internet

If People Think It – Does It Matter If It’s Actually True?

In this week’s excellent episode of the Reply All podcast, Alex Goldman and PG Vogt explore the question Is Facebook Spying On You?

In particular, a number of people are of the belief that the Facebook app is listening to what you’re saying and that’s the only way to explain why things you were talking about with your friends are suddenly appearing as ads in your Facebook timeline.

Now in fact there are lots of reasons why Facebook could know this information, and the episode digs into the issue of online ad tracking, which is remarkably sophisticated these days – and/or creepy. Facebook tracks your internet behaviours across many sites who use the Facebook Pixel. Essentially it’s tracking code that follows you around vast parts of the web. It’s this technology that also explains why that pair of shoes you were looking at during your lunch break then follows you elsewhere around the web.

Facebook records thousands of pieces of data about each user, and then further utilises location data from the app and location data of your friends’ apps. In turn this means that you might see products that your friends were looking at because it can infer that you might have mentioned them. (Interestingly, just after listening to this episode the Facebook app on my phone performed quite a sizeable update that required me to log in again. The first thing it asked for was permission to turn on location services. Denied!)

This remarkable technology, along with smart algorithms that will make inferences based on people’s behaviours means that as Facebook says, it isn’t actually using the microphone on your phone to listen to you.

But the tracking they manage seems to be practically magical to many people, so they infer that Facebook must be listening in!

So my question is this: Does it actually matter that Facebook isn’t using the microphone on your phone. If their tracking is so exceptional and accurate, that it becomes creepy, people will rationalise it as meaning they must be doing it.

And if people believe something to be true, it really doesn’t matter if it’s not actually the case.

Note: I write all this in the knowledge that I have microphones in my home that do stay live all the time, and report data back to Amazon and Google. The difference is that I trust those organisations more. It’s difficult to put my finger on why that is, but it feels that they’re more up front and honest about what they’re doing.

RAJAR Q2 2017

RAJAR

As ever, this post is brought to you in association with RALF from DP Software and Services. I’ve used RALF for the past 9 years, and it’s my favourite RAJAR analysis tool. So I am delighted that I continue to be able to bring you this RAJAR analysis in association with RALF. For more details on the product, contact Deryck Pritchard via this link or phone 07545 425677.

RAJAR is upon us once more, and so this will be something of a canter through the results. However, I’ll also throw in a few pieces from the most recent RAJAR MIDAS survey that was also recently published, and is very illuminating.

I think I will start with digital listening, since we’re now incredibly close to half of all radio listening being on a digital platform. In this quarter it reached a high of 48.7% of all listening being digital, up from 47.2% last quarter and 45.3% a year ago.

You can see from this chart that progress has been constant over that time. And of course DAB radio is the largest part of that listening. But it’s always worth having a look at internet listening, because that seems to be growing much faster. Apps improve, and data packages increase. You may even have seen improved 4G coverage!

Internet listening is now up to 8.8% of all radio listening. Also a new high.

If you just look at 15-44s, then internet listening goes up to 14.6%. This is becoming an important platform.

Overall 49.2m people listen to the radio each week – an all time high. Although we should be careful to note that RAJAR updates its population estimates in Q2 each year, and as the UK’s population continues to rise, you would expect listening to rise – even if radio listening is actually “flat.” And so it is that 90% of the population listen to the radio, which is in line with previous quarters.

Each radio listens for 21.0 hours a week, which actually represents – just – a record low under the current RAJAR methodology. This isn’t necessarily surprising, since as I’ve said here before, it’s not so much reach and listening hours that are challenging radio the most, particularly in younger demos. But average hours are worth keeping an eye on.

National and Digital Services

Radio 1 will be pleased to have bounced back from some awful results last time around. They are back up to nearly 9.6m listeners, representing an increase of 5.3% on the quarter and a 1.4% increase on the year. In terms of listening hours, they’ve done very well this time with 64.3m hours which is the best they’ve had for nearly two years now. Last quarter does look much more like a “blip”, but this audience remains challenging and other metrics undoubtedly come into play as far as the station goes.

Radio 2 saw a small decrease across the board in its listening figures, with a fall below 15m for the first time in a few quarters. Notably hours fell too, down 6.0% on the quarter and down 3.0% on the year. But with 14.8m listeners tuning in for an average of 11.7 hours a week, they’re not exactly struggling. Obviously we do now know that their presenters are generally fairly well remunerated!

Radio 3 saw its reach breach 2m again, up 9.4% on the quarter, yet down 6.3% on the year in reach terms. There was a similar trend with hours.

Radio 4 had a stronger quarter in reach terms, rising to 11.6m. By the skin of its teeth, that’s a new record reach for the station, breaking the previous reach set in Q2 last year. Obviously there continue to be one or two things in the news which may well be helping. Hours were down a bit on the quarter, however, while being up on the year.

Five Live had a second successive disappointing quarter, being fractionally down in reach on the quarter, but more substantially down on the year. They’ll be keeping an eye on hours too, with 35.0m down 14.5% on the 41.0m they had a year ago. Obviously there’s no major football tournament this year, and the end of the football season wasn’t quite the story it was a year ago.

In a massive shock, 6 Music has somehow not achieved a record audience this quarter! Reach is down 4.9% to 2.2m, while hours dip below 20m. The latter in particular feels a bit like a blip and will be worth returning to next quarter.

I’ll note that the World Service is up 19.4% in reach terms this quarter, and 28.5% up on the quarter in terms of hours.

LBC has had another exceptional quarter, up 14.5% to 2.0m, and up 11.8% to 21.6m listening hours. These are both records in terms of the station in modern times, since it went national. The station really is going from strength to strength.

Absolute Radio was down 3.0% on the quarter and a little more on the year to 2.1m, while hours were down 1.8% on the quarter, but up 15.8% on the year. Absolute obviously has Dave Berry beginning his new drivetime show from this October, while this quarter (just) saw the departure of longtime presenters Geoff Lloyd and Annabel Port from that slot. We won’t truly be able to see the outcome of that change until the Q4 figures come out early in 2018.

Classic FM had a strong quarter with reach up 7.8% to 5.8m, while hours were up nearly 16% to 40.3m. Those both represent the best numbers the station has had since the first half of 2011, so a really great set of results for the team in Leicester Square.

Talksport on the other hand, has not had a good set of numbers this quarter. They’re down 3.9% in reach on the quarter, and down 20.3% in reach on the year. Hours are worse, down 16.6% on the quarter, and down 28.2% on the year. As with Five Live, there’s been no major football tournament this summer, and the end of the season wasn’t perhaps as exciting as in some other years. However, the reach is the worst since 2010, and hours the worst since the end of 2003. You must think that News UK can help the station with some solid marketing, but also wonder if we’ll see some significant programme changes. Some of those audience losses can be balanced against some growth in Talksport 2, which achieved its best results so far, with 336,000 reach and just short of 1m hours.

Talkradio has also seen some positive shifts, with its reach and hours both healthily up in percentage terms. It now has 275,000 reach with 1.1m hours. Those results put the station about on a par with Virgin Radio which was down in reach but up in hours on the quarter. It has 364,000 listeners spending 1.1m hours with it. The challenge for Wireless Group (and owners News UK) was always supporting all these new brands over the early part of their existence. Speech radio in particular is not necessarily a cheap format.

