Good Monday morning. It’s December 2nd. The UN’s Convention on Climate Change begins today in Madrid. Visit Moms Clean Air Force’s state directory pages to learn about ways you can help restore Earth’s equilibrium.  We’ve been proud to work with them for more than eight years.

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

1. News To Know Now

1. NYC tells FedEx to get their delivery robots ‘off our streets’ reads the New York Post’s headline. The article has video of the Roxos bot in SoHo. Apparently it can’t be on the sidewalk and it’s not street legal. But FedEx says it has “stair-climbing wheels” which suggests to me that our robot overlords will not be deterred if we hide in the guest room. Completely unrelated but interesting is news that Walmart’s Jet subsidiary is halting grocery delivery in New York City. Maybe the FedEx bots were blocking the streets.

2. Threatpost reports that more than 100,000 scam domains have names that look like trusted retail names and have registered https certificates in those fraudulent names. Please make sure that you are using the correct website this holiday season.

3. Ransomware incidents are also increasing, reports Bleeding Computer citing a confidential report in the Netherlands. Three types of ransomware have infected 1,800 businesses, including a New Mexico school district and a cloud computer company servicing 110 nursing homes. This is an issue that sounds far-fetched until it happens to your organization.

2. The Truth About Influencers

Marketers have long used celebrities in advertising, but lately seem to have conflated celebrity with notoriety. The idea of being famous for being famous isn’t new but monetizing that noteworthiness for advertising has brought society to the profession of social media influencer. 

There are social media celebrities with millions of subscribers following their video or other channels. This is about the next level down, the people who have tens of thousands of likes, followers, or other vanity metrics and relatively few subscribers. Influencers use the platform’s notoriety, especially Instagram, Snapchat, or Twitter, to blast their followers with a commercial.

The engagement metrics for the messages they promote are poor. Learning that a brand scrapped its influencer program after failing to achieve its goals is now common. And the sad truth is that most influencers sell their promotions using the same vanity metrics of impressions and followers that by themselves create no profit.

Those vanity metrics are also often inflated, making them even more suspect. Data from Google’s Avinash Kaushik tells a cautionary tale of average prices ranging from $200 to $4,000 for a single Instagram post from “micro influencers” who have 10,000 to 50,000 followers. Avinash also discloses rates for fake Instagram followers that are only $16 per thousand.

Paying a higher $50 rate will get you bots that share and amplify your messages. This combination of inflated follower counts and declining engagement combine to make influencer campaigns problematic for any advertising efforts.

Disclosure is also a problem. The FTC has chased this issue for more than a decade and continues posting rules for compliance that extend to anyone promoting a product or service online. The FTC has also made selling likes and similar engagement illegal although its quiet on how it plans to enforce those rules. 

Brand managers claim that there’s too much money in digital advertising for big brands to do anything more than accept losses on low quality influencers to ensure that they don’t miss out on the next trend. That’s passionate consumer thinking, not data-driven analysis, and a big part of the problem. 

Instagram is luring real celebrities instead of influencers by offsetting video production costs of up to $250,000 for multiple posts by a celebrity. Bloomberg found and confirmed the presence of these contracts. The IGTV deal requires that stars do not post about politics, elections, or social issues.

Our take remains as simple and unchanged from when George first placed an online ad in the pre-Google days: be diligent in tracking all the data and only continue advertising that is proven profitable. We’ve gone into large and small organizations where the first way we’ve provided value is to show that current ads are costing more than they’re bringing in.  And if you’ve hired influencers already then be extra-diligent about breaking out all their costs and assigning revenue to them.

3. Google Search Updates

  • Google now allows its My Business service customers to provide custom lists of what they offer customers. For example, a plumber can specify what appliances they work on or an exterminator can specify if they exterminate rodents. Search Engine Journal has more.
  • Google is also testing a small blue arrow icon next to titles in search results. As those search results begin including more maps, videos, and other content, the user interface will undoubtedly be changed often. Search Engine Roundtable has screenshots.

