Safety First

Super heroes have a secret identity for a reason

I loved comic books as a kid, all the adventure and excitement. The foreboding that the villain would discover the hero’s real identity, it was all so exciting. Then I grew up and found out that the villain’s were running roughshod over everyone’s identity every day and it wasn’t so exciting any more.

I might not be a super hero, at least not most days, but I do have a secret identity. I’ve had one since I first logged onto the internet capable computer in the college lab in 1991. My friends all laughed at my paranoia but I was undaunted, you’re not paranoid if someone really is out to get you. At the time the internet was comprised mainly of email and message boards used by a small segment of the student population and there was a finite number of things a thief could do with your identity if he stole it.

Today it’s all different though, today the internet is a mass media outlet with billions of interactions that are increasingly more difficult to trace. Literally millions of people are online and you can find  personal information for most of them on a social networking site of some kind.

If that sounds wrong to you in some way you’re not alone. As the internet has grown I’ve been surprised how increasingly willing people are to divulge personal data for everyone to see. There’s an unsettling false sense of security among too many internet users and the bad guys are quick to prey on it.

I recently ran into a scam I hadn’t seen before on, of all places, a forum. Someone I didn’t know referred me to a site with insurance quotes, the reference was on topic and truly seemed to fit the conversation. Because we have safeguards in place that prevent navigation to and download of viruses and malware I don’t often worry about following links on forums so out of curiosity I followed it. I wasn’t a bit surprised to find that the first thing it did was ask for my personal information.

This was one of the more inventive uses of targeted Phishing I’ve ever seen. Unlike emails spamming your inbox this truly seemed relevant and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it works well for the bad guys.

If this has made you a little paranoid that’s probably not a bad thing but paranoia alone won’t save you from online identity theft. You have to be smart and you have to know the rules. Most importantly, you have to follow them.

Let me start out by saying it’s impossible for everyone to keep up on every single type of scam. There are just too many. That’s why we have rules that cover these things so that when the newest scam come up you’re already ready for it.

1. Use protection. This is the most important, regardless of your operating system you should keep your security patches up to date. Whatever your system requires in the way of antivirus or malware protection make sure you install the updates and that you use the software. Don’t let it give you a false sense of invulnerability but don’t let it lapse either.

2. Have a secret identity. This is easier than it sounds, on sites that require personal information for an online profile use either a nickname or an alias birth date. There is absolutely no reason a social site needs your personal information so don’t provide it entirely. If you opt for an alias birth date be sure to write it down and use the same one consistently. Never display your DOB for everyone to see.

3. Never talk to strangers. Your mom had the right idea about stranger danger. You should never, ever, under any circumstances type your identifying information into a site you didn’t type directly into your browser yourself. This is true if you find an interesting referral on a forum or you get an email from your bank. If it seems legitimate  type the domain in yourself and log into your account. Any correspondence sent to your email will also appear in your account information. Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and check it out directly.

4. Never assume. Even if the request for information is coming from someone you know that’s no guarantee of safety. There are some real super villains out there who have the tools to pose as your friends and family. Just because Aunt Edna sends you a link to the charity pledge drive doesn’t mean it’s safe. Take the time to double check.

5. Stay informed. There are lots of great newsletters from reputable technology publication and awareness groups that alert you to new scams and do their best to keep you educated. Subscribe to one and read it. You can also read up on the latest scams at As you become better informed you’ll find it easier to spot those bad guys before they have a chance to pull off their sinister plans.

If your site has a forum, message board or other interactive media then you need to do your best to protect your users. You don’t want to delete legitimate information sharing so check every link yourself, just be sure to scan the links for viruses first. When in doubt, delete posts that might lead others astray and explain why if the poster complains. That’s all it takes to be a Super Hero.


Why you better believe it matters

When I was about fifteen grandma called, as she normally did on Sundays, and since I was a typical teenager and ran to the phone before anyone else could get there I normally tried to do the polite thing and talk a few minutes. My mother brought me up properly. “I want to make you an afghan,” she declared “what color do you want?” I didn’t really want or need an afghan, it’s not a topic fifteen-year-olds necessarily want to have an opinion on, but as I said my mother raised me well so I said the most relevant and unassuming thing I can think of “Oh, it doesn’t really matter.” Placing my faith and assurance in my grandmother’s choice of yarn, I handed over the phone to my mother and went on my merry way.

My grandmother, over the course of the next two months, proceeded to unwittingly teach me the most valuable lesson in design I ever learned. When the box arrived with my name on it, its size and weight indicated that it could be nothing but the promised afghan. “Great,” I thought to myself, “I’m going camping next week and what will be better than making s’mores wrapped up in grandma’s afghan?” I opened the box and learned that color does matter.

What met my eyes was a conglomeration of color as yet unseen in the history of knitting, or indeed any art form in the world. It was pink; Bright, florescent pink, mauve pink, rose pink. It was also green, olive drab, hunter, kelly. Browns, reds, purples, blues all in a multitude of shades, some of which I was certain existed nowhere else in nature and, at the time, could only be found in yarn.

I say “at the time” because though I had never witnessed those particular colors before, I have seen them since. On web sites.

Over the years I’ve been asked to consult on a number of websites and I have a whole category for those that have made, perhaps, the worst color choices imaginable. They’re labeled “Granny Afghan Websites.”

