Monthly Archives: April 2021
As computing systems become increasingly bigger and more complex, forensics have become an increasingly important part of how organizations can better secure them. As the recent Solar Winds breach has shown, it’s not always just a matter of being able to identify data loss, or prevent hackers from coming in in the first place. In cases where a network has already been breached, running a thorough investigation is often the only way to identify what happened, if a breach is still active, and whether a malicious hacker can strike again.
As a sign of this growing priority, a startup called Cado Security, which has built forensics technology native to the cloud to run those investigations, is announcing $ 10 million in funding to expand its business.
Cado’s tools today are used directly by organizations, but also security companies like Redacted — a somewhat under-the-radar security startup in San Francisco co-founded by Facebook’s former chief security officer Max Kelly and John Hering, the co-founder of Lookout. It uses Cado to carry out the forensics part of its work.
The funding for London-based Cado is being led by Blossom Capital, with existing investors Ten Eleven Ventures also participating, among others. As another signal of demand, this Series A is coming only six months after Cado raised its seed round.
The task of securing data on digital networks has grown increasingly complex over the years: not only are there more devices, more data and a wider range of configurations and uses around it, but malicious hackers have become increasingly sophisticated in their approaches to needling inside networks and doing their dirty work.
The move to the cloud has also been a major factor. While it has helped a wave of organizations expand and run much bigger computing processes are part of their business operations, it has also increased the so-called attack surface and made investigations much more complicated, not least because a lot of organizations run elastic processes, scaling their capacity up and down: this means when something is scaled down, logs of previous activity essentially disappear.
Cado’s Response product — which works proactively on a network and all of its activity after it’s installed — is built to work across cloud, on-premise and hybrid environments. Currently it’s available for AWS EC2 deployments and Docker, Kubernetes, OpenShift and AWS Fargate container systems, and the plan is to expand to Azure very soon. (Google Cloud Platform is less of a priority at the moment, CEO James Campbell said, since it rarely comes up with current and potential customers.)
Campbell co-founded Cado with Christopher Doman (the CTO) last April, with the concept for the company coming out of their respective experiences working on security services together at PwC, and respectively for government organizations (Campbell in Australia) and AlienVault (the security firm acquired by AT&T). In all of those, one persistent issue the two continued to encounter was the issue with adequate forensics data, essential for tracking the most complex breaches.
A lot of legacy forensics tools, in particular those tackling the trove of data in the cloud, was based on “processing data with open source and pulling together analysis in spreadsheets,” Campbell said. “There is a need to modernize this space for the cloud era.”
In a typical breach, it can take up to a month to run a thorough investigation to figure out what is going on, since, as Doman describes it, forensics looks at “every part of the disk, the files in a binary system. You just can’t find what you need without going to that level, those logs. We would look at the whole thing.”
However, that posed a major problem. “Having a month with a hacker running around before you can do something about it is just not acceptable,” Campbell added. The result, typically, is that other forensics tools investigate only about 5% of an organization’s data.
The solution — for which Cado has filed patents, the pair said — has essentially involved building big data tools that can automate and speed up the very labor intensive process of looking through activity logs to figure out what looks unusual and to find patterns within all the ones and zeros.
“That gives security teams more room to focus on what the hacker is getting up to, the remediation aspect,” Campbell explained.
Arguably, if there were better, faster tracking and investigation technology in place, something like Solar Winds could have been better mitigated.
The plan for the company is to bring in more integrations to cover more kinds of systems, and go beyond deployments that you’d generally classify as “infrastructure as a service.”
“Over the past year, enterprises have compressed their cloud adoption timelines while protecting the applications that enable their remote workforces,” said Imran Ghory, partner at Blossom Capital, in a statement. “Yet as high-profile breaches like SolarWinds illustrate, the complexity of cloud environments makes rapid investigation and response extremely difficult since security analysts typically are not trained as cloud experts. Cado Security solves for this with an elegant solution that automates time-consuming tasks like capturing forensically sound cloud data so security teams can move faster and more efficiently. The opportunity to help Cado Security scale rapidly is a terrific one for Blossom Capital.”
Instagram today will begin a new test around hiding Like counts on users’ posts, following its experiments in this area which first began in 2019. This time, however, Instagram is not enabling or disabling the feature for more users. Instead, it will begin to explore a new option where users get to decide what works best for them — either choosing to see the Like counts on others’ posts, or not. Users will also be able to turn off Like counts on their own posts, if they choose. Facebook additionally confirmed it will begin to test a similar experience on its own social network.
Instagram says tests involving Like counts were deprioritized after Covid-19 hit, as the company focused on other efforts needed to support its community. (Except for that brief period this March where Instagram accidentally hid Likes for more users due to a bug.)
