Yesterday evening, I fancied a ‘medicinal’ Indian takeaway to counter the effects of lunchtime Christmas celebrations.
Naturally, I Googled ‘Barbican Tandoori’ (my local) and came up with an address of www.barbicantandoori.co.uk
Sadly, somebody appears to have hijacked this address and replaced the original website with a load of pay-per-click advertisements.
All seems perfectly legal though they do appear to be using the original Barbican Tandoori website heading artwork with links maintaining the original page structure—presumably, to maintain any search engine presence previously built-up.
If you do allow your domain name hosting to lapse, as I suspect happened here, it’s fair game for anybody to grab it for their own purposes.
Interestingly, Google appear to have taken some action in that they have disabled pay-per-click advertisements featuring this address, though they still show both the advertisements and the address.
Links within the main search engine results still work as do the Google advertisements on the ‘rogue’ website.
If you want to order BT food online, they now have a website at www.barbicantandoori.com though this doesn’t yet appear in the early search engine results.
Of late, it has become increasingly trendy to describe various information processing services as being in 'The Cloud' which is just a fancy new name for the old concept of keeping your essential personal and business data on a computer controlled by somebody else.
Indeed, Google have recently launched a new operating system, Google Chrome OS, which is designed around this concept and Microsoft are hitting the same market with their Web-based Office 365 product.
Apart from the fact that some of these services require payment of an ongoing subscription rather than outright ownership of software and data storage, what does the so-called Cloud Computing actually mean to the user?
The first problem is that the use of these services requires a reliable internet connection and, without that, there is no access to your important data.
Anybody who has tried posting to a blog or social networking site during busy periods will also appreciate that response can be quite sluggish compared to working with documents located on your own computer..
In reality, web-based computing has been with us for some years and several email systems (Yahoo, Hotmail, GMail) are based around this concept as are various messaging and social networking services.
To illustrate how these services can go wrong, I provide two examples of Hotmail issues, arising this week, from my Facebook contacts.
In the first case, my contact found that he could no longer receive email attachments at work via his Hotmail account.
Hotmail have apparently changed their system so that attachments are now stored on Microsoft's Skydrive service and accessed via a link added to the email.
That's not a bad idea in itself (I use a similar service called Winzip Courier) but this particular recipent's company network server blocks access to these external links, making the attachments inaccessible.
My second contact had a more-serious problem in that she found her Hotmail account 'blocked' and has consequently lost around 15 years of work, contacts, links, business plans and personal information.
It's not clear why the account is blocked though 'hacking' is suspected.
After a few days of argee-bargee with Hotmail (or Windows Live or whatever they call themselves this week) have communicated thus:
'We have concluded our review of the information you provided. Our agents were unable to validate that you are the account owner. The information provided has been reviewed and our agents could not match this information to the account information currently stored for the account.
Our final recommendation is to create a new Windows Live ID account.
Notwithstanding the talk of 'agents', these service-provider help systems are increasingly automated and it is pretty-well impossible to communicate directly with a real person.
To me, It seems inconceivable that anybody would want to open a new account having just lost 15 years-worth of important information.
Don't even get me started on Apple's Mobile-Me which is supposed to synchronise email, contacts, calender, etc, between PCs and mobile devices but has ended-up losing several years of history for one of my clients–it's so good that Apple are presently re-launching the service as ICloud (let's hope that it doesn't become known as ICrap).
It's easy to become mesmerised with the latest 'whizzy' technology even though much of it is old technology with new branding.
In my opinion, important business and personal information is best kept under direct user control with a robust system of backup–'Cloud' computing reduces that control which increases the risk of data loss and exposure.
It's also a good idea to use your own domain name for email–these can be hosted with any domain hosting provider and can be moved to another if any aspect of the service becomes unacceptable.
With Hotmail, Google, and Yahoo, as well as email provided by Internet Service Providers, you can only use their email addresses while you subscribe to those services and you can't really demand reinstatement of those you haven't paid for.
Back in the 1970s, every sizeable business had it’s typing pool which would churn-out a stream of template-based correspondence.
