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Monday, August 25, 2008

Black hat SEO on Amazon

What happens after mom spends a weekend in Mexico by Malingering from flickr (CC-NC-ND)

Amazon started as a bookstore, then after a brief period of being a patent troll it became an generic Internet shop, now it seems to be turning more and more into a shopping search engine, with thousands of sellers using it as an intermediary between themselves and the customers. I'd really enjoy the fight for shopping search engines between Amazon-style thick intermediaries and Google Products-style thin intermediaries. For now I must say Amazon is much more useful than Google Products, but maybe some day with some open standard shopping metadata the fight will be more even.

And just like every search engine Amazon starts to see the problem of black hat search engine optimization. Some time ago I was looking for earphones extension cord on Amazon, and the first results was one by Belkin with cost of £0.01. That's a pretty good price except there was a shipping cost of £4.50 per item, so they were basically abusing the search results screen.

Right now it seems Belkin isn't doing this anymore. I guess someone at Amazon noticed the abuse and wrist slapped them. Amazon as a thick intermediary has plenty of power over the sellers to control abusive behavior. It would be much more difficult for Google Products to enforce good behavior. Here's my prediction:

If thin intermediaries for shopping like Google Products ever become widespread, abusing behavior like hiding shipping costs, transaction costs, taxes and other fees will become as common as it is now in the airline industry.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Highly innovative YCombinator startups

Lolcat by taw based on Blogging for Cats by Vicki's Pics from flickr (CC-NC-SA)

A couple of weeks ago Paul Graham wrote a list of startups Y Combinator wants to fund. That's an interesting list, but I'd rather like to know what kind of startups they actually funded, and even better what kind of startups that they funded became successful. Every step on the road from a plan to a success can change the list quite significantly.

While I was somewhat interested in it, up till now I was also too lazy to do the research. Fortunately a recent thread on Reddit did it for me and provided an official list of Y Combinator startups that are considered "successful", for some definition of "successful". I'm not sure if "getting bought" is really the apex of success - it basically means you lose all control over your startup and work at a huge corporation again, exactly what you were trying to escape. At least unless they pay you enough money to buy a small island and retire, but press releases rarely mention how much money the founders got out of the deal.

So here's my list of Y Combinator successful startups with a brief explanations of what they're all about. The descriptions might be less that 100% accurate, but that's the impression I got from 5 minutes of interacting with their websites, and if an user doesn't get what your website is about in 5 minutes then fix your website, don't blame the user.

  • Infogami. Wiki-style website builder. I don't see what's the big deal.
  • Reddit. Just like Digg except without all the Digg users, so at least at first comments were of higher quality. Now that it got bigger it's just like Digg, except that you don't have to waste your precious time writing descriptions of your submissions and have more time to read how Ron Paul used Lisp to impeach Bush. I guess I shouldn't be so cynical as I'm using it as my main source of the news and one third of my readers come from Reddit, but cynicism is one of Terms & Conditions you need to agree to when you start a blog.
  • ClickFacts. Online ads fraud detection. I don't know how well it works, but it looks the most innovative of them all. By the way isn't it kinda ironic that geeks do ad-supported startups and block all ads at the same time?
  • Zenter. Web clone of PowerPoint, website died after Google bought them.
  • Auctomactic. Another user interface for eBay.
  • Parakey. Some sort of "Web operating system". They were bought by Facebook, but their website is dead, and it's not obvious if they actually built anything beyond buzzwords.
  • Anywhere.FM. Website where you can upload MP3s you own, play on your other computer, and then pay RIAA for it. So much for "A cure for the disease of which the RIAA is a symptom".
  • Omnisio. YouTube clone with a bunch of extra nifty features for cutting and annotating videos. They have nice screencasts. Too bad you cannot annotate Colbert with it, that would be awesome.
  • Xobni. Microsoft Outlook plugin for social networking. Kinda client side version of what Trampoline Systems is doing on server side. The obvious problem with pure client side solution like that is that you probably already know about your direct contacts, and you won't learn anything about your second-level connections without access to your first-level connections' mailboxes. So I'm not sure how much value there is it in, not to mention it only supports one bad email client on one bad operating system.
  • Scribd. You thought PDFs are bad? Now you can upload them to Scribd and make them even worse by displaying them in a shitty Flash applet. Scribd has a distinction of being the Y Combinator startup with highest chances of making the Web even worse than it is now. I seriously hope they never succeed.
  • Wufoo. Online builder for web forms. Nifty little app.
  • VirtualMin. Just like WebMin except on the Web. I think the main problem with most shared hosting/DNS registrars s not lack of GUIs, but too many crappy GUIs and limitted control over direct shell access or some sort of API.
  • SnapTalent. Use targeted online ads for recruitment. I like the idea, I just don't think it's likely to work, as contrary to the popular opinion most smart people do not work at Google. They probably don't do it, but it made me see a fresh wave of startups approaching, all based on a:visited security hole. a:visited is a fundamental problem with the web security architecture and isn't going to be fixed anytime soon, as people like marked visited links and CSS too much, and the only simple way to fix it is getting rid of either one of them. So from now on every website has access to your full history, and I know that you've visited: but not: Digg Reddit YouTube RedTube XTube YouPorn Facebook Orkut Adult Friendfinder. (it doesn't require JavaScript or cookies to track users, CSS background images are good enough). Architectural problems like that are fascinating. Even when you think you've covered every possible security issue, somebody comes up with an attack that cannot be fixed except with major rearchitecture of the Web. My favourite example is the Epilepsy Foundation attack (Encyclopedia Dramatica is for things Wikipedia doesn't have balls to write about). I don't think anybody expected that an animated GIF could be more than an annoyance and actually cause people seizures. No way to fix it now without breaking the Web, just like there's no way to fix a:visited attack. I'm getting sidetracked here, but my dear readers seem to like it when I'm getting sidetracked.
  • Justin.TV. Another YouTube clone. My first impression is that it's a lot less interesting than Omnisio.
  • Weebly. Another website creator.
  • Loopt. Let friends spy on you with their mobiles. Some people might find it usefull, but I don't get the whole mobile thing. Skype, email and IM are vastly superior for communicating with people than phone calls and SMS texting, cost a fraction of them, and most of the time people do have Internet access so they don't need mobiles. I just don't get it.
  • RescueTime. A service which records your browsing habits to sell to advertisers and CIA, I mean to help you avoid procrastination. If they convince people to install it they have the chance to be the new Google and earn billions on ads.

So most of them seem follow pattern of "just like X only Y", where Y more often than not equals "online". Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that's a bad thing - most of the progress in the human history follows the "just like X only Y" pattern, and with sufficient number of "only Y"s you can create something that creators of X never dreamed of.

It's kinda proving that Paul Graham was right saying the idea doesn't really matter, as in most of these startups it was good execution not brilliant idea what made them successful. So go ahead and start your startup.

EDIT: As some people on Hacker News noticed, I was wrong, and is for live streaming with webcams, not for recording YouTube-style videos using webcams as I guessed from looking at their website and reading their FAQ. The point of the article was not a detailed review of every startup on the list, but getting a general idea of what kind of startups YCombinator funds. Sorry if I haven't been clear about that. My conclusion that most of the startups follow the "just like X only Y" still follows, in case of for X="Youtube" and Y="live not prerecorded".