The Capital Network jumps back up 3.8% in reach and 3.1% in hours this quarter, with the overall brand (including Capital XTRA) similarly improving. Overall they have a reach of 8.6m reach with 48.4m hours. Does Global have Radio 1 in its sights?

Sister Heart Network is basically flat in reach, and down 3.6% in hours on the previous quarter. The overall Heart Brand is up 2.8% in reach but down 0.9% in hours. It reaches 9.2m a week with 67.0m hours. A recent trip to the cinema suggest that they’re spending on the brand currently (although the cheery ad perhaps felt at odds with Dunkirk, which we were about to see).

Over at Kiss, reach is up 4.6% to nearly 4.4m, while hours are down slightly 2.8% on the quarter. The overall Kiss Network (including the very successful Kisstory which itself achieved record figures of 1.7m reach and 7.5m hours) is up 6.4% in reach although down 2.0% in hours.

The Magic Network has seen its audience grow 2.0% to 3.6m this quarter (down a little on the year), while hours have slipped 3.5% on the quarter and about the same on the year.

Finally let’s enter the battle of the 80s. Absolute 80s has increased its reach this quarter by 11.3% to 1.5m, although it’s slightly down on the year, and hours have fallen 9.4% to 7.4m. They’re the lowest they’ve been since Q3 2014.

So what’s happened, and why did I call this a battle? Well Heart 80s has happened. They’ve come in with a reach of 852,000, which is slightly over half the reach of Absolute 80s. Meanwhile they’ve got 3.9m listening hours – again just over half what Absolute 80s achieved.

I would imagine that Global will be delighted with those numbers, while Bauer is disappointed. I’ve mentioned previously that Bauer moved from the Digital One DAB multiplex to the presumably cheaper D2 multiplex. However, that multiplex covers significantly less of the population, and that move in itself saw a decrease in listening almost certainly as a direct consequence. In the meantime. Global saw an opportunity to put a new 80s service on Digital One, and Heart 80s is the result. You can assume that some listeners who lost access to Absolute 80s on DAB have now started listening to Heart 80s. While Absolute 80s is comfortably ahead as things stand, that has got to be a mini-battle worth watching in the future.

London

As ever, the biggest station in London in reach is… Radio 4. It’s up 7.4% in reach. But nobody ever wants to hear that. They want to know about the music stations.

The next biggest station in reach terms is Capital, who’ve had another great result, up 3.3% in reach 2.3m. Hours are up a bit too.

Kiss has had a good result this quarter, and is just behind (if we exclude Radio 2) with 2.0m listeners up 13.8% on the quarter, although down on the year. That’s quite a bounce back for Kiss. Hours are up a little too.

Then it’s Heart with 1.7m listeners, up an astonishing 21.9% after a couple of really poor quarters. Again, listening is down a little.

Skipping past Radio 1, we get to LBC with 1.4m listeners, up 31.6% this quarter, and up 9.2% on the year. But of course it’s the hours of LBC that really do well with 15.7m hours, it can rightly claim to be London’s most listened to commercial station (Radio 4 has more).

Absolute Radio is struggling in London right now with 637,000 listeners, down 17.6% on the quarter and more than 25% on the year.

But I’d finally just note that BBC London is up a colossal 88.8% on the quarter in reach terms and 156% in hours to 621,000 and 3.3m hours. Now while I’m dubious about massive jumps either up or down, 621,000 represents an all time record reach for the station under the current RAJAR methodology!

MIDAS

Finally, I thought that it was worth having a little look at the recently published RAJAR MIDAS survey. This examines listening against other types of audio listening, including on demand music streaming (OMS) services such as Spotify, mp3s, vinyl and so on. It’s important to note that the research is carried out separately to the main RAJAR survey, and as such, isn’t directly comparable. Nonetheless, the most recent set of data was published last week, and it seems as good a time as any to check out some numbers.

It’s always worth looking at the Share of Audio % which shows what radio is “up against.” Some might think that radio’s very retro, and that nobody listens to anything other than Spotify and podcasts, because that’s what they do as a cutting edge media-type. Of course this isn’t true as the chart below shows.

Share of Audio - Summer 2017

That chart shows that live radio dominates listening with 76% of (non-visual) audio. That’s down very slightly from 77% in the last spring release. Other facts that come out of the survey include:

  • 26m people, or 49% of the population haved downloaded a radio app for their phone, with on average users have 2 apps.
  • 5.6m adults listen to a podcast in any week, with smartphones being the most popular device. That’s up from 5.5m in the spring MIDAS survey.
  • 4.2m adults use listen again or catch-up services.

Obviously listening trends change substantially by age group.

You can instantly see that OMS listening is the most significant difference between age groups. Amongst 15-24s, this listening accounts for 23% of all listening, while only accounting for 1% of listening amongst 55+’s.

The growth in listening to OMS amongst 15-24s is quite alarming. There’s no other way to put it, since in Winter 2016 it was 21%. How big will this slice of the pie continue to grow to?

What devices are people using? Well analogue and digital radios are at the top of the list in terms of share, but it really depends on how old you are. For 15-24s, the smartphone is key – and there’s often not a radio built into these (or if there is, it’s pretty bad). But computers are also really important for this group. Only 36% of their time is spend with traditional radios compared with 62% overall.

One final thing worth looking at is what people are listening to by device. I wanted to highlight this, because the Amazon Echo is included. Now, although I don’t have the full data tables for MIDAS research, I suspect that the Amazon data will be on very small sample sizes, so should be treated with caution. However, if it’s in any way indicative, it shows that Voice User Interface devices like the Echo could be very important ways of listening to the radio in the future. Ahead of any other internet connected device that MIDAS measured, more live radio was consumed on the Echo.

As someone who owns two Echos, I can attest to the fact that it’s easily the most painless way of listening to the radio full-stop. You just bark your order at the device and it starts!

(I will note that “digital tracks” don’t seem to show up in the Echo’s results, and since you can listen to services like Spotify and Amazon Music on the devices, I would be very wary of the absolute numbers here. Something to watch in future. [UPDATE: Actually, I was misreading the chart. The “On Demand” represents On Demand Music Services including Spotify. It’s actually personally owned Digital Tracks that you can’t really play via an Echo and is therefore missing – well you can but it’s very fiddly and limited. Thanks to Mike for pointing this out. I still suspect the sample is small, so would be wary of absolute numbers, but the fact remains that Live Radio is crucial part of the Echo audio experience.])

The full publicly available summary is available here on the RAJAR website.

Further Reading

For more RAJAR analysis, I’d recommend the following sites:

The official RAJAR site and their infographic
Radio Today for a digest of all the main news
Go to Media.Info for lots of numbers and charts
Mediatel’s Newsline will have lots of figures and analysis
Paul Easton for more lots analysis including London charts
Matt Deegan will have some great analysis
The BBC Mediacentre for BBC Radio stats and findings
Bauer Media’s corporate site
Global Radio’s corporate site

All my previous RAJAR analyses are here.

Source: RAJAR/Ipsos MORI/RSMB, period ending 25 June 2017, Adults 15+.

Disclaimer: These are my views alone and do not represent those of anyone else, including my employer. Any errors (I hope there aren’t any!) are mine alone. Drop me a note if you want clarifications on anything. Access to the RAJAR data is via RALF from DP Software as mentioned at the top of this post.

The Amazon Echo – A British Perspective

Amazon Echo

NB. I’ve included some detail about how to connect Alexa to a BT Homehub, as it definitely seems to be causing an issue to many users who get Error: 7:3:0:0:1. Hopefully this page will help a little.

