Saturday, February 21, 2004

Coach Barnett Blows It; So Does Colorado Search Engine

When media around the world shine their collective spotlight on you, should their search engines know more about your story than your own search engine knows? That's exactly what's happening at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

CU is suffering through a public relations nightmare. Amidst stories of booze and strippers for high school recruits, CU head football coach Gary Barnett, asked about rape allegations by their former kicker Katie Hnida, responded that she didn't command other players' respect because she wasn't a very good kicker.

That stunning display of insensitivity will likely cost him his job. On February 19, the university suspended Barnett; on the 20th, CU named an interim coach.

I'm not equipped to advise Colorado on how to manage their monumental public relations problem, but this is a case study in why every search engine should offer a "best bets" service.

Go to and search for "barnett" and you'll see these results:

Now go to Colorado's own home page and do the same search. You'll see this:

Google News covers thousands of news sources worldwide. Out of hundreds of thousands of current news articles, just the word Barnett brings dozens of links to the relevant story to the top of Google's hit list. But Colorado's own search engine hasn't caught up to the story yet!

Even the search engines of individual news sources are ahead of Colorado's search engine. For instance, the BBC's news index also puts the relevant story at the top of the list.

You can bet thousands of people are hustling to the CU home page and searching for "barnett" and "football" and all sorts of terms related to the story. CU media relations folks are doing all they can to put the best face on this story. Sure, they can put links on the home page, but experience and Jakob Nielsen teach us that a large percentage of people just leap to the search box. They find nothing relevant.

There's a simple way to fix this: create a "best bets" feature for your search engine. When a story of massive interest breaks, get the PR team and the search team to coordinate a response. As each new press release comes out, add search terms to your best bets index. And monitor the search logs throughout the crisis to see what search terms folks are typing that you haven't thought of.

Ironically, it appears that Colorado's search engine has a Best Bets service, under the label Quick Links. All they need to do is make use of it to manage breaking news, not just static content.

You can't stay ahead of your own breaking news, but your search engine can keep up with it.

Thursday, February 12, 2004

Another Windows Opening, Channel 6, Film at 11

The local CBS TV affiliate,WLNS, asked to interview someone about the ANS vulnerability for which Microsoft released a patch this week

The reporter came to the MSU Computer Store (with a chief videographer I happened to know) and we did a brief interview on the new vulnerability and on the importance of running Windows Update frequently.

Here's the coverage as streamed by WLNS.

From talking to students and others in town, I'm convinced that folks now think of Microsoft as the little boy who cried wolf. Never mind that Blaster, Welchia, MyDoom, and others of their ilk really have caused significant damage.

One student was quoted in the MSU student newspaper saying that her computer had two viruses so she just uses the university-provided microlabs. No hint that maybe she ought to get the computer disinfected and run up-to-date anti-virus software. Sigh...

Pretty brief interview; hope someone ran Windows Update after seeing it!

Sunday, February 08, 2004

Internet Voting in the Michigan Democratic Caucus - Uncovered

There was international interest in the use of the Internet for voting in the 2004 Michigan Democratic Presidential Caucus. I voted over the Internet and captured screen shots of the process for posterity.

The process went like this:

-- First, you had to apply online to participate in the caucus.

-- Then, the Michigan Democratic party mailed instructions on how to vote online or by mail. The instructions included an assigned ID and password to use.

-- Then, you voted online or mailed in your ballot at the date of your choosing.

-- If you decided you'd rather vote in person the day of the physical caucus polling, you could do that; however, voting in more than one mode of polling was disallowed.

Here are screen shots of the actual Web voting process. At the very beginning there was a glitch: I went to the site without the https prefix; the party had secured the site through SSL, but failed to redirect an http request on port 80 to the SSL version of the home page. (Besides, it's not necessary to secure the login page, only the pages that take confidential information.)

There were some problems, though...

A friend who worked one caucus site tells me that a large number of people -- about 10% of those who voted that day -- had tried to vote over the Internet, but couldn't. So they fell back to voting in person.

Previously, news reports indicated that some 12,000 ballot requests for Internet (or mail) voting were denied due to subtle mismatches between name or address information and the official data from the Michigan Secretary of State.

In Detroit, a number of caucus sites were closed or moved the day of the voting. The party ordered voting in Detroit to continue until 8:00 pm, while in the rest of the state those who showed up to vote after the announced 4:00 pm closing were told "Nope."

All lot of out-of-state experts fretted about hacking; the real problems had to do with getting trains to run on time, not train robbers.

Saturday, February 07, 2004

The Michigan Democratic Caucuses: It's the Duration, Stupid

I will vote over the Internet in today's Michigan Democratic Caucuses. The US and international media are agog over the fact that people can vote in Michigan over the Internet. They're missing a huge point that will influence the results in this race -- the DURATION of the caucus polling. Voting in the Michigan Caucuses began when Dean was the front runner.

My Internet voting instructions arrived over 4 weeks ago. I could've voted immediately. But after a millisecond's thought, I held off, knowing that circumstances could change.

You wouldn't bet on horses in the Preakness before they run the Kentucky Derby, would you? Of course not! A favorite horse might lose badly -- or become injured and retire from racing.

