Good Monday morning. It’s September 28th. Yom Kippur began last night at sundown and ends today at sundown.

Today’s Spotlight is 1,280 words — about a 4 1/2 minute read.

1. News to Know Now

a. A picture cropping algorithm used by Twitter and Zoom may be removing the faces of black people. aaSimilar racial bias has been detected for years in algorithms used by other large companies including IBM, Amazon, and Facebook. (NBC News)

b. Amazon Sidewalk’s reintroduction last week may have found the right time for its close-up. The company plans to use its Echo and Ring devices to extend the distance of a network signal to an area surrounding your home so that your smart home devices work outside.

It’s great to get an alert your dog left the yard, but those devices could also send data to Amazon like the frequency, duration, destination and path of your dog walk,” says Forester analyst Jeff Pollard. (CNET)

c. Password manager 1Password rolled out a new function to create a single use virtual credit card for online purchases. This video shows how it works.

2. COVID-19 Online Resources and News

Great Trackers
COVID Tracking Project
Johns Hopkins Dashboard or Animations
COVID-19 Forecast Hub
Google County Level Mobility Reports
Long-Term Care COVID Tracker

COVID-19 Tech News
How to Track COVID-19 Trends on Google Maps — Lifehacker
Instagram’s Founders Explain Their Covid-Charting Obsession — Wired
Mayo launches nationwide COVID-19 predictions — Duluth News Tribune
What if All COVID-19 Deaths Happened in Your Neighborhood — Wash. Post

3. Search Engine Optimization News

Search engines often rely on a hidden sentence or two to help them understand a web page’s content. Called the meta description, you’re used to seeing it repurposed as the descriptive portion of a search engine snippet. Writing excellent descriptions that meet search engine needs and that generate clicks from searchers is an art. 

Now the smart folks at the Portent agency have released a study called “How Often Google Ignores Our Meta Descriptions” and the answer is about 70% of the time. The data is relatively consistent among devices, but shows an interesting uptick when a page’s snippet is displayed at the fourth result or lower.

Unlike many things, search is a zero-sum game that has at most only one winner per search. But we all need to understand that Google’s algorithms are rewriting the meta description to challenge the top three results. When we explain to business people that search engine optimization isn’t static, this is the kind of behavior that we mean. Not only are the people involved with websites targeting the top results, but Google will use lower ranked sites as a stalking horse to continue to push click through rates higher.

That’s not a bad thing for searchers or for Google because higher click rates mean higher satisfaction if all other things are equal. But if it’s your marketing budget, you need to understand that you’ll need ongoing SEO efforts to remain competitive.

You can see the data here.

4. Also in the Spotlight — Insured Resilience

Environmentalist and philanthropist Chandran Nair wrote this week about insured resilience for the World Economic Forum. Nair warns that society must develop the ability to withstand and recover from the shocks of overexploitation, consumption-led capitalism, biodiversity losses, and climate change. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is showing us that insured resilience, not technology, is what will allow society to prioritize important issues like climate change and social equality as it resets after extreme weather, pandemic, and economic catastrophes.

Technology organizations are trying to help, but aren’t the answer as they address only symptoms and their presence is sometimes complicating. Earlier this year, Facebook inadvertently wiped out an entire language spoken by two percent of the population in Myanmar who are already in a battle over what observers believe is ethnic cleansing.

MIT Technology Review reports that only three U.S. companies crawl the entire web: Google, Microsoft, and Diffbot. The latter company provides commercial-level knowledge graphs, those boxes of information seen on the right side of search result pages. Financial issues are a significant reason for the limited number of companies, but that means that the information can be potentially limited. 

The pandemic shows that we need to reset our priorities toward better serving the global majority with limited access to basic needs, and doing that by respecting limits,” Nair wrote Friday. 

And while many of us are blessed with technological solutions to weather part of the pandemic, the Benton Institution reported this week that the digital divide is extreme in many areas of the United States. 

One in four K-12 households in California do not have a computer and high-speed Internet connection. The same is true throughout rural and urban settings, representing tens of thousands of students in Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia, as well as 99% of students in one rural Alabama county, and 30% in rural Virginia.

