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It's hard to say these days

Good Barriers (A Look At The Big Picture)

clock December 17, 2008 20:42 by author tom

Michael Arrington of TechCrunch has decided to no longer accept news embargos (where news is given to a media outlet early but they can’t write about it until a certain date/time).  He says…

A lot of this news is good stuff that our readers want to know about. And we have the benefit of taking some time during the pre-briefing to think about the story, do research, and write it properly. When embargoes go right, we get to write a thoughtful story which benefits the company and our readers.

But there’s a problem. All this stress on the PR firms put on them by desperate clients means they send out the embargoed news to literally everyone who writes tech news stories. Any blog or major media site, no matter how small or new, gets the email. It didn’t used to be this way, but it’s becoming more and more of a problem. As the economy turns south, PR firms are under increasing pressure to perform and justify their monthly retainers which range from $10,000 to $30,000 or more. In short, they have to spam the tech world to get coverage, or lose their jobs.

Now obviously I think this is a bad thing.  An embargo, when used properly, exists for a reason.  It allows reporters to publish more than a knee jerk reaction to news.  They get to (a) reflect on the news and (b) research unclear parts of the news to create something of greater quality.  This leads to better news stories which in turn leads to a readership that is better informed and less frustrated because they receive higher quality content. 

Bottom Line: Embargo = Good

So the question then becomes “Why are we losing this good thing?”  To me this boils down to one issue and that is a lack of standards.  In the past there were newspapers with editors and if a reporter broke an embargo he would be fired by that editor.  Because the institution had some integrity and because, even if they didn’t consciously know it, they realized that a society without rules is a bad thing. 

But now you get the modern day equivalent of those newspaper editors breaking the rules they once upheld just to stay in the game.  Which is the result of PR firms treating a few no-name jerks the same way they treat actual established web publications. 

This comes back to a theme I’ve tried to cover often which is the idea that “just because technology allows you to do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should do it”.  Technology indiscriminately removes “barriers to entry” but that doesn’t by default make it the right thing to do.  Just because some guy can put up a blog that looks just like Techcrunch doesn’t mean he should be treated in the same way. 

Because he might turn out to be a jerk who breaks the rules because he just doesn’t care.

Which is exactly why some barriers to entry are good and why it’s the job of responsible people in society to recognize those good barriers and artificially enforce them even when technology seems to render them moot.  Had PR firms realized an embargo is for their benefit and only sent breaking news to respectable web publications they wouldn’t find themselves without it now.  But they didn’t and because of that they, and society as a whole, are worse off. 



Why We Stopped Buying From Dell

clock December 16, 2008 14:30 by author Tom

This article in the New York Times hit particularly hard for me because I’ve just recently decided to stop purchasing from Dell all together.  At one point, many years ago, I bought everything from them.  But the company’s chaotic internal workings have made it impossible to do business with them.

The final straw was a billing dispute that came up a month ago.  I got a call from a billing person at Dell saying there were unpaid invoices on our account.  I called him back and we discussed the matter and found some irregularities (I had checks saying we paid where as he had those invoices marked as partially paid for some reason).  He said he would investigate.

A few days later I started getting automated calls about the same bills.  I called the number given and after waiting on hold for 30 minutes the system simply hung up on me.  Assuming there must be some clerical error I e-mailed the gentleman I’d spoken to before telling him about the calls and waited.

Then I found out our Dell Credit account had been frozen.  At this point it had been weeks after the initial phone call about the billing dispute and I had not heard back from the original billing person.  My Dell Sales rep e-mailed several billing people asking what had happened on the matter to which he was told that we owed the $2,000 and that they were unaware of any investigation.

As of now it’s a month later and I still have no resolution on the matter (to the best of my knowledge the investigation promised a month ago has never taken place).  After discussing it with the CEO of the company it was decided that our attorney should handle things from this point and that we’d no longer do business with Dell (this isn’t the first incident where Dell’s crazy internal system has led to a massive time drain)

Which means they lost an account worth several hundred thousand dollars a year over rough $2,000 (which they'd already been paid if they'd just bother to investigate). 

