Conference talks about e-Business

When R. Ravi, the Carnegie Bosch Professor of Operations Research and Computer Science, assembled a conference, “Hurdles to e-Business,” this month, he decided to focus on the problems in a field many perceive as prodigious, limitless, and flawless.

The conference was held last Thursday morning in McConomy Auditorium. At specific times throughout the morning, speakers from three of the biggest names in e-Business gave presentations about the obstacles that their companies face.

In his keynote address, Ravi explained that it is prescient to be aware of the “difficulties [these businesses face] in deploying different services and applications,” referring to the hurdles that keep these influential businesses from operating at an optimal level.

Neel Sundaresan, senior director and head of research labs at eBay, opened his presentation about a website called The Ultimate Rejection Letter.

The website consists of a letter written by a “Chris L. Jensen” in response to a rejection letter he received for a job application. Like many sites on the Internet, it is a useless but humorous diversion usually stumbled upon serendipitously.

Sundaresan then drew the audience’s attention to a website with various world flags. The Brazilian artist who designed the site had correlated the colors on every world flag to statistics about the country.

For the Brazilian flag, the green part correlates to the percentage of people living on less than $10 a month. The yellow part represents the percentage of people living on less than $100 a month. The scattered white dots represent the percentage of people living on more than $100,000 a month.

“Usually, when you go on the Internet, you go looking for stuff. But at the same time, I never went looking for the site with the ultimate rejection letter, or the site with the flags. And that defines the person that comes to a site like eBay. They come looking for stuff, but they never end up looking at what they came looking for,” Sundaresan said.

Unlike other enormous search engines, which operate on relevance, eBay’s search engines strive to surprise the user by delivering the unexpected.

“Many times,” Sundaresan said, “users end up looking for things they don’t even know they’re looking for. And that’s a complication. One of our biggest challenges is to quantify and characterize serendipity.”

Another issue that eBay faces is the search query itself.

“A number of users are not sure how to spell Britney Spears … or whether ‘sherbert’ is spelled with an ‘r’ or without one,” Sundaresan said, pulling up a slide with search variants for Sherbert Bunny Webkinz, a plush stuffed animal that comes with a unique code that allows access to an online “Webkinz World” where they can “adopt” their pet.

Later in the morning, the PowerPoint screen switched from eBay to another colorful logo, Google.

Kourosh Gharachorloo, a former senior technical staff member at Western Research Laboratory, is part of Google’s traffic quality team. Gharachorloo focuses his efforts on cleaning up ad traffic, a significant portion of which involves click fraud and payment fraud.

Gharachorloo segued into a detailed explanation of click fraud, whereby a user (automated or otherwise) clicks on an ad without any interest in the product, generating a charge per click. Click fraud significantly hurts all parties, driving down the clickstream’s value and forcing the marketer to lower his or her bid on the ad space.

A Google search for digital cameras, for example, will bring up a slew of advertisements.

“An advertiser will provide us with a maximum bid. The advertiser will say, ‘I want to show my ads on the keyword digital camera, and I will be willing to pay a dollar every time someone clicks it,’ ” Gharachorloo said.

“We have to figure out what the value of this ad is to Google. Of course, an advertiser can offer to pay $1000 for every click and never come through on this offer.”

If people or computers continuously click on the ad without any intention of buying products from the website, then the ad’s value decreases.

Google CFO George Reyes said, “Something has to be done about [click fraud] really, really quickly, because I think, potentially, it threatens our business model.”

The conference presented the challenges that seemingly infallible companies face in their day-to-day operations.