Checkpoint Charlie

Jun 01

One of the most understated historical landmarks I’ve ever been to. A fifteen story iPad 2 advertisement immediately in the old East, and McDonald’s being the first thing in the West. The incredible checkpoint museum metres inside the old boarder that existed long before the Wall came down and the windows through which escape helpers watched their charges’ pass: equally understated and humble. The area is amazing.

Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin


Checkpoint Charlie and iPad 2 sign, Berlin, Germany


My mother raced in Berlin in the 1970s, breaking a New Zealand national record at the 1936 Olympic Stadium. She remembers very different things about the town and about its part of the world. I stood at Checkpoint Charlie and wondered what people in 1970, 1980 and even 1990 would feel if they saw Friedrichstraße and the fascinating city Berlin has become.

What “Motel View” Knows About Marketing: Favatars 2010

Aug 26

Eighteen years ago, Forbes Williams wrote a book called . It’s a collection of stories and my mother gave me a copy when I was fourteen. I don’t know how many times I’ve read it, but some of the stories are as familiar to me as well-known songs. My favourite is about the invention of an imaginary athlete named Stan Malone.

Williams’ protagonist, a sixteen year old named Paul, lives with two flatmates in the hills above Wellington. Bored and creative, the trio embark on a project to invent news stories and have them feature on the national news, and they succeed: once with a fictitious small plane crash, and once with a middle distance runner who was eventually selected to carry the New Zealand flag at the Olympic Games.

Williams’ characters faxed Malone’s imaginary times to New Zealand newspapers, who then published them in the small-print results on sports pages. However, when Malone’s name was left off the team for the upcoming Olympics, there began a national outcry. He was substantially quicker than most of the country’s talent; why was he not to compete?

You couldn’t do exactly this today: the Internet invented real time results reporting (like and this), Ustream web broadcasts through which I’ve watched events from Texas whilst sitting in London, and instantaneous results syndication, ensure more honesty in sports reporting. Malone’s existence would be discredited pretty quickly. However, Williams’ characters did several things right, given their time and place, in their invention of Malone that heightened his chances of succeeding.

The makers of did not.

People unfortunate enough to be embroiled in the may remember that two years ago, social media avatars were the order of the day amongst those who shouted the loudest. “Fake avatars” referred to social media profiles that weren’t portraying real people. Created with the mind to promote something, these soulless shells presumably blended in to your Facebook and Twitter world the way the droids do to your cross-stitch group before they take over your frontal lobe.

This is assuming that the favatars appeared real. The profile above was brought to my attention yesterday by our favourite Frenchman, Ciaran Norris. That’s me in the photo, along with Lisa Myers, at a party in Edgware Road, London, in 2007.

The fake picture along with the “likes” and interests of this girl (which she shares with some of her ) are stereotypically generic. My best guess is that this was created by Al Marketing Guy in his cubicle, and he thought: “What do blond 23 year olds like?” (We so do still look 23. Yes we do, damn it). He came up with Pink, Beyonce, their mums, breast cancer awareness, Will Smith, house music and shoes. SHOES!!!!!

I’m aware that the existence of this girl could still be proven. However, I’ve messaged her twice, written to her Facebook friends, and several people I know have sent her a friend request. Of the two responses I’ve had from her friends, one indicated that he doesn’t know who she is, and the other said, “Probably some spam bot, feel free to report them”. Hayley’s case doesn’t look good.

Al the marketing guy could well have been tasked with the job of social mediaing something–probably something pink–and he needed some chicks to pimp it out.

Totally better than ur boyfriends iphone AM I RIGHT ladies?

From the shape of the image, and fact that my Facebook photos are private (I’m guessing Lisa’s are too), it’s likely the marketer got it from the SEOmoz Flickr stream, where it’s public. It certainly shows no signs of being cropped by Facebook, which you’ll often do to a profile picture. Throw on the generic interests, and you’ve got yourself your marketing shell.

