Friday, 28 April 2006

Google sitemaps: verify Blogspot blogs - howto

Finally, it's now possible for Blogger users to verify Blogspot blogs on Google Sitemaps (see the Sitemaps blog post yesterday, plus Saffa Dude's comment also pointing that out).

It's not only Blogspot members who benefit - if you use some other blogging platform which doesn't let you upload files to your blog host's servers, but does let you tinker with your blog template (specifically the head section of your blog's webpages), now you can verify your blog too.
For those who don't know: what's Google Sitemaps, and why would you want to verify your blog? In summary, you'd want to add your blog to Sitemaps and verify it in order that:
  • your blog gets indexed better by Google, so that people will hopefully be more likely to find your blog's webpages when they search on Google;
  • when you update your blog, e.g. write a new post, you can ping Google, i.e. get Google to come and re-crawl your blog very quickly, so that people who search Google will find the most current information about your blog; and
  • you can get more info about how Google indexes your blog, and maybe tweak it to improve the likelihood of people finding your blog in future when searching on Google.

How to submit your blog sitemap, and verification

I've already explained briefly and in more detail how to submit your blog sitemap to Google (including why it's important to make your feed file as full as possible for that purpose - you can still offer your readers or subscribers headlines or excerpts-only feeds, if you wish).

Previously we mere Blogger users, and others who don't have permission to upload files to their blog host server's root, were deprived of the ability to verify our blogs on Sitemaps, which I for one thought was ludicrous given that Google own Blogger (and I kept saying so).

Clearly I wasn't the only one - finally, in February, Google asked for views on whether people wanted to be able to verify their blogs or sites in other ways, and as mentioned in the Sitemaps blog post yesterday, the response was overwhelmingly "YES!!"

So now they've provided a way to verify your blog via a meta tag.

How to verify your blog on Sitemaps

Google have provided instructions on how to verify your blog or site. Here's a step by step (this assumes you've already (1) signed up with Google Sitemaps as per my previous post; and (2) for Add Site, entered the URL of your blog e.g. in my case):

1. Login to Sitemaps.

2. Against the name of the blog or site you want to verify, under the Site Verified? column, click the Verify link:

3. You get a new page. In the Choose verification method dropdown, pick Add a META Tag:

4. A box appears under the dropdown, with some code in it, it looks something like this (I've airbrushed out the one for my blog!):

5. Copy that code from <META all the way to /> (be careful not to copy the box instead of the text inside the box).

6. Go to your blog template (it's easiest to do this in a new browser window or browser tab) and paste that code between your head tags - Google have given an example (opens in new window) showing how and where to put it. Save the template changes, and republish your blog.

7. Now go back to Google Sitemaps and tick the checkbox against "I have added the META tag to the home page of [your blog name]" (which is just under the box with the new code, see the pic above), and then click the Verify button.

That's it. It worked to verify my blog nearly instantly.

What do you get with verification?

Now, whenever you login to Sitemaps, you'll get 3 tabs:
  • Diagnostics
  • Statistics and
  • Sitemaps.
The first two are the new ones you get after verification.

Statistics is I think the most useful. It gives you access to Google stats about your blog, like query stats (which tell you what visitors were looking for, what words they searched on when they came to your site via Google, so that you can tweak your blog content to try to improve your blog's ranking on Google), crawl stats, page analysis and index stats.

Here for example are my recent query stats - not quite full-fledged web analytics, but useful given that Google searches can be a prime source of referrals to your blog (certainly for my own blog, I'd say 90% of my visitors come via Google):

Crawl stats can also be useful:

For example, HTTP Errors, Unreachable URLs, URLs timed out and URLS not followed can give you info on problem pages on your site, e.g. pages "that [Google] tried to crawl (found either through links from your Sitemaps or from other pages) but could not access. If these pages are listed in your Sitemap or linked from your site, make sure that the URLs are correct" - in other words, this can help you spot and fix broken links to your own pages from within your own blog (yes, an easy enough to make a mistake sometimes!). (You can also reach the detailed crawl stats info from the Diagnostics tab.)

There's more info about all this in Google's revamped Webmaster help centre (and - updated 6 and 10 May - Google have also now provided more guidance and answered some common questions about the new meta tag and Blogger's own blog Buzz has also highlighted this new feature). Happy verifying, stats checking and blog tweaking!

Wednesday, 26 April 2006

Blogger: Technorati tags Greasemonkey script updated and enhanced

I've heavily rewritten my previous post on this tool for Blogger users to add Technorati tags easily to their posts, because the Magical Sheep Greasemonkey userscript has now been updated and enhanced by that King of Kode, Kirk.

