Monday, October 17, 2011

Doing Competitive Intelligence? Add Your Firm (and Your Name) to the List

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Among the research services I provide for my clients, I do a bit of competitive intelligence; that is, gathering (through legal and ethical means) information about my clients’ competitors, including information about their products, services, PR efforts, and the like. I keep track of several businesses on a regular basis to help my clients keep abreast of their competitors.

One of the companies I track on a daily basis is…my own business! It’s important to know if and how my name or the names of my business ventures appear online and in “the press,” including in blogs and via links from other websites. An item I heard on the radio the other day reminded me of an incident that happened to me a few years ago. I’m reprinting this posting from an older blog entry, in hopes that others may find it helpful.

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One morning as I reviewed my email and skimmed through the many alerts and news feeds that fill my "desk" each morning, I also checked the results of the routine monitoring I have set up for my name and my business names.

There was quite a shock waiting for me.

I was surprised to find that I had been quoted in an article that had been published on a major business information site. And I mean a major site – it’s a huge business resource that most U.S. business people and researchers use pretty often.

My surprise escalated into shock as I read the article. The author of the article wrote that she had contacted “ten top-notch safety professionals” to obtain recommendations in answer to a specific risk management question.

Not only had this writer never contacted me to obtain a quote, but she attributed specific words to me, located my business in the wrong city, and portrayed me as a safety professional, which I am not. While I do serve the safety profession with research and writing services, I do not have credentials or training of a safety professional, and I would never present myself as such. This would be comparable to a medical librarian presenting himself as a physician, or a technical librarian presenting herself as an engineer. It is, as my daughter says, bad form. (Not to mention illegal in most jurisdictions.)

Now, normally I would be delighted to be quoted as an “expert” in an article which appears on a prominent website and which is syndicated to several top news organizations, as this one was. But the inaccuracies in this article could actually damage my reputation among my risk management clientele, all of whom take integrity and professionalism seriously (as do I). Free PR is great, but only if it is correct and ethically done and only if it supports one’s business goals.

I contacted a staff editor at the business web site and explained the situation. I am sad to report that it took a fair amount of explaining to convince the editor that the writer had behaved improperly and that some action should be taken. The site’s managing editor told me that it is “hard to keep track of so many bloggers and freelancers." The editor's workload is not a sufficient or acceptable reason for allowing this writer's blatantly fabricated material to be presented as sound business advice. The editor is responsible for ensuring that the material posted on the site is fair, accurate, and legal, and in this case, he failed.

(Aside: The blatant fabrications in this information attributed to me made me wonder about the veracity of the other quotes in the article, and by extension, across the rest of the site. I now question the quality and utility of all the information on this well-known website, since I cannot trust the judgement and motivation of the editorial staff. I no longer use the site.)

Failing to get satisfaction from the web site editors and managers, I reluctantly called the writer (an independent freelancer) and expressed my concern and outrage. Politely. She confessed that in preparing the article in question, she had “recycled” (her word) an article that she had written five years earlier (!) in which she had also “quoted” me. When I confronted her on that, pointing our that she had never contacted me five years ago or at any time, she further confessed that she had, without obtaining my permission, taken my words from a signed posting I had made years ago to an online risk management discussion list (now defunct).

I had a few strong words for her about professional responsibility and her choice to forgo integrity and honesty in favor of cobbling together a quick article. (I spoke politely but with what my daughter calls “the icy daggers” in my voice.)

Ironically, this “writer” is an insurance professional who, one presumes, would understand and employ good risk management techniques. If she cannot practice sound risk management in her own work, what business does she have providing risk management advice to others? The simplicity of electronic “publishing” made it easy for her to set herself up as an "expert."

When I contacted the web editor again to express my continued frustration over the situation, he promised to remove the fabricated quote from the article and from the several places where it had been syndicated. He also promised to “speak to” the writer. He ought to have fired her.

Electronic technology makes it easy to “create” and “publish” almost anything. It's easy to steal content, give it a few tweaks, and re-publish it as your own work. It's just too tempting for lazy or dishonest people to fabricate, steal, and plagiarize other people's work, and to make money from it, to boot. The writer who stole my content was paid for the article. Did I receive any compensation? No. Normally, being cited as an expert in a prominent publication is compensation enough for supplying a good quote, but because she mangled it so severely, her "quoting" me may have done me more harm than good.

The real lesson here is that you must monitor your online reputation ― you must be aware of how your name and your business interests are represented online, and you must be prepared to take action.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Who is Responsible?

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Two news items caught my attention this morning. They seem unrelated, but each one touches on an interesting trend.

The first item was about a couple (or family, the story isn’t clear) who got “lost” – twice – on a road trip in Pennsylvania after having depended on a GPS unit to provide travel directions to certain locations. (This "getting lost with GPS" seems to be a growing trend.) The couple in the story was led astray because 1) their GPS was set to avoid toll roads, even though they wanted to take the quickest route, and 2) in one of their target cities, there happened to be two streets with the same name, and the GPS sent them to the “wrong” street, even though the address was exactly what they had entered. Though the author didn’t say so explicitly, there was a subtle criticism that the GPS unit was “wrong” and that it should have provided some disambiguation service and divined where they wanted to go and how to get there.

