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April 2007 Archives

April 1, 2007

Your News. Our Site. My Take.

Today is a huge day at Topix - the biggest since March of 2005 when we closed our deal with Knight Ridder, Tribune and Gannett. The new Topix (don't call us Topix.net any more - we're just Topix) is up and running. I won't go into the various feature detals or history of why this is a monumental development in the company's evolution - for that check out the Topix blog and Rich's blog - but I will give you my "take" on why this is so exciting.

When I started at Topix in the summer of 2003 there were five of us that put out a site covering news for 150,000 different topics. Since then we've grown to over 400,000 topics. With a site this massive, the challenge has always been how do you succintly nail down your user value proposition. How do you tell the user why they should visit our site, and more importantly why should they come back?

If there is any one part of the site that should depict that value proposition in some form or fashion, it is the tagline. As a result, much like the site itself, over the past four years we have struggled to come up with a real zinger.

All of that ends today. The new Topix - with its local news and community focus - is pretty much summed up by our new tag line: "Your Town. Your News. Your Take."

Here's where we came from:

"Pick your Topix, Get the News". This was our first crack at it - I actually came up with a wordier version "you pick the Topix, we deliver the news" - with the rest of the guys paring it down to a more palatable form. Kind of catchy, but what is it exactly does your site? We now affectionately refer to this one as "Pick your nose, Get the News."

"Topix.net: 150,000 News Channels, 4,500 sources, 1 site" Or something to that effect. This stinker was also my idea - i remember liking the numerical imagery, but again, what does your site do?

"The Internet's Largest News Site" I remember the logic behind this one was "you always want to be the -est of something." Sounded good at the time. But the largest news site? hmmmm.

"150,000 News Channels: From Autos to Your ZIP Code" This gem came out of one of those all day messaging meetings with the PR firm. You know the ones where everyone is so tired at the end where you end up agreeing on something just to get out of there? Obviously at this point, we're still trying to be all things to all people - and when you try to be good at everything, you end up being good at nothing.

"Local News For the World" Another one of mine. We're getting closer here: Topix is a local news site. But Local news for the world? Does the world have local news? I thought it was world news. Besides at this point most of our traffic was community traffic, not news traffic. Doesn't that merit mentioning? i.e. close, but no cigar.....

At this point enter stage right: the new PR firm, the branding firm,Rich's brain and product vision, an eng team second to none to implement it, the ad agency, an ops team that makes sure everything goes right, and what do you get:

Your Town. Your News. Your Take. Eureka. My Town - ohhhhh, where I live. My News - aha, you have news there. My Take. I see - its local, it's news and I get to mouth off? I get it now.....

And so goes the process. Trial and error. Sometimes you miss. Other times you don't.

This time Topix hit one out of the park. Congrats to the whole team.

April 4, 2007


Rafat points to an interesting research report detailing both the success of Facebook and the failure of Yahoo in not buying them when they had the chance. With that, what I found interesting was some of the more tangential points made in the report. To wit:

"eMarketer found that Facebook was the most viewed site by females in the US ages 17-25 and also the most viewed website by males (56%). In a survey conducted last year among undergraduates, Facebook was names the second most "in" thing among undergraduates, tied with beer and after only the Ipod."

I find this both impressive and disturbing at the same time. Obviously Facebook's market penetration is astounding. Very impressive. But tied with beer and second to the Ipod? That means beer is second behind the Ipod? Now that's disturbing. In my undergraduate days, beer took a backseat to no one and no thing. What is wrong with today's youth? I shudder for our country's future....;)

April 5, 2007

List of Firsts

First Concert: Van Halen (1982)

First Movie I remember - Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid - at the drive in with my family

First Job: Butler Landscaping, Pittsburgh, PA - cutting lawns

First Lawyer Job: Pompan, Ruffner and Weurful - government contracts firm in Alexandria, VA

First Post College Apartment: Columbus, OH

First Post College Phone Number: 4418734

First Bet in a Casino: $15 blackjack - I got blackjack, so did the dealer. Push.

