FreshRSS

🔒
❌ About FreshRSS
There are new available articles, click to refresh the page.
Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Botify raises $55 million to optimize search engine indexing

By Romain Dillet

Botify has raised a $55 million Series C funding round led by InfraVia Growth with Bpifrance’s Large Venture fund also participating. The company has created a search engine optimization (SEO) platform so that your content is better indexed and appears more often in search results.

Existing investors Eurazeo and Ventech are also investing in the startup once again. Nicolas Herschtel from InfraVia and Antoine Izsak from Bpifrance will join the board of directors. Valuation has tripled since the company’s previous funding round.

While there are a ton of good and bad practices in the SEO industry, Botify defines itself as “white-hat company”. They respect the terms of services of search engines, they don’t scrape search results for insights, they don’t create shady backlinks on other websites.

“We’re going to optimize every step of the search funnel from first the quality of the website, how it is designed, how is the content going to be enriched with, etc.” co-founder and CEO Adrien Menard told me.

There are now three different components in the Botify product suite. The startup first released an analytics tool that gives you insights about your website. Basically, it lets you see how a crawler analyzes your site.

The company then released Botify Intelligence, which hands you a prioritized todo list of things you can do to improve your SEO strategy. And now, the company is also working on automation with Botify Activation. When Google’s search engine bot queries your site, Botify can take over and answer requests directly.

“We’re not trying to trick Google’s algorithm. We’re defining Botify as the interface between search engines and our clients’ websites. Search engines are going to access higher quality content. And it’s probably cheaper than with a normal process,” Menard said.

Companies aren’t necessarily using all three tools. They may start with analytics and take it from there. “You can use different products depending on the size of the company,” Menard said.

Over the past few years, Google has increased the number of ad slots on search results. It also promotes its own services, such as YouTube and Google Maps, before you can see the organic search results. I asked Adrien Menard whether that could be a concern for the future of Botify.

“I agree with you that we’re seeing more and more sections of the search results coming from first-party or paid results,” he said. “But the traffic generated by organic results is growing. It represents 30% of the traffic of the websites of our customers and this average is not decreasing.”

According to him, search keeps getting bigger and bigger. When you invest in search, you can see a clear return on investment when it comes to online sales, traffic, etc.

Right now, Botify has 500 customers, such as Expedia, L’Oréal, The New York Times, Groupon, Marriott, Condé Nast, Crate & Barrel, Fnac Darty, Vestiaire Collective and Farfetch.

With today’s funding round, the company wants to improve its automation capabilities, sign partnerships with more tech companies and increase its footprint with new offices in the Asia-Pacific region.

Companies betting on data must value people as much as AI

By Ram Iyer
Asaf Cohen Contributor
Asaf Cohen is co-founder and CEO at Metrolink.ai, a data operations platform.

The Pareto principle, also known as the 80-20 rule, asserts that 80% of consequences come from 20% of causes, rendering the remainder way less impactful.

Those working with data may have heard a different rendition of the 80-20 rule: A data scientist spends 80% of their time at work cleaning up messy data as opposed to doing actual analysis or generating insights. Imagine a 30-minute drive expanded to two-and-a-half hours by traffic jams, and you’ll get the picture.

As tempting as it may be to think of a future where there is a machine learning model for every business process, we do not need to tread that far right now.

While most data scientists spend more than 20% of their time at work on actual analysis, they still have to waste countless hours turning a trove of messy data into a tidy dataset ready for analysis. This process can include removing duplicate data, making sure all entries are formatted correctly and doing other preparatory work.

On average, this workflow stage takes up about 45% of the total time, a recent Anaconda survey found. An earlier poll by CrowdFlower put the estimate at 60%, and many other surveys cite figures in this range.

None of this is to say data preparation is not important. “Garbage in, garbage out” is a well-known rule in computer science circles, and it applies to data science, too. In the best-case scenario, the script will just return an error, warning that it cannot calculate the average spending per client, because the entry for customer #1527 is formatted as text, not as a numeral. In the worst case, the company will act on insights that have little to do with reality.

The real question to ask here is whether re-formatting the data for customer #1527 is really the best way to use the time of a well-paid expert. The average data scientist is paid between $95,000 and $120,000 per year, according to various estimates. Having the employee on such pay focus on mind-numbing, non-expert tasks is a waste both of their time and the company’s money. Besides, real-world data has a lifespan, and if a dataset for a time-sensitive project takes too long to collect and process, it can be outdated before any analysis is done.

What’s more, companies’ quests for data often include wasting the time of non-data-focused personnel, with employees asked to help fetch or produce data instead of working on their regular responsibilities. More than half of the data being collected by companies is often not used at all, suggesting that the time of everyone involved in the collection has been wasted to produce nothing but operational delay and the associated losses.

The data that has been collected, on the other hand, is often only used by a designated data science team that is too overworked to go through everything that is available.

All for data, and data for all

The issues outlined here all play into the fact that save for the data pioneers like Google and Facebook, companies are still wrapping their heads around how to re-imagine themselves for the data-driven era. Data is pulled into huge databases and data scientists are left with a lot of cleaning to do, while others, whose time was wasted on helping fetch the data, do not benefit from it too often.

The truth is, we are still early when it comes to data transformation. The success of tech giants that put data at the core of their business models set off a spark that is only starting to take off. And even though the results are mixed for now, this is a sign that companies have yet to master thinking with data.

Data holds much value, and businesses are very much aware of it, as showcased by the appetite for AI experts in non-tech companies. Companies just have to do it right, and one of the key tasks in this respect is to start focusing on people as much as we do on AIs.

Data can enhance the operations of virtually any component within the organizational structure of any business. As tempting as it may be to think of a future where there is a machine learning model for every business process, we do not need to tread that far right now. The goal for any company looking to tap data today comes down to getting it from point A to point B. Point A is the part in the workflow where data is being collected, and point B is the person who needs this data for decision-making.

Importantly, point B does not have to be a data scientist. It could be a manager trying to figure out the optimal workflow design, an engineer looking for flaws in a manufacturing process or a UI designer doing A/B testing on a specific feature. All of these people must have the data they need at hand all the time, ready to be processed for insights.

People can thrive with data just as well as models, especially if the company invests in them and makes sure to equip them with basic analysis skills. In this approach, accessibility must be the name of the game.

Skeptics may claim that big data is nothing but an overused corporate buzzword, but advanced analytics capacities can enhance the bottom line for any company as long as it comes with a clear plan and appropriate expectations. The first step is to focus on making data accessible and easy to use and not on hauling in as much data as possible.

In other words, an all-around data culture is just as important for an enterprise as the data infrastructure.

Facebook engineers develop new open source time keeping appliance

By Ron Miller

Most people probably don’t realize just how much our devices are time driven, whether it’s your phone, your laptop or a network server. For the most part, time keeping has been an esoteric chore, taken care of by a limited number of hardware manufacturers. While these devices served their purpose, a couple of Facebook engineers decided there had to be a better way. So they built a new more accurate time keeping device that fits on a PCI Express (PCIe) card, and contributed it to the Open Compute Project as an open source project.

At a basic level, says Olag Obleukhov, a production engineer at Facebook, it’s simply pinging this time-keeping server to make sure each device is reporting the same time. “Almost every single electronic device today uses NTP — Network Time Synchronization Protocol — which you have on your phone, on your watch, on your laptop, everywhere, and they all connect to these NTP servers where they just go and say, ‘what time is it’ and the NTP server provides the time,” he explained.

Before Facebook developed a new way of doing this, there were basically two ways to check the time. If you were a developer, you probably used something like Facebook.com as a time checking mechanism, but a company like Facebook, working at massive scale, needed something that worked even when there wasn’t an internet connection. Companies running data centers have a hardware device called Stratum One, which is a big box that sits in the data center, and has no other job than acting as the time keeper.

Because these time-keeping boxes were built by a handful of companies over years, they were solid and worked, but it was hard to get new features. What’s more, companies like Facebook couldn’t control the boxes because of their proprietary nature. Obleukhov and his colleague research scientist, Ahmad Byagowi began to attack the problem by looking for a way to create these devices by building a PCIe card with off-the-shelf parts that you could stick into any PC with an open slot.

Facebook time keeping PCI card

Image Credits: Facebook

They literally drew the first design on an iPad and began to build that vision into a prototype. A time appliance relies on a couple of key components: a GNSS receiver and what’s called a high stability oscillator. In a blog post describing the project, Obleukhov and Byagowi explained the role of these two parts:

“It all starts from a GNSS receiver that provides the time of day (ToD) as well as the 1 pulse per second (PPS). When the receiver is backed by a high-stability oscillator (e.g., an atomic clock or an oven-controlled crystal oscillator), it can provide time that is nanosecond-accurate. The time is delivered across the network via an off-the-shelf network card,” the two engineers wrote.

