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Yahoo!

Yahoo! masthead from 1998.

Yahoo! masthead from 1998.

Yahoo! (1994- ), so spelled, is the number two search engine on the Web. In the early days it was the best there was, but now most people use Google. Yahoo! must kick itself daily: in 1998 and again in 2002 it could have taken over Google but thought the price was too high.

By some measures Yahoo! is larger than Google. Its website, for instance, gets more visitors than even Google. Yet it is Google that is making the real money on the Internet, not Yahoo!

Like Google, Yahoo! started out as a student web page at Stanford University. It was Jerry Yang’s web page on akebono.stanford.edu, called “Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web”, later renamed “Yahoo!”

The name comes from “Gulliver’s Travels”. They added the “!” because plain “Yahoo” was already taken as a trade name.

Yahoo! not only had a search engine, but also the best listing of some of the best sites then on the Web. You could look up sites by field of interest. Of course, it did not have everything, but it was a good place to start.

But in time the Web grew too large for such a listing, no matter how many people Yahoo! had working on it. The geniuses at Google found out how to get a computer to come up with listings almost as good in a split second. Yahoo! has been eating Google’s dust ever since.

Where Google has largely grown from within by applied genius, Yahoo! has grown by gathering bits of the Internet into one company:

  • 1997: RocketMail (web email)
  • 1998: ViaWeb (online stores)
  • 1999: GeoCities (user web pages), Broadcast.com (radio and music)
  • 2002: HotJobs (want ads), Inktomi (search)
  • 2003: Overture (the old GoTo.com – search-based advertising)
  • 2005: del.icio.us, Flickr (online pictures)
  • 2007: MyBlogLog

Those are just a few. The crown jewels are Inktomi, which has a search engine almost as good as Google’s, and Overture, which was making money on search-based advertising long before Google even knew how.

But putting all these pieces together into one, everything-for-everyone website that works well and makes money has been difficult.

Yahoo! has been led by Terry Semel since the dark days of the dot-com bust of 2001. He is a Hollywood deal-maker from Warner Brothers. He knew how to gather the pieces but not how to put them together. (He resigned a month after I wrote this.)

Google avoided doing it this way. For the most part they have built everything for themselves. They even tried to build their own YouTube. Instead of gathering Internet companies, Google has been building a brain trust, perhaps the best the world has seen since the Second World War. So far it has served them well.

Now there is talk of Yahoo! taking on Google by joining forces with Microsoft (third place) or eBay.

To its credit, Yahoo! has not gone the way of curiosities like Lycos, WebCrawler and AltaVista. Remember them? They still exist, you know.

– Abagond, 2007.

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The press

“The press” means news reporters as a whole. The name comes from the printing press that newspapers still use. These days the news is also reported through television, radio and the Internet, so in the 1900s some started to call it “the media” instead. It means the same thing.

In many countries the government controls the press. In some countries only the government is allowed to print newspapers. In others it can stop a newspaper from printing a story or even shut down an entire newspaper.

In a working democracy the press is free to print anything it knows to be true. Even if it ruins someone’s name or brings down a government.

  • This makes it harder for government to lie or keep secrets for long: there is always someone in the government who talks too much or who does not like what is going on.
  • This makes it hard for democracies to fight a long war, especially guerrilla wars.
  • This means voters and businesses know more of what is going on and can presumably make better decisions.

But even in a working democracy the press is not completely free.

A news operation must still make money to pay its reporters. Most make money by selling advertising. The more readers or viewers it gets, the more it can charge for advertising and the more money it makes.

This is why American news:

  • Has little depth. Saving a girl who has fallen down a well is far more interesting to more people than, say, mounting government debt or poverty.
  • Is soft on its readers and viewers. In America the news is largely of, for and by the white people who live in apple-pie America. It reports a world where black women are never missing and America is noble. A world where blacks have cultural pathologies but whites do not.
  • Is soft on government, big business and the police. Because they regularly provide the press with news and can shut reporters out. That is why the press rarely attacks a sitting president.
  • Is soft on advertisers. Mainly big business and the business owners in town.
  • Is soft on Israel. Because many advertisers are businesses run by Jews.

Business and government both know what the press wants and feed it ready-made news to get its own point of view across. Companies put out press releases. The president provides ready-made events that he knows the press will cover. They know reporters are under a deadline and most will take the easy way out. Even a top newspaper like the Wall Street Journal will print parts of press releases word for word as fact without any quotes.

President Reagan and his men took this a step further: they thought about what story they wanted to appear on the television news that night and then worked backwards, feeding the press with the sound bites and images it would need to create that story. It worked.

– Abagond, 2007.

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article

articleAn article (500- ) is a form of prose writing found in newspapers, magazines and encyclopedias. Each of these are made up of articles. Each article is about just one subject and can be read independently of the others.

Origin: The science books by Aristotle and Pliny are almost written in articles. But the form did not make sense till the 300s when the codex (a book of leaves) took the place of scrolls. The first real articles began to appear in the 500s. See, for example, the Institutions of Cassiodorus.