The company says it’s now revisiting the feedback it collected from users during the tests and found a wide range of opinions. Originally, the idea with hiding Like counts was about reducing the anxiety and embarrassment that surrounds posting content on the social network. That is, people would stress over whether their post would receive enough Likes to be deemed “popular.” This problem was particularly difficult for Instagram’s younger users, who care much more about what their peers think — so much so that they would take down posts that didn’t receive “enough” Likes.
In addition, the removal of Likes helped reduce the sort of herd mentality that drives people to like things that are already popular, as opposed to judging the content for themselves.
But during tests, not everyone agreed the removal of Likes was a change for the better. Some people said they still wanted to see Like counts so they could track what was trending and popular. The argument for keeping Likes was more prevalent among the influencer community, where creators used the metric in order to communicate their value to partners, like brands and advertisers. Here, lower engagement rates on posts could directly translate to lower earnings for these creators.
Both arguments for and against Likes have merit, which is why Instagram’s latest test will put the choice back into users’ own hands.
This new test will be enabled for a small percentage of users globally on Instagram, the company says.
If you’ve been opted in, you’ll find a new option to hide the Likes from within the app’s Settings. This will prevent you from seeing Likes on other people’s posts as you scroll through your Instagram Feed. As a creator, you’ll be able to hide Likes on a per-post basis via the three-dot “…” menu at the top. Even if Likes are disabled publicly, creators are still able to view Like counts and other engagements through analytics, just as they did before.
The tests on Facebook, which has also been testing Like count removals for some time, have not yet begun. Facebook tells TechCrunch those will roll out in the weeks ahead.
Making Like counts an choice may initially seem like it could help to address everyone’s needs. But in reality, if the wider influencer community chooses to continue to use Likes as a currency that translates to popularity and job opportunities, then other users will continue to do the same.
Ultimately, communities themselves have to decide what sort of tone they want to set, preferably from the outset — before you’ve attracted millions of users who will be angry when you later try to change course.
There’s also a question as to whether social media users are really hungry for an “Like-free” safer space. For years we’ve seen startups focused on building an “anti-Instagram” of sorts, where they drop one or more Instagram features, like algorithmic feeds, Likes and other engagement mechanisms, such as Minutiae, Vero, Dayflash, Oggl, and now, newcomers like troubled Dispo, or under-the-radar Herd. But Instagram has yet to fail because of an anti-Instagram rival. If anything is a threat, it’s a new type of social network entirely, like TikTok –where it should be noted getting Likes and engagements is still very important for creator success.
Instagram didn’t say how long the new tests would last or if and when the features would roll out more broadly.
“We’re testing this on Instagram to start, but we’re also exploring a similar experience for Facebook. We will learn from this new small test and have more to share soon,” a Facebook company spokesperson said.
A startup tapping into the concept of the circular economy, where people don’t buy items outright but pay an incremental amount to use them temporarily, has raised some funding to scale its business in Europe and beyond. Grover, a Berlin-based startup that runs a subscription model where people can for set fees rent out consumer electronics like computers, smart phones, games consoles and scooters, has picked up €60 million ($ 71 million).
The funding is coming in the form of €45 million in equity and €15 million in venture debt.
The company, which as of September last year had 100,000 subscriptions and now has around 150,000, said it aims to triple subscriptions to 450,000 by the end of 2021. It will be using the funds to expand to more markets — both to grow its business in Germany, Austria and the Netherlands (where it’s already operating) and to launch in Spain and the U.S. — and to add more product categories into the mix, including health and fitness devices, consumer robots and smart appliances.
And, it plans to invest in more innovation around its rental services. These have seen a new wave of interest in particular in the past year of pandemic life, which has put a strain on many people’s finances; definitely made it harder to plan for anything, including what gadgets you might need one week or the next; and turned the focus for many people on consuming less, and getting more mileage out of what they and others already have.
“Now more than ever, consumers value convenience, flexibility and sustainability when they shop for and use products. This is especially true when it comes to technology and all of the possibilities that it has to offer — whether that’s productivity, fun, or staying in touch with our loved ones,” said Michael Cassau, CEO and founder of Grover, in a statement. “The fresh funding allows us to bring these possibilities to even more people across the world. It enables us to double down on creating an unparalleled customer experience for our subscribers, and to push the boundaries of the most innovative ways for people and businesses to access and enjoy technology. The strong support from our investors confirms not only the important value our service brings to people, but also Grover’s vast growth potential. We’re still just scratching the surface of a €1 trillion global market.”
JMS Capital-Everglen led the Series B equity round, with participation also from Viola Fintech, Assurant Growth, existing investors coparion, Augmentum Fintech, Circularity Capital, Seedcamp and Samsung Next, and unnamed founders and angel investors from Europe and North America, among others. Kreos Capital issued the debt.
Samsung is a strategic investor: Together with Grover it launched a subscription service in December that currently covers select models from its S21 series, among other devices, such as the Tab S7, Galaxy A models, and with plans to introduce wearables, smart home devices, TVs, notebooks and more into the Grover fold. “Samsung powered by Grover,” as it’s called, started in Germany, so one plan may be to use some of this investment to roll that out to other markets.
