50 Million buckets of bullsh*t

As someone who uses Facebook’s data as the basis for targeting advertising campaigns, I’ve found the Cambridge Analytica story quite interesting.

However, what I can’t get my head around is the numbers that are being thrown around.

Particularly the “up to 50 million” number that keeps appearing.

The backstory, in case you’ve been living under a rock:

Aleksandr Kogan, an academic at Cambridge University built a Facebook App called thisisyourdigitallife and paid about a quarter of a million people to download it as part of a study.  The App was given access to users’ Facebook profile information including their friend lists and then created a profile of them which they could presumably “enjoy” and gain astonishing insights into themselves from.

Sounds riveting.

The data captured from this app was then allegedly packaged up against Facebook’s terms & conditions, and sold on to a couple of third parties.  Again, riveting stuff.

So, how does a quarter of a million people become …


Apparently because of maths.

On average, a typical Facebook user has 185 friends on the platform

250,000 x 185 = 46,250,000


… But wait.

I’ve just checked, and at the time of writing I have 350 friends on Facebook.  TBH, I’m a little surprised at that number, and I suspect if I looked through the list in any detail, I’d spend a lot of time saying “who?”.  But, the fact is, I’m more popular than average.  Wow.

Anyway, the point is, I’ve accumulated this carefully selected group of people over many years of not being too much of a dick, and by having various groups that I orbit around – colleagues from various jobs, school, college, university, occasional visits to the pub, and a few shared interests.   There’s a bit of overlap in some cases – people I went to school with who subsequently worked in the same places from time to time, and other things, like geography.  If I were inclined, I could group people into some kind of Venn based on how I came to know them.  I won’t, because I don’t like to quantify people, but it would look like this:

So far, so self analytical.

Going back to the 46,250,000 number, the nature of a social network is that it’s a network.  While I have friends across multiple groups, many of the people within those groups are in fact friends with each other.

Facebook is the ultimate game of Kevin Bacon. The idea that each of the quarter of a million people who played thisisyourdigitallife was a complete island with 185 (or so) unique friends is, in the words of Stephen Murphy (92 Mutual Friends). A bunch of tug.

It would be hugely impressive if Aleksandr Kogan and his team had been able to get 50 million unique people from their seed list of ~250K individuals, but in the real world, they almost certainly didn’t.

Don’t get me wrong, the number of people’s data that they did get and allegedly used to perpetrate some evil schemes was probably in the millions if not tens of millions, but I’d be surprised if it was even half of the 50 million that’s been mooted.

The news papers have caveated their stories with a careful “up to” here and there which lets them off a bit, but hey, I could say that a certain part of my anatomy was up to 12 inches long, and I wouldn’t be lying, but I’d still be setting people up for disappointment somewhere down the line.  Fact is, there’s been a lot of lazy journalism about this, and while the story is shocking, it’s almost certainly not 50 million shocking.

Summing Up

I’m not going to get into the politics of Cambridge Analytica, or Tump, or Brexit, because frankly, all of those things are best written about by people who like arguing in pubs.

I don’t.

But what I think is worth noting is hypocrisy.  Particularly the kind of hypocrisy of news outlets who are breathlessly calling out “fake news” and bleating about a big data conspiracy to propagandise a population via profiling, when they haven’t properly fact checked their articles and interrogated the data in a meaningful way.






Faking it

This is a post I originally wrote when working at Latitude back in 2013.  They’ve refreshed their website since then, so it’s no longer available.  I was reminded of it by Paul Stevens this week, and thought it would be worth revisiting, as it is probably still as valid now as it was 5 years ago.

At Latitude there’s a monthly blog popularity contest.  The writer of the most read post gets £50.  I’ve won this a few times in the past, sometimes because my posts have been pretty good or timely, sometimes through pure luck.

This month I won again, although I really didn’t deserve to.

The post that won was about the way Google is changing and SEO is changing with it.  Fun.  It’s not by best work, but at first glance, it looks like the world loved it – here’s the traffic to the Latitude Blog this year:

On an average day, the blog gets around 50-100 page views.  For a brief period at the end of April, it got thousands.  Most of them were for my post:

Fact: post #3 was mine too – it’s a picture of a rabbit that I included in a “this year in SEO” post that I was so late in publishing that it came out at Chinese New year.  For a while, this picture ranked #1 in Google image search for “bunny”:


So, how did I get close to 10,000 page views in the space of 3 days?  The answer is: Easily.

