How to Ask for Advice / Feedback About Your Startup

One of the things I’m passionate about is helping other startups and the community of entrepreneurs we have here in Edinburgh (and in Scotland).  Since becoming more intentional about “taking the pledge“, I’ve been meeting with lots of folks locally, and been surprised by the amount of requests!

So much so that other team members here at Administrate are helping me shoulder the load, according to areas of expertise (thanks Mike and Patrick!) and time constraints, and I know of many others in the community who are donating their time and expertise.  Helpfulness and support has always been a hallmark of the Scottish startup scene, so this isn’t anything new, but there’s so much more activity now, so many more companies, and so many more entrepreneurs now!  It’s great to see!

I’ve found that sometimes people don’t know what to expect, so I thought I’d lay out a brief framework to help everyone get the most out of the time.

  1. Remember that most advice is delivered within a context vacuum.  Don’t take my advice (or anyone else’s) without fully thinking things through and satisfying yourself.  Bad advice can come from really great people.
  2. In order to be at all helpful, I need context.  Things I usually ask about are: the problem you’re trying to solve (as a company), your business model (SaaS, etc), your market, some metrics around revenue, customers (people paying you money), team size, how long you’ve been going, growth, and churn.  It’s ok if you don’t have all of this information, but the quicker we can rattle through these items, the faster we can get up to speed.
  3. It’s totally cool if you just want to chat, but I’ll usually ask you what you’re biggest challenges are – we have these at Administrate and sometimes they feel cyclical (first we’re worried about sales, then tech, then support, then sales again, etc.).  Even if everything is going well, the question will often be “ok, how do we double down and make it even better?”
  4. I probably can’t help you too much with hiring (particularly “line” staff) – my network is mainly in the USA (so not local), and we’re in high growth mode here at Administrate, so if I know of any devs or whatever we’re probably going to hire them!
  5. Expect me to be very, very blunt.  If you’re British it may come across as almost hostile sometimes.  Sorry.  When I get into problem solving mode or analysis mode, I tend to interrupt, ask lots of questions, and don’t filter much.
  6. Expect me to play devil’s advocate.  Expect me to really push you on a few things.  Expect to be challenged.  The best advice I’ve ever received was from someone telling me they thought I could be a lot more ambitious, which annoyed me at the time, but really made a difference.
  7. One thing you won’t get from me is griping about raising money in the UK, finding a team, or complaining about Scottish Enterprise or Scottish Development International.  If you’re annoyed about these things, fine, but expect an argument from me!
  8. I’m not going to be very helpful to you with introductions to angels, VCs or syndicates.  These people all make their own decisions and won’t look at you in any different light if I make an intro for you.
  9. I won’t share anything about our conversation unless you specifically tell me you don’t mind.  I also expect the same in return.  This means I don’t mind if you want to ask me about challenges I’m facing now, etc.  We like to be transparent, and often it can be comforting to hear that someone else is going through something you’re struggling with.
  10. The majority of my experience and expertise is in high growth Business-to-Business Software-as-a-Service.  So be aware I’ll bias towards that style of company.  I don’t like most B2C ideas because they are riskier, require more funding earlier, require a lot of traction to be successful and are often harder to build and/or monetise.
  11. A couple of times things have gotten emotional (really!).  That’s OK! Building a business can be really hard.  Relationships are involved. It can feel overwhelming.  That’s normal.  Don’t be embarrassed.  It’s not the first time.
  12. Unfortunately, you may have your appointment changed around a few times.  Sorry, but Administrate comes first!  Also, it may be awhile before we can meet, and depending on what you’re looking to talk about, we may provide someone else from our team to give you a better perspective.

Hopefully that helps you get an idea of what to expect and makes everything run just a bit smoother!  I’ve enjoyed all of the conversations I’ve had and am always encouraged by the amazing people we have in Edinburgh working away on building things and solving problems.