That’s the reality behind Dell’s problems.  For all the pontification on product lines, direct distribution, etc… the truth remains this: Dell is an extremely disorganized company.  Buying from them is 10 times harder than buying from a company like CDW.  Yet, except for the rare retail deal, they won’t allow others to sell their products. 

So if I like HP systems and have a problem with CDW I can go to another vendor but if I have a problem with Dell’s backwards sales and billing teams I have to stop buying Dell completely.  Which is what I’ve done.  

More to the point, I’m one of the last to hold on.  All the other purchasing people I know have given up on Dell for much the same reason (though usually the backwardness they’ve had trouble with is on the warranty side).  So while the pundits talk about acquisitions and product plans I know the truth.  It’s the so-called “Dell Hell” that’s really going to put them out of business.



The Human Spam Filter...

clock December 15, 2008 09:53 by author Tom

One of the tasks I've taken on over the years is to go through the spam mail of people who no longer work at my agency and use them to make our filtering better.

What most people don't realize is how the great majority of the spam that an organization gets (at least any organization that I've ever seen) comes to employees that no longer work there.  This is just the reality of Spam, the spammers never give up and since their messages weren't asked for in the first place they have no idea when the person they are sending to has left. 

So once you get to the point where the number of employees who have left is greater than the number of employees that are currently employed you start to see these "ghost accounts" getting the majority of your spam.

As a policy we forward someone's mail to their replacement and/or boss for the first 6 months and then relegate it to a spam account after that (the spam account has an "out of office" type message saying that employee no longer works with us).  From there these accounts continue to receive mail for, well, I assume forever.

At this point the spam account receives a message every 3 seconds or so.

The one advantage to this otherwise annoying situation is that it provides you with a good way to (a) detect spam and (b) test your filters reliability.  This is more helpful than you might think because spam filtering is almost impossible to gauge with existing users. 

I've always likened configuration of a spam filter to someone handing you a box that contains something you know how to fix.  They then seal up the box and cut two holes in the side just big enough for your hands to get through and tell you to stick your hands into the box and fix the thing. 

That's basically what spam filtering is.  I can see what's going on outside but I can't (ethically not technically) look into the user's mail box so I'm forced to guess my way through to an effective strategy. 

But by redirecting all these old accounts to a central Spam folder I can go through them and try to refine the spam filtering.  Usually what I do is to use the keyword filtering to increase our ability to catch spam.  This works in two ways...

  1. It allows me to see the various euphemisms for sex and male genitalia and block mail with them in it (Baysian Filtering can be surprisingly dense).  So I block all the "se>.<u@1s" and all the "organ/instrument/device/participle" talk.  All of which increases our catch level tremendously.
  2. Even more effective it allows me to block the URLs.  In the end every spam message is trying to get you to go somewhere and in every one of those situations that URL is something that can be blocked.  At this point I must have a collection of 2000+ bogus urls that we block in e-mails.  One trick here though, most spammers will put the url at the end of a sentence because a text filter sees a difference between "http://www.fakeurl.com" and "http://www.fakeurl.com." So you'll see them cycle through with  "http://www.fakeurl.com!" and "http://www.fakeurl.com?"  To be effective you have to make sure you get every one.

There are other tricks that you pick up as you go along but those two alone will get you pretty far.  At this point my keyword checker outpaces the Baysian Filter by about 4-to-1.

One caution though, don't go overboard.  There's no legit reason for an e-mail to have "Sexual Organ" in it but there are plenty of reasons for just the word "Organ".  Be specific as possible or you'll end up costing users more than you benefit them.



Why Great European Entrepreneurs Move To The Valley

clock December 13, 2008 17:37 by author Tom

Michael Arrington has a business to run.  That business is driven by traffic and traffic can be slow on the weekend.  So he occasionally stirs the pot a little and to be honest they are some of my favorite posts.

This is a particularly great example...

