Bradley Metrock and the Alexa Conference: Alexa As a Game Changer for Search and Publishing

February 2, 2017

Bradley Metrock, Score Publishing, organized The Alexa Conference held in January 2017. More than 60 attendees shared technical and business insights about Amazon’s voice-search enabled device. The conference recognized the opportunity Amazon’s innovative product represents. Keyword search traditionally has been dependent on a keyboard. Alexa changes the nature of information access. An Alexa owner can talk to a device which is about the size of a can of vegetables. Alexa is poised to nudge the world of information access and applications in new directions.

Bradley Metrock, Score Publishing, organized The Alexa Conference in January 2017. An expanded event is in the works.

After hearing a positive review of the conference, its speakers, and the programming event, I spoke with Mr. Metrock. The full text of the interview appears below:

Thanks for taking the time to speak with me.

Delighted to do it.

What path did you follow to arrive at The Alexa Conference?

A somewhat surprising one. My background is in business, but I’ve always been keenly interested in publishing.  It’s fascinating how the world of publishing has been ripped open by technology, allowing us as a society to shed gatekeepers and hear more stories from more people than we ever would have otherwise. In 2013, when I was in the process of selling a business, I discovered Apple’s iBooks Author software.  I couldn’t understand why more people weren’t talking about it.  It was such a gift: the ability to create next-generation, interactive and multimedia digital books that could be sold on Apple hardware (iPads at first, then later iPhones) all for no cost.  The software was completely free. I formed Score Publishing, published books using iBooks Author, and organized the annual iBooks Author Conference which all sorts of people attend from all over the world.  It’s been fun.

Where does Alexa fit into your interest in publishing books?

I approached Alexa at first from the standpoint of digital content creators: What do they need to get out of this tool?  And out of the Internet of Things, in general?

Do you have an answer to this question about using Alexa as an authoring tool?

No, not yet. My long-term ambition with Alexa is to produce authoring tools for it that allow content creators to leverage their content effectively in an audio-only environment.  Not just audio books, but the creation of voice-enabled applications around published works, from books to white papers and so forth.

What is needed to make it easy for an author or developer to leverage Amazon’s remarkable device and ecosystem?

That’s a good question. The first step toward doing that is learning Alexa myself and incorporating it into what Score Publishing already does.  To that end, we decided to put on the first-ever Alexa Conference. We experienced directly the incredible value in bringing communities of people together on the iBooks Author side of things.  We saw the same exact things with the just-completed Alexa Conference and can’t wait to do it again next January. In fact, we’re already planning it.

What were some of the takeaways for you from The Alexa Conference?

I think Amazon has opened an entirely new world with Alexa that perhaps even they didn’t fully appreciate at first.  Alexa puts voice search in the home. But far from just new ways to buy products or services, Alexa allows every computing interface that exists today to be re-imagined with greater efficiency, while also creating greater accessibility to content than ever before.  My eyes were opened in a big way.

Can you give me an example?

I can try, but it’s hard for me to even begin to explain, being relatively new to the technology and the ideas that Alexa (and IoT in general) bring to the table, but a good place to start is the summary from the first Alexa Conference.  This report gives a taste of the topics and ideas covered.

One of the most interesting events at The Alexa Conference was the programming of an Alexa skill. You called it the Alexathon, right?

Yes, and it was fascinating to watch the participants at work and then experience what they created in less than 24 hours. Developers are red-hot for this technology and are eager to explore its full potential.  They understand these are the early days, just like it was a decade ago with iOS apps for the iPad and iPhone. They see, in my opinion, a combination of opportunity and necessity in being part of it all.

What was the winning Alexa skill?

The winner was Xander Morrison, the Digital Community Coordinator at Sony Music’s Provident Label Group. It took Morrison just 24 hours to create his Nashville Tour Guide as an Alexa skill.

How does Alexa intersect with publishing?

I think the publishing industry doesn’t really understand the implications of the internet of things on its business. Companies like HarperCollins, whom I invited to be part of The Alexa Conference, sent Jolene Barto to the conference. She described how her company built an Alexa skill for one of the company’s most important markets. Her remarks sparked a lively question-and-answer session. HarperColllins seems to be one of the more proactive publishers in the Alexa space at this time.

Is it game over for Google and the other companies offering Alexa-type products and services?

No. I think it is the dawn of the voice enabled application era. Right now, it looks as if Alexa has a clear lead. But the Internet of Things is a very dynamic technology trend. The winner will probably be the company which creates tools.