It all sounds pretty basic when described like this, but it’s actually quite complex and perhaps that’s why nobody had ever thought to attack the problem in this way, simply accepting that the current methods of determining time worked fine. But these two Facebook engineers were annoyed by the limitations of these approaches and decided to build something better themselves.

“A lot of it came from frustration. We were frustrated with whatever exists in the market, and we needed certain features like security features to maintain different things and monitor what’s going on. And we had to always ask the vendors [for these new features] and every time a request would take like six months to one year, and [it wouldn’t be exactly what we wanted] and we had to change things all the time, so that’s why we had to basically make this from scratch in this way,” Obleukhov said.

One thing that made it possible to put a time keeping device on a PCIe card was the advances in miniaturization of the atomic clock/oscillator. So when you combine the timing of their frustration with the current capabilities of the technologies, they realized they could do this themselves if they dedicated themselves to the task.

As the design began coming together, the engineers decided to make it flexible to enable engineers to play off the basic design and drop in whatever components met their needs. Some might need highly sophisticated expensive parts, but others could get away with much cheaper parts, depending on their requirements.

They also decided early on to open source the design process, and to involve the Open Compute Project so that other companies and engineers could contribute to the design. “It was actually going to be open source from the get-go, and the reason for that is we needed to have community support. I didn’t want it to be just one in-house project and let’s say if I lost interest or the businesses lost interest [it could go away]. I wanted this to [keep going] regardless [of what happened],” Obleukhov said.

Today there are a dozen vendors involved in the project and a number of cards out there including the one designed by these engineers, as well as a commercial offering from Orilia, but the goal is to continue improving the design, and by making it open source, the community of companies and engineers involved will continue to improve it.

Demand Curve: Questions you need to answer in your paid search ads

By Ram Iyer
Stewart Hillhouse Contributor
Stewart Hillhouse writes actionable growth marketing insights as senior content lead at Demand Curve. By night, he interviews marketers and creatives on his podcast, Top Of Mind. Before getting into marketing, Stewart was a semi-professional lumberjack. He also writes at stewarthillhouse.com.

Around 15% of website traffic comes through paid search ads. But to turn passive searchers into active shoppers, your ads should answer their question and entice them to click.

We’ve tested thousands of paid search ads at Demand Curve and through our agency Bell Curve. This post breaks down 14 questions your paid search ads should answer to ensure you’re only paying for the highest-intent shoppers.

Question 1: “What’s in it for me?”

An important distinction between paid search and organic search is that paid ads are an interruption. Users of search engines are simply looking for an answer to their question. The people who see your ads don’t owe you anything. Just because you’re paying to have your ad show up first doesn’t mean they’re going to pay attention to it.

To generate genuine interest in your paid ads, reframe your offer as a favor.

You can do this in two ways:

  • Describe the features of your product as the solution to your customers’ problem.
  • Emphasize the outcome your customer seeks.

For example, reframing free delivery as an extra convenience makes the offer that much more attractive.

Use ad extensions by listing additional benefits in the description of the page. For example, including “customized plans” in the pricing extension page signals to your customer that they’ll have control over the cost. This will help to attract the curiosity of even the most cost-conscious buyers.

To capture genuine interest in your paid ads, re-frame your offer as a favor.

Image Credits: Demand Curve

Question 2: “Why should I buy now?”

Approximately 80% of e-commerce shopping carts are abandoned, mostly because shoppers don’t feel any urgency to complete the transaction. Online shoppers aren’t in any rush, as the internet is open 24/7 and inventory feels unlimited.

Use ad copy that bridges the gap between their problem and your solution. The easiest way to create that curiosity bridge is by asking a question.

To answer the question, “Why should I buy now?”, you’re going to have to create an incentive to get them to take action now.

The best way to grow your tech career? Treat it like an app

By Ram Iyer
Raj Yavatkar Contributor
As CTO, Raj Yavatkar is responsible for charting Juniper Networks' technology strategy through the execution of the company’s innovations and products for intelligent self-driving networks, security, mobile edge cloud, network virtualization, packet-optical integration and hybrid cloud.

Software developers and engineers have rarely been in higher demand. Organizations’ need for technical talent is skyrocketing, but the supply is quite limited. As a result, software professionals have the luxury of being very choosy about where they work and usually command big salaries.

In 2020, the U.S. had nearly 1.5 million full-time developers, who earned a median salary of around $110,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Over the next 10 years, the federal agency estimates, developer jobs will grow by 22% to 316,000.

But what happens after a developer or engineer lands that sweet gig? Are they able to harness their skills and grow in interesting and challenging new directions? Do they understand what it takes to move up the ladder? Are they merely doing a job or cultivating a rewarding professional life?

To put it bluntly, many developers and engineers stink at managing their own careers.

These are the kinds of questions that have gnawed at me throughout my 25 years in the tech industry. I’ve long noticed that, to put it bluntly, many developers and engineers stink at managing their own careers.

It’s simply not a priority for some. By nature, developers delight in solving complex technical challenges and working hard toward their company’s digital objectives. Care for their own careers may feel unattractively self-promotional or political — even though it’s in fact neither. Charting a career path may feel awkward or they just don’t know how to go about it.

Companies owe it to developers and engineers, and to themselves, to give these key people the tools to understand what it takes to be the best they can be. How else can developers and engineers be assured of continually great experiences while constantly expanding their contributions to their organizations?

Developers delight in solving complex challenges and working hard toward their company’s objectives. Care for their own careers may feel unattractively self-promotional or political — even though it’s in fact neither.

Coaching and mentoring can help, but I think a more formal management system is necessary to get the wind behind the sails of a companywide commitment to making developers and engineers believe that, as the late Andy Grove said, “Your career is your business and you are its CEO.”

That’s why I created a career development model for developers and engineers when I was an Intel Fellow at Intel between 2003 and 2013. This framework has since been put into practice at the three subsequent companies I worked at — Google, VMWare, and, now, Juniper Networks — through training sessions and HR processes.

The model is based on a principle that every developer can relate to: Treat career advancement as you would a software project.

That’s right, by thinking of career development in stages like those used in app production, developers and engineers can gain a holistic view of where they are in their professional lives, where they want to go and the gaps they need to fill.

Step 1: Functional specification

In software development, a team can’t get started until it has a functional specification that describes the app’s requirements and how it is supposed to perform and behave.

Why should a career be any different? In my model, folks begin by assessing the “functionality” expected of someone at their next career level and how they’re demonstrating them (or not). Typically, a person gets promoted to a higher level only when they already demonstrate that they are operating at that level.

Nothing Ear (1) review

By Brian Heater

Carl Pei says he looked around and saw a lot of the same. He’s not alone in that respect. Apple didn’t invent the fully wireless earbud with the first AirPods, but it did provide a kind of inflection point that sent many of its competitors hurtling toward a sort of homogeneity. You’d be hard-pressed to cite another consumer electronics category that matured and coalesced as quickly as Bluetooth earbuds, but finding something unique among the hordes is another question entirely.

These days, a pair of perfectly serviceable wireless earbuds are one click and $50 away. Spend $200, and you can get something truly excellent. But variety? That’s a different question entirely. Beyond choosing between a long-stemmed AirPods-style design and something a bit rounder, there’s really not a lot of diversification. Up until recently, features like active noise canceling and wireless charging bifurcated the category into premium and non-premium tiers, but they’ve both become increasingly ubiquitous.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

So, let’s say you’re launching a new consumer hardware company in 2021. And let’s say you decided your first product is going to be a pair of earbuds. Where does that leave you? How are you going to not only differentiate yourself in a crowded market but compete alongside giants like Samsung, Google and Apple?

Price is certainly a factor, and $99 is aggressive. Pei seemed to regret pricing the Ear (1) at less than $100 in our first conversation. It’s probably safe to say Nothing’s not exactly going to be cleaning up on every unit sold. And much like his prior company — OnePlus — he seems reluctant to position cost as a defining characteristic.

In a conversation prior to the Ear (1) launch, Pei’s take on the state of the industry was a kind of “feature glut.” Certainly, there’s been a never-ending spec race across different categories over the last several years. And it’s true that it’s getting more difficult to differentiate based on features — look at what smartphone makers have been dealing with the last several years. Wireless headphones, meanwhile, jumped from the “exciting early-stage mess” stage to “the actually pretty good” stage in record time.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

I do think there’s still room for feature differentiation. Take the recently launched NuraTrue headphones. That company has taken an opposite approach to arrive at earbuds, beginning with a specialized audio technology that it’s built three different headphone models around.

Pei noted in the Ear (1) launch presser that the company determined its aesthetic ideals prior to deciding what its first product would be. And true to form, its partnership with the design firm Teenage Engineering was announced well before a single image of the product appeared (the best we got in the early days was an early concept inspired by Pei’s grandmother’s tobacco pipe).

