Domain Renewal Group. Yuck.

Nov 30

If you’re particularly cynical, you might say that advertising is, to a large degree, an exercise is fooling people into handing over their money. This morning, however, I was presented with a form of marketing that crosses the lines of acceptability.

The post arrived. I was handed a letter and plain white envelope. It was, on first glance, a bill. The point, however, is that it wasn’t.

These notices are relatively common, although we ignore them to the detrminent of online marketing’s standards and reputation. They try quite hard to make it seem as though one needs to pay in order to keep one’s property. The text states in bold that the letter is not a bill (and I didn’t even need to get past the first couple of glances to know what was going on), as is shown in the image below. However, without my highlighting (and due to other features of the letter, which I’ll also cover), that one statement hardly stands out. Additionally, it arrived in the post. We’re far more accustomed to ignoring emails than to ignoring official-looking mailed documents.

These notices certainly try their best to look like a bill, read like a bill and barely highlight the fact that they aren’t. From a company called Domain Renewal Group (whose SERP is already a #facepalm fail), the letter explains that “in the next few months”, a domain the recipient owns is set to expire. As it turns out, the domain referenced in my letter does not expire until late April, 2010, but the date on the letter that catches the eye is December 28th of this year. The goal of the letter is to have a person transfer registration to Domain Renewal Group from their current registrar. The fine print makes clear that the move is not mandatory, but the layout and tone of the letter is quite obviously deliberately structured to scream “invoice!”

Click the image for a full-sized version

To my mind, this sort of marketing seeks to exploit a couple of things. Firstly, a lot of people tend to operate in a state between busy and lazy. Especially if a person is used to receiving scores of notices, bills, invoices and receipts, they can become lazy about the fine print. Secondly, the vast majority of people do not “get” Internet. I dare say over half the people reading this don’t know how domain registration works, and most of you are probably geekier than average. A large number of people will, at least on initial inspection, assume that this is something they need to do in order to keep their website.

Ignorance, laziness and the need to move onto other tasks combines: “This note says we need to pay £20.00 by December 28 to keep that domain? Stick it on the card we use for incidentals.” People’s natural reaction upon receiving an invoice tends to be to jump to the bottom, where the numbers are, to figure out what they owe. Again, only once does the notice state that it isn’t a bill, and it doesn’t state this in a noticeable manner.

I estimate that a huge portion of the Domain Renewal Group’s sales are borne of this partnership of misunderstanding and hurried bill-paying. For a couple of times more money than is necessary to renew a domain name in most cases, people transfer their registration to this company.

Does this go too far? I say it does. Far too far. I can hear the defence: “It’s in the fine print; hell, the print ain’t even that fine. In neatly printed Arial, it says ‘This notice is not a bill’. If you fall for this, it’s your own fault.”

But there are plenty of things that aren’t illegal, but which are deceptive and wrong, and which we shouldn’t do. This is one of them.

Indeed, the practice isn’t illegal. It is, however, a disgusting way to advertise and it isn’t exclusive to domain registrars. Make it seem like a potential customer owes you money (and that they’ll lose something important to them if they don’t pay). Classy stuff, Domain Renewal Group. I can only hope everyone takes your name to Google before parting with their cash.

Spam wall via freezelight on Flickr

The BBC Uncovers Image Search Algorithm

Nov 26

We can become a bit smug when it comes to the BBC. We generally view its level of journalistic integrity to be a bit above that of its cable TV counterparts. Last night, however, those of us involved in SEO were surprised to note that even the Beeb’s esteemed reporters aren’t immune to poor research. As is always the case when you notice something untrue reported as fact, you wonder how many facts you hear on a daily (hourly?) basis that are woefully under-researched.

The BBC news report I was watching was about the Michelle Obama / Google Images incident. A crudely Photoshopped, offensive image of the First Lady was ranking atop Google images for her name. In an explanation of how such a thing could occur, Rory Cellan-Jones, the BBC’s Technology Correspondent said:

Google doesn’t decide what comes top when you search for a word or an image. That’s determined by a complex formula. But it basically boils down to the fact that the more people click on a certain site, the higher up the list it comes.

An audio version of this part of the report is available here. For a short time, British readers can view the entire segment on iPlayer (between minutes 14:45 and 17:10). At the end of the piece, Cellan-Jones says again:

For now, the offensive picture of Michelle Obama has disappeared from Google’s search results, but if web users find it elsewhere and click on it, then it will rise up the search engines list once again.

Incidentally, my good friend Ciarán Norris was providing an accurate description of how it happened on Radio 5 at the same time (1hr, 26min in).

And it was Ciarán who figured out why the Beeb most likely said such a thing. A report on their news website stated that “the search engine’s results get to the top based on popularity, not because of any ranking system by people”, a statement apparently given to them by David Vise. There is nothing particularly untrue about that, but the BBC have misinterpreted “popularity”, taking it to mean clicks, not links. No one bothered to check out Vise’s statement or make sure they’d understood him properly. Thus, it was reported to the nation that it was users clicking on the offensive picture of Michelle Obama that pushed the picture to the top of Google’s rankings.

Of course, there may be some ounce of truth to the clicks idea, if you believe that Google closely monitors click-through and bounce rates. However, not once in the piece were links–the currency of SEO–mentioned. Taking into account that click-through and bounce rates are highly likely to be very small ranking factors, there is no way even a small amount of research would have backed up the statements made in the report.

What we’ve learned, we already knew: journalists need stories to go to press nowish and don’t have much time to put together stories to feed the public their daily news. The BBC found a quote from an expert; it was just a little misunderstood. However, recognising such mistakes certainly makes me wonder what else is reported to us as simple fact that is actually quite badly misguided.