At the end of this month, Google will execute a much criticized act: the closure of its aggregation service Google Reader. Existing and new players have been scrambling for this market, and I started my search one month ago. And I’m happy to announce the InoReader is the service that matches my needs best at this stage.
I have not checked all the readers I mentioned in my initial post, but only a few that got positive reviews. The march is not yet over, since there seem to be more readers in the making, but I did not want to wait till the last minute to make my choice: for me a good RSS-reader is just too important.
Inoreader is a fairly recent arrival on this market, and when I tried to join them for testing a few weeks ago, new admissions had to wait, so Inoreader had to stop its inflow for almost a week.
What is most important, Inoreader does, and it does not more, like many other alternatives. For all the wrong reasons some of them want to give me a ‘magazine’experience’, or deploy algorithms in other ways that mess up the choices I want to make myself. On top of that, the main developer of Inoreader Yordan Yordanov, is personally on top of things. When I send some feedback, he was back to me within ten minutes.
Yordan already announced at his website, that the feedback would be replace by an online self-help forum, and for good reasons: you cannot deal with all the feedback yourself, when a service matures.
The main disadvantage of migrating data from Google Reader to Inoreader is that the difference between read and unread articles disappears, so you end up with thousand of articles you have read already, and have to click them away. In my case that was half an hour work, and a worthwhile investment.
From then on, clicking through my categories and finding unread articles is pretty intuitive.
What is a point of caution (worry would be too much) is that I did not see any sign of a business model yet. Some of the paid aggregation services have correctly argued that unless you make money with such a service, its future can be guaranteed. Inoreader stands ahead of huge investments to make a decent service work, so I might not yet throw away the notes about the other RSS-readers.
Update: Ohoh. It is Tuesday morning and one day after I wrote this post. Inoreader is down. Hope I have not been to enthusiastic.
Using Hangouts-on-air (HOA’s) is so simple, most newbies get it right without a lot of instructions. Struggling through the many tutorials is not needed to get started (although they become useful later). But from my experiences with newbies as a regular moderator of hangouts, some very basic things can go wrong. So, here are a few instructions to make life even easier.
When you video or mic are not working properly, you might have to adjust your settings. You find the button on the top right of your interface, next to the button to exist the hangout.
An additional interface opens (like you see on the picture), and you can see what webcam and mic the interface is using (or not using). A drop-down menu for each of them allows you to adjust the standard settings for webcam and mic. When you test it, you can see also whether you are setting straight, have no funny things in the background, your hair sits straight, you are properly dressed or are wearing glasses that reflect your PC.
Second tip: try to use a headset, preferably a simple set of earphones, so the chances of producing unwanted noises during a hangout are limited. You can use more advanced headsets too, but to not forget to adjust the settings to the right position, otherwise both your mic or speakers might not work properly.
And since we are in the educational mode, I would suggest to download also the Hangout Toolbox, an app you can find listed when you look for apps, after you have started a hangout (it needs a minor download). Most of those tools you do not need right away, but the lower third, I would suggest to try right away. (It is the interface at the right, click on the icon with a headset and red square). You see the interface at the right.
It allows you to display you name, affiliation and even the flag of a country in the lower third third of your screen. (Make sure it does not cover your mouth!). Also, do not forget to move the switch in the right-top corner from off to on. Most of the other tools are just for fun or to mass control, things you do not really need when you start.
I regularly do test runs for people who start using hangouts for the first time. You can add me on Gtalk or drop me an email to get included in such a test. Many other hangout users are willing to do the same when you ask them. After that you are ready to join the hangout, and you can then start exploring the many tutorials on HOA’s, to fine tune your operation.
Earlier I described how authorship as a relatively new feature at the Google search functions kicked in for me. Since the feature is pretty new for most even advanced internet users, and there are some side-paths to explore, a few additional observations on how authorship is helping me in getting scores in the search postings. They have implications both for your circle management at Google+ and the way to use Google+ business pages.
To illustrate my points a screenshot of a Google search on the key word “China”. (You can click on it to see the larger image). You will see two entries coming from my activities on Google+, one on the China Weekly Hangout, another on the nuclear ambitions of China. Both also display the logos from the related business pages, making them look more attractive than entries without displaying a picture.
