Tag Archives: search engines

More on Veronica and Fake Flirting

Courtesy of ABC Australia IT guru Paul Wallbank, the source of my chat with Veronica Sexy may have been discovered: an automated sex talk service called CyberLover.ru. Paul points to this story from Conor Sweeney of Moscow’s Reuters bureau:

A Russian website called CyberLover.ru is advertising a software tool that, it says, can simulate flirtatious chatroom exchanges. It boasts that it can chat up as many as 10 women at the same time and persuade them to hand over phone numbers.

The service, on the surface, appears aimed at guys who aren’t able to win over girls online any other way: “It’s happened – a program to tempt girls over the internet!” Reuters quotes the site as claiming. “Within half an hour the CyberLover program will introduce you to … girls, exchange photos and perhaps even a contact phone number,” it states. Woohoo. 

But is that all it does? Antivirus and software developer PC Tools says it’s much more dangerous than that. “As a tool that can be used by hackers to conduct identity fraud, CyberLover demonstrates an unprecedented level of social engineering,” a company press release quotes Sergei Shevchenko, Senior Malware Analyst, as saying. “It employs highly intelligent and customized dialogue to target users of social networking systems.” The goal, Sergei says: to gather personal information about users and also to lure them to websites, possibly to infect them with malware (a generic terms for software that infects their computer which can then be used as what is called a bot to grab data, infect other computers or send spam.) That doesn’t sound like the Veronica I know. 

The website itself denies this, according to the Reuters report. “The program can find no more information than the user is prepared to provide,” one of the site’s employees, who gave his name only as Alexander, said in an emailed reply to Reuters questions. “It maintains a dialogue with a person, but is not engaged in hacking or any other such schemes, I think this should be obvious,” he said.

Well, there’s hacking, and there’s other stuff that comes close to it. The company or individual behind this product appears to be the same as that which runs Botmaster.Net, both of which are registered to one Alexander Ryabchenko. Botmaster sells a $450 piece of software called Xrumer, which spams websites, forums and blogs to build up a website’s profile on search engines (it claims to get past CAPTCHA screens, where users are asked to identify letters in images.) Given the name of the website is botmaster you can’t help wondering what else it does. 

So was Veronica Sexy an early prototype of of CyberLover? Well, they’re both run by Russians, but beyond that it’s not clear. I hope to find out more. What is clear, though is that SkyperSex, the website Veronica was trying to lure me to, is an affiliate of Streamray, a sex website that is one of several just bought by Penthouse Media as part of its purchase of Various Inc (for $500 million). It should make for an interesting bit of research. 

Oh, and if you’re looking for automated online chat that’s a bit more real, check out My CyberTwin.

Russian computer program fakes chatroom flirting – Yahoo! News

The “Have I Got a Story For You” Trick

I’m no fan of bad, sloppy PR, and to me there’s nothing quite as sloppy as pitching a product to a journalist s/he has already written about. Do these people not have any records at all? Do they have no idea of what coverage their product has already received?

I’ve been pitched two products in the past week that I have written about already in my WSJ.com column. OK, not everyone reads the WSJ, and not everyone reads the column, but it’s not exactly a backwater publication that would have not shown up in someone’s records, had they been keeping any.

First there was the Unotron washable keyboard, which I pretty much dedicated a whole column to a couple of years back (it shows up on the CollegeJournal with a search unotron wsj). In response to a request to the PR/expert source clearing house ProfNet a few days back I received a pitch from a PR guy which began

If you are looking for the latest technological advancement in computer keyboards, I may have your answer.

What surprised me here was that my column was copiously cited on the company’s own website.

Then there’s something called the Loc8tor, a tracking device I wrote about a few months back in another WSJ.com column. I just now received a pitch with the breathless subject line: “STORY IDEA: New RFID Tracking Device Finds Valuables with Directional Capabilities”:

I am contacting you regarding a new product story that will help your readers stay organized and find their valuables. 