Conference organizer Loic Le Meur (a French entrepreneur who moved to Silicon Valley for his most recent startup Seesmic) says that Silicon Valley moves too fast, and that Europeans enjoy a good two hour lunch just to experience the joy of life.

My response, at about 17:40: the joy of life is great, but all these two hour lunches over a bottle or two of great wine and general unwillingness to do whatever it takes to compete and win is the reason why all the big public Internet companies are U.S. based. And those European startups that do manage to break through cultural and tax hurdles and find success are quickly gobbled up by those U.S. companies. Skype (acquired by eBay) and MySQL (acquired by Sun) are recent examples.

Look, Europeans value different things.  I have personally sat at a Paris cafe and had a group of French businessmen explain how American Entrepreneurs are "a little touched in the head" for working so hard.  Their culture believes the point of life to be self gratification and that's fine with me.  It takes all kinds to make the world go 'round and I have no problem with there being places where they value leisure more than hard work. 

But where I object is when those people try to claim their philosophy also produces as much in the results category.  Europeans want to have their cake and eat it too.  They want to believe they can produce as much as people who work really hard and still live a life of leisure.

But that argument doesn't stand up to basic logical.  It's a justification and that is what's at issue here.  This isn't American arrogance it's Europeans' wanting to believe they're so perfect that they can produce as much as Valley workers while still giving themselves all the things that those in the valley deny themselves.  So they create an irrational bubble around themselves that says "we're just as Entrepreneurial as the Americans"

Oh, and like any irrational bubble they drown out anyone who dares try to pop it.

Now just to be clear, I am not saying there are no hard working European entrepreneurs.  One need only look at Netvibes to realize there are.  But in general Europe is a culture that doesn't value working day and night to make your business great so most end up moving to a culture that does, namely the United States. 

Which is my final point.  This really isn't about the United States vs Europe.  Japan, India, Singapore and many other countries have the same rampant innovation as the U.S.  It's about societies that encourage and embrace innovation being given credit for it and those societies that don't realizing the consequences of their actions.

Update: I don’t mean to pick but this makes my point so perfectly. From the blog of Oliver Thylmann (a European)

The important thing is that Michael gets it totally wrong. The idea by Loic that we go to have 2 hours of lunch is just said to make a point. Relationships are deeper here in many cases. Above that, it’s not about what you push into it, it’s about what comes out at the other end that is important. No matter how much you work, the end result is important. And if somebody makes it on 2 hours while somebody else takes 8, then that’s something called productivity.

Any reasonable person would realize it’s impossible for one person to do a job in 2 hours while the other takes 8 (provided one of the people isn’t completely incompetent). But this is exactly the kind of justifications that are necessary to form that bubble of irrationality I described above. What’s funny about this is that people who make statements like the above one are the same people who go on and on about American arrogance.

“I can do work 4 times faster than you but you are the arrogant one”


Tom's 4 Cynical (But Still Good) Reasons For Web Publishers To Avoid Identity Services

clock December 12, 2008 04:16 by author Tom

Over at Advertising Age they have an article about the new services offered by Facebook, Google and Myspace that allow users to use the credentials established on those sites to log on to other sites around the web.  They give reasons why web publishers should consider using these services.  I'd like to counter that suggestion.

But first one correction...

Google, Facebook and MySpace have all developed platforms where publishers can let visitors log in with an existing account from another service, rather than requiring visitors to register for that specific site.

Ummm...Don't forget ol' Grand Dad.  Live ID/Passport/Whatever has been at this identity thing for a long time now.  They might not have all the bells and whistles but almost everyone has a Hotmail account (even if they don't use it) so Microsoft isn't completely out of the game.  That said, the issue I wanted to address is this...

How should publishers choose among the current connect platforms -- Google Friend Connect, Facebook Connect and MySpaceID?

I have a simple answer to this question.  Don't.  Below are my 4 reasons why adopting any of these standards is a bad idea right now.