4. Debugged: Bride Keeping Donated Wedding Costs Isn’t Real

The alleged bride wrote that after reflection and tear-filled conversations with close family members, she has decided to cancel her wedding. The good news is that the $30,000 donated for the ceremony won’t be spent in vain but used for a honeymoon-ish trip in the future.

Yeah, not really though. 

It was a ruse designed to build traffic to a website.

5. Also in the Spotlight: Sacha Baron Cohen

The comedian behind Borat, Ali G, and Who is America made headlines for castigating Facebook and other online platforms in a speech at the Anti-Defamation League in New York on November 20. 

Cambridge-educated Sacha Baron-Cohen spoke after being presented with the ADL’s international leadership award. He described Facebook as “the greatest propaganda machine in history,” said that the company would have allowed Hitler to run propaganda, and quoted a headline, “Just Think What Goebbels Could Have Done with Facebook.”

The speech is thoughtful, passionate, and a withering criticism of Facebook, YouTube, Google, and Twitter.

Read the remarks or watch the video here.

6. Great Data: Social Media Use by Generation and Location

Now that you’ve read or watched Cohen’s rebuke, let’s set the context with this data-packed infographic showing how social media influences society using brand discovery, product research, and yes, influencer marketing. I learn something more every time I look at this. Consider: 73% of Boomers used Facebook in the last month, but only 28% of them used Instagram. That makes my head hurt.

Visualizing Social Media Use

7. Protip: Your Tattletale Web Browser

When you realize how much information your web browser shares with the world, you will never again wonder how multibillion dollar ad companies posing as tech companies know everything about you. Go ahead and click. It’s safe, and you should know these things.

Signed into Spotify? I don’t even use Spotify any more!

8. Bizarre Bazaar (strange stuff for sale online)

With snow on the ground in much of the country, this is the perfect time to tell you about Animal Tracks, the sandals that make animal prints in snow, sand, or dirt. 

The T-Rex might be pushing it, but see what happens with the wolf.

9. ICYMI – Top links from the past 30 days

100,000 Stars – an awesome visualization

Animated charts showing best selling musicians – on Youtube

Record calls with your smartphone – at Wired

10. Coffee Break:  Street View Fun

There really is a website for everything. This one features the greatest images caught by those Google cars that traverse every road adding to the company’s street view feature in Google Maps. 

Check out the daily photo, the best month, or the top 100 of all time.

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

Good Monday morning. It’s November 25th. I am thankful for you, the people who read this, and thrilled to be a part of your Monday mornings. Please always write or comment when the mood strikes.

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

1. News To Know Now

1. Sir Tim Berners-Lee published an op-ed touting his Contract for the Web project. As Sir Tim says when he needs attention, he invented the web, and this is his proposal to fix it. The Contract is endorsed by 80 signatories and has a key group of 10 stakeholders (think the UN Security Council) including France, Germany, Microsoft, Wikimedia, and Google. Read the NYT op-ed or see the Contract.

2. Loon provides internet connectivity by flying balloons in the stratosphere over an area. Loon signed a deal last week to provide connectivity to remote areas of the Amazon in Peru. The company is owned by Google parent Alphabet and previously provided connectivity to earthquake-ravaged areas in Peru. Read the Mashable story or see the website.

3. Google followed Twitter (yes, I know) into the bumpy world of political advertising. Here’s a quick guide:

  • No politicians may advertise: Twitter, TikTok, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Twitch
  • Some restrictions: Google (targeting), Snapchat (fact checked), Reddit (federal only)
  • No restrictions as of today: Facebook

2. Facial Recognition Technology Has An Ugly Side

Experts worry that privacy degrades as pervasive technology monitors our ongoing vital signs, measures how fast we are traveling, tracks our location, and uses biometric measures such as fingerprints and face scans to unlock our devices.

Privacy concerns notwithstanding, facial recognition technology has significant societal problems including tensions with data aggregators and algorithmic biases that favor wealthier, whiter populations. Even the technology used in consumer products has notoriously lower reliability in recognizing people with dark skin.

