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Taking Web Stats to the Next Level (of Weirdness) with Google Analytics

If you have ever run a web site, you've been exposed to the addictive, number-crunching fun provided by web stats. Any web site that's worth it's pixels will have, at the very least, a freeware program like AWStats parsing through the server logs and putting together colorful charts and reports. Our host, Q5media, are kind enough to provide us with LiveStats by Deepmetrix. Web stats can be really useful for blogs. They can tell you all sorts of interesting things about your readership, for example, last month 55 people found the site while searching for Yakety Sax, no doubt landing on our article about how Yakety Sax makes anything funny. Other top searches included guys kissing, how youtube works, and once you go black. Hopefully everyone found what they were looking for. As you can see, the most important use of web stats is to find the strangest search phrases people use to get to your articles. The small sample above is actually at the top of our list, but on a more sedate blog you might have to dig a bit to get to the comedy. Looking further down I get gems such as "indian dicks" and "bees apocalypse." In addition, web stats provide you a way to start fights between your writers as they argue over who's getting more traffic and why. So it's a lot of fun. In order to get some really deep knowledge, you have to venture off into the world of web analytics. Analytics gives you more than just the list of top pages by visitor count. You are able to see where readers come from, how they make their way through the site, and how they exit. If you have advertising on your site, you can really get a sense of what works and what doesn't. Google Analytics is a completely free, and fairly useful, analytics package to try out. It works by placing a small JavaScript on your pages - in Wordpress, you could stick it in your footer. So what is this deep knowledge I speak of? Let me give you an example: a few days ago we had an article about the weight loss drug Alli. With Google Analytics, I now know that 9 of the people who read the article clicked on an ad, no doubt one selling Alli or a similar weight-loss product. Six people clicked on to an article about things every nursing student should have, which means at least a tiny percentage of our readers actually look to us for helpful information. But five people clicked on the the page for the tag "accidents." If you follow that link you'll notice that there's only one article there. The only thing I can think is that five of our readers were not interested in the helpful information aspect of the article as the "pooped myself" aspect. They picked up on the tag and thought it would lead them to more... accidents. What's worse, in the academic world, this trail they followed is called the "information scent."

