Google Turns Image Search Into Pinterest With New “Collections” Feature

Watch out, Pinterest, you’ve got new competition. Google has now rolled out a new feature on its search engine that offers users an easy way to save to save images they find to collections they can reference at a later time. The search giant suggests you could use the feature for saving things like hairstyle examples to show your stylist, or snowman ideas to have some winter fun. Yep – the same sort of “inspirational” content that Pinterest users often collect and pin their many boards on the service.

In Google’s case, however, the new feature is only being made available to mobile users for the time being, and is only rolling out to those in the U.S. The feature will work across all major browsers on both iOS and Android, the company says.

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In order to save images, you’ll also have to be logged into your Google Account. That makes sense not only as a way to pull up your saved items from multiple devices, but also because “collections” are one of the new focus areas within Google’s revamped social efforts on Google+.

Instead of trying and failing to take on Facebook, the updated Google+ is now more interested in helping users create and participate in online communities or share groupings containing images, links and more with their circle of friends or the wider public. In other words, Google+ is now aiming to compete with social services like Reddit, perhaps, or Pinterest.

Getting users to build out personal image collections by way of Google Search is actually a fairly clever trick, then. It could kick off users’ participation in the Google+ collections feature in the future, as it presents a practical use case for building an online image collection via Google in the first place.

To be clear, Image Search collections aren’t currently tied to those collections you make on Google+, but an integration looks like a possibility further down the road.

The new image search feature itself is fairly easy to use, if you have it available. But we did encounter a few bugs, which indicate that it’s still something of a test.


After performing a search, you can narrow down your image selection by tapping on buttons to filter the results. For instance, if you searched for “bob hairstyles,” you can filter images by descriptions like “short,” “blonde,” “brown,” “modern,” and more. That also recalls Pinterest’s own search engine, which has, for some time now, offered a “guided search” experience that lets you pull up specific images by helping you find and tap on related terms.

When you locate images you like on Google, you simply star them to save them to your account. You can also organize your starred images into folders by tapping on the pencil-shaped “edit” icon then add them to collections. And when you need to return to view your images later on, you can just tap on the new “view saved” card with the star icon that floats in the bottom-right of the image search page.

Google didn’t indicate a time frame for when this feature would roll out to other markets around the world, or if it would come to the desktop. And while simply archiving images from Google doesn’t compare with Pinterest’s richer social experience, where you can follow other users and boards, discover products based on recommendations, or even shop from “buyable” pins, its utilitarian nature could have some appeal – especially among those who just want to save ideas without participating in a larger, online community like Pinterest.

That said, Pinterest has staved off a number of attempts from those who tried to copy its image pinboard service. Facebook once tried to develop interest in its own Pinterest-style “collections,” and more recently debuted a fairly weak rival effort with its Shopping Feed.Amazon also tried to clone Pinterest with Amazon Collections – a social effort that fell flat, too. Whether or not Google’s ability to help users save favorite images can make a dent in Pinterest remains to be seen.


Cyber Monday Beat Forecasts With A Record $3.07 Billion In Sales, 26% From Mobile Devices

Yesterday’s Cyber Monday sales event was already poised to break records with a forecasted $3 billion in sales, making it the largest online sales day in history. It ended up beating those estimates, however, according to the final numbers provided by Adobe’s Digital Index today: the company says that $3.07 billion was spent online yesterday, a 16 percent increase year-over-year, and 3.2 percent higher than its earlier predictions.

Also notable, 26 percent of sales ($799 million) were made from mobile devices this year.

Mobile has played a larger role than ever during this busy holiday shopping season. For instance, though won’t break out its mobile sales figures by day, it did say that during the five-day stretch from Thanksgiving through Cyber Monday, nearly half of online orders were placed using mobile devices – that’s double what the retailer saw just last year, we’re told.

In addition, mobile accounted for a whopping 70 percent of’s online traffic.

Those numbers are staggering when you stop and think about it, even if Walmart is something of an outlier when it compared with the average. But it does indicate a growing shift in the way consumers are shopping on mobile devices.

Before, mobile users would tend to search for products, do research, and browse while using their smartphones or tablets, but now they’re actually placing items in their cart and completing checkouts at a much higher rate than before.

In terms of mobile metrics, Adobe further broke down mobile spending on Cyber Monday, noting that more of the overall $799 million in mobile sales was generated by people using iOS devices. That is, $575 million came from iOS users while just $219 million came from Android devices. (Those figures also explain why e-commerce retailers and startups tend to release their native shopping apps on iOS first.)