The funding is coming on the heels of a year when Berlin-based Grover said its business grew 2.5x (that is, 150%). Its most recent annual report noted that it had 100,000 active users as of September of last year, renting out 18,000 smartphones, 6,000 pairs of AirPods and more than 1,300 electric scooters in that period. It also said that in the most recent fiscal year, it posted net revenues of about $ 43 million, with $ 71 million in annual recurring revenue, and tipping into profitability on an EBITDA basis.
It raised €250 million ($ 297 million) in debt just before the start of the pandemic, and previously to that also raised a Series A of $ 44 million in 2018, and $ 48 million in 2019 in a combination of equity and debt in a pre-Series B. It’s not disclosing its valuation.
The company’s service falls into a wider category of startups building services around the subscription economy model, which has touched asset-intensive categories like cars, but also much lighter, internet-only consumables like music and video streaming.
Indeed, Grover has been regularly referred to as the “Netflix for gadgets,” in part a reference to the latter company’s history starting out by sending out physical DVDs to people’s homes (which they returned when finished to get other films, under a subscription model).
Similar to cars and films, there is definitely an argument to be made for owning gadgets on a subscription. The pricier that items become — and the more of them there are battling for a share of consumers’ wallets against many of the other things that they can spend money to own or use — the less likely it is that people will be completely happy to fork out money or build in financing to own them, not least because the value of a gadget typically depreciates the minute a consumer does make the purchase.
At the same time, more consumers are subscribing, and often paying electronically, to services that they use regularly: Whether it’s a Prime subscription, or Spotify, the idea with Grover — and others that are building subscriptions around physical assets — is to adopt the friction-light model of subscribing to a service and apply it to physical goods.
And for retailers, it’s another alternative to offer customers — alongside buying outright, using credit or offering by-now-pay-later or other kinds of financing in order to close a deal. Shopping cart abandonment, and competition for shoppers online, are very real prospects, so anything to catch incremental wins is a win. And if they are working in a premium (cost-per-month of use, say) to give customers possession of the gadget in question, if they manage to secure enough business this way, it actually might prove to be even more lucrative than outright sales, especially if the maintenance of those goods is offloaded to a third party like Grover.
Although some people have regularly been wary of the idea of used consumer electronics, or other used goods, that has been shifting. There have been a number of companies seeing strong growth in the last year on the back of helping consumers resell their own items. This has been helped in part by buyers being more focused on spending less (and sellers maybe earning back some money in the process), but also being keen to reduce their own footprints in the world by using items that are already out in circulation. In Europe alone, last week, Brighton-based MPB raised nearly $ 70 million for its used-camera equipment marketplace. Other recent deals have included used-goods marketplace Wallapop in Spain raising $ 191 million and clothing-focused Vestiaire Collective raising $ 216 million.
What is interesting here is — whether it’s a sign of the times, or because Grover might have cracked the subscription model for gadgets — the company seems to be progressing in an area that has definitely seen some fits and bumps over the years.
Lumoid out of the U.S. also focused on renting out tech gear, but, despite finding some traction and inking a deal with big box retailer Best Buy, it failed to raise the funding it needed to run its service and eventually shut down. It’s also not alone in trying to tackle the market. Others in the same space include Tryatec and Wonder, which seems to be focused more on trying out technology from startups.
The big question indeed is not just whether Grover will find more of a market for its rental/subscription model, but also whether it has cracked those economics around all of the supply chain management, shipping and receiving goods, reconditioning or repairing when needed, and simply keeping strong customer service throughout all of that. As we’ve seen many times, a good idea on one level can prove extremely challenging to execute on another.
Facebook’s self-styled ‘Oversight Board’ (FOB) has announced an operational change that looks intended to respond to criticism of the limits of the self-regulatory content-moderation decision review body: It says it’s started accepting requests from users to review decisions to leave content up on Facebook and Instagram.
The move expands the FOB’s remit beyond reviewing (and mostly reversing) content takedowns — an arbitrary limit that critics said aligns it with the economic incentives of its parent entity, given that Facebook’s business benefits from increased engagement with content (and outrageous content drives clicks and makes eyeballs stick).
“So far, users have been able to appeal content to the Board which they think should be restored to Facebook or Instagram. Now, users can also appeal content to the Board which they think should be removed from Facebook or Instagram,” the FOB writes, adding that it will “use its independent judgment to decide what to leave up and what to take down”.
“Our decisions will be binding on Facebook,” it adds.
The ability to request an appeal on content Facebook wouldn’t take down has been added across all markets, per Facebook. But the tech giant said it will take some “weeks” for all users to get access as it said it’s rolling out the feature “in waves to ensure stability of the product experience”.