First a word of caution. Those results are personalized. So, they do not show up for everybody searching for “China”, but mainly for those who have put me in their circles. But that adds another assets of the circle management, most of the top-10 lists for managing your Google+ circles are missing.
Most people look at their circles as a way how they can manage their own information flow (with a current maximum of 5,000). But it also shows it makes sense to try to expand the number of people who put you in their circles in a smart way, by providing content that makes sense to them. If you are, or want to become, an authority on a certain field, that should go along with a larger number of followers, preferably larger than the number of people you follow back.
Most people with a high number of followers are celebrities or people focusing on Google+ related information; my China experience is a relatively off-beat subject, but I do see dozens of new followers showing up in my systems. No clue yet whether they hang on, after discovering my China obsession, but I’m hopeful, since we are still in a building phase.
Yet another observation that proves to be useful for me, and possibly for others. Google typically allows only one of your entries to show up in a personalized search. And sometimes even nothing shows up, this is all at Google’s discretion. But if you put your eggs in different baskets, more than one entry is possible, like in my illustration here. Two of my business pages (one on China’s outward investments, the other on the China Weekly Hangout) show up in the same search results. My guess it that in the future also communities (like my “China Debate” community), might even increase my exposure more.
More observations later.
Update: I did some additional searches today, and my postings show up under all kind of different key words (again: in personalized searches), like education, Nepal, India, Hong Kong Africa, investments. Encouraging.
Google is making currently drastic changes in how its search engine works. Over the past few weeks I have started to give those changes serious attention, with some remarkable effects.
The workings of the algorithms at Google do work as a kind of black box: as outsiders you can only watch the effects and speculate on what is behind it. But now, for the first time, I can report that the so-called authorship debate is resulting in a higher number of hits for me.
What is it all about, this authorship dingy? According to the debate among the digital vanguard, links to other websites have lost its longest time as the currency that makes search engines run. That focus on links caused a lot of nasty side effects as link farms and SEO firms tried to improve rankings artificially, but for a long time there was no alternative for rankings.
Now, Google has been working on authorship as a ranking feature (dubbed: rel=author). That means you have to link your original posts and websites to your Google+ profile. In that way the search engine can make a link between the post and your ranking as an author, until recently at least in theory.
That changed when a snippet of text from an upcoming book by Google chairman Eric Schmidt his the media earlier this month. It said: “Within search results, information tied to verified online profiles will be ranked higher than content without such verification, which will result in most users naturally clicking on the top (verified) results. The true cost of remaining anonymous, then, might be irrelevance.” (Source: Virante.)
I’m not a straight forward proponent of this way of validating authors and their postings. Especially in China, being able to post and discuss anonymously offered enormous advantages in a country where it is not always done to offer your uncensored opinion. But recent research on Sina Weibo, suggesting that only 10% of their 500 million followers are real people shows that even in China the benefits of posting anonymously have been outflanked by the excesses.
Also, as a common user of the internet, I might disagree on some points with the authorship policy of Google, it does not mean my opinion is going to change their course.
So, apart from following the authorship debate, I tried over the past few weeks to set up the relevant codes for my websites, this one, the China Herald and the China Speakers Bureau. It took a few days to get it properly in place, and fortunately, Google developed a useful tool that analyses what is going good and what is going wrong in terms of authorship. A few days after installing the codes, in my search results I saw my postings show up. It took some fine-tuning: you need to put a headline and short quote from your article in the comment section of Google+ postings, so the search engine picks up the right snippets. You cannot leave that up to the algorithms only.
Searching “Zhang Lijia”
Attached a screen shot of my search for “Zhang Lijia” whose article I used for my first successful tests. (You can click on the image to get a better result). On the second position you see my posting, including my picture and a few words about the posting.
One word of caution to dampen possible too high expectation: these are so-called personalized results, you can recognize them from a little icon left from the post. That means my snippet is not showing up in every search on “Zhang Lijia”, but mainly for those (4,000+) who have included me in their Google+ circles. That is also the additional value for Google+: they develop a sticky, coherent system of validated Google+ profiles.
