Google X Project Loon — Wireless Internet via Balloon!

Google Loon BalloonHave you ever wondered what Google does with its abundance of cash? The answer: incredible moonshot projects.

As of Jun 30th, 2013, Google had over $54 billion in cash and short term investments. With that kind of moolah, there is very little you can’t do and, unlike Apple that likes to horde its cash, Google likes to put that money to good use, investing in moonshot projects.

So what is Project Loon?

Project Loon is the latest extreme project to come out of Google X, Google’s secret facility for futuristic (sci-fi-like) development. Loon is Google’s attempt to bring internet access to everyone on the planet via a series of special balloons that will create a wireless network from up in the stratosphere.

Other notable Google X projects: self-driving cars and Google Glass,

Google makes money from people using the internet, so it makes sense that they would try to bring more people online. Nonetheless, there are few companies out there that are willing to spend as much money as Google on these “extreme” projects. Loon even gets its name from the fact that the idea was initially seen as “loony”.

The idea behind Loon is very simple: many people around the world lack internet access because they live in remote areas where it is difficult to run traditional networks. Loon aims to solve this issue by floating high in the stratosphere and providing 3G-like internet speeds over a wide area from far above.

The best part of projects like this is that even if they fail, they push the envelope and drive radical change. Google’s self-driving cars, for example, have stimulated competition from a number of companies including Mercedes-Benz, GM, Toyota and Nissan, among many others. They took an idea that seemed downright loony, and turned it into a major innovation that has the auto industry struggling to keep up.

Apple may have redefined the mobile phone space with the iPhone, but Google is silently revolutionizing several industries with innovation previously thought of as sci-fi. This, while simultaneously dominating search and becoming the front-runner in the mobile OS space. What can’t Google do?


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How Does Google Get Away with Upsetting Their Customers?

Google continues to make changes that improves their products’ user experience, but that hurts their primary customers, those that actually give them money — namely, marketers. With each new iteration of its core products, Google has made one thing clear: Online marketers, you are priority #2.

Back in Oct 2011, Google enabled encrypted search for users logged into their Google account. This caused a large portion of queries to show up in analytics as “not provided”, greatly reducing the visibility of search data useful for marketing analysis. This change had dramatic implications for online marketers, inbound marketers and especially SEOs. The change had many people up in arms.

What is interesting is that despite the blow-back, Google did nothing to make their customers feel better about the situation. Considering 96% of Google’s revenue comes from advertising, you would think they would try harder to keep the marketers happy.

The next thing Google did was even more radical. A recent Gmail update pushed out a new interface with several tabs that automatically sorts a user’s email and separates all marketing and promotional emails out of their inbox into a new Promotions tab. This change is particularly extreme because newsletters and other content a user subscribes to is now sent to the promotions tab so the email is no longer front and center in their inbox.

It is very bizarre that Google is continuing to make changes that frustrates their customer base. These user “improvements” are rarely directly requested and yet heavily impact marketers. Perhaps Google is too big to fail? They certainly have such a high percentage of search traffic that marketers are pretty much stuck with them whether they like it or not.

Have you been affected by these Google changes? Please share your experience in the comments below.

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Google Maps for the iPhone (iOS 6)

There was a tremendous backlash against Apple when they removed Google Maps from the iPhone when they released iOS 6, and for good reason. Google Maps was an extremely polished app that single-handedly justified owning a smartphone. After weeks of struggling with Apple Maps and plenty of boiling-over hatred, Google Maps was finally re-introduced on for iOS 6 and calmed the masses.

“Yes I have all the Maps in the world at my fingertips and can get directions anywhere virtually instantly. Also, it’s very accurate (unlike Apple Maps).”

The first thing I noticed was the difference in speed. It was hard to judge how much of the speed improvement was as a result of the newly streamlined app, as opposed to the difference in phone speed in general since I had just upgraded from the iPhone 4 to the iPhone 5. Likely a little bit of both. The speed improvements are a result of Google’s newly incorporated WebGL technologies that dynamically draw the map instead of downloading new image squares every time you zoom in.

Click here to learn more about Google Maps with WebGL and discover how to enable it for desktop Google Maps as well.

A number of new features also came with the app — features that were once available only on the Android version. The biggest feature addition was turn by turn navigation. The TomTom’s of the world are in serious trouble now, as anyone with either an Android or iOS device can now use their phone as a full GPS. I have only used the feature a handful of times but it seems to be deadly accurate, unlike the ridiculous hilarity of Apple Maps.

