The Risky Review Schemes That Could Sink Your Business

The Risky Review Schemes That Could Sink Your Business
Considering paying for reviews, getting friends and family to leave reviews, or even a ‘review swap’? Snap out of it! Google Gold Product Expert Jason Brown is here to explain how these schemes could ending up tanking your reviews, and offers some legitimate and proven tactics to generate reviews as alternatives.

Every business wants to increase the number of online reviews that they have. Whether the goal is to have more reviews than the competition, to repair your overall rating or simply to rank in or higher in the map pack, every business is looking into ways to get reviews. But you need to be smart about your strategy or you may find yourself renting reviews.

If Google catches you running an illegal review scheme, and they will, they will delete all of your reviews connected to the review scheme. The FTC also regulates online reviews. Google follows suit and has made review contests a violation of their Terms of Service. Before you stop reading this and say “I won’t get caught,” you need to know that Google receives multiple reports of review schemes every day. Your business could be next.

As a Google My Business Gold Product Expert (formerly the Top Contributor program), I answer business owner’s questions and advise individuals on how to navigate Google My Business issues. On a daily basis, I watch as business after business gets reported for ill-gotten reviews. I’ve seen reports made by marketing professionals, competitors, disgruntled employees, and upset customers.

There is more potential to get caught than there is to hide forever. If you’re like me, and spy on your competition to see what they’re up to, the chances are that one of your many competitors or their marketing company is spying on or monitoring your business.

Review Schemes to Avoid

Review Contests

Review contests are very popular and extremely illegal. The premise of this scheme is to enter the reviewer into a giveaway once they leave a review. I see this a lot with dentists and orthodontists. One dentist ran their review contest twice and both times they were reported to Google.

It doesn’t matter if you say any reviewer can qualify to enter (rather than just positive reviews), the fact that you are offering an incentive for the review violates Google’s TOS and so they will negate the contest.

Get Reviews on Google

The dentist in question more than likely received an email from Google advising them to stop the practice, which says “Please note that it is against Google My Business policies to offer or accept money, products, or services to write reviews for a business or to write negative reviews about a competitor.”

Google Review Email

I would bet that this email was in the process of being sent as the dentist set up the second review contest.

Discounted or Free Services

You cannot offer a reviewer any discount on services or products in exchange for reviews. One business I’m aware of offered all of their customers a 10% savings on their next purchase for leaving a review, so Google went and deleted two years’ worth of reviews.

I’ve also seen a thread where a business thanked everyone with a free drink after leaving a review. Google deleted over 400 reviews. Those 400 individuals still kept their free drink after their reviews were deleted by Google.

Review Swaps

I see review swaps the most in the legal niche. A review swap is basically where “you review me” and “I’ll review you”. I see it a lot when looking at a GMB listings for lawyers. One reviewer, who is also a lawyer, left reviews for several lawyers in different states.

Google’s TOS states, “Your content should reflect your genuine experience at the location and should not be posted just to manipulate a place’s ratings.”

Prohibited and Restricted Content

Review swaps:

a) don’t reflect a genuine experience

b) are posted to manipulate the ratings

When Google sees reports of these types of reviews, they delete them.

Asking Your Friends and Family for Reviews

This is the worst advice out there and it needs to be stopped. As I stated in ‘review swaps’ above, your friends and family reviews are posted to manipulate your ratings.

I see this a lot: a GMB listing has 7 reviews, all posted 8 months ago, and new reviews ever get posted. Potential customers want to see fresh and relevant reviews. Customers want to know how the business currently is and not how they were a year ago.

In their most recent Local Consumer Review Survey, BrightLocal found that 77% of consumers think that online reviews older than 3 months aren’t relevant.

Review-gating

Review-gating is not a new policy, but Google has just reiterated their stance on this practice. Review-gating is when a customer fills out a survey and, if they score high enough, they are asked to post a review online, but if the customer scores the business too low, they are asked to provide private feedback only.

When Google receives reports of businesses review-gating, they delete all of their reviews (not just the ones deemed to violate TOS). Your reputation management tool provider doesn’t get dinged, the business’ GMB listing does. They keep your money while all of your reviews are deleted and gone forever.

Remember that you can’t stop an upset customer from posting negative feedback online. They will find a way to share their experience online. You also need negative feedback so that you can grow and improve your business, and also to make your review profile more believable. (100+ 5-star reviews? Something’s up there.).

Receiving reviews is like going to the doctor for a check-up. The doctor will tell you all the positives and the areas you need to improve upon. If your doctor doesn’t inform you that you need to lower your cholesterol, they are doing you a disservice. You also can’t completely stop an upset customer from sharing their feedback. If they are upset enough, they might report you to Google.

What to Do Instead

All of the above review schemes simply don’t work long-term. While they may have quick results, they merely open up your business to a possible fine from the FTC and review deletion from Google.

Google will and does email businesses involved in illegal review schemes. This is not the attention you want from Google. If you give away a television or an iPad to solicit reviews and Google deletes all of your reviews, you’ll realize you just rented reviews for a short time. It would have been cheaper to sign up for BrightLocal’s new Reputation Management tool.