According to Adobe, the record-breaking Cyber Monday saw higher than expected discounts, which also contributed to high sales volume. Discounts averaged 21.5 percent, the firm found, which led to a number of top products going out-of-stock as the day progressed.

14 out of 100 product views saw an out-of-stock message on Cyber Monday, which is nearly two-and-a-half times the normal rate. Top sellers this year included toys like Barbie Dream House, Shopkins, Lego Star Wars, Lego City, and Lego Dimensions. Meanwhile, electronics like the Samsung 4k, iPad Mini, Xbox, iPad Air 2, and PS4 were also favored among shoppers.

With the surge of traffic sent to online stores this year, not all retailers were able to handle the load. Neiman Marcus’ website crashed on Black Friday, forcing them to have a “Black Saturday” sale instead, but even then continued to face availability issues. Target also had to meter out traffic to its site to manage the influx of online shoppers, which led to many shoppers seeing error messages when they visited the site. Even PayPal struggled at times yesterday.

Catchpoint Systems, which was tracking site availability on Cyber Monday, also noted that other sites experienced problems throughout the day and in some cases the weekend, too, including HP, Newegg, Saks,, Victoria’s Secret, Footlocker and Shutterfly, to name a few.

Adobe’s numbers are based on aggregated and anonymous data from 200 million visits to 4,500 retail websites on Cyber Monday. The company measures 80% of all online transactions from the top 100 U.S. retailers through Adobe Marketing Cloud.

But not all retailers are willing to share their Cyber Monday sales metrics, including how they compare year-over-year, or what percentage came from mobile. Amazon, for instance, won the award for sharing the vaguest Cyber Monday sales data yet.

Target, meanwhile, declined to speak in specifics about its sales or visitor counts, only touting that (despite the site issues), had a record day. Early in the day, orders came in twice as fast as its previous busiest day ever, the retailer said, and by early evening, it had beaten its previous record for online sales.

Now imagine what it could have done if everyone who visited yesterday was actually able to shop?


Google Wants To Text Message You With Holiday Shopping Deals

A number of startups emerged this year to offer consumers an easier way to shop: instead of immersive, e-commerce experiences, companies like Magic, Operator, Fetch, GoButler, and others, including Facebook, are testing out messaging-based virtual assistants that help you buy nearly anything from airline tickets to dinner reservations, to great gifts, and more. Now Google is getting in on that action, too. The company is currently trialing its own SMS-based alerting service, this time focused on helping holiday shoppers find the best deals.

The service was spotted in the wild earlier today by the unofficial Google-watching blog,Google Operating System, which saw the option to “subscribe” to Black Friday phone deals pop up on their mobile phone after a related search query.

However, the new deals service was quietly announced by Google earlier this month, by way of a Google+ post. It received a little press coverage at the time, but largely on blogs that only cover Google, search engines or SEO, as opposed to more mainstream attention. That may change as consumers turn to their phones to find Black Friday deals in the days ahead.


While framed as something Google is testing during the “holidays,” the move indicates that even the search giant acknowledges that the way consumers will shop, browse, and transact on mobile devices in the future may end up being radically different from on the desktop web.

With our phones, (and now our watches, too), our devices are turning into alerting platforms that deliver us the information we need, when we need it. And instead of searching and comparing dozens of options, we may simply communicate with an assistant – part human, part AI – who helps narrow down our options, present us with the best choices, then fulfill the request. This is what’s called the “invisible app” market, as we’ve referred to it here on TechCrunch, and it makes sense given the rise of mobile messaging, combined with the ability to integrate a virtual assistant-powered experience over familiar communication channels like SMS.

Google’s service today falls far short of a personalized assistant, but the company has already proven with its virtual assistant Google Now that it could expand in this direction, if it choose.

But for now, the idea behind the new deal alerting service is to translate the shift in how consumers shop into a new ad format. These “deal alerts” are actually an AdWords option that’s being trialed with a limited number of advertisers, the company explains.

Google declined to provide information related to ad pricing, or a list of participating advertisers, given the service is considered to be only a “test” at this time.

However, what we do know is that the alerts are  only available on mobile, only in the U.S., and the text messages returned are powered by Google. In fact, Google is creating customized text for those who sign up directly, the company says.

