The Bumpy Rolling Out of Kaplak Stream – And What Not To Do To Piss Off Google

Kaplak is changing it’s course again. Since the inception of the first kaplak idea, we’ve come a long humbling way to only realize over and over again, how much we still have to learn. But slowly, we also realize what kind of knowhow we have and are building, and how Kaplak can help crack the problems and meet the challenges, which we set out to originally. Hence we also begin to understand what kind of value we add – and just as importantly, what we don’t add. Among many other things, this is key to learn what kind of business model we want to build – and, just as importantly, what kind of business we don’t want.

Let’s take a look at what happened with our traffic since the somewhat bumpy rolling-out of Kaplak Stream in 2008, from November 1st last year to February 1st this year :

The above is a screenshot from the Google Analytics Dashboard for Kaplak.com including subdomains. Following the launch of Kaplak Stream, sometime in November our traffic started to take off. Kaplak Stream basically consists of the present WordPress MU installation of which the Kaplak Blog is also part, along with a handful of customized plugins, of which the most important one is FeedWordPress. The idea (as sketched out in this previous blog post) is that items in the stream can be “fed out” from the stream again, which will reveal new contexts, which didn’t exist before. When two separate items which are both tagged “Barack Obama” are fed from the stream, they create a new “Barack Obama” context, even though the original items may have been produced and published in wildly different contexts.

The first installment of Kaplak Stream came with just about fifteen feeds, of which a handful were submitted by owners of niche websites. Others were feeds from sites such as YouTube, Amazon.com, Twitter (tracking particular subjects or keywords) and Boing Boing. Enough to provide the stream with some variety and “head” which would also test the autotagging performed by Open Calais via a modified version of Dan Grossman’s WordPress plugin.

Kaplak Stream managed to aggregate well over about 15.000 items, i.e. about 1000 items from each feed on average. Grossly more tweets than regular blog posts were aggregated, but posts attracted the greater amount of traffic, given that they worked much better with the autotagging functionality in place. Since they had more text, the tagging tended to be more precise – although some times tags were wildly misleading and out of place. Room for lots of improvement. Most, about 90-95% of all traffic came from search, notably Google. Visitors tended to not stay long, but quickly be on their way again. This could seem to suggest that only few found what they were looking for. However, reports also came in from feed owners, that our traffic managed to produce a meaningful sample of visits on the actual sites aggregated. This was really good news, as it suggests that a sample of our visitors actually found what they were looking for, or was curious enough to click through.

So what pulled the rise in traffic? No subject in particular, but the variety of subjects covered. What attracted users were more often than not pretty obscure pages and topics. For example, top result were the “tag page” for the tag “university-of-illinois-arctic-climate-research-center” with 641 views, and there was absolutely no recoginzable pattern in the rest of the more popular pages reached by visitors. I have not given our sample here substantial analysis, but my guess would be that there would be a neat power law graph, if one dotted in the number of visits to each page in Kaplak Stream and ranked them besides each other. But there is no discernable pattern as to what determined what aggregated items were more popular than others.

While some things seem to work, albeit still just barely, there are also problems. One of these is that apparently something happened on January 26th, which made our traffic drop drastically to before Kaplak Stream levels. Presumably this drop was caused by a Google penalty from duplicate content, which Google have been known to give websites which carry identical content across different domains. While Kaplak’s goals are somewhat aligned with Google’s, although not completely, I’m not unsure the penalty (if there was one) was not “right” in the sense that there were clearly limits to how informative and appropriate the search results which led visitors to our site, were. At least to justify the dramatically beneficial position we gained by aggregating just 15 feeds.

Another problem is the “noise” level, in our tagging, and in the combinations of feed items tagged with similar tags. Tags can be and mostly are very local. A post only remotely connected with a person and a piece which is solely about that person are usually tagged identically. My instinct tells me we need to use automated tools for what they are good for, and let filtering be more in the hands of expert users, in the contexts where it matters.

Clearly, more experiments are needed, and we need much more sustained analysis and methods to analyze our data. All this takes time and costs money. Right now Kaplak has no business model except what we can put into it of our own pockets (meaning mine) – and these are rapidly emptied. This means, for the time being, i.e. for several months now – and several months (and perhaps even years) ahead, I will not be able to work and develop Kaplak on full time. Thanks to the benevolence of our host, we can keep and continue to work on all Kaplak’s sites and projects, but we’ll make some changes which prepares us best to run Kaplak as a part-time operation.

