Nik's Technology Blog

Travels through programming, networks, and computers

The Rise and Fall of User Generated Content?

Another day another ludicrous allegation about cyberspace. Apparently..."The vast majority of blogs on top social websites contain potentially offensive material."

This was the conclusion of a ScanSafe commissioned report, which claims sites such as MySpace, YouTube and Blogger which are a "hit" among children can hold porn or adult language. According to the report 1 in 20 blogs contains a virus or some sort of malicious spyware.

The Problem?

User generated content is to blame of course; because of the nature of how the content is built and edited it makes it very difficult to control and regulate.


Even if you were to monitor every post on a website as part of your process, how would you clarify whether a particular portion of text, or Photoshopped image has violated anyone's copyright or intellectual property?


This is a problem the big search engines have as well. With so many SPAM sites scrapping content from other sites, then republishing the resulting mashed content as their own work in order to cash-in on affiliate income generated from SERPS. Is Google working on a solution to stem this SPAM?

EU Intellectual Property Ruling

Another potential blow to websites which rely on user generated content is the European Union ruling on intellectual property which is making its way through the ratification process. This could see ISP's and website owners being charged for copyright infringements even if the data was posted by users of the site.

The Rel Attribute in HTML

The rel attribute is available for use in a few HTML tags namely the <link> and <a> anchor tags, but until recently it has been fairly pointless to use because web browsers did not support the intended functionality of most of the values you could assign to the rel attribute.

The rel attribute has been around since HTML 3 specifications and defines the relationship between the current document and the document specified in the href attribute of the same tag. If the href attribute is missing from the tag, the rel attribute is ignored.

For example:
<link rel="stylesheet" href="styles.css">

In this example the rel attribute specifies that the href attribute contains the stylesheet for the current document.
This is probably the only recognised and supported use of the rel attribute by modern web browsers and by far the most common use for it to date.
There are other semantic uses for the rel tag, beyond those which a browser might find useful; such examples include social networking, and understanding relationships between people; see http://gmpg.org/xfn/intro, the other use which has been talked a lot about recently concerns search engine spiders.

Search Engines and the rel Attribute

Recently Google has played a big part in finding another use for the rel attribute. This time the HTML tag in question was the humble anchor tag.
Google and the other major search engines (MSN and Yahoo!) have a constant battle with SERP SPAM which clutter their results and make them less useful. These pages make their way into the top results pages by using black hat SEO methods such as automated comment SPAM, link farms etc.
Rather than adopt a complex algorithm to determine these SPAM links which increase target pages search engine vote sometimes called "Page Rank" or "Web Rank", the search engines (Google, MSN and Yahoo!) have collectively decided that if blogging software, big directories and general links pages etc use anchor tags with a rel="nofollow" attribute those links will simply be ignored by search engine spiders, yet still be fully functional for end users.
Of course using rel="nofollow" does not mean the links are deemed as bad in any way, every link on a blog comment will be treated in the same fashion. The webmaster is essentially saying

"this link was not put here by me, so ignore it and do not pass any "link juice" on to it".

More on nofollow by Search Engine Watch.

Putting Webmasters in Control

Putting this kind of control in the webmasters hands hasn't been without controversy. People will always try to experiment with ways of manipulating the intended outcome to favour their own goals, such as using nofollow internally in their site etc. Others have welcomed the move as a way of reducing the problem of spamming.

Dollar - Pound Exchange Rate Hits British Web Publishers

The British Pound broke through the physiological barrier of $2 yesterday due to the relative strength of the British economy. For us Brits this has some advantages like cheap shopping trips to New York, and some negatives such as companies who export goods to the US will suffer due to their goods becoming more expensive to American importers.

It also affects British web publishers who earn money from American companies. Affiliate programs like Google's Adsense, Amazon Associates etc are all paid in US dollars. Some schemes have the option of holding payments, but with the weakening economy in the US this exchange rate might be with us for some time.

Wi-Fi hacking - 2 Cautioned by UK Police

For the first time in the UK two people have been cautioned by police for accessing wireless broadband connections without permission. Both cases were detected by suspicious behaviour in cars parked in the vicinity and not through electronic means.
Both people were warned for dishonestly obtaining electronic telecoms with intent to avoid payment.

Most wireless routers come without Wi-Fi encryption turned on by default, leaving unsavvy users open to this kind of abuse.
Most broadband ISP terms and conditions state that you cannot share your broadband connection with your neighbours etc, therefore all related activity on your connection is connected with you.
Due to recent laws, ISPs have to keep records of your Internet activity for a number of years. If authorised people are accessing your connection and using it for illegal practices then how would you prove your innocence?

Recently news has come out that anti-piracy companies are monitoring P2P traffic, using a modified version of Shareaza they are automatically sending your IP to your ISP demanding your details if it detects that pirated material is being downloaded. Some people have questioned whether an IP is enough evidence to connect a person with a crime, especially considering these cases of drive-by Wi-Fi hacking.

Is there still a place for site newsletters in the web 2.0 world?

More and more sites are adopting XML syndication technologies such as RSS and ATOM which users can subscribe to.