Here’s how it works:

If you search for a general term like “black friday deals” from your mobile phone, you may see an option that prompts you to subscribe to alerts from a Google ad at the top of your search results. If you choose to do so, your phone number will be kept private, says Google, and you’ll be able to opt out of the text messages at any time.

However, while choosing to use the new alerts service, you’ll be sent relevant offers from participating retailers across a number of popular holiday shopping categories, like computers, phones, and gaming consoles.


The Google Operating System blog happened to spot the text-messaging deal subscription service when they searched for “moto x play” – indicating that the ads aren’t only tied to “black friday” or “cyber monday” search queries, but to any matching products from participating advertisers.

You don’t have to wait to see an ad to try out the new service. Google says you can text the word “JOIN” to the following numbers, depending on what deals you want to see:

For Black Friday – 847-904-0608
For Cyber Monday – 847-906-8958
For Holiday deals – 847-904-0596

We did experience a few bugs when doing so, though. For example, a link to “learn more” that’s texted back after sign-up redirects you to a broken web page.

Google says the ads began rolling out earlier this month, following the initial AdWords announcement, but it’s likely that they were still few and far between until Black Friday neared.

If the test is successful, there’s potential for Google to expand this service beyond just tracking holiday deals. If consumers opted in, the service could serve as an app-less counterpart to the “Google Now” virtual assistant, pinging you about other relevant e-commerce opportunities based on search history (if you could get past the creepy factor of something like that), or you could track product categories or brand names, then be alerted to sales.

But it’s unclear at this time what Google will consider a successful test, or if it has any further plans, if that’s the case. It’s also unclear if consumers are even interested in a this sort of deals alerting service.

After all, the benefit to the other messaging-based commerce startups is that human touch. Even when primarily automated, there’s a conversational aspect to using the rival services, and most will also adapt to your preferences over time. Google’s service, for now at least, feels more like opting in to advertisements – as it is – and less like personal assistance.


YouTube Kids Faces Further FTC Complaints Related To Junk Food Ads Targeting Young Children

Consumer watchdog groups announced today they’ve filed additional complaints with the FTC over the advertising content in the YouTube Kids application, this time focused on how the app allows food and drink advertisers to violate their self-regulatory pledges they made as members of the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), a program whose aim is to shift the advertising mix to promote healthier dietary choices in ads aimed at those under the age of 12.

According to the new complaints, a number of big-name brand advertisers including Coca-Cola, Oreo, Kellogg, General Mills and more, have broken their pledges to not advertise their products – including Coke, Coke Zero, Pop-Tarts, pizza and Oreo cookies, for example – to young children.

YouTube Kids, YouTube’s first app aimed at the preschool set, was initially thought of as a relief for parents who wanted an easier way to keep small children from stumbling upon YouTube’s more adult fare. But the app, which is effectively this generation’s version of TV in terms of its presence in the lives of children, has faced controversy and complaints from consumer advocacy groups, and even U.S. Senators, concerned about the app’s content and its advertising.

Now, two new complaints related to advertising have been filed by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) and the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) – watchdog organizations that have been targeting YouTube Kids since its debut for not doing enough to protect children from adult content, as well as for what they refer to as “deceptive ads.”


Young children simply don’t have the cognitive ability to distinguish between ads and programming, and YouTube Kids takes advantage of that fact, the groups believe.

On television, FCC regulations prohibit some of the activity that’s permitted in the YouTube Kids application, like host selling, or not following guidelines regarding time limits on how often ads can be shown.

Meanwhile, YouTube’s advertising guidelines only apply to paid ads – the 30 or 60-second videos that are shown before the selected video. But as YouTube admits in its app’s disclaimer, kids will be exposed to “commercial content” from YouTube creators. But this content is not considered a paid ad. That means it doesn’t have to follow any of YouTube’s more stringent guidelines, which also state that food and beverage ads are prohibited, regardless of nutrition content.

As the advocacy groups previously noted in their prior FTC complaints, the commercial content found on YouTube Kids today includes things like actual TV commercials, company-produced promotional videos, host-selling videos, and product placements.

The investigation related to deceptive ads is still underway, Josh Golin, CCFC’s Executive Director, tells us.

Coca-Cola, Hershey, Mars & More Cited As Top Offenders

These new complaints, the groups explain, are calling on the FTC to broaden its investigation to also examine Google’s relationship with multichannel video programmers; food, beverage and toy companies; YouTube advertising and “unboxing” video partners; and companies that specialize in “influencer” and product placement marketing on YouTube.

