Thursday, December 21, 2006

Google is the "serious" search engine?

This morning, Roger pointed me to this blog posting about the top search results for 2006 for three of the major search engines. While the posting is pretty humorous, it may explain SharedPlan's pay-per-click (PPC) results with Google and Yahoo.

Because SharedPlan transacts all sales through the website, PPC advertising is the largest component of the company's marketing spend, and the company advertises on Google, Yahoo, and MSN. Even though the search terms SharedPlan purchases are about the same on all of them, the productivity of each engine is dramatically different.

For search-only results (ignoring content results so that I can compare apples to apples), Yahoo provides about half the number of clicks that Google does. (MSN numbers are so small that I'm not even going to describe them.) Given their relative share of total search volume, that may not be that surprising. However, they differ dramatically in their clickthrough rates, with Google providing six to seven times greater clickthrough rates. The difference becomes more magnified when you consider the rate a which these clicks become conversions, which in the case of SharedPlan means when the prospect downloads trial software. The conversion rate for Google is 2.5 times that of Yahoo.

There are a lot of factors that may lead to these differences, like the ads for Google are structured and displayed differently than for Yahoo, even though we use the same messages in each. Alternatively, the explanation could just be their different users, as illustrated by Nicholas Carr's list.

Or it could just be black magic ...

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

A birthday spectacle like I've never seen

Gina's graduate school roommate, Cathy, is turning 40. Her husband, one of the founders of a large hotel operating company, decided to throw her a huge surprise party. They live in Old Greenwich, CT, and held the party at a New York boutique hotel, the SoHo Grand.

Gina and Cathy and their other two roommates still get together for girls' weekends every year or two, but other than that our families don't really interact that much. However, I was intrigued to go to it, mostly to see the spectacle.

And what spectacle it was.

The day started with a small group of friends joining Cathy for some beauty pampering. This was the diversion to let Cathy think that her birthday was going to be a more low-key affair. Given that they booked the penthouse suite of another boutique hotel, the Tribeca Grand, for the day and brought in all of the stylists and equipment from a smoking hot local salon (whose clients include Gwynneth, Gisele, and several other name-dropping-worthy celebs), I'm not sure "low-key" was achieved.

120 of Cathy's closest friends gathered at the Grand Lounge at the Soho Grand (all rooms were gratis), where we started eating and drinking at 6. Delicious appetizers, including one of my favorites, caviar, were served by lovely young women dressed as elves. That is, the kind of elves Santa needs if he's only giving lingerie this year. The birthday girl arrived promptly at 6:30.

At 8, we moved to a different room where dinner was served, including lamb chops, seared beef, salmon, sushi bento boxes, on and on. As we were eating, we were treated to a brief performance by the Manhattan Transfer, who stopped by on their way to another concert. The freakin' Manhattan Transfer!

At 10, we moved up to the penthouse suite, where we were treated to yet a third round of food, including White Castle style 'sliders,' crab cakes, and on and on (again). The elves accompanied us upstairs and were joined by some go-go dancing elves, wearing even less and platform dancing to the live R&B band.

At 11, we were treated to a video montage of Cathy's life and a three-tier cake that looked remarkably like a wedding cake.

At 12, the police arrived to shut down the band because neighbors were complaining from the street, 17 floors below.

At this point, Gina and I were beat. Please recognize that we were still on Colorado time, so our biological clocks were screaming that it was almost 10:30, far past our bedtime. We went down to our room, which happened to be on the 16th floor, directly below the party. Gina claims that she woke up at 2 to lots of screaming upstairs, so I guess it went at on at least until then. I did not wake up to share the experience with her.

Oddly, the whole spectacle had much the same feel as a wedding. Probably the most enjoyable aspect for me was to see the Connecticut couples that lead such different lives than I do. For instance, we heard several conversations comparing nannies and discussing corporate mergers and acquisitions, and not a single one debating carbon fiber versus titanium road bikes.

I truly appreciate the opportunity to attend the spectacle, and it was good to catch up with some old friends. For my 40th birthday, Gina took me to dinner with about four other couples that we're close to, and it was one of the most memorable evenings of my life. Memorable for quality moments shared with good friends, not for the Manhattan Transfer and caviar. That's really more my style.

Monday, December 18, 2006

The loss of neighborhood culture

Our friend Mary Ann lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. She's a block from Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and across the street from the Czech embassy. (Strangely, there was a twelve-foot inflatable rat on the sidewalk in front of the Czech embassy. I can't say that I fully understand the cultural implications of that.)

She's on the corner of 83rd and Madison Avenue, and along Madison Avenue there are many tiny little retailers: butchers, bakeries, delis, wine stores, shoe and specialty clothing stores, on and on. Gina and I spent a few afternoon hours exploring some of these little nooks. We noticed, though, that there were large Banana Republic and Gap stores in the neighborhood, as well.

That evening at dinner, Mary Ann complained that, as rents increase, the small shopkeepers were being forced to move out and were being replaced by large chain retailers. The independent commerce that made this area unique is dying, being replaced by the same products that anybody can buy anywhere. This is why I have a big problem with franchise or chain restaurants, and I avoid patronizing them.

Now, I'm a big fan of small business owners, and I recognize that many local franchises are owned by local businesspeople. For instance, I have a friend that owns a Quizno's and another with several Supercuts stores. I also recognize that large national chains became successful because they have a product or service that works and that people want.

But because of their scale, when Macaroni Grill enters a local neighborhood, they have such large economic advantages over the little family Italian restuaurant that it becomes nearly impossible for the local restaurant to compete. A high volume restaurant, like Chipotle, has supply cost leverage that an independent local restaurant can't match, allowing them to, say, have a person that does nothing but make salsa, so the salsa you get is always the freshest possible. A small, independent family Mexican restaurant can't do that and still maintain the same profitability.