But Hayley Mansfield ain’t no Stan Malone. Top level analysis shows that she has no substance, but why was Malone believable and Hayley not? Of course, the irony is that Malone itself is fiction and the invention of Hayley isn’t, but there are some key things in Williams’ story that you really should pay attention to if you want a fake avatar to make its way into the mainstream.

Paul and his flatmates Tristan and Megan didn’t intentionally choose Malone’s circumstances for success, but they were still effective. Firstly, they chose a profession for their character in which the public was inherently interested. The story takes place in 1984 and Malone is a talented athlete. The Los Angeles Olympics are approaching. New Zealand enjoyed a golden era of athletics in the 1960s and 70s (remember?) with the likes of John Walker and Peter Snell dominating world track. 80s Kiwis expected to see good distance runners perform at the Games, and Malone could provide them with that. His inventors timed their invention to coincide with a large event and public interest, even though they didn’t intend to. Remember this. People’s interests move in trends. What will you tie your project to?

Secondly, they didn’t use someone else’s photo. The fake picture of Malone was Paul in a wig. Before the Internet, with Malone “exceptionally shy” and living overseas, a mediocre-quality picture did the trick. Nowadays, you would need a very good disguise of someone who knew he was being used if he were to become a national hero. Alternatively, you’d buy rare stock photos that were unlikely to be found or used by someone else. You couldn’t just take a photo of a real person who would be seen on the street, and you can’t just take the picture of two real people from Flickr who might one day come across it. It was a coincidence that Lisa and I work in marketing, but that sort of chance isn’t once you really want to take.

Thirdly, Tristan. Paul and Megan didn’t try too hard. They set something in motion and then the story created itself. From the book:

The modern day equivalent of this is getting stories written about your subject. It’s getting links. During the years I worked at SEOmoz, I saw things we did and said debated and discussed and passed around until sometimes, the end message was quite different to that with which we’d started. Sometimes this worked in our favour and sometimes it didn’t, but if the goal is to create a phenomenon in which people are interested, chat is gold. The New Zealand public made up their hero in more detail than the three flatmates ever tried to do.

The flatmates did not join whatever 1984′s Facebook groups (women’s magazines? Sports talkback radio?) were with some fake profiles–Malone’s sisters and ex girlfriends and former rivals, perhaps–and tell stories of his past, or talk about how awesome he was and why he should be chosen to carry the flag at the Games. They seeded something so that other people did that. Real people. Hayley Mansfield was undoubtedly created in order to do the former.

Earlier in 2008, prior to Favatargate, Lyndon Antcliffe wrote about that thirteen year old and those hookers. Before Lyndon admitted that the story wasn’t true, the media (namely FOX News) did go a little Malone on it, reporting on the issue and undoubtedly casting opinions on the boy, the parents, the hookers and what it meant for society in general. People would perhaps have even hypothesised about the identity of the family if Lyndon had been more specific about the location (it was only reported to a state level: Texas). He did what great marketing does: set something in motion. Hayley’s generic likes and interests, plus the fact that she won’t have any other photos of herself unless they’re all of Lisa Myers or me, plus the fact that her inventor likely doesn’t have much interest in making her a deeper character, limit her potential.

I am not going to make excuses for lazy Facebook profile making, but I do understand how hard it is to create a realistic fictitious character. I’ve tried it. It’s hard to know what a stranger whose characteristics are different to yours would do or write or think: Sarah Carling wrote a brilliant piece about writing anonymously on SEO Chicks during her interview for the role. It’s hard to be someone you’re not, because you’re very used to being you. It turns out that I’m not good at powering a fake social media profile, but I’m far better at it than the person who chose Lisa’s and my photo.

Awesome marketing stunts usually get found out, and people get upset. I personally don’t mind a fake story (I lived in the US where their TV reporting is largely hyped up garbage, and now I live in the UK where a lot of newspaper reporting is the same, so what’s an actress with a whiteboard when Obama’s apparently a Muslim extremist?). I believe, however, that these aren’t necessarily also awesome marketing, minus the dramatic qualifier.