Technologists asked to fix such a problem sometimes do dumb things as ZDNet found this summer when Google stopped people in malls like a survey taker and offered $5 Starbucks or Amazon gift cards in order to have a person spend five minutes with a phone analyzing their face. 

Yes, there was a waiver. No, it’s doubtful many (any?) read it.

Google is not the sole source of problems. Great reporting by the NY Times found that 700,000 images consumers uploaded to Flickr were part of the MegaFace database of millions. The database began at the University of Washington as a test to see how facial recognition algorithms were progressing. More than three hundred research groups downloaded the project. Most were legit. But others were used to monitor sensitive populations in China or identify subway passengers in Russia.

You’re thinking about your old Flickr account now, aren’t you?

The ACLU is suing the FBI, Justice Department, and DEA to learn how the federal government is using facial recognition technology. You can drop in on a podcast with Arielle Duhaime-Ross at Recode that digs deeper into the issue. 

Why would we write about this again after an overview earlier this year? We’ve told you a lot in the past about Amazon’s Ring video cameras on millions of front doors. The AP reported this week that Amazon is considering installing facial recognition software on Ring which means that any person, even those passing by on a public street, can be identified and their images stored in a database. And in the ‘hold my beer’ department, Facebook acknowledged that it had tested internal facial recognition technology for employees in 2016. Employees were allowed to use it on Facebook to identify themselves and the Facebook friends of employees. 

3. Google Search Updates

  • Google may alert Chrome browser users about slow loading websites in an update due after the new year.
  • You’ve undoubtedly seen many websites trying to get more Google traffic by posting mini videos demonstrating a word’s pronunciation. In its endless quest to keep search traffic on its own website, Google will now demonstrate pronunciations directly in the search results. They’ll even slow down the audio if you’re having trouble and toggle between American and British pronunciations.

    Search this way: how do you pronounce [word]? Some seasonal words to try: charcuterie, cornucopia, yams.

  • You’ll also see some titles in your search results that appear truncated or missing words with the name of the business area replacing them. Search Engine Land found that was part of a Google plan to surface more relevant local information in search results. For now there is no way to opt in or opt out. Here’s an example:

4. Debugged: Facebook does not write off donations

You’ve seen Facebook fundraisers for groups fighting for everything from world hunger to climate change. And if you or any of your friends have entered your birthday information on Facebook, you’ve seen many fundraisers.

A viral meme wrongly suggests that Facebook claims the deductions themselves, uses the amount to offset their taxes, and keeps up to 85% of the donated funds.

All of that is wrong. Facebook doesn’t even charge credit card processing fees for birthday fundraisers.

Snopes has more details.

5. Also in the Spotlight: Cosmic Crisp Apples

Americans consume more than 17 pounds of apples each year. While you weren’t looking the Red Delicious and Granny Smith varieties saw their market share plummet. Combined the two varieties now make up less than 20% of apples consumed by Americans.  

About a quarter of the apples we consume now are Honeycrisp, but retailers complain that they’re hard to ship and keep unblemished. Coming this week (probably, but post-Thanksgiving) is the Cosmic Crisp apple created at Washington State University.

The new apple variety is getting buzz that most fruits don’t get thanks to a $10 million advertising campaign. Honeycrisp made its patent holder, the University of Minnesota, millions since its introduction in 1991. Cosmic Crisp with full retail prices in its future and a big ad campaign at launch time should be worth more. 

You’ll sound so smart when the commercials start. Read more at Eater.

6. Great Data: Physicians and Pharma Money

There are plenty of good reasons and training opportunities for physicians to accept pharma money. There are also abuses as detailed by ProPublica’s update of its landmark “Dollars for Doctors” database. More than 2,500 physicians have received at least half a million dollars apiece from drugmakers and medical device companies in the last five years alone. Those payments do not include research or royalties.

Get the data here. And talk with your doctor if you have concerns.

