Confirmed – it’s curtains for review sites

A new reality
switch

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.

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All things Google

The latest design from google

The latest design from google

Those who know me well know that I have a soft spot for all things Google. Perhaps it’s because I witnessed the development of search engines since the old days of Excite or Altavista and Lycos. When Google came out it was like a breath of fresh air.  Further on the company continued with missionary zeal along the path of innovation, another subject close to my heart. How could I not love Google therefore?

I am no dreamer, so I am sure it has its foibles and there are good and bad people in Google too (hopefully more of the former!).  Anyway, I couldn’t help pushing across to you today the excellent synopsis published only a couple of hours ago by The Verge on the 17 Most Important Things announced by Google.  Do take a few minutes to look at this article, it’s very pictorial and packed full with information about the very latest development from that company.  It would be truly amazing especially if Google really managed the provision of a cheap Android smartphone for the developing world.

There is also a new Google design, called Material Design apparently, which is truly cutting edge and fresh.  Here is the link to the Material Design page.

Short piece from me today, but I have a dawn start for a very early morning flight from LGW, enjoy the article from The Verge!

With the wrong infrastructure we are all back to the dark ages.

We can talk about the latest social media innovations, or the fastest smartphones available as much as we like, but behind all this glitz and veneer of modernity there is, at least in Britain, an ancient communications infrastructure which may be failing to meet demands.

You just need to subscribe to even a handful of tech review sites to see the latest in new apps and hardware.  For the most part every innovation comes with a tag of ‘better performance’, ‘higher definition’, ‘improved sound quality’ and so on.  If you owned a smartphone you would have noticed that apps that had started their lives with a few MB of data have in a matter of months become monstrous resources hogs (why is Google+ app so huge?), demanding more RAM, ROM, whatever, for their basic use, as well as asking for privileged access to all of your phone’s inner recesses.  Movie streaming, especially HD, requires greater bandwidth despite the latest in compression, and so on.  But while software developers and hardware manufacturers are happy to push ahead with higher specs, feeding on our atavistic desire for more and greater, the infrastructure that really drives the whole experience is developing at a much slower pace.

We are all going to be on 4G – maybe not.

Take mobile data communications in the UK.  Yes, 4G is (slowly) being implemented.  But I fear once the hype’s over we’ll be back to where we are now with 3G (do you remember the 3G assurances that in a matter of months we would all be virtually on 3G?  How many of you can reliably get 3G well outside key urban areas?).  The problem is that the basic mobile communication infrastructure is ancient, set in place in the ‘80s, rather than the 21st century.  It has since been patched up, but despite all claims no real major investment has been undertaken, and certainly without a long term coordinated strategy.  I often wonder whether it would have been more efficient to have had a separate network infrastructure provider (like the National Grid), with private operators piggybacking on it, rather than lots of different masts strewn around the country but almost totally inconsistent with the fast changing demographics, like travel and population patterns. Could we really ask such a network to cope with the demands and innovations of the 21st century?

Fast broadband – but only when it works.

The situation is similar for providers of broadband through landlines.  While BT, sorry Openreach, plods along towards a  fast fibre optics infrastructure at what appears to be the speed of an elephant through a jungle, other alternative providers like for example Virgin have little incentive to offer reliable services. I happen to live in a village where the option is stark – either take BT  at speeds of between 1.5 to 3.5Mbp, or jump on the flashy, and expensive, Virgin bandwagon and get up to 60Mbp, theoretically.   I can hear people commenting that I should just be thankful and keep my mouth firmly shut,  but the truth is that this isn’t real competition and you do feel it when things go horribly wrong.  And I am afraid to say with Virgin this happens all too often, with days with no service at all, with no explanation and never, ever, an apology (let alone a refund).  It’s just tough luck if you are working and the whole things go down – consider yourself fortunate that you have had a service up to that instant and despite your regular monthly payments of course. I do wonder sometime what would happen if I simply decided to take a payment break, alleging something like ‘I am aware of the situation and an accountant is on its way to fix this’. Think again then if you seriously believe that this kind of competition adds value to customers and if this is the sort of network infrastructure that can really foster innovation.

So we plod along, we buy smarter smartphones, faster computers, download biggers apps, while not giving much consideration to the communications backbone that’s needed to drive all this stuff.  And I haven’t even touched upon what’s behind all of this – electricity. Given the parlous state of our power generation infrastructure and the current climatic conditions we could shortly revert to candles and paper (my handwriting is now appalling, how’s yours? Time to get some practice!).  Shouldn’t we give these issues more thought before we rushed to upgrade our data hogging devices?

The definitive guide to 2014 innovation

As customary at this time of year most technology commentators publish their own forecasts of the top innovation solutions for the coming months.  I decided to take a good look around some of these key sources to identify general trends, scoring them according to the number of mentions.  Let’s see whether this stuff really happens in 2014!

