Tag Archives: Audience

Forbes’ Google Cloud migration rooted in trust, cost savings

Forbes says its online audience grew from 15 million users per month in 2012 to 120 million in 2018, a growth spike that ultimately prompted a large-scale move off on-premises systems and into Google Cloud.

The Google Cloud migration now supports all three aspects of Forbes’ business: content, sales and its publishing infrastructure, according to chief digital officer Salah Zalatimo.

“[In 2020], we’re going to be continuing to mature our business model and diversify our revenue,” Zalatimo said. “Google Cloud is about giving us flexibility. We’re going to be able to establish new products and test new features really quickly.”

Forbes used to run its publishing operations on an on-premises, WordPress-based system that was heavily customized, with a front end clunked up by an accumulation of legacy code.

The number of actual people those audience figures represent is likely lower, as Google Analytics defines a user as a browser endpoint. Thus, if an individual read Forbes content both on a phone and a laptop, the user would be counted twice.

Still, the scale involved led to Forbes’ 2018 decision to build a new, custom publishing platform. At that point, the company determined it wanted to make a wholesale push into the cloud centered around one primary provider.

Google won Forbes’ business for several reasons, including pricing, incentives to help its Google cloud migration and a lower-pressure approach to sales, according to Zalatimo. “We didn’t have to make any hard commitments.”

While Forbes has a relationship with Microsoft as an Office 365 shop, it quickly ruled out Azure. “We talked to them, but the pricing was just too high,” he said.

Forbes also met with sales teams at AWS, where it initially hosted the new publishing platform, but ultimately decided that Google provided the most ease of use and the best level of automation for its needs. Forbes moved the publishing platform as part of its Google cloud migration during the first half of 2019.

Forbes has moved most of its digital infrastructure into containers and orchestrates them with Google Kubernetes Engine. It also uses the Istio service mesh to wrangle microservices. Google Cloud storage underpins the system and Google Pub/Sub supports serverless operations.

Forbes estimates that the move to GCP has saved 50 engineer-hours per week thanks to efficiencies and automation. Regression testing and new feature deployment time has dropped by 58%, according to the company.

In addition, Forbes is using Google’s AI and machine learning features to train models that suggest headlines, track trending topics and improve reader engagement.

Google Cloud hones enterprise chops

Former Oracle executive Thomas Kurian came aboard as Google Cloud CEO in November 2018. Since then, Kurian has moved to build out Google’s enterprise cloud sales and support organizations — areas where it had lagged behind competitors. Forbes’ experience on this front has been positive, Zalatimo said.

They are still maturing as an enterprise provider, and we knew that going in.
Salah ZalatimoChief digital officer, Forbes

“They are still maturing as an enterprise provider, and we knew that going in,” he said. “But they knew that going in, too.”

Forbes did work with a services partner to help with the Google Cloud migration, but Google’s account representatives were “extremely involved,” he added. “We always had access, even if it was less traditional.” As one example, Forbes’ teams might find themselves having to call a salesperson in order to escalate a technical issue, Zalatimo said.

Forbes is using a wide array of Google Cloud offerings, including its audience analytics platform, BigQuery data warehouse, Hangout meeting software and authentication service, all of which are well-established.


But of all the cloud providers with which Forbes works, Google stands out as keen on engaging customers very early on in the new product development process, he added. “A lot of [vendors] talk about it, and say they want to do it, but I don’t think a lot of companies actually do.”

Weighing Google’s influence

Walmart and other large retailers have shunned doing business with AWS, given how closely they compete with its parent company in e-commerce. Google’s kingmaker positions in general web search as well as the hugely influential Google News service might make a media company such as Forbes similarly think twice about making heavy investments in its technology.

Forbes did factor this into its decision, according to Zalatimo. “Our options [were] either to lean in or lean away,” he said. “At the end of the day, they do carry the leverage. As an independent publisher, we really don’t. So, if you can’t beat them, join them.”

The company is taking part in the Google News Initiative, where Google works with publishers on new product development and other collaborative efforts.

Forbes benefits from this relationship with Google — but not to the extent it gets any special insights into the Google News algorithm, which can heavily affect a publisher’s traffic when changes are made. “They are like Fort Knox about this,” he said.

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Where the IBM Project Debater AI system may be headed

Last month, in almost real time and in front of a live audience in San Francisco, two humans debated facts and ethics with an AI system, IBM Project Debater.

