SECURITY Technology

What price security? Google signals that security will affect site’s ranking

In a blog post dated August 6th, Google’s head of Webmaster Trends Analysis, Gary Illyes announced that effective immediately, Google rankings will favour sites serving content from an HTTPS address. This form of communication is encrypted between the server and the client, and so discourages snooping by those with malicious intentions:

For these reasons, over the past few months we’ve been running tests taking into account whether sites use secure, encrypted connections as a signal in our search ranking algorithms. We’ve seen positive results, so we’re starting to use HTTPS as a ranking signal. For now it’s only a very lightweight signal—affecting fewer than 1% of global queries, and carrying less weight than other signals such as high-quality content—while we give webmasters time to switch to HTTPS. But over time, we may decide to strengthen it, because we’d like to encourage all website owners to switch from HTTP to HTTPS to keep everyone safe on the web.

This all sounds pretty decent so far, right? Still, I’m not sure that it actually is a good thing, when you step back and look at the full picture. In the most positive light, it could be construed as an ineffective distraction to real security. In a more negative light, Google’s new tactic could be seen as strong-arming the Internet, to the detriment of low-income Internet properties.

What is HTTPS?

HTTP stands for HyperText Transfer Protocol, and is the vehicle by which the majority of what people think of as the Internet is delivered. If you look at the address bar for this website, you’ll see that the first few characters are http://. That tells the browser to use HTTP.

If the same traffic is encrypted, which means scrambled so as to be unreadable by anybody but the server and you, the first few characters will be “http*s*://.” The “s,” you see, is for “secure.”

It is fairly routine for your email, your bank and increasingly, your social networks to all be served up in this way. Encrypting your communications ensures some level of privacy from criminals, particularly encrypting the transmission of username/password challenges for logging in.

For the website in question, the price of admission to this secret world is what is known as an “SSL Certificate.” This is a set of secure data that only that server has, with which they encrypt the data they’ll be sharing with you. Basic SSL Certs with barebones support come in around $9 a year, which is a very affordable bar to entry for most Americans.

Now for the bad news

All of this sounds great, it really does. A more-secure website, especially one with usernames and logins, is a better one. But does that make one website a more authoritative voice or a better resource? Because that is what Google’s mission is supposed to be about, if we’re still concerned with that sort of thing.

Search is about content, not someone else’s priorities

If I wanted Google to make the decision for me where I “should” spend my time, as opposed to who has the content I’m looking for, I’d probably be asking for it. But that’s not why I use Google and that’s not why, as a publisher, I rely on Google’s rules to get my pages in front of your ocular tissues.

Where spam pages are concerned, Google is well within it’s mission to cull the herd. I don’t need to find myself in spam hell because I searched for a common term, nor do I want my site listed among the sleazy crop of Russian honey pots. But security is a personal matter about which I can make my own decisions.

Security is a state of mind

While we’re on the issue of the ambiguous term “security,” let’s keep in mind that, just because someone else can’t snoop your communications with a website, that in no way presupposes that visiting the site is “safe.” What’s to say the site itself isn’t doing dodgy things with your data? Google can’t guarantee that, nor should it try.

Wait. Google is talking secure communications, now?

Whether or not it was their fault; whether or not Google was pressured by the government to allow holes in their security that the NSA could snoop through, the fact remains that they did exactly that. To hear Google now carping about secure communications on the Internet is rich, to say the least.

Wait. SSL Certificates are secure, now?

Perhaps you recall, and perhaps you do not recall, the big security freak-out of a few months back? Heartbleed? Yeah, that whole thing. That’s when the world’s most affordable SSL Certificate system, OpenSSL, was found to have a gigantic hole in what was supposed to be it’s encryption.

No one with any knowledge of Internet security found it surprising that Heartbleed was discovered in the era of NSA snooping. It was exactly the kind of back-door intrusion loophole the NSA must have been employing. So now, Google wants us to trust certificates that they themselves helped undermine.

The “Google Tax”? $9 a year doesn’t sound like a lot to Middle Class America.

