Curing the commercial Web blues

Last week we spent a lot of time here, in Venice:

Bancogiro, Rialto Mercado, Venice

The triangular marble plaza on the edge of the Grand Canal of Venice is known informally as Bancogiro, once one of Italy’s landmark banks, and now the name of an osteria there. The plaza is part of Rialto Mercado, the marketplace where Marco Polo was based and prospered when he wasn’t out opening trade routes to the east. It’s also where Shakespeare set The Merchant of Venice, and where Luca Pacioli studied double entry bookkeeping, which he described in Summa de arithmetica, geometria, proportioni et proportionalità (Venice 1494), one of the first textbooks written in the vernacular (rather than Latin), and an early success story of the printing press.

Here’s a photo set of the place.

Here’s a 360° view. (While it’s called “Fondamenta de la Preson,” that’s just the cockeyed white building in the map above — a former womens prison — in the corner of the plaza.)

Note that Google Maps tells us little about the location, but plenty about the commercial establishments there. When I go for a less fancy view, the problem gets worse:

Bancogiro, Rialto Mercado, Venice

In that pull-down menu (where it says “Traffic”) I can turn on webcams, photos and other stuff from the Long Tail; but there’s no way to turn on labels for the Grand Canal, the Bancogiro plaza, the Rialto Mercado vaporetto (water bus) stop, the Rialto Mercado itself, the Fondamenta de la Preson (women’s prison, labeled, sort of, in the upper view but not the lower), or even the @#$% street names. The only non-commercial item on the map is the Arciconfraternita Di San Cristoforo E Della Misericordia, which is an organization more than a place.

(My wife just said “You know those hotel maps they give away, that only show hotels? It’s like that, only worse. The hotel maps at least give you some street names.”)

For example, try to find information about the Bancogiro: that is, about the original historic bank, rather than the osteria or the other commercial places with that name. (Here’s one lookup.) For awhile I thought the best information I could find on the Web was text from the restaurant menu, which I posted here. That says the bank was founded in 1157. But this scholarly document says 1617. Another seems to agree. But both are buried under commercial links.

The problem here is that the Web has become commercialized at the cost of other needs of use. And Google itself is leading the way — to the point where it is beginning to fail in its mission to “organize the world‘s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

This is understandable, and easily rationalized. Google is a commercial enterprise. It makes money by selling advertising, and placing commercial information in settings like the ones above. This has been good in many ways, and funds many free services. But it has subordinated purely useful purposes, such as finding the name of a street, a canal, or a bus stop.

There are (at least) two central problems here for Google and other giants like it. One is that we’re not always buying something, or looking only for commercial information. The other is that advertising should not be the only business model for the likes of Google, and all who depend on it are at risk while it remains so.

One missing piece is a direct market for useful information. Toward that end I’ll put this out there: I am willing to pay for at least some of the information I want. I don’t expect all information to be free. I don’t think the fact that information is easily copied and re-used means information “wants” to be free. In other words, I think there is a market here. And I don’t think the lack of one is proof that one can’t be built.

What we need first isn’t better offerings from Google, but better signaling from the demand side of the marketplace. That’s what I’m try to do right now, by signaling my willingness to pay something for information that nobody is currently selling at any price. We need to work on systems that make both signaling and paying possible — on the buyer’s terms, and not just the seller’s.

This is a big part of what VRM, or Vendor Relationship Management is about. Development is going on here. EmanciPay, for example, should be of interest to anybody who would like to see less money left on the market’s table.

Bonus link.



  1. Mic Edwards’s avatar

    Before you try to add more to the relatively elegant interface of Google Maps, consider that you can just turn on a Wikipedia layer …

  2. Brent Logan’s avatar

    One of the nice things about the commercial web is competition. Bing’s maps will give you the street names.

    Once Google figures out it’s losing business because it’s not offering what people want, it will change.

  3. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Great post following this one from Dave Winer. Two pull-quotes that I love:

    “This is, btw, the user-as-hamster business model. The one where you sit in a cage and make the wheels spin around. Either you’re watching commercials while doing your workout, or you’re generating information about yourself which is used to decide what commercials to show you. Either way, your value to them is a very very small fraction of your value as a human being. And quite a bit less than if you were paying for the service yourself.”