There are other ideals, as well — concepts about ecosystems, but those are the sorts of things that can only come after the release of multiple products. In the meantime, we’ve seen the product from all angles. I’m wearing the product in the ears and holding it in my hand (though I’m putting it down now; too hard to type).

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The form factor certainly borrows from the AirPods, from the long stems to the white buds from which they protrude. You can’t say that they’re entirely their own thing in that respect. But perhaps a case can be made that the nature of fully wireless earbuds is, in and of itself, limiting in the manner of form factors it can accommodate. I’m certainly not a product designer, but they need to sit comfortably in your ears, and they can’t be too big or too heavy or protrude too much.

According to Pei, part of the product’s delayed launch was due to the company going back to the drawing board to rethink designs. What they ultimately arrived at was something recognizable as a pair of earbuds, while offering some unique flourishes. Transparency is the primary differentiator from an aesthetic standpoint. It comes into play in a big way with the case, which is unique, as these things go. With the buds themselves, most of the transparency happens on the stems.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

In a vacuum, the buds look a fair bit like an Apple product. The glossy white finish and white silicone tips are a big part of that. The reason the entire buds aren’t transparent, as early renderings showed, is a simple and pragmatic one: the components in the buds are too unsightly. That brings us to another element in the product’s eventual delay: making a gadget clear requires putting thought into how things like components and glue look. It’s the same reason why there’s a big white strip in the middle of an otherwise clear case: charging components are ugly (sorry/not sorry).

It’s a potential recipe for overly busy design, but I think the team landed on something solid — and certainly distinctive. That alone should account for something in the homogeneous world of gadget design. And the company’s partnership with StockX should be a pretty clear indication of precisely the sorts of early adopters/influencers Nothing is going after here.

The Ear (1) buds are a lot more welcoming than any of the style-first experiments Will.i.am made in the category. And while they’re distinct, they don’t really stand out in the wild — which is to say, no one’s going to scream and point or stop you in the street to figure what’s going on with your ears (sorry, Will).

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Ultimately, I dig the look. There are nice touches, as well. A red and white dot indicate the right and left buds, respectively, a nod to RCA and other audio cables. A subtle Nothing logo is etched in dotted text, bringing to mind circuit board printing. The letter extends to most of Nothing’s branding. It’s clear the design was masterminded by people who have spent a lot of time negotiating with supply-chain vendors. Notably, the times I spoke to Pei, he was often in and around Shenzhen rather than the company’s native London, hammering out last-minute supply issues.

The buds feel really great, too. I’ve noted my tendency to suffer from ear pain wearing various earbud designs for extended periods. On Monday, I took a four hour intra-borough walk and didn’t notice a thing. They also stayed in place like champs on visits to the gym. And not for nothing, but there’s an extremely satisfying magnetic snap when you place them back in the charging case (the red and white dots still apply).

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The case is flat and square with rounded edges (a squircle, if you please). If it wasn’t clear, it might closely resemble a tin of mints. It also offers a pretty satisfying snap when shutting. Will be curious to see how well that stands up after several hundred — or thousand — openings and closings.

Though the company says it put the product through all of the standard drop and stress tests, it warns that even the strongest transparent plastic is still prone to scratching, particularly with a set of keys in the same pocket. Pei says that kind of battle scarring will ultimately be part of its charm, but the jury’s still out on that one. After a few days and no keys in close proximity, I have one long scratch across the bottom. I don’t feel any cooler, but you tell me.

A large concave circle on the top helps keep the lid from slamming into the earbuds when closing. It’s also a nice spot to put your thumb when fiddling around with the thing. I suspect it doubles to relieve some of that fidgeting we (I) usually release by absentmindedly flipping a case lid up and down. It’s a small, but thoughtful touch. Round back, you’ll find the USB-C charging port and Bluetooth sync button.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

On iOS, you’ll need to connect the buds both through the app and in the Bluetooth settings the first time. There are disadvantages when you don’t make your own operating system, chips and phones in addition to earbuds. That’s a minor (probably one-time) nuisance, though.

The Ear (1) are a decent sounding pair of $99 headphones. I won’t say I was blown away, but I don’t think anyone is going to be disappointed that they don’t really go head-to-head with, say, the Sony WF-1000xM4 or even the new NuraTrue. These aren’t audiophile headphones, but they’re very much suitable for walking around the city, listening to music and podcasts.

The app offers a built-in equalizer tuned by Teenage Engineering with three settings: balanced, more treble/more bass, and voice (for podcasts, et al.). The differences are detectable, but pretty subtle, as far as these things go. As far as equalizer customizations go, it’s more point-and-shoot than DSLR, as Nothing doesn’t want you straying too far from the intended balance. After experimenting with all of the settings, I mostly stuck with the balanced setting. Feel free to judge me accordingly.

[gallery ids="2182572,2182566,2182587,2182586,2182585,2182584,2182583,2182581,2182580,2182579,2182578,2182577,2182575,2182574,2182573,2182571,2182570,2182569,2182568,2182567"]

There are three ANC settings, as well: noise cancellation, transparency and off. You can also titrate the noise cancellation between light and heavy. On the whole, the ANC did a fine job erasing a fair bit of street noise on my New York City walks, though even at heavy, it’s not going to, say, block out the sound of a car altogether. For my sake, that’s maybe for the best.

There’s also a built-in “find my earbud” setting that sends out a kind of piercing chirp so you can find the one that is inevitably trapped beneath your couch cushion.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

My big complaint day today is one I encountered with the NuraTrue. I ran into a number of Bluetooth connection dropouts. It’s a bit annoying when you’re really engrossed in a song or podcast. And again, it’s something you’re a lot less likely to encounter for those companies that build their own buds, phone, chips and operating systems. It’s a pretty tough thing to compete with for a brand-new startup.

I have quibbles, and in spite of months of excited teases, the Ear (1) buds aren’t going to turn the overcrowded category upside down. But it’s always exciting to see a new company enter the consumer hardware space — and deliver a solid first product out of the game. It’s an idiosyncratic take on the category at a nice price from a company worth keeping an eye on.

Preorders for Panic’s Playdate handheld open July 29

By Greg Kumparak

Playdate, the adorable whimsy-and-nostalgia-box/handheld game system built by Panic (with some help from Teenage Engineering), has taken one more big step toward reality: it has an official preorder date. And it’s soon!

The company announced this morning that preorders for the handheld will go live on July 29th at 10 a.m. Pacific.

Looking to get one from the first batch? Here’s the other stuff you need to know:

  • The handheld will cost $179, and they’ll be selling an optional case accessory for $29. They’re offering both as a bundle for $199, saving you a couple bucks if you already know you want both. No word yet on when the previously announced docking station will go on sale.
  • It sounds like the actual ship date still isn’t fully locked in, but Panic says the first batch (20,000 units or so) should start going out “towards the end of the year,” with additional units going out in 2022. The company stresses that they’re not capping preorders so they can’t really “sell out,” but ordering earlier means getting it sooner.
  • Preorders will be capped at two per person.

Panic first announced the Playdate in 2019. Games on the Playdate are released in “seasons”; in season one, two new titles will be released each week for 12 weeks. As experimental as it is charming, Panic is pretty open about what to expect of the titles. From their product page: “Some are short. Some are long. Will you love them all? Probably not. Will you have a great time trying them? Absolutely.”

 

Accion Systems raises $42 million in Series C to accelerate development of 4th-gen propulsion system

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Space propulsion developer Accion Systems has closed its most significant funding round yet. The company raised $42 million in a Series C led by Tracker Capital, bringing its valuation to $83.5 million.

Along with the investment, Tracker Capital also acquired a majority stake in the company. This latest injection of capital will facilitate the development and manufacturing of the company’s fourth generation propulsion system, dubbed the tiled ionic liquid electrospray (TILE) system.

The TILE system uses electrical energy to push charge particles (ions) out its back to generate propulsion. While ion engines have been around for decades, Accion uses a liquid propellant, an ionic liquid salt, instead of gas. The liquid is inert and non-pressurized, meaning there’s no risk of explosion. It also results in a product that doesn’t need bulky components like ionization chambers, and an overall smaller and lighter weight system relative to the spacecraft – key considerations in space, where every gram of payload has a high price tag.

“It lets us build really, really small systems,” Accion co-founder Natalya Bailey explained to TechCrunch. “Instead of trying to take an existing ion engine the size of a Prius and shrink it down, we can start with very small systems because of this propellant.” And she does mean small – each thruster tile is about the size of a postage stamp.

The TILE system is also scalable and modular, meaning it could feasibly be used on anything from cubesats to propelling an interplanetary spacecraft, Accion CEO Peter Kant added in a recent interview with TechCrunch. “It’s one of the few occasions where the total addressable market and the actual addressable market that we can serve are pretty closely aligned and almost overlap,” he said.

