Monday, December 3, 2007

Another Crazy Week In Hype-Ville

by Mark Simon

MAYBE IT'S JUST A FORM of seasonal madness, but this past week has been one of the craziest in the annals of Internet marketing. If you closed your eyes for more than 15 seconds, you likely missed out on a new trend or a new catastrophe. Let's go to the videotape.
Google: The Energy Company!
Even the wildest-eyed online pundits couldn't have predicted that Google would now be touting itself not as a search engine, but as a planetary savior. When this story broke, I pegged it as a PR stunt designed to get ahead of the fact that sooner or later, somebody will investigate how much energy Google actually consumes while running its search engine. In fact, analyst Jordan Rohan asked Google this exact question this past week, but didn't get a straight answer, because the number of megawatts Google burns through each hour is "critical information that Google can't disclose." I guess we'd all have a heart attack if we knew how much power Google actually uses -- some of us might even stop clicking entirely.
Hey, Google, if you really want to save energy, why not program your servers to serve up fewer, more meaningful results? Case in point: if you search Google for the term "clean energy" you'll get 14 million results, which will take a normal human at least two years to sort through. How many of Google's 500,000 servers (burning 200 watts each) are busy serving up so many useless results? How much heat does this ridiculous waste add to the atmosphere each year? I guess this information is also "top secret.
"Widgets, Widgets, Everywhere!
A breathlessly glowing article in USA Today about widgets generated a 50-megaton explosion of widget-related hype last week. Widget makers, it seems, are making thousands of dollars a week, racking up hundreds of millions of widget-views, raking in the VC cash and doing IPOs. The story caused CMOs across the country to scream to their underlings that they lacked a widget strategy, even though most of them were unaware that widgets are just applications with a cute new name. So widgets are the new dotcom, and Wall Street will soon get into the game. Am I the only one who's nervous about this? In truth, widgets aren't useless and may have actual value to advertisers because they provide a function-based context for serving ads. For example, if you're selling music tickets it might make sense to book ad space within a music widget; similarly, a finance company might want to book space within a financial widget. But widget-mania is a craze that's going to burst fast, because it's so easy to craft widgets that there will be a vast oversupply of them, only a few will gain traction, and most of that VC money will go puff just as it has with prior hype-driven bubbles.
Yet Another (Highly Predictable) Facebook PR Disaster!
I certainly wasn't the only person to predict that Facebook's privacy-invading Beacon system would cause a violent user revolt, but it did and I can only wonder whether Mark Zuckerberg is locked inside some kind of reality-bending bubble. By the end of last week, more than 50,000 of Facebook's members had joined the online protest against Beacon, and stories about Facebook "ruining Christmas" circulated around the globe. Finally, on Friday, Facebook announced that it would modify Beacon to make opt-outs easier (although Beacon is still not completely opt-in only). What's ridiculous is that Zuckerberg's original demo for Beacon showed a page that had this feature, but it was dumped when Beacon was deployed. The whole mess would be comical if Facebook wasn't positioning itself as a $15 billion company. The more this sad saga goes on, the smaller and more pea-headed this company looks.
My prediction is that we may see some Eric Schmidt-style "grown-ups" hired for Facebook's management soon, but it may be far too late to clean up the damage, because for the first time many young people with no real prior experience of privacy invasions are beginning to see how vulnerable they are, and they clearly don't like it.
Attack of the Blackhat SEOs!
In a story that should have gotten more coverage from the mainstream media, Russian mob-connected Blackhat SEOs attacked Google on Monday in an attempt to route searchers to their evil malware sites. The SEOers used the tried and true tactic of comment spam, which really shouldn't have tricked the world's greatest search engine, but it did. Google purged the offending listings within a few hours, but it just goes to show how vulnerable search engines -- even those worth more than $200 billion -- remain to SEO manipulators. It would be great if Google spent as much time thinking about SEO spam as it did about solar panels, and my hope is that this latest Blackhat attack will serve as a wake-up call. Whatever happens, my advice to you is not to bet your company's future on an organic SEO strategy alone, unless you want to spend your nights worrying about the damage that a bunch of trench coat-suited guys in St. Petersburg can do to your bottom line.

Mark Simon is vice president of industry relations at Didit, an agency for search engine marketing and auctioned media management based in New York. You can reach Mark at msimon@didit.com.