If an iPad costs $329 USD and BrightLocal’s reputation tool costs $8 USD, a business could safely request reviews for 41 months. That is almost 2 years’ worth of legitimate Google My Business reviews that will remain and won’t be deleted by Google.

When it comes to reviews, I tell all new brick and mortar businesses that they should be getting 5 to 10 new reviews per month. This really isn’t that hard if you train your staff to listen to your customers. If a customer says how great the service is, ask them to share that feedback online and leave your business a Google review.

If a business gets 10 customers a day, that’s 50 to 70 people per week. The odds are in your favor to get at least one of those customers to leave you a review online. It’s the law of averages and it will work out in your favor. You and your staff just need to ask.

You can run a contest among your employees to see who can get the most reviews. This can also get your employees to start focusing more on their customer service skills and the level of service they provide. After all, how are you going to get a review if you don’t ask for it?

Don’t Be Afraid of Negative Reviews

Reviews are about the customer experience. They should never be looked at as “I need X amount of reviews to rank higher, have more reviews than my competitor or to repair my reputation”. That’s the incorrect thinking businesses have when it comes to reviews and that thinking is a recipe for disaster.

If you have a “5 stars or bust” mentality, then when your business gets that one negative review (and it will) it will really upset you. I often see business owners get very distraught over one negative review. They plead their case on the Google My Business forum on how:

  • it’s not fair
  • we have nothing but 5-star reviews
  • it’s not a customer
  • we have no record of the person
  • it has to be a competitor

…and so they respond in a rude and unprofessional manner to the review publicly.

A negative review is an opportunity to plead your case and get the customer to contact you to resolve the complaint. Google notifies the reviewer of your reply too.

The goal of your reply is to persuade the user to contact you and work out a resolution. As consumers are reading more reviews, they are also reading the replies to reviews.  If you sound angry in your reply, it will do more harm than good, and that reviewer will not contact you to resolve the issue.

Conclusion

The bottom line is that your business needs customers to stay in business. If you’re not monitoring your reviews and replying in a polite and professional manner, your potential customers will go elsewhere.

You need to take a deep and serious look at your reviews and address any areas customers are not happy with. One business I have been monitoring for two years officially closed in October 2018. They never addressed the underlying causes of their negative reviews. Instead, they focused on a review scheme to combat the negative reviews. It didn’t work the restaurant wasn’t saved.

Review schemes will not work for your business either. To quote my favorite line from the movie Shawshank Redemption,

“get busy living, or get busy dying.”

Only you can save your business. Will you?

Jason Brown is SEO Manager at Over The Top Marketing and a Top Contributor on the Google My Business forum. He spends his free time battling fake online business reviews. He can be found on Twitter @keyserholiday.

4 Ideas for Your Holiday Marketing Campaign

End of season Christmas sale tags hanging with half price text and with origami paper style for holiday discount promotion.

Depending on your business, there are a number of different campaigns you could run during the holiday season.

The type of campaign you decide to run will depend on the products and services you offer, and the audience you’re trying to reach. You will also need to consider the type of results you’re looking for, and your overall goals for the upcoming season. Constant Contact email marketing and the new Facebook Ads have been most successful.

To help you get started, we’ve compiled a list of possible campaigns you can try out.

Offer a coupon

The key to a great offer is that it’s compelling enough to get people to act. You can add a coupon to any email and let customers redeem in-store or online.

Learn more: Create the Perfect Offer: 4 Questions You Need to Ask First

Plan an event

Hosting a holiday event is the perfect way to thank customers for their continued support. It’s also a great opportunity to interact with your audience face-to-face.

Learn more: How to Make Sure Your Holiday Event Doesn’t Fall Flat

Run a contest

Contests are a great way to engage your audience and can help generate buzz during the holiday season. Come up with a prize that your customers will love, and encourage them to enter by providing their email address.

Learn more: Let Spearhead Multimedia Create Your Holiday-Themed Facebook Promotion

Add value

If running a promotion doesn’t fit your business, you can still do something special for your customers by sending them a thank you email or offering something of value.

Learn more: How to Add Value this Holiday Season without offering a Discount

Google just told us how to fix the worst thing about Androids and iPhones

No matter how strong your allegiance to Android or iPhone is, you’ll probably agree that the worst thing about Android phones and iPhones is battery life. Yes, most of the new phones will get you through the day, and the advantage is clearly on Android, as some vendors have equipped their devices with massive battery packs. But battery life is never enough, especially as the battery degrades over time. Thankfully, Google just told us how to improve battery life on certain Android and most of the new iPhones, admitting a mistake in Android design in the process.

It turns out it’s something as easy as switching to dark mode whenever possible. That’s something smartphone-savvy users have long suspected, that dark mode will help conserve battery life. There is a caveat, however. The screen has to be an OLED one. But that’s absolutely not a problem these days, as most of the flagship devices out there pack OLED screens, premium iPhone X versions included.

Image Source: Google via SlashGear

Google shared data about energy consumption on phones at this week’s Android Dev Summit, SlashGear reports.

The company studied energy consumptions on phones with white and dark themes and concluded that at max brightness, the dark mode on OLED always wins. With OLED screens, each pixel lights up independently, which is why dark mode helps preserve battery life.