Amazon has been somewhat tardy in bringing the Echo to the UK. It launched in the US in November 2014, so it taken nearly two full years for the device to cross the Pond. So this review is nothing new and there are no doubt hundreds of others on the web. Nonetheless, localisation was always going to be a key part of the device being made available in the UK.

We don’t tend to think about it, using a service like Google Assistant (née Google Now) in the US is a vastly superior experience compared with using it in the UK. Google has tied down all the key US services, and suddenly it’s an invaluable service as opposed to an OK service as it was in the UK, although the UK has improved over time. Indeed I suspect the reason for the long delay in Alexa reaching the UK is that it takes time and resources to localise it for each market.

I’d been keen to try Amazon Alexa out since I first saw what it was capable of. It does seem that the Echo (the device), and Alexa (the service), is very powerful in interpreting spoken word English and giving you back what you want.

For those who don’t know, the Echo is basically a cylindrical speaker that’s about 24 cm tall. At its top is an array of microphones that can listen to commands from all directions, with an LED light ring indicating what it’s doing and a manual volume control sitting at the very top. A couple of buttons are there to either mute the device or to help with some set-up and pairing processes.

Alexa is the technology that sits behind the Echo, listening out for a command word – “Alexa” being the default – and then either playing audio or performing tasks as directed. These range from Siri or Google Assistant style answers to questions (“What’s the capital of Australia”, “How many yards in a mile”), to online shopping since this is of course Amazon, making diary arrangements, playing music from a connected service to controlling your smart home devices (e.g. your lights or your thermostat).

Key to all of these are what Amazon call “Skills.” These are developed by third parties such as Uber, The Guardian or National Rail, and they allow you to use their technologies to perform other tasks by voice control.

Audio as an interface is really interesting, and of course has the potential to have an impact on audio/radio services. So I was particularly curious to see the Amazon Alexa implementation of these services.

While I bought the Echo device, Amazon also sell the Dot, a cheaper device that doesn’t have a powerful inbuilt speaker. It’s designed to contain microphones, but to be plugged into an existing speaker via an Aux cable.

So what are my initial thoughts?

Well, these are based on some early experimentation with the device. I’ll perhaps return to this review, or offer additional thoughts, when I’ve played for it for longer or more services and Skills have launched.

Setup

Note: Including detailed instructions of how to connect Alexa to a BT Homehub.

Setup is designed to be simple. The preferred way is to install an app on your phone and set it up from there. The device essentially needs to be connected to your WiFi network. Unfortunately, I found it more complex than it should have been, to the point that if my problems are common, this will cause lots of headaches from the start for many users.

Once you’ve powered the Echo, you open the App, the Android version of which you will be pleased to hear, is in the Google Play Store (other Amazon specific apps aren’t).

Because I had already registered both a Fire TV and Fire TV Stick with Amazon, the app gave me lots of detail about them that at this point that I wasn’t interested in. Indeed, so cluttered was the screen that I couldn’t see how I should initially setup the device. I had to dive into the Settings menu to do it when it should really have been the first thing I was presented with.

You either have to press a button on the Echo or power it on for the first time to get into setup mode, and then it’s a question of connecting your phone or tablet to the Echo’s own WiFi network to give it details of your WiFi password. This isn’t dissimilar to setting up a Chromecast.

Unfortunately, no matter how many times I gave it details of my WiFi password it wouldn’t connect. So I tried from a Chromebook, since you don’t need to use a phone or a tablet. This failed to work too.

Finally, fearing I may have a defective unit, I setup a portable hotspot on my phone, and tethered the Echo that way. It worked absolutely fine, so I knew it wasn’t a technical problem with the device.

Trying once again to connect it to my WiFi router I noted the error code I kept receiving.

Error: 7:3:0:0:1

Googling that took me to a Reddit page which contained what I took to be the solution.

My router at home is a BT Homehub 4, and a quick search a day or so later suggests that I wasn’t alone in not being able to initially connect the Echo to my Homehub.

The Homehub 4 (and later versions) uses both 2.4GHz and 5GHz to broadcast WiFi on.

All devices will connect on 2.4GHz, but more recently 5GHz frequencies were added to WiFi and newer devices will use both.

By default the Homehub uses the same SSID for both frequencies. That means you see a single WiFi access point when you’re connecting a new device to your WiFi network, with that device connecting over either frequency. Even though the 5GHz frequency tends to perform better, I’d never seen fit to change the default, and all my WiFi devices worked fine choosing either frequency as they saw fit themselves.

But it looks like, for whatever reason, the Echo really doesn’t like that.

The solution I found was to go into the Advanced Settings on my BT Homehub router. You will need the admin password to access this menu, which unless you’ve changed it, will be attached to your Homehub device.

bthh01

Click “Continue to Advanced Settings.”

bthh02

Then choose Wireless. There are then two tabs for 2.4GHz and 5GHz. You need to change one of the SSIDs so that your router has in effect two access points for each of the frequencies.

bthh03

I changed the name of the 2.4GHz SSID to something slightly different (e.g. add “1” to the end of the name), leaving the 5GHz SSID unchanged.

On the 5GHz tab, ensure that “Sync with 2.4GHz” has “No” selected.

bthh04

Apply the changes, and then try the Echo’s WiFi connection process again.

This time the Echo connected flawlessly for me. I was properly up and running.

There are other solutions out there, but this worked for me. I’m surprised that Amazon/BT hadn’t fixed this ahead of launch, as BT is the biggest ISP in the UK, so there will be potentially millions of these routers in use.

I certainly never had that issue with either the Fire TV or Fire TV Stick, nor any other WiFi device.

Initially, I just left things as they were, with two slightly differently named SSIDs to my router. However, once the Echo was up and running, I found that I was able to rename the 2.4GHz SSID back to its original name, and the Echo still connected. This was useful as some legacy WiFi devices I own are unlikely to have the radios in them to work on 5GHz. Consequently I’d have had to have gone around and reconfigured all of these to work with the differently named SSID.

Depending on how many older WiFi devices you have that you use, you may be happy leaving two different SSIDs running on your router.

Usage of the Echo

The first thing Amazon does once you’re setup is to watch a short video. Unlike those for the Fire TV products, this hasn’t been Anglicised. We get an American video that runs through some of the things Echo can do.

Then you’re walked through some live examples, getting the news or playing some music.

The ecology of Alexa seems to be multi-tiered. At the top level are things that will work for everyone out of the box. For example, answering questions with factual information, or telling jokes.

Then there are those that are baked in as partnerships with Alexa. If you ask for a radio station to be played, it will by default be served by TuneIn. If you ask for the news, it comes from Sky News.

The third tier are the Skills, and these tend to need a second keyword to alert Alexa that she should be looking there. There can be overlaps, with broadly the same services being offered by different parties, and depending on quite what you ask Alexa, the service that responds can vary.

News is a good example. Alexa has what Amazon call “Flash briefings.” In other words, news headlines of the type a radio station might play at the top of the hour. If you ask Alexa to give you your flash briefing it will default to a Sky News bulletin from the last hour. I’ve not compared this with any radio output, but this is either an Amazon-specific bulletin, or as I suspect, a the same bulletin Sky News sends to commercial radio stations up and down the country.

The bulletin seems to be timed from the last hour – 9pm, 10pm, 11pm etc – and lasts a couple of minutes.

