01 September 2011

September 1st in Boston

Our new downstairs neighbor moved in today. She is pretty young. I found myself wanting to give her motherly advice about how to change lanes around here, but she's from CT so I doubt she needs help.

This is for those of you who live in kindler, gentler areas of the world, who might one day wish to come leaf-peeping and be foolhardy enough to try to drive yourself.

How To Change Lanes in Massachusetts Traffic:
1. Swerve without warning in the direction that you want to go in, then quickly swerve back.
2. Now that you have the attention of every car in the near vicinity, put on your blinker.
3. Swerve into your destination lane. If you've timed it right, you will have frightened the driver behind you so badly that they slammed on the brakes and left you plenty of room to coast into their lane.

You can get across several lanes of traffic quite quickly in this way, although be warned that passengers sometimes object to the car's rapid darting movements, and are vocal about it. Ignore them.

Note: do not, by any means, turn on your blinker in advance of the first swerve. This only warns other drivers of your intentions and they will speed up and sit right in your blind spot. Thus you lose face, and the other drivers swoop in to prey upon your weakness.

17 February 2011

Me, Google and the Tinfoil Hat

So I'm kind of excited that the search industry is finally getting some mainstream coverage. I think it's funny that SEO seems to be getting more attention than paid - in the industry, there's a kind of SEO-as-underdog perception. (Also SEO-as-cowboy, but that's a different post.)

If you haven't read the NYT article about JC Penney gaming Google's natural SERPs, go read it now. Then come back and re-read that last sentence, and it will make much more sense.

I've been reading a lot of shrieky stuff online which loudly condemns JC Penney for cheating. Dude, using black-hat techniques is unorthodox for sure, and also pretty stupid for a site that you want to keep around for the long term, which JC Penney presumably was going for. But I don't see how breaking Google's guidelines is immoral - white and black hat are just opposite faces on a coin, not laws meted out by the justice system on behalf of you, the voter. (If JC Penney's SEO firm, SearchDex, failed to disclose the risk of getting blackballed by Google to JC Penney, then that was unethical. It's also not unheard of - I mentioned cowboys for a reason. Digital marketing is a land grab right now, and the industry is young enough that snake-oil salesmen abound.)

I agree that black hat usually results in a crappy user experience, but I think that it's Google's job to keep improving the search results as the web evolves and expands, and the job of company websites to make the websites as good as possible. At the end of the day, black or white hat SEO doesn't matter if you've got a 99.9% bounce rate and no one stays on your site long enough to actually make you some money. (Bounce rate was famously described by Avinash Kaushik as "I came, I puked, I left.")

I think Google is incredibly disingenuous when they, on the one hand, get businesses to do their work for them by publishing SEO guidelines, and on the other hand maintain that their pure and noble mission is the happiness of the user, and the piles of money generated in Mountain View are just a side artifact of Larry Page's and Sergei Brin's laudable desire to organize the world's information. They might have been motivated soley by altruism at the start, but the tentacles of Google have spread much farther than that over the past decade. Google runs an office in Washington DC devoted soley to lobbying. At the very least, making money is a twin passion to organizing information at Google.

The Times article suggests that Google allowed this black hat stuff to go on for fear of disturbing the relationship with JC Penney's paid search advertising, worth $25 million a month. Not incidentally, that is a big goddamn budget. I would guess that my employer is in the top 500 largest PPC (paid search) advertisers in the US, but that's a lot of clams even to me. Worth it, too - did you ever think about how much cheaper it is to ship shit out of a warehouse than maintain brick-and-mortar stores staffed with humans who can only process one transaction at a time? The profit margins on online transactions are so much better than offline because the overhead is way lower.

All of which explains why JC Penney was eager to get all the traffic they could, particularly over the holidays. A risky strategy, sure, and I do wonder if the top brass even knew that their SEO firm was doing this - retail is a pretty old-fashioned industry, and SEO is complicated and new.

My guess is that Google has known about the JC Penney site for a while and was trying to solve the problem algorithmically when the Times story broke. I do believe Matt Cutts (for once) when he says that Google's spam team didn't let it go because they were worried about disturbing the business relationship with the paid search side of the house.

First, Google makes no money directly off of organic traffic - but JC Penney spends $25 million a month on paid search ads. Therefore, Google actually has a direct interest in reducing JC Penney's organic traffic because it will force them to rely more heavily on Google. Secondly, Google can stand to lose 25 million in revenue per month a lot more easily that JC Penney can find an alternate source for all the high-quality, high-intent traffic that Google currently gives them. Thirdly, it's as embarrassing as shit for Google. I also think that there's a genuinely strong corporate culture at Google which would be a considerable obstacle to surmount in order to proceed with some kind of back room blind-eye deal. Like I said, twin passions.

What is truly amazing about this situation, and others like it, is that we don’t look at why Google is placing such disproportionate weight on links, particularly in this case, when so many of the links are of poor quality.

