June 25, 2019
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Google’s new look for mobile search results puts site owners and publishers first

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Google today unveiled a new look for its mobile search results which gives sites a way to showcase their own branding, instead of looking like every other blue link. Before, the search results were blue and the source — a publisher’s site, for example — would appear below in a smaller, green font. Now, it’s the publisher who gets top billing. With the refresh, the source for the search result appears on top and includes the site’s own icon.

The revamp is subtle, but one that will likely please publishers as it gives them a way to stand out. After all, web searchers who are already familiar with the publisher’s site may choose to click through (or rather, tap through) to their link out of a personal preference — even if it’s further down on the results page.

In addition, the website branding can help web searchers better understand where the information is coming from — like an official site or well-known news publication, for example.

The update also impacts how Google Search ads appear.

Before, the word “Ad” would display in a small green box ahead of the source link. Now, the word “Ad” appears in a bolded, black font where the website icon would otherwise be. It’s a bit less noticeable that the top search results link is an ad because your eyes are drawn to the blue link — and because the word “Ad” no longer has a box around it.

Google says the new design will help it prepare for the search changes ahead as it enables the company to add more action buttons and previews to the search result cards, while still retaining attribution back to the source.

The company recently announced some of its plans for new search features at Google I/O earlier this month, including AR in search results, as well as better news coverage and support for podcast search. The latter will offer links to listen right in the search results as well as tools to save the podcast to play later.

In the meantime, site owners and publishers who want to customize their icon for their organic search listings can do so here.

Google says this new design is rolling out first to mobile users over the next few days.

Baidu, China’s answer to Google, reports first quarterly loss since 2005

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Baidu, heralded as the Google of China, felt the heat from its continued spending on artificial intelligence and other next-gen technologies that have yet to reach the mass market as it unveiled troubled first-quarter financials on Thursday.

The company logged a net loss attributable to shareholders of $49 million in the quarter ended March 31, marking the first quarterly loss since it went public in 2005. That compares to net income of 6.69 billion yuan ($970 million) a year before. Content costs surged 47 percent to $917 million on account of continued investments in Baidu’s Netflix-like video streamer iQiyi, while research and development expenses stood at $621 million, up 26 percent.

Baidu remains as the largest search service in China with a 67 percent market share per data from research firm StatCounter. It’s reaped huge rewards from search ads in the PC era, but as consumers allocate attention to new forms of mobile services — notably recommendation-based apps — to discover content, Baidu is losing its appeal.

A new era of recommendations

In an effort to stay relevant, Baidu added a personalized news feed to its search app in 2016. Instead of inputting what they look for, users can now wait passively for Baidu algorithms to display content based on their past habits, a model pioneered by TikTok’s parent firm Bytedance and has propelled Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent — collectively known as the ‘BAT’ for their internet dominance in China — to follow suit.

Tencent, for instance, introduced the Tiantian Kuaibao (天天快报) app four years ago in what many saw as its catchup with Bytedance’ customized news aggregator Jinri Toutiao (今日头条). Next door at Alibaba, the ecommerce leader reconfigured its Taobao shopping app to emphasize product recommendations, a new driver for conversion rates.

Advertisers are also responding. The market for feed-based ads ballooned from a meager 5.2 billion yuan ($750 million) in 2014 to 166.2 billion yuan in 2019, according to estimates from research firm Analysys.

Baidu’s new two-legged strategy means feed is now of equal, if not more, weight alongside search as the company better embraces the mobile age. Indeed, Baidu officially renamed its ‘search business’ to ‘mobile business’ this quarter. Xiang Hailong, senior vice president of the search business and one of CEO Robin Li’s closest lieutenants, resigned for ‘personal reason’ after 14 years with Baidu, the company announced today. At its peak, Baidu’s search-focused ad business accounted for over 90 percent of revenue.

Baidu promoted Shen Dou to senior vice president, overseeing Baidu’s mobile business, previously known as the search business. / Photo: Baidu 

Shen Dou, who previously oversaw mini apps, short videos and other mobile-first products at Baidu, took up the reins of the newly minted mobile business.

Baidu reached 174 million daily active users on its two-in-one app for search and feed in Q1, a 28 percent year-over-year growth. Its revenue for the period rose slightly to 24.1 billion yuan ($3.5 billion), up 15 percent year-over-year.

The addition of algorithm-powered feed is part of Baidu’s grander vision to lead in China’s artificial intelligence wave, which is expected to undergird self-driving, voice bots and more. Baidu’s AI initiative took a hit with the departure of world-renown scientist Lu Qi as company COO, but it continued to invest heavily in the space. In 2018, Baidu recorded the most autonomous miles in Beijing, reached 200 million devices through its smart voice assistant, and was the most active corporate investor worldwide in AI startups according to CB Insights.

