Sunday, January 24, 2010

Are spammers hitting Google Alerts now?

I’ve been using the Google Alerts service for many years now, it’s a great way to keep track of where your company or clients are mentioned around the web. If you’ve never used Google Alerts then it’s easy to explain how it works – Google sends you an email to let you know when keywords you’ve chosen in your alerts list appear around the web. You can also specify which type of content you want to be alerted about, this is really useful for SEO campaigns as you can precisely target the sites you need to approach for links.

If you’ve ever read my blog before you’ll probably know that I’m a writer, and because I use the pen name ‘Andrew Culture’ I have a Google alert set up to let me know when I’m mentioned anywhere on the web. If someone reviews something I’ve written then I really want to know about it, you may think it’s vain but the reality is I’m marketing myself as a brand and as with any brand I need to know where it appears.

With increasing frequency the Google alerts emails contain links to websites that don’t appear to mention me at all. Instead the links take me to hastily thrown together pages full of spammy links (casinos, pills etc). When I use my browser’s ‘find’ facility I can never find a mention of my name (or chosen keywords) anywhere on the page. I can only assume the spammers have somehow found a way to fool Google Alerts into thinking keywords have been used on a page when they haven’t.

If spammers are indeed hitting Google Alerts now this means that in reality they’ve found a way to get Google sent their spam emails on their behalf. Because Google is a trusted brand people (including me) are far more willing to open the emails and follow the links. Google alerts is a really useful service, I just hope Google can keep the spammers away from it.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

25 songs to play to a recently landed alien who has never heard earth music before.

I was recently in a pub having a fairly well lubricated* chat with a friend called Kevin who plays in a local band and I was astonished to find out the only big gig he has ever been to was Bryan Adams. I started quoting band names that I assumed everyone knew and with each denial of familiarity my jaw dropped a little lower. I told Kevin I would make an enlightening compilation album for him, he then told me people are always offering to make him compilation albums. I told him I would come through on my promise and make him a compilation album that would cover as many aspects of this wondrous art form we call ‘alternative music’. The very next day (with help from my wife) I did just that. Predictably it turned into two discs, and could probably have expanded to the kind of epic series that is normally sold in monthly instalments and supplied with a free binder. Here’s the running order and the notes I added to each track:

Kev’s Comp Part 1
  1. Crime in Stereo – Everything changes nothing is ever truly lost
    Something peppy to get the disc rolling
  2. Sugarcubes – Chihuahua Bjork’s band when she was still fun!
  3. Sugarcubes – Vitamin More fun!
  4. Gogol Bordello – Oh no Kick up your heels and dance Russian style
  5. Gogol Bordello – 60 Revolutions Carry on dancing Russian style
  6. NoFx – Franco Unamerican Brilliant musicians, brilliant lyrics, NoFx are great all rounders
  7. NoFx – My Vagina Yeah, and they’re also crude and funny
  8. Pansy Division – Dick of death Excellent gay and proud punk rock
  9. The Cling - ??? From a demo I was sent years ago, I have no idea who they were
  10. The Velvet Underground – Sweet Jane Every life should contain a little Velvet Underground
  11. Crime in Stereo – But you are vast An excellent band, not always shouty like the first track!
  12. Against Me – Thrash Unreal One of my all time favourite bands, started shouty then went commercial
  13. Against Me – The Ocean Proof that with a major label deal you can spend to much time in a studio

Kev’s Comp Part 2
  1. High Standard – California Dreaming Awesome Japanese fun
  2. Stereolab – French Disko Guess what, they’re French (sort of)
  3. The Melvins – The Talking Horse Two drummers, three vocals, a ton of brilliance
  4. The Mevlins – A history of bad men My bestest discovery of the whole of 2009
  5. Sound & Shape – The Love Electric See how many styles you can fit into one song
  6. System of a Down – This cocaine makes me feel like I’m on this song Arg, long song titles are a pain in the bum when you’re making a comp
  7. The Sword – Freya Very silly but at the same time utterly fantastic metal
  8. Truckfighters – Atomic Bass led Swedish band with a rubbish name
  9. Black Sabbath – Supernaught One riff to bind them, and in the darkness smite them
  10. These arms are snakes – Red Line Season A real grower of a band, you’ll probably hate this but give it time…
  11. Red Sparrowes – Alone and unaware, the landscape was transformed in front of our eyes What did I just say about long titles? Fantastically epic sounding hangover soothing rock.
  12. P E L I C A N – March into the sea My bestest discovery of the whole of 2008, the drums at the 6 minute mark nearly left marks in my pants, marks of joy and poo, although only nearly (thankfully).