How to get 10,000 page views in 3 days and win a £50 blog competition

Here’s how I did it:

1.       Go to fiverr.com

2.       Find someone who sells 10,000 “Adsense safe visitors” for $5

3.       Decide that’s too expensive

4.       Go to onedollarr.com

5.       Find someone who sells 10,000 “Adsense safe visitors” for $1

6.       Buy

7.       ???

8.       Profit

It was that simple.  Of course, with the promise of £50 for winning, I went a bit crazy, and spent another $1 getting 25 “genuine re-tweets” to make things look a bit more realistic – after all, you can’t be popular without some Twitter action:

And that was pretty much it.

The Flip Side

So I won £50.  As I write this confession, the voucher is already in an envelope making its way to my desk.  End of story?  No.

I didn’t actually spend $2 to win the competition (and I’m not going to accept the prize).  I actually wanted to see how easy it was to:

a)                   Artificially inflate traffic to a website

b)                  Spot the fake traffic

The answer to “a”: Very easy.

The answer to “b”: Fairly easy.

Spotting the Fakes

Let’s be honest, the vast majority of the 9,363 people who visited my page were not even people.  They were bots with faked referrer data, and spoofed user agents.  At a glance they look “real” to Google Analytics because they’re designed to, but on closer inspection, the cracks start to show. Let’s take a look at the source of the visits:

Yes, you read that right, 2,237 visits from Google.usa.  Never heard of it.  Tried to visit, got this:

To be honest, the 1,081 visits from Bing.com is a bit of a giveaway too…

I’m also wildly disappointed that despite the enormous amount of cash I invested in twitter, I got precisely no visits.  That’s a bitter pill to swallow. 

Behaviourally, these visits stand out too.  Check out the highlighted columns:

They’re all very similar.  Compare this to genuine traffic for another post:

It doesn’t take a genius to see that these visitors don’t all behave in exactly the same way.  The bounce rates are much higher, session length varies considerably by source, and also the percentage of new visitors differs quite a bit.  Somewhat frustratingly, this post got some traffic from twitter too.

When you dig into the traffic and compare from page to page, it’s reasonably easy to see that the behaviour is a bit odd, but from a top level perspective, it’s not that easy to spot – here’s a graph showing the % of new visitors to the Latitude website throughout April – the days where all the fake traffic arrived are highlighted, but overall there’s nothing to say that things are out of the ordinary.

Of course, if this was a retail site, this type of fake traffic would be more obvious because bots don’t buy anything.

There’s a lesson in here somewhere…

Firstly, it’s super simple to buy traffic.  It’s just as simple as buying Twitter followers or Facebook likes – and let’s be honest, there are people queuing up to sell those. 

In most cases, that traffic’s pretty useless.  Bots aren’t going to buy anything from you, and those fake re-tweets didn’t actually deliver any visits.  If it hadn’t been for the £50 I “won” from the blog competition, there would have been no benefits – or would there?

These days, “link building” would be a dirty word if it wasn’t a phrase.  A lot of SEOs are doing two things at the moment:

·       Calling themselves inbound marketers

·       “Engaging” in “Blogger outreach”

The key syllable in those two points is “reach”.  The value of content is in how many people see it and interact with it.  Just as newspapers have historically sold advertising based on their influence and readership, content publishers derive value from the size of their audiences.  The larger the audience, the higher the value of a page, and the more that a blogger can charge for their “influence”.

For $2 I pretended that the Latitude blog was around 50 times more popular than it actually was.  Based on the almost 10,000 visitors I bought for $1, I could fake a quarter of a million visits each month for less than $30. 

That’s going to look pretty sexy and influential, and mean that I can sell my “influence” for a lot more than I might otherwise be able to.

The lesson:

Pretty much anything can be faked, and to a certain extent, it’s a case of buyer beware.  Whether call what you’re doing SEO, inbound marketing, or online PR, if you’re buying influence, the important thing is to be critical.  The sad truth is that If you’re not sure about whether someone is telling the truth, they’re probably not.

Let’s Talk About Engagement

Ernest Hemingway is not for everyone. It is hard work to read his novels. Not because of the language used, but because of the language not used. The books are deceptively short, and the style is sparse. Because so much is left unsaid in his writing, the reader becomes a participant in the creative process, filling in the gaps and finding meanings for themselves.