If you delve into the settings of the Flash Briefing in the app, you can find other news sources which you can turn on or off. Sky News is turned on by default in the UK, but you can turn others on. Annoyingly there’s no option to reorder them. So if you want your Flash Briefing to have more than one source, the default order the sources appear in Amazon’s list determines the order you hear them. This feels like something Amazon could fix.

You’re also limited to the sources that Amazon has included, but there’s a reasonable range including the BBC, CNN, The Wall St Journal and others. I had a play with the BBC sources.

First off is BBC Minute, which is a one minute bulletin produced every 30 minutes by the BBC World Service, and aimed at partner stations around the world (it’s not actually broadcast on the BBC World Service itself). The bulletin is available as a podcast and that’s how Alexa is pulling it in, serving the bulletin via TuneIn.

There is also a BBC World Service news bulletin which again comes from TuneIn. This is a two minute bulletin and is your best bet for serious news.

There’s the World Service Daily Commute, a thirty minute daily news podcast. Finally there’s a BBC Radio 4 option which unfortunately is the most recent Today Programme podcast. The Today Programme is of course a very fine morning news programme, but their podcast stream is complicated because it outputs around 3 different clips each morning – a business roundup, a more serious piece (e.g. their main 8:10am interview) and perhaps something a bit more quirky. None of those things are actually a news bulletin, and I wouldn’t really want them in my Flash Briefing.

The sports section is frankly pretty poor.

When you set it up on the app, you’re invited to select your favourite teams. A few Premier League teams were pre-selected for me. But I couldn’t find any Championship teams, let alone those lower down in the leagues. And there were no Scottish teams either! Nor could I find rugby or cricket teams. From what I could tell, this has only been very lightly localised with most of Alexa’s database filled with American sports teams of various sizes.

This is really poor and those other teams need to be added as a matter of urgency. There are no national teams either.

As I’m an Arsenal supporter, I’m OK for my favourite club. So I asked Alexa to tell me the latest score. That night Arsenal had just beaten FC Basel 2-0 in the Champions’ League. However, Alexa didn’t know that and only gave me last Saturday’s result against Chelsea, as well as alerting me to this weekend’s fixture. Good to know, but not enough. Amazon needs to buy in a lot more data sources to cover all the football competitions and plenty of other sports too.

The sport is also very team oriented. If you want general news about cycling or F1, or want to know Andy Murray’s results, it’s simply not set up for it. It would have been rubbish during the Olympics.

As well as baked in services like maintaining a to-do list or a shopping list, not necessarily just Amazon purchases either, although those are easy to manage, Alexa can also integrate with your calendar. At least if you’re calendar is a Google calendar. I couldn’t see how to make it work with Outlook or iCalc. Fortunately, my personal calendar is indeed a Google one, and you can get Alexa to tell your day’s appointments as well as add things to your calendar. What I didn’t see was any email integration. Amazon does warn you that your calendar will be available to everyone in your household, so it’s worth bearing in mind depending on who’s using Alexa.

Music playback is a key part of Alexa, and it works with a number of services – notably Amazon Prime Music (of course) and Spotify. You can choose a default service, and asking Alexa to play Coldplay will come from your choice of service. Notably, it won’t work with either Google Play Music or Apple Music, at least without using the workaround of playing via Bluetooth.

It is relatively easy to pair your phone or tablet to Alexa via Bluetooth, and then use a voice command to connect and disconnect your device accordingly. That means that you can listen to those services, but of course Bluetooth streaming does eat more battery than something like Chromecast.

Incidentally, there’s no Aux socket on the Echo, so you can’t use it as a dumb speaker for sending your audio to.

As I’ve mentioned, radio by default, comes from TuneIn. So if you ask Alexa to “play Radio 1” or “ESPN Radio” it will come via TuneIn. That does lead to some oddities. I asked, “Alexa, play Capital Radio,” and it dutifully played Capital Radio. The Madrid-based, Spanish-language Capital Radio who seem to be a speech service. To be fair, when I rephrased that as “Capital FM” it worked. Then I asked, “Alexa, play CNN Radio,” and it played CNN Radio Turkiye, CNN’s Turkish partner service. On the other hand, TuneIn selected the correct UK version of Virgin Radio when asked.

Fortunately RadioPlayer is a skill on Alexa, and that means you can get all the British services by specifying “RadioPlayer” in your command. So if you say something like “Alexa, ask RadioPlayer to play Capital Radio,” you’ll get a local UK version (RadioPlayer asks you for your closest city when you set it up, so it will serve me, for instance, Capital London). Given the multiplicity of similarly named stations around the world, Radioplayer is the safer bet for getting the UK station you expected. The only shortcoming I could find is the lack of on demand programming which the mobile app does offer.

Having both TuneIn and Radioplayer means that I can get the same radio station in two different ways. “Alexa, play Absolute 80s,” will give me the same result as, “Alexa, ask RadioPlayer to play Absolute 80s.” To my ears, they sounded the same. Also, in my tests, I heard no pre-rolls for any of these stations. And when I tuned into ESPN Radio, no geo-blocking seemed to prevent me listening to a baseball game they were broadcasting.

It’d be great if I could teach Alexa to use Radioplayer in the first instance, and then drop back to TuneIn if it can’t find the service I’m asking for.

Each of the Skills you enable on Amazon – and you do have to actively enable them – means learning a few new commands. I enabled The Guardian (The Telegraph and Mail were both there too), and you have to say, “Alexa, open The Guardian” to get into a voice sub-menu. Alexa reads back the top three headlines and you can choose to have an article read to you. Because these are likely to be chunky stories, it will alert you to the fact that reading the article might take five minutes. “Alexa, stop,” is a useful command.

The Guardian also allows you to listen to its sports news as well as podcasts and other parts of the paper. The key here is how easy they’ve made it to navigate their articles, and how much information they’ve put into their details in the Skills section of the app/website. The more, the better!

Sometimes the US origins of this device shine through. You can set up your commute on Alexa, but that actually means your driving commute. Alexa will helpfully tell you about traffic congestion on your drive to work. But what if your commute is via rail? Fortunately, National Rail is a partner and you can enable its Skill. It quickly asks you to set up your rail commute. As long as both ends are National Rail stations, it works (although in comments, I see some struggled with getting the right local station variant understood). If your commute is Cambridge to London King’s Cross, then it’s fine. But if it’s Cambridge to Oxford Circus, then you might want both information on the National Rail part of the journey and details about the Victoria Line. National Rail can’t help you with the latter. TfL would be a really useful Skills addition for Londoners, as would other regional transport companies.

One disappointment so far is listening to podcasts. I use PocketCasts to play my podcasts, and that does mean that I have a uniform list of podcasts across different devices and platforms no matter how I listen to them. If I listen to a podcast in one place, PocketCasts in all the others knows I’ve heard it. PocketCasts is Chromecast enabled too.

From what I can see, aside from going via a specific app like The Guardian, podcasts are delivered via TuneIn, but they seem to be very hit and miss. When I asked for This American Life, I got some kind of 24 hour This American Life stream which was obviously mid-episode. On the other hand, asking for 99% Invisible got me straight to the most recent episode. I tried getting both Guardian Football Weekly and the Telegraph Cycling Podcast, but despite trying lots of variants, Alexa failed to find either. Indeed at one point, she decided to play me an audio book from my Audible account! That’s great in itself, but wasn’t what I was after here.

One thing that is absolutely seamless is hooking Alexa up with Philips Hue lightbulbs. Yes… I have some.

