Chris Edwards: October 2005 Archives

The powers that be at Google must be wondering why they ever bought Pyra Labs, the people behind Blogger. The relentless expansionism of Google has made the company the number-one target for angry bloggers who want to know why their ego feed searches are full of splog entries.

Chris Pirillo came up with some suggestions to Google. Unfortunately, as with email spam, we are getting to the situation where the cure could be worse than the disease, and have little to no effect on splogs themselves (other than forcing them to alter strategies a little). People tend to forget that spammers present a moving target.

I can't help but see problems with most, if not all, of Pirillo's suggestions simply because spammers do adapt. I've paraphrased the suggestions for brevity:

1) Employ a blog spammer. Maybe Google already does. Oh, you mean knowingly employ a blog spammer. And if you do get one, how do you know you've got a good one? Or should that be bad one?

2) Probationary period: only allow people with a track record to create more blogs. Good plan, if it were not for the case that, apparently, the spammers have been using lots of accounts to create blogs, not a few accounts spawning lots of blogs.

3) Sponsor a blogger: you need a reference to create a blog. And if a new blog goes spammy, revoke both it and the referee account. This is something that will run and run, in court. As with Ebay, Blogger account hijacking will become the new sport for keen phishermen (and women). Why use up your real accounts when you can phish one out of Little Jimmy and his blog on Star Wars puppets?

4) Flag splogs from the toolbar. Apparently now done. But that does not deal with the problems caused by false flagging. Who is to stop sploggers from flagging. Don't forget, these guys are operating with a very large number of accounts.

5) Take every experience seriously. Can't argue with that one in principle but do we know that not taking it seriously is the problem? How long does it take to alter what is already a large code base? Google engineers might be sitting on their fat arses, maybe their engineering is undermined by crypto-blog spammers (see point 1), or maybe they're just a bit overwhelmed.

6) Track bad neighbourhoods (ie link farms) and penalise Blogspot sites that start linking to them. Interesting but we could start seeing a new trend in blogbowling as well as Googlebowling. Also, it already seems that sploggers are building rings around their bad neighbourhoods and, if this were to become policy, the sploggers would simply make sure there was an insulating layer between new Blogspot splogs and the link farms they are really trying to support. For a splogger there is little point in linking straight from a new Blogspot splog to a link farm anyway, as the new splog would have sod all in the way of PageRank.

7) Reward flaggers. Flagging is it's own reward and maybe should stay that way. How many T-shirts do sploggers need (see point 4)?

8) Audit randomly with a "how's it going" question once in a while. Actually, that's not a bad one. But sploggers tend to work by probabilities rather than saying: "Oh dang! They've changed the script, knocking out 10 per cent of my bots' attempts. Better hang up the old splogging boots." Nope, they just try and get more accounts, or write scripts to account for the change.

9) Get the AdWords team to help flag 'hot' keywords. And then do what exactly?

10) No more dashes in blog names, cos sploggers like dashes. Well, there are plenty more characters in the ASCII set I'm sure they'd like to try.

A spat between two blogging stalwarts Steve Gillmor and Doc Searls has seen the role of the venerable hyperlink come into question. Gillmor doesn't like links. He has declared links to be dead. Searls is sceptical of the Gillmor position and wants to know why Gillmor is so greedy as to deny him, or anybody else, the benefit of a link.

In reality, the argument is less about the hyperlink than it is about one search engine's mechanism for rating pages. A search engine that has given blogs the biggest single boost than any other factor. Google's PageRank system is built on the idea that people link to pages that are important to them. If important people link to pages, then those pages must be really important. Blogs benefit greatly from PageRank because they rely so much on intensive linking. But the recent rise of splogs that have linked to high-profile blogs means that links "have been devalued", in the words of Dave Winer.

Although splogs are becoming more troublesome, does that really mean the underpinning of the Web should be thrown away and replaced with something completely different?

I received two emails from a media researcher at PRNewswire (PRN) today wanting some supplementary information about me as a journalist. Nothing unusual in that, except that the questions go a bit further than whether I'd like to get releases by mail, email or carrier pigeon. And, apparently it is all in the aim of achieving a "better targeting of press releases".

First up: the year I started in my current role. I don't know, will PRN only send me stuff if I have been in place for one, two, maybe three years? It might help if they indicated which role they were asking about: the two emails suggest that the entries are for different magazines. Even so, the relevance of this information to PRN I have yet to work out*. But the thirst for information at PRN did not stop there.

The next bit on the email form looked like this:

Education (the most recent)
The name of the Educational establishment:

Subject studied:

Just the most recent education, you understand. No need for the full CV. Well, that's a relief. I thought for a minute I'd better just send my full CV off to PRN just so they can improve their targeting. Quite how telling them I (kind of) studied chemistry close to 20 years ago in London is going to help them work out which releases they are going to send me on electronics, I am a little unsure. Maybe I'll get taken off the electronics listings altogether and put onto feedstocks and drug design bulletins. I'd be intrigued to know which genius thought up this bunch of questions. I have asked PRN, but have had no reply as yet.