That post now has updated full instructions on that script, from scratch, with some history.

If upgrading - IMPORTANT - this version is not compatible with previous versions of this script. if you have an existing version of this script, you MUST first uninstall it (how to uninstall) before installing this version. You may then have to re-enter your "MeTags" and own choice of separator (though if you've been using a previous version they may have been preserved), but that should only take a few seconds.

Get the updated userscript (version 1.0 beta) from; here's an alternative location for the script if the first is down or slow. And another.

For a full explanation please see the rewritten previous post. If you're familiar with that script already, here's just the changes:

Changes made April 2006 - version 1.0 beta


Editing tags - after tags have initially been added, deleting a tag or adding a tag to the tag box (and clicking Append) now inserts it or deletes it from the main post box properly. (This bug was in the original script which Kirk adapted and expanded, so don't blame him for it! The script should have been doing that all along, but there was a misuse of single quote marks which stopped it from working before. No one seems to have noticed it until Clamatius pointed it out - thanks Clamatius!)

  • Better Blogger integration, now works in Edit HTML as well as Compose mode.
  • Tag settings and options - now hidden by default
  • Heading/label for tags list - can be changed from "Tags:"
  • New window - option to have links open in a new browser window (adds target="_blank")
  • FUTags - ability to set up a list of your most frequently used tags, to add them to the tag box with one click
  • Your Technorati account only - option to point tag links to tagged posts from your own blog(s) only, if you have signed up with Technorati and claimed your blog. In other words, if you select this option and someone clicks a tag in your post, they will be taken to a page listing all the posts previously tagged with that tag from your blogs only; if other people have used that tag, their posts will not be shown in the list. You must be a Technorati member and have claimed the blogs concerned (see also this page), to use this feature. It will only work in posts published after you install this new version of the script; old posts will not be affected.

    (Note: this new feature is set up via Javascript, so that Technorati can still crawl the link, since what they crawl and what points at the user's account are in different formats. From testing, Technorati hasn't had any problem so far picking up tags done in this way.)

    Example: If you display the Tag Settings and Options section and tick the Point Links.. box and enter the Technorati username phydeaux3 and OK, then enter the tag "magical sheep" in the Tags box and click Append Tags, the following code will be added to the end of the Blogger post box:
    <a href="" rel="tag" target="_blank" onmouseover="this.href=''">magical sheep</a>
  • Editing posts or drafts - it now reads tags back in from a previously published or draft post.
  • Blogger's post options field - nothing to do with tagging, but Kirk has made that field open all the time with this script (which many of us think is much better), and also added a border round that field just to cover up its previous "naked" look! Isn't he the gentleman...
  • Tag box/options now hidden in Preview view, unless you have Jasper's script for Keep current time on post, in which case they will be visible. Don't think anything can be done about that, just don't use that box in Preview view.

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Tuesday, 18 April 2006

Video blogs in Europe: the death knell?

The Times recently reported the European Commission's confirmation that EU proposals under the draft Audiovisual Media Services Directive, or AMS Directive, to "update" the regulation of television broadcasting and the audiovisual sector in Europe generally, could extend to videoblogs. (The UK government has a page on this proposal including key issues and a conference on it last year, too, plus their formal responses to the EU.)

I've not been able to find the Commission press release or report which is meant to be the source of that confirmation, so I assume the Times simply spoke to someone there, but the Times is pretty authoritative so I guess it's true - and worrying.

The intention is to regulate video on demand (VOD) and internet broadcasting as "non-linear audio visual services" ("non-linear" being "pull" services you consume "on demand" as and when you choose, rather than "push" services broadcast to a schedule) - but why on earth try to regulate the simple videoblog too?

The regulatory requirements for non-linear services are not as stringent as for TV - they aim e.g. to protect minors, prevent incitement to racial hatred, identify the "media service provider" (goodbye anonymous vlogging), limit advertising (list taken from Euractiv summary).

But still, they will catch blogs with "a commercial purpose, where video was the main element", if the video blog (a.k.a. vlog) is popular enough to count as "mass media". If your vlog has ads, then that seems enough to make it "commercial"! Lots of vlogs are very popular (="mass media"), so these proposals could stifle vlogging in Europe - just when video blogging is starting to take off generally.

There are existing laws to prevent incitement etc, but the Commission claims in their FAQ that they'll only be "harmonising" those rules across the EU. While regulating TV is fine, like many I believe that this would be the start of regulating the internet. And I'm not at all keen on states trying to do that. It would be the thin end of the wedge. Current laws try to strike a balance between freedom of speech vs. censorship and to protect vulnerable groups. Extending the reach and red tape of bureaucratic regulation to vlogging would be going too far.