You don’t exist on the periphery of Hemingway’s writing: you’re there in the story. Crouching for cover in the Spanish mountains; drinking in a Pamplona bar while the snarling bulls clatter along the cobbles outside.

The Iceberg Theory

In Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway summed up his approach to writing in what’s become known as The Iceberg Theory:

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only on-eight of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.

There’s an apocryphal story about Hemingway’s entry into a short story writing contest that sums up the Iceberg theory. The short story he’s credited with is six words long, but completely summarises an entire world for the reader to inhabit, and creates a tragic back story. It’s described as being a six-word novel:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

The reality is that Hemingway probably didn’t write this – but given his propensity for slashing back his first drafts to remove every non-essential word, it would make sense as a line introducing a character in a story.

Get on With It

If I were Hemingway, and you were inclined to savour my writing in the correct way, there should be little need to elaborate. However, given that I lack the talent, and you lack the time, it’s probably useful to continue.

The strict character limits we see in both paid and organic search listings (headlines of 30 characters here, Meta Descriptions of 160 characters there) lead to uninspired advertising copy:

Keyword | Brand
Keyword again, Vague USP, Call to Action.

It’s not just you of course – all your competitors are doing it as well (as badly?).

The problem with this type of formulaic copy is that it manages to require absolutely no emotional investment from the reader. There is “engagement” that we can measure through clicks and bounce rates, but it’s an approximation, using inaction as a metaphor for interest.

There are two things wrong:

  • A lack of knowledge
  • A lack of skill

These are systemic issues that require investment from a marketing agency.

Having the product knowledge to be able to understand what is important, how the customer buys, and what differentiates the seller can only come from being immersed in an organisation. A lot of agencies now do “immersion days” where staff sit through a couple of presentations and get shown round the office.

That’s probably not enough to get a rich understanding but it’s a start.

Addressing the skills gap is more difficult. The right person to write adverts for a major international company is probably not the same person who juggles Excel sheets to optimise a bidding strategy. They might be able to AB test the keyword placement like a ninja, but they’re probably not going to reduce a grown man to tears with a well-chosen phrase.

Hemingway, Almost Certainly not working on AdWords copy.

Hemingway died more than a quarter of a century before Google was founded, so it’s impossible to know what his AdWords Kung Fu would have been like.  I suspect it would have been better than yours.  He’s often (probably wrongly) credited with the following quote:

The first draft of anything is shit.

Unless the right person is working on it, the final version will be too.

Generation Expectation

That title’s probably a bit harsh.

Over the weekend, there were a bunch of stories about Elle Darby.  In case you missed it, she’s , the “social media influencer” who got herself into bother from the White Moose Café in Dublin after trying to use her e-fame to blag a few nights free accommodation.  The owner of the hotel called her out on Facebook, (incidentally, there was no mention of her actual name), and off the back of this, Elle published a confessional video defending herself and explaining how hard she works.

At the time of writing, the video “I was exposed (SO embarrassing)” has around 1.5 million views – her most popular to date.

In all honesty, I’m probably not Elle’s target demographic.  As a result, I’m probably a lot less sympathetic to her than her fan base of “Angels” would be.

The Currency of Fame

The rise of e-celebrity is a kind of Warholian phenomenon.

We all have an audience, and we can all create content that is designed to appeal to that.  Regardless of your tastes, there is someone out there who is steadily making videos or writing lengthy screeds that will fulfil your needs.

Online communities know no borders.  Whereas 20 years ago, your specific tastes may not have been commercially viable, now they are.  20 years ago, I doubt that a major broadcaster would have commissioned a weekly series of shows about sanding down 1970s Hot Wheels Cars and restoring them, but now, if that’s your thing, you can tune into BareMetalHW on YouTube and fill your boots along with around 150,000 other subscribers from around the world.

And this is where it gets complicated.

Elle Darby has around 95,000 subscribers.  That’s a small town, but it’s also a drop in the ocean when it comes to a global market.  It’s an easy number to quantify, but not necessarily to value.  To Elle, these 95,000 people are a validation of her lifestyle.  They follow her and some of them presumably hang on every word.  A few of them might be influenced into making a decision based on her recommendation.  But not all.