The questions didn't stop there, although they didn't go as far as inside leg measurement or sexual preference. PRN would also like to know which foreign languages I speak - which does make a bit more sense. And finally, my story-gathering preferences. Don't you worry your little heads over that PRN, just keep updating the RSS channels and I'll decide how I deal with the stuff that gets plonked in them.

* OK, I might have worked it out. It looks like PRN is putting together a journalist's profile database along the lines of MediaMap, but doing it in the most ham-fisted way possible.

No comment, no firing

13 October 2005

In his musings, PR Stuart Bruce is surprised that PRs need to be told of the dangers of the "no comment" reply to hacks' questions.

Well, there's still plenty of it going on, although few restrict themselves to the simple "no comment". People have found slightly more imaginative ways to try to fend off the questions they'd rather not answer, even though they are not necessarily more effective. Or, there is always the run-and-hide option, which is often the most popular: "Company X did not respond to questions..." or "Company X was approached for comment but did not return calls at the time of going to press".

The issue of getting money for blogging is exercising quite a few minds at the moment, especially as some bloggers are already celebrating the imminent demise of traditional publishing: a business that depends on advertising for much of its revenue. And that is advertising that full-time bloggers would like. Tom Foremski at SiliconValleyWatcher declared IBM's policy of not booking ads on blogs contradicted a drive to increase the number of its employees who blog. If people do the same as IBM and decide not to advertise on blogs, who is going to pay for their upkeep? After all, you cannot have subscriptions as the cross-linking that has become integral to the growth of the blog collapses.

But are the bloggers themselves the cause of the advertising malaise? They decry traditional mechanisms of promotion, quoting chunks of the Cluetrain Manifesto as they go. Markets are conversations, they say. Blogs are conversations too, apparently. Therefore, the argument goes, blogs are the new marketing. They are Web 2.0 vehicles, not like the hated Web 1.0 DoubleClick-fed banner ads. So why are bloggers so insistent on getting olde worlde ads?

The sound of silence

11 October 2005

Whereas the Palm LifeDrive is burdened by its own complexity, the same cannot be said for the breathtakingly expensive E4c earphones made by Shure. But they really do work. Shure didn't bother with all that active noise cancelling malarky in making the E4c arguably one of the best earphones for wearing in an airplane: they just took the concept behind sound-isolating earplugs and added speakers.

Having a lot of experience with producing in-ear monitors for stage work helped a lot. Despite being severely wallet-lightening compared with most high-street earphones, they are still a lot cheaper than the pro versions and manage to avoid having to have a cast made of your lugholes. But they succeed in wiping out most of the noise from an aircraft cabin. If you can stretch to buying them, get some and you need not worry about the imminent introduction of cellphone services on commercial services, crying babies or engine noise. Just don't wear them on the street: they greatly increase the risk of getting run over.


11 October 2005

I had a rush of blood to the head on a recent trip to Boston and picked up a Palm LifeDrive on the way out at the Duty Free store. This is one of those products that looks a lot better on paper than it really works in real life. In making their machines take up more PC-like functions, Palm seems to be giving their PDAs all of the PC's niggles as well.

Hardware-wise, I don't think there is all that much wrong with the LifeDrive but this beast is seriously in need of a software update. I've never seen a PDA crash so often. Even after installing the WiFi update, the network at MIT made the thing freak out so badly that it rebooted itself when it tried to log on. And it refused to do anything useful with the WiFi at the Cambridge Galleria, although the hotel network (at the Tria near Alewife) worked just fine. OmniWeb on the Powerbook gave a clue as to why the MIT network tripped it up - a strange security certificate - but that's no excuse for the PDA equivalent of a Blue Screen of Death. And that was not the only thing to make it crash.

Secrets and rumours

10 October 2005

Having gone over Jeff Jarvis's column in Media Guardian twice I'm still having trouble making sense of it. I think I've got to the bottom of it: his definition of the word secret is different to that of most other people. And it changes halfway through.

First, Jarvis tells us that the Internet is changing the nature of secrets. How so? Does the Internet apply some form of quantum nuttiness that makes secrets somehow not secrets anymore? I doubt that. I think he means that the ease of publishing on the Internet makes it easier to disclose things that in a paper-dominated world would remain secret or at least obscure. Apparently, "the web explodes our view of truth like a kernel of popcorn: it has given birth to a culture of transparency". I would question that. It has given birth to a culture of mass-publishing. Transparency? Yet to be demonstrated long-term. Job applicants are already finding that transparency is providing would-be employers with too much information.

However, it's the next sentence that had me scratching my head and wondering whether I had suffered a blow to the head that made my internal dictionary no longer match up with the rest of the world: the Internet "also allows citizens to say what they want without saying who they are - yes, to keep secrets". Erm...would that not make such things no longer secrets but...rumours? Keeping secrets involves not telling people things. Disclosing things anonymously does not maintain their secret status and also remains a long way from maintaining transparency.