First Beer: Mickey's big mouth

First Guitar: Gibson Epiphone

First Car: Oldsmobile Delta 88

First NFL Game Attended: Pittsburgh - Houston AFC Championship 1978 (steelers win) - worst weather ever (sleet)

First Deal Closed: N2K/Telebase (1995)

First Trip outside US - Canada, 1982

First Trip Abroad - Switzerland, 1989

First Ipod - Xmas 2005 - I still refer to accidently as my Walkman

More will come...it's amazing the stuff that you remember.

April 7, 2007

Brand Baggage

So why is it that the winning online bookstore is Amazon.com and not Barnesandnoble.com? The winning reference guide on the web is Google and not the Yellow Pages (or even Yahoo)? The, thus far, winning news site on the web does not belong to any of the folks that actually produce the full content?

To some degree, I think it is because the offline brands bring baggage with them online. Take Barnes and Noble - great offline brand. But I've walked into a Barnes & Noble store and walked out empty handed because they didn't have the book I wanted in stock. That's not the web experience I want.

The web is limitless, access to all information at my fingertips. So I go to Amazon instead. The only brand memory I have there is that no matter what the book I am looking for, they have it. They are the universe of books. Barnes and Noble might, in reality, be limitless as well, but that's not what their brand perception is to me. It means Barnes and Noble books, not all book.

To some degree I think that type of brand baggage keeps Yahoo as the Avis (#2, but trying harder) of the search industry. Their roots were as a directory. A directory is, by definition, limited. But search is supposed to index everything - and that's what Google stands for - the universe of the web. So I am pre-disposed that when I am searching Yahoo that my search result isn't as complete.

Same goes for news. Producing their own content turned out to be a double edged sword for the newspapers. Yes, they had their own content - which is great - but it also meant that they weren't interested in promoting anyone else's content. So I know when I go there I am not getting the universe of relevant content, but rather a limited set. Even if a newspaper did have the right aggregation technology and content mix, if they brought it online under an offline brand name my guess is that it wouldn't be the winner. The offline would have the baggage that the experience is limited - and consumers wouldn't want that.

Knowing the limitation of your brand is hard, but something to keep in mind as you migrate your business to new mediums.

April 9, 2007

Area Code Triage

Since there is only one of me (Bus. Dev) at Topix, and lots of folks in our industry, I get a lot of emails and phone calls wanting to discuss potential partnerships. For the most part, I am pretty good at getting back to everybody, but I do admit that a fair share of these calls/emails fall between the cracks unreturned.

I have my own personal triage mechanism for determining how quickly I get back to inbound requests. First, I call back people I know. There's no substitute for personal relationships in business - a fact that makes me lament my disdain for "networking." Second are the companies I have heard of/ want to work with. In my mind there are three primary ways a company can benefit from a business development deal: cash, PR/ branding and future opportunities. Even if the cash isn't there right away, doing a deal with a well known company is always good as, at the very least, you can draft some PR off of their name.

Third on the call back list are the companies where (a) I don't know the person emailing/ calling me and (b) I'm not familiar with the company. With this group, sometimes its just a matter of my schedule, other times it's after reading their email/ looking at their website, of whether it makes sense to get in touch with them.

But on occasion I admit that at times make that decision based on their area code. What do I mean by that? Take for example if I get a "cold call/email" from someone I don't know who wants to chat with me about their ad network. There are lots of ad networks out there, and I'm always interested in learning more about them. With that, I will look at whether the person has a US area code in NY, LA, SF or Chicago. If they don't, they fall down the triage ladder. My presumption is that, based on their location, their product won't be that interesting. Kind of crap, I know - especially from a Pittsburgh guy.

April 10, 2007

News Vs. Vid

Valleywag had an interesting post today on Sam Zell's recent comments on newspapers and Google. The point of the post being that perhaps it makes sense for the newspaper industry to take a lesson from their brethren on the video side and lock arms and stand up to Google, rather than be complacent in accepting Google as a distribution agent.

Whether or not Valleywag is right depends on whether or not you believe as Valleywag does that "[s]earch engines rely on newspaper articles for more than just their news sites." In other words, does newspaper content have a material effect on the search index at Google? Would its removal effect the user experience on Google? (Note: I am only talking about Google here - clearly Google news relies on newspaper content - but given Google makes zero money directly from news search, presumably if push came to shove they could throw that product away and it would have a negligible effect on their business.)