A couple of years ago, Tucson recognized that they were losing their local restaurant base and its associated culture, so the mayor formed a buying cooperative for independent restuarants. The cooperative allowed the independents to get some supply chain economies and helped improve their competitiveness.

The bottom line is that, unless the chain restaurant gives me something I can't get at the independent, I'm going to keep going to Murphy's or the Golden Lotus, rather than Red Robin or PF Chang's. I don't want to live in a world without the independents. Small is beautiful.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

A run in Central Park

Yesterday morning I got up and did one of my favorite travel activities; I went for a run. We were in NYC for a birthday party (much more on that later), and we stayed at our friend Mary Ann's home on the Upper East Side, a block from Central Park.

I have only been to New York a couple of times, and had never been in Central Park. It was a perfect morning for a run, with clear, sunny skies and about 60 degrees. There was actually a race going through the park at the time, with several thousand participants, but I avoided that. They close the streets through the park on weekends, so there are lots of runners and bikers.

The reason I love to run when I travel is that I see a city in a very different way when I'm running, and the distraction of the sightseeing makes the running time just fly by. I have run in Honolulu, London, Calgary, Paris, Rome, Shanghai, the French Alps, and Nice.

Central Park is not as big as I pictured it to be. It's big, maybe five miles north-to-south and a mile east-to-west, but the impression I've always had from maps, movies and TV shows made me think it was larger. I think it's just that the Manhattan island is pretty small.

There were cyclists riding a circuit around the park, which has to get pretty boring, but I was still envious. As much as I enjoy running through a new city, cycling through one would be even better.

One of the best things about living in Boulder and running in Central Park is that I felt like I could run forever. I did about five miles and could have done several more, even though I haven't been running much. I quit because my knees would have made me pay for it later. And since I found out that the opening band for this party is Manhattan Transfer, something tells me that I'm going to have to do some dancing later.

Has anyone seen our rocket?

We enjoyed shooting our rocket so much last weekend that we decided give it another go, this time with the biggest rocket engine that would fit in it. I was curious how high it would actually go.

Has anyone seen it? Because we never saw it come down.

Using that engine in the Alpha III rocket is supposed to lift it over 1000 feet. Yes, 1000 feet. But I thought we were being pretty smart by using an engine with a very long delay before it blows its parachute. That way, even it if went up 1000 feet, it would have lots of time to fall back down to a more reasonable height before popping its chute, and the wind wouldn't carry it a mile away before it hits the ground.

The problem is that you can't see this rocket from 1000 feet. All we saw was a trail of exhaust smoke that went straight up into nothingness. It may actually have achieved low earth orbit. I hope it didn't interfere with the shuttle's work on the International Space Station.

We gotta buy another rocket. Maybe this time we'll write our phone number on it in case someone finds it.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Rockets are the greatest

Sorry I haven't posted in a while, but the combined commitments of the holiday season and Ryan's birthday always tend to wipe me out in December. Ryan's birthday is too close to Christmas, so we try to celebrate it early in the month. We did so yesterday.

When Gina and I discussed what kind of party we should throw for him, we discussed some common themes like going to some 'fun center' or something like that. I can't tell you how much I dislike those kinds of kids birthday parties.

As I posted recently, I'm always on the lookout for ways to expose my kids to science. I decided that it would be cool to shoot rockets at his party. I made and launched a lot of rockets when I was a kid, and thought it would be fun for him to experience the same thing. We asked him and he agreed, although I don't know if he really understood what it was all about. And I know Gina didn't know what to expect.

I took him to a local hobby shop and we bought a starter kit from Estes Rockets for about $35 or $40. It comes with everything you need for two launches, except for a few batteries. We also bought a few extra engines in case it was a big hit and the kids wanted more launches.

In the days leading up to the party, I played it up a little to make sure he was still excited about the rocket theme, and he certainly seemed to be. However, when we assembled the rocket, it took a lot more time than I expected, and he seemed to get a little bored with the concept.

Until we launched the first one. Holy cow.

Yesterday was a classic, beautiful Boulder winter day. We had just received about 8 inches of snow over two days, but Sunday was cloudless and perfectly sunny, if a little cold. We launched from a snowy park a couple of blocks from the house.

This thing shot several hundred feet in the air in about two seconds, disappearing to a little pinpoint in the blue sky, and everyone went crazy. It started to reappear as it fell, then the nosecone blew off with a little puff of smoke and the parachute deployed perfectly. The kids chased down the falling rocket, and we had three more perfect launches.

As I watched that rocket shoot up into the deep blue sky and smelled the sulphur in the exhaust, I was struck by a flood of childhood memories. I remembered the fascination of seeing my rockets disappear into the sky and trying to imagine what it would be like to ride one into that great unknown.

At that age, I wanted to be an astronaut or a pilot. I even thought about applying to the Air Force Academy, going so far as to get a recommendation from Colorado's Senator Gary Hart (remember him?). Eventually, my focus turned more to science than flying, but shooting that rocket brought so much of that childhood fascination back.

I don't know if Ryan is going to be as fascinated by it as I was, nor do I care. But I want to give him the opportunity to be, and I think I helped to do that. The party seemed to be a big hit with Ryan and his friends, and his buddy Jake told me that he was going to ask his dad for a rocket party for his next birthday, as well.

(But nobody got as big a kick out of that first rocket launch as Gina did. I think she thought this thing would pop up 50 feet in the air and fall down, and when it launched nearly out of sight, she went nuts. I love it.)