Archive for the 'Marketing' Category

Some Israeli news sites object too loudly to being included in Google News

March 15th, 2006

This is actually a too-common problem with quite a few news sites around the world. They see their pages being included in a search engine, or a news portal, as someone stealing their content. Instead of seeing it as someone helping them get more readers.

And now a few of the big Israeli news sites are joining the fry, making a lot of noise, a lot more than they need to, about this.

The letter went on to say that collating news items from leading sites in Israel crossed boundaries. “All over the world, the issue of copyright infringement is gaining momentum, with an emphasis on the Internet. We believe there is no place to injure original Israeli content, which, to the contrary, should be encouraged. I am confident that the other leading sites in Israel will not lend a hand to injury of their property and will demand that Google refrain from using their content.”

Dimwits. Being included in a search engine index, or in a popular news aggregation service, doesn’t injure anyone’s property. It doesn’t hurt anyone. On the contrary, it helps them.

They don’t want their content copied, because they want readers to go to their own sites to read it. That’s fine. But that’s exactly what will happen. Sites like Google News don’t usually show the full stories anyway, they show headlines and briefs. Anyone who wants to read the story will have to go to the site which published it.

And a lot more people go to places like Google News, Yahoo News, etc, than directly to the news sites. And for a very good reason.

If someone is searching for a story, or for coverage of an issue, they originally don’t know which paper covered it best, if at all. So option one is to go to one news site, search there, go to another, search there, go to a third, search there, etc. And to go on until something good enough was found, or until the searcher is tired.

But if there are sites that allow to search for the story in a few of the papers at the same time, and show enough of of the story to decide which is the most interesting or relevant version, or even to directly open all the stories, that’s a much more appealing destination.

So true, if the story is bad, people won’t go to read it. But any paper which believe they’re in the business of writing bad stories probably can’t expect too many readers to go to them directly anyway.

By being excluded from the index a newspaper just assures that less people will come to them, because they will only get the readers who wanted them specifically to begin with. Anyone else will not find them, will not stumble upon their stories, will not discover that they covered the issues. That’s an attitude that doesn’t make much sense.

Additionally, search engines have covered some of these Israeli news sites for years now. It’s possible to run a search on a general search engine, in Hebrew, and get news results. Not from all of them, some Israeli sites don’t play for a long time now, but from the rest.

So this new outburst is because of the localized Hebrew version of Google News which is coming up. But it’s not all that different from what was available before, beyond presenting a page dedicated to news in Hebrew. It does make for a more obvious entry point for people looking for news, but it won’t index any content which Google didn’t index anyway.

The way these protests were made is also telling. There’s a very simple way to ask for civilized search engines not to include your pages in their index. And all the big players, Google included, are civilized this way. Put a robots.txt file on the site, and exclude either all web crawlers, or the ones you specifically object to.

Most page crawlers, of the types search engines use to go over sites and index them, look for the presence of this file, and check in it what parts of the site they’re asked not to index. It’s very simple to do, and it works.

Feder said that the Ynet site manager, Yacov Netzer, had written to Google Israel manager Meir Brand asking that the site refrain from using Ynet content.

One of the news sites mentioned in the article, Ynet, already have that file:

User-agent: *

Disallow:

This file explicitly says that all crawlers and web robots are allowed to access each and every page of the site. They’re saying that explicitly. Come index us, they say. It’s right there.

All they need to change is to add a single character:

User-agent: *

Disallow: /

This would be different, it would be blocking access to the entire site, news section included, by all crawlers. This means that their content will not appear on Google News. It’s that simple. Not only that, it’s nearly done. They don’t have to do anything else but adding that slash character. They don’t have to appeal to Google directly. Their manager doesn’t need to waste his time writing to the manager of Google Israel. There’s no point to it. They’re making the wrong choice, but they made it, and Google will indeed refrain from using their content. Problem solved before it started.

The letter on Walla!’s behalf was sent by the prestigious law firm of Herzog, Fox & Neeman. The letter said that as Google knew, articles appearing on the Walla! Web site were Walla!’s exclusive, copyright-protected property. “Therefore, unauthorized use that your company is making of these items on its Web site constitutes a grave infringement on my client’s property rights, by infringing copyright,” the letter said.

And that letter from a law firm on behalf of Walla!, what about it? I bet it took a lot of time, and money, to draft and present. Lawyers charge for consulting with them, for their work, for writing letters. Getting the site designer to write a robots.txt file would have been much simpler, much cheaper, and much quicker. As of right now, however, the Walla and Walla! News sites do not have it.

On today’s Internet, not having a robots.txt file is the equivalent of saying, but implicitly instead of explicitly as Ynet is currently doing, “Please come, index me, and allow to search my content, thank you” to the entire world. So Walla! are doing that, while at the same time having their lawyers billing them for talking with Google’s lawyers.

Brilliant. Just brilliant. And we’re supposed to trust these guys as our news source. Newsflash, people, robots.txt file is an old, old, standard by these days. And Google also respects newer meta tags that do the same thing, which can be (but are not, in Walla!’s case) embedded on individual pages.

They’re all so clueless that it’s quite staggering…

Contextually relevant spam ads

February 17th, 2006

Among my various email accounts I have an email account on Gmail. And the way one pays for this free email service is by seeing ads from Google’s own ad service, AdSense.