If we were to quantify Elle’s or any other e-celeb’s financial value as a brand, we’d need to look at some metrics in real detail.  What is the monetary impact of her endorsement.  What click through rate will I get from her social media posts?

Handily we can check this out – Elle  uses Bit.ly to track her links.  A week or so, she posted a link to her favourite outfit:


The link she posted got over 1,000 clicks:

Assuming that the conversion rate from these was 5%, MissPap might have sold 50 of these fetching outfits.  The usual price is £35, but with a 30% discount, you get it for £24.50.  That is worth £1,225.  Not bad, especially if people pick up a few more things during their visit.

If the outfit was a giveaway, then the ROI on someone like Elle is worth having.  It’s a good bet.


The market for a hotel room in Dublin is a lot lower than the market for some daisy grey loungewear.  You’re relying on people wanting to spend more than £35, and have the time and inclination to visit.  As anyone involved in travel marketing knows, you’re selling two things with a holiday:  The destination and the hotel.  Someone might see the post you’ve funded with Elle and say.  Dublin looks really cool, I’ll book myself into the Hilton.  Whereas Elle might be able to sell 50 sets of pyjamas, she might only be able to sell one hotel room.  For one night.  That means a negative ROI.

The value of Elle’s fame when she sent her email was probably not high enough to risk marketing budget on.  She’s a bad bet.

The other thing that’s important is the makeup of Elle’s audience, and the value of that to a potential advertiser.  When it comes to pyjamas loungewear, it’s probably a decent match.  Something like mountain bike accessories, probably less so.  The decision about whether her audience is a good match to a particular hotel’s something that a savvy marketer would take into account before signing off on a deal.

That “Marketing” Thing

In my day job I’ve “given” away a lot of stuff to bloggers.  Usually this comes as part of an orchestrated promotion of a product, as something that is structured to maximise the impact for my client’s brand.  Calculations are made about the ROI of specific people and then they’re given rewards commensurate with what they can offer.

In this case, I think Elle has been a bit naïve – perhaps assuming that she’s notable enough to stand outside a typical promotional campaign, or that the size of her following is sufficient to entitle her to something that she wants.  Ironically, the fallout from the whole affair will probably qualify her for the kinds of rewards that she wants.

What I learned from running a million metres in 2017

I’m not usually one for life changing New Year resolutions.  There are a few reasons for this, but the overriding one is that I can’t be bothered with them.  I’m not immune to self-improvement, but the whole concept of “it’s this year, so I’ll change that” doesn’t really appeal.

That said, last year I set myself a personal goal:  I’d run a million metres.

Easy enough on paper – it’s just about 2.75KM each day; and despite my advancing years and physical appearance to the contrary, I’m reasonably fit: If I need a bit of peace on a Sunday I can get through 10 miles without dying more than once or twice.

Over a full year it’s not an impossible distance, and compared to proper athletes, it’s not even that far, but given that my average pace is about 10KM/Hr, it was an active commitment of about 100 hours.  Add in getting changed, showered, and what not, this kind of target is probably a commitment of about 150 hours – or about the amount of time I’d spend in the office in an average month.  Coincidentally, It’s probably about the same as an agency might spend on a fairly low cost SEO campaign.

Challenges Along The Way

1,000KM or 150 hours seems reasonable when you’ve got 365 days to fit it in, however pretty quickly you realise that there’s going to be things getting in the way.

Most stuff you can work around.  Work for example.  A trip to the gym in the morning and boom 5KM on the treadmill in 30 minutes.  Away for the weekend?  Easy – there are few better ways to see a place than jogging through the streets before the day gets going.

And then there are the things you can’t plan for.  Kind of.

I may have mentioned that I’m a bit, well, girthy.  At the start of the year I was probably carrying a couple of stone more than a man of my height should.  Being fat generously upholstered means you have to work harder, but it also means that you put extra impact on your feet.  I have a tendency to pick up foot injuries when I run a lot.  At the start of the year, I expected to lose a few weeks here and there to injury, and my fragile body did what I expected.  I lost about 5 weeks in the spring to tendonitis in my right foot, and 3 weeks in the late summer when my left foot decided that it was being ignored.

Tip:  a lot of foot injuries are caused by how you lace up your trainers.  Make sure they fit correctly and are fitted correctly.

When you lose big chunks of available time, you need to compensate by taking longer later.  This has an impact on how much time you need to set aside each week which can have a knock on to the amount of running you’re able to do.

