Archive for February, 2008

Links for 2008-02-28

Thursday, February 28th, 2008

This is a very cute GMail how-to video

Wednesday, February 27th, 2008

More here on what went into creating it. I love the care with details like the cursor and the stars.

Links for 2008-02-26

Tuesday, February 26th, 2008

Explaining Google’s popularity

Monday, February 25th, 2008

I should be prepping for class, but I want to add an alternative perspective to a question raised about Google’s popularity. The Freakonomics blog features an interesting Q&A with Hal Varian today, I recommend heading over to check out how Google’s chief economist answers some questions submitted by readers last week.

The Official Google Blog takes one of the questions and posts an expanded response to it. The question:

How can we explain the fairly entrenched position of Google, even though the differences in search algorithms are now only recognizable at the margins?

Varian addresses three possible explanations: supply-side economies of scale, lock-in, and network effects. He dismisses all of these (see the post for details) and then goes on to say that it’s about Google’s superior quality in search that makes it as popular as it is.

I don’t buy it, especially the dismissal of the lock-in factor. While I realize that it seems as though another search engine is just a simple click away (and sure, technically it is), I have observed too many Internet users in my research to know that in reality it is not that simple at all. First, there is the lock-in that comes from having Google as the default search engine in some browsers (e.g., Firefox). Of course, related issues apply to other search engines as well. Why does Yahoo! still enjoy a sizeable market share in search at least in the U.S. one might ask? It is probably related to the fact that more people seem to have a personalized version of Yahoo! as their start page in their browsers than any other customized starting page. Or maybe it is because Yahoo! also offers sufficiently good search results.

This then leads us to another issue: the assumption that users carefully consider or realize that there are differences in what search engines return in response to their queries. There is room for much more research here (some of it one of my students may pursue soon), but based on what we know so far, some people tend to have a tremendous amount of trust in results presented by Google. One could say this is due to Google’s superior quality, but research has found that even when results are manipulated and the less relevant ones are offered up on top, some users will click on them presumably because they believe them to be the most relevant. (I’d really like to see that study replicated on users of other search engines to see how this compares across services. Also, additional tweaks to that study design could help us learn more about these issues.)

We still have a lot to learn about the extent to which users actually consider the quality of search engines when using them. Presumably as long as they find (or think they have found!) what they are looking for they will be satisfied. However, again, research (e.g., here, with more in the works) suggests that some users are very bad about assessing the quality of the material that shows up on pages linked from search engine results, which then puts into question their ability to evaluate search engine results quality.

I am not suggesting that Google is not a good search engine nor am I even suggesting that it is not necessarily the best search engine (although how one defines quality in this domain is tricky). I would love to see some really careful studies on this actually. What I am suggesting is that equating market share in searches should not be confused with quality of search results. I know that there are some very talented folks at Google working on search quality some of whom I know and with whom I have had very interesting and helpful conversations. I’m grateful for the work that they do. Nontheless, that’s a different issues. My point here is that I would not dismiss lock-in factors and others in explaining the service’s popularity based on what my research has taught me about how people use search engines.

I have to add one more note here as it is related and it is something I have been trying to insert into discussions of this sort for years. It may be helpful to remember that most search engine market share data look at proportion of searches not proportion of searchers. Since power users are more likely to be Google users (various data sets I work with supply evidence for this), I suspect that if we were to look at market share based on user figures Google’s share would be smaller than it seems based on figures about proportion of searches. I’ve been commenting on this for years, but the statistics that continue to be discussed concern searches not searchers. Of course, both figures may be relevant, but which one is more relevant depends on the particular questions asked. When discussing quality, it seems that proportion of users would be just as important to consider (if not more) than proportion of searches since presumably all users would want to use the highest quality search engine. Point being, if Google is so superior and that explains its popularity then why doesn’t it have a much larger market share especially regarding proportion of users?

UPDATE: Before trying to explain Google’s popularity today with why people turned to it in the earlier part of this decade, I think it’s worth noting that the Web of 2008 is very different from the Web of 2001/02 when people started migrating over to Google in masses. Explaining that trend doesn’t necessarily say much about why people may stick with it today and what, if anything, would inspired them to try a new service now.

UPDATE 2: Perhaps worth noting here is that I think of “lock-in” not in the completely restrictive sense of the term. Of course, I know that there is no technical lock-out from other options, my point was that given how people use the Internet for information seeking, something similar is going on nonetheless

Links for 2008-02-25

Monday, February 25th, 2008

FriendFeed anyone?

Saturday, February 23rd, 2008

FriendFeed helps keep track of friends’ contributions to a myriad of sites (e.g., additions to their blogs, Flickr and accounts, Twitter, etc.). I’m wondering about additional friends who may use it since currently I only have two on the service.

Several things are far from intuitive, but for now I’ve figured out everything I was looking for even if not as easily as one would hope. (Look for the feed of the feed aggregation under “Settings” and then the “secret key” tab. If you want to turn off notification about the feeds of your friends’ friends then click on “Hide entries like this”, which will give you an option to specify removing material from those people.)

