When searching for yourself isn’t just for vanity

How often do you search for yourself or your own business? This isn’t an idle curiosity, and it isn’t just because we have huge egos. There are legitimate business purposes. And I can thank my wife for the idea for this column.

My wife owns her own business, an interior design firm. She has gotten some great help (not all from me, I should point out) about how to get to the top of the search rankings on Google along with other sites that her potential customers would look for her services such as Yelp, Houzz, and others. And as part of her SEO assurance program, she regularly searches for her company.

Usually in her searches she finds her company at the top of the results page. The last time though there was an interesting twist: her company’s name had a link that led to another interior design firm in town. They had purchased her company name as a keyword for a paid ad. What? Little did I realize, there are folks in this world who would do this. Is it legal? Apparently, if you don’t own your name or don’t have it trademarked. (She doesn’t have a mark.) Is it ethical? I don’t think so.

She was able to call the other firm and speak to their “web guy” and get this eventually corrected. At least, we think so. Searching now brings up her website with the appropriate link, just as it is supposed to be. But I started thinking about all the things that a small business owner has to deal with when they start a business. And before we get to talk about the online stuff, trademarks should be one of the first things to consider.

When I started my business in 1992, I thought long and hard about a clever name but eventually just incorporated my own name. Then in 1995 I started writing a weekly newsletter and posting the columns to a website. This was the beginnings of Web Informant.

A few years later, I got a call from Informant Communications Group in California. They had print publications such as Oracle Informant and some other tech pubs, and wanted to start one called Web Informant. Before I did anything, I hired a lawyer and submitted a trademark application. This was fortunate, because a week later so did they. On their application, under first use, they stated some bogus date (in 1990, way before the Web was even invented), but luckily because my application was first I got the mark.

It taught me a lesson: just because you came up with a name doesn’t mean that someone else doesn’t want to appropriate it. Today those guys in Calif. are still around, and they own the domain informant.com. Good for them, I guess. Just stay away from my domain!

But the trademark is just one aspect about your branding and identity. There is the matter of your online presence. For most of us, we think about buying a domain name. It used to be so simple: back in the day when I registered my domain, you didn’t even have to pay hard cash money for your domain name. You just sent an email to InterNic, the only registrar at the time, and within a minute or two you got a confirmation note that the domain was yours.

Back in those days, few folks knew about the Internet or domains or whatnot, and there is this amusing article by Josh Quittner in Wired magazine about how he got McDonalds.com and then tried to get someone from Hamburger HQ to understand what happened. He wasn’t altogether successful, and it took some effort on his part to get their attention. But once he did, he was able to engineer the transfer of the domain name back to McDonalds, with the proviso that they wire up a magnet school in Brooklyn.

Quittner had written a piece about the school and how one of the teachers was using the Internet in her classroom. By then, Quittner had moved to Time magazine, and they also agreed to “kick in some shekels for a high-speed Internet connection for the school,” as he told me in a recent email. Before the upgrade, the school had been using a 2400 baud dial-up modem: they got the whopping speed of a 56kbps switched line. “I am pretty sure my current iPhone hits the Internet at three times that speed.” It was about the same time, in the mid 1990s, that I got my own upgrade in my office to a 128 kbps ISDN line: that seemed fast at the time.

But enough about speeds and feeds. Let’s get back to branding. Today things have gotten much more complicated. When I got strom.com, for example, I didn’t even think about davidstrom.com, let alone strom.org or strom.whatever. Too bad for me. Then there are lot more top-level domains besides the classic ones of .com, .net, and .org. You have ones that don’t even seem like domains, such as: .travel, .biz, .rocks and .xyz, just to name a few. Do you just buy the dot com or do you blanket all or most of the other ones? Then you have to grab onto likely other cyberspace locations: A WordPress blog address, a Twitter handle, a Pinterest user name, setting up your Facebook page, and more.

My favorite time-saver for this part of a search is Knowem.com, which will look through more than 500 different places across the Internet. If you want a consistent brand identity and you are too busy to deal with it, they will do it for you for the first 25 sites for $85, and more sites for more dough.

