Tag Archives: Internet services

Getting Paid for Doing Bad Things (12″ version)

This is the extended version of my earlier blog post. The BBC finally ran my commentary so for those of you who want more info, here it is:

Think of it as product placement for the Internet. It’s been around a while, but I just figured out how it works, and it made me realise that the early dreams of a blogging utopia on the web are pretty much dead.

Here’s how this kind of product placement works. On the Internet Google is like a benevolent dictator: it creates great stuff we love, and with which most of the net wouldn’t work. But it also wields great power–at least if you’re someone trying to make money off the web. Because if you don’t show up in Google’s search results, then you’re nobody. It’s the equivalent of exile, or solitary confinement, or something.

A lot of money is spent, therefore, in gaming your website’s position in Google’s rankings. But you have to be careful. Google also spends a lot of money tweaking its algorithms so that the search results you get are not gamed. Threat of exile is usually enough to keep most web players in line.

But because Google doesn’t issue a set of rules, and doesn’t explain why it exiles web sites, the gray area is big. And this is where the money is made.

One of the mini industries is something called link building. Google reckons a site with lots of links to it is a popular site, so it scores highly. So if you can get lots of sites to link to yours, you’re high up in the results.

Now it just so happens that some of the pages on my modest decade-old blog score quite highly here. So I suppose it was inevitable that link building companies would seek me out.

A British company, for example, called More Digital offered me a fixed upfront annual fee for a “small text-based ad” on my website. As intriguing was the blurb at the bottom of the email:

You must not disclose, copy, distribute or take any action in reliance on this e-mail or any attachments. Views or opinions presented in this e-mail are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of More Digital.

Clearly these guys mean business, I thought, so I wrote back to Alicia Ross. She was excited to hear from me, and offered two options: one was a simple link in my collection of recommended web sites. The idea would be that I would include a link to their client’s website–whoever it was–alongside my real recommendations.

The other was “one page simple text”:

The advert will be text, not a visual banner It will appear in the content, and only on a single page of your website. Our writers will provide you with a copy that will fit naturally into your existing content.

(I think she means “copy” rather than “a copy”). For this I would earn $200 a year per ad if the client was a poker, casino or bingo site;

Now in Internet terms this is big money. It would take me a month or so to make that kind of dosh on simple Google ads on my website. Now they’re talking about one simple text link and I get the cash in two days!

But hang on a minute. There’s that ethics thing in the back of my mind. I have to listen to it a second.

The first one I’m not crazy about: What’s the point of a collection of recommended links if I don’t actually recommend them myself?

But the second one took some getting my head around. I couldn’t figure out what she had in mind, so I asked her. And this is when I started to get really depressed.

Basically what they’re after is me inserting a sentence into an existing blog post that links to their client. These guys are not interested in a new post. That would take time to rise up through the ranks of Google; they want to tap into my micro-Google fame. And remember this is not an ad. It’s a plug. It’s product placement. In a piece that is supposed to otherwise be straight, authentic and, well, me. I like to think that’s why it has Google juice.

By the time I got back to Alicia the offer was off the table as all the spots had been picked up. Clearly this is a well-oiled business. But then I got another, from a different company. Mayra Alessi was contacting me on behalf of a U.S. company selling identity theft protection, which she wanted me to link to in a piece I wrote two years ago about a privacy problem with Facebook. For $30 a month.

Mayra, if it was she, proposed I add a sentence at the end of a paragraph on how Facebook needs to fix the way they handle friendshipt requests as follows:

Mistakes like these from Facebook, make us more and more vulnerable to identity theft, that is why it is important to understanding identity theft in the USA.

Clearly Mayra hasn’t made her way in the world based on her copyediting, grammar or punctuation skills.  And the irony hasn’t escaped me of a company peddling identity theft protection is at best unaware that companies operating in its name are paying websites to mislead their readers, and Google.

What’s wrong with all this? Well, I guess the first thing is the seediness. A company is basically hiring another company to fiddle its rankings on Google–instead of just producing the kind of kick-ass content that it should be building it leeches off my kick-ass content.

And it’s not just seedy, it’s illegal. Well, as far as Google is concerned. Only the other day someone complained on a Google forum after getting his sites bumped off Google’s index. The reason, he suspects, is that he took $75 from one of the companies that contacted me for linking to a site about bikes. And these companies must know that. I guess that’s why the fees seem quite high for the chicken feed that niche blogs like ours are used to earning.