At first I was confused that I couldn’t find Hue as a Skill before I realised that it was baked in. You do a search for smart devices, press the button on your Hue Bridge (key to getting the Hue system to work), and hey presto, it found all my bulbs. Alexa then lets you group these smart devices together. In my case I added two bulbs to create the “Hall” and three bulbs to create the “Living Room.” Then I added all five to create the “Flat.”

Having done this you can bark commands like, “Alexa turn on Hall lights,” or “Alexa, turn off Flat lights.” And it does so very quickly indeed.

It’s at this point that you begin to think that you’re living out all your science fiction dreams!

Other Skills I’ve yet to turn on include Uber, Just Eat, and Jamie Oliver. There is a reasonable collection of them, but they could do with more. In recent months, Amazon has been adding Skills almost daily in the US, so let’s hope they’ll take a proactive approach in the UK too.

One real disappointment is the Echo speaker itself. Whisper it, but it’s not that great. Sat next to my dumb Sony X55 Bluetooth speaker, the difference in sound quality is clear. They both cost me similar amounts. Indeed I bought the Echo at a special launch discount of £99. It’s back to £149 now.

I bought the Echo knowing it wasn’t that great sounding, but it’s a shame Amazon didn’t improve on it a bit in time for the UK release.

However the volume is perfectly good for filling a room. I wouldn’t use it for a party, but it’s fine for listening in general – aside from being mono of course. You can control the volume either with the dial on the top of the device, or by saying something like, “Alexa, volume 5.” The only problem I had was after pumping the volume up to 9, Alexa could no longer hear me above the sound of the music it was playing! I had to walk over and manually turn the volume down to regain voice control.

There’s no audio out from the Echo, so you can’t send stereo sound to a better speaker system either. On the other hand the much cheaper (£49) Echo Dot does allow you to send the output to another speaker via a 3.5mm jack. At that price, Amazon might sell stacks of these things.

The microphone pick-up is really excellent. Alexa hears her name above a certain amount of ambient sound (but not maximum volume as I say), and the range is decent enough that I’m able to send instructions to Alexa from my living room and bedroom. But then I don’t live in a mansion. I note that Amazon will be bundling 6 Dots for the price of 5, so clearly they’re aiming at a multi-room world. Using either these or Chromecast Audio devices is vastly cheaper than something like a Sonos system.

In my experience, response time of the Echo is really excellent. Amazon has obviously worked hard interpreting audio as efficiently and effectively as possible. Yes, I have a fast broadband connection, but the Echo is ridiculously fast serving you with what you want. There really is minimal delay in it doing what you asked. It’s mightily impressive.

One small downside is responding to secondary questions. In some instances, a call-response-call-response is required, and if you’re not careful, you can drop back to the main menu. There is a certain language learning curve here, and sentences do need to be formed a bit more carefully than natural language.

Another thing to note is that, so far, I’ve not heard any advertising beyond standard broadcast radio ads. The National Rail mobile app, for example, is advertising supported, but there’s none of that hear. It’s all a nice clean interface. We’ll see if anyone starts adding audio ads.

The one thing that did worry me lot before buying the Echo was the fact that I was essentially buying some kind of bug to put into my home. For Alexa to work, the microphones have to be live all the time. There is a mic-off button on the top which prevents Alexa from working if you choose, but surely everything else is being listened to all the time?

Amazon assures users that Alexa is offline when listening out for its own name. Only when it hears its name and switches on the blue LED at the top does it start sending audio to Amazon’s servers for interpretation. I’m sure that were that not the case, someone would have found out quite quickly, but clearly there are privacy concerns, and I’m certainly not going to ignore them.

I bought the Echo as much as anything to experiment. In many respects, it may have been smarter to wait for the upcoming Google Home device, which will potentially be cheaper, and more tied into Google services. In particular, my music is stored on Google, and I’m not about to replicate it on Amazon, at extra cost. And Google’s Chromecast infrastructure works well. I use it to play music in my bedroom on speakers and via my TV in my living room. Google Home will reputedly allow you to throw to TV from audio as necessary too.

But it’s a bit of an unknown, with an expected retail announcement next week, that may or may not see it released in the UK. It’ll be worth looking out for, and there could be an interesting hardware battle played out between Google and Amazon (Apple, despite Siri, really isn’t in this game just yet).

What is clear is that the usefulness of these devices is not just the very clever voice analysis technology, but also the services the various providers sign up. Getting these partners on board is key to the form’s success.

Amazon is clearly backing Alexa in a much bigger way now, with them encouraging other manufacturers to add Alexa to their devices (e.g. Pebble phones, or the Raspberry Pi project), and they’ve announced that the next generation of Fire TV Stick will include Alexa capability in the remote.

I also think that the adoption of voice interfaces is more likely to be successful inside the home or in the car than elsewhere. Despite phones having had Siri and Google Assistant for a number of years now, you rarely see or hear anyone using them in public, as you feel like a bit of an idiot. I’m much more comfortable talking to a device in the privacy of my home or car.

The other thing critical to the success of these devices will be explaining to users how they work, and what they’re capable of. While geeks like me will explore to an extent, others will need lots of demonstrations to see their value. I find that too often, functionality is there, but a bit hidden away. You don’t know what you don’t know. That means lots of examples, and good, clear, documentation where appropriate.

Euro 2016 – Staying on TV

As Euro 2016 kicks off in France tonight, my inbox has become flooded with nonsense PR stories. My email address has recently been sold to a number of PR agencies and I get a wide variety of emails asking me if I’m interested in writing about things I’m not interested in writing about.

I silently archive them all, but one company keeps popping up with some ludicrous claims about the end of TV as we know it.

This was the lead line (I won’t mention the company specifically):

“Euro 2016 will likely be the final major international football tournament aired exclusively on television”

Well a few things to say about that:

  • This tournament won’t exclusively be on TV anyway. Both the BBC and ITV in the UK will be streaming their live matches on their websites and in their apps alongside their regular broadcasts.
  • The BBC and ITV already have the rights for FIFA World Cups 2018 and 2022, and Euro 2020.
  • Both the Euros and the World Cup are Listed Events – and have to be shown on free-to-air broadcast TV in their entirety.

So it would take a review of Listed Events (they’ve tried before, and quietly parked the idea), and the broadcasters who already have the television rights choosing not to broadcast them for some reason despite both of them having plenty of capacity.

I’ve no doubt that more people will watch on more devices than ever before, but those internet-connected devices aren’t going to usurp the broadcast audience any time soon.

The press release goes on to highlight lots of irrelevances:

  • La Liga broadcast a game live. They don’t highlight the fact that it was a women’s fixture. Until recently, women’s football wasn’t broadcast at all in the UK. So it’s great that there’s increased exposure for a game that is generally poorly covered.
  • Twitter is streaming Thursday night NFL games. Those would be the games that are being broadcast on the NBC and CBS television networks. The NFL knows how to disaggregate its rights to its best advantage like few other sports organisations. Sure they want some Silicon Valley cash!
  • BT Sport simulcast its European cup competition finals on YouTube. As I’ve noted elsewhere, that was to keep UEFA happy and try to reach a decent sized audience when relatively few knew about their free-to-air channels.

Marketing Week recently carried a great piece noting the inequality of counting BARB measured TV audiences versus 3 second views on Facebook or other streaming platforms. They’re not the same and they shouldn’t be compared.