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Specifically, the CCFC and CDD say in one complaint they found evidence that 17 food and beverage manufacturers are violating the pledges they made as members of the above-mentioned health-focused initiative, CFBAI.

For example, Coca-Cola had pledged to not market any beverages to children under 12, but the groups found 47 TV commercials and 11 longer promotional videos for Coke and Coke Zero on YouTube Kids.

Mondelez International had pledged not to market Oreos to children, but the CCFC and CDD found 31 TV commercials and 21 product placements for Oreos on YouTube Kids. One involves YouTube star Evan (“EvanTubeHD”), whose content is distributed by Disney-owned Maker Studios, trying to guess 12 different Oreo flavors in an 11-minute video.

Products made by companies who promised not to advertise to kids under 12 included sugary snacks like Nutella (Ferrero USA), Reese’s and Hershey’s Kisses (Hershey), Snickers (Mars, Inc.), Toll House Cookies (Nestle USA, Inc.), and more. Meanwhile, products from companies that said they would only advertise items meeting CFBAI nutrition criteria included Burger King pushing its Whoppers and fries; Kraft selling Velveeta; plus products from McDonald’s; as well as Oreos; Doritos; Swiss Miss cocoa; General Mills’ Totino’s Pizza, Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts and others.

Some videos were straight-up TV ads, others promotional videos and many more were clear, but unlabeled, product placements.

YouTube Kids Screenshot

“The Commission should investigate why Google’s algorithms aren’t configured to keep junk food marketing off of YouTube Kids, and hold food and beverage companies accountable for violating their pledges not to target their most unhealthy products to children,” says Golin.

The second complaint documents a number of videos that appear to result from paid relationships between advertisers, YouTube creators, and intermediaries (those that specialize in connecting advertisers with talent.) The relationships are not disclosed on YouTube, and the groups want these business relationships investigated further.

Today, YouTube’s ad policy for YouTube Kids is that it will remove videos where the creator has disclosed a paid product placement or endorsement using YouTube’s tools. But clearly, relying on the creator community to self-police is not effective, as these FTC complaints indicate.

“We believe FTC now has more than enough documentation to hold Google accountable for YouTube Kids’ unfair and deceptive practices,” says Golin.


Behind The +1: Meet The New Google+

Google+ has always been a project for Google, regardless of what you’ve read in the media. With projects, come changes…and there have been quite a few for Google+ this year.

The Photos product that got pulled out of G+ is doing pretty damn well, and YouTubers were happy when the service was unbundled from the video-sharing site. The shift continues today with a complete redesign, focusing on the parts of the service that are working well.

I sat down with Bradley Horowitz, VP, Photos and Streams at Google and Product Director at Google, Luke Wroblewski. The two worked together for a spell at Yahoo some eight years ago and Wroblewski is at Google by way of selling off his service Polar.

The two, along with the rest of the team have been watching how people have been using Google+ and have found that the two experiences that stand out are Communities and Collections. The new design and experience is opt-in at first, and is rolling out today.


Screen Shot 2015-11-17 at 11.03.11 AMAlong with Photos and backing up on YouTube, the “About Me” page that Google introduced last week are all signs that the company has learned what worked, what didn’t and are willing to move forward with said learnings. There’s no complete scrapping of anything here, which many haveassumed would happen. Those people don’t understand how Google operates.

Horowitz told me: “Photos wasn’t the only product with opportunity. We asked ourselves “how can we make this better and serve more people?” We brought Luke in and he spent a lot of time architecting how we’re going to move forward with G+, looking at data, doing a ton of user research, and thinking through what are the things about this product that shine and what parts should be deemphasized.

The team also did a “road trip” where they talked to avid G+ users, asking them what they’d like to get out of using it. The new design has also been tested with hardcore users, giving Google more details to work off of.

The New G+


“Where it shines today, it’s actually pretty amazing. Topics like astrophotography, British dragonflies, crochet, Disc Golf Pro Ttips, Earthquakes. The topics of conversation span from niche to broad.” Wroblewski tells me. Communities were first introduced in 2012 in hopes to cancel out the need for discussion groups…including Google’s own Groups product. It succeeded. Collections are a bit newer, having been introduced earlier this year. It has also been successful and dovetailed with the Communities product nicely.