While the FOB can now get individual pieces of content taken down from Facebook/Instagram — i.e. if the Board believes it’s justified in reversing an earlier decision by the company not to remove content — it cannot make Facebook adopt any associated suggestions vis-a-vis its content moderation policies generally.
That’s because Facebook has never said it will be bound by the FOB’s policy recommendations; only by the final decision made per review.
That in turn limits the FOB’s ability to influence the shape of the tech giant’s approach to speech policing. And indeed the whole effort remains inextricably bound to Facebook which devised and structured the FOB — writing the Board’s charter and bylaws, and hand picking the first cohort of members. The company thus continues to exert inescapable pull on the strings linking its self-regulatory vehicle to its lucrative people-profiling and ad-targeting empire.
The FOB getting the ability to review content ‘keep ups’ (if we can call them that) is also essentially irrelevant when you consider the ocean of content Facebook has ensured the Board won’t have any say in moderating — because its limited resources/man-power mean it can only ever consider a fantastically tiny subset of cases referred to it for review.
For an oversight body to provide a meaningful limit on Facebook’s power it would need to have considerably more meaty (i.e. legal) powers; be able to freely range across all aspects of Facebook’s business (not just review user generated content); and be truly independent of the adtech mothership — as well as having meaningful powers of enforcement and sanction.
So, in other words, it needs to be a public body, functioning in the public interest.
Instead, while Facebook applies its army of in house lawyers to fight actual democratic regulatory oversight and compliance, it has splashed out to fashion this bespoke bureaucracy that can align with its speech interests — handpicking a handful of external experts to pay to perform a content review cameo in its crisis PR drama.
Unsurprisingly, then, the FOB has mostly moved the needle in a speech-maximizing direction so far — while expressing some frustration at the limited deck of cards Facebook has dealt it.
Most notably, the Board still has a decision pending on whether to reverse Facebook’s indefinitely ban on former US president Donald Trump. If it reverses that decision Facebook users won’t have any recourse to appeal the restoration of Trump’s account.
The only available route would, presumably, be for users to report future Trump content to Facebook for violating its policies — and if Facebook refuses to take that stuff down, users could try to request a FOB review. But, again, there’s no guarantee the FOB will accept any such review requests. (Indeed, if the board chooses to reinstate Trump that may make it harder for it to accept requests to review Trump content, at least in the short term (in the interests of keeping a diverse case file, so… )
How to ask for a review after content isn’t removed
To request the FOB review a piece of content that’s been left up a user of Facebook/Instagram first has to report the content to Facebook/Instagram.
If the company decides to keep the content up Facebook says the reporting person will receive an Oversight Board Reference ID (a ten-character string that begins with ‘FB’) in their Support Inbox — which they can use to appeal its ‘no takedown’ decision to the Oversight Board.
There are several hoops to jump through to make an appeal: Following on-screen instructions Facebook says the user will be taken to the Oversight Board website where they need to log in with the account to which the reference ID was issued.
They will then be asked to provide responses to a number of questions about their reasons for reporting the content (to “help the board understand why you think Facebook made the wrong decision”).
Once an appeal has been submitted, the Oversight Board will decide whether or not to review it. The board only selects a certain number of “eligible appeals” to review; and Facebook has not disclosed the proportion of requests the Board accepts for review vs submissions it receives — per case or on aggregate. So how much chance of submission success any user has for any given piece of content is an unknown (and probably unknowable) quantity.
Users who have submitted an appeal against content that was left up can check the status of their appeal via the FOB’s website — again by logging in and using the reference ID.
A further limitation is time, as Facebook notes there’s a time limit on appealing decisions to the FOB
“Bear in mind that there is a time limit on appealing decisions to the Oversight Board. Once the window to appeal a decision has expired, you will no longer be able to submit it,” it writes in its Help Center, without specifying how long users have to get their appeal in (we asked Facebook to confirm this and it’s 15 days).
Personalization features in Google Optimize help businesses customize sites so their customers can find exactly what they’re looking for, when they’re looking for it. For example, marketers can display a special promotion on their site for all visitors, or provide product recommendations based on customers’ previous purchase behavior.
Multi-page experiences in Optimize help you more easily deliver what your customers are looking for. Now, when you create a personalization or experiment, you’ll see an option to add additional pages so that you can extend its reach throughout your entire site—from the initial landing page to the final checkout page. Let’s take a look at two examples:
Coordinated customization across your entire site
Picture this: You’re planning for a sale next month and will be offering a 20 percent off discount code to all visitors. You want to see if displaying this code across your entire site will increase site conversions. Because each type of page on your site has a unique layout, you need to find a different spot to display your promotion on each page.
Now with Optimize, you can test this idea by creating a single experiment and adding multiple pages to it using the “+ Add page” button.
From there, you’ll have the option to edit those pages so that you can display the promotion wherever it looks best in each case—whether that’s at the top of your site on the homepage or next to the pricing on your product page.