And to encourage my enthusiasm: even on this slow traffic weekend, I saw the number of hits to this article going up, suggesting the remarks of Eric Schmidt are not only focusing on a remote future. It does not mean the old-style linking has no value anymore for the Google search engine, but the value might diminish over time.
Other links also remain their value, since they are still useful for your readers, but they will lose value as a currency in the search engines. I’m not sure whether other search engines like Bing or Yahoo will take a similar direction, but I wonder if they can afford not to react.
I’m not going to give you any advice on how to set up all these new bells and whistles: the internet is stuffed with them, and you will find both very active participants and communities on Google+. Well, that would be my only advice: if you are not yet on Google+, or only marginally active, it might be time to reconsider.
Update: What makes is even better is that Google notices my postings really very fast. Just now I have sent off a link to a CNET story on Huawei, and just after clicking it away, I searched for “Huawei” on Google. And there was already my link, with pic and referral. Very cool.
It’s all about the conversation, the digital age. With enthusiasm I embrace every time the new online goodies that facilitate those conversation go online. But now, I increasingly face a dilemma: because of the growing number of really attractive tools, the conversation gets splattered all over the place. Question: should I start consolidating my digital network, or just wait till Google gets the algorithms and search engine in place, so I can continue to focus on the conversation?
My thing is China. That makes my problem a tidbit special, since the country itself is hiding itself increasingly behind a national firewall denting Google’s popularity severely; my discussions are in English, while most of the Chinese tend to speak Chinese. But apart from those extra challenges, I expect that many other conversation managers, community managers or whatever nice names we give ourselves have a similar problem. I focus in this post on all things Google. Of course I have a presence on Facebook, Twitter, LindedIn and a few other I might have forgotten, but let’s not make the problem too complicated, since we cannot expect those major competitors are really going to coöperate to make my life easier.
How does the Google-side of my digital life look like?
Traditionally, the core of my activities was my weblog the China Herald. Powered by Blogger and originally, before the social media emerged in force, my key platform to discuss China-related issues (like this weblog is mainly for non-China related issues). Some people have abolished their weblog for Google+, but I’m not yet that far.
Some years ago, we set up our China Speakers Bureau, with a related website. It is not really meant to focus on conversations, but more a window to showcase some of our more famous speakers. That is powered by WordPress (a preference of my partner who is doing the technical operation). We try to include those speakers where possible in other operations, debates and conversations, wherever that is appropriate. Well, it is the way we make some money too.
So, when Google+ took off, I was one of the first to sign up for a personal account. As things go, it offers a mixture of things: some work-related, some focusing on my previous media past, sometimes more personal issues. I would have split off China-related conversations in the beginning if other tools would have been around, but now it is what it is. It would be hard now to leave out my China connections here.
Of course, I embraced the Google+ Hangouts, as soon as the Hangouts-on-air were possible, linking them directly to my YouTube account. The big idea was to use his beautiful system as a marketing tool for the China Speakers Bureau. I could discuss and record discussion with my speakers, one-to-one or small groups, and plaster them on my websites and social media accounts. That did not yet work out very well, because of the slow adoption of our speakers to Google+. But fortunately, there was also a plan B, setting up a weekly open forum with whoever want to have a say on China-related issues. That is also a great way to educate more people in using the system, as I blackmail them into hangouts one by one. Part of the conversation is also directed to the YouTube page.
To announce those China Weekly Hangouts, I use of course the events page, like here, an upcoming one on education in China. It is a very useful tool to invite people and get additional conversations going. You can show your hangout in this page (and you can do it on different websites, YouTube and other channels). During the hangout, I mostly limit myself to this page, to stop my from getting crazy. I know there are apps to consolidate diverse conversations during the hangout, but that is only a limited solution to my real problem.
Of course, I embraced the Google Communities tool as an excellent way to support the China Weekly Hangout. So, I started the China Debate community. Only later I realized that apart from having a new asset, I also had yet another spot where conversations could be going.
You get the idea? It was illustrated a few weeks ago when James Fallows of The Atlantic pushed an unprecedented stream of traffic to our China Weekly Hangout on pollution. Mostly we get up to 500 viewers for our hangouts, but are now already close to 2,000. Nice, and you do not hear me complain, but none of those viewers had a clue how to participate in the conversation, if they wanted to. They could see the hangout, get to our YouTube account, but had no easy way to join the debate splattered over more than half a dozen places.
