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Beware the SMEG. That's a winning strategy.

April 25, 2012

Here's something I wrote for the Sydney Business Review newspaper in August 1996.

Where there's smoke, there's smoke!

There's a new gold rush on. We are now seeing carpetbagger, snake oil salesman and holy roller all rolled into one in pursuit of riches. I give you – The Internet Expert.

People without email addresses in their advertisements are telling us how to promote our businesses on the World Wide Web. People with no programming experience are offering to build complex systems using the Java programming language. Millions of people use web browser and email software daily without training, but I've heard that four lessons at $90 per hour are needed for Netscape. The Sydney Morning Herald ran a feature recently containing 21 ads with neither an email nor web address, all offering expertise in training, marketing on the net, or web page development.

The words caveat emptor come from a language much older than Java or C++, but they need to be understood by anyone buying into the Internet.

Here's a test. Ask the person offering the service if they can write programs in CGI. If they say "Yes", run, do not walk, to someone who knows what they are talking about.

(For you youngsters who think that "CGI" means "computer-generated imagery", that scourge of today's movie industry, what it means in the article above is "Common Gateway Interface" and refers to a means for web servers to run executable files. It is not a programming language. Read about it here if you are a geek or here if you want the simple version.)

So what, if anything, has changed over the last decade-and-a-half? Not much at all.

Every week I get at least one invitation to hear a Social Media Expert Guru (SMEG) tell me how to increase my business by the use of social media web sites, typically Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. Before I go any further I should point out that as of today I have 1626 "friends" on Facebook, 946 followers on Twitter (in two accounts) and 302 connections on LinkedIn. I don't know how many things I have posted to Facebook but I have posted 11,313 messages to Twitter.

Let's look at the last two SMEGs that I have been invited to be educated by. I'll leave out the one who says that he has 20 million connections on LinkedIn (equivalent to having 400 million Facebook friends). He does this by calculating all the connections to all the people he is connected to and all that those are connected to and so on. Combine this clown's exaggeration with Stanley Millgram's six degrees of separation and my family can expect many millions of people to turn up at my funeral when everyone who knows anyone who knows anyone who knows anyone who knows anyone who knows anyone who knows me comes along.

The first is presenting at a business expo with a talk headed "Social Media on the Edge!". The speaker does not appear to be on Twitter at all, uses a Gmail email account despite having a perfectly useful domain name for her web site, appears to only have become active on Facebook this month (she's had an account since 2008 but it looks like she only posted twice this year before April), and has 158 connections on LinkedIn. I'm sure she will be entertaining, but I'm not sure how many winning strategies I will take away from the presentation.

The second one gave a lecture about social media to a class in a course I attended. His emphasis was on using Facebook as the primary means of promoting a business (he charges from $450 to create a Facebook page and from $220 to set someone up on Twitter). His main web site contains links to none of his presences on social media sites, but a bit of investigation shows that he has 29 followers on Twitter and has posted 23 messages. If you ask Facebook to search for pages with his company name you get more than 20, but none of the first 20 are him. If you search for him by name on Facebook you get told "Xxxxxx only shares some information publicly. If you know Xxxxxx, send him a friend request or message him" on an otherwise empty screen. On LinkedIn he describes himself as "Social Media, Internet & Google Marketing Strategist" and has 63 connections. (If you search for his company name in Google it comes up first, as you would expect. Hilariously, the second listing is another marketing company who uses the page title "I am not Xxxxxxx Marketing Sydney".)

And these people are experts and take money to tell other people to do what they appear incapable of doing themselves. As a teacher myself it pains me to repeat that old cliché "Those who can do, those who can't teach".

While we're at it lets look at expert web designers. Most of the ones I come across these days want to build web sites using WordPress. Now WordPress is a pretty impressive piece of software, and it is bringing you this very blog (Note: The Wordpress blog was closed in 2019 as part of winding up the company. The articles are now here on a real web site.) as well as a couple of others I use and manage. Its intended purpose is blogging and it allows very easy updating and communication with visitors. It is not the tool for every web site (I use different software for the sites I maintain) but to use another cliché, when all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail. When all you know is WordPress, then every web site looks like a WordPress project. This is fine if you want something quick and you don't care too much what it looks like, but you can soon run up against its limitations.

Again, I will give two examples. The first was an expert who took over a site that I was managing. For a price of only twice what I charge for a full year's support and maintenance he delivered a WordPress shell, empty of all content. It became the job of the client to manually copy and paste all the content out of their previous site into the new one, as well as figure out how to include such things as an extensive library of Acrobat PDF files. This took a non-trivial amount of time. The pièce de résistance, however, was something the expert forgot. WordPress has an option to tell search engines to ignore the site. This is useful while a site is being built, but it goes beyond just saying "Don't index for the time being". It tells Google, Bing and all other search engines that you don't want the site indexed at all, and when the search engine finds the relevant file (robots.txt) right there at the top of the domain (eg it starts acting on the instructions immediately. When it finds:

User-agent: *
Disallow: /

it sets about removing all pages in the domain from the index. To make things just a little bit worse, the Internet Archive also follows the robots.txt protocol and removes all pages for the domain from its history of the web.

The client didn't discover the problem for a couple of years, by which time most of the site's pages had been lost to search engines and about 15 years of history of changes to the site had been discarded. Did I mention that all this cost twice what I charge for a year's support, maintenance and search engine optimisation?

The second example was a simple ripoff. A small non-profit club had been charged $8,000 to set up its web site. Based on my experience with WordPress (and I have only been using it for a couple of weeks) if this job took two days then the web developer must have been taking very long coffee breaks. I'm sure it took more than two days from the time the contract was signed until the site was delivered, but I'm not talking elapsed time here, I'm talking actual work. The club relied on references and recommendations from other people who would have been as ignorant as them of what was actually needed to produce what was delivered. A quick check of local business networking groups showed that the web developer is very highly regarded and would almost certainly have been the one recommended first to any innocent person making an enquiry.

Sometimes I regret the fact that my parents taught me morals and encouraged me to listen to my conscience. I could be a lot richer than I am.

And don't get me started on "Rock Star Marketers" or we will be here all night.

And in case you ask – I'm @RatbagsDotCom on Twitter, and you can find me on Facebook and LinkedIn by searching for my name. [Part of closing my business and retiring was also retiring the company accounts from Twitter and LinkedIn. I'm still on Facebook and Twitter as me.]

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