Which presents textual ads. Ads which are supposed to be based on context from the page. What they hope for, naturally, is that the ads will be relevant to the content of the emails, thereby increasing the chance of the ads actually being relevant to the people reading the emails.

How that goes for them in general, I don’t know. If it works well, there’s the obvious creep factor, of seeing ads talking about a personal email.

From my personal experience it doesn’t work so well, and the ads are often not really relevant. Just because they match a few words that the ads were purchased for, doesn’t mean these words were what the email was about.

Sometimes, though, there are exceptions. Huge ones, sometimes. And really funny, sometimes.

Like the one time I saw a prominent ad that appeared on my spam folder/label. The code behind the ads managed to notice that the word “spam” was very prominent on that page (Gee, I wonder why?), and so showed me an ad for… SPAM.

Right on the word, but oh so wrong on the context

And since many people will probably have the word “spam” appearing somewhere in their spam folders, I wonder how wide-spread this is. If anyone bothers to even look at those ads to notice it, that is?

Partial interface modification

November 28th, 2005

I was checking out some program, and in order to download it was required to fill a personal information form (Which I didn’t do, as the program didn’t seem to justify all the info they wanted, but that’s beside the point of this post).

The form contains all sorts of field, including the usual name ones, and so on. The first field was a drop-down list labelled “Title”, without a default value.

I tried to press the submit button anyway, to see if maybe the form is optional. It wasn’t, of course. But the error message I received indicated that I have to fill in the “Gender” field.

I scanned the form, and while there were many fields there, there wasn’t anyone labelled “Gender”. At all.

So I made the assumption the check is done by order. And decided to open the drop-down list of the “Title” field. True enough, there were only two options – “Mr” and “Mrs”. So this was their way of differentiating gender.

I guess it started as a proper gender field, done the usual way with the two normal options. And then some executive decided they need a title field, thinking about all those titles and honorific they’re missing out of because the field is empty (Some sites have scary title lists with dozens of items, making it really complex for the people who are both princes, judges, and doctors at the same time, for example).

Only it appears that after changing the field to “Title”, and making it so that it could contain more options, the oversight must have ended. And it got reassigned to the gender job by someone who failed to realize that not all males want to be called Mr., nor are (a much bigger problems) all females properly described as Mrs.

Combine that with the lack of synchronization between the person doing the change, and the person in charge of doing the validation code for correct data (or at least the one in charge of writing the error messages), and you get exactly what I saw. Not filling a title, and being told I have to fill in the gender.

Funny, but it does not inspire much confidence in the technical, or design, abilities of the site operators and the company behind it.

Sponsored sub-domain

November 26th, 2005

I’ve just noticed one of the oddest types of TV show sponsorship notification I’ve ever encountered.

Anyone who watches TV shows, at least on channels which aren’t entirely viewer paid, must be familiar with both commercial breaks, and sponsorship notification. To clarify my terminology here, which may not be the proper one, by commercials I mean those breaks in the program that show general ads and try to sell you products, and by sponsorship notifications I’m talking about the specific subset of those which aren’t a regular product commercial but rather say things like “This show brought to you by SponsorCompany”.

I was just now watching a local TV show, and the commercial breaks also included a sponsorship notification for the show. But they went a little bit more than just saying that the sponsor company helped to finance the show’s production.

They presented the website address of the show during that sponsorship notification. And the official web address was not in the main domain address of the show, but in a sub-domain named after the main sponsor. So anyone trying to go to the show’s website will have to type the sponsor company’s name to get to it.

To illustrate, if the show had been called Example, and the sponsor had been SponsorCompany, then instead of the show’s address being http://www.example.com , it was http://sponsorcompany.example.com . And that’s the only website address for the show that was presented.

There’s an amusing twist, though. This address, and the main domain address, both automatically redirect to a different page, under the domain of the TV company producing the show. So the sponsorship isn’t ever in the address beyond being typed initially. And it doesn’t have to be typed there, but just optional.

Odd.

Annoying automatically added AIM bots

November 18th, 2005

I have the dubious pleasure of having friends on pretty much all of the major IM networks. Of these, at least among my own contacts, AIM is the least popular.

Partially it’s probably the relatively bad user interface of program, the limited emoticon set, and other aspect of the IM functionality. Additionally it may be the, somewhat justified, conception of AOL services as being simplistic.

And partially it must certainly be due to their attitude. As became apparent yet again a few days ago when they automatically, without my request or consent, and without any indication of interest on my account, added two bots to my contact list.

I signed on to my IM client, and was immediately greeted by these messages from AOL System Msg:

AIM added a new AIM Bots group to your Buddy List.

Send IMs to moviefone and shoppingbuddy for great holiday flicks and gift ideas. (To remove ‘em, just right-click and delete! Learn More)

And lo and behold, my contact list did list this new group called AIM Bots, and it did have these two new contacts in it.

Listen, AOL: if you want to let me know about new services, publish them, and hope I’ll notice somehow. Try to make them good enough that other people will tell me, buy ads, or send this as a service message to the email account associated with the AIM account (but only if I agreed to recieve such messages). That’s all fine. But just automatically subscribing me to those services, especially if they take the very visible form of new contacts in my personal IM contacts list, is not fine. It’s actually very very bad behaviour.