The point is, that the companies apparently funding this kind of activity–those whose websites benefit from the link love–are not necessarily sleazy gambling sites. I was invited to link to were an Internet security company. Among companies willing to pay me $150 for a link are, according to one of these link building outfits trying to get me aboard, are those selling mobile phones, mobile phones, health and fitness, travel, hotels, fashion, Internet services, insurance, online education and, somewhat incongruously, recycling companies.

To me this is all the more sleazy because these are real companies with offices in the UK and US and they’re clearly proud of what they do. We’re not talking Ukrainian spammers here. But their impact, in a way, is worse, because with every mercenary link sold they devalue the web. I’ve been doing a blog for nearly 10 years now, and the only thing that might make my content valuable is that it’s authentic. It’s me. If I say I like something, I’m answerable for that. Not that people drop by to berate me much, but the principle is exactly the same as a journalistic one: Your byline is your bond.

All in all, a tawdry example of where the blogosphere has gone wrong, I reckon. Keep your money. I’d rather keep the high ground.

Flying Cheapskates

A few weeks back I wrote in WSJ.com about Bezurk.com, a great travel website that’s on a par, if not better, than Kayak, Sidestep, Zuji and Yahoo! FareChase.

Here’s what I wrote:

What I like about Bezurk’s site is that it follows what I think are the best unwritten rules of Web 2.0, the new, more social and interactive generation of Internet services: It’s simple, intuitive and does its best not to bother you. It doesn’t require lots of hitting the refresh or back buttons. It doesn’t include deals that aren’t available or seats that are already sold.

Bezurk also doesn’t require you to click on page after page of “refining” questions — “Do you require a vegetarian menu? Would you consider flying from an airport that is actually on the other side of the country?” — before coming back with the predictable punchline, “No results found.” I also like the fact that the price including tax is also given, where possible, below the quoted price: In many cases this adds 50% to the fare.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work particularly well with flights in North Asia, and with those out of the U.S. and Europe. For now. They promise improvements on this, and I think they’re going to be quite soon. They also miss out on one or two budget airlines, for which I’d suggest AirNinja.com which won’t give you all the flight details, but will at least tell you which budget airlines fly the route you’re looking to take, and link you to the website.

Says Seattle-based John Hostetler, who runs the site:

AirNinja shows flights that aren’t found on the major travel sites and fills in the gaps left by major carriers. I’ve traveled extensively throughout Europe and booked flights for slightly more than the cost of taxes and found direct flights that I couldn’t find elsewhere. This is present in Asia as well.

Worth trying out.

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The Message Behind Instant Messaging

Be careful what you wish for. For nearly a decade I, and a lot of people like me, have been dreaming of the day when we could send an instant message to someone who wasn’t on the network as us. An instant messaging program is one that sits on your computer and allows you to send short text messages to other Internet users in real time — if they are online they see the message as soon as you’ve sent it. it’s faster than email because they get it straightaway, and it has the added bonus of letting you know whether the other person is at their computer and awake. Hence the name instant messaging. The big players, like Microsoft, Yahoo, AOL and Google all have their own programs and networks, with millions of users. The services are free but beam ads at users through the software.

Now here’s the rub: Because there are no open standards, most instant messenger users can only trade messages with others using the same program. So if I signed up with ICQ, say, I won’t be able to chat with Aunt Marge if she only signed up with Yahoo. It’s a bit like only being able to send emails to people who use the same email service as yourself. Or only to make phone calls to other people using the same operator.

I’m not going to get into who’s to blame for all this. For the past few years I’ve been using a program that lets me include all my chat accounts in one small program, so I can talk to anyone on any service without having to run four or five different chat programs. No ads and less clutter on my screen. Yes, I do feel slightly bad using software that leaches off other people’s work, but if those other people can’t solve my communication problems with Aunt Marge I had to find someone who could.

But as instant messaging has grown, the arguments against fencing users of each system in have grown weaker. Instant messaging is no longer the province of teenagers: it’s as popular in business now as it is in the home, and many a market deal from London to Seoul has been done over instant messenger. Not only that: and the rise of voice over internet services like Skype, which include instant text messaging features, and the introduction of video chat, mean the clamor for interoperability has become harder to ignore.

