Archives for "February 2004"

E-Voting in Ireland

I'm a relatively early adopter when it comes to new technologies, particularly any that have an "e" prefix. So I'm all for the Irish Government's plan to implement a nationwide e-voting system in June's European and Local elections, right? Wrong. I can't understand why the Government is hell-bent on rolling out this system. Is it to make Ireland look "progressive"; to enhance the country's brand as a "digital hub"; or to save their own faces? The principle argument put forward in favour of electronic voting here is that there is a huge number of deliberately spoiled votes under the current ballot box system, which an electronic system (of standalone machines at polling centres) would prevent. So we're told. But in a letter to yesterday's Irish Times, Barry Doyle writes: "I have acted as a deputy returning officer in a number of general election counts and one of the duties is to rule on spoiled votes. In general, these would be no more than one per cent of the total poll. Most are spoiled by accident. ... Deliberate spoiling occurs in only 2 or 3 per cent of all spoiled votes. This spoiling is usually by way of suggestion to individual candidates or parties or indeed the Queen of England that they attempt an act of self abuse which would require a degree of acrobatic dexterity or imagination which is clearly beyond their competence." Having listened to various politicians trying to justify the introduction of e-voting, I have become convinced that the emperor has, in fact, no clothes. To say our leading politicians are ignorant of the basic fundamentals of the inner workings of any sort of computer is an understatement. Indeed, I heard one minister on Vincent Browne's radio show argue that the system was not computer-based, since these are voting machines, and therefore NOT computers. (Blink, blink. Oookaaaaaay.) The typical debate goes like this: "And what if something goes wrong with these machines?" "It won't." "How do you know?" "Because experts have told us so." "But many independent experts disagree." "Stop being mischievous. You are simply trying to erode public confidence." "Can't we at least implement a system that gives us a printed receipt of our votes?" "No." "Why not?" "Because they don't do that in other countries." "So what?" "Well, anyway, the printers would be less reliable than the comp -- uh, voting machines." Hilarious as these debates are, democracy is the foundation of our society. For most citizens, voting is their only way of directly participating in that democracy. Any changes to our current system should only be made with the approval of Irish citizens. Let's have a referendum -- using paper -- to see if that approval exists. I am not in principle against electronic voting. I just want a system I can trust.

Printer Comparison

I have used many different makes and models of printers over the last decade or so. I've worked with everything – from old, slow dot-matrix machines to today’s large format, high resolution printers. I’ve also got my hands dirty (literally) with colour inkjets, thermal wax and dye sublimation printers.

It’s not all been plain sailing: I've had paper jams, cartridge leaks, toner explosions, ink splotches and endless bloody "PostScript Error" messages.

In my view, Hewlett-Packard is still the leader of the pack with its versatile yet dependable machines, while LaserMaster is king of the high resolution units niche (despite their problems with PostScript emulation).

However, I have recently “downgraded” to a HP Psc 1205. Why? Because it’s an and all-in-one printer/scanner/photocopier. All-in-one is very important thing to me for this reason – less clutter on my desk. I am, after all, running my business from a cubicle!

And at less than €100 euro, I am happy to forgo the admittedly higher quality of a laserjet.

Googlemania!

The March 04 issue of Wired magazine is entitled "Googlemania" and features 10 articles about the number one search engine. Could this be the peak of Google's fame? Yahoo has already launched its new search algorithm, and Microsoft has threatened that it will do the same. A piece entitled Google vs. Gates discusses the battle with Microsoft. But my favourite essay of the bunch is How to Kill Google, if only because of its killer (ahem) opening: "Do you Yahoo!? Of course not -- you Google." These two short lines sum up Google's marketing coup. Yahoo spent millions on advertisements aimed at turning Yahoo into a verb. "Do you Yahoo!?" was the slogan it plugged throughout the dot com days. Then along comes Google and, with absolutely no marketing campaign but highly relevant search results that win converts through word-of-mouth, suddenly "to Google" has become a verb. Surely Google thinks "this is great"? Nope. It sends cease-and-desist orders to those who have verbalised its trademarked, copyrighted noun. Sheesh.

Geek Vacations

Ever wondered where geeks like to go on their holidays?