On their behalf, though a very small and minor plus, they did mention that it’s possible to delete the new contacts. I expect anyone used to managing their contact lists will know that, but it’s quite possible they have plenty of users who barely knows how to open a chat window with a few contacts that someone else defined for them.

But letting people know they can reverse the addition, is not enough. That’s annoying, and it feels invasive. I choose who, or what, I want on my contact list. Not the IM client.

So I had to spend the few seconds of removing the new unwanted contacts, and deleting the leftover empty group.

At which point, for a reason I can’t fathom, they still didn’t leave me alone. Instead they felt that they have to let me know what I just did. I got yet another message popping up from AOL System Msg:

The following bots are no longer available and have been removed from your buddy list: moviefone, shoppingbuddy. To find out more about bots, go to http://aimtoday.aol.com/aimbots

What’s the idea of telling me that, beside annoying me? I know these bots have been removed. I just removed them myself.

If there were plenty of reasons for contacts to be removed automatically (Do they also remove active bots that they decided I don’t need, without asking me? I can’t quite bring myself to believe that) then such notifications are in order. But that’s not the case. Telling me that something happened, when the only reason for it happening is that I did it myself, is plain stupid.

Or maybe this was simply their way of letting me know where can I find the whole selection of available bots. Funny way, to do it not when the new bots are available (Well, alright, they did it then as well), but after I explicitly shown I am not interested in a bot.

Some companies just don’t get it…

Yahoo associating search keywords with ads, but not with user accounts

August 29th, 2005

I have an account with Yahoo, mostly used for an email address. And it’s usually logged in, so technically they are capable of linking my Yahoo searches with my account and whatever personal details they have. The same thing everybody is always worried about Google doing, but for some reason a lot less verbosely so about Yahoo or the rest of the gang.

I’m going on a trip to the US soon, and will need to rent a car. In addition to checking some specific places, I decided to also run a general search through a few search engines, Yahoo included, to see if anything interesting comes up.

And since then, all the ads I saw on my Yahoo account, from the mail interface, deal with car rentals. OK, not all, but about 80%-90% of them. Before those searches, I think I didn’t get any car rental ads at all, or maybe very few of them.

Meaning, obviously, that their ad server collects details from the search engine, to provide more targeted advertising.

Except it doesn’t get stored centrally with the Yahoo account. When I logged into my Yahoo mailbox from a different computer, the ads remained the same regular bunch, without a car rental ad in sight. Going back to the original computer I searched from, the rental ads were back in force.

Erasing just the Yahoo cookies also removed the car rental ads from the first computer.

So they are keeping a somewhat limited track of what was last searched on the computer, but are not keeping (or not showing that they keep) a central repository.

Now all they need to do is to either increase the amount of different ads, or do better targeting of other ads, in order to prevent the connection from being too obvious. Seeing relevant ads directly on a search results page is fine, perfectly legitimate, and can be useful. Seeing it afterwards, constantly, in different pages of the same service offering the search engine, is unnerving. Even if it isn’t directly tied in to the specific user… yet.

When advertisers take a chance at being idiots

August 10th, 2005

One of the lottery-like games here was given the terribly imaginative name “Chance” (as-is, no translation, the Hebrew name is the English word, assuming people would understand it. Which is a pretty fair assumption, since the word is indeed used a lot, and was practically absorbed into the used language. It’s common to hear people saying “Kakh chance”, with “Kakh” being roughly the word for “take a”).

And lately they’ve started with this terribly annoying series of radio commercials, with pretence cab drivers prattling on about how they are taking a chance to win money. Although I guess these commercial, as low-level and annoying as they seem, are at least effective in bringing the product to conciousness.

But one of them really got me annoyed at the sheer brainless idiotism behind it. And since the rest of them at least do manage to keep everything in context, I must assume that it wasn’t an attempt to purposefully make their cab driver appear idiotic, but instead genuine incompetent stupidity on the part of the text writer.

In this commercial the cab driver talks about how he picked up a passenger wanting to go someplace. The driver tells how he offered the passenger a flat predetermined rate, but the passenger insisted that he’d turn the meter on instead. And the driver tells how he told the passenger to “take a chance and” go with the suggested rate, to which the passenger refused. Then they naturally got into a traffic jam, so charging by the meter ended up costing the passenger more money. The story concludes by the cab driver once again saying that the passenger should have taken a chance.

Does anyone else notice the blatant incongruity here? Choosing a predetermined fare isn’t taking a chance, it’s the exact opposite. No matter what will happen the cost will remain the precisely known same. Choosing to go by the meter, however, would be taking a chance. If the ride goes smoothly it will be possible to save money, and if there are delays it could cost a lot more. It’s not only simple logic, but goes as to the very definition of what chance means.

That passenger did take a chance. And in that particular case it didn’t work out, and the passenger would have been better off had he not taken the chance. Having the cab driver claim that the passenger should have taken a chance is just… idiotic. It presents their cab driver, the star of the entire series of commercial, as someone without an inkling about whatever he’s talking about. Surely not the image a company would want a figure associated with them to present.