I am still most impressed by the overall speed of the app. Zooming in and out happens almost instantly — an enormous improvement from the old days of watching giant gray boxes float on screen while the rest of the image squares were being downloaded. Searching for directions also happens instantly which has always blown my mind. To think that Google’s servers can receive the address information, match it up with their index and automatically suggest a route which is then draw in half a second on the app is beyond me. Switching transportation methods provides new directions just as quickly (mind explosion!)

Google Maps also provides several available routes each time you request a route. This is great because you can make on-the-fly decisions about different routes if there is a reason you want to avoid a particular street or area. I never find myself choosing an alternative route though, since the route it recommends is always the best — perfectly accounting for traffic, road speeds etc.

Having recently jailbroken my iPhone 5 and downloaded the new Google Maps, I am very content 🙂

Google Maps App iOS 6 Screenshots

Best New Google Analytics Features

For the unititated, Google Analytics contains a series of the most powerful web analytics tools on the market – and the best part is: it’s free! Whether you are tracking website traffic, conversions, site speed, or audience demographics; Google Analytics is for you.

As a content and website manager myself, I can say that I use Google Analytics frequently. Combined with marketing software like Hubspot, there is very little you cannot find out about your online audience. I could go on forever about its usefulness but for the purpose of this post I will be focusing on the best new Google Analytics features.

In-page Analytics (Content > In-Page Analytics)

Google Analytics - In-page Analytics

In-Page Analytics allows you to see which elements of your website are most appealling to users and generate the most clicks – essentially a heat map for click activity. Above you can see the screenshot of the website I manage (exciting stuff, Inventory and Accounting Software). The tool isn’t perfect – many of the results do not match the colour properly or reference the correct element, perhaps because of positioning issues, but hovering over each section will reveal the data for the correct element. Colours range from blue (low click rate) to red (high click rate).

With In-Page Analytics, you can navigate from page to page and determine which elements are most interesting to your audience and which are not so that you can make changes accordingly. Like the rest of the Google Analytics interface, you can change the time frame to see click data for different periods.

Included with In-Page Analytics is the ability to “see what your audience can see”. This feature is simply labelled “browser size” and allows you to determine how much of your page is visible to the average user of your website. This is particularly important as Google leans more and more towards content located above-the-fold. The tool is also useful for designing mobile sites and ensuring content is visible as well.

Motion Chart (Available Throughout Interface)

Motion Chart - Google Analytics

The next best Google Analytics feature is the Motion Chart. Found throughout the system, Motion Charts allow you to visualize data over time. You can enable Motion Chart by clicking on the icon indicated on the screenshot above. Not every screen has the option for motion charts but many do. This feature can make presentations on data over time a breeze. You can choose 2 criteria to evaluate, one for each axis, and then scroll through time to see how the data has changed for each element selected. The flexibility and power of this tool was surprising.

Visitors Flow (Audience > Visitors Flow)

Visitors Flow - Best Google Analytics Features

The last Google Analytics feature I want to talk about is Visitors Flow. Visitors Flow visiualizes, well, the flow of visitors throughout your site. You can quickly pin-point the most popular pages and the pages that have the most significant drop-off or bounce rates. You can also highlight “traffic routes” to see how which pages users are most likely to visit based on a given entrance page, for example. This can be powerful insight and allow you to make decisions to improve a visitors pathway to maximize conversions.

I feel bad for any company trying to sell website analytics – Google offers a ton of functionality for free. All marketers and webmasters, should become very familiar with Google Analytics.

The Social Media Saturation Point

Ping, Google Plus, Friendster

Analysts around the world have been predicting a second tech bubble burst for some time now. However, it hasn’t yet happened. In the age of micro-payments, even the most niche start-ups can find enough customers to stay alive. Social networks, on the other hand, are the true bubble.
You see, social media is everywhere these days and discussed incessantly, so hundreds of businesses have been built around these social networks. My Twitter bio contains words such as “business” and “marketing”, for example, I cannot go a single day without being bombarded by new followers claiming to help me “leverage social media” and “build my online following”. The question is, how many of these businesses can the market support?

I argue that the we have reached the social media saturation point. It started out as the next big thing, so of course everyone was very excited about it. Don’t misunderstand me, however; social media is as powerful as it ever was – for certain target audiences and certain uses and most importantly for established social networks.