So if you are starting a new company, heed these examples. Get the domain names that you need up front, as many as you care and dare. Use KnowEm and sign up for the other stuff too. Get your trademark application in quickly; you never know if someone is riding on your heels. And don’t forget to do a search every now and then, just in case someone has squatted on your brand.

The goodness that Yahoo has brought us is mostly gone

Back in November 2011, Yahoo’s then CEO, Carl Bartz was fired. I wrote about this event for ReadWrite.com (then called ReadWriteWeb). I thought it was worth recalling today, on the news that much of Yahoo’s core products has been sold to Verizon. 

Firing Carol Bartz made us go into the Wayback Machine to recall the many good things that Yahoo has created over its life. While there are many that are lining up to take shots at the Yahoos certainly justified, there are still some things worth noting.  (Below is an early home page, others can be found at ITworld here.)

Some of Yahoo’s developer services were way ahead of their time, and many of them are no longer with us (updated with 2016 information):

  • FireEagle (location services), one of the early geo-location services, before there was Foursquare and so many others. Still around, barely. Closed in 2013.
  • Hadoop (Big Data): Yahoo initiated and put up some heavy investment in this project. It is the go-to framework for big data and an integral part of Yahoo’s cloud businesses. Very much living and breathing, especially since  it has been taken over by Apache.
  • Delicious (tagging/shared bookmarks), one of the pioneers in tagging and early crowd sourced bookmarked recommendations of content, sold earlier this year to the founders of You Tube. Still here, but not top of mindSeems to be gone for good, despite a series of corporate maneuvers.
  • Yahoo Pipes (mashup tool), probably still one of the most useful development tools that anyone has ever invented. Pipes can manipulate RSS feeds and extract content from a variety of Web programming languages. Sadly, it was killed off in 2015.
  • Yahoo Query Language (programming language), a programming language that works across Web services, somewhat akin to what SQL does with databases. Still supported in 2016.
  • BOSS (build your own search service), open search and data services platform that can use Yahoo’s search technology. Wait, you didn’t know that Yahoo has its own search technology? Just kidding. Sill supported in 2016.
  • Blueprint (mobile site creation), it was an early effort in building mobile Web sites. Closed in 2011.

Yes, Yahoo was always a day late and a dollar short when it came to its webmailer, its IM client, and eventually its search service. But still, it has traffic. One Internet commenter said, “they should use their front page as a fire hose, projecting mainstream users onto these platforms” such as the ones mentioned above. Fair enough. And once upon a time, I thought their Yahoo Groups email list service was terrific: the last few years haven’t been kind to this service. And while my Yahoo email inbox seems perennially spam-filled, their financial and movie pages are top-drawer.

Many comments around the ‘Net seem to label Yahoo as an engineering company that can’t get its products marketed or gain any adoption. One said “Yahoo lost its motivation, its excitement.” Now it is has lost its CEO. Maybe Bartz’ successor can see their way towards a better future. Sadly, that last prediction wasn’t to be.

Best practices for corporate bloggers

In my various retrospective pieces leading up to my 20th anniversary party of Web Informant, ironically one topic that I didn’t dive into was the evolution of the art form of the blog itself. I guess I take it for granted that blogs are here to stay.

But then a reader reminded me of an article that I wrote nine years ago for Computerworld about the best practices for corporate blogging. And as I reread the piece, I realized that not much has changed in those nine years, at least when it comes to blogging. “Everything you recommended in that piece is still applicable today,” said my former podcasting partner and B2B social media strategist Paul Gillin. “This means you’re either psychic or common sense really is the best guidance.”

Maybe you could chalk it up to my being so prescient, but I don’t want to take all the credit. Doing a great blog really comes down to doing just a few things well: telling a series of great stories, being true to your corporate voices, and delivering great and compelling content that will keep your audience coming back for more.

I spoke to Lionel Menchaca last week when I was in Austin. He was the original blogger for Dell, now no longer with the company, but still writing about business blogging. “Focus on making [your blog post] content useful to anyone who reads it,” he says in a current post.  He and I bemoaned how some business bloggers don’t understand these basic tenets, still.

What a great corporate blog is NOT about is “controlling the message” or putting onerous workflow conditions in the way of the publishing process. I have written for many of these types of blogs over the years, and many of them have died because they tried too hard to toe the corporate line and forget these basics. But rather than be depressed by these failures, it shows that there is still lots of life left in blogging, even in 2015.