The original column doesn’t show up high in the search engines if you look for loc8tor wsj but a reference to it clearly shows up in a link to Peter Morville of findability.org, whom I interviewed for the piece. Seems the PR company could use the product themselves to keep track of previous coverage of their client’s product.

(It’s only “new”, by the way, in the sense of newly available in the U.S.; the product’s been around for at least a year in the UK and elsewhere. The PR person involved clearly doesn’t have a particularly good database as my column has carried an Asian dateline for the past year, and my blog and webpage make clear I’m not U.S. based. Minor details, I grant you, but I feel sorry for the poor sap who’s paying the agency if he’s hoping for a well-targeted PR campaign.)

What’s telling, to me, in both of these cases, is that I had originally dealt with the companies themselves, not with their PR companies. In fact, I’m not sure either had PR companies working with them when I dealt with them. In other words, these companies have hired PR companies to go get coverage, who then go undo the positive work the company itself had done by pitching to the self-same guys who have already given them coverage.

I can understand, I suppose, this kind of thing happening. But it’s still sloppy, and clearly indicates that the PR company, when hired, does little or no research into what coverage the product has already received. Surely that would be the first thing you’d do, if only to see whether those publications or writers have already written about you might be worth cultivating for follow-up coverage down the track? At the very least, I guess I would assume you don’t want to alienate those people by showing you have no idea what they’ve been writing about?

PR note #273: When you get a new client, Google them.

Shrines to Frustration

It’s depressing that two gripes I’ve posted, both at least a year old, continue to get comments which push both posts to the top of the search engines. My grumbles about accessing Xdrive, an online storage service bought by AOL, comes out top if you search for xdrive problems on Google. Search for cancel napster and my post about how hard it was to cancel the service comes as the next result below a couple of official Napster sites. Both posts got more comments in the last few hours.

I’m not particularly proud about this; I’ve already written a column about Napster’s poor cancellation process, and bad press doesn’t seem to bother either company. (Although maybe AOL might start changing its practice after Randall Stross’ piece in the NYT about how customer service reps are instructed to try more or less every trick before complying with customer requests to cancel their account.

Wearing my WSJ.com hat, I’ve talked to both AOL and Napster about these problems and it seems in both cases neither problem has been fixed. If they had, why would people keep posting horror stories? Somehow I doubt these two cases are exceptional. I imagine there must be hundreds of companies out there where single blog posts have become shrines to customer frustration. Fortunately in both cases readers have added useful advice in the comments so it’s not all just blowing off steam. But why aren’t big companies more proactive about these things by monitoring search results and reaching out to websites or blogs that attract this kind of traffic?

Ring Tones, Drugs and the Spamming of Google News

This week in the WSJ.com (subscription only, I’m afraid) I wrote about web spam — the growing penetration of faux websites that ride up the search engines and muddy the Internet for all of us. I based it around the recent case of subdomain spam, well documented by the likes of blogs like Monetize. Briefly websites controlled by one Moldovan hit the high rankings on several major search engines using techniques that are imaginative, but not exactly beyond the intelligence of savvy search engine builders. It’s not as intrusive as spam in your inbox but it’s trashing the web and undermining the usefulness of search engines.

But it’s not just ordinary search results that get spammed. It’s news. A search for “ringtones” on Google News, for example, throws up “free mono ringtones” as the top item:

Grt

(“Ringtone” throws up similar results.) Amazing, not only is it the top story but all the six “related” stories you can see as a green link below the four are from the same domain, advertising a range of goods that can hardly be lumped together with ringtones, including sildenafil and tenuate. (Searches of those words on Google News also have the same domain as top ranked, at least at the time of writing. Here and here. In fact the results for tenuate do not throw up a single news story; all eight matches are web spam.)