Last October, for example, Yahoo claimed its livestream of an American Football game attracted 15 million viewers. That’s an impressive debut given the average TV game garners 18 million. But this is not an apples to apples comparison, it is an apples to orange skins stuffed with bullshit comparison.

While 15 million different people did indeed, at some point, briefly encounter the coverage, the average audience per minute for the livestream was only 1.6 million viewers – less than a 10th of the typical TV audience.

Every time you see a digital video “audience” it is crucial to query the metric being used to define it. For example, we know thanks to BT that the Champions League final at the weekend was “watched” in this country by a total of 4.3 million people on TV and a further 1.8 million on digital platforms. Yet BT used BARB data for TV – so someone had to tune in for a least 30 seconds in a minute to be counted as viewer – while the digital figure is a “unique view” and “not done on time like BARB”.

So let’s not be stupid about all of this.

Is streaming growing? Certainly.

Is broadcast still dominant? Absolutely.

Will streaming one day beat broadcast. Quite probably – but that day is still a long way off.

Finally, just consider the last time you had internet problems? Perhaps you had no coverage somewhere rural (or urban!), or data went down on the network, or you were in a busy area, or you had to wait two weeks dealing with BT Openreach to get your broadband up and running, or… The list goes on.

Yet your local TV broadcast mast is probably really pretty good. The worst I ever get, is some satellite break-up in particularly heavy rain. The technology is incredibly robust.

Streaming will dominate eventually. But not yet.

Broadcast v Internet Listening

If there’s one thing that’s incredibly dangerous to do when you’re trying to work out what’s going on the world, it’s the “Sample Size of One.” What I mean is that just because you or your family is adopting a certain type of behaviour, that does not make it the norm.

That’s especially true in media circles, where smartphone penetration is close to 100% and Apple’s market share is probably in the high eighties. Yes, a lot of people own smartphones and tablets. But no, not everyone does. And just because everyone at your child’s school has a smartphone or tablet, that does not automatically make the same true on a national basis.

I mention this because I was listening to the very fine Media Podcast this weekend (especially fine since my blog on The New Day was referenced), and a few dubious facts were propagated when discussing the rumoured (and firmly denied) suggestion that Five Live might follow BBC Three as an online-only station.

One of the guests said that yes, it was a feasible plan in the long-term.

“I can’t remember the last time I listened to the radio when it was through an FM signal or even a DAB signal. The only people listening to radio are people who are of an older generation or people who are driving to work.”

Now to be completely fair, presenter Olly Mann noted that he was as big a digital advocate as you’d want to meet, but he didn’t think this was true and hypothesised that broadcast might have another 20 years.

Just because you personally don’t do something, you can’t simply extrapolate from that and say that the same is true for everyone.

To be clear, 90% of the population listen to the radio – for an average of 21 hours a week.

And what’s more, they’re mostly listening via broadcast – that is to say, large transmitters sited on hills, or even satellites in geo-stationary orbits.

If you exclude data for which no platform data is available (for simplicity – IP listening would be lower if I included it), just 7.5% of listening is via IP. The rest is mostly FM, AM and DAB, with a little via Freeview, satellite and cable.

Ah yes. But those people are all old aren’t they?

Well – no. That’s everyone. But if we look at the very youngest people that RAJAR fully measure – 15-19 year olds, the internet percentage goes up to 20%, but it’s still vastly outnumbered by broadcast.

Added to this, there is the recent research from Radioplayer showing that 82% of drivers would not consider buying a car without a radio, with 69% choosing radio ahead of CD, Bluetooth and streaming functionality.

And that’s before we get to the availability of strong 3G or 4G reception around the country, and the fact that data costs the consumers money while broadcast is for the most part free at the point of reception.

So be wary of your own personal habits. You can’t simply extrapolate from them.

Source: RAJAR Q4 2015, based on All Adults and Adults 15-19. Excluding “Platform Not Stated” and “Digital Platform Not Stated” listening.

Blocked on Twitter by a Celebrity

Remarkably, I’ve been on Twitter since 2006 – so getting on for ten years. And in that time I’ve always tried to be cordial. I don’t get involved in slanging matches, or go looking for idiots to retweet exclaiming my “shock and anger” that there are in fact, fools with internet access.

That’s not to say that I haven’t spoken my mind on the platform. If I thought something was bad or poor, I’ve said so. But for the most part I like to think my existence on the platform has been a positive one. And broadly I won’t say anything about someone on the platform that I wouldn’t say to their face.

So it was very surprising when I came across a link suggesting that Matt Lucas – of Little Britain fame – was doing some funny stuff on Vine. I clicked through on his Twitter handle, since Vine is owned by Twitter, and Vines usually show up in someone’s Twitter timeline.

I was met by the following:

You are blocked from following @RealMattLucas and viewing @RealMattLucas’s Tweets.

I’ve never seen this before!

To be clear, if you block someone, you’ve actively done something – either found the account and clicked on block, or done so from a Tweet you’ve sought out.

What could I have done to offend him?

It should be said that I wasn’t a massive fan of Little Britain, finding it repetitive and childish. But I tend to talk and write about things that I like rather than don’t like. But looking back, I’ve made a couple of sniffy remarks about it over time: Here and here are the only two very mildly negative examples I can find.

On the other hand, I liked Lucas in Shooting Stars, and he’s an Arsenal fan which is always going in his favour (Although so is Piers Morgan so…). I did enjoy his turn in Doctor Who over Christmas as well.

I’ve never followed him on Twitter, and I’m certain that he’s never followed me.

But a bit of searching did lead me to this written in February 2013:

A bit negative, and not necessarily constructive. But really irritating is about the worst I’ve said about him which is certainly not the harshest criticism ever written of anybody. I suspect many people find me very irritating too at times. C’est la vie.

Would I have said it to his face? No. To be honest I wouldn’t have, at least not unless I knew him fairly well and could be honest about an appearance.

Note that I didn’t “@” him into the Tweet – which I think is really bad manners. And I’m aware of “subtweeting” – being rude about someone without mentioning them.

But I’d guess that either he, or a representative of his, has some kind of search running, and if you’re negative, you’re blocked.

Clearly the blocking took place nearly three years’ ago, and I’ve been in blissful ignorance about it until now. Some wear their blocks as a badge of honour, and others have to use the mechanism to stop bullying and other unsavoury things happening to them. There are clearly particularly malicious groups that roam the internet targeting people.

And I do have to confess to blocking a few people myself. Checking my account I see I’ve blocked 22 people in total. Nearly all are accounts that either were “dubious” and tried to follow me (e.g. porn), or were accounts that started out sensibly but perhaps were taken over by scam artists. I can only see one “proper” account that I’ve blocked, and that’s purely so I don’t see that person’s inanity retweeted by others. Yes, they are (arguably racist) idiots. No, I don’t need to see proof via retweets. It’s like avoiding the drunken racist fool in the corner of the pub. I wouldn’t go and sit near them, and I don’t need my timeline polluted by them.

Everyone is well within their rights to block someone. I find it slightly curious to block someone that you’ve not followed unless they’re in danger of being widely retweeted. But that’s your prerogative.

So there you have it.

I feel a little bit hurt somehow. Not enough that I won’t get over it though. And I won’t take it personally. For what it’s worth, judging from this week’s episode, I’ll be avoiding Miriam Margolyes on Graham Norton in future too. As will Matthew Perry I suspect. I suspect that she’s not on Twitter. But if she is, she’s welcome to block me.

