Constructor finds $55M for tech that powers search and discovery for e-commerce businesses

One of the biggest problems in the world of e-commerce is the predicament of shopping cart abandonment: when shoppers aren’t getting to what they want fast enough — whether it’s finding the right item, or paying for it in a quick and easy way — they bounce. That singular problem is driving a wave of technology development to make the experience ever more seamless, and today one of the companies closely involved in that space is announcing some funding on the back of healthy growth.

Constructor, which has built technology that powers search and product discovery tools for e-commerce businesses, has picked up $55 million in a Series A round of funding. Constructor says that it powers “billions” of queries every month, with revenues growing 233% in the last year. Customers it works with include Sephora, Walmart’s Bonobos, Backcountry and many other big names.

The round is being led by Silversmith Capital Partners — which coincidentally, just today, led another round for an e-commerce startup, Zonos.

It is joined by a long list of notable individual investors. They include David Fraga, former president of InVision; Kevin Weil, former head of product at Twitter and Instagram; Jason Finger, founder of Seamless; Carl Sparks, ex-CEO of Travelocity; Robyn Peterson, CTO at CNN; Dave Heath, founder of Bombas; Ryan Barretto, president at Sprout Social; Melody Hildebrandt, EVP engineering and CISO at FOX; Zander Rafael, co-founder of Better.com; and Seth Shaw, CRO at Airtable. Cap Table Coalition — a firm that helps underrepresented-background investors back up-and-coming startups — was also involved. Fraga is joining Constructor’s board with this round.

The last year and a half has been a bumper one for the world of e-commerce — with more traffic, transactions and retailers moving online in the wake of social distancing measures impacting in-person, physical shopping. But that has also exposed a lot of the cracks in how e-commerce works (or doesn’t work, as the case may be).

One of the more dysfunctional areas is search and discovery. As most of us have unfortunately learned first-hand, when we search for things in the search window of an online store, it’s almost always the case that the results don’t have what we want.

When we browse as we might in a physical store, because we are not sure of what we want, all too often we are not prompted with pictures of things we might actually like to buy. They may be there — we typically visit sites because we either already know them, or have seen something we like elsewhere — but nevertheless, finding what we might actually like to buy can take a lot of time, and in many cases may never happen at all.

Eli Finkelshteyn, Constructor’s CEO and founder, says that one of the issues is that search and discovery are often built as static experiences: they are designed to meet a one-size-fits-all model where site architects have effectively guessed at what a shopper might want, and built for that. This is one area that Constructor has rethought, specifically by making search and discovery more dynamic and responsive to what’s happened before you ever visit a site.

“One of the things wrong with product discovery was that prescriptively sites show you what they think is valuable to you,” he said. “We think the process should be descriptive.”

As an example, he talked about Cheetos. Sometimes people who might want to buy these start out by navigating to the potato chip category. In many static searches, those results might not include Cheetos. Some people might abandon their search altogether (bounce), but some might navigate away from that and search specifically for Cheetos and add them to their carts. In a descriptive and more dynamic environment, Finkelshteyn believes that these two flows should subsequently inform all future chip searches.

“We take into account as much data as we can learn from, and that list is always growing,” he said. “The goal is anything we can learn from should become part of the user experience.”

Google is the current, undisputed leader in the world of search, and it too uses a lot of dynamic, AI-based tools to learn and tweak how it searches and what results it produces.

Interestingly it hasn’t extended as much of this to third parties as you might think. The company wound down its own site search product in 1997 and now if you look for this you are redirected to the company’s enterprise search suite.

There are however others that have also stepped into that void to provide services that compete with Constructor, including the likes of Algolia, Yext, Elasticsearch and more. Finkelshteyn believes that among all of these, none have managed yet to provide a service like Constructor’s that learns and adjusts its results constantly based on search and browsing activity.

This is one reason the company has stood out with its customers, and with investors.

“Constructor has built a search and discovery platform that is truly making a difference for enterprise retailers. They are providing customers with comprehensive and optimized search and discovery that is unmatched in the market,” said Sri Rao, Constructor board member and general partner at Silversmith Capital Partners, in a statement. “We are excited to partner with the Constructor team as they continue to revolutionize search and discovery capabilities for retailers across all platforms.”

Looking forward, there will be some interesting opportunities ahead for Constructor to take its search and discovery tools to new frontiers. These could include ways to bring in and account for shoppers on third-party platforms — currently Constructor does not power experiences on, say, social media, so that is one potential area to explore — as well as more offline experiences, critical as retailers and shoppers take on more blended approaches that might start online and finish in stores, or proceed the other way around, or find users walking around with their phones to shop even as they are in physical stores.

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Chrome Beta to experiment with a more powerful New Tab page, web highlights, and search changes

Google is launching a new version of its Chrome Beta browser today that’s introducing some fairly notable changes to its user interface and design. The browser will introduce an updated New Tab page, which will now include cards directing you back to past web search activities, instead of only a list of shortcuts to favorite websites. Other changes aim to make it easier to navigate search results and to highlight and share quotes from the web.

The New Tab page’s update will be one of the first changes Chrome beta users may notice.

The idea behind this design change is about getting you back quickly to past web activities without a need dive into your browsing history to remember which sites you had been using for things like recipes or shopping. It can also help you to return quickly to your recent documents list in Google Drive, in a handy bit of cross-promotion for Google services.

Image Credits: Google

The page will now feature what Google is calling “cards,” not just links, which could direct you to things like a recently-visited recipe site where you had been browsing for ideas, a Google doc you need to finish editing, or a retailer’s website where you had left your shopping cart filled with things you may like to purchase at a later date. The latter ties into Google’s larger investment in online shopping, which has already seen the search giant trying to grab more marketshare in the space by making product listings free and partnering with e-commerce platforms like Shopify.

Google is rightly concerned about Amazon’s surging advertising business, which is a large part of the retailer’s “Other” category that grew 87% year-over-year to generate $7.9 billion in the second quarter. Now, it’s capitalizing on Chrome’s New Tab real estate to elevate shopping activity in the hopes of pushing users to complete their transactions.

Another change aims to make it easier to do web research. Google says that often, users searching for something on its platform will navigate to multiple web pages to find their answer. The new version of Chrome will experiment with a different way of connecting users to their search results by adding a row beneath the address bar on Chrome for Android that will show the rest of the results so you can navigate to other web pages without needing to hit the back button.

Image Credits: Google

A new “quote cards” experiment, also coming to Chrome Beta on Android, will allow users to create a stylized image for social sharing that features text found on websites. Taking a screengrab of a website’s text is something that’s already a common activity, and particularly for people who want to share a key point from a news article they’re reading with followers on platforms like Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. With this new feature, you’ll be able to long press text to highlight it, then tap Share and select a template by tapping on the “Create Card” option from the menu.

All features are a part of the Chrome Beta browser. To enable experiments, you can type chrome://flags into the browser’s address bar or click on the Experiments beaker icon, and then enable the flags. The associated flags for these experiments are #ntp-modules flag (New Tab page), #continuous-search (search results changes), and #webnotes-stylize flag (quote cards).

Experiments don’t necessarily become Chrome features that roll out more broadly. Instead, they offer Google a way to capture large-scale user feedback about its new design ideas, so the features can be tweaked and fine-tuned before a public release.

#android, #android-apps, #apps, #chrome, #chrome-beta, #chrome-on-android, #computing, #freeware, #google-apps, #google-search, #google-chrome, #google-docs, #google-drive, #online-shopping, #operating-systems, #recipes, #search, #search-results, #software, #web-search

Xayn launches a desktop version of its ad-free, privacy-safe search

Berlin-based Xayn, which as we reported last year is doing ad-free, personalized, privacy-safe search as an alternative to tracking and profiling adtech giants like Google, has expanded its product offering — launching a desktop version (in beta for now).

The desktop Xayn WebBeta is described as a “light web version” of the product with similar functionality to the mobile app — though of course there are differences, such as not being able to literally swipe on content to signal interest/disinterest, as you do on Xayn’s mobile apps.

Xayn isn’t a browser itself, per se, though it’s crossing the streams a bit (and can self-describe as a “browsing engine”) — since, as well as private search, it also offers an in-app browsing experience by populating a feed with snippets of content organized in the form of a discovery/news feed.

You’ll likely notice a short lag on loading the software in a desktop browser (also true on mobile) as Xayn’s AI figures out what to populate this feed with. It seems marginally longer the first time you fire the software up — when it’s starting from scratch (localizing the content to your country) vs repeat visits when the AI will have your individual browsing signals to work with.

On the desktop Xayn, you can signal a like or dislike on a particular piece of content by hovering the mouse next to the green (to like) or pink (to dislike) bar, which appear on the left and right sides of the content box respectively, and then clicking on the up (or down) thumb icon that pops up. So it’s actually a left click to like.

And if you really don’t need another feed in your online life you can switch off the discovery view — and have only a search bar on loading.

Search results are displayed by default in a similar grid of rectangular content panes to the discovery feed. Which is a little lacking in information density for this information worker…

Sample search result page as seen on Xayn’s WebBeta version (Screengrab: Natasha Lomas/TechCrunch)

Xayn’s learning AI can be toggled off whenever you like, by clicking on the brain icon in the top right. Say if you want to browse ‘unwatched’ — i.e. without the stuff you’re looking at being used as learning material for the AI to decide what else you’ll get shown (both for content in the feed and search results).

