Pelland Blog

There Is a Test for That!

June 14th, 2017

Here in my home state of Massachusetts, a problem in recent years involved elementary schools (already considered to be among the best in the country) that were concentrating too much effort on teaching students to pass the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment Test, commonly known as MCAS. More recently replaced by newer testing that is in line with the national Common Core Standards that have been adopted by most states, the problem with MCAS was that teachers had to devote far too much classroom time teaching students to score highly on tests rather than actually learning. I am not a teacher, but is seems to me that it is more important for students to learn effectively than to be taught to pass tests with the highest possible scores.

A similar issue takes place when companies that market their website services run bot-based tests that present audits of potential website errors, warnings and load speeds. There is no question that it is important to have a site that renders properly and loads quickly across a full range of browsers and devices; however, all speed tests have their limitations. To run an automated test that purports to present the final word on the quality of a website and the experience that it offers to visitors is a flawed concept at best and a competitive potshot at worst.

No bot can effectively measure the quality of the end-user experience because that is an inherently subjective process. There is a tradeoff between a site that is visually exciting and a site that loads instantly, and many of the “errors” that bots identify account for mere milliseconds in the scope of initial overall page load times. A site that consists of nothing but text will usually run a perfect score, but how many reservations do you think such a site might generate for a campground or outdoor resort? My advice is to avoid falling for the bait, particularly when it is offered by companies that fall short themselves when it comes to overall quality and integrity of design – factors that directly influence human-based decisions rather than bot-based tests.

Let me offer an analogy that relates to the family camping industry. Many parks have begun offering one of the many “wine and paint” sessions that have become popular in recent years. They all follow a similar formula, where an artist whose career has never caught fire leads a session where attendees drink just enough wine to encourage their creativity but not so much wine that they can’t find the end of the paintbrush with the bristles. The idea is for everybody to copy the painting that the session leader paints. The order of the day is uniformity, a lack of originality, and the building of self-esteem. If Pablo Picasso was still alive and attended one of these sessions, his work would be the laugh of the evening.

When it comes to websites, the single most important consideration is whether or not a site is mobile-friendly. A site that is not optimized for display on mobile devices – particularly smartphones – presents an impediment to the end-user experience. What is most important is how long it takes before a user is able to read and navigate your site. Whether some images might take a few seconds to load is not an impediment to that experience.

If you are wondering whether your website is up to par, ask for a human, personalized evaluation of its strengths and weaknesses. That will take some time and effort to prepare, but it will offer results that are based upon the actual experiences of human end-users, not the bots that will never contact you to make a reservation for Site 127 for the second week of August.

Times change, along with the ways that websites are viewed and the algorithms that determine how they are ranked in search results. The one thing that is consistent is the importance of working with a knowledgeable and reliable company with a trusted track record to stay on top of things and to represent the best interests of your company.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

It’s Never Too Late to Start Guarding Your Privacy

May 10th, 2017

I logged onto Facebook this morning, and I was immediately presented with a sponsored display ad hawking a t-shirt design that read, “Never underestimate an Old Man who listens to Neil Young and was born in September.” If I was naïve, I would see that ad and think, “Wow! This is my perfect t-shirt”, then order one. In the short time in which this ad has been displayed, it has been “liked” by 480 people, shared by 182 people (multiplying its reach at no charge to the advertiser), and has received 61 comments. Every one of those comments is from a man who confirms that he was born in September (usually adding a year from the 1950’s or 1960’s) and wants one of the shirts.


Man-NeilYoung-September-FacebookAd

Is the fact that I was shown this advertising a coincidence? No way! It is custom-tailored to my identity. If I went to the order page and modified the URL, I could display any of a number of t-shirt designs based upon:

  • The name of the performer.
  • The birth month.
  • Whether I was a man or a woman.

Here is an example:

Woman-Bob-Dylan-August-FacebookAd

To make the ad even more effective, the ordering page includes a countdown clock to create a false sense of urgency:

Ordering-Urgency-FacebookAd

Depending upon how you view it, being presented these ads is either a brilliant use of Facebook’s marketing potential or an egregious violation of the personal privacy of Facebook users. In this case, I was being shown advertising that was based upon the disclosure of my gender, age, month of birth, and taste in music … all information that I had either voluntarily or unwittingly published on Facebook for either my friends or the world to see.

Yesterday, I was presented with another variation of the ad, based upon the fact that I drive a Jaguar … another fact that I had disclosed on Facebook. Now, I can also order a coffee mug! I am sure that I could modify the URL on the ordering page to change the design to show the name and logo of just about any car company. (On a side note, I have to wonder if these performers and companies are being paid royalties by the t-shirt company for use of their trademarks.)

Man-Jaguar-September-FacebookAd

You may think that this is all innocent, fun, and the price we pay for the otherwise free use of social media apps like Facebook, but there is more involved. I don’t know how many times I have seen friends on Facebook post a complete set of answers to 50 personal questions such as the name of their elementary school, their first phone number, name of their eldest sibling, and so forth. Whenever I see this being treated as a harmless and fun exercise, I cannot help but ask myself, “Are you insane?” If any of these questions and answers seems familiar, it is because they are among the same ones that are used as security tests on your online banking or an e-commerce site when you reset a password. Yes, the name of your first pet can lead to the theft of your identity!