Thankfully, my wife was more supportive than my Nikes, so finding the time wasn’t a problem.  In fact, she probably forced out a few runs when I couldn’t really be bothered.

Tracking against Progress

The best piece of advice I was given (aside from “don’t”) was to keep a diary.  That suited me, and I built a lovely Excel spreadsheet with plenty of vLookups and Charts to keen an eye on how I was doing.

As an aside, I was really pleased with the fact I kept the diary at all.  I used Office365 and saved the spreadsheet online, so I could update my record via my phone and keep track of numbers wherever I was.  It was really handy.

So, Did I do it?

Well duh.

I wouldn’t be blogging about it if I’d failed miserably.  Of course I did it.  Here’s how I progressed over the course of the year:

I hit my target in 7/12 months, which I’m pretty happy with, but it’s clear that April was a bad month – that’s when I had the foot injury.  Oddly I hit target in August when I had the second flare up, but that came at the end of the month, and with it being summer, I’d put in quite a few miles in the first couple of weeks and given myself a cushion.

December was a real struggle – worse than it looks above – I didn’t really want to spend Christmas knocking out the miles when I’d rather be knocking back pints.  I did just over 110KM in the month, but my last run was on Christmas Eve, so I had a week off at the end.

What Did I learn?

A bit.

There’s a few things I could write about the personal benefits like improved discipline, or being better at tracking things, but ultimately, discipline is something that I should damn well have got on top of at my age.  Also, measuring things is kind of my day job.  It’s not like I learned any new Excel formulae from keeping a diary.

What I did learn was more tangential to the actual activity.  I’d set a goal which was demonstrably achievable, and I put in place a plan to reach it; I also gave myself the time and equipment that was required.  At no point did I think that the goal was unrealistic, but it became an end in itself.  Rather than looking at the benefits that it should have brought (increased fitness, contributing to weight loss, or just getting more fresh air), I became very focused on just hitting the miles.  That probably wasn’t healthy.

There’s a parallel between this and other goals that get set.

Ultimately, the target I set was arbitrary.  It was probably a jump up from what I covered in 2016, but because I was measuring differently, I can’t be certain of the exact increase.  Also, while there may have been an associated objective (get a bit fitter), this eventually became secondary to the metric that was being measured.  Distance became the rigid target and while I achieved it in the end, it was something of a hollow victory.  My running gear needs to be encased in concrete and buried at sea, and if I’ve lost any weight, it would be measurable in picograms.

Over my career, I’ve been introduced to a system called OKR (thanks Alex & Richard), whereby there’s an overriding Objective in place which is supported by more measurable Key Results.  If I’d designed my 2017 goal like this it would have probably been:


  • Improve Fitness & Lose Weight

Key Results:

  • Run an average of 5 hours / week
  • Run a total of 1,000KM over the year
  • Eat a healthier diet and cut out the booze you absolute lush

Perhaps I just put myself through a million metres of sweating and gasping to make a point about why it’s important to think about why it’s more important to think more about what’s behind a goal we set for a digital campaign, and be flexible about changing the metrics we’re using in order to achieve a bigger objective for a business.

Key Learnings

  • Think about why you set goals
  • The Result you want to achieve is probably more important than how you achieve it
  • Be Flexible enough to change the goals you’re measuring if they aren’t contributing to your main objective.


Trousers, Lead Generation Forms, and a Lack of Foreplay

I’ve written about good and bad sales experiences in the past.

Whether they’re selling a pair of shoes or a complex business consultancy service, a good sales person will take time to understand their customer’s needs and stress the benefits of the product to those needs.  As a rule, a good sales person will get better results and be much more successful than a bad one.  More importantly, a good sales person will also create happier customers and benefit in the longer term.

Continue reading “Trousers, Lead Generation Forms, and a Lack of Foreplay”

Are Remainers Blaming the Wrong People for #brexit

I’m turning into the bus stop of blogs.

You wait ages for a new post, and then two come along at once.

Following on from the post about the filter bubble of social media that I put up the other day, I thought it might be useful to look at some of the finger pointing.

This is a chart that’s been posted quite a bit, using some stats from YouGov about voting intention for different age groups:


The remain/leave totals don’t add up to 100% – that’s because the table ignores the undecideds for each age group, as this was based on voting intention rather than actual votes.

