John Andrews is a Competitive Webmaster and Search Engine Optimization Consultant in Seattle, Washington. This is John Andrews blog on issues of interest to the SEO community and competitive webmasters. Want to know more?

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November 5th, 2009 by john andrews

The Federal Website is the New Sacred Cow

A few years ago I was involved in some IT grants from the US government. I was in awe… of the incredible corruption I witnessed. It wasn’t “China style” cash bribes, but rather relationship corruption. Political stuff, where knowing someone got you access, and keeping a strong relationship (by whatever means available) got you continued success. I just called it corruption… I’ll explain why.

At one point, shortly before I left that world out of disgust, I reviewed a $600,000 contract renewal for maintenance of a small database that almost no one used (relatively speaking). Not a large, complicated Oracle database. Not a secure, sensitive database. A simple information database (in a 3 or 4G database language) that had simply gone too long without smart management oversight. No one wanted to touch it. Even the IT guy who built it and maintained it didn’t like working with it, but he apparently didn’t have other job prospects that paid this well. The project had no real career-building value. It was not part of any project that would succeed, nor did it enjoy a high profile. It was simply there, and no one wanted to be the person who decided to stop funding it. The renewal proposal was about the same as it was at last renewal, plus a little more, and came to around $600,000.

That’s nearly a million dollars of your tax money, to fund a seriously second rate (I checked) self-taught IT guy working on something like one single Microsoft Access database, which was used successfully by probably a hundred people each year (mostly because those hundred didn’t otherwise know how to find the data in one place). As a taxpayer, I bet you didn’t know you paid for that.

As I thought about asking specifics about why this was nearly $600,000 and whether it was needed or not, another project came across my desk with a higher priority. It was also a database — this one written in scripts for an IBM AS/400 mainframe system. The database was noted to be essential. It contained vendor contact information, going back nearly 20 years. It was large and not a real database, but a set of scripts. The mainframe was being retired, and the proposal was to either re code the information into a new, modern “database” or fund the maintenance of a dedicated legacy AS/400. The recoding project was estimated at tens of thousands of dollars to get started with a requirements review, with no certainty of the actual total costs. The legacy mainframe was budgeted in the $150k range, plus annual maintenance overhead. Not a ton of money, but not insignificant.

As an IT guy I knew the only correct answer was a re coding, and that a re coding should only be considered after a careful review of the data and it’s value. Over a few months time I successfully navigated the politics and gained access to the “essential data” (in other words, I kept my job while the mainframe guy was eventually forced to retire). I loaded the data into Excel and examined it. Of the hundreds and hundreds of vendor contacts, only 11 were current. Eleven.

In short, much to do about nothing. And that process took about 4 months, plus 20 minutes for me to use Excel.

I was told that the $600,000 contract went through, and the project would be re-examined at some future date. I subsequently learned that databases (at that time… late 1990’s) were the Sacred Cows within government agencies. They were difficult to control, acknowledged as valuable, and sensitive — databases could be “corrupted”, could be “tainted”, could be “infiltrated” or “ms-appropriated”. All great scary important government words, which meant dollars could be safely assigned to databases, with little credible challenge. Databases were technology, and technology was sexy. Databases were large (or could be easily made to be large), which meant they provided a basis for justifying new, faster computers every year. Database administrators in the real world commanded large salaries, so self-taught pseudo DBA’s working for the government could get a decent fraction of a high salary by association. Database administration was also dynamic, which meant training budgets could be justified.

I honestly believe that I would have been able to show that the $600,000 database was almost as equally useless as the 11 vendor database, had I been given a chance. But of course I wasn’t given that chance. I was given a grant of my own instead.

In 2009 we enjoy the ramp up of the age of the government web site. We’ve already seen one web site project approved for over $18 million dollars… and it’s a web site to tell the taxpaying American public specifically how the government is spending our tax money.

We’ve seen several independent consumer-facing web sites launched by the government, each with a unique style, on unique technology platforms, published by different agencies. I can only assume each of these has a maintenance contract as well. And is counting “hits” to justify renewal in the next round of funding. I can only expect that pseudo “branding experts” are preparing the language that will be used to justify intangible asset value as well, a new Sacred Cow for a new age. I don’t recall the Federal Register ever having to package itself as a consumer-friendly magazine, but apparently our new government in Washington thinks government-funded webmasters are the solution to satisfying the public’s need for accountability. What a scam.

