Google Suggest: Your Company + Scam


I find that the auto suggestions feature from Google Suggest in the Firefox search box very useful. But perhaps not in the way it was intended.

Google Suggest works via algorithms that “use a wide range of information to predict the queries users are most likely to want to see. For example, Google Suggest uses data about the overall popularity of various searches to help rank the refinements it offers.” In other words,  type one word and Google will tell you the next word most likely to be typed after it. Type “dimitar” and the most likely second word will be “berbatov” (this may not been a lot to non-soccer fans, but trust me, the two words go together like rock and roll for the rest of us):


This can be useful, or at least revealing.

For example, I received one of those awful pieces of spam from that give the whole social networking thing a bad name:


Click on the “Click here to block all emails from Tagged Inc., 110 Pacific Mall Box #117, San Francisco, CA. 94111” and you’re taken to a page where you’re asked to sign in or sign up. A sure sign of a scam if ever there was one; what happened to opting out a la CANSPAM?


So I figured I should Google these clowns and see what’s being said about them. Type their name into the Firefox search box, and then hit the space bar, and this was what Google offered me as the most popular search terms:


Having your product name coupled with “spam” and “scam” in its top three searches can’t be good.

Needless to say, is a scam, at least in the way it tries to hoodwink users into signing up and signing up their friends. Here’s how the excellent and resourceful Amit Agarwal recommends you get rid of it from your inbox. It’s a shame that so many apparently good names are involved in something so blatantly anti-social and spammy. At what point do these people feel they’ve lost the game and allow corners to be cut? One of the founders even spoke at last year’s Authentication and Online Trust Summit for crying out loud.

The bigger issue is how to stop these sites from damaging social networking further. But that’s for another day. For now, using Google Suggest is a good quick way to know whether you’re on a hiding to nothing if you even click on a link in one of these emails. Take another scam networking site I’ve written about recently, Yaari. Its Google Suggest juice comes out looking similarly dodgy:


Compare that with something a bit more bona fide, like LinkedIn:


While this is a useful tool for us, I’m guessing that the companies involved are going to be hiring some drones to try to massage these results so they don’t look quite so  bad.

When Technology Lets Us Down


(from tcbuzz’s flickr collection)

Two recent events from the UK underlined how dangerous our dependence on technology can be.

The soccer UEFA Cup final in Manchester was overshadowed by riots when one of the massive screens installed in the city for fans who didn’t have tickets broke down.

And more recently, the inquest into the death of a former BBC editor found that she committed suicide after failing to find support among her colleagues. Her line manager, the inquest heard, tried to find her counselling:

However, her manager sent an email to the wrong address and his request was never acted on.

Technology is passive, and doesn’t take into account the implications of failure. In the first case the technology either didn’t work, or those setting it up didn’t know how to work (or fix) it. In the second case, the error was more obviously human: the sender of an email did not enter the correct address, or did not enter the address correctly.

This is more about our failure to anticipate failure in technology, and our blind dependence on it working.

Obviously, it would have been smart of the organizers in Manchester to have had a back-up plan in place for an eventuality like a screen breaking down. And the line manager’s apparent failure to see whether the email arrived at its destination or even to have picked up a phone and tried to reach the counsellor directly.

But perhaps there are ways for technology to further help us by providing a layer of redundancy? In the case of the screen, could there be some sort of diagnostics test which would alert the technicians that something was amiss, or about to be amiss?

And, in the case of email, the answer is perhaps simpler. There are tools out there to determine whether an email has arrived safely and been opened. The one I use is MessageTag, which will inform me whether an email I have tagged with the service has been opened. (The advanced service will give me a list of emails I have tagged and show me which ones have been opened, and which havent–a very useful checklist to show me which emails I need to follow up on.)

(There are privacy implications with services like MessageTag/MSGTAG, which I’ve gone into before. But sparing use of the service, I believe, is acceptable, so long as you give recipients the option of opting out of future tagging. Other people use the receipt acknowledgement option in Microsoft Outlook and some other email programs.)

We perhaps need to be reminded that technology, as it stands, won’t save us from ourselves.

How To Avoid MessageTag

I’ve noticed some readers of this blog are looking for ways to avoid MessageTag (or MSGTAG) a service which adds a glob of code to emails to alert the sender as to when the recipient opens it. I asked the folks at MessageTag to talk us through this, so here’s what they sent (all this is from MSGTAG, not me, although I’ve added the questions, and I’d point out that I’m still a MSGTAG user, and have so far had only one request for me not to use it in emails to that person):
How does MSGTAG work?
MSGTAG’s modus operandi is based on an HTML image reference. Image references are often included in things like HTML newsletters.

When you use MSGTAG the email goes through the MSGTAG desktop application on its way to your usual SMTP server (typically provided by your ISP). The MSGTAG desktop application acts as an SMTP proxy, passing the email on unchanged except for the addition of an HTML image reference. The image reference includes a unique ID. When the email is received, the recipient’s email client sees the image reference and requests the image from the MSGTAG web server so that it can be displayed in the email. Usually the image is invisible because it is only 1 x 1 pixel in size.

The MSGTAG web server sends back a standard image and makes a note of the unique ID and the time that it was requested. The server then associates that ID with a specific user and email. It then sends the user a receipt notification email.

MSGTAG tells the sender only the time a message was first opened. It doesn’t provide the sender with the IP address or geographical location of their recipients, nor does it embed tags into attachments to track forwarding or printing behavior. We don’t plan to implement any of these features because we think they promote privacy invasion.

I don’t like it. How do I make sure no one MSGTAGs me?


We’re aware that not all Internet users wish to receive MSGTAG tagged emails. That’s why we implemented the contact settings in MSGTAG Status which allow the user to automatically disable tagging for certain recipients who have asked not to be tagged.


Furthermore, we respect the decision of people who use technology to prevent MSGTAG tags from being triggered.
The following methods all allow you to read a message without triggering the MSGTAG tag:
  • a text-only mail client (hardly anybody uses these)
  • a mail client that enables the user to block external HTML images (these are becoming more popular as a countermeasure to spammers using 1×1 images to verify email addresses)
  • a firewall that stops the email client from requesting the MSGTAG image from the MSGTAG web server
  • a spam filter like Mailwasher that enables the recipient to preview the message on their mail server without downloading it into their HTML mail client. N.B.  Mailwasher is a product of Firetrust, a client of eCOSM, who developed MSGTAG for Fisher Young Group. In case you’re wondering, Mailwasher came first and this shouldn’t be construed as ’selling both the disease and the cure’. 
The simplest way for a recipient to block MSGTAG tags is to set their mail client to block external HTML images when they read their emails. This means they will be missing out on a lot of images in email newsletters, but it’s probably a small price to pay.