Sure, a lot has happened in the past decade: social media, Instagram, and Twitter, just to name a few. But blogging is still the heart and center of any business communication strategy, and can help amplify these other tools.

One final piece of advice from Jeremiah Owyang that didn’t make it into my original story: “Don’t accept blog advice from people that are not bloggers.”

So take a moment to review my nine-year old article in Computerworld. It isn’t often that something that I wrote so long is still very much in force today. It is ironic, though, that a technology that has been around for so long is still so relevant.

20 years of Web Informants

Can it really be 20 years ago that I had the strange idea of writing a weekly series of self-published essays and sending them out first via email, then via a variety of Web technologies? Time flies. Last year I began the celebrations early with a column that looked at some of the lessons I have learned from online publishing all these years. More recently, I wrote about some of the influential people that I have had the opportunity to interview.

In a retrospective column that I wrote in 2006, I recalled how back in 1995 we had browsers that were just beginning to display tables and images in-line, and Netscape was still the dominant force in browsing technology. We also had PCs that still booted from floppy disks, and FTP and Gopher were the dominant Internet protocols.

When it came to broadband, there wasn’t much of it in 1995. ISDN was still found in more places than DSL. In another retrospective column, I wrote that finding an Internet service provider wasn’t easy. Most of us got online via dial-up modems: there was no Wifi, no iPhones or any other smartphones that could do anything besides voice calls. Blackberries hadn’t yet been invented, and many of us used pagers when we wanted someone to get in touch with us because the mobile minutes were expensive. Most of the world still relied on land lines.

They were certainly simpler times: cybersquatting, phishing, ad banner tracking, malware exploit kits and cookie stuffing were all relatively unknown concepts. Blogs hadn’t been invented, nor podcasts, wikis, or mashups. We were still using Yahoo to search the Internet.

Back in 1995, there were no music or video streaming services, and Napster and its peer-to-peer cousins hadn’t yet been invented either. Here is an column from 2000 where I offer some lessons to be learned from Napster, sadly little of this advice took hold. In the past 20 years, as I wrote last fall, music has gotten more mobile, more discoverable, and now streaming is here to stay. One evidence of this is that Kate Mulgrew is now better known for her role as a imprisoned Russian crime boss rather than as a starship captain, thanks to the streaming Netflix series.

The Web enabled an entire eCommerce industry. In those early days, as I wrote in this retrospective, the websites were wacky, the software shaky, and the tools touchy and troublesome. Now most of us don’t give it a second thought that we can buy something with a browser and a credit card. We have lots of new payment systems, including Square and phone-based wallets, and even bitcoin: a new form of money that is entirely online.

Certainly, the biggest changes in the past 20 years have been how we collaborate on our work. Back then if our teams weren’t all under one roof, there were painful remote access tools that slowly moved information around. We spent a lot of time sending large graphics files around on our network because there wasn’t any other way to share them. In many ways, back then we were still in the dark ages of collaboration tools. Now I can bring together a staff from all over the world with almost free and quite capable tools. (Last week I mentioned some of the great people that I have had the honor of working with.)

Thanks to all of you loyal readers who have stuck with me all these years, and all the kind (and even not-so-kind) words and thoughts you have sent my way after I pen another of these columns. What a long, strange trip it’s been but– you know me well enough by now — I will keep on truckin’.

Time to secure your website with an SSL EV certificate

This post is going to be a bit more technical than the most, but I will try to keep it as simple as I can. Last month I wrote about how domain owners can mask their identity by purchasing extra-cost private domain services. Today I want to talk about the opposite: where domain owners want to prove who they really are by making use of special encrypted certificates, called Secure Sockets Layer Extended Validation or SSL EV certs. It is something whose time has finally come.

One of the many problems with the average website is that you don’t necessarily know if the server you are browsing is for real or not. Scammers do this all the time when they send you a phished email: they copy the “real” site’s images and page design for say your local bank, and then try to trick you to login using their scammy page, where they capture your credentials and then steal your money. Rinse and repeat several million times and even if just a few folks take the bait, they can grab some significant coin.