You may have seen the recent news about the “Google Docs” phishing scam that proliferated in e-mails on May 4, 2017, said to be the most effective e-mail worm since the “I Love You” virus that caused havoc back in 2000. The scam was effective because it looked legitimate (it is so easy to copy the appearance of a legitimate website!), came from somebody you knew (rather than some random name chosen by a hacker in Belarus), and was spread through the type of shared online document that we have come to accept as routine. Even cautious recipients who would never open an e-mail attachment from a stranger thought that it was safe to download the same sort of document that appeared to have been shared via a cloud service by a known sender. All of these scams, whether relatively harmless or downright nefarious, play upon the human willingness to trust those with access to our personal information.

At the moment, leading into Mother’s Day 2017, there are several gift card scams that are proliferating on Facebook almost faster than they can be identified and taken down. One purports to offer a $50.00 coupon for use at Lowe’s home improvement stores in exchange for taking a short survey, in which you will be disclosing a wealth of personal information. Another purports to offer a $75.00 coupon to Bed Bath & Beyond, the same sort of scam that attempts to gather your personal information for exploitation later.

As I have said in the title of this article, it is never too late to start guarding your privacy. In fact, today is the best day to begin!

This post was written by Peter Pelland

All Links Are Good … or Are They?

April 4th, 2016

One of my clients recently contacted me, concerned that his New Hampshire campground was listed without his prior knowledge or authorization on several websites that purported to be online campground directories. He discovered this when one of the sites contacted him on behalf of a camper who wanted to make a reservation to stay at his park and another contacted him to “claim” his listing. At first glance, these would appear to be good things, wouldn’t they? Any resource that is sending you business is generally welcome to do so. After all, your campground is probably sent online traffic from a variety of referring sites – everything from Go Camping America to your state association website to Good Sam to your local tourism association.

In the instances that my client described, something just didn’t seem right.

Over the years, a number of websites have sprouted up that are essentially directories of local businesses. Many of these have evolved from so-called “yellow pages” companies, and their business model is to persuade gullible business owners to pay for enhanced listings. In my own instance, about a third of these local directories lists my company’s street address correctly, but then locates us in the next town. Another third list our fax number as our phone number. Do I care? Not really, because these sites get close to zero traffic, and they have little if any effect – either positive or negative – upon the SEO of my company’s official website. These websites are working with compiled data, obviously harvested from unreliable sources.

The sites that my client described were an entirely new breed. Also based upon compiled data, their business plans are no longer focused upon selling enhanced listings but in providing reservation services where they collect referral or transaction fees. These can be problematic indeed. My client has gone through a fairly labor-intensive process of getting his business de-listed from several of these sites. The more that I looked into them, the better my understanding of how my client’s instincts were probably right on target.

Campground reservations are accurately perceived as a multi-billion dollar business, and companies that would like a piece of the action are suddenly coming out of the woodwork. Funded with infusions of venture capital, the focus is on generating income from the collection of processing fees on those reservations, either in real-time (with campgrounds that get on board) or with the type of delayed booking that initially caught my client’s attention. One such site posts that it “anticipates” use by 1 million campers per month, even though it does not currently show up as even a blip on the radar at Alexa, the leading provider of comparative website traffic analytics.

What is the problem with these sites? Well, first of all there is a problem with compiled data. How often is the data updated and how accurate is the initial source? (Think back to those local sites that list my business in the wrong town or with our fax number as our primary phone number, where incorrect data tends to perpetuate itself.) On one of these sites that my client called to my attention, I perused the campgrounds listed in my home state of Massachusetts. I am intimately familiar with the industry players in my home state, and I found fictitious listings, listings for municipal parks that have nothing to do with camping, listings for campgrounds that have been out of business for several years, and listings for summer camps.

The second problem is the potential for these sites to compete with your own official website and your own chosen online reservation engine, a situation that can only serve to confuse consumers and that could inflict harm upon your business. I know that I do not want any other company representing my business, and I would be feverishly protective against any threats to my company’s unique online identity. Particularly if pricing (that may or may not be accurate) or reservations enter into the equation, the potential for problems is very real.

Thirdly, if you choose to get on board, be sure to read the fine print. The “Terms of Service” listed on one of these websites, when copied and pasted into a Word document, consisted of over 20,000 words that ran 42 pages in length. That’s a far cry from the old-fashioned handshake agreement of years past and probably reason to proceed with caution.

Keep in mind that any online directories or search engines built upon compiled data (even Google itself!) need businesses like yours as much as you need them. Without listing real businesses that consumers are seeking, they have no product to offer. It is your decision whether or not to get on board with any particular website. Understand the potential risks and benefits, and then make a decision based upon what is best for your business and how it can most effectively meet the needs and expectations of its core clientele.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

If a Contest on Facebook Sounds Too Good to be True …

September 2nd, 2015

You probably know how that sentence ends. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true. In this case, there have been a number of hoaxes that have circulated on Facebook, and it is amazing how many thousands of people unwittingly think these “contests” are authentic before the pages get reported and eventually get taken down.

Over the weekend, one of my friends on Facebook shared a link and commented how she hoped she would be one of the lucky monthly winners of $5,000.00 in travel money being given away by Qantas Airlines. The page looked very authentic but I immediately detected a scam. The page had relatively few posts for a big corporation, all of which dealt with the contest, and I noticed that it had a total of only 14,190 “likes”. That low number of likes is a dead giveaway that you are not at a legitimate page. A quick search brought me to the real Qantas page, with 715,496 likes and, of course, no such contest.