But any new cost of doing business matters, especially for those with lower incomes. And regardless of how much of a burden it is or is not, there is something counterproductive to the “free and open Internet” Google claims to want in requiring yet another fee to pay.

It seems to me that Google’s HTTPS plan is too disruptive in all the wrong ways, and not disruptive enough in the ways they would prefer it. I’m hoping this is another Google Wave-esque idea that goes the way of the dinosaur sooner rather than later.


Five things I hate about the new Gmail for Android

Agh! They’ve “improved” Gmail again.

I’m not generally one of those who insists that every new change to my software is bad. I like to at least entertain the idea that developers have something good in mind. But just a cursory scan of the new Gmail application tells me my productivity just went to shit on mobile.

5. Icons? Is that what we’re calling them?

Each email now shows an “icon” to the right. In a perfect world, where everybody is using Google Plus like Google would like them too, there would be an image of the sender and receiver. In this world, what I end up with is a bunch of pics of me and colored blocks with the last name of the sender.

I know what I look like. Why do I need a picture of me?

4. Check box? What’s a check box?

Remember those handy checkboxes to the left of every message? You know, the ones you used to check to perform actions on a series of messages on? Like tagging, archiving or deleting?

Yeah, those are gone. Replaced by the fucking icons. And as for deleting…

3. Where the hell is my delete icon??

It has seemed, for the last year or so, like Google is trying to force me to keep every email. Slowly but surely, they are eliminating my ability to delete my email. Why the hell do I want to keep my crappy spam emails?

At one point, the status bar on Android had a handy function: when new email came in, you could just tap an icon in the drop down menu to delete it. No need to read it. No need to open your inbox. Now that function has been changed to “archive.” You cannot delete from there.

Now with the new upgrade of Gmail, not only is the checkbox I normally use to mass delete emails gone, but if you open the email and look… there’s no delete option, there, either. If you click the context menu from within an email, then and only then can you delete.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Google wants to keep your emails for the same reason Facebook wants to keep every message you thought you’d deleted: advertising data. But rather than get caught the way Facebook did, they figure they’ll just let you know up front that they’re not letting you get rid of anything.

2. No seriously: why do I need a picture of myself??

Ok, I still can’t get over this one. Why do I need to see an image of myself?

1. I’m color blind, assholes

When, oh when, will Google become standards compliant with accessibility? Their insistence on color coding everything is a clear violation of that concept. The icons that don’t include an image of the sender are all different colors. Fine of those colors are blue or yellow, but am I meant to differentiate between brown and brown? Because that’s what red and green look like to those of us with color blindness.

I am a man of peace and I abhor unnecessary rancor on the Internet. I try so hard to stay calm in the face of a tumultuous world, and I rely on my tools to aid me. Google has gone after my Achille’s heel and is forcing me to respond.

It is therefore with deep regret that announce that I feel compelled to create the most powerful tool available in the social media landscape in order to deal with this. That’s right, people. I’m going to create a “Change Gmail Back” Facebook Page and bring the multi-colored giant to its quivering needs.

Pray for them.


Can’t go home again: 4 apps (and also Twitter) to replace Google Reader

I think all of us 1 million or so users of Google Reader are pretty well pissed off right now. We rely on Reader to provide us the news content from the sources we’ve carefully culled over the years. Our folders, our feeds, our connection to the wider world of news. What to do?

Several competitor products are out there, particularly for mobile devices. But which to choose? Here is a quick list of a few options I’ve tried and my thoughts on them:

1. Feedly

Let’s get this one out of the way early. Feedly works. And yes, even CNN is reporting that this seems to be Feedly’s moment in the sun. Certainly, they came along at just the right time. I was actually looking for a different reader on Android when I stumbled upon Feedly a few months ago. And so far, I’ve been pretty happy with it.

Feedly provides a rich experience for your news. On mobile, it presents your content in “magazine mode,” which means that it will take a featured image for an article and present it full-screen, bled out, with the title over top. There are other views as well, and you can customize how each folder or feed presents: List, magazine or card view. All have their merits, and on the desktop version, you can get a straight-ahead Google Reader style list of headlines.