You see, contrary to my naive statement all those years ago, color does indeed matter. For the same reason I didn’t take Grandma’s rainbow afghan camping, you don’t want a web site in garish colors; First impressions matter.  Visitors to your site will make judgments about you based on your color choices. If you have a clean, visually appealing design their first impression of you will be that you’re approachable and well organized. Where as, if your website looks like an explosion in a crayon factory they’re likely to think you’re a bit unstable or, if you’re lucky, color blind.

Your color choices, believe it or not, can even indirectly affect your search engine ranking. Search engines actually index the amount of time visitors spend on your site so if your color choices are driving people away it can run down your relevancy rating.

The best rule is to never rely on a single opinion on your site’s design. If you’re designing on your own you should enlist the help of a friend whose opinion you can trust, preferably one who works in an art or design related field, tell them to be frank and above all accept their criticism. If you’ve hired a professional web design team then you should be in a position to trust their judgment, they should have a trained artist on staff to consult. If you don’t have any formal art training then put your faith in those who do. It’s the best way to avoid making “Granny Afghan” like decisions.

I’ve searched the world over…

My whole life is a series of alarms that go off on iCal. When I was a kid I had one of those electrical casio datebooks, proof that I was a geek at an early age. I loved it because I’d put in everything from the syllabus at the beginning of term and then all these little alarms would go off 3 weeks before papers were due. The only time I ever turned in a paper late was the week my batteries died. But I digress.

One particular alarm that goes off is unmistakable. It happens about 2 weeks after a clients first anniversary and it says simply ‘Gooogle client’s site’

I do this to get a jump on things because about three weeks after the first anniversary everyone seems to come to a realization. They’re not #1 on any search engines. Most of them aren’t even on the first two pages. Most clients find this really alarming. Despite the fact that the Internet is composed of millions of web sites engaged in billions of interactions they seem to feel they should appear a little higher in the deep dark morass of ambiguity.

That would be so nice.

When I design a web site (And I do most of the design work here, I always say if you’re going to be the boss you should get to do the fun stuff) I try to cover all the basics of design and marketing with a client so that they have at least a basic understanding of what they’re paying us for and what they need to do to insure that money is well spent.

The fact is, you can hire the most prestigious designer in the world and give them a virtually unlimited budget and that still won’t get you off the hook when it comes to being involved in your own web site. You have to be hands-on and the best place to start is your search results.

A lot of people will try to sell you search engine optimization services and I think this is a mistake for two reasons. Firstly because a good design team will already know how to optimize your page’s code and you’re already paying them for that service, and second; Who knows your office, your business, your target audience better than you? Optimization is all about marketing and you already do that every day so why not use that same know-how on your web site?

The first most important thing involved in search optimization is to have a good design team. Your standing in many search engines relies on proper page coding. If your site administrator is a great artist but doesn’t seem as confident when you ask about interactive features then it might be time to consider a new professional. When hiring a new web design team be sure to ask if they offer support for things like blogs and databases. Granted you might never use those services but if they know how to integrate them in your site then it’s safe to assume they know how to keep your web site code healthy.

Next you want to look at your meta tags. Meta tags, or elements, are lines of code in your page that are seen only by computers. We’re going to focus on the ones that are used by search engines. Description and Keywords.

“Description” is exactly what is sounds like, it’s a short paragraph that appears when your page comes up in a search result. When I say short I mean extremely short, 150 characters. What you want is a short sharp sentence that describes who you are, where you are (if that’s relevant) and what you do in the most memorable and attractive way possible. Take some time with this, it’s important. When your site comes up in search results this is what people will see. You want to stand out and seem relevant. If you have different sections of your site that address different issues you might want different descriptions for those pages. Think it out carefully and then send the descriptions to your site administrator.

The next tag is somewhat less important but still worth using. Keywords are a list of search words relevant to your site. It should be a string of words separated by comas that denote what you believe people will use when looking for information related to your site. While they’re not used by major search engines they are still used by smaller, industry specific engines and that makes them relevant. Keep your list short, 10 words at most. Because the list isn’t used extensively don’t burn up time on this.

Now that you have your site ready to be found it’s time to go out and stump for it. The vast majority of engines rank your site based on two things, the number of links to your site and the length of time visitors spend on your site. Look for sites that exist to refer customers to business like yours. If you work for a charitable organization the same rule applies. The easy way to do this is to type your category and location into a search engine (ex. dentists Chicago IL, churches Austen TX) some of the top results will be for directories that connect people specifically with these types of web sites. Sign up with any of them that don’t charge for listings. Just like networking in real life, you’re making connections that will bring people to your door. Look for forums that relate to your site and create a membership account that includes your web site address. Every time you offer helpful information you’ll be referring people to your site as well as creating links for the search engines to take into account. The more involved you are in your industry specific Internet community the more likely you are to increase your search standings.

Now, most importantly, set your alarm on your calendar for 6 months from now because you’ll need to conduct that search all over again looking for new places to promote your site. If it all sounds like a lot of work, it is. Keep in mind that none of it is a guarantee that you’ll rank in the top five of search results, it might even take months to see an improvement in your ranking. Search engines are continually changing their systems too so take time every year to review your process and learn about anything new you can do. It’s an ever changing virtual world out there, you have to stay on top of it.