It turns out that this is not the first time that Qantas has had to deal with the public relations nightmare that can result when people think that a business is somehow responsible for a scam in disguise. In an earlier instance this year, a fake page announced that the airline would be offering free upgrades to first class for all passengers through the end of 2015. That bogus page accumulated some 130,000 likes and over 150,000 shares in the first 24 hours of its existence. Yes, people can be very naïve.

Another friend not long ago shared a link to another Facebook page that captured his excitement. It alleged to be Chevrolet and was encouraging people to enter a contest to win a free Chevy Camaro. I noticed that all of its posts involved the fake contest, most extending the entry deadline in order to get more people to “enter”. Once again, I noticed that the page had relatively few “likes”, and I provided my friend with a link to the real Chevrolet Camaro page on Facebook, not surprisingly with 4,407,269 likes as of this writing. Until somebody reports a page that mimics the identity of a legitimate page and violates its legal trademark, scams like this will perpetuate indefinitely.

One way to quickly confirm the authenticity of a Facebook page is to look for the blue checkmark icon next to the page’s name, confirming that the page of a global brand or business, celebrity or public figure, or media outlet has been verified to be legitimate. Unfortunately, Facebook does not offer this authentication option to small businesses like yours and mine.

If you encounter one of these fake pages, you may be wondering why somebody has taken the time to create it. Typically, the pages are built by individuals who are engaged in the practice of “like farming”, hoping that their page will not be reported and taken down before they will be able to increase its value and profit from it in a black market engaged in the buying and selling of this type of content. Visitors to these pages are usually encouraged to “like” and “share” the pages, whether the incentive is a bogus contest, a chain letter, or simply a photo of a cute puppy or kitten. If a page has more “likes”, it will sell for more money to subsequent scammers who can then engage in more nefarious cons. Many of those are engaged in the collection of personal information that only begins with e-mail addresses and Facebook profiles but could very well end in full scale identity theft.

We all know people who have gotten their personal profiles compromised on Facebook. It can be a nightmare, but for a business, this type of violation can be far more damaging. As a business owner yourself, probably with a Facebook page of its own, you need to be vigilant about protecting your company’s online identity. There can be very real costs in crisis communications and the loss of consumer confidence in your brand. Back in 2012, another airline – Jetstar – suffered tremendous corporate damage when a scammer set up a bogus Facebook page and began posting highly offensive responses to customers posting questions to what they thought was its official page. Instances like this are nothing less than corporate sabotage.

Thinking hypothetically, what would be the direct – and indirect – impact of hundreds or thousands of people being led to believe that you were giving away free merchandise to anybody who showed up at your business next Saturday? It has been sometimes said that all publicity is good publicity, but it does not take much imagination to realize that this adage can be far from true.

Sadly, it is extremely easy to build an official-looking page with very little skill or talent. A con artist copies and pastes a few graphics and trademarks, registers a deceptively similar page name, then posts something that sounds so good to the unwitting that it goes viral faster than it can be taken down. If your business ever finds itself in this unenviable situation, it is imperative that you immediately report the bogus site and that no time is wasted before engaging in damage control and exposing the hoax as broadly as possible.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Beware of Some of the Latest Scams

August 17th, 2015

I always try to do my best to warn readers to avoid getting entrapped by any of the wide range of scams that are prevalent today. We read about them in the newspaper and hear about them on the TV news, but most of us think that they could “never happen to me”, that they only victimize the elderly or people of lesser intelligence. Guess what? Scam operators are good at what they do, and they are getting better all the time.

The way that scams succeed is by being as believable as possible. People fall for the house rentals on Craigslist because the houses are actually there at the addresses listed. They are simply not available for rent, and they are not owned by the crooks who want to collect the first and last months’ rent and security deposits. As people become more aware of the scams, the scammers do a bit more research and become more creative in order to increase their odds of finding their mark.

419 Scams

I recently received a half dozen e-mails from a “woman” who expressed an interest in having a website built, a project that at first glance appeared to be a perfect fit for my company. One of “Jennifer’s” first questions was whether we accepted credit cards. (Had my answer been “no”, I am sure that would have been the end of the e-mails.) The scammer claimed to be based in South Carolina, had an established business importing specialty agricultural products from South America, had a “project consultant” who would be providing us with a logo and text, had a very generous budget, and was very anxious to get the project underway. What was vague was the actual identity of the business and her credentials, other than a fictitious business name.

When my searches for both “Jennifer Mark” and “DW Fresh” came up empty on Google, Manta, LinkedIn, and other online resources, I explained that we would need to review a full credit application and be paid a substantial deposit before any work could commence. Then came the kicker: The scammer offered to roughly double the required deposit, but needed me to do her a “favour” by paying her “project consultant” a $2,800.00 cash payment so that he would release the creative materials while she was “presently in the hospital for surgery”. In other words, I was supposed to accept a $6,500.00 deposit (most assuredly on a stolen credit card), then pay the scammer nearly half of that, with the funds gone from my account before the charge was declined due to the card being identified as stolen.

This type of advance fee fraud is what is generally referred to as a “419 scam”, based upon the section of the Nigerian penal code that addresses fraud schemes. It can involve letters, faxes or e-mails, and – as I have just demonstrated – it has gotten very creative, not necessarily involving extremely large sums of money or trips to Nigeria. What they all have in common is some sort of advance fee. If you run a campground, you could be contacted by somebody who wanted to reserve a block of 100 sites during your off season. That would be welcome income, but curb your excitement unless all of your questions are answered to your satisfaction and there is no suggestion of funds flowing in the opposite direction for any reason.