Updated with analysis on China’s news feed market and details of Baidu’s strategies.

Google brings augmented reality to Search

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At its I/O developer conference, Google today announced that it is bringing the camera — and augmented reality – to Google Search. As the company demonstrated, you could search for something like “great white shark” and then see it in front of you through your phone’s camera. The company showed similar examples with a 3D model of the human muscular system.

It’s unclear how many of these 3D models will appear in search. It’s also unclear whether publishers will be able to create their own, but we expect to hear more about this later today.

“We are moving from a company that helps you find answers to a company that gets things done,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai said. “Our goal is to build a more helpful Google for everyone.”

That starts with Search, Pichai said, and this is a new example for this. It’s somewhat gimmicky, but also pretty cool, given that you can easily go from a search term to an AR experience in the Google app.

Creative Commons launches its search engine out of beta, with over 300M images indexed

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Nonprofit organization Creative Commons is today publicly launching its search engine after more than two years of beta testing. The new service is designed to offer an easy way to search the commons’ archive of free content available in the public domain, which is available to use under Creative Commons licenses. At launch, this includes more than 300 million images indexed from multiple collections, the organization says.

The service engine itself has also been updated with a major redesign and faster, more relevant search.

While the larger photo search engines, including Google and Flickr, have for a long time offered tools that let you filter for CC-licensed images, the Creative Commons website also sees a good bit of traffic itself. The organization in February 2017 said it was seeing nearly 60,000 users search its site per month, which is why it wanted to create an improved search experience.

“There is no ‘front door’ to the commons, and the tools people need to curate, share, and remix works aren’t yet available,” said Ryan Merkley, Creative Commons  CEO, when announcing the plans for the new CC search engine. “We want to make the commons more usable, and this is our next step in that direction,” he explained.

When the beta version of the search engine launched, there were some 9.5 million images available, including those from Flickr, 500px, Rijksmuseum, the New York Public Library and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which served as its initial sources.

Today, CC Search has more than 300 million images pulled from 19 collections, including also the Cleveland Museum of Art, Behance, DeviantArt and even a set of CC0 3D designs from Thingiverse, among others. The organization says the image catalog will continue to grow, with prioritization given to significant collections like Europeana and Wikimedia Commons.

With today’s launch, the engine itself has also had an update. It now features a cleaner home page, improvements to its navigation and filters, design alignment with, streamlined attribution options and clearer channels for providing the organization with feedback. Under the hood, the engine has seen improvements to things like loading times and search-phrase relevance, and added analytics to help the team understand how it’s being used, the organization said.

In addition, the engine is now directly linked to the Creative Commons homepage, where it replaces the old search portal. (The latter remains online, however, at

This quarter, Creative Commons plans to add advanced filters to the homepage, the ability to browse collections without entering search terms and improvements to accessibility and the user experience on mobile devices. Some of this work will be done by Google Summer of Code students starting next month, it notes.

Longer-term, Creative Commons plans to grow the engine to index more than just photos. Later this year, it plans to begin indexing other CC-licensed works, like open textbooks and audio. Eventually, it wants this new portal to provide access to all 1.4 billion works in the commons — but that could take time, given that its work relies on a community of volunteer developers who work alongside the engineering team at Creative Commons.

On that front, the organization is open to community contribution and makes all its code — including the code behind CC Search — open source (e.g. CC SearchCC Catalog APICC Catalog). It also runs the #cc-usability channel on CC Slack where you can keep up with the new releases.

The public launch of CC Search follows other recent, good news for a sizable Creative Commons collection. In March, Flickr announced that all the Creative Commons images hosted on its site would remain protected — including those uploaded in the past, and any added in the future.

There had been some concern over the future of Flickr’s CC repository following the company’s move to a new business model which put an end to Flickr’s free terabyte of storage in favor of a subscription-based service. Had it decided to delete the CC-licensed photos it hosted, millions of photos would have been lost. Now those photos will continue to be available, and discoverable, through the new CC Search.

The full 2019 CC Search roadmap is available here.

Microsoft Bing not only shows child pornography, it suggests it

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Illegal child exploitation imagery is easy to find on Microsoft’s Bing search engine. But even more alarming is that Bing will suggest related keywords and images that provide pedophiles with more child pornography. Following an anonymous tip, TechCrunch commissioned a report from online safety startup AntiToxin to investigate. The results were alarming.

[WARNING: Do not search for the terms discussed in this article on Bing or elsewhere as you could be committing a crime. AntiToxin is closely supervised by legal counsel and works in conjunction with Israeli authorities to perform this research and properly hand its findings to law enforcement. No illegal imagery is contained in this article, and it has been redacted with red boxes here and inside AntiToxin’s report.]

