Internet browsing with awareness

Some time ago, a friend asked me for advice on online businesses and online marketing and stuff. You know, because I started learning how to feed myself without relying on a job over 3 years ago. That’s also about the time I started writing here, which is what every Internet marketer will tell you to do, start a blog. Then I went ahead and wrote about maths and programming, which probably isn’t very lucrative. It hasn’t earned me enough to buy a cup of tea in any case. You don’t read much about my perilous journey in the online marketing/business world, because I haven’t thought it useful or interesting to write. Well, I thought maybe I should start telling you about it now.

Back to my friend. I was explaining how Google works (generally, because my friend might collapse from information overload). Out of curiosity, I asked him how he did searches. He said he types in the search term, hits the enter key, and clicks on whatever is on the screen. Galloping galaxies, he doesn’t even look?!?

I told him some of those links he clicked on probably cost some person out there 50 cents every time he clicked it. I’m more concerned with the unfiltered, unthinking, undead way he went about browsing the Internet. Perhaps Nicholas Carr was right, maybe Google is making us stupid.

My friend wasn’t technologically inclined. Then again, I know some programmers who were frightfully stupid in tech stuff… I am going to assume you know the general safety tips for browsing the Internet:

  • password safety (but it’s moot if you use the same password on every online account)
  • anti-virus software is set up (even supposedly impenetrable Macs and Unixes/Linuxes were compromised before)
  • be careful about revealing sensitive, personal information

Now, I’m probably going to anger many Internet marketers, because in the process, I’ll expose some of the tricks they use to entice people to buy, join, sign up, and generally act on something. That’s assuming they even read my stuff. Maths and programming blog? I don’t see it happening soon.

But all that is unintentional (hey I do know the meaning of the word!). My aim is for you to browse the Internet with some awareness of what you’re doing.

The big takeaway is trust. As you probably gathered, I have a healthy amount of distrust. 3 years of studying marketing strategies and tactics, and having bought certain Internet marketing products (and felt cheated after that), and experimenting with the methods (my first significant outsourcing turned out to be a fun adventure) did that to me. This is going to be a series of articles, and I will start with the basic concept of the Internet:

Links

Links can be open about where they lead. For example, http://polymathprogrammer.com/ is direct enough.

Links can also be disguised. For example, Get Awesome Delicious Chocolate Chip Cookies For Free! (hey don’t click that, you’ll spoil my search engine optimisations…)

This happens on a web page. What you may not know is, links can also be disguised in PDFs and emails. I understand that when you click on a link in a PDF, Adobe Reader puts a prompt before directing you to that link. Due to routine, habit, or just laziness, you might not take a look before confirming. Same thing with email, because we now have HTML emails.

The way to safeguard yourself is to hover over the link (but don’t click it yet). The actual URL will be displayed somewhere. On a web page, it might be displayed at the lower left corner of your browser. In a PDF or email, it’s probably hovering in a box close to where your mouse cursor is. It’s easy, takes just a couple of seconds to check, and can potentially save you tons of headaches.

Affiliate links

Alright, here’s where all the Internet marketer hate will be directed. First, I want to say there’s nothing wrong with affiliate links. There’s nothing wrong with trying to earn a little bit of commission. I have affiliate links to products and services I believe in (and I can’t remember all the places where I put them, even though there aren’t many…). Usually Amazon book recommendation affiliate links. If you buy using my affiliate links, I get a small commission (which helps feed me and keep this blog running). If you buy directly, you pay the same price anyway, so I’d appreciate it if you buy using my link.

The point is transparency. I’m not talking about disclosing the relationship you have with your advertiser or sponsor right beside the link (or in the article/post, or in a privacy policy). I’m talking about deliberately cloaking the link so the actual URL is misrepresented.

Here’s a “tip” I learnt from an Internet marketer (I’m not saying his name). You create a PDF ebook and give it for free or sell it. You write useful content, and give a recommendation on something, say web hosting. You deliberately do not name the web host. Just say something like “Here’s a good web host”, and transform that phrase into a link.

Here’s where it gets sneaky. You create a page on your website such as http://polymathprogrammer.com/recommends/webhost/ and use that page as the link in the PDF. On this page of yours, you do a URL redirect (using meta tags, JavaScript, or PHP) to the recommended web host, likely as an affiliate link.

Now, the PDF is already out there in the open. What happens if you no longer want to be an affiliate of that particular web host? Ah, just change the redirection to another web hosting affiliate link. The link in the PDF remains intact, clicking the link goes to your page, which redirects to the new web host.

This is why you should try to glimpse at the destination URL first. With URL shorteners nowadays, this gets a little harder. You’ll have to trust the URL shortener service. I suggest you trust those that allow you to glimpse at the resulting URL (such as bit.ly). You still need to look at the unravelled URL though.

Which brings us to…

Uniform Resource Locators

Look for the complete domain name. http://polymathprogrammer.com/ is not the same as http://polymathprogrammer.com.sleazysite.com/ (I hope you appreciate all this search engine doubtification I’m doing…) Look for the first forward slash that’s not part of http:// or https://

Now look at the domain name. Do you trust it? If you don’t, then do you trust the source? Was it a search result? Do you trust the search engine (results can be manipulated somewhat to a certain extent)? Did it come from your friend? Do you trust your friend (it’s a weird question, I know)?

My point is for you to cultivate independent thinking. I mean, we’ve already got problems with cross-site scripting. Don’t make it easy for the bad guys by rampantly clicking on links.

