August 2005 Archives

One minute, a piece of research on RSS has people scrabbling around to work out why a data format based on XML is not more popular. The next? RSS is the bee's knees. As long as you are one of those important member of the movers and shakers community. If you are an influencer, you are almost certain to be a keen RSS subscriber, according to RSS marketing company Nooked.

It's SiliconValleyWatcher day at this blog. I happened by Tom Foremski's post calling for journalists to get their hands dirty with HTML and learn to speak geek after putting together the earlier post on enterprise IT. His argument is that it's a new world where luddite hacks can no longer ignore Web programming in order to do online journalism. We need to dump Word and its habit of littering text with hidden formatting and embrace the world of the text editor.

That is true to a degree today. I barely use Word for anything more than its outliner and I have to swap to TextEdit, MarsEdit or something else to work with HTML tags. But, seriously, do we really have to expect to work with warmed-over SGML for the forseeable future? I don't mind dumping Word, but the idea of entering tags by hand for years into the future gives me the cold shivers.

A few weeks, Tom Foremski at SiliconValleyWatcher complained about how dull the subject of enterprise IT has become. John Gallant, editorial director of Network World, who is involved with the forthcoming Vortex conference in the US, disagreed with Foremski's analysis: that enterprise IT is going to see some major shifts and is therefore far from moribund. Exciting? Maybe not exciting in a "get in on the ground floor and cash out soon" sense. To be honest, it's more a bloodbath waiting to happen.

ClickZ has reported that the Feedster 500 list of most influential blogs is of "dubious value as an evaluation tool for media buyers". Well call me surprised. A list made up largely of inbound links from blogs with some other factors rolled in does not satisfy advertisers? The surprising bit was that the concern was because the list does not rank blogs "according to niche or topical focus". Steve Rubel says it "sounds like an opportunity for somebody else". It is indeed an opportunity but not based on a metric that is more important to bloggers than anybody planning advertising spend.

Inbound links are easy to measure and give a reasonable idea of how bloggers view other blogs. But that is a poor metric for something that advertisers actually care about, unless they just want to reach active bloggers. There is probably a reasonable correlation between inbound links and visitors. But what advertisers really want to know about is traffic. How many people look at each page? Or, if it were possible, how many people look at this page are looking to buy a consumer durables with a value of $1000 this month? Here's an idea. Why don't bloggers simply make that information available instead of complaining about how inaccurate Alexa is and the flaws in lists based on blog 'influence'?

Nielsen NetRatings has come up with some research on the use of RSS among blog readers and the findings have troubled some posters, such as Steve Rubel.

People are getting perhaps a little too worked up about the findings, seemingly believing that not having RSS take-up will develop into a problem for blogs and that this research points to an ease-of-use problem. It's OK, you can stick with the orange logos and cryptic syndication messages: the problems are obscurity and lack of need.

Feedster has produced a top 500 blog list, an act that has triggered another round of conversations. They tend to split along the lines of "hooray, a list to kick Technorati's butt" or "why can't people stop doing these lists?"

Unlike the recent ComScore survey, Jason Calcanis likes this list. But, then again, Engadget comes top of the list. Presumably no problems with the methodology for Calcanis in this instance. Jeff Jarvis has taken pot shots at the list and its inevitable concentration on populist blogs. For him, the world of blogging as seen through these lists is all a bit too big-old-media.

One crash course in cascading style sheets (CSS) has made it possible to dump the default templates supplied by LivingDot and MovableType and go for my own on this blog. Changing the design was only half the reason for doing this as I needed to learn a bit more about how MovableType itself worked. Having used a couple of Perl-based site-management systems in the past, it turned out to be quite straightforward. But, then again, I haven't tried to do anything fancy in PHP yet.

Well at least the broadcaster doesn't want your first-born. Following on from the earlier post about the Chartered Institute of Journalists' complaint about the poor treatment of mobile-phone snappers by news organisations, I ran across the full agreement used by CNN in July for anyone wanting to submit material about the recent hurricanes and it's quite something.

Bloggers writing on citizen journalism have been getting worked up over a letter sent by the Chartered Institute of Journalists (CIJ) to the UK magazine Press Gazette and published a little over a week ago. However, the bloggers downstream have been quoting each other rather than looking at the letter itself. And so the comments have been getting steadily less about what the CIJ said but their own prejudices on the issue.

I'm not a CIJ member and have never planned to be: it is not an organisation that, I'm afraid, I have never taken very seriously. I have only ever met one person who claimed to have joined the CIJ and that was about ten years ago. Most UK hacks who are a member of any journalists group join the National Union of Journalists. But that did not stop the writers of the letter raising a couple of good points. Then the game of Chinese whispers started.

Earlier this week, ComScore published a report claiming that 50 million Americans surfed to a blog sometime during the first quarter. There has been something of a hoo-hah over the details of the figures, particularly from Jason Calcanis at Weblogs who wanted to know why report sponsor Gawker Media featured so prominently. But the rumpus over which sites came top of the blogs should not affect what was apparent in the figures and not just ComScore's claim that blogs now threaten mainstream media. The report listed 20 or so top sites and they had a lot in common. However they did not seem to have much in common what the blogerati think blogs should be doing.

The real winners in the top 20 were the aggregators, some of which are mainly there for people to comment - such as Slashdot - or are more collections of links to other stuff, such as the Gawker Media sites, which annotate links to other material with a few funny asides thrown in for good measure. Blogcritics and the political blogs buck that trend, although the political blogs do depend on news sites for supplying much of the material they quote. Far from threatening mainstream media, these sites are promoting it.