7. Protip: How to record Calls on your smartphone

Do you have the nice tradition in your world where people gather for a holiday and call others who couldn’t be there? Why not record the call and send it to others who couldn’t be on the phone? First responders and service members come to mind. I’m sure that you have other examples.

Make sure you tell everyone that you’re recording.

8. Bizarre Bazaar (strange stuff for sale online)

Do you like mushroom stuffing? Well, this idea is too late for Thanksgiving, but you can enjoy fresh mushrooms for future holidays with your very own “Mushroom Growing Kit”, and who knew that was a thing?

The mushrooms are advertised as edible.

9. ICYMI — Top links from the past 30 days

Gross Domestic Product — Banksy’s online shop

Free Google Digital Wellbeing Apps — proud of y’all for downloading

Blood Pressure Selfie Software Doesn’t Work on Dark Skin — at Quartz

10. Coffee Break: 10,000 Stars

Stunning visuals. Please do yourself a favor and take the short guided tour shown on the home screen. 

My favorite time-waster last week.

Hey, we know you love us too since you’re down here at the bottom of the newsletter about facial recognition technology. Would you do us a favor and forward this to someone who you think will enjoy Spotlight like you do? Tell them they can sign up for free by clicking the silver button below.

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Good Monday morning. It’s November 18th. Our Roaring Twenties start in 44 days. And somehow that means that 1980 will be forty years in the past. Wow.

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

1. News To Know Now

1. Twitter’s political advertising ban takes effect Friday. New rules announced last Friday will allow advocacy organizations to advertise messages about issues like climate change or gun violence prevention, but no candidates or elections may be referenced. All political officials, candidates, PACs, and 501(c) (4) organizations are prohibited from advertising. The official rules

2. Microsoft will honor the California Consumer Privacy Act throughout the U.S., the company announced last week. The new law takes effect on January 1 and addresses organizations with $25 million in revenues or personal information records for 50,000 or more people.

3. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales launched WT Social, an ad-free social media network. On Sunday night there were 170,000 users signed up and active on the site. There are already payment options ($12.99/month or $100/year) although they’re not required. And the company promises to never sell your data. Here is a picture of the no-frills profile page, and here’s a sign-up link.

2. Google, Amazon, Facebook Make Financial, Medical News

This busy November means that we should give you all the news fast.


  • Project Nightingale, a Google health data project with partner Ascension Health, gives the company access to the health records of 50 million Americans in 21 states. About 150 Google employees and 100 Ascension employees work on the project, and some are questioning whether the arrangement adheres to federal health privacy regulations.

    More: WSJ’s initial reporting, the NY Times’ follow-up, or the whistle-blower’s anonymous op-ed in The Guardian.
  • A 2017 project with the National Institute of Health nearly resulted in Google publishing X-ray images that included identifying information, reported a Washington Post expose this week. NIH and Google had worked on removing personal information, but NIH canceled the release two days before it was made public.
  • Google Cache is a new service that allows Google to offer personal financial services to its users. Citigroup and Stanford Federal Credit Union are partnering with Google to offer checking accounts.


  • More than seven thousand Facebook emails and internal reports were leaked to NBC News, a House subcommittee, and several tech journals. Imagine that your organization had the same happen. Of course there will be things that your attorney, your accountant, or your boss would not be happy to see. This is the same leak reported earlier this year, but now the organizations have published all of the documents online. There are lots of details about insider issues and confirmation of Facebook’s knowledge that their data is their real source of power. Here’s the PDF link at NBC with all 3,800 pages.
  • Web designer Joshua Maddux revealed on Twitter that the camera on his iPhone opened when he was using the Facebook app in full screen mode and scrolling the feed a certain way. After tech journalists confirmed the finding and began calling for blood, Facebook announced that they had fixed the bug. I don’t know what else to share besides that. Bug fixed. Probably. Maybe. That’s what they said. Nothing to see here. Move along.
  • Facebook Pay has begun rolling out on Facebook and FB Messenger. The service joins the also creatively named Apple Pay, Google Pay, Samsung Pay, and Amazon Pay. It also provides a new answer for the question, “Who do you trust less than Google to process payments for you?” Here’s the more upbeat announcement from Facebook.