Internet of things to the web of things  (high mention)

Reported in some sources as ‘connected homes’ and ‘connected cars’  – this is a theme that has been cropping up almost every year.  A full implementation of the Internet of Things is still a way off and is based on large part not just on the gadgets themselves (in reality the easy part of the technology) but on more basic stuff like universally accessible high speed internet connectivity.  No doubt we shall see more solutions becoming available in 2014, but universal implementation perhaps not quite.

Wearable technology (high mention)

We have already seen Google Glasses, smartwatches and so on.  Your gurus now predict we’ll be buying and wearing more and more of this stuff.  My guess is that this will depend on prices coming down, as well as trend setters using this technology.

Gamification of business life (low mention)

An interesting concept based on the development of easy and fun to use Apps that have a strict business purpose.

Super high definition TVs, curved too (high mention)

Well they are already around, though frightfully expensive, so it’s easy to predict that as prices will come down these gadgets will become more popular.  We never say no to a good TV set, especially an interactive one!

3D printing (high mention)

Need we say more on this point?

More portable devices, less PCs (medium mention)

Guess this is a trend that has been going on for a while now, so it’s more or less inevitable, hence the slightly lower number of mentions.  By 2015 large desktop units will be confined to specialist applications.

Machines (drones) in the sky (low mention)

Call me a sceptic, but I think the Amazon story was just a load of PR stuff… however, some commentators believe this technology may become popular in 2014 – let’s discuss again in a few months, shall we?

Biometrics sensors attached to devices (low mention)

We are all fed up of constant requests for passwords, but will biometrics really provide the answer to this problem, and just in twelve months?

Ads in everything (low mention)

…ehr… as in, now?

Nanotech advances (medium mention)

Well, why not?  There are already countless innovation firms working on this so it’s quite conceivable that more advances will hit the consumer market.

Cloud explosion (high mention)

More and more people will rely on cloud solutions provided by big companies such as Google, Microsoft or Amazon with less data stored in a local drive.  This will also affect standard IT architecture

The death of email in favour of social media platform (low mention)

Could this be something akin to the mythical paperless office?  Who knows, maybe in 10 years or so we’d consider email messages as we now think about faxes, but in twelve months?  Maybe not.

E government and E learning (medium mention)

facilitating access to government (including health care) and learning has been the holy grail of the last decade, but we all know how inefficient most governments are when it comes to the implementation of IT infrastructures, mostly out of dates, hugely expensive, and seldom user friendly.  Somehow, the E of efficiency and electronic doesn’t seem to fit in well with the G of big Government.

Memristors hit the market (low mention)

I must confess I didn’t know much about memristors (nanoscale devices with the ability to remember their resistance even when switched off) but clearly these devices could speed up communication exponentially.

The web will overcome TV as a form of entertainment (low mention)

…easily done given the quality of today’s TV programmes I say!

…in short

My take is that we will definitely see more wearable and faster devices and greater use of the internet as a channel for business, entertainment and communication on the go (hence more interactive TVs and of higher definition).  While on the one hand some tasks will become easier, others may get more complex and we’ll be scratching our heads with more convoluted security and ID access levels.  Catch up in 2015!

Some of the sources used for this article:

http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/technology-science/technology/ces-2014-top-10-trends-2984341

http://dfw.cbslocal.com/2014/01/01/technology-trends-to-watch-in-2014/

http://mashable.com/2014/01/02/ces-2014-tech-trends/

http://mashable.com/2013/12/31/tech-predictions-2014/

http://www.computer.org/portal/web/membership/Top-10-Tech-Trends-in-2014

http://www.itbusinessedge.com/slideshows/top-10-technology-trends-and-predictions-for-2014.html

http://www.futuretimeline.net/21stcentury/2014.htm

Is augmented reality the way forward?

It seemed only yesterday when we were told that QR codes were set to revolutionise the way we accessed information by enabling us to scan the familiar grid onto our smartphone to either find additional product information or access a database, like your British Airways check in option for example.

Image representing metaio as depicted in Crunc...

Image by None via CrunchBase

Two years in internet terms have become like a day in politics in our times; a small change can revolutionise an entire process, dispatching a new process into premature obsolescence.  And this it seems is exactly what is going to happen to QR codes, to be brutally replaced shortly by AR.

AR? Well, Augmented Reality that is.  AR has been around for a while as a concept, but not that long as a viable solution.  Nevertheless AR is at the very heart of what Google is developing with its Google Glasses. But you don’t have to fork out the $1000 for a pair of Google Glasses to access AR these days – it’s already available in an app near you, Android or iOS.