I think Evan LaPointe has put his finger on the heart of the matter here, who has the best response I've seen so far to the whole JC Penney kerfuffle. He puts forth the revolutionary idea that instead of concentrating all that energy on marketing, companies refocus and invest in improving their product (an e-commerce website). I really don't understand why most B2C businesses fail to realize this - they're going to make a lot more money over the long term if they can establish an ongoing relationship with a customer. In retail, it's always cheaper to extend the lifetime value of the customer by re-marketing to the existing customer base than it is to acquire new customers. Hello, anyone remember mail-order catalogues? Great business model. E-commerce is exactly the same. I don't care if your product is coffins, something that no one will ever need more than one of - it's worth cultivating an ongoing relationship with your (surviving) customers, for word of mouth sales alone.

So: I don't buy that Google knowingly ignored JC Penney's black hat tactics, and I think it's possible that JC Penney did not, in fact, know what was going on. (Not very likely - but possible.)

What I'm curious about is what prompted this article in the Times. David Segal is doing some excellent journalistic work in the search space, I just wonder what brought his attention to JC Penney and DecorMyEyes in the first place. It wasn't Microsoft, who were still showing JC Penney's results for days after the article was published (and who just got busted copying Google's search results.) I could see competitors like Blekko or Mahalo tipping off the reporter though, couldn't you? I would, if I thought of it. What a great strategy in the battle for hearts and minds: expose your opponent's legitimate weaknesses. It's not any wilder than what goes down on Capital Hill. It seems like a good space for a reporter to make a name in, too - there's a lot of money sloshing around in search these days.

You want conspiracy theories, here are mine. Google is doing its best to keep its results just good enough not to lose users, but to make the organic results useless enough to force uses to take a second look at the paid search ads. Jill Whalen proposes this and I think she's got a good point.

In the same way that Google gets businesses to do much of the heavy lifting on helping the algorithms to return relevant results, while not giving away enough for anyone to copy their secret sauce, Google is responding to increasing ad blindness on the part of users by reducing relevancy in the natural results at the same time as it mucks about with the look of paid search ads to make them appeal more to the user.

If you're not in paid search, you might not have taken special note of this, but Google is now extending ad titles so that they are longer, with a click-to-call phone number embedded in the ad, as we've been seeing for a while in organic local results. They've also introduced site links into the ads, just like we see in organic results.
It's a delicate balance, and I admit that I take a small-minded satisfaction in pointing out the contradictions between some of Google's stated policies versus the policies that are self-evidently in place. They talk a lot about relevance, but for Google, what's relevant is what's likeliest to make the most money for Google.

Google is usually pretty long-term in their thinking - it's one of the reasons that makes them such a great company. (I know I just spent the whole post slagging them off, but I do admire them tremendously in many ways. What can I say - I come to bury Caesar not to praise him.) So I think they're genuine when they say that they want to get rid of content farms, even though content farms make them a crapload of money. I hope the next algorithm update drops soon, because I think the Google organic results have gone a little too far in the direction of "intentionally crappy".

Plenty of tinfoil to go around. Don't be shy.

11 January 2011

Every day is Caturday

Tooth-achingly sweet, but that's never stopped me before.

I've got an app for my phone called Darkroom, which is free and helps you take pictures indoors by doing one simple thing: not taking the picture until your hand stops shaking. I have a serious case of camera shake myself (even if I'm resting my elbows on a firm surface) so it's been working well for me.

Also, why don't more household-linen companies use pictures of cute sleeping cats and dogs in their ads? I think Bob and Nibbles look pretty comfortable here, and if I didn't already own this bedding, I would want to buy it.

03 January 2011

This is why I still eat meat

Spaghetti Carbonara*

Okay, everyone single should be able to cook at least one thing, because it is such a great way to seduce people. This is also a recipe for people who don't cook. You don't have to be cheap and busy to appreciate this recipe, but it might help.

You can fancy it up with some creative shopping but every basic component can be the kind of thing that keeps forever - especially if you're using jarred pesto and skipping the ricotta. (The eggs ought to be fresh too, but I suppose you could substitute shelf-stable-forever EggBeaters. If you're camping or something. Or you could use two tablespoons of water mixed with a tsp of flax seed if you're vegan** or super grossed out by EggBeaters (I am). But fresh eggs are best.)

3/4 lb of pasta
2 egg yolks
fresh ricotta
1 tbsp pesto, or more if you prefer.
2 tbsp butter
fresh parmesan
pinch of nutmeg
ground pepper
4 tbsp white wine or vegetable stock
100 grams/3 oz cubed pancetta, about 1 cm x 1 cm. Bacon is fine too.

Put the pasta water on in a big pot to boil. The water for pasta should be "as salty as the Mediterranean", whatever.

Cut up the pancetta. Dump it in another large pot with one tbsp of the butter. Cook until the pancetta has started to brown a little and then add the wine or stock. Cook until the liquid has reduced to about 2 tbsp.

If the pasta water has started boiling yet, put it in and set a timer for the cooking time on the box or just cook it until it's the texture you like. I always use the timer because I can't be bothered to keep testing the pasta.