Pull Technology

Rather than being a push technology like email newsletters, RSS is a pull technology. The subscriber is in full control of the subscription, the publisher does not have a relationship with the subscriber, or need to know their email address. This makes unsubscribing very easy and because you don't need to supply an email you do not need to worry whether your details will be sold on by unscrupulous companies.

RSS Adoption

XML syndication has been around for over 5 years or so, but in the early days the RSS readers available weren't up to scratch, so it took a while for the technology to gather momentum. Nowadays there are plenty of good readers, such as Bloglines, Google Reader etc, which are very polished products that support all the major formats.

RSS Advertising

The last nail in the email newsletters coffin will be the adoption of RSS advertising into the mainstream. Currently Google and Yahoo! are performing tests with advertising on these syndication formats. As soon as these are released the already strong relationship Google has with publishers will allow it to rapidly make RSS very lucrative for website publishers.

Syndication Analytics

Until recently publishers syndicating their content via RSS had a hard time analysing their circulation, that's where companies such as Feedburner have found a niche and continue to provide publishers with additional services on top of basic subscription tracking.

Syndication SPAM

Of course syndicating your content is just another method of publishing. First you had paper, then HTML now XML. You can't irradiate SPAM with RSS, people can set up SPAM blogs etc, but it's the subscribers who are in control of their subscriptions. So as a publisher you know that your 500 subscribers reported by your RSS analytics product of choice are actively reading your content or else they'd simply click to unsubscribe from within their RSS reader application. Compare that to a database of registered subscribers dating back several years; are those users viewing your newsletter in their preview pane and pressing delete rather than unsubscribing via an unsubscribe link?

Content is King

The old adage that 'content is King' is truer than ever with RSS syndication. The problem with giving such power to the subscriber is that your content needs to be top-notch in order to keep your subscribers subscribing. Even though there are guidelines specifying opt-out and unsubscribe methods and practices, which newsletter senders must adhere to, the fact is unsubscribing from RSS is far easier and is not reliant on differing geographic data protection laws.

Cybersquatters lose out after Royal break-up

Such was the certainty that Prince William and Kate Middleton were to get married that even high street stores has begun stocking their shelves with commemorative gifts. Now it's all over for the couple, I feel for all the cybersquatters that bought-up all available Kate and Wills domain names in the hope that they could cash in on what was to be the next Royal wedding. Perhaps it wasn't such easy money after all...

It's not only people in the public eye that fall foul of cybersquatting. Big organisations like Microsoft have similar problems and these squatters are cashing in on the brands and trademarks or other companies by duping users into clicking adverts on these sites after visiting them by typing in slight variations of the real URL.

Does Twittering have a place in Business?

Is there supposed to be a point behind Twittering I asked myself? The Twitter.com site is pretty scarce on describing a particular use for it's service apart from "What are you doing now?". Maybe not limiting it's boundaries is part of it's success?

I'm always willing to try out new technology, I'd describe myself as an early adopter. Now I'm not saying I won't ever sign up and be a fellow Twitter myself in the near future, but from the outside, and without experiencing it firsthand I can't see why anybody would be interested in a rolling commentary of what some other individual is doing right now. I guess if you're into instant messaging (IM) or texting and want to let all your friends or family know what you're up to broadcast fashion, that might be a powerful tool. I'm guessing adding a Twitter to a myspace.com page would be the best place to put this kind of information.

Celebrity Tweets

A celebrity Twitter on the other hand might be extremely popular in this celebrity obsessed world we live in. Just imagine the sort of Tweets Paris Hilton would send from her Sidekick cell phone! And the hoards of followers that would subscribe.

What about Twitter use in a business environment?

Blogs, instant messaging and texting have all been adopted by the businesses and they all started out in the consumer space, but what business problems could they solve?

I can see them being used internally inside companies for staff to keep line managers updated on what tasks they are working on. After all Microsoft amongst others have found business uses for IM.
Public Relations could be another use, as could musicians and bands keeping their loyal fans up-to-date on tour etc.

To Feedburn or not to Feedburn?

I've decided to try out Feedburner. We use RSS to syndicate content at work and have to use server log file analysis to track them, web-beacon based web analytics packages are good for websites, but you can't add Javascript to feeds, which are pure XML. We've tried using .NET to database the hits we were getting on the feeds, but after a short while of testing we were seeing our database growing quickly in front of our eyes, not to mention consuming our precious CPU cycles.

Feedburner not only takes away the hassle of analysing web feed statistics and subscribers, but adds a lot of other functionality too.

My main initial issues with Feedburner were the following:

* What if Feedburner went bankrupt? All the sites syndicating my feed would be using the feedburner URL (unless I pay for the Pro service). How would I be able to change this back to my own URL or another Feedburner type URL? (hopefully saying goodbye to Feedburner would also still hold true if they went bankrupt?) [UPDATED: On June 1st 2007 Google purchased Feedburner, therefore making bankruptcy much less likely :-) ]

* I can't redirect any current traffic from my old Blogger Atom feed on my shared Windows hosting as I don't have access to IIS through my control panel. The file is an .xml file, and I can't use .htaccess for obvious reasons. I would need to use an ISAPI rewrite tool I suppose, which I probably wouldn't be able to get installed in a hosted environment.