Image Source: Google via SlashGear

Google also showed a comparison between the original Pixel and the iPhone 7 which is self-explanatory, as long as you’re aware of the screen differences between the two devices. OLED, on the original Pixel, does consume less power on dark mode compared to the iPhone 7, which has an LCD.

All Pixels since the Pixel 3 come with OLED screens, as do Samsung flagship devices like the Galaxy S or Note, and Apple’s iPhone X, iPhone XS, and iPhone XS Max. But you won’t really find true dark modes for any of them.

Image Source: Google via SlashGear

Even Google admitted that it was wrong to impose white as the predominant color for Material Design apps. Apple’s iPhone UI, meanwhile, is also heavy on white, and there’s no dedicated dark mode on iPhone either. Interestingly, Apple launched a dark mode for Mac, although all Macs have LCD screens, which means it won’t help with battery life. Samsung phones, meanwhile, will get a dark mode via the One UI update, but not all its phones are eligible for it.

Image Source: Google via SlashGear

Just because Google told us how easy it is to “fix” battery life on OLED smartphones, doesn’t mean we’re getting dark modes from either Google or Apple anytime soon. But there may be independent apps that may offer users dark modes, with YouTube being one such example.

Internet Facts to Blow Your Mind

infographic-3

Internet Facts to Blow Your Mind

by Guest Blogger, Louise Harris

 

As quickly as one technology trend arrives, there is another one right behind it, so it is getting increasingly difficult to keep up with all this digital innovation that is readily available at our fingertips.

In the last twenty years, we have gone from the very early stages of mobile phone usage to a world where we can do our grocery shopping with a few clicks on a smartphone. The capabilities of the Internet seem endless and the stats show us just how much impact the Internet has had over the last few years.

This infographic reveals some very interesting digital information that might surprise you. For example, did you know that across the world there are over 4 billion Internet users? A massive 2 billion of that population is located in Asia and there are now 3.2 billion social media users (as of Jan 1st, 2018).

It is hard to imagine a world without the Internet now that it has become so integral to our daily routines. Social media is not just a way for people to connect with friends; it is also a strong business marketing channel with 90% of businesses now actively using social media.

Watching videos on YouTube has become a regular hobby for all generations and particularly the younger generations. There are now more than 1.5 billion YouTube users worldwide and anyone can quickly record a video using their smartphone or create their own tutorial on a webcam.

52.2% of website traffic is now via mobile phones and we have seen changes in website development to reflect this by making websites more mobile friendly. In 2018 over a billion voice search queries per month were recorded and this is a trend that is expected to continue through 2019.

RUSSIA’S ELITE HACKERS HAVE A CLEVER NEW TRICK THAT’S VERY HARD TO FIX

old-style-computer

RUSSIA’S ELITE HACKERS HAVE A CLEVER NEW TRICK THAT’S VERY HARD TO FIX

ALYSSA FOOTE/GETTY IMAGES

By 

THE FANCY BEAR hacking group has plenty of tools at its disposal, as evidenced by its attacks against the Democratic National Committee, the Pyeongchang Olympics, and plenty more. But cybersecurity firm ESET appears to have caught the elite Russian team using a technique so advanced, it hadn’t ever been seen in the wild until now.

ESET found what’s known as a UEFI rootkit, which is a way to gain persistent access to a computer that’s hard to detect and even harder to clean up, on an unidentified victim’s machine. The technique isn’t unheard of; researchers have explored proofs of concept in the past and leaked files have indicated that both the CIA and the independent exploit-focused company Hacking Team have had the capability. But evidence that it has happened, in the form of malware called LoJax, represents a significant escalation in the Fancy Bear—which ESET calls Sednit—toolkit.

In a Flash

If “LoJax” sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because you might recall LoJack—formerly known as Computrace—security software that lets you track your laptop in the event of theft. LoJack turns out to be potent stuff. It sits in a computer’s firmware, making regular calls back to a server to announce its location. Crucially, that also means you can’t get rid of it by reinstalling your operating system or swapping in a new hard drive.


“It allows the attacker to take over the machine and download whatever they want.”

RICHARD HUMMEL, ARBOR NETWORKS


That’s an intentional security feature: If someone steals your computer, you want to make it as hard as possible for them to evade detection. But it also presents a unique opportunity to bad actors, as outlined in a 2016 presentation at a security conference called Zero Nights, and again in more detail this May by researchers at security firm Arbor Networks. Essentially, Fancy Bear figured out how to manipulate code from a decade-old version of LoJack to get it to call back not to the intended server, but one manned instead by Russian spies. That’s LoJax. And it’s a devil to get rid of.

“Whenever a computer infected with a UEFI malware boots, it will place the LoJax agent on the Windows file system, so that when Windows boots, it’s already infected with the LoJax agent. Even if you clean LoJax from Windows, as soon as you reboot, the UEFI implant will reinfect Windows,” says Alexis Dorais-Joncas, ESET’s security intelligence team lead.

It is possible to remove LoJax from your system entirely, but doing so requires serious technical skills. “You can’t just restart. You can’t just reinstall your hard drive. You can’t replace your hard drive. You actually have to flash your firmware,” says Richard Hummel, manager of threat intelligence for Arbor Networks. “Most people don’t know how to do that. The fact that it gets into that spot where it’s really difficult to use makes it really insidious.”