And it provides a very plain and clear example that taking a chance can cost money. Which is the exact opposite of the message of the entire commercial series, which trying to emphasize how much it’s possible to earn by taking a chance.

Next time when they spend a fortune on plenty of air time, they should avoid taking a chance, and go with advertisers who are actually capable of reading the text they’re writing…

Contacting TV advertisers

July 21st, 2005

There is a new planned feature for TiVo devices that will allow a viewer to notify the TV advertiser of the commercial being viewed that they are interested in more info about the advertised product.

Under the new system, consumers can select an option to tell TiVo to release their contact information to an advertiser. For example, after watching an ad for an automobile or family vacation, users can use the remote control to request that a brochure be sent to their home.

From the advertiser’s side some of the benefits are obvious:

  • Most people using the new feature are interested in the products, so any sort of brochure that will be sent will have a good chance of generating a sale.
  • Normally a viewer interested in an ad will need to invest some effort. Such as memorizing a phone number, and calling it. Probably some sales are currently lost because people often don’t bother, or decide to wait until later and then don’t follow through. But pressing a button on the remote is easy.
  • Sales pitch are often most effective when they’re fresh. The ability to decide to ask for more info while watching the ad, means that many people may decide to do it. Including people who wouldn’t have asked for more info even a few minutes later, not to mention much later when a different opportunity rises.
  • Many people will consider the procedure a simple button press, rather than an interaction involving providing a business with personal details. This is information which is valuable to business, and anyone asking for more info will provide the entire set of details which are guaranteed to be correct and to belong to an actual person.

From the consumer side there are some advantages as well. Mainly the ability to actually ask for details on product which seem interesting. But there will also be some big disadvantages:

  • The details sent to the advertiser will probably be a fixed set, including at the bare minimum anything needed to mail a valid information packet, and possibly more. In most other cases of responding to ads people can give a lot less info. When making a phone call it is possible to get details during the conversation, without giving up anything. On a web ad, it is possible to go to a page listing the details, without needing to provide any personal information, or at most having to provide an email address. And email addresses can be disposable. Real names and home addresses aren’t.
  • It’s easy. So if someone is interested, they may indeed press the button instead of finding out other ways. This isn’t a problem per-se, it’s actually an advantage, but it does make the other problems worse. it can be so easy that people won’t bother thinking about the costs.
  • Ads are going to change to attract more and more attention. Just as with web ads, this is a method to get an equivalent of an accurate click-through rate. As the direct number of requests for brochures is easy to measure, unlike actual effectiveness in promoting sales, this will become a major decision in designing and choosing ads. And just like enough people are clueless enough to click on the more annoying flashing and pop-up web ads to keep them a viable concept, so it will happen with the TV ads.

In large part the details will depend on the actual implementation, both by TiVo, and by all the rest of the PVR devices which will probably rush to copy the concept.

They should set standards that will allow to transfer the minimal amount of personal information actually required. But the minimum is still a lot, and has to be. It is very unlikely that PVR companies will branch to provide the brochure mailing services themselves, and it’s not a good idea even if it was.

As for the effect not the actual ad content and design, I doubt there is much that can be done. It is not the job of TiVo, or any of its competitors, to decide which ads are appropriate for the service and which aren’t. They may do so at first, but it will be due to the technical reason of it being a new service and the need to individually handle each supported ad. But as a long-term solution, ad censoring isn’t something they’ll want to do, not something they should do.

There is another issue here, though I cannot predict what the effects will be. Currently ad pricing, and positioning, depend on things like the awfully crude viewer ratings, and on general estimates about the viewer demographics of each show. But if this thing catches on, there immediate follow-up on ads has a big chance of becoming the (or a large part of) new method of determining ad pricing and placing. The rates of people asking for more info on the ad will probably be perceived as directly related to the ads effectiveness. And if the same ad works differently on different shows, it may be considered to be related to the popularity of the show. There are plenty of possible ramifications, both on ads, and on network choices about the shows they broadcast.

It’s a good concept overall, but given the world we live in I’m pretty sure it’s going to be a mess.

Cinema ads

July 21st, 2005

I came across this article complaining about the duration of ads before movies start in cinemas. And let me tell you, those Americans sure have it good relative to what we have here. The complaint raised there is valid and correct, but it’s so much worse here that it feels the norm.

Of course this became an article not because of the problem, but because the people hitting the problem were big names from within the entertainment industry: (emphasis in quoted text is mine)

As head of production at New Line Cinema, Toby Emmerich is not your typical moviegoer. So when he wanted to see “War of the Worlds” the other night, his choice was between seeing the film in a theater with a tub of popcorn or watching it in a screening room at Jim Carrey’s house, with a private chef handling the culinary options. Despite this seemingly loaded deck, Emmerich opted for a real theater.

“I love seeing a movie with a big crowd,” he says. “But I had no idea how many obnoxious ads I’d have to endure — it really drove me crazy. After sitting through about 15 minutes of ads, I turned to my wife and said, ‘Maybe we should’ve gone to Jim Carrey’s house after all.’ “

When DreamWorks marketing chief Terry Press took her young twins to see “Robots” this year, she said, “My own children turned to me and said, ‘Mommy, there are too many commercials!’ Now, when the lights go halfway down, I’m filled with dread. The whole uniqueness of the moviegoing experience is being eroded by all the endless ads.”

