FORTUNE on Google/Gov’t “Love Story”

I’m glad I’m not the only one that has some questions about the growing relationship between Google and the government. This week’s FORTUNE magazine’s cover story is titled “Obama & Google (a love story)“.

Again, I’m not saying it’s necessarily a bad thing to have one of the world’s smartest technology companies helping the government (federal, state, and local) get up to speed on all things digital, but it certainly does raise some questions. If nothing else, the developing relationship requires a little extra oversight.

You know, just in case the machines become sentient and start to turn on us ;)

What’s Wrong with a Googlified Government?

Google Public Sector

Google Public Sector

I am all for smaller, leaner, more efficient government. But don’t classify me as a right-winger just yet. I just don’t like wasteful spending and excess “bloat”, especially when tax dollars are stretched tighter than ever before.

So you could assume that I would be in favor of Google’s recent announcement of “Google for the Public Sector“, a “one-stop shop of tools and tips that local, state and federal government officials can use to help promote transparency and increase citizen participation.”

According to CNN, this “government app store” could save a portion of the $75 billion (with a “B”) that the government spends on data storage each year and help “bring government up to speed in terms of computing.”

But there are some serious questions that I haven’t been able to find answers for yet. Hopefully somebody can steer me in the right direction on some of these and I will post updates as I find them.

Questions About the Google/Fed Partnership

  1. Why Google? Just Google? Were other service providers considered? If so, what were the selection criteria? When/how will the partnership(s) be reviewed?
  2. Who will “own” the data in the “Dedicated Google cloud for government“? Will this include any of the government’s personal information about private citizens? Is there a precedent for this type of public/private partnership?
  3. What happens if/when the government is forced to investigate Google in future antitrust or monopoly cases? Will these partnerships and integrations be considered conflicts of interest?
  4. Were these decisions and partnerships influenced by any of the ex-Googlers joining or advising the Obama administration in tech-related roles?
    1. Sonal Shah, former head of global development at Google.org, the search-engine company’s philanthropic arm, is head of the new White House Office of Social Innovation. (philanthropy.com)
    2. Andrew McLaughlin, Google’s former head of global public policy, left the company to join the Obama administration as Deputy Chief Technology Officer. (NYT.com)
    3. Eric Schmidt, Google’s chief executive, has been a close adviser to President Obama’s transition team and is now a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.
    4. Katie Stanton, a former Google project manager, joined the White House as its director of citizen participation.
  5. Does it make sense to have so much government data consolidated under one company, especially one that already has a lot of information about each of its users?

What’s the Point?

Get out your tinfoil hats...

I'm not paranoid, I'm not paranoid...

Sure, you can argue that government data is stored on Sun servers and Cisco routers too, but those companies aren’t in the advertising business. But don’t get out your tinfoil hats just yet.

And yes, I still like Google’s commitment to its customers (advertisers and searchers) and appreciate their contributions to the internet and technology. Heck, I even make a living advising companies how to rank better on Google.

But I still can’t put a finger on the cause of the queasy feeling I get when reading about the partnership between Google and the government without seeing all of the facts out in the open. Maybe I’m just being paranoid. but then again, maybe not…

4 Website Spring Cleaning Tips

Spring Cleaning

It’s that time of year again. Daffodils are sprouting, trees are budding, and crickets are chirping. Tax day is over. You did remember to pay your taxes, right?

Most people take advantage of the nicer weather to do some spring cleaning around the house. Your website is no different. Chances are after a hectic holiday season and the excitement of a new year, your site has developed a few cobwebs of its own. It’s time to air it out and get it ready for prime selling season.

Here are five simple ways to clean up your website to get it ready for spring.

Prune Dead Links

Prune Dead LinksScan your website for “dead links”. These are links to pages that no longer exist on your site and generally result in a visitor seeing an error page (a “404” in web-speak). This can cause momentary confusion and a poor user experience.

You can find dead links on your site by looking at the “URL Not Found” report in Google Webmaster Tools. If you haven’t signed up for this service yet, you should do so immediately. Additionally, you (or your webmaster) can check your server logs to see which pages and files on your site are returning 404’s. Eric Lander has a great tutorial on log file analysis. Start there.

Sweep Away Outdated Content

Review all of the content on your website and ask yourself this question on every page:

Does this page help my visitors accomplish their task?

Many websites have old or outdated content that no longer serves the intended purpose. Perhaps it was part of a seasonal promotion or a landing page for a marketing event. Maybe some content been replaced or made obsolete by new pages.

Whatever the reason, take this chance to redirect those old pages to more relevant or timely pages on your site. Use a 301 “permanent” redirect so that search engines transfer the link equity of Page A to Page B. Or, simply freshen up the older content by re-writing or updating the references.