Most antivirus scanners and other security products also don’t look for UEFI issues, making it even harder to detect whether malicious code is there. And if it is, you’re in trouble.

“Decade-old software and hardware vulnerabilities are easily exploited by modern attackers, so companies must use good endpoint hygiene best practices including ensuring endpoints and firmware are up-to-date, leveraging anti-malware, and confirming other endpoint protection agents are always present and healthy,” says Dean Ćoza,  executive vice president of products at LoJack developer Absolute. “We take the security of our platform extremely seriously, and are working to confirm these issues do not impact our customers or partners.”

Takeover

The malware ESET observed does not itself actively steal data from an infected device. Think of it not as a robber, but as a door into your house that’s so hidden, you can’t see it even if you pore over every wall. LoJax gives Fancy Bear constant, remote access to a device, and the ability to install additional malware on it at any time.

“In effect, it allows the attacker to take over the machine and download whatever they want,” says Hummel. “They can also use the original intent of the malware, which is to track the location of the infected machines, possibly to specific owners that may be of interest to the attackers.”


“Probably more attacks will take place.”

ALEXIS DORAIS-JONCAS, ESET


Several details about the Fancy Bear UEFI attack remain either vague or unknown. ESET’s Dorais-Joncas confirmed that the device they spotted it on was “infected by several pieces of malware,” and that the hacking group targeted government entities in Europe. They don’t know exactly how Fancy Bear hackers gained access to the victim’s device in the first place, but Dorais-Joncas suggests that they likely followed their typical strategy of a spearphishing attack to gain an initial foothold, followed by movement through a network to locate more high-value targets.

The security firm has more specificity, though, in terms of how exactly Fancy Bear operated once it got that initial control. First, the hackers used a widely available tool to read the UEFI firmware memory, to better understand what specific device they were attacking. Once in possession of that image, they modified it to add the malicious code and then rewrote the infected image back to the firmware memory. The process was not automated, says Dorais-Joncas; a human behind a keyboard went through every step.

Those details offer some hope for future potential victims. Namely, the attackers were only able to write onto the target computer’s firmware in the first place because it was an older device; Intel and others have baked in better protections against that behavior, especially after the Hacking Team and CIA revelations. Using the Windows Secure Boot feature, too, would prevent this type of attack, since it checks to make sure that the firmware image on your computer matches up with the one the manufacturer put there.

“On the other hand,” says Dorais-Joncas, “probably more attacks will take place,” given that Fancy Bear has figured out how to do it successfully. And now that it’s widely known that Fancy Bear did it, copycats may not be far behind.

“Whenever we see these new tactics, it does not take long for other hackers to figure out how they did it and to mimic it,” says Hummel.

Russia’s hackers already have an elaborate hacking toolkit. But the introduction of a UEFI rootkit—stealthy, complex, pernicious—affirms just how advanced their capabilities have become. And more importantly, how hard they are to defend against.

The Best Reason to use a Professional WordPress Developer

wordpress-locked

Thousands of WordPress sites backdoored with malicious code

Malicious code redirects users to tech support scams, some of which use new “evil cursor” Chrome bug.

 


Thousands of WordPress sites have been hacked and compromised with malicious code this month, according to security researchers at Sucuri and Malwarebytes.

All compromises seem to follow a similar pattern –to load malicious code from a known threat actor– although the entry vector for all these incidents appears to be different.

Researchers believe intruders are gaining access to these sites not by exploiting flaws in the WordPress CMS itself, but vulnerabilities in outdated themes and plugins.

Also: Access to over 3,000 backdoored sites sold on Russian hacking forum

When they gain access to a site, they plant a backdoor for future access and make modifications to the site’s code.

In most cases, they modify PHP or JavaScript files to load malicious code, although some users have reported seeing modifications made to database tables as well.

Malwarebytes security researcher Jérôme Segura said this malicious code filters users visiting the compromised sites and redirects some to tech support scams.

CNET: How to avoid tech support scams

He says some of the traffic patterns seen during the redirection process match the patterns of a well-known traffic distribution system used by several malware distribution campaigns.

Segura also said that some of tech support scams that users are landing on are using the “evil cursor” Chrome bug to prevent users from closing the malicious site’s tab, a trick that the researcher first spotted last week.

TechRepublic: Why that email from your boss could be a scam waiting to happen

This WordPress site hijacking campaign appears to have started this month, according to Sucuri, and has intensified in recent days, according to Segura.

Googling just one of the pieces of the malicious JavaScript code added to the hacked WordPress sites reveals just a small portion of the total number of hacked sites. In this case, this string search yielded over 2,500 results, including a corporate site belonging to Expedia Group, the parent company behind the Expedia portal.

wp-spam-campaign.png

Last week, ZDNet revealed that attackers had been scanning the Internet in an attempt to exploit a recent vulnerability in a popular WordPress plugin.

While Sucuri did not find confirmation that this vulnerability was now being used in this recent wave of site hacks, the company did confirm our initial report, based on WordFence’s telemetry.