Bing searches can return illegal child abuse imageryThe research found that terms like “porn kids,” “porn CP” (a known abbreviation for “child pornography”) and “nude family kids” all surfaced illegal child exploitation imagery. And even people not seeking this kind of disgusting imagery could be led to it by Bing.

When researchers searched for “Omegle Kids,” referring to a video chat app popular with teens, Bing’s auto-complete suggestions included “Omegle Kids Girls 13” that revealed extensive child pornography when searched. And if a user clicks on those images, Bing showed them more illegal child abuse imagery in its Similar Images feature. Another search for “Omegle for 12 years old” prompted Bing to suggest searching for “Kids On Omegle Showing,” which pulled in more criminal content.

The evidence shows a massive failure on Microsoft’s part to adequately police its Bing search engine and to prevent its suggested searches and images from assisting pedophiles. Similar searches on Google did not produce as clearly illegal imagery or as much concerning content as did Bing. Internet companies like Microsoft Bing must invest more in combating this kind of abuse through both scalable technology solutions and human moderators. There’s no excuse for a company like Microsoft, which earned $8.8 billion in profit last quarter, to be underfunding safety measures.

Bing’s Similar Images feature can suggest additional illegal child abuse imageryTechCrunch received an anonymous tip regarding the disturbing problem on Bing after my reports last month regarding WhatsApp child exploitation image trading group chats, the third-party Google Play apps that make these groups easy to find, and how these apps ran Google and Facebook’s ad networks to make themselves and the platforms money. In the wake of those reports, WhatsApp banned more of these groups and their members, Google kicked the WhatsApp group discovery apps off Google Play and both Google and Facebook blocked the apps from running their ads, with the latter agreeing to refund advertisers.

Unsafe search

Following up on the anonymous tip, TechCrunch commissioned AntiToxin to investigate the Bing problem, which conducted research from December 30th, 2018 to January 7th, 2019 with proper legal oversight. Searches were conducted on the desktop version of Bing with “Safe Search” turned off. AntiToxin was founded last year to build technologies that protect networks against bullying, predators and other forms of abuse. [Disclosure: The company also employs Roi Carthy, who contributed to TechCrunch from 2007 to 2012.]

AntiToxin CEO Zohar Levkovitz tells me that “Speaking as a parent, we should expect responsible technology companies to double, and even triple-down to ensure they are not adding toxicity to an already perilous online environment for children. And as the CEO of AntiToxin Technologies, I want to make it clear that we will be on the beck and call to help any company that makes this its priority.” The full report, published for the first time, can be found here and embedded below:

TechCrunch provided a full list of troublesome search queries to Microsoft along with questions about how this happened. Microsoft’s chief vice president of Bing & AI Products Jordi Ribas provided this statement: “Clearly these results were unacceptable under our standards and policies and we appreciate TechCrunch making us aware. We acted immediately to remove them, but we also want to prevent any other similar violations in the future. We’re focused on learning from this so we can make any other improvements needed.”

Microsoft claims it assigned an engineering team that fixed the issues we disclosed and it’s now working on blocking any similar queries as well problematic related search suggestions and similar images. However, AntiToxin found that while some search terms from its report are now properly banned or cleaned up, others still surface illegal content.

A search query suggested by Bing surfaces illegal child abuse imageryThe company tells me it’s changing its Bing flagging options to include a broader set of categories users can report, including “child sexual abuse.” When asked how the failure could have occurred, a Microsoft spokesperson told us that “We index everything, as does Google, and we do the best job we can of screening it. We use a combination of PhotoDNA and human moderation but that doesn’t get us to perfect every time. We’re committed to getting better all the time.” 

BELLEVUE, WA – NOVEMBER 30: Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella (Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)

Microsoft’s spokesperson refused to disclose how many human moderators work on Bing or whether it planned to increase its staff to shore up its defenses. But they then tried to object to that line of reasoning, saying, “I sort of get the sense that you’re saying we totally screwed up here and we’ve always been bad, and that’s clearly not the case in the historic context.” The truth is that it did totally screw up here, and the fact that it pioneered illegal imagery detection technology PhotoDNA that’s used by other tech companies doesn’t change that.

The Bing child pornography problem is another example of tech companies refusing to adequately reinvest the profits they earn into ensuring the security of their own customers and society at large. The public should no longer accept these shortcomings as repercussions of tech giants irresponsibly prioritizing growth and efficiency. Technology solutions are proving insufficient safeguards, and more human sentries are necessary. These companies must pay now to protect us from the dangers they’ve unleashed, or the world will be stuck paying with its safety.

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