What do you mean tools?

Software and system that make it easy for digital content to flow into it and be re-purposed in new and exciting ways.

Is this an opportunity for you and Score Publishing?

Yes. As I mentioned earlier, this is an area I want Score Publishing involved in. We may create some of the tools to help bridge the gap for content creators. Many authors and publishers have no interest in learning how to code. Alexa and the competing products do not make it easy for authors and publishers to get their content into the ecosystem all the same.

Google has a competing product and recently updated it. What’s your view of Google with regard to Alexa?

Google is definitely in the fray with Apple Siri and Microsoft Cortana. Also, there are several other less well known competitors. Amazon’s primary advantage is how early Amazon opened up Alexa to third-party development.  Alexa’s other advantages include the sheer marketing reach of Amazon. I learned at the conference that Amazon has done a great job in promoting promoting its hardware, from the Echo, Tap, and Dot. Now the the Amazon Kindle has Alexa baked into the device. Amazon has, in contrast to Apple and Google, demonstrated its willingness to spend significant dollars to advertise both Alexa and Alexa-enabled hardware.

However, Google has something Amazon doesn’t–search data.  And Apple has the dominant mobile device.  So there are advantages these other companies can bring to bear in competing in this space.  I want to point out that Amazon has its shopping data, and its Alexa team will find ways to to leverage its consumer behavior data as Alexa evolves over time.

What are your ideas for The Alexa Conference 2018?

Yes. We will be having another The Alexa Conference in January 2018. The event will be held in Nashville, Tennessee. We want to expand the program. We hope to feature topic and industry-specific sub-tracks as well. If your readers want to sign up, we have Super Early Bird passes available now. There is a limited supply of these. We expect to announce more information in the next month or so.

How can a person inte4reserted in The Alexa Conference and Score Publishing contact you?

We have a number of de-centralized websites such as the iBooks Author Conference, the iBooks Author Universe (a free online learning resource for iBooks Author digital publishing) and now, the Alexa Conference.  Following us on Twitter at @iBAConference and @AlexaConf is a great idea to stay in the know on either technology, and to reach me, people can email me directly at Bradley@AlexaConference.com.

Thank you for taking the time to speak with me.

Stephen E. Arnold, February 2, 2017

Google Semantics Sort of Explained by an SEO Expert

February 1, 2017

I know that figuring out how Google’s relevance ranking works is tough. But why not simplify the entire 15 year ball of wax for those without a grasp of Messrs. Brin and Page, their systems and methods, and the wrapper software glued on the core engine. Keep in mind that it is expensive and time consuming to straighten a bent frame when one’s automobile experiences a solid T bone impact. Google’s technology foundation is that frame, and over the years, it has had some blows, but the old girl keeps on delivering advertising revenue.

I read “Semantic Search for Rookies. How Does Google Search Work” does not provide the obvious answer; to wit:

Well enough for the company to continue to show revenue growth and profits.

The write up takes a different tact toward the winds of relevance. I highlighted this passage:

Google’s semantic algorithm hasn’t developed overnight. It’s a product of continuous work:

  • Knowledge Graph (2012)
  • Hummingbird (2013)
  • RankBrain (2015)
  • Related Questions and Rich Answers (ongoing)

The work began many years before 2012, but that is of no consequence to the SEO whiz explaining how Google search works.

The write up then brings up the idea of semantic and relevance obstacles. I won’t drag issues such as disambiguation, a user’s search history, and Google’s method of dealing with repetitive queries. I won’t comment on Ramanathan Guha’s inventions nor bring up the word in semantics which began when Jeff Dean revealed how many versions of Britney Spears name were in one of Google’s suggested search subsystems.

The way to take advantage of where Google is today boils down to writing an article, a blog post similar to this one you are reading, or any textual information to employing user oriented phrasing and algorithm oriented phrasing. The explanation of these two types of phrasing was too sophisticated for me. I urge you, gentle reader, to consult the source document and learn yourself by sipping from the font of knowledge. (I would have used the phrase “Pierian spring” but that would have forced me to decide whether I was using a bound phrase, semantic oriented phrase, or algorithm oriented phrase. That’s too much work for me.