Hence the recent announcement that Yahoo and Microsoft have started a test run of allowing users of their services to swap messages. This is a big step forward, although it’s noticeable that AOL, by far the biggest player in all this with their ICQ and AIM services, aren’t yet joining the party. Still, it’s good news. But there’s a sneaking worry about it all this. Why has it taken them so long? And why now? In reality, hard commercial reasons lie behidn the decision. It’s not just about helping me send a message to Aunt Marge on another network. In the recent words of Niall Kennedy (thanks, BJ Gillette), program managers at Microsoft, it’s about gathering information about us as we chat and surf so that the companies can target better ads at us. Quite reasonable for them to want to do, I suppose, but one more reason for me to be a tad suspicious about what I say or do online. For now I’m sticking with my third party, ad-free, leaching program.

The End of Airport WiFi?

An interesting battle is going on in Boston over airport WiFi. If one side wins it may spell the end to WiFi in airports — at least those not operated by the airport itself. The Boston Globe reports that Logan International Airport officials’ ongoing quest to ban airline lounges from offering passengers free WiFi Internet services is angering a growing array of powerful Capitol Hill lobbying groups, who say Logan could set a dangerous nationwide precedent for squelching wireless services:

Soon after activating its own $8-a-day WiFi service in the summer of 2004, the Massachusetts Port Authority, which runs Logan, ordered Continental and American Airlines to shut down WiFi services in their Logan lounges. Massport also ordered Delta Air Lines Inc. not to turn on a planned WiFi service in its new $500 million Terminal A that opened last March. […]

Massport has consistently argued its policy is only trying to prevent a proliferation of private WiFi transmitters that could interfere with wireless networks used by airlines, State Police, and the Transportation Security Administration. WiFi service providers are free to negotiate so-called roaming deals, Massport officials say, that would let their subscribers who pay for monthly access use the Logan network. But major providers including T-Mobile USA have balked at Massport’s proposed terms, saying the airport authority seeks excessive profits.

It all sounds a bit lame to me. My experience of Logan’s WiFi in late 2004 was woeful, although perhaps that has changed, as Massport’s PR later said they were having teething troubles as it had just been installed. But it seems weak to argue that one WiFi service may not affect communications whereas others might;to charge excessively for it seems to suggest the real motive. If interference is the problem, will all those in-office WiFi networks in terminal offices be closed down, and will all onboard WiFi networks be banned too? What about buildings close to the airport?

The scary thing is that if Massport win this other airports are bound to leap aboard. And not just in the U.S. If airport authorities think they can make money out of this, I’m sure they will follow suit. I’m worried. Unless it means better and free WiFi in airports, in which case I’m all for it. Let’s face it, sometimes WiFi services are so bad in airports you feel as if it’s too important a commodity to be left to small bitplayers. More discussion of the issues here and here.

The Fate Of The Home Productivity Suite

I was asked by a PR firm on behalf of Corel to give my thoughts about office productiviy suites used in the home. I don’t always do that sort of thing, but I thought why not turn it into a blog posting, thereby avoiding any danger of being perceived as aiding and abetting a company I write about (hard to imagine that my ramblings might be seen as helpful, but you never know). Here, for what they’re worth (and I don’t think they’re worth very much) are my thoughts, post-long day at the office, post-chicken tikka and a Heineken, or, cough, two:

1. What is your perception of “the state of the nation” regarding Office Productivity packages used in the home?

Office [packages are] a waste of money for most homes, but often it, or something like it, comes packaged on laptops and desktops [anyway]. Most people use Outlook and Word, and a little Excel. Perhaps some PowerPoint to view something someone has sent them. All in all, a waste of software.

2. What would make an ideal home consumer productivity suite?

One that combined email, calendar and word processing and possibly a bit of finance. Outlook and Word are too much for most home users — Outlook Express is still a firm favorite, and many people see it as better than Outlook. But nowadays the home productivity suite needs to face new challenges from at least two quarters: synchronisation with other devices (phones, PDAs, other software) and to cope with the huge amount of digital imagery users have collected. It doesn’t mean the productivity suite needs to include image library and editing features, it just needs to fit neatly with them. This means that anyone taking a picture, sending an email/SMS/MMS, storing a contact on any device (PDA, iPod, smartphone) should be able to move that data all ways — onto their computer, onto another device, or back onto the device they originally created it on. It baffles users that they can’t do this kind of thing easily, or without buying some complex third party software.

