Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Auto login in XP

I'm making this post as much for my own sake as much as it is for anyone else. A lot of my clients still use Windows XP and one client in particular doesn't want users to have to log into their machines. He doesn't want the inconvenience of the login screen.

I still have to use User Accounts as they're used to manage file sharing elsewhere on the system so I set each computer to login automatically using a default account.

The default user for automatic login is set in the other User control panel which is found by going to start/ run and entering 'CONTROL USERPASSWORDS2'.

Surely the Google spider ignores nofollow? | The 3 golden rules of SEO are more important now than ever.

I was in London yesterday speaking at a seminar being held by the rather exciting and excellent web development company ‘Pixl8’, I was there to help demonstrate their marvellous and insightful ways to a collection of possible future clients and current clients.

One of the other speakers was a rather interesting chap called David Hollands-Hurst, the founder of the Search Engine Marketing experts a451. Unsurprisingly he was there to laud the inbuilt SEO (search engine optimisation) capabilities of Pixl8’s CMS (content management system) ‘Preside’.

David confirmed a lot of our current thinking (because SEO tends to be largely theory based) about what’s currently the best way to rise above the chaff (and competitors) in the search engine rankings. As we well know the days of SEO gimmicks like doorway pages (and other dangerous pursuits that are more likely to get you dropped from listings than rewarded by them) are long gone.

Three golden rules of SEO
For your website to perform well in today’s search engine listings you need to adhere closer than ever to the three golden rules of SEO (this is my own simplistic introduction);
  • Build your site correctly Code it correctly, and make sure it passes W3C validation. Google have also been hinting that how fast a site loads will impact on its ranking.
  • Generate high quality useful content - Content is still king! Regularly add useful content to your site, don’t change your site around for the sake of it, search engines need to see you as an essential resource for their customers and don’t take kindly to you trying to manipulate their results!
  • Develop useful and relevant quality inbound links Don’t bother amassing thousands of irrelevant links to your site, it’s a waste of time and could even damage your ranking. At worst a sudden surge in irrelevant inbound links could be seen by search engines as you trying to spam their results.

Social Networking and inbound links.
The bulk of David Hollands-Hurst’s presentation focussed on the importance of social networking with regards to your inbound link building campaign. I won’t go into detail, if you want to know more then I recommend contacting David’s company a451 as they can tell you far more than I can!

David told a fascinated room about the benefits of spreading content around the various social networking sites, all with a keen eye on how they link back to your own website. Something that piqued my interest was David’s mention of media/ content heavy sites like Blogger (the platform I use for this blog) and Flickr.

For years I have been making useful and insightful comments on content created by other people on these websites. Primarily this has been either just for fun or for shameless self-promotion. In the last few months I had slowed down a little in my comment campaigns upon discovering that a lot of forums (and most definitely Flickr) append any links I leave with the HTML attribute rel=’nofollow’.

Nofollow 101
Nofollow is a HTML attribute developed (conceptually at least) by Google themselves. The idea behind nofollow is that it acts as a brake for search engine spiders, it quite literally means that if a spider finds a nofollow link it won’t follow it. Nofollow is a dead end, a full stop, thereby linking to your site from a nofollow link won’t help your rankings at all.

The nofollow attribute came about partly as a way of stopping spammers from trashing forums and comment boxes around the web. I have used it on a forum I run in Ipswich as it makes it clear to spammers that they’ll be wasting their time leaving their filthy business on your site.

The nofollow catch 22
It is common knowledge that with the virulent rise in social networking search engines will have to factor in the amount of noise and chatter surrounding your website in the social networking world when gauging how important you are to their users. Google have come right out and made it clear they will definitely be paying attention to this chatter.

Google will have to use their spiders to figure out how many links you have coming to you from the world of social networking, but if the majority of links to your site have the nofollow attribute then how will that work? Have Google really shot themselves in the foot by encouraging websites to use nofollow? Have they slammed the door on their own spiders?

The short answer is ‘probably not’; logic dictates that Google are more likely to ignore nofollow than they are to adhere to it. They have to, how else would they gauge the importance of your web presence?

The conclusion
I’ve decided to ignore nofollow for now, and to carry on what I’ve been doing for the last few months and continue to organically and slowly increase the number of inbound links to my websites through useful comments on social networking sites.
I’ve written a blog post going into some more detail on leaving useful comments on third party sites for the purposes of SEO here -

You can read more about the nofollow attribute here -

Find out more about a451 here -

Comments on social networking sites for the purpose of SEO, and how Google Alerts can do some of the ground work for you.

The key word here is useful – spammy comments on social networking and blog sites will be deleted (or simply not approved). If you post the same comment on every third party site then the search engines will spot your game immediately. If you make comments on websites that are useful to the other users of the site then you’re less likely to cause offence.