It looks like some consolidation on my side could be a solution, although I see not much overlap between my account, my business pages and communities. But I would not exclude that Google is also working on this dilemma, that might hinder more of their users. It would not be the first time to spend a lot of time in trying to find a solution, just to discover Google is providing a (mostly better) solution. How do you deal with this dilemma?
More than once this week I encountered efforts to compare the booming social media, and especially half-hearted attempts to figure out how large Google+ is compared to other giants like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. This morning an email from Google, announcing a field trial, confirmed this question is increasingly becoming irrelevant. And since this email did not include a polite request not to share this new development with the rest of the world, this is exactly what I’m going to do.
The most interesting effort to figure out the size of Google this week was by Comscore, where they put Google on the top-position ahead of any other internet company (this is for US users only, China would be a different story), by combining all the different Google platforms, Google+, Gmail, Drive, Blogger into one whopping figure of 234 million users in the United States. Of course, that figure does not help you when you want to compare Google+ with other social media, but the announced field trial shows how irrelevant the question already is.
Google field trial
The field trial is only for a limited number of users, and here are some screen shots of my Gmail this morning. (And I have checked I’m not sharing anything you should not know.) I started to look for “Tricia Wang” in the search box of my Gmail and already after three, four letters, I had the information I needed in a drop-down menu. Not only a link to her email address, but also links to recent emails and other online activities.
The drop-down box is actually divided in different sections. The first offers links to know email addresses of this person. That works fine, although when I searched for my name, it started with a defunct email address. Second section shows some recent email conversations, the third showed files in Drive connected to that person. Also the Google Calender should show up here, but for me that feature is rather underused. At the bottom a link to the reason for all this action: the search function.
Gmail field trial
When I confirmed the search was correct, on top of my Gmail a new box appeared (the second picture), including 1.a link to the Google+ profile, 2.making it possible to manage the circles Tricia is in, 3. send an email (still a useful option, offers more email address if available), 4. start a chat or 5. a Google+ hangout, 6. phone numbers. And there might be some stuff I have not yet seen.
It is just another step in consolidating different Google services. The strongest asset of Google+ was already in enhanced functionality, compared to its competition. What is still its largest disadvantage is the – compared to Twitter and Facebook – relative low take-up among internet users. I have noted in my efforts to set up my China Weekly Hangout that the technology is cool, and improving, but the number of drop-out of people who give up on Google+ is still pretty high. (Hey, I dropped out twice from Twitter, before I got the hang of it.)
When this field trial shows what direction Google is taking, I’m sure that at Mountain View, California, they are not so worried about the slow take-up. That will change, one way, or the other.
That is still pretty low, compared to the over 50% score of India, but it looks like some people are become a bit more active.
A short summary of Google+’s problems in China: Google as a service is doing poorly (and seems to be dropping) in China, Google+ is blocked and Google+ seems to work best in English (while Chinese still prefer Chinese )
And while I have been blackmailing quite a number of people into joining the China Weekly Hangout, I see not yet a lot of activity taking place, despite the encouraging figures from CircleCount.
So the question of Thursday is: how are you using Google+? How can you encourage others to become more active? Is there anything you are missing? No plans to make a recording yet about this session, mostly an experiment to see of anybody shows up. You can register here, or just show up on Thursday 10pm Beijing Time, 3pm CET (Europe) and 9am EST (US/Canada). You can of course also plus this message.
Update: For those who wondered what happened: we had a short hangout, but only 何西海 from Shanghai showed up. Decided not to broadcast and have to wait till more people in China get the hang of it.
Many professional internet users know: looking at the algorithms from search engines - especially those of Google, but not only those – is like looking at a black box. You know they are key for your operation, but their exact workings are a well-hidden secret.
To see how all those changes have an impact in the past few years, I have been looking at the effects on my business operation, and the result is mixed, but slightly positive, and suggesting the coming years could become even better.
I have been looking at how traffic and my internet operation has changed over the past few years. So, this is no scientific exercise. Even worse, my b2b business has some characteristics other business do not share. So, my conclusions focus on my business, but some might be useful for others too.
