Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Posts from June 2008


In which we discuss “Halting State” by Charles Stross

This month I have mostly been reading: Halting State by Charles Stross, a near-future techno-thriller set in an independent Scotland, ten years or so from now. It’s a very good book; I recommend it; full of where-tech-might-be-going extrapolations. When reading it, though, I couldn’t help thinking: I have a bit of an advantage on the average reader.

It’s set in Edinburgh, you see, where Stross lives and where I used to live; and just about all the locations in the book are real locations. There’s the city mortuary, for example; an inconspicuous 1970s flat-roofed building built of dark shiny engineering brick, at one end of the Cowgate. I can picture it exactly in my head, because I spent four years in the university buildings which overlook it. The characters retreat to the pub over the road from the mortuary: when I was a first year, we’d go in there every Friday afternoon.* A few years later, on my way to work, I used to walk past a flat that gets raided by the police near the start of the book; and I always wanted one of the little houses in the Colonies where one of Stross’s protagonists lives.

I’m sure it’s a very good book even if you don’t know all this; but if you don’t, you probably won’t realise just how well-researched it is. Every location is realistic, because every location is real; and the science fiction becomes real too.

* all Edinburgh residents will have noticed a small geographical mistake in that section, actually: he gets one of the street names wrong.


In which someone admits that SEOs are entirely pointless

An intriguing claim appeared in The Guardian yesterday, buried in its corrections column. Insurance-comparing website GoCompare has stated that there is little connection between its Google positioning and its income. More specifically: dropping from the first page of Google results for a common search term did result in a big drop in traffic, but had no financial effect on the company.

GoCompare is an internet business. As far as I understand it, they rely entirely on their website for income. What they’re claiming is: when Google lowered their ranking, they lost a large amount of traffic – but that none of that traffic, apparently, was making them any money.*

There are entire companies based solely around the premise that they will push you up to the top of Google’s pages. I’ve known marketers spend huge amounts of time and effort on it, taking common search phrases and analyzing them with a fine-tooth comb, trying to find out why they’re below their competition. I’d expect GoCompare to have been doing exactly the same thing themselves, in fact. And they’ve found, apparently, that it was all for nothing – because when Google pulled the rug from under their efforts,** they say, it had no effect at all on their income. Maybe they’re a special case because (unlike smaller online companies) they do spend a lot on irritating minimal-budget TV adverts.*** Even so, it’s intriguing. If their claim is true, there’s probably hardly any point at all in any large organisations spending much effort on search-engine optimisation. Small companies who can’t afford TV adverts, or who produce specialist products – well, that probably doesn’t apply. It probably doesn’t apply to AdWords campaigns either. But general search results? “Overall sales figures were not affected”.

* They seem to be talking about general search results. If they were talking about paid-for adverts, then the drop in traffic would also mean a drop in outgoings; but as they’re not, the change in traffic shouldn’t have any effect on their running costs.

** The Guardian had previously speculated that Google did this deliberately – it was that article which prompted the correction.

*** which, at least, aren’t as annoying as those produced by their competitor Confused.com. I’m never going to go near confused.com, no less than barge-pole distance, because their adverts are that bad. “I’m so stupid I’m trying to get money from a piece of cardboard with a cartoon cash machine printed on it! I’m confused! Dot com!”