If you’re particularly knowledgeable you may even start to be seen as a useful member of the community and encouraged to get more involved. Don’t forget that these comments you’re leaving also have the potential to bring you organic traffic -people that click on the links you leave – so be useful and be interesting! Leaving useless comments can also reflect negatively on your brand, so be careful.

How to figure out where to post comments
I use the free Google Alerts service to find out where in the blogosphere people are talking about the keywords that I am targeting. These alert emails will often cover ground they have previously churned up, so it’s important to think carefully before charging off to leave your mark.

But is leaving comments for SEO advancement evil or unethical?
No I don’t think it is – I thought long and hard about whether to make this post and share this technique but I decided that as it requires a lot of thought and (like all good SEO) isn’t a quick fix then it isn’t unethical. If you were to use software or a script to leave comments then it would most definitely be evil SEO, and you would probably be punished by being dropped from rankings, and quite rightly so!

It’s my opinion that contributing to the usefulness of the web is at the very heart of good SEO practice, and it’s an opinion that is re-enforced by the results it yields.

There is a HTML attribute called ‘nofollow’ that impacts on this plan, I’ve written a blog post about it here -

Friday, November 13, 2009

Mercedes 230TE (W124) stalls when slowing down/ braking (at traffic lights and on slow corners etc).

A couple of weeks ago I picked up a 1991 Mercedes 230TE (W124) estate car for just over £500, it was a cheap price and as the current owner had put a year’s MOT and tax on it I considered this car purchase a tolerable risk. The tax alone is worth nearly £200.

I chose the Mercedes W124 because of its legendary reliability; it is the last of the truly over engineered ‘built to last’ Mercedes. The W124 hails from an age before Mercedes started competing with the influx of cheap Japanese cars that were flooding the market. In fact legend has it that the engine of the W124 Mercedes was designed to last for one million miles! This puts the fact that the example I have bought has done 170,000 miles into some perspective. 170,000 is also fairly low mileage for a 230TE that is nearly twenty years old.

The Mercedes W124 are also incredibly comfortable and most examples have an automatic gearbox. I haven’t owned a car for over a year and this beast of a motor serves as the perfect antidote to the tiny Daihatsu Hi-jet my wife owns (and sometimes lets me drive).

Part of the reason the car was as reasonably priced is that there is an intermittent fault, although since I picked the car up the fault has been less intermittent and more permanent.

The problem
The car stalls when slowing to a halt, in much the same way as a manual car would if you forgot to put the clutch down just before coming to a complete standstill. My Mercedes will also stall when slowing hard on the brakes, essential when going round a slow urban corner.

I’ve never owned an automatic transmission car before, in fact I’ve only ever driven an auto twice in my life, both times in America (and on the ‘wrong’ side of the road). When the engine first stalled out it took me swiftly to panic stations. The fact the handbrake is operated by a foot pedal and released by a pull handle on the dashboard only confused the situation.

Now the car stalls every time I have to hold down the brakes when going less than ten miles an hour, its damned inconvenient but I’m a fairly calm sort of chap and (so far) other road users have been quite tolerant of my unscheduled stops. But this MUST be fixed, in this state the car is quite simply unusable and is verging on being unfit for the roads.

Restarting the engine is never a problem, but when it’s stalled three or four times in a few hundred yards the smell of petrol can get a bit rich. I’m also sure the engine starts to flood a little, which really won’t help the problem.

The previous owner of my car was a Mercedes fanatic; he had personal plates on this car and kept it maintained above and beyond the call of duty. This was probably partly due to the fact the previous owner makes a living selling Mercedes W124 parts online. My 230TE was not bought from some wide-boy who had thrashed the car to within an inch of its life.

In trying to solve the problem the previous owner replaced (with genuine Mercedes parts) the alternator, the HT leads and a whole bunch of other stuff, but all to no avail. As the fault is intermittent he was unable to get the car to a mechanic while the fault was occurring. In his own defence he admitted quite candidly that he sells Mercedes parts, he is not a Mercedes mechanic.

The solution
Well I haven’t found a solution just yet, and I will keep posting updates on this page until I do.

I called out the friendly mobile mechanic (Kevin) who keeps my wife’s Daihatsu Hi-jet on the road and bar tightening a loose hose (he found under the air filter) he was unable to offer much help. It’s not to say he didn’t try; he pointed out that a small hole in the exhaust was probably affecting the amount of CO2 in the engine, and until I got that hole fixed it might prove something of an obstacle to diagnosis. He recommend a local independent Mercedes specialist and I duly booked the car in for repair of said hole. As I sit writing this up that appointment hasn’t happened yet (it’s Friday and it’s booked in for this coming Monday).