Any ‘productivity’ software has to look beyond the platform [I meant desktop, or home, or office, or whatever the niche they’re aiming at is] they’re designing their productivity for, and think in terms of users’ productivity now being at least half the time mobile. No longer are people going to sit at their computers creating letters, invitations or other documents. They’re going to receive an email, reply to it and then want to save part of that email to their phone, whether it’s an image, a phone number or a map. That’s what productivity means to most people nowadays.

3. What could Corel improve compared to what we’ve done in the past?

I think i’ve answered this in 2. To add to this, RSS and blogging are terribly important, and the sooner these functions are included in existing software the better. it should be possible, for example, to create, organise and update blogs directly from WP/Word — what a waste of word processing power not to be able to do this (or edit webpages) easily. Browsers will soon incorporate RSS as standard, but RSS is actually the backend, not the front end, and I would expect to see a lot of interesting software that handles RSS in more creative ways than your average newsreader. Corel could be a part of that if they thought outside the perimeter a bit.

4. What areas are lacking in current office suites given to the home market (ie. Microsoft Office Student and Teacher Edition, Works, Microsoft Office — Standard, WordPerfect Office, WordPerfect Office Home Edition etc) that could be improved to make them better for that space.

See above. I don’t think any of these packages make much sense anymore, except for a limited audience. It’s old thinking: modern thinking would take into account that people just don’t work in front of the computer the same way they do in the office, so while I’m sure there’s some room for this kind of package, I would expect it to shrink further, and eventually be swept aside [unless it] links the software to
— Internet services more easily (say, for example, being able to save items of information in whatever format from the Internet or other programs; it’s no coincidence that Search is now a key industry, not just for the Internet but for one’s own files. This is good, but it’s a function of the failure of existing software to allow users to save and create information in a way that is easily retrievable. It’s not a new feature, it’s a BandAid to a bigger problem.)
— to other devices
— to programs that aren’t part of the package
etc etc.

Then I ran out of juice. But you get the idea. Mad ramblings, but some fodder in there. Thoughts very welcome, though not on my choice of food or beer.

Photo Printing — Not The Scam We Thought It Was

This is all a bit late, I know, but it’s probably worth pointing folk to if they’re not habitual readers of the excellent British computer magazine PCPro. Their cover story on photo-printing (registration required to read full reviews) in the February issue is a very sound, thorough and and detailed piece which makes some surprising conclusions:

  • Getting your photos printed on the high street is not always cheaper than printing them yourself;
  • It’s also not always better, in terms of quality and durability;
  • Inkjet cartridges and their contents are not always complete rip-offs (and ink is only the fifth most expensive liquid on earth, not the most….)
  • Epson comes out of it looking remarkably good, particularly its Stylus Photo R800 which now sells for around $300 (pictured above).

The study was conducted with the help of Wilhelm Imaging Research, which has its own detailed results of testing the R800 and other models.

I must confess I’ve been very skeptical about home printing of photographs, given how cheap some Internet services are. I also reckon that unless you spend a lot of time and practice you’re not going to get the same results as professionals — and that time and practice can use up a lot of expensive ink and paper. But as PCPro point out, for larger pictures it may actually work out cheaper, and better.

Smelly Emails

From the Really Silly Ideas That May Catch On So I Better Not Be Too Rude About It Dept, here’s word of a device that will deliver you scented emails. Sort of.

The BBC (via the USC Annenberg Online Journalism Review) reports that British Internet provider Telewest Broadband is testing an air freshener that is designed to spray the smell linked to a email message. So you plug the “scent dome” (no, really) which will contain 20 basic smells that can combine to give 60 scents (no, really) and hey presto! the email will trigger the odor. 

Chad Raube, director of Internet services at Telewest Broadband, said the obvious, according to the Beeb: “This could bring an extra whiff of realism to the Internet.”

Actually, this is whiff of realism: Telewest reckons the dome will cost around £250 ($474 U.S.) and will only work with a high-speed, broadband connection. 

Daftness aside, this could be a good idea. Wouldn’t it be great to market smells you really miss? Your mom’s baking, new-mown hay, marzipan, your old roommate’s socks? Or to be able to send a smell to your doctor to gauge the gangrenous state of a festering wound without having to arrange a visit to the clinic? Or the bouquet of a wine you’re thinking of ordering over the Internet?