Analytics Check-Up

Abacus

Is your site analytics package configured to track and report on conversions? Check to make sure that your tracking code is properly installed on all of your pages and that your goals are configured correctly to provide the right information in the right format. If you are using Google Analytics, start with the Help Section. If you have a paid analytics provider, look through their documentation for conversion tracking and reporting. Lastly, if you are still relying on basic log file analyzers, consider upgrading to a reporting suite that can at least track conversions.

How about your conversion rates themselves? Is there room for improvement over last year? Are you getting the info you need to make informed decisions? Think through how you want to measure your success this year and in this economy. Do you have all the right pieces in place to get the information you need?

Evaluate Processes and Personnel

Do you have the right people on your SEO team? Is SEO represented during the appropriate touch points in your strategic, creative, development, and launch processes? Check to make sure that your website team is including your optimization plan during their work cycles.

It’s too easy to prioritize SEO out of the tactical implementation of website updates, so use this spring cleaning as an opportunity to re-incorporate the SEO strategy into your daily operations. If you are planning a site redesign or transition to a new domain, a little pre-planning will insure that your transition goes smoothly.

Split Screen Gmail?

Is anybody else seeing this extremely annoying gmail split screen? It only affects my Google Apps version of gmail, not my personal gmail account. I’ve tried everything: rebooting, clearing the cache and cookies, restarting Firefox. Nothing works, and it hasn’t gone away in 3 days.

Suggestions welcome.

Note: the screenshot has been removed.

Google Presentation at Ann Arbor Ad Club Tonight

Just a heads up for the Ann Arbor crowd, the local Google office is putting on a show entitled “Using Google Applications in Various Marketing Strategies” tonight at the Kensington Court Hotel from 5:00 to 7:00.

Unfortunately I can’t make it tonight but I’m sure that’s okay with Google, considering the TechCrunch coverage my last post about the Google Apps presentation received.

Google Docs Offline Access For Apps Users

Wondering when Google is FINALLY going to bless your Google Apps account with offline access to your Google Docs, Spreadsheets and Presentations? Like most Google Apps for Your Domain users, I have been waiting (not so patiently) for the ability to download my documents to Google Gears to work offline in airplanes, subterranean offices, or other internet-challenged locations.

Unfortunately for Google Apps users, the rollout of offline access will occur after the rollout to regular non-Apps users:

We’ve sometimes delayed the launch of features like group chat and colored labels to Google Apps domains because we want to ensure that all the features we bring to the Google Apps suite are useful and stable before providing them to our business, education and organizational users.

However, as an administrator it is possible to opt-in to new services and features within Google Apps by configuring your domain settings like this:

  1. Log in to the control panel at https://www.google.com/a/your_domain.com. Be sure to replace ‘your_domain.com’ with your actual domain name.
  2. Click Domain settings.
  3. Under the General tab, and in the New services and features section, check the box next to Turn on new features.
  4. Click Save changes.

It may take up to 24 hours for the features to be added to your domain, but it beats waiting for the rest of the Apps world to catch up.

A few of the offline features and benefits are explained in this video from the Google Apps team:

VCU Adcenter SEM Presentation

It’s been a busy couple of weeks, and a little too quiet on the blog front. Sorry about that. I was in Richmond last week for an extremely productive training session and on-site meeting with a client. I always enjoy heading back down south to get away from winter in Ann Arbor and visit friends and family, especially because the temperature topped 70 degrees for half the week.

While I was there I had the opportunity to give a presentation on Search Engine Marketing to the VCU Adcenter Brand Management class taught by Kelly Carson from DuPont. I teamed up with my former boss from CarMax and we set out to see if we could teach the students at the nation’s premier post-graduate advertising program a thing or two about SEM. It was like a reunion of sorts since all of us are veterans of The Martin Agency in Richmond, which both supports and benefits from the top-shelf school.

The challenge with this type of presentation is to balance higher-level marketing concepts with tactical information about Pay Per Clicks and Search Engine Optimization so that future Brand Managers will understand SEM’s capabilities when they are out in the real world of marketing and advertising. They probably won’t be the ones managing PPC campaigns or implementing SEO but they need to know how to work with the people that are.

Our presentation was a mix of internet marketing 101, SEM 101 and our experiences and results from years working on carmax.com SEO and PPC. I removed about 10 slides with carmax.com references and examples but the meat of the presentation is embedded here, thanks to Google Presentations. If anything seems incomplete or out of context, it’s probably because we voiced over most of the best stuff.

We were scheduled to speak for 90 minutes but ended up on stage for over 2 hours answering questions and drawing examples, charts and graphs on the whiteboard. The students seemed very engaged and asked extremely intelligent and targeted questions, all of which made us feel like they were picking up what we were laying down. I think this type of presentation is extremely valuable for marketers at every level. SEM is already a “must have” in any marketing plan and is on the verge of becoming a commodity service just like online media planning and buying is now. Don’t be surprised to see that theme explored in a future post.