The two tell me that there are 1.2 million joins of communities a day on the platform…and collections are seeing even more pickup.

Wroblewski, known for his responsive and progressive design work, tells me that the key to this rollout is the consistent, mobile first experience that hasn’t historically been a hallmark of G+. Along with the responsive web redesign, the iOS app has been completely rebuilt and redesigned and the Android app is refocused on what people are using, pushing aside the parts that didn’t catch on.


What the two showed me appears to be a more stylized version of say…Reddit or Facebook Groups. Not a bad thing, but it’s definitely relying on the userbase to fill it up with interesting things based on their interests. Wroblewski tells me that your Home feed will now be filled up with things that Google thinks you’ll be into based on all of the things they know about you and the content you’ve shared on the platform.


Back To Basics

Screen Shot 2015-11-17 at 8.02.45 AMHorowitz told me that Google’s focus on product excellence under Sundar Pichai lends itself to peeling things out of Google+ for the aim of success. Hangouts and Photos are just an example, and Pichai has been a huge supporter of both products. “They’re successful because we reached in and saw what’s working.” Horowitz explained. “We’re building to how people are using.” Wroblewski shared.

As you click through the new Google+ there is a lighter feel to it for sure. It’s a product with more purpose, as before it felt like there was a million things flying at you. Notifications, +1’s, share buttons. You were pretty much sharing things into a pit and hoping that Google would do fun things with them. Even the number of animations, then called “Auto-awesome”, were a bit out of control Horowitz told me. Mind you, they’re, but they now have a place in the Photos product that makes sense contextually and don’t happen as often. Basically, it worked…but not where it was or how it was implemented.

In a sense, Wroblewski and team were tasked with knocking down the game of Jenga Google+ was playing and then put it back together in a way that won’t topple over. Or, as Horowtiz calls it: “Reinvention with frameworks.”


Continuing to click through, you’ll find some Communities that baffle you. Turned Boxes. What the hell are those? It has 27,202 followers. Some of them are pretty straight forward and have a pretty impressive following. For example, a community about Apple has over 400,000 members and over 40,000 posts in it. Creating a better place for those conversations to happen rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater was the right move for Google to make…because there is a sizable community that enjoys using Google+.

But it simply couldn’t last as a place-for-everything.

“We ripped it down and built it back up.” Horowitz told me plainly of Google+.

Moving Forward

As Google+ continues to evolve…albeit a bit slower and with more purpose, you’ll probably see some things introduced that worked with previous social products at the company: Buzz, Orkut, Wave, etc. That’s how Google works.

Horowitz explained: “This moment is perfect because we have the opportunity to take great technologies, unencumbered by expectations, and present them to users in a way that matters to them. It’s a way for passionate product people like Sundar, Luke and me to help people rather than hose them down with technology.”

So while Google+ was never meant to be a social network, it did turn into a place where the company liked to show off its toys. Each, like features of Google Photos, will live on, some will be dialed back. But all together? It just didn’t work out. Even companies like Facebook have figured that out. Unbundling and optimizing experiences is where it’s at.


Fossil Group Buys Health-Tracking Wearable Startup Misfit For $260M

Watchmaker Fossil Group said today it would acquire Misfit, which creates various wearable and sleep trackers in addition to a health-tracking platform, for $260 million. Sonny Vu, CEO of Misfit, will serve as Fossil’s CTO.

Misfit makes devices like the Shine, a wearable fitness and sleep tracker that costs $99 that the company says has a 6-month battery life. The company came out with an updated version of its Shine tracker in October just a few weeks ago. Misfit also has a lower-priced wearable, the Flash, that costs $29.

To be sure, the wearable and fitness-tracking market has become an increasingly crowded market. There are plenty of competitors like Fitbit, which also offers similarly priced activity trackers. Even Tag Heuer, with a $1,500 smartwatch, is starting to get into the connected device market. Misfit’s pitch was that it was more aesthetically pleasing, and with the Fossil brand it probably gives the startup a little more visibility.

Fossil Group, as part of the announcement, said that it would offer consumers traditional timepieces and fashionable connected accessories. In an interview with the WSJ, the company’s chief strategy and digital officer Greg McKelvey said Fossil Group would continue making Misfit’s wearable devices.