Neither did I. Still, I found it amusing to learn that there was a Geek Pride Festival held in Boston -- though it now seems defunct.

I'm not sure that geeks are the type how travel a lot, although more adventurous geeks are probably more likely to become backpacers than luxury hotel dwellers, though they may dream that the results of a lifetime of code-slaving will one day mean white sandy beaches, sun, sea and surfing on a private tropical island, somewhere in Fiji or the South Pacific... Sigh...

Sorry, I was away in a private paradise there.

I would wager a guess that European geeks are more concerned about holidays than US geeks are about vacations...

War Games

The US Army has hired a software gaming company to build a computer simulation of the entire earth. The "second earth" will help it to help plan future conflicts, according to BBC News: "The detailed simulation will be drawn from a real-world terrain database and will be drawn to the same scale as the original. ... There is planning to model the entire planet at the proper scale so it would be possible to walk across the United States if participants wanted to. However, currently the virtual Earth is almost bare as the only thing modelled in any detail is part of Kuwait City." Does this sound like over-ambitious folly to anyone else?

Yahoo Introduces Own Algorithm, But Results May Prove Stale

Search engine watchers aren’t just trainspotter types (honest!). Search has become the single hottest sector on the internet, with the advent of search-based marketing and advertising, and the global appeal of search brands. Google, more than any other engine, has made search sexy. The search sector has seen rapid conglomeration during the last year, as competition intensifies. Microsoft is threatening to enter the fray and, as anticipated, Yahoo finally dumped Google as its search technology provider this week. No longer will a search on Yahoo produced the same results as a search on Google. What few expected, was that Yahoo would build an entirely new search algorithm. After all, Yahoo owns Inktomi, a company that provides search technology for MSN, AltaVista and others. It is too early to say whether Yahoo’s new search results are as high-quality – that is, as relevant to search queries – as Google’s. Relevancy is not the only factor that will influence the battle of these two search giants. Another is the non-trivial matter of the pay-for-inclusion (PFI) service that Yahoo will soon offer. PFI is not the same as paying for a Yahoo sponsored listing; nor is it the same as paying for a listing in the Yahoo directory. Rather, PFI allows a customer to pay for a site to be quickly submitted to by crawled by the Yahoo spider. PFI does not guarantee that the site will appear highly – or even at all – for particular searches in Yahoo’s results. For example, let’s say I noticed that Mediajunk.com was not appearing in Yahoo’s results and, by looking through my site visitor statistics, I confirmed that Yahoo’s spider (which, incidentally, was recently renamed “Slurp”) was not crawling my site. I may then decide to pay for inclusion. This would guarantee that Slurp would visit my site, and return regularly to check for updates. If I chose not to pay for inclusion in Yahoo, on the other hand, I could choose simply to submit Mediajunk.com to Yahoo for free. My site may still appear top of the regular (non-sponsored) listings in Yahoo – but not before Slurp has crawled it. If I were to update Mediajunk (as I do regularly), I may have to wait – who knows how long? – for Slurp to return, so that my updates are reflected in Yahoo’s listings. By contrast, Google crawls as many URLs at it can on a regular, almost daily basis – and for free. Google does not offer a PFI service. Why do I think that resisting PFI will ultimately work out to Google’s advantage? Because Google’s search results will be fresher than Yahoo’s. After all, the web now contains several billion pages. Only a tiny fraction of those (let’s say 0.05%) will be submitted to Yahoo via its PFI service. Thus, only 0.05% of web pages will be regularly crawled by Yahoo; the remainder will be crawled less frequently. The result: search results that look out-of-date. After all, if the majority of results aren’t stale, what advantage does PFI give? It will certainly be interesting to see how Yahoo’s results look several months from now.

Teen Learns Shocking Truth On Web

photo of child that led to arrest Imaging browsing through the pictures on a Canadian Missing Children website only to see a familiar face -- your own -- in a baby photo. This is what happened last year to a 17-year old Californian resident, who recognised his own face in a photo that had been taken 14 years earlier. The teen sought advice from his teacher, who helped him contact the police. They confirmed the authenticity of the website with the Canadian authorities. Giselle-Marie Goudreault, the boy's mother, had abducted him in 1989 after his father, a resident of Alberta, had won full custody rights. Goudreault, 45, has since been arrested at her home in the San Fernando Valley, and is being held without bail until Canadian authorities can extradite her on child abduction charges, according to various US and Canadian media reports (see Google News). Bizarre -- and tragic.