Why Google is Worth More than AOL and Verizon

As I write this, Google has a market cap of about $148 billion, compared to Verizon at $124 billion and AOL parent Time Warner at $82 billion. Google might rule the Web search market, but Verizon's $88 billion and Time Warner's $44 billion in revenue last year dwarf Google's $10 billion. Why would a smaller company that makes less money be worth more to investors than larger competitors? Are they just being irrational? Maybe so, but I think there is at least one good reason why Google has been so successful: it has focused on providing services, rather than content or infrastructure. Why is this important? Think about it this way: whenever you do anything on the Internet, chances are you can break it down into three layers: 1) Infrastructure - your connection to the Internet, whether it's Cable, DSL, dial-up, FIOS, etc. 2) Service - the application you use to get what you want done, for example the search engine you use to find things or the mail client you use to read you email. 3) Content - the stuff you read, watch, listen to, or create yourself for others to see. This is of course not a strict hierarchy, but it is a way to look at just about any medium to get some useful insights. Small companies and new startups usually have to compete within one of the layers, just because you can only do so much with limited resources. So a magazine might put up a web site to provide content, and a VOIP company won't build it's own DSL lines, it will just provide VOIP service. Many larger companies eventually find it tempting to cover two of the categories or even all three. This seems like a good idea, and you will hear a lot about "synergies" and things like that. In the best case maybe the company will have some cost savings and be able to provide more value to customers because they no longer have to pay other companies for the other layers. Quite often, though, this can lead to "walled gardens" where companies try to steer users through their systems at each level. AOL, for example, used to keep a lot of premium content off of the Web available to their ISP subscribers. Verizon sells Internet access on it's cell network, but you'd better believe they want you to buy ring tones and MP3s through them rather than some random retailer. In the worst case this leads to illegal monopolistic behavior. Now Look at Google. They seem to have very little interest in providing or controlling the Infrastructure. To Google an Internet connection is an Internet connection. In addition, they have very little interest in being the content provider - Google wants to organize the world's information, leaving the creation of information up to the world. This gets them in trouble with companies that wish to control the content and the service, and use their control of content to force users into their service. Google makes it's play at the service level, with the search engine, Gmail, Google News, etc. YouTube is a good example of how Google can grow and compete in new areas while still keeping within the service layer. Verizon might see YouTube as competition for their IPTV service, but note that YouTube isn't building fiber to every house. Time Warner produces TV shows (content), runs networks (service), and operates the cable running out to your house - meanwhile YouTube lets users produce video themselves. So why is this an advantage for Google? Think about it this way - Google could try to extend their dominance of search into content, but would Google really make better content than everyone else? Google could try to buy up or build out infrastructure, and judging by their data centers they might be able to do a really good job of it. But could they build infrastructure to reach the whole world? Would owning the connection give them an excuse to make the services less flexible, and ultimately less useful? In more general terms, for some services these separations are so obvious that you probably haven't even thought about the alternative. Email is a good example - although in the ancient past the service was tied down to the infrastructure, I would have a hard time imagining a service provider trying to generate the content themselves. Would you use an email service where you couldn't email your mom, your professor, your boss, etc., but could correspond with professional emailers hired by your ISP? In the past ten years, would you have used an ISP that provided email service but blocked access to Hotmail or your college email account? Competition can and should exist at every level. Just like any market there are different approaches - you can try to fit a particular niche, you can try to outperform the competition, you can try to lock users in. Successful practitioners of the latter approach might be tempted to extend into other levels, but in the long run it might not be a good idea. The best case scenario, for both consumers and competitors, is a natural separation with lots of competition within each level. This is more or less the present case with the Internet, despite many attempts at vertical integration and a paucity of competition in the infrastructure level in most areas. Lots of competition means lots of opportunity for capitalism to do it's magic, providing a wide range of options and generating a lot of wealth. Informal, natural separation means everyone has to stay flexible and we get the benefits of specialization. Adam Smith would totally be on board. This best case scenario is also what a lot of people mean when they talk about Net Neutrality. I think that Google understands all of this. Now what about their partnership with Earthlink to offer WiFi? It's possible they are just following the "throw it up and see if it sticks" approach they are known for. My guess is that they see moves to extend lock-in by infrastructure companies into services as a threat and are demonstrating that they can do the opposite if needed. But I bet they would be perfectly happy with a vibrant WiFi market with lots of players providing the infrastructure so they can provide their services.