*this chat took place just after I had tried to prove I could rotate a full pint of ale 360 degrees in the palm of my hand, I failed and lost a good portion of my pint of Budvar Black to the table, the floor, my clothes and my friends.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Why you still get spam even although you have a spam filter.

I’m constantly asked by clients why they still get spam when they have a spam filter, the short answer ‘because there’s money to be made from morons’. As long as someone somewhere continues to buy things from spam emails they’ll never go away.

The longer answer is a little more complex but relates back to the same point made above. The spam filter installed on your computer works in conjunction to a spam filter where your emails are hosted as well as complex intelligent filters put in place by the people who provide the rack space for your host’s mail sever, and in some cases by your ISP. There are many links to this anti-spam chain, so how come spam still gets through?

Because spam emails only need a conversion rate of about 0.0001% to be deemed a success spammers have to send out billions of emails. The only way spammers can send out billions of emails is by circumventing the many levels of filtering put in place to stop them, but because there’s so much money to be made in sending spam it stands to reason that it’s worth spammers investing in new and ever more devious ways to get their horrid emails through to you the potential customer. And that’s where the spam cycle comes in;

The Spam Cycle
1.Spam filters get wise to a method being used by spammers and for a little while spam levels reduce
2. Spammers figure out a new way to get around spam filters and pump out billions of emails
Repeat steps 1 and 2 indefinitely

Huckleberry Finn, Henry the Eight and the excellence of innocence in judging character.

It’s a real shame that so many of us see classic literature as something we have forced upon us at school, and if you feel the same way about old books then you’re missing out on some of the funniest texts in existence.

The quote below is taken from Mark Twain’s book ‘Huckleberry Finn’ (originally printed 1884) and echoes the type of humour modern man is still laughing at. Mark Twain is finding humour in mistaken beliefs, and how getting just a few facts wrong can change history’s tale entirely.

‘Huckleberry Finn’ is far darker and more complex that its predecessor ‘Tom Sawyer’ - whereas Tom Sawyer is seen by some as a child’s book Huckleberry Finn tackles some serious subjects (slavery, murder, the futility of violence, religious fraud) and appears to be aimed at a far more adult and intellectual audience.

The scene below takes place while Huck and his comrade (the escaped slave Jim) are floating down the Mississippi on a small raft. Huck has just witnessed their two new travelling companions execute a cruel fraud upon an entire town. These two con men claim through a very thin veil of lies to be a Duke and a King. It’s clear to Huck that they’re not who they claim to be but he lets them indulge in their lies and sees no reason to tell Jim the truth about them either. The Duke and the King are fast asleep and Jim starts to voice doubts about just how royal they really are, giving the opinion that they are ‘rapscallions’. Huck seeks to reassure Jim that they are royalty, and uses his snatched knowledge of history to back up his claims. I find this passage glorious because it has a confusion based on a warped foundation of fact. Huck is nearly right, but to the trusting Jim the details are ultimately irrelevant. I love the fact that Jim patiently listens to Huck and appears to accept that these two tramps could well be Royalty, but unconcerned that these men (within the context of the book) may be his ‘betters’ he complains that they smell bad.