Officer Ray Fleck

Another scam that has been making the rounds lately has been a robocall from “Officer Ray Fleck”, allegedly working in the audit division of the Internal Revenue Service. I have received these calls. The caller, in a very brash and threatening voice, claims that the Internal Revenue Service is filing suit against you, and that it is imperative that you return the call to make a credit card payment that will satisfy your alleged tax obligations and prevent the filing of suit in your local court. Needless to say, the IRS does not employ a force of thugs who call citizens and demand their credit card numbers, but some people are easily intimidated, making this scam highly successful for its perpetrators.

Windows Service Center

Finally, the “Windows Service Center” scams are still alive and kicking. The callers – usually with heavy accents – claim that they are calling from Microsoft. They are hoping to reach people who have little technical experience and who are coincidentally experiencing some sort of problem with their computers. I received such a call from a person who identified himself as “Jim Sparkle”, and who said that he had been “monitoring my computer” and found that it had a “major problem”. He said that he was “doing his duty” because my computer was “ready to crash down at any time”.

What these scammers want is not only your credit card number but also remote access to your computer, allowing them to install spyware and steal sensitive information. They have various “service plans” that will solve your computer problems, of course suggesting the “lifetime” service plan which was, in my case, discounted to $299.00 and would cover any computer that I ever owned over the course of my lifetime. If you receive one of these calls and have some time to spare, act dumb, and string the caller along a bit (which can admittedly be a bit of fun). You will typically learn at the end of the call that people in other countries have an extensive vocabulary of English language profanities.

The point is that you need to remain vigilant and cautious whenever you are contacted under circumstances that just don’t feel quite right. If you receive an unsolicited contact by anybody who asks you for a credit card number, it is time to end the conversation and continue with business as usual. Scams will always be with us, but with a healthy dose of skepticism, you can prevent yourself from becoming a victim.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Truth in Packaging

June 10th, 2015

When it comes to processed foods, probably the most deceptive phrases are:

  • Serving suggestion.
  • Enlarged to show detail.
  • All natural.

The serving suggestion lets you know that the strawberries and blueberries in that bowl of cereal are not included in the box, the image that is enlarged to show detail helps you to really see what that cracker or potato chip looks like, and the words “all natural” have no definition whatsoever and can include just about every chemical compound found on the planet. The first two phrases are usually shown in very fine print, whereas the last phrase is generally promoted in large text with an eye-catching graphic.

PackagingBuzzwords

It is unfortunate that parts of the business world have adopted language that essentially applies this same sort of lipstick to their pigs. A used car becomes “previously owned”, previously frozen fish in the supermarket becomes “thawed for your convenience”, products made in China might be “assembled and packaged in the USA”, and most people know that a “processed cheese product” is anything but real cheese. In particular, some of this deception has become commonplace in the Internet industry.

Serving Suggestion

If you have ever registered a domain name with a company like GoDaddy, you will encounter their version of the “serving suggestion”. I just went to GoDaddy to try to register a domain name for $9.99, the sale pricing for new domain name registrations. Before checking out, I am presented with an offer the “Get 3 and Save 67%” by registering the .net, .org, and .info versions of the domain name, as well as an opportunity to “target local shoppers” by adding the .nyc version of the domain name for an additional $39.99.

As I pass on those options and proceed to the checkout, I am encouraged to “Protect My Personal Information” by adding so-called “Privacy Protection or Privacy & Business Protection” for between $7.99 and $14.99 per domain per year. (The $14.99 price is made to appear particularly attractive, since it is discounted from a “regular” price of $32.97.) The next options are “Website Builder Hosting” for anywhere from $1.00 to $10.99 per month, and E-mail hosting for anywhere from $3.99 to $7.89 per month. Then, of course, I will be encouraged to register my domain for the maximum period of 10 years, rather than only paying for a single year.

Under this exercise, I only wanted to register a single .com domain name for $9.99 (plus a mandatory $0.18 ICANN fee). Most people are confused by all of the options – after all, doesn’t “privacy protection” sound important? – and will pay for at least some of the unnecessary add-ons. If I purchased everything that GoDaddy suggested, but still only registered my domain name for a single year, I would be paying $375.51 per year for that $9.99 domain name. Yes, those are “serving suggestions”.

Enlarged to Show Detail

Many website builders have a way of exaggerating their skill levels. Often, these are the local jack-of-all-trades computer shops in town, where the owner fancies himself a webmaster in between attempting computer repairs and selling home theater systems. In other instances, this might be your son or daughter or that smart kid down the street, generally telling you that “anybody can build a website.” In yet other instances, you might be misled by TV commercials from companies like Wix, Weebly, SiteBuilder.com, VistaPrint, or those wonderful folks at GoDaddy again … all suggesting that it only takes a few mouse clicks to build a website for your business for next to nothing or even free (before, of course, leading you back into the “serving suggestions”).

Needless to say, there is not a single website for any seriously legitimate business that was built under any of those scenarios. Even among companies that are engaged full-time in website development, there is a propensity toward exaggeration and a “sure, we can do that” attitude. Your best protection will be a careful review of their portfolio and references. It has been said that “the proof is in the pudding”, and you may want to confirm that the dessert being served matches the dessert being described on the menu. If you are being promised a world-class website, that is unlikely to result if there are no signs of the necessary skills visible in previously completed projects.

All Natural

The trickiest to detect is the claim that a product is made with all natural ingredients. From processed foods to pet food, from cosmetics to candy, there are no clear standards or definitions for the term “all natural”. As a result, consumers need to rely upon their own instincts, underfunded consumer watchdog organizations, or the slowly moving wheels of governmental regulatory agencies for protection. Snake oil was all natural, but it never cured a single disease other than psychosomatic disorder.

