Making rain

The following is a slightly edited transcript of a portion of the Critical Path podcast #79. I am reproducing it here for the sake of brevity and focus of discussion.

I’m going to try to put together an analogy together here that maybe will help us think through the Facebook Home and the Google Fiber issue.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to illustrate Google’s business model. The problem is that discussion has been polarized: Two camps have formed. One camp suggests that Google is a benevolent entity that does great things and only asks that we indulge their hobby of a business model called advertising. Fundamentally they are about pushing the envelope on technology, making wonderful things happen.

That is one camp. I call them the utopians. It may not be a nice thing to call them but I frame it as being exceedingly idealistic.

The anti-utopian camp is one that suggests that Google is an advertising company primarily, and fundamentally and overwhelmingly. And anything they do technologically is in support of that. The implication is that Google is sinister and manipulative, bent on getting away with as much privacy extraction as possible.

I believe that the anti-utopians dismissing Google as an advertising company sounds a bit incomplete. It’s not incorrect. It’s not erroneous. It’s just not a complete story.

And also the utopian view that they do everything for us out of the goodness of their hearts and that advertising is something that they are reluctant to do, saying in effect, “We only do it because it earns us enough money so that we can do good deeds.” That too is not an accurate picture. Google is a business and its business management team is hard nosed and knows what they’re doing and they are not purely idealistic in that sense.

And so the question could be where across this spectrum does Google lie? Possibly it moves around between these points. Where they are becomes a question of motivation and what they want to become.

But this is only one dimension. It does not help us answer the question of Home, or Fiber or Reader or Blink. Their actions seem contradictory. Holistic or selfless in one case, greedy and capricious in another.

Let’s step out of this spectrum and try to think of different ways which can describe the situation.

I propose a way to think about it as: Google tries to make a business succeed through having a huge amount of _flow_ in terms of data, traffic, queries and information that is indexed. So think about this idea of them tapping into a vast stream. The more volume that is flowing through the system the more revenue they generate.

As so given this very rough analogy I try to sharpen it up by saying: imagine it more as a river. And even more than a river, as a watershed, a river basin. Perhaps a giant basin the size of a continent. The business is, let’s say, capturing fish at the mouth of the biggest river, before it exits into the ocean at its delta.

And so your job (as Google) is to catch fish mostly at one point. It’s the most efficient way to catch fish because you have the most flow of water at that point and building nets is not trivial.

But in order for you to improve your business, to create more opportunity, presumably, you want to essentially have more water flowing.

And so how would you do that? Think of the Mississippi river. If you’ve got a net down at the bottom of the river, the question is how would you engineer, through civil engineering, or shaping the earth itself, a way of catching more fish.

The answer I think, in terms of the way Google might be thinking, is that they want to create more sources of water. So they would look to connect tributaries and lakes. “How about having another river join our river?” Let’s make sure that we have “everything east of the Rockies” flow into our river system.

Now, think of it this way: After you’ve gotten all the tributaries, what are the remaining sources?

First, you’ll want to make sure that no-one can dam or stop the flow of water into your main channels. And so you become extremely anxious about people building dams. That’s the number one concern.

So your strategy becomes one of “how do we avoid dam building”?

That’s one part of your strategy.

The other thing you could do to improve your business would be to make it rain more. So there’s the question in your mind of: If we had more rainfall, then everything will flow more rapidly and we’ll get many more tiny rivers forming and joining together into our main river.

Android and the Fiber business and even Facebook fit into this analogy rather well. In this context more rainfall means more people using the Internet. If you have more people you’ll have more rivers and you’ll have more water and hopefully more fish. Fiber means the water will flow more rapidly: you’re essentially dredging the riverbed.

But the two are very disconnected (rain, dredging and fish). So your strategy amounts to not really worrying about the ratio. You don’t create incentives to people who make rain in the form of fish catch quotas next quarter.

In other words, your performance as a manager of cloud seeding efforts should not be measured in fish.

Leadership should instead simply put out the mandate of “Go out and make it rain”.

So that’s the notion of Google going out on these projects and doing all these “great things” for us. They make it rain. The Internet expands. There is minimal censorship.

By the way, censorship is a dam. Being blocked out of a country is a huge dam. It’s actually more like building a mountain range that diverts water flow away from your watershed.

And so they have these notions of how to prevent these things from happening.

So it sounds like they are doing good things. It sounds like asking for it to rain; they want to make sure that people don’t divert resources; they want to make sure that there are no barriers between the raindrop and getting access to the channel to the ocean.

So it sounds like they’re doing all the good things like a good civil engineer. Like the US Army Corps of Engineers who developed the irrigation, flood control, energy generation and waterway transportation of the United States.

Google seems to be the world’s “internet civil engineer”. They are building all these things to make sure that we have good water (i.e internet) supply. That we have plenty of navigable channels. That’s the analogy.

But let’s not forget that the only reasons those things are happening is because they are catching fish at some point down the Mississippi.

From that point of view you have to ask yourself: do they deserve this concession? Because they are ultimately affecting the environment to such a degree; and the environment is the internet; and the whole scope is how the world operates.

That is where people have to step back and ask themselves: Even a group of civil engineers that have all the best intentions may realize that they didn’t think of all the consequences of their actions. A lot of the criticisms may come decades later. From people who’ll note an effect on the environment. Dams get silted, a lack of floods reduces nutrients to crops which then need fertilizer, which has a whole other set of problems.

That is when you have to reflect more deeply on what is right and what is wrong. So saying, as the City Council of Austin might: thank you for coming and paying for installing broadband for us. Fine, but we just don’t know what the unintended consequences might be. It all _sounds_ good but we don’t know if it _is_ good.

And similarly, in the case of Facebook, there is a subtle hijacking going on where Android creates more rain, and Facebook and Amazon are essentially putting down nets and catching fish upstream. They’re not damming the tributaries. They’re not putting up mountain ranges and saying they’ll make sure the water flows away from the Mississippi. But rather they are putting nets and saying “Thanks for the rain”. They took advantage of what amounts to a public resource. Here the failure of anticipating consequences falls on Google. But they could not have possibly foreseen all that? Or could they?

Then there is the question of measuring success. It’s complicated and hard to measure performance. Even Google’s own performance. We don’t really know if the cloud projects work. We don’t get to run this as an experiment that can be tweaked as data comes in.

