You Get What You Pay For

Originally posted on December 17, 2010 by Adrian Roselli, on his personal blog.

We're just shutting down delicious, not selling your children to gypsies. Get the f-ck over it.

First off, let me apologize for ending the title of this post with a preposition. I am playing off an idiom, so I think I have some leeway. Besides, “You get that for which you pay” just doesn’t roll off the tongue.

In the last week I have watched two free web services I use announce (in some fashion) that they are going away. This has caused a good deal of frustration and anger on behalf of users. And it’s all just a repeat of things I have seen on the web for 15 years now.

I have watched the Brightkite blog, Facebook page and Brightkite/Twitter accounts get hammered with angry and abusive comments from users (Brightkite Yields to Foursquare, Gowalla, Etc.).

I have watched on Twitter as people have derided Yahoo’s decision to shut down del.icio.us, the place where they have shared and stored bookmarks for years (Leaked Slide Shows Yahoo Is Killing Delicious & Other Web Apps at Mashable).

I felt vindicated when Google decided to pull the plug on Google Wave, partly owing to the fact that nobody could quite figure out how to wield something that was a floor wax and a dessert topping all in one (Google Wave is Dead at ReadWriteWeb).

I have watched as some of the URL shorteners on which we have come to rely for services like Twitter have announced that they are going away, or have just disappeared (List of URL Shorteners Grows Shortener).

I, and perhaps the entire web, breathed a sigh of relief when Geocities announced it was going to take a dirt nap — and finally did (Wait – GeoCities Still Exists?).

I remember when both Hotmail and Yahoo decided it was time to start charging for access to some of the more enhanced features of the free email they offered users (Say Goodbye to Free Email).

I saw people panic when they might lose access to all sorts of free video, photos, and even text content from CNN, Salon, and others (End of the Free Content Ride?).

We Get It; You’ve Been There, What’s Your Point?

These services all have a couple key things in common:

  1. Users have put a lot of time, energy, and apparently emotion into these services.
  2. They are free.

The second point, in my opinion, should mitigate the first point. If you as a user are not paying to use a service, then is it a wise decision to build your social life or your business around it? Do you as a user not realize that these organizations owe you nothing?

As Brightkite announced the shuttering of its core service with only a week heads-up, they were kind enough to allow users to grab their data via RSS feeds. Yahoo hasn’t even formalized the future of del.icio.us, but already fans have found a way to grab the data. But in both of these cases, if you as a user aren’t backing up your data, keeping an archive, or storing it elsewhere, whose fault is it really that you might lose it all?

Is it wise to build a social media marketing campaign on Facebook, a platform notorious for changing the rules (features, privacy controls, layout, etc.) on a whim? Is relying on a free URL shortener service a good idea as the only method to present links to your highly developed web marketing campaigns? Should you really run your entire business on the features offered by Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Docs, etc? If you have to alert staff/friends/partners to something important in a timely fashion, can you really trust Twitter to do what you need?

The culture of the web (nee Internet) has always been one of an open and sharing environment, where people and organizations post information that they understand will be shared/borrowed/stolen/derided. Somehow users of the web have come to expect that everything is, or should be, free. Look at the proliferation of sites to steal movies and music as an example on one end of the spectrum. On the other end is the reliance on Wikipedia by every school kid across the country instead of a purchased encyclopedia.

Let’s all take some time to evaluate our plans and what we are doing. When that vendor who builds Facebook campaigns comes back to tell you that what he/she built last year won’t work this year due to a Facebook change, there is your cost. When you have to take time from your real work to download all your bookmarks just so you can try to find a way to share them again or even get them into your browser, there is your cost. When you build a business on the back of a Twitter API and have to retool your entire platform due to an arbitrary change in how you call the service, there is your cost. When your Google Doc is sitting in “the cloud” and you’re sitting in a meeting without wifi just before you have to present it, there is your cost.

This cost, however, ignores something that can’t be measured on your end with dollars. The cost of sharing your personal information, your activities, your habits, are all your daily cost for using many of these services.

You may be under the impression that I have something against these free services. The use of this very blog should tell you otherwise. Instead I have something against users who have an expectation of free, top-notch service from organizations who are really only around as far as their cash flow can sustain them.