Heeding Nair’s advice, one might ask what else those U.S. homes are lacking and how to create insured resilience.

Smartlinks

Closing the Digital Divide — Benton Institute
Facebook Accidentally Blacked Out A Language — The Verge
Know-it-All AI Reads the Web Nonstop — MIT Tech
Why Resilience is the Answer — World Economic Forum

5. Following Up: GPT-3 & Google Political Ads

We’ve written a lot about Open AI’s GPT-3 program and its ability to beat previous benchmarks. Microsoft announced last Tuesday that it has exclusively licensed GPT-3 for its own AI applications. 

“Directly aiding human creativity and ingenuity in areas like writing and composition, describing and summarizing large blocks of long-form data (including code), converting natural language to another language — the possibilities are limited only by the ideas and scenarios that we bring to the table,” said Microsoft CTO Kevin Scott in a statement.

We’ve also told you a lot about political advertising during this election cycle and the criticism leveled at Google for not banning political ads. Google will now block election ads following Election Day, Axios scooped Friday. The move will hopefully limit some of the misinformation and disinformation regarding election results that experts expect to be circulating in early November.

6. Debugging: 2020 Ballots Were Not Discarded

The Sonoma County (CA) government had to take to social media to combat a rumor spread online and amplified this weekend by President Donald Trump that ballots were thrown away. Here is their post.

7. ProTip: Virtual Backgrounds on Android Zoom

No more house background envy. Here’s how to enable virtual backgrounds on Android phones. 

Only Android and make sure your app is updated.

8. Spotlighters Ask:  More Zoom

Remember: press reply and email a question about integrating the online world into your life. We research and answer them all. We also publish one each week, but you’ll get an answer first.

Can you call in on a phone using Zoom and watch on a PC?

You can absolutely use phone audio and another device’s video.  Here are links showing you how to do that using ZoomWebex, and Blue Jeans

Screening Room: Skywalker Meets Picard

It’s the commercial geeks didn’t even know that they wanted or erroneously called Kirk vs. Picard. They wanted Luke and Jean-Luc all along.

10. Coffee Break: Geo Guessr

This fun web game dumps you somewhere in the world on Google Maps. Your job is to figure out where using Google Street View. Setting up a free account lets you play the timed Daily Challenge for points and try your hand at Country Streak.

One hint only: go find commercial areas and search for clues on signage.

Here are three ways that we can help you:

1. Get a free SEO audit on our website.

2.  Have a simple, fact-based question about digital marketing? Reply & ask George for free.

3. If your organization needs help with search, social media, or advertising, have a look at what we do.

Good Monday morning. It’s September 21st. Tuesday is National Voter Registration Day. Our friends at Clean Air Moms Action have a great resource for voting and volunteering this year.

Today’s Spotlight is 1,418 words — about a 5 minute read. 

1. News to Know Now

a.  Citing a lawsuit regarding First Amendment concerns, a judge has temporarily blocked an order that would have prevented new downloads of the app We Chat. Meanwhile President Trump told reporters Saturday that a business deal between TikTok owner Byte Dance, Oracle Corp., and Walmart “has his blessing” although it was not immediately clear which clause in the Constitution describes the process for an executive branch blessing by the president.

b. Political activity online continues to highlight a sharply divided electorate. This week privately held outdoor retailer Patagonia acknowledged that the tag on the company’s shorts has the phrase “Vote the Assholes Out” stitched on the reverse side. Meanwhile Twitter, often criticized for allowing President Trump to violate the company’s online standards, removed a tweet by Kanye West that provided an editor’s phone number and asked his followers to call “a white supremacist”. Facebook joined Twitter in suspending and removing accounts made by teenagers who were paid by Turning Point Action to amplify conservative political messages.

c.  California has enacted the Genetic Privacy Information Act following a similar law passed last year by Florida. The law requires consumer DNA testing companies like 23 and Me and Ancestry to receive a consumer’s permission before disclosing DNA information to third parties including insurance companies and law enforcement agencies.