Having owned several old and character full cars in the past I learned long ago just own valuable Internet forums are in solving problems. Forums bring together hundreds (if not thousands) of people all interested in the same car as you. Wherever there are these thousands of enthusiasts there will always be plenty of people that have found themselves facing the same difficulties that you are trying to solve.

Some helpful people over on the W124 section of the site feel sure that this stalling/ engine cutting problem is due to a problem with the OVP (over voltage protector). This small device that can be found lurking behind the battery stops electrical surges from blowing out parts of the car’s systems that would be expensive to replace. The fuse on top of the OVP was fine, but the users of the forum inform me that over time water leaks into the OVP unit somewhat diminishing its effectiveness.
The previous owner had his suspicions that the stalling at low speed was being caused by a vacuum leak, but this idea was soundly poo pooed by our friendly Merc geeks on the forum; they pointed out I’d be having all kinds of other horrid problems, which I’m not.

Here's the thread over on that forum...

A quick chat with the parts people at my local Mercedes dealership (preceded by lots of long confused phone calls with local scrap merchants/ breakers yards) revealed that a brand new OVP unit could be mine for just £70. At this price I decided to take the risk of replacing what might be an already working part and jumped in my car and headed across town to hand over some cash to said franchise holder. Pausing only to stall ten or eleven times of course. So now I’m the (proud?) owner of a brand new Mercedes OVP unit, and tomorrow morning I’m going to fit it and see what happens, I’ll report back here of course.

Update - 14/11/09
The new OVP relay was very easy to fit, in fact I don’t think I’ve ever done any work on a car that was so brief and easy. I took the car for a spin to see if it would still stall. I held the brakes on corners, held the brakes at traffic lights and generally did everything I could to make it stall and it didn’t. I was feeling cautiously optimistic, and decided to go to our local farm shop to buy some gourmet mayonnaise (I tell you this, because sometimes details are important) and had to hold the brakes for an age waiting to turn into the entrance. Shudder, poot, the engine stalled.

I gave up on buying Mayo and headed home. My optimistic side is trying to tell me that the stalling problem wasn’t as bad, but my pessimistic side is telling me that if the Mercedes specialists can’t fix this problem on Monday then I may have to sell the car. I’ve only had it two weeks and have only done 115 miles, and 100 of those were the drive from where I bought it to my home!

Update – 16/11/09

I’m just back from the independent Mercedes specialist ‘Prestige’ in Ipswich with some good news, some bad news and some weird news.

The good news.
The idle circuit air hose was badly split so they taped it up and ordered me a new one, cost is just £12! This will probably almost entirely eradicate the stalling problem. They noted on the diagnosis report that the OVP unit had been replaced, so I feel kinda like I did the right thing in replacing it.

The bad news.
The exhaust manifold is cracked and the oxygen sensor has become one with the rust therein. The catalytic converter is also shagged (my word, not theirs). So there’s air rushing in where air ought not to be rushing in, and the engine is getting all confused and running far too rich (hence the petrol smell I described earlier). The catalytic converter is contributing to the problem by kinda suffocating the engine, thereby twisting the knife that cases the stall. A replacement oxygen sensor will cost about £136.00 (not too bad), a new catalytic converter will cost £1162.00 (oh mercy).

The weird news.
The idle circuit air hose will be fixed within the week, and should almost entirely eradicate the stalling problem, in fact it’s already FAR improved with the Heath Robinson repair they put in place today.

If I’m happy with the performance of the car after the hose has been replaced then fine. If it’s still an issue then they’ll replace the oxygen sensor, mig weld up the holes in the manifold and remove the catalytic converter entirely – it turns out cars as old as mine don’t legally need one! So I’ll feel a little bad that my car is chucking out some nasties into the atmosphere, but that will be nicely balanced by the fact that I’m keeping an old car on the road! Keeping an old car going (to a certain extent) is surely better than buying a brand new car? Replacing the catalytic convertor is quite simply never going to happen, in fact if I was forced by law to replace it I would have to scrap the car as I can’t afford it!

Update 29/11/09
When I took the car in to have the new idle circuit air hose fixed the garage informed me that they’d found a non-Merc catalytic converter for £120. The car does drive better with the new hose but once I’ve started stalling I know the rest of my journey may take ‘some time’.

So I’m going to clear out the remainder of my non-existent W124 budget and buy a new cat £120 (US$200), a new O2 sensor (about the same price) and then pay the garage a few hours labour (at a very reasonable £60 an hour) to fit the parts and weld shut the hole in the manifold.