And the latest scam is this joke of a web site from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), apparently intended to help consumers understand that credit reports that cost $14.95 per month are not actually free. You paid for that web site, and you’ll pay for the maintenance. You’ll pay for a junior web specialist to get Dreamweaver training, you’ll pay for her associate to take an “intro to marketing” course, and you’ll pay for her supervisor to get “how to manage technical creatives” training.  Or you’ll pay a web company a few hundred thousand dollars to do it all for you (with a maintenance contract going out a few years). All for the very important purpose of…. what exactly?

Exactly. To translate caveat emptor into modern American English, on a web page that no one will read. Unless it ranks at the top of Google. Which it won’t do unless Google forces it there, since it is so poorly crafted. And even in the #1 spot, would it convert? Look for the call to action. Can’t find it.. wait.. no, I thought that was it but no… oh okay I see it… um, yeah that’s probably it. I’ll have to try before I know for sure. It clicks thru to yet another government website (ftccomplaintassistant.gov). Now where’s the “submit a complaint” call to action? Hmm… let me try and find it.

I’d be surprised if the entire process enjoys a goal success rate of 3%.
And if you think I’m exaggerating, go to the site and follow thru to file a complaint. I decided to file mine against the FTC, for misrepresenting themselves as a non-profit entity protecting the American consumer. I was going to focus my complaint on the concept of personal inurement… the use of a non-profit entity to enrich the lives of those operating it, such as through good paying jobs and job perks. I know it doesn’t apply to government web sites, but I wanted to do it anyway so the complaint would sit for years in someone’s “how do we count this one” pile.

I didn’t get far. The web site’s “file a complaint” form forces virtually all of the complaint fulfillment process back on you, the submitter, via a process filled with pick lists and forms to properly classify and categorize your complaint. Almost everything I wanted to pick was not classified, and required I choose “other”. Even the “credit reporting agencies” or “credit reports” issue was not listed as a popular topic. I bet the drop out rate for that feedback form is in the high 80% range, which would be astonishing for a site catering to already pissed off complainers.

But the FTC’s management doesn’t care about that metric. They care about the ones I was asked to grade via a “user feedback form” commissioned through very much for-profit vendor Forsee Results, which sent me a “random feedback” survey. They wanted to know exactly how satisfied I was with things like  the FTC complaint form’s “visual appeal”, “balance of graphics and text”, and “number of clicks it takes”.

Exactly. More spending to justify more spending. Or, in other words, we’re stock piling expensive hay to keep feeding the new sacred cows we outsiders call “web sites”.

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November 3rd, 2009 by john andrews

Not All Domainers are Scammers

I’ve been a competitive web publisher (and SEO consultant) for many years, and I’ve been participating in domain development for the past few years, working with domain portfolios and people generally classified as domain investors or “domainers“. Lately we’re seeing news articles about scams and rip-offs, and some of those are on big premium domains known to have been developed by domainers (with development partners, of course). Most claims of “scammyness” focus on the monetization angles pursued by the sites.

Question: Are all domainers scammers? No, not all of them.

Proper domain development is an expensive and detailed process.  The most important aspect of successful domain development is web marketing strategy, or publishing strategy – the “why” that should be driving the development process. For those of us experienced in search optimization (SEO), this is the core fundamental aspect of our work. Without a strong set of publishing goals and an associated web strategy, any optimization efforts will succeed only at the whim of search engines. When they are sloppy, and when they leave profits on the table, you can take them. But when they pay attention, you get very little. And when search engines focus attention on actually taking the profits out of your market, you get nothing.

Google has been doing this in more and more markets lately. Any SEO who didn’t pursue a sound publishing strategy a year or more ago is feeling the heat of poor performance right now. How they respond to that heat probably reveals a lot about how they approach domain development in general.

Many domainers  choose only to develop when they find a development partner willing to go after fast money opportunities, which promise a lot of money for little work, risk or investment. Absent that, they are willing to wait. That process acts as a filter, eliminating most opportunities and creating opportunity for scams.