Something Digital Advertising Could Fix To Make It Work Better

You’re flicking through a magazine, idly going through page after page. You’re perhaps looking for an article, but as you scan the pages before you reach the article, something catches your eye. An advertisement. You flick back and read the advertisement. Then you carry on looking for something else to read.

You’re watching your favourite TV series. You’re watching on your Sky+ and you’ve recorded the show. You fast forward through the ad break at 30x speed. But something catches your eye. You stop and rewind. You watch the ad. Then you get back to your show.

You’re walking past a bus-stop and glance at an ad for a new film. You pause briefly to double check the release date. You’re interested in the film. You carry on about your day.

Three entirely possible situations. All three have happened to me. Whatever advertisers might like to believe, but you’re not really buying a magazine for the ads or watching a TV show for the commercial break (some fashion magazines maybe excepted). But from time to time, you’re perhaps intrigued or interested by an ad. And you can often go back and check an ad.

But in the digital realm, this often isn’t possible. I go to a site and quickly navigate to the first story I want to read on the site – perhaps it’s from a news index page. As I click to the next page with a story I want to read, I glance at ad and am vaguely interested. I know, it seems unlikely, but advertising does sometimes work, and very occasionally I see an ad that I’m at least curious enough about to read.

But I’ve already clicked through to the next page. Never mind. I hit the back button in the browser to get back to it, and… I see a different ad.

Time after time, and on site after site, when I go back a page, the ad has changed. Whichever network has dynamically served me something else. And the ad I was actually interested in has gone!

I’ve actually been known to hit refresh a few times to see if I get served the initial ad again. I usually don’t.

The system is broken.

The same ad should feature on the same page in the same session. If it doesn’t, then the site/ad network is missing a trick. Digital advertising has enough problems in trying to keep people engaged and having to come up with ever trashier techniques to get people to respond. So make it easier for me to actually see an ad I want to see!

In “How Can This Be Legal” News…

A report today in the FT suggests that at least one mobile operator in Europe is planning on putting ad-blocking software into their network, with Google a named target.

The software specifically targets web advertising rather than that in apps, and comes from an Israeli company.

The reasoning is that networks are seeing massive growth in data usage, and of course the revenue that is driving some of this growth is ending up with big advertising networks – like Google. In the meantime, the networks have to keep investing to cope with the demand from their customers.

EE published a Tweet this week suggesting that they see their UK data growth increasing five-fold by 2019:

(Note – there’s no suggestion that EE is the network referred to in the FT piece).

But this is all surely begs the question: how can this be legal?

A recent court case in Germany was won by the popular AdBlock Plus software against a consortium of German publishers. But that’s a bit different.

If I, as an individual, choose to use some kind of blocking software, then that’s a choice I make. I’m running a piece of software on my computer, and it’s up to websites how they combat that. I might similarly choose not to download images from a website (remember when that was a serious consideration in an age of dial-up!).

But doing it at a network level, and effectively opting all its customers into the scheme? If Sky decided to remove adverts from ITV’s programmes that it delivers via its satellite platform because it knew that ITV’s customers didn’t really like the ads, there’d rightly be an uproar. There’d be court action almost instantly.

I would imagine the likes of Google have some very good lawyers ready and raring to go.

As far as ad blockers go per-se, I see both sides of the argument:

– If I’m a site that relies on advertising to produce my services, then I would be very annoyed that my only means of income is denied me by users using ad blocking technology. You are denying me my income.

– As a user, on the other hand, I’m seeing ever more invasive types of advertising all over the web. Videos loading and playing without my explicit permission and using up my, sometimes expensive, bandwidth; invasive pop-ups that do their hardest to hide the “close” button or “x” character so that I inadvertently click on them; sites that run such heavy “rich media” advertising, that it brings my browser to a grinding halt.

But those websites need a business model to exist, advertising is usually part or all of that model. It’s morally dubious for me to block advertising on that basis. If I find a site’s advertising objectionable, should I not just avoid visiting the site?

In the end I suspect that it’ll be advertising technology (ad-tech) that “fixes” the problem. Different websites are served in different ways, but a common way is to deliver the main editorial, with advertising coming fairly quickly thereafter, often because a micro-auction has taken place to determine what advertising you see. It’s not beyond the bounds of programming for a site to notice that its advertising is being blocked, and therefore for it to block the editorial.

It could happily display something along the lines of “Sorry – this page is unavailable to you because we’ve detected you’re using an ad blocker. Please either disable it, or add us to your white list. We’ve got children to feed.”

Something like that.

And as a commenter on The Verge report of the story noted, if entire sites were suddenly made unavailable to customers of a particular mobile operator, they’d surely change their tune pretty quickly.

I also note the software that Lenovo was recently found to be installing on many domestic computers they were selling. Much of the furore around that incident was the security implications of people using that software (software they probably didn’t know they had installed). But as big an issue to me was what the software was supposed to do – replace the advertising on certain websites with their own advertising. The “benefit” to consumers would be that this was targeted better. But again, that surely should be illegal. Going back to my hypothetical Sky analogy – if Sky removed ITV’s advertising and replaced it with its own advertising without permission, then that’d surely be theft of a kind?

In the meantime, this does feel like a shakedown from the mobile operator(s) involved. If they can’t support their customers’ demands, then their pricing model is wrong, and they should change/increase their prices accordingly. I can’t see Google et al doing anything aside from instructing their lawyers if and when this ad-blocking technology came to be utilised.

Around the Web

They’ve been there a while now.

At first, just a few.

But now they’re everywhere.

And the invasion is growing.

What am I talking about?

Content Discovery Platforms” typified by those “Around the Web” discovery link panels you often see on news sites and advertising supported blogs.

Essentially, these are the tables of links that sit under articles on many websites. You reach the bottom of an article and want to read some more. “Well, we’ve already thought of that!” In an Amazon-style of you-liked-that-so-you-might-like-this, they push you to click on the links.

Except that they’re not necessarily links to other stories on the same website. They’re links to paid-for “content” on other sites.

Now to be clear, there are many ways that this can work. Some sites insist that three out of four, or five out of six links are internal. It’ll just be the final click that’s external.

But other sites just have a list of links that are all external, and usually tangential at best to what you were reading about.

Essentially, they’re designed to look like the bottom of a MailOnline article, and indeed they usually feature the sort of stories that might easily pop-up on a tawdry site like that.

“Controversial ‘skinny’ pill”, “12 fun facts that are complete and utter lies”, “Local mums reveal EXTREME weight-loss trick.”

There are a variety of companies that market these things, with Taboola and Outbrain being particularly virulent popular.

More recently, I’ve noticed a lot of blogs that use Disqus to power their comments now appear with “sponsored content” within their comment sections.

Now it’s all very easy for me to take the moral high ground on this kind of thing. This blog isn’t here to make money – it costs me some money to host it. The most commercial thing you’re going to see is a very occasional Amazon link with affiliate coding for a book or DVD (although there have been so few of them, that Amazon has never cut me a cheque).

I know that many websites and blogs need advertising revenue to make ends meet. But it’s the lack of intelligence used by these plugins. The stories and articles they link to are the lowest of low-rent clickbait. They invariably feature women in a state of some undress, or unlikely bargains. In general, they actually bring the website I’m visiting into disrepute. I’m reading some smart piece of writing, and there at the bottom is a link to “50 of the Sexiest Scarlett Johansson Photos You’ll Ever See.” Really tawdry stuff. Why have you let this garbage onto your site?