The snake oil of the Internet age is search engine optimization, commonly known by its acronym: SEO. How many phone calls have you received recently from somebody offering to get your website “listed at the top of the Google search results”, offering to help get your business listed on Google Places, or asking you to “update your Google front page listing?” In most instances, you have probably gotten dozens of such calls. Not a single one of them has actually come from Google or a company that is legitimately sanctioned to call on Google’s behalf.

In a recent phone call with the former president of one of the world’s leading e-commerce companies, I was struck (but not surprised) by his advice to “never hire an SEO agency”. Wasting time trying to find a legitimate SEO company is like trying to find a “good” fortune teller, used car salesman, or payday loan company. They are all truly good at taking your money. SEO is nonetheless big business. Be suspicious of companies that offer SEO reports as a means of getting their foot in the door, offer to “fix” your website so that it will “start ranking higher on the search engines”, or show you Google Analytics charts and graphs with misleading annotations that allegedly document their expertise.

We are living in challenging times. In order to survive and prosper, you need to cut through the chatter and filter out the noise. Should you really expect one business to provide the same services for significantly less than most others, should you really expect companies to provide free services with no strings attached, and should you really believe that there are companies with magic wands that will make your website suddenly appear more highly ranked than any other relevant search results? Sometimes business decisions come down to who you can trust, and trusting your own instincts is almost always the soundest business decision.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

The Sky Is (Not) Falling

April 6th, 2015

Chicken Little was well-intentioned when he hysterically warned of impending disaster. The only problem was that his predictions were based upon conjecture rather than facts. Back at the turn of the millennium, modern-day Chicken Littles mongered fear over the impending “Y2K” disaster that, of course, never happened. More recently, there has been more than a bit of press about the implementation of the next round of Google search ranking algorithms that will only begin to be rolled out on April 21, 2015. Without doing any research of their own, many self-proclaimed “experts” are citing a Google blog post, a comment reportedly made by a Google employee, and a speculative article that recently appeared in Entrepreneur Magazine as the bases for their warnings of dire consequences for today’s typical website. Like grade school students spreading rumors in the schoolyard, it is time for some people to take a “time out”.

TheSkyIsFalling

Like the news networks that love to exaggerate stories and develop sensationalist headlines like “Stormageddon” and “Blizzard of the Century” (and, of course, the aforementioned “Y2K”), the new buzz word amongst the uninformed is “Mobilegeddon”. People using this type of terminology remind me of those who blindly share urban legends on Facebook, without taking a moment to first check the facts. The stories may generate excitement, but they lack credibility.

The fact is that Google will be rolling out a new set of search algorithms starting on April 21st; however, this does NOT mean that a website that is not deemed mobile-friendly will suddenly drop from the results of Google searches made from mobile devices. That is an outright exaggeration. What the new algorithms mean is that sites that are mobile-friendly will have an edge over sites that are not mobile-friendly, being flagged as “mobile friendly” alongside those search results. This rise in the rankings of mobile-friendly sites will come at the expense of sites that are not deemed mobile-friendly, but it does not mean that those latter sites are suddenly going to be dropped from being indexed.

Chicken Littles have suggested that half of a site’s traffic is suddenly going to disappear effective April 21st, if the site is not mobile-friendly. This is patently untrue. Using historical Google Analytics data that I have drawn from actual campground websites, let’s presume that 35% of the traffic to a website comes from search engines, and that 50% of that traffic comes from Google, and that 50% of THAT traffic comes from users of mobile devices. Do the math. That would mean that, if a website was totally dropped from mobile search results on Google (which is NOT going to happen at this time), that site would lose approximately 9% of its traffic. That is the reality, rather than conjecture and misguided speculation.

There are plenty of valid reasons why every business should be moving to replace a conventional website with a new mobile-friendly site, and to do so sooner rather than later. However, the people who are suggesting panic are doing a tremendous disservice by encouraging the jerking of knees rather than the exercise of a careful plan for execution that includes properly methodical planning and budgeting for the long-term investment in mobile-friendly technology.

In years past, many businesses were advised to buy into expensive mobile apps or separate mobile websites, in an attempt to capture the market for users of mobile devices. In retrospect, those dollars were generally not well spent. Today, the dust has settled and responsive website technology has taken its place as the mobile-friendly solution that Google and the other search engines prefer, with one site presenting full content that is optimized for every device. If your site is not currently mobile-friendly, make plans for the transition – as I have said, sooner rather than later. In the meantime, don’t panic. The sky is not falling, and the world is not about to end on April 21st.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Do Not Fall Victim to the Tech Support Phone Scam

March 2nd, 2015

One recent instance after another has compelled me to attempt to warn people about some of the scams that are proliferating and making the rounds these days. Although most scams use e-mail to seek new victims, due to the almost nonexistent cost of e-mail compared to the snail mail that was the vehicle of choice in earlier days, telemarketing is still one of the most common points of entry for scammers and cyber-thieves. In this installment I would like to warn readers about the very active Tech Support Phone Scam, offering suggestions on how to avoid becoming the next victim.