Links for 2008-02-23

Saturday, February 23rd, 2008

Links for 2008-02-22

Friday, February 22nd, 2008

Links for 2008-02-20

Wednesday, February 20th, 2008


Sunday, February 17th, 2008

The following in the comments thread of Kieran’s recent post over on Crooked Timber reminds me of an issue I’ve wondered about in the past. The comment exchange:

Do people think it’s worth learning R if you already use STATA*?
Probably in the general sense that it’s worth learning new languages or applications so as not to get too rusty.

I’m not sure whether Kieran meant to refer to computer languages here only or foreign languages as well. I remember reading generals requirements in some graduate program (perhaps my own, I don’t recall) that equated speaking a foreign language with being proficient in a programming language. I’d always found that to be curious. While I believe both are helpful and important skills to have, they seem to be sufficiently different not to equate. Foreign languages (and time spent in other countries) allow us to get to know cultures, histories, peoples in a way that is very difficult to do through translation. Knowing a programming language lends itself to other potential benefits.** The two hardly seem interchangeable. I’m just curious to know what other people think about this.

[*] It’s actually Stata not STATA, I’m not sure why so many people spell it with all caps. Same goes for the Pew Internet & American Life Project. It’s Pew, not PEW.

[**] Yes, yes, I can think of ways in which knowing a programming language might also help one get to expand one’s horizons on those other dimensions as well and feel free to offer entertaining scenarios, but my overall question still stands.:)

Links for 2008-02-12

Tuesday, February 12th, 2008

Tom Lantos dies at 80

Monday, February 11th, 2008

California representative Tom Lantos died earlier today. I’ll take this opportunity to mention the Oscar-winning film The Last Days (I’ve blogged about it before here). It’s a very powerful documentary in which Lantos is one of the five people featured. My one critique of The Last Days movie was that it ignored the plight of people like my grandmother (who died twenty years ago last week, at almost 80) and father who went back to Hungary after their time in a camp instead of emigrating. That doesn’t detract from the value of The Last Days. But I think it’s important to recognize that there is a sufficiently different outcome from very similar circumstances depending on where one went after those horrors. In any case, I learned about many things from watching that film, including details about Tom Lantos that may be lesser known. I thought this was a good occasion to mention the documentary again.

Grab the nearest book

Monday, February 11th, 2008

As far as I know, no one has tagged me with this blog meme, but I’m still going to participate as it looks fun.

1. Grab the nearest book (that is at least 123 pages long).
2. Open to p. 123.
3. Go down to the 5th sentence.
4. Type in the following 3 sentences.
5. Tag five people.

Nearest book as I sit at my coffee table at home: The Chocolate Connoisseur by Chloé Doutre-Roussel. Page 123 is in the middle of Chapter 6 on The Cream of the Crop under the Reading the Ingredients List subheading. Here we go:

There are several grades of chocolate, and these figures show the European Union and US regulations for standard (S) as well as fine (F) chocolate.

* Dark chocolate (S) must contain at least 35% dry cocoa solids (but 15% for “sweet chocolate” in the US), while dark chocolate (F) must contain at least 43%.
* Milk chocolate (S) must contain at least 25% dry cocoa solids (but 20% in the UK, and 10% in the US), while fine milk chocolate must contain at least 30%.

The fun continues in the 4th sentence so allow me to add that: “Bars such as Cadbury Dairy Milk, Galaxy or Hershey must be labelled ‘family milk chocolate’ in the EU, as they don’t contain enough chocolate to count as chocolate under these rules!”

So yes, it’s worth noting that chocolate is not immune to policy considerations. It may sound silly, but it’s obviously a huge industry and what gets to be labelled chocolate does have regulations attached to it, ones that vary from one country to the next. There are also lobbying efforst involved. I don’t follow this area closely, but when a related news story pops up, I do find it intriguing to check out.

Since I wasn’t tagged for this meme, I guess I don’t have to tag anyone else either although I invite people to grab the nearest book and post the specified three sentences here or on their own blogs.

Links for 2008-02-11

Monday, February 11th, 2008

Links for 2008-02-10

Sunday, February 10th, 2008

Links for 2008-02-08

Friday, February 8th, 2008

Links for 2008-02-07

Thursday, February 7th, 2008

A day in the life…

Tuesday, February 5th, 2008

Whoa, I guess I won’t be reading any blogs (or emails for that matter) today.

Here is my schedule:

8:30am – Breakfast with job candidate
10am-noon – 4 one-on-one meetings with students one after the other
noon-1pm – Attending job candidate’s talk
1:30-7pm – 11 one-on-one meetings with students (straight through, obviously)
7pm-? – Dinner with colleagues and job candidate

So yeah, this many meetings is not usual, but I thought the students from my undergraduate writing seminar would benefit from some one-on-one discussions of their research statements.

Just another 12+ hour day. Wish me luck.

Links for 2008-02-05

Tuesday, February 5th, 2008

How to print a large map from Google Maps

Monday, February 4th, 2008

Neat idea, very helpful video.

Google Maps Hack: How To Save Large MapsClick here for this week’s top video clips

Thanks to Blog on the Side for the pointer.