Let’s put it this way, if this were the “cost” of running Disqus for my blog’s discussions, I would be seeking another supplier forthwith. Or frankly I’d do without comments altogether.

It wouldn’t be so bad if these adverts didn’t so heavily disguise themselves as editorial. In most media – magazine and television, for example – there has to be clear delineation between editorial and advertising. Occassionally you might see a piece that is an advertorial – written in the style of the publication, but clearly labelled as produced for a commercial partner. Or as everyone loves to call it these days “Native Advertising.”

This is becoming a problem. The editorial/advertising walls are being broken down, as we’ve seen from the recent accusations of the Telegraph from Peter Oborne.

In the case of Disqus, Outbrain and Taboola, it’s really not always the case that the reader knows they’re being subjected to advertising. Let’s face it – that’s why they do it.

Are you familiar with this logo?

adchoices

To be honest, you might not recognise it. That’s because it usually appears much smaller. Here’s a version I captured on my phone. This isn’t going to look great on your QHD screen:

Choice

In fact these logos are all part of something called Ad Choices “where you’re in control of your Internet experience with interest-based advertising—ads that are intended for you, based on what you do online.”

Often, this is the only clue that you’re really being served advertising.

For example, Disqus sometimes labels its offering “Around the Web” and also has a discrete “What’s this?” If you click on it, it reads: “Disqus helps you find new and interesting content, discussions and products. Some sponsors and ecommerce sites may pay us for these recommendations and links. Learn more or give us feedback.”

So that took an action on my behalf to establish that this might be advertising. I’m pretty certain it’s all advertising.

Sites using Taboola might have a “Recommended for you” section with some internal site links, followed by “Recommended from the web” alongside a tiny “Sponsored links by Taboola.” Clicking on that pop-up revealed: “This content was picked for you by Taboola’s recommendation engine because we thought you may like it. This content is paid for by our advertiser and publisher clients.” But the majority of the pop-up was actually about marketing Taboola itself with sections for Marketers and Publishers!

Samples of “Recommended from the web” currently displayed to me include “The Best Way to Make Extra Money in the UK” and “UK Store Sells iPads and iPhones for Pennies” – yeah, right.

Looking at a sample site that uses Outbrain (and many of the web’s biggest sites do use it), I get a Promoted Stories section featuring four “stories.” Samples I’m presented with currently include “Want to beat jetlag? Try these 7 tricks,” “10 Daily Habits That Will Give You Incredible Willpower” and “4 Reasons Why MBA Degree Is The Best In The World” [sic] – that last one suggesting that an MBA doesn’t necessarily require you to have a full grasp of the English language.

Below these are four internal site links, followed by “Recommended by Outbrain.” Clicking on that brings up a detailed pop-up that includes:

“Outbrain is focused on one thing: helping people discover great, interesting content.

“Any time you see a recommendation from Outbrain, you can trust that it will send you to a piece of high quality content. Outbrain links will never take you to a blatant advertisement so you can rest assured that by clicking one of our links (“we recommend” or “from around the web”), you will only experience great content.”

Hmm. So they’re not “blatant” advertisements. Shall we say “discreet” advertisements then? Clicking through to that MBA ad took me to what was effectively a content farm of mostly worthless “education” pieces with liberal helpings of Google ads. Essentially it’s worth someone’s while to pay to Outbrain to deliver Google Ads by proxy. And they say digital advertising isn’t the Wild West?

Outbrain also uses the pop-up to promote its services.

I’m sure that these “Content Discovery Platforms” work for their clients in that they have an advertising model that works for both parties. But surely even calling their backends “recommendation engines” is disingenuous?

Personally I think that these things cheapen websites much more than other kinds of advertising. Even useless retargeting advertising at least is obviously advertising.

I suspect that the reason they proliferate is because they get higher click-through rates than regular advertising. And that’s because they’re misrepresenting themselves and people are clicking through without realising where they’re going. Or they’re blatant clickbait and it’s only after clicking through that people that they’re not going to get a cheap iPhone.

Digital advertising is getting through “formats” at a rapid pace as they try new things, they work for a bit, and then they stop working. “Content Discovery Platforms” are probably another example of this and in due course they’ll disappear because consumer behaviour will mean they stop “working.”

It seems to me that this is parter of a wider need to understand that most people don’t or won’t interact with most advertising. We take it on board and move on. We don’t instantly pick up the phone or visit a website. Yet advertising does work, it just can’t all be proved with metrics instantly.

As I was about to publish this I spotted this Tweet from scientist, writer and broadcaster Adam Rutherford featuring advertising at the foot of an Observer piece he wrote. Because it would make sense to link through to the Express for “science” stories…

Says it all really.

On “Internal Browsers” – And Twitter’s Recent Addition

A while back Facebook integrated a so-called internal or in-app browser into its mobile apps. The ideas is that when you click to see a website that somebody has shared on Facebook, instead of being taken out of the Facebook environment, the app would display the relevant page within its own browser.

The main reason they gave for doing this is that it’s faster. It’s true – they can even cache a page ahead of you clicking on it.

But I hated it.

First of all, the real reason for embedding your own browser into your app, is to increase dwell time. The app maker is worried that if someone shares, say, a Buzzfeed link, you’ll just end up reading more Buzzfeed stories, and not return to the social media app you’d started in.

This is true. But I’m an intelligent human being. Let me choose whether to return to the app I started in, or continue using the link ecology that makes the web so fascinating – and so open.

Other reasons for wanting not to use internal browsers include cookies (I have to log in again on sites like Amazon or the New York Times), and the inability to use bookmarks or other browser functionality. I regularly like to use Recent Tabs in Chrome to, say, read on a laptop, a long story that I opened in Chrome on my mobile.

It also denies other app users the ability to launch a page in their app – when I click on a Guardian story, I might prefer to see it in the Guardian app. Aside from anything else, the top banner on the story will end up being a promotional ad for said app.

Internal browsers also tend to eat screen real estate, something that’s important in mobile where every pixel counts.

This added “functionality” also tends to increase the overall size of apps. Not something you might worry about if you’re using a 32GB+ top of the range smartphone. But bear a thought for the vast majority of the world on inferior devices.

When Facebook introduced their internal browser, they did at least include a way to turn it off. It was just about the first thing I did when they installed it.

(Later I stopped using the Facebook app altogether when they started pulling it apart and insisting that I install their Messenger app. I don’t want another messaging app thanks. Your old app was fine for my purposes.)

This is all a roundabout way of noting that Twitter has recently added its own internal browser. Now I should note that I’m on an Android beta stream (Ver 5.48.0-beta.267), so it’s possible that you’ve not seen this. But the app version I’m using does not have the ability to switch off the internal browser (or if it does, it’s seriously well hidden, because believe me, I’ve looked).

Sure – I can launch the resulting internal browser page in my preferred Chrome browser. But that’s an extra couple of button presses – Menu > Open in Browser.

Look – I understand that social media companies like Twitter want to get me to spend more time in their ecosystem. But this is actively driving me away from their browser. If they don’t add a way to switch this “functionality” off, I’ll have to move to a third-party app altogether.

Please do the right thing Twitter, and let me switch off your internal browser.

[Update – March 10 2015] The latest Twitter beta has a setting to let you switch off its internal browser. Hurrah!

(Sadly, actually writing a Tweet requires 1-2 more button presses which seems odd)