2. COVID-19 Online Resources and News

Great Trackers
Covid Tracking Project — useful for its annotations
Johns Hopkins Dashboard or Animations — the gold standard
COVID-19 Forecast Hub — Collects multiple models
Google Mobility Reports — county level info on people locations
Long-Term Care COVID Tracker

COVID-19 Tech News
5 Things COVID-19 Experts Get Wrong About Stats – The Next Web
Hologram Teaching Tech Launching in Response To COVID – CBS 21 DFW
In South Korea, COVID-19 Comes With Online Bullies Risk – NY Times
Internet Search Results Predict Hotspots Weeks Later – Science Alert
Lack of Internet Access Has Become Critical For Students – MSN
Senior Living Tech Spending Skyrockets Amid COVID-19 – Senior Housing
Smart Thermometer Company Kinsa Predicts Local Surge – Springfield News

3. Search Engine Optimization News

Those domain names that seem awfully explicit and chock-full of keywords are called exact-match domains. Google says they’re unnecessary for success. Google exec John Mueller offered that guidance during a recent Ask Google Webmasters video. That’s consistent with years of Google messaging and directly contradicts some SEO software and studies that suggest otherwise. 

Google is also continuing to roll out its green checkmark to local businesses in home service categories. Those badges are earned in the Google Guaranteed and Google Screened programs. The latter program is available for attorneys, financial planners, real estate agents, and tax specialists. Search Engine Land’s Justin Sanger has nice coverage here.

Google My Business listings, a mainstay of the home services and professional industry, now offers video conferencing integration via Google Meet, Webex, Skype, and Zoom. There are details at Search Engine Roundtable.

4. Also in the Spotlight — Amazon Grocery

The quaint days when Amazon purchased Whole Foods and threatened to disrupt food retail are over. It’s done. Amazon is an important component of e-commerce infrastructure and is even labeling its own private food products across ten different brands including Wag for pets, Happy Belly and Wickedly Prime for snacks, and Mama Bear for child products. 

Last week, the company opened its first Amazon Fresh grocery store in Los Angeles’ Woodland Hills neighborhood. The latest store opening incorporates elements of the company’s automated Go stores, Whole Foods’ focus on experience and quality, and the company’s Dash Carts and ubiquitous Alexa assistant.

Amazon also has a separate delivery service also called Amazon Fresh that directly competes with other online grocers such as Walmart, Target, and Peapod. Its Amazon Prime Now service still offers grocery delivery in some areas within one hour for an $8 fee or fee-free in two hours. 

Amazon’s grocery retail empire spreads through North America, Europe, and Asia. There are nearly 30 Amazon Go stores with pre-pandemic planning calling for 3,000 stores by 2021. Amazon Go is also testing a larger footprint location, this time in Redmond, Washington, home to Microsoft’s global headquarters. There are still 500 Whole Food Markets serving upscale areas. Online shoppers can also simultaneously shop at Amazon Prime and Whole Foods at the company’s separate Amazon Prime Now website and app.

The explosion into grocery from 2017’s purchase of Whole Foods mirrors Jeff Bezos’ “Get Big Fast” mantra. Now under pressure from Walmart Plus, Amazon announced last week that it will open 1,000 small delivery hubs throughout the U.S. A rumored takeover of sites housing J.C. Penney and other bankrupt department store chains appears to be on hold because they are frequently on multiple levels and would need extensive remodeling to be delivery hubs.

The company is growing big fast in yet another sector by disrupting an established industry with technology. That strategy worked more than twenty-five years ago when Bezos launched “Earth’s Biggest Bookstore” and shows no signs of abating now. The video below shows how Amazon sees its blending of technology in a familiar yet different supermarket setting.

What’s next? Amazon and Walmart are racing to see who can scale up drone delivery. Both have real world testing going on, including Walmart delivering groceries via drone in Fayetteville, NC, home of Fort Bragg. 

Smartlinks

Amazon Fresh Grocery Store Opens — Retail Wire
Amazon Fresh Now Open to Everyone — Amazon.com
Amazon Opens First Cashierless Grocery Store — TechCrunch
Amazon Opens New Go Grocery in Microsoft’s Neighborhood — Geek Wire
Amazon Plans to Open 1,000 Warehouses — Bloomberg
Private Label Retailer of the Year — Grocery Dive
Walmart Now Piloting On-Demand Drone Delivery — Walmart

5. Following Up: Criminal Databases

We wrote extensively last week about the pitfalls in current law enforcement technology. Slate has an excellent followup for you to consider about racial and other disparities found in criminal databases. 