At a somewhat higher-level, the typical Secretary would attend meetings, take notes and generate the resulting paperwork directly.
As office-based computers automated most of the mundane tasks, the bog-standard copy typist largely disappeared and the Secretary evolved into the rather more ‘entrepreneurial’ Personal Assistant who was generally competent in handling all aspects of office administration.
The only problem was that highly-skilled PAs were difficult to find and the cost of hiring on a full-time basis put them beyond the reach of many small businesses.
Fortunately, the increasing power of the internet has given us the Virtual Assistant who can take-on most of the PA role with a few notable omissions such as making the coffee.
Virtual Assistants work primarily by phone and over the internet, using tools such as email, instant messaging and on-line diary management.
Most importantly, they can be hired by the hour.
Amanda Wharton, who lives in Stockton-on-Tees, had around 20 years of secretarial experience when she became a victim of ‘downsizing’ just over a year ago.
As this was her second experience of redundancy, Amanda decided to set up her own business which offers secretarial and administrative services on a ‘virtual’ basis.
As luck would have it, demand for these services has been quite good so she has now organised a group of friends and former colleagues who are also available to work on a virtual basis for one reason and another.
Although Amanda’s company will happily take-on basic typing and data entry jobs, most clients tend to use them for rather more-challenging assignments:
Diary Management: Using the collaborative features of Microsoft Outlook, Amanda organises diaries and meetings for several Company Directors.
Sales Analysis: Working directly with sales figures submitted by email, Amanda collates these to produce a monthly sales analysis presented as an Excel spreadsheet.
Correspondence and Reports: As most managers now tend to generate their own letters, emails and reports, Amanda finds herself performing more of a ‘Quality Assurance’ function to ensure that outgoing correspondence is coherent, presentable and grammatically correct.
She also performs a traditional ‘secretarial’ role in dealing with incoming mail.Basic Bookkeeping: Although Amanda is currently studying for an (AAT) accountancy qualification, this service is really aimed at the small business where there is not enough work to support a full-time book-keeper and not enough money to pay accountants’ fees for the basic functions of ledger posting, PAYE and VAT returns.
The company’s bookkeeping services are currently based on Sage accounting software but spreadsheet-based accounts can be set up for businesses with simpler requirements.
Staff Training: Inevitably, the virtual model doesn’t meet every client requirement and Amanda occasionally finds herself ‘on site’ for the purpose of setting-up basic office systems and training local staff in the use of software such as MS-Office.
Providing a virtual service does require some adjustment of traditional working practices which is why Amanda recently found herself on a beach, in Fuerteventura, dealing with email correspondence in her bikini.
In the virtual world, there is no clear distinction between work and play.
More Information: www.totallyadmin.com
“I know that half of my advertising budget is wasted, but I’m not sure which half..."
This old advertising cliché, usually attributed to Lord Leverhulme, illustrates the basic problem with advertising which usually involves a large outlay of cash to determine whether the advertising medium and campaign strategy are right for the particular product.
The beauty of ‘pay-per-click’ internet advertising is that costs are only incurred on a payment-by-results basis—the result, in this case, being a click-through to your web site where a more comprehensive ‘sales pitch’ can be presented.
Adwords is one of the pay-per-click products offered by Google whose various worldwide sites process around 37 billion searches per month (Source: www.comscore.com, August 2007).
Additionally, there is a large group of websites and other products, such as email programmes and blogs, that have partnered with Google to display Adwords ads.
Advertisers have the option of running their ads on Google as well as this Google 'content' Network for no extra cost.
The idea is to create a series of small advertisements (as many as you like) of the type displayed down the right-hand side of every Google search results page—multiple advertisements are used in rotation.
You then ’bid’ on a number of keywords (as many as you like) setting the maximum amount that you are prepared to pay for a click-through.
The position of your advertisement, within the relevant search results, is determined by the ’bid’—a 10p-per-click bid will rank above a 5p-per-click bid (the actual charge is reduced to 1p above the next bidder on the list).