You can also reset the learning manually by clearing your browsing data — if you want to purge the whole thing and start again.

Another carrot to entice users is no ads: Xayn is ad-free — which of course isn’t the case with other non-tracking private search engines (like DuckDuckGo or Qwant), which tend to rely on showing contextual ads.

And in another break from the search industry ‘norm’, its AI’s search algorithms are open source.

Other features available on the desktop version of Xayn include a ‘deep search’ offering that it says lets users dive into a topic via “a simple click to be shown a personal reference library of relevant content”; and ‘collections’ — a bookmark-like offering which lets users “collect and store their favorite web content by creating, filling, and managing collections”.

Plus, as well as being ad-free itself, Xayn has baked in an ad blocker — blocking ads on third party sites for a “noise-free” browsing experience as it puts it.

Its first focus for the desktop is Chromium-based browsers and Firefox — so Safari users will need to switch to a supported browser to kick the tyres of its WebBeta.

The mobile version of Xayn’s product launched back in December and has been downloaded more than 250,000 times worldwide since then, according to the startup.

Three months after launch it says users were already conducting 100,000+ active daily searches — feeding in the browsing data and interest-based swipes that the AI uses to train and improve the personalized content discovery which is core to Xayn’s value proposition. And because it’s doing all this learning and reranking on device it’s able to tout its user-specific search results as ‘privacy safe’.

It also tries to avoid a filter bubble type effect by consciously injecting variance — so its algorithms don’t always just feed users more of the same.

Both the desktop and mobile version of Xayn use a technique called Masked Federated Learning to tailor the user’s web experience without compromising their privacy.

Google is also of course working on evolving its own ad targeting technology — currently it’s piloting a technology called FloCs (aka ‘federated learning of cohorts’) to put browser users in interest buckets for ad targeting purposes, as it works on deprecating tracking cookies. But its core business remains people profiling and selling your attention to advertisers — something Xayn definitely isn’t doing.

“We started Xayn as a direct response to the false privacy vs convenience dilemma and quickly proved that it’s possible to solve this trade-off so users are no longer losers. In fact, with each update, our fantastic team of engineers and designers demonstrates all over again how privacy, quality, and great UX go hand in hand,” said Leif-Nissen Lundbæk, co-Founder and CEO, in a statement.

“We didn’t want to copy what’s already out there but instead re-think it and create something new. With Xayn, you can find your favorite part of the Internet — either by actively searching the web or by browsing through the discovery feed that offers personalized content suggestions from the entire Internet. Either way, your privacy is always protected.”

“In creating Xayn’s web version, we have taken all the elements that made the app great and adapted them to the desktop browser window,” added Julia Hintz, its head of design, in another statement.

“The privacy-protecting algorithms, the intuitive design, and the smooth animations have found their way into the web version. Users can switch effortless between mobile and desktop without leaving their familiar environment. This is key for the seamless, deep interaction experience that makes Xayn special.”

In the web version of the product, Xayn says users’ personal data stays privately within the browser.

Asked about the security of the desktop product, a spokesperson told us: “Desktop computers are less safe than smartphones in general. However, Xayn protects personal data by using decentralized privacy-preserving machine learning in combination with encryption. From the pure technical point of view, Xayn is actually a browser within a browser on a desktop device. On desktop devices, Xayn runs in a sandbox in the respective browsers and this is how it protects personal data from unwanted third-party access.”

Future features Xayn plans to add includes the ability for mobile and desktop users to synchronize their personalized experience across multiple devices, while keeping their privacy intact, so the AI’s learnings can go with them wherever they’re online.

To check out the WebBeta version of Xayn’s search engine on your desktop computer point your browser at www.xayn.com.

Earlier this summer, Xayn announced a $12 million Series A funding round led by the Japanese investors Global Brain and Japanese telco KDDI, along with participation from prior backers including Berlin’s Earlybird VC — bringing its total financing to $23M+. Unsurprisingly, then, Asia (starting with Japan) is now a big focus for the Berlin startup.

#ad-blocking, #artificial-intelligence, #berlin, #duckduckgo, #europe, #google, #google-search, #japan, #privacy, #qwant, #search-engine, #tc, #web-browsers, #xayn

YouTube upgrades search with chapter previews and better recommendations for translated videos

YouTube announced two feature updates today to make it easier for people to find the content they’re looking for on the platform. This includes visual search features and easier discovery of foreign language videos that have captions in the user’s local language.

On desktop, YouTube users can hover over a video’s thumbnail and watch a brief clip play. This functionality will now extend to mobile with the added ability to browse the chapters within a video. From the search page, users can jump directly to the chapter they’re most interested in.

chapters appear in youtube search

“Let’s say you’re looking for a good sourdough recipe and want to work on your kneading technique. With these new search results, you can see all the steps in the video, from feeding the starter to pulling the bread out of the oven — and skip right to the chapter on kneading,” wrote Pablo Paniagua, director of Product Management, in a blog post.

The other product update recommends videos in other languages to the user, so long as the video has captioning available in their language. So, to extend YouTube’s sourdough example, if you speak Icelandic and can’t find a good sourdough tutorial in your language, YouTube might recommend an English-language tutorial with Icelandic subtitles. To start, YouTube will supplement search results with English-language videos, but it plans to expand to more languages.

an example of non-native language subtitles on a video

Image Credits: YouTube

In India and Indonesia, YouTube is also testing a feature to complement search results with links to other sites from Google Search.

“Not all searches may have enough high-quality or relevant video content to fully address what you’re looking for,” Paniagua explained.

Google Search already had a feature that let users skip to select moments in a video. Even late last year, Google (parent company to YouTube) experimented with a mobile search feature that would recommend short-form videos from TikTok and Instagram. But, the video would open within the search engine to keep users on Google, rather than opening the TikTok or Instagram apps.

Image Credits: YouTube (screenshot by TechCrunch)

These updates to YouTube’s search feature emerge in the midst of ongoing controversy around the platform’s search algorithm. Last month, Mozilla published research suggesting that YouTube’s algorithm continued to promote “bottom-feeding” content. Mozilla crowd-sourced data from participants who used a browser extension called RegretsReporter, which asks users to self-report YouTube videos they wish they didn’t watch. Mozilla found that YouTube regrets were 60% higher in countries where English isn’t the primary language. Still, a representative from YouTube said that features that might potentially mitigate this — for example, recommending foreign videos with local language captions — were not developed in response to the Mozilla report.

“Our teams have been working on these features for months with the goal of helping users find what they’re looking for, from how-tos to DIYs,” a spokesperson from YouTube said.

#apps, #google, #google-search, #search-engine, #search-results, #youtube

Google to introduce increased protections for minors on its platform, including Search, YouTube and more

Weeks after Instagram rolled out increased protections for minors using its app, Google is now doing the same for its suite of services, including Google search, YouTube, YouTube Kids, Google Assistant, and others. The company this morning announced a series of product and policy changes that will allow younger people to stay more private and protected online and others that will limit ad targeting.

The changes in Google’s case are even more expansive than those Instagram announced, as they span across an array of Google’s products, instead of being limited to a single app.

Though Congress has been pressing Google and other tech companies on the negative impacts their services may have on children, not all changes being made are being required by law, Google says.

“While some of these updates directly address upcoming regulations, we’ve gone beyond what’s required by law to protect teens on Google and YouTube,” a Google spokesperson told TechCrunch. “Many of these changes also extend beyond any single current or upcoming regulation. We’re looking at ways to develop consistent product experiences and user controls for kids and teens globally,” they added.

In other words, Google is building in some changes based on where it believes the industry is going, rather than where it is right now.

On YouTube, Google says it will “gradually” start adjusting the default upload setting to the most private option for users ages 13 to 17 in the weeks ahead, which will limit the visibility of videos only to the the users and those they directly share with, not the wider public. These younger teen users won’t be prevented from changing the setting back to “public,” necessarily, but they will now have to make an explicit and intentional choice when doing so. YouTube will then provide reminders indicating who can see their video, the company notes.

YouTube will also turn on its “take a break” and bedtime reminders by default for all users ages 13 to 17 and will turn off autoplay. Again, these changes are related to the default settings  — users can disable the digital well-being features if they choose.

On YouTube’s platform for younger children, YouTube Kids, the company will also add an autoplay option, which is turned off autoplay by default so parents will have to decide whether or not they want to use autoplay with their children. The change puts the choice directly in parents’ hands, after complaints from child safety advocates and some members of Congress suggested such an algorithmic feature was problematic. Later, parents will also be able to “lock” their default selection.

YouTube will also remove “overly commercial content” from YouTube Kid, in a move that also follows increased pressure from consumer advocacy groups and childhood experts, who have long since argued that YouTube encourages kids to spend money (or rather, beg their parents to do so.) How YouTube will draw the line between acceptable and “overly commercial” content is less clear, but the company says it will, for example, remove videos that focus on product packaging — like the popular “unboxing” videos. This could impact some of YouTube’s larger creators of videos for kids, like multi-millionaire Ryan’s Toy Review.

youtube kids laptop red1

Image Credits: YouTube

Elsewhere on Google, other changes impacting minors will also begin rolling out.