One good thing is that the Times said that the UK's broadcasting regulator Ofcom and the UK government were against the extension of statutory regulation to internet content (see e.g. a speech in January 2006 by Tessa Jowell, Secretary of State for Culture). In this, if little else, they deserve our support.

According to Euractiv a bunch of organisations and companies in the industry (such as the Internet Service Providers' Association, Yahoo, Cisco and BT - where's Google, I ask?) have also got together to fight the proposals, with the backing of Ofcom. They've created a site and produced a 9-page paper "Audiovisual Media Services Draft Directive - Opinions and Recommendations from Stakeholders in the UK" setting out their views about the approach to the proposals. While they cover the proposals generally, including on linear AV services, they also strongly oppose extending regulation to cover "non-linear" services.

Even if the UK government can't persuade the EU to back down on this extension, maybe the combined might and money of these industry bodies will. In this one area at least, I personally think the interests of consumers and industry (and indeed society) are aligned.

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Tuesday, 11 April 2006

Filelodge: why SMS or text verification?

If anyone else has got an account with the free file hosting provider Filelodge, I expect you've received an email from saying:
We are requesting that File Lodge members verify their accounts by sending us an SMS / Text message from their mobile (cell) phones.

Lately there has been a lot of abuse on the system, and we have had to introduce this extra verification measure to ensure that accounts belong to genuine users. By phone verifying users we hope to be able to remove non-legitimate users who make the performance of the service suffer.

For instructions on how to verify your account, please visit

We would appreciate it if you can verify your account straight away, as in the future non-verified accounts may be removed from the system.

Best regards,
The File Lodge team

Now so far FileLodge has proved very popular because they give you bags of space (500 MB), let you upload virtually any file type (even image files and audio files like MP3s), allow hotlinking, and provide unlimited bandwidth for downloads, (they're ad-supported). This email seems legit in that the link does lead to a page on the FileLodge site as far as I can see, and so does the link listed on that page.

However, nasty suspicious cynical me has to ask:
  • What is this 60999 number? People have signed up for File Lodge from all over the world. How much exactly do you get charged for sending a text to that number? Premium rate? A lot more?
  • Is this a ploy to collect lots of mobile phone numbers for marketing purposes? I've always resisted texting for any promotions and the like, despite the tempting prizes etc often on offer. I don't want to lay myself open to spam texts or SMS messages. Plus, they'll be able to associate your phone number with your username and email address, how useful is that for marketers? And will they be selling your details to third parties?
  • Or do they plan to shop to the record companies and the like any people who have been using File Lodge for hosting illegal MP3 files? I sympathise if there's been abuse on that score, and getting hold of mobile numbers is a very nice and easy way for them to track down exactly who's who, though there are surely other ways to track down illegal file sharers and it's been done before through ISPs and the like. But for those of us who use FileLodge for legal purposes, and want privacy and no possibility of spam texts, looks like it's tough luck.
Their privacy policy page focuses very much on Web visits, it says not a thing about mobile phone number information. They do say (paragraph 2) that they use our info for demographics and providing info to potential advertisers and they claim they won't disclose users' personal information to third parties "unless any kind of illegal activity has taken place on your account".

But without a clear statement as to what they're going to do with our numbers, how secure they keep them, and how much that text message will cost, I'm not going to do it, and if I have to lose that hosting, well that's the way it goes.

I'm also wondering why they require a text message for verification. For the vast majority of websites, email verification is sufficient. And what about people who don't have cellphones, few though they may be these days - how on earth can they verify? How does giving them your cellphone number to associate with your username and email address "prove" that you're "legitimate"?

It's such a pity, because FileLodge was the best hosting provider for files around. Operative word, was.

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Friday, 7 April 2006

HDTV: London trials, apply now!

High definition television in the UK is on its way.

The BBC will be launching a HD satellite/cable trial from mid 2006.

If you've just got Freeview but you have an HD-ready television and live in London, then, you lucky sod, you can apply to take part in a technical trial which the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and five are going to conduct to see how HD works with Freeview, with a set top box that they'll supply. The trial will include all of the BBC and ITV's live World Cup matches.

They only want a few hundred volunteers so get your blow in quick! (Sadly my TV isn't HD-ready or I'd be applying like a shot like I did for the BBC iMP trial.)

(Via the BBC)

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Credit cards: dealing with late payment charges

This post is on the UK's Office of Fair Trading view that credit card companies' default charges for late payment are unfair, and what you as a consumer might be able to do if your credit card company charges you a whacking great fee just for being a bit late with your monthly payment.

