Confirmed – it’s curtains for review sites

Having had another bad experience despite trawling through review sites I decided to refresh this blog… which sites can we believe still?

Maurice Fantato PR & MarCom

A new reality

This is something that has been at the back of my mind for a while: review sites and I therefore reworked this blog that I posted a year ago.

When review  sites came out I became an instant fan of them, not just as a contributor, but also as a user wanting to cut through the inevitable sales flannel to get a fair idea of whether a restaurant was good, or dreadful, if a place was worth stopping by and so on.   Times, however,  have moved on and I am of the opinion that most review sites have now become yet another tool in the extensive marketing armoury.

Trip grovellers

Take the famous TripAdvisor.  I was one of its very first contributors, so have now got a fair number of reviews under my belt and heaven knows how many of their useless (except to some very sensitive egos) badges…

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On cat videos and more

According to Reelseo back in 2014 two million cat videos had been posted on YouTube, generating an impressive 24.5bn views. But that was two years ago.  Just try checking your YouTube channel for ‘funny cats’ and you will see that it returns a staggering 5.3 million results, with the top compilations averaging around 100 million views each. Apparently every second we upload one hour of videos on YouTube, of which obviously a large proportion must be about cats.youtubesec

I don’t know what it is about cat videos, but they are vastly popular.  Having had both dogs and cats I can only say that cats on the whole display a more outlandish behaviour than dogs.   With dogs we are the masters and their principal aim is to please us.  That’s exactly the opposite with cats, so you can see how their almost unique reactions can make for some harmless light entertainment.

Clearly cats aren’t yet as popular on the web as ‘sex’, which continues to display a very high trend, up to 90% of all worldwide searches at any one time according to Google. Bizarrely, and purely out of scientific research, it appears that Ethiopia and India are the countries displaying the highest volume of searches for ‘sex’ on the web.   The social scientists among you may want to jump on an opportunity to study this phenomenon, I am certainly quite intrigued by the Ethiopian result, but I may leave this topic for another blog.

Now just imagine you were a scientist in alien and more advanced civilization. You’d almost certainly tap into the web as a research source and there you’d inevitably spot our obsession for cats and sex.  In addition you’d also see all those troubled areas of the globe affected by war and the other ills of our times.  One can only hope the scientists of those alien worlds would not create a spurious correlations between the two topics just named.  And even if the didn’t they will probably come to the conclusion that we were completely bonkers and might decide to leave this lunatic’s asylum well alone.

Handy jobs, just back to basics

Did you watch BBC Four The Silk Road?  It was an excellent programme but this isn’t the reason for writing this blog as it has nothing to do with ancient routes, history or archaeology, but with Dr Sam Willis’s handwriting.

For those of you who haven’t followed that documentary, Dr Willis is a writer and presenter, a very lively, amiable and learned guy,  who travels around from China to Europe with a magnificent leather-bound journal into which he painstakingly and quaintly add notes, drawings, Polaroid pictures (yes!) and other memorabilia, all beautifully illustrated in his copperplate-like calligraphy.  Truly, I hadn’t seen anything so extravagantly rococo in ages and when I was watching the series I wasn’t sure what was more interesting, the handwriting or the narrative.

This got me thinking.  These days my own handwriting is appalling.  I seldom write more than a word or two, bar the occasional cheque to my window cleaner, who stubbornly refuses to accept bank transfer (cash or cheque only Mr.), oh, and the occasional post-it note, though perhaps we should exclude them from the realm of handwriting given that like most people I make an effort to write them in block capitals, for ease of understanding.  I have so much lost the ‘art’ of handwriting that when the other week I had to sign several documents I nearly panicked and by the third signature I had to stop and think hard,  trying to prevent my signature from turning into a squiggle that looked more like a squirrel’s head than my name.

Worried by this recent development and spurred by that TV program  I decided therefore to write this blog,  but to do it first in my own handwriting, rather than sitting at the computer, or using a tablet.  

my squiggles

my squiggles


his handwriting

What ended up on paper was more akin to shorthand than handwriting – a mysterious collection of glyph which I could somewhat interpret, but that wouldn’t have made sense to anyone else. I was surprised though that in reality it didn’t take me that much longer than using a keyboard, even though corrections were an issue.