In the weeks ahead, Google will introduce a new policy that will allow anyone under the age of 18, or a parent or guardian, to request the removal of their images from Google Image search results. This expands upon the existing “right to be forgotten” privacy policies already live in the E.U., but will introduce new products and controls for both kids and teenagers globally.

The company will make a number of adjustments to user accounts for people under the age of 18, as well.

In addition to the changes to YouTube, Google will restrict access to adult content by enabling its SafeSearch filtering technology by default to all users under 13 managed by its Google Family Link service. It will also enable SafeSearch for all users under 18 and make this the new default for teens who set up new accounts. Google Assistant will enable SafeSearch protections by default on shared devices, like smart screens and their web browsers. In school settings where Google Workspace for Education is used, SafeSearch will be the default and switching to Guest Mode and Incognito Mode web browsing will be turned off by default, too, as was recently announced.

Meanwhile, location history is already off by default on all Google accounts, but children with supervised accounts now won’t be able to enable it. This change will be extended to all users under 18 globally, meaning location can’t be enabled at all under the children are legal adults.

On Google Play, the company will launch a new section that will inform parents about which apps follow its Families policies, and app developers will have to disclose how their apps collect and use data. These features — which were partially inspired by Apple’s App Store Privacy Labels — had already been detailed for Android developers before today.

Google’s parental control tools are also being expanded. Parents and guardians who are Family Link users will gain new abilities to filter and block news, podcasts, and access to webpages on Assistant-enabled smart devices.

For advertisers, there are significant changes in store, too.

Google says it will expand safeguards to prevent age-sensitive ad categories from being shown to teens and it will block ad targeting based on factors like age, gender, or interests for users under 18. While somewhat similar to the advertising changes Instagram introduced, as ads will no longer leverage “interests” data for targeting young teens and kids, Instagram was still allowing targeting by age and gender. Google will not. The advertising changes will roll out globally in the “coming months,” the company says.

All the changes across Google and YouTube will roll out globally in the coming weeks and months.

 

#android, #app-developers, #assistant, #computing, #congress, #google, #google-play, #google-search, #instagram, #operating-systems, #search-results, #software, #spokesperson, #tc, #web-browsers, #youtube, #youtube-kids

Brave’s non-tracking search engine is now in beta

Pro-privacy browser Brave, which has been testing its own brand search engine for several months — operating a waitlist where brave (ha!) early adopters could kick the tyres of an upstart alternative in Internet search — has now launched the tool, Brave Search, in global beta.

Users interested in checking out Brave’s non-tracking search engine, which is built on top of an independent index and touted as a privacy-safe alternative to surveillance tech products like Google search, will find it via Brave’s desktop and mobile browsers. It can also be reached from other browsers via search.brave.com — so doesn’t require switching to Brave’s browser to use.

Brave Search is being offered as one of multiple search options that users of the company’s eponymous browser can pick from (including Google’s search engine). But Brave says it will make it the default search in its browser later this year.

As we reported back in March, the company acquired technology and developers who had previously worked on Cliqz, a European anti-tracking search-browser combo which closed down in May 2020 — building on a technology they’d started to develop, called Tailcat, to form the basis of the Brave-branded search engine.

The (now beta) search engine has been tested by more than 100,000 “early access users” at this point, per Brave. It’s made this video ad to tout its “all in one” alternative to Google search + Chrome.

The company recently passed 32M monthly active users (up from 25M back in March) for its wider suite of products — which, as well as its flagship pro-privacy browser, includes a news reader (Brave News), and a Firewall+VPN service.

Brave also offers privacy-preserving Brave Ads for businesses wanting to reach its community of privacy-preferring users.

Growing public awareness of surveillance based business models has been building momentum for pro-privacy consumer tech for a number of years. And several players which started out with a strong focus on one particular pro-privacy product (such as a browser, search engine or email) have been expanding into a full suite of products — all under the same non-tracking umbrella.

As well as Brave, there’s the likes of DuckDuckGo — which offers non-tracking search but also a tracker blocker and an email inbox protector tool, among other products, and reckons it now has between 70M-100M users overall; and Proton, the maker of e2e-encrypted email service ProtonMail but also a cloud calendar and file storage as well as a VPN. The latter recently confirmed passing 50M users globally.

There is also Apple itself too, of course — a Big Tech giant that competes with Google and the adtech complex by promising users a privacy premium to drive sales of its hardware and services. (At the start of this year Apple said there are now over 1BN iOS users globally — and over 1.65BN Apple devices.)

Tl;dr: The market for privacy consumer tech is growing.

Still, even Apple doesn’t try to compete against Google search which perhaps underlines the scale of the challenge involved in trying to poach users from the search behemoth. (Albeit, Apple extracts massive payments from Google to preload the latter’s search engine onto iOS devices — which does conflict with (and complicate) its wider, pro-privacy, pro-user promises while also adding a nice revenue boost for Apple… ).

DuckDuckGo has, by contrast, been at the non-tracking search coalface for years — and turning a profit since 2014. Though clearly not in the same profit league as Apple. But, more recently, it’s also taken in rare tranches of external funding as its investors spy growing opportunity for private search.

Other signs of expanding public appetite to protect people’s information from commercial snoopers include the surge of usage for e2e encrypted alternatives to Facebook-owned WhatsApp — such as Signal — which saw a download spike earlier this year, after the advertising giant announced unilateral changes to WhatsApp’s terms of service.

Credible players that have amassed a community of engaged users around a core user privacy promise are well positioned to ride each new wave of privacy interest — and cross sell a suite of consumer products where they’ve been able to expand their utility. Hence Brave believing the time is right for it to dabble in search.

Commenting in a statement, Brendan Eich, CEO and co-founder of Brave, said: “Brave Search is the industry’s most private search engine, as well as the only independent search engine, giving users the control and confidence they seek in alternatives to big tech. Unlike older search engines that track and profile users, and newer search engines that are mostly a skin on older engines and don’t have their own indexes, Brave Search offers a new way to get relevant results with a community-powered index, while guaranteeing privacy. Brave Search fills a clear void in the market today as millions of people have lost trust in the surveillance economy and actively seek solutions to be in control of their data.”

Brave touts its eponymous search offering as having a number of differentiating features vs rivals (including smaller rivals) — such as its own index which it also says gives it independence from other search providers.

Why is having an independent index important? We put that question to Josep M. Pujol, chief of search at Brave, who told us: “There are plenty of incentives for censorship and biases, either by design, or what is even more difficult to combat, unintentional. The problem of search, and how people access the web, is that it is a mono-culture, and everybody knows that while it’s very efficient, it’s also very dangerous. A single disease can kill all the crops. The current landscape is not fail-tolerant, and this is something that even users are becoming aware of. We need more choices, not to replace Google or Bing, but to offer alternatives. More choices will entail more freedom and also get back to real competition, with checks and balances.

“Choice can only be achieved by being independent, as if we do not have our own index, then we are just a layer of paint on top of Google and Bing, unable to change much or anything in the results for users’ queries. Not having your own index, as with certain search engines, gives the impression of choice, but in reality such engine ‘skins’ are the same players as the big-two. Only by building our own index, which is a costly proposition, will we be in a position to offer true choice to the users for the benefit of all, whether they are Brave Search users or not.”

Although, for now, it’s worth noting that Brave is relying on some provision from other search providers — for specific queries and in areas like image search (where, for example, it says it’s currently fetching results from Microsoft-owned Bing) — to ensure its results achieve adequate relevancy.

Elsewhere it also says it’s relying upon anonymized contributions from the community to improve and refine results — and is seeking to live up to wider transparency claims vis-a-vis the search index (which it also claims has “no secret methods or algorithms to bias results”; and for which it will “soon” be offering “community-curated open ranking models to ensure diversity and prevent algorithmic biases and outright censorship”).

In another transparency step Brave is reporting the percentage of users’ queries that are independent by showing what it bills as “the industry’s first search independence metric” — meaning it displays the ratio of results coming exclusively from its own index.

“It is derived privately using the user’s browser as we do not build user profiles,” Brave notes in a press release. “Users can check this aggregate metric to verify the independence of their results and see how results are powered by our own index, or if third-parties are being used for long tail results while we are still in the process of building our index.”

It adds that Brave Search will “typically be answering most queries, reflected by a high independence metric”. Although if you’re performing an image search, for example, you’ll see the the independence metric take a hit (but Brave confirms this will not result in any tracking of users).

“[Transparency] is a key principle at Brave, and there will also be a global independence metric for Brave Search across all searches, which we will make publicly available to show how we are progressing towards complete independence,” it adds.

Example of Brave’s ‘independence metric’ for search results (Image credits: Brave)

On the monetization side, Brave says it will “soon” be offering both a paid ad-free version of search in the future and an ad-supported free version — while still pledging “fully anonymous” search. Though it specifies that it won’t be flipping the ad switch during the early beta phase.

“We will offer options for both ad-free paid search and ad-supported free search later,” it notes. “When we are ready, we will explore bringing private ads with BAT revenue share to search, as we’ve done for Brave user ads.”

Users of the search engine who do not also use Brave’s own browser will be served contextual ads.

“In Brave Search via the browser, strong privacy guarantees for opt-in ads are a norm and a brand value that we uphold,” adds Pujol, confirming that users of its search and browser are likely to get the same type of ad targeting.