When you are happy with the results of the multi-page experiment, you can turn it into a multi-page personalization with just one click.
The right experience to the right audience
If you’re using Optimize 360, you have the added ability to focus your experiment or personalization to your Google Analytics audiences.
Using the same sale example, let’s say you want to offer a 35 percent off discount to your most loyal customers. You can create a multi-page personalization in the same way as described above. You can place the 35 percent discount banner and copy in all the pages that your loyal customers visit. When this personalization is launched, your loyal customers will always see this discount as they move from the home page, through your site, to the checkout page.
Want to learn how you can use this feature? Visit this article on our Help Center.
Multi-page experiences are already available to all Optimize and Optimize 360 accounts. You’ll be able to ensure your customers see the right message at the right time—even as they explore multiple pages on your site. And by creating a more valuable online experience, they’ll keep visiting you again and again.
SambaNova raises $676M at a $5.1B valuation to double down on cloud-based AI software for enterprises
Artificial intelligence technology holds a huge amount of promise for enterprises — as a tool to process and understand their data more efficiently; as a way to leapfrog into new kinds of services and products; and as a critical stepping stone into whatever the future might hold for their businesses. But the problem for many enterprises is that they are not tech businesses at their cores and so bringing on and using AI will typically involve a lot of heavy lifting. Today, one of the startups building AI services is announcing a big round of funding to help bridge that gap.
SambaNova — a startup building AI hardware and integrated systems that run on it that only officially came out of three years in stealth last December — is announcing a huge round of funding today to take its business out into the world. The company has closed in on $ 676 million in financing, a Series D that co-founder and CEO Rodrigo Liang has confirmed values the company at $ 5.1 billion.
The round is being led by SoftBank, which is making the investment via Vision Fund 2. Temasek and the Government of Singapore Investment Corp. (GIC), both new investors, are also participating, along with previous backers BlackRock, Intel Capital, GV (formerly Google Ventures), Walden International and WRVI, among other unnamed investors. (Sidenote: BlackRock and Temasek separately kicked off an investment partnership yesterday, although it’s not clear if this falls into that remit.)
Co-founded by two Stanford professors, Kunle Olukotun and Chris Ré, and Liang, who had been an engineering executive at Oracle, SambaNova has been around since 2017 and has raised more than $ 1 billion to date — both to build out its AI-focused hardware, which it calls DataScale and to build out the system that runs on it. (The “Samba” in the name is a reference to Liang’s Brazilian heritage, he said, but also the Latino music and dance that speaks of constant movement and shifting, not unlike the journey AI data regularly needs to take that makes it too complicated and too intensive to run on more traditional systems.)
SambaNova on one level competes for enterprise business against companies like Nvidia, Cerebras Systems and Graphcore — another startup in the space which earlier this year also raised a significant round. However, SambaNova has also taken a slightly different approach to the AI challenge.
In December, the startup launched Dataflow-as-a-service as an on-demand, subscription-based way for enterprises to tap into SambaNova’s AI system, with the focus just on the applications that run on it, without needing to focus on maintaining those systems themselves. It’s the latter that SambaNova will be focusing on selling and delivering with this latest tranche of funding, Liang said.
SambaNova’s opportunity, Liang believes, lies in selling software-based AI systems to enterprises that are keen to adopt more AI into their business, but might lack the talent and other resources to do so if it requires running and maintaining large systems.
“The market right now has a lot of interest in AI. They are finding they have to transition to this way of competing, and it’s no longer acceptable not to be considering it,” said Liang in an interview.
The problem, he said, is that most AI companies “want to talk chips,” yet many would-be customers will lack the teams and appetite to essentially become technology companies to run those services. “Rather than you coming in and thinking about how to hire scientists and hire and then deploy an AI service, you can now subscribe, and bring in that technology overnight. We’re very proud that our technology is pushing the envelope on cases in the industry.”
To be clear, a company will still need data scientists, just not the same number, and specifically not the same number dedicating their time to maintaining systems, updating code and other more incremental work that comes managing an end-to-end process.
SambaNova has not disclosed many customers so far in the work that it has done — the two reference names it provided to me are both research labs, the Argonne National Laboratory and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory — but Liang noted some typical use cases.
One was in imaging, such as in the healthcare industry, where the company’s technology is being used to help train systems based on high-resolution imagery, along with other healthcare-related work. The coincidentally-named Corona supercomputer at the Livermore Lab (it was named after the 2014 lunar eclipse, not the dark cloud of a pandemic that we’re currently living through) is using SambaNova’s technology to help run calculations related to some Covid-19 therapeutic and antiviral compound research, Marshall Choy, the company’s VP of product, told me.
Another set of applications involves building systems around custom language models, for example in specific industries like finance, to process data quicker. And a third is in recommendation algorithms, something that appears in most digital services and frankly could always do to work a little better than it does today. I’m guessing that in the coming months it will release more information about where and who is using its technology.