I’m helping to run the China Speakers Bureau and have a few supporting websites, like the China Herald. We position high-profile speakers on China in a global market, and earn a commission on the fees of our speakers. Most of our clients are typically corporations and business-focused organizations in Europe and the US. Because we are – unlike most speakers’ agencies who have a regional focus – a global operation, we depend for our leads mostly on the internet.
We are pretty much content driven. The advice “content is king”, we have taken pretty serious from the start. We provide daily updates of appearances of our speakers in mainstream media, on their own weblogs and last year we started to included also video clips and whatever we could find about our speakers. The digital footprint or our speakers has become a key selection criteria before we admit them to our service. In the end, we depend fo our marketing on the traffic they generate themselves.
So, it was with some concern I followed the complaints of many other internet related companies who saw their traffic drop, as algorithms changed, jeopardizing their livelihood. Not only did income drop, some companies reportedly went down because of those drops in traffic. Traffic to the sites is affected by changes in algorithms at search engines, and the explosion of competing content. There is very little those companies said they could do.
We saw a severe drop in traffic too. Over the past three years traffic to our sites has dropped by about 70 percent. While that looks dramatic, for us it was not really that bad. The amount of requests for speakers actually remained pretty stable. My lay view on this effect: yes, traffic is down, but our clients can find us better than in the past. So, at the end of the equation, the result seems mildly positive, unlike the devastating effects on other online operations. (Or in SEO lingo: conversion has remained stable.)
Since we are no b2c firm, and do not make a living from the ads on our websites, traffic is not that important. In the past, I was already often amazed how people got to our websites; anything related to sex or otherwise titillating caused spikes in traffic but drew not really our clients. Skipping that kind of traffic is not a huge loss. In a lot of cases, traffic today seems more focused, and that is a huge plus.
Another interesting change supports this viewpoint. In our business some people ask directly for a specific speaker, others ask our advice who could support their meeting best. About three years ago, the balance between the two was 50/50; now it is 90/10. That means potential clients increasingly find us through our daily news output, and fewer compared to three years ago find our home pages.
For our speakers’ business that has pros and cons. If a clients asks for a specific speaker, they will typically get that speaker. Sometimes we have serious doubts whether they made the right choice, and subtly try to suggest other possibilities. But that is easier when they have not yet made up their mind, and changing their course during the discussions. That makes life harder, but we can live with that.
This change in the way search engines work, has a profound effect on a larger number of our speakers. When a speaker has no or a marginal digital footprint, and does not contribute on a regular basis to the public domain, they can forget the internet as a marketing tool. For some that is a reality check, and we have seen often speakers disappear into the digital dungeons of our databases for that reason.
A small group among our 300+ speakers is doing very fine in the media or generating publicity we can use to put them into the market. A larger number does not, and we see a firm number of excellent speakers sink away in online oblivity. As a speakers’ bureau we have limited resources to promote speakers, but we have started to deploy a few tools to help them to increase their online exposure.
Google Hangouts-on-air is going to be a key feature on our new marketing efforts. (One of our early efforts with Ben Cavender is included in this post) It is an effort marred with other challenges, as few of our speakers are already active on Google+. Most of our speakers tend to be rather traditional in their publicity approach, take off half a year to write a book, and do not accept our insistence on a frequent appearance on the internet. Just writing a book once a year does not make a difference anymore. Google Hangouts potentially offer an affordable and time-effective tool to serve as a marketing tool.
Hangouts give also a pretty fast way for our speakers to react on current affairs. Normally, they have to get in touch with one of their media contacts, write an article and see it published a week later, if they are lucky. Hangouts you can do on the spot, helping speakers to unleash their well-founded comments, even when people are waiting for their plane to catch, over a mobile device and publish it ten minutes later.
I’m also pretty positive about the way Google+ is working out on our search results. While initially having some misgiving in the way they mix up generic and personal search results, the effect is working for me and could work for others as they take up Google+ as a part of their publicity mix.
It might all be a psychological effect on me, but it seems to work out pretty nicely. Links to our posts show up very often in the first results, when people look up our speakers. As a speakers’ bureau we are in the luck position that we have decided for a content-driven approach, even before Google+ showed up. Of course, if you are geographically more confined to a region or focus on a specific industry, other approaches might work too.