Length: An article is hundreds to thousands of words long. For example, most articles in The Economist are between 450 and 1500 words long, though some run as long as 4000 words.

Magazine and encyclopedia articles are meant to be read from start to finish. Newspaper articles are not.

An article is meant to be read in one sitting, so it is not divided into chapters, though it might be broken into parts with headings.

Title: An article has a title. The title is there to get your attention and draw you into the article. In a magazine or the back pages of a newspaper, titles are written with some wit, sometimes making reference to film and song titles.

In newspapers the title is called a headline. It can also be a play on word, but most often it is much more matter of fact, telling you in the shortest possible way the news that the article reports.

Newspaper articles are written in an inverse pyramid style. The most important facts are given first, less important ones later. You stop reading when you lose interest.

The inverse pyramid style is the opposite of how you would tell a story: it gives away the ending in the title and the very first lines.

For example:

  • “World floods, Noah saves animals”
  • “Prince finds Cinderella, marries tomorrow.”

Then the details are filled in, the more important or newsworthy ones first.

Web articles: An article is a natural form for the Web. But what works in print does not always work on the Web. And the Web can do things print cannot.

Some pointers on writing articles for the Web:

  • Make the title searchable. Put the subject in plain view.
  • Do not divide it into pages. This is a holdover from print. On the Web it makes your article much harder to read, print, copy or search.
  • Use an inverse pyramid style. Most come to your page looking for something. Make it easy.
  • Make the paragraphs short – about four sentences long. Each should stand on its own as much as possible because most will read it that way.
  • Make the article short, about 500 to 1000 words long. It is better to write ten short articles of 500 words each than one long article of 5000 words It will make your articles more useful and more people will read it.

The Web allows you to link articles together in ways you never could in print.

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Google

From the Google home page, December 2nd 1998.

From the Google home page, December 2nd 1998.

Google (1998- ) is both an Internet search engine and the American company that created and maintains it. It is now the top search engine in the world.

Like any search engine, Google is a page on the Web that you can go to to find all the web pages that mention the given word or words that you write in.

But the Web has countless pages, even for uncommon words. It seemed that the Web was going to die under its own weight, that it would become too large to find anything useful in it, even with search engines.

A good search engine will list pages from most important to least important. But how do you tell which pages are more important for a given word?

Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Stanford came up with a beautiful idea:

What matters is not whether a page has the word you are looking for, but how many times it is linked to by those that do!

For example, if you put in “New York Times” into Google, it will list the New York Times website first. Not because anyone told Google where the newspaper has its website, but because of all the pages that mentioned “New York Times”, it was linked to the most.

This process is called PageRank.

Brin and Page wrote a computer program that did this and ran it on some computers at Stanford. It worked!

They knew they had the best search engine in the world. But to start a company, they needed some serious money and a way to make money from searches.

First they went to Yahoo!, the top search engine at the time. It had also started at Stanford. Yahoo! said no, search engines were already as good as they were going to get. The real money was what you could add to a search engine. “Portals” was where it was at, they said.

Then they went to Andy Bechtolsheim, a founder of Sun Microsystems, a computer maker. They told him about Google on his front steps. He got it. He understood how great Google was. He got them the money they needed and the rest is history.

Google’s searches are free, so how do they make money? By selling search words. When someone searches on that word, your link appears on that page.

Nothing new in that. But Google did two things that most search engines did not:

  1. They kept your link separate from the search result itself. A Google search should be utterly trustworthy.
  2. You only paid when someone followed your link. This is called pay per click.

Prodigy, an early online service, had the second idea as far back as 1988, but Google was the first to get it to work.

Google has since got into other things, like searching for pictures, news and directions, putting up pictures of the entire Earth on the Web as well as all the old books in libraries.

The Google logo through the years:

1998

1998

2000

2000

2005

2005

2010

2010

2015

2015

– Abagond, 2007.

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Reading the Mechanical Bride

I am now reading McLuhan’s “The Mechanical Bride”. Anyone who knows the book and knows this blog knows that it is just the book for me.

“The Mechanical Bride” is from 1951, McLuhan’s first book to see print. He takes 59 “exhibits” – mainly printed ads, but also posters for films, comic strips and front pages, all from 1945 to 1951 – and for each he writes a few pages about what it says about the state of man. The “disease is in excellent health”, he reports.

He wants to wake us up from the dream the advertisers have sunk us into.

“The Mechanical Bride” is halfway back to “Howards End”, but it lays bare the same grey cheapness that business and enterprise has thrust upon man in place of life, truth and beauty. Whatever can be put in a box and sold pushes out all else. It becomes what we live for. Heaven can wait.

How little things have changed.

I see the past as deeper, wiser and better than the present. As it turns out, 1910 and 1951, at least, seem little better than 2006. Sad to say.

Well, there is always 410. The year the Goths came to Rome.

