Making money on the internet

Nicholas Carlson's recent New York Times Magazine piece, What Happened When Marissa Mayer Tried to Be Steve Jobs, is a fine overview of Yahoo's troubled two-year course correction. Most interesting, though, is how Carlson's understanding of the Yahoo board comes from how he shares its assumptions.

Dynamic and wildly profitable Internet companies like Facebook and Google may get most of the attention, but Silicon Valley is littered with firms that just get by doing roughly the same thing year after year — has-beens like, a search engine that no longer innovates but happily takes in $400 million in annual revenue, turning a profit in the process. Mayer, who is 39, was hired to keep Yahoo from suffering this sort of fate. She believed it could again become a top-tier tech firm that enjoyed enormous growth and competed for top talent.

Silicon Valley is "littered" with "has-beens" that "no longer innovate" but are nonetheless "turning a profit in the process". Marissa Mayer was brought on as CEO so Yahoo could keep "from suffering this sort of fate".

Generally speaking, there are only a few ways to make money on the Internet. There are e-commerce companies and marketplaces — think Amazon, eBay and Uber — that profit from transactions occurring on their platforms. Hardware companies, like Apple or Fitbit, profit from gadgets. For everyone else, though, it more or less comes down to advertising. Social-media companies, like Facebook or Twitter, may make cool products that connect their users, but they earn revenue by selling ads against the content those users create. Innovative media companies, like Vox or Hulu, make money in much the same way, except that they’re selling ads against content created by professionals. Google, which has basically devoured the search business, still makes a vast majority of its fortune by selling ads against our queries.

E-commerce and marketplaces. Gadgets. And for everyone else, advertising. These are the three ways people have figured out how to make money on the internet. If you're not making piles of dough off one of the three of these, you're a has-been. You're litter.

Or, it seems, you don't even exist.

Yet, hundreds of companies have figured out how to make money on the Internet by solving everyday business problems. They may not be innovative—they're usually built on advances made by others. They may not be flashy—rather than absorb attention, they disappear into the background so work can get done. They may not be "dynamic and wildly profitable"—they tend towards corporate stability because their customers require steadiness and reliability. But it's more than likely that, were their numbers made public (most such companies are like Populi—privately-held), this part of the internet economy would hold its own against the hotshot innovators whose raison d'être is to sell ads on gadgets you buy from e-commerce sites.

Paul Ford, "The Group That Rules the Web"

Ellsworth Kelly: Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance III
Ellsworth Kelly: Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance III

Paul Ford, writing in The New Yorker:

The Web started out as a way to publish and share documents. It is now an operating system: a big, digital sensory apparatus that can tell you about your phone’s battery life, record and transmit your voice, manage your e-mail and your chats, and give you games to play. It can do this all at once, and with far less grand of a design than you might assume. That’s the software industry: it promises you an Ellsworth Kelly, but it delivers a  Pollock.

Jackson Pollock: Convergence
Jackson Pollock: Convergence

Graded discussions, course equivalencies, and Library enhancements

11-17-14 Graded disc

Concerning software releases, we've been busy the past few weeks...

Graded discussions

Graded discussions let you grade your students for their participation in a discussion. Here's how it works:

  1. You create a new discussion-type assignment, and either use it to start a new discussion or link it to an existing discussion.
  2. You then have options to set up grading requirements, giving points for posting a minimum number of comments or replies, number of words posted, average peer rating—among many other criteria.
  3. If you wish, you can set the discussion to close on a certain date and time, after which Populi can auto-grade your students based on your grading requirements.
  4. The discussion assignment page presents all of your students' discussion info—including comments and participation stats—so you can easily grade the assignment by hand if you so choose.

The grading features are a major part of a general overhaul of course discussions, which now include...

Peer rating

When you enable peer rating, students can rate one another's comments and replies from one to five stars. You can include peer rating stats as a discussion grading requirement.

11-18-14 peer rating

Post first

You can now require students to post to the discussion before they can see anyone else's comments.

11-14-18 Post first

Improved comment reporting

When students report inappropriate comments, you now have better tools to handle these reports—and more accountability for the student who submits the report.

11-18-14 comment report

Draft mode

If you're not ready for students to know about an upcoming discussion—maybe it's a surprise assignment, or perhaps you're still working on the grading requirements—you can leave it in Draft mode. When you're ready for it to get out there, just set it to Published.

11-18-14 draft mode

To get a look at everything you can do with discussions now, have a look at the Populi Knowledge Base.


Course attendance now features ID photos (like the Roster), radio buttons for attendance status, and new action links to mark all students either Present, Absent, Tardy, or Excused.

11-18-14 attendance

Course equivalencies

In Academics, we added course equivalencies. Equivalencies are specified at the course catalog level. Effectively, this lets you substitute any course for any other in a student's academic history. For example, say you make ENG101 an equivalent of WRI101:

  • Students who took WRI101 will show that they have completed a degree course requirement for ENG101 on the Degree Audit.
  • Students who took ENG101 will be able to register for a course that has WRI101 as a prerequisite.
  • Students who need to retake ENG101 can take WRI101 instead.
  • And vice-versa for all of the above...

Additionally, you can now use Course Groups as prerequisites for catalog courses. This lets you treat a group of courses as equivalent (take this course OR this other course...) when setting up prereqs.

