NMK Forum: Jason Calacanis
The first keynote of the conference, Jason Calacanis, proclaimed that there is an environmental crisis on the Internet, and that SEO is responsible for it.
The Internet used to be about doing good and helping people, said Calacanis. Ninety-five percent of the Net used to be useful original material. But that has changed. Today, it is splogs, spam and pay-per-post that dominate the scene.
Calacanis has seen a number of cycles in new media over his internet career. He first built weblogs inc., which he sold to AOL. Then he became general manager of Netscape, and then left that post to become Sequoia Capital’s entrepreneur in action, which has led to a new project. What he says he’s seen happen is that a new medium emerges; consumers embrace it; and then over-zealous marketers come along to destroy it. This has already destroyed email, thanks to the nigh-impossibility of avoiding spam.
On the web ‘evil people’ are running amok, said Calacanis. They are SEO gamers, AdSense gamers and spammers. The worst of these are the SEO people, he said, they are destroying the web. When Google started, 95 per cent of the information it delivered was good. Nowadays, the proportion is only five per cent. Machine-driven search algorithms created the SEO market; people whose aim it is to trick the search engines and to dishonestly over-promote the search result position of their clients. Machine search means that people create sites to appeal to spiders rather than people.
We are not fighting these people. Instead, we create alternative systems such as Squidoo, which have become as spam-ridden as any other system. If you create open systems on the Internet, then it will be polluted.
Blogs are being ruined by companies that ought to know better, suggested Calacanis. When Microsoft gave free Acer laptops to leading bloggers in order to try to generate coverage of the Vista OS launch, it showed exactly how cheap the company thinks bloggers are. It would never have dreamed of trying to buy coverage from mainstream journalists in the same way. Similarly, HP’s use of the Pay-per-Post system reveals a similar disregard for its victims. Calacanis showed a video clip of children encouraged to smash a non-HP digital camera by their mother, who was working for Pay-per-Post.
Before companies engage in such tactics, they should consider whether they pass the ‘mom test’ (would you feel comfortable doing this to your mom) and the ‘leaked memo’ test (if a memo was leaked which revealed your intentions, how would you feel about that).
As a move towards a solution to this problem, Calacanis has recently launched his own search service, Mahalo. The company employs 40 search ‘curators’ to develop impartial results for the most common search queries. He used the example of looking up Paris Hotels. While the Google results reveal a lot of middlemen and bought links, Mahalo’s editors have chosen the most useful destinations for the top links - sites such as Frommer’s, Fodors, Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor.
At the conference, Calacanis announced the launch of the new Mahalo Greenhouse. This will allow people to apply to become a part-time guide for the service. They can write search results using the Media Wiki interface, and then these will be checked by Mahalo employees. If they are good enough, they will enter the main results and the guide will be paid between $10 and $15 for the result.
Audience reactions were cautiously optimistic, with only the observation that cultural differences and the inevitability of bias might make the judgements of Mahalo’s Santa Monica employees not quite so valid for people in the rest of the world. Calacanis was refreshingly candid about the business strategy for the project - they’ll work first on making the site useful and highly trafficked, and then work out how they can make money from this traffic.
Many thanks to Yada Yada for its podcast services at the conference.