So how does AR work?  Well, it’s really simple, you point your phone (or rather the camera phone) and that’s it, just like for a QR code, except of course you get much more.  For example, with the app developed for the teenage magazine Seventeen you can click on the fashion items you see in their mag and these are automatically added to your shopping cart, discount included.  If you don’t believe me visit their site here.  IKEA has gone a step further, with an app that literally adds furniture from their catalogue to your own room, so you can see immediately how a table, or a chair would fit into your surroundings.  Google Glasses are essentially based on the same principle so as you are walking down a high street you may get enhanced information about the reality that surrounds you, from shops reviews, to special offers and more.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg.  Companies like Metaio from Germany have been at the forefront of innovation in this field for some years, as part of an EU funded project called Venturi, you can even take a look at some of the innovative tools this consortium is planning in theirYouTube channel.

AR is now accessible to almost every company, though at a premium for now.  But as technology becomes more widespread this tool will become much more accessible.  We can’t wait to do our first AR app.

(first published in Creativebasement.co.uk on October 15, 2013)

Google’s No Follow Rules and What They Mean for your PR Program | InkHouse

See on Scoop.itPR, Social Media and Marketing

Last week, Google sparked a loud conversation in the PR community when it issued new guidelines for something called Link Schemes. In the days that

Maurizio Fantato‘s insight:

An excellent article that sheds some lights on the somewhat confusing new guidelines on the presence of links on press releases.  Are you making full use of no follow links?  You should…

See on www.inkhouse.net

Freedom of Internet under attack

Blog Post - Freedom Of The Internet Under attack

In an unusually concerted effort by the media, the Internet came under scrutiny this week from a variety of UK sources.  First the Daily Mail highlighted in a prominent article titled ‘Dr Google’ that too many women diagnose themselves on the Internet, often wrongly.  One has to consider why women alone were the focus of the research, since it is obvious to anyone that anyone, regardless of their gender, would be looking for health information on the web.  This odd piece of research was followed by an attack by a group of MPs on free internet access in order toprotect children from pornography, also widely reported by the same paper and others.  The MPs call for an automatic ban (censorship essentially) in order to protect vulnerable minds.  Lastly, The Guardian in a much more enlightened article commented on  a recent study by Jonathan Zittrain on how the commodification of the Internet may lead to its demise as a platform for freedom of expression.  In essence, Zittrain says that by creating ‘walled gardens’ such as Facebook, Google+ etc, where information is no longer allowed to flow freely across the whole platform, we are effectively censoring content.  My summary is obviously an oversimplification of the study, since it also considered the role of devices and the different experience of accessing the Internet from a PC and a smartphone.  Read it as it’s a worthwhile piece of journalism/research.

Two very strong and rather unsettling themes are at play here.  The first is based on the world of business, represented by the likes of Apple, Microsoft and Google and for whom the Web is just a an amazingly profitable source of income.  In order to generate income Internet access has to be related to advertising and this has also naturally led to issues of protecting other corporate interest through copywriting, for example, thus leading to further restrictions on unfettered access.

The second theme is the political aspect of it all.  As usual, politicians were the last to embrace the world wide web.  Initially they paid little notice to it, allowing it to grow freely with few controls.  However they soon cottoned on to the advantages of having their own strong web presence, as well as becoming more sensitive to the pressure of strong lobbying groups, either commercial (see above) or ethical/religious ones.  So in recent years many politicians have jumped on the Internet bandwagon and have flogged it to pursue their own agenda.  For the most part, with the exclusion of the most enlightened ones, politicians fear the Internet, just as they fear anything that gives the general public unfettered access to information.  Like it or not politicians are in the business of control.  We elect them to run things on our behalf and they take this aspect of their job very seriously, even in an age when allowing people to express their opinion online would offer a greater democratic representation of popular intentions.  Controlling the flow of information is therefore very appealing to most politicians and all too often these checks are based on the lowest possible common denominator, a principle which is also applied in policies at various other levels (see for example education or health).

The powerful combination of these interests, coupled with the popularity of gadgets such as those mentioned in the study by Zittrain should be a cause of real concern for us all.  Having been a pioneer of the web I recall fondly the anarchical way in which the web was used in the early ‘90s.  It was for the most part then used by academia, but there was a real sense that ideas could freely circulate across the world, unfettered.  Of course, freedom is a precious and fragile gift, like the thinnest glass, and can soon be shattered by more sinister interests (see the entrance of less savoury individuals in bulletin boards and similar), hence the inevitable accretion of rules and regulations.

Going back to Zittrain, I don’t think we can expect a resurrection of a totally unfettered net.  After all, total freedom of expression is much more than just a technological quest, but is in essence a philosophical choice.  We could only achieve freedom of expression if we respected totally and absolutely our right to be who we are as individuals (provided of course this wouldn’t harm anyone else), but we are still quite far from this goal, even in the West.