Everybody has problems with their computers from time to time. Files may get corrupted, programs crash, and sometimes a software update contains unanticipated bugs. Worse yet, you could inadvertently install malware on your computer, typically when opening an e-mail or an e-mail attachment. One of my clients recently called me, telling me that he was suddenly experiencing a problem synchronizing Microsoft Outlook with his reservation software. Later that day, he called me again with the “good news” that Microsoft was helping him to resolve the problem. Out of total coincidence, he had been the recipient of a telemarketing call from a dubious outfit that calls itself “Tech Zone Windows”. The caller led my client to believe that he was a Microsoft representative, charged his credit card $199.00 (which was a less expensive alternative to his original $599.00 offer), and was using remote access to do who knows what with my client’s computer! Perhaps the company was actually scanning my client’s computer and removing malware, something that anybody could do themselves for free. Far more likely, it was installing spyware and accessing sensitive information.

HackerLaptop_190832117_600x400_90

Fortunately, the client called me while this was happening, and I instructed him to immediately turn off his computer and found him a legitimate computer technician in his local area. Within seconds, the company’s representative called him, concerned that he had not yet finished the task at hand. My client demanded a refund, but as a result of this experience, has had to take the precaution of replacing his credit card. Hopefully, this represents the end, rather than the beginning, of his problems. Time will tell.

Microsoft has actually warned consumers about this and similar scams, where the callers impersonate help desk engineers from legitimate software companies. According to a Microsoft survey of 1,000 English language computer users back in 2011, 15% said that they had received one or more of these calls, and 22% of those who had gotten a call were tricked by the scam and paid an average of $875.00. If you do the math, you will see how somebody sitting at a desk in some remote part of the globe can rake in well over $2,500.00 simply by making 1,000 random phone calls. That dollar amount is only the haul from the bogus fees that they charge, earnings which could pale in comparison to what they can earn from the malicious software that they will install on your computer or the subsequent sale of your credit card number! The malware that they install is designed to harvest anything of value on your computer – including passwords, sensitive information and access credentials to things like your online banking and tax returns.

Continuing with the Microsoft report, 79% of those who were victimized by one of these scams reported some sort of financial loss, with 17% discovering money withdrawn from their bank accounts, 19% reporting passwords stolen, and 17% becoming victims of identity theft. A majority of victims also incurred significant costs in subsequently having their computers repaired or replaced after the experience.

To prevent this from happening to you, keep the following in mind:

  • Microsoft (or Apple or any other tech company) will NEVER call you to offer assistance. If you need assistance from one of these companies, you probably know how impossible it is to obtain. Rest assured that they will NOT be the ones trying to call you!
  • Never allow anybody to run remote access to your computer, unless you totally trust that individual. Remote access allows a total stranger total access to your computer. There is far too much at risk.
  • Never purchase any type of software service from somebody who approaches you on the phone.
  • Do not trust Caller ID. It is very easy to spoof the phone number that appears on Caller ID, and thieves use this trick to make themselves appear to be legitimate. Although Caller ID spoofing is a violation of the Truth in Caller ID Act and subject to a penalty of up to $10,000 per violation, thieves laugh in the face of the law. (Feel free to file a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission, the regulatory agency that is responsible for enforcement, either online or by calling 1 888 CALL-FCC.)

If you are uncertain about a company, I always suggest performing a quick Google search from the company’s name followed by the word “scam” or “complaints”. In the case of Tech Zone Windows, a Google search for “Tech Zone Windows Scam” currently produced 2,970,000 search results.

To learn more, read the following Microsoft security bulletin:
http://www.microsoft.com/security/online-privacy/avoid-phone-scams.aspx

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Beware of Award Scams: An Update

June 4th, 2014

Back in early October of 2013, I blogged about an award scam being run by an outfit calling itself the Small Business Institute for Excellence in Commerce (SBIEC). I had never before heard of the organization, and as far as I was able to determine, the company’s only “business” was sending out these awards. The award announcement that I received read, “Each year, the Small Business Institute for Excellence in Commerce (SBIEC) panel identifies firms that have demonstrated excellence in their respective fields and achieved commercial recognition. Your firm has been one of those selected this year and this award exemplifies that distinguished accomplishment.” That vague announcement read like your horoscope. But wait, there was more! For only $358.00, you could get a framed certificate, a crystal award, and your own press release campaign (which, of course, cross promotes the SBIEC). In our instance, they would even correct our business name. Basically, they win, you lose.

Fast forward 8 months, and things have changed a bit. Thanks to that blog post and a related post on the Pelland Advertising Facebook Page, a Google search for the Small Business Institute for Excellence in Commerce featured our blog post, our Facebook post, and several related consumer complaint sites more prominently than the website of the perpetrators themselves. In reaction to that reality, the outfit has now changed its name to the United States Trade and Commerce Institute (USTCI), disabled the original website, and has an otherwise identical website to be found under the new business name. In an effort to create an air of authenticity, the About Us page even outlines various “philanthropic outreach initiatives” such as helping to finance microloans on Kiva.org “since 2007.” Well, isn’t that special? Their business’s website was only created on March 13, 2014. In a Google search for the United States Trade and Commerce Institute, we are now dogging the new business name, too.

The spam e-mails that people receive claim that the USTCI has a “panel of industry executives and consultants” and a “Media Division”. That means that the USTCI is comprised of at least 2 people, who probably spend most of their time harvesting the e-mail addresses of small business owners and processing the credit cards of unwitting award winners. They are now targeting small businesses outside of the United States, particularly Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Great Britain with the same award scam. Non-English speaking countries are bound to be targeted next.