Contact Spearhead Multimedia today and get your free WordPress Website security evaluation.

We offer special incentives for new clients who want to move to a new, secure host, update and harden their WordPress websites and create new WordPress websites.  Call 954-202-8004 or use the Contact Us form.

Mobile-First Indexing: Your Guide to Google’s Big Shift

Google-mobile-indexing

Mobile-First Indexing: Your Guide to Google’s Big Shift

 By 

As Google makes the big change to mobile-first indexing, it’s important that your site is ready for the shift. Are you fully prepared?

Let’s start at the beginning.

What Is Mobile-First Indexing?

The mobile-first initiative is an effort to address the growing percentage of mobile-users in today’s search landscape.

Back in March, on their Webmaster Central Blog, Google announced that they are rolling out their mobile-first indexing initiative more broadly which is a big change to how Google crawls and indexes your site. The push is on now and Mobile Indexing is being fully implemented.

What’s Changing about Google’s Rankings?

Per Google, “Mobile-first indexing means Google will predominantly use the mobile version of your websites content for indexing and ranking.”

But what does that mean?

Currently, Google crawls and indexes your site based on the desktop version of your site and the content that exists there.  With this change, Google will be looking at your mobile site first and the content on that version to determine how your site is ranked.

For example:

Desktop vs. mobile versions of your site; Google will now index the mobile version of your site.

Over the course of the last year, Google has been slowly experimenting with a small percentage of sites to make the switch to crawling, indexing, and ultimately ranking sites based on their mobile experience, not their desktop as they always have.

This doesn’t mean your desktop site isn’t important anymore, it just means that they will be looking at it as a secondary source, not the primary one for crawling, indexing, and ranking as it has been in the past.  But even if your site is doing well organically, if it’s not responsive (mobile friendly), your ranking will drop substantially.  Don’t lose those years of building your search engine position, contact us today.

How Mobile-First Indexing May Impact Your Site

Depending on how you handle mobile, this change may or may not directly affect your site.

  • If your site is built in responsive design, you will see no impact, as your site adapts to all devices.
  • If you have a separate m. site (or something similar) and your primary content does not exist on it, then you are at risk of seeing a negative impact as Google will no longer be looking at your desktop version.
  • If you do not have a mobile site/experience then this change will negatively impact you.  Also, it’s 2018: if you don’t have a mobile-friendly site then you have much larger issues that this change.

What Mobile-First Best Practices Can I Follow To Ensure I Maximize My Opportunity?

Google has published an entire list of best practices for mobile-first indexing on their developers’ blog.

While there are many things to consider and you should read through the entire list above, two major points are ensuring you have mobile-friendly content and that your site loads as fast as possible.  Site speed is becoming an increasingly important ranking factor, which coincides with users’ needs to get everything as quickly and seamlessly as possible.  With the rapid adoption of AMP (accelerated mobile pages) and the popularity of Progressive Web Apps (PWA’s) growing, it’s not surprising to see Google pushing site owners in this direction.

How Do I Know If Google is Using Mobile-First Indexing for My Site?

Google will be notifying site owners that their sites are migrating to mobile-first indexing through Search Console.  The message will look like this:

Example of Google's notification of mobile first indexation

So you need to make sure that if you have an m. version of your site, it is verified in Search Console.

You will also see a significant increase in the Smartphone Googlebot crawl rate and Google will show the mobile version of pages in search results and cached pages.

What Do We Think About This?

This is a major change in how Google interacts with our websites and makes sense as more and more traffic continues to move to mobile.  While your desktop site will certainly remain important and Google will not be ignoring it, users have been trending towards mobile usage for years and this is the natural progression of our industry.

Companies need to take notice of this change.  Thinking mobile-first should not be something that is kicked down the road and moved down on priority lists, from a search perspective this should be top of mind for all organizations large and small.

Should you be concerned?  If you haven’t been paying attention to how your site functions on a mobile device, this probably isn’t going to pan out for you.  The good news is that all websites are living documents and can be changed and updated.  If you are coming in a little late to the game on mobile, then now is the time to improve that experience and ensure your site is set up to provide value to mobile users.

This is yet another banner that Google is waving to signal the importance of your mobile experience.  If you have been neglecting it, now is the time to rectify that and putting people and resources behind it.

If you think your site is not mobile friendly or have tested it and know, contact us for advice to bring your website up to speed with the current technologies.


What is the dark web? The good and bad of the Internet’s most private corner

ProtonMail-What-is-the-dark-web-diagram-2

What is the dark web? The good and bad of the Internet’s most private corner

You may have heard the dark web is a place for drug dealers and hitmen. That’s correct, but there’s more to it than that. In this article, find out what is the dark web, how to access it, and what you might find there.

The dark web is a part of the Internet that requires special software to access and is not indexed by search engines. It offers much greater privacy than the widely accessible parts of the World Wide Web.

That privacy also makes the dark web a setting for illegal activity, scams, and offensive content. The high-profile rise and fall of the Silk Road marketplace for illicit drugs is the best-known example of this. But despite the sensational media coverage, few people really understand what the dark web is or how it works. For instance, it might surprise some people to learn that The New York Timesand Facebook both maintain websites on the dark web.