The sites in question are all subdomains of www.vibe.com, an online magazine which is indexed by Google news for its pieces on musicians. The pages that hit the top rank of results for ringtone and ringtones, however, are community messageboard pages, and clearly marked as such, which makes me wonder how either the web spammer is fooling the Google bots into indexing pages which are clearly not news by any definition, or why Google’s bots aren’t doing the job they’re supposed to be doing.

Yahoo! News’ search doesn’t do much better: Its first hit is a web spam site under the domain www.ladysilvia.net, which doesn’t even pretend to be a news site:

Yrt

(MSN’s news search comes out well, without any spam in sight, as does A9, which is basically the same engine.) But why are these sites getting indexed and included in news searches? I can only assume ringtones are such big business that it’s worth the web spammers doing their damndest to push their results up not only ordinary search rankings, but I would have thought Google and Yahoo! would be on top of this. Apparently not.

Catching The Surfer in a Blink

Interesting news for web site designers, bloggers and PR types: Web users judge sites in the blink of an eye.  An article in Nature (thanks, BBC) quotes a study by Gitte Lindgaard of Carleton University in Ottawa in the journal Behaviour and Information Technology, that “the brain can make flash judgements almost as fast as the eye can take in the information”:

Lindgaard and her team presented volunteers with the briefest glimpses of web pages previously rated as being either easy on the eye or particularly jarring, and asked them to rate the websites on a sliding scale of visual appeal. Even though the images flashed up for just 50 milliseconds, roughly the duration of a single frame of standard television footage, their verdicts tallied well with judgements made after a longer period of scrutiny.

This surprised the researchers but is perhaps not that extraordinary. First off, people like to stick with an opinion once made, even if they’re wrong or would prefer to revise it — what’s called ‘cognitive bias’. As Nature quotes Lindgaard as saying, “It’s awfully scary stuff, but the tendency to jump to conclusions is far more widespread than we realize,” she says. Secondly, people will tend to regard the rest of the web site favourably if their initial response was favourable — the halo effect at work, as first impressions create an enduring bias. And of course, anyone who has read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink will know about all this.

So what does it mean for web sites and web designers?

Most comment focuses on the need for a good first impression. Nature quotes Marc Caudron of London web-design agency Pod1 as saying users will quickly jump back to Google if they don’t engage quickly: “You’ll get a list of sites, click the top one, and then either say ‘I’ve engaged’ and give it a few more seconds, or just go back to Google,” he says.

Other comment focuses on the ‘increasingly savvy nature of consumers’: Internet marketing and design expert Pedro Sostre told the E-Commerce Times that he believes consumers “are becoming more and more design-savvy every day — and they may not even know it.. Just by interacting with various catalogs and Web sites, they are becoming design critics.” He cites an interesting example: the recent redesign of the Sprint web site to yellow, the same color as that of power tool maker Dewalt. This, he says, made users think they confused because they associated yellow with power tools, not with electronic devices.

It is no doubt true that certain colors are associated with certain kinds of products (although yellow is also the dominant site of Symantec, which despite the imagery on their product boxes, sells computer software, not power tools). Or perhaps it is more subtle than that. As Australian associate professor of psychology Bill von Hippel, quoted by Australian ABC as saying about the report that “this may be because we have an affective or emotional system that [works] independently of our cognitive system”, the point really is that we learn new environments quite quickly. We quickly familiarise ourselves with new menus, new shower heads, new traffic systems, new faces at parties. We shouldn’t be that surprised we’ve now gotten used to the web. Color is part of it but only a small one.

Several interesting points emerge from this. Web site designers and PR types still think about web site design in terms of “design” — filling a page with appealing colors, images and movement. (Check out the plethora of web site design books in a bookshop if you don’t believe me). But in fact the web is moving in the other direction — just look at how blogs have emptied the page of clutter and, because they focus on speed and content, have really caught on. (Google has also helped spur this ‘white space’ momentum.) So while a lot of designers are going to draw the conclusion from this study that they need to pack a lot in to make those 50 milliseconds count, perhaps they should take a lesson from blogs and head the other way.