While the pancetta is browning, you can start the egg sauce. In a smallish bowl, beat the eggs with the cheeses. If you aren't using the ricotta, add a couple of extra tablespoons of cream/milk/stock/pasta water. Remember to check on the pasta, by the way. Don't let the pancetta stick and burn, either. Add the nutmeg to the egg sauce. (If you are like me, you got a microplane from your sister for christmas and you will become childishly happy at the prospect of using the microplane to grate the cheese right onto the eggs and then using the exact same microplane to grate the nutmeg in right after. But I think I'm the only one like me.) Grate some pepper over the sauce. The Parmesan and the pancetta are both pretty salty, so you probably won't need salt.

Turn off the heat under the pancetta. Add the other tbsp of butter and the pesto. If you're using electric burners, that's too bad, and it also means that you're going to need to remove the pancetta pot from that entire burner. Turn the drained pasta back into the pancetta pot and toss it around a little, enough to get the pasta pretty well coated all over with the delicious salty bacony grease. Add the egg sauce. Stir well until it has all amalgamated into a deliciously sticky, heart-stoppingly delicious blaze of creamy sauce-bacon-pasta glory. Weep for your arteries. Be so fucking glad that you aren't a vegetarian.

*This recipe is actually so far from the original spaghetti carbonara that I am probably justified in renaming it Pasta Carabonara except that seems like the kind of silly pun an editor would make.

** Did you know bacon bits are vegan?

Vegan Substitutions

For the ricotta I would probably substitute plain soy milk into which you've warmed and steeped a dried porcini, crumbled into tiny bits. If you have advance notice for this meal you could also buy some fresh mushrooms - whatever kind you like - and saute those in olive oil lieu of the pancetta.

When you drain the pasta, reserve a bit of the cooking water.

Right before you put the pasta back in, add another slug of oil and a pinch or two of flour - maybe a teaspoon or so. Push it around in the pan until the flour is golden brown or doesn't taste raw, whichever way you want to judge it. The mushrooms will make everything look brown so you might want to go by taste.

Add the wine and cook most of the booze off. Then add the bacon bits. Those little motherfuckers are salty so you probably won't need to add salt. Add the pesto. Add the soy-porcini stuff. Stir until you've got a sauce that has the texture you like. Technically you made a roux, which is another way of saying gravy, when you added the flour to the fat, and rouxes are magical creatures that allow you to marry fat with water-based liquid in a smooth sauce, as opposed to something lumpy that separates and looks curdled. If the sauce doesn't look liquidy enough, you can add some of the reserved cooking water (or soy milk or vegetable stock or ... water) tablespoon by tablespoon.

Once the sauce is done, put the drained pasta back in the pot and stir it to get things pretty well distributed. Serve, garnished with fresh basil if you're feeling froggy.

11 December 2010

Christmas cookies

Grinding the spices for them. Totally crazy, I agree. Also, drinking. Unrelated, I'm sure.

Bob is "helping" by knocking shit all over the place to remind me that he has not yet had dinner. He's such a little pissant. Right now he's playing with the ground mustard. I hope he doesn't ingest any, because mustard is an emetic.

01 December 2010

The Empress of Cat Food


So far the raw diet experiment is going pretty well. The cats all loooooove it. And their poops smell a lot less! I would write about all the reasons that I'm finding it to be a good idea and how I am NOT AT ALL CRAZY to do it, except I'm too busy making the cat food itself.

I tell you what, though, I would totally start my own business making this shit, except I wouldn't make the frozen kind (shipping and storage costs would make it prohibitively expensive, I think) but the pressure canned kind which is shelf stable at room temp. It would be so easy. You would source your meat suppliers (seek out ethical ones) and get your permits together. Call your company FrankenMouse, because the food is basically trying to re-engineer a mouse and mice are the perfect food. (Or call the company something less stupid. Please don't think that the kind of marketing that I do is the kind that involves naming start-ups.)

Christ, you could start production out of your own kitchen. Pressure can all the food, then you can ship it at ground rates. Once business ramps up, look for a commercial kitchen. After that's outgrown itself, move to a farm and raise your own rabbits and chickens locally. Organically. It would cut down on production costs hugely. Raise their feed on the farm as well, natch. Get vets to consult on special needs lines. Do actual research on actual cats. Eat your own cat food, literally - something like a video of me eating the raw cat food would totally go viral on YouTube. Holy shit, right? I should make that video just to see if there's a market. (Also that would be BADASS.) Invest in a sustainable salmon fishery. Make corporate donatations to salmon research. Sell excess produce to local restaurants, because the kicker is that not only is the cat food human-grade, you're raising the chickens and rabbits and salmon on human-grade food.

You could market it as not only the best cat food nutritionally, but also the cheapest and most ethical choice possible. You could get Whole Foods to distribute it, first some local in-store testing and then nationally. You could build an empire.

28 November 2010

He ain't heavy,

he's my brother.