Phone Number Fetches $$$ on eBay

Forget domain names. Now you can sell your phone number for a fortune on eBay! Uh, providing that phone number has featured as the anthem-jingle of a major pop song. Fortunately, such is the case for the seller of the New York phone number 867-5309, which featured in the 1981 hit "Jenny" by Tommy Tutone. The bidding is currently up to US $80,700. Hmmm... let's see, that's over $11,000 a digit. Anyone feel like writing a song about + 353 91 704850? Be my guest.

Google Brandy Update Rectifies Florida Damage

Over the weekend, Google once more tweaked its algorithm in what seasoned observers regard as a further concession on last November’s harsh Florida update. Florida saw massive changes to Google's search results and led to a torrent of complaints from irate webmasters, even in comments to Mediajunk. The chief complaint was that Google was unfairly penalizing legitimate sites, especially small “mom and pop” businesses, while letting some irrelevant and “spammy” results through. In 2004, Google has made two additional changes to its algorithm, though both are regarded as being “rollbacks” toward pre-Florida results. Google is believed to have taken one leap forward, followed by two modest steps back. On bulletin boards devoted to search engine watching, webmasters and site owners have expressed approval of what those two steps back. Many sites that disappeared from the listings in November are returning to their former positions, while spam and non-relevant sites are, for the most part, being kept out. In keeping with the tradition of naming Google's updates alphabetically, the 2004 changes have been dubbed Austin and Brandy respectively by the SEO community.

Domain Name Market Hints At Recovery

Back in the late 1990s, the internet gold rush was well underway: domain names were being snapped up, with speculative buyers hoping to make millions in the re-sale of their dot com, dot org or dot net names. Precedent was in the buyers’ favour; domains were selling for hundreds of thosands, even millions of dollars. Business.com remains the most expensive domain purchase in history, selling in late 1999 for US $7.5m. I had personal experience of this frenzy when, in early 2000, I was involved in the decision to choose a web moniker for UK-based internet bank, Intelligent Finance. Since the bank was planning to use the word IF as a core feature of its print and TV advertising campaigns, I argued it should drop the clunky domain (www.intelligence-finance.net, I think) it had set aside for its launch, and opt instead for the short, simple www.if.com. The snag, of course, was that if.com was already taken. I admit I was stunned at the final figure (US $1m) Intelligent Finance paid -- a price that remains one of the record domain sales to date. Soon after that, the dot com bubble burst. The cottage industry of domain name broker and reseller sites such as greatdomains.com were suddenly filled with sellers rather than buyers; people couldn’t offload domain names quickly enough. Fast forward four years. As leading world economies -- and technology sectors in particular -- begin to recover, it seems that interest in domain names is finally picking up again. In recent weeks, there have been six-figure sums paid for no less than three dot com domains: men.com, woman.com and truck.com. This is not to suggest that all domains are suddenly going to lift in value, or that we are going to see a return to those heady, feverish days of the late 1990s. Most domains still sell for less than $30, and the broker and reseller businesses are tougher than ever – as Ron Jackson explains, in his excellent introductory article to the subject. “The fact is the domain ocean is filled with ravenous creatures who gobble up every good domain name long before they hit the deleted list you are looking at. These guys are the industry’s killer whales and tiger sharks. You are the minnow.” Sounds like the domain name industry is like any other -- it’s tough at the top. And it’s a hell of a crush at the bottom.

Confessions of an eBay Addict

Well, of an eBay addict's son. A user of the somethingawful.com forum has posted pictures of his mother's junk-filled house, to illustrate how hooked she is on making unnecessary purchases via eBay. On the upside, he's not likely to be asked to tidy his room...