Another interesting implication is for Google and search engines. There has been a move towards search engines that include small thumbnails of the web page itself (I can’t actually recall off the top of my head which ones, let me get back to you on that), allowing the user to preview the site before actually clicking on it. These haven’t really caught on yet, but this research opens up all sorts of possibilities there. Cluttered websites are not going to look as good in such thumbnails as clean, simple ones. But not necessarily blog-like structures, because they will all end up looking the same. There’s definitely a business opportunity there somewhere.

Finally, there’s one more implication that I can think of from this: Why are people learning to form impressions so quickly? Is the experiment something that doesn’t reflect normal behaviour — glancing at a site and forming an impression — or is it exactly what we do? My guess is that it is, and I think that has to do with three things: firstly, we still regard browsing (in the sense of looking at websites without any specific goal in mind, or only some vague idea of what we’re looking for), for the most part, to be a frivolous activity, whether we’re at work or not. So we tend to move quickly from page to page, as if that somehow reduces the overall time we’re wasting.

Secondly, I think reading on a computer screen is still not a natural or pleasant experience for most people, so we tend to move more quickly from page to page, If our subconscious is telling us anything, it’s “move on, I don’t enjoy reading at a screen and I want you to move on.” The fact that our hands are poised over the keyboard and mouse make this kind of decision an easy one to make, possibly bypassing all our smarter, more intellectual responses to what we see. It’s like holding a tennis ball in the hand: It’s virtually impossible not to try to juggle it, throw it, bounce it or otherwise play with it.

Finally, there’s a contradiction between what lures us somewhere and what makes us stay. We move quickly through the web because the bright lights that attract us to a page don’t encourage us to stay. Call it the McDonald’s Effect: Bright lights, yellow and red color all welcome us, but don’t encourage us to linger or relax. Same with a lot of web pages. What would be interesting to see is research that explores whether users are draw to those same bright colors in web sites or more soothing colors, nice fonts, quiet layouts, which may not catch the eye but are likely to encourage the user to stay.

Bottom line: Interesting research, but the conclusions to be drawn are more subtle than

Another Way to Measure Fame

Here’s another way to measure how famous you are on the Internet: egoSurf – ego surfing without the guilt (via MicroPersuasion and Mashable):

egoSurf helps massage the web publishers ego, and thereby maintain the cool equilibrium of the net itself.

We, the publishers of this here internet thing, need the occasional massage, the odd stroke. We aren’t paid. We aren’t recognised. Our sites hit count used to be enough, but no longer.

Enter your name and URL (or URls) and you’ll get an ‘ego point’ ranking for the number of links of your name to those URLs, as well as a cute meter (or bank of meters if you’re searching more than just Google):

Egometer

This is cute, and has some nice features (like RSS feeds of your ranking) but not new. There’s Preople, who have been doing something similar for a while. Preople does a slightly different calculation, whereby they

visit a few search engines, search for your name, get the number of times your name is found online and perform a complicated calculation to extract a Preople Rank. We guard this formula with our lives because it is what makes our service, and your Preople Rank, unique. We know you are curious but don’t even ask us to disclose our formula!

Just in case you’re interested, I have a Preople ranking of 68,700, which puts me somewhere outside the top 100 (the Dalai Lama is at 99 with 6,490,000) and come out at 9161, or a couple of notches outside the fame belt, on Egosurf. For WSJ.com readers, I wrote something about Preople and Internet fame (subscription only, I’m afraid) a few months back.

Recovering Your Firefox Bookmarks

This is documented elsewhere, but perhaps comes across as too nerdy for some. If you’re using Windows XP, recovering from a crash or whatever, and find that your Firefox bookmarks (and bookmarklets and bookmark toolbar) have disappeared, here’s what to do:

  • Close Firefox if it’s running.
  • Find your profile in c:Documents and Settings[your XP user name]Application DataMozillaFirefoxProfiles
  • There should be a subfolder there called bookmarkbackups. Find the most recent bookmarks html file in there (usually with a date after the ‘bookmarks’ bit.
  • Copy it to somewhere safe and rename the existing one bookmarks.html.
  • Copy it to the default profiles folder (up one level from the bookmarkbackups folder, deleting the existing bookmarks.html file.)
  • Close Firefox if it’s running and launch it. Your old bookmarks should be restored.