The newest generation of the TILE system is the same size as its predecessors, but Accion is increasing the number of emitters on a given chip – emitters being the technology that actually shoots out the ions, generating the momentum – by almost tenfold. “We get more ions per area and that gives us a whole lot more thrust with the same amount of space,” Kant said.

Accion is looking to ship the first fourth-gen thruster systems in the middle to late summer of 2022.

The TILE system was developed by Accion co-founders Natalya Bailey and Louis Perna while the two were at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The tech generated a ton of interest from big aerospace companies, but they decided to found Accion in 2014 rather than sell. The company manufactures and assembles its product at its facility in Charlestown, Massachusetts.

The TILE system was onboard commercial spacecraft, one with Astra Digital and one with NanoAvionics, that went up on SpaceX’s Transporter-2 launch at the end of June. Accion started by focusing on serving smaller spacecraft first, like cubesats, but Bailey said that was just the beginning.

“We’re going after that segment initially, and then intending to reinvest our learnings in building larger and larger systems that eventually can do big geostationary satellites and interplanetary missions and so on. The systems that went up on the most recent launcher [is] probably good for a satellite up to about 50 kilograms [. . .] For us, it’s on the smaller end of where we intend to go.”

Pink Floyd drummer invests in Disciple Media, a platform aimed at the creator economy

By Mike Butcher

Much has been made of the rise of the “creator economy” in the last year. With the Pandemic biting, millions flooded online, looking for a way to make money or promote themselves. The podcasting world has exploded, and with it platforms like Patreon, Clubhouse, and many others. But the thorny problem remains: Do you really own your audience as a creator, or does the platform own you? Companies like Mighty Networks, Circle and Tribe have tried to address this, giving creators greater control than social networks do over their audiences. Now another joins the fray.

Disciple Media bills itself as a SaaS platform to enable online creators to build community-led businesses. It’s now raised $6 million in funding in what it calls a ‘large Angel round’. It already claims to have garnered 2 million members and 500 communities since launching in 2018. Investors include Nick Mason (drummer in Pink Floyd), Sir Peter Michael (CEO of Cray Computers, founder of classic FM, Quantel and Cosworth Engineering), Rob Pierre (founder and CEO of Jellyfish), and Keith Morris (ex. chairman Sabre Insurance). It’s also announced a new Chairman, Eirik Svendsen, a expert in online marketplaces, SaaS and the publishing and media industry.

On its communities so far it has American country star and American Idol judge Luke Bryan, Gor Tex, and Body by Ciara. The platform is also available on iOS and Android and comes with community management tools, a CRM, and monetization options. The company claims its creators are now “earning millions in revenue each year.”

Benji Vaughan, Founder and CEO said: “The scale and rapid growth of the creator economy is extraordinary, and today that growth is being driven by entrepreneurial creators looking to build independent businesses outside of Youtube and the social networks.”

Vaughan, a Techno DJ and artist-turned-entrepreneur, says he came up with the idea after building similar communities for clients. He says the data created on Disciple communities is owned entirely by the host who built the network, “removing third-party risk and allowing insights to be actioned immediately”.

He told me: “We are moving from a position of effectively having ‘gig economy workers for social networks’ to owners of businesses who use social networks for their needs, not the other way around. Therefore, these people are starting to leave social networks to build their businesses and using social networks as marketing channels, as the rest of the world does. Once that migration happens where they move away from social networks as their prime platform, they need a hub where their data is going to get pulled together, they have an audience, which we see as a community that connects with itself as much as they do with the host.”

He thinks the equivalent of Salesforce or HubSpot in the creative economy is going to be a community platform: “That’s where they’re going to aggregate all the information about their valuable audience or community engagement. So, we are looking to, over time, to build out something very akin to what HubSpot sites they have for tech companies or SaaS businesses: a complete package, a complete platform to manage your engagement with your users, grow your user base and then convert that into revenue.”

Rob Pierre, founder and CEO Jellyfish said: “Creating and engaging with your community digitally has never been more important. Disciple allows you to do both of those things with a fully functional, feature-rich platform which requires very little upfront capital expenditure. It also provides numerous options to monetize your community.”

Pivot Bio rakes in $430M round D as modified microbes prove their worth in agriculture

By Devin Coldewey

Pivot Bio makes fertilizer — but not directly. Its modified microorganisms are added to soil and they product nitrogen that would otherwise have had to be trucked in and dumped there. This biotech-powered approach can save farmers money and time and ultimately may be easier on the environment — a huge opportunity that investors have plowed $430 million into in the company’s latest funding round.

Nitrogen is among the nutrients crops need to survive and thrive, and it’s only by dumping fertilizer on the soil and mixing it in that farmers can keep growing at today’s rates. But in some ways we’re still doing what our forebears did generations ago.

“Fertilizer changed agriculture — it’s what made so much of the last century possible. But it’s not a perfect way to get nutrients to crops,” said Karsten Temme, CEO and co-founder of Pivot Bio. He pointed out the simple fact that distributing fertilizer over a thousand — let alone ten thousand or more — acres of farmland is an immense mechanical and logistical challenge, involving many people, heavy machinery, and valuable time.

Not to mention the risk that a heavy rain might carry off a lot of the fertilizer before it’s absorbed and used, and the huge contributions of greenhouse gases the fertilizing process produces. (The microbe approach seems to be considerably better for the environment.)

Yet the reason we do this in the first place is essentially to imitate the work of microbes that live in the soil and produce nitrogen naturally. Plants and these microbes have a relationship going back millions of years, but the tiny organisms simply don’t produce enough. Pivot Bio’s insight when it started more than a decade ago was that a few tweaks could supercharge this natural nitrogen cycle.

“We’ve all known microbes were the way to go,” he said. “They’re naturally part of the root system — they were already there. They have this feedback loop, where if they detect fertilizer they don’t make nitrogen, to save energy. The only thing that we’ve done is, the portion of their genome responsible for producing nitrogen is offline, and we’re waking it up.”

Other agriculture-focused biotech companies like Indigo and AgBiome are also looking at modifying and managing the plant’s “microbiome,” which is to say the life that lives in the immediate vicinity of a given plant. A modified microbiome may be resistant to pests, reduce disease, or offer other benefits.

Illustration showing stages of modifying and deploying nitrogen-producing microbes.

Image Credits: Pivot Bio

It’s not so different from yeast, which as many know from experience works as a living rising agent. That microbe has been cultivated to consume sugar and produce a gas, which leads to the air pockets in baked goods. This microbe has been modified a bit more directly to continually consume the sugars put out by plants and put out nitrogen. And they can do it at rates that massively reduce the need for adding solid fertilizer to the soil.

“We’ve taken what is traditionally tons and tons of physical materials, and shrunk that into a powder, like baker’s yeast, that you can fit in your hand,” Temme said (though, to be precise, the product is applied as a liquid). “All of a sudden managing that farm gets a little easier. You free up the time you would have spent sitting in the tractor applying fertilizer to the field; you’ll add our product at the same time you’d be planting your seeds. And you have the confidence that if a rainstorm comes through in the spring, it’s not washing it all away. Globally about half of all fertilizer is washed away… but microbes don’t mind.”

Instead, the microbes just quietly sit in the soil pumping out nitrogen at a rate of up to 40 pounds per acre — a remarkably old-fashioned way to measure it (why not grams per square centimeter?) but perhaps in keeping with agriculture’s occasional anachronistic tendencies. Depending on the crop and environment that may be enough to do without added fertilizers at all, or it might be about half or less.

Whatever the proportion provided by the microbes, it must be tempting to employ them, because Pivot Bio tripled its revenue in 2021. You might wonder why they can be so sure only halfway through the year, but as they are currently only selling to farmers in the northern hemisphere and the product is applied at planting time early in the year, they’re done with sales for the year and can be sure it’s three times what they sold in 2020.

The microbes die off once the crop is harvested, so it’s not a permanent change to the ecosystem. And next year, when farmers come back for more, the organisms may well have been modified further. It’s not quite as simple as turning the nitrogen production on or off in the genome; the enzymatic pathway from sugar to nitrogen can be improved, and the threshold for when the microbes decide to undertake the process rather than rest can be changed as well. The latest iteration, Proven 40, has the yield mentioned above, but further improvements are planned, attracting potential customers on the fence about whether it’s worth the trouble to change tactics.

The potential for recurring revenue and growth (by their current estimate they are currently able to address about a quarter of a $200 billion total market) led to the current monster D round, which was led by DCVC and Temasek. There are about a dozen other investors, for which I refer readers to the press release, which lists them in no doubt a very carefully negotiated order.

Temme says the money will go towards deepening and broadening the platform and growing the relationship with farmers, who seem to be hooked after giving it a shot. Right now the microbes are specific to corn, wheat, and rice, which of course covers a great deal of agriculture, but there are many other corners of the industry that would benefit from a streamlined, enhanced nitrogen cycle. And it’s certainly a powerful validation of the vision Temme and his co-founder Alvin Tamsir had 15 years ago in grad school, he said. Here’s hoping that’s food for thought for those in that position now, wondering if it’s all worth it.