The NYPD’s gang database is 99% Black and Latinx.

6. Debugging: Spot the Troll Quiz

This is a great quiz put together from real social media content assembled at Clemson’s Media Forensics Hub. Your job is to guess whether the poster was a legitimate account or from a troll farm.

Most industry folks seem to get 5 or 6 correct.  Can you do better?

7. ProTip: How to Automate Transcription

Note taking is so old school. The nice Lifehacker folks have posted a primer on how to use Google Docs or Microsoft Word to transcribe your next meeting.

Google’s version is free to boot!

8. Spotlighters Ask:  Wikibuy

Remember: press reply and email a question about integrating the online world into your life. We research and answer them all. We also publish one each week.

Do you use Wikibuy? I was wondering if it’s legit?

I don’t use the service, but it’s legit in that it is not two Romanian guys in a warehouse somewhere who are trying to get your information. Capital One bought them a couple of years ago. There is a similar browser extension called Honey that is owned by Paypal. 

The strategy for Cap One and Paypal is to insert themselves into the ecommerce process. Services like these can save you money, but the savings may not be huge, and you may not have an account with the company offering the cheaper price. And don’t forget that you’re likely sharing your data with the service provider too.

Screening Room: Panera Meets Bolton

Singer and Panera Enthusiast Michael Bolton revises an old classic to sing about Panera merging its Broccoli Cheddar Soup with its Macaroni & Cheese. It’s a familiar shtick that hasn’t grown old yet.

10. Coffee Break: Sandwich Optimization

“I set out to work on something completely meaningless,” wrote data scientist Ethan Rosenthal who created an algorithm to optimize the placement of banana slices on the PB & Banana sandwiches his grandfather introduced to him. Take a picture of your ingredients and the algo does the same for you.

He succeeded in meaningless AND optimization.

Good Monday morning. It’s September 14th. Rosh Hashana begins at sundown local time on Friday and ends Sunday. Yom Kippur begins the following Sunday.

Spotlight has a new feature called “Spotlighters Ask” that you’ll find below. We always get questions about the internet, technology, and how businesses and nonprofits can thrive in this environment. We’ll share your smart questions and the answers with all Spotlight readers. You can ask a question at any time by replying to this email. You’ll get an answer like always and you may see your question in a future issue, but we’ll never share your name.

Today’s Spotlight is 1,946 words — about a 7 minute read. We were off last week. We’ll be back to five minute reads next week.

Breaking Sunday night: Oracle Corp. will become TikTok’s “technology partner” according to The Wall Street Journal. We expect more clarity from Byte Dance and Oracle on Monday. The transaction was announced one hour after Microsoft’s bid was rejected.

1. News to Know Now

a.  Facebook removed the pages of far-right group Patriot Prayer. Despite its name the group has been linked to The Proud Boys, a hate group. At least two members of Patriot Prayer threatened people in Portland including Mayor Ted Wheeler. Facebook also announced that it removed U.S., Russia, and Pakistan based networks of pages targeting people outside their respective  countries, including a Russian disinformation campaign against the U.S.

b. President Trump also posted disinformation Friday on Twitter that the network labeled as “specifically encouraging people to vote twice.” The North Carolina Board of Elections specifically asked voters not to follow the president’s recommendations because doing so could result in a felony charge. Voting twice is illegal in all states and is a felony in twenty-eight.

Earlier in the week the president complained on Twitter that a private user with 266 followers had posted an image of the satirical “Moscow Mitch” image showing the head of Senate Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) poorly edited into a Russian soldier’s overcoat.  The contrast is important because the president and his advisors have posted manipulated videos of political opponents allegedly saying things that they didn’t or inaccurately portraying them as asleep or intoxicated. 

c.  Amazon Alexa has some nifty new commands including “Call for help” and allowing you to pay for gas by voice at Exxon and Mobil gas stations. Alexa can also now print by voice, and Lifehacker shows you how to set that up.