Google does not report performance. When they go off on these rain making projects, it’s natural to ask how many fish were caught as a result. Is that incremental new rainfall causing more fish to get caught. And Google won’t say anything about the profitability of rain making. They will never give you a profit and loss statement for all these projects: the dam eradication project, the project dredge a channel, the project to seed clouds. They will say that these are projects that will result in only one thing, which we do measure, which is the number of fish we catch in the delta of the Mississippi down by New Orleans. But so far although rainfall seems to be increasing exponentially there are not that many new fish.

So that’s where we struggle as analysts: is rainmaking good? Is the dam destruction process working? We can’t answer these question. And we don’t even know if Google themselves can. They might think of it as a strategic thing: it’s always better to have more rain than less and more water flowing. End of discussion.

To borrow a phrase from Zuckerberg, it’s above my pay grade to know what all the consequences are. I have opinions as environmentalists have opinions and sometimes they have some data to back up those opinions. For instance whether a dam project is a good thing on balance. But they are bound to have partial answers because the cost/benefit analysis is definitely missing a lot of the costs and missing a lot of the benefits as well. You can’t put a number on a lot of these things.

That’s where we are today. Google and Android are forces which are are very powerful but which are, to a large degree, uncontrolled, even by their own managers.


  • berult

    Google vs Apple, a working model of a dual-mode Universe. Antithetical. Con-current. Concomitant…

    Creationism; the Brain Trust. Hierarchical mobility. The apex of a pyramidal construct herds micro-narratives so as to bestow flock-semantic upon its ‘theo-algorithmic’ credo. A ‘kurtzveilian’ sinkhole. A digestive track for Midas touches protruding forthwith from ‘free-radical’ imaginations. The development axis of an insatiable singularity;
    … a Master-Clock’s ‘tac’.

    Evolutionism; the brain thrust. Cognitive mobility tracing synaptic pathways through space-time ambivalence and uncertainty. It surfs the wave function…on a deterministic hint. A ‘Jobsian’ wormhole. Clusters of loose ends and obfuscated agendas through-put as fodder for collaborative optima. The development axis of amenable complements;
    … a master-clock’s ‘tic’.

    One sibling’s a writ; wryly scriptural. The unruly twin, …a gist; groovily incidental.

    One could ‘Google’ the cleavage; a kind of Schmidthsonian parting of the read-see. One can ‘Apple’ Siri. Co-maturing Siri. What the former would readily package as isotropic commonality, the latter will, over time, and out of serendipitous irreverence, …Music of the Spheres, String Theory, Trumpets of Jericho…, orchestrally query…

    Master; concertmeister. A dictate, lordship-by-commity would lay; a symphonic poem, …’lai ‘ship-by-committed can sway. Fate, ever spruced as contrapuntal bacchanal, divvying up its lore in dissonant partite…

    …a Universal clock’s metronomic tac-tic…of sort.

    • The eternal dance between the Apollonian and Dionysian.

    • woobert

      Berult vs. Horace, a working model of a dual-mode Universe. Antithetical. Con-current. Concomitant… Horace, seeking to demystify the complexities of the universe through brilliantly deep but clear analogies. Berult, enigmafying the clearest and deepest points I’ve ever read on the Internet, turning them into something even more complex and unintelligible than the original mystery.

      I’d love to have dinner with the two of you 🙂

    • stevesup

      More like … big boat versus small boat approaches to building organizations. Big boats are inclusive and minimize entry requirements; think Roosevelt Democrats, Mahayana Buddhism, Protestantism, and Islam. Small boat are exclusive stress these requirements; think Reagan Republicans, Theravada Buddhism, Catholicism, and Orthodox Judaism. Both approaches work just fine tho’ results vary depending on circumstances.

  • LTMP

    Following this analogy, could we say that Apple makes fish food?

    Or perhaps nice hatcheries?

    • Kizedek

      Or, we have to wonder why Google is “commoditizing” the river system — making it all about amount of water passing through its gate, and not caring what it catches or harms as long as it catches everything, big or little, rare and endangered, fish or garbage, or otherwise. It’s one big flush that homogenizes the whole system.

      Rather than a fish food producer or hatchery, we could say Apple is more of an environmentalist who protects and promotes good habitats. For fisherman, they help you keep the fish on your part of the riverbank healthy and happy so that they stay and grow large. But Apple is out for the fish, so they really show the fish how to survive and grow and avoid traps and nets and poachers altogether.

      And Apple teaches fish to savour the one rain drop that came in from the mountains, rather than gorging themselves on the flow from a factory waste-pipe. In fact, if the fish really want to reach the sea, Apple are encouraging the fish to dream about crawling across the land or flying; and avoid the traditional route just because it is there.

      • LTMP

        I don’t disagree with you about Google and the big flush, but I think, perhaps, you’re just a bit naive about Apple’s motives.

        If Apple does take such good care of us, it is only because we pay them handsomely for it.

        Besides, I’m probably what you would call a bottom feeder 🙂

      • ZimGuy

        I am completely amazed at how those who love Apple will cheer-lead them and shower praises on them. Debate about this analogy is admittedly beyond me. As a person from a third world country where not all of us are rich is this: Apple makes nice products but they are damn expensive. All of them. Take phones. An iPhone will cost you US$1,000 cash here. NO contract, no terms. An Android phone can cost anything from $30 upwards. Viva Android I say.

      • LTMP

        There is absolutely nothing wrong with low cost products that are still capable of doing the job for which they were hired. Apple just doesn’t go after that market.

        There is also nothing wrong with high end, high quality products.

        The level type of cheerleading that occurs between Android and iOS fans is almost astounding to me.

        Name calling, misleading arguments and outright lies happen on both sides of the fence.

        It is reminiscent of professional spots fans, and generally worthless to engage in.

        Having said that, I have always enjoyed my Apple devices more than any other tech I have owned. I also find AAPL, as a company, to be a fascinating subject.

      • As their phones are even cheaper, what about Viva Nokia?

      • mieswall

        This analogy reminded me of many years ago, when as a boy I went every summer with my father to incredibly beautiful lakes and rivers for trout fishing. Over the years, we became catch and release practitioners; with the awareness of some kind of depth, loving the beauty and perfectness of those sanctuaries, we stopped being the predators of our first trips. Nevertheless, year after year, dead fish bodies were found floating on those waters, every time in greater amount; as trout meat became a good business, exterminators dynamited the river and never stopped until no more fish was left.