The write up concludes with these injunctions:

If you wish to create well-optimized content, you shouldn’t focus on text in the traditional sense. Instead, you should focus on words and word formation which Google expects to see. In this day and age, users’ feedback plays a crucial role in determining the importance of content. You will have to cater to both sides. Create content with lots of synonyms and semantically related words incorporated in it. Try to be provocative and readable at the same time.

I don’t want to rain on the SEO poobah’s parade, but there are some issues that this semantic write up does not address; namely, the challenge of rich media. How does one get one’s video indexed in a correct way in YouTube.com, GoogleVideo.com, Vimeo.com, or one of the other video search systems. What about podcasts, still images, Twitter outputs, public Facebook goodies, and social media image sharing sites?

My point is that defining semantics in terms of a particular content type suggests that Google has a limited repertoire of indexing, metatagging, and cross linking methods. Perhaps a quick look at Dr. Guha’s semantic server would shed some light on the topic? Well, maybe not. This is, after all, SEO oriented with semantic and algorithmic phrasing I suppose.

Stephen E Arnold, February 1, 2017

Alleged Google-Killer Omnity Is Now Free

January 31, 2017

Omnity is a search engine designed to deliver more useful results than one obtains from outfits like Google. The company, according to “Omnity Is a Semantic Mapping Search Engine That’s Now Offered for Free”,

…sometimes there’s a need for another kind of search, namely to locate documents that aren’t explicitly linked or otherwise referenced between each other but where each contains the same rare terms. In those cases, a method called “semantic mapping” becomes valuable, and there’s now a free option that does just that…

My query for “Omnity” returned these results:

image

When I checked the links in the central display and scanned the snippet in the left hand sidebar, I did not locate many relevant results. I noted a number of NASA related hits. A bit of checking allowed me to conclude that a company called Elumenati once offered product called Omnity.

If you want to experiment with the system, point your browser thing at www.omnity.io. You will have to register. Once you verify via an email, you are good to go.

We don’t have an opinion yet because we don’t know the scope of the index nor the method of determining relevance for an entity. The “semantic” jargon doesn’t resonate, but that may be our ignorance, ineptitude, or some simple interaction of our wetware.

Omnity may have some work to do before creating fear at the GOOG.

Stephen E Arnold, January 31, 2017

Rise of Fake News Should Have All of Us Questioning Our Realities

January 31, 2017

The article on NBC titled Five Tips on How to Spot Fake News Online reinforces the catastrophic effects of “fake news,” or news that flat-out delivers false and misleading information. It is important to separate “fake news” from ideologically-slanted news sources and the mess of other issues dragging any semblance of journalistic integrity through the mud, but the article focuses on a key point. The absolute best practice is to take in a variety of news sources. Of course, when it comes to honest-to-goodness “fake news,” we would all be better off never reading it in the first place. The article states,

A growing number of websites are espousing misinformation or flat-out lies, raising concerns that falsehoods are going viral over social media without any mechanism to separate fact from fiction. And there is a legitimate fear that some readers can’t tell the difference. A study released by Stanford University found that 82 percent of middle schoolers couldn’t spot authentic news sources from ads labeled as “sponsored content.” The disconnect between true and false has been a boon for companies trying to turn a quick profit.

So how do we separate fact from fiction? Checking the web address and avoiding .lo and .co.com addresses, researching the author, differentiating between blogging and journalism, and again, relying on a variety of sources such as print, TV, and digital. In a time when even the President-to-be, a man with the best intelligence in the world at his fingerprints, chooses to spread fake news (aka nonsense) via Twitter that he won the popular vote (he did not) we all need to step up and examine the information we consume and allow to shape our worldview.

Chelsea Kerwin, January 31, 2017

Composite Software: From Search to Data Virtualization

January 30, 2017

I was deleting some of the old enterprise search and content processing data I had gathered over the years. I came across a text file which noted that Cisco Systems bought Composite Software in 2013. My recollection was that I had a screen shot of Composite’s search and retrieval interface. I dug around and located this graphic:

screen shot

Composite was founded in 2008, and at that time it was positioning its technology as an enterprise search solution. I was no longer compiling information for my Enterprise Search Report, which had devolved to a content management type outfit.

I did have in my files this diagram of what Composite’s search system morphed into:

image

Search is still in the architecture but it is called a Query Engine and includes traditional search functions; for example, a federation component, rules (which are very expensive to maintain in my experience), metadata, and editorial management now called “Governance.”

What’s interesting to me is that Composite figured out that search was not exactly a booming business. The company wrapped itself in next-generation features like Discovery and an Endeca-type “Studio” to create interfaces.

