Monday, 30 April 2007

Google manipulation

We have been doing a bit of work recently in class about search engine optimisation. I was interested to read a story on the BBC website which pointed out how easy it can be to manipulate search engines. The writer points to a recent example concerning Google. Until recently (I'm assuming it's been fixed), if you typed in 'miserable failure', the official George Bush page on the White House site was top of the list!

How did it happen? Search engines operate on the premise that relevancy of a particular site is related to how many external links there are to it. An underground blogger movement picked up on this and created a 'link bomb', encouraging people to link to the page and label it 'miserable failure'. The search engines were not at first at liberty to censor any such attempts, so off it went on its merry way. A similar stunt was pulled recently using the term 'liar' and Tony Blair's homepage.

One drawback is the fact the link bombs end up being 'self defeating'; the more successful they become, the more people talk about it on the web and other sites end up become more 'relevant' in search engine terms than the orginial bomb.

Google has since modfied its functions to spot link bombs but other search engines have not yet done so, so you can still get George Bush under the search term 'miserable failure'.

In corporate terms, the report discusses the example of BMW Germany which was blacklisted by Google in February 2006. The site consisted of keywords which could not be seen by customers but could be seen by search engines, purely to bump it up the list. Google has rules to guard against such tactics and dropped it from their search results. The site has since been redesigned. The report refers to this as an 'uneasy truce' between the search engines and the optimisers who are trying to cheat the system to their advantage.

Wikileaks - a natural progression?

Wikileaks is a new wiki which calls itself 'an uncensorable version of Wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis', claiming to combine 'the protection and anonymity of cutting-edge cryptographic technologies with the transparency and simplicity of a wiki interface'. It allows people to put documents into the public domain, whether the authors want them to or not.

Creators are pushing for activists and campaigners to publish whatever information they can to stop authoritarian governments and corrupt corporation to continue with any undemocratic actions. However, the site is not yet live and while it claims to be 'impervious to political and legal attacks', there is no evidence that secuirty and anonymity is certain.

Additionally, supporters have begun to get suspicious. John Young, a highly-respected campaigner for freedom of speech, who runs a public disclosure site, had initially agreed to be involved but pulled out after failing to get reassurance from creators about their motives and capabilities. Recent shifts in the architecture of the Internet have leant towards the increasing retention of long-term storage and user information. Current opinion is centred around the fact that asking people to contribute to the site will risk their freedom, even their lives, if security cannot be guaranteed.

It is also necessary to take account of the fact that, just as with all wikis, not all users are genuine and it is important to consider that some users may have their own agenda about what they are doing and it will be difficult to verify any claims made.

The perils of creative marketing

You may have seen the story regarding the buzz campaign for the new movie '28 weeks later'. The ad company thought they were being clever by littering city streets with graffiti logos of 'rage virus' symbols with only the website as a clue to what was going on. Hilarity ensued when it was realised that they had failed to register the url before unleashing the campaign. One clever guy on b3ta claims to have come across the ad on his lunch break, gone back to work, realised the url was unregistered and bought it himself for £8.99. He claims that the money he was offered in exchange wasn't as much as you'd think, but enough to get himself a 'nice holiday'. Wish I'd though of that.

This comical error highlights the perils of such a strategy; if you're going to be clever, make sure you've covered all the bases, even the most obvious ones. All it takes is one for clever swine and you've got a massive payout. The fact that registering a website is so cheap and easy that, literally, the average man on the street can do it is yet another example of how new technology has transferred power to the little people.

It must be said though, it was a good idea. It tied in with the projection of the logo on the Dover cliffs, pictured above, exactly 28 days before the release of the movie on May 11th. I guess it's got people talking, but not about the right things.

Monday, 23 April 2007

Prepare for the Uprising

This has nothing to do with PR but I just had to comment on an article on the BBC website about pigeons today. You may have noticed in my profile that I like most things except pigeons. This is apparently called 'peristerophobia', th proper name for a fear of pigeons. Now, I wouldn't say I have a phobia but I have been known to let out a blood-curdling scream in the middle of Waverley Station when about a million of them decided to all fly upwards in the direction of my face at the same time.

The story has been prompted by the resurfacing of arguments surrounding the Mayor of London's ban on feeding pigeons. Apparently, there are people out there who actually LIKE pigeons and are affronted that measures should be taken to curb their growth. There are people commenting on the story, arguing that pigeons are good for the environment, because they pick up litter! Yes, they pick up FOOD, which is bio-degradable, and manage to leave behind the stuff that acually does the damage! What will these people be saying when the birds of hell take over the world, then, eh? I hope I'm there to say 'I told you so'.

Apparently, the argument that pigeons spread disease is unfounded, although they are known to be susceptible to things like tuberculosis. Ok, even if they don's spread disease, how can these people possible defend that characteristic inherent in all pigeons, their need to fly randomly in all different directions, but always just inches away from my face?