1.  Effort:  In the end at least one of these services is going to die.  No one knows which one that is.  Meaning if you chose to be an early adopter you have, at best, a 1-in-4 chance of completely wasting your time.  Worse there seems to be no answer to this question: if you sign up users through one of these services and it goes away what exactly do you do then? 

2.  Money: Realistically these rivalries all tend to play out the same.  Companies try to compete on technology but all their different solutions have essentially the same advantages so eventually they start spreading money around to get web sites to adopt their flavor of the technology. 

No one's going to offer money to the guy who already signed up.

3.  Compliance: Jumping on a bandwagon first only pays off if the bandwagon is a positive one.  Everyone loves the guy whose company went green but what about the TV exec who first decided to put those annoying ads on the bottom of the screen during your favorite show?  No one likes that guy.

These systems are all proprietary meaning anyone adopting them will look bad as long as OpenId has a chance of survival.  Sadly, I don't think that will be true for very much longer but while it is companies are best to steer clear of proprietary standards from a PR perspective.

4.  Power:  Having user info is valuable.  That's why everyone's been collecting it all this time.  By signing up for one of these services you are giving that information to another company who can control your access to it.  That's a disadvantage to you.  So why do it if you don't have to?

With all that said I present the 1 non-cynical reason why you might want to consider adopting one of these systems.

1.  Barrier To Entry: We all know that signing up for a new service is a pain.  If you have a new service that you desperately want people to sign up for it isn't the worst idea to let them use credentials they already have.  Just remember what you're giving away in valuable user data and make an informed decision.



On Actionable Items: A Follow Up To My Last Post

clock December 8, 2008 13:15 by author tom

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve been given about this blog is to “focus on the Actionable Items.”  Or in other words, picture the person who reads what you say and agrees completely.  Then ask yourself “What do I want this person to come away with?  If I could have this person do something after reading this post what would it be?” 

Since being given that advice I’ve tried as best I can to end each post with those “actionable items” but sometimes I forget.  My last post was one of those times. 

So if I may, let me try to make up for that.  What I was trying to get across in that post is that most bloggers say they want to be part of a “conversation” but then turn around and don’t actually converse.  If they can see my point and would like to participate in a conversation they should do a Google search before they make a post and look at the facts and opinions already out there (both agreeing opinions and disagreeing ones).  By doing that they’ll be moving a conversation, and hence everyone’s collective knowledge, forward rather than just repeating the same tired old things over and over and over again. 



The Social "Conversation"

clock December 8, 2008 04:44 by author Tom

I go out of my way to read both sides of the fence on Political blogs.  Doing so has taught me an important, if not a little disheartening lesson.  To illustrate this lesson let me give you a quote from Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly...

EVEN GEORGE WILL.... We've past the point at which this can reasonably be described as foolish. Now, conservative apoplexy about the non-existent drive to reinstate the "Fairness Doctrine," is just annoying. George Will, who one might expect to know better, devoted 740 words in a nationally syndicated column to railing against a legislative initiative that no one seriously wants or expects to pass.

<George Will Quote>

I haven't the foggiest idea what compelled George Will to write such nonsense. It's not only ridiculous, it neglects to mention to the reader that no one is seriously trying to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine.

Now, I pick this topic because I think most bloggers, conservative or liberal, are against the fairness doctrine (a bill that would try to legislate equal time from every TV, radio and presumably Internet source).  So it serves as a "non-political" jumping off point because the fairness doctrine is not my point. 

My point comes from this quote, easily found through Google and easily verifiable, from House speaker Nancy Pelosi (from Newsbusters.org)...

"Do you personally support revival of the ‘Fairness Doctrine?'" I asked.

"Yes," the speaker replied, without hesitation.

I also found equivalent quotes from other politicians such as Diane Feinstein, John Kerry, and others.

Now my point is not to take a side in this.  The truth is either side could be true.  On one hand I've shown some verifiable quotes that show members of the House and Senate voicing support for the Fairness Doctrine.  But on the other hand those quotes could just as easily be explained away as political posturing to a liberal base that hates Talk Radio.