Searchers Growing More Sophisticated

As we become more web-literate, our search habits are changing. According to OneStat, users are now much more likely to enter three-word keyphrases into search engines than at any time in the past. Studies by the internet marketing analysis company reveal that the typical breakdown of search types is as follows: 1. 2 word phrases -- 32.58% 2. 3 word phrases -- 25.61% 3. 1 word phrases -- 19.02% 4. 4 word phrases -- 12.83% 5. 5 word phrases -- 5.64% 6. 6 word phrases -- 2.32% 7. 7 word phrases -- 0.98% As users become more acquainted with search engines, so the engines will become more sophisticated. This happens with all media. For, example, if you could travel 80 years into the past and show someone a modern-day movie, they wouldn't understand the cutting, and other techniques that we take for granted. Of course, this "literacy" process is happening quicker with the internet than with other media. The medium will continue to evolve, especially those who are in school today take up interent-related jobs.

Degree in Googling?

The inevitable has happened: a university in the US is offering an undergraduate-level course in all things Google-related, according to the Seattle Times: “This is a graduate-level course (albeit only one credit) that explores Google as a cultural phenomenon, Google the business, the technology behind Google — and ‘Google the Ravager of Worlds.’" I’m not sure what “Ravager of Worlds” is all about … maybe they meant words? “But the professor — an expert in digital reference and the use of Internet technologies in librarianship — also fears that the quality of research is declining. Instead of going to the library and asking a librarian for help, people rely too much on Google and other Internet search engines that are incomplete, he said.” All the more reason for Google to index as many books as it can? Meantime, the popular search engine has won a prestigious “Brand of the Year” award for the second year running (Reuters). Last time Google won the award, I reported that “Consumers respect Google for respecting them.” Of course, the Florida Update showed us that even Google’s grip on customer loyalty is tenuous. Google must remain committed to improving its service if it is to continue to enhance its brand.

Why Microsoft (Still) Doesn�t Get the Internet

At the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Bill Gates conceded that “Google kicked our butts.” He did this with all the confidence of a man who believes that, despite losing initial battles, he will ultimately win the “search wars” (reports John Markoff calls them in today’s New York Times). Gates certainly has precedent on his side. Microsoft (incredibly!) failed to see the potential of the internet -- and the browser as a killer app -- at the beginning of the 1990s. Nevertheless, the Seattle-based company managed to dominate the browser market by bundling the browser free with its OS, a strategy that led to an anti-trust suit. Many observers believe that Gates will be able to employ a similar strategy to see off Google and dominate the search market. Microsoft’s forthcoming operating system, Longhorn, will have built-in search functionality intended to surpass Google’s technology. However, the search wars differ from the browser wars in significant ways. A browser is desktop software. Microsoft was able to quickly build and release a browser (Internet Explorer) that offered more or less the same functions as Netscape, because desktop applications were within its core strength. But an internet search engine is no desktop toy. It is a complex set of functions, performed remotely. Search is, according to a senior source at MSN search, “the hardest computer-science problem [Microsoft have] ever had to face.” (See the Mediajunk entry entitled Search Engine Pack Chasing Hard). Google has achieved a significant head-start on this computer science problem. And, even as Microsoft struggles to play catch-up, Google will continue to develop its considerable knowledge of how to give searchers relevant results. Despite Gates’s bravado at Davos, the media failed to pick up on what may have been his most significant statement: that Microsoft would deliver a better, next-generation internet search engine “as early as next year.” (Quote: Yahoo! News.) Early? Microsoft had been promising that Longhorn would be delivered by the spring of 2004. By next year, Google will be out of sight. Google is a brand, a destination -- a website. Users will ignore the add-ons MS includes in its new software, so long as Google is delivering the best results. Microsoft just doesn’t get it. Then again, it has never got the internet. Remember all the hype about .Net and this wonderful vision of the company’s web presence that none of its founders could quite articulate? That the company is being accused of human rights abuses (Observer) -- by aiding the Chinese government to censor the web -- indicates how far removed it is from the culture and spirit that powers the internet. No wonder, either, that it was the laughing stock of the blogging community last week when, in an official press release on how to avoid malicious websites, Microsoft urged surfers to type URLs directly into browsers -- rather than clicking on links! Google may not be perfect. It may be the next Netscape. It may even be the next Microsoft. But it has, most likely, already won the search wars.

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Mediajunk was Michael Heraghty's blog from 2002 to 2010, with articles on usability, UX, SEO, web design, online marketing, etc. More »

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