Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Buyers Market

"Excuse me sir, I couldn't help but notice that you're somewhat more than comfortably overweight, are you sure you should be making a purchase of pastry based goods?"

I was quite taken aback by this. A till operator in my local supermarket chain telling me off for my lifestyle and advising me on purchases! Jeeze! Some people have mas huevos.

"Ahhh, no I'm happy enough thanks" - I reply, guiltily sliding an apple turnover into my rucksack.

"Hey you!", shouts a proprietor of gentlemans apparel perpendicular to my exit, "Yeah YOU!", pointing towards me. "Those clothes you're wearing are SHIT. Seriously, how the fuck do you expect to get laid wearing THAT!? Come on, look at this! Fuckin' smart huh?"

The suit, shirt and tie he's pointing at in the shop window are quite admirable and I can see how my normally disheveled appearance would be addressed by such a purchase. But still… that's quite an aggressive delivery for a salesperson. Besides I've never had much truck with that "clothes maketh the man" line.

"Eh? Ah… no… no, I'm not really looking to buy a suit". I move along, the suit seller already yelling toward another shopper who seems to have irked him with their lack of dress sense.

The uncommonly cold (for this time of year) air hits my lungs and makes my teeth grit as I skip through the opening from the shopping centre to the towns main street. Looking up from my rucksack, having retrieved my wooly bunnet, I find a strangely lecherous young man standing in front of me. It seems he's a florist, his left hand clutches a bunch of decrepit looking flowers, his right is, well… 'occupied' at the front of his trousers.

"My sister's just turned sixteen" he says, "loves these flowers so she does, buy them and who knows what luck you might have!" I ponder over the daffodils he's clutching, and notice the sickly way light is glinting off the stems, realising they're made of plastic, further flaws become apparent, wire pokes though the faux stems, the edges of the cloth petals are frayed and close to being completely unraveled.

I express disinterest to empty space as he's moved on to another potential buyer for his 'flowers'.

"Your job is pointless!", shouts a woman from a recruitment agency window. "You make very little money and have no prospects!", "Selfish BASTARD!" - this particular retort emanates from one of the many charity shops I amble past, "HEY BALDY!" beckons a barber I've not visited in five years. "Kind cxc ind anal ymn inv" comes the muffled call from the owner of a corner shop, confused, I look at the magazine he's pressing against the window depicting a naked woman with what looks like a… is that a GOAT?

Have you ever wondered, as I do, what it would be like if the retailers of the worlds streets adopted the same strategies of those who attempt to sell to you from your inbox?

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Counter Measures

The ways spam can be sent to you are many and varied: from the hijacking of your associates yahoo or hotmail accounts, unexpectedly allowing your email address to be added to an unscrupulous mailing list, or just displaying your email address on your website for all to see.

NEVER put your email address on the internet. You may wish to make it easy as possible for your customers to contact you or to attract sales. All you will attract is flies to your inbox.

The workaround for lacking an email address on your website is the ubiquitous contact form.

Even these are are vunerable - as is illustrated by the first sentence of this article, received by a client via a form on their website intended for inquiries regarding their wares. This, along with "amateur boy dick" and "young gays" had very little to do with their daily business.

It's a misconception that people visit your website in order to send these messages, fortunately not so. One of the points of spam (when it isn't an out and out scam) is that you will hopefully click a link in the spam email, go to that webpage and click legitimate advertising in that page, earning the owner money. For it to be worthwhile thousands of these messages need to be sent out. Even in the current economic climate it's still not worth it for an individual to find and fill in these forms. So it all happens with little programs that run around the internet, looking for forms to fill in and send. This may conjure up images inspired by the movie Tron, thankfully this software is considerably more dumb, for now.

I've developed several techniques to overcome this automated process.

Look at the contact form of sites I've recently developed and you will find a question: "What colour is grass?" ("¿De que color es el pasto?" on websites en Español). Within my programming that sends the form contents to you is a bit of code which makes sure this is answered correctly, if not, the entry is rejected. As the form requires physical interaction with the page (clicking on a pulldown menu and selecting the answer) this cannot be carried out by an automated process.

