Good Monday morning. It’s January 13th. We’re off next Monday in observance of Dr. King’s birthday so we will take this opportunity to share a digital collection of his papers at Stanford.  Among them: Dr. King’s birth certificate, a mushy telegram to Mrs. King on Valentine’s Day ’57, and an early draft of Letter from a Birmingham Jail. 

Today’s Spotlight is 1,784 words and takes about 7 minutes to read.

Want to chat about something you see here? Here is a contact form.

1. News To Know Now

1. The Department of Homeland Security issued a critical announcement last Wednesday about a Firefox vulnerability. Most users receive automatic updates, but some of you have turned that option off. You need to update your browser right now if you’re one of them because Mozilla says this exploit can lead to someone taking over your computer. Here’s a link showing you how to update.

2. “A Cook County judge has ordered Google to turn over Jussie Smollett’s emails, photos, location data and private messages for an entire year.” That is the lede of a stunning Chicago Tribune story published late Wednesday. The order also covers Smollett’s manager and includes “.. drafted and deleted text messages, Google Drive files, Google Voice texts, calls and contacts, search and web browsing history; and location data.” That’s the kind of dossier Big Tech builds on us all. Read Megan Crepeau and Jeremy Gorner’s story here.

3. Microsoft launched Project Artemis, free software that detects a predator grooming a child in an online chat room. The software rates chat histories based on previous predator behavior and can flag suspicious ones to be reviewed by humans. Microsoft has already deployed the software on Xbox and is considering adding it to Skype.

Smart links:
Microsoft announcement,
NBC News coverage,
CyberTipline if you know about a child being sexually exploited online.
You can also call 1-800-THE-LOST.

2. Facebook Starts 2020 Like 2018

The Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal is two years old, but continues to affect the company. A leaked Facebook memo to The New York Times claims that Facebook knew Cambridge’s business model “was pure snake oil.” The executive in charge of advertising wrote that he personally regrets letting CA remain members of the Facebook Marketing Program. The memo claims that “the tools they used didn’t work, and the scale they used them at wasn’t meaningful.” 

We view this Facebook memo with wary eyes. There is a lot of explanation and a definite sense that advertising executive Andrew Bosworth wrote the memo to detail Facebook’s stance rather than as some internal soul-searching update. But there are statements in the document that make it worthy of your attention.

“Facebook got Donald Trump elected because he ran the single best digital ad campaign I’ve ever seen from any advertiser. Period.” That’s Bosworth’s big reveal, and he provides context by saying that he donated the maximum possible to the 2016 Clinton campaign. Trump’s campaign didn’t create anything unique, but they spent a lot of money hammering fresh content at people. You won’t be surprised to read the Facebook ad guy’s statement that advertisers should spend lots of money.

“The Russians may have used misinformation alongside real partisan messaging in their campaigns, but the primary source of misinformation was economically motivated.” Bosworth’s words ring true here, and we have some proof of that in a story below about donations to Australia wildfire relief that underscores this trend.

“The Russians worked to exploit existing divisions in the American public … people who showed up to those events were real even if the event coordinator was not. Likewise the groups of Americans being fed partisan content was real even if those feeding them were not.” Bosworth ends this section with a complaint that people can’t contextualize big numbers. That’s true, but ten people protesting outside your office would raise a heckuva ruckus and change the conversation for many more. 

This bit of public relations and message control seems very late to be anything other than window dressing for regulators.

Bosworth’s Facebook memo might have also been distraction from the company’s announcement that Facebook users at some unspecified point this summer will get controls that allow them to see fewer political and social issue ads on Facebook and Instagram. Facebook’s social issue ad categories include social and civil rights, crime, economy, education, environment, guns, health, security and foreign policy, and immigration. Our clients in those spaces are not thrilled to be lumped in with political advertising. 