We cannot do anything about the twists and turn algorithms in search engines are going to take. But the effects on our performance have been moderately positive, that is, if my analysis is already.
This morning @isaac Mao broke to me the news a Beijing twitterer had been detained ahead of the 18th party congress for his fictional tweets. More than the case itself (which requires your attention too), the event proved again that for breaking news Twitter is still the leading network. Within 30 minutes a dozen people had retweeted or favorited the tweet. Quite ok for a Sunday morning in Europe, while the US is still sleeping. (Although I must admit I picked Isaac’s news up at Google+ first, and it was not a retweet from his account.)
China: Beijing Twitterer Detained for Writing Micro-fiction – Global Voices Advocacy ow.ly/fnwwy
Both the twitter accounts of Isaac and Global Advocacy, the original source of the news, showed similar figures in a similar time range.
For comparison: at Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn nobody had picked up the news, although I posted the same message there on the same time. That shows that despite its limits to 140 characters, Twitter is still leading when it comes to breaking news. My favorite network is still Google+: it takes away the many restraints of LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. But when it comes to breaking news, we cannot miss Twitter.
Since early September we have started a new project, the China Weekly Hangout, using Google+ technology to organize a weekly debate on China, bringing together China experts from different continents each Thursday. And while it is fun to do, yesterday we took a step back to discuss how we can improve.
For some of the hangouts we had up to 350 viewers, although most views came only after our live-stream had ended and while the amount of minutes watched increased, it was very hard to say how many viewers would actually watch full segments of 40-50 minutes. Major take-away from our session yesterday (included in this post), with Janet Carmosky, Andrew Hupert (some of the regulars) and myself was that the long-form format was most likely not fit for a larger audience.
And while we do not have the ambition to compete with CNN, this issue of the format is a genuine problem. While I found our hangouts very engaging and interesting while actively participating, the attention span of most viewers might not allow the kind of format we have been using up to now. From next week (when we discuss the upcoming political transition in China), we will split up the hour in three, four segments of each 5-7 minutes. We expect that more people will be accessing the video’s afterwards.
That means that including more people in a hangout – one of the key features of a hangout – will be limited. But up to know, including more people has been a rather theoretical option anyway, and we can find new solution if the interest is growing.
The long-form format is very much under discussion among traditional media and leaving that format is, well I would not call it a defeat, but perhaps a needed reality check for this feature. As a producer it is fun to do when you can dive a bit deeper into a subject, in stead of bringing it back to easy digestible soundbites. But getting an audience is also important, and as a media consumer I notice I have very little patience with long-form formats myself. I would seldom finish a book, find podcasts like the excellent Sinica Podcast very interesting (but mostly switch off after 15 minutes), and seldom watch longer segments on TV without keeping an eye on my computer too. And how often do I find the time to join other hangouts, or even watch them?
Only after a good night of sleep, I realized this means we are leaving the concept of the hangouts. Actually, when you change the format, you might as well say good-bye to a few other restraints. The idea was also to pick one hour in the week, allowing a larger number of time-zones to get involved. When we split the hour up into three, four segments, the participation might drop (hey, what did I expect as only 0.09% of China’s internet population is using Google+), but allows people to join at more acceptable times. And it will be harder to use it as a broadcast, streamed in real-time on YouTube.
We are not abandoning the Hangout technology. That is still great stuff, and allows us to set up exchanges in an unprecedented way and host them on YouTube and our websites. But it would be the end of the original concept of a hangout, although we might keep on calling it the China Weekly Hangout for a while. It took the Communist Party also a few decades to formally drop Marxism-Leninism from the constitution, so we can take a few months using a name that does not cover the concept anymore.
Update: We did our first restructured set of China Weekly Hangouts on November 1. Not sure if it worked. First, it was very hard to limit segments under ten minutes, as you can see here at the China Herald, although we genuinely tried. And it did not feel really natural, if such a thing can be natural.
Fortunately, technology did not fail and we got even Greg Anderson, traveling in Italy in. Guess we have to look at the traffic in a few weeks and see if the new format generates a different kind of traffic.