The benefit of this over the more standard "Captcha" method (where you have to type in the numbers and letters displayed in an image) is that Captcha can be so obscure at times it's too confusing for even a human to decypher, and at some point Optical Character Recognition software (OCR) will become sophisticated enough to overcome this.

To counter any future developments in spambot software I'm extending this feature to generate a random selection from a large pool of questions, so until we have artificial intelligences patrolling the internet trying to sell you "Herbal Male Enhancement Pills" from a canadian pharmacy, your email should be quite immune to spam, at least where your website is concerned.

So, if you're looking at my customers websites and wonder why they want to know the colour of the sky, or what sound a cow makes before contacting them, it's all just part of the fight against online villainy.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Chart Topper

There are many misconceptions people have about the internet and the relationship their website has with it, these generally revolve around how people find their site and if applicable, start buying their products.

A primary aim of site owners (myself included) is a position on the first page of a web-search. There are many companies who promise this as a service, but here's where that promise may be misleading.

Say I own the first website to sell Broccoli online, you'd expect me to be No.1 in a search engine ranking for "Broccoli". Of course there is a huge amount of detritus out there on the internet that will impede that. Eventually once my site has matured it will likely crawl up the ranks and get to a more noticable place than the 54th page of results.

Meanwhile, I recieve an email from a company offering Search Engine Optimization services (SEO) saying - hey, we can get your site into the top ten of Google search results. So yeah, sounds like a plan to me. I pay them and sure enough, my website is listed in the top ten, well, my company is. Via their directory website. Which is full of advertising.

So OK, all's well enough, I have the online presence I desired. What happens though when another Brocolli seller decides to sell online? do they automatically get the No.2 Position? I've been around longer, sure my site only has two pages which haven't been updated since the site was launched, but I was there first. Sorry, wrong.

And here's the real crunch. What if I'm the eleventh company selling Brocolli to approach an agency offering SEO that 'guarantees' me a place in the first page top ten of Google search results?

SEO is internet snake oil. If you want your site to be reaching your potential audience it takes work. There's no magic button or switch that announces your arrival on the internet with a gala opening, no queues of people lining up to see what your selling, you have to knock on the door of every one of your potential customers and let them know you're out there.

A search from "Digital Ink" currently brings my website in at fourth place out of 1,250,000

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Customer Subservience

So I walk into my local shop, take up a paper and 1/2 Litre of milk to the short queue and pay my £1 with a nod and a smile to the same guy who's stood there and taken my money every day for the past 4 years. I don't know the mans name but we know each other, I'm a good customer, he's a good shopkeeper. The papers are always nicely arranged and belong to the current day, the milk is fresh and nowhere near its due date.

One day, waiting while he checks the age of some potential minor looking to buy a bottle of MD 20/20, a man walks up to the counter (he has the same paper and milk as I do), puts 90 pence on the counter and walks away. "Hang on a second!" cries the till attendant, you forgot this! The seemingly belligerent customer returns and instead of, as I suspected, being berated for his un-british queueing conduct, is handed a fresh pack of Hubba Bubba picked from the counter display. "You forgot your free bubble gum sir, or would you prefer chewing gum? We've got some nice cherry menthol airwaves here".

The surly man grunts his approval and stuffs the pink and lime green packet into his jacket pocket before marching off to his destination.

Bemused, I wait for the aforementioned (probable student) customer to prove he's the legal age for the purchase of toxic liquids, make his purchase and leave, putting me to the front of the line.

"Hi, so is the paper on a special offer today? 10p off and a free pack of gum - I'll take that cherry menthol thanks!"

"No sir, that'll be one pound, do you want some chewing gum, that'll be one pound 49 pence."

"Ahhh no - just that and that. But the guy before last, he got the same as I did except it cost less and he got the free gum?"

"New customer, just moved into the area."


"New customer, just moved here, from up the road. To make sure he buys his milk and newspaper from here rather than his old shop I offered him ten pence off, free gum and the right to just barge in front of other customers. He just had to agree to come in here every day for a year."

"And what if he doesn't?" I ask.