Liang also would not comment on whether Google and Intel were specifically tapping SambaNova as a partner in their own AI services, but he didn’t rule out the prospect of partnering to go to market. Indeed, both have strong enterprise businesses that span well beyond technology companies, and so working with a third party that is helping to make even their own AI cores more accessible could be an interesting prospect, and SambaNova’s DataScale (and the Dataflow-as-a-service system) both work using input from frameworks like PyTorch and TensorFlow, so there is a level of integration already there.
“We’re quite comfortable in collaborating with others in this space,” Liang said. “We think the market will be large and will start segmenting. The opportunity for us is in being able to take hold of some of the hardest problems in a much simpler way on their behalf. That is a very valuable proposition.”
The promise of creating a more accessible AI for businesses is one that has eluded quite a few companies to date, so the prospect of finally cracking that nut is one that appeals to investors.
“SambaNova has created a leading systems architecture that is flexible, efficient and scalable. This provides a holistic software and hardware solution for customers and alleviates the additional complexity driven by single technology component solutions,” said Deep Nishar, Senior Managing Partner at SoftBank Investment Advisers, in a statement. “We are excited to partner with Rodrigo and the SambaNova team to support their mission of bringing advanced AI solutions to organizations globally.”
Facebook confirmed it’s testing a video speed-dating app called Sparked, after the app’s website was spotted by The Verge. Unlike dating app giants such as Tinder, Sparked users don’t swipe on people they like or direct message others. Instead, they cycle through a series of short video dates during an event to make connections with others. The product itself is being developed by Facebook’s internal R&D group, the NPE Team, but had not been officially announced.
“Sparked is an early experiment by New Product Experimentation,” a spokesperson for Facebook’s NPE Team confirmed to TechCrunch. “We’re exploring how video-first speed dating can help people find love online.”
They also characterized the app as undergoing a “small, external beta test” designed to generate insights about how video dating could work, in order to improve people’s experiences with Facebook products. The app is not currently live on app stores, only the web.
Sparked is, however, preparing to test the experience at a Chicago Date Night event on Wednesday, The Verge’s report noted.
During the sign-up process, Sparked tells users to “be kind,” “keep this a safe space,” and “show up.” A walkthrough of how the app also works explains that participants will meet face to face during a series of 4-minute video dates, which they can then follow up with a 10-minute date if all goes well. They can additionally choose to exchange contact info, like phone numbers, emails, or Instagram handles.
Facebook, of course, already offers a dating app product, Facebook Dating.
That experience, which takes place inside Facebook itself, first launched in 2018 outside the U.S., and then arrived in the U.S. the following year. In the early days of the pandemic, Facebook announced it would roll out a sort of virtual dating experience that leveraged Messenger for video chats — a move came at a time when many other dating apps in the market also turned to video to serve users under lockdowns. These video experiences could potentially compete with Sparked, unless the new product’s goal is to become another option inside Facebook Dating itself.
Despite the potential reach, Facebook’s success in the dating market is not guaranteed, some analysts have warned. People don’t think of Facebook as a place to go meet partners, and the dating product today is still separated from the main Facebook app for privacy purposes. That means it can’t fully leverage Facebook’s network effects to gain traction, as users in this case may not want their friends and family to know about their dating plans.
Facebook’s competition in dating is fierce, too. Even the pandemic didn’t slow down the dating app giants, like Match Group or newly IPO’d Bumble. Tinder’s direct revenues increased 18% year-over-year to $ 1.4 billion in 2020, Match Group reported, for instance. Direct revenues from the company’s non-Tinder brands collectively increased 16%. And Bumble topped its revenue estimates in its first quarter as a public company, pulling in $ 165.6 million in the fourth quarter.
Facebook, on the other hand, has remained fairly quiet about its dating efforts. Though the company cited over 1.5 billion matches in the 20 countries it’s live, a “match” doesn’t indicate a successful pairing — in fact, that sort of result may not be measured. But it’s early days for the product, which only rolled out to European markets this past fall.
The NPE Team’s experiment in speed dating could ultimately help to inform Facebook of what sort of new experiences a dating app user may want to use, and how.
The company didn’t say if or when Sparked would roll out more broadly.
- The story of SEO and UX began almost 20 years ago with both making a foray into the market in the 1990s
- After years of analyzing data, I found that UX is a critical ranking factor for SEO
- If you’ve exhausted all your SEO techniques but still don’t see a considerable movement on your website or rankings – you’re probably losing at user experience (UX)
- Adobe Research’s Sr. Web Engineer, Atul Jindal condenses years of his experience and observations into this SEO guide to help you win at SEO and search experience
I’ve worked with many SEO and CRO campaigns as well as fortune 50 companies over the years. This gives me access to valuable data that helped me understand what is working and what’s not. Over the years by analyzing data I found that UX is a critical ranking factor for SEO.