        Google is dynamiting every nice initiative of the information era. They often act as pirates, stealing your personal data (apps), stealing other’s ideas (android), bastardizing every good thing that proves successful measured by people’s acceptance and tangible benefits (all of internet reduced to who sells more ads), usually by means of painfully bad products (google docs). They do provide sometimes good, even great stuff; gmail, google search, maps, are good but soul-less. After all, you need the food to be tasty for somebody to want it.

        I do love Apple, because I perceive since their origins a true desire to make great, beautiful things, and those great things can prove capable of changing people’s lifes for better. Many wonderful, incredibly appropriate and visionary speaches of Jobs are a proof that this fuels Apple before anything else; a vision of computing as a way of empowerment of people (…I prefer spending the money of one powerful computer, used by one person, in 1000 small computers for that many users, because people’s intrinsic creativity will always achieve better, amazing results… 1989). This kind of messianism is of course not the pleasure of many, even myself sometimes. But without a similar will that’s above the business itself, every enterprise ends up unmasking what really moves them is just a selfishness search of money (self-fish-ness).

        Guess the above perfectly describes the utopian / anti-utopian view. So be it.

    • Apple is the National and State Parks System. They have found the most lucrative places people like to go to fish and built beautiful parks inviting people to come. They charge a premium for access and have highly regulated rules. Many “true” outdoor enthusiasts condemn the users of these parks as not true campers and outdoors people. Even the outback is curated. Many are unhappy about the parks system making wannabe campers, hikers and outdoors people (I know several people like this).

    • I view Apple as a city-state in possession of a deep water port: iTunes/App Store. They tax & regulate the trade, maintain the infrastructure, and manage the shipyards.

  • Walt French

    Fine analogy. In that vein, …

    Low water flows definitely harm the catch, but artificially cranking up rainfall each year might not increase fish catch beyond normal years. As with me: I spend a LOT of time online these days—maybe 2X a couple of years ago—and am exposed to LOTS of ads. But I think I’m pretty saturated: I don’t have interest in twice as many cars, sushi bars, weird tricks to reduce belly fat. A year ago I used Google to check the “cast sheets” for who was dancing at the specific performances we had tix for, and as a result a huge fraction of the Dubl-Click ads eg, the NYT, were for us to buy seats at the SF Ballet. No matter how “relevant” the ads were to my interests, the advertisers got no extra value. Sooner or later, Google has to generate new sales, not just re-expose us to more and more ads.

    I don’t know when we’ll know that we’ve hit “peak ad”, but it seems Americans already live their entertainment time at corporate-sponsored sports events or movies, spend our mad money on corporate-branded beer, buy heavily-advertised cars and homes with loans from corporate banks. Sooner or later, the cost of carpet-bomb advertising becomes a limiting factor on products’ price-attractiveness. It sure feels like that time is at hand, as the artisinal and local movements grow.

    The other aspect of this is that the status quo video entertainment is ALREADY heavily financed by advertising. Aereo’s disruption of efforts to shift value to distribution notwithstanding, one source of disruption would be to have people pay $3 to watch a 40-minute, ad-free “hour” of TV. Unless those ads are at least as entertaining as the content, anybody netting more than $9/hour should find that tradeoff attractive. Ads appear to cost the consumer MUCH MORE than the benefit the advertisers get, and even if Google gave them away, savvy consumers above the poverty line should be entice-able to a paid model. (I guess this is a way of saying that the fish needn’t be merely passive actors in your model.)

    I wouldn’t put myself in either the utopian or anti-utopian camps. Google has extended the reach of the web the same way that advertising made broadcast radio & TV possible in the US (and I’m pretty sure we’ll never have a BBC-style state-run internet). But narrowcasting and quality publishing highlights the ongoing need for other ways of providing education/entertainment (per McLuhan, the same thing) for people.

    • Glaurung-Quena

      The thing is, Google has taken a page from Facebook’s system. They aren’t soley interested in selling ads these days, they also want to know everything about you so they can better target their ads and sell more specifically targeted advertising. Which is why they’re pushing seemingly unrelated crap like Google Glass; the idea is to slurp up every speck of data so as to be able to sell more expensive, better targeted advertising. Basically, they’re on a course to merge the realm of advertising with the realm of market research. Instead of selling ads based on specific keywords, they want to be able to sell advertising based on specific individuals.

      And if your privacy gets violated as part of that, well, it’s just the cost of doing business.

      • Walt French

        Ultimately, all the things you list ARE about what Horace would call captured value and I call profit and they are every one monetized by selling ads.

        Maybe in the future, Google will sell those nifty self-driving cars for a nice profit but today the story is A D S.

        Privacy violations? I’m both more and less alarmed. First, most of us haven’t thought through the implications; if you will, the disease is spreading widely and I don’t see putting the lid on the bottle again.

        But on the other hand, it seems perfectly legitimate that individuals choose to fill out marketing questionnaires in exchange for various goodies; I have done it a couple of times where the reward for talking about some professional issue has been a $100 donation to the Red Cross. That’s all that you’re doing when you use Google; it’s just that many of us haven’t thought about the ramifications, and occasionally Google pulls a fast one such as my experience with the bizcard scam.

    • raycote

      I know this is just wishful thinking.

      But I still hold out hope that as network-synchronized algorithm-driven culture evolves it will dis-intermediate push-based advertising altogether.

  • poke

    I think the rain making analogy is correct but there’s an additional problem with it. If you just look information and having more information and don’t look at the content of that information, you won’t know whether what you’re doing will result in more (or better) information. People don’t produce information in response to the volume of information they receive, they produce it in response to the content of that information. So the free flow of information could easily lead to there being less information overall.

    For example, censorship of certain topics can lead to more equitable and vibrant discussion of other topics, as every forum moderator knows. Not exercising enough control often leads to abuse. You get malware, spam, phishing, and other types of bad information flow. “Freedom” of this sort is often unproductive. A lot of what Google thinks of as dams are not in fact dams, they’re the river banks that make the flow of water and fish possible in the first place.

    • Kizedek

      Exactly. Sandbagging is often necessary. Just ask anyone who lives along a waterway. And people don’t like industrial waste washing into their gardens.

      • Klasse

        Agreed. More broadly there are always some negative “network effects” that can get quite significant when any ecosystem grows over a given threshold I think poke might have described the main issue Google is facing, but there may be other major issues as well.