The sale of the company as a “data virtualization” vendor to Cisco took place in July 2013. According to a ZDNet write up, Cisco paid about $180 million for the five year old company. What I found interesting was the description of Composite in “

Composite provides software that connects different kinds of data on a network, including cloud and big data sources, and consolidates it as if it were in one place. In doing so, it allows companies to better visualize their data in order to make more accurate real-time decisions.

One would not know that Composite was an enterprise search vendor which pulled of a successful repositioning. Then Composite was able to sell the company to Cisco Systems, which had dabbled in search before this deal went down. At one time, I thought that Cisco would embrace open source search software.

Net net: Cisco got a search system for a fraction of the price HP paid for Autonomy. Composite is one of a small number of search vendors able to recognize the dead end that plain old search became. That’s important because slapping the word “semantic” on a keyword search system and shopping for a buyer may not be very productive.

In fact, it raises the question, “Why are some enterprise search vendors still pitching search?” Composite’s approach suggests that there are other ways to package keyword search and add some sizzle to what otherwise may be a cold chunk of stew meat.

Stephen E Arnold, January 30, 2017

30 Content Filters Illustrated

January 30, 2017

Short honk. I came across an illustration of how content filtering works. The popular name for this function is “filter bubble.”

image

Source: “The Filter Bubble.”

The idea is that smart online systems note what a user does online and shapes the information presented to that user. The procedures is described by various names; for example, filtering, personalizing, shaping, tailoring, customizing, etc. Here’s the illustration that makes the process clear. I found the image in “The Filter Bubble.” Kudos to whoever crafted the diagram.

Stephen E Arnold, January 30, 2017

Some Web Hosting Firms Overwhelmed by Scam Domains

January 27, 2017

An article at Softpedia should be a wakeup call to anyone who takes the issue of online security lightly—“One Crook Running Over 120 Tech Support Scam Domains on GoDaddy.” Writer Catalin Cimpanu explains:

A crook running several tech support scam operations has managed to register 135 domains, most of which are used in his criminal activities, without anybody preventing him from doing so, which shows the sad state of Web domain registrations today. His name and email address are tied to 135 domains, as MalwareHunterTeam told Softpedia. Over 120 of these domains are registered and hosted via GoDaddy and have been gradually registered across time.

The full list is available at the end of this article (text version here), but most of the domains look shady just based on their names. Really, how safe do you feel navigating to ‘security-update-needed-sys-filescorrupted-trojan-detected[.]info’? How about ‘personal-identity-theft-system-info-compromised[.]info’?

Those are ridiculously obvious, but it seems to be that GoDaddy’s abuse department is too swamped to flag and block even these flagrant examples. At least that hosting firm does have an abuse department; many, it seems, can only be reached through national CERT teams. Other hosting companies, though, respond with the proper urgency when abuse is reported—Cimpanu holds up Bluehost and PlanetHoster as examples. That is something to consider for anyone who thinks the choice of hosting firm is unimportant.

We are reminded that educating ourselves is the best protection. The article links to a valuable tech support scam guide provided by veteran Internet security firm Malwarebytes, and suggests studying the wikis or support pages of other security vendors.

Cynthia Murrell, January 27, 2017

Looking for Insight and Universal Search: Dip in the Insightpool

January 26, 2017

I read “Insightpool Launches World’s Largest Influencer Search Engine.” I think I know what an influencer is. That is a person to whom others turn for guidance, insight, a phone call, or invitations to parties. I also know what an “influence peddler” is. That’s a person who delivers introductions, pressure, content marketing in various forms, and maybe for enough cash a good word to a really important person.

How does one find these folks? Easy. Use the University search system for influencers.

I learned:

With Universal Search, brand marketers can search for influencers across 100 social networks including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and other niche social communities such as Yelp!, Reddit, and Weibo. Additionally, they can view key insights by influencer segment to understand follower size and reach, conversation sentiment, frequency of activity and other characteristics. Marketers not only save significant time in selecting the right influencer, but also gain more detailed information about the influencers most likely to actively engage in their strategic campaigns. This leads to higher performance and conversions.

Okay. This is slightly different from getting a meeting with a senator’s administrative aide or wrangling a face to face with one of Google’s vice presidents of engineering.