* If I want to later upgrade to the Pro service, I would surely have to keep my Feedburner URL even though I could have a URL hosted on my site with this package just so I keep all my subscribers using the same feed URL. (I guess I could use the "saying goodbye to Feedburner" process above?)

Despite these issues, I've decided that the pros of knowing my subscribers etc out way the cons and I'm now syndicating through Feedburner!

I am wondering however, how Feedburner manage to host so many blogs. I assume they have some serious kit to handle the many requests they get. I would be interested to know what the Feedburner IT infrastructure looks like.

My Blog Is Biased

I've just been reading this article that discusses Blog biases and it made me wonder what mine would be biased towards. Biased opinions aren't necessarily a bad thing and unlike the BBC or other large media outlets who claim to be unbiased, blogs are mostly individuals views of the world. Blogging has made everyone with a computer or a mobile phone a journalist. It's this user-generated content that is powering the "web2.0" revolution.
So, because I'm the only contributor to my blog, and biases are generally formed throughout life based on influences and experiences encountered I can make some good general statements about my biased opinion.

  • Proprietary software or hardware that specifically locks the user into a companies products is bad for the consumer (e.g DRM, Sony ATRAC etc).
  • Open-source software, because it gives power to developers, and free software is always a good thing.
  • Microsoft Windows, because even though it has a stranglehold on the OS market, they still make rather good software, much of which is proprietary, but because so many people have it, the user experience is good, and firms require you to have experience using it.
  • Linux, because we always need an alternative to Windows just for us geeks.
  • Xbox 360, because I since my analogue cassette Walkman in the 80's Sony has done nothing but lock the consumer into its goods using proprietary software and hardware, and I want the PlayStation 3 to fail.
  • Companies that don't listen to their customers needs.
  • Websites that are designed for search engines and not users.
  • Services that make my life easier are definitely a good thing!
  • HD DVD wars; Does the consumer really want to buy another Betamax?
  • Hardware after-sales support. You got my money, now can I have a Vista driver without upgrading hardware less than a year old?
This list has turned into more of a rant and rave about how we've slowing began to accept more and more shoddy service from companies who take our money and run. If I think of anything else I'll be sure to update my list. :-)

ASP.NET Web Accessibility and Visual Studio 2005

I've been using Visual Studio 2005 on a recent project and was surprised that even though it is supposed to feature lots of web accessiblity tools and options, they don't seem to be turned on by default. I'll bring you an example to back this up.
I created a new ASP.NET page, essentially it was a simple form, which when submitted sent an email; similar to a contact form if you like. The form was built within an HTML table, with ASP:Label controls to hold the textbox definitions.
On viewing the page in a browser and examining the source code, I noticed that the ASP:Label controls are converted to HTML <span> tags, which is a little bizarre. After a little research I found that if you use the AssociatedControlID property of the ASP:Label to link to the related textbox the HTML source code produced now uses an HTML <label> tag.
I also figured out that using the ToolTip property of the ASP:Label control renders as the title property of the HTML label tag.

So the following ASP.NET source code:

<asp:Label ID="LblDayMovedOut" runat="server" ToolTip="Day Moved Out" AssociatedControlID="DayMovedOut">
<asp:DropDownList ID="DayMovedOut" runat="server"></asp:DropDownList>
</asp:Label>
<asp:Label ID="LblMonthMovedOut" runat="server" ToolTip="Month Moved Out" AssociatedControlID="MonthMovedOut">
<asp:DropDownList ID="MonthMovedOut" runat="server"></asp:DropDownList>
</asp:Label>
<asp:Label ID="LblYearMovedOut" runat="server" ToolTip="Year Moved Out" AssociatedControlID="YearMovedOut">
<asp:DropDownList ID="YearMovedOut" runat="server"></asp:DropDownList>
</asp:Label>


Would render the following bloated, but accessible HTML:

<label for="ctl00_ContentPLaceHolder_DayMovedOut" id="ctl00_ContentPLaceHolder_LblDayMovedOut" title="Day Moved Out">
<select name="ctl00$ContentPLaceHolder$DayMovedOut" id="ctl00_ContentPLaceHolder_DayMovedOut">
</select>
</label>
<label for="ctl00_ContentPLaceHolder_MonthMovedOut" id="ctl00_ContentPLaceHolder_LblMonthMovedOut" title="Month Moved Out">
<select name="ctl00$ContentPLaceHolder$MonthMovedOut" id="ctl00_ContentPLaceHolder_MonthMovedOut">
</select>
</label>
<label for="ctl00_ContentPLaceHolder_YearMovedOut" id="ctl00_ContentPLaceHolder_LblYearMovedOut" title="Year Moved Out">
<select name="ctl00$ContentPLaceHolder$YearMovedOut" id="ctl00_ContentPLaceHolder_YearMovedOut">
</select>
</label>