Startups, Take the Pledge for Your Community

We’re about to kick off another year, resolutions have been made, lots of parties have been attended, a bunch of milestones have been reached, and it hopefully feels good to get some closure on a year and plan for another.

I’d like to challenge you to add one more resolution to the list, and instead of thinking of it as a resolution, treat it as a habit, a lifestyle, a core part of your duty as being a member of your startup community.

As a bit of background, my startup Administrate is founded in Scotland, backed by Scottish investors, and a member of the fledgling Edinburgh startup community.  Using the term fledgling to describe a group of companies that has produced two unicorns (Scotland has the highest rate of unicorn production per capita in the world) seems a bit weird, but it’s true.  Like most non-Silicon Valley, non-Boston, (dare I say non-American?) locations, the community here is fairly young.  Most of the founders and senior management teams are first timers here.  All of us are trying to tackle the inherent challenges of building a sustainable business while learning as fast as we can, hoping to not commit that fatal mistake (last piece of learning?) along the way.

It Doesn’t Get Easier, You Just Go Faster

In cycling they say that it never gets easier, you just go faster, and I really believe the same is true with startups.  This stuff is really hard.  Even when things are really rewarding, you know you’re on the cusp of making it, you’re getting that positive press coverage, you’ve just raised money, you just signed that huge deal, whatever the milestone is, it’s still really, really hard.

And here’s the thing – if you’re a senior team leader or founder, there’s not many options for support.  Your spouse won’t fully understand what you’re going through.  Your board isn’t the right venue for a freakout.  Your direct reports have problems of their own that they need support to help address.

Feeling alone is one of the worst feelings, but it’s also one of the most common in a startup.

A Solution?

I’ve found that the single best avenue for support as a founder, CEO, or senior team member is to talk with a peer, usually someone who is ahead of you on the journey.  I don’t even mean support as in therapy, I mean support as in “I’m having this problem, how did you solve it?”, roll-up-the-sleeves style problem solving.

In the last 2 years, there’s been several key moments where I’ve received advice/suggestions/thoughts from members of our community that have caused me to rethink, come up with a plan, and have ultimately seriously transformed our company and helped make it one of the fastest growing tech startups in Scotland.  Things would have been very different if I hadn’t had that time from others who were ahead of me on the journey.

Take the Pledge

Spend 30 minutes every week helping other startups within your community.

You can spend an hour every other week, two hours with one person, etc., I’m not bothered about the mechanics, but just make sure you’re investing.  You can still run a highly structured calendar, you can ask people to come with a specific question or problem, you can implement this however you want, but the key is to be available, be supportive, and spread as much knowledge as possible.  Even if you don’t know how to help your fellow startup, refer them to someone who might, or tell them to read a book or go to a conference.

The funny thing about this is that the people that helped transform Administrate by spending time with me usually didn’t remember the conversation when I went back and thanked them.  I’ve had several instances of the same thing happening to me when someone mentions what a great help I was and it turns out it was a 10 minute conversation at a party.  These things add up, but they can only do that with consistent attention, over time.

The other interesting thing about this is that it’ll help you run a better business too! Taking your head out of your problems to focus on something else can provide clarity, and I’ve never found a situation where I couldn’t learn something from another company.

Lets Talk

If you think I could be of help, let me know! Hit me up on Twitter, email (if you don’t have my direct email, send it through the main Administrate email), phone, etc.  Sometimes it’ll take a week or two to get something arranged, sometimes it’ll be via the phone, but hopefully it’ll be helpful.

Go Watch Pixar’s “Inside Out”

I’ve always loved Pixar’s movies.  The only times they’ve ever failed me were with Cars 2 and Brave, and they’re one of the most successful studios of all time.

pixar inside out

The just released Inside Out is easily one of their best films ever though. Directed by Pete Docter, who was behind most of my favourite Pixar movies (Monsters, Inc., Up, Toy Story, and Wall-E) this film is a masterpiece that explores emotions, growing up, and the very fundamentals of how our brains work. It was an incredibly moving film that deftly moved me from grief to laughter many times, and like most Pixar films, doesn’t even seem like it was made for kids.