We’ll convert the Kaplak setup to a setup more similar to that of the UMW Edublogs set up by Jim Groom at the University of Mary Washington. Among other things, this means we’ll focus more on building each smaller site in the network, and keep each site focused on it’s subject or theme. We’ll focus more on aggregating what happens within the Kaplak network of sites than what is going on outside the Kaplak WPMU install. We’ll still use aggregation tools to track very particular subjects, keywords and tags, but each different subject will be treated in a site of it’s own, to make things more manageable (it’s a mess cleaning up a large site based on aggregated items). In other words, we’ll run a network of small, very low-maintenance sites, and delay bigger experiments and improvements for a while. Meanwhile, Kaplak Stream will still be able to track tags across all sites and offer feeds from particular tags used in the network.

Reducing the amount of my time which goes into actual development of Kaplak also means I can focus better at building a new constellation of ressourceful people and (real) investors, which we will need to come back stronger with a revived Kaplak at a later time. This is what I hope to achieve, while I work simultanously on other things, making a living.

However, there is also a risk, that we don’t. That our ways may go in other directions. This is not necessarily all bad. See this video with Tim O’Reilly in a previous post to see why. I will try very hard to keep an open mind and attitude and not get stuck in ideas I ought better to leave behind. That said, I can’t see any companies or services which presently really cracks the problems we set out to – and this means we still need to fill that space, one way or the other. And more than anything, I can’t stay away.

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Free Software And Proprietary Dead-ends

Stumbled over this interesting discussion about WordPress “premium” plugins and themes, i.e. plugins or themes which are sold at a price, just like any other piece of proprietary software. WordPress Premium Themes have been around for a while, and they recently spawned quite a discussion on the WP-hackers mailing list, when over 200 themes was removed from the WordPress.com selection of themes.

The focus of the discussion is the Free Software Foundation’s General Public License (GPL), and whether plugins or themes based on a GPL’ed piece of software such as WordPress can be sold for profit.

There are several voices in this broad discussion, and to characterize some of the perspectives :

  • Commercial developers and start-ups, who need a way to make a living from what they do : create WordPress plugins and themes
  • WordPress users who demand more features and ever more clever ways to personalize and customize the software they use
  • Open source developers who feel cheated when what they’ve spent hours and hours developing is “sold” by others
  • Purists who feel that since WordPress is free (GPL’ed as well as free of charge) every component based on or rooted in WordPress ought also to be free
  • Pragmatics who tend to say that as long as the GPL is respected, developers may do anything with the code, and that plugins which are developed from scratch are not necessarily born GPL’ed

I think this is a crucial discussion for the future of open source and “free” software.

As far as my understanding of the GPL goes there’s nothing wrong with redistributing GPL’ed software, in fact this is the point of the license. The only condition is the software remains licensed under GPL or a similar license. That receivers in your end receive the same benefits that you had, is a key component of what is usually referred to as copyleft.

There’s nothing wrong with charging money for the redistribution of this code either. Noone says anybody should provide stuff for free, just because it is GPL’ed “free” software. What the freedom in “free software” means is that anyone who obtains the code also remains at liberty to redistribute the GPL’ed code and charge for it too, if he or she wishes to do so. We all have expenses, and there are all kinds of good reasons to ask money for the time and work we put into providing a service or a product to someone else.

The tricky thing is, that since users who buy a piece of GPL’ed software also has the full right to redistribute that software, the business model appears to be broken. It may not actually be broken, since there are many good reasons to pay to receive benefits with the software “purchased”. Someone who obtains a piece of GPL’ed software via a bittorrent network, won’t get the support and imminent future updates that someone who “bought” the software from the developer does. But if we toss this aside, that the business model appears broken is probably what leads some developers to pursue proprietary business models.

Now, there’s a perfect match between supply and demand in the users who wants new features and are willing to pay for them too, and the developers ready to supply new features. It appears pretty straightforward. It’s good for users and it’s good for developers, who make a living from what they do. Right? Wrong.

The advantage of using GPL or any other copyleft strategy is that the process of redistribution and refinement can easily be facilitated. If or when a useful feature is included in a version of the code, it can be adopted by the source developer or anybody else involved, so that everybody gains, whether they charge for it to others or not. It can facilitate the creation of a community around “the project”. The software is improved by community developers, and eventually the code or project may leverage much more than any individual developer is capable of.

If you use a proprietary model as a developer you’re shutting others out. As a proprietary developer you have to build your entire organization around the fact that all problems must be solved in-house or paid for. You’re in the business of constructing a costly operation, which must be paid for. In contrast, the free software developer may not have a great income from his work (someone in the linked discussion said he had received 50$ in donations at 20.000 downloads), but also has few expenses and obligations. Once a website has been set up, he can begin to facilitate the distribution and development of his project because it is GPL’ed. This of course doesn’t do it alone, but if it isn’t out there, it won’t be used and improved upon (for free) at all. If an open source developer has 20.000 downloads, it means his work is popular and things are working out. He ought to wake up and find a way to leverage all that traffic and interest to create even better software, which will attract even more users and reach even greater markets. I find open source developers are typically not very good at this, and there are no easy recipes for how to make it work.