5 advanced-ish SEO tactics to win in 2021

By Ram Iyer
Mark Spera Contributor
Mark Spera is the head of growth marketing at Minted. He's the co-founder of growth marketing blog Growth Marketing Pro and content generation tool GrowthBar.
More posts by this contributor

In nearly every Google algorithm update in recent memory, Google has rewarded old, megatraffic sites, sending their search rankings soaring at the expense of smaller, newer sites. Big sites have increased their search traffic by 28% year over year, according to GrowthBar’s organic search data on the 100 most visited sites.

Why? Large sites such as Wikipedia, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Amazon, Home Depot and Target have something the rest of us don’t — they’ve got years of built-up Google trust signals.

Start with best practices like making incredible content and securing backlinks to your best web pages, but also be willing to think a bit outside the box.

I’d contend that Google favors large sites more than ever before — and it’s a trend that doesn’t seem to be slowing down. After all, Google exists to deliver the best search experience to users. Bad search results would be a death sentence for their business, since Googlers would flock to alternatives like DuckDuckGo and Bing.

Especially today, where distrust of the media is at an all-time high, Google can’t risk its reputation by surfacing bad search results, so I think their algorithm errs on the side of caution. It’s simply safer for their business to surface household names at the top of the search engine results page, particularly in ultrasensitive your money, your life categories.

John Mueller, Google’s SEO mouthpiece, practically settled the debate that older sites are preferred by the algorithm when he said, ” … freshness is always an interesting one because it’s something that we don’t always use. Because sometimes it makes sense to show people content that has been established (SEJ).”

So, how can you hope to compete if you’re deploying an SEO strategy on one of the billions of smaller sites?

Help TechCrunch find the best growth marketers for startups.

Provide a recommendation in this quick survey and we’ll share the results with everybody.

Of course, you should start with best practices like making incredible content and securing backlinks to your best web pages, but you should also be willing to think a bit outside the box. The cards aren’t in your favor, so you need to be even more strategic than the big guys. This means executing on some cutting-edge hacks to increase your SEO throughput and capitalize on some of the arbitrage still left in organic search. I call these five tactics “advanced-ish,” because none of them are complicated, but all of them are supremely important for search marketers in 2021.

Scaling your time with content generators

Businesses spent over $300 billion on content marketing last year. That’s in part because creating new content is the most straightforward way to draw in organic search traffic. Whether you’ve got a mature site or you’re just starting a WordPress SEO site, content is likely a large part of your SEO strategy.

But to scale content like a startup, you’ll need to devote a lot of time to it and/or manage a fleet of writers. Your time is probably better spent building your product or helping customers than on planning hundreds of blog articles. This is precisely where a content generator tool comes into play.

A whole new era of SEO tools is emerging, and some of these are augmented by OpenAI’s GPT-3 technology, the most advanced artificial intelligence language model. These tools have changed the game for SEOs and content creators by automating parts of the content creation cycle. Several tools utilize SEO signals and combine them with OpenAI to help you create blog outlines that include SEO-optimized titles, word counts, keywords, headlines, intro paragraphs and much more.

Cutting out carbon emitters with bioengineering at XTC Global Finals on July 22

By Devin Coldewey

Bioengineering may soon provide compelling, low-carbon alternatives in industries where even the best methods produce significant emissions. Utilizing natural and engineered biological process has led to low-carbon textiles from AlgiKnit, cell-cultured premium meats from Orbillion and fuels captured from waste emissions via LanzaTech — and leaders from those companies will be joining us onstage for the Extreme Tech Challenge Global Finals on July 22.

We’re co-hosting the event, with panels like this one all day and a pitch-off that will feature a number of innovative startups with a sustainability angle.

I’ll be moderating a panel on using bioengineering to create change directly in industries with large carbon footprints: textiles, meat production and manufacturing.

AlgiKnit is a startup that is sourcing raw material for fabric from kelp, which is an eco-friendly alternative to textile crop monocultures and artificial materials like acrylic. CEO Aaron Nesser will speak to the challenge of breaking into this established industry and overcoming preconceived notions of what an algae-derived fabric might be like (spoiler: it’s like any other fabric).

Orbillion Bio is one of the new crop of alternative protein companies offering cell-cultured meats (just don’t call them “lab” or “vat” grown) to offset the incredibly wasteful livestock industry. But it’s more than just growing a steak — there are regulatory and market barriers aplenty that CEO Patricia Bubner can speak to, as well as the technical challenge.

LanzaTech works with factories to capture emissions as they’re emitted, collecting the useful particles that would otherwise clutter the atmosphere and repurposing them in the form of premium fuels. This is a delicate and complex process that needs to be a partnership, not just a retrofitting operation, so CEO Jennifer Holmgren will speak to their approach convincing the industry to work with them at the ground floor.

It should be a very interesting conversation, so tune in on July 22 to hear these and other industry leaders focused on sustainability discuss how innovation at the startup level can contribute to the fight against climate change. Plus it’s free!

5 companies doing growth marketing right

By Annie Siebert
Mark Spera Contributor
Mark Spera is the head of growth marketing at Minted. He's the co-founder of growth marketing blog Growth Marketing Pro and content generation tool GrowthBar.

What do all companies, regardless of industry, say they want? Growth. Lighting-fast, continuous growth. The good news is you can quickly learn which growth marketing strategies work by studying other companies’ success and adapting it to your own business.

Most technophiles remember Dropbox’s referral program — the one that helped it grow 3,900% in 15 months. Its philosophy was simple: reward customers with free storage space for referring other customers. In 2008, it was an absolute revelation. A golden ticket.

Tell a story with your business’ proprietary data. You’re the only one with this information, and that makes it valuable.

In 2021, you’d be hard-pressed to find a company without a formal referral program. It’s a standard growth marketing trick. If you study other companies’ tactics, you’re going to be able to shortcut growth — it’s as simple as that.

The race to grow faster is more pressing than ever before. When you consider the speed with which venture capital funds need to return dollars to their investors and that consumer acquisition costs have increased by 55% over the last three years, forward-thinking entrepreneurs and growth marketers simply must make time to study their competition, learn best practices and apply them to their own business growth.

Of course, you should still run your own experiments, but it’s just more capital-efficient to emulate than to trial-and-error from scratch. Here are five companies with growth strategies worth emulating — including the most important lessons you can begin applying to your business today.


Have you worked with an individual or agency who helped you find and keep more users?
Help us identify the best startup growth marketing experts!


1. Doing SEO right: Flo

SEO is going to spend this summer shaking in its boots. Google began rolling out a two-week core algorithm update on June 2, and it’s unleashing a page experience update through August. These updates usually come with significant volatility that makes organic Google rankings jump all over the place.

However, one clear winner of the 2021 SEO footrace is Flo, a women’s ovulation calendar, period tracker and pregnancy app. According to GrowthBar, a SEO tool I co-founded, Flo’s organic traffic has soared 192% over the past two months and it ranks on page one for some staggeringly competitive women’s health keywords.

If SEO is a strategy you’re pursuing, there are two key growth lessons to take away from Flo’s recent success.

1. Authority matters now more than ever. Healthcare websites fall into a category of sensitive sites that Google classifies as Your Money, Your Life (YMYL). Because of oodles of fake news and suspect web content, Google has rightfully raised its bar for expertise and factuality. Go to any one of Flo’s more than 1,000 blog posts (yes, content is still king) and you’ll see that nearly all of them are reviewed by gynecologists, primary care physicians or some other type of women’s health expert. Its site also has pages devoted to its writers and medical reviewers, content guidelines and peer-review specifications. Flo takes its information seriously. From the 2020 election to QAnon to vaccination side effects, Google is on high alert. Whatever your niche, you need to establish credibility to win Google searches.

An internal code repo used by New York State’s IT office was exposed online

By Zack Whittaker

A code repository used by the New York state government’s IT department was left exposed on the internet, allowing anyone to access the projects inside, some of which contained secret keys and passwords associated with state government systems.

The exposed GitLab server was discovered on Saturday by Dubai-based SpiderSilk, a cybersecurity company credited with discovering data spills at Samsung, Clearview AI and MoviePass.

Organizations use GitLab to collaboratively develop and store their source code — as well as the secret keys, tokens and passwords needed for the projects to work — on servers that they control. But the exposed server was accessible from the internet and configured so that anyone from outside the organization could create a user account and log in unimpeded, SpiderSilk ‘s chief security officer Mossab Hussin told TechCrunch.

When TechCrunch visited the GitLab server, the login page showed it was accepting new user accounts. It’s not known exactly how long the GitLab server was accessible in this way, but historic records from Shodan, a search engine for exposed devices and databases, shows the GitLab was first detected on the internet on March 18.