"You read about them once -- you'll see. Look at Henry the Eight; this 'n 's a Sunday-school Superintendent to HIM. And look at Charles Second, and Louis Fourteen, and Louis Fifteen, and James Second, and Edward Second, and Richard Third, and forty more; besides all them Saxon heptarchies that used to rip around so in old times and raise Cain. My, you ought to seen old Henry the Eight when he was in bloom. He WAS a blossom. He used to marry a new wife every day, and chop off her head next morning. And he would do it just as indifferent as if he was ordering up eggs. 'Fetch up Nell Gwynn,' he says. They fetch her up. Next morning, 'Chop off her head!' And they chop it off. 'Fetch up Jane Shore,' he says; and up she comes, Next morning, 'Chop off her head' -- and they chop it off. 'Ring up Fair Rosamun.' Fair Rosamun answers the bell. Next morning, 'Chop off her head.' And he made every one of them tell him a tale every night; and he kept that up till he had hogged a thousand and one tales that way, and then he put them all in a book, and called it Domesday Book -- which was a good name and stated the case. You don't know kings, Jim, but I know them; and this old rip of ourn is one of the cleanest I've struck in history. Well, Henry he takes a notion he wants to get up some trouble with this country. How does he go at it -- give notice? -- give the country a show? No. All of a sudden he heaves all the tea in Boston Harbor overboard, and whacks out a declaration of independence, and dares them to come on. That was HIS style -- he never give anybody a chance. He had suspicions of his father, the Duke of Wellington. Well, what did he do? Ask him to show up? No -- drownded him in a butt of mamsey, like a cat. S'pose people left money laying around where he was -- what did he do? He collared it. S'pose he contracted to do a thing, and you paid him, and didn't set down there and see that he done it -- what did he do? He always done the other thing. S'pose he opened his mouth -- what then? If he didn't shut it up powerful quick he'd lose a lie every time. That's the kind of a bug Henry was; and if we'd a had him along 'stead of our kings he'd a fooled that town a heap worse than ourn done. I don't say that ourn is lambs, because they ain't, when you come right down to the cold facts; but they ain't nothing to THAT old ram, anyway. All I say is, kings is kings, and you got to make allowances. Take them all around, they're a mighty ornery lot. It's the way they're raised."

"But dis one do SMELL so like de nation, Huck."

"Well, they all do, Jim. We can't help the way a king smells; history don't tell no way."

"Now de duke, he's a tolerble likely man in some ways."

"Yes, a duke's different. But not very different. This one's a middling hard lot for a duke. When he's drunk there ain't no near-sighted man could tell him from a king."

And finally no, that’s not a spelling error in the title, Huck refers to ‘Henry the Eight’ in the above conversation.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain, a glorious rediscovery.

I’ve just finished reading ‘Tom Sawyer’ by Mark Twain and I’ve got to say I’ve been totally taken by it. I’ve been making an effort to read the classics of literature but all too often they can be a bit of a chore, but while there are undeniably slow moments in Tom Sawyer I relished every minute detail and hammered through the pages of this book till the end.

Considering Mark Twain’s classic tale was originally published in 1876 the language is surprisingly accessible, but not at the cost of describing a world which is totally foreign to me as a reader in the twenty first century (let alone a reader metropolitan Suffolk as apposed to the American South!)

If (like me) you remember watching the 'Huckleberry Finn and His Friends' TV series on the BBC in the 1980s you’ll be surprised just how true to the book that series was. I was delighted by just how many of the tales in this book I was familiar with. One word of warning though, even although it was originally written as children’s book there are some surprisingly horrifying and traumatic events, not least of which is the gruesome murder that occupies one of the more memorable story strands throughout the book.

Tom Sawyer should not be dismissed as a book for children by any means; while it does catalogue mischief that today’s youth would be astounded by (especially in the light of Madeleine McCann, the Soham Murders and Jamie Bulger) it also documents a lot of the growing pains and passions that the aforementioned youths would easily identify with.
I was delighted to find out that a DVD box set containing all 26 episodes of the 1979 'Huckleberry Finn and His Friends' adaptation that spans both the Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn books. I will be ordering it as soon as I can rustle some pennies together.

The edition of Tom Sawyer I’ve just read is coupled with Huckleberry Finn, and I’m sure I’ll devour it with as much joy as its predecessor.

'Twain Today' blog...

The true story of the worst thief in the world, how he stole from me and how karma kicked him in the arse

This was originally posted by me on the Know Your Product blog some years ago, but it's so good I thought I'd repost it here...

As you may know by now we had a jacket stolen from the shop. This wasn't just any jacket from a huge wholesaler though; this jacket was one of a kind, the only one in the world. When we opened the wife of the chap who made our shop sign (the fantastically talented Jonny Learjet) offered to hand make some clothing for us. So when this jacket was stolen we were totally gutted, it's not like we're a huge chain and it's not like this jacket was one of thousands churned out by a factory in Thailand.