With video, Google/ YouTube recognized two things: (1) that there was no fair use exemption to rely on - unlike hyperlinked news articles, most of the time you are watching the entire video, not a snippet; and (2) if they removed the copyrighted material their product would be much less compelling. If they didn't believe these two things, they would have told the vid providers to toss off. But they didn't want to lose the content and they couldn't finds a clear legal position to continue using it unlicensed. So what do they do? They rely on the DMCA to provide some cover for a bit while they negotiate deals to keep the content that people want in the index.

So couldn't newspapers do the same thing? Unfortunately no. First, fair use is pretty much well accepted for newspaper content - so using just the snippets is perfectly justified. As for the impact the content has on the index, it's not material in the same way video is for YouTube.

The reality is that a lot of times, for a variety of reasons (poor SEO, archival deals that keep content behind pay walls, etc.), newspaper content isn't even findable in the Google index. A far too common scenario for a newspaper is that the paper actually pays someone to go to a movie or restaurant and review it. However, the review won't even show up when someone does a keyword search on the name. But the Yelp and RottenTomoatoes reviews show up. In other words, given that newspaper content is often times unfindable in the search index, removing will have little impact, if any, on the product.

As a result, newspapers find themselves on the same playing field as the other 10 billion web pages Google indexes regularly - relying on it for distribution and very little leverage to negotiate.

UPDATE: For once I beat Fred Wilson to to the punch! ;) Albeit from a slightly different tack, Fred and I come to the same conclusion

April 11, 2007

The Post Google World of News

So building off of my last entry - and a few before that - what would the world look like if the newspapers took Sam Zell's advice and pulled all their content from Google? Ignoring the effect that it would have on Google's business (irrelevant to newspapers), how would it affect the newspaper's business?

Would they still pursue their strategy of using local offline brands to deliver their content online?

Isn't the whole reason Google exists is because with so many sources and aggregator is needed? So would they have their "own" aggregator sit in the middle to replace where Google now sits?

Would that aggregator be effective if it only indexes newspaper content, not the entire web?

What would the traffic strategy for either the local brands online or the aggregator be? Given the ineffectiveness of converting off-line traffic to online users, would it be SEM?

Regardless whether the newspaper has their own aggregator or separate local brands, how would they monetize it? With Google ads?

The reality of newspaper sites is that most of their users browse pages, they don't search. There is a huge monetization disparity between browse and search page views , how would that be addressed?

In other words, given that pulling the content from Google would mean (1) a big hit in traffic, (2) no change in the prevalent monetization issues, (3) little help on the brand issues and (4) require new product thinking around aggregation, does it make sense to pull your content? To tell you the truth, maybe.

April 12, 2007

Our Weekend Visitor

This weekend Kelly and I are pretty excited that we get to play host to her brother Mike who's coming to visit us for a couple of days. It's his first time in San Francisco, so it should be fun to show him around.

Anyway, I'm thinking the agenda will be a bunch or touristy stuff (Alcatraz, a go-cart tour of the city, lunch and touring down at Fisherman's Wharf, etc.) and perhaps a stop at the Presidio Lanes for some bowling too. The one thing about Mike is that he is a huuuugggeee WWF fan, so it would have been great if they had a show in town that we could take him to - but unfortunately that is not the case. Guess we'll have to just settle for a bit of photoshop magic:


Welcome to SF Mike!

Calorie Counting with Dottie

While I tried to diet at the beginning of the year, to be honest, it didn't take. But, the past few weeks i have got on a diet kick that seems to be working pretty well. But, as anyone who has dieted knows, weekends are the hardest. You're running around, hanging with friends, and often times going out to eat. Calorie counting at home is difficult enough, and when you are going out to restaurants it's even harder.

With that, my brother recently introduced me to a great site that can help the problem some: Dotties Weight Loss Zone. Dottie it seems has taken the time to go out to lots of popular restaurants, reviewed their menus and done the calorie calculation for each of the items on it (many of the calculation are in weight watchers terms: one point = 50 calories).

Anyway for all you "fat bloggers" out there, this won't help bolster your will power in not ordering desert, but if you're going out to eat and the restaurant is on the list, at least you can [try to] make some smart choices while you are there. For instance, next time I go to Chili's, I now know that my favorite Cajun Chicken Sandwich has 820 calories and 43 grams of fat. Ugh.