SpiderSilk shared several screenshots showing that the GitLab server contained secret keys and passwords associated with servers and databases belonging to New York State’s Office of Information Technology Services. Fearing the exposed server could be maliciously accessed or tampered with, the startup asked for help in disclosing the security lapse to the state.

TechCrunch alerted the New York governor’s office to the exposure a short time after the server was found. Several emails to the governor’s office with details of the exposed GitLab server were opened but were not responded to. The server went offline on Monday afternoon.

Scot Reif, a spokesperson for New York State’s Office of Information Technology Services, said the server was “a test box set up by a vendor, there is no data whatsoever, and it has already been decommissioned by ITS.” (Reif declared his response “on background” and attributable to a state official, which would require both parties agree to the terms in advance, but we are printing the reply as we were not given the opportunity to reject the terms.)

When asked, Reif would not say who the vendor was or if the passwords on the server were changed. Several projects on the server were marked “prod,” or common shorthand for “production,” a term for servers that are actively use. Reif also would not say if the incident was reported to the state’s Attorney General’s office. When reached, a spokesperson for the Attorney General did not comment by press time.

TechCrunch understands the vendor is Indotronix-Avani, a New York-based company with offices in India, and owned by venture capital firm Nigama Ventures. Several screenshots show some of the GitLab projects were modified by a project manager at Indotronix-Avani. The vendor’s website touts New York State on its website, along with other government customers, including the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Department of Defense.

Indotronix-Avani spokesperson Mark Edmonds did not respond to requests for comment.

Read more:

Brave’s nontracking search engine is now in beta

By Natasha Lomas

Pro-privacy browser Brave, which has been testing its own brand search engine for several months — operating a waitlist where brave (ha!) early adopters could kick the tyres of an upstart alternative in Internet search — has now launched the tool, Brave Search, in global beta.

Users interested in checking out Brave’s nontracking search engine, which is built on top of an independent index and touted as a privacy-safe alternative to surveillance tech products like Google search, will find it via Brave’s desktop and mobile browsers. It can also be reached from other browsers via search.brave.com — so doesn’t require switching to Brave’s browser to use.

Brave Search is being offered as one of multiple search options that users of the company’s eponymous browser can pick from (including Google’s search engine). But Brave says it will make it the default search in its browser later this year.

As we reported back in March, the company acquired technology and developers who had previously worked on Cliqz, a European anti-tracking search-browser combo which closed down in May 2020 — building on a technology they’d started to develop, called Tailcat, to form the basis of the Brave-branded search engine.

The (now beta) search engine has been tested by more than 100,000 “early access users” at this point, per Brave. It’s made this video ad to tout its “all in one” alternative to Google search + Chrome.

The company recently passed 32M monthly active users (up from 25M back in March) for its wider suite of products — which, as well as its flagship pro-privacy browser, includes a news reader (Brave News), and a Firewall+VPN service.

Brave also offers privacy-preserving Brave Ads for businesses wanting to reach its community of privacy-preferring users.

Growing public awareness of surveillance based business models has been building momentum for pro-privacy consumer tech for a number of years. And several players which started out with a strong focus on one particular pro-privacy product (such as a browser, search engine or email) have been expanding into a full suite of products — all under the same nontracking umbrella.

As well as Brave, there’s the likes of DuckDuckGo — which offers nontracking search but also a tracker blocker and an email inbox protector tool, among other products, and reckons it now has between 70M-100M users overall; and Proton, the maker of e2e-encrypted email service ProtonMail but also a cloud calendar and file storage as well as a VPN. The latter recently confirmed passing 50M users globally.

There is also Apple itself too, of course — a Big Tech giant that competes with Google and the adtech complex by promising users a privacy premium to drive sales of its hardware and services. (At the start of this year Apple said there are now over 1BN iOS users globally — and over 1.65BN Apple devices.)

Tl;dr: The market for privacy consumer tech is growing.

Still, even Apple doesn’t try to compete against Google search which perhaps underlines the scale of the challenge involved in trying to poach users from the search behemoth. (Albeit, Apple extracts massive payments from Google to preload the latter’s search engine onto iOS devices — which does conflict with (and complicate) its wider, pro-privacy, pro-user promises while also adding a nice revenue boost for Apple… ).

DuckDuckGo has, by contrast, been at the nontracking search coalface for years — and turning a profit since 2014. Though clearly not in the same profit league as Apple. But, more recently, it’s also taken in rare tranches of external funding as its investors spy growing opportunity for private search.

Other signs of expanding public appetite to protect people’s information from commercial snoopers include the surge of usage for e2e encrypted alternatives to Facebook-owned WhatsApp — such as Signal — which saw a download spike earlier this year, after the advertising giant announced unilateral changes to WhatsApp’s terms of service.

Credible players that have amassed a community of engaged users around a core user privacy promise are well positioned to ride each new wave of privacy interest — and cross sell a suite of consumer products where they’ve been able to expand their utility. Hence Brave believing the time is right for it to dabble in search.

Commenting in a statement, Brendan Eich, CEO and co-founder of Brave, said: “Brave Search is the industry’s most private search engine, as well as the only independent search engine, giving users the control and confidence they seek in alternatives to big tech. Unlike older search engines that track and profile users, and newer search engines that are mostly a skin on older engines and don’t have their own indexes, Brave Search offers a new way to get relevant results with a community-powered index, while guaranteeing privacy. Brave Search fills a clear void in the market today as millions of people have lost trust in the surveillance economy and actively seek solutions to be in control of their data.”

Brave touts its eponymous search offering as having a number of differentiating features vs rivals (including smaller rivals) — such as its own index which it also says gives it independence from other search providers.

Why is having an independent index important? We put that question to Josep M. Pujol, chief of search at Brave, who told us: “There are plenty of incentives for censorship and biases, either by design, or what is even more difficult to combat, unintentional. The problem of search, and how people access the web, is that it is a mono-culture, and everybody knows that while it’s very efficient, it’s also very dangerous. A single disease can kill all the crops. The current landscape is not fail-tolerant, and this is something that even users are becoming aware of. We need more choices, not to replace Google or Bing, but to offer alternatives. More choices will entail more freedom and also get back to real competition, with checks and balances.

“Choice can only be achieved by being independent, as if we do not have our own index, then we are just a layer of paint on top of Google and Bing, unable to change much or anything in the results for users’ queries. Not having your own index, as with certain search engines, gives the impression of choice, but in reality such engine ‘skins’ are the same players as the big-two. Only by building our own index, which is a costly proposition, will we be in a position to offer true choice to the users for the benefit of all, whether they are Brave Search users or not.”

Although, for now, it’s worth noting that Brave is relying on some provision from other search providers — for specific queries and in areas like image search (where, for example, it says it’s currently fetching results from Microsoft-owned Bing) — to ensure its results achieve adequate relevancy.

Elsewhere it also says it’s relying upon anonymized contributions from the community to improve and refine results — and is seeking to live up to wider transparency claims vis-a-vis the search index (which it also claims has “no secret methods or algorithms to bias results”; and for which it will “soon” be offering “community-curated open ranking models to ensure diversity and prevent algorithmic biases and outright censorship”).

In another transparency step Brave is reporting the percentage of users’ queries that are independent by showing what it bills as “the industry’s first search independence metric” — meaning it displays the ratio of results coming exclusively from its own index.

“It is derived privately using the user’s browser as we do not build user profiles,” Brave notes in a press release. “Users can check this aggregate metric to verify the independence of their results and see how results are powered by our own index, or if third-parties are being used for long tail results while we are still in the process of building our index.”

It adds that Brave Search will “typically be answering most queries, reflected by a high independence metric”. Although if you’re performing an image search, for example, you’ll see the the independence metric take a hit (but Brave confirms this will not result in any tracking of users).

“[Transparency] is a key principle at Brave, and there will also be a global independence metric for Brave Search across all searches, which we will make publicly available to show how we are progressing towards complete independence,” it adds.

Example of Brave’s ‘independence metric’ for search results (Image credits: Brave)

On the monetization side, Brave says it will “soon” be offering both a paid ad-free version of search in the future and an ad-supported free version — while still pledging “fully anonymous” search. Though it specifies that it won’t be flipping the ad switch during the early beta phase.

“We will offer options for both ad-free paid search and ad-supported free search later,” it notes. “When we are ready, we will explore bringing private ads with BAT revenue share to search, as we’ve done for Brave user ads.”

Users of the search engine who do not also use Brave’s own browser will be served contextual ads.

“In Brave Search via the browser, strong privacy guarantees for opt-in ads are a norm and a brand value that we uphold,” adds Pujol, confirming that users of its search and browser are likely to get the same type of ad targeting.

Asked about pricing of the forthcoming ad-free version of the search engine he says: “Although we have not finalized the launch date or the price yet, our ad-free paid search will be affordable because we believe search, and access to information, should be available on fair terms for everyone.”