Asked about pricing of the forthcoming ad-free version of the search engine he says: “Although we have not finalized the launch date or the price yet, our ad-free paid search will be affordable because we believe search, and access to information, should be available on fair terms for everyone.”

In an interesting recent development in Europe, Google — under pressure from antitrust regulators — has agreed to ditch a pay-to-play auction model for the choice screen it offers regional users of its Android platform, letting them pick a default search engine from list with a number of rivals and its own brand Google search. The move should expand the number of alternative search engines Android users in Europe are exposed to — and could help chip away at some of Google’s search marketshare.

Brave previously told us it would not participate in Google’s paid auction — but Pujol says that if the new model is “truly free to participate” it will likely take part in future.

“Google and free-to-participate seem difficult to believe, given plenty of precedents but if this model is indeed truly free to participate, without contracts or non-disclosure agreements, then we would likely participate,” he says. “After all, Brave Search is open to everyone who would like to use it, and we are open and happy to put Brave Search on any platform.”

“We have localized browsers throughout the European market, so in addition to growth via the Brave browser growing, we intend to grow Brave Search’s usage by marketing our best-in-class privacy on all media that reach prospective users,” he adds.

#advertising-tech, #android, #apple, #brave, #cliqz, #computing, #duckduckgo, #e2e, #europe, #facebook, #google, #google-search, #image-search, #ios-devices, #microsoft, #microsoft-bing, #opera, #privacy, #proton, #search-engine, #search-engines, #software, #tc, #tech-products, #vpn, #web-browser, #web-browsers

How to land the top spot in Google search with featured snippets in 2021

Search is changing. Most search engines now don’t just bring up a page of 10 search results and two ads at the top when you type in a query. Instead, Google search queries can bring up a whole range of results, and sometimes answer your questions without you ever having to click through to a page.

Take, for example, a search like this: “how many days until halloween.”

Example of a featured snippet

A featured snippet counting down the days to Halloween. Image Credits: Ryan Sammy

You can see that instead of displaying the top result right away, Google answers the question for you in a rich snippet. It also gives you related search queries featuring countdowns for other holidays. On the right is a knowledge panel from Wikipedia about Halloween, and below that, you’ll see the featured snippets section. These snippets will expand when clicked with answers for related questions.

Featured snippets are collections of sentences or words that Google pulls directly from a webpage relevant to the search query.

Finally, after these answers to your queries and any related questions, you get to the first result. At this point, do you even need to visit the website?

Google search is not what it used to be. We all want to be No. 1 on the search results page, but these days, getting to that position isn’t enough. It might be worth your while to instead go after the top featured snippet position.

What’s a featured snippet?

Featured snippets are collections of sentences or words that Google pulls directly from a webpage relevant to the search query. These snippets are displayed right below the search box and are meant to answer search queries quickly. The snippets can appear in the form of lists, how-to steps, tables, short paragraph boxes and other formats.

#advertising-tech, #ahrefs, #column, #digital-marketing, #ec-column, #ec-how-to, #ec-marketing-tech, #ecommerce, #featured-snippet-optimization, #featured-snippets, #google-search, #search-engine-optimization, #search-results, #seo

Google updates its kids online safety curriculum with lessons on gaming, video and more

Google announced today it’s updating and expanding its digital safety and citizenship curriculum called Be Internet Awesome, which is aimed at helping school-aged children learn to navigate the internet responsibly. First introduced four years ago, the curriculum now reaches 30 countries and millions of kids, says Google. In the update rolling out today, Google has added nearly a dozen more lessons for parents and educators that tackle areas like online gaming, search engines, video consumption, online empathy, cyberbullying and more.

The company says it had commissioned the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center to evaluate its existing program, which had last received a significant update back in 2019, when it added lessons that focused on teaching kids to spot disinformation and fake news.

The review found that program did help children in areas like dealing with cyberbullying, online civility and website safety, but recommended improvements in other areas.

Google then partnered with online safety experts like Committee for Children and The Net Safety Collaborative to revise its teaching materials. As a result, it now has lessons tailored to specific age groups and grade levels, and has expanded its array of subjects and set of family resources.

The new lessons include guidance around online gaming, search engines and video consumption, as well as social-emotional learning lessons aimed at helping students address cyberbullying and online harassment.

For example, some of the new lessons discuss search media literacy — meaning, learning how to use search engines like Google’s and evaluating the links and results it returns, as a part of an update to the program’s existing media literacy materials.

Other lessons address issues like practicing empathy online, showing kindness, as well as what to do when you see something upsetting or inappropriate, including cyberbullying.

Concepts related to online gaming are weaved into the new lessons, too, as, today, kids have a lot of their social interactions in online games which often feature ways to interact with other players in real-time and chat.

Here, kids are presented with ideas related to being able to verify an online gamer’s identity — are they really another kid, for example?  The materials also explain what sort of private information should not be shared with people online.

Image Credits: Google

Among the new family resources, the updated curriculum now points parents to the recently launched online hub, families.google, which offers a number of tips and information about tools to help families manage their tech usage.

For example, Google updated its Family Link app that lets parents set controls around what apps can be used and when, and view activity reports on screen time usage. It also rolled out parental control features on YouTube earlier this year, aimed at families with tweens and teens who are too old for a YouTube Kids account, but still too young for an entirely unsupervised experience.

Google says the updated curriculum is available today to parents, families, teachers and educators, via the Be Internet Awesome website.

 

#abuse, #articles, #bullying, #cyberbullying, #digital-media, #google, #google-search, #new-hampshire, #online-games, #online-gaming, #parental-controls, #search-engines, #tc, #university-of-new-hampshire, #youtube

Google ditches pay-to-play Android search choice auction for free version after EU pressure

Google is ditching a massively unpopular auction format that underpins an choice screen it offers in the European Union, it said today. Eligible search providers will be able to freely participate.

The auction model was Google’s ‘remedy’ of choice — following the 2018 EU $5BN antitrust enforcement against Android — but rivals have always maintained it’s anything but fair, as we’ve reported previously (here, here, here, for eg).

The Android choice screen presents users in the region with a selection of search engines to choose as a default at the point of device set up (or factory reset). The offered choices depend on sealed bids made by search engine companies bidding to pay Google to win one of three available slots.

Google’s own search engine is a staple ‘choice’ on the screen regardless of EU market.

The pay-to-play model Google devised is not only loudly hated by smaller search engine players (including those with alternative business models, such as the Ecosia tree-planting search engine), but it been entirely ineffectual at restoring competitive balance in search marketshare so it’s not surprising Google has been forced to ditch it.

The Commission had signalled a change might be coming, with Bloomberg reporting in May remarks by the EU’s competition chief, Margrethe Vesager, that it was “actively working on making” Google’s Android choice screen for search and browser rivals work. So it evidently heard the repeated cries of ‘foul’ and ‘it’s not working, yo!’. And — finally — it acted.

However, framing its own narrative, Google writes that it’s been in “constructive discussions” with EU lawmakers for years about “how to promote even more choice on Android devices, while ensuring that we can continue to invest in, and provide, the Android platform for free for the long term”, as it puts it.

It also seems to be trying to throw some shade/blame back at the EU — writing that it only introduced what it calls a “promotional opportunity” (lol) “in consultation with the Commission”. (Ergo, ‘don’t blame us gov, blame them!’)

In another detail-light paragraph of its blog, Google says it’s now making “some final changes” — including making participation free for “eligible search providers” — after what it describes as “further feedback from the Commission”

“We will also be increasing the number of search providers shown on the screen. These changes will come into effect from September this year on Android devices,” it adds.

The planned changes raise new questions — such as what criteria it will be using to determine eligibility; and will Google’s criteria be transparent or, like the problematic auction, sealed from view? And how many search engines will be presented to users? More than the current four, that’s clear.

Where Google’s own search engine will appear in the list will also be very interesting to see, as well as the criteria for ranking all the options (marketshare? random allocation?).

Google’s blog is mealy mouthed on any/all such detail — but the Commission gave us a pretty good glimpse when we asked (see their comment below).

It still remains to seen whether any other devilish dark pattern design details will appear when we see the full implementation.

But it’s worth noting that it’s not in Google’s gift to claim these changes are “final”. EU regulators are responsible for monitoring antitrust compliance — so if fresh complaints flow they will be duty bound to listen and react.

In one response to Google’s auction U-turn, pro-privacy search player DuckDuckGo was already critical — but more on the scope than the detail.

Founder Gabriel Weinberg pointed out that not only is the switch three years too late but Google should also be applying it across all platforms (desktop and Chrome too), as well as making it seamlessly easy for Android users to switch default, rather than gating the choice screen to set-up and/or factory reset (as we’ve reported before).

Another long-time critic of the auction model, tiny not-for-profit Ecosia, was jubilant that its fight against the search behemonth has finally paid off.

Commenting in a statement, CEO Christian Kroll said: “This is a real life David versus Goliath story — and David has won. This is a momentous day, and a real moment of celebration for Ecosia. We’ve campaigned for fairness in the search engine market for several years, and with this, we have something that resembles a level playing field in the market. Search providers now have a chance to compete more fairly in the Android market, based on the appeal of their product, rather than being shut out by monopolistic behaviour.”

The Commission, meanwhile, confirmed to TechCrunch that it acted after a number of competitors raised concerns over the auction model — with a spokeswoman saying it had “discussed with Google means to improve that choice screen to address those concerns”.