The dark web isn’t “dark” because it’s bad; it’s dark because it’s the only place on the Internet that offers a bit of privacy. In this article, we’ll explain how that works, what actually happens on the dark web, and how you can check it out for yourself.

What is the dark web?

Think of the Internet as divided into three parts: the clearweb, the deep web, and the dark web.

The clearweb is the Internet most of us are familiar with. Its pages are searchable in Google, but it makes up just a small percentage of all the content on the Internet. The deep web comprises the majority of the Internet, but it is not indexed by search engines, it is often password-protected, and therefore it’s not generally accessible. The deep web includes things like financial databases, web archives, and password-protected pages.

The dark web is a small portion of the deep web. It runs on top of existing Internet infrastructure, but it is a parallel web that cannot be accessed without special tools. For this reason the dark web is sometimes referred to as the hidden web.

Websites on the dark web have domains ending in “.onion” and are sometimes known as onion sites. They’re called onion sites because of the kind of encryption technology they use to hide the IP address of the servers that host them. Websites on the dark web mask their data behind multiple layers of encryption (like the layers of an onion), and can only be accessed through the Tor network, which is a network of computers around the world maintained by volunteers. Because the routing is random and the data is encrypted, it’s extremely difficult for anyone to trace any piece of traffic back to its source.

How to access the dark web

Tor is the most popular dark web interface, with millions of users. There are a number of ways to access the Tor network, including via the Tor browser , the operating system Tails, or by installing Tor on your computer. ProtonVPN also provides one-click Tor access through the Tor over VPN feature. From there, you can browse the web normally as well as gain access to highly private and secure onion sites.

Unlike the regular web, however, even after you have connected to the dark web, it isn’t so easy to find websites. Dark web sites use randomly generated domains that aren’t easy to remember. The dark web is also difficult to index, meaning search engines are ineffective. There are a number of link directories, such as The Hidden Wiki, that attempt to catalogue the dark web. But because dark web sites change their domain frequently, you’ll find a lot of dead links. A typical onion site url looks something like this:

http://3g2upl4pq6kufc4m.onion/

Some special onion sites, though, have easy to remember domain names and also SSL encryption (URLs that start with “https” instead of “http”). For example, ProtonMail’s Tor encrypted email site is at https://protonirockerxow.onion while Facebook’s onion site is at https://facebookcorewwwi.onion. You can learn more about these special onion sites here.

What’s on the dark web?

The illicit uses of the dark web are well documented: assassination services, ecommerce sites for buying guns and drugs, and so on. It’s best to stay clear of anything that seems suspect while browsing there. However, there are plenty of 100% legal things you can do on the dark web. You can read ProPublica or The New York Timescheck your email in ProtonMail, or browse your Facebook wall. All of these mainstream websites offer dark web access because of the benefits to privacy and freedom of information.

One of the biggest advantages of the dark web is the difficulty of blocking it. Common forms of censorship, which block traffic to websites at specific choke points along the Internet hierarchy, do not work with encrypted overlay networks. (As a result, some dictators have, for example, tried to block Tor itself.)

For similar reasons, the dark web is more resistant to surveillance by governments and corporations (such as Internet service providers). Whistleblowers, journalists, and other professionals at risk of targeted surveillance use the dark web to communicate sensitive information. And organizations including Human Rights Watch and the Electronic Frontier Foundation support the use of and access to the dark web.

One of the only drawbacks of the dark web is its speed. For instance, because Tor bounces your traffic through multiple servers around the world, it necessarily slows your connection. But when you need it, the dark web can be vitally important: When Turkey temporarily blocked ProtonMail for some users, our onion site was one of the only ways people could gain access to email.

So, there’s no reason to be afraid of the dark web. On the contrary, the dark web is an essential privacy tool. As governments work to weaken encryption with backdoors and corporations gain greater access to everything we do, privacy and security technologies like the dark web must be vigorously defended. And that starts with understanding them beyond sensational headlines.

Best Regards,
The ProtonMail Team

You can get a free secure email account from ProtonMail here.

We also provide a free VPN service to protect your privacy.

ProtonMail and ProtonVPN are funded by community contributions. If you would like to support our development efforts, you can upgrade to a paid plan or donate. Thank you for your support!

Alexa Is Losing Her Edge

google-home

Alexa Is Losing Her Edge

A year ago, everyone was buying an Amazon Echo. Here’s how Google turned the tables.

It’s easy to imagine a world in which “Alexa” is synonymous with talking computers, or Echo with smart speakers—just as Kleenex is synonymous with facial tissue, Xerox with copy machines, or Google with online search. (These are called genericized trademarks, or proprietary eponyms, by the way. They need a better name.)

That’s almost the world we live in today, thanks to the dramatic early success of Amazon’s pioneering smart speaker and the surprisingly capable digital assistant that animates it. Almost, but not quite.

It’s true that voice-powered smart speakers are on the path to ubiquity: Analysts predict that most U.S. households will eventually have one. But at a time when sales are booming around the world, it’s becoming clear that Amazon’s first-mover advantage wasn’t built to last.

