I’m (still) sorry about the schlock ads here

Yesterday’s announcement of a merger of Taboola and Outbrain–the dreadful duo responsible for those horrible “around the Web” galleries of clickbait ads tarting up many of your favorite news sites–provided yet another reminder of how fundamentally schlocky programmatic ads can get online.

But so did a look at this blog.

When WordPress.com launched WordAds in 2012, the company touted a more tasteful advertising system that bloggers here could be proud of. The reality in the seven years since has been less impressive.

The WordAds program features some respectable, name-brand advertisers like Airbnb and Audible, to name two firms seen here tonight. But it’s also accepted too much tacky crap–including some of the same medically-unsound trash that litters Taboola and Outbrain “chumboxes”–while struggling to block scams like the “forced-redirect” ad in the screenshot at right.

Over the last year, I’ve also been increasingly bothered by the way these ads rely on tracking your activity across the Web. I know that many of you avoid that surveillance by using browsers like Safari or Firefox with tracking-protection features, but I’d just as soon not be part of the privacy problem. Alas, WordPress has yet to offer bloggers the option of running ads that only target context (as in, the posts they accompany), not perceived user behavior as determined by various programmatic systems.

I do make money off these ads, but slowly. Most months, my advertising income here doesn’t exceed $10, and I can’t withdraw any of the proceeds until they exceed $100. I had thought that I’d see one of those paydays last month–but August’s addition to my ad income left me 28 cents shy of that C-note threshold.

So in practice, my major return on WordAds is the opportunity to have my face periodically shoved into the muck of online marketing. That’s worth something, I guess.

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How I booked my CES lodging (and did not get ripped off, I hope)

No business-travel lodging decision is trickier than CES. The usual affordability of Las Vegas hotels evaporates as properties on the Strip send their rates into the stratosphere for this massive show, leaving budget-minded CES attendees scrounging for cheap alternatives that won’t be too distant or too sketchy.

Las Vegas Strip from the southHere how I managed that this year. I hope you all don’t need to book CES lodging anytime soon, but applying some of the same shopping practices might make your next non-work trip a little more affordable.

  1. Start at the show site’s list of official hotels. Conference hotels can be a grotesque rip-off, but the enormous scale of CES–175,212 attendees this January–means the endorsed-lodging list has to go beyond a handful of high-end hotels. The best deals left this week are in downtown Las Vegas, which I know from prior trips is an easy Lyft/Uber ride to the Strip and not much slower by bus, which in this case includes the show’s free hotel shuttle service. And by “best deals” I mean $500 to $600 and change for four nights–including resort fees, which the CES site helpfully includes in its nightly-cost estimates. That set an upper bound on what I’d pay.
  2. Check Airbnb. Airbnb is an essential part of my business travel–I don’t think I could do events like MWC or Google I/O without that source of cheap lodging–but in this case it didn’t pan out. Airbnb’s site didn’t show any affordable options near the Strip that either had accumulated enough favorable reviews or were offered by hosts with their own prior crowd-sourced approvals.
  3. Check Kayak. Kayak.com has remained one of my favorite travel-search sites for all the tools it provides to narrow down a search (with Hipmunk a close second) while still showing results from a wide range of booking sites. In this case, Kayak revealed another option in the low $500s near the University of Nevada at Las Vegas–not walking distance from the Strip, but a manageable Lyft/Uber commute. (Vegas taxis are dead to me, thanks to their adding a $3 surcharge for credit-card payments.)
  4.  Check Hotwire. This Expedia Group-owned travel-search site offers mystery deals on hotels that don’t have to be that much of a mystery. The trick is to see what “Hot Rates” look good, then check not just the TripAdvisor rating shown next to each but the number of TripAdvisor reviews. That second data point should allow you to identify the underlying hotel with a high degree of confidence. In this case, Hotwire showed some downtown-Vegas properties at about the same rates as the CES site–but without clarity on whether resort fees were included.
  5. Don’t forget esoteric or expiring discounts. My search ended with an app on my phone, and not one I’ve used to book travel before. The T-Mobile Tuesdays app, which historically hasn’t yielded much more than the occasional free Lyft ride, touted some subscriber-exclusive discounts at Booking.com this week. So I belatedly remembered to take a look Friday, which is how I found a DTLV property with solid TripAdvisor ratings and no resort fees for just over $500.

Will that be my most comfortable CES stay ever? Probably not. Will I care after spending 14 hours a day schlepping around my laptop? Probably not. Now to book my CES flights…

 

 

An unpersuasive PR follow-up: “any interest?”

I’m terrible at answering e-mail on a timely basis, so I don’t complain when PR types follow up on their pitches. But I do wish they could be a little more creative in how they try to regain my attention.