The article says there are 18 million pigeons in the UK (about half of them are usually in 2 metre radius of where I am standing) and they can breed up to 6 times a year. This is scary. I'm telling you, they are planning a revolution; we are all going to become pigeon-slaves and have to bow to their every whim. The thing is, I can't even move to another country because THEY'RE EVERYWHERE!

The good news is that the government recognises pigeons as a nuisance and legally they can be controlled using humane methods by people who have a licence. I, however, will not be participating since I am too scared of them.

A psychologist comments that one possible reason that us peristerophobes are scared of pigeons is down to human evolution. In the days of early man, birds were huge, were a real threat (Oh My GOD!) and were to be avoided at all costs and this survival instinct still persists in us today. But I'm not scared of birds, just pigeons. And sometimes seagulls because they can be quite vicious, you know.
To finish, I think you will agree that this is hilarious. Mike Tyson is a self-confessed 'pigeon lover' (see picture above of Mike Tyson getting off with a pigeon). Now that is scarier than any pigeon with a random flight-path.

Monday, 9 April 2007

Sex sells (even to eight year olds)

I have Take That on the brain at the moment. Having only just recovered from the sheer joy of managing to get tickets to see them in December, courtsey of Debz's amazing persistency (albeit in London - road trip!) I wake up this morning to find out that E4 are running a special Easter Monday Take That Day, where it's 'Nothing But Take That'. This is tragic. I have an essay to hand in tomorrow and the sight of the nicest boys in pop prancing about in black leather and silver codpieces, getting jelly rubbed all over their bodies, has left me weak. The best part is the fact that I failed to notice how extremely homoerotic it all was at the time. Then again, in 1991, I was only seven.

Of course, they don't get up to that kind of nonsense now, they're all respectable family men (with the exception of Jason, of course). But they can still make grown women weak at the knees. And they can definitely still dance (with the exception of Gary, of course).

This morning's marathon has been coupled with the recent speculation that Robbie may be re-united with his former bandmates. Now, I was a mega Robbie fan at the time; I thought I was going to marry him, along with about a million other little girls. Well he wasn't that much older than me; when I was nine, he was like, what, seventeen? Obviously, that never happened, or I'm sure you would all know about it. Despite my early love for Robbie, the news that he wants to re-join Take That left a sour taste in my mouth. He has been nothing but arrogant towards them in the last year or so, since they decided to reform. But now, what with his latest album being pants and his recent stint in rehab being dismissed as a publicity stunt, I can just imagine his PR person sitting across the desk going " Right, Robbie, you were the once the golden boy of British pop but now everyone hates you. You're going to have to swallow your pride and rejoin Take That. They're back for good and everyone loves it." The thing is though, they're doing fine without him. Their singles and album have all charted straight in a number one and their upcoming tour sold out in minutes, just like their reunion tour a year ago. So, if I was Take That, I'd say 'no thanks, Robbie'. But then, they are the 'nicest guys in pop' so who knows?

You may be wondering, as I am starting to, how I am going to link this to PR. Well, the implications of Robbie's rehab visit (timed nicely to coincide with Take That's appearance at this year's Brit Awards) and the recent revelations that he may rejoin them, to me, reek of publicity seeking. But this is not what I'm talking about. What struck me this morning, as I was watching thier raunchy dance routines and nearly-naked bodies on my telly-box, was the outright sexualisation of the pre-pubescent market. The first time I saw these videos, I wasn't even ten years old. Indeed, I was subjected to the afore-mentioned jelly-rubbing shenanigans when I was only seven. I recounted a tale of woe to my flatmates, who I think were only pretending to listen, being boys. When I was about nine, Take That performed a stunt on one of their tours where they ripped off their trousers and stood with their backs to the audience, with the words 'Take That' written on their lovely bum cheeks. I had a large poster of this incident on my bedroom ceiling (my walls were full). My dad, a relatively liberal-minded parent, had a fit and ripped it off. I was devastated. Only now can I see why he was so affronted - I was nine for crying out loud!

This set me to thinking about my expriences as a little girl, coming across the first boys I fancied, ie. Take That (but not Jason, he was too old; funnily, now he's scrummy!) and I joked about doing my dissertation on 'The Impact of Take That on the Sexualisation of Young Girls in the Early 1990's'. But the more I think about it, the more it seems like a real issue. How does PR use sex to sell a target market of pre-pubescent girls? Because they undoubtably do. It's all related to the adultification of our children, the covert sexualisation of little girls barely out of nappies. It's not just in the music industry. Think about Barbie, she's being doing it for decades. My youngest sister, despite the best efforts of my parents, virtually idolises the 'Bratz', a fictional group of friends who wear make-up, mini-skirts and flash their midriffs, while discussing boys and fashion. What's scary is that she's only four. This is obviously a major issue but is it one we can really do anything about?

On a lighter note, I am now sitting wondering how my love of Take That in my younger years has influenced my taste in men in my adult life. I hope it hasn't, those codpieces were bloody awful!