My point is, however, that even while it may not seem so at the surface level, you’re in a much worse position as a proprietary developer, than the open source and free software hobbyist, who is capable of inviting global input and value to his work by using the GPL and has very few expenses doing so.

Now, what about the user? At a first glance, users get what they want, a theme or plugin of their choice and style. But the price they pay is not simply the money changing hands. They also become dependant on a company or a particular developer to provide for them the code and support they want. If the user becomes dissatisfied with the company’s service or the company goes bankrupt, or if the developer decides to go his own way leaving the product and it’s users behind, few will relate enough to the product to be able to pick up where he left. If a piece of code has had 20.000 downloads globally, it becomes a lot easier to find someone, for whom this piece of work is not just a strange mess. But it is also possible, for a user who can’t find somebody to help him, to dive into the code himself and learn to solve problems and create new features, and then redistribute his work.

I’m really great with developers selling their work, but I believe they’re shooting themselves in their feet, if they use GPL’ed software in the first place as a platform or market, and then do not use the powerful legal tools at their disposal in the GPL and other free licenses, to leverage the reach and further refinement of what they do. And I believe users who are too impatient with open source communities and hobbyist free software developers and pay for themes and plugins help trap themselves and their developers in closed circles, which will lead them nowhere while the open communities grow stronger. There’s a real danger however, that great developer talent will wind up in these kinds of dead-end relationships, which doesn’t expose their projects to the open scrutiny of global free software communities. There’s also a real danger that open source software projects won’t spawn the businesses and startups they need, in order to create thriving communities and cultivate collaborative efforts to create even better architectures for facilitating the development of great free software. This may happen if developers and startups decline from using the GPL or other copyleft strategies, out of the misunderstanding and fear that they can’t make money on something which is “free”.

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If you do something you hate, please stop

Gary Vaynerchuk of Wine Library gave an entertaining entrepreneurship peptalk at Web 2.0 Expo in New York, on how to build personal branding using the internet : Position yourself to succeed. If you do something, you hate, stop.

First, here’s how Gary describes himself :

At a very young age, Gary took over the family business, a liquor store in New Jersey. Over a period of 6 years Gary and his father Sasha rebranded the business as Wine Library and transformed it from a local store doing roughly $4 million in sales annually to a $50 million national industry leader. The development of the Wine Library juggernaut reached its zenith on August 25, 2006 when Gary was featured with a caricature in the top left corner of the Wall Street Journal, a lifelong goal of Gary’s that he achieved before the age of 30!

Now enjoy his talk :

To sum up Gary’s points :

1. Quit doing stuff you hate. You want to position yourself for great things, and they won’t happen as long as you’re stuck in a daytime job you hate.

2. Stop excusing yourself and think you can’t “monetize”. You can. Even if you collect smurfs, someone will buy into that – smurf it up!

3. Quit watching LOST and you’ll find the afterhours to work for what you want. You won’t get money to do what you want. You work to get it. Find time. Earn a little on the way.

Found this courtesy of Raymond at dltq.org. Thanks for the tip!

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Eye-opener : Dreams of a Diva

I’d like to share some of the insights which motivated me to deliberately, willfully and consciously choose to spend a considerable number of years of my life enduring the hardships of building a startup business from scratch. What motivated me to found Kaplak? What motivates me to work on Kaplak, each and every day?

There are a number of avenues to take to answer these questions. One of these is Dreams of a Diva (org. Danish title Diva Drømme), a documentary film I produced/directed in 2005. This trailer for the film gives you an idea of what kind of film this is :

The film was produced under the FilmTrain program, and therefore, to a certain extent, sponsored as part of my participation in this program. FilmTrain was financed as an Interreg IIIA project, which basically means it was funded by the EU. It was a cross-border Danish-German project of which one particular objective was to try and develop and keep young and independent media professionals in the regions of Odense/Funen and Kiel/Schleswig, rather than “lose them” to the big cities of Copenhagen and Hamburg.

I’ve never been very good at thinking about how to market any film I produced. In short, because I never cared. Every current project interested me, and older ones were soon shelved, after airings on local or national television, or screenings at festivals. None of my films have attracted or tried to attract a mainstream audience. I made films about subjects I liked and which interested me, despite the fact I never earned more than a little on any of them. In 2004 I met Sofie Krog, which is a world-class puppeteer, and she hired me to do a promotional video for her. I knew already then, that it would be great to eventually do a longer film about her and her show, and decided to make the film the following year.