Instead, the typical follow-up consists of the body of the first e-mail topped by a two-word query: “Any interest?”

That’s it. There’s no attempt to expand on the prior pitch, no hint of new developments with the PR firm’s client, no suggestion that anything the world has changed to make the subject more interesting. Maybe the service picked up another 80,000 users, maybe the app just got a round of bug fixes, maybe the CEO beat the charges–but “any interest?” tells me none of those things.

(Even worse: When the sender chooses to prefix the follow-up e-mail’s subject with the unfortunate abbreviation “F/U”.)

Meanwhile, freelancing has taught me that “any interest?” is the weakest possible follow-up with an editor. If my first e-mail didn’t get catch that person’s eye, I have to provide something more–a data point or two that suggests this story is moving and the editor would be well-served to have me chase it.

I’ve been making this point over and over when I talk to PR professionals, and yet I keep getting any-interest-ed in e-mail. There must be some outside factors to explain the persistence of this habit, and I should really try to sell a more in-depth story about it somewhere. Assignment editors reading this: Any interest?

News sites, can you at least stop nagging distant readers to get your local-update newsletters?

With my industry becalmed in its current horrid economic state, you’d expect news sites to strive to make new readers welcome. Instead, they keep resorting to clingy, creepy behavior that must send a large fraction of those new readers lunging for the back button.

I’m speaking, of course, of the giant sign-up-for-our-newsletter dialog that pops up as you’ve read a third or half of a story, encouraging you to get that site’s latest updates in your inbox.

This is dumb on strict user-experience grounds–at a minimum, you shouldn’t see this until you’ve read to the end of the story. Would you like NPR affiliates to run their pledge drives by sounding an air horn in the middle of Morning Edition and then asking for your money? No, you would not.

But the newsletter nag looks especially dumb when a local newspaper greets a distant reader with this interruption. The odds that I’m going to want daily updates about developments in Richmond, Buffalo (as seen above), or some other place where I do not live are just about zero. And the fact that I’m reading hundreds or thousands of miles away should be obvious to every one of these sites via basic Internet Protocol address geolocation.

I’m willing to click or tap those dialogs closed and keep reading, because I don’t want to sandbag the journalism business any further. But it’s hard to blame readers who instead respond by switching to the stripped-down reader-view option of Safari or Firefox. Or by running an ad blocker.

My continued struggles with quarterly accounting

Four times a year, I partake in a ritual that reminds me of my limited cash-flow competence–and of how a certain large personal-finance firm just doesn’t care.

Adding up my income and expenses after each quarter instead of at the end of the year is Accounting 101, but because I stumbled into a freelance existence it took a few years of struggling through tardy bookkeeping to get myself in the habit.

Several years of this practice have now streamlined this to a manageable level of drudgery, but the first step remains as irritating as ever: downloading records from Intuit’s Mint.com personal-finance app.

I know, I know; Intuit runs this free Web app so poorly that it still seems to require Adobe Flash to display investment charts. (I can’t confirm that at the moment because Mint’s investment page won’t load.) But for my limited expense-tracking needs, it functions well enough most of the time.

And then there’s the other four times a year, when I need to edit a Mint Web address to work around its bizarre inability to search transactions by date. Yes, to see only transactions for the second quarter of 2019, I need to edit this page URL:

https://mint.intuit.com/transaction.event

This address will cause Mint to show just Q2 transactions:

https://wwws.mint.com/transaction.event?startDate=04/01/2019&endDate=06/30/2019

Then I can search for those tagged as “Freelance journalism,” download the results as a .csv file, and import that into the Google spreadsheet I use to track my expenses.

There, I still need to piece apart payments, reimbursements and different categories of expenses. But in general I’m only looking at half an hour of copying and pasting to know how I made my money and where I spent it–assuming I didn’t forget to tag a transaction in Mint, which has happened more than once.

Whether the results make me happy is another thing entirely. In this case, my problem is a June that fell between too many clients’ payment timetables and also suffered from a snakebit May for story pitches… well, let’s just say the resulting paltry income might suggest that I got a lot more done around the house than I actually did.

Fortunately, I had two large checks arrive in the mail July 1, so Q3 is off to a fine start. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself now.

A small consumer victory: exercising a Chase credit card’s trip-delay coverage

I got a giant financial firm to treat me to a nice dinner and a reasonably comfortable hotel room, and I only had to ask once.

But that is what Chase promised with the trip-delay coverage on the credit card I use for business (and also offered on the Sapphire Reserve card carried by almost every avgeek I know). I’d just never cashed in this feature before, and I’d thought they