The comments posted on our Facebook Page make it abundantly clear that it is very easy to qualify for this dubious award. At least two people posted that they had received 2013 “Business Excellence” awards for businesses that had closed in 2012! In a sad sort of way, the posts are quite entertaining. Complaints can also be found elsewhere online, on a variety of consumer complaint websites, including The Ripoff Report. Phone calls to the SBIEC reach an answering machine with an “out of office” message, and a check of their address with the U.S. Postal Service returns with, “The address you provided is not recognized by the US Postal Service as an address we serve. Mail sent to this address may be returned.” The address on the old website could also not be located on Google Maps, with the closest recognizable address being the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, DC. The new website lists an address of 212 North Glebe Road in Arlington, Virginia. This is an image from Google Street View that shows the Knightsbridge Apartments that are located at that address. Hardly the location of such a respected and reputable company, is it?

Once again, how do you know if an award is a scam?

If you are told that you or your business is being nominated for an award – or is being presented with an award – it is probably best to think twice before you run out to buy a new tuxedo or evening dress. Follow a few guidelines, and ask a few questions.

Who is presenting the award? Do a Google search for the award. As you type in the name of the alleged award, is Google suggesting that it be followed by the word “scam”? I remember being called a few years ago (not coincidentally, during an election cycle) and being told that I was a small business leader who had been selected to be part of a recognition ceremony to be held in Washington, DC. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Well, not exactly. It turns out that the “award” had been concocted by a PAC (political action committee) that was designed to generate financial contributions for the National Republican Party. I know people who fell for the “award” and took the trip to have their pockets carefully picked in the nation’s capital.

Is there an entry fee? We have received direct mailings on a regular basis in recent years, inviting us to enter our work for the Davey Awards. The direct mail pieces typically look like they were designed by an untalented 9 year old, but that is just the first tell-tale sign that something is fishy. To enter the competition, you need to pay a $99.00 single entry fee, a $185.00 campaign entry fee, or $270.00 to enter a so-called integrated campaign, or go all out and pay $305.00 to enter a marketing effectiveness category. Adding insult to injury, if you win one of the dubious awards, you will be billed a $175.00 “acceptance fee” for your statuette and certificate.

We have also received similar direct mail pieces from the Telly Awards. According to their website, the organization receives 10,000 to 15,000 entries from small advertising agencies that are hoping to promote their businesses, each paying a minimum entry fee of $85.00. Do the math. That means that this questionable award generates about $1,000,000.00 for its promoters … just from the entry fees. Want to, once again, add insult to injury? If you “win” one of these dubious awards, you will be automatically charged an additional $170.00 for your award statuette (probably plastic) and your certificate. This seems to be a bargain compared to the Davey Awards, since the minimum entry fee is slightly less, and you will pay $5.00 less for your statuette if you “win”. It is no surprise that, if you search for “Telly Awards scam” on Google, there are currently 113,000 results. The Telly Awards and Davey Awards are not alone in preying upon companies that are eager to broaden their exposure. They are joined by the Webby Awards and many, many other questionable enterprises that appear to be in the business of generating entry fees and selling statuettes. Do you think that anyone who wins an Emmy, Oscar, Tony, or Grammy pays for their award?

Are winners asked to make purchases? In addition to obvious scams, there are many so-called “awards” where the winners are presented with the opportunity to spend money with the award presenters. Among the longest-running are the various Who’s Who directories. Do not be thrown off by what appears to be a recognizable and once-respected name. Who’s Who directories are about as commonplace as Yellow Pages directories these days. For years, I have been asked to validate my nomination to “Who’s Who among Executives and Professionals”. The congratulatory letters read, “The Publishing Committee selected you as a potential candidate based not only upon your current standing, but focusing as well on criteria from executive and professional directories, associations, and trade journals. Given your background, the Director believes your profile makes a fitting addition to our publication. There is no fee nor obligation to be listed. As we are working off of secondary sources, we must receive verification from you that your profile is accurate. After receiving verification, we will validate your registry listing within seven business days. Once finalized, your listing will share prominent registry space with thousands of fellow accomplished individuals across the globe, each representing accomplishment within their own geographical area.”

I do not know a single successful businessperson who needs to be included in a directory of this nature. Despite what the promoters say, there will be a fee to be listed and, of course, you will be presented with the opportunity to purchase one or more of the (very expensive) printed directories. These directories are useless in these days of online reference sources, and even most public library reference departments no longer purchase the worthless volumes. About the only buyers are the same people who think that they were honored by being included. Go to Wikipedia to learn more about various Who’s Who scams. There are currently 47,500,000 search results for the term “Who’s Who scam” on Google.

Does the award require a reciprocal link to the award website? If you remember the early days of the World Wide Web, there were an abundance of website awards that fed the egos of early webmasters. Today, if you search for “website awards” on Google, there are 1,780,000,000 search results. Most of these awards are totally worthless, randomly selecting “winners” who are encouraged to “proudly display” the award badge on their website, linking it back to the award website. Basically, these award sites are link farms that are trying to enhance their own SEO through a network of links. As time goes on, Google and the other search engine robots have gotten much better at ignoring these sites – and even penalizing the sites that are linked to or from them.

Is the award organizer the primary recipient of value from the award? Many regional newspapers, magazines, and radio and television stations present annual “Best Of” awards, covering a wide range of categories. The categories all happen to consist of potential advertisers, and the awards are almost universally run by the advertising departments of the publications or broadcast organizations. The awards that are compiled based upon the votes of readers or viewers at least carry a bit of credibility. Even in those instances, the voting process may require a visit to the sponsor’s website (and all of its accompanying self-promotional messages). In almost every instance, the business that is presenting the awards will supply certificates that winners are encouraged to display at their places of business, badges that may be displayed on their websites, and award icons that may be added to their print advertising. All of that awareness does more to promote the businesses that are presenting the awards than the award recipients themselves. Is it any surprise that these awards have been concocted by advertising departments, and that winners are encouraged to buy advertising to help to promote their awards? This type of award is not an outright scam, but I would caution recipients against being overly manipulated in the process of engaging in their own part of the self-promotion.