    “The message here is very clear. Learn how to set up a server. It’s not so hard. And it’s worth learning how to do so you can be more than just a hamster. The Internet is a very powerful communication medium, but if you depend on $5 billion companies to give it to you for “free” you’re not going to be getting much of the freedom it has to offer.”

    Right on.

  4. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Brent, this post began when I was trying to find the street where we stayed in Venice, close to the plaza above, It’s called Calle del Cappeler. Here’s a lookup on Bing, with a misspelling. I can’t run it again, because it keeps telling me the server is unavailable. Don’t know what it will do for you. Being “personalized,” it assumes I’m Italian because I’m in Florence (where half the people you meet on streets and in restaurants and museums are Americans). Google thinks I’m Italian too. This, of course, is the Hamster Business Model: the one in which we’re the hamsters. (See Dave’s post for more.)

    Neither Google’s business nor Bing’s is accountable to us, beyond our roles as hamsters. Such has always been the case with the advertising business model. Here’s the key: We’re not the customers. Advertisers are. And as long as advertisers keep paying for “personalization” and other stuff like it, the market will hold.

    Meanwhile the Web — the vast set of linked documents that Tim Berners-Lee thought up more than two decades ago — loses.

    But you’re right about Bing. It is much better at some kinds of mapping, especially with low-angle views and displaying street names. Not only are the names there, but much easier to read than Google’s. Alas, Bing is not the leader here. It’s a follower. Google is the leader. And it needs to start seeing its users as customers rather than as hamsters.

  5. Brent Logan’s avatar

    Doc, the search worked just fine for me in the US.

    I read Dave’s post, too. You guys are right on.

    Unfortunately it’s worse than just maps. Do a search for almost anything on Google. The top search results are trying to sell you something.

  6. Esme Vos’s avatar

    Even if you want to pay Google for relevant information stripped of advertising, the advertisers will always outbid you to get Google to present you their ads.

    With respect to maps, there should be a much easier way to layer over a Google map with your friends’ favorite hotels, restaurants and cafes in a city. For example, if you want to layer over my recommendations on where to eat in Paris, you should just be able to download Esme’s Paris favorites and when you click on a map of Paris and click “add Esme’s favorites”, they appear on the map. I know one can create one’s own Google maps favorites in a city, but it is still a bit clumsy and cumbersome to share. Plus the defaults on the Google maps are the commercial establishments that pay.

  7. PXLated’s avatar

    Since Google’s only income is ad revenues, could this be something someone like Apple (hear they’re developing their own mapping) could get social at? They make most of their money through hardware/software even though they do have iAds. They could make the scenario Esme makes about overlaying friends favorites.

  8. Seth Finkelstein’s avatar

    Regarding “In other words, I think there is a market here. And I don’t think the lack of one is proof that one can’t be built.”

    Welll, no, it’s not PROOF that one can’t be built, I’d agree with you there. But, I do believe it’s an indicator that one should carefully consider the reasons that one doesn’t exist currently.

    There’s a pretty well-known effect of bad being able to drive out good, in contradiction to simple models declaring they can happily exist side by side. Consider something like “In other words, I think there is a market for doctors who make house-calls. And I don’t think that the disappearance of that function is proof that it can’t be revived”. That’s a sort of true statement. But it glosses over a lot of complex economics in the US.

    Y’know, this reminds me vaguely about the gun folks who wanted a private airline, where there would be no security checks, guns positively welcome, hijackers take their chances with the armed passengers. There’s definitely people who want it, and a niche market. Failure is left as an exercise for the reader.

  9. Marty Thompson’s avatar

    Not so long ago, I would buy old time folding paper maps of places we were going to explore. The maps themselves were, at times, works of artful ingenuity, origami covered with information. The British were particularly good with travel maps. Seems there is a business opportunity there, transcribing them, if you will, to our electronic gadgets. Does one tourist stick out more or less, one using the elegant paper map, the other the iPad?

  10. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Marty, I think there are many opportunities in travel for selling apps and information.

    For example, given how much travel happens in Europe — and how many people walk around with smartphones and tablets — it would be to the advantage of mobile phone companies to sell short-term data plans. But, to my knowledge, none do. (Here is what I experienced last summer in France on that front.)