So fingers crossed this will fix the problem, because if it doesn’t I’m going to be driving this car until the MOT runs out in November then I’ll have to scrap it!

Update 04/12/09
I saved up £500 to get the o2 sensor and the catalytic converter fixed. The split in the manifold also needed sealing up and the garage was also going to attend to that.

I woke up extra early to get the car down the garage, ‘this is the day’ I thought. I cheerfully mused to myself that when all the work was done by the end of today I would have a lovely car that I would keep for years.

With a song in my heart I turned the key in the ignition; well at least I tried to. The key wouldn’t budge and in my attempts to turn it I managed to lock the steering. No amount of gentle jiggling would free the ignition or the steering column so the garage sent out a professional key jiggler but he agreed things were looking grim.

So in addition to the o2 sensor, the catalytic converter and the welding on the manifold I was now in need of a new ignition system, steering lock and steering column parts. Even if I used pattern parts this would add about £350 to the current expected bill of up to £500, this brings me to a total of £850, which if you’ve been following this sorry tale is more than I paid for the car in the first place. So the end has come, the garage are going to recover my car to their premises and rape it off anything valuable in lieu of their bill for today’s work.

So I owned my 230te for thirty days and drove it about eight times. My wallet hurts so bad I can’t sit down without wincing. I haven’t owned a car for a year and a half and then once I had saved up the cash to buy one I just pissed £800 (US$1400) down a big black hole.

I’m done, I can’t afford another car, and considering I’m an IT consultant that has to go on call out this is not what I would call a happy ending.

Rogue anti-virus software – malware warning!

This is an email I sent to my clients in October 2009

I wouldn't normally send out a message warning about a virus - as more often then not emails warning about viruses are more annoying and time consuming than viruses themselves - but there's a real pickle of a virus doing the rounds at the moment that I wanted to warn you about.

I can't give you the name of the rogue program in question as it changes name every few weeks, but I can describe the symptoms;
  • Messages start popping up informing you that you have lots of viruses and spyware infections (the number will probably be 30+)
  • An anti-virus program will keep asking you to register to clear aforementioned problems.
This is a very tough virus to repair, and in some instances we have had to do a complete software rebuild. We are not totally sure how infections are occurring, but as always do not open attachments from emails sent by unknown recipients. If in doubt do not open anything you are not expecting.

I would normally only expect to fix any given virus once, but I have now fixed this virus several times.

In the past this fake anti-virus software has called itself AntiVirus XP, AntiVirus 2009, Antivirus 2010, IE Antivirus and has used many more fairly legitimate sounding names.

For more information visit the 'Rogue Security Software' page on

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Creating iCal files really easily using our online wizard

iCal files could prove them to be the next bit of web technology to breach the line between geeky curiosity and mission critical wonderfulness. New technology is doomed to fail unless the business uses of it become apparently to the decision makers in organisations.

For a while now we’ve been playing with iCal files, there’s something about the ability to place events in user’s Outlook calendars that really appeals to our geekier side. We tinkered with iCal capabilities and spent some time trying to get our clients excited about them, but without an obvious business use (outside of promoting a single specific event) we struggled to inspire client ‘buy in’.

Then (as is often the case with this one particular client) I received a phone call asking the impossible of me. They wanted to send about a thousand people an email containing a special link, when a recipient clicked said link my client wanted every event they’re holding for the entire year to be automatically added to the recipients calendars, be they Outlook, Lotus Notes, iCalendar, Google Calendar or anything else. I say with no hint of sarcasm that I love clients like this, having a direction and a challenge in ones head makes technical explorations so much easy and far more focussed!

iCal files immediately sprang to mind, I had cobbled them together in notepad for single events a few times in the past and they’re an incredibly effective reminder facility when placed in event confirmation emails. I looked into the iCal system a bit more depth and found out I could load a single iCal file with as many events as I wished. One click, for a huge payload.

After much time spent scanning the web for a simple iCal creator that I could recommend to my clients I came to the conclusion that there wasn’t one. If a technology is going to make the leap to the mainstream it MUST be accessible. Industry professionals don’t mind smashing a code file about in notepad, but someone sat at their desk who doesn’t share our peculiar interest in messing with technical mechanics – someone who just wants to get the job done – will not (and never will) invest their time in learning how to tinker with something, they just want it to work. This is why Apple Macs are so popular, and why Linux is still lurking in the shadows.

So with some help from a friendly (and very talented) developer called Liz Warner I set about publishing an online wizard based on the EventCreator system. Liz created a simple to use online wizard to create multiple event iCal files. No programming experience needed, in fact users can be utterly ignorant of the existence of notepad and they’ll still play like a winner with this neat little tool.

Sounds neat, take me to the iCal wizard…

More about iCal files…