Whether this operation has been a futile exercise I cannot say.   But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that sooner or later, like Dr Willis, we may be travelling through some remote areas of the world, long after our laptop’s batteries may have given up the ghost and therefore having to rely entirely on pen and paper.  If your handwriting turned out as bad as mine by the time you got your emergency instructions to someone else and the notes were delivered to the nearest forensic lab you’d long be dead.

So from now I will make an effort to use pen and paper more often, maybe twice a year instead of only once for the Christmas cards to those elderly recipients not on email.  It doesn’t matter if I may never really use it in an emergency as it is unlikely I will ever find myself in the Gobi desert, but there was something inherently satisfying at the end my very brief manuscript, even if I was the only human being capable of deciphering that stuff.  Who knows, maybe, that was my own way of encrypting the message and perhaps it should have stayed that way…

Thank you then Dr Sam Willis for making many of us feel so inadequate with your beautiful handwriting, or maybe we should really thank you instead  for having unwittingly just saved our lives while on an expedition to the sources of Nile.  Perhaps that’s really what your program was all about, but as survival technique goes it certainly beats any of that gory Bear Grylls stuff any time.

Innovation from Google is now almost dead.

This morning I received an infographic from Venngage depicting the highest and lowest of Google and I couldn’t resist adding my two pennies worth of wisdom.  Thanks to that useful graph you can actually take a helicopter view of the situation, demonstrating what I have been telling everyone for the last couple of years or so: innovation, at least from Google, is dead. OK I may be exaggerating a little, but if you take a look at 2008 you will see that there was an enormous buzz created by the launch of Android and the establishment of Chrome as a browser first and then a fully fledged operating system.  Yet eight years down the line all you can see is a great deal of product variants, interspersed by a number of experiments, mostly ditched.heart-cardiogram

I know that Google likes to trumpet its advances on projects like driverless cars and such likes, but we all know that these ventures will matter very little to many of us today or next year.  Who knows when driverless cars will become a reality, it could be ten or twenty years from now, but in the meantime we are still plodding on with what we have got in terms of day to day applications and our phones just continue to run out of battery even faster.

I would go even further.  Over the last three years or more we have seen a service degradation online and on mobile applications too.  Web pages have bloated, being filled by mainly junk like ads and similar, see this interesting report on the average page weight if you don’t believe me.  Big companies have gone to the nth degree to create barriers even where there weren’t any. Whenever they spotted a competitor their main concern has been to acquire them and then, almost always, shut them down.  Take Yammer, bought by Microsoft and now languishing.  Sunrise, once an excellent cross-

Sunset, not sunrise

Sunset, not sunrise

platform calendar,  has been the latest victim and it has now basically ceased to be, being ‘incorporated’ into Outlook.   Where you were once able to create some order and got apps to talk to each other you are now asked instead to download and install separate ones, all eating into your mobile’s processing power, memory and battery, and all vying for your attention without offering you very much at all in return (indeed in many case you are ‘paying’ by parting with some of your personal data used for marketing purposes).

Back to Google, I would like it very much for example if its Assistant instead of thinking of eventually running my car or even my home, understood that I was on a fast train to Edinburgh and not grossly exceeding the speed limit in my car, or that I didn’t have to leave the office at a certain hour when on holiday, simply because my work calendar can’t sync with my personal one.  It’s pretty basic stuff, but essential and therefore intrinsically boring to boffins and marketers.

So where next?  I don’t think any of the software giants out there have a great desire to offer joe public interoperability and really make life easier for all of us.  Despite the hype, once companies grow to the humongous sizes of Google or Microsoft they soon forget all the passion and vibrancy they had at the start and quickly get ruled by beancounters who adopt the same old fashioned business development and customer service models they are comfortable with.  After all a prestige project can create global buzz (Branson knows a thing or two about that…) this raises media awareness and with it the price of shares too. Why bother with tedious end users when you can simply continue to print money at will with just with a bit of glitz and glamour?

Boaty McBoatface – sailing in the choppy waters of social media

Never mind the economy, the environment, Europe, or the local elections, Boaty McBoatface stole their  thunder, providing at the very least some solace in otherwise cheerless times.  For those who missed all the fuss, the story was about the naming of the new British Polar Research ship (a ship, not a boat by the way),  which we have just learnt will now be called ‘Sir David Attenborough’ instead.  However, its submersible will be given the vox populi name, though this consolation prize doesn’t seem to have been well received by those who voted for Boaty.