That all it takes? 15 minutes of ads? Would that be with, or without, the extra time spent on movie trailers? Around here in Israel, 15 minutes of ads is quite standard, and on the short side of the standard. I recently went to a movie before which we saw about 17 minutes of ads, plus 6 minutes of trailers, and both me and my friend felt that this was relatively very nice and short. Seriously.

There was an “amusing”, and sadly very rare, incident around two weeks ago which reached the headlines (article is in Hebrew, sorry): In this case, after watching about 20 minutes of commercials, two of the viewers went outside to complain. They were told by the cinema management that if they have a problem they can take their money back and leave. They returned to the hall, told the other viewers about that, and most decided to take the cinema up on that offer.

I think that this is not likely to have much of an effect, however, because I’ve been to quite a few movies preceded by that duration of ads, and nobody did anything similar. Still, one can hope.

Sometimes including the ads, the trailers, and the various notifications, it can take 40-50 minutes from the official start hour until the movie starts. So the Americans should know that their 10-20 minutes can easily expand.

The article also had a telling quote from Globus United (One of the major entertainment companys here, which owns a large percentage of cinemas, and is the importer of films from Universal, WB, Paramount, and such). They said that (my own rough translation):

The state, as you know, does not subsidize the movie industry, as it subsidizes the theatres for example, and in the price of the ticket (which includes VAT, of course) alone it is hard to cover a multitude of costs (such as electricity, rent, security, etc.), and this is why the ads are required.

My heart bleeds for them.

Expect similar replies from the US cinemas if this issue actually makes waves there.

They also mentioned that in their own cinemas they show the actual start time of the movie. Even if it’s true (and I do not recall seeing anything like this in a prominent location), that is something you can see only after you already arrived to the cinema, not before. The newspaper listing, and website listings, only show the official start hour.

And then they wonder why less and less people go to see movies in the cinema, and more and more they show movies to a half-empty room…

Via Interesting People, via a post on The Big Picture about the reasons for decline in movie theatre revenue. This post here is a slightly edited version of a reply I sent on the IP list, which (so far?) did not get forwarded to the list.

Outdated spam

July 14th, 2005

I got a very amusing spam message a few days ago.

The message was from a clinic dealing in various sorts of cosmetic surgery. It talked about a special offer they were having, in which when you order one of their treatments you get all sorts of extra gifts and benefits. Pretty standard marketing stuff actually.

But the special offer was time limited, only valid until a certain date. A date which was three days before the one on which the message was sent.

They didn’t say anything about their regular services. Just about the special offer. Which was irrelevant by the time the message arrived.

And it’s not as if the message delivery was held in the post office, as may sometime happen to a physical envelope. This was an email, which arrives almost immediately.

The message was sent through one of the larger email advertising spam brokers in the country, and wasn’t something they did by themselves. Meaning they probably paid good money for it. If it wasn’t that it was by definition sent by a spammer, I’d have said they need to check the ethics of the people they work with…

It also doesn’t quite make sense that this was a sleazy way to attract attention while not actually putting up the special offer. After all, it’s very easy to knowingly sent a message about a non existing offer, and pretend that it was sent by mistake. The problem I have with that is that while some stupid and misguided people think spam is a legitimate thing, something like that is too obviously not. And that was sent by a known clinic, and not some shady person selling all original Rolex watches that fell off the back of a truck.

Of course, this may also be some sort of phishing/identity-theft attempt, since the link on the message goes to a page asking you to leave details about the requested treatment and contact information. At which point you’re supposed to trust them to only use these in order to contact you, despite the lack of any privacy policy… A page which isn’t on the main site of the clinic, but on the site of the spam company, directed through a third domain…

TV.com – What CNet did with TV-Tome

June 20th, 2005

TV-Tome was pretty much the site for information on American/British TV series. Actor information, episode information, broadcast times, and so on.

Unfortunately it seems that they didn’t do such a good job on the financial front, and the site kept showing more and more ads, to no avail. Around last week it went away, and now redirects to TV.com (What is it with site operating companies feeling the need to have the “.com” as a part of their names? I thought everyone already realized this was a bad idea, no?), which seems to have all the TV-Tome content.

TV.com is a part of the ever growing CNet conglomerate. I never visited TV.com before, so I don’t know what they did with it before TV Tome died. Right now it seems to be aligned along very similar lines. The most obvious difference is the high amount of screen area taken for community activities, like comments, forums, and ratings.

Saving the content and functionality that TV Tome provided is good, and CNet is in no danger of going broke in the near future. That said, they felt the need for a redesign, which is perfectly understandable, and some of the things they did were not so good.

The new design itself is probably supposed to feel slick and modern. Which it does, but that’s very different from the more warm and friendly design that TV-Tome had, and the drastic change is a bit alienating. Just my own initial impression here, and YMMV.