So minus one jacket there I was sat on the door at a show we put on in the Steamboat in Ipswich when a chap and his lass walked up to the door to come in. Not that unusual admittedly, I shuffled on my stool, checked the cash tin and prepared to exchange pleasantries as I relieved them both of three quid in fair exchange for being entertained by four bands. Only this bloke saw me and made a sharp right turn that would have made a rally driver proud, and then proceeded to walk past the pub. Now if you don’t know the Steamboat very well let me explain something; the pub isn’t exactly in town. In fact it’s a fair fifteen minute walk to get there from the town centre, and once you are there there’s nowt else to distract you. It’s right on the river, next to a converted maltings office block, and if you walk past the pub all you have to look forward to is a stumble in the dark for about ten minutes then nothing, wasteland, nada, zilch. So when someone walks up to the door, then apparently decides to explore the local area before settling down for some punk rock, it’s odd to say the least. I turned and frowned at Lee the Steamboat Bar manager who was helping me on the door, I then turned to frown at Graham, my co-promoter. Only Graham wasn’t showing the time honored nonchalant raised eyebrow expression that befits all Steamboat oddities, his expression was more akin to someone who has just seen a ghost, a ghost wearing stolen goods…

About twenty seconds later said punter discovered that there really is nothing past the Steamboat and tried to sneak his way back past the front door. Sneaking isn’t really an option here, there’s nothing for about thirty feet in any direction from the front door of the Steamboat, and it’s on a corner! As the walking lunk walked back past I clocked his jacket, or should I say OUR jacket and turned to Graham to mirror his stunned expression.

One thing I’ve always admired about Graham (especially as we’re in a band together) is his sense of timing. This won through yet again as he asked me if I was going to do anything about bringing about closure on the current situation rather than sitting with a similar expression on my face as when I attempt mental maths. Well admittedly those weren’t his actual words, they were far more colourful and Saxon in origin.

At this point I was so stunned that I didn’t really know what to do next, so I ran out of the door and camera in hand I darted up behind the line of cars that was the other side of the pavement that jacket man was now making a speedy exit on, and prepared to jump out at him, immortalising the moment in photo form forever. I crouched behind a van, double checked my camera and estimating the loping speed of our perpetrator I leapt out, with an itchy finger on the shutter trigger. But nothing, he’d gone.

Fortunately he had only gone from my eye line, when I returned to the pub to announce that I had been outwitted I spotted Lee (the bar manager) chatting with a very sullen faced young chap. I was totally bewildered as to what one should do in a situation like this so I let Lee take the lead, but not before I had taken great care to get the perfect photograph of the situation.

Lee informed the very pouty chap that stood before us that the jacket he was wearing was the only one of its kind in the world, and it had in fact been stolen. The responses were mostly monosyllabic and can’t have been interesting or relevant enough for me to remember. Given a chance to think, the only reply that was spluttered forth was, “man, this is gay, I bought this jacket off a mate, gay”. He seemed to use the gay an awful lot, maybe he was pinching stuff to reassure a fragile grasp of his own sexuality? Lee offered jacket man two choices, he could return the jacket and walk home in the freezing cold, or we could call the police and have him arrested for handing stolen goods. The word gay was mumbled a few more times and the jacket was returned.

I do remember this bloke coming into the shop on the day the jacket went missing. I thought something was a bit odd at the time as he was an avid Splitknot fan and appeared to be older than 12 years old. That just doesn’t add up.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

How to play an electric bass with a bow

'Playing my electric bass guitar with a bow can't be that hard' I thought to myself a few weeks ago, and it turns out I was right. With just a couple of pointers you too can pretend you're some kind of prog genius by making odd screeching noises with your bass guitar. Actually in all seriousness it sounds pretty cool when you do it right, after all Leo Fender just turned a double bass on its side and shrunk the scale when he made the first electric bass so it kinda makes sense.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Twitter, Twuffer and promoting your company newsletter.

If you’re already familiar with email newsletters and Twitter then feel free to skip to ‘the solution’.

