Searchers directors meet Culture Minister

Following on from Searcher’s visit to the European Commission in April to discuss internet and search strategies, directors Israr Sarwar and Kym Kinlin met with Culture Minister Ed Vaizey, who was in Manchester for the city’s international festival.

The meeting, which took place at the Manchester Camerata, the Royal Northern College of Music, covered topics such as the strategical importance of UK search, the wider European picture and Searchers’ perspective on the way forward.

Technical director Kym Kinlin said: “It was a productive and informative discussion and we’re looking forward to Mr Vaizey’s visit to our headquarters in the autumn.”

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EU cookies: experimental until 2012

Cookies: internet speak for a piece of code that websites place on users’ computers, useful for speeding up page loading, allowing quicker access to favourite sites.

Advertisers and webmasters also like them because they can be used to send targeted adverts to users’ screens and assess online habits against their marketing campaigns – useful information!

Its use is what the European Commission wants to make everyone more aware of, and from today (26th May) the onus is now on websites to tell you if they use cookies and get your permission to track you.

Grace Period

Regulation 6 of the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations 2003 (PECR) is changing to mean that all websites must ask a user’s permission to monitor their progress through a site.

We knew it was coming, you might well have known of its impending arrival; nevertheless the Information Commissioner’s office – the independent body in charge of regulating the change – and Ed Vaizey from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport left it until the very last minute to announce they had agreed for a grace period for compliance.

Websites will have, they say, 12 months to get their website in order.

Compliance issues

This is because nobody seems 100% sure on how the regulation can be or should be enforced. The ICO’s website has been adding content to make it appear more compliant, though its own guidance admits that it’s going to be somewhat of a national experiment to see how the demands of the regulation can be met.

Plan of action

The BBC article suggested that the favoured option would be to channel the regulation change through browsers, something that Google Chrome, Bing and Mozilla Firefox are apparently looking in to.

And while none of the features listed below is 100% foolproof method of ensuring your website complies, the answer may lie in a combination.

  • Pop-ups/splash pages
  • Terms and conditions
  • Settings-led consent
  • Features-led consent

The ICO has posted a paragraph at the top of its homepage indicating that the user can accept or reject cookies and how this affects their experience of the site; its privacy policy is here.  It certainly might be worth keeping an eye on how it is managing its own interpretation of the directive.

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What words best describe your internet identity?

At some point in a revolution or cultural shift, someone coins a word or phrase. Often, it is a journalist or a high profile industry boffin and it catches on and becomes part of our language.

The internet’s identity – and the ID of those who inhabit it – is a feast of cookies and the less flavoursome webs and spiders; of Trojan Horses and cyberpunks, trolls and flame wars. While some popular terminology comes from fantasy and sci-fi literary and movie genres, there is no pervasive, single metaphor for what goes on. Which makes it all rather interesting.

Here’s a quick look at the words we employ that reveal our various uses for the internet and the world wide web, with some links thrown in for further reading. It’s a light-hearted beginner’s guide, though the advanced reader might enjoy a trip down memory lane during their coffee break (see the CATP entry on this list).

What’s in a name?

Surfing

The first people to use the net were nicknamed surfers. Surfing: a verb that exudes fun, leisure time, being trés cool, being fit, getting sunshine … though if you don’t have an iPad or unlimited downloads for your smartphone, you’ll not be getting much sun. Browsing the web/net is also a fair description of this kind of internet use.

A sub-set of surfing is the notion of the silver surfer -the mature user of the personal computer who grew to adulthood when television images were black and white and a rare home telephone had a rotary dial, but who were still ready to embrace the future. This rather patronising misnomer (I dye my hair, thank you) is rather amusing in light of how those who coined it are no longer using it as frequently, presumably since they started going grey themselves.

Exploring and googling

What other words might have been used to describe the type of internet user and their activity? Internet explorer … hmm, already taken … but, hang on: one verb that has been adopted by the masses is particularly associated with a brand: to google something is to search for a piece of information using Google. Perhaps we should be wondering why Microsoft didn’t call their search engine Explorer, though now the name Bing makes more sense (presuming it means that light bulb moment).

Searchers, hunters and rootlers

Searcher is an accurate description of someone who enters the internet with the purpose of finding something.  Other options are could be forager or hunter (a bit WoW), rummager (a bit odd) or  even rootler (even worse), while Apple’s Safari browser follows a theme to suggest it helps people hunt down the snippets of information essential for pleasure or business.