You might be wondering what an advertising school looks like. Well, it looks a lot like an advertising agency. I didn’t have too much time to tour the entire building, but what I did see really impressed me. VCU just completed a new building for the Adcenter and it is very cool. Here are some highlights:

A giant poured concrete table in the cafeteria
VCU Adcenter Cafeteria
A large open space with configurable ceilings, walls and furniture serves many purposes
VCU Adcenter Class
A cool staircase is a space that used to be outdoors but is now a covered walkway
VCU Adcenter Stairs
And of course, any ad agency needs table sports! This one is courtesy of Yahoo!Table Tennis Match at VCU Adcenter

Google Apps Presentation in Ann Arbor

[UPDATE] Blogger Philipp Lenssen published a book called Google Apps Hacks that goes in to much more detail about Google Apps and how to create presentations.[/UPDATE]

I had the privilege to attend a Google Apps presentation in Ann Arbor last night. The event was hosted by Google in coordination with The Ann Arbor Chamber of Commerce at the Boardwalk Creative Center. The presentation was basically an intro to the suite of productivity services as well as a pitch to larger organizations to take advantage of the Premier Edition. Having used Apps for about 6 months now, I was unsure of how much new information I was going to learn from the presentation. Afterwards I was glad I went. Okay, the free food and networking also helped me make the most of my time. Sorry for the poor image quality. The dim lighting is not ideal for my Treo’s camera.

The main presenter was Scott Johnston, the former VP of Product Development at JotSpot and new Googler (Noogler). As any fan of Google (Foogler?) already knows, JotSpot was recently acquired by Google and is currently being integrated into the Google Apps family of products. He walked the group through the rationale for the acquisition, which fits in nicely with Google’s mission to “Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. It makes perfect sense, given Google’s focus on the user, their status as the world’s largest supercomputer, and their rapid innovation and product development cycles. All of these combine to bridge the “Information Black Hole” as he described it, which causes information retrieval to be an expensive, complex and unreliable problem.

I won’t get in to too much detail on the existing Google Apps suite since information abounds and it is free for anybody to try on their own. The following list of interesting information came from Scott’s teasers of the services to be offered when JotSpot is fully integrated, as well as the audience Q&A session.

  • Google Sites: Scheduled to be launched sometime next year (2008), Google Sites will expand upon the Google Page Creator already offered within Apps. Based on JotSpot collaboration tools, Sites will allow business to set up intranets, project management tracking, customer extranets, and any number of custom sites based on multi-user collaboration. [UPDATE] I don’t recall wikis being mentioned specifically but I assume they are part of the plan.
  • Will users be able to edit docs, spreadsheets and presentation offline? Scott’s answer was yes, and that the Google Gears plugin would handle the offline work. In addition, Google Gears support is in the works for Gmail and Google Calendar.
  • What happens when somebody edits a document offline at the same time another user is editing the online version? The same algorithm that reconciles simultaneous editing will apply here when the offline version is merged back into the online version. Changes will be versioned the same way, so basically in chronological order.
  • Will Google docs have OCR capabilities for importing .pdfs or other graphical files? Not yet, but perhaps someday. Scott couldn’t comment on the “roadmap” for future enhancements. However, the collaborative Google Sites (based on JotSpot) will allow for upload and storage of any file type.
  • Will GrandCentral be integrated into Google Apps? If so, when? Again, Scott didn’t comment on the timing but said they are working on it and it is a “huge priority” for them.
  • Will Google Spreadsheets ever have advanced features like pivot tables, macros or offline database integrations? (This was actually my question) Scott said they are constantly trying to find the balance between speed and utility. It will never be a heavy duty analytics program because that would be too heavy and bulky for the average user.
  • Will Google Apps support video conferencing in addition to Google Talk and Chat? Scott’s answer, “Not yet”. I got the impression from his body language that it’ll come someday, but nothing more was said.

Following Scott’s presentation and Q&A, there were breakout sessions to learn how to integrate and migrate to Google Apps, how to use Docs, Spreadsheets and Presentations to collaborate in realtime, and how to administer the program for users. I only attended the session on using the software, and was surprised to learn many tricks I didn’t even know about. Most of them replicated what you can already do in Excel, Word and PowerPoint, but many were unique to Google Apps such as being able to dynamically query Google in a spreadsheet cell for info from Google Finance or web search.

All in all, it was a very helpful presentation for the uninitiated as well as the long-time Apps users like myself. I would encourage you to try it out. It’s free, easy to set up and will only improve over time. Don’t cut the cord to MS Office just yet, but this may make most of your daily tasks much easier.

[UPDATE] I’ve seen a lot of questions and speculation regarding this post, and I’ll do my best to clear up as much as I can. If you have any other questions or were at the event, please leave a comment and help fill in the gaps. I’ll answer as best I can, but many of the details people are seeking (timing, product names, etc) were not provided in the presentation. Thanks!