Malone gets here; Hayley’s wares do not

Awesome marketing is under the radar. It is the girl on Facebook whose activity isn’t extreme enough or banal enough to look fake. It is the post on Reddit that isn’t crazy or staged enough to be unbelievable, but which is good enough to set a story or meme or idea in motion. It is a story from 1992, set in 1984, that displayed a lot more imagination than someone eighteen years later with the technology of 2010 under their fingers and a photograph of two generic blonde girls in a London pub.



Running Into Obsession: The Church of Arthur Lydiard

Feb 18

“They still say I’m wrong, but it doesn’t bother me.”
- Arthur Lydiard, to Lochaber Athletic Club, June 1987

In the haze and cloud that rise off Manakau Harbour, the hills that stretch beyond West Auckland are known for little but their slightly flashy suburbs and relative inaccessibility from the city by public transport. The city’s better off citizens find their homes at the end of evergreen crescents and avenues for a few miles up into the Waitakere Ranges, but after the clean streets of Titirangi give way to bush, Auckland’s city limits are thought to come to an end.
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The StreetView Divers and The Case of Internet as Serious Win

Feb 11

It’s said that the London Underground is one of the least friendly places in the world, where people will avoid making eye contact with each other, let alone speak. I don’t find this to be as true as the stereotype suggests (on the Central line, I had a hilarious exchange with a girl about American politics, late at night on November 4, 2008). However, as unfriendly a place as the tube can be, it pales in comparison to the Internet.

What I wrote here, plus the comments, speak of how unnecessary the online culture of gross impoliteness really is. Often, however, it is far easier to adhere to a better way of behaving if you have something to fall back on: the behavioural equivalent of the mnemonic device. This won’t work for everyone. Perhaps it won’t work for anyone besides me, but I saw something yesterday on Google Maps.

We’re in Norway, and .

Just reading the paper, as you do, .

So when you see the Google StreetView car, what other option do you have?


You chase him up the hill.

In your wetsuit, with your rake, until you can’t run any further in your flippers.

I don’t know why these guys chose to chase the Google car. Perhaps this is a protest against Google’s indexation of their neighbourhood. Perhaps they wanted to be on StreetView in the same way that people want to bob about behind field reporters’ heads on TV (although I don’t believe Google exactly publicises its drive-by schedule for fear of this sort of activity). Perhaps they were hanging out in their driveway in Norway in their diving suits, reading the paper, when they fulfilled my friend Danny Dover‘s dream and were allowed the opportunity to chase the StreetView car.

As a point, . Danny, however, was not as lucky as the divers. He never saw the car.

The reason for the chase doesn’t matter to me. My job aside, this is what I like about the Internet. The random pieces of win. The parts of the Internet where you find true humour, no matter what its original purpose. It is reading an elaborate story without knowing that you’re going to be Bel Aired. It’s . It is not publicly calling people names, starting blogs for the purpose of handing out curse-laden insults or posting shortened versions to Twitter.

Although the horror of our collective behaviour on the Internet has slowly been occurring to me for quite some time, this is my favourite metaphor for Internet as serious win. Two blokes running up a road in Norway in wetsuits. Think of this next time it seems like a good idea to write something horrible. Have a grin; do something else.

And the Underground? London in general? I will never ride the tube or walk the streets of this city in the same way again after watching this programme from Channel 4 about the incredible bravery Londoners extended to strangers on the Circle line on 7/7/2005. Now I sit on the train and think about what sort of person is probably sitting opposite me: a stranger who doesn’t want to make eye-contact, but someone who for the grace of God would be a hero.

It’s hard to walk around with a bad attitude when I think of strangers like that. It’s hard to be deliberately nasty online when I’m thinking about the little corner of the Internet where two blokes run up the road in scuba diving gear. I’d rather exist in that corner.

