This Week in Review: Red flags before Facebook’s IPO, and two sides of Google’s smarter search
[This review was originally posted at the Nieman Journalism Lab on May 18, 2012.]
Facebook’s advertising uncertainties: This week’s biggest news is happening right now, as Facebook goes public after months of buildup. There were plenty of developments this week leading up to Facebook’s IPO, most of them not particularly good for Facebook. We’ll start with one positive piece of news: The company decided to make a last-minute increase in the size of its IPO, with 421 million shares offered to investors, making it the largest technology IPO ever. The change doesn’t affect Facebook’s overall valuation, which is expected to be about $100 billion. NPR’s Planet Money questioned whether it’s really worth that much, concluding that it could only return that much value by undergoing an explosion in advertising revenue.
Slate’s Farhad Manjoo laid out the picture of how that ad blitz might begin, but Facebook’s inevitable ad ramp-up took a hit already this week when The Wall Street Journal reported that GM plans to pull all of its ads from Facebook, saying they just don’t work. Web marketer Rex Hammock noticed a couple of interesting points from the story: First, GM pays other companies three times what it spends on Facebook ads to market through Facebook’s “free” channels — Facebook-related marketing dollars that Facebook isn’t getting. Second, if GM is spending .05% of its ad budget on Facebook and thinks that’s too much, Facebook will have an extremely difficult time capturing a significant share of the overall ad market.
But All Things D’s Peter Kafka said there’s a lot of evidence GM’s social media marketing failure was GM’s, not Facebook’s, and argued that Facebook is big enough that it might not have to get advertising figured out to make gobs of money off of it. Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici and Robert Hof made similar points, with Bercovici noting that other automakers are doing just fine with Facebook ads and Hof saying companies have work to do in learning to adjust their marketing to social media.
Others put the onus on Facebook: Nate Elliot of Forrester said Facebook needs to take its features for marketers as seriously as it does its features for users. And tech investor Chris Dixon argued that Facebook is behind the eight-ball when it comes to advertising — while Google gets a lot of its ad revenue based on consumers who are already intending to buy something, Facebook users are generally just socializing. “You can put billboards all over a park, and maybe sometimes you’ll happen to convert people from non-purchasing to purchasing intents. But you end up with a cluttered park, and not very effective advertising.” Like Dixon, GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram urged Facebook to diversify its revenue streams beyond advertising.
Meanwhile, an AP-CNBC poll revealed more trouble, finding that more than half of Facebook users don’t trust the company to keep their data private and wouldn’t feel safe conducting financial transactions there. SiliconBeat’s Chris O’Brien reflected on the idea that many Facebook users seem to cast themselves as the victims of its addictive powers rather than fans of the company. Interestingly, Twitter’s favorability numbers in the poll were even lower than Facebook’s, a finding Forbes’ Kashmir Hill tried to explain.
Knowledge Graph and “disintermediating the web”: Google had an announcement of its own this week — not nearly as big as Facebook’s IPO, but pretty big nonetheless. The company launched its Knowledge Graph, which provides basic facts about search queries alongside search results. As usual, Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan has the definitive take on Google’s new feature — he called it a bigger change to Google search than he anticipated and looked at the traffic impact on publishers who typically provide those facts. (Google assured him that the information provided will lead users to do more exploring, keeping traffic strong, but he said it’s something to keep an eye on.)
Matthew Panzarino of The Next Web explored the other side of this change: Every time Google gives you information directly, it’s not taking you to a page it’s indexed, but instead is acting as a content provider, rather than a conduit. He compared it to the way Apple’s Siri relies on partnerships with Wolfram Alpha and Yelp to bypass Google, and said, “Google has begun the disintermediation of the web, but it’s starting small.” GigaOM’s Jeff John Roberts also saw in Knowledge Graph a bid to get users to spend more time on its own pages and fewer on other people’s, and PC Mag’s Mark Hachman looked at the feature as a response to a similar recent upgrade to Microsoft’s Bing.
Should everyone learn to code?: The movement to encourage average non-developers, particularly journalists, to learn to code has gained quite a bit of momentum over the past year or two, and a dissenting voice drew a lot of attention this week. Stack Exchange founder Jeff Atwood made the case against having non-professionals learn programming, arguing, among other things, that the “everyone should learn to code” movement “assumes that coding is the goal. Software developers tend to be software addicts who think their job is to write code. But it’s not. Their job is to solve problems.”
The post provoked a set of sharp responses from across the programming and developing communities. If you want to dive deep into the discussion, you can check out this Y Combinator thread. Several others disagreed with Atwood’s point: One Github poster argued that Atwood falsely conflated learning to code for personal and professional reasons, and expounded on the value of learning to code as a form of digital literacy. Zed Shaw of Learn Code the Hard Way asserted that Atwood’s post was rooted in professional resentment of a flood of new coders.
Ilya Liechtenstein of MixRank explained how teaching herself to code helped give her insight into how the technical side of her startup works and what to work toward, and French designer Sacha Greif said learning to code is an extremely empowering exercise. App developer Gina Trapani did agree with one big part of Atwood’s post, affirming his argument that software development is about finding solutions, not coding.
Twitter’s emailed digests: Twitter made a bit of news this week, too: It announced a new partnership with ESPN to create custom campaigns for various brands built around sporting events, and also announced that it’s allowing users to opt not be tracked. The announcement that got the most publicity, though, was the launch of a new weekly “Best of Twitter” email sent to users.
TechCrunch’s Ryan Lawler wondered about whether the weekly email would outlast the shelf life of a tweet, though All Things D’s Mike Isaac countered that this could be a smart way to help teach newcomers how to navigate Twitter’s sometimes confusing interface and get the most out of the platform. Mathew Ingram of GigaOM said Twitter continues to toe the line between serving and competing with media companies, and AllTwitter’s Mary Long pointed out that we’re now seeing what Twitter did with Summify, the startup it bought in January.
More criminal charges for News Corp.: The investigation into News Corp.’s phone hacking scandal pushes on with one important development this week, as Rebekah Brooks, the former head of the company’s British newspaper division, was charged with perverting the course of justice over allegations that she tried to hide evidence from investigators. Her husband and four others were also charged. The couple was defiant, with Charlie Brooks saying his wife was the “subject of a witch hunt.”
Before her charge came down, Brooks testified last Friday to the British government’s Leveson Inquiry, which was summarized well by The New York Times. Here in the States, Free Press’ Tim Karr criticized Congress and the FCC for not challenging News Corp., and the Times’ Ravi Somaiya gave a bird’s-eye view of the case.
Reading roundup: Here’s what else you might have missed in the past week:
— A couple of other important pieces of news from the newspaper industry: Just months after buying the Omaha World-Herald, Warren Buffett plunged a lot deeper into newspapers, buying 63 dailies and weeklies from Media General (Dan Conover has a sharp analysis), and former CBS digital head (and MarketWatch founder) Larry Kramer was named USA Today’s publisher. Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon looked back at Kramer’s past statements about how the newsroom should be rethought.
— ‘Tis the season of commencement speeches, and Andrew Beaujon chronicled the speeches given by journalists across the U.S., while Free Press’ Josh Stearns challenged Ted Koppel’s assertion in one of those speeches that Twitter is a neutral tool. Stearns also followed up with a critique of what he called Koppel’s concern with “hindsight journalism.”
— A few interesting or helpful pieces to leave you with: the AP’s Jonathan Stray did some more thinking about the “solution journalism” concept — specifically, agreeing on the problems; media scholar Alfred Hermida talked to Craig Silverman about verification on Twitter; and Digital First’s Steve Buttry gave his guidelines for aggregation — link, attribute, and add value.