Here’s a bonus. Look at the full URL link. Look for a question mark or some shortened form of the person’s name or website in URL. For example, http://somesite.com/?r=1234 (by query parameters) or http://anothersite.com/polymathprog/1234/ That’s usually an indication of an affiliate link. I would deduce that “r=1234” means 1234 (“r” probably stands for “referral”) is the ID number of the person, or a product ID.

That’s it for now. Let me know what you think in a comment, and I’ll see you soon.

Weaving in the crowd

The crowds in shopping malls have always frustrated me. I’m not the type to meander around the corridors looking for bargains or sales. If I want to buy something, usually I already know what’s the item and where I can get it.

So I’ll arrive at the entrance of the shopping mall, and I know where the shop that has my desired item. It’s a straightforward point A to point B thing. But there are so many obstacles! I feel like I’m running an obstacle course, dodging one after another, stopping to let one pass, speeding up to avoid another. What are these obstacles?

My fellow human beings.

Mall plan route

Judging from where I am, the right side of the corridor seems packed. So I move straight, and encounter a slowly moving elder. That’s easy, and I swerve around quickly to encounter…

The family of five. You never really know what kids will do. I’ve had experiences where I would be walking and minding my own business, and then out of nowhere two screaming children would materialise on my left and sprint in front of me to my right. So I swerve a bit more to my left to encounter…

The giddy teenagers, who just emerged from one of those trendy fashion stores. Don’t go near them, because they could suddenly point their fingers somewhere, and go “Oh look, ZARA!” and run enthusiastically toward said store. You need a wide buffer area to improve your chances of dodging their stampede. That, and their unforeseeable and inexplicable fits of high-pitched laughter. So swerving, I encounter…

The young parents with their 6 month old baby in a stroller. This one’s easy, because they will usually move very slow. The stroller also restricts their range of angular movement, so if it’s pointed one way, that’s the direction the parents are moving towards. Easy to predict the point they’ll reach in say, 2 seconds, which is the amount of time I have before I reach them. By which time, I’ll encounter…

The bored boyfriend. This one can be easy or hard, depending on where said boyfriend decides to wait out his girlfriend’s retail rampage in the store. If he decides not to be a free model for the store, he will move out a little onto the corridor. At which traffic will then flow around him and make my path that much harder. This one’s a bit more considerate, choosing to stand close to the store instead. Simple to pass through, and I’ll encounter…

The sentinels. They are a bunch of friends, laughing and talking. Quite ok actually, if not for the fact that their preferred battle formation is a single file moving horizontally. This isn’t a CSI search and comb; you don’t need to spread out into a line. If you want to maximise face time, the line is the worst formation. A circle is much better, like around a camp fire for example (haven’t they heard of complete graphs?). The worst thing is they’ll block a lot of the corridor, leaving you with very little maneuverability. They’re like the sentinels of some hidden treasure, who found an intruder, and are inexorably moving forward to crush the invader… Moving sharply to my left, I avoid them and finally reached my destination. *whew*

The above story was fictional. Well, I didn’t meet the characters all in one trip anyway… but they’re real. This is my long-winded way of saying, sometimes even if you know the destination, there are many unforeseen variables. Such as a software project. Ok, that analogy is a little weird…

I want to point out that, in order for me to successfully navigate around all the colourful characters who so innocently obstruct my path of least resistance, I have to read them. I have to read their body movement, posture and facial expressions to decipher what their likely directions of movement are.

That takes some practice, because you need to know that the person slowing down in front of you might change direction, or even stop completely. Of course, you will need to detect that the person is in fact slowing down…

I used to get angry because of the people blocking me. Why are they moving so slow? In time, I’ve learnt to control my anger. I’ve even turned it into a game of sorts. Here’s how you can play too.

At a moderately populated shopping mall, decide on a destination, preferably one that’s on the same level as your starting point. Your goal is to reach that destination at a more or less constant speed. Say your walking speed is 2 metres per second. You can speed up a little, or slow down a little, but you may not break into a run or stop completely.

This should test your knowledge of human behaviour, how good your reflexes are, whether you can adjust your route on the fly based on real-time data and so on. It also trains you to be more aware of your surroundings, your body position and posture, the length of your stride and so on.

I have 2 killer moves to help you: the shoulder slant and the side step. In the shoulder slant, you swivel one of your shoulders forward and the other backward. This way, you’ll be able to squeeze through some “cracks” in the obstacle run. Because sometimes, there’s never a good time, so when an opening appears, take it. With practice, you’ll learn which shoulder to swivel forward too, depending on situations (swivelling the left shoulder forward means the left foot is more natural to use for the forward leg).

The side step is particularly useful for when the idiot in front of you who don’t know where to go, decides to stop completely. At this point, you must rapidly decide if you want to go to the left or right of this confused and lost person. And then do a side step. Basically you open up your legs sideways. So instead of moving your leg forward in a normal step, you move it to the side.

You need to decide quickly because your momentum will carry you forward, and you don’t want to knock down the fella, right? Because of your forward momentum, there’s almost non-existent side-ways momentum. Thus if you move to the left, you must exert pressure on your right leg to “bounce” to the left. It takes a little practice…

Also, if you decide to go right, and your left foot is in front of you, then the natural movement is to move your right foot to the right in a wide split so as to avoid the now stationary person in front of you. Similarly for the decision to go left.

What if you decide to go right, and your right foot is in front? Uh, try to avoid this situation… Don’t try any fancy dance moves or you might entangle your legs and fall down. Just stop (and you’ll lose the game, but it’s better than public embarrassment). With some practice, you’ll learn to move in the direction based on the length of your stride and where your feet are.

And that’s some 1000+ words to tell you to be observant of human behaviour, to be conscious of your surroundings and to be aware of your body position and posture.