The story of SEO and UX began almost 20 years ago with both making a foray into the market in the 1990s. While SEO was widely used as a marketing technique, UX (user experience) concentrated on giving the users an enhanced engaging experience on the website.
If you have exhausted all your SEO techniques but still don’t see a considerable movement on your website or rankings. Then probably you’re losing at User experience.
But it is quite difficult to find UX-related issues on your website. When you’re only looking at your website from an SEO perspective! You need to take a look at your website with your user’s (customer’s) eyes.
In this guide, I’ll explain UX and guide you on how to implement it into your SEO campaigns to get results.
What is UX?
User experience (UX) is the experience of a user with your website/application. An easy-to-use website will provide a pleasant user experience but an unplanned website will have a bad or poor user experience.
UX focuses on the site architecture, visitor journey, desktop, and mobile layouts, user flows. In short, user experience is driven by how easy or difficult it is to navigate through the user interface elements that the website designers have created.
User interface (UI) focuses on the graphical layout of any application. It includes several factors such as fonts and design styles, text entry fields, transitions, images, and animation interface. In short, anything visual comes under the umbrella of UI.
It is important to note that UI and UX are two different functionalities. While UI revolves around design layout, UX is the experience of the user on the website while they are navigating the web pages.
Since we have a better understanding of the two, let us further understand how we can successfully implement UX into an SEO campaign.
Why does UX matter in SEO?
In recent years, Google has changed its ranking criteria. There was a time when Google was looking for the keyword reparations in your content or the number of backlinks that your website has.
But now the scenario has been completely changed. Google is becoming more user-centric day by day. They are using artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), natural language processing (NLP), and other kinds of latest technologies to understand, evaluate and provide the best of the best results.
Google has introduced the EAT concept as well as metrics like search intent, page speed, mobile-friendliness, dwell-time are ranking factors to rank on Google. All these factors are part of a rich user experience.
A rich user experience is a factor that creates the difference between the first and second positions. Providing a rich user experience is always helpful for visitors and encourages them to stay longer and engage more on your website. That sends positive quality signals that show your website the best result to Google. And as a result of that Google rewards you with top spots.
How to implement UX into an SEO campaign?
As mentioned above, SEO and UX share common end goals – audience engagement. SEO will answer a person’s query, while UX will take care of their navigational queries once they reach the webpage.
Today, it has become imperative to include the two while designing SEO campaigns or any digital marketing strategy. Google is constantly evolving its user experience and merging effective SEO strategies to give the audience a more meaningful experience.
An excellent example of UX and SEO design is IKEA. We all know what IKEA stands for, but their website forms a story at every step. It guides the user to the correct landing pages and keeps them engaged. The color palette, their tags, and categories make a user stay longer and engaged on the website.
Source: IKEA designed on Canva
Empathy plays a vital role in optimizing your web pages with the right combination of keywords. Those days are no more with us when the exact keyword matches were enough to rank well. Today, it is about putting yourself out there and thinking from a bigger perspective.
Google has done a great job over the past five years of getting away from ranking signals that can be spammed easily such as links and keyword stuffing.
In other words, understanding your audience’s buying intent and analyzing their search queries will lead to refined and sustainable results.
Let us understand the three most critical factors that influence the SEO + UX ranking.
Understand your audience
It is probably one of the trickiest parts of running any successful campaign – Understanding the target audience.
Most companies spend a considerable amount of time researching the audience before concluding who will be their right target. It is why we have spent a sizable amount of time highlighting its importance.
We have often heard of marketers, businesses, and content creators emphasizing the importance of the right target audience. While sometimes it is more or less commonsensical to grasp the audience’s pulse, there are times when you need to explicitly ask:
- Who is my target audience?
- What do they want?
- What they are searching for?
- How are they looking for the information?
- Did my searcher bounce right away?
- Was there any action taken on the link?
These are key questions, Google’s algorithm takes into consideration to understand whether search results are aligned to the searcher’s intent.
For example, Airbnb works on an inclusive design model that concentrates on improving readability across all platforms. Their target audience is clearly defined – travel enthusiasts, people looking for holiday home options, and people looking for holiday hosting solutions. Their focal point has been improving the user experience by leading them to the right landing pages. They coupled it with catchy CTAs that probed the user to take an action. Whether you are a host or someone seeking an extraordinary travel experience, their comprehensive holiday solutions pave the way to make booking a holiday faster and easier.
Source: Airbnb. Designed on Canva
Once you understand your audience completely, it can lead to a page getting clicks and some action taking place if you are on the first of Google search results.
UX helps the audience stay glued to the page while SEO honors their intent to click on the page’s keyword and land. Everything you do, your focal points are always around the satisfactory experience of the users. From addressing their color preferences to the layout and messages, you have to build everything that caters to your customers.