The fact that they seem to have totally missed the concept of putting content in the page, and design in the CSS, doesn’t help much either, if you know a little about web design. They have plenty of elements whose class/ID do not represent function but style, such as class=”f-bold f-medium f-white”. And take a look at a just a few bits, from long lists in the same vein, inside their CSS files:

.ml-5 {margin-left:5px;}
.ml-10 {margin-left:10px;}
.p-0 {padding:0px;}
.p-5 {padding:5px;}
.ls-1 {letter-spacing:1px}
.ls-2 {letter-spacing:2px;}
.f-off-white {color:#ffc;}
.f-lt-gray {color:#ccc;}
.lh-12 {line-height:12px;}
.lh-14 {line-height:14px;}
.f-xbig {font-size:16px;}
.f-xxbig {font-size:18px;}
.f-normal {font-weight:normal;}
.f-bold {font-weight:bold;}
.f-verdana {font-family:Verdana;}
.f-arial {font-family:Arial;}

Makes you want to cry when this is in a big site, from a big company that specializes in computer related stuff, isn’t it?

Anyway, I’m not really concerned about the colour scheme, that’s just eye candy, and as long as they don’t do something horrible like put tons of huge pictures, or turn the site into Flash, I’m good with it. Having the information easily accessible is more important.

And they missed a few on that front as well. Two problems are with the episode list feature. Formerly this was a single page containing the order and titles of all the episodes in all the seasons of a series. An excellent thing if you were looking for an episode by name, or wanted to quickly locate several episodes in the series’ timeline. Now the list is broken by seasons. Each season is in a seperate page. And that drastically reduces the functionality of episode list. Unless this was a way to ensure people will go to epguides.com instead, I have no idea why they did that.

In addition, the episode list which was previously directly accessible through a link on the main show page, now requires two steps to get to. I’d say this makes it less comfortable to use, but since it’s no longer useful, maybe that doesn’t matter

Another bad design idea was on the episode guide page. This is a page that lists information (guest actors and their characters, plus a plot summery) on all episodes in a season. Seperating these into individual seasons does make sense, it’s plenty of information, and is also the way it was before. But now there is a maximum amount of episodes which are shown in a single page. So now a full American season may be split over two pages. This is again highly annoying, and makes it much less simpler to do things like search for a guest actor across a season (yes, following to a second page is not just a minor annoyance, because it effectively doubles the time it takes, and requires searching inside a page twice). Plus, the page links on the top, for a series with 1-2 seasons, look similar enough to how you’d expect a season link to look, and I personally saw someone going to the second page of the first season, thinking it was the second season. Not fun, and very easy to mistakenly do in the current design.

Another problem is with the main show page. The new one is built to show all sorts of information at a glance, but it comes at the expense of not showing a complete anything. The previous design had at least included the full show summary. Now seeing a summary for an unfamiliar show requires one extra click. I know that this is a trade-off, people who already know the show do want the page as an index, and do not need the summary. Yet practically every single viewer who is not yet familiar with the show will want to see the summary, to know what the show is about. And this way requires more work, or gets people to decide based on less information.

The uniformity of the design of the main show page is also a problem . The first few sections are textual ones, and look exactly the same, but the kind of sections change from series to series. The uniformity is alright if you can get used to it, knowing that summary will always be followed, for example, by previous episode (their name for recently aired episode, I think). But it’s like that on some shows, while other shows have first episode followed by last episode, and yet other shows something else. This forces you to read the headers in order to know what’s there. Not terrible, but poor design. The visual cues should be clearer than that.

That said, I do like that the main page directly link to actor pages, and to recent news article relating to the show. I’m not sure how the headlines are selected, though, since I did see plenty of relevant news articles out there which were not on the list. I also don’t like that they open the articles in a frame inside the TV.com site, and not providing actual links.

The search results page is clearer, and the new version provides a short exerpts from show summaries, which can help when confronted with a list of several similarly named shows. On the other hand, an upper limit of 10 results per page is very limiting. And now the results for shows and persons are intermingled, which makes no sense, since usually a searcher only wants one of those. Luckily it’s easy to filter for only one kind, but for most seaches it does mean a little extra work, which a simple grouping of the results would have spared. The results also seem tweaked to show the more popular/likely hits on top, which is good, and very useful for common searches. Yet for cases with many results, the ability to choose alphabetical sorting would help tremendously.

TV-Tome, and now TV.com, also allow users to add and edit content. This makes a lot of sense, since there are plenty of people who care about series that they watch. But the new design puts “edit” button everywhere, which are only relevant for registered, and logged in, users. Pressing the button takes you to a registration page, which do not contain a special area for logging in as an existing user. This is alright, since a login form is placed near the top of every page, but if I were a registered user this would have annoyed me. As someone who isn’t a registered user, I think it would be a lot better to simply not show the edit buttons to anyone who isn’t logged in. That’s not critical, though, since currently the buttons blend well with the background colour, and are not very conspicous. Hiding them would also prevent the pages from being simple static pages, so will probably incur a lot of work for the web team.

Another advantage of the old design was that the TV-Tome URIs often had a simple structure, consisting of the show name, and page name. It was sometime easier to navigate by entering the address directly, or changing the one of the existing page, instead of searching and clicking links. The new design contain things like numerical IDs in the URIs, which removes this possibility.

As an interesting note, the redirects from old TV Tome pages sometimes work well enough to deliver the matching page on TV.com, and sometimes just go to the home page. This applies to pages of the exact same kind and same structure, so I don’t know what’s the rule.