"Well we told him we'd sue his ass!", he laughs "but of course we wouldn't really, not worth it in the end, you seen how much a lawyer costs these days! License to print money so it is, wish I'd listened to my mother on that one!".

So I'm pretty puzzled by now. "Hang on, he's just come to the area and gets all these offers? I didn't get any of that stuff when I started coming here!"

"Welllll… there's more local shops now… more competition… we have to do something to make sure our customers are loyal."

"But I've been loyal!, heck I've spent a pound in here every day of the week for the past four years… that's… that's like… a LOT!"

"One thousand, five hundred, and twelve pounds - thirteen if you'd like to include todays purchase".

"Well there you go! Christ! you wouldn't HAVE a shop if it wasn't for customers like me!"

He pulls out a form from under the counter: "Well if you'd just like to sign here, I can offer you the same deal."

"Ohhh no" says I "What if I loose my job? What if I have to move, or I break my leg and can't make it down here every day?"

"Well sir" he says, putting the form back under the counter, "In that case we'd have to sue your ass."

Pissed off, I left the paper and milk on the counter and walked out, empty handed for the first time in what was apparently 1512, sorry 13 days. I might have been mistaken but I'm sure I heard his voice echoing into the street "Bye! My name is Kamal, this conversation may have been recorded!"

So now I'm looking for somewhere else to buy my paper and milk. I'm thinking of just going to the library, I'll read the papers there, it's free and you know what, coffee doesn't taste too bad without milk, think I prefer it really.

That's a true story, you just need to swap "Local Shop" for "British Telecom", paper and milk for "Broadband" and let your imagination do the rest.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Meeting of minds

While living in Edinburgh the amount of wildlife present in the city was entrancing. Foxes, Badgers, Hedgehogs, even the occasional Deer. The only creatures to be seen in Stirling are rabbits and the seemingly solitary grey squirrel in the gardens over the road. Querétaro is an abundance of the weird and wonderful insects and lizards only seen on television in the UK.

And of course rodents.

I've no problem with the smaller and furrier of our earths co-inhabitants, most people seem to feel the need to kill them upon sight, something I'm not too keen on.

While living on Morrison Street in Edinburgh, I awoke one night with no real sensory or physical reason for my stirring. I just opened my eyes and there directly in my line of sight was a mouse. I should point out I sleep on the floor, albeit on a mattress on the floor, just never seen the point of spending large sums of money to be slightly elevated while sleeping - digression.

So there, sitting on the floor, illuminated by the moonlight bleached orange streetlights and looking directly at me was this tiny 'intruder'. We stayed like that for all too short a time, my mind filling with questions as to how was it I came to be woken at that very instant, what was this little visitor thinking, who had more right to be there, was it actually looking at me and more to the point, directly at my face, my eyes, or just staring into amorphous space.

Ten years on and I still ponder over that encounter. If ever there was a time that made me believe there's more to "Life, the Universe and Everything" than what we perceive through our supposed five senses, it was then. I just hope should a similar event occur my guest isn't of the exoskeletal variety.

Yeah, we get scorpions round these parts.

That Elusive Sense of Achievement II

I'm a bit of a 'completest', just hate to leave things undone, suppose it's what's now come in part to be known as obsessive compulsive disorder. While a lot of video games are 'without end' like Space Invaders, Pac Man (though that's not entirely true, seeing as it crashes at level 256), the vast majority are story led, they have an end and for someone like me that can become a bit of a problem. I recently came into possession of an xBox 360 and found the interesting "achievements" feature. Play 100 Games of Hexic and get an achievement activated, complete a level in Prey, and get an achievement.

While many of these can be a simple case of just starting the game, a number of them require some dedicated amounts of gameplay or a convoluted number of combinations of otherwise pointless actions.

As with most things these days there's a seemingly large online community of people dedicated to getting 100% of all these achievement points in each game they purchase, unfortunately I imagine there's a number of real life achievements they're possibly missing out on in their quest for online bragging rights.

So I guess my own problems with being a completest arn't that great, I still would really really love to know what happens when you finish Frankie goes to Hollywood on the Commodore 64 though…