Another critical factor in understanding the audience is the user’s intent. It would help if you addressed it while carrying out a detailed audience persona such as informational, navigational, transactional, or commercial purpose. In each case, the queries have to be predefined to understand the user’s need.
Understanding the intent of potential visitors landing on your web page through search is another crucial factor that makes up for an effective UX and SEO strategy. If your website is not fully optimized with the right set of keywords, there is a bleak chance of it ranking on Google or even leading to any action.
For example, imagine searching for the keywords – “How to wear a bowtie?”
The most logical conclusion is that your search will lead you to a tutorial or a video, right? If the same set of keywords are used by an ecommerce site selling the bowtie, your query will remain unanswered. You may conclude that the website using this keyword is not worth visiting in the future because they apply ‘click-bait’ words to lead a consumer to their website.
But if the person lands on the right page with the instructions clearly outlined, they stay to learn, thus increasing the dwell time and may browse the website for more information. Here your keyword has played a vital role in leading the consumer straight to the tutorial.
Google keyword planner, Moz keyword explorer, Keywordtool.io, Ahrefs Keywords explorer, or SECockpit are some practical tools used widely to search for the right keywords.
The best way to select the right keywords to fit your SEO strategy is to iterate the keywords you need ranking. Search relevant topics based on your business to portray and understand how the user intent affects keyword usage.
In short, keyword research, before setting up SEO campaigns and merging them with UX, help you evolve with changing market trends.
Designing a website without optimizing it for search engines is a waste of time and vice versa. Both these aspects work together and need to be carefully considered right from the beginning.
The site’s architecture is how the pages flow on your website. From the SEO point of view, good website architecture means Google will easily find and index your page. Simply, links should help Google to navigate smoothly from high to low authority pages. Google Search Console has improved a lot since its early days and became highly informative to SEO technicians, helping them to understand how a website is indexed and appeared to Google.
Using H1, H2 tags, headings, taglines, catchy CTAs, and informational menu labels, decide whether your audience will interact with your website or not. Remember- your homepage should not be more than four clicks away.
Mobile-responsive design has gained significant importance for both the user experience and SEO. Over 50 percent of all traffic is now driven by mobile search and sites that are not mobile-responsive will compromise the user experience.
According to Google’s page experience document, mobile-friendly websites have priority access to appear above in search results. Enhancing the readability of your readers by incorporating the right font family and text size is a must-have to consider improving the mobile experience. Having a responsive website with the ability to load faster has on varying screen sizes has become a standard these days.
Bad SEO + UX ruins the entire motive of brand building. It pays well to give importance to the fine attributes today. It includes domain name, informational content, internal links, optimizing meta tags, meta descriptions, image alt tags, headings, and page titles to make the entire experience worthwhile.
Implementing SEO with UX design may seem a little daunting initially; however, it is critical to boost rankings and build a great brand.
Atul Jindal is Sr. Web Engineer at Adobe Research.
Are you 100% sure that your children are brushing their teeth properly? A New York-based startup called Willo has been working for several years on a device that should transform the tooth-brushing experience for children.
Willo isn’t a new toothbrush — electric or not. It’s an oral care device that doesn’t look like a toothbrush at all. The startup has worked with dental professionals to start from scratch with oral care in mind.
The device can be quite intimidating when you don’t see it in action as it takes quite a bit of shelf space and you don’t know what you’re supposed to do. But when you see it in action, it looks easier than expected. Willo specifically targets children because they tend to struggle to reach every tooth and brush properly.
Kids are supposed to grab the handle and put the mouthpiece in their mouth. They can start brushing by pressing the button and that’s it. They don’t have to do anything else. The silicone-based mouthpiece also features soft bristles. It starts vibrating in your kid’s mouth when they press the button.
The handle is connected to a bigger home station that contains a water tank with a special rinse liquid. Kids don’t have to use toothpaste and don’t have to rinse their mouth. Everything is handled by the device.
Finally, Willo is a connected device, which means that parents can track oral care in a mobile app. You can also set up multiple users — your kids will have to swap the mouthpiece before using the device.
If you’re thinking about buying a device for your children, Willo costs $ 199. You then have to pay $ 13 per month to receive rinse pods as well as new mouthpieces that always fit.
While the product is going live today, the startup has already tested it with real families. These children rated the device 4.73/5 and parents gave an NPS of 70+. They’ve all kept using Willo after the testing phase.
Behind this product, there’s a team of 33 people in France and the U.S. They have filed over 50 patents over the past 7 years — 30 of them have been granted so far. The company has raised $ 17 million in total funding from Kleiner Perkins, Bpifrance and Matt Rogers’ fund Incite.
It’s true that the concept of a toothbrush hasn’t changed at all. Making a device that changes the way you brush your teeth is an ambitious bet. But it’s clear that the startup has made a lot of efforts to tackle this challenge. Now let’s see if they manage to convince parents.
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