2. COVID-19 Online Resources and News

Great Trackers
Covid Tracking Project — useful for its annotations
Johns Hopkins Dashboard or Animations — the gold standard
COVID-19 Forecast Hub — Collects multiple models
Google Mobility Reports — county level info on people locations

NEW: Long-Term Care COVID Tracker

COVID-19 Tech News
Amazon customers face price gouging — CBS News
Google and Apple change tactics on contact tracing tech — Wired
Googling for gut symptoms predicts Covid hot spots — Bloomberg
Schools are buying surveillance to fight COVID-19 — The Markup
These states have the biggest decreases in internet speed — PC Mag

3. Search Engine Optimization News

The impending election is causing Google to act on privacy in much the same way as Facebook. They recently announced that they will not share with advertisers some of the words that trigger the ads they paid for. Microsoft search and advertising executive Christi Olson called the move “ludicrous” according to Search Engine Journal. I added a word in front of the word ‘ludicrous’ and am reliably informed by my wife that the word I chose should not be yelled with the windows open. That may be so, but it was the correct word.

Background: Advertisers can access a “search query report” that has many uses. Among the things we do with it is show our clients the actual words and spellings that customers use to find them. And once upon a time, Google reported on any query that resulted in a click to a website, not just the advertising clicks. It’s been nearly ten years since Google did that, and I’m still complaining. 

A big problem: the data is used to refine the advertising, to make it more efficient, less expensive, and not just for intelligence gathering. 

Google also announced that its autocomplete function will not include candidate names, political parties, or voting terms. You can still search for all of those terms, but Google will no longer use predictive text to guess what you’re searching for. The company did something similar with COVID-19 and acknowledged in an interview with Ad Week that it was too restrictive when it originally blocked ads from appearing next to terms related to the novel coronavirus. 

Google will also allow all organizations to update their Google My Business listings with health and safety attributes such as “masks required” or “temperature check required.” See Search Engine Roundtable for details

4. Also in the Spotlight — Law Enforcement Technology

Last summer we told you how the military and police were using technology including facial recognition, advanced databases, social media, and even consumer cameras like Amazon Ring. This law enforcement technology update covers newer concepts in vogue like geofencing and predictive analytics.

Portland, Oregon, made news again last week for banning the use of facial recognition in city agencies and privately owned businesses including stores, banks, restaurants, and even transit stations. The legislation also grants consumers the right to sue for damages. The legislation took effect immediately, and city officials reported that local police are not using facial recognition or biometrics. 

This ban occurs after San Francisco’s ban just over one year ago. Oakland and Boston have also banned use of this law enforcement technology. 

Police are also relying on geofence warrants that compel a company like Google or Apple to provide the identity of anyone who was at a specific location during a specific time. But in the same way that a red light camera only detects a vehicle breaking a law, a geofence warrant only identifies that a phone or other mobile device was present.

Arizona resident Jorge Molina was arrested for murder and told by a detective “we knew, one hundred percent, without a doubt that [your] phone was at the shooting scene.” Unfortunately for Molina, an old phone of his that he had lent to someone was at the scene. Police reportedly ignored that Molina’s location was reported on two devices in different locations and that the car registered in his name had multiple drivers. Molina spent six days in jail, was fired from his job,  and even lost his car.

Law enforcement technology also contributed to the arrest of Robert Julian-Borchak Williams in Michigan. Williams was handcuffed in front of his wife and children eight months ago. Detectives investigating $3,800 in shoplifted watches from a boutique wrongly identified Williams using a facial recognition algorithm. Williams’ arrest followed a similar arrest by Detroit police of Michael Oliver for felony larceny. Four months later, Oliver was finally exonerated. 

An even more egregious use of law enforcement technology is currently being used by the Pasco County (FL) Sheriff. A Tampa Bay Times expose reported that residents in the 1.2 million person county are subject to interrogation from a “predictive algorithm” that identifies them as “likely to break the law.” You win a prize if you think that sounds exactly like the plot of Tom Cruise’s 2002 science fiction thriller “Minority Report,” but it’s really happening in this county north of Tampa.

At least ten percent of those identified by the algorithm are children. One fifteen year old was arrested for sneaking into carports with a friend and stealing mopeds. Already under the supervision of a juvenile probation officer, deputies went to his home at least twenty-one times in a five month period to question him and his family. They also visited his mother at work, went to a friend’s house, and checked his gym.