It’s tough to say where this lands the Misfit tracking platform that integrates with other devices, like the Pebble. With the addition of Misfit, the Pebble essentially went from just a smartwatch to an activity tracker, showing some of the potential of the service as a platform. Misfit also has an app for the Apple Watch, the Misfit Minute.

This is potentially alluded to in the announcement as part of a “multi-brand” strategy, but it still doesn’t offer an outright statement on the subject.

“Our world-class design and global distribution, combined with Misfit’s technology platform, creates a significantly advantaged, multi‐brand and global wearable technology business poised to drive the convergence of fashion and technology.”

And here’s what’s written in the company’s earnings release:

The Company believes the acquisition provides the opportunity to integrate Misfit’s software and hardware platforms in the next generation of connected accessories, further advancing Fossil Group’s connected accessories initiative.

Of course, Fossil could always decide to simply isolate the Misfit platform to Fossil watches, turning it into a walled garden of sorts.

In total, Misfit raised $64.4 million across three rounds of funding — most recently a $40 million round in October last year. Investors include GGV Capital, Xiaomi, and Founders Fund. The deal will be done with a combination of cash and bank debt, according to the announcement.


Google Self-Driving Car Pulled Over For Going Too Slow

The internets lit up today when someone posted a photo of a cop talking to someone in a self-driving car. Yep, it got pulled over.

Why? According to Google, it was going too slow. According to the original poster, the Mountain View police officer didn’t get the memo on these things patrolling the streets, so of course wanted to know why the thing was going so damn slow:

Yes. We talked to the driver, apparently MVPD doesn’t get NEVs and pulled them over to ask why they were all going so slow.

And here’s the money shot:

I mean, I guess it’s better to be safe than sorry, but damn if 25 miles per hour isn’t slow as the slowest mud.

BUT HEY. It sure looked pretty, since Google allowed some budding artists to paint the cars…red? Well, different colors. And no harm, no foul. Not sure if they got a ticket, but Alphabet can afford it.

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They’re actually quite cool, so no harm intended with my “Photoshop.” Hopefully this “event” makes it into next month’s self-driving car report.

While we wait, caption this photo in the comments:

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Google Will Stop Supporting Chrome For Windows XP, Vista And Older Versions Of OS X By April 2016

Earlier this year, Google announced that it would still support Chrome on Windows XP through the end of 2015. The end of 2015 is getting closer and as Google announced today, so is the end of Chrome support for Windows XP. Starting April 2016, users who still use Chrome on XP (and at this point, there’s really no excuse for running Chrome on XP) will no longer get updates and security fixes.

Ending XP support is not a massive surprise, but as Google also announced today, Windows Vista and Mac OS X 10.6, 10.7 and 10.8. will also no longer be supported “since these platforms are no longer actively supported by Microsoft and Apple.”

As Google director of engineering Marc Pawliger points out in today’s announcement, “such older platforms are missing critical security updates and have a greater potential to be infected by viruses and malware.”

Google, Microsoft and others have long continued to support their software on some of these old platforms long beyond their useful life because they often became vectors for viruses and malware — and with unpatched versions of Chrome or Internet Explorer running on them, they would have become even more dangerous.

The good news is that Windows XP is now getting close to under 10 percent of global market share according to Net Market Share. Vista, which never quite caught on, is down to under 2 percent. OS X users tend to update their machines relatively quickly, so dropping support for older versions of Apple’s desktop operating system probably won’t affect all that many users.

It’s worth noting that back in 2013, Google already announced the end of Chrome’s support for Windows XP for April 2015. That deadline came and went, but this time around, it seems the company is quite serious about cutting off those pesky XP users from Chrome updates once and for all.


A Look At Who’s Down From Google

No longer content to just being the ubiquitous source of information of all kinds for the typical college student, Google is now trying to be the platform that friends use to plan their next hangout. As 9To5Google reported earlier today, the company launched an app called ‘Who’s Down’ on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store this morning.

Ostensibly a tool that allows friends interested in similar activities to quickly group and spend time on the event, the app is currently invite-only and is restricted to college students. It is worth noting, though, that ‘Who’s Down’ does not require users to sign up with an academic email address on a .edu domain, but does ask users to enter the name of an institution before joining the wait list. While it’s clear that there is no restriction to join the app which is good for growth, the targeting is also clear. Going after college students and teenagers with social apps isn’t exactly core to much of Google’s business, but it has been doing it with some small social efforts.