April 15, 2007

One Word: Wow

The bar for beer pong excellence has been set. Behold greatness:

April 16, 2007

Web 2.0 Report

I'm spending the day at the Web 2.0 Expo here in San Francisco...some random thoughts:

1. I can't believe how big this conference got. Rich did a panel this morning - one of i think 6 panels going on simultaneously - and the room he was in (which was filled) was as big as many of the "main rooms" at most conferences.

2. Rich got some press for his comment that "maybe mass media was a temporary phenomenon resulting from the scarcity of information distribution." I think he might be right - or at the very least the definition of "mass" is to become much smaller.

3. Someone else on that panel made the analogy that today's bloggers are similar to many musicians out there - they do it because they have a passion for writing, not a desire to make a living from doing it. I think that's right as well. And that doesn't bode well for careers in journalism.

4. Chris mentioned at lunch how when we ponied up to be a conference sponsor for the first one of these conferences (three years ago), it was kind of a bet. It was right at the end of the dot.com nuclear winter and no one knew whether the conference would succeed. Obviously, it is now huge and that was a good bet.

5. Topix has come a long way in the past few years. We used to have the worst booth at these conferences - a shabby sign with a typo in it, and that's all. Now we have the full blown booth with street teams outside promoting the site. Pretty cool.

6. Web 2.0? Three years is a long time between release cycles. ;)

7. The Arrington hosted panel on the VC world was one of the more lively panels I've attended. Other moderators should take note and not be afraid to push the envelope a bit in these discussions.

8. Looking forward to seeing everyone at the St. Regis tonight for the Topix launch party!

April 17, 2007

Parties: A Core Competency

Ever since I started at Topix, regardless of what was going on with the company, we always managed to throw a good party. The first one was the Xmas party we threw back in our trophy shop days. I tried to take the lead on that one, but was promptly dismissed from the task when I suggested that all we needed was a honey baked ham and a keg of beer. Joy and Heidi ended up doing most of the legwork on that one.

ANYWAY, last night's Web 2.0/ launch party was no exception. There are a few essential ingredients for a great party, and I think we had them all:

1. A great venue: check. The outdoor patio at the St. Regis Hotel was perfect. Great hotel, lots of room, outside (but covered so not to be too cold), well located, etc.

2. Great food: check. The big bowl of giant (and I do mean giant) shrimp, along with the kobe burgers, the antipasta tray, and the other hors d'oeuvres - very nice.

3. An open bar: check. 'Nuff said there.

4. Great guests: check plus! This is obviously the most important part - we had all sorts of interesting people there - everyone from the Topix team, partners, VC's, fellow Web 2.0 companies, the press, friends, family....really a great crowd.

All in all a great event. Special kudos to Robert for the design work on the headline screen, and Amy and Chris for a tireless effort to put together not only a great event but a great conference for Topix. Thanks guys and thanks to everyone who showed up last night to help us celebrate.

April 18, 2007

Designing for Purpose

Whenever I look at a new website, I ask myself two questions:

1. what is it that the site wants me to do there?

2. Does the site's design reflect that?

For instance, when I go to Google, there's no doubt they want me to search - and they make that abundantly clear from their design (i.e. just a search box, with not many more options). Take their competitor Yahoo though - what is it they want me to do when I go to the home page? Read news? Check email? Search? Local? I'm not really sure. To be honest, I'm not sure they know either.

Other examples: my old friend Perez Hilton makes it pretty clear that I am supposed to check out the pictures on his site - in fact, he even doodles on top of them to draw my eye to them further, having a sort of highlight effect. A well designed news page clearly tells me that I'm supposed to click on an headline, while a poorly designed one tells me I am to.......do what?

So how do you tell if your design is telling the user what you want them to do? I deploy the Markson squint test - I look at the page and squint my eyes so that everything on it is blurry, and then I look to see the shapes/ sizes/ colors that stand out from the rest. If those prominent pixels match up to what you want a user to do, you're in business. If not, you've got some work to do.

April 19, 2007

Surf's Up

Heading off to Honolulu for a few days starting tomorrow....


mmmmm....mai tai's.....