What's all this about?

A couple days back, on 5 April 2006, the Office of Fair Trading told the credit card companies to reduce the default charges which they automatically sting credit card users for if you're late with any monthly payment.

As many of us know to our cost, the practice of the credit card issuers has been to automatically charge you an extra £25 on your next month's bill if they receive any of your monthly payments (no matter how little you owe them, say just £5) later than the due date - even if you're just one day late.

I got charged a late payment fee last year during a particularly busy period, when I simply forgot to get my bank to send a small amount through on time. It was less than a week late and I paid the lot in full, but they still charged me an extra £25 the next month, and when I rang them up about it, even though I'd always paid everything on time before, they just wouldn't discuss it.

Credit card default charges - unfair penalty?

The OFT's view is that credit card default charges have generally been set at a significantly higher level than is legally fair. They estimate that across the industry this has led to unlawful penalty charges currently in excess of £300 million a year! Nice if you own shares in a credit card company, not so nice if you're a credit card user.

The OFT have now set out what they believe is the law on this issue (Calculating fair default charges in credit card contracts, A statement of the OFT's position, April 2006). Basically, there is a consumer protection law in the UK, the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations, which says that most standard terms (like the right to impose default charges for late payments) in consumer contracts (such as credit card agreements) have to be fair. If a standard term is not fair, the consumer can't be held to it (more info).

The OFT believe that "default charge provisions are open to challenge on grounds of unfairness if they have the object of raising more in revenue than is reasonably expected to be necessary to recover certain limited administrative costs incurred by the credit card issuer. [Their paper] goes on to explain how we think the relevant legal principles apply in practice to credit card agreements. The statement is intended to provide guidance for financial institutions setting default charges…"

In other words, they think late payment fees ought just to cover the admin. costs of the issuer in dealing with the late payment - they shouldn't be used as a way for the credit card companies to boost their profits.

Not surprisingly, the OFT said that most of the 8 major UK credit card issuers don't agree with the OFT's view of the law! (I guess they would claim it really is fair to charge you £25 for being 1 day late on a £2 payment.) Only the courts can decide finally who is right and who is wrong. Still, the OFT now expects all credit card issuers to recalculate their default charges in line with the principles set out their paper, and to take "urgent action where needed to reduce the level of credit card default fees".

The credit card industry has until 31 May 2006 to respond to the OFT on that statement and on their willingness (or not!) to adjust their default charges. (The OFT have also said that these principles also apply to default charges in other consumer contracts such as those for bank overdrafts, store cards and mortgage.)

So what's a fair default charge?

The OFT think that a default charge should only be used to recover certain limited administrative costs. "We consider that a contract term is likely to be unfair if it requires consumers to pay more as a result of a default than the court would order them to pay if they were sued for breach of contract. This means that a default charge should not exceed a reasonable pre-estimate of the administrative costs that the consumer ought to have realised would be likely to be incurred by his or her card issuer in dealing with defaults."

These may include postage and stationery costs and staff costs and also a proportionate share of the costs of maintaining premises and IT systems necessary to deal with defaults ("A fair default charge should not exceed a reasonable estimate of certain limited administrative costs which the credit card issuer reasonably expects to incur as a result of default").

They've said that while the level of a fair fee will depend on the precise business circumstances, they're including a simple monetary threshold of £12 for OFT intervention on default charges. They'll presume that credit card default charges set above this level are unfair unless there are exceptional factors. Conversely, they don't propose at present to consider legal action where charges are set below £12.

Remember, enforcement action by the OFT for an unfair contract term is different from consumer action on the same thing - the OFT can only stop the company from using the unfair term further, but they can't do anything else. You have to sue to get the court to decide that the term is unfair and try to get some compensation for it e.g. a refund. So even if a charge of less than £12 isn't going to spur the OFT into action, that's just their internal threshold - as consumers, we can still take direct action ourselves in the courts if we think the charge is unfair.

The OFT's view that the charge should just be for admin costs makes sense to me. In fact I'd go further than that and ask, what postage/stationery/staff costs? I appreciate that from the OFT's viewpoint it's not worth their while to take action for anything less than £12, but that doesn't mean that a charge of £12 or less is fair.