While there are no official sales figures, mounting evidence suggests that Echo devices have been losing ground in the past year to competitors on multiple fronts. Assemble the pieces from an array of market-research reports with different methodologies, and the picture is that of a rapidly shifting landscape in which no single company is likely to dominate long-term—but if anyone does, it might be Google. That matters not only to industry watchers and investors but to anyone who cares about the business models and privacy practices of the tech goliaths that mediate what we say, learn, buy, and do.

With that caveat aside, a consensus has emerged on the broad trends. Here are three of the big ones:

• Google Home devices are rapidly catching up to Amazon Echo devices in worldwide sales and may have already surpassed them.

• Apple’s HomePod isn’t selling as poorly as some initial reports suggested, and Samsung just launched its own smart speaker.

• China is the fastest-growing market for smart speakers, and neither Amazon nor Google is a significant player there.

The common thread: Alexa is losing its edge. And the obvious question: What happened?

As recently as a year ago, Amazon single-handedly controlled the global smart speaker industry, with a market share upward of 75 percent, according to estimates from two of the leading market watchers, Strategy Analytics and Canalys, based in Singapore. Amazon itself boasted in a February earnings report that it had sold “tens of millions” of Echo devices in 2017. That figure included not only its flagship Echo smart speaker but the Echo Dot, Echo Show, and other Echos, the company clarified to me (though not other Alexa-powered gizmos, such as the Tap or Fire TV). It makes sense that Amazon was crushing the competition because there wasn’t much competition yet: Google had just launched the Home in late 2016, and Apple’s HomePod was not yet on the market. The Echo has been available since 2014.

Would-be rivals faced an uphill struggle. Amazon’s head start in smart speakers resembled the daunting leads that Apple famously built in portable MP3 players, smartphones, and tablets. But Apple’s high prices at least gave competitors an opening to build cheaper alternatives for the mass market. Not so with Amazon. Because it viewed Echo partly as a path to Amazon purchases, the company sold its smart speakers at affordable prices, opting to maximize sales rather than profit margins. How could latecomers compete?

Yet visions of an Amazon smart speaker monopoly faded faster than almost anyone expected. Google, in particular, has been catching up in a hurry. That could be partly because its Assistant is “smarter” than Alexa, by some metrics. But the Echo is more capable in other respects, and it continues to be a top-rated device in the category.

Analysts say the secrets to Google’s success lie elsewhere. A big-budget marketing blitz, an aggressive push to partner with retailers and makers of smart home gadgets, and the company’s reputation for answering search questions got it off to a good start. It didn’t hurt that the company was also pushing the Google Assistant—its equivalent of Alexa—onto hundreds of millions of Android devices. Perhaps most importantly, Google has experience, partners, and language capabilities in overseas markets where Amazon is less established.

Oh, and perhaps you’ve heard that brick-and-mortar retailers aren’t big Amazon fans. “Retailers are more open to the idea of arranging Google’s smart speakers because Google isn’t seen as such a direct competitor,” said Vincent Thielke, research analyst for Canalys.

By early this year, according to multiple industry reports, the tide was turning in Google’s favor. One firm, Strategy Analytics, estimated this month that Amazon’s global market share dipped from 76 percent to 41 percent over the past year, with Google’s rising to 28 percent. The firm projects Google’s smart speaker sales to surpass Amazon’s by 2020, said Bill Ablondi, director of smart home strategies.

Chart showing global smart speaker market by vendor in Q2 2018.

For Amazon, those numbers would be ominous enough. But Canalys reckoned in an Aug. 16 report that Google has already eclipsed Amazon in quarterly sales.

Chart showing worldwide smart speaker market by Q2 2018.

It’s worth noting that Canalys counts devices shipped to retailers, even if they haven’t yet been purchased by consumers. Canalys derives its estimates partly from suppliers, vendors, and other third parties, while Strategy Analytics relies on sources within the companies that make them. A third report, from the news and research site Voicebot, used consumer surveys to estimate how many users each firm’s smart speakers have. It found that 62 percent of U.S. smart speaker owners had an Amazon Echo, while 27 percent had a Google Home, as of May. That methodology favors Amazon by counting devices purchased in the past. But even there, Google was rapidly gaining ground, tripling its market share in the first half of 2018.

More competitors are looming: Electronics giant Samsung has just launched its Galaxy Home smart speaker, and a bevy of audio companies are gradually getting in on the game. Meanwhile, smart displays are emerging as an alternative to audio-only speakers, and Facebook is working on a device called Portal that could focus on video calling.

In the long run, though, it isn’t just Silicon Valley that threatens Amazon’s smart speaker lead. It’s China.

A year ago, pundits were wondering why smart speakers weren’t catching on in China. No one’s wondering that anymore: It is by all accounts the fastest-growing market for smart speakers. And virtually none of that growth is going to Amazon or its U.S. rivals, which don’t offer Chinese-language versions. It’s going instead to Chinese giants such as Alibaba, Xiaomi, and Baidu, which are pumping out smart speakers that go for a fraction of the price of the Echo or Home. These aren’t just cheap knockoffs, either. At CES this year, Baidu showed off high-concept smart speakers that look like lamps, ceiling lights, or even a colorful stack of blocks. Amazon and Google’s devices look outdated by comparison.