The precise rules on this bidding process have changed over the last couple of years but the fine detail is beyond the scope of this article.
There are a number of tools to assist with the appropriate pricing of keywords and with campaign management—costs can be controlled with a daily budget and campaigns may be paused or deleted at any time.
Several campaigns may be run simultaneously.
The advertising can also be targeted by country or by local area—payment is by direct debit from a credit card or (recently-added) a bank account.
In my experience, these campaigns can be quite cost-effective though depending very much upon the product—the point being that it costs very little to find out.
The Royal Mail Smartstamp service allows printing of postage directly from the PC to envelopes and labels, thereby eliminating the need for franking machines and paper stamps.
The business version of the service costs £49.99 per annum with postage being charged at normal rates—this is deducted from an on-line account which can be topped-up by credit card, etc, as required.
The Smartstamp software may be installed from a CD or downloaded from the Royal Mail web site.
There is now an entirely web-based version of the service aimed at the non-business user—this has no standing charge and the only differences, as far as I can see, are a slightly messier interface and the lack of some features such as the ability to add a logo or to 'mailmerge' using a contacts database.
The Royal Mail web site has some other useful facilities including a postcode finder and delivery tracking.
Can you believe that people still pay British Telecom over 50p for Directory Enquiries when more-comprehensive information, including the full address, is available free from one of their web sites—there is a limit of 50 searches a day which should be more than sufficient for most users
I was a rather late convert to eBay whose early aficionados always struck me as rather nerdish.
Although the original concept was along the lines of a high-tech car boot sale, eBay now has a lot of serious full-time traders offering high-quality goods at very competitive prices.
Unlike a traditional auction, the standard eBay listing lasts for a fixed period (1,3,5,7 or 10 days) and the item is won by the highest bidder at the close—The seller can also offer a buy-it-now price which, if accepted, will terminate the auction early.
There are various additional selling options beyond the scope of this article.
Because reputation is everything on eBay and their system of feedback gives a direct indication of customer satisfaction, I generally find that speed of delivery and after-sales service beats that of most big-name retailers.
After every transaction, both buyer and seller have the opportunity to provide feedback (positive, negative or neutral) which contributes to a ‘feedback score’ (positives minus negatives).
This figure, the percentage of positives and recent comments are available for public view and can be used to assess the ‘quality’ of any eBay member.
For entrepreneurial types, it is quite easy to launch a business on eBay which provides access to a market of 100 million members at minimal cost.
There are, of course, various security ‘hoops’ to be gone though—for example, 1-day listings and buy-it-now prices require a minimum feedback score.
To offer valuable Paypal buyer protection requires a minimum feedback score of 50, at least 98% positive—sounds quite impressive but experience makes me inclined to look at the detailed feedback comments if the rating dropped below 99%.
Paypal, by the way, is now owned by eBay and is the favoured method of paying for eBay purchases.
The new seller can, of course, build-up positive feedback through buying though the source of the feedback is quite clear in the public listing—note that multiple transactions with a single eBay member only count once.
Paypal, now owned by eBay, is a very convenient method of processing payments over the internet—for most eBay sellers, it is also the preferred method of accepting payment.
Accounts are quick, easy and free to set up though there are various security procedures required to obtain full functionality.
Accounts may be funded using a credit card, debit card or bank account—the principal difference between personal and premier/business accounts is the ability of the latter to accept payments funded by debit or credit card.
Sending and receiving funds are generally free for personal accounts though there are fees for receiving funds into premier/business accounts.
Unlike traditional credit card ‘merchant’ accounts, there are no minimum monthly charges though individual transaction charges may be higher.
Withdrawing funds from Paypal accounts is free for sums over £50.
Until recently, it was necessary to have an account in order to make a credit card payment via the Paypal network—this has now been changed so that the buyer can make the payment and elect to open a Paypal account later.
As terms and conditions change from time to time, do check the web site.
For the premier/business user, there are a number of ’merchant’ tools including the ability to bill customers by email—also, setting up web site payment buttons is extremely easy.
