December 2007

Monthly Archive

Google all-knowing eye

Posted by Yannis Lionis on 21 Dec 2007 | Tagged as: Internet, Software

A colleague ran into a very interesting Google protection mechanism. She searched for “soapExtensionTypes” and got a 403 page saying “We’re sorry, but your query looks similar to automated requests from a computer virus or spyware application. To protect our users, we can’t process your request right now.” and a captcha to allow you to continue (try it). It gets even weirder:

  • It takes 3 correct captcha responses to get it to proceed to the search (making really sure you’re a person!)
  • Even if you change your mind, ignore the captcha and search for something else (something safe), it still won’t let you, until you give a correct captcha response. They really do block your access
  • It’s session-specific. If I respond to the captcha correctly enough times to unblock the search results and then do the search from a new browser window, I get it again.

This is interesting. As the 403 page says, Google does this to “protect their users”. This implies that they’re worried about gaming results, otherwise how could a search on anything harm anyone besides me? If that’s the reason though, the search strings on which they decide to enforce this seem peculiar. I won’t rant about “soapExtensionTypes”, it’s reasonable that any way they use to determine which searches to block may get a few wrong. But if this is primarily to prevent gaming the search engine, why do searches like “football tickets” not trigger it? I imagine that’s the type of thing that people would mostly be interested to game.

Oh well. It appears that I am now on Google’s provisional black list, as any search I do is blocked by a captcha (although if it’s a safe search string it only asks for one correct captcha response). I hope it goes back to “just working” soon.

Needle in the Internet haystack

Posted by Yannis Lionis on 10 Dec 2007 | Tagged as: Internet

Search engines are a lovely thing. If you need something, you search for it (in most cases you google it) and the ideal website magically comes up. People don’t bother adding websites to their Favourites, they know they can search for it if they need it.

I’m getting a bit too used to this. But it’s very much dependent on your search string; searching for the right text can make the difference between finding the right thing or not. I usually don’t bother looking in the second page of the search results unless I’m after something quite obscure - if it’s not in the first page then I’m probably using the wrong search string.

These thoughts came to me when I made an unsuccessful search that astounded me. I visited the Wimbledon website a couple of weeks ago to try to get tickets for next year. I glanced around and didn’t bookmark it, so today I searched for it again. I first tried “wimbledon tickets 2008″, expecting this to return the page in the official website with the relevant information. It didn’t. Actually, if I hadn’t been there before I might have confused the first result (http://www.wimbledontennis.co.uk/) to be the official one. Searching for “wimbledon” returned the official website on the first hit. It just goes to show that searching for the wrong thing, and especially text that companies look for in order to make money, like (re)selling tickets, can throw you off quite a bit.

Almost as an afterthought, I wondered where the official Wimbledon website appears on the search for “wimbledon tickets 2008″. I was astounded to find it in page 21, a shocking 204th place in the search results list! Makes one wonder whether the search results may be gamed, doesn’t it?

What Location?

Posted by Yannis Lionis on 06 Dec 2007 | Tagged as: Internet, Software

Google recently released My Location for Google Maps. The idea is that you download this to your mobile or PDA, press 0 while in Google Maps app and your (approximate) location is displayed on the map. This doesn’t need GPS, as it uses the mobile network masts to calculate your position, presumably with some triangulation.

It seems to me like a good idea - a you-are-here on the map feature for non-GPS users, and with a ridiculously easy interface.  So I downloaded it to try it out, mostly to see how accurate it is. What I get is:

“Your current location is temporarily unavailable”

They say that this is beta and will not always work or be very accurate, but they’re working on it, yada yada yada. Fair enough. But I’m getting the same error wherever I am, for the past week. It hasn’t found my location once, it just doesn’t work for me. That temporarily word in the error message is starting to sound mockingly tiresome.

What gives? They don’t say anything about coverage - I’m in the UK rather than in the US, so if it’s US-only coverage it would explain it, but I can’t find anything about that on their Help Centre.

Verdict so far: Nice idea, but seriously unimpressed with results.

Customer Support for Dummies

Posted by Yannis Lionis on 05 Dec 2007 | Tagged as: Internet, Software

I’m so sick of customer support answers that assume I have the perceptiveness and IQ of a hibernating mushroom on valium. 

I’ve done a fair bit of customer support in various jobs so far, and I am well familiar with the two annoying types of complaints:

  • The I-don’t-know-anything type: This is the complaint that your software doesn’t work, coming from a person who isn’t actually familiar enough with computers to turn them on and open a file in Notepad, let alone use anything more complicated.
  • The I-can’t-be-bothered-to-describe-my-problem type: This is the complaint that just says “this doesn’t work for me” or something equally laconic and unhelpful. No description of the error, no information on the environment, no steps to reproduce it.

So having had to tackle this myself a few times, I can understand why the first response to any complaint I make is to assume I am stupid and don’t know anything - because this is a big percentage of complaints companies get and it’s best to start with the simple things first (”can you check that your monitor is actually connected to your computer sir?”). So I endure the silly questions, I wait for the “customer support advisor” to go through the first pages of his script and hope they’ll get to something helpful (usually, to refer me to someone else).

I do however draw the line at support staff who clearly haven’t even bothered to read my email. I recently emailed my (online only) credit card company to tell them that the payment method I’ve been using for months is now not working for me, possibly because they included a new security feature (as described in my blog entry about Too much security). I wrote a lengthy descriptive email, pasted the error message and gave enough background information to suggest possible causes. What I got back, was a paragraph copied from the Help section. “Please make sure you are at the payments section and click on the Make Payment link…”. The person did not even read my email. It was really annoying.

Perhaps customer support staff can’t be bothered to pay attention. Perhaps this particular person wasn’t intelligent enough to tell the difference. But this is most definitely not good customer support.

Unless if, as my girlfriend says, when the say “support” they mean emotional support (”oh, your computer isn’t working, there there, all better now…”)