        Examples of negative network effects in other ecosystems include:

        – highways are great and enable people & goods to get places more quickly. More users thus equals higher efficiency, which leads to economic growth. However, when the number of cars and trucks grows over some limit we can get traffic congestion etc.

        – I recall hearing that the optimal size of a city is around half a million inhabitants. After that, additional growth typically brings more disadvantages than advantages.

        -on eBay, the more goods that are for sale, the better choice is for users. This also typically leads to higher competition and lower prices. However, when the number of goods grows too big it can make the shopping experience worse, as there are too many items to look though. Just try to look for designer handbags, for instance.

  • Watcher

    Hate to move the discussion from analysis to method, but can you talk a little about how you came across this analogy? Astonishingly well thought out.

    • obarthelemy

      An ecosystem is, superficially, like any other ecosystem. It would have worked as well with roads, fields, shopping malls, a city…

      • woobert

        I look forward to your insightful post on such an alternative analogy!

      • Tatil_S

        I would not hold my breath. 🙂

    • Mostly it was an iterative process starting with a conclusion that existing explanations like the utopian/dystopian dichotomy did not satisfy. One element was the observation that from Google’s point of view Android is not a P/L effort, and an assumption that their individual efforts aren’t either. The decision making process had to be driven by a question of maximization of traffic rather than revenue. Essentially: “Take care of the traffic and everything else takes care of itself”

      • Sacto_Joe

        Thinking of the fish as people, computers and the internet are tools to help free and empowerer people, to eventually connect their little ponds to an ocean. So if Google is making its money by capturing the fish, Apple is making its money by connecting the ponds to the ocean. Apple is the master river-builder.

      • SSShu

        I thought Apple and other OEMs are more like a fish breeders. In the business of making faster, stronger, possibly tastier fish that swims further and reproduce in great numbers.
        Hence why they get paid by Google down the stream?

  • This article sounds very anti-google. Using your analogy literally, how many real fishermen, or even real fishing conglomerates in the real world spend significant fractions of their resources on making more rain rather than just fishing more?! I would venture Zero.

    I think it is more accurate to say that Google as a business creates way more positive externalities than negative externalities. To quote Tim O’Reilly, it creates more value than it captures. Sure, as a big business what it does results in unintended consequences, but which huge business doesn’t have unintended consequences? Can the City Council of Austin truthfully say its own actions and decisions doesn’t result in unintended consequences?

    • Walt French

      With all respect to yourself & Mr. O’Reilly, I disagree that Google “creates more value than it captures.”

      Google makes it easy to monetize generic, indistinguishable websites that are happy to have a fraction of a cent per visitor. But that act makes it harder for a thoughtful writer to justify the thinking and research to differentiate him/herself from the Daily Blatt. John Siracusa recently was tweeting that a Google search for a term he coined put his blog entry down the list — others who’d “picked up on” his theme, and even linked to him, got first placement because of various SEO tricks that are inherent to how Google prioritizes sites (e.g., frequent updates, lots of outbound links). Net result: other sites get the hits, probably skimming off most of the traffic.

      That’s taking away value. So is making it difficult/impossible for somebody like myself, who happily pays about $1000/year for first-class news services like the WSJ, NYT and Financial Times, to find independent writers who don’t churn out 15 in-depth articles a day on business interests. It’s clearly an example of the kinda/sorta-not-really-very-good driving out the potentially excellent.

      There’s maybe a good 1/3 of the US population, for whom sitcom TV with laughtracks is the epitome of their entertainment interest, for whom ad-sponsored is the right economics. But really, anybody much above poverty level ought to be looking for ways of getting their news/entertainment/social fixes without being bombarded and distracted by lowest-common-denominator Budweiser, Starbucks or even Audi ads. Alas, a world where people weren’t dependent on ads is a world where Google doesn’t have a business, and as Google likes to say, it’s “not the world we want.”

      • obarthelemy

        This elitist view can be applied to any media, starting with TV. Broadcast TV is reality shows, “sports”, and talk shows, which I’m sure you deem unworthy, I know I do. Should all TV be subscription-only cable ?

        The Internet in general enables anyone to contribute and read, and Google (mostly) enables those who put stuff in to get a bit of money out. Those who think they don’t get enough that way can also, you know, ask for money. I personally pay for 2 sites (ArsTechnica and The Economist).
        Grumbling that the money is not enough for anything above drivel is forgetting that most people actually *want* drivel.

        The externality here is that (Google-facilitated) ubiquitous Internet enables the “worthy” stuff to get disseminated, and the “worthy” contributors to get a start (Khan Academy ?).

      • Walt French

        There are many situations in which I’ll happily supply my time and effort to get something where a cash price is too high. This site, for example, because it’s a great source of specialized information & ideas.

        But although I personally prefer local stations KCSM or KDFC, with the reality that they need contributions to stay around, or Sirius, which invoices monthly, over almost any broadcast material, I think my point works for anybody above our poverty line. It’s not egalitarian to consign people to feudal vassalage, having them pay extra for Budweiser in order to hear music. That’s not a positive externality (a word badly misused in these debates) but cost-shifting.

        Google is not paying those web sites, the consumers of the products who advertise are. There just are NOT more dollars in the system than the advertisers rationally believe they will get from the consumers who respond to the ads. And if ad-supported sites are all you see, how will you not end up paying disproportionately?

        Google might be an efficient middleman in collecting and distributing those billions, but to my eye they are not: if I (with indeed, a comfortable living) can’t afford to waste my money on ratty insurance companies,diet scams or “free” business cards where you “just pay $14.99 for S/H” after laying them out, how can people who have less, think their TV show or Facebook access is worth more?

        I am a capitalist by profession and not calling for socialized replacements of the tech industry. Rather, I am calling for a smarter —cheaper, more efficient; disruptive, if you will — way for private enterprise to grow the information/education/entertainment economy.

      • JerryL

        Sometimes reputations are broader than reality. Regarding those disks: Did you buy them from NewEgg by any chance? It *is* a “Google Trusted Store” – and (what I see as quite intrusive) ads from them will follow you around. You actually get ads for exactly the products on your “Recently Viewed” items at NewEgg!

        But … those ads don’t come from Google. They come from a company called Criteo, who on their web site promise provides “Highly Personalized Ads”. (The little “Ad Choices” link reveals this.)