Let’s have a look at a different stat:  The number of people in each of these age groups:


From this we see that the 18-24 age group are by far the smallest in this.  Hardly surprising – this group spans 5 years, whereas the largest age group (still broadly pro-remain) is the 25-49 age group, which is 4x the size.

The older age groups (both pro-brexit) add up to about the same number as the 24-49 age group.

Using the % opinions in the original table from YouGov, and applying it to the numbers of people above, we get the following:


Based on this data, remain still lose, but the overall margin of victory is quite a bit smaller than we saw on the night – about 780K.  The number of people that were still undecided is about 9x this number – easily enough to have swayed the vote one way or the other.

But wait.

The actual vote in the election was a bit lower than this:


The turnout on the night was about 72%.  Very high for a UK election of any kind, but still, more than a quarter of those eligible to vote didn’t bother.  For whatever reason.

Here’s the estimated turnout by age group:


36% of people aged from 18-24 voted.

Here’s how that translates into votes:


In this table, leave still wins, and by about the same margin as we saw on the night – although the numbers are a bit smaller.  The margin of victory was 1.8 Million- or about half of the number of people in the 18-24 age group who didn’t bother to vote.

If this age group had shown the same commitment to voting as the 50-64 age group (77% turnout), there would have been roughly 1 million more votes for remain than there were on the night.

The Point

In the last post I wrote, I finished by saying that the filter bias we have in Facebook tends to fool us into thinking that a specific opinion is more widely held than it is, and that campaigning actively in the community would be a more effective way of changing opinions than simply posting memes on Facebook.

Here I’m going a bit further.

If you want to elicit real change in the world, you need to get off your entitled arse, and drag yourself down to the polling booth.  There’s a quote that comes to mind:

Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.

~George Bernard Shaw

Pointing the Finger

As I said above, there’s a rather poisonous meme doing the rounds that older people are screwing the youth because they’ve voted out.

More accurately, the youth have screwed themselves by not voting at all.

Here’s Why #Brexit Came as a Surprise

Depending on your viewpoint, at the time of writing this, we’re either 3 hours into a brave new world of national self-determination, or on the brink of a disaster, and if I were to base my entire world viewpoint on my Facebook feed, I’d assume it was the latter.

I had a quick scan through my newsfeed before writing this post, and it didn’t make pretty reading.  Here’s a sample:

  • Gutted 🙁
  • What the f*ck have people done
  • If any of you voted for this, you’re f*cking deleted
  • Right, I’m off

There’s palpable shock.  To an extent, that’s understandable.  As Dimbleby (and pretty much every politician getting interviewed on the rolling news said:

This is huge: the UK has just democratically decided to leave a major international trading bloc and go it alone.   the prime minister has resigned and the markets are incredibly volatile.  The whole thing is pretty much unprecedented, it’s this shocking:


The opinion polls over the last couple of weeks did show a trend towards Brexit, but y’know, they’re just opinion.  And anyway, what’s real is the fact that for a lot of people on Facebook, the real source of surprise came from something like this:

How could X happen, everyone I know thinks Y. Like me.


Yesterday, when I looked at my Facebook feed, I got the impression that remain is heading for an overwhelming victory. Scrolling unscientifically through the referendum related posts gave me the indication that about 9 out of 10 of my friends were voting remain.  That’s not what the opinion polls were saying, but it would be pretty reassuring.

But in the same way as opinion polls are “just opinion”, Facebook is just narcissism.  Designed to reassure me that I fit in.  What I get to see is just a sample of what’s going on in the world around me that’s been tailored to reflect the broad opinions of my social groups.

I had a look through my wife’s newsfeed, (WITH HER PERMISSION), and it was a bit different to mine.  Pretty much the opposite in fact.  About 8/10 of the referendum updates she saw were more Brexit leaning than remain.

We have a lot in common.  Similar tastes in movies, broadly similar tastes in music (except Maroon 5, who are sh!t).  We even have a big overlap of mutual friends.  So you’d think that we’d see a similar slant on politics.  But we don’t.

Facebook’s algorithms tend towards reinforcing certain themes within a social group.  As a result, it becomes an echo chamber.  The more you see of something, the more you see of the same thing.   Because of where I’ve lived, studied and worked, I seem to have a lot of Facebook friends who are generally:

  • Mid 20s-early 40s
  • 50:50 male/female
  • University educated
  • Work in media or travel
  • Live in Manchester or London
  • Lean left politically

That pretty much describes the core audience of the remain campaign.  I might not fit into that group myself, but because the vast majority of my social connections look like that, EdgeRank assumes that I am interested in the same things.