After all, there is no active bill or even debate about reinstatement of the fairness doctrine and none of the above quoted people are scheduled to present one.

So both sides could be right.  My point though, long in coming I know, is how these bloggers talk past each other.  Blogs and other social media are often described as "a conversation" but the simple truth is that no conversation is actually taking place.  More like people shouting to their followers on opposite sides of a building. 

If there was "a conversation" wouldn't they at least address each other's points.  You don't have to agree with a point to address it.  In fact, in an actual conversation you go out of your way to address other's points so that you can then refute them (there by strengthening your own argument). 

I like blogs, I have a blog, I read blogs more than most.  But saying they're a conversation is intellectually dishonest.  More importantly, it stops people from having an actual conversation which is exactly what the world needs more of right now.



Facebook Clutters Their Ad Potential

clock December 5, 2008 07:10 by author Tom

Allen Stern at CenterNetworks has an interesting post about an experiment he did recently.  In it he tried advertising for his startup on Facebook to see how well the ad would do.  He gives hard facts in the post but this short quote pretty much says it all...

While I get that people updating their Facebook status or posting a photo from the bar last night might not be in the proper mindset for my service, it's really a bit shocking just how poorly the ad has performed.

The news here isn't that the ad performed poorly it's that the ad performed horrendously.  Literally a disaster (click on the link for one of the saddest graphs I've ever seen in my life). 

His experience isn't an aberration either.  I've looked and I've yet to see anyone who has been really successful by advertising on Facebook.  After considering it a while I think I know why.

Web ads are a "first look" business.  No one reads a whole web page and then looks at the advertisement.  If you're an advertiser using Web ads you have to grab the person's attention when the page first loads or accept you've lost that potential sale.  This is a point that can't be stressed enough.

Now, look at this picture of Time Square...

(Photo by Terry Ratcliff)

When you first looked at that picture, and I mean the first few seconds, did you notice any of the ads?  Did you see a Discover ad, a Chevy ad, etc...  Or did you just look at it as Time Square?

Most will just see Time Square as a whole. 

The reason for that is there's just too much going on.  The clutter takes on a majesty all it's own and that's what you focus on.  Only after you've been looking at it for a minute do you start to focus on individual pieces of the picture.

Which is the problem with a Facebook ad.  When someone first loads their Facebook page they probably have 20 things visible and that first few seconds is spent just taking in the page as a whole.  Problem is those few seconds, as I pointed out above, are a web ad's window of opportunity.

Once people start to focus in on the individual parts of the page they're invariably going to zero in on the actual content leaving your ad in the dust.  The end result is lots of impressions and virtually no clicks.

Now the promise of Facebook was that it could get around this problem by targeting ads towards a specific demographic in a way so precise that the Ads actually become content.  But having paid special attention to any story from people advertising on Facebook I can tell you they've failed at that goal. 

Until they find a way to succeed I'd consider Facebook a bad investment for any advertiser. 



My Dell Rant

clock December 4, 2008 17:00 by author tom

Ok, maybe Dell does suck.

Here’s the situation:  There were a few purchases we made, in August, where Dell lost the check.  I have stubs for the check so we cut the check, but they for some reason don’t have the check.

So I spoke with a gentleman about it, I told him we cut the check but we can cancel it and re-cut the checks next week (accounting only cuts checks once a week).  Everything was agreed on and all’s well that ends well.

Two days later I get a voice message “Please call Dell.  Your account is over due and this might affect your terms status…[blah], [blah], blah]”

I call the number given in the voice mail and wait. 

This is the best part…

I wait for 30 minutes on hold.  Finally an automated voice comes on and says…

Thanks you for calling Dell.  We are experiencing high call volumes.  Please call us back at <phone number> extension <extension>.  Again that number is <phone number> extension <extension>.  Thank you for calling Dell.  Goodbye!

<click>

No joke, I was calling on a billing dispute (in which they threatened me) and they left me on hold for 30 minutes and then hung up on me. 