        — Jerry

      • Walt French

        You’re correct about NewEgg. The ads I subsequently saw (on NYT.Com?) were for the “free business cards” that were a “thank you gift” that I flirted with after placing my order at NewEgg. Whatever cookies I stupidly volunteered for were not from either NYT or NewEgg.

    • Every business that can sustain profitability creates more value than it captures. Regarding the anti/(pro?) distinction, that is precisely what I’m exposing as a false dichotomy. It’s time to stop being judgmental and polarizing.

      • Walt French

        Horace, this is indeed a basic business truism, but please be aware that there is a LOT of “gaming the system” going on.

        Consider pollution and global warming. In the parlance of economists and financial types, there are “incomplete markets” in clean water or ability to grow your crops on your land—no way for the coffee farmer to charge the coal-burning electric company for destroying his livelihood. CO2 is part of the story every time we hop onto an airplane, but a higher price that’d compensate others, or re-direct more of our business trips to virtual visits, so that everybody could be better off, can’t be found because the good of stable climate can’t be metered and charged for under our current systems.

        You’ve commented upon the large amounts that some industries spend on lobbying, taking it as a sign of stagnation and (if I understood rightly) value transfer, not value creation. Smart! Now, let’s agree that many businesses (some more than others) gain a hefty part of their profit/value by bypassing free markets, striking closed-door deals with politicians, etc., in a way that net-net, probably destroys value in transferring it to themselves. You’re apparently drawn to 3 industries (media, telecomm, computing) where large players, in a dance with governments around the world, are working hard to shift the laws of economics from the competitive textbook ideas.

      • Very much correct. In my defense, I did qualify with “sustained” profitability exactly to avoid this caveat. Playing politics is fooling all of the people some of the time.

      • Does a business that is allowed to pollute say tonnes of sulfur dioxide in a poorly regulated country (or say 9,000 pig carcasses) but makes $0.01 in profits really “creates more value than it captures”?!

        I think this goes beyond “playing politics”, but more about what economists call positive or negative externalities

    • You may also want to read an allegorical story about a different industry:

  • Following your interesting analysis more thought can be made.
    Google “make it rain” without minding result, ok, but there is more that can be said, they don’t even mind to control the raining machine.
    They make the machines and freely give them away to anyone who wants to use them.
    What if the machines are used to make the rain in another territory which convey the water to another river where google does not catch fishes?
    Google does not care.
    That is wrong strategic thinking for the google business.

    I understand the strategy “increase the water level” that is increase internet usage, but giving the means to competitors to steal the fishes using your machines makes not sense at all.
    If google controlled the raining machines what harm could have done? The water level would have still increased and competitors would have to build their own machines if they wanted to increase the water level of another river.
    The documents of the trial with Oracle for Android’s patent gives insight of a more immature and unthought strategy than the one you very well describe in the article in my opinion.

    • Carpenter

      I suspect that if we follow this analogy all the way, the machine must be built so that it can not be controlled. That’s why we see Samsung making most of the Android profits. Of course, it didn’t have to be specifically Samsung but at that specific time it fit. It was a critical part of this kind of rain maker. But in it’s defense we can say that it’s the most effective one.

      Why to make one? If you create a machine that is uncontrollable, it may turn against you. I believe that such was their fear towards Microsoft and, probably in lesser extend, Apple

      • I had thought about your suspect while writing the post. I didn’t mention it in the post because I don’t think it is true.

        It is the “must” I don’t buy.

        The lack of control of Android was not a “must”, it was a choice made in different conditions.

        Google does not allow everything on Android without control, you have the compatibility check that in google opinion would have allowed them to sufficiently control the ecosystem.

        They also control the source code that is given, while in development, only to choosen vendors, a later measure of control.

        They could have avoided something like facebook home or amazon fork or fragmentation just saying that modification of certain aspect of the ui would have to be approved by google.

        Open with a little control of the interface would have been enough to avoid the use of the rain machine in different rivers. Not a great deal just a little more stringent compatibility control. It should not have changed the android trajectory but surely should have changed the google role in the android ecosystem.

        My opinion is that this lack of minimum control was not deliberate in the sense that the real extension and possibilities of the platform was not fully understood from the beginning, since at start it was a battle against windows phone and blackberry without great hope of a sudden explosion.

        After the iphone and the decision to go after it, android was the first and the only o.s. able to compete with iOS, at a lower level but higher than other o.s. in the market, but the rules of android were already there and they were inadequate to the phenomena.

        Google didn’t change the rules, they didn’t foresee what was coming and that was, in my opinion, a strategic error that is payed now by google.

        Amazon, china phones, Home are the first of possibly many other android destructors and google can do nothing about it.

  • These aren’t rainmaking projects. They aren’t trying to create more “flow.” They’re trying to understand what’s happening in the network environment.

    The wifi data that Google collected in its street-mapping efforts that “wasn’t used?” It was probably a sampling effort to see what kind of traffic is in the air at any given moment. What does the wireless environment look like, and how can we use that?

    Google’s nurtured reputation is that it has a lot of Really Smart People™ (maybe all of them) working for them. They don’t do anything “by accident.” That data collection effort during the street mapping was, in my opinion, intentional.

    The fiber efforts are another way to peer into what types of things go on in networks. Even if everything is encrypted, they can do traffic flow analysis and acquire meaningful data.

    Glass is another way to get a particular type of granular data. It tells them what you’re looking at, how long your gazing at it. With the right software, I’m confident that Glass can measure your pulse, respiration rate, and skin temperature and determine the wearer’s state of arousal. They don’t need everyone to wear Glass, just enough people to validate their models, to refine their predictive algorithms.

    These guys worship at the church of Big Data. The more data they have to analyze, the more inferences they can begin to make. There is no such thing as “bad data” or “too much data.” It all has some utility.

    Now, pair that with their stated intention of “knowing what you intend to do before you do.” This means they can offer merchants very “hot prospects.” If you’re someone with something to sell, Google can give you access to the people most likely to buy right now. That’s highly efficient “advertising.” They can sell that access at a premium.

    Soon, they’ll be able to predict who the people are who are most susceptible to manipulation. They’ll be able to tailor their information access such that they can tip the balance from one possible outcome to another. Think about what that may mean for elections.

    In many ways, Google has essentially created a civilian version of ADM Poindexter’s Total Information Awareness initiative. I wonder why Google doesn’t get more scrutiny from the federal government regarding its data collection efforts. Perhaps there’s a reason.