In an interesting recent development in Europe, Google — under pressure from antitrust regulators — has agreed to ditch a pay-to-play auction model for the choice screen it offers regional users of its Android platform, letting them pick a default search engine from list with a number of rivals and its own brand Google search. The move should expand the number of alternative search engines Android users in Europe are exposed to — and could help chip away at some of Google’s search marketshare.

Brave previously told us it would not participate in Google’s paid auction — but Pujol says that if the new model is “truly free to participate” it will likely take part in future.

“Google and free-to-participate seem difficult to believe, given plenty of precedents but if this model is indeed truly free to participate, without contracts or nondisclosure agreements, then we would likely participate,” he says. “After all, Brave Search is open to everyone who would like to use it, and we are open and happy to put Brave Search on any platform.”

“We have localized browsers throughout the European market, so in addition to growth via the Brave browser growing, we intend to grow Brave Search’s usage by marketing our best-in-class privacy on all media that reach prospective users,” he adds.

How to land the top spot in Google search with featured snippets in 2021

By Ram Iyer
Ryan Sammy Contributor
Ryan Sammy is director of strategy at Fractl, a growth marketing agency that helps Fortune 500s and boutique businesses improve backlink portfolios, brand awareness and organic traffic through high-quality content.

Search is changing. Most search engines now don’t just bring up a page of 10 search results and two ads at the top when you type in a query. Instead, Google search queries can bring up a whole range of results, and sometimes answer your questions without you ever having to click through to a page.

Take, for example, a search like this: “how many days until halloween.”

Example of a featured snippet

A featured snippet counting down the days to Halloween. Image Credits: Ryan Sammy

You can see that instead of displaying the top result right away, Google answers the question for you in a rich snippet. It also gives you related search queries featuring countdowns for other holidays. On the right is a knowledge panel from Wikipedia about Halloween, and below that, you’ll see the featured snippets section. These snippets will expand when clicked with answers for related questions.

Featured snippets are collections of sentences or words that Google pulls directly from a webpage relevant to the search query.

Finally, after these answers to your queries and any related questions, you get to the first result. At this point, do you even need to visit the website?

Google search is not what it used to be. We all want to be No. 1 on the search results page, but these days, getting to that position isn’t enough. It might be worth your while to instead go after the top featured snippet position.

What’s a featured snippet?

Featured snippets are collections of sentences or words that Google pulls directly from a webpage relevant to the search query. These snippets are displayed right below the search box and are meant to answer search queries quickly. The snippets can appear in the form of lists, how-to steps, tables, short paragraph boxes and other formats.

Google updates its kids online safety curriculum with lessons on gaming, video and more

By Sarah Perez

Google announced today it’s updating and expanding its digital safety and citizenship curriculum called Be Internet Awesome, which is aimed at helping school-aged children learn to navigate the internet responsibly. First introduced four years ago, the curriculum now reaches 30 countries and millions of kids, says Google. In the update rolling out today, Google has added nearly a dozen more lessons for parents and educators that tackle areas like online gaming, search engines, video consumption, online empathy, cyberbullying and more.

The company says it had commissioned the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center to evaluate its existing program, which had last received a significant update back in 2019, when it added lessons that focused on teaching kids to spot disinformation and fake news.

The review found that program did help children in areas like dealing with cyberbullying, online civility and website safety, but recommended improvements in other areas.

Google then partnered with online safety experts like Committee for Children and The Net Safety Collaborative to revise its teaching materials. As a result, it now has lessons tailored to specific age groups and grade levels, and has expanded its array of subjects and set of family resources.

The new lessons include guidance around online gaming, search engines and video consumption, as well as social-emotional learning lessons aimed at helping students address cyberbullying and online harassment.

For example, some of the new lessons discuss search media literacy — meaning, learning how to use search engines like Google’s and evaluating the links and results it returns, as a part of an update to the program’s existing media literacy materials.

Other lessons address issues like practicing empathy online, showing kindness, as well as what to do when you see something upsetting or inappropriate, including cyberbullying.

Concepts related to online gaming are weaved into the new lessons, too, as, today, kids have a lot of their social interactions in online games which often feature ways to interact with other players in real time and chat.

Here, kids are presented with ideas related to being able to verify an online gamer’s identity — are they really another kid, for example? The materials also explain what sort of private information should not be shared with people online.

Image Credits: Google

Among the new family resources, the updated curriculum now points parents to the recently launched online hub, families.google, which offers a number of tips and information about tools to help families manage their tech usage.

For example, Google updated its Family Link app that lets parents set controls around which apps can be used and when, and view activity reports on screen-time usage. It also rolled out parental control features on YouTube earlier this year, aimed at families with tweens and teens who are too old for a YouTube Kids account, but still too young for an entirely unsupervised experience.

Google says the updated curriculum is available today to parents, families, teachers and educators, via the Be Internet Awesome website.

 

On a growth tear, DuckDuckGo reveals it picked up $100M in secondary investment last year

By Natasha Lomas

Privacy tech continues cooking on gas. To wit: Non-tracking search engine DuckDuckGo has just revealed that it beefed up its balance sheet at the back end of last year with $100 million+ in “mainly secondary investment” — from a mix of existing and new investors.

Its blog post name-checks Omers Ventures, Thrive, GP Bullhound, Impact America Fund, and also WhatsApp founder Brian Acton; inventor of the world wide web Tim Berners-Lee; VC and diversity activist Freada Kapor Klein; and entrepreneur Mitch Kapor as being among the participating investors. So quite the line up.

DuckDuckGo said the secondary investment allowed some of its early employees and investors to cash out a chunk of their equity while bolstering its financial position.

Although it also says its business — which has been profitable since 2014 — is “thriving”, reporting that revenues are now running at $100M+ a year. Hence it not needing to keep dipping into an external investor pot.

Its last VC raise was in 2018 when it took in $10M after being actively pursued by Omers Ventures — who convinced it to take the money to help support growth objectives (especially internationally).

DDG has a few other metrics to throw around now: Over the last 12 months it said its apps were downloaded over 50M times — more than in all prior years combined.

It’s also revealed that its monthly search traffic increased 55% and says marketshare trackers indicate that it grabbed the #2 spot for search engine on mobile in a number of countries, including the U.S., Canada, Australia, and the Netherlands. (StatCounter/Wikipedia).

“We don’t track our users so we can’t say for sure how many we have, but based on market share estimates, download numbers, and national surveys, we believe there are between 70-100 million DuckDuckGo users,” it added.

A looming shift to Google’s Android choice screen in Europe, where regulators have forced the company to present users of mobile devices that run its OS with rival options when they’re setting a default search engine, looks likely to further boost DuckDuckGo’s regional fortunes.

Google will be ditching the current paid auction model — so rivals which have a valuable alternative proposition for users (like privacy) combined with strong brand awareness (and, well, everyone likes ducks… ) have the best chance yet to take slices out of Google’s marketshare.

DuckDuckGo’s blog post confirms it’ll be dialling up its marketing in Europe and other regions.

“Our thriving business also gives us the resources to tell more people there is a simple solution for online privacy they can use right now. Over the last month, we’ve rolled out billboard, radio, and TV ads in 175 metro areas across the U.S., with additional efforts planned for Europe and other countries around the world,” it notes.

So it look like a good chunk of DDG’s secondary funding will be spent on growth marketing — as it seeks to capitalize on rising public attention to online privacy, tracking and creepy ads, itself fuelled by years of data scandals.

Awareness is also now being actively driven by Apple’s recent switch to inform iOS users of third party app tracking and give people a simple way to say no — which includes slick, Cupertino-funded ad campaigns (such as the one below) which are clearly intended to turn and engage mainstream heads…

It’s fair to say it’s probably never been easier to craft a simple and compelling marketing message around privacy — and that’s also a testament to how far privacy tech has come in terms of usability and accessibility.

So, yes, DuckDuckGo’s business sure looks like it’s sitting pretty at this juncture of the web’s evolution. And its blog post talks about “becoming a household name for simple privacy protection”. So the scale of its ambition is clear.

“Privacy skeptics have dominated the discussion about online privacy for too long. “Sure people care about privacy, but they’ll never do anything about it.” It’s time to lay this bad take to rest,” it adds.

More products are also on the slate from the 13-year veteran privacy player.

It already bolted on tracker-blocking back in 2018 but is looking to go further — saying that it will be rolling out additional privacy features to what it bills as its “all-in-one privacy bundle”, including an email protection tool that will be launched in beta “in a few weeks” and which it says will “give users more privacy without having to get a new inbox”.

“Later this summer, app tracker blocking will be available in beta for Android devices, allowing users to block app trackers and providing more transparency on what’s happening behind the scenes on their device. And Before the end of the year, we also plan to release a brand-new desktop version of our existing mobile app which people can use as a primary browser,” it goes on, adding: “By continuing to expand our simple and seamless privacy bundle, we continue to make our product vision, ‘Privacy, simplified.’ a reality.”