April 23, 2007

Local Knowledge

My brother has always been a great accumulator of information - some useful, some, shall we say, "trivial." This always makes him interesting to talk to. Well, true to form, in his 5 months living in Honolulu he has not let me down: he seems to know the area like a longtime local. Here are five fun facts I've learned from Tom in only a few short days:

1. Honolulu has some of the lowest violent crime rates in the US and some of the highest petty crime rates.

2. Pronouncing some of those seemingly un-pronounceable Hawaiian names is much easier than it appears - just literally pronounce every vowel. (ex. Nuuanu - is Noo-oo-a-noo)

3. Pineapple Upside Down Cake came to favor after it won the Pillsbury Bake Off contest years ago.

4. The "swimming hole" outside the Doris Duke house in Diamond Head could never come to be today - she dynamited the coral to create it. A definite no no these days.

5. The H1 is, despite it residing solely on Oahu, a part of our interstate highway system.

Substantive local knowledge or trivia? I'll let you decide. My bit of local knowledge that I learned here: check out Buzz's steakhouse and stay away from Zippy's.

April 27, 2007

On the Road Again

Last Thursday (i.e. a week ago yesterday), Kelly and I, along with a group of friends, went to check out Willie Nelson at the Fillmore. This was the second time I have seen Willie, but for most of the group it was their first show. Needless to say, Willie didn't disappoint. He played for two hours plus and all of the tunes you would expect/ hope he would play, he did (btw, Willie has published over 2500 songes in his career - think about that, you play for 40 years, that is still over 60 songs a year - now that's prolific).

At the show Willie, of course, gave the crowd a great rendition of On the Road Again, a song that I usually like. I say "usually" because, after this past week, I'm not sure Willie and I see eye to eye anymore. Since the day after the show, I've been traveling. First to Hawaii for a few days of r and r, then to LA for the EconSM conference and then to Phoenix for a meeting. I'm typing this post form the Phoenix airport, waiting for my flight home.

Anyway, according to Willie:

On the road again

Goin' places that I've never been

Seein' things that I may never see again,

And I can't wait to get on the road again.

So yes, while I did go to places that I never been (honolulu and phoenix) and saw things that I may never see again, nonetheless, sorry Willie, I actually can't wait to get home again. For some reason, I'm guessing Willie has a lot more fun on the road than I do.

April 30, 2007

The Evolving Definition of Blog

Valleywag recently reported that the number of blogs being tracked by Technorati has stalled at 15 million and wonders if this is the end of a brief era. Hardly. Like others, I believe that this is really just a definitional shift of the term "blogging" - as the activity becomes more prevalent, the name evolves. What used to be just the realm of those savy enough to figure out WordPress and/ or Moveable type, now belongs to anyone with a MySpace page or even something to say in a Topix forum (where we are now getting 45,000 posts/ blogs every day).

But these aren't blogs you say - they're message boards. Don't tell that to our users. They seem to think they are blogs. In fact, everyday they write us and tell us so. They ask us to start a new "Topix blog" on a particular subject, have a "Topix blog" moderated more closely, delete a "Topix blog", etc. To them, the Topix forums walk like a blog and quack like a blog - therefore they're blogs.

This is actually an interesting example of the power of really effective naming. In my mind, the term "blog" itself was essential to the incredibly high rate of adoption of the medium. According to Wikipedia,

The modern blog evolved from the online diary, where people would keep a running account of their personal lives. Most such writers called themselves diarists, journalists, or journalers. A few called themselves "escribitionists."

Would millions of people seek to express themselves by online diaries and journals? Prior to blogging, we already had diarists and journalists - people knew what those things were and probably weren't interested in emulating them in their free time. As for "escribitionists", well, that's not too catchy, is it?

It was a new medium and needed a new name. The existing terms had brand baggage. For whatever reason, Jorn Barger creates the term weblog (I've heard as a reference to the Star Trek Captain's Log) , Peter Merholz doesn't shorten it to "blog", and it sticks. Intentional or not, its a great name for a new medium that has no pre-conceived notions about. Just what every marketer hopes for. And as the medium grows, so does the name and its meaning.

As a result, we now have millions of people all over the world participating in an activity called "blogging" and they know exactly what that means: it's the way to speak your mind when on the net.

About April 2007

This page contains all entries posted to Marksonland in April 2007. They are listed from oldest to newest.

March 2007 is the previous archive.

May 2007 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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