So along came the SSL certificate many years to try to solve this problem. They did, for a while, until the scammers figured out a way to spoof the certificates and make it look like they came from the “real” site operator. So the certificate issuers and several other interested parties got together and formed two efforts:

First was a standards body where they would up the ante for how certs were vetted, to make sure that the real owner was who they say they were. This involves checking the domain ownership and making sure there actually is a Real Corporation (or some other trackable entity) behind the Internet registration. Now there are three different levels of certs that are available: the regular, old-school cert called domain validated (DV), a medium grade one called organization validated, and the most stringent of them all, the EV cert. Only the EV cert will turn the URL address bar of your browser green, showing you that you are connecting on the real site. Steve Gibson has a nice explanation on his site of how this works under the covers and how it is tamper-proof, at least so far.

That is nice and welcomed, but the second effort is also interesting, and that is a non-profit corporation is just getting ready to issue their own SSL certs for free. Called the Let’s Encrypt Project, they have begun with a few test accounts and will be ramping up over the next couple of months. The cost is nice — some of the issuing authorities such as Thawte and Digicert charge $300 per year for their SSL EV certs, and GoDaddy has recently discounted their SSL EV certs to $100 per year. (Wikipedia has a more complete list of those vendors that offer the EV certs.) But the real issue is that installing the certs is a multi-step process that requires some care. If you don’t do it very often (and why would you), it is easy to mess up. The Let’s Encrypt certs are supposedly easier to install.

One downside is the free Let’s Encrypt certs aren’t EV-class ones: they are just the old school DV low-level certs. So if you are serious about your certs and want that nice green label in your browser, you still have to buy one. But at least the issue has been raised, and one of the reasons why I am writing about this arcane topic today. If you own a domain and are doing ecommerce from it, look into getting at least the free certs when they are available or pay for one of the EV models.

Looking back: the art of the interview

We are gearing up, here at Strom Galactic HQ, for a massive anniversary celebration next month. I am sure you have all marked your calendars for when Web Informant turns 20. It is hard to believe that I have been writing these columns/blog posts/whatever for so long.

This week I wanted to talk about a few of the influential people that I have met down through the years. They were the industry luminaries that played pivotal roles in the development of the tech industry. In those early days, it was quite easy to call someone up to get a quick quote, but I am talking about people that I had more of a relationship of mutual respect and understanding, people who had big ideas and shaped the course of products that we use today, and people who I have interviewed over the course of time.

One resource I want to point out is the nearly 100 MediaBlather podcasts that Paul Gillin and I produced during the late 2000’s. We interviewed many of the leading marketing and social media experts of the time and had a lot of fun producing these programs. Paul worked for many years at Computerworld and started Techtarget before striking out on his own and writing several books.

Here are some of my favorite interviews, in no particular order.

Mark Cuban is better known today as the owner of the Dallas Mavericks and his time on Shark Tank, but he was quite influential in the early days of the PC networking world. Here is an interview that I did with him in 2007, where he talks about his HDnet project.

Vint Cerf was one of the most refined gentlemen in our industry, always impeccably turned out and always managed to be both serious and playful and being able to say in a few words what many of us couldn’t articulate in whole paragraphs. I have met him at various times down through the years, while he was inventing key Internet technologies. This interview is from 2005 when he was just starting at Google.

Adrian Lamo was one of the key players in the Wikileaks/Manning case. Before that happened, he was in trouble with breaking into the proxy servers of numerous businesses. He actually stayed with me back before couch-surfing was a thing in 2002, here is a recorded interview I did with him in 2011.

I first met Professor Tom Schelling of Harvard back in the early 80s when I worked with on a project way before I was in the tech industry. I wrote about my experience here after he won the Nobel in Economics. If you haven’t read his book The Strategy of Conflict it is well worth your time.

Phil Dunkelberger has been around email and encryption for decades and I have spoken to him numerous times. Always a fountain of wisdom. Right now he is leading the FIDO authentication effort. Here is an interview that I did in 2005.

John Patrick helped build IBM’s Internet business and now serves on numerous tech company boards.  Here is a story from a visit to his house, one of the first very “smart homes” that I saw back in 2004. People are still figuring out how to implement things that he first thought of then.

