Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Sign-up pages smarter than you

There is one fight on the Internet that has been going on for a good number of years - spammers versus webmasters everywhere. I am not talking about the annoying email spam but the niche spam that targets website forums and comment sections. This type of spam can turn a vibrant community into a ghost-town in a matter of weeks. Today Engadget had to disable their comments section due to excessive spamming.

Most commercial forum and blog spammers use these attacks to register users with "interesting" URLs in their user profile, then post small nuggets of wisdom on random threads, stuff like where you can get the cheapest Viagra, or how to make millions playing poker online. This whole process is automated - scripts locate your site, sniff out what type of software you use to run your forum or blog, then apply appropriate methods to create a user account and then deposit their poop all over your site.

To respond to this abuse web application developers started adding those annoying "Type in the letters you see above" traps, where letters were drawn on an image that you had to read in order to retype them - no ability to cut and paste text, which also means automated scripts couldn't "see" what was written on the image.

Unfortunately, it didn't take long for spammers to find their way around it - soon, spamming scripts were upgraded as well so that they literally scan the included image and "read" out the letters present. Web application developers responded by making the images ever-more elaborate, with backgrounds, random lines going through them, etc. It's gotten so bad that some of these CAPTCHAs as they are known (Completely Automated Public Turing test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart) cannot be easily read by computer or a human. Often I have to refresh the page several times until I get a CAPTCHA that I can decipher.

For a demonstration of why CAPTCHAs are getting so ridiculously complicated take a look at one CAPTCHA decoder, with analysis of the common CAPTCHAs out there and their weaknesses - at least now you'll understand!

Saturday, May 27, 2006

How unfair is AdWords?

Robert X. Cringely has a very intriguing write-up on Google's AdWords program and how it may not be as democratic as most of us assume. Generally speaking, if you bid on rarely used words then you should be paying less per click on that word due to the lack of demand. This enables many small web publishers to profitably sell all types of content.

Unfortunately, it seems that Google does play favourites when it comes to pricing, and we are not talking about small discounts for large advertisers. All this happens with some really fuzzy math:

Luis decided to sell his program online using a Google ad campaign, targeting terms like "physics equations," "equation editor," and of course "LaTex." Because he didn't expect much competition selling equation editors, Luis thought that he could get most of these words for about Google's minimum price, which in the UK is 1p. In practice, though, he found that the minimum price was 3p for most words, and that minimum shortly jumped and then jumped again until some words cost as much as £2.75 (about $5.15). Since there was no competition for these ads, Luis couldn't figure out what was going on, and frankly, Google wasn't much help. They said that his words had low "Quality Scores," which meant that the minimum charge per word had to go up by the amount specified.

Google would be wise to keep in mind the customers that made AdWords a success - long before Amazon started spending millions of dollars on advertising with Google it was the small web publishers that proved the concept for Google and helped make Google what it is today, the number 1 Internet search site. Google may be able to make more money in the short term catering to large companies but taken together small businesses have enough pull to potentially send droves of Google visitors elsewhere.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

XUL picking up speed?

It has been reported today that Linspire and Ajax13 will be teaming up to bring Ajax13's web apps directly to Linspire desktop, via AjaxOS system. This at surface sounds like a great news for web apps everywhere until you actually read into it.

Ajax13 has put out such classics as ajaxWrite and ajaxTunes, enabling you to turn your web browser into a relatively capable word processor. As long as your browser is Firefox, that is. You see, despite the company name (Ajax13), and application names (ajaxWrite) these are not strictly using what most people understand as Ajax. These apps rely on XUL, which is the building block of the Mozilla project and its off-shoots like Firefox. In a way this is even worse than developing an IE-only web application - at least with IE you would allow more people to use your app.

So that brings me to the momentous occasion of Ajax13 teaming up with Linspire to bring this XUL-application-goodness to Linspire users. Sounds like Linspire sees something in Ajax13's approach to web applications, something that the rest of us morons don't (I use the term affectionately). Great press for Linspire and even better for Ajax13, winning a valuable partner for their web apps. That is until you realize that Michael Robertson started both companies and is chairman of Linspire and chief executive of Ajax13. A very smart way to generate publicity!

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

AIM for Windows Mobile

I wanted to install Windows Mobile AIM client onto my Crashinator (tm) PDA and lo and behold AOL wants to charge me $20 to install their IM client onto my device. This is the same software that's free for pretty much all other platforms.

After some digging around I realized this is a relatively recent decision by AOL, the software was previously available for free. So if you look hard enough you'll be able to find it for download for free. Google will even lead you to AOL's own "free download" page, except with the broken download link.

Fortunately, this being the Internet and AOL being as disorganized as they are you don't have to slum it in the seedier Internet locales to get this software - apparently AOL's UK division does not agree with AOL US policies and offers the download for free to their UK customers. Yes, the exact same download. Get it from:


Thanks AOL UK, you got the right idea!