This is fine for reinforcing interpersonal relationships and identifying the people who you are want to see more of, but it also creates the impression for people that their opinions are more widely held than in reality.  In effect, Facebook implements a form of Groupthink across audiences.

Preaching to the Converted

When you share content through Facebook, it’s going to go to people who are most likely to be interested in it based on their relationship with you.  That’s good when it comes to a snapshot of your steak, or a picture of Dog Vader:


But it means that the carefully crafted piece of propaganda that will absolutely, definitely convert the undecided to your political view point only gets seen by people who already agree with it.

The unintended consequence of this when it comes to major issues is that certain groups will become more complacent about outcomes.

A Piece of Advice

Given what I know about the people I’m connected to – and by extension the people who are reading this, you’re probably a bit sore at the moment.  Sh!t’s gone wrong, but it will get better.  In a couple of years, when we get through the EU negotiations, we’ll probably be in much the same situation with trade deals and freedom of travel as we are today.


If you want to change people’s minds, sharing a meme on Facebook ain’t the way to do it.  If you want to convert people to an ideology, you’ve got to find people who need converting.  Not one person came and knocked on my door to inform me about the referendum (to be fair, I’d have told them to “f*ck off”).  All people did was to share their lists and articles with me, and to be honest, when the only things that you’ve got to read are the same thing, it’s best to reach for a book instead.

Anyway.  If you’re feeling a bit crappy after the referendum outcome, you have my permission to go outside and take a walk.  Find a tree to sit under or something pretty to look at, and remember that the UK is still a fantastic place to be, and that everything will be OK.

My Book About SEO

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged here.  Mind you, it’s not the only place I move pixels around.

One of the reasons why I haven’t written much about SEO or social media here is because I’ve been working on a book.  You can download it here:


It’s a pretty comprehensive tome.  In it I’ve tried to cover the bulk of what an SEO project should comprise from audience research through to technical optimisation.  There’s undoubtedly some stuff that I’ve missed, but the beauty of modern publishing is that like anything else, there’s no finished product – just a version number that will probably incremement over time.

mastering-seo-coverWho’s the book for?

One of the first things I write about in the book is the need for marketers to really dig into who their audience is.  I think that’s increasingly important for SEOs because of how personalised results are becoming.

For the most part, I’ve tried to write for an audience of people who run their own website or business, and want it to be more sucessful.  It probably has enough stuff for most SEO people to argue with too.

What’s all that stuff about agencies being a bit bullsh!t then..

One of the areas I covered in the book was choosing an agency.  Over the past 2 years, since I stopped working in an agency I’ve done a surprising amount of work with agencies.  It’s been interesting to see what kind of approaches they use.  For the most part, the agencies I’ve been inside are all great.  Chock full of clever, hard working people who do good things for their clients.  I can recommend any of them, and I probably would if you asked me.

In the book, I am pretty critical of certain agency practices though.  And one of the objectives about writing about something like SEO for an audience who might be buying it is to tell that audience what they’re buying.  There are situations where information asymmetry creates an unfair advantage.  Some agency types do exploit that knowledge gap and run campaigns in ways that aren’t necessarily in the client’s interest.

Rebalancing that knowledge gap is something I hope the book will do.

Anyway, as I said above the book is available for Kindle at the link above.  It’ll probably come out in paperback if I can find a way of adopting a permanent beta model for that too – perhaps I’ll post out replacement sections and a pen to strike out any bits that have changed.

If you’re reading this before 20th October 2015, then you’re in luck.  There’s a promotion on where you can get the book for FREE!!!1!one!

If you’re reading this after that date, then you’ll have to pay.

Either way, enjoy it.

Well Played Virgin Media, Well Played…

I got a letter from Virgin Media this morning telling me that they were putting up my monthly bill by £4.89.  Apparently, this increase in charges allows them to continue providing their “amazing service” which has only let me down a handful of times this year.

Price rises are a pain in the bum, and there’s plenty of other places I’d rather spend the extra £60 per year they want to charge me.  I don’t mind paying more if I’m getting more, but when it’s a service that’s been totally commoditised and the general market trends are downwards, I’d rather not be penalised for loyalty.  So I called Virgin to cancel.

