Keynote: John Battelle

February 12, 2009
By Lisa Barone in Internet Marketing Conferences

Yikes. It’s already Day 3 of SMX West. How in the world did that happen? We’re back at you today with liveblogging coverage. First up is the morning keynote with John Battelle. It’s all kinds of hot. Like Rae Hoffman.

[She pays me to say that. Or rather, she doesn’t pay me if I don’t say that. You know how it is.]

John takes the stage looking like some kind of rogue Hollywood actor. I’m half expecting for his paparazzi to rush the stage. Hmm, is that the livebloggers? Am I paparazzi? I’m so ashamed.

But enough about how I’m embarrassing my father with my career choice, let’s get to the session.

Danny says, one of the great things about your book is that it’s not called The Google.

John says there’s actually a larger story than Google and he believes that. There was a big fight but they [his publishers] eventually let him call his book The Search. They let him call it The Search but then they put it in Google fonts and Google colors. Hee.

You go through the book and it’s a history of search and there’s all these other characters. But at the some point, Google just rises above. What are the fundamental changes you’ve seen in the company?

Google is now the biggest media company in the world.

Search is the largest example of the intersection of technology and media. He told that to Eric Schmidt and Eric just gave him a blank stare. He didn’t think they were a media company. He thought they were a technology company.  After that conversation,  John knew he had to write a book about this before someone else figured it out. Google was a media company. He wanted to tell the story. At the moment he had left the Google offices, they had 1,000 employees. The change that has occurred since then is extraordinary. Now that have 20,000-22,000. They’ve gone through some huge changes. He watched them learn to walk and then learn to run. Now he’s watched from afar.

You talk about them being a media company. They struggle with what to do with the other media publishers out there. They’re fighting it out with book publishers and video creators. Do you agree with them? Is there a middle ground?

He uses the music industry as the best example.

The Internet is this span that you have to get across. The model for the Internet has a lot of presumptions that are entirely opposite to those “free Internet” thoughts.  The Internet gives you two things free:

  • Access to distribution
  • Access to the tools of production.

That’s totally different than the music industry.  The music industry lost its economic advantage when people could post songs to MySpace or make it available through search (Napster). The Internet didn’t care that it was doing this. The music industry went through their 7 stages of grief dealing with that. Now we have Amazon and Apple with DRM on their songs. We’ve made this turn. He thinks the rest of the media industry is following suit. People may pay for the Wall Street Journal but they’re not going to pay for their local paper. The model is broken.

A few weeks ago the big theory was that Google just needs to buy the New York Times. Thoughts?

John thinks there’s a reasonable argument to be made that Google has benefited tremendously from the content that’s been put out by the Web by traditional media companies. They’ve also benefited from the stuff that you and I have put on the Web. But we don’t expect to be paid by Google.  There’s an extraordinary ecosystem of profit-making enterprise in Google.

There is one part of what newspapers do that is worthy of support (one? ouch.) — keep our government honest and to keep our citizens information. He thinks Google could be doing more than it is to help those models to thrive.  He doesn’t think should buy the New York Times, but maybe should.

At the end of the day, there’s a certain part to journalism that is a simple profit model, but it has to be honored by our culture.   There will always be a market for certain types of journalism. Most of them are vertical (business, tech, parenting, etc). It’s very  hard to make a profit in straight news.

Since 2004, you’ve made a set of predictions every year. Your track record has been pretty good. You said Microsoft would gain 5-10 percentage points this year. How do you see that happening?

This was based off two things:

  • He gets the idea Ballmer is really serious about winning this game.
  • He thinks Microsoft is going to buy their points. He thinks the search game is becoming similar to the PC/hardware game.

He thinks Microsoft is a company that gets things right on the 3rd, 4th, 5th try. They’ve been trying for awhile in search. They have a lot of work to do but they’re very serious about it. Every time he talks to someone at Google, the one thing they’re really scared of is that scenario.

Do you think Microsoft will pass Google at some point?

Not this year. Heh.

When someone passes Google in search share, it’ll be when we all measure search with a different set of indicators than we do now. Search volume is splintering into a million apps. Someone’s going to win that. Maybe it’s Apple. Maybe it’s Nokia.

[Danny takes a break from the interview and starts twittering on stage. Hee.  He says we’re going to start talking about Twitter now.]

Where is Twitter going and how does it fit into the search space? How do you see it?

John wrote a post called From Static to Realtime Search.  Once you figure out Twitter, it’s insanely useful. But the process of figuring it out is hard. That said, those folks who do find a lot of value in Twitter have gotten to a critical mass. When you get to that point, you have a database of intentions, just like with search.  It all asks, “what’s happening right now?” When you have that database, you can query it in ways that are insanely useful.

People’s habits have changed. People search Twitter Search to see what people are saying about a topic. That’s very powerful. The search toolbar on Twitter is right on the home page. (Um, no it’s not. Am I missing something?)

Best reason to adopt Twitter is ComcastCares. You get an immediate response. There’s a massive opportunity there.

You thought SEO and paid search is gaining on traditional media. How do you see it doing that gain?

There’s a very important bridge to be made between SEO/SEM and what is traditional media.  Big brands have realized they need to at least own their name space, causing a huge rise in the ad space. That’s not enough, but it sparked the evolution.  Search is part of an ongoing conversation that a brand has with current and new customers. You have to link the two. That’s the next big step. People are going to see the connection between what they’re doing search and demand harvesting.

And that’s it from John. Awesome, awesome keynote!


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