Really? Isn’t it the user’s responsibility to ensure that the unit’s settings are correct, just as it is the user’s responsibility to enter the address in such a way as to be unambiguous? (In this case, also entering the name of the hotel would have made a difference.) And, um, isn’t it the driver’s responsibility to notice that it is taking several hours to complete what should have been a much shorter journey? Why, Mr. Driver, did you just follow along blindly instead of stopping early on, reassessing the information that was driving (pun intended) your route, and figuring out where the error lay? It seems ridiculous to drive for hours on what seem like the “wrong” roads and then blame the GPS. (And this author is .... a travel writer.)
http://ctwatchdog.com/2011/10/07/follow-me-said-the-gps-lost-in-pennsylvania

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The second item was a story about how the children of non-English-speaking immigrants in the U.S. help their parents navigate the online world. Here’s the excerpt that caught my attention:
A Spanish speaker in Los Angeles looking for an orthopedist might go to Google.com and type in "oficina ortopedista Los Angeles." The top result is in Madrid. "There's no excuse for us not doing a better job with this," says Trystan Upstill, an engineer at Google. Upstill says this is a problem all over the world. There are a lot of Turkish speakers in Germany, for example, who have a hard time finding what they need. But right now, if you search in Spanish, it's difficult for Google to guess that you want an orthopedist in the U.S. Upstill says to determine that, Google needs to deal with mind-bogglingly high numbers of combinations. "It's quite clear that you have to build very scalable algorithms to not just deal with native language speakers in a particular country," Upstill says. "It's a difficult problem and we're always looking at how we can do a better job here."http://www.npr.org/2011/10/12/141232534/immigrant-parents-rely-on-kids-for-help-online

Of course it's "difficult for Google to guess that you want an orthopedist in the U.S." So...include that info in the search string! It’s the user’s responsibility to search correctly and to learn how to use search tools effectively. For example, the name of my hometown is the same as towns in at least three other states. When I search for something related to my town, especially related to town government or services, I always add the name of my state so I don’t have to wade through irrelevant results for police or library services in those other same-name towns in the other states. By this simple step, I control my search results and get much better results. Now, if Google always filtered my search results by my location as the Google engineer quoted above suggests, it would be difficult for me to, say, do research about those other towns, since Google would assume that I am only interested in information about my hometown. I would have to specifically include the names of those other states in my search, and I would have to know about them all in advance! In fact, my work as a professional research consultant requires that I be able to get at everything out there, so I keep Google’s automatic filters turned off.

How far can – or should – search customization go? In online search, too much automatic filtering and too many customizing algorithms combine to limit our results only to what a search engine engineer has determined that we “should” see. And generally speaking, unless we tell them otherwise, they think that we "should" see results that are relevant to our geographic area, and are somehow related to searches we have done previously.

Rather than layer on even more algorithms, Google would be better advised to provide more up-front, search-responsive guidance on search techniques, so that even casual users can develop better skills that will help them find what they need quickly. And they could provide meaningful feedback during the search process to help users refine their search strategies and get better results.

For example, in the Los Angeles case described above, Google could have responded (in Spanish) to the search string with something like, “These results are for Madrid, Spain. If you meant California, add that word to your search string.” Or add a simple check-off form to the front page so that the user can limit the search to geographic area, language, format, etc. Yes, I know that Google provides those options on its Advanced Search page, but how many consumer users know about that page, or use it to construct effective search strategies?

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Our expectations for search services and information providers continue to escalate: We want search engines, GPS units, and other information devices to “know” what information we want or need, and to deliver it in exactly the way that suits what we hope know about us.

As services become increasingly customized and automated, many people have let their search skills languish, to the point where they don’t know how to find what they need. At the same time, having given over “information responsibility” to the providers, they seem to have also given up the ability to evaluate the information that is pushed out to them. So…they don’t know how to find what they want, and they don’t know that what they are getting is incomplete, inadequate, and even inaccurate.

Who is responsible?

Monday, October 3, 2011

When You Absolutely, Positively Have to Know

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The other day I watched a friend trying to find some information on the open internet. It was a fairly straightforward question that should have been fairly easy to answer, yet he tried again and again and could not come up with anything useful. I could see that he was using ineffective search terms and strategies, and I offered a few suggestions for how to formulate the search, but…no go.

Finally, he gave up, saying, “The information is simply not available. I give up.”

I took his place at the computer, and typed in my search strategy. I found what he needed in about twenty seconds: it was on the first page of the first hit in my search results.

This may sound like bragging, but it isn’t. Rather, it’s my suggestion that you consult an information professional when
* you need information quickly
* you need specialized information
* you need a very broad search over many disciplines
* you are getting nowhere with your own search strategies
* you are sure that “information is simply not available" 

Research professionals are trained not only to find the needle in the haystack, but to know which haystack to search, how to sift the wheat from the chaff, and how to present the wheat so that it's ready for you to use. We are quick, we are efficient, we are knowledgeable, and we love the thrill of the search.

When you need information, contact your corporate librarian, check in with your public library reference staff, or ask an independent information professional for specialized support. Not only will you be more likely to get the information you need, but you will receive better, more complete information, from more authoritative and reliale sources, all delivered in the way that best suits your needs.

If you prefer to do your own searching, ask your librarian for how best to attack the haystack. Many libraries or information consultants offer search training.

Several years ago, the American Library Association had a great slogan to promote library services: "When you absolutely, positively have to know, ask a librarian." With the immense volume (and patchy quality) of information available today, research and information professionals are your best research partners.

I’m a proud member of the Association of Independent Information Professionals, an international group whose members offer research expertise in almost any industry, specialty, or subject you can imagine. Visit www.aiip.org to browse the member directory of consultants around the globe.

When you absolutely, positively have to know, ask a librarian.


For more information:

Peregrine Information Consultants http://www.peregrineinfo.com/
Association of Independent Information Professionals http://www.aiip.org/