With so many moving parts, controlling the message remains difficult for Facebook. As all of this was going on midweek, a flattering article about Facebook’s 2020 election efforts appeared in Teen Vogue.  Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s Twitter account even tweeted the link. The article was later edited to include a statement that it was “sponsored editorial content” (aka an advertisement) before it was completely removed.

Smart links
Lord of the Rings, 2020, and Stuffed Oreos (Facebook memo) at the NY Times
Memo news coverage at The New York Times
Social Issues advertising categories at Facebook
Teen Vogue and Facebook coverage at Business Insider

3. Google Search Updates

We’ve written about voice search a lot in the past because it’s clearly a new opportunity for every organization. Consider that any change of that magnitude, be it mobile proliferation, multiple home computers, or voice offers the possibility of getting new traffic in the digital equivalent of a land rush.

Google now reports that it has 500 million worldwide Google Assistant users. Some have only tested the function. Others use it constantly for simple search lookups like a calculator or dictionary. Plenty use it to avoid typing. The news is doubly interesting because Google has never revealed the number before. And also because one out of every 15 people on the planet is a lot. Read Search Engine Journal’s coverage

Google also offered guidance last week about changing dates on a website’s content. The simple advice from Google’s John Mueller was tweeted as, “If it’s evergreen, then by definition you don’t need to change it. No need to do anything special. Keep your dates, make it great.”

Our advice instead: don’t date evergreen content. Google already knows when they first crawled the content.

4. Debugged: Australian Fire Claims

Disasters bring out rogue charities hiding among those doing the work of the angels, and the Australian fire catastrophe is not different. The Washington Post has a great explanation of how some are using misinformation, like Facebook’s Andrew Bosworth explained above, to drive revenue. .

Misinformation and hoaxes are also a regular occurrence during tragedies. Last week Donald Trump, Jr. and Sean Hannity were among the people spreading a lie that close to 200 people in Australia have charged with arson for creating that country’s fires. That’s not what happened, and Vox does a great job explaining how they twisted the facts to make them fit a political agenda.

The Post on “Hoaxes are using the Australia wildfires …

Vox on “The viral false claim …

5. Also in the Spotlight: Amazon & the Honey Extension

Honey is a web browser extension that searches for lower prices at other sites when a user is shopping online. It’s not entirely benevolent and it certainly isn’t unique in the market, but it is the biggest in its class. The extension clearly has commercial upside in PayPal’s estimation because they bought it for FOUR BILLION DOLLARS in November.

Fast forward to this year’s holiday buying season when Amazon stunned some analysts by claiming that the software poses a security risk. 

Amazon doesn’t like PayPal and vice versa, explained at Bloomberg

6. Great Data: Always Updated Wikipedia Articles of the Week

Movies, music, and current events collide when Wikipedia shares its Top 25 articles every week along with a little snarky commentary. It’s another version of trending topics, but from a website that counts everyone as its audience. 

I read it every week. I learn new stuff every week, and the data contextualizes the stories

7. Protip: Google Sheets Templates

Our years-old coverage of Google spreadsheet templates still gets dozens of visitors each week. George was going to update it and show people how to create their own spreadsheet template (teach a person to fish …) but thankfully, How To Geek did it instead.

This is simple and there’s no reason why you can’t use Excel & Google Sheets.

8. Following Up: YouTube Kid Rules 

YouTube has been emphatic that its service is not for use by children under the age of 13. If you’re the parent who lets a kid watch YouTube, you’re responsible for what they watch. The FTC still fined the company $170 million and then announced that channel creators could be held accountable in the future.

Well. 

YouTube announced last Monday that it created new rules that are governed by a fascinating assumption: “any viewer of child friendly content is underage.” 

In many ways, society failed the marketplace because that assumption shouldn’t be necessary but since we’re humans, it is, and it’s a GIANT STEP. There are also some new rules about data collection, comments, and related videos, but the operating assumption about underage viewers is the story here.