Two Reasons Why the Viacom-YouTube Debate is Important

Just last year I wrote a little bit about why YouTube works. Since then, two major things have happened: YouTube was bought by Google, and large copyright-holding corporations finally noticed it. The almost inevitable result? Billion-dollar lawsuits. I'll let The Daily Show explain the situation better than I can: [youtube]w9CRD1COCAY[/youtube] But really, who cares?  Two multi-billion dollar companies duking it out in court surely doesn't effect you or I.  But there are at least two reasons why it does matter. 1.  It's not about stealing TV shows, and it's not really about YouTube in particular.  It's about control and availability of information. Let me explain:  Viacom doesn't offer all of it's material online, but Comedy Central at least has it's "motherload" interface.  The clip I posted above - and apologies if it has already been deleted - is available there.  They even have a little "embed" link, to help you post the clip in your blog. Notice I didn't use that embed link, and instead have the same clip from YouTube.  No, I'm not trying to be ironic.  I tried using the Comedy Central clip but noticed something sort of odd.  It says "This video expires 04/22/2007." One of the main reasons the Web is so powerful, and so important, is that it makes publishing, storing, and retrieving information cheap, fast, and easy.  Not a little cheaper, a little faster, a little easier - we are talking orders of magnitude. In the past, there were reasons why information might disappear, or be difficult to find.  Books went out of print because someone had to actually print books.  But now, there is no longer any real excuse.  Videos don't naturally expire on a certain date, like bologna.  Keeping the video around for a while doesn't really cost Viacom that much, and bandwidth and storage prices are always going down. I'm sure lots of people use YouTube just to watch TV shows without paying for them, but that's not why YouTube is important - it is important because it makes video available for comment, by anyone, basically forever.  So when a senate candidate uses an delightfully unfamiliar racial slur, but no major news networks are around, the video still gets out. So why should we care that clips from a network that has puppets making crank phone calls are available too?  There's no way to cordon off the important video from the unimportant, because it's too subjective.  In fact, Comedy Central is the perfect example - it has actually been the source for some very, very important video over the past few years. Steven Colbert's explanation of the concept of truthiness was the most insightful commentary on the current administration and it's backers to be seen on any channel.  But I can't find it on Comedy Central's web site.  And any video site hosting it, even in the fair use context of commentary and scholarship, is likely to get a DMCA letter to take it down. If the Viacoms of the world get their way, we will lose something new and amazing - the democratization of commentary and reference in the world of video. 2.  If Viacom wins, in the long term Viacom loses.  Again, video clips are not bologna.  This Daily Show video expires because Viacom doesn't understand the Internet.  The Colbert truthiness video is not immediately available for commentary because Viacom doesn't understand the Internet.  Some stuffy old guy in a well-appointed office made this decision, and the thinking went something like this: "Hmm, this video clip thing is hot according to CEO Fad Magazine, but I don't fully understand how to monetize it."  I suppose he understands enough to put a billion-dollar price tag on the copyright infringement, but not enough to actually make a billion dollars by putting video clips online.  Will this cannibalize DVD sales?  Will people stop subscribing to cable altogether?  So many scary questions! Meanwhile, people like YouTube founders Chad Hurley and Steve Chen, sitting where ever they used to sit, were thinking more like this:  "Wow, we've done the math and the Internet has made an amazing thing possible that has never been possible before.  Let's do it." Now think back to all of the biographies you've read about inventors, founders of major companies, scientists and engineers.  Which mentality, do you think, has driven the American economy to create such amazing amounts of wealth?  How many companies stay successful by avoiding change, becoming confused and disoriented by new possibilities, and trying to fight new technologies with lawsuits? Viacom needs to get a clue and embrace the fact that video distribution and storage has suddenly become easier, faster and cheaper.  They don't have to do so by letting YouTube host videos, but ignoring the lessons that YouTube is teaching the rest of the world is not a good long-term strategy. This is important because there is a lot of money, and there are a lot of entrenched interests, on the clueless side.  These companies are sitting on top of a gold mine but more worried about putting up fences than actually digging up the gold. I don't really care if YouTube or Google Video or iFilm or whoever has clips of this show or that.  I'm not interested in whether they paid for them, if so how much, whatever.  If this was all just fighting over whether or not college kids can watch blurry little South Park clips for free in their dorms, we could all safely ignore it. But this is important, and hopefully you are paying attention.