    Alternatively, companies might work around the absence of data plans by selling data that works offline. That’s what iGo My Way, a Hungarian company, does, and we were able to take advantage of that by paying $39 (through Apple) for iGo Primo, the company’s GPS software for iPhone/iPad. (We also have an Android phone, but it broke before the trip.) It has been extremely useful in the car we rented, and minimally useful on foot. Basically, it’s a car GPS.

    Google or Microsoft would certainly have a business selling a premium offline version of Google Earth/Maps or Bing, just for travelers with GPS-equipped smartphones and tablets. There are utility limitations, naturally. GPS doesn’t work where the device can’t see at least four satellites, and is generally useless where large portions of the sky are not visible (such as on narrow streets in cities).

    For here in Italy, Rick Steves‘ free podcasts have made excellent walking tour guides, both out on the streets (of Rome, Florence and Venice) and inside museums and other interesting sites. And they got us to buy his companion travel guide for Italy.

    I could go on. My point, however, is about the need for better signaling of market demand from the customers’ side. And that some of us are working on that.

  11. Doc Searls’s avatar

    I agree with your logic, Seth. But do you see no opportunity for better signaling from customers? Should all agency that matters live only on the sellers’ side?

  12. Doc Searls’s avatar

    PXLated, I think you’re right that Apple is in a much better position than Google to take advantage of opportunities in this space. And in my case it has already made money from me in its private marketplace for apps (getting 30%, or whatever they grabbed, or the $39 I paid for iGo Primo).

    The reason Apple is better positioned is that it’s already selling directly to customers. They know how to do it, and are well equipped for it. Google isn’t. Google’s customers are advertisers. It has little if any direct financial accountability to users.

  13. Shane Curcuru’s avatar

    I find Doc’s juxtaposition of his VRM work with his reposting of Dave’s “Learn how to set up a server. It’s not so hard.” comment to be kind of odd.

    Setting up servers *is* hard. At least for the vast majority of humans on this planet. Doing a better job, and getting companies to do a better job, of explaining what the costs are for these services (monetarily or more hidden) is more important for most people.

  14. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Shane, the juxtaposition is not odd, when you consider that in many market categories, including the one for rich and responsive Internet-based services, is still very young. On the adoption curve, we’re still in early adopter or pioneering stages. This is when the geeks take the lead. Dave is a geek. So are many readers of this blog. Making the setting up of a server easy is a going business, and lots of companies are in it. I use Rackspace, and still get lots of hand-holding from them.

    And relatively few businesses serve the vast majority of people in any case. Niches abound if one looks for them, or creates them. Right now way too much energy, time and money is wasted by sellers on going after advertising money. There’s a business there, but it’s over-saturated and its secondary effects are hurting the Web, burying other business models (and much more, such as ordinary “organic” search) in the process.

    Another observation: driving a stick-shift is hard too, if you’ve never learned. My wife and I have been driving stick-shift vehicles all our lives. Thanks to that grace, we were able to rent a car and drive around Italy, where relatively few rental cars have automatic transmissions (and most are also diesels — another surprise). Anyway, fwiw, I don’t think setting up a server is much harder (at least in terms of the time required) than learning to drive a stick shift.

  15. Seth Finkelstein’s avatar

    I think “better signaling” is far more likely to be absorbed into the existing structures than to create any new or alternative structures. Not that it’s utterly and completely impossible, but the odds are heavily stacked against it. Even more so when it’s attached to the basic sort of incentives and culture that drive the sort of speaking and consulting done at all the conferences (no offense, meant merely descriptively).

    Regarding “Niches abound if one looks for them, or creates them” – small ponds can only support a very tiny number of big fish. The idea that one can just find a niche and make a profit in it is mathematically impossible overall.

  16. KD’s avatar

    A relatively minor point, that probably does not affect the main theme of your post: I was under the impression that those markers for businesses that appear on Google Maps are not paid for by the businesses so marked, but are user-generated. Those kind of markers do appear for things other than businesses. I have seen such markers for schools, churches, parks, city government offices, and museums, for example.

    Of course, it might be that businesses use the marking tool to place markers for themselves, but that seems to me to be not quite the same as paying for placement.

    As I said above, I think this correction, if actually true, does not change the main theme of the post, which I’m mostly in sympathy with.

  17. Sarees’s avatar

    Hello, I think Google statement of organizing the internet and serving it for global people is utterly false. They are developing all for their own interest and if you search little you will find in few places googl maps are not available at all.

Comments are now closed.