE where I wanted to integrate it into my own sites, so this was really useful to me.

The book continues with a look at solving findability problems with JavaScript, Flash and audio / video content. It then moves onto an overview of mailing lists before concluding with a chapter on “Putting Findability Into Practice”, emphasising the need to adapt the techniques introduced in the book to the specific needs of your own projects.

In general, the book’s got a nice readable style. The expected experience level of readers is pitched at “Intermediate to Advanced” according to the back cover and people just starting out may find some of the more technical stuff a bit daunting. However, there’s a decent effort made to explain even the more complicated concepts and beginners could still learn a lot. Good references are included to further reading and also to some relevant podcasts – which is something I really appreciate when authors include.

The companion site is a great addition to the published book. It includes a comprehensive list of links to useful resources and a further five chapters of the book available free. I thought the chapter on web traffic analysis was a particularly good introduction to the topic, but all of the free chapters are worth reading. There is also a Findability Strategy Checklist which acts as a quick reference for the topics covered in the book. This is a nice practical tool which could be useful for any web project.

Building Findable Websites: Web Standards, SEO and Beyond is by Aarron Walter and is published by New Riders.

Web work in a recession

There have been a lot of interesting posts recently on the Sitepoint and Webmaster World forums speculating about how well-placed web professionals are to deal with the oncoming recession. After a bit of research (10 minutes on said forums), I can summarise some of the main points made as follows:

  1. In so far as websites are part of marketing and advertising activities, they are likely to suffer in a recession since these areas tend to be the first to have their budgets cut when economic times are bad. However, online advertising may have a cost advantage over more expensive forms of offline promotional activity and could well see its proportion of marketing spend increase over the course of a recession. There is an interesting discussion on Webmaster World about recent trends in Google AdSense revenues which has some people reporting big drops in October and others saying things have stayed pretty steady. UK webmasters are in the happiest situation here, as the pound falling against the dollar means their AdSense revenues can actually be increasing.
  2. People working on websites which are vital to an organisation’s activities – e.g. through e-commerce or the provision of core services online – are less likely to be badly affected by cuts in a downturn.
  3. Small and large businesses alike are likely to suffer from lack of available credit. Small businesses and freelancers have the benefit of greater possible flexibility, but could be in trouble if they lack cash reserves or are too dependent upon big clients who go under.

The most sensible remedial advice on offer seems to revolve around striving to offer the best value to your organisation or client, aligning your offer closely to their business plan and coming up with ways to save them money wherever possible. Of course, I suppose we are doing this all the time anyway, aren’t we …?