So many of the plot points hit home for me: moving to a new city, anxiety over meeting new friends, feeling like something was wrong if I wasn’t happy, and not understanding the hows or whys of the emotions I was experiencing when growing up. There was even the pressure and fear of the father trying to put together an investment round for his startup!

The movie even spent quite a bit of time talking about how our brains work, using real science, and had a wonderful visualization of how depression can set in when the islands of your personality become disconnected.

This was such a thoughtful, emotional, beautiful film.  Go see it! You won’t regret it.

Visiting the Tech Model Railroad Club at MIT

Last night I experienced the privilege of visiting the Tech Model Railroad Club on MIT’s campus.  As an avid model railroader, computer science major, and great admirer of books like Hackers and Accidental Empires, I’ve heard of the TMRC for most of my life.  As a kid, my parents bought the 1986 edition of World Book, which underneath the entry “Model Railroads” included a picture of the TMRC layout, something I’ve never forgotten.

tmrc station

The first chapter of the book Hackers tells how some of the earliest computer science pioneers were involved in the TMRC .  A few of the notable members were Alan Kotok from DEC, Richard Greenblatt the coinventor of the MIT LISP machine (which is housed next door in the MIT Museum), John McCarthy who coined the term Artificial Intelligence and helped developed the LISP language, and Jack Dennis who was one of the founders of the Multics Project (the precursor to Unix).  These members along with others helped coin the term “Hacker”, and inscribed within the “Dictionary of the TMRC language” was the (now immortal to all computer scientists) phrase “Information wants to be free.”  These guys were budding computer scientists, brilliant minds, mischievous hackers, and they were serious about controlling model railroads.

The first chapter of Hackers describes the interplay between trains, their control, and what the TMRC meant to different students:

tmrc-overpass

“There were two factions of TMRC. Some members loved the idea of spending their time building and painting replicas of certain trains with historical and emotional value, or creating realistic scenery for the layout. This was the knife-and-paintbrush contingent, and it subscribed to railroad magazines and booked the club for trips on aging train lines. The other faction centered on the Signals and Power Subcommittee of the club, and it cared far more about what went on under the layout. This was The System, which worked something like a collaboration between Rube Goldberg and Wernher von Braun, and it was constantly being improved, revamped, perfected, and sometimes “gronked”—in club jargon, screwed up. S&P people were obsessed with the way The System worked, its increasing complexities, how any change you made would affect other parts, and how you could put those relationships between the parts to optimal use.”

tram system

For model railroaders, the TMRC is probably in the top 10 most famous layouts in the world along with names like John Allen’s Gorre & Daphetid, George Sellios’ Franklin & South Manchester, and famous club layouts like the San Diego Model Railroad Museum.  For techies, there is no other layout in the world of interest that’s anywhere in the TMRC’s league.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that model railroading and computers have always been bedfellows – even today model railroading has led the way in developing standards around Digital Command Control, interfacing locomotives, signalling, and other controls to a computer, and the Java Model Railroad Interface has provided us the world’s first successful test case of the Gnu Public License (the GPL), the open source software license that Linux and much of open source code relies on!

card operating schemeWith all of this background, I probably undersold the importance of the whole thing to my college roommate and his wife who live in Boston.   When they asked me what I wanted to do during our afternoon together it struck them as a bit odd that I’d already emailed the club from Scotland, had the phone number, and was anxious to make sure we didn’t miss the window.