Read coverage at The Washington Post

9. ICYMI — Top links from the past 30 days

How to help victims of Australia’s apocalyptic wildfires at CBS News

No Virginia Gun Confiscation at PolitiFact

You Can Still Get Windows 10 For Free at How To Geek

10. Coffee Break: Popeyes Newsjacks Family Feud

Eve Dubois was proud of her answer in a sudden death round of Family Feud. 

Except Eve was wrong. Virally, funny wrong.

And then an interesting thing happened. Popeyes saw the news coverage and social media virality and stole the spotlight with a timely gift for Eve and her family. We call it newsjacking. You’ll probably call it funny.

CNN has details about Popeye’s mistaken identity.

Good Monday morning. It’s January 6th. Images and stories of the Australian fires are overwhelming. CBS News compiled an excellent list of how you can help.

Today’s Spotlight takes about 4 minutes to read. Want to chat about something you see here? Here is a contact form.

1. News To Know Now

1. Military service branches are banning TikTok because of concerns regarding the company’s Chinese ownership and purported government ties. Nearly all branches have banned the social media app from military-issued devices. Others are requesting that personnel don’t use the service at all. It was less than one year ago that the Army specifically targeted TikTok as a new recruiting source because of its popularity among 16-24 year old Americans.

Smart links
Coverage at The New York Times and Military.com
U.S. Army announcement about increased social media recruiting presence
20 TikTok Statistics Marketers Need To Know at MediaKix

2. Home automation firm Wyze continues to suffer from inaccurate stories about a data breach. An employee left a database unsecured, but there remains no evidence that it was accessed. Financial information was not a part of the database, but the company was riding high after its products were endorsed as a holiday gift compatible with Google Home and Amazon Alexa. Disclosure: I think the Wyze smart light bulb is one of the best home automation products available and yes, my data was exposed too. Update your credentials and you’ll be fine.

Smart links
Wyze announcement about data leak
CNET coverage

3. Kaylen Ward says she is a twenty year old online sex worker. Her announcement that she would send a picture of herself naked to anyone who proved that they donated at least $10 to Australian fire relief generated lots of weekend buzz. She might be juicing the numbers when she claims to have received thousands of messages, but it was big news on multiple social media sites throughout Saturday and got a fresh breath of life Sunday when Instagram reportedly canceled her account. BuzzFeed has the best coverage.

Caveat emptor: There are now fake Kaylen accounts out there because of course there are.

Remember that CBS News article about Australian fire relief options that Spotlight opened with this week? Here is the link again. You’re welcome.

2. Intuit, H & R Block Hid Free Tax Filing Options

Turbo Tax software owner Intuit and preparer H & R Block are the subject of legal and IRS scrutiny after hiding their free tax filing options from consumers. ProPublica has chased this story for months and published multiple scoops about the their work.

At issue is the participation by the companies in Free File, an industry consortium designed to offer free tax filing services to about 70% of Americans. In exchange for this industry group’s consumer outreach, the IRS agreed not to offer tax prep software or e-filing services. The companies used search engine optimization tactics to block search engines from accessing those pages on their websites. They also reportedly used designs that either obfuscated or hid free options from taxpayers who qualified for free filing.

An internal November 2018 IRS report concluded that the agency was not appropriately monitoring the program’s participants. ProPublica published its first expose six months later, accusing the companies of using “deceptive design” and “misleading advertising.” Days later, they published snippets of publicly accessible code showing that the free tax filing options mandated by the IRS were hidden from search results.

Private attorneys and state regulators pounced. There is now a consolidated class action in a San Francisco court as well as actions filed by the City of Los Angeles and several states. The IRS, meanwhile, has announced new free tax filing program requirements that include a prohibition against hiding or cloaking a company’s participation. The IRS has also removed the prohibition against it creating its own e-filing system or tax preparation software.

Federal income tax returns are due in one hundred days.

