Free Tax Filing Rules Revised

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.

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