Four Reasons Why Academic Research is Broken

Right now, you and I have access to more information than anyone else in the history of humanity. The richest man alive in the year 1800 could not get the amount and quality of information that a janitor with a $20/month DSL connection has at his fingertips today. This is all so amazing and wonderful that we mostly take it for granted. But it brings up new problems. No one can argue about the amount of information that's just a Google search away, but the quality of what comes up can be a big question mark. Luckily, we also have in place the most successful model of judging the quality of information in the history of man: the peer-reviewed academic journal. So we have an embarrassment of riches, and a great model to follow that has brought constant improvements in science and technology. So what's the problem? Actually performing academic research is horribly broken, and what's worse, there's no good reason. Read on to find out just how broken the system is. 1. There is absolutely no excuse for why I can't get immediate access to every journal article ever published. I'm serious. If I want to learn all about the misinformation effect, there's no doubt it will take me some time to read all the current research, let alone acquire the background in psychology needed to follow along. But even if I have the time, the motivation, and the background, I can't, not without spending a ton of money or being affiliated with a college or university (which translates to "spending a ton of money"). Unlike the web, with it's search engines, directories, and billions of pages hyperlinked to each other, academic research articles are not all available in one place to anyone who wants them. Why not? "Oh, digitizing those articles is such a huge job." "Oh, it will cost so much money." No it won't. No, it won't. The real problem is the tangled interests of various publishers like Elsevier. They are actively preventing access to information and convoluting the search and linking process. If everyone gave Google rights to digitize this stuff, they would do it in a second. If they gave it to the Internet Archive, or Project Gutenberg, or the Wikimedia Foundation, or created a new open-source project to work on it, it would get done. Virtually everything in the past 20 years was already typed up on a computer for submission or layout in the journal. A huge amount from earlier than that has already be digitized and sits in some database somewhere. And anything that hasn't been digitized yet can be taken care of with scanning, OCR, and a few dozed graduate assistantships (and those poor bastards get very little pay). 2. There is absolutely no excuse for requiring people to search this database for this, that database for that, ask their institution to purchase access to this other database to find some other thing, etc., etc. Twenty years ago, there were reasons for things to be in different databases, and for some things to not show up in any database at all. In fact, twenty or thirty years ago it was a nice bonus for anything to be available via a computer search. This has not been true for years. The web model, where everything is available if the search engine is smart enough to find it, is in every way better than the little-empire, walled-garden approach we have now with various publishers and organizations each having their own excusive, semi-overlapping, databases. Expecting searchers to know enough about a subject to come up with good keywords, evaluate how salient the results of a search are, and understand what they find is good. Expecting them to learn about the quirks and coverage of proprietary databases is dumb. Meta-search engines and multi-database searches are a poor solution. 3. There is no excuse for braking the web with your database interface. If you feel so strongly about your need to protect content, or mirror your ancient telnet interface, or whatever, that you break the back/forward buttons, you should quit your job now and let someone with a clue take over. There is no technical excuse for breaking the back/forward buttons. Don't get me wrong, there are genuine reasons to change behavior of a page depending on how the user gets to it. You don't want people to be able to skip the login screen through a bookmark. But searching for and viewing documents are not those kind of situations. Do me a favor. If the idea of flipping me out of a page because I haven't clicked on something within 15 minutes ever enters your head, I want you to stop, take a deep breath, and smack yourself in the face. You deserve it! If you ever ask your web developers if there's a way to disable right-clicking, you get two smacks. In the face. Also, to all my brothers and sisters out there, the programmers, the web developers, the designers, the database admins -- none of this is aimed at you. I know where you all are at, we've all been there. The fact of the matter is that we spend a lot of our careers implementing things we know are stupid, wrong-headed, or counter-productive. 4. The way that citations are done is archaic and simple-minded. Citations are the hyperlinks of academic research. So why are they so much crappier and more difficult than hyperlinks? Listen, I understand how difficult this must have been to figure out and get organized 100 years ago, when everything was bound in volumes. It is no longer the year 1907, so that is no longer a good excuse. Why are there:
  • Lame, arcane rules specifying that this goes here, unless it's one of these, but not one of those, or if there's more than 2 but less than 6 authors, on every other Thursday... Here's a rule of thumb: as soon as you have more than two strict rules for a string of text, it probably shouldn't be a string of text.
  • One thousand different citation formats, APA, MLA, CBE, Chicago, blah, blah, blah.
  • No automatic way to click from one reference to the next to the next? Some databases implement this, and Google Scholar tries to do this, but why don't we have something crazy... like a URL or ISBN... that makes these things automatically easy?
Why is this important? This is not just a string of complaints from a grad student averse to the hard work of research. I like the hard work of research. I don't like spending time working around horrible interfaces and limitations imposed by copyright holders, who often have nothing to do with the actual production of knowledge. This craziness has come to the point where it is limiting progress, because right now your average know-nothing, head-in-the-sand flat earth creationist is more likely to show up in a Google search than real work by real scientists. Your average citizen is operating under no requirements on what sources they cite when they make decisions and many people, even graduate students, have a hard time evaluating sources. It's hard enough to get most people interested enough in a topic to do any kind of research, even politically hot items like stem cell research and climate change.  People are busy leading their lives.  But when someone does take interest, they have no chance of finding some of the best information out there unless they are already at a university.  This is broken.