As a second interesting note, and a bit of sheer speculation, a new TV.com Mycroft search plugin for FireFox became available recently, just at the switch was taking place. Since getting something to show up on Mycroft can take a long long time, this was either a very lucky coincidence, someone planning ahead, or someone maybe using money or connections. For the speculation part, the search plugin is made by a web design company, Matt Austin, which does not strike me as a regular FireFox enthusiast user. Are they related to CNet, and maybe did the design for them?

Subscription auto-renewals

June 15th, 2005

With every time-limited service subscription, there comes a time when the subscription expires, and needs to be either cancelled or renewed.

Service providers of course prefer if you renew. You may either want to renew, or want to cancel. Which raises the issue of renewal policy. The basic concept would be that you subscribe for a certain length of time, and if you want to increase the time, you need to go and do something about it. Under this model, if you’re not interested, you just don’t do anything, and the subscription will expire. Since renewal means another payment, then it makes sense not to pay unless you explicitly want to.

The second model is the auto-renewal one. The subscription will be renewed automatically, unless you explicitly cancel it. This is unfortunately becoming more and more common, since the service providers really like it. Obviously, if people wanting to renew will always renew, and people not wanting to renew won’t renew, then the method won’t matter. So the differences are in convenience to the customers, and in what happens to customers who don’t pay attention.

The businesses involved usually claim they’re doing this “for your convenience”. Let’s take a look at the options, from the customer standpoint:

  • Wants to renew, without auto-renewal: In order to renew the customers have to be aware that the subscription is expiring, and have to manually go and renew the service. Being notified is easy, since the business involved has an incentive to make sure the customer will know. There is a little bit of a hassle in renewing, but in general the process should be very simple, since again it is in the best interest of the business to make the renewal easy. Worst case, if the customer forgets, then the service will stop. Since the customer cares about the service, they will likely notice that (if they don’t, they didn’t really need the service), and go renew. The cost of that will be a temporary disruption of the service, and as long as the service isn’t life-critical (air supply for your new lunar colony dome, for example) that should be just a small disruption, especially since many such services can be renewed retroactively from the expiration date.
  • Wants to renew, with auto-renewal: This is the most convenient option for people who want to renew the service. They don’t have to do anything, and everyone is happy.
  • Doesn’t want to renew, without auto-renewal: This is the most convenient option for people who don’t want to renew. They made a subscription to last a certain time, the time passed, and the subscription stopped. The business lost the customer, which is bad for the business, but the customer was not interested in the service anyway, so at least they parted ways amicably.
  • Doesn’t want to renew, with auto-renewal: The customers have to manually cancel the subscription. If they don’t, they will find that they again pay for a service they do not desire. The customers have to remember to cancel before the renewal date, and the business has an incentive to avoid clearly reminding them, because the business want them to renew. In addition, the manual cancellation may be more complicated than a manual renewal, since the business has little incentive to make sure it’s easy to cancel. An undesired service is also one that the customer is likely not using, and so is less aware of, so there is a decent chance the service will get renewed due to simple inattention. This is good for the service on the short term, since they will get the money for a subscription, but bad on the long term, since it may annoy customers. Worst case for the customer is when the customer forgets, in which case they pay money for a service they will not use, and don’t want to use.

So auto-renewal means that customer who want to renew are spared a simple chore of manually renewing, and people who don’t want to renew either go through a similar, or harder, manual chore, or get really annoyed discovering they unwittingly purchased more subscription time. Unless this is a subscription that absolutely everyone will always want to renew (hint: no such thing, unless you’re the monopolistic air supplier for that lunar dome we mentioned), this does not strike me as being for the customer’s convenience.

Personally, if I ever subscribe to anything with auto-renewal, one of the first things I do is cancel the renewal. If I’ll want to renew, I’ll do it when it’s time. But if I forget, I much prefer the small bother of a subscription lapse, to the huge bother of finding out I paid for a service I don’t want.

This post was started after taking a look at the on-line subscription page for The Economist (At this time I don’t have any intention of subscribing, I just took a look out of curiosity, since the subscribe buttons were there near an article I was trying to read, and wasn’t allowed access to). They have two subscription options, annualy or monthly, each with a link explaining their auto-renewal policies.

And yes, both automatically renew. Even the monthly one, which is typically what you’ll choose if you do not want to be a long-term subscriber, but just have temporary access. Not only that, but a yearly subscription costs $89.00, and a monthly one costs $19.95. This means that if you do a monthly subscription without reading the fine-print, expecting to pay for a month, you may well find yourself after a year having paid $239.40 for that annual subscription.

Nice, isn’t it? The auto-renewal for the annual subscription is bad, but all too standard these days. Monthly subscription auto-renewals, that’s just plain rude. Very rude, even. Those prices are high because people usually do this as a temporary one-time thing. Why force them through the hoops of cancellation, or make them pay if they, not surprisingly, not notice their one month subscription is going to increase itself automatically?

The Economist also don’t handle their own subscriptions, not even though this is a subscription to the web content only, on their own site, so it’s not clear why they need someone else to handle it for them. But when you subscribe, you get an account with a different service, and need to go cancel the subscription there. This is not customer friendly.

At least for the annual subscription option they say they will send an email notification one month before renewal, as a reminder. Nice, but not nearly enough, and these days very likely to just get caught by some spam filter. The monthly subscription, if you wonder, does not come with any such reassurance.