    Consider some other implications. Google is likely modeling consumer behavior. They likely have many different typical “profiles” that facilitate which prediction algorithms are selected to measure against the observed data. Some of those profiles likely include legislators and regulators, government employees, law enforcement personnel.

    What do all corporations want? After profit, that is. Autonomy without accountability. Imagine the top people at Google NOT looking at what data they have on legislators, regulators and law enforcement. Imagine them NOT using that data to “lobby” government.

    We don’t know what Google is doing in its data centers.

    We should be interested in finding out.

    • claimchowder

      We’ll know for sure when Google fiber comes to Washington, DC 😉

      • Doesn’t need fiber. Why do you think Schmidt carries a Blackberry?

      • Chaka10

        Don’t need to be in Washington DC either

    • Chaka10

      From Google’s website: “Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

      Not stated but obvious, Google’s business is to get paid for “making [the world’s information] universally accessible and useful”.

      I would suggest that any person’s comfort with Google relates really to their comfort with that mission being sought (and maybe accomplished) by a private business.

      • The “world’s information” covers a very broad swath. I would suggest that any person’s comfort with Google is a function of their imagination. Or lack of it.

      • Chaka10

        Broad indeed. I would understand and take them at their literal word on stated ambition. And I might also realize that technology (advances in scale and speed of computing, telecommunications, mobile, storage and memory, etc. and adoption thereof in the general population, down to very personal levels) has made this no longer a matter of simple, laughable, over-active imagination. It’s more real than ever that information is money, and I believe the leaders of Google value it inherently.

      • raycote

        “universally accessible”

        to select partner, when it suits us, subject to change without notice

        that kind of “universally accessible” ?

    • raycote

      I don’t think it is to much of a stretch to say that the evolution of modern culture from here forward will be largely driven by,

      an organic array of network-synchronized, recombinant, data-driven algorithmic intercourse,

      driven by a recombinant DNA-like organic complexity, that is presently transcending the cellular-organizing platform into the the human social-organizing platform.

      Surely the recurring themes of sustainable complex(organically-adaptive) systems :
      as embodied in nature’s cellular-networking-behaviour cheat-sheet are worthy of some serious contemplation in regards to the long term implications of a Google or Facebook like over centralized, cyber-inbreeding cul-de-sack.

      Just maybe the BIG-DATA-SILOS that act as pivotal repositories of our collective noosphere should be organized as PUBLIC UTILITIES driven by OPEN STANDARD API’s.


      Maybe we should just stick with that old time-tested formula for human organization and install a new set of centralized digital-culture oligarchs.

  • Clindsey

    Apple is into sterilization of the fish!

  • What a long, rambling post. I stopped a third of the way through. The model is simple and it began in the 1980s in the US; maybe earlier if we go back to broadcast. Networks are simply a means to an end; that end being primarily commerce, of which human interaction is a subset. The end-game is centralized procurement or sponsorship of the edge to onboard everyone easily, freely. Nothing sinister about that, as it really does improve our lives and we do have choice. More importantly the lack of silos (or limits to them) is highly generative, driving both information velocity as well as real GDP growth. As broadband has become a relative constraint in the 00s (in the US and Europe), due to monopolization or remonopolization of the sector, economies and individuals have suffered. Google’s KC (now Austin) fiber shows that pricing can and will reflect low marginal cost achieved at every layer and boundary point. Just wait when those fiber/access networks can be subsidized by corporate/institutional VPNs for HD video conferencing and also scale to handle wireless. It’s time to stop the vertically integrated thinking and start putting horizontal glasses on. In every one of the 3 digital, horizontal waves of the 1980s and 1990s, demand was driven from and by the core; not the edge.

    • I would like to reply to your comment, but having stopped reading a third of the way through I don’t find myself qualified to do so.

    • Walt French

      I have a lower threshold of revulsion of BS, apparently, than our site owner, so if I may…

      It’s hard to find a whiff of reality in your buzzword-laden assertions. “More importantly the lack of silos (or limits to them) is highly generative, driving both information velocity as well as real GDP growth,” for example. I, for example, work in a world where minimizing transactions costs have absolutely made the market more accessible to people, and expanded the industry hugely. But that “information velocity” is actually a result of huge dollars at work, not the individual micro-transactions that Google sells by what must be the hundreds of billions. Telecomm, computing and media now consume a huge share of the American household’s budget. It’s our choice, but it ain’t because ads are plastered over every site you see.

      And in the very same screed that you celebrate lack of silos, you celebrate one of the largest companies on the planet gaining exclusive access to all the personal information of one city, a monopoly that makes the sweetheart deals that Comcast or Time-Warner sign with city councils all over the country look like chickenfeed.

      What you celebrate elsewhere as a competitive model is anything but. In fact, Google does not have the cash to wire the US this way; it aims to skim a few cities while its monopolization of ads means that other for-profits will never be able to monetize a “free” network that way, either. Seems I saw the notion that perhaps this would work for 20% of the US population. That’ll be a fun society to live in, where we twist economics to rule 80% of the people off the superhighways.

      I have to give props to Google for lots of great innovations, nowhere more so than their clever business models. But spare us the cheerleading/PR lobbying of how good it is for everybody else. This site is supposed to be about analysis, and with your resumé, you know damn good and well how it’s a community that doesn’t need insulting(!) and pompous PR any more than it needs flamewars.

      • Point 1: There is no choice wrt pricing, which is controlled by government backed monopolies. Bandwidth is 20-150x overpriced.

        Point 2: I agree with you, everyone needs to recognize the racket that is local municipal restrictions (payoffs and kickbacks and revenue generation) that impede citizenry from getting unfettered, low-cost and in the future “free” access to the “WAN” or “internet”. The federal govt needs to remove state/regional restrictions and the states need to remove local restrictions (not impose them as 19 have).

        Look up metcalfe’s law: costs increase linearly, value geometrically. A corollary is that edge demand is driven from the core. Did the broadband monopolies really risk a lot or sell particularly well in the 2000s? No, they were pulled along by people’s need to be 3x-10x faster and more productive. Why do you think 1100 cities replied to Google’s fiber initiative?

        Point 3: Google is most likely a) architecting a blueprint for others to license, franchise or cooperate on, and/or b) trying to generate a competitive response (which may or may not be happening at AT&T). VC spending on infrastructure hardware and services is down 70% over the past 4-5 years vs the prior 10. Pretty damning for the next 10 years.