Be good to each other.

I Don’t Drink

Jan 23

During the early 1990s, the principal of the Lower School at Marsden–a horrible private girls’ school to which I was forcibly sent for eight painful years–was a woman called Mrs Leach. I remembered her insulting a girl in my class once for “only ever looking out for number one” and not considering others, and then (it could not have been more than a week later) berating someone else for not minding her own business. “Look out for number one!” she had shrieked in front of the entire school assembly. Even at the age of nine I had been able to see the condradiction. I wasn’t sure, however, in which instance she had been right.

At twenty-five, I think she was right the second time.

One needn’t be consistently loud in order to maintain an independent, intelligent opinion. Quite a few people appear to believe that if one does not make one’s opinion (especially one’s disagreements) luridly clear in public, whenever possible, that one must be an agreeable “sheep”, or perhaps have no opinion at all.

Routinely, I disagree with people I respect. I disagree with people I love. I’ve had differing opinions on swimming with my father, and I regard him as the best coach I’ve ever had. My ideas on the limits of acceptable SEO practices sometimes differ from those of Kate Morris and Rob Kerry, both of whom are highly competent professionals. Some time around the last U.S. presidential election, I realised how pointless and damaging it was to regard party politics as important when it came to my friends.

However, most importantly, I learned that it’s not polite, nor necessary, to point out disagreements in public, as if crudely spray-painting them on a conveniently located wall, especially if the person with whom one disagrees is a respected friend. The point at which I knew this to be true was when a good friend of mine left a snide comment on something I cared about… the opinion was valid, but its public nature and unpleasant tone made me wish we were more private and respectful with our opinions when the subjects are close to us. We all have email accounts, telephones and even local pubs in which to maintain rational relationships and debates. Why must being quiet equate to being devoid of independence?

Of late, I can only recall publicly disagreeing with someone once. I don’t even find it satisfying. Even the following private messages–some from strangers–who agreed with me, didn’t really matter. I could have held as true to my beliefs if I’d maintained my silence, and in the end, I didn’t change anything.

Be polite and respectful both in public and private. Because I avoid publicly humiliating people I care about, it doesn’t mean I think they’re always right. Most of you appear to have let your Twitter accounts and blogs, and the comment section of other people’s websites, convince you that a person’s silence equates to the lack of an opinion, especially one of dissent.

And ponder this beautiful irony (one of many stumbled across of late). On each side of every debate, every clique, every disagreement and every set of beliefs, people claim that their opposing numbers are drinking the opposing team’s Kool-Aid. Next time it seems apt to accuse somebody of such consumption, consider whether the problem is actually that the person isn’t drinking yours.

Domain Renewal Group. Yuck.

Nov 30

Here’s one about ethics in marketing and advertising, and I am not, for once, talking about buying links. 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, to my mind, 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 (), 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.

Question time: Does this go too far? I say it does, but I work in the online marketing community and I would guess that some of you will disagree. “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.”

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.

via 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 . 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.

Sidewalks of A1A

Sep 10

Slide down into the sea
Twelve hours on your feet
Get the tide to wash you away
Thousands and thousands of days
And someone you never meet
Signs a check you get every week
You try and you still can’t forget
All the strangers that you have met

Please be good to each other.


Facebook Security Leaks–In Notification Emails

Aug 08

My riveting life, which today has involved swim practice, a four hour nap and couple of hours on Skype with my mother, became ever so slightly less dull (well, not really) a couple of minutes ago when my mother made one of my Facebook pictures her profile picture. Apparently, Facebook emails you when someone does this. The email I just received, however, had a load of information in it that had nothing to do with me or my mother. It appears to display wall posts from people I don’t know, nor am connected to on the site. I also have no idea what language this is:

What is going on here, and are all of us having things from our profiles emailed to others accidentally?

They’re Naked

Jul 13

The emperor has no clothes.