New social media business has seen their glory days come and go. There was a time, several years ago, when it seemed that anyone could start a social network business and find success, but established social networks like Facebook and Twitter have tightened their grip on the industry.  The only company to truly pick up speed in the last few years has been Pinterest – finding a niche primarily with crafty women.

Even social networks backed by some of the biggest companies in the world have failed. A perfect example is Ping, a social network created by Apple that fell flat. They thought they had found an unserved corner of the market but turned out to be dead wrong – even after investing millions of dollars and baking it into a variety of its products, people preferred Facebook and Twitter to discuss music. Finally seeing that there is little room for a new social network, Ping was killed this year (2012).

We have reached the social media saturation point.

Another recent example is Google+. Google+ still remains active and claims success, however, most of us know better. Even Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, qualifies their success based on the challenge posed by the social media giants: “Google+ is doing better than I expected given the competitors in the market“. Except for a heavily-male group of computer scientists, Google+ has failed to draw the masses like Facebook and Twitter. Unlike Ping, Google+ will likely stick around for while, continuously fed cash by Google so that they can improve their search results via stats from a small segment of the market; perhaps one day seeing the light and calling it quits as well.

I love competition and choice as much as the next guy but until something that offers something truly unique comes along, I’m sticking with Facebook and Twitter. After all, a social network’s value is based on its number of connections and I have long thought there is too much division on the internet.

What do you think?


The Google Display Network Is The Devil: How to Opt Out

photoMost online marketers already know this but it is worth repeating: do not, under any circumstances, use the Google Display Network. It has long been known that the quality of the network is extremely questionable, but lately I have been finding many examples of blatant abuse of the network and advertisers.

Take a look at this image. Does anything stand out to you? It was taken from a quiz on, a site that abuses the Google Display Network. Notice that embedded within the content itself is an ad – located directly above actionable content. What this does is increase the likelihood that a user will accidentally click on an ad. This came to my attention when I had visited the site through someone’s Twitter post and ended up accidentally clicking on the ad. Ads are displayed directly above the “next” button on the mobile site. The button for the quiz is very small and located directly beneath an ad making it very likely that you will click on the ad instead of the button.

Unless you work for a company that likes to waste money, you should avoid situations like these by opting out of the Google Display Network. I will walk you through the steps below:

  1. When you create a new campaign, look for the “Networks and Devices” section and click “Let me choose”.
  2. Uncheck “Display Network”.
  3. Also, consider unchecking “Search Partners” as well if you want to further improve ROI.


To play devil’s advocate for myself, I was trying to think of reasons why someone might find the Display Network useful:

  1. You are a spammer or phisher that wants to drive unsuspecting victims to your site (so you don’t care where they are coming from or if they are clicking accidentally).
  2. You want more visits to your page even if everyone is immediately clicking away because they didn’t mean to click the ad.
  3. Your favourite thing is wasting money.

The Display Network is an interesting concept that would work in a perfect world where your ads are displayed on only highly relevant sites and enthralled customers come clicking to your door. Unfortunately, the reality is that many sites like abuse the network. Google does not police the network as closely as it should because they stand to benefit from sites like ChaCha that generate a lot of money for them. Meanwhile, advertisers are left wondering why they are spending tons of money with no return.


Hint: you can choose which sites your ads display on so you have the option of choosing a select few sites or blocking select sites (the Display Network’s only saving grace).


Google’s Self-Driving (Autonomous) Cars are Here

The idea of the self-driving car has been around for a very long time. Normally, these cars are reserved to science fiction and the dreams of nerds around the world, however, they have now become a reality.

Google has been developing self-driving cars for a number of years now and unlike other advances we here about long before they ever come to fruition, Google has already succeeded – the self-driving car is here. In fact, Google’s fleet has already accumulated more than 140,000 miles of driving time. That’s right, self-driving cars are a reality.

A number of advancements have been made to make cars more self-sufficient and help drivers out over the years. Assisted parking has existed for some time now and unassisted parallel parking was quite the news several years ago. Google, of course, is never happy with the rate of innovation and decided to step it up a notch and make fully self-sufficient cars a reality – now.