With so much media attention there is no need for me to go into the details.   My question is instead a simple one.   Was this exercise a success or a failure?  I have heard praise and criticism in equal measure.   There are those who say that it has been a PR triumph, raising the profile of science and more, with detractors telling it was a waste of time and money that did nothing for science except trivialising it.   I believe there was a page where you could have learnt more about the vessel and its purpose, but I am afraid I don’t know whether driving traffic to it was the sole objective of the operation.

And here is the nub of the argument.  If the objective was as simple as getting people to land on a page or talk about the ship then I guess this exercise was successful.  But what about raising the profile of NERC and science?  I read very little of scientific concern in the countless online articles I saw.  Did the campaign reach the right audience (which one)?  I wish I knew more about the criteria used to measure its performance, but I have no clue. For this reason my mind – and I suspect that of most other digital communication geeks –  is full of these questions.  In truth, the social media ecosphere is still for many marketers a lesser known galaxy, one with its own quirky rules, where the paradigms of old sit less comfortably with those of today.   Above all, social media is an environment in which the pendulum sways very quickly from triumph to disaster.

I would like to think that SMART criteria were used as these should always define all marketing operations.  But as I have no idea what the objectives were I can’t shed any light on this point.  I sincerely hope that someone at the Research Council or elsewhere could do so soon, not just to satisfy my own idle curiosity, but because regardless of whether this  was a success or a failure there are certainly good lessons to be learnt from it.

It’s all grey out there…

I am ashamed that I have confined my beloved blog site to the attic and haven’t contributed anything for a very long while, but life and all that has to take precedence.  Above all, I can’t get enthused with any of the latest technologies, as it seems we are just being flooded with product variants, rather than real innovation.

The web?

Take the worldwide web for  example.  It’s still dominated by Google, with the difference that these days instead of technology making headlines, it’s government vs Google, either because states are trying to claw back taxes from the corporation, or they are trying to apply regulations to prevent it from displaying specific search results under the guise of privacy regulations.   Either way, there is nothing much in it for the user, unless you are a lawyer.   As for websites themselves, they have become as utilitarian and exciting as your local Yellow Pages.  The largest ones, in an attempt to reach absolutely everyone, have either stripped everything away, or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, in a desperate effort to seek a profitable revenue model, are littered with inane advertisements.

Smarter phones?

Smartphones too seem to have reached the peak of the innovation sigmoid.  Newszines are desperately trying to get us excited by the latest iPhone or Android updates, really?  I have both and I can’t really get madly excited by either.  Recently, my Android phone upgraded itself to Marshmallow, that was a year after Google (or Alphabet) had pushed it out, but that’s another story.  Aside from some changes in the settings and the fact that you can’t manually push some apps to an external card I haven’t seen anything with the wow factor.   I looked at the latest phones, they are bigger (size, memory and display) but they all share the same drawbacks, like poor battery life.  Let’s face it, we have become accustomed to the daily ritual of charging our phones, but why should we?  Why can’t we have smartphones with batteries that would happily last 4-5 days instead?  Now that would be exciting news…

More of the sameOld typewriter

As for other gadgets you just have to peruse some of the specialist sites, or watch gadget shows, and yet again it’s much of the same, just slightly more powerful, a few buttons here and there, a few extra pixels, nothing truly revolutionary.  It’s a little like watching TV, just full of repeats.

Even in science and technology we are still awaiting the big breakthrough.  Remember how graphene was going to change the world we live in?  Can you think of a single commercially available product featuring this material?  I guessed so…  Quantum computing? And so it goes on.

I don’t want this to become the ramblings of an ageing man, but I do love innovation, yet I see much less around these days.   I have a theory or two for this.  The first is that it is well known that innovation comes in cycles.  We seem to have reached a plateau.  The second is based on the prevailing global economic model.  Truly revolutionary inventions require long term investment and vision.  Right now both of these ingredients are in scarce supply.  Companies are more interested in maximising short term profits and governments (inevitably the initiators of most of the essential research needed for innovation) are scaling back on long term investments.

Until there is a readjustment of some kind we are less likely to see anything greatly exciting around, just more marketing driven product variants, better packaged goods and more aggressive advertising  to support them, but nothing seismically significant.  Welcome to the grey age of innovation.

Confirmed – it’s curtains for review sites

A new reality

This is something that has been at the back of my mind for a while: review sites and I therefore reworked this blog that I posted a year ago.