“We welcome the changes introduced by Google to the choice screen. Being included on the choice screen will now be free for rival search providers,” she went on. “In addition, more search providers will be included in the choice screen. Therefore, users will have even more opportunities to choose an alternative.”

The Commission also offered a little more detail of how the choice screen will look come fall, saying that “on almost all devices, five search providers will be immediately visible”.

“They will be selected based on their market share in the user’s country and displayed in a randomised order which ensures that Google will not always be the first. Users will be able to scroll down to see up to seven more search providers, bringing the total search providers displayed in the choice screen to 12.”

“These are positive developments for the implementation of the remedy following our Android decision,” the spokeswoman added.

So it will certainly be very interesting indeed to see whether this Commission-reconfigured much bigger and more open choice screen helps move the regional need on Google’s search engine market share.

Interesting times indeed!

#android, #antitrust, #chrome-os, #competition-law, #duckduckgo, #ecosia, #eu, #europe, #european-union, #gabriel-weinberg, #google, #google-search, #margrethe-vestager, #policy, #search-engine, #search-engines

Google updates Firebase with new personalization features, security tools and more

At its I/O developer conference, Google today announced a slew of updates to its Firebase developer platform, which, as the company also announced, now powers over 3 million apps.

There’s a number of major updates here, most of which center around improving existing tools like Firebase Remote Config and Firebase’s monitoring capabilities, but there are also a number of completely new features here as well, including the ability to create Android App Bundles and a new security tool called App Check.

“Helping developers be successful is what makes Firebase successful,” Firebase product manager Kristen Richards told me ahead of today’s announcements. “So we put helpfulness and helping developers at the center of everything that we do.” She noted that during the pandemic, Google saw a lot of people who started to focus on app development — both as learners and as professional developers. But the team also saw a lot of enterprises move to its platform as those companies looked to quickly bring new apps online.

Maybe the marquee Firebase announcement at I/O is the updated Remote Config. That’s always been a very powerful feature that allows developers to make changes to live production apps on the go without having to release a new version of their app. Developers can use this for anything from A/B testing to providing tailored in-app experience to specific user groups.

With this update, Google is introducing updates to the Remote Config console, to make it easier for developers to see how they are using this tool, as well as an updated publish flow and redesigned test results pages for A/B tests.

Image Credits: Google

What’s most important, though, is that Google is taking Remote Config a step further now by launching a new Personalization feature that helps developers automatically optimize the user experience for individual users. “It’s a new feature of [Remote Config] that uses Google’s machine learning to create unique individual app experiences,” Richards explained. “It’s super simple to set up and it automatically creates these personalized experiences that’s tailored to each individual user. Maybe you have something that you would like, which would be something different for me. In that way, we’re able to get a tailored experience, which is really what customers expect nowadays. I think we’re all expecting things to be more personalized than they have in the past.”

Image Credits: Google

Google is also improving a number of Firebase’s analytics and monitoring capabilities, including its Crashlytics service for figuring out app crashes. For game developers, that means improved support for games written with the help of the Unity platform, for example, but for all developers, the fact that Firebase’s Performance Monitoring service now processes data in real time is a major update to having performance data (especially on launch day) arrive with a delay of almost half a day.

Firebase is also now finally adding support for Android App Bundles, Google’s relatively new format for packaging up all of an app’s code and resources, with Google Play optimizing the actual APK with the right resources for the kind of device the app gets installed on. This typically leads to smaller downloads and faster installs.

On the security side, the Firebase team is launching App Check, now available in beta. App Check helps developers guard their apps against outside threats and is meant to automatically block any traffic to online resources like Cloud Storage, Realtime Database and Cloud Functions for Firebase (with others coming soon) that doesn’t provide valid credentials.

Image Credits: Google

The other update worth mentioning here is to Firebase Extensions, which launched a while ago, but which is getting support for a few more extensions today. These are new extensions from Algolia, Mailchimp and MessageBird, that helps bring new features like Algolia’s search capabilities or MessageBird’s communications features directly to the platform. Google itself is also launching a new extension that helps developers detect comments that could be considered “rude, disrespectful, or unreasonable in a way that will make people leave a conversation.”

#algolia, #android, #cloud-computing, #computing, #developer, #firebase, #google, #google-allo, #google-cloud, #google-i-o-2021, #google-play, #google-search, #machine-learning, #mailchimp, #operating-systems, #product-manager, #tc

Android now powers 3B devices

Google’s Android operating system is now running on 3 billion active devices, Google announced at its (virtual) I/O developer conference today. In a briefing before today’s event, the company also noted that there were 250 million active tablets running Android last year, which is likely a larger number than some expected, but which explains Google’s increased focus on these large-screen devices at I/O this year.

Traditionally, Google shares new device stats at I/O, but since it canceled the event last year, we didn’t get an update for 2020. The most recent number Google provided was 2.5 billion active devices in May 2019. That was up from 2 billion devices in 2017, so at least for the time being, this growth rate of about 500 million new devices every two years continues to remain true.

In comparison, Apple in January announced that it has an install base of 1 billion iPhones and that there are now a total of 1.65 billion active devices in its ecosystem, up from 1.5 billion devices a year before (this last number includes all active Apple devices, though).

#android, #google, #google-assistant, #google-i-o-2021, #google-search, #operating-system, #smartphones, #tablet-computer, #tc, #technology

Google Photos update adds new Memories and a Locked Folder, previews Cinematic moments

Google announced a series of upgrades to its Google Photos service, used by over a billion users, at today’s Google I/O developer event, which was virtually streamed this year due to Covid. The company is rolling out Locked Folders, new types of photo “Memories” for reminiscing over past events, as well as a new feature called “Cinematic moments” that will animate a series of static photos, among other updates.

Today, Google Photos stores over 4 trillion photos and videos, but the majority of those are never viewed. To change that, Google has been developing A.I.-powered features to help its users reflect on meaningful moments from their lives. With Memories, launched in 2019, Google Photos is able to resurface photos and videos focused on people, activities, and hobbies as well as recent highlights from the week prior.

At Google I/O, the company announced it’s adding a new type of Memory, which it’s calling “little patterns.” Using machine learning, little patterns looks for a set of three or more photos with similarities, like shape or color, which it then highlights as a pattern for you.

Image Credits: Google

For example, when one of Google’s engineers traveled the world with their favorite orange backpack, Google Photos was able to identify a pattern where that backpack was featured in photos from around the globe. But patterns may also be as simple family photos that are often snapped in the same room with an identifiable piece of furniture, like the living room couch. On their own, these photos may not seem like much, but when they’re combined over time, they can produce some interesting compilations.

Google will also be adding Best of Month Memories and Trip highlights to the your photo grid, which you’ll now be able to remove or rename, as well as Memories featuring events you celebrate, like birthdays or holidays. These events will be identified based on a combination of factors, Google says. This includes by identifying objects in the photos — like a birthday cake or a Hanukkah menorah, for example — as well as by matching up the date of the photo with known holidays.

Image Credits: Google

Best of Month and Trip highlight Memories will start to roll out today and will be found in the photo grid itself. Later this year, you’ll begin to see Memories related to the events and moments you celebrate.

Image Credits: Google

Another forthcoming addition is Cinematic Moments, which is somewhat reminiscent of the “deep nostalgia” technology from MyHeritage that went viral earlier this year, as users animated the photos of long-past loved ones. Except in Google’s case, it’s not taking an old photo and bringing it to life, it’s stitching together a series of photos to create a sense of action and movement.

Google explains that, often, people will take multiple photos of the same moment in order to get one “good” image they can share. This is especially true when trying to capture something in motion — like a small child or a pet who can’t sit still.

Image Credits: Google

These new Cinematic moments build on the Cinematic photos feature Google launched in December 2020, which uses machine learning to create vivid, 3D version of your photos. Using computational photography and neural networks to stitch together a series of near-identical photos, Google Photos will be able to create vivid, moving images by filling in the gaps in between your photos to create new frames. This feature doesn’t have a launch date at this time.

Of course, not all past moments are worthy of revisiting for a variety of reasons. While Google already offered tools to hide certain photos and time periods from your Memories, it’s continuing to add new controls and, later this summer, will make it easier to access its existing toolset. One key area of focus has been working with the transgender community, who have said that revisiting their old photos can be painful.

Soon, users will also be able to remove a single photo from a Memory, remove their Best of Month Memories, and rename and remove Memories based on the events they celebrate, too.

Image Credits: Google

Another useful addition to Google Photos is the new Locked Folder, which is simply a passcode-protected space for private photos. Many users automatically sync their phone’s photos to Google’s cloud, but then want to pull up photos to show to others through the app on their phone or even their connected TV. That can be difficult if their galleries are filled with private photos, of course.

Image Credits: Google

This particular feature will launch first on Pixel devices, where users will have the option to save photos and videos directly from their Camera to the Locked folder. Other Android devices will get the update later in the year.

#ai, #artificial-intelligence, #google, #google-photos, #google-search, #machine-learning, #neural-networks, #photos, #tc

Google Meet gets a refreshed UI, multi-pinning, autozoom and more

Google today announced a major update to Meet, its video-meeting service, which brings several user interface tweaks for desktop users, as well as quite a bit of new functionality, including multi-pinning so that you can highlight multiple feeds instead of just one, as well as new AI-driven video capabilities for light adjustments, autozoom, and a new Data Saver feature that limits data usage on slower mobile networks.