The down side of Feedly is that even with the list view, scanning the news isn’t really a possibility. This is an app for the reader, not for the browser: those of us looking to quickly populate our feeds with news our readers need will find this app a bit frustrating.

 2. Pulse

For those looking for a bit more automatic curation, there is Pulse. This app actually sifts through your RSS subscriptions, looking for the types of content you’re most likely to click on, things which are hot among other users and the most recent content to provide you with an up-to-date look at your news.

The good news is that Pulse definitely gives you fresh content. The bad news is that, well, it is algorithmic curation. It’s not necessarily the most accurate reflection of what you’ll find interesting: it is just a programmer’s best guess.

Also, for those of us who are using our feeds specifically to find those “deep links” and the roads less traveled, this kind of curation doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. By picking the most popular stuff, Pulse is actually making our linking shallower by design.

3. Prismatic

In my experience, probably the height of both pretty display and curation is Prismatic. Whereas Pulse will rearrange your feeds for you, Prismatic is presumptuous enough to actually add in its own feeds that it thinks you’ll like. Oddly, I’ve found that it actually works quite well, filtering in new content I might not have otherwise seen.

But again: you spent a lot of time and trouble trying to get your RSS feeds in order. You know what you want to look at, in terms of news sources. That Prismatic adds new ones is not necessarily helpful to deep linking content.

4. Mix and match

Ok, so this isn’t exactly an app in itself. But if you’re looking for variety in your linking and reading diet, really, using a combination of all the above is probably the best bet.

Yes, you end up having to keep track of three different readers. The up side is that all three curate content differently, and that means lots of unexpected content from your primary sources. In fact, by working with each service regularly, you’ll find that each provides a unique window on the content you care about.

Out of the three, only Feedly allows you to view your feeds directly as a list, so you can still get that pure content feel. But I’m personally a big fan of changing perspectives for the sake of keeping the creative juices flowing.

Twitter lists are social curation!

RSS feeds are without doubt the best way to keep up to date on the news sources you like. But perhaps the most interesting way to keep up with the news that matters to your audience is to keep tabs on the people who drive the news. Twitter lists are a great way to allow the people who know your topics best to help you find the most interesting tidbits you might not have found anywhere else.

For example, I have a list populated with scientists, science bloggers and journalists, science professors and basically, all sciency peeps. There are a few celebrity types, like Neil deGrasse-Tyson and Bill Nye. But most people on this list are in the trenches, occasionally live-tweeting from obscure NASA conferences, doing research and writing their own peer-reviewed journals.

Unlike an RSS feed, which will be strictly links, this list gives me an insight into the thoughts and feelings of the people who do the stuff my audience is interested in. When they do post a link, that link tends to be a much deeper read on current science news than I might have gotten from other sources. And when a large number of people on this list all tweet out the same article, I know I’ve got a really important read on my hands.

So, Twitter lists are a great way to create a social curation vehicle for the types of information you most want. Simply put together a list of people who all share common interests, and even if they don’t know each other, they will “up-vote” the most pressing issues in their world for you.

I’m going to miss Google Reader. I don’t think any of the above sources work quite the same as a solid RSS reader. But by widening my news search to include a mix of all these options has given me a fresh perspective on what I’m doing with content. And that’s a good thing, right?

SECURITY Technology

Wait. How many requests does our government make for our Google data?

Google has released its latest Transparency Report for 2012 and the big story in most of the media is that 88% of the time, Google complies with government subpoenas. We’re all supposed to suck in our collective breath that Google would be so cavalier with our personal data:

In its latest “Transparency Report,” Google revealed that it received 21,389 requests for information about 33,634 users in the second half of 2012, with 8,438 of those requests coming from the U.S. government. Google handed over the data 88 percent of the time, based mostly on just a subpoena, which does not require the approval of a judge.

Wait. Aren’t we burying the lede, here? Let’s have a look at the actual numbers. Here is the chart for requests by country, and once again we see that the United States is peerless in its requests for private data. Only India comes within one quarter of that number, and with only 66% of requests honored, it really makes you wonder what they’re requesting:

Requests by country, sorted by request number. No one touches us. U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!