Smart links
IRS Advisory Council report — November 2018 (PDF)
ProPublica expose — April 2019
Los Angeles announcement — May 2019
IRS announcement — December 2019
ProPublica wrap up article — December 2019

3. Google Search Updates

Google would like you to know that buying a domain from them will not give your website an edge in search engine visibility. Shame on anyone who told you that. even if it seems plausible. 

Google’s Gary Illyes used some poorly-chosen words when he tweeted, “It’s a new year, maybe we can put the voice search optimization fad to sleep finally.” There’s been a lot of industry discussion about this (you can read more at Search Engine Roundtable), but the truth is that the industry still doesn’t know enough about the actual terms and settings in which voice search occurs. Boy, do we have a lot of ideas, but until voice search data is more prevalent, they’re only theories. Don’t buy into the hype even though the day is coming when voice is the primary search channel.

The company also tried clearing up guidance around the way headings are used. As one of our clients remarked after we told him, “So don’t worry about them.”

Which is indeed what Google’s John Mueller effectively said in his webinar last week. But there is a lot of nuance behind Google’s new advice on headings. There is no doubt that they are used by Google to understand the context of the non-heading material. That’s why using appropriate keywords seem to help search rankings so much. 

Search engine optimization is often ridiculously technical (stupidly, ridiculously technical …) and includes scintillating strategies about how a website’s font files are loaded and in what order. But good communication elements such as a clear heading using a keyword can do double duty in creating great content that should be highly visible on search engines.

Why make such a fuss over headings? Because the sentence getting all the attention last week was this: ” … how should I order my H1, H2, H3, headings and what should the content be, that’s something from my point of view isn’t really that relevant.” 

You see, a big and often overlooked part of great search engine optimization is parsing what Mueller meant.

4. Debugged: NO gun confiscation in Virginia

This is not political. This is about facts. 

For two weeks, big conservative sites and meme factories have been publicizing a hoax about Virginia confiscating guns. First, there’s no law even remotely related to that. Second, you probably would have heard about it on the news. Please don’t use memes and social media posts as your news source.

PolitiFact explains the truth at this link

5. Also in the Spotlight: Amazon & UK Health

Lost during the holiday season was news that Amazon and the UK’s National Health Service have signed a contract that will allow Amazon to use NHS data to help provide users with health advice based on symptoms, definitions, and NHS data.

The kicker is that Amazon then can use its experiences to create new products, services, and apps that it will own outright. 

Health spending makes up about 15% of the U.S. economy. Amazon has already disrupted the consumer retail, business computing, and shipping/logistics industries. This is their boldest move in health delivery and won’t be their last.

6. Great Data: Video Numbers to Use

It’s not a stretch to assume that YouTube and Netflix are the biggest online video channels but did you realize that Prime Video is now bigger than Hulu or HBO? Me either. 

57% of Americans now use a streaming service. Check out the infographic.

7. Protip: Stop Google & Amazon from Keeping Recordings of Your Home

Did you get cool gadgets for the holidays? Check in here to learn how you can stop Amazon and Google from keeping the recordings they make of your home.

You can’t always stop them, but you can delete them.

8. Following Up: Invasive Apps at School

We wrote about school monitoring two months ago, describing how K-12 schools use a broad range of technology to monitor kids — not just their work, but bathroom visits and semantic analysis of their messages.

The Washington Post has now published a great piece on how colleges use similar technology based on student phones and beacon technology. 

Colleges gather up to 6,000 data points per student per day.

9. ICYMI — Top links from the past 30 days

You Can Still Get Windows 10 For Free at How-to Geek

Free Netflix & Streaming Content Newsletter at Movie Rewind

Causing a Seizure on Twitter at The Washington Post

10. Coffee Break: Internet Sites 10 Years Ago

Want to see how big sites like CNN or Amazon have changed in the last ten years? The truth is that when a company finds a successful design pattern it can be replicated for years. But when it misses (yes, CNN, you), it really misses.