When review  sites came out I became an instant fan of them, not just as a contributor, but also as a user wanting to cut through the inevitable sales flannel to get a fair idea of whether a restaurant was good, or dreadful, if a place was worth stopping by and so on.   Times, however,  have moved on and I am of the opinion that most review sites have now become yet another tool in the extensive marketing armoury.

Trip grovellers

Take the famous TripAdvisor.  I was one of its very first contributors, so have now got a fair number of reviews under my belt and heaven knows how many of their useless (except to some very sensitive egos) badges I have accumulated.  By the way, it’s futile to look me up as I am contributing under a nom de plume, something which will become clearer later on too.  I still keep adding reviews out of a sense of affection and duty towards the site (entirely one sided I hasten to say), but I am realising how useless this exercise has become.

Allow me to explain with some examples.  About a month ago I was in the north of England and wanted to look up some places to eat.  Everything on TripAdvisor was either ‘very good’ or ‘excellent’,even down to a local chippie or sandwich bar. There was no way, not even by poring over the review details, that one could get a sense of reality. Most of those entries appeared to have been written either by professional sycophants, people with a pecuniary interest in the places in question, or those under the influence of something!  It was almost too tempting to look hard for those very few poor or average places and paying them a visit for the sake of getting some sense of reality, rather than being in some rosey parallel universe.  This situation isn’t unique.  I was in Bournemouth recently it was virtually a carbon copy of the experience mentioned, hardly any review lived up to expectations and my ‘very good’ hotel turned out to be a hell hole.  If you can’t easily get to the truth what is the point of a review site then?

Cautionary tales, cautious style

After some soul searching I looked back at the way I used to write reviews and realised that over time I also adjusted my style to be much more conciliatory, vague and in effect more forgiving.  This is partly due to the fact that on a couple of occasions I have had some truly nasty individuals responding to my otherwise objective reviews in a threatening way, so much that I had to refer them to that website admin.  In a specific instance the hotel owner even managed to track back my  reservation and ended up contacting my elderly parents.  Scary.  Clearly at that point you ask yourself whether putting up with all this aggro is actually worth the hassle…  which is why, probably with countless other people, I then decided to err on the side of caution and have since hardly ever left a ‘poor’ review, except for some vague warnings in the body of the review itself or areas where I knew I would never visit again.

I don’t know how we got to this situation.  Perhaps this is a reflection of our litigious society? Partly I guess it’s also down to the sites in question which effectively failed to protect their most precious asset, the reviewer.

Just marketing?

If you included the people who were incentivised to write on review sites (many, and few of the review websites are able or willing to do anything about), those blatantly compiling phoney reviews (like the ones written directly by business owners and their associates, marketing and PR agencies etc), the neophytes, the uneducated, the inexperienced and added them all up, linking to it the more belligerent attitude of the featured businesses, like in the examples I have just given,  you’d clearly begin to question the nature of much of that content and therefore of those sites.

There was a time when review sites sprouted up left right and centre.  I don’t recall seeing a new one in a long while, so we are pretty much stuck with the likes of Yelp, TripAdvisor, Facebook, Trustpilot, Google+ and so on.  In addition, there are those sites which are blatantly sponsored by business owners, which begs the question of why of course anyone would want to help them. So it looks as if the review sites landscape has in fact bottomed out with more of them under siege by by professional reviewers like those highlighted in this interesting article from The Guardian that explores even the ‘review turf wars’ between competing companies.

Demise or resurrection?

There are now four possible scenarios.  The first is the technology option. By this I mean that review sites would need to get a lot smarter and should start applying the kind of technology available within search engines to stamp out phoney, poorly written and useless reviews. They also need to reevaluate the star rating.  Everyone wants to be a 5 star performer these days, even school kids, so a new ranking is sorely needed.

The second is that of manual intervention. This is however very expensive and would require editing and validating every review, therefore it’s an unlikely scenario in tight commercial circumstances.  The third, and in my opinion more likely, is that major review sites will continue to devalue themselves to a point where the general public will consider them as yet another promotional tool of little or no use.

The last point is more revolutionary.  Small review sites could spring up and close down after a short timespan, almost like forums used to be created.  The evanescent nature of such sites would counteract some of the pitfalls just highlighted above and be more in keeping with the more dynamic social media angle of contemporary digital communications.

But I am no optimist and therefore just believe we are experiencing the beginning of the end of many review websites, unless they are willing to reinvent themselves.  Time will, as always, tell.