This follows the same pattern we’ve seen from our government in the past. As I noted then, the trouble with all these numbers is that the represent a company’s interpretation of law and of privacy. But considering that Google complied with 88% of the US requests, as opposed to 66% of India’s and 0% of Turkey’s requests, it seems very clear that there is some judgement happening at Google. They don’t appear to simply be turning over private data without discretion, in fact, the 88% compliance number strikes me as proof that the orders coming from the United States were filed in compliance with the law.

One can argue that the law is flawed. I certainly would. But that is not Google’s issue, nor really is there any other company providing its users with such – well, transparent – information about their compliance with subpoenas. The real question is: why are so many requests coming from a nominally free society?


3 reasons you should be watching Google Plus in 2013

I think anyone who has used Google Plus in the last year of its operation is going to have a difficult time describing it as a success story so far. There was a lot of early enthusiasm for the new “social network” when it first came out, but the odd sparsity of the early system left a lot of people wandering back to their respective corners of the social universe. Recent changes, particularly to the mobile application for Plus, have made me rethink what Google is actually after.

Google Plus is going to change the way a goodly portion of the web views the web by the end of this year, I think. Here are three good reasons why.

It is not a social network

The most limiting thing about the way people regard Plus is that we tend to see it as a rival to Twitter and Facebook. In some respects, this is true. But the sense of a global conversation that Twitter encompasses or the sense of a get-together with friends that Facebook (in its most generous light) encompasses isn’t really on Plus. Because it isn’t a social network.

It might best described as a social reader. Think of it like your NOOK, except immersed in sharing culture. You set the channels up that you want – Circles of popular web pubs, great photographers, local journalists and (ahem) media sources – and they build your reading list.

It is beautiful

Particularly on the mobile client, this is true. Content flows elegantly from one box to the next, sometimes two wide, others just one large block dominates a row. Content creators are rewarded for using rich media posts, readers are rewarded for following content creators that take Plus seriously. Browsing Plus on my (jailbroken) NOOK is a pleasure. Photos are bright and clear, articles with featured images look like something straight out of a magazine.

Compare this to Twitter’s attempt at adding rich text, their Twitter Cards and it’s no contest. Facebook’s embrace of rich media has been around longer, but honestly, I can’t say it has done better. Photos are grainy, YouTube and other video content is clunky and too small. And the mobile version of Facebook has the maddening (to a web developer, anyway) habit of allowing images to break the bounds of their containers. It all looks.. well,.. rather MySpace-ish.

The beauty of Google’s rich text adds to its appeal as a browser: you can read news articles, watch HD videos and see gorgeous pictures from National Geographic in the same vehicle.

We are all content creators

Google Plus makes it pretty clear that the primary thing that every other social network has struggled with is the beast they created: the effortless means by which we can all create content. If all you do is endorse someone else’s work with an RT or like, you can and will create a stream of content that others feel compelled to pay attention to.

Twitter has for the most part stuck with the egalitarian sparseness of their interface, bringing CNN down to the exact same level of pomp as any other person you follow. Facebook has made misbegotten attempts to embrace rich media over and over again, and sloppy formatting aside, has created a logical mishmash of the whole thing. Why, for example, can content creators who have Pages not see their fans’ timelines? Pinterest allows you to be a visual creator if you wish. That’s about it.

Ultimately, each platform will house its own content and its own communities. Twitter’s “news first” community will not be dented by Plus. But I think as a new means of quickly scanning news of interest – and of social collaboration to shape that news – Google Plus will be the one to watch this year. Since Google has made every attempt to tie their every product back to Plus, you can bet that whether you want to or not, you’re probably going to have plenty of contact with it. And for many of us, Plus may be our window on a large section of what makes the Internet worth sharing elsewhere.


Google’s transparency report shows US second only to Brazil in court-ordered removal requests

Google has published another transparency report, showing the number of court, police and other requests for data removal that they’ve received over a six month period. The report includes a blog post and a handily-filterable chart. The results? Well, surprising or not, the United States is second only to Brazil in the number of court-ordered removal requests to Google’s offices. And whereas Google complied with 69% of Brazil’s requests, they complied with only 40% of the US requests.