These self-driving Google cars use an array of sensors to navigate through the cityscape – many of which are already in use with cars currently on the market. For example, the same sensors that are used to automatically decelerate a vehicle when a vehicle ahead applies its brakes (currently available in higher-end vehicles) are used to judge distance and speeds of surrounding vehicles in autonomous vehicles. Sensors like these are combined with cameras, radar, lasers and some hefty computers to process the real world into navigable pathways for the vehicles to travel.


Click here for the full article “Let the Robot Drive” from Wired

The systems used by these cars are incredibly impressive allowing them to locate themselves precisely with GPS, avoid pedestrians and ebb and flow effectively with traffic. Although the systems have some limitations (how would they deal with inclement weather and obscured roads) they are already reliable enough to allow them to navigate the roads by themselves.

GM is pioneering their own self-driving cars and predicts that we will see them available to the consumer market as early as 2020. Is his timeline overly optimistic? Considering the progress we have seen in this area in such a short period of time, I think not.

Personally I cannot wait. Machines are much more effective than people at dealing with the mundane – like bumper-to-bumper traffic. I have always envied those who are able to commute via train or bus during rush hour; they can do as they please! Imagine enjoying your favourite TV show on your way to and from work each day. Truly that is innovation.


The New Google Look And Feel is Simple And Awesome

Google's new look and feel is simple and awesomeGoogle has made a number of fairly dramatic changes to the look and feel of some of its biggest products. Gmail, Google Analytics and even Google Search have seen major look-and-feel changes lately. Some people feel the new Google look feels wrong but I completely disagree.

Google has long been loved for its openness and its simplicity and while it has taken a couple steps back with openness lately they have moved forward with simplicity and integration across products. Although I do not use Google+ (and think it’s a redundant service given everyone already uses Facebook & Twitter), I do enjoy its interface. The Google+ look is clean and awesome and is finally being applied across Google products. The result is a unified UI across products that is easy to use and looks and feels like the modern web.

Google Search has remained particularly simple over the years with few changes to its design so some decent changes are long overdue. The integration of products along the top bar is one of the nicest additions (although not the most recent addition). Google is of course desperately pushing Google+, which I’m not overly pleased with but as long as everything else becomes more integrated as well, then all is well.

The new Google look and feel

It is very convenient that you can now log into Gmail (or your default Google product) and be automatically logged in throughout other products like Google+, Google Analytics etc.

Back to the design discussion – the Gmail redesign was met with a lot of push-back but I suspect that most people were responding as a knee-jerk reflex and hadn’t given themselves a chance to get used to it. Very similar to the complaining about Facebook changes that are quickly forgotten about. By now, I’m sure most people have become comfortable with the redesign.

All-in-all, I like the changes. Everything is still simple, clean, modern looking and visually appealing. The integration between products is getting better and the look-and-feel helps reduce the feeling of fragmentation. Keep it up Google!


Google Hides Organic Search Keywords

In an extremely selfish and seemingly ridiculous move, Google has recently removed organic keyword tracking for users that are logged into Google services. All organic search keywords will simply be reported as “not provided” effective immediately. For those who are unaware, SEO Moz has a great article on the topic – Google Hides Search Referral Data.

Google estimates that, because the change will only apply to users logged into Google services, the number of affected searches will be less than 10%. Of course, to those who rely on the data, this is a significant proportion. Google claims the change has been made to protect user privacy but after scouring my Google account settings I have not found an option to turn it off. For Google, an organization that strives to be as open as possible, this is a bizarre and terrible move.


The situation is fairly serious for us internet marketers that rely on keyword tracking to make strategic marketing decisions. For now, the number of searches that it affects is relatively small but will almost certainly increase exponentially overtime, as more users sign up for Google services. Entire industries have been built on this data so it is very surprising that Google would make a significant change like this with no discussion or forewarning.

Theories have been thrown around about why Google removed their organic keyword tracking, but the predominant theory is that they have removed it to prevent competitive ad networks from gathering data from their systems. While this theory makes sense, it is extremely disappointing that they close up their system when they have prided themselves on being an open company.

Personally, I don’t see the harm in tracking keywords that users have typed in. What harm can come of someone knowing that you typed in “cheap socks” to find a particular site? Not to mention that Google will surely continue to collect this information for themselves – so it really isn’t fully private anyways.

Users have nothing to gain and marketers have much to lose. We can only hope that if we kick up enough of a fuss that they will realize that this is important to an entire industry and decide to stick to the principles that they have built their empire on.