Eventually I got a better deal, but here’s how I got it.


Seriously.  There must be a better way of handling calls than having to navigate a vague menu system where none of the options really describe what you’re looking for.  virgin-media-logo

Virgin Media’s menu system seems custom designed to frustrate callers.  By the time you’ve chosen options 1, 3, 1, 4 and waited for 10 minutes listening to an unidentifiable song, you’re not really in the best of moods.

Anyway, eventually I got through.

Complaining to Virgin

I spoke to Jay in the Virgin Media Call centre.  He was very polite.  I probably wasn’t.  Sorry about that.

I explained that I was unhappy about the increase in the price of my bundle, and asked what extra they were giving me for the £60 or so a year that they wanted to charge on top of the current fee.  He said it was just a general price rise.

I said, I don’t mind a price rise, but there’s got to be a little bit of added value in there.  Especially when they’re asking for an extra 7% when inflation is only 1.3%. Jay said “I’ll, …”

… I’ll see what I can do”

So Jay went away for a few minutes to talk to his supervisor about the rude northerner on the phone not being happy about paying more for the same thing.  I got to listen to a bit more 1Direction, and eventually he came back.

“So” he said “I’ve checked and we can move you onto a slightly different package so you’ll be paying £9 per month less from today, but you’ll still have the price increase in February, but your price next year will be £4 less than you’re paying now.  Oh, and you’ll also get the new 150MB broadband speed.  That’s instead of the 50MB that you’re getting at the moment.”

“Great” I said.

OK, so I need to commit for another 12 months, but I probably would have done anyway, and the fact is that there’s so much competition with Sky,  BT, Talk-Talk, EE, and everyone else, that the chances are, I’d have any early termination fee paid by them.

So What’s the Point?

This morning, just under 5 million households will have got a letter from Virgin telling them that the price is going up by just shy of £5 per month next year.  Let’s call that about £300 Million in additional revenue for Virgin Media.

Probably a bit less.

Probably a lot less.

The problem is that Virgin have sent out the letters a month before Christmas.  That’s pretty bad timing, because it’s the time of year when people are a bit more conscious of their outgoings because of, y’know, Christmas and stuff.

Also, the price rise is well above inflation.  People don’t really like that kind of thing, because on the whole wages are usually tied to inflation – if they’re going up at all.

And of course, there’s whatever new customer incentive they’re offering at any time.  Right now it’s £100 cash back on Virgin, but that ends at midnight.  Sky are offering a Samsung Galaxy Tab, BT are offering a discount to about £15 per month for 6 months.

And those deals are super attractive to people who’ve just been hit with a price rise they didn’t fancy.

Virgin Media sent me a price increase, I ended up paying less.  They don’t want to lose customers, so pretty much everyone who calls to complain will get offered the same thing.  If half of their customers rang up to complain and got the same deal as I did, then any revenue gain from the price increase will be wiped out.

But… They will have to handle 2.5 million calls through their call centre, which will mean longer waiting times, and paying more for staff.  The longer you wait for a call to be answered, the less likely it is you’ll be in a tip top mood when Jay or one of his colleagues answer.  So you’ll be more likely to cancel.

An Opportunity Lost

Virgin could have got themselves a tonne of good press this week by either:Scrooge McVirgin

  • Keeping prices the same (which can be spun into caring about customers)
  • Giving everyone the discount (which would cost them, but they’re going to end up doing it anyway)

But they haven’t, they’ve chosen to apply an above inflation price increase to customers at entirely the worst time of year to charge people more, and they aren’t offering anything extra to justify it.  That makes them look a little bit mean.

The Good News

A lot of people will probably cancel their contract with Virgin – the letter they’ve sent out tells you that you can do so without penalty up until 31 January.  That means if you call them to enquire about your opportunities, they’ll almost certainly give you the same deal they gave me.

The Moral

The call centre at Virgin is going to get hammered over the next few days, and the staff are going to get beasted by their customers and their bosses.  It won’t be very nice for them.  Some will leave.  That’s a shame.  For all the investment that companies like Virgin make in groovy tools to monitor social media sentiment online or analyse what price increase customers will accept being squeezed for, the best source of information about how your business is perceived is almost universally the front line staff who have to deal with your customers when the relationship they have with you is at its worst.