Food related mythos

In this romanticised context where we can surf, hunt and … google, where do cookies fit in? Are the terms infomuncher or webgobbler appropriate, and if so could someone who spends ‘too much’ time on t’internet be an obese infomuncher?

Even after some cursory research, it remains an assumption that a cookie trail refers to the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale, though I believe they used breadcrumbs.

A liberating environment

Silliness aside – and whether you prefer to surf, browse, explore or google, or combine all of these for a more exciting experience – it’s plain that the internet and the www can be the environment you want it to be.

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Searchers applauds second internet neutrality debate

Kudos to MP Dominic Raab for ensuring the serious discussions surrounding the future of the internet do not get lost in the long halls and vast chambers of Westminster.

Mr Raab, MP for Esher and Walton, raised his concerns over the failure of the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) to tackle the subject of Google‘s anti competitive practices in the search market, which could be narrowing freedom of choice for users as well as impacting upon British businesses.

He said during the adjournment debate – his first – in Westminster Hall:

“Mr Fingleton [OFT chief executive] says that the OFT would like to see complaints coming from customers themselves.

“That is all very well, but customers may be oblivious to what Google is surreptitiously doing.”

He was backed by Phillip Lee, MP for Bracknell, in whose constituency sits Foundem, one of the search companies at the heart of the European Commission‘s antitrust (monopoly) investigation into Google.

Mr Lee stated:

“Google is to be congratulated on achieving such a powerful position in the world economy, but because it has that position, it needs to be subject to regulation so that companies such as Foundem and many others in the future can get a fair hearing in the world economy.”

The matter of Google’s problematic dominance in search and its powerful position on the internet was first brought to an adjournment debate in January this year, when Hyndburn MP Graham Jones tabled the UK Internet Search Engines discussion after a meeting with Searchers about our concerns, detailed in our Open Letter to David Cameron.

Since then, Microsoft – owner of Bing, and Yahoo’s search partner – has stood up to be counted alongside Foundem.

Following Mr Raab’s appearance in Westminster Hall, Searchers director Israr Sarwar said:

“Debate on this issue – net neutrality and Google’s dominant market position – is vital.

“Mr Fingleton’s opinion that complainants have Google envy doesn’t wash any more – the decision makers in the UK are beginning to see the bigger picture, and questions will continue to be asked until they are properly answered.”

While culture minister Ed Vaizey, who is responsible for internet policy, said that Mr Raab was free to ask the OFT to reopen an antitrust case regarding Google, he did not personally think one was justified as the EC was already looking into the matter.

Searchers, which has been in development since 2003, is owned by Reach Global, mentioned during the debate by Mr Vaizey as a company he intends to visit later this year; he has now also accepted an invitation to meet with Foundem.

Note: all the links in this story lead to genuine websites, including TheyWorkForYou, where you can read the full debate transcripts. See also this article from The Register to put some issues into perspective. Don’t just take our word for it!

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Connecting to business online: checking credibility

When browsing for a new supplier – whether that is for internet marketing, envelopes or even new employees – the contents of a website act as a business card: the more impressive, more likely you are to consider them for the shortlist.

We are not just talking about design: Searchers has noticed some companies display logos indicating their great credentials – you may have noticed them too, normally placed in the web page footer or on the About Us page. They look impressive and their presence could make or break a sale. But what do they mean?

Take ISO 9000. If you hire a company that has achieved this benchmark of quality means you can expect certain standards. The ISO 9000 family of standards concentrate upon quality management systems. And there are a host of accreditations. For details on any of them, you need to go to straight to source and ask the awarding body.

Business awards are another source of pride for British companies. These are organised and supported by a range of organisations and commercial enterprises, and they look impressive.  If you are thinking of working with or buying from a company that has won awards, you might be interested enough to check out the criteria for the specific awards.

Lastly, memberships are also a good selling point for a company. Paid memberships are a positive sign that a firm keeps abreast of the latest industry standards, information and developments.

Searchers is currently developing its Credibility Score, which is a measure of commercial conduct. Still in its infancy, the feature will eventually draw information like this together and use it in the search results it delivers.

Pictured below is a search engine results page using Searchers; the arrow points towards the more details tab that people can use to find out more about the companies displayed.

Searchers search engine results page displaying MORE DETAILS tab

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To Searchers, love Google

AdWords voucher

In the post we have recieved a £50 AdWords voucher addressed to ‘Searchers -the UK search engine’ – not to be sniffed at, in a recession! It feels a bit like getting a Valentine card off the glamorous Head Boy.