If you’re anything like me, you’re increasingly tired of video meetings (to the point where I often just keep the camera off). But the reality is that this style of meetings will be with us for the foreseeable future, whether we like them or not.

Image Credits: Google

Google notes that today’s release is meant to make meetings “more immersive, inclusive, and productive.” The new UI doesn’t look to be a radical change, but it puts more of the controls and features right at your fingertips instead of hiding them in a menu. It also consolidates them in the bottom row instead of the current system that spreads out features between the main menu bar and an additional small menu at the top.

For presenters who don’t want to see themselves on the screen, Meet now also lets you minimize or completely hide your own video feed — and if you really want to glance into your own eyes, you can also pin your feed to the rest of the grid. Google says it also plans to soon let you turn off your self-feed across all Meet calls.

Image Credits: Google

Talking about pinning, one feature that seems especially useful is the ability to highlight multiple feeds. This new multi-pinning capability will make it easier to focus on the participants in a chat that are most active, for example. This feature will roll out in the coming months.

And coming in a few months, some of those highlighted feeds may look a bit more interesting (or annoying, depending on your point of view) because one new feature Google has planned — but isn’t ready to roll out yet — is video background replacement. For now, Google will only offer three scenes: a classroom, a party and a forest. The company says more will follow, but it doesn’t look like you’ll be able to bring your own videos to this feature anytime soon.

Image Credits: Google

Other new features in this release include Meet’s capability to automatically spruce up your video feed a bit to make sure you’re more visible in a dark environment and enhance your video when you are sitting in front of a bright background. This will roll out in the coming weeks. There’s also autozoom, which uses AI to automatically zoom in on you and put you in the middle of your frame. That’s coming to paid Google Workspace subscribers in the coming months.

#artificial-intelligence, #chrome-os, #google, #google-search, #google-workspace, #google-talk, #mobile-software, #operating-systems, #software, #tc

Google says Google Earth is getting its biggest update since 2017

Google Earth now features a timelapse mode that brings together 24 million satellite photos from the last 37 years. And… that’s it. Google says it’s the biggest update to Google Earth — a product you’ve likely forgotten even existed — since its redesign in 2017.

To be fair, Google Earth hasn’t gotten any major new features updates since then. So by default, I guess this qualifies as the biggest update to Earth in a while. It’s worth noting, though, that Google Earth timelapses launched a few years already, but on a dedicated site and only in 2D. Now it’s in 3D. Exciting stuff — for five minutes (or really depressing, if you look at the Earth’s glaciers and rain forests).

#google, #google-search, #google-earth, #google-maps, #tc

Google starts trialing its FLoC cookie alternative in Chrome

Google today announced that it is rolling out Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC), a crucial part of its Privacy Sandbox project for Chrome, as a developer origin trial.

FLoC is meant to be an alternative to the kind of cookies that advertising technology companies use today to track you across the web. Instead of a personally identifiable cookie, FLoC runs locally and analyzes your browsing behavior to group you into a cohort of like-minded people with similar interests (and doesn’t share your browsing history with Google). That cohort is specific enough to allow advertisers to do their thing and show you relevant ads, but without being so specific as to allow marketers to identify you personally.

This “interest-based advertising,” as Google likes to call it, allows you to hide within the crowd of users with similar interests. All the browser displays is a cohort ID and all your browsing history and other data stay locally.

Image Credits: Google / Getty Images

The trial will start in the U.S., Australia, Brazil, Canada, India, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand and the Philippines. Over time, Google plans to scale it globally. As we learned earlier this month, Google is not running any tests in Europe because of concerns around GDPR and other privacy regulations (in part, because it’s unclear whether FLoC IDs should be considered personal data under these regulations).

Users will be able to opt out from this origin trial, just like they will be able to do so with all other Privacy Sandbox trials.

Unsurprisingly, given how FLoC upends many of the existing online advertising systems in place, not everybody loves this idea. Advertisers obviously love the idea of being able to target individual users, though Google’s preliminary data shows that using these cohorts leads to similar results for them and that advertisers can expect to see “at least 95% of the conversions per dollar spent when compared to cookie-based advertising.”

Google notes that its own advertising products will get the same access to FLoC IDs as its competitors in the ads ecosystem.

But it’s not just the advertising industry that is eyeing this project skeptically. Privacy advocates aren’t fully sold on the idea either. The EFF, for example, argues that FLoC will make it easier for marketing companies that want to fingerprint users based on the various FLoC IDs they expose, for example. That’s something Google is addressing with its Privacy Budget proposal, but how well that will work remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, users would probably prefer to just browse the web without seeing ads (no matter what the advertising industry may want us to believe) and without having to worry about their privacy. But online publishers continue to rely on advertising income to fund their sites.

With all of these divergent interests, it was always clear that Google’s initiatives weren’t going to please everyone. That friction was always built into the process. And while other browser vendors can outright block ads and third-party cookies, Google’s role in the advertising ecosystem makes this a bit more complicated.

“When other browsers started blocking third-party cookies by default, we were excited about the direction, but worried about the immediate impact,” Marshall Vale, Google’s product manager for Privacy Sandbox, writes in today’s announcement. “Excited because we absolutely need a more private web, and we know third-party cookies aren’t the long-term answer. Worried because today many publishers rely on cookie-based advertising to support their content efforts, and we had seen that cookie blocking was already spawning privacy-invasive workarounds (such as fingerprinting) that were even worse for user privacy. Overall, we felt that blocking third-party cookies outright without viable alternatives for the ecosystem was irresponsible, and even harmful, to the free and open web we all enjoy.”

It’s worth noting that FLoC, as well as Google’s other privacy sandbox initiatives, are still under development. The company says the idea here is to learn from these initial trials and evolve the project accordingly.

#advertising-tech, #australia, #brazil, #canada, #computing, #google, #google-search, #india, #indonesia, #japan, #mexico, #new-zealand, #online-advertising, #philippines, #software, #tracking, #united-states, #web-browsers

Google promises better 3D maps

Google is announcing a handful of major updates to Google Maps today that range from bringing its Live View AR directions indoors to adding weather data to its maps, but the most tantalizing news — which in typical Google fashion doesn’t have an ETA just yet — is that Google plans to bring a vastly improved 3D layer to Google maps.

Using photogrammetry, the same technology that also allows Microsoft’s Flight Simulator to render large swaths of the world in detail, Google is also building a model of the world for its Maps service.

“We’re going to continue to improve that technology that helps us fuse together the billions of aerials, StreetView and satellite images that we have to really help us move from that flat 2D map to a more accurate 3D model than we’ve ever had. And be able to do that more quickly. And to bring more detail to it than we’ve ever been able to do before,” Dane Glasgow, Google’s VP for Geo Product Experience, said in a press event ahead of today’s announcement. He noted that this 3D layer will allow the company to visualize all its data in new and interesting ways.

Image Credits: Google

How exactly this will play out in reality remains to be seen, but Glasgow showed off a new 3D route preview, for example, with all of the typically mapping data overlayed on top of the 3D map.

Glasgow also noted that this technology will allow Google to parse out small features like stoplights and building addresses, which in turn will result in better directions.

“We also think that the 3D imagery will allow us to visualize a lot of new information and data overlaid on top, you know, everything from helpful information like traffic or accidents, transit delays, crowdedness — there’s lots of potential here to bring new information,” he explained.

Image Credits: Google

As for the more immediate future, Google announced a handful of new features today that are all going to roll out in the coming months. Indoor Live View is the flashiest of these. Google’s existing AR Live View walking directions currently only work outdoors, but thanks to some advances in its technology to recognize where exactly you are (even without a good GPS signal), the company is now able to bring this indoors. This feature is already live in some malls in the U.S. in Chicago, Long Island, Los Angeles, Newark, San Francisco, San Jose, and Seattle, but in the coming months, it’ll come to select airports, malls and transit stations in Tokyo and Zurich as well (just in time for vaccines to arrive and travel to — maybe — rebound). Because Google is able to locate you by comparing the images around you to its database, it can also tell what floor you are on and hence guide you to your gate at the Zurich airport, for example (though in my experience, there are few places with better signage than airports…).

Also new are layers for weather data (but not weather radar) and air quality in Google Maps. The weather layer will be available globally on Android and iOS in the coming months, with the air quality layer only launching for Australia, India and the U.S. at first.

Image Credits: Google

Talking about air quality, Google Maps will also get a new eco-friendly routing option that lets you pick the driving route that produces the least CO2 (coming to Android and iOS later this year), and it will finally feature support for low emission zones, a feature of many a European City. Low emission zones on Google Maps will launch in June in Germany, France, Spain and the UK on Android and iOS. More countries will follow later.

And to bring this all together, Google will update its directions interface to show you all of the possible modes of transportations and routing options, prioritized based on your own preferences, as well as based on what’s popular in the city you are in (think he subway in NYC or bike-sharing in Portland).

Also new are more integrated options for curbside grocery pickups in partnership with Instacart and Albertsons, if that’s your thing.

And there you have it. As is so often the case with Google’s announcement, the most exciting new features the company showed off don’t have an ETA and may never launch, but until then you can hold yourself over by getting your weather forecasts on Google Maps.