Check out 10 years ago.

Good Monday morning. It’s December 23rd. Hanukkah started last night, Wednesday is Christmas, and Kwanzaa begins Thursday. 

Today’s Spotlight takes about 5 minutes to read. Want to chat about something you see here? Here’s a contact form exclusively for you.

1. News To Know Now

1. Apple, Amazon, and Google are partnering with technology and furnishings companies to create standard protocols for smart homes. The move will help consumers avoid an Apple-DOS or Betamax-VHS conflict regarding interoperability of smart home devices in the future.

Smart link: Connected Home over IP announcement.

2. Microsoft users reused hacked login credentials 44 million times in 2019. You have to stop reusing passwords. Every data breach that you learn about leads to more login credentials being traded and sold. Most people don’t need to worry about some kid hiding in a bedroom pecking out passwords. You have to worry about sophisticated programs that criminals use to try many passwords at once. Don’t make it easier for them.

3. A Facebook investigation found that a pro-Trump group with ties to China and criminal organizations used doctored identities and profile pictures created automatically by computers. Facebook removed The Epoch Times and eighty groups related to Epoch Group. More than 900 accounts were created in batches a few minutes apart with content focused at U.S. and Vietnamese Facebook users. Even more frightening was the organization’s use of $9 million in advertising to continue spreading disinformation. At the time of its takedown, the network had 55 million followers on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter but the administrative work was automated.

Smart links: Coverage at Wired, The New York Times, and the Graphika report detailing the findings.

2. Location Tracking 

Nearly half of all Americans attempt to control the amount of location data that they provide apps and websites. Yet we also know that less than half of people delete an app when they post their location data. Instad, they attempt to fix the problem some more.

Location tracking is a critical part of the Internet’s cash-free economic model. Nearly every advertising campaign has a geographic component, which can be as encompassing as a country or as narrow as a retail store. The chance of your physical location being tracked while you interact online or have a phone or connected car is excellent.

Americans believe they are constantly being tracked, and they are correct. Game app Pokemon Go was used by 150 million people worldwide and captured location data every five seconds. Use a coffee shop or hotel’s Wi-Fi, and you may have given them permission to match your device’s unique MAC id to your identity. And if you sign on to that company’s app with the same device, your digital visit can be matched to the record of your physical visit creating a rich location tracking record. Google even has the ability to track Android phones by Bluetooth after the user turns off Bluetooth.

An anonymous source gave The New York Times a file with 50 BILLION records from the phones of 12 million Americans over a several month period. The Times analyzed the data and created a stunning interactive feature that was published last week: One Nation, Tracked.

Excerpts from this must-read piece:

  • One search turned up more than a dozen people visiting the Playboy Mansion, some overnight. Without much effort we spotted visitors to the estates of Johnny Depp, Tiger Woods and Arnold Schwarzenegger, connecting the devices’ owners to the residences indefinitely.

  • We spotted a senior official at the Department of Defense walking through the Women’s March, beginning on the National Mall and moving past the Smithsonian National Museum of American History that afternoon. His wife was also on the mall that day, something we discovered after tracking him to his home in Virginia. Her phone was also beaming out location data, along with the phones of several neighbors.

  • The official’s data trail also led to a high school, homes of friends, a visit to Joint Base Andrews, workdays spent in the Pentagon and a ceremony at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall with President Barack Obama in 2017 (nearly a dozen more phones were tracked there, too).

  • In one case, we observed a change in the regular movements of a Microsoft engineer. He made a visit one Tuesday afternoon to the main Seattle campus of a Microsoft competitor, Amazon. The following month, he started a new job at Amazon. It took minutes to identify him as Ben Broili, a manager now for Amazon Prime Air, a drone delivery service.