  • Branding first because it’s important: Amazon changed the name of PillPack to Amazon Pharmacy. The service delivers a consumer’s medicine packaged into individual envelopes stamped with the date and time they’re to be taken. Amazon spent more than $700 million buying PillPack.
  • The company’s Haven insurance which operates as a joint venture with JP Morgan and Berkshire Hathaway is expanding its coverage to 30,000 employees of those three companies. That will pair nicely with Health Navigator, a WebMD-like company Amazon bought last month. Business Insider has more info.
  • The other big recent Amazon acquisition was Whole Foods, which is now getting a baby sibling. There’s been speculation all year about this, but Amazon confirmed that an entirely new store with different branding will open in Los Angeles suburb Woodland Hills. CNET broke the news after spotting employment ads.
  • Nike wants nothing to do with all of these Amazon shenanigans. The company was late to sell directly on Amazon and announced this week that it would stop selling clothes and shoes directly on the site. Bloomberg broke that story.

3. Google Search Updates

Google meddles in search is how a 7,500 word Wall Street Journal article might be summarized. One would think that the word count was sufficient to be comprehensive, but there is a lot of context left out of the piece.

A great summary by Greg Sterling, a digital marketing expert I respect: “No one would argue that Google is a pure, shining force for good in the world. But neither do we agree that it’s the corrupt entity portrayed in a highly charged Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article that appeared Friday.

In other search news we learned about Google:

  • Merchant responses to reviews are being tested. At this stage, they’re similar to the automated suggestions for email. 
  • Companies and organizations influenced by local search are seeing the evidence of a significant algorithmic change in that field over the past several weeks. Canadian agency SterlingSky named the change “Bedlam” and there appear to be more reports following their initial story.
  • Google is also insisting that it does not consider user behavior when ranking websites, specifically that it does not consider the time that a user spends on a website’s page when ranking that website. Several Googlers insist that this is the case. Several people you know, one of whom may be writing this sentence, have data to the contrary.

4. Debugged: There is no $75 Costco Coupon

Don’t take my word for it. Here’s what they say.

5. Also in the Spotlight: Open Text Generators

We’ve told you about machine learning programs writing unique content,most recently in August. That fancy schmancy code has another new public update, doubling its ability to write unique content that makes sense.

Although I certainly won’t rush to welcome our new computer overlords, it’s a remarkable system that I test with unpublished things that I’ve written.

Generate some content yourself and then copy and paste it into a search engine. It’s not there because it was just created. So, um, who owns it? That’s for the AI lawyers to argue about. 

You can play with the model here.

6. Great Data: Best Selling Music Artists

We’ve shown you how video charting can use animation to come alive and tell a story. The folks at Data is Beautiful enhanced that idea by taking RIAA music sales data and adding a picture of the artist to each label. Now lines show Drake or The Beatles moving up or down. The result is even smarter story telling. Here’s what it looks like.

7. Protip: Privatize Your Smart Assistant Recordings

Once you opt for a voice assistant, you’ve agreed to let the system monitor your environment, but you don’t have to let human employees and contractors have access. This comprehensive Wired article tells you how to opt out of human transcriptions of your voice commands.

A gift for you from the man who says, ‘Damn it, Alexa” too often.

8. Bizarre Bazaar (strange stuff for sale online)

Child’s Own is in the strange but sweet category. The company takes a drawing your child makes and creates a stuffed animal from the image.

It sure ain’t Build-A-Bear.

9. ICYMI – Top links from the past 30 days

How to stop Google from stealing all your data after you die – at TNW

Gingerdead Men for sale – and other weird cookie cutters

#TeamTrees – YouTubers collaborating on donations for 20 million trees to be planted.

10. Coffee Break:  AgeGuess

The creators bill this as a “citizen science project” about perceptions of human aging.  And it does that to some extent, but it’s fun to scroll through images and see how close your guess is to what other people guessed and your overall results.

Being a carny is not in my future.