11-18-14 prereq

Library enhancements

We've added a bunch of little (but significant!) things to Library the past few weeks:

  • Library Staff can now place holds on behalf of patrons.
  • Additionally, they can now renew loans, even if the affected resource has a hold or is overdue.
  • You can now see the due date for each resource when checking them out to a patron.
  • If you remove a copy from circulation, any holds on it will be transferred to the next available copy.
  • When placing a hold, patrons and staff can now choose which resource copy they want.
  • Library staff can now click # of holds to see a list of all the holds for a resource, and their associated data. They can also manage which resource copy the hold is on, or cancel the hold—all from the same dialog box.
  • You can now manually pull Library resources.
  • We've limited the resource type drop-downs on Library search to show only the resource types you currently have entered in Library.
  • Library search results now display up to five resource copies, together with their locations and call numbers if possible. So, now you can find out if there's a copy and where to grab it without clicking through to the copy page.
  • And finally, if you hate pressing "Enter" on your keyboard for Library (and Bookstore) searches, there's now a Go button you can click!

11-18-14 Library search

Programmatic Partial-Credit Put-In-Order Grading

Back in Autumn, 2009 we introduced online tests with several question types. Certain types—multiple choice for example—are simple for a computer program to grade. You just tell it what the correct answer is, and if the student marks that answer, they get the credit. Other question types, however, aren’t so simple: put-in-order, for example. Different instructors have different methods and rationales for how to assign credit for a partially correct put-in-order question, so replicating how a human would grade one is no mean feat. Or so we’ve learned over the last five years.

Our first method was simple: we'd evaluate each item in turn, and if it was before or after the item that it was supposed to be before or after then it would be counted as correct.

This did a pretty good job approximating how an instructor might give partial credit by focusing on the order of items as opposed to their placement. This method stayed in place until we discovered its principal flaw. Though highly unlikely, it was possible for an incorrect response to receive 100% credit provided each item was next to at least one correct neighbor.

When an instructor brought this to our attention last Winter (over four years since we added online tests!) we quickly revised our methodology to focus on placement. This seemed like a simple, reasonable method: imagine a teaching assistant lining up an answer key next to the student’s response and marking incorrect any item that didn’t match the key.

In reality, though, this sometimes proved much harsher than an actual professor would be, especially if the question had a larger number of options.

In fact, not long after the update an instructor showed us a rather harshly-graded 25-item put-in-order question; Populi counted 13 options as correct when the instructor would have counted 24. In light of this, we sought out another approach. The best programmatic method for giving partial credit on put-in-order questions would need to take into account more than simple placement in order to better replicate how a human teacher would grade and avoid being overly harsh or generous. After testing every method we could think of, here’s what we came up with.

The new method aims to give as much credit as is reasonable (as most instructors would) by focusing on what we’re calling chains—that is, two or more correctly-ordered items in a row. First, we locate the longest chain. Then, we use it to figure out whether or not other chains before it or after it are in order. Anything not in a chain is incorrect.


This method worked well overall, but there were a couple wrinkles to iron out. One was that the first and last items in the list are at a disadvantage when it comes to chaining: each has only one neighbor to chain with, and so are less likely to be counted as correct. This was solved by treating the top and bottom boundaries of the list as non-credit positions. In other words, if the first or last item is in the correct position it always counts as being in a chain, and receives credit.

The other wrinkle: a response could have more than one longest chain. Depending on which chain you started with it was possible to come up with a different number of points. Here, starting with the first chain leads to a lower score:


We solved this by grading the question multiple times, as it were. We look at each chain, and then look at the position of each chain in the answer. We then see which chain to use as a starting point to grant the most credit.

  • Above, starting with eight-nine-ten  would cause Populi to mark the other two chains wrong (because one-two-three and four-five-six don't come after eight-nine-ten). This would result in a score of 30% of the possible points.
  • Below, starting with one-two-three lets us then say that four-five-six is correct (because it comes after one-two-three). This lets us mark two chains correct, giving the student more credit for the question (60%)—and thus, is preferable to the other option. Starting with four-five-six results in this same score.


There's also a very, very remote possibility that the most credit would be awarded by starting with the second-longest chain. So we also try grading using every longest chain and every chain with one fewer item than the longest chain, just in case.

We’re happy to announce this as the new (and hopefully final) method for assigning partial credit to put-in-order questions.

Now, partial credit is, after all, just an option on a feature. But the time we spent working it out and building it is worth it. Professors rely on Populi to save them time with the mundane things (like test-grading), but some of the mundane things are hard to nail. It's actually quite a challenge to replicate a teacher's intuition with rigid, literal software code.

As a bonus, we now show which items were marked incorrect in the test history view so students and teachers can see how the partial-credit grade was derived.

Editor's Note: As you suspected, Yes—the title of this article can be sung to the tune of Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious from Mary Poppins.

Way more free file storage for everyone

June 18, 2013.

April 7, 2014.


Doing what we do best, we're pleased to announce that we've yet again given everyone more free file storage. Have a gander at our Pricing page if you don't believe us.

  • The Small plan just got a little less small with 1,000—count 'em: one thousand—free gigabytes of file storage.
  • The Medium plan is even medium-er with 2,000 free gigs of file storage.
  • And the Large plan? Yup, it's now larger: 3,000 gee-bees of file storage, included free.
  • If you manage to go over your limit, additional storage costs just 10 cents per gigabyte per month.

If you used to pay for storage above your plan's limit, you're probably paying nothing for those files now. And if you've been holding back from uploading files for fear of passing your limit, well, fear no longer—each plan has a lot of free storage.

In case you didn't know, you can do a lot of stuff with files. You can embed audio and video files in your courses so your students can stream them anywhere on almost any device. Faculty and students can upload and exchange assignment files—and instructors can even annotate documents with feedback. Plus there's all the humdrum stuff—files in the Activity Feed, the Files app, profile pictures, application files... and so on.

Since files are such an important part of how our customers use Populi, we're happy to give everyone more opportunity to take full advantage of the functionality—without having to pay extra.