That's exactly what happened here. Dean was heavily favored before the Iowa caucuses, when Michigan's polling had already begun. Thousands of people cast votes as soon as they received their instructions. By Friday, 50,000 had voted online or by mail -- a large fraction of the total likely vote.

The earlier you voted in the caucus, the more likely you were to vote for Dean -- or Gephardt, Mosely Brown, Clark, Lieberman, or Edwards. (I suspect that Sharpton or Kucinich supporters are less susceptible to the bandwagon effect.) Whoever you voted for, you can't take your vote back.

If everyone votes on the same day, all voters have the same information. A Dean voter on January 15 might have chosen differently on February 7, given the very different political landscape those few weeks later. But because this is not a winner-take-all election, those early votes for Dean still matter.

Dean has pulled all his resources from Michigan as he struggles to win Wisconsin. But Dean has Michigan votes in the bag that were cast weeks ago, and that may well translate into Dean delegates. If today you're a Kerry supporter you may say "What the heck, why vote? Kerry's sewed up the race." So you don't bother voting, Dean's proportion goes up, and you just helped Dean win more delegates.

Now that Kerry is overwhelmingly favored, turnout for in-person voting is expected to plummet. Think of the paradox: because Kerry is annointed as prohibitive favorite, his proportion of votes will go down!

If you voted early for Gephardt, who dropped out of the race, you probably feel you wasted your vote. If you voted early for Dean, you may feel you wasted your vote -- but maybe you didn't. It's the Ebay Effect -- don't bid until 15 minutes before the auction closes.

Now imagine what happens if every state allowed 30 days of voting in primaries and caucuses. Imagine if you could change your vote up until the closing of the polls. Each state would have its own electoral stock market.

The bottom line: concerns about Internet vote fraud in the Michigan Democratic Caucuses are de minimis compared to the effects of allowing balloting for weeks.

Other points the press is fuzzy on:

-- It's not "Internet caucuses;" people can also vote by mail or in person.

-- It's not a secret ballot. If there were allegations of fraud, the party could conduct an audit. Each vote is tagged with the voter's ID.

-- This is NOT a state-run election. It's a party caucus. The State of Michigan has nothing at all to do with this; this is entirely a production of the Michigan Democratic Party. A party caucus is a VERY different thing than a primary or a general election. This caucuses will draw only 150,000 voters in a state with 7 million registered voters. Dawson Bell presciently observed in the Detroit Free Press last December that turnout would be relatively low unless the Michigan race was hotly contested:

-- Here's the party's procedures:

Friday, February 06, 2004

Google News and People Names

Google News usually does a remarkable job of pulling together headlines and stories from a panoply of news sources worldwide. Sometimes, though, since the news page is assembled robotically, goofy things happen.

Here's an example: the News home page always has a little box labeled "In the News" where they pull up stories about people who are making headlines. Not surprisingly, Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake are newsmakers right now, along with Howard Dean and Martha Stewart.

But one "person" in the news is a bit of a surprise: County Sheriff. Hmm, is this some rap star I never heard of? Clicking on the link reveals that there happens to be a bunch of stories in the news about various county sheriffs around the country, and the Google robot has somehow lumped them all into one melange.

Again, it is remarkable how well Google News does its job. It's pretty clear that Google has entered into explicit partnerships with some major news providers, which presumably means they use technology to do the gathering of content "right." That means using RSS or some other XML scheme to feed marked-up content to the harvester.

But I bet in many cases Google News still "screen scrapes" to gather content. This means parsing HTML to try to grok what a news source's page means -- and that means getting it wrong from time to time.

Monday, February 02, 2004

The Super Bowl, Janet Jackson, and Microsoft

The Janet Jackson incident at the Superbowl has spawned a zillion conspiracy theories. Justin acted alone. Justin and Janet acted in concert but MTV didn't know. MTV knew but CBS didn't. I'd like to toss a new theory into the ring: Microsoft paid CBS to do it.

If you go to they not only report on the Janet Jackson story, they have a link to a video under a headline "Janet Exposed."

If, for scientific purposes, you click on that link from a Windows 95 computer, you are offered a chance to see the video using Real Player or Windows Media Player. But you must have WMP 9. If you click on the Real link, it attempts to download a codec update and fails. You can't get Windows Media Player 9 for Windows 95.

So if, for scientific purposes, you click on the Janet Exposed link from Windows XP, the default WMP for XP isn't good enough; you need WMP 9. Click to upgrade to WMP 9, and a new dialog box pops up offering a free trial of Microsoft Plus Digital Media Edition.

Now think about all this. CBS News is reporting on how CBS covered (or uncovered) the Super Bowl halftime show, which was produced by MTV. Viacom owns MTV and CBS.

CBS claims to be shocked, shocked that Justin Timberlake tore off Janet's shirt. Justin claims it was a "wardrobe malfunction." But CBS News is compounding the incident by putting the video online. 140 million people in the US saw part of the Super Bowl; maybe a billion people worldwide saw it. Obviously the Janet incident will be buzzing at water coolers and bars worldwide.

And obviously some huge number of millions of people clicked on CBS News' video link today. Millions couldn't see the video because the don't have current software. Millions will upgrade to Windows XP and Windows Media Player 9 as a result. Microsoft has a great interest in seeing those upgrades take place.

This was no wardrobe malfunction -- it was a stealthy ad for Microsoft!