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Twitter shows its teeth but misses and bites the wrong target?

In the wake of Twitter showing its teeth, it is time to look at social networking platforms and how much power they have.

The Guardian published part of an irate comment from Mark Suster, which it describes as a prominent venture capitalist and angel investor, which seemed to reflect his belief that Twitter temporarily pulled apps from two third party companies because it wanted to promote its own.

Mr Suster said his sense of anger was that he had been penalised by Twitter as a user, not as an investor in social tech.

His opinion highlights a problem with social networking platforms – of who exactly owns them. The company owns them, obviously, and they may do with them as they wish. But “dedicated users”, as Mr Suster terms it, show their stance as having some stake in that ownership: they have made the platform as successful as it is, so why are they treated as if they are not important, as in this latest example, whereby UberMedia’s apps were suspended for terms of service (ToS) violations without notice to the apps’ users.

Twitter has reinstated the apps now, following changes by UberMedia to its apps. The grumbling will no doubt continue for a while. It is worth the while of any social network company, or search engine, to acknowledge that users will get upset if they are affected in this way. It is also worth noting that, as a user, the ToS are there to protect and preserve the social environment. It is a delicate balance.

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Google: Bing Data Sting revelation is advanced prep for EU antitrust

By Searchers operations director Israr Sarwar

I love the irony of a search engine complaining about theft of data, when said search engine has admitted guilt over the harvesting of data from unprotected wireless computer networks around the world.

My instinct – which is generally good – with the Bing data sting incident is that there is far more here than meets the eye: for a start, Google chose a third party (Search Engine Land) to release the story, which has set off alarm bells for me.

Danny Sullivan’s article, and the subsequent Google blog post, made me sit up. Hang on, what …? Google acknowledges that humans bypass the algorithm’s alleged neutrality and – for want of a less emotive word – manipulate the results?

It’s not the first time this has come up, and with the EU’s antitrust investigation ongoing it is unlikely to go away soon.

But the alarm bells were still ringing.

I’m not sure about the legitimacy of the claims Google makes, though I would not put it past Microsoft to employ such tactics.

But for me, the focus of the article was slightly left of centre: I see the death of one of the founding tenets of Google, which was the playing down of human manipulation (yes, that word again) of the algorithm.

I also see it as a very strategically placed admission of this fact, which I believe they are rolling out in anticipation of an attempt by the EU to force the disclosure of some of their most closely guarded search secrets.

Under oath they would have to admit their results are not always as unbiased as they have previously stated. So, they are softening the ground, under the wheels of a rather graceful Trojan Horse.

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And finally, I’d like to thank …

Digital minister Ed Vaizey is coming to visit! It’s all here on Hansard.

Call me biased, but it’s an interesting transcript of an adjournment debate and quite thrilling to see democracy in action on a subject matter close to Searchers’ hearts. It’s actually a big thing for us to be listened to; we know we have a lot to offer.

So, this blog post could easily take a sharp turn and sound like something from a hideously long Oscar’s acceptance speech; I will be brief, I promise, but I’d like to thank our local MP, Graham Jones.

He did a sterling job representing some of the issues faced by the British tech sector as a whole, and especially those faced by people trying to do anything remotely similar to Google.

Mr Jones and Mr Vaizey, head to head in Westminster Hall yesterday, between them summarised a complex issue very well: Google has done wonderful things; and it’s too powerful.

Balance is the key. The British tech sector is producing some amazing innovation and we want the digital minister to be as informed as possible about some of the things that are going on, on a grass roots level. The balance, we believe, can be redressed with some input from everyone involved.

The kettle’s on.

See Reach Global’s version of events.

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Downing Street calls

Following Searchers’ open letter to David Cameron in November, operations director Israr Sarwar spent some time speaking with a member of the government’s strategy & policy team.

In our open letter to David Cameron, dated 10th November, Israr and Kym Kinlin, our technical director, highlighted several worries for the tech sector and British business.

The first, that London attracts an unfair share of attention for investment, when there are pockets of simply dazzling innovation companies across the UK as a whole.

The second and third points, that the government should do more to support British companies, because the multinationals seem to be using the UK as a cash cow while taking advantage of favourable tax breaks.

Israr was grateful to be able to take the opportunity to explain the concerns more fully. Searchers would still very much like the prime minister to visit the Technology Centre with colleagues from the BIS and the DCMS. Mr Cameron has recently been to China; he doesn’t need his passport to visit the North West of England, contrary to popular belief!

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