It's one thing if you default on your credit card payment for more than say a month, and you keep not paying, and the credit card company has to spend time and money sending you reminder letters, maybe even suing you for the payment you owe, etc. But if you're just a few days late, the most they're really out of pocket on is the interest for those few days on the amount of the late payment. They don't have any staff or postage or stationery costs in that sort of situation, at that stage - their IT systems just automatically bung a £25 charge on your next statement. The next statement is posted to you in the usual way, exactly as if you'd paid on time (only with an extra £25 charge on it, of course), so they've not incurred any extra postage or stationery costs. I bet they don't even have any staff costs, I bet no human even looks at it unless you're late for more than a particular period or the unpaid amount is significant. So personally, unless you're seriously late or late for a big amount, I don't see what admin. charges the credit card issuer would have for a payment that's been paid late but paid in full.

What does it mean for me? What can I do if I'm charged a late payment fee?

First off, big red warning: this post is NOT legal advice and you should get advice on your own individual situation if you want to take any action on this sort of thing (e.g. it's different if you were supposed to have paid by direct debit and you're late - the charge might well not be unfair in that situation). Obviously what I'm going to say only applies if you were just a bit late but otherwise you paid your credit card bill in full. If you're seriously behind on your credit card payments or owe large amounts, or both, you have bigger problems than default charges to worry about and ought to get help e.g. from a consumer advice center or legitimate debt adviser.

That said, this is what I personally am going to do. If I am a little late with paying a credit card bill, but I've still paid the full amount I was meant to, from now on:
  • I'll check the OFT's guide for consumers and consumer advice agencies setting out the principles on which default charges should be calculated of 5 April 2006: OFT's action on credit card default charges, 5 April 2006 (by the way I think the link in that guide to is wrong, I think it should be this instead)
  • I'll query the default charge with the credit card company. By phone, first.
  • If they agree to refund the charge, I'll note down the time and date of the call and the name/reference of the person who agreed it, and confirm that to them in writing - especially the fact that they agreed to refund the fee!
  • If they don't agree to refund the late fee, then I'll write to their complaints department.
  • When I phone or write to them, I'll say I think their charge for my late payment is unfair, and so does the Office of Fair Trading - referring them to the OFT press release and statement on the law - and I'll ask them to refund it, maybe just less a fair interest rate on the amount of the payment for the few days when the payment was overdue.
  • If they don't:
    • if the charge was for £12 or more, I'll say I'm going to report them to the OFT to take enforcement action
    • whatever the amount of the late payment fee (well if it was £1 or less I probably wouldn't bother querying the fee in the first place), I'd say that I'm going to take them to court for a ruling that the default charge is unfair
  • If they still don't refund it, I'd report them to the OFT - and I'd also start legal action against them. Seriously, I would make a claim in court, just on principle, but it's entirely your own decision, after consulting your own lawyer, as to whether you'd want to sue them yourself (don't forget you'd have to pay legal fees, so it may not be worth your while - though hopefully the credit company won't want to have to pay their own lawyers or risk the court deciding that their charges really are unfair, so with any luck they'll pay up to avoid going to court - as happened when Nigel Roberts sued a spammer).
Good ol' OFT!

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Blogger spam: nextsplogs should be tackled too

It's great that Blogger have reported progress in removing Blogspot spam blogs, or splogs, using e.g. an automatic spam classifier, with safeguards in case it wrongly classifies a legit blog as spam.

They say "By taking steps like this, we're able to dedicate more storage, bandwidth and engineering resources to our users instead of spammers."

If storage and bandwidth are considered valuable resources (which they are), then why aren't Blogger doing something about the nextsplog abuse, which I've blogged about recently, which my Magical Sheep pardner Kirk has highlighted, and which indeed Robert Scoble has also kindly mentioned on his blog?

Really, what will it take to get Google to focus on the nextsplog problem? I know bloggers using other platforms like Wordpress won't care, because it only affects those of us whose blogs are hosted on Blogger's free Blogspot - but that's an awful lot of people. Isn't the constant fake updating and hijacking of Blogger's "Next Blog" queue an abuse of bandwidth? Aren't Blogspot users concerned about the theft of traffic that should legitimately belong to them? Don't they care that these nextsplogs are stealing visitors who ought to be going to genuinely-updated Blogspot blogs - like yours?

It seems not. Maybe it really is "can't beat 'em join 'em" time.

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Saturday, 1 April 2006

Technorati: new support FAQ

If you've not yet seen it, blogosphere search engine Technorati have recently put out a helpful Support FAQ dealing with issues such as:
Interestingly though they still haven't mentioned the problem about correctly tagged posts not showing up on Technorati's tag pages, though it's a known issue that is still a mystery to them. (And I continue to get that problem, myself, with specific posts). Let's hope they solve it and add something about that soon. It's my main bugbear with Technorati as you can tell.

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