#albertsons, #android, #artificial-intelligence, #australia, #chicago, #computing, #eta, #france, #germany, #google, #google-search, #google-maps, #gps, #india, #instacart, #los-angeles, #maps, #newark, #operating-systems, #portland, #san-francisco, #san-jose, #seattle, #software, #spain, #tokyo, #united-kingdom, #united-states, #zurich

Staying ahead of the curve on Google’s Core Web Vitals

One year.

That’s how long Google gave developers to start implementing required changes to improve user experience. In early May 2020, Google published a modest post on one of its developer blogs introducing Core Web Vitals — a set of metrics that will result in major changes to the way websites are ranked by the search engine. In May 2021, Google will officially add those Core Web Vitals to the various other “page experience” signals it analyzes when deciding how to rank websites.

The quest to improve a website’s position in search results has spawned hundreds (if not thousands) of how-to articles over the years. Businesses that are scared about taking a hit to SEO from Google’s new metrics have been pushing developers to optimize company websites. At the same time, developers have been frustrated because there’s a lot that goes into user experience that isn’t reflected in the Core Web Vitals. A lot of details have to be juggled.

Aside from improved SEO, small business websites optimizing for the new metrics will reap the rewards of an improved user experience for their site visitors.

But what about the startups, tech companies and small business owners who handle their own websites in-house? What about the agencies and enterprise platforms that manage or host hundreds or even thousands of websites for clients? While many are looking at the Core Web Vitals as a big hoop to jump through to please the search powers that be, others are seeing — and seizing — the opportunities that come along with this change.

Improving user experience will be rewarded

Small businesses wondering “What’s in it for me?” should recognize that if all other things are equal, optimizing for the Core Web Vitals is going to be a significant tiebreaker between websites. If a company’s site is ranking really well with these rigorous metrics, it will have an edge against competitors in searches when content and ranking are otherwise comparable.

Aside from improved SEO, small business websites optimizing for the new metrics will reap the rewards of an improved user experience for their site visitors. Internet users frequently complain about long wait times as pages are loading, or problems with an entire page shifting just as the user goes to click a specific button — which results in them clicking the wrong button and causing further delays. For online retail websites, a poor user experience leads to lost revenue as users abandon shopping carts and never return to a site. Once the Core Web Vitals go into effect, companies that have made the efforts to provide smooth and speedy performance for visitors will win out against competitors that retain sluggish designs.

Sparking overdue conversations

#advertising-tech, #column, #ec-column, #ec-ecommerce-and-d2c, #google-search, #search-engine-optimization, #user-experience, #website-design

Google unveils $25 million in grants aimed at empowering women and girls

Google announced a range of programs as well as grants worth $25 million on Monday to fund works of nonprofits and social enterprises that are committed to empower women and girls.

The effort, unveiled on Internet Women’s Day, is aimed at addressing systemic barriers so that women get access to economic equality, opportunity to build financial independence and pursue entrepreneurism, said Google chief executive Sundar Pichai at a virtual event.

“Whatever these teams need, we are going to be alongside them and help carry out their vision,” said Jacquelline Fuller, President of Google.org, at the event. The company said it will accept applications from teams worldwide until April 9.

Fuller also announced that Google.org is going to invest an additional $1 million to help underserved women in India. Even as India is the world’s second largest internet market, women make up a small percentage of online users in the country.

Five years ago, Google launched a program called Internet Saathi to bring internet literacy to women in rural parts of India. The company said the program, for which it collaborated with Indian conglomerate Tata, significantly helped improve women’s participation on Indian internet.

Four of 10 internet users in rural India are now women, said Google, up from one in 10 in 2015. The company, citing its own research, said Internet Saathi program benefited more than 30 million women in India — and that it’s now concluding the program to focus on other efforts to continue this mission.

“This program created a cascading effect,” said Sanjay Gupta, the head of Google India, at the event.

But simply getting online “isn’t progress enough,” said Sapna Chadha, Senior Marketing Director for Google in India and Southeast Asia. “Women in India have traditionally been held back from economic participation.”

The company has partnered with Nasscom Foundation, the social arm of influential Indian trade group, to bring digital and financial literacy to 100,000 women farmers in India, and is creating a program called “Women Will” to enable and support 1 million women entrepreneurs.

As part of Women Will program, Chadha unveiled a repository website that she said will feature tutorials, business ideas and other opportunities in English and Hindi languages.

Google is also working on rolling out a new feature on Google Pay app that will allow entrepreneurs to showcase their business pages within the payments app at no charge, said Chadha. And women entrepreneurs can now choose to highlight that their business is led by a woman or women across Google Search and Google Maps listings, Chadha said.

“I call upon you to come together to build a future we can all be proud of — a future where no daughter of ours is shackled by the burdens of her gender,” said Smriti Irani, Minister of Women and Child Development, Government of India, at the event.

#google, #google-pay, #google-search, #google-maps, #google-org, #social

Google now gives you more information about the sites in your search results

Google regularly tweaks its search results pages and tries out new designs. It’s not that often, though, that it adds new features to those results, so when it does, it’s worth paying attention to.

Today, Google is adding a new menu item to virtually all search results in English in the U.S. on mobile, desktop and its Android Google app. This new link will provide searchers with more information about the site they are about to visit — and before they click on the actual link.

Clicking the new hamburger-style menu icon will pop up a new info panel with additional information about the site. These include a short description of what the site is about — taken from Wikipedia when available– and some data about whether the connection to the site is secure.

Image Credits: Google

For sites without a Wikipedia entry, Google will show when it first indexed the site and other data if it’s available.

There’s also a full link and a short line about whether it’s a native search result or an ad (which seems like a tacit admission that it’s too hard to distinguish ads from regular search results on Google). At the bottom of the pane, there are also links to your privacy settings and to an explainer about ‘how search works.’

Image Credits: Google

“When you search for information on Google, you probably often come across results from sources that you’re familiar with: major retailer websites, national news sites and more,” Google product manager JK Kearns writes in today’s announcement. “But there’s also a ton of great information on and services available from sites that you may not have come across before. And while you can always use Google to do some additional research about those sites, we’re working on a new way for you to find helpful info without having to do another search.”

This new feature will start rolling out today and as usual, it may take a while before you see it in your own search results.

Image Credits: Google

 

 

#android, #google, #google-search, #search, #search-engine, #search-results, #tc, #united-states, #websites

Google refreshes its mobile search experience

Google today announced a subtle but welcome refresh of its mobile search experience. The idea here is to provide easier to read search results and a more modern look with a simpler, edge-to-edge design.

From what we’ve seen so far, this is not a radically different look, but the rounded and slightly shaded boxes around individual search results have been replaced with straight lines, for example, while in other places, Google has specifically added more roundness. You’ll find changes to the circles around the search bar and some tweaks to the Google logo. “We believe it feels more approachable, friendly, and human,” a Google spokesperson told me. There’s a bit more whitespace in places, too, as well as new splashes of color that are meant to help separate and emphasize certain parts of the page.

Image Credits: Google

“Rethinking the visual design for something like Search is really complex,” Google designer Aileen Cheng said in today’s announcement. “That’s especially true given how much Google Search has evolved. We’re not just organizing the web’s information, but all the world’s information. We started with organizing web pages, but now there’s so much diversity in the types of content and information we have to help make sense of.”

Image Credits: Google

Google is also extending its use of the Google Sans font, which you are probably already quite familiar with thanks to its use in Gmail and Android. “Bringing consistency to when and how we use fonts in Search was important, too, which also helps people parse information more efficiently,” Aileen writes.

In many ways, today’s refresh is a continuation of the work Google did with its mobile search refresh in 2019. At that time, the emphasis, too, was on making it easier for users to scan down the page by adding site icons and other new visual elements to the page. The work of making search results pages more readable is clearly never done.

For the most part, though, comparing the new and old design, the changes are small. This isn’t some major redesign but we’re talking about minor tweaks that the designers surely obsessed over but that the users may not even really notice. Now if Google had made it significantly easier to distinguish ads from the content you are actually looking for, that would’ve been something.

Image Credits: Google

#android, #computing, #designer, #gmail, #google, #google-search, #google-workspace, #google-drive, #mobile, #mobile-search, #operating-systems, #search-results, #spokesperson, #technology

Coronavirus, election results, Kobe Bryant and Zoom among Google’s top 2020 search trends in U.S. and world

The coronavirus outbreak, elections, and Zoom meetings were on U.S. consumers minds’ this year, according to Google’s list of the U.S. top trending searches in 2020, released this morning. These search trends don’t reflect the most-searched for words and phrases across Google, but rather those that saw high spikes in traffic over a sustained period of time during the year, as compared with 2019. This paints a more accurate picture of consumers’ changing interests during the year, than Google’s top searches would.

The lists of top Global search trends had a similar set of results.

In the U.S., Election Results was the No. 1 top trending search, followed by Coronavirus.

The PlayStation 5, Zoom and the names of several celebrities we tragically lost in 2020 also made the list.

In order, the top trending searches of 2020 were: Election results, Coronavirus, Kobe Bryant, Coronavirus update, Coronavirus symptoms, Zoom, who is winning the election, Chadwick Boseman, and PlayStation 5.