Walking into the layout room we were met by the wonderful MIT alumnus and club member John Purbrick. He proceeded to give us an hour long tour showing us the various control systems, buildings, car card operating scheme, points of interest on the layout, and description of future plans.

custom built throttleTMRC uses a home grown software system (written in Java with the fronted in Python, all running on Linux) to run the trains.  The layout is still using DC block control, and trains can be run via the main computer system, or engines can be assigned to one of the many hand-built walk around throttles.  All turnouts are computer controlled and electronically operated, none are hand thrown.  For each yard or town area, there’s a diagram of the track layout with numbers on the left and right hand sides.  By keying in the number 0 on the left, and the number 5 on the right for example, the turnouts are all automatically thrown to present a route between the two points.  It’s simple, elegant, and impressive for a home built system.  As Mr. Purbrick put it, “We use a home built system on this layout because here at MIT, we have some experience with software.” Trains are detected by the software using electrical resistance, so operators can see from the software whether a train is on a siding, train with engine, or no train at all.

The main level of the layout is mostly complete, but there are plans for additional levels, and the layout features several huge helixes.  All visible mainline track is Code 83, sidings are Code 70, and there is some Code 55, and all visible turnouts are hand built.  There’s also a tram system that runs on one part of the layout.  Rolling stock varies but includes locomotives from Atlas, Athearn, and Kato. The president of Kato has visited from Japan and brought with him a gift of a few locomotives and some passenger cars.

soda machine

The TMRC receives no financial support from MIT other than free use of the space.  Just like in the late 50s (and covered in the book Hackers), the TMRC is supported from the proceeds that are made by selling soda from a machine in the hallway, and they turn a tidy profit according to Purbrick. A hand scrawled note affixed to the machine explains where the profits go and encourages patrons to email soda suggestions to the club for inclusion on the menu.

These days there aren’t many members left, apparently.  Maybe a dozen or so, although anyone can join. There was only one other member there while we visited, and the club struggles to get enough people together for operating sessions. Apparently there are several other thriving clubs in the area, but I wondered if there wouldn’t be a population of students out there who might not know of the TMRC’s heritage, it’s incredibly complex computer control system, and its delightful layout?

playing tetris on a buildingAs we made our way out at the end of the tour, Mr. Purbrick told us that we couldn’t leave without seeing the Tetris building.  From the hallway looking through the windows onto the layout, there is a control box.  When activated, the iconic tetris music begins to play, and the windows of the skyscraper light up to represent tetris blocks, which descend.  You can play a game of tetris represented on the windows of a building modelled by the TMRC, all powered by custom software and hardware components.  The creator of Tetris himself has been by to see this particular implementation, and while it wasn’t quite finished, he is said to have given it his approval.

“It’s one of our better hacks,” said John Purbrick, and I couldn’t agree more.

2013: Year in Review

Wow, that was an incredible year! Easily in the top five years of my life, which is saying something seeing as how 2012 was also a great year.

It’s worth saying that if you’re reading this and 2013 was not a great year for you, don’t be discouraged! I have a clear memory of standing in Zurich on December 31st, 2010 as it drew near midnight, turning to The Wife and saying, “Well, that was about the worst year ever!”  We read so many vapid accounts of great years online, and if you’re in the camp that I was a few years ago, know that it can and will get better.  Find a few things.  Focus on them.  Make some changes.  You can do it.

Travel in 2013

  • Paris, France (twice – once to visit family and see the French Open, and once to take The Wife to Euro Disney for her birthday)
  • Inverness, Scotland (twice)
  • Zurich, Switzerland (speaking)
  • Dallas, USA
  • Dubai, UAE
  • New York City, USA
  • Auckenlich, Scotland
  • Pitlochry, Scotland
  • Sutherland County, Scotland

Best Books I Read
Ultimately, I didn’t read quite as many books as I wanted to (goal of 24 last year), but I did manage to read a few. Here are some of the best. Non-cyclists won’t care about the cycling books.