        Point 4: the principal access modality is wireless, something I’ve been saying since 10 cent digital wireless first surfaced in 1996. Wireless’ cost and bandwidth is directly tied to fiber. Google is uniquely positioned in trying to influence the outcomes of both for 100% of the population. I don’t know where you get your percentages, but I’ve studied all competitive pricing and business models over the past 23 years across urban, suburban, rural core, rural, consumer, commercial, voice, data and video and I see their model addressing 100% of the population.

        Point 5: it would help if you knew your history better. In point of fact equal access in long-distance, then data and then wireless in the 80s and 90s led America to its ascendant state. We saw pricing (transaction costs) decline 99% in each area over 10 years, yet revenue rose 6-15% annually due to 3 forms of price/demand elasticity (normal, private to public, and application).

        Unfortunately we’ve been regressing (information velocity has slowed relatively) since the farcical telecom Act of 1996, along with the “de”regulation of special access in 2002 and the abrogation of equal access on broadband circa 2005, all of which led to the final wave of consolidations and complete remonopolization of our access networks. If you like monopolies, silos, and non-generative systems, great! I don’t care for them.

      • Walt French

        I’d actually misread the stat I threw out, but it was as correct as any guess that originates from a Wall St research shop is likely to be, anyway. (You know the drill, right?)

        At TechCrunch there’s a discussion of Stanford Bernstein’s SWAG that

        “if Google built out a fiber network to serve 20 million homes over a period of five years, ‘the annual capex investment is required to be in the order of $11 billion to pass the homes, before acquiring or connecting a single customer.’

        There is a big question mark over why, in fact, Google would ever embark on such a project. ‘It would have limited impact on the global broadband access industry beyond these 20 million homes,’ Bernstein writes. As a point of comparison, it was estimated that it cost Verizon, before it halted FiOS buildout, about $4,000 per home to connect it to its fiber network.”

        More info on their assumptions at I separately found Wolfram estimating about 100 million households able to get the big 4 networks. So 20% of the US, believable. Note some questions have been raised about TechCrunch’s interpretation, adding some further uncertainties.

        Note also that Google is proposing a couple of service tiers, starting at $300 connect fee plus nothing per month, and that Bernstein estimates some economies from a “batch” approach but still notable up-front monies per customer, not terribly less than what the cable guys are unwilling to commit.

        Note that Google already gets revenues of $50 billion per year (almost all from customers using competitors’ cable and DSL) and it’s not clear how faster access enhances that, except for the fact that Google can charge for the pay-per-view or on-demand that Comcast used to get. Because that’s what people use very-high-speed connections for. So there are none of your magic externalities here; just Google dangling magic beans and “free!” in front of people.

        Not saying that there aren’t synergies here, just that Google is essentially positioning itself to capture them all for itself. Profits, even high ones are fine by me—except when they derive from monopoly control over services where it’s quite possible to have robust competition. If Google really wanted to expand usage, they could help crack the problem of the proprietary last mile in a way that doesn’t give themselves, or a competitor, monopoly ownership of the houses they pass in front of.

      • If you were Google wouldn’t you do the same? Didn’t Apple disrupt music distribution, then content, then wireless? Apple’s problem is that they aren’t disrupting anybody these days. Google is looking like they will disrupt telecom and cable. If I were Apple and MSFT, I’d actually sit down with Google and say “how can we do this collectively, cause it’s the biggest arbitrage in 30 years!”

        Bernstein’s thinking vertically, not horizontally in terms of their cost analysis and potential revenue (and sources). How much do you think a company would pay for 2×30 mbs into a home committed information rate for HD group video conferencing? $20 per month? Think of the value to the company and the employee. Extend that to 2 employers plus on-demand, consulting work, and maybe kids at college or school doing remote HD collaborative learning with a esteemed teacher or professor, plus tele-medicine, govt, etc…

        There are all sorts of uses in the future to amortize the cost of, or pay for, the edge from the core. We saw so many examples in the 1980s and 1990s in digital voice, digital messaging, digital data, digital wireless, etc…. So just 2 or 3 of these, and your price begins to come down to $30 or less per home.

        And that’s before companies start getting naming rights for fiberhoods…I’m just sayin. But seriously, if you keep on skating to where the puck is, and extrapolating the current state of affairs, you’ll never be the Wayne Gretsky of forecasting.

      • Like it or not, however, Google is “disrupting” telecom by using heavily subsidized pricing. If Google was competing in a truly competitive market, the KC costs would have been substantially higher. For example, KC hired many (I think 100+) full time employees to do regulatory paperwork and planning that Google’s competitors had to do them selves. Google was given access to utility poles their competition was denied. Google was allowed to bypass neighborhoods where enough people did not sign up where Google’s competition was regulated to go into neighborhoods that were a loss (read low income). Google was given free office space their competition had to pay for. There is also indication the city did lots of trenching for no cost.

        In short, KC gave Google a sweet deal that sucked up substantial costs that were paid for by people not even getting or eligible for the service. A good write up on Forbes did some great math that put the $70/month package to really be a $150/month. Of course elasticity of demand would have then driven that cost up. Google is not simply picking a market and moving in, they pick a market and get the local government to pay for most of their for profit enterprise.

        Now, I am not against governments doing infrastructure development at all. In fact, I am for it. But if they are going to do it for a for-profit-company, IT MUST BE EQUAL ACCESS. Without question. Yes, I would have trouble with the state building a road and then giving the road to a private company to collect tolls. Tolls not for the state but for the private company.

      • Walt French

        Sorry Horace says only one upvote per customer. Great post.

      • Steve,

        You are right. It is definitely not a competitive market. It is a regulatory and policy quagmire rife with kickbacks and taxes that sustain vertically integrated monopolies.

        It is well documented that Google made substantial efforts to get all neighborhoods to reach their minimum levels; it’s called smart marketing and smart build. That’s in part why they’ve achieved the price points they have. As I said earlier the reality is most access is going wireless and with so much fiber the cost of wireless has gone down to practically nothing. Some people simply do not need fixed bandwidth. But they probably will once applications exist that necessitate it. As well, Google’s low-end, affordable plan is the absolute best in the country. I don’t think you’ll find one better; everything Comcast et al are doing is lip-service and marketing to the Feds.