(And, while I’m at it, here’s a solution if your Firefox browser refuses to remember any of your changed settings in toolbars etc when you close it, resetting everything back to what it was before. The same bug — likely to be fixed soon — also deletes your search engines in the search box to the right of the address box. This fix will fix both problems:

  • Locate the localstore.rdf file in the same place as above.
  • Delete it.
  • Restart Firefox. You should be good to go.

Thanks, GreenKri.)

Bluethievery

Another kind of Bluesnarfing: The Times Online reported yesterday that

[t]hieves are using Bluetooth technology to scour parked cars for mobile phones and laptop computers, police believe. The wireless software allows users to detect any mobile phones, PCs, palmtop computers and camcorders that are equipped with Bluetooth within a radius of 50m (160ft).

Of course this is not completely true: The gadgets must be turned on, have their Bluetooth activated and be ‘discoverable’ (although if I recall correctly there are ways around this last bit). I’m guessing that this is the same story reported in engadget last week that quoted the South Manchester Reporter as saying 

crooks in south Manchester are targeting parked cars that contain high-end laptops or cellphones, which they find by carrying a Bluetooth phone as they stroll past the cars. Local police claim that at least 20 recent thefts involved Bluetooth. While we suppose there may be some credence to this, we think it’s equally possible that some laptop owners forgot that they had left their computer sitting on the back seat, or that the thieves took a chance on certain car models that are favored by those with the cash to spend on expensive gear.

It certainly does raise the question: How do the police know the thieves are using Bluetooth? Have they arrested some and asked them how they knew there was a device inside the car? How would they know which car is emitting a Bluetooth signal, unless it’s the only one in a 10 meter (or greater) radius? (In which case, why not break into it anyway? You’re probably the only people around.) And, especially if the car is Bluetooth-enabled, as many cars are, how would the thieves know what they’re looking for? Unless the Bluetooth-enabled device has the gadget name as its ID, rather than a user-assigned one — mine’s called ‘Hands Off’ — the thieves are likely to be none the wiser about whether they’re looking for a Bluetooth-enabled car, video, phone, computer or a headset. (Of course many devices nowadays don’t allow you to change the ID name: Another good reason to allow this.)

Here’s the original report (which charmingly refers to the wireless standard as blue-tooth, which is why it doesn’t pop up in search engines). Here’s an excerpt:

Thieves are using new ‘blue-tooth’ phones to detect whether motorists have left mobiles or laptops in their cars. The ‘blue-tooth’ facility enables thieves to locate compatible electrical items – even if they are hidden away in a boot or glove compartment. Police say the new technology is allowing criminals to selectively steal from cars with expensive laptops and mobile phones which also have ‘blue-tooth’ facilities.

In Chorlton, police estimate that out of the last 35 recorded vehicle crimes, at least 20 involved the use of these high-tech phones. Sergeant Imran Abbasi, of Chorlton Police, said: “It’s become quite endemic in Chorlton. They’re not picking cars out at random – in many cases they know there’s something in there.”

I’m skeptical, but not completely disbelieving. I can understand why this might work, or at least narrow down the range of options for a thief. Next time I’m in a car park I’m going to get out my Kensington WiFi Finder Plus (which searches for Bluetooth too) and see what’s worth nicking. I mean connecting with.

A Directory Of Podcast Directories

To accompany my column this week on podcasting (which will appear here when it’s out; subscription only I’m afraid), here’s a directory of podcast directories (and search engines), in no particular order:

Some are better than others. Depends what you’re looking for. I’m sure there are more: Please feel free to add.