That’s another trend we’re seeing in privacy tech: Innovators who have carefully and credibly built up a solid reputation around one type of tech tool (such as search or email) find themselves — as usage grows — perfectly positioned to branch out into offering a whole bundle or suite of apps they can wrap in the same protective promise.

Another player, ProtonMail, for example, has morphed into Proton, a privacy-centric company which offers freemium tools for not just end-to-end encrypted email but also cloud storage, calendar and a VPN — all neatly positioned under its pro-privacy umbrella.

Expect more development momentum as privacy tech continues to accelerate into the mainstream.

 

Google ditches pay-to-play Android search choice auction for free version after EU pressure

By Natasha Lomas

Google is ditching a massively unpopular auction format that underpins an choice screen it offers in the European Union, it said today. Eligible search providers will be able to freely participate.

The auction model was Google’s ‘remedy’ of choice — following the 2018 EU $5BN antitrust enforcement against Android — but rivals have always maintained it’s anything but fair, as we’ve reported previously (here, here, here, for eg).

The Android choice screen presents users in the region with a selection of search engines to choose as a default at the point of device set up (or factory reset). The offered choices depend on sealed bids made by search engine companies bidding to pay Google to win one of three available slots.

Google’s own search engine is a staple ‘choice’ on the screen regardless of EU market.

The pay-to-play model Google devised is not only loudly hated by smaller search engine players (including those with alternative business models, such as the Ecosia tree-planting search engine), but it been entirely ineffectual at restoring competitive balance in search marketshare so it’s not surprising Google has been forced to ditch it.

The Commission had signalled a change might be coming, with Bloomberg reporting in May remarks by the EU’s competition chief, Margrethe Vesager, that it was “actively working on making” Google’s Android choice screen for search and browser rivals work. So it evidently heard the repeated cries of ‘foul’ and ‘it’s not working, yo!’. And — finally — it acted.

However, framing its own narrative, Google writes that it’s been in “constructive discussions” with EU lawmakers for years about “how to promote even more choice on Android devices, while ensuring that we can continue to invest in, and provide, the Android platform for free for the long term”, as it puts it.

It also seems to be trying to throw some shade/blame back at the EU — writing that it only introduced what it calls a “promotional opportunity” (lol) “in consultation with the Commission”. (Ergo, ‘don’t blame us gov, blame them!’)

In another detail-light paragraph of its blog, Google says it’s now making “some final changes” — including making participation free for “eligible search providers” — after what it describes as “further feedback from the Commission”

“We will also be increasing the number of search providers shown on the screen. These changes will come into effect from September this year on Android devices,” it adds.

The planned changes raise new questions — such as what criteria it will be using to determine eligibility; and will Google’s criteria be transparent or, like the problematic auction, sealed from view? And how many search engines will be presented to users? More than the current four, that’s clear.

Where Google’s own search engine will appear in the list will also be very interesting to see, as well as the criteria for ranking all the options (marketshare? random allocation?).

Google’s blog is mealy mouthed on any/all such detail — but the Commission gave us a pretty good glimpse when we asked (see their comment below).

It still remains to seen whether any other devilish dark pattern design details will appear when we see the full implementation.

But it’s worth noting that it’s not in Google’s gift to claim these changes are “final”. EU regulators are responsible for monitoring antitrust compliance — so if fresh complaints flow they will be duty bound to listen and react.

In one response to Google’s auction U-turn, pro-privacy search player DuckDuckGo was already critical — but more on the scope than the detail.

Founder Gabriel Weinberg pointed out that not only is the switch three years too late but Google should also be applying it across all platforms (desktop and Chrome too), as well as making it seamlessly easy for Android users to switch default, rather than gating the choice screen to set-up and/or factory reset (as we’ve reported before).

Google is now doing what it should have done 3yr ago: a free search preference menu on Android in the EU: https://t.co/M9XmB1VuGr

However, it should be on all platforms (e.g., also desktop Chrome), accessible at all times (i.e., not just on factory reset), and in all countries. https://t.co/HcIrE8KJx3

— Gabriel Weinberg (@yegg) June 8, 2021

Another long-time critic of the auction model, tiny not-for-profit Ecosia, was jubilant that its fight against the search behemonth has finally paid off.

Commenting in a statement, CEO Christian Kroll said: “This is a real life David versus Goliath story — and David has won. This is a momentous day, and a real moment of celebration for Ecosia. We’ve campaigned for fairness in the search engine market for several years, and with this, we have something that resembles a level playing field in the market. Search providers now have a chance to compete more fairly in the Android market, based on the appeal of their product, rather than being shut out by monopolistic behaviour.”

The Commission, meanwhile, confirmed to TechCrunch that it acted after a number of competitors raised concerns over the auction model — with a spokeswoman saying it had “discussed with Google means to improve that choice screen to address those concerns”.

“We welcome the changes introduced by Google to the choice screen. Being included on the choice screen will now be free for rival search providers,” she went on. “In addition, more search providers will be included in the choice screen. Therefore, users will have even more opportunities to choose an alternative.”

The Commission also offered a little more detail of how the choice screen will look come fall, saying that “on almost all devices, five search providers will be immediately visible”.

“They will be selected based on their market share in the user’s country and displayed in a randomised order which ensures that Google will not always be the first. Users will be able to scroll down to see up to seven more search providers, bringing the total search providers displayed in the choice screen to 12.”

“These are positive developments for the implementation of the remedy following our Android decision,” the spokeswoman added.

So it will certainly be very interesting indeed to see whether this Commission-reconfigured much bigger and more open choice screen helps move the regional need on Google’s search engine market share.

Interesting times indeed!

Fintech all-star Nubank raises a $750M mega round

By Marcella McCarthy

In 2013, Colombian businessman David Velez decided to reinvent the Brazilian banking system. He didn’t speak Portuguese, nor was he an engineer or a banker, but he did have the conviction that the system was broken and that he could fix it. And as a former Sequoia VC, he also had access to capital.

His gut instinct and market analysis were right. Today, Nubank announced a $750 million extension to its Series G (which rang in at $400 million this past January), bringing the round to a total of $1.15 billion and their valuation to $30 billion — $5 billion more than when we covered them in January.

The extension funding was led by Berkshire Hathaway, which put in $500 million, and a number of other investors.

Velez and his team decided now was a good time to raise again, because, “We saw a great opportunity in terms of growth rate and we’re very tiny when compared to the incumbents,” he told TechCrunch.”

Nubank is the biggest digital bank in the world by number of customers: 40 million. The company started as a tech company in Brazil that offered only a fee-free credit card with a line of credit of R$50 (about USD$10). 

It now offers a variety of financial products, including a digital bank account, a debit card, insurance, P2P payment via Pix (the Brazilian equivalent of Zelle), loans, rewards, life insurance and an account and credit card for small business owners. 

Nubank serves unbanked or underserviced citizens in Brazil — about 30% of the population — and this approach can be extremely profitable because there are many more clients available.

The banking system in Brazil is one of the few bureaucracies in the country that is actually quite skillful, but the customer service remains unbearable, and banks charge exorbitant fees for any little transaction. 

Traditionally, the banking industry has been dominated by five major traditional banks: Itaú Unibanco, Banco do Brasil, Bradesco, Santander and Caixa Economica Federal. 

While Brazil remains Nubank’s primary market, the company also offers services in Colombia and Mexico (services launched in Mexico in 2018). The company still only offers the credit card in both countries.

“The momentum we’re seeing in Mexico is terrific. Our Mexican credit card net promoter score (NPS) is 93, which is the highest we’ve had in Nubank history. In Brazil the highest we’ve had was 88,” Velez said.

The company has been on a hiring spree in the last few months, and brought on two heavyweight executives. Matt Swann replaced Ed Wible (the original CTO and co-founder). Wible continues to be an important player in the company, but more in a software developer capacity. Swann previously served as CTO at Bookings.com and StubHub, and as CIO of the Global Consumer Bank at Citi, so he brings years of experience of scaling tech businesses, which is what Nubank is focused on now, though Velez wouldn’t confirm which countries are next.

The other major hire, Arturo Nunez, fills the new role of chief marketing officer. Nunez was head of marketing for Apple Latin America, amongst other roles with Nike and the NBA. 

It may sound a little odd for a tech company not to have had a head of marketing, but Nubank takes pride in having a $0 cost of acquisition (CAC). Instead of spending money on marketing, they spend it on customer service and then rely on word of mouth to get the word out.

Since we last spoke with Velez in January regarding the $400 million Series G, the company went from having 34 million customers to now having 40 million in a span of roughly 6 months. The funds will be used to grow the business, including hiring more people.

“We’ve seen the entire market go digital, especially people who never thought they would,” Velez said. “There is really now an avalanche of all backgrounds [of people] who are getting into digital banking.”

❌