Californians will vote on Proposition 25 this November. Its passage would require judges to use a similar system to Pasco County’s when deciding whether to grant noncash bail. One study estimates that one-third of jurisdictions already use these types of predictive systems in pretrial environments.

Law Enforcement Technology Smartlinks

Avondale man sues after Google data leads to arrest — Phoenix New Times
Calif. bill would mandate crime prediction algorithms — Motherboard
Creepy geofence finds anyone near a crime scene — Wired
Facial recognition software tallies second wrongful arrest — State Scoop
Google geofence warrants face a major legal challenge — One Zero
More cities saying no to facial recognition — CNN
Portland passes groundbreaking ban on facial recognition — One Zero
Targeted — The Tampa Bay Times
Wrongfully accused by an algorithm — The New York Times

5. Following Up: GPT-3 AI & Walmart’s Prime

We told you in mid-August about GPT-3, the Open AI algorithm that uses machine learning to process language in ways that weren’t commercially available before. Now you can read some of GPT-3’s longer prose in The Guardian’s op-ed “A robot wrote this entire article. Are you scared yet, human?”

And we told you in the same issue that Walmart had delayed its Amazon Prime competitor. That changes tomorrow with the launch of Walmart+, a $98 annual service that gives users a 5 cent per gallon fuel discount, an app to allow them to check out of Walmart stores without going through a cashier, and provides free delivery for online orders of at least $35. Get details at Yahoo Finance.

6. Debugging: Victoria’s Secret & Bra Tracking

A silly TikTok video claimed that ordinary RFID tags found in bras sold at Victoria’s Secret were used to track people. Faster than you could say, “Oh, you goofballs …” it quickly morphed into more than one dozen YouTube videos that refer to the theft deterrent devices as “sex trafficking tags.”

I just think that more people need better hobbies. Go read the rest at Fast Company.

7. ProTip: How to Check for Stalkerware

Assuming your bra is clear of sex trafficking tags, you still want to lock down your privacy from stalkerware. This fantastic Wired article explains how to secure your phone, PC, and online accounts.

8. Spotlighters Ask: Facebook Political Study

I got an invitation to be involved in a Facebook political study. My friend got one too and has an offer to go offline for compensation. Is this really legit?

Yes, it really is legit

Researchers from UT Austin and NYU are working with Facebook and have tabbed researchers at 15 other schools for “rigorous peer-reviewed research” about how social media generally and Facebook specifically affects democracy and voting. The other schools include Stanford, Princeton, UNC, and George Washington.

Facebook is allowed to have transparency into the data and findings, but has no editorial control. The program is under the auspices of former UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg who was hired in late 2018 as Facebook’s Vice President of Global Affairs.

Clegg’s announcement of the initiative is here.

8. Spotlighters Ask: Facebook Political Study

I got an invitation to be involved in a Facebook political study. My friend got one too and has an offer to go offline for compensation. Is this really legit?

Yes, it really is legit

Researchers from UT Austin and NYU are working with Facebook and have tabbed researchers at 15 other schools for “rigorous peer-reviewed research” about how social media generally and Facebook specifically affects democracy and voting. The other schools include Stanford, Princeton, UNC, and George Washington.

Facebook is allowed to have transparency into the data and findings, but has no editorial control. The program is under the auspices of former UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who was hired in late 2018 as Facebook’s Vice President of Global Affairs.

Clegg’s announcement of the initiative is here.

Screening Room: Ikea

Ikea’s GUNRID air purifying curtains are made from recycled plastic bottles. Here’s a whimsical look at their potential journey from a spot that just launched in Asia.

10. Coffee Break: Blade Runner in SF

Every creative person on the west coast is taking photos and videos of the weird colors caused by wildfires. After one person posted drone footage of San Francisco, another creative type overlaid music from Blade Runner 2049 because that’s our world now.

Here are three ways that we can help you:

1. Get a free SEO audit on our website.

2.  Have a simple, fact-based question about digital marketing? Reply & ask George for free.

3. If your organization needs help with search, social media, or advertising, have a look at what we do.