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Searchengineland points to an interesting article in PC World which pitted the top search engines against each other to determine which had the best (ie most relevant) search results.

Their conclusion was that Google had the best overall results across multiple query types (general search, image search, video search etc), but:

two other services topped it–barely–in our text-search tests.

(Text-search is general web search). These two services were Alltheweb and Altavista, both owned by Yahoo – the chart of results is here

These results don’t differ all that much from what we found in testing the various search options at AOL when I was there a couple of years ago. When stripped of UI and branding, most users couldn’t tell the difference in quality between search results. When UI and branding was returned, most people thought that Google was the best search engine.

This speaks to the power of branding in the third phase of competition of consumer internet companies, as I have blogged about in the past. First comes distribution, then product and finally branding. It explains why, even though Google’s general web search isn’t head and shoulders better than the other search engines any more, it continues to win market share.

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On Monday Myspace announced the results of a research study that they commissioned, showing the effectiveness of marketing campaigns within social networks. It was widely covered. The key results were that:

– More than 40 percent of all social networkers said they use social networking sites to learn more about brands or products that they like, and 28 percent said at some point a friend has recommended a brand or product to them.
– Brands such as Adidas and Electronic Arts attributed more than 70 percent of their marketing return on investment to the “Momentum Effect,” which the researchers define as the quantifiable impact of a brand within a social network.
– Of those polled, 69 percent said they use social nets to connect with existing friends and 41 percent said they use the sites connect with family members.
– On average, social networkers spend more than seven hours per week on social networking sites, and that those hours are driving the growth of overall time spent online. More than 31 percent of online social networkers claim they spend more time on the web in general, after starting to use a social network.

The broader theme here, IMO, is that of users voluntarily affiliating themselves with brands.

Online, this is a relatively new forms of advertising. It gets instantiated in various ways – from “friending” Scion on Myspace to choosing an “American Idol” theme for your Rockyou slideshow to Photobucket‘s Spiderman skin that got them briefly blocked on Myspace. (NB Rockyou is a Lightspeed portfolio company)

Offline it’s the Nascar jacket or the Firefox T-shirt – not only does it advertise a brand, but users PAY for the privilege of doing so.

As always, when you see offline analogues to online behavior, it’s a good sign. But as I have blogged in the past, new forms of advertising are hard until standards emerge.

What the industry really needs is for the social media players to get together with the IAB and create some standards for “user affiliation” ad units. The widget makers (Youtube, Rockyou, Photobucket, Slide, Clearspring, Widgetbox etc) and the smaller social networks (led by Freewebs as this Washington Post story notes) are already trying to do this, but until Bebo, Myspace, Facebook and the big portals (AIM Pages, Microsoft’s Live Spaces, Yahoo 360, Orkut etc) get on board, it will be hard to get enough attention from the marketers who must also agree to the standard setting process. These big players, who already have relationships with advertisers, must start the conversation.

The IAB has been getting more activist of late, and it would be great to see them take the lead here as well. Their board is dominated by representatives from the big online and offline media companies, and they will need to lead the standard setting. (I’m looking at YOU Michael Barrett!)

Standards will be good for the whole industry. The sooner we get standards, the sooner social media/user affiliation marketing can go from being a custom business development deal every single time, to a line item in the spreadsheet of every media buyer at every agency.

UPDATE: Michael Barrett (Chief Revenue Office of FIM/Myspace) responds in comments

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Wagner James Au has a great post on GigaOm about Gaia. Gaia is a casual immersive MMORPG that describes itself as:

“The world’s fastest growing online world hangout for teens.”

In an interview with Gaia‘s CEO, Craig Sherman, he quotes that Gaia has gone from 0.5m unique users/month midway through last year to 2.5m UU/mth last month. (nb Comscore only has them at 700k UU/mth in March). Furthermore, he claims 300k users log in each day for an average of 2 hours per session, and in their forums area they are getting an average of 1m posts per day for a total of over 1 billion posts so far. And its mostly (85%) US traffic. Impressive stats. Gaia has been pretty quiet about its growth until recently, but Susan Wu was finally able to get them to break their silence by getting Craig to speak at her panel at Web2.0 Expo last week.

Casual immersive worlds have not previously been as popular in the US as they have been in Europe (Habbo Hotel) or Asia (Cyworld). ( I draw a distinction between casual immersive worlds and games such as Runescape and World of Warcraft). Even press darling Second Life, currently reporting 1.7m log-ins in the last 60 days, is lagging Gaia‘s usage.