The top influencer at Insightpool said:

“This is the largest influencer database on the planet. Other influencer platforms offer fewer than 100,000 at most. The real benefit with Universal Search lies in its pure simplicity — using a familiar search bar to find the most relevant influencers. It used to take days to identify the right people for a campaign. Now it takes seconds.”

You can run your queries using the “influencer marketing platform.” Tap into a search system that

blends together our mission of connecting brands and people on social media. We are not just an intelligent Influencer Marketing platform, we are not just a tech company, we are creators and innovators dedicated to revolutionizing the way brands build relationships and create measurable results through social channels. Since inception in 2013, our customers have helped refine the product roadmap, which has dramatically expanded to pioneering concepts such as identification, prediction, automated social drip marketing campaigns, nurturing and creating measurable insights that give brands results and revenue.

There you go. A search engine for those who want real information.

Stephen E Arnold, January 26, 2017

Voice Search: An Amazon and Google Dust Up

January 26, 2017

I read “Amazon and Google Fight Crucial Battle over Voice Recognition.” I like the idea that Amazon and Google are macho brawlers. I think of folks who code as warriors. Hey, just because some programmers wear their Comicon costumes to work in Mountain View and Seattle, some may believe that code masters are wimps. Obviously they are not. The voice focused programmers are tough, tough dudes and dudettes.

I learned from a “real” British newspaper that two Viking-inspired warrior cults are locked in a battle. The fate of the voice search world hangs in the balance. Why is this dust up covered in more depth on Entertainment Tonight or the talking head “real” news television programs.

I learned:

The retail giant has a threatening lead over its rival with the Echo and Alexa, as questions remain over how the search engine can turn voice technology into revenue.

What? If there is a battle, it seems that Amazon has a “threatening lead.” How will Google respond? Online advertising? New products like the Pixel which, in some areas, is not available due to production and logistics issues?

No. Here’s the scoop from the Fleet Street experts:

The risk to Google is that at the moment, almost everyone starting a general search at home begins at Google’s home page on a PC or phone. That leads to a results page topped by text adverts – which help generate about 90% of Google’s revenue, and probably more of its profits. But if people begin searching or ordering goods via an Echo, bypassing Google, that ad revenue will fall. And Google has cause to be uncomfortable. The shift from desktop to mobile saw the average number of searches per person fall as people moved to dedicated apps; Google responded by adding more ads to both desktop and search pages, juicing revenues. A shift that cut out the desktop in favor of voice-oriented search, or no search at all, would imperil its lucrative revenue stream.

Do I detect a bit of glee in this passage? Google is responding in what is presented as a somewhat predictable way:

Google’s natural reaction is to have its own voice-driven home system, in Home. But that poses a difficulty, illustrated by the problems it claims to solve. At the device’s launch, one presenter from the company explained how it could speak the answer to questions such as “how do you get wine stains out of a rug?” Most people would pose that question on a PC or mobile, and the results page would offer a series of paid-for ads. On Home, you just get the answer – without ads.

Hasn’t Google read “The Art of War” which advises:

“Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.”

My hunch is that this “real” news write up is designed to poke the soft underbelly of Googzilla. That sounds like a great idea. Try this with your Alexa, “Alexa, how do I hassle Google?”

Stephen E Arnold, January 26, 2017

Declassified CIA Data Makes History Fun

January 26, 2017

One thing I have always heard to make kids more interested in learning about the past is “making it come alive.”  Textbooks suck at “making anything come alive” other than naps.  What really makes history a reality and more interesting are documentaries, eyewitnesses, and actual artifacts.  The CIA has a wealth of history and History Tech shares with us some rare finds: “Tip Of The Week: 8 Decades Of Super Cool Declassified CIA Maps.”  While the CIA Factbook is one of the best history and geography tools on the Web, the CIA Flickr account is chock full of declassified goodies, such as spy tools, maps, and more.

The article’s author shared that:

The best part of the Flickr account for me is the eight decades of CIA maps starting back in the 1940s prepared for the president and various government agencies. These are perfect for helping provide supplementary and corroborative materials for all sorts of historical thinking activities. You’ll find a wide variety of map types that could also easily work as stand-alone primary source.

These declassified maps were actually used by CIA personnel, political advisors, and presidents to make decisions that continue to impact our lives today.  The CIA flickr account is only one example of how the Internet is a wonderful tool for making history come to life.  Although you need to be cautious about where the information comes from since these are official CIA records they are primary sources.

Whitney Grace, January 26, 2017

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