We were able to be the first media outlet to get inside the iOS version of the app, and the design is characteristically Google, pleasant to use and with the company’s trademark blue-white design scheme. Once you move a slider that indicates that you are ‘down’ to meet other people, the app lets you enter the name of an activity that you are interested in doing, and also provides a list of what appear to be popular or intelligently guessed selections. After selecting I was ‘down to hang’, the app ostensibly began waiting for other people to signal that they were interested in the same. Once more than a few other people indicate an interest in whatever you are interested in doing, the app will notify you and slide seamlessly into a chat room, where conversations disappear after 24 hours of last activity.

While Google’s product does come with a fairly slick and well-designed user interface, this concept is not entirely new. Shortnotice, a product launched by one of my classmates at Stanford over a year ago, has been using a similar system, allowing users to manually enter the activity they were interested in and waiting for other users on the app to express interest. ‘Who’s Down’ is also very similar in user experience and design to Free, an app cofounded by Path’s Danny Trinh.

Barring Google’s powerful autocomplete feature being used to reduce the time it takes to type in activities of interest, Google’s design choices are hardly novel. With Shortnotice still struggling to gain users in what seems to be a difficult space to enter, it’s hard to see whether or not ‘Who’s Down’ will be able to overcome the same obstacles. Only time will tell whether or not ‘Who’s Down’s well-designed user interface will make up for a user input system that has been historically unsuccessful.

Google is definitely playing catch-up in what can only be called the ‘impromptu event initiation’ environment. Several, albeit smaller, players have been entering this market periodically, but few have stuck with users. The cumbersome nature of typing led Stanford alumni Nikil Viswanathan and Joseph Lau to rely on a limited set of options their app Down To Lunch. Fairly successful across college campuses, Down To Lunch is centered on a large button that users can press to indicate interest in a group activity.

While on the face of it Google’s product appears to come with an intuitive design and excellent visual schemes, it is difficult to estimate the impact ‘Who’s Down’ will have on users without being able to use the app. Limiting the product to invite-only and branding it for college students will clearly be effective in gaining market share. It could be that ‘Who’s Down’ might help pull Google out of what can now only be called a social product rut.

DigitasLBi Identifies The Most “Contagious” Brands On Social Media

It should be easy to tell whether or not something’s working on social media, right? I mean, if you’ve got a lot of likes and favorites, that’s great. If you don’t, that’s less great. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to work?

Well, not quite — at least according to DigitasLBi. The marketing agency worked with Wharton professor Jonah Berger to develop a new way to evaluate social media effectiveness, which it’s calling the Contagious Index (appropriate, since Berger wrote the book “Contagious: Why Things Catch On“).

“I think the goal is to shift the conversation,” Berger said. “Many brands are dissatisfied with social media, and part of that is, the wrong thing is being measured.”

Apparently there’s a lot of fancy math that goes into boiling down a brand’s social media strategy into a single number, but Berger and Jill Sherman, DigitasLBi’s senior vice president of social strategy, identified a few key things about their methodology.

For one thing, the index is “normalized by impressions,” meaning that you don’t just get a high score because you have a lot of fans. After all, if you’ve got millions of followers, you’re pretty much guaranteed to get a respectable amount of engagement for every post, but that doesn’t mean you’re doing a great job. Someone who’s got a smaller following might actually be doing a better job of connecting with their customers and fans, even if they get less absolute engagement.

The score is also weighted based on the “activeness” of the engagement. In other words, it’s easy for me to click like or favorite on something, but it means a lot more if I’m willing to leave a comment or to re-share the post with my own followers.

Sherman also said the Contagious Index isn’t really for scoring individual pieces of content, but rather “aggregate actions — can a brand consistently maintain contagiousness or virality for their reach over time?”

In addition to assigning brands a score out of 100, DigitasLBi also makes an effort to identify the kinds of strategies are working.

For example, it rates Humans of New York as the top arts/humanities brand on Facebook, with a Contagious Score of 100, and attributes that success to “consistently engaging stories” and to the fact that HUNY treats its fans as “a global online community,” not just “consumers of content.” On Twitter, the top airline brand is Delta, which achieved a Contagious Score of 98 thanks to sharing fun facts and travel tips.

DigitasLBi says the Contagious Index is available to all of its clients. Sherman added that it’s probably not suited for every business on social media.

“This really is about content,” she said. “It really is for brands trying to play int he content space in a meaningful way in social.”