Interestingly enough, Gaia isn’t the only casual immersive world that is getting meaningful usage in the US. The original casual immersive world, Neopets, is still going strong, with 4.2m UU/mth in March according to Comscore.

Neopets® is the greatest Virtual Pet Site on the Internet. With your help, we have built a community of over 70 million virtual pet owners across the world! Neopets has many things to offer including over 160 games, trading, auctions, greetings, messaging, and much much more. Best of all, it’s completely FREE!

Club Penguin, who Susan also got to speak for the first time on her panel at web2.0 expo, is also growing like crazy – 4.1m UU/mth in March.

Club Penguin is a kid-friendly virtual world where children can play games, have fun and interact with each other.

* Kid-friendly chat
* Lots of fun games
* Nothing to download
* Lots more!

Webkinz, who I mentioned last week as one of the few sites getting their users to visit more than 10 times per month, is also at 4.1m UU/mth.

Webkinz pets are lovable plush pets that each come with a unique Secret Code. With it, you enter Webkinz World where you care for your virtual pet, answer trivia, earn KinzCash, and play the best kids games on the net!

And a dark horse entrant that I was unaware of until recently – Millsberry, run by General Mills (the manufacturer of cereals), is getting 2.2m UU/mth.

Millsberry is a fun virtual city for you to explore. You create a citizen of the city and discover Millsberry through his eyes. You’ll need to make sure he takes care of himself, so you’ll need to get food (from the shopping area) and make sure he exercises (by playing games), but you’ll also get to go on adventures, solve mysteries and have all kinds of fun while visiting Millsberry!

.

Even Lego has announced its plans to release a casual immersive world in 2008

These worlds are all exploring different business models. Some are mainly ad supported (Neopets, and effectively Millsberry), others rely on subscriptions (Club Penguin) that deliver certain privileges, and others rely on transactions, either in the real world (Webkinz) or for digital goods (Habbo Hotel, Gaia.

Its worth noting that all of these are websites with no download required. This has likely helped them grow more quickly than other casual immersive worlds such as Second Life and IMVU, which are also growing fast, but not as fast.

One can’t help but notice that all of these immersive online worlds are targeted at kids and teens. If demographics are destiny, then we can expect more and more people to interact with each other in casual immersive worlds over the next few years. Susan Wu thinks so too, and her prediction about web 3.0 (are we there already?) is that it will be:

continuing down this path of improving the user experience of living and socializing online. This story is about human context, social proximity, and a sense of place.

I think she is right. What are your thoughts?

UPDATE, April 26th, 2007: Barbie is now also getting in on the action with Barbie Girls.

UPDATE, April 29th, 2007: Techcrunch reports that IAC’s Zwinky is also launching a casual immersive world. In this case, they are also employing a different business model than the other virtual worlds as the toolbar that enables much of the functionality includes a search box and will be usable both when the user is and is not “in world”. Note that the search box occurs to the LEFT of the URL box… This tactic worked great for previous IAC products such as Smiley Central and Cursor Mania.

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March’s Comscore numbers just came out. I took a look at the top 2000 web domains, but this time I ranked them by number of visits per month. The results were a little surprising. Here are the 41 sites that …

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I spoke today at the Web2.0 expo on the topic of how this generation of internet companies can make money under both media and e-commerce models (Show me the money). This is an expansion of previous posts I

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I’m particularly interested in social media sites with traction focused on topics appealing to endemic advertiers. Social media sites because of their extraordinary ability to grow without incurring marketing costs, and endemic advertisers because of their willingess to pay …

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I posted recently on the importance of context for social media sites; the need to be “easy to learn and hard to master”.

Two recent stories/posts have reminded me on the consequences of failing to adhere to this approach.

Viruoso

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Last week Kosmix announced that Jon Miller has joined their board of directors. I’m very excited.

Jon is one of the most visionary thinkers about the internet that I know. I was his chief of staff while he was CEO …

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I’m still fascinated by what lessons social media can draw from game design, and Amy Jo Kim’s work in the area.

One of her game mechanics is “earning points”, and this is one of the ways that social media …

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Last month I posted about the difference in building websites for the Time Rich vs the Time Poor.

The Annenberg School’s Online Journalism Review has a great summary of findings from Nielsen’s eyetracking studies about how to optimize writing …

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