I keep my bookmarks on my local machine and just share the files between computers. I have been archiving my Brightkite photos since I started using the service, and archiving the posts to Twitter and Facebook, all the while backing up my Twitter stream. I use locally-installed software (MS Word, OpenOffice) writing to generic formats (RTF, etc.) and keep the files I need where I can access them (file vault on my site). I pay for a personal email service in addition to maintaining a free one. Other than Twitter, with its character limits, I avoid URL shorteners (and have no interest in rolling my own). I signed up for Diaspora in the hopes that I can funnel all my social media chaos to the one place I can take it with me. I keep a landline in my house so when the power goes out I can still make a phone call to 911.

I don’t tweet my disgust when Facebook changes its layout. I don’t post angry comments on Brightkite’s wall when they kill a service. I don’t try to organize people to take their time to rebuild Google Wave when I cannot. I don’t punch my co-worker when he buys me a sandwich and the deli failed to exclude the mayo.

Let’s all take some personal responsibility and stop relying solely on something simply because it’s free. Your favorite free thing is different or gone (or will be). Suck it up and move on.

Negative Reviews Can Now Affect Site Rank Downward

Panel from New York Times cartoon from the article.

One of the ongoing truths about search engine optimization (SEO) has been that inbound links are usually a good thing. This has caused SEO scammers to abuse the practice by creating and using “link farms,” sites that exist solely to link back to client sites. This “spamdexing” technique is based on having many of these sites (hundreds, thousands) with nothing but links. Quite some time ago Google, Yahoo, and other search engines from the mists of history all recognized this bad practice and started penalizing sites listed on those indices.

When you get SEO spam email claiming that the spammer will list your site in 300 (or some other large number) search engines, this is often what they mean. If you can name more than three search engines, you are already ahead of most Internet users and you recognize that 50, 100, 300, etc are all untenable numbers. If you get an email from someone saying he or she likes your site, has linked to it, and wants you to link back, it’s probably just another link farm.

Sadly, with the proliferation of community and social media sites that allow users to post comments and rate organizations, we see a repeat of the comment-spamming model that has caused blogs (among others) to implement CAPTCHA and other Draconian measures to try and hold back the tide of comment spam. As the adage “all press is good press” has led us to believe, coverage of any sort is good for business. That also means that sites that track comments about business, such as Epinions, Get Satisfaction and others like them, can end up boosting an organization’s rank in the search engines even when customers complain about the organization. Let me restate — if people had anything to say about you, including bad things, they were giving you a bump in search engine results.

Cue an article in the New York Times, A Bully Finds a Pulpit on the Web, which tells the story of a woman who purchased a pair of glasses from a company that appeared at the top of the Google search results. Not only did she not get the product she wanted, it took a decidedly Single White Female turn and became a real life game of harassment from the vendor. The motivation for the vendor to behave this way is pretty clear from a comment on Get Satisfaction, posted by the very person harassing the customer.

Hello, My name is Stanley with DecorMyEyes.com. I just wanted to let you guys know that the more replies you people post, the more business and the more hits and sales I get. My goal is NEGATIVE advertisement.

When you see comments like these from “Michael” on Get Satisfaction, you can see how Michael’s constant “complaints” are really doing nothing more than acting as link machines back to the offender’s site. You decide if Michael is a real person or just part of the link spamming.

While this is an extreme case, it was enough for Google to take notice. On December 1 Google announced that it has made changes to its search algorithm (Being bad to your customers is bad for business):

[W]e developed an algorithmic solution which detects the merchant from the Times article along with hundreds of other merchants that, in our opinion, provide an extremely poor user experience. The algorithm we incorporated into our search rankings represents an initial solution to this issue[…]

Google makes some fair points about blocking (or lowering the rank of) an organization’s site outright that has negative commentary associated with the organization. In that scenario, many politician sites would fare poorly. Competing organizations can engage in a war of defamation on third party sites. And so on.

What’s key about Google’s statement is the phrase “extremely poor user experience.” This goes beyond just poor customer service and defective products, and can now capture sites where people complain about the design or the usability. I am one of those people who has reached out to a site to complain about a technical or implementation problem (yes, I am that jerk) and, when faced with no response, have taken to the critique sites to restate my case (complaint, whining, whatever). If you get enough user experience (UX) designers to complain about a site’s ability to confound, or enough disabled users to complain about a site’s inaccessibility, those can now impact a site’s overall Google rank.

As you read the Times article, remember that even if your organization would never behave that way, if your site is impossible to use and people say so on opinion sites, then you could fall into the same bucket.

While you’re considering that, make sure your site loads quickly, too (see the last link below).

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