Disorderly purchase

May 19th, 2005

A few weeks ago my parents purchased a new air conditioning unit for the living room at home. They browsed around a bit, consulted, and finally decided on the model they want to buy.

At the store, when concluding the order, the sales assistant notified them that purchasing this particular model grants them an extra gift of a phone (Cordless phone, according to the company something sold with a retail price of approximately 500ILS). They were a bit surprised, since they didn’t expect it. The sales assistant then showed them their catalogue, and this was indeed announced there. Personally I doubt that the decision of what AC unit to buy should be affected by something like a free phone, but this was the offer. Nice, and honest, of her to inform them even though they didn’t ask for it by themselves, and were in fact unaware.

They arranged for the delivery of the AC unit, and were told that the delivery crew will bring the gift phone as well.

The actual installation of the unit is not done together with the delivery, but by other companies who deal in installing ACs. It’s possible to buy, and install, separately, but in this case they went with the option of using the installers that the store usually works with. So there was one payment to the store, which covered both the purchase and the installation. This unit was reported as some new generation of devices, working on slightly different technology (whatever it may be, I wasn’t involved, and didn’t bother following), so the installation cost a bit more.

A few days later the delivery arrived, with the AC. They forgot to bring the phone, however. My parents called the store, and were told that it was a mistake, and they’ll send it the next day. This turned out to require a few more next days until they claimed that they’re out of stock, and it will only arrive in a couple of weeks, maybe.

In the meantime the installation crew arrived, and installed the unit. It turned out that this device was actually from the older generation, not using the new technology. This required the installation crew to go away, and come back again at a later date, since they were equipped to handle the wrong kind of unit. More delay, and nobody was particularly pleased.

A few days ago my parents received a registered mail notification. I went to the post office to take it for them, and found a check to their account for 200ILS, without any explanation. After a call to the store to find out what is that about, they explained it’s a refund for the installation price.

And a day later they let us know that they have the phone for us.

Everything sorted out alright in the end, but it was a badly organized affair through and through…

Mailbox sizes for webmail providers

May 7th, 2005

It’s pretty safe to claim that storage space for email account is no longer a selling point. Or at least shouldn’t be. Many free email providers offer paid services as well, and until not too long ago more storage space was an important part of the package. These days they have to find other things, even though some of them apparently still don’t get it.

This is all of course due to the crazy, and somewhat odd, competition by Gmail, Yahoo! Mail, and Hotmail.

The latest change was recently, when Yahoo announced their intention to raise their mailbox sizes of free email accounts to 1GB, catching up to the offer of Gmail. They did that, but not before Gmail all of a sudden increased their own size to 2GB+ . Which is nice, but at this point I expect for most people this is really rather moot.

Gmail, apparently as part of the idea of always staying ahead in this particular game, did not just raise the storage quota to 2GB, but are still increasing it all the time, following claims to keep going ad infinitum. Which is fine by me, and should be fine by anyone with a Gmail account. Even though most people will take a lot more time to get to the current quota than it will take Gmail to get a lot beyond it.

What is very annoying about this, though, is that they keep this counter of mailbox storage space on their homepage. This is maddening. Text on a page shouldn’t keep moving and changing all the time, it just shouldn’t. This is the same reason that makes the HTML <blink> tag evil.

Yahoo just completed the upgrade from 250MB to 1GB. And they passed it rather quietly. There is a What’s New link on the mail pages, but apart from that they pretty much went on like every other day. I like that. I didn’t even notice that they did the upgrade for some time. No fanfare. They did however went a little bit into the other direction, by not removing their occasional self-ad where they promote their large mailbox size of 250MB. It’s funny to see such an ad over a 1GB account. I guess that’s what happens when you’re a part of a very large company, with different divisions in charge of different things

Hotmail in the meantime is way behind, giving 250MB to people from the US and Puerto Rico, but keeping a measly 2MB mailbox sizes for the rest. Which is their right, it’s a free service, and no one can complain not getting what they pay for (Although for the same amount of ad viewing, which is the payment, we can get more elsewhere). But it’s utterly ridiculous when they keep telling people about their pro service (paid), where the email size (which they still present as a major benefit) is not more than the free competitors’ offers.

Why bother placing an ad, then?

April 27th, 2005

A website I was going through put a large banner ad for Godiva chocolates, with a part of the large image even dedicated to inform me (or anyone else reading the ad) that the Godiva site in now secured by VeriSign, and is safe to purchase from. I assume it doesn’t mean anything beyond the fact that they got an SSL certificate from them, or are using them to verify credit card transactions…

Out of curiosity I decided to click the ad, and see what exactly are they selling. And I got back a 404 page, an error page telling me that “A problem was encountered during processing:
Sorry, the file you are looking for does not exist
.”

Wonderful, isn’t it? If they get paid by click-through, this is one ad that they show everyone, and will never see a dime from. And while it’s clearly the fault of the site showing the ad (The error page was on their own site, not Godiva’s), it reflects badly on the ad content. When you click on a banner of a site informing you how secure and well done it is, only to not be able to get there, well…

Oh, and of course the error page itself contains more ads. But this time for other sites.