On the subject of police and other requests, the United States stands in third place behind South Korea and leading the pack, India. Clearly, India has some unreasonable requests, as Google complied with only twenty percent. But they complied with 80% of S. Korea’s requests compared to a dismal 44% of the US requests.

It’s hard to get too worked up over these numbers, as we’re accepting a private company’s interpretation of law and privacy. It would also be interesting to see these same numbers normalized by population: its hard to imagine a scenario where Switzerland would make more removal requests than the United States, given the huge difference in population. There is also a potential content disparity: studies have estimated that 68% of content on the web is in English, with a large share of that coming from the United States. Mo pages, mo problems.

Still, it does make me curious just what the United States is requesting and what branches and levels of our government are making these requests. It would be easy – and misguided – to assume that the Black Helicopter crew at the NSA was secretly conducting cyber-info-warfare on the populace. But since the report does not specifically differentiate between federal and local governments, its hard to know exactly where the requests are coming from.

Government – Google Transparency Report

Like other technology and communications companies, Google regularly receives requests from government agencies and courts around the world to remove content from our services. In this report, we disclose the number of requests we receive from each government in six-month periods with certain limitations.


Google Announces Local featuring Zagat reviews, Samsung Chromebooks

Looking for local eateries? Well, here in Rochester, we can always rely on for the most relevant reviews, but it isn’t always like that everywhere. Google has dabbled in the local search results thing for many years – Froogle used to allow you to shop locally, though they discontinued that service a while ago; Google search results on Android and mobile web have been tailored to local results for the past few years.

Now Google is bringing the power of social to the table by creating Google+ Local. And apparently, they’ve teamed up with the Zagat folks to provide reviews. The new “Local” tab is basically just a search engine for now, pre-filled with local restaurants, stores and other attractions based on your current location. Hard to imagine what Zagat brings to the table in this era of trusted recommendations and social networking, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Samsung Chromebooks

You may be wondering: didn’t Google just buy Motorola? Yes, they did. So why is Samsung building Chromebooks? Good question. And even better: why is the new Chromebook build on Intel processors?

Don’t know. But the Chromebook is not built around hardware at all: the paradigm seems to be a more robust version of the mobile application world we’re slowly moving towards anyway. Rather than installing apps, however, the Chromebook relies on cloud services such as – da dum!!! – Google Drive to manage your software and content.

Price is pretty reasonable for this small form factor laptops – the most powerful of which comes in at $379 on NewEgg. Though I don’t suppose there’s much reason to want more hard drive space on a computer built to not use the hard drive?


More SOPA to come? Google to publicly document content delisted for copyright infringement

Is this transparency, or is the pressure in Washington heating to a boil?

The Official Google Blog today announces that – as they phrase it – their commitment to transparency, they will now be publishing all content that has been removed from their search results as a result of a copyright infringement challenge. They further report that they get an average of 250,000 such requests per week:

We’re starting with search because we remove more results in response to copyright removal notices than for any other reason. So we’re providing information about who sends us copyright removal notices, how often, on behalf of which copyright owners and for which websites. As policymakers and Internet users around the world consider the pros and cons of different proposals to address the problem of online copyright infringement, we hope this data will contribute to the discussion.

“Proposals” include PIPA, SOPA and a suite of other draconian policies laid out by greedy entertainment industry lawyers and their toadies in the various halls of power around the globe. A website that centralizes all data on just how abusive one company or another might be in pursuing copyright “infringement” cases would be illuminating indeed. Significantly, Google says they plan on starting their data dumps with July 2011 data, just a few months prior to the introduction of SOPA in the US House of Representatives.

But then, what Google accepts and does not accept as copyright infringement is itself subject to scrutiny. Do they really publish everything, or do they vet the released data? Time will tell.


Google announces its Motorola Mobile purchase is complete, hints at NFC payment future

The deal has been a long time coming, but on Google’s official blog, Larry Page has announced that they’ve acquired Motorola Mobility. The post also notes that the long-time CEO of Mobility, Sanjay Jha, will be stepping down and replaced by a Googler, Dennis Woodside.

