Tag Archives: snake oil

It’s Downhill From Here: Web 2.0 Awards

It’s a sign either that Web 2.0 has become an important and integral part of things, or that matters are getting out of control, but here’s another of what you should expect to be a long line of Web 2.0 Awards. This one is from SEOmoz, of whom I’ve never heard before, but which is actually a search engine optimization consultancy. In ordinary speak an SEO company sells its services to web sites that want to get higher rankings on Google. Why is a company dedicated to fiddling search engine algorithms making awards to companies claiming to be part of some new Internet Holy Grail?

I have no idea, but the scent of snake oil and hype can’t be far away. Web 2.0 is, for those of you who don’t spend your whole day reading memeorandum, is the term used to describe a growing — now, fast growing — array of web services aimed at the end-user. What used to be a niche area of interest only to pie-in-the-sky bloggers is now attracting big money, not least because there is a lot of money out there and not many places to put it. So now more or less anything new, and not so new, can be called Web 2.0, especially if it’s got the words “tagging”, “social”, “AJAX”, “mashup” in it somewhere, and if it’s not spelt correctly.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve long been a fan of what is now being called Web 2.0. I loved del.icio.us, and I love tagging. I love stuff that is simple to use, and put together with passion. It’s just that awards like this merely highlight how entrenched, predictable and money-oriented the whole thing has quickly become. Now, with Yahoo, Google, Microsoft and AOL dropping silly amounts of money to buy up some of these services, there’s no real way to measure the enthusiasm, commitment and longevity of any of these services. Money attracts people interested in money — or primarily interested in money — and while I’m sure not all, or even many, of the 800 or so Web 2.0 services now available are purely motivated by greed, we won’t know. So, as an end user, why bother investing time and effort in them?

Another problem with Web 2.0 stuff is that each service requires a degree of commitment from the user. Some services are beginning to understand they cannot merely offer walled gardens of service, where you enter your data — photos, appointments, bookmarks or whatever — but cannot access that data through any other service than theirs, but they are few and far between. Until we can do that, these services will remain smallscale, niche affairs that most people beyond early adopters won’t bother with. Indeed, the very plethora of services now appearing doesn’t lead to critical mass, it leads to critical failure, because the chances of two people finding that they use the same service and therefore can share their data falls the greater the number of services on offer.

People talk about a bubble a la 2000. Could be. I would be more afraid of just simply too many services chasing too few interested people. There are three main areas here:

  • Social networking sites follow more of what I’d call The Trendy Restaurant Model. Patronage tends to be fashion-driven and short term. Everyone flocks to MySpace because that’s the trendy place (or Consumating, or wherever). Then they move on (does Rupert Murdoch know this, by the way?).
  • Then there’s the Long Stay Parking model: bookmarking, business networking, project management and calendar tools. Here the payback for the user is longer term — the more one adds data, the more useful it becomes over time. But why should I bother adding data if there are a dozen very similar competing services, and if I can’t easily move that data to a rival service if I get a better deal, or prefer their features? Or even if I want someone who is not a member of that service to be able to access my data? The likes of Flickr, LinkedIn et al which dominated their corner don’t need to worry too much here, because they’re the default choice for anyone considering using a service in that space. But elsewhere long stay parking is asking a lot of the user. Too much, I suspect.
  • Then there’s the shorter term Eat and Rush Buffet model: here I’d include things like online editors and collaboration tools like Writely or Campfire. Great for one hit sessions of collaboration, but no real loyalty on the part of the user (and no great business model.) This in a way is the heart of Web 2.0: short, sweet services that individuals don’t need to invest much time or data in mastering. But how many of these can the Internet support without a business model?

There are other areas, I guess. And this is not to say that some services currently finding themselves being called Web 2.0 won’t thrive and dominate. But the arrival of awards, issued by a “search engine optimizer” (which puts SEOmoz top, for now, of the Google news search “web 2.0, awards” which I suppose was the point of the exercise), makes me start reaching for my gun. Or the door. Or the sickbag.

Phishing Takes Its Toll

Is phishing beginning to take its toll on banks?

It’s been my belief for some time that this is, or would be, the case. Banks have seen the Internet as a cash cow and have been over-eager to milk it without realising that it’s not just a way to grab more customers and slice overheads. The Internet is a world unto itself, with its own rules, its own technologies — and its own scams. Banks and the Internet make sense, but not if banks think that an online department can be set up in a few weeks and staffed by a few sysops.

That’s why phishing is such an important wake-up call. It’s the first seriously clever scam that online banking has faced, and banks — and other institutions — have done a very poor job in responding to it. Sure, they’re beginning to now, but not after anything between $500 million and $5 billion has been lost to phishers. Whatever the figure, some folk made some serious money out of phishing, which means that Internet-based financial crime is going to be the main attraction for every criminal with half a brain from here to Archangel.

Which is where a new survey, reported by this month’s American Banker magazine (subscription only), comes in.

The article says that “nearly 30% of respondents to the 2004 American Banker/Gallup Consumer Survey said they think a bank has violated their financial privacy. That is the highest level since the question was first asked in 2001 and “a statistic you want to pay attention to,” said John J. Byrne, director of the American Bankers Association’s Center for Regulatory Compliance”. The article goes on to say: “A possible explanation for the increased perception among consumers that banks have violated their privacy may be the rising incidence of sophisticated identity-theft operations such as “phishing,” say experts.”

Of course, banks are going to say it’s not their fault: “Peter Cassidy, secretary general of the group, said that it is common for victims of phishing attacks to blame their financial institution for the loss of their personal information, despite the fact that the company had no involvement in the scam.” Of course banks are involved, in the sense that they did not heed the problem when it first appeared more than a year ago, but let’s not dwell on that. The bigger problem, the magazine says, is maintaining customer trust. “Dollar-for-dollar, the loss of customers’ trust that a bank is a safe place to put their money is a potentially bigger deal than all of the money people have lost to phishing attacks so far,” Mr. Cassidy said.

While the article swings between the idea of privacy as in releasing information to third parties for marketing purposes, and privacy as in “why did you let someone steal all my money from my account?”, to me the problem is pretty much the same. Any institution that plays fast and loose with your data — by letting third parties email trying to sell you stuff, to banks that see their online services as another way to flog more services (two banks I deal with try this, one by having lots of rubbish on their logout page that confuses the user who is looking for certainty they’ve logged out — admittedly better than a few months ago when they had a message along the lines of ‘you’ve logged out but you haven’t logged off’ along with a picture of a palm tree and an offer of travel insurance — while another forces me to sit through an ad for special interest deposit accounts while I call their helpline via an IDD call) — any institution that does this kind of thing is of course going to score low with the customer. “Is my bank spending time protecting my assets or trying to sell me more snake oil?” would be a reasonable question to ask in the face of this marketing onslaught.

I think banks are going to lose customers if they can’t figure out ways to make online banking more secure. And it’s not just about educating users, although that’s part of it. It’s really listening hard to people who know about some of the scams — and vulnerabilities that lead to scams — out there, and then trying to pre-empt them. In the end it’s about making a technology that is as bulletproof as you can make it.