He writes when television and computers were new, new enough to be known but too new to have made any changes in society. So the book gives you a sense of how computers and especially television have affected us in the years since.

McLuhan prints the ads and then he lets them have it! His wit cuts.

His prose is an interesting mix of overly long Latin and Greek words and short right-to-the-point Anglo-Saxon:

As much time goes into the search for a title for some indigestible cold lard as in launching a starlet with the kind of name that will twang your synapses.

He knows more words than most and knows just how to use them. His Latin words are not a long march of deadwood, as in most writing, but are used to effect.

On the other hand, his writing seems to have much of the same whistles, bells and breathlessness as the ad copy that he writes about. His language is halfway between that of a scholar and a salesman. If he used fewer long words, he could write for the very same TIME magazine that he rails against.

He is trying to look at his world with a cold eye, but his mind and mouth are still part of that world.

I have thought and written about many of the same sorts of things, so, yes, I can tell you that he is part fast-talking salesman. But he is also a serious and sharp mind that has something of substance to say. His point of view, however, is often moral and not strictly that of a scholar or a man of science.

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sound bite

A sound bite is a piece of what someone said, about ten seconds worth, that is presented on television or radio news. It has 20 words or less out of the hundreds or thousands that were spoken. A sound bite, however, is supposed to catch the heart of it.

Those in high office – presidents, ministers, senators and others – know this, of course. So they pitch what they say in public to give news reporters the sound bite they need, like throwing a dog a bone.

A good sound bite can stand on its own apart from the speech or comment that it came from. It should sum up one’s message in a striking way that bears repeating – not just one night on the evening news, but in the days that follow among the public.

President Reagan was a master of the art. His most famous sound bite was “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall”, speaking of the Berlin Wall and all that it stood for.

John Kerry, who ran for president in 2004, was said to have lost in part because he could not put his message into sound bites.

Kerry and his supporters will say that the great policy questions are not that simple. And so they are not. But to lead a democracy you must be able to get your message across.

Even before television and sound bites, great speakers like Churchill and William Jennings Bryant understood they needed a line or two in the speech that would be repeated and carry its message long after the speech was delivered.

Advertisements are much longer than sound bites, but even they try to pack their message into one line that will stick in people’s minds.

So the sound bite is not some evil practice cooked up by television news: it is necessary for anyone who wants to get his message across to millions of people.

Jeffrey Scheuer in his book “The Sound Bite Society” argues that sound bites favour the right over the left: the right’s message is simple enough for sound bites, the left’s message is not. Thus Kerry’s trouble with sound bites.

Scheuer has half a point: the great danger of sound bites is in making policy debate in a democracy too simple-minded. But the American left’s trouble with sound bites is not so much that they refuse to make their message simple-minded, as that they have no clear message to begin with. Once they have have a clear message and a leader to deliver it, the sound bites will take care of themselves.

A sound bite, properly used, is not an end but a beginning. As in advertising, it is the heart of your message, but one on which you build and give meaning to with each new ad or, for would-be presidents, with each new speech or debate. It is not the death of thought but a door into it.

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advertisement

An advertisement, or ad for short, is a paid message that is meant to persuade you. Most are short and come from companies trying to sell you something. They appear mostly in magazines and newspapers and on television, radio and the Internet.

Ads are mostly used to affect the spending and voting of millions of people.

Ads work less by the use of facts and reason or even base appeals, and more by being repeated over and over again. The idea is that if you hear something enough times you will start to believe it. This works, as it turns out.

Ads tend to be short and make very good use of the medium that they appear in. There are no wasted words, images or seconds. If you want to learn how to express yourself better in a medium, study the ads.

Ads are very important for things like cars and toothpaste where there is not much difference between what companies sell. And so these companies must get you to think that the name on the box – their brand name – makes all the difference.

I have talked on and on about all kinds of media, but said little about where all the money comes from to pay for them. In America most of it comes from advertising. Books and movies have little of it, but newspapers, magazines, radio, television and the Internet are largely bought and paid for by advertisers. It is the ads that you see that have paid for everything else.

So does advertising affect what you see in a medium?

Yes, it does.

If you doubt it, then just think of how public television (paid for by the government) is different from private television (paid for by advertisers). This will give you some idea of how advertising affects the medium that it appears in.

Where public television tends to be worthy but dull, private television tends to be lively but lacking in substance. It is like the difference between bread and cake. It is no accident.

If you run a medium supported by advertising – like a magazine or a television station – the bigger your audience the more you can sell ad space for and the more money you make. That means you cannot afford to anger either your audience or the advertisers. So you play it safe.

And so you show what you think people want to hear or see (sex and violence) or what will catch their attention – like bad news from the war in Iraq or a fire across town. You avoid what will drive away your audience or advertisers – like the burnt children of Iraq or the poor across town.

And so in America the love lives of certain Hollywood film stars are better known than what goes on in vast stretches of Asia like, say, India or China.

That is the world brought to you by advertising.

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