Archive for September, 2010

Getting found on the web

September 20, 2010 Leave a comment

I’d planned to write this post on business culture, working as part of a team and leadership. Meanwhile I’m still tinkering with WordPress – trying to get to know it better. There’s a couple of things I liked about Google’s Blogger tool that I’ve not yet managed to work out how to do on WordPress. Actually that’s not completely true. If you download WordPress and blog on your own server it’s fairly easy. However there are also things against doing that – for example some technical details, security & spam, etc. Conversely won’t let me download some of the plugins I wanted. Despite this, I’m pretty happy with WordPress as a blog platform.

While searching around, I came across a great presentation from Matt Cutts of Google, given at WordPress’s 2009 San Francisco conference.

Matt Cutts is well known as not only a Google expert (naturally) but also as an expert on search engine optimisation – in other words, how to get found on the web. There is so much in this one presentation that I think it should be compulsory viewing for everybody who writes for the web. Although I try and do most of what was said – there’s still more for me to do, and he had some great examples. The focus was on blogging using WordPress but in fact much of the content was much wider – with explanations on what search engines (and specifically Google) look for when indexing the web.

As not everybody will spare 45 minutes to watch the video, I’ll summarise some of the content – and the slides can be found at Matt’s web-site.

Matt starts by asking why write a blog in the first place, but quickly moves onto optimising sites for the web and how to increase your chances of being found. He gives a simple explanation for Google’s PageRank (named after Google founder, Larry Page, rather than that it measures the web page importance / popularity based on the number of links to the page).  Around half way through the presentation, he starts emphasising the most important thing about writing for the web (whether for a general site or for a blog). The writing has to be relevant and reputable. Good and interesting writing gets read. Boring, trite, repetitive writing doesn’t. In other words, if you don’t love what you are writing about, and don’t know or have anything to say, then don’t say anything. (For more on good writing, read the Write Way – my brother’s blog – covering how to produce technical documentation that’s understandable).

Then we get to the bits on SEO (Search Engine Optimisation – i.e. writing web-sites so that they can be found). When I take training courses on finding competitive intelligence on the web I always emphasise the need to understand how sites get to the top spots. If you understand this, then it becomes easier to think of ways of finding sites that aren’t found on the first page – and often these are the pages that hold the hidden gems that the competitor analyst has to find.

One key skill is to think of alternative terms. As a portable back-up device I tend to use a memory stick. However other terms for the same device are “flash drive“, “USB drive” and a few others. Searching for only one of these risks missing out sites not using that term but one of its synonyms. Cutts gives an example of searches for ipod car for connecting an ipod to a car’s radio / entertainment system. There is an alternative less costly technology called iTrip that also allows an iPod to be connected to the car radio. For every two searches using the term iPod Car, there was one that used the key word iTrip. This means that excluding the latter term from sites selling the former will result in them missing out on a third of the potential Internet traffic. From a competitive intelligence perspective, it would also mean missing out information on a competing technology. Just because it’s not exactly the same, using a different technological approach and costing less, doesn’t mean it’s not also a competitor – so searching for one and not the other would mean missing out on what customers are actually looking to purchase.

Other SEO techniques covered include web-page naming, establishing a reputation, monitoring visitors via analysis of log files / google analytics and how not to spam (and scam).

The camera never lies… or does it?

September 16, 2010 1 comment

When people look at a photograph, they see a snapshot of history. That is one reason that people used to say that the camera never lied. Of course, today, with Photoshop people are warier and look for signs that the photo has been edited. There have been a number of notorious recent incidents of photo editing that highlight this problem. Examples include

However there is another problem with photos – and also news stories, and gathered information in general. That is the context. Understanding the context is crucial for effective business decisions. Gathering information is not the difficult bit. It’s analysing the information to convert it into intelligence that is hard. Without the correct context, poor or even disastrous decisions may be made. These may impact both business and individuals.

An example of how this can happen was highlighted in a sermon given by Rabbi Ivan Lerner on the sabbath between the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashana) and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). Rabbi Lerner pointed out that the Hebrew word for truth (אמת Emet) is made up of the first, middle and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Truth about an event isn’t just information about what is happening at a point in time, but also includes the events that led up to that point, and the consequences of the actions taken based on the event. It includes the beginning, middle and end. Rabbi Lerner gave an example from the famous photograph taken by Eddie Adams on the 1st February 1968.

Eddie Adam's Pulitzer Prize photo. This photo led to Adam’s gaining the 1969 Pulitzer prize for spot news photography, as well as the World Press Photo award. The photo showed the moment of execution of a Viet Cong prisoner by General Nguyen Ngoc Loan. Close examination even showed the bullet exiting from the prisoner’s head.

The impact of the photo was immeasurable. Calls were made to charge General Loan with a war crime for the execution of an “innocent” civilian. The anti-war movement used the photo to justify their protests against a war that was seen as overly savage, cruel and gratuitous.

The impact on General Loan was significant. A few months later, Loan was severely wounded and taken to Australia for treatment. When people realised he was the same man from the photo, protests led to him being evacuated to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. Even then protests continued – and Loan returned to Saigon, leaving the army due to his injuries. At the fall of Saigon his pleas for help from the Americans were ignored although in the end, he and his family managed to escape and he moved to the US – where he took on a new identity. He opened a pizzeria in Virginia but in 1991, he was discovered – and business disappeared, with graffiti scrawled on the restaurant walls.

The story so far shows the event and its aftermath – but not the context that led to the execution. General Loan was vilified as a war criminal, while Nguyễn Văn Lém was seen as the innocent victim. Loan had to hide his identity and lost his future as a result. In fact, the executed prisoner – Nguyễn Văn Lém – was not an innocent. He commanded a Viet Cong death squad that had targeted South Vietnamese police and their families. He was captured near a ditch containing over 30 bound and shot bodies of police and their relatives – men, women and children. Lém was personally responsible for the deaths of several. Adams has confirmed that this was the case. The Viet Cong had attacked during a truce arranged for the Tet Holiday. Some of their victims has been at home celebrating.

Subsequently Adams found out more about General Loan. Loan was seen as a hero to the South Vietnamese. He wasn’t just a soldier. He fought for the construction of hospitals, helping war orphans and for a way of life that was destroyed. Adams regretted taking the photo because of what happened afterwards. (Eddie Adams describing his notorious Vietnam photograph)

…Two people died in that photograph: the recipient of the bullet and GENERAL NGUYEN NGOC LOAN. The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them, but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths. What the photograph didn’t say was, ‘What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American soldiers?…’ (Eulogy: GENERAL NGUYEN NGOC LOAN, Time Magazine, Jul. 27, 1998)

Information needs a context. When gathering information it is important to know the source and why the information became available. It is important to understand the context and when interpreting it, there should be no hidden agenda. The Adams picture failed in that it didn’t give the context and instead only helped to support and confirm the biases of anti-war journalists, letting them further their own agenda. As such, it ruined Loan’s life.

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