Here are a few of the people that have been taken from us: There was my remembrance of Ray Noorda, the head of Novell, who died in 2006. Ray was far from a perfect leader but someone who moved mountains and was a key player in getting local area networks established in businesses in the late 1980s. And Garry Betty, who died in 2007 from liver cancer and was a key player in Earthlink, DCA, and Hayes modems. Another early cancer victim was Ed Iacobucci, who died in 2013 and was behind the early IBM PC, Citrix, and NetJets. I was very lucky to have spent the time that I did interviewing each of these guys, and learning about their products, passions, and people that they mentored in our business.

So yes, it has been nearly one Web Informant every week. Many of you have been readers from those early days, and I thank you for sticking with me. I would encourage you to put in the comments your memories of your favorite column or moment when we’ve met.

A look back with Web Informant (1996): Lessons Learned From Web Publishing

Nearly 19 years ago, I began writing a weekly column called Web Informant that was first exclusively distributed via email, then via various other technologies including a blog, push technology, and syndication to a Japanese print newspaper. It has been a wonderful journey, and hard to believe that it has lasted all this time. I first wanted to thank all of you readers who have stuck with me, sent me comments and encouragements over the years.

Over the next year and leading up to the big 20th birthday celebration, I thought I would resurrect a few of my favorite stories and see how well they have held up over time. This first piece was published by John December in a journal called Computer Mediated Communications back in May of 1996. My current commentary is in brackets so you can distinguish between the original me and the current me.

After writing and editing print publications, I threw caution to the winds last fall and put up my own website. I’m glad I did and have learned a few lessons along the way that I’d like to share with you. Here goes.

  1. Print still matters: it has the vast majority of advertising and is where the attention in our industry still lies. The industry still defines itself and pays attention to what these trade publications print. [Back in 1996, I mentioned one story that the online press did a better job than print in covering, that is still true today.]
  2. You may think otherwise, but the best way to get the word out about your site is for others to provide links on their Web sites back to yours, what I call inbound links. [With all the SEO expertise out there, this is still true today.]
  3. It is a good idea to review your access logs regularly to determine frequently-accessed pages, broken links, who is visiting, and when you have your peak periods. These logs are your best sources for measurements of success and a good way to figure out who your audience is.
  4. Community counts. If you are going to start a successful Web publishing venture, make sure you have a good idea whom your community is. By community I don’t just mean reader/viewers–I mean the entire life-cycle of information consumers, providers, and relay points along the way. Who creates the information? Who sends/interprets/messes it up? Who needs this information? The more you know this cycle, the better a Web publisher you’ll be. The more focused your publication, the better off you are.
  5. Just like running a “real” print magazine, you need to develop a production system and stick to it, and resist any temptations to fiddle with it. Online, the best feedback loop you have is when your reader/viewers drop you a note on email saying something doesn’t look right or a link is broken.
  6. Don’t get too enamored with the graphical look and feel of your publication: many reader/viewers will never see these efforts and they ultimately don’t matter as much as you think. While you are developing your production systems, don’t forget that many reader/viewers are running text-based browsers or turn their images off because they are coming in from dial-up connections. [Well, that has changed since 1996, but still lots of sites are filled with useless graphical junk and pop-ups that are annoying at any bandwidth.]
  7. The best Web publications make use of email as an effective marketing tool for the Web content, notifying reader/viewers when something is new on a regular basis. [This was in the days before blogs, RSS, social media, Twitter, and other notification mechanisms, all of which are great tools to complement the web.]

Overall, am I glad I am in the Web-publishing business? Yes, most definitely: it has given me a greater feel for my community, it has helped increase my understanding of the technologies involved, and I have had a great deal of fun too.

Has it been easy? Nope: Web technologies are changing so fast sometimes you can’t keep up no matter how hard you try. Setting up a Web publication will take more time and energy than you’ve planned, and keeping it fresh and alive is almost a daily responsibility. You need lots of skills: programming, publishing, library science, graphic design, and on top of this a good dose of understanding the nature and structure and culture of the Internet helps too. And a sense of humor and a thick skin come in handy from time to time too.