And as much as we’ve all known that NFC payments have been a long-term goal of Google, the way Page chooses to end his post is particularly interesting:

It’s a well known fact that people tend to overestimate the impact technology will have in the short term, but underestimate its significance in the longer term. Many users coming online today may never use a desktop machine, and the impact of that transition will be profound–as will the ability to just tap and pay with your phone. That’s why it’s a great time to be in the mobile business, and why I’m confident Dennis and the team at Motorola will be creating the next generation of mobile devices that will improve lives for years to come.

So, Page seems to think that PC is going away. I’m not sure that’s an altogether good thing, as losses of form factors go. But I’ll save that for another post. The point here is: Google clearly plans to go full-steam-ahead with NFC in their new phones. How long will we wait to get our hands on those?


Nielsen puts Google, Facebook, YouTube and Apple at the top of the heap

The Nielson ratings agency has released its 2011 review of the biggest names in tech, and the list is.. not at all surprising.

The biggest brands in tech are Google, Facebook and Yahoo! (ok, one surprise), toping out at 153k unique visitors a month for Google. Unique visitors are people who visit a site for the first time in a day. Subsequent visits by the same user are not counted in this tally. Facebook’s 137k uniques earn them the top slot in the social network competition, with really no particular competition at all, Blogger coming in at a paltry 45k and Twitter at a nearly-embarrassing 23k.

Interesting to note, however, that Google+ made the grade in social with 8k uniques.

The video category holds no surprises, with YouTube winning handily, followed by VEVO and Facebook. Really, when you put together social networking, the Google home page and video, Google seems to swamp the competition in the terms of this review, which is page views.

One interesting note: Blackberry still holds the #3 slot among smartphone manufacturers, which is surprising, given the dirges played for RIM at every hour, seemingly on the hour.

Nielsen’s Tops of 2011: Digital | Nielsen Wire.

Technology Wackiness

Google gives you the Chris Cringle jingle

In years past, everybody had to write out their own letters from Santa for their kids. But not this year! Google’s getting into the act by creating Santa’s very own Google Voice phone number and also the ability to create your very own personalized messages from Santa Claus.

Options for the phone message include funny “pet names” for you and your intended recipient, Santa knowing what their profession is, what they want for Christmas (including underwear and stiletto heels!) and a bunch of other wacky business.

Official Google Blog: Ho-ho-hold the phone: Santa’s on the line.


Google Reader goes the Way of the Plus

As we go, Google makes more and more products conform to its new Google Plus look-and-feel, pushing what seems less like a bid to add a new product to the social media sphere and more like a complete transformation of both Google and social networking. This morning, my Google Reader made the switch, which I had trepidations about, but so far it looks pretty decent:

Changes to the front page balance the new white space aesthetic with plenty of info

Because Google Reader is central to what I do online, I was more than a little worried about this change, but as you can see, the look is actually a lot cleaner and tighter. The white space aesthetic of the new Google Plus layout actually makes things a lot easier to read without sacrificing too much space on the screen.

And the +1 button has been added to each article, making it possible to share articles directly to Google Plus without any intermediary steps:

Click the +1 button to share right away.
The sharing window, which should look fairly familiar to anyone whose been using Google Plus for the past few months.

Am I going to start sharing articles with my G+ friends like this? Well, a couple things jump out at me as limitations. First of all, while sharing an article manually usually also allows you the opportunity to select the thumbnail to display along with the article, this new system does not appear to allow that. Also, I live and die as a link blogger and social media presence by measuring click-throughs from my articles, but Google+ so far has no such metrics and does not allow me to specify a shortening service. I’m fairly dependent these days on being able to shorten and analyze through

Over all, I would say the new changes are a success, though they are also largely cosmetic. But cosmetic changes to many other systems (Facebook? I’m looking in your direction) have been a lot more disruptive in bad ways to the user experience than this one is. So far. But there’s lots more to do to make it really great.

And if you’d like to join me on Google+, my profile is here.