When you buy an Echo, you’re paying Amazon $85 today. But it also gives you a strong incentive to pay it $120 a year for Amazon Prime, and perhaps another $80 per year for Amazon Music Unlimited. On top of that, it makes it very easy to buy things on Amazon and plays nicely with other Alexa devices like the Fire TV.

Purchase a Google Home, on the other hand, and it will fit right in with Chromecast, YouTube, your Gmail and Google Calendar, and the Google Assistant on your Android device. A HomePod will deepen your relationship with Siri and iTunes, and so forth.

So an Echo-filled world would expand Amazon’s retail empire; a Home-filled world would broaden Google’s surveillance network and feed its A.I.; a world of HomePods would keep people ensconced in Apple’s ecosystem (especially if they’re well-off). And one shudders to think what a world of Facebook Portals might do. (Rumor has it the company delayed the device’s launch due to the Cambridge Analytica scandal.) The only darker scenario might be one in which the censorship-friendly Chinese tech companies ultimately prevail.

That Amazon no longer looks poised to monopolize smart speakers might reassure critics wary of its online retail dominance. But the prospect of Google’s dominance should give privacy advocates pause. What we have for now, thankfully, is a hotly competitive industry—the kind that is unlikely to give rise to any proprietary eponyms at all.

How to Get The Most Out of Your Restaurant Email Newsletter

How to Get The Most Out of Your Restaurant Email Newsletter

macbook_with_zenreach_composer

A compelling email newsletter can be a very powerful tool for restaurants. They can inform customers about latest dishes and events and promote a restaurant’s unique personality to differentiate from other restaurants. But how can you ensure that you are creating an effective newsletter?

Vibrant images and calls-to-action

You have a sizeable customer email list and are reaching out to your customers on a regular basis. Now what? How do you ensure that your newsletter stands out from the other newsletters your customers receive on a daily basis? Having a vibrant image and a convincing call-to-action can help give your newsletter that edge!

You can start by including eye-catching photos that will draw their attention. Try including an image of your latest dish. Think of a vibrant color/image as one which stands out from the background and would draw someone’s attention almost immediately. The image should also match either your restaurant or newsletter’s content so it remains relevant and cohesive. An example of such an image is:

banko_cantina_tacos.jpg

Banko Cantina chose this image for the restaurant’s all-you-can-eat tacos on Taco Tuesday special. (Source: Banko Catina)

Once you have picked an image, are your email newsletters actually bringing customers back to your restaurant? Are you engaging your customers with content that leaves them wanting to do something about it? Ensuring that your email newsletter is effective in bringing customers back through an exciting and convincing call-to-action is the next important step in promoting your business.

Start with the most important information. For example, if there’s an upcoming special or event on Tuesday night, state all the details pertaining to it. This should include the date, time, and specials your customer will get from attending. A good subject title would be, “Enjoy $1 tacos this Taco Tuesday!” This title works because it’s personal, direct, and simple. Exactly what a customer wants. You are also being explicit in the benefit your customer will get for going to your restaurant on Tuesday.

Customers want to feel special. Personalized and exclusive offers given to them because they are on your mailing list will make them feel that way. This gives them a feeling of being rewarded while also making it easier for you to track the results of your marketing campaign. It’s a win-win!

Great content

Still, some people receive hundreds of emails a day. How do you stand out? There are some general rules of thumb to ensure that your communication doesn’t get lost on its way to a customer.

Start with a click-worthy subject line. Be sure to keep it short, sweet and enticing. You have about 5 seconds to grab their attention, so make it count!

Sometimes a restaurant email newsletter promotes more than just specials, it’s a reminder of how great your restaurant is to customers who haven’t visited in awhile. Spreading the word about an update in your menu or changes to your restaurant’s look will encourage them to come back. You can also highlight positive reviews of your restaurant such as a favorable quote from a recent customer. This reinforces that same feeling amongst other customers, encouraging them to write their own positive review or even just to return to your restaurant. Following these steps ultimately helps in the reputation management of your restaurant.

Lastly, don’t forget to make the newsletter personal. If you have their names, include them. Adding a personal touch to your newsletters will make customers feel special and more inclined to go back to your restaurant.

A great example would be “Happy Hump Day, Alex! Next drink on us.” It’s personal, direct and simple, and your customer is incentivized to click on it.

Using the proper tools

Knowing what to include in a newsletter is only half the battle; doing it on a regular basis is what can really save you time.

Entrepreneur Magazine noted that many companies are seeing open rates on their newsletters as low as 5 percent. However, if you are able to leverage marketing automation with the right tools, you will be left with more time to think about the content of your newsletter and execute it effectively.

An automated marketing platform not only helps you easily build your email marketing database, but it can help create and schedule your emails both simply and automatically. Zenreach is an example of such a platform.

Not only does Zenreach let your customers sign into your portal and receive a customized WiFi experience, it allows them to participate in your restaurant’s special offers and deals.

Still not convinced? Sign up for a free Zenreach trial today and see how a marketing automation platform can grow your business in just 30 days!

 


Spearhead Multimedia and Zenreach make it easy! Try It Today

Font Resize