        Do you know what equal access is? If you did, then you would know that the economic and technical rebound in the US over the past 30 years is largely due to equal access; first for long-distance, then for data and then wireless. We never achieved equal access in the last mile. Worse, about 10 years ago the federal govt killed off equal access on ALL fronts. Funny, but as our bandwidth pricing stopped declining at a rate commensurate with Moore’s plus Metcalfe’s laws in the 2000s so too has our economic growth decelerated rapidly. So please I welcome equal access everywhere, and as I said previously let’s lift a lot more local restrictions that foster and sustain monopolies.

        Simply put, we need policy that promotes equal access for all layer 1 communication networks (wired and wireless). Not only are they all using public rights of way and therefore should be shared, it just makes economic sense to do so. With rapidly obsoleting supply and ever-changing and growing demand, vertically integrated service providers are dinosaurs.

        That’s really the war being fought here. It’s a war between vertically integrated service providers whose excessive pricing reflects average, not marginal cost (marginal cost being defined as a series of iterative supply and demand clearing assumptions arrived at a priori, not ex poste) and horizontally layered and scaled intranets and exchanges in the lower (transport and access), middle (switching, security, session control and settlements) and upper (marketing and applications) layers. It’s about going from an analog driven mindset to a digital mindset. It’s about closed vs open.

        So let’s see how the dinosaur AT&T actually does build a fiber network in Austin, as that is the first, supposed competitive response to Google.

        Lastly, before you start throwing around numbers and suppositions, please make sure you are correct and review the sources, as they are most likely industry shills, which is the case at Forbes.

      • But Google was not held to equal access. Period. There are many low income areas they did not have to serve and their competition does.

      • Steven,

        You are confusing equal access (which is another service provider or large enterprise and app developer having open or equal access to the network or component on a non-exclusive basis) with universal service (which is what you seem to imply with low income areas).

        Be more specific and then we can have more discussion about the history and state of both across the nation (and in KC) as they currently support monopolies and slow speeds. Unfortunately both are misunderstood concepts and as currently enacted/regulated out of touch with today’s supply and demand realities.

      • Walt French

        a separate reply to your separate point of Google building a template for others, or for partnerships. Again, the only disruption Google offers today is low/zero prices in exchange for the ability to put high-CPM ads in your face. This model does not work for even a Bing or Yahoo! It seems to work best in industries where there’s moderate-to-high fixed costs, but very low marginal costs, e.g., Android software, so they can build a monopoly that nobody else can leap because there are no left-over revenues. Likewise, how does that work for somebody, say EarthLink, who’d partner? I just don’t see how it pencils outside of early-stage PE.

      • Amen.

  • Clearly, any “walled garden” is perceived as a dam. Disconnected apps represent small pools of un-searchable data. No flow at all. Does Google see this as a threat to their model? If so does this mean that they feel as though all water in the system is rightfully theirs? If so this starts to sound like the basis of megalomania and the beginnings of evil to me. An obsession to make all of any one resource the sole domain of one entity usually leads to evil.

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  • stevesup

    From the fishes’ perspective, Apple has built its own ponds to raise game fish. River fish live feral lives: poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

  • orcus_magnus

    A TV show reaches 15 million viewers and is on one of 4 channels, that advertising space is, WAS, worth quite a bit. But a pseudo-article on Buzzfeed or one of ten thousand clones? What is that worth to the advertiser? What is a Google Ad Sense ad really worth in terms of its return? Does Google provide the answer in the form of ‘hard’ measurements? Can such payoff actually be measured? What is the incentive for Google to make, or provide, such measurements? Is their prime goal to simply say, “Look how big our river system is, look at all the fish you COULD catch.”?

    It SEEMS like the cost/value of advertising is being driven down, down, down, and Google is one of many players driving it lower, as the efficacy of ‘ads’ is forced into the hard light of analysis.

    This is probably not good news for those of us whose income comes from the advertising-creation business, Google included.

    Dave Rogers semi-conspiratorial comment below is probably indicative to how Google could reshape advertising to recreate the value they, I think, are currently destroying (disrupting). I would love Horace to do a series focused entirely on advertising; cost versus payoff, out of my own self-interest.

  • DooDoo

    The more the water, but not necessary more fishes (Advertisers are fishes). Overfishing means lease for everyone.

  • njit02

    I read this and can’t help but think it’s just more data collection. Nobody is upset about getting less bulk mail (except the post office) because advertisers realized the return was so low for the cost. So Google collects more information what does that do for other business? One time AOL was the dominant provider of internet, so big they bought Time Warner. Yahoo was also the search engine of choice at one time.

    All things come and go when someone creates the next best thing. Vanderbilt’s train empire fell and the automobile took it’s place. All things have their time and because Google is paying it through advertising means nothing. Everyone that has a television knows advertising pays for your free shows. Even when you have paid TV (either cable, satellite, or fiber) there are still advertisements. Now we use DVRs to record shows and every skip, rewind, and selection is recorded and sent to advertisers. Are you going to stop watching TV because someone is collating that data?
    In “the hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy” they created another planet to answer the ultimate question. The answer is every bit of Information is collectible and mining all that information for something useful is the art. A business creating a better buggy whip shouldn’t be considered evil because they’re analyzing is there a market still for buggy whips?

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  • tmay

    On the Mississippi, there is the Old River Control Structure:

    Be careful what you wish for. Rivers aren’t as tamed as we may believe.

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  • Claude Hénault

    Lovely analogy, but it left me wondering how to fit in Apple. My conclusion is that Apple “stealths” the fish that don’t want to participate in the upstream and delta-bottom “catch, copy and release” activities.

    In that context, Apple’s commercial job is to convince people to assign a monetary value to privacy, and to get authorities to tolerate it.

  • Bruce_Mc

    This plays out on a personal level. There are iPad apps that aggregate news stories. Zite and Flipboard are two that I use. On both of these apps, I have the ability to ask for what kind of news stories I want to read, much like with Google News. However, on the iPad apps I have the ability to block stories from any individual source. If I am reading nothing but dumb stories from a particular site, I can press the block button, so I won’t have to see that site any more in Flipboard or Zite.

    In Google News, this is impossible. It is also impossible to block sites from Google search results. It would be very useful if I could block the link aggregator sites that float up to the top of search results and come between me and the sites they are linking to, the ones I want to see. It seems that, unlike Zite or Flipboard, Google doesn’t want to help me build my own personal dam.

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