You take your own look at the “free credit reports” marketplace. Does this web site look legitimate? Does it look like a safe and wise choice for getting your government-mandated free credit report? What about this web site. Here’s a hint — the ugly one, with poor optimization, poor user interface and very little character, is the official and safe one the FTC expects you to pick. The others?  The FTC says they are scams… because they actually sign you up for automated monthly rebilling for various kinds of credit monitoring services. Check out the left side of that site, and the full paragraph of information that starts with “Important Information” and says it is not the official free site, does charge a fee, and even links out to the ugly site. Apparently that’s not enough for the FTC (PDF) or at least one congressman.
Scammers exploit opportunity as fast as possible, as aggressively as possible, without regard to consequences, which are often viewed as someone else’s problem (SEP). Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) is make money as fast as possible, SEP is what’s left behind. Sometimes, the investors inherit the problems.  Sometimes the economy does. Usually we are all left with more cautious, more conservative, more heavily regulated environments, while the scammers move on to the next opportunity for exploitation.

Contrary to scammers, more traditional businesses seek to secure a mind share position within a marketplace, maneuver into a position of control and influence, and then exert that influence in ways which manage the marketplace, keeping it profitable (for them) while erecting barriers to entry for competitors. SOP for them is a long term play, even when fueled by revenues gained from fast acting, short term exploitation of transient opportunities (such as those that may exist after innovation and disruption, when such companies build their “war chests”).While scammers take the money and run, real businesses take the money and secure dominant positions in the marketplace.

Strategic SEO/web development is based on sound strategy. The FTC and the entity it designated to set up that ugly, not-very-trustworthy-looking free credit report website had no such web strategy. And it shows.

You’ll find a large number of free credit report websites monetizing on those subtle rebilling programs the FTC despises, and the most successful ones are on premium domains like FreeCreditReport.com, AnnualCredit Report, etc. Premium domains. Are they owned and operated by domainers? Wholly? Partly?

The domain investment industry grew out of nowhere to very high value over the years that the web grew from an idea to the central commerce and information network it is today.  A portion of the domainer community succeeded by stepping into the market, taking risk, making wise moves and/or getting lucky. A portion stepped in and worked hard and/or smartly, again taking risk and investing. And a portion elbowed their way in by breaking rules and conventions, taking advantage of others, and exploiting the commons. We are all free to assign character traits to individuals as we might like, but this is not unlike other industries such as banking, railroads, IT or even SEO.

In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s when domain registrations were free and most generic dot com domains were unregistered, at a time when it was understood that the Internet was non-profit and domains were for companies or individuals (one domain per entity), a Unix system administrator at a University may have registered dozens of names for himself anyway (perhaps working on company time, which may have been funded by grants from the US government). An administrator somewhere else may have reserved names in the system as if they were requested by others, only to take them back for himself years later when they were worth millions. There are many such success stories. It’s not too different from the way “robber barons” operated during the industrial revolution. But there are many others who earned their stripes in more honorable ways as well. in short, it’s business, American style.

So now some domainers are looking to develop their domains into revenue generating businesses, by working with development partners. Some are selling their domains to others, hoping for big prices from those looking to generate revenues on those domains. Along the way, business people driving development are choosing the highest profit opportunities, which often involve consumer scams. When that happens, who are the scammers?

If you enter “free credit report” into Google, what comes up? It’s always more than one site. Anything else would be un-American.

I think it’s pretty obvious to everyone who takes a closer look. No matter what necessary illusions get published in the mean time, those knowingly ripping off others assume the responsibility for the fraud. The rest are doing business.. meeting market needs, creating opportunities.

Not all SEOs are scammers. Not all domainers are scammers. You don’t need to cheat and steal to make money on the Internet. And your government doesn’t actually have to do a good job with your tax money, does it?

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November 3rd, 2009 by john andrews

Upgrade Mandriva 2009 to Mandriva 2010 : How to Upgrade

Mandriva Linux released Mandriva One 2010 (see free Manriva Linux OS download here), an upgrade of Mandriva One Spring 2009). The Mandriva upgrade process is not very difficult, but there are specific steps to follow. it’s not as hard as a kernel update (for that, see here). Also be sure to backup your existing Mandriva linux files, for safety.

Mandriva Linux upgrade

As more resources for Mandriva upgrade (2009 to 2010) come out I’ll link to them. In the mean time, a discussion of the Mandrake 2010 Upgrade process is ongoing here. A discussion of the transition from Mandrake brand of Linux to Mandriva (since the assumption of Mandrake by Mandriva the corporation, formerly known as MandrakeSoft) is available on Wikipedia.Search engines are returning this page for Mandriva upgrade, but it’s not really relevant.

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