It took me several seconds longer than I cared to spend on this press release when it came in because I couldn't work out why the spam filter hadn't caught it. Then I realised it wasn't actually spam. Well not proper poker spam anyway, unless PRNewswire is branching out into new business areas to fill the gap left by Scott Richter. Entourage flashed this up while I was doing an phone interview:

"boxtonic win six figure totesportcasino account"

And that was how it read on the email. Haven't these people heard of capital letters? They help make sentences easier to read. Or consistency for that matter:

"Totesportcasino.com has appointed online marketing specialists boxtonic to compliment the existing in-house Marketing team. boxtonic has been handed a brief to increase brand awareness and recruit online for totesportcasino.com using creative and targeted marketing activity. The campaign will start with an intensive search engine awareness campaign."

I know I should really be asking Boxtonic this, but what does search engine awareness mean? Does that just mean filling in the Google form or are these things now classed as AI? And are they really just being paid to say nice things to the Tote's marketing team?

Time-travelling tickets

10 August 2005

I got a promising email this morning from a ticket agency promising me that it was ready to dispatch tickets for The Pixies, who are playing at the end of the month at Alexandra Palace. The tickets were going today and the company added they would be turning up courtesy of SMS: the company responsible for delivering a large proportion of the credit cards issued by banks to people living within the circle described by London's M25 motorway.

Normally, discovering that anything is being delivered to you by SMS is enough to make you wish credit cards never expired. You can sit in all day waiting only to find out that the people with the cards can a) ride a bike and b) read a map. But they seem unable to find the right door or even the doorbell if they can manage to get to the door. Letting them 'try' twice and then having them return it to the bank so you can pick up the card from a nearby branch is often the best bet. But no such problem this time. The tickets turned up Monday. Now that takes some doing.

There has been quite a debate in blogworld about the difference between bloggers and journalists. One of the latest arguments comes from David Berlind at ZDnet who put both on a continuum between fact-checking everything and fact-checking nothing. For some, it is truth at all costs; for others, the odd lie is not a problem.

As the Internet extends its reach, bloggers and journalists are getting lumped together. And I don't see much of a problem with that, although it is going to cause some chaos in the short term. Right now there are some obvious differences, but they are gradually disappearing. There is a good argument that journalists seek out new sources for exclusives, but so do some bloggers. Conversely, a good many stories that appear on news websites are largely quoted from other, possibly competing sources. And the bloggers who comment on stories are doing much the same thing as newspaper columnists, just with more hyperlinks and, on average, smaller audiences. The difference, it would seem between those two extremes of truth versus spin, is one of credibility.

Press officers can do some boneheaded things. But top of the list has to be blacklisting reporters or magazines in response to a story you don't like. Actually, that should be in second place. First place is making it clear to all and sundry that you blacklisted somebody. Google's director of public relations David Krane apparently told CNET that the company would not talk to reporters from that organisation for a year. Krane at least managed a no comment for the New York Times when the paper checked but the damage is now done.

The company might as well have painted a big target on its corporate back. If the company thought the story was wrong, it can complain and get a correction if the error is black and white. It can sue and see what happens. It can publish a statement declaring what it sees the situation to be. To effectively make public the fact that it is prepared to blacklist, the company has declared that none of the above techniques were going to work. So, the only conclusion is that an allegation in the copy was not only true, it was unanswerable. It's not even as if the sanction of the PRs refusing to answer journalist's calls is actually worth that much. Presumably Google believes itself to be too big to be ignored. It would be difficult to ignore the company, but does that mean that a blacklisted organisation is just going to stop trying? I don't think so, especially as the company issuing the blacklist decree has just told everybody where its worries lie.

Email overload is worrying a lot of people, not least the people that run Microsoft. It is even being used to drive the direction in which Office is being pushed, according to comments made at the company's recent shindig with financial analysts. At the meeting, Chris Capossela said the company is concerned about emailing eating into sleep time and that the company is doing something about it. Exactly what is unclear, but it's probably got an orange logo and is spelt R.S.S.

Having helped to make people permanently contactable, Joe Wilcox of Jupiter Research pointed out that more whizzy new communications technology is not going to solve the problem and that helping to separate work life from home life is something that companies should focus on.

I've got a great email productivity tip: don't read it. Or, if you are Bill Gates, get someone else to do the reading for you.

Research conducted by the US-based Marketing Experiments Journal and Clicks2Customers, together with South African specialist Incubeta, has claimed that fraud on the pay-per-click ads used by Google, Yahoo and many others - and which pepper many blogs - is reaching close to 30 per cent on some campaigns. The trouble is, the higher levels of click fraud tend to be for the ads that attract the higher payment rates every time they get clicked. According to the research, one user of pay-per-click advertising lost out to the tune of more than $15 000 over the period of just 10 days. Joe Holcomb, formerly of Blowfish Blowsearch, questioned whether the techniques used could identify click fraud but has indicated similar percentages in his own research.

When things such as adwords arrived on the scene, advertisers must have thought: "At last, we have a way of measuring response rates and paying only for ads that work". Now, they are probably wondering whether that many living, breathing human beings actually do the clicking, or whether all those pages they serve at the destinations of the clickthroughs are simply getting hoovered up by script-driven bots.

An irritating trend has started with PRs as some have decided that dealing with enquiries from pesky hacks is all too much trouble. The default answer among a growing number is to respond to any enquiry with a phrase along the lines of: "It's all on our/our client's website." And more hacks are getting ticked off with it.

One thing these PRs don't seem to have realised is that a good many hacks have embraced the web as a first-instance research tool when putting together the background for a feature. We know where the website is and we have a pretty good idea what's on it in general. There are a good many otherwise technophobe editors who have an excellent grasp of how to get the most out of Google searches. But the web cannot provide more than a part of what's needed. That's why we're ringing the press office: we need something else.