The top trending News searches reflected similar trends, with Elections, the pandemic, and other related impacts making the list. There was a lot of bad news in 2020, including natural disasters and the largest stock market crash since 1929 (the Coronavirus Crash), which made the list, too.

In order, the top trending News searches were: Election results, Coronavirus, Stimulus checks, Unemployment, Iran, Hurricane Laura, Super Tuesday, Stock Market, Murder hornet, and Australia fires.

Google’s year-end search trends also highlighted top people, actors, politicians, athletes, musicians and losses of the year, with the U.S. No. 1’s going to Joe Biden (top people search trend and politician search trend), Tom Hanks (who got COVID in 2020), Ryan Newman, Shakira, and Kobe Bryant.

The year-end review also broke out other topics, like top trending TV shows, sports teams, songs, movies, games, and more.

The No.1’s across these lists, in order, included the Netflix viral hit, “Tiger King,” the Boston Celtics, “WAP,” “Parasite,” and Among Us.

Globally, many of the top trends remained the same, with Coronavirus, Election results, Kobe Bryant, Zoom and IPL as top search trends. Meanwhile, the Coronavirus, Election results, Iran, Beirut, and Hantavirus were top trending News searches.

There were other similarities across subtopics, too, like No. 1’s which included Tom Hanks, Ryan Newman, Among Us, WAP, Parasite, Joe Biden, “Tiger King,” and more.

Beyond the terms themselves, Google says there were other apparent trends that emerged from its data. This year, people continued to use Google to ask “why” to learn about the world. Although, this year, many of our “why’s” were related to COVID — like where to buy toilet paper, face masks, and hand sanitizer and top “where to buy” search trends. We also looked for nearby places like covid testing and early voting centers, as well as protests in our “Near Me” searches.

And, despite everything, people remained optimistic as Google users searched for ways to spend time in coronavirus lockdowns. Searches for “sourdough bread recipe” hit an all-time high, for example. Other popular food searches included whipped coffee (thanks TikTok!), Disney churro, Dole whip and others. Top trends in “how to” searches reflected a world where we learned to stay at home, doing things for ourselves — like how to cut hair, or cut bangs, or color hair at home, as well as work from home, take virtual field trips, go on virtual dates, and more.

Searches for Black Lives Matter increased five-fold over 2019, as well.

These searches and those for other supported markets can be viewed on Google Trends.

#2020, #google, #google-search, #searches, #tc, #trends, #year-end

Apple search crawler activity could signal a Google competitor, or a bid to make Siri a one-stop-shop

Encouraged by the spate of antitrust activity brewing in both the Justice Department and on Capitol Hill, Apple may be developing a search competitor to Google, according to a report in the Financial Times.

That would be a move ripe with irony as the push for an end to anti-competitive practices is seemingly creating greater competition among the largest companies which already dominate the technology industry rather than between those established companies and more nimble upstarts.

Signs of Apple’s resurgent interest search technologies can be found in both a subtle but significant change to the latest version of the iOS 14 iPhone operating system and increasing activity from Apple’s spidering tools that are used to scour the web and refine search functionality, the Financial Times reported.

Apple is now showing its own search results and linking directly to websites when users type queries from its home screen in iOS 14. For context, this is a behavior that has been known for a while as people have seen the feature pop up in beta versions of iOS. And the search volume being up on Apple’s crawler is something that Jon Henshaw of Coywolf had noted back in August.

Sources cited by the Financial Times said that the change marked a significant step-change in Apple’s in-house search development and could be the basis for a broader push into search.

The Cupertino, Calif.-based company certainly has the expertise. A little less than three years ago it nabbed Google’s head of search, John Giannandrea in what was widely seen as an attempt to shore up Apple’s foundations in artificial intelligence and voice search via Siri. Because of the way that Apple is organized internally, it’s unlikely that Giannandrea will be devoting full-time effort to both a potential “search product” and Siri . But it’s within the realm of possibility that he could be lending his expertise to a team working on a separate feature.

Any development of a search tool would be a third way for Apple, which now uses Google as its default search service thanks to a lucrative contract between the two (one that’s also at the heart of a Justice Department inquiry into Google’s purported anti-competitive activities around search). The only other major search services on the market rely on Microsoft’s Bing to power their results.

While the signs do point to an actual uptick in activity, there could be an explanation for Apple’s crawler activity that’s less heavy on corporate skunkworks skulduggery and more in line with goals that Apple’s stated pretty clearly.

While the story about Apple getting into direct competition with Google on search makes for a great headline, the uptick in activity could be explained equally as rationally by Siri getting more search queries and being more of an interlocutor between Apple and search services like Google or Microsoft’s Bing. This disintermediation is something that Google began years ago and has even modified and expanded over the years to combat the same kind of behavior from Siri.

Making Siri a one-stop-shop could inoculate Apple in the scenario where they are forced to enable a search provider choice in the iOS onboarding flow by regulation. It won’t do anything to help Google though, who pays Apple billions because iOS users are worth way more than any other mobile web users to its business. Google, for its part, says that when people have a choice they still pick Google anyway. Perhaps another reason why making Siri the search equivalent of an overtalker is the strong play for Apple.

TechCrunch has reached out to Apple for comment and will update when we hear back.

 

 

#apple, #apple-inc, #artificial-intelligence, #california, #computing, #cupertino, #department-of-justice, #google, #google-search, #google-voice-search, #iphone, #itunes, #john-giannandrea, #messages, #microsoft-bing, #operating-system, #search-results, #siri, #software, #tc, #techcrunch, #the-financial-times, #voice-search

Google calls DOJ’s antitrust lawsuit “deeply flawed” in GIF-laden blog response

Google was clearly anticipating today’s U.S. Department of Justice antitrust complaint filing – the company posted an extensive rebuttal of the lawsuit to its Keyword company blog. The post, penned by SVP of Global Affairs and Google Chief Legal Officer Kent Walker, suggests that the DOJ’s case is “deeply flawed” and “would do nothing to help consumers,” before going into a platform-by-platform description of why it thinks its position in the market isn’t representative of unfair market dominance that would amount to antitrust.

Google’s blog post is even sprinkled with GIFs – something that’s pretty common for the search giant when it comes to its consumer product launches. These GIFs include step-by-step screen recordings of setting search engines other than Google as your default in Chrome on both mobile and desktop. These processes are both described as “trivially easy” by Walker in the post, but they do look like a bit of an own-goal when you notice just how many steps it takes to get the job done on desktop in particular, including what looks like a momentary hesitation in where to click to drill down further for the “Make Default” command.

Image Credits: Google

Google also reportedly makes reference to companies choosing their search engine as default because of the quality of their service, including both Apple and Mozilla (with a link drop for our own Frederic Lardinois). Ultimately, Google is making the argument that its search engine isn’t dominant because of a lack of viable options fostered by anti-competitive practices, but that instead it’s a result of building a quality product that consumers then opt in to using from among a field of choices.

The DOJ’s full suit dropped this morning, and an initial analysis suggests that this scrutiny is perhaps inopportunely timed in terms of its proximity to the election to actually have any significant teeth. There is some indication that a more broad, bipartisan investigation with support from state level attorney generals on both sides of the aisle could follow later, however, so it’s not necessarily all just going to go away regardless of election outcome.

#apple, #chrome-os, #doj, #freeware, #gif, #google, #google-search, #google-chrome, #kent-walker, #mozilla, #operating-systems, #search-engine, #search-engines, #software, #tc, #web-browsers

Duplex, Google’s conversational A.I, has updated 3M+ business listings since pandemic

Google today offered an update on the status of Duplex, its A.I. technology that uses natural conversations to get things done — like making restaurant reservations, booking appointments, or updating a Google Business listing, for example. When the pandemic began, Google expanded its use of Duplex for business updates to eight countries, and has since made over 3 million updates to business listings — including pharmacies, restaurants and grocery stores.

These updates have been seen over 20 billion times across Maps and Search, the company says.

The A.I. technology, first introduced at the Google I/O developer conference in 2018, is able to place calls to businesses and interact with the people who answer the phone. In the case of reservations or appointment setting, it can request dates and times, respond to questions, and even make sounds to make the A.I. seem more like a person. For instance, it can insert subtle vocal breaks, like “mm-hm” and “um,” into its conversations.

Since launching, Duplex in Google Assistant has completed over a million bookings, Google announced today.

The company also noted it began to use Duplex to automatically update business information on Google Maps and Search in the U.S. last year, saving business owners from having to manually update details like store hours, or whether they offer takeout, among other things.

Last year, Google also brought Duplex to the web in the U.S., to help users book things like movie tickets and rental cars. Today, Google says it will begin piloting the same experience with other things, like shopping and ordering food for a faster checkout experience.

Just a few weeks ago, Google also introduced another Duplex-powered feature, “Hold for Me,” which lets you use Google Assistant to wait on hold on your phone call, then alert you when someone joins the line.

Thanks to advances in neural speech recognition and synthesis, and in Google’s own new language understanding models, the company says today that 99% of Duplex calls are entirely automated.

The Duplex update was one of several announcements Google made today at its Search On 2020 event, where it introduced a number of search improvements, including the ability to search for songs by humming, better guess at misspellings, point users to the correct part of a page to answer their question, tag key moments in videos, and more.

#a-i, #artificial-intelligence, #duplex, #google, #google-assistant, #google-search, #google-maps, #google-voice, #speech-recognition, #tc