  • The Dark Tower (Books 1-3)
  • Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage
  • Strange Stones: Dispatches from East to West (best book of the year)
  • Seven Years in Tibet
  • Christians and Politics: Uneasy Partners
  • The Great Train Robbery (re-read)

Cycling Books

  • The Story of the Tour de France Volume 1
  • Lanced: The Shaming of Lance Armstrong
  • The Rider
  • The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France

Books I Hated

  • The Museum of Innocence
  • Cloud Atlas (loved the movie though)

Highlights of the Year

  • Attending the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (again)
  • Spending Thanksgiving in a 18th century Scottish estate (again)
  • Three cycling events: Tour of the Borders, Caledonian Etape, and Lafuga trip to Tuscany
  • Attending the French Open
  • Our success at work – Administrate doubled its revenue in 2013

Cycling

This became my main hobby in 2013, despite the concern I’d not stick with it. I bought my first road bike in January, not really knowing what to expect, with a goal of riding the Caledonian Etape (81 miles), and trying to stick with it, mainly for health reasons.

I ended up riding and finishing the Tour of the Borders, which was one of the worst (best) events I could imagine, in the worst possible weather conditions I’ll probably ever ride in again. I finished.

Went on to ride a 50 mile sportive in Aviemore, attempted a 110 mile sportive from Glasgow to Edinburgh (DNF – destroyed tire), attempted a 100 mile Glasgow sportive (couldn’t make it due to rental car issues), and booked a three day cycling trip in Tuscany.

Overall for the year, I rode more than 1,800 miles and climbed more than 104,000 feet of elevation. Pretty happy about that.

Speaking

One of the big goals I had last year was to speak more. It’s something I really enjoy, it helps us recruit top notch developers, and I love hearing from other speakers at conferences, so for me, it’s a win-win-win. Two things I love to discuss are teamwork and great products, and I developed two talks around these topics which I gave several times around Europe. I also began to speak more and more (mostly locally) on why I believe Scotland is an incredible place to run a startup.

I spoke in Edinburgh four times (Lean Agile Scotland, Scotch on the Rocks, Turing Festival, and University of Edinburgh), London once (Digital Shoreditch), Zurich (FrontEndConf), and I was invited to speak in Poland, but just couldn’t make it due to some unfortunate scheduling issues. I’m hoping I can make that conference this coming year instead. I was really happy with the opportunities I received, and hope to continue the trend in 2014.

Work
In some ways we had a very challenging year at work, but almost every challenge ultimately paved the way for a really rewarding and successful year of growth. We wrote more about the success our team had on our company blog, and I was really proud of everyone pulling together to achieve our second year in a row of doubling in size.

Family

We added a “real” niece this year, and a “fake” niece to our collection of “fake nephews” in our third family.  And for Christmas this year, my family came over to Edinburgh to spend a few days which meant we all got to be together, explore the city and surrounding towns, and The Wife and I didn’t have to fly home for a manic tour of the States.  That was a huge relief.  Speaking of The Wife, she and I celebrated our seventh wedding anniversary and spent most of the month of December celebrating her birthday which was a lot of fun.

Summary

2014 should be interesting, like every year. I’ve got some goals, but they’re mostly progressions of what I’m already focused on: work, cycling, speaking, and travel. I’m incredibly lucky, and blessed, and hope you have a great start to your year.  Stay tuned!

HSBC Anti-Fraud Measures Vulnerable to Phishing Attacks

I’ve been an HSBC customer for roughly two years and have complained about these practices probably more than a dozen times without any real acknowledgement or change.

HSBC, like most banks in the UK, provides every customer a 2 factor security token to make sure that logging in requires something you know (your password) and something you have (your token’s time-limited code). So far so good. They even have a signing procedure for sending money (personal accounts only, strangely) that requires you to hash the transaction amount with your token, and put in the corresponding code as part of the transaction. A nice touch.

A Horrible Anti-Fraud Algorithm

Where HSBC has a glaring security hole is their fraud detection and prevention. As near as I can tell, the HSBC fraud algorithm is essentially “IF online transaction AND/OR foreign origination AND/OR amount is greater than [some nominal amount] THEN fraud”.