Is the award presenter and the award recipient the same organization? There are also many thinly-veiled attempts to cross-promote one’s business ventures by having one organization present an “award” to what is essentially another arm of the same organization. This is somewhat along the lines of having General Motors present an award to its Buick division as the “Automobile Manufacturer of the Year”. Nobody would fall for that. Or would they?

Let the Winner Beware

The bottom line is that we all like to be recognized for our efforts, but beware of being exploited by people who prey upon that fact. Even recognition under legitimate competitions within an industry or a member association can be somewhat dubious because winners are only selected from among those who enter. Run your business properly, and your efforts will be acknowledged on a daily basis by your success and the satisfaction level of your clientele. This is the best recognition possible … and all that you really need.

Stay informed, because perpetrators of scams like the SBIEC and the USTCI will do their best to cover their tracks and change their appearances like chameleons. Spread the word to fellow small business owners. Information is our best defense against being scammed and exploited.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Some Common Sense Thoughts on SEO

May 29th, 2014

In the business world today, there seems to be no greater obsession than SEO – Search Engine Optimization. If website traffic falls short of an owner’s ever-increasing expectations, it is an all-too-common practice to blame SEO that is somehow not up to snuff. It amazes me how many people think that the same three letters can be either the reason for their success of the reason for their failure. In reality, people have far less control over SEO than most of us would be led to believe.

Because of that common misperception, there is an entire industry that thrives on exploiting small business owners and their belief in a silver bullet. Have you ever gotten an e-mail from a self-proclaimed SEO expert? I got spammed just this morning by somebody with the message, “Want more clients and customers? We will help them find you by putting you on the 1st page of Google.” There are no listings on the “first page of Google”, a page that only contains a stylized Google logo and a search box!

In addition to those e-mails, you have probably also gotten telemarketing calls from people who claim to hold the key to the pot of gold at the end of the Google rainbow. Sometimes the caller ID even says that the call is from “Google” … something that is easy for anybody to spoof. Trust me when I tell you that Google is never going to call you and they are never going to call me. Think about it. Have you ever been able to call Google and even speak with a receptionist?

The people who claim that they can get you that elusive prime search engine placement are – almost without exception – skilled con artists who will put the average used car salesman to shame. I recently met with the owner of a small campground who had been spending $300.00 per month for alleged SEO services with a company that was accomplishing nothing on his behalf. When he tried to cancel the service, the salesperson tried to convert him to the company’s $75.00 monthly plan. When he told me the name of the company, I did a Google search for the company name followed by the word “complaints”, and there were 755,000 results!

Search today is localized to the computer performing the search and is based upon a user’s previous usage patterns. It is relatively easy to make it look like your site is appearing near the top of broad search results, but this does not mean that your site is going to appear anywhere for somebody doing a search in Peoria or Wichita. Google has built its reputation upon providing the most highly relevant search results for any particular term and any particular user, and no self-proclaimed SEO expert can outsmart Google at its own game.

I have a friend who likes to say that his website comes up in the # 1 search position on Google for long, convoluted phrases that would never be used in an actual search. If his business was a campground, his website would appear at the top of the search results for the search phrase, “full hookup pull-thru campsites with free wi-fi on Lake Winnipesaukee in Meredith, New Hampshire”. See what I mean? Unless a business holds an international monopoly or trademark on a certain product or service, it is not going to appear at the top of the search results – on its own merits – for either a broad or highly specific search term. If you search for “iPhone”, you will be taken to Apple Computer; if you search for “2014 Mustang”, you will be taken to Ford; and if you search for “Cheerios”, you will be taken to the General Mills Cheerios website.

On the other hand, if I search for “oat cereal”, at least based upon my browsing history, Cheerios does not appear anywhere on at least the first 10 pages of search results, except for the paid “sponsored search” ad at the top of each page. Do you see my point? If I was not already familiar with “Cheerios” and specifically searching for that well-known product, it would not appear in my search results. In the case of your campground, the total number of websites in the world is expected to exceed 1 Billion by the end of June 2014, according to InternetLiveStats.com, and there are over 13,000 private campgrounds in the United States alone. Can you understand how easy it is to get lost in those numbers?

A person searching for the broad term “family camping” is unlikely to be looking for your specific campground. If your campground’s website appeared at the top of the list – outside of localized content and the user’s established usage patterns – Google would lose its credibility and its dominance in the search market. Beyond localized content and usage patterns, search results are based upon relevance (primarily found in the text on pages), a site’s relative importance, timeliness of content, and a site’s general volume of traffic. Yes, the odds are stacked against the website of a small business, particularly if that Web presence is either relatively new or if it is old and static.

The old days of keyword lists have long been replaced by today’s intuitive and content-based search results. Content is king. Most importantly, it is essential that your website delivers the type of quality experience that will ensure that, once people find you, they will be more likely to stay than leave.

With a better understanding of how search results are delivered these days, you are now better prepared to ignore those phone calls and spam e-mails from people who are in the business of selling false promises and victimizing the uninformed.

This post was written by Peter Pelland