  • The event was hosted by Google in partnership with the Ann Arbor Chamber of Commerce as an intro to the services for local businesses and organizations. I don’t believe it was intended to be the “official” announcement of the Apps plans for 2008. The event was well attended and at least half the audience I polled were already Apps users and familiar with the services. This led to some very specific questions during the Q&A, during which most of the juicy information was related.
  • I used the term “Google Sites” for the JotSpot integration. That was the name Scott used in the presentation, but there’s no way to know if that will be the actual name of the service when it is released. I don’t presume to know what the final plans are.
  • There was no clear indication how the “Google Sites” product would interact with the current Google Pages. I don’t think it will replace Google Pages, but they will most likely be linked in some way.
  • The issue of security has been raised in several venues. Scott used the analogy of a bank during the presentation. Most people trust banks enough to deposit their money instead of hoarding it under the mattress. We know it will be there; secure and available when we need it. Google wants to achieve this level of trust with its users and they believe they have the most secure systems in the world (he actually used that phrase). I’m sure this applies not just to Apps, but to its personalization and web history programs as well.

Review: Google Apps Small Business Edition

Google Apps LogoI’m starting to see a lot more coverage of Google Apps in the press and blogs now that it has been open to the public for several months. In the spirit of sharing, I thought I would offer up my own experience with the software suite. I am currently using the free Small Business edition to handle a lot of the IT administration for Your Search Advisor but I’ll get into my personal experience in more detail later.

For the uninformed, Google Apps is a suite of Google products bundled for easy integration and migration from old systems. Currently, there are four separate offerings packaged and pitched to four different markets: Small Businesses, Schools, Enterprise businesses, and Families/Groups. Google recently announced that registered non-profits are now able to take advantage of the Schools version. These services are offered for free, or you can pay about $50 per user per year for the Premium version which includes: 24/7 tech support, 99.9% guaranteed email uptime and 10GB of email storage instead of the already-cavernous 2GB. Other premium features would be very attractive to larger organizations but the free Small Business package has everything I need for now.

All four packages are comprised of the same set of tools:

  • Gmail for email
  • Google Talk for chat/IM
  • Google Calendar for scheduling
  • Start Page – basically a stripped-down iGoogle
  • Docs & Spreadsheets for online word processing and spreadsheet functions
  • Page Creator for WYSIWYG website construction
  • Control, administration and support tools

The promise of “simple, powerful communication and collaboration tools…without the usual hassle and cost” sounds almost too good to be true. Reading through some of the customer testimonials is almost enough to convince any CTO that this is worth investigating.

The decision to use Google Apps when starting a small business was almost a no-brainer for me. Any small business owner with a limited IT budget can be up and running in minutes, which I was. Google does a nice job providing detailed instructions for those with existing IT infrastructure and email systems that need to be migrated. I had a utopian dream of being able to access everything my business needs from any computer or my PDA. Complete portability of all my emails, documents, schedules, and communication tools sounded great. I also dreamed of consolidating all of my previous Google accounts (Adwords, Gmail, Analytics, Reader, Base, etc) to one account instead of maintaining two.

However, after I had everything up and running I ran into two problems that squashed my dreams on the spot.

Problem #1: I couldn’t make the leap of faith and entrust all of my personal files and business files to somebody else’s central server. Yes, I would love to get rid of Microsoft Office and I trust Google with my information, but emails are one thing. Several years’ worth of sensitive documents are another, especially when it is clients’ data, not mine. I had previously used Google Docs & Spreadsheets for personal to-do lists and fantasy sports tracking, but so far I have yet to use my Apps Docs & Spreadsheets for anything other than lists of tasks and notes. Maybe once Google has implemented some of their recently-acquired Postini security technologies I’ll feel better about it. Also, I have encountered some formatting issues when downloading Google Docs & Spreadsheets files to Word and Excel. Nothing critical, but I can’t risk sending a Google Doc in .doc format at have it arrive with slight formatting inconsistencies.

Problem #2: Even though signing up for Google Apps technically gives you another Google Account, you can’t access anything other than the services listed above with it. I was disappointed to learn that I will still have to use two separate Google accounts. Luckily, it is possible to be logged in to both simultaneously so it’s just a matter of keeping multiple browser tabs open at all times.

Both of my reservations have very simple workarounds and neither are deal-breakers for my adamant support of Google Apps. As an eternal optimist, I expect they will resolve one or both of these problems in the near future. If their claims are correct and over 1,000 businesses are signing up every day, it’s only a matter of time before I can start sending Docs & Spreadsheets files without having to worry about what they will look like in Microsoft Word.

Feel free to leave a comment with any questions or feedback on your experiences with Google Apps. If I don’t already know the answer I’ll try to track it down for you.