The AI platform offered points and rebuttals during its first public debate, going first against Noa Ovadia, the 2016 Israeli national debate champion, on the issue of subsidizing space exploration, and then against Israeli professional debater Dan Zafrir on the topic of telemedicine. Debaters, human and machine, were not made aware of the subjects ahead of time.

According to a snap poll of the audience after each session, audiences felt that Project Debater, at least on the topic of space exploration, enriched their knowledge more than its human counterpart.

The humans, however, were largely found to be better, more persuasive speakers. Indeed, despite its digital prowess, some debate experts have noted that the AI debating system lacks a certain ability to deploy tonal effects, such as irony and sarcasm.

The debating system isn’t IBM’s first foray into machine-human jousting. In 2011, IBM’s Watson supercomputer beat trivia stars in a game of Jeopardy, and in 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue chess computer bested world chess champion Garry Kasparov.

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IBM Research teaser for Project Debater

The Project Debater engineers appear to be taking a more nuanced approach this time.

Ranit Aharonov, manager of the IBM Project Debater team, said members of the project team didn’t think of the system simply as something that could win a debate.

“When we look at a debate, we don’t only look at who swayed the audience more. There’s a lot more to it,” Aharonov said.

Building a debating machine

Developed over the past six years at the IBM Research lab in Haifa, Israel, IBM Project Debater uses sophisticated machine learning algorithms and millions of newspapers and articles to identify and organize facts relevant to a debate topic.

The AI is able to cluster that information into themes based on the topic of debate, and, using what IBM calls data-driven speech writing, delivers the information in a coherent sentence.

IBM Project Debater is essentially trained in the art of debate — to have a general idea of when and how to use factual and ethical arguments to support or dispute a point. To be able to debate in real time, the system employs natural language processing to identify the main components of an opponent’s speech and then give a rebuttal.

While pursuing this researching project, during the process, we are actually finding ourselves facing new problems we haven’t faced before.
Noam SlonimIBM

According to Noam Slonim, principal investigator for IBM Project Debater, the technology could have a number of applications. The most immediate one, he said, is advancing the field of science.

“While pursuing this researching project, during the process, we are actually finding ourselves facing new problems we haven’t faced before,” Slonim said

Real-life applications

Beyond advancing the field, Slonim said he sees “the underlying technology with the Debater being very, very aligned with technologies that help people make a better-informed decision,” noting that it could eventually have uses in the fields of politics or business.

“Just imagine giving Debater a topic and asking it to find everything of relevance to that topic and what that could mean,” he said.

Also, Slonim said he sees the technology being useful in the education field. Having a debating AI system “can help kids learn how to build better arguments and become more informed in a topic.”

Dan Zafrir and IBM Project Debater, San Francisco
Israeli debater Dan Zafrir poses with IBM’s Project Debater before a public debate in San Francisco last month

“IBM Project Debater, while still in development, could be brought into specific use cases, and is slated to be released in some form next year,” Slonim said. He declined to say what incarnation the technology might take.

As for bringing some of the technology behind IBM Project Debater to IBM’s well-publicized AI system, Watson, Slonim said: “The implication is that these will be incorporated into Watson and enhance its capabilities.”

Mixed review from an analyst

Adrian Bowles, vice president of research and lead analyst for artificial intelligence at Aragon Research, was at last month’s live debate in San Francisco.

Bowles, who said he first spoke with an IBM representative about the IBM Project Debater four years ago, said he was struck more by how IBM Project Debater identified arguments than how it expressed them.

“The natural language generational software is not nearly as impressive to me as what they’ve done with natural language understanding,” he said, adding that the AI system presented arguments more on a high school or college level than a professional one.

“Finding and representing the logical position and being able to identify the opposite of that is where the magic happens, if you will,” Bowles continued.

Bowles agreed that the technology could be useful when applied in a classroom setting, but noted that he would also like to see it used to help extract provable facts from bodies of text, like multiple sources of news.

Specifically, Bowles cited fake news and the political bias reflected by news sources. Technology in IBM Project Debater could be used to analyze multiple news sources on the same topic and help separate facts from bias or misreporting.

“What I would like to see is it being able to identify practical arguments and being able to map those out,” he said.

Due to the vast number of documents Debater has access to, Slonim said he would expect technology to be separated out before the system is commercialized, partitioning it out to get to the basic underlying technology and allowing users to input their own data to be analyzed.

“I think that would get people using it and experimenting in novel ways,” he said.