There’s no history taken into account, and they routinely ignore travel advisories called in ahead of time. So for example, if you signup to a monthly recurring charge for a software service outside of the UK (many of them) it doesn’t matter that the charge has occurred every month for a year, they’ll still pop an alert. This is particularly problematic for subscriptions billed annually, as it seems that their fraud team can perform a manual override on most things, but not on infrequent subscriptions.

An Outsourced Anti-Fraud Team

Foreign can often mean “somewhat far away” too. There’s no concept of accepting a card present, pin verified transaction as maybe worth the benefit of the doubt either, so I’ve had my card declined for sandwich shop purchases in towns less than fifty miles away from my home address.

A Dangerous Fraud Verification Process

But all of this could maybe be lived with, if not for the horrific fraud verification procedures employed by one of the largest banks in the world.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Their horrible fraud algorithm pops an alert. This can occur on a subscription charge, a pin verified card present charge, or a verified by visa online charge.
  2. You will receive a phone call from an unknown number (blocked).
  3. An Indian call centre rep will tell you they’re calling from HSBC and they’ll need to verify some important information before they speak to you. So far, this has been my birth date or post code (enough to get your full address in the UK). If you refuse to speak to them, your card is blocked. If you call them back, it will take roughly 25 minutes on hold being transferred around to clear the block.
  4. If you don’t answer the phone, they will leave a voicemail. Again, an Indian call centre rep will preface the voicemail with an urgent request for contact, then they will play a recorded message. Often there will be a problem here, and they’ll have to call back to get the recording playing right.

It’s important to note that the phone connection quality is invariably terrible. This means you can’t understand the person, and the recording is garbled as well.  I also don’t care if the representative is a native English speaker or not.  I do care that the cut-rate policies of HSBC mean they have chosen an outsourcing provider who can’t seem to get decent phone service, thus making the entire thing more vulnerable to phishing (it’s easy and cheap to sound just like HSBC or even worse, do a better job by having a nice fluent British accent  via a clear connection).

An Active Phishing Threat?

For the past two years I’ve been uncomfortable with this process. It leaves you open to phishing attacks, particularly spear fishing. It relies on data that could be publicly obtained fairly easily (birthdate and post code) and even if you can’t get this data, you can easily phish it by impersonating a representative then using that information to escalate privilege elsewhere.

A better solution would be to mimic the procedures in place at other banks. Chase for example has an app that will securely message you the details of a questionable transaction which you can approve or deny in a few seconds. They’ll also SMS you the details of the charge, which you can respond to. Lastly, if you don’t have a smart phone or can’t receive text messages, they’ll call you and use a challenge response procedure to verify yourself, or leave you a voicemail instructing you to call the number on the back of the card. The entire process is safe, easy, and quick not matter what mechanism you use (I use all three depending on the situation).

It appears that these weaknesses in HSBC’s procedures have now caught the attention of others. A couple of days ago I was called by someone who mumbled around that they were from HSBC, and asked me for information. I declined, like normal. I called the bank back like normal. Except this time, nobody from HSBC had called and no suspicious charges were flagged. Apparently someone had attempted to phish me! I wonder how long it will take HSBC to address this now that their customers are being actively targeted?

Lets review how we got here:

  1. A poor anti-fraud algorithm means false positives are common.
  2. A lot of alerts means you need a large customer service staff.
  3. You outsource this, you don’t automate it, and put in place procedures that are fraught with security problems.
  4. Your frustrated and desensitised customers lose respect for the process.
  5. Phishers take note, and begin to capitalise.

HSBC Customers, Be Careful!

Be careful out there! Never give any personal information to anyone calling you, no matter who they claim to be and no matter how annoying the procedure is.

We Need Viable Search Engine Competition, Now

It’s become clear to me that we desperately need a viable competitor (or two) in the search engine space. A somewhat related thought I’ve been having is the (probably inaccurate) sensation that bringing out a viable competitor to Google may not be nearly as hard as it has appeared for the last decade.

We need competitors now. Most websites see more than 80% of their search engine traffic arriving from just Google, and this is not a good long term recipe for a vibrant internet.