Sunday, 8 April 2007

World of Wikis

Until now, my knowledge of wikis extended to frantically searching Wikipedia to find out the hobbies and interests of famous blokes I fancy, to make sure we are compatible, obviously. Then I was asked to present a seminar on wikis and their implication for the PR industry and found out that there is much more involved than star signs, et cetera.

First thing’s first. A wiki, for the uninitiated, is a piece of server software that allows users to create and edit web pages using any web browser. The most well-known, Wikipedia, acts as an online encyclopaedia, asking users to add information and correct content on its subject pages. Wikis have evolved as a group communications mechanism, a form of mass collaborative authoring, encouraging democratic use of the web and promoting content composition by non-technical users (good news for the likes of me!). Indeed, the democratic nature of wikis has been the most significant factor in their growth. Low barriers to access (most do not require registration) and ease of use have also been important factors.

Wikis were first used by a dude called Ward Cunningham for the Portland Pattern Repository (?) in 1995. The term ‘wiki’ entered the Oxford English Dictionary Online in March 2007. A directory of all existing wikis can be found at WikiIndex. There is a small dispute over the origin of the term. Some believe (as if this is some kind of techy urban legend) that the term derives from the colloquial Hawaiian word for ‘quick’, ‘wikiwiki’. Others argue that the term is an achronym for ‘What I Know Is’, in reference to the wiki’s principle characteristics of information sharing and collaboration.

Wikis have evolved alongside the generative nature of the internet, encouraging users to help build it. Key features usually include:

  • The name of the article embedded in the hyperlink.
  • The ability to be created by anyone at anytime (applying to open wikis; some can be created for private uses, such as in the internal operations of an organisation, replacing intranet facilities). Some ‘wiki-farms’ for individual creation include WetPaint, SocialText and Wikia (it is easy honest – we did it in class and if I can do it anyone can!).
  • Editable through a browser.
  • Each article provides one-click access to a history page.
  • Discussion pages.
  • Recent additions or changes can be monitored actively or passively.

Wikis were originally utilised to create a dynamic knowledge base and have since evolved greatly. For example, they are employed widely as an instructional technology between educators and students, amateurs and professionals. They have the ability to expand community involvement and interest and grow as a result of people adding material. As a result, they can be content specific and address a variety of needs, allowing groups to form around specific topics. Their potential as collaborative spaces have led to them becoming semi-authoritative voices on particular topics, as is the case with Wikipedia.

The democratic nature of wikis is also the root of the problems it faces. They are susceptible to vandalism, or ‘trolling’, which can often go unnoticed for long periods of time. Wikis operate a soft-security philosophy, based on the assumption that the majority of users are genuine. As a result, it is easy to correct mistakes rather than difficult to make them. Rather than attempting to prevent damage through abuse, the way wikis operate make it easy to undo it. A recent case involved an individual posing on Wikipedia as a professor, having faked his academic credentials.

This links to issues surrounding its credibility. There is an increasing concern in the academic world that students are becoming over-reliant on tools like Wikipedia for their coursework research, a problem considering the issue of validity of users. Certainly, many agree that Wikipedia is a useful starting point but it does not guarantee reliability.

Additionally, by facilitating the forming of groups around specific issues, wikis represent the collective perspective of those that use it, resulting in a collaborative bias. Many argue that wikis are able to reflect current thoughts but are not as effective in obtaining unbiased perspectives on rapidly evolving issues. This is, in my opinion, a point of contention. Surely something which is collaborative, open and immediate is the best place to start when researching different perspectives on a burning issue? Possible dissertation topic, anyone?

In a similar vein, there is a distinct lack of research on whether or not an enterprise wiki encourages more usage or leads to more knowledgable community members than more conventional systems.

There is also a debate on the use of wikis by PR professionals, similar to the arguments surrounding the industry’s use of blogging. Some in the social media community would rather wikis were preserved solely for individual contributions. Wikipedia’s policy centres around requirements that all posts must be neutral, factual and verfiable and providing links to one’s own website is akin to spamming. The response from the industry, which I would tend to agree with, is that as long as users are transparent about their identity and intentions, where’s the problem?

Which brings us to the use of wikis by the industry. Certainly, their low cost and lack of barriers means that they have already been successfully utilised to facilitate internal operations in the fast-moving, unpredictable world of PR. The main advantage is their use against the challenge of high staff turnover so characteristic of the industry. They have solved the issue of knowledge retention by providing a database of clients, case studies and information accessible to all employees. So it doesn’t matter when someone leaves since they are no longer walking out the door with all the important information stored only in their own head. They have also been utilised to archive meeting notes and status reports. Additionally because everyone has the ability to edit them, they are useful for press release and press tour schedule amendments. The blog applications of wikis mean that they can be fitted to news tracking and reporting. And RSS applications mean that any important information can be disseminated without cluttering up already-cluttered inboxes. Not only this, but the unique e-mail addresses of wikis mean that they be copied into e-mails, creating an accessible archive of important correspondence.

So that’s that then. Right, I’m off to find out Johnny Depp’s favourite colour.