The Times says that they are as concerned as the source that gave them the data. They will only say that the data source is not a telecom or Big Tech company nor is it a government agency. That doesn’t narrow the field as much as you think because there are literally dozens of data brokers operating in this area. And while everything involved in this data capture and subsequent sale and resale is legal, we agree with the authors that location tracking only remains legal because most consumers don’t fully understand what is available to any business willing to buy the data.

Smart links
Most American Think They’re Constantly Being Tracked at MIT Tech Review
The State of Location Tracking Mobile Apps in 2019 at The Manifest
The Creators of Pokemon Go Mapped the World at Kotaku
Santa isn’t the Only One Tracking You This Holiday Season at Recode
Twelve Million Phones, One Dataset, Zero Privacy at The New York Times

3. Google Search Updates

Bing search results contain an “alarming amount of disinformation” according to a new report authored by Stanford’s Internet Observatory. The report faults Bing for publishing disinformation and misinformation at a much higher rate than Google. In analyzing 600 search results from each, researchers found that Bing reported 125 bad sources while Google reported 13 including anti-Semitic theories, vaccine misinformation, and white supremacist conspiracy theories. The study also found that student essay sites were shown as authoritative sites more often in Bing results than in Google.

Separately, SEO Roundtable published the results of an informal poll showing that only a small percentage of marketing agencies share Bing search performance with clients. You can add us to that group. We have the data, but it’s so small for our clients that we never highlight it.  

4. Debugged: RFK, Jr. Advertising Anti-Vax Information

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. is leading the organizations responsible for more than half of the Facebook advertising that promotes misinformation and conspiracy theories about vaccines. His siblings including a former lieutenant governor and current member of Congress wrote an open letter in May stating that their brother “has helped to spread dangerous misinformation over social media and is complicit in sowing distrust of the science behind vaccines.”

Again, no link between autism and vaccines. Here’s the RFK Jr. info.

5. Also in the Spotlight: Causing a Seizure on Twitter

Writer Kurt Eichenwald suffered a seizure three years ago when someone angered by his tweet about recently-elected Donald Trump sent him a direct message tweet with a flashing pattern and a message. “YOU DESERVE A SEIZURE FOR YOUR POSTS.”

The man who sent the message is expected to plead guilty in a criminal case next month. He knew from Eichenwald’s writings that the writer has epilepsy and wrote others to tell them what he had done in the hopes of harming the writer remotely.

The Washington Post has the full story.

6. Great Data: Tracking the President’s Location

As part of its amazing coverage last week, the Times found a data set that it tracked to a Secret Service agent traveling with the president. The Times then mapped the agent’s movements and compared them to the president’s movements that day. 

The data is mind boggling, and the Times shows the same thing at military bases, nuclear plants, and the C.I.A.

Check it out here.

7. Protip: AVG & Avast Removed by Google

Google took a very public step and removed four Chrome anti-virus extensions using AVG and Avast, which are owned by the same company. A security researcher says that the programs collect more information than necessary or expected. They join Kaspersky as anti-virus programs you don’t want to risk using.

Read more at 9 to 5 Google.

8. Following Up: Influencers & Ring Cameras

We told you the Truth about Influencers at the beginning of this month. Now Instagram has banned advertisers from paying influencers to promote vaping or guns, according to NBC News.

And we told you last week that Ring was blaming user error for security problems related to its popular cameras. Motherboard’s article last Tuesday disputes that notion. It’s headline: We Tested Ring’s Security. It’s Awful.

9. ICYMI — Top links from the past 30 days

Tinder Lets Known Sex Offenders Use The App at ProPublica.

Securing Smart TVs at the FBI’s Portland Oregon office.

The Fried Chicken-Scented Fire Log at KFC.

10. Coffee Break: The Deep Sea

Start scrolling and you’ll immediately see images of a salmon and a manatee. Around 132 meters, you’ll see a snapper and a stingray. Other creatures of the deep await: the wolf eel, gummy shark, and sea angel.

Have fun with this final frontier, Cap’n.

When you’re done, click here for a free Spotlight subscription.