Much hard work later, the film had a blast of a premiere in a local movie theatre in Odense in January 2006, with an invited audience of about 100 people. The following week, when the film stood it’s ground in the theatre on it’s own merits, it attracted as many as two paying moviegoers, of which one was my aunt. And this was after what I’d say was decent local press coverage, on television, in radio and in the printed press.

Needless to say, I was a bit disappointed. Some rational analysis later, this was hardly surprising, even though we’d hoped for more. The film had a niche subject, puppeteering, which was little known about locally, featured an up-and-coming star in this field, which were little known outside theatrical circles – and to top it, it was a documentary film. Apparently, documentaries never do very well in theatres (with the rare exception).

This was what I call an eye-opener to me. What may have been latent knowledge before then, was then crystal. It was clear to me, that I couldn’t rely on any traditional distribution channel, such as movie theatres, for my work – and nor for financing my work, if I wanted to continue to do the kind of non-mainstream creative works I wanted to do.

At the same time I released the film on the bittorrent-indexsite The Pirate Bay, from where the torrent spread to other torrent-indexsites. Also the official FilmTrain DVD (which was free) was later leaked to the bittorrent network. While none of these files were ever big hits on the torrent networks, the traffic they brought from as far away as Greece and Japan revealed new avenues of distribution. Gargantuan amounts of data were transported to far away places – not with the speed of light – but comparatively hazzle-free, for such a young technology. It was in fact possible to distribute large amounts of data to the other end of the world with comparative ease and very little cost. It was clear, there were problems. Lots of problems. At one point I managed to send 13 GB or so across the Atlantic. It took 14 days or so to do it, though. With just two people connected, this was not the economical method of doing this, but it still amazed me. Shipping this amount of data from a home computer to another through the internet was unthinkable just 5-10 years ago. Eventually I got tired of seeding myself, which basically made the torrents unavailable (and they are so now, not just this film, but most of the stuff I put up there). But the possibility existed. We “just” needed some method to pay for the bandwidth and hosting. We needed to make it even easier.

I can’t possibly go back to directing and producing a film, before I get to a point where I can rely on the architectures of it’s distribution to actually bring the film to those interested in it, and give me a decent living from it, which helps finance my work. Sending a film in 100 physical copies to 100 different film festivals around the world can’t do this for me, it’s only further expenses. Now, we have a global, open architecture of distribution at our feet. We “just” need to tweak and improve the tools at our hands to enable us to create new business models.

I can’t publish my work online without a method of making a living from what I do. I found back then, that there were a ton of videosites and p2p networks which enabled internet users to distribute their stuff. Yet, amazingly none took seriously aim to crack what I increasingly saw as “the niche producer’s problem”; financing, and what’s going to get a niche production financing : increased and targeted visibility towards it’s niche market. I also found that there were lots of methods to put advertising on one’s website – and earn a dime doing so. But what if you don’t have a website? What if you don’t want to become entangled in online advertising, but would rather go about your business doing what you do well? Or what if you can attract so little traffic, that it isn’t really worth your while? I found none which were interested in appealing to niche markets, on what I refer to as “the slim end” of the long tail. This was the situation Kaplak was founded to remedy. Not just for myself, but for anyone for whom this resonates.

[Updated June 17, 2008]

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Digital insights and forecasts for online visionaries

Thanks to Guy Kawasaki I just stumbled over this brilliant article, which should not be missed by anyone following Kaplak, or by any online startup for that matter.

Written by Frank Kochenash, head of Strategy and Insights in Avenue A | Razorfish’s Seattle office, the article stems from the company’s 2008 Digital Outlook Report (PDF). In the piece, Kochenash addresses the role of users ‘as advertising models evolve on social networks, and [...] how users should be compensated as the economic models on these properties mature.’ I specifically note the following predictions of what’s going to happen in this field which Kaplak operates in :

Expect to see increased competitiveness and specialization among social media sites and utilities, each trying to differentiate the network through perks available to members. The fragmentation of social media sites implies four other effects:

1. Advertising networks that can effectively leverage social information will become marginally more important.

2. Widgets, as vehicles to carry a message effectively within and across various social media environments, will become more popular.

3. Exchanges or clearing houses will arise to provide compensation in some form (e.g., cash, rewards, points, status) for users. [wouldn't call this compensation though, as 'users' rapidly converge into 'producers', but rather to connect and facilitate transactions between users]

4. Niche social media will become attractive places for brands to engage in SIM [Social Influence Marketing] because relevance can be increased.

Emphasis and comments in square brickets are mine.

Kawasaki was allowed to make the complete report available on his blog – he recommends getting it before they change their mind. Like Kochenash’s piece, the full report is stuffed with the kind of insights and backed up data which can make any online entrepreneur drool, because they can use this stuff to back up their business plans and their otherwise very-hard-to-document assumptions.

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