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Archive for April, 2009

Ten Years After

Friday, April 24th, 2009

A few days ago I was reading through an old copy of The Guardian… Well, I admit, it was a ten year old copy of The Guardian, and those who know how difficult I find it to discard a newspaper unread will be laughing at me. But once in a while this approach turns up something interesting. In this case it was a piece in the Online section headlined "Portal Combat" – and, in passing, searching the paper’s site for those two words suggests it’s time to retire that phrase before it collapses from overwork – which, amazingly, you can still read online.

The perspective of ten years made two aspects of the article particularly interesting. First, the subject is speculation about who will win the battle of the portals – Microsoft, AOL or Yahoo! I remember portals; the idea was that if you could provide a site which enough people would use as the start of each venture onto the internet, you could sell advertising on it. Which is sound as far as it goes, but I haven’t heard much about portals lately; I suspect that most people, if they change their start page from the manufacturer’s settings at all, start at a page they would visit anyway. I consulted Roger about this: we both use start pages which we constructed ourselves, and keep on our own computers – and we both admitted that these were in need of an update. I’d be interested to hear what start page other people use: a newspaper perhaps, or a search engine?

Which brings me to the second striking change in the ten years since this article was written. The printed version gave a table (not reproduced in the online version) of the "Top 20 web sites" – the 20 most visied sites in the US in February 1999. Top of the list was ‘AOL Network’ followed by Yahoo, Microsoft, Lycos, Go Network and, at number 6, Geocities. Amazon (described as ‘books’, because we might not know) was at number 11 and eBay scraped in at number 20. The online version of the article ends with a list of "useful portals": altavista, AOL,, excite, geocities, go, lycos, msn, ukmax and yahoo!

Neither list includes today’s most visited web site: Google.


Wednesday, April 15th, 2009

Those of us who spent at least part of last weekend at our computers had a ringside seat at an on-line rumpus. On Sunday, reports started appearing that sales rankings were disappearing from books on the Amazon web site – mainly but not exclusively books with gay and lesbian themes. The word was being spread via Twitter, the micro-blogging feature on mobile phones which allows users to tell each other "I’m on the train" (or, famously, "I’m stuck in a lift!"). Twitterers added the tag #amazonfail to their tweets on the subject, and suddenly here was an instant campaign.

No, I didn’t find out about it from Twitter. I prefer the internet to the mobile phone, so I read about it in a blog (Cheryl Morgan’s blog, in the first instance, although very soon I was reading different accounts of what was happening in all sorts of places).

The removal of an Amazon sales rank matters, and not just because authors and publishers check them obsessively to see how well their books are selling. Amazon also uses the sales rank to organise books that appear in search results – so de-ranking a book means that a customer is less likely to find, and to buy it.

After the first shock, most people came to the conclusion that Amazon was not deliberately black-listing books, being homophobic or adopting fundamentalist religious values. So what was going on? As usual, there were conspiracy theories (Amazon’s system had been gamed by troublemakers) and cock-up theories (Amazon is a large complex system in which it’s easier to make mistakes than to correct them). A day or so later, it does seem as if someone made a genuine mistake. Yes, it’s hard to imagine what they thought they were doing, or why the system allowed them to do, unchecked, something with such extensive results, but still, genuine error. The sort that can be fixed by repairing the damage and apologising profusely.

And that, finally, is what Amazon is doing. Although authors who complained were told first that this was indeed Amazon policy, then that it was a ‘glitch’, a mere technical error, the company did finally admit "This is an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error for a company that prides itself on offering complete selection." And sales rank figures are reappearing on books which had been de-ranked. Perhaps Amazon were just unlucky that this public relations disaster happened over a holiday weekend (when Easter and Passover coincided), and that’s why the initial response was was the sort of minimal ‘your letter has been noted’ that only irritates the complainant further. I’d say though that if you give people the power to foul up on this scale, you’d better make sure that a highly skilled apologiser is on duty at all times!

Many of the web sites I maintain link extensively to Amazon. Some of them have Amazon Associateships, whereby the owner of the site receives a small percentage of sales made through Amazon. I was not looking forward to untangling those, and to finding alternative ways of promoting book sales – and I certainly wasn’t looking forward to doing it in a rush, all at once. But it isn’t good for one shop to have a monopoly, and this weekend’s upheavals have been a reminder of that. I already try to encourage people to order books through their local independent bookshop, if there is one. Now I’ll be on the lookout for other alternatives, too.

Dear Debut …

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009

We designed and help with the web side of the Crime Writers Association’s Debut Dagger competition. As part of this, we set up an email address debut.dagger@ …

This afternoon we have just received an email addressed to “Debut”. Now I know sales people like to get on first name terms, but so rarely has a sales message been undermined so spectacularly literally from the first word. The company concerned, so you know whom to avoid, is called Cvent.

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