The given
Using a company newsletter has long been established as a great way to promote your business. In recent years many companies have turned to email newsletter marketing to reach a wide audience for a relatively low initial investment – whereas sending out a printed newsletter to a few thousand readers can cost about the same amount as a small family car, sending an email newsletter to the same number of recipients can cost as little as a reasonably priced meal for one at your local takeaway. I really shouldn’t write these articles on an empty stomach.

The problem.

The advantage of using email newsletters over traditional ones is that they allow us to gather a lot of data on how information contained within is digested by the recipient. A printed newsletter may languish in its sealed envelope under a pile of ignored paper for months, but within hours of sending an email newsletter we know exactly who has read it, what time and date they read it, and even which links within the newsletter they clicked on. It’s marketing gold.

But there’s always been a problem, something of a lump of steak in the vegan stew you might say, if you were as hungry as I am right now. People on your mailing list can be considered as ‘knowns’; they already know who you are, and you already know who they are because they’re on your mailing list. That’s assuming of course you’re not stuck in 1998 and are still adding people to your mailing list without their consent on the off chance they won’t mind (you’re very wrong).

Even if your ‘knowns’ adore your newsletter and greedily gobble up every tasty morsel of information contained there in – like one might a large box of fancy chocolates – you’re still not reaching a new audience. You’re selling yourselves to hungry diners who are already familiar with your menu, and while that’s fine you can get more mileage out of your newsletter with just a little bit of effort and no financial investment.

The solution

All companies know they should have an account on but few know what to do with it once they have signed up. Too many companies post once every few months to inform the world that they’ve just hovered the office or are heading out to lunch (or something non-food related but equally irrelevant and dull). That’s impressing nobody, least of all anyone who hasn’t previously heard of your company; these people are your ‘unknowns’. There’s an easy way to reach these unknowns using Tweets (Twitter posts) that will appeal to them. For example; if someone interested in a topic like risk management lands on your Twitter page only to find out what you had in your sandwiches they’re not going to hang around for long. You’ve just wasted the chance to make a great first impression, and in the worst case scenario you may have just damaged your brand.

A great way of using Twitter is to tweet the headlines from your newsletter with a link back to your website, but posting all of the headlines one after the other in one big lump of tweets diminishes the power of your punch. You could make a note to return to Twitter once a day and post a new headline, but I’ve got a better solution.

How to use Twitter and Twuffer to promote your company newsletter.
  1. When you have published an email newsletter add the content to your website as either a page or a pdf. Even if you’re using a service like iContact that automatically posts your newsletter on the iContact site I’d still recommend replicating the information on your company website, we want to drive people to your site, not another company’s website.

  2. Visit a URL shortening website like and create a shorter version of the address of the newsletter on your website. allows you to create a custom shortened link, so you might as well include some relevant keywords. I don’t know for sure if this helps your SEO (search engine ranking) but I doubt it could do any harm.

  3. Next visit and log in using your Twitter account details – you don’t need to sign up for a Twuffer account.

  4. Once you’re signed in you’ll see a large white box at the top of the Twuffer site, this is where you add your tweet. Use the ‘When to tweet’ section to choose a time and date, I tend to choose either lunchtime or mid-afternoon.

    When you’ve added a scheduled tweet it will be added to your tweet queue, you can view this queue by clicking the ‘queued tweets’ tab. I’d recommend setting up at least one scheduled tweet that includes a headline from your newsletter and a link to it per day until you run out of headlines. For example – if your newsletter contains fifteen articles you’ll be extending the longevity of your newsletter campaign from the one day of the initial email blast to half a month!

  5. After you have scheduled your tweets it’s worth spending some time searching Twitter using key words from your headlines and following anyone that you think may be interested. It seems to be a golden rule of Twitter that when you start following folk one of the first things they do is have a look at your profile, so if they find something relevant they’ll be far more likely to return the favour and follow your profile, at which point you’ve reach another ‘unknown’, another potential new customer or client.

So there you have it, there’s the plan, please post comments to let me know how you get on with this and more importantly if it helped increase the downloads/ page views for your newsletter.

UPDATE - 15/11/10
While Twuffer is still a great service we now use to manage and schedule our tweets.