The truly amazing part about this is they can’t claim it was a rogue employee or some mistake.  This was an automated system.  It was programmed to hang up on customers.  There’s no denying it. 

That really is the worst customer service ever.



Time for some Truth about the New York Times

clock December 4, 2008 13:36 by author Tom

From Read Write Web today

At a time when the online world is continually seen as a more trusted source of news, mainstream media outlets find themselves forced into the position of becoming more and more open to keep their readers coming back. Removing "paid subscription" requirements that prevented everyday users from accessing content was one of the first cracks in the walled gardens. Opening APIs to other developers has been gaining favor. And now, another trend is coming to light: incorporating third-party content to supplement the original content the sites are offering. Today, the Gray Lady joined those ranks as the The New York Times launched Times Extra, a view of its front page supplemented with content from other news sources and blogs.

This probably isn’t the first story you’ve seen like this.  The New York Times has become the darling of “new media” advocates by doing everything those advocates suggest.  Social Features, Aggregation, Opening their content up, and now sending people away with links.  You’d think the Times would be rolling in money at this point.

But here’s the thing: The New York Times continues to lose money.

In fact, just a few weeks ago the blogosphere was abuzz about the Times having almost no working capital left.  Their Ad Revenue decreased by 13.7% last quarter alone, circulation rates are plummeting and while their online business is growing (6.7% in the last quarter) it’s not growing fast enough to compensate for the erosion of their print business (it only delivers 12.4% of total revenue).

At this point the counter argument is usually “That may be true, but what choice do they have?  Paper circulation is in a death spiral and walled garden web sites just don’t work”

Ok, answer me this: If that’s true, why is the stodgy old Wall Street Journal not losing readers at all (their circulation growth was flat last quarter)?  Why is their ad revenue up by 5.8% (this is last quarter which was before the financial crisis btw)?  Why is their walled garden web site up 137% year-over-year (compared to the New York Times which is only up 37%). 

Now, in fairness the Times does have more unique visitors online but that in itself is a bad thing.  If they already have 15 million unique visitors a month and they can’t make ends meet what’s going to happen when their paper circulation erodes even further?  

Which brings me back around to my point.

You need to judge whether new business methods work based on actual, tangible results.  Not how the blogging community feels about a feature or how cool your tech department thinks it would be to do something.  The New York Times is walking down a road that doesn’t deliver the revenue stream they need to survive and rather than acknowledge that they’re choosing to continue down that same road.  While the Wall Street Journal, with it’s walled garden approach, continues to see revenue rise and circulation hold steady. 

Great user experience doesn’t pay the bills for a company the size of the New York Times and someone there needs to realize that.

One Last Point...I forgot to address an important point above which is the "drudge argument."  This is where people say "the Drudge Report is the most widely read site on the Internet so aggregation is the way of the future."  Two things here: First, aggregation isn't easy (see this post for more on that).  Second, and more important for the New York Times, aggregation works because the aggregator doesn't have a vested interest in any of the available stories.  So Drudge can send someone to the New York Times or Wall Street Journal and not care because he gets his revenue either way.  The New York Times isn't like that.

Let me give you an example.  Say I want to read about the latest news on the U.S. Banking Bailout.  I go to NYTimes.com and see their story and then underneath that a link to the Wall Street Journal's story.  I only have time to read one and I decide the WSJ is better for Financial news so I click that link and never go to the NY Times story.  That scenario is not good for the Times.



About Me

Not really relevant right now. This blog is on hiatus. I really haven't decided if it is an indefinite hiatus yet

For the record if you've tried to e-mail me over the last 4 to 6 months I didn't mean to ignore you. The e-mail forwarding isn't working and I didn't realize that until months worth of e-mails had been deleted on forward. The tom@tomstechblog.com address still won't forward to the postmaster account and I don't know why because it's provided by the webhost. But if you're one of my old blog pen pals I would always welcome an e-mail from you at the postmaster@tomstechblog.com address

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