Paypal is ideal for businesses who want to trade on eBay and for those with a fairly low internet sales volume.
I also have experience of using Worldpay (Royal Bank of Scotland Group) whose setup fees and minimum annual charges are offset by lower transaction costs—again, check the current terms and conditions.
Worldpay accounts take a couple of weeks to set up though they claim to accept most applications—They can also work with an existing credit card merchant account if you only need the internet transaction processing.
Skype have been the pioneer in the field of internet telephony, also known as VOIP (Voice over Internet Protocol).
To be quite clear, PC-to-PC phone calls are absolutely free using this technology and often exceed the quality of landline calls where there is a fast internet connection at each end—any type of connection works in theory but, in practice, you really need broadband.
Obviously, this assumes that each user has an internet service offering unlimited connection time (generally the case with broadband) though heavy internet users may incur modest extra charges when exceeding ISP monthly bandwidth limits.
PC-to-landline (or mobile) calls can also be made at extremely competitive rates—other services supported by Skype include internet messaging (chat), SMS messaging (text to mobiles) and video calling.
Calls can be made using the PC speakers and microphone though a USB headset or USB telephone generally produces better results while leaving the computer speakers to operate independently in response to operating system and other software audio.
The nice thing about a USB phone (about £15 from eBay) is that it works just like a telephone—it rings, you can dial numbers directly with your finger and you answer by picking it up or pressing the ’connect’ button.
There are a number of other VOIP services including those provided by Microsoft (Windows Messenger/MSN Messenger) and various internet service providers but the Skype service has proven consistently reliable and very cheap for international PC-to-landline or PC-to-mobile calls.
Using alternative services in circumstances where rates are cheaper has not given rise to any practical problems.
Skype also seems to work well on the Apple MAC (OS X v10.3.9 or newer).
Playing the National Lottery, now rebranded as Lotto, can be quite labour-intensive—you visit the shop to buy a ticket, you check the results to see if you have won and you then make a second journey to claim your prize.
That’s always assuming that you didn’t put the ticket in the wash with your clothes.
Since the National Lottery started, it has been possible to bypass all of this argee-bargee by taking out a subscription but not many people ever seemed to know about this facility.
Doing the whole thing on-line is so much easier—you avoid the hassle of queuing, keeping the ticket safe and checking the results.
All of the Lotto draws and ‘instant win’ games are available to play on the National Lottery web site.
Regular Lotto and Thunderball players can re-use the same numbers by taking out a subscription (fixed-term or ongoing) and there is a facility to give subscriptions as gifts.
Euromillions, Daily Play and Lotto Hotpicks also allow the tickets to be used in several draws.
Draw winners are notified by email and the smaller prizes are paid directly to their bank account.
Results can always be checked on-line and a record of tickets purchased is available in each subscriber’s account.
Life’s too short to queue up for a Lotto ticket.
Several years ago, I started using Amazon to buy music CDs—It was my first experience of on-line shopping and it was great.
You can search the site by artist, composer, title or anything you like—you can read or contribute reviews of the music and you can even listen to samples before deciding whether to buy.
On your initial visit, you can leave your delivery address, credit card details and a password so that your subsequent purchases can be completed with a single click.
Likely delivery times are always shown for each product and Amazon advise you by email when goods are despatched—you can also look-up the status of your outstanding orders at any time.
Like many people, I was initially concerned about transmitting credit card details over the internet but this has never given me a problem and is a damn sight safer than giving your card to a waiter or providing the details by phone.
Nowadays, I buy most of my books from Amazon who also offer keen prices on a range of other goods including software and mobile phones—I still buy the occasional CD though that particular market has recently transformed with downloads becoming increasingly popular.
Also, before buying anything on the internet, I tend to consult Amazon and eBay to establish my ‘target price’ for the item—usually a good bit cheaper than high-street retailers.
Thanks to pioneers like Amazon, it is now possible to shop for almost anything on the internet including groceries, medicines, office supplies, concert tickets, fast-food, travel/accommodation and financial services.