Inherent Conflict of Interest
Google’s revenue model of placing paid ads next to organic search results operates under the (publicly accepted) belief that there’s a secure “Chinese wall” between the paid and organic functions. It was even more secure, some argued, because ultimately the short-term conflict between receiving revenue for rankings (paid) vs. displaying the best rankings (organic) was not a long-term conflict. Better organic results were always in Google’s interest, because these competitive results maintained their dominance and user’s trust. And so we believed. To be fair, I feel that Google does a somewhat decent job in this area, but I continue to feel that the user experience of Adwords exhibits various dark patterns (more about this here) and Google’s corporate inertia seems to be focused on a walled garden approach with G+ and Android. Lets just say that I’m no longer going to blindly trust Google in the face of a worrying conflict of interest that’s central to their most valuable product. Declining empires under siege are the ones you have to be careful of, after all.

Vulnerabile to Manipulation
Is there anything worse than “SEO”? The very idea of this industry, filled with people whose sole job is to attempt to manipulate Google is bad enough, but the fact that “black hat” SEO can produce material gains is genuinely worrying. Having had to clean up a mess created by a black hat (who insisted he wasn’t) and now in the middle of another mess of toxic back links that may or may not be generated by a competitor, the whole thing is just annoying, wasteful, and embarrassing for Google. I get that they’re trying to clean this up with Penguin and Panda and the various versions therein.

Arbitrary and Corrupt
When RapGenius violated Google’s SEO guidelines, they were only caught due to a public revelation on Hacker News, then immediately penalised by a human (to compensate for where their algorithm failed), then they were permitted to communicate directly with google to discuss ways out of this mess. Not it appears they’ve been fast-tracked back into the listings, albeit at somewhat of a disadvantage.

All aspects of this rub me the wrong way –

  1. Google is making arbitrary rules on how sites should behave, because they have a monopoly. If they didn’t have a monopoly, they might not be able to make these arbitrary rules, and others might not follow them.
  2. Google needs these rules, because Google’s rankings are apparently trivial to game. Build a ton of links and make sure you don’t over-optimise your link text. That’ll do it for most key phrases, apparently, as long as you’re not completely obvious. There’s a clear incentive for “Bad Guys” to win using“Bad Ways”, that penalises good sites just trying to get on with business. Does anyone actually believe that the ridiculously obvious, poorly written link farms that Google catches periodically are the only examples out there? Smarter people doing a better job are gaming google all the time, and it appears to be getting worse.
  3. Google feels the right to at any time, and with zero due process, transparency, or appeal, to manually penalise sites who successfully ignore their rules yet exhibit a high ranking. This is not transparent, fair, or reliable. It is scary for legitimate businesses, and this kind of instability should not be the norm, but it is.
  4. The only organisations or individuals who can actually engage with Google over a penalisation or problem in any meaningful way are Silicon Valley favourites or companies backed by influential VCs, or [insert some other not-avaible-to-the-public recourse here]. This is the definition of corruption.

We Need A Competitive Alternative
Competition could provide a healthy response to many of these items. I don’t think regulation is the answer, but it may become one if these trends continue and intensify. A different revenue model could remove the conflict of interest, a better or different algorithm could be less prone to manipulation, and a search engine that prided itself on a transparent and efficient arbitration process for disputes with regards to rankings could win users trust. Of course, Google could also work on these problems themselves, but it seems like they’re more or less happy with the current state of affairs.

Is PageRank really the indomitable tech of our generation? Nobody can do better algorithmically, or integrate some kind of crowd sourced feedback, or measure browsing time and habits, or simply hand tune some of the most competitive key phrases? I’m sure I’m oversimplifying, but I wonder if we haven’t all been hypnotised by the complexity, much of which is marketing hype, and have missed the enormous opportunity that exists right in front of our noses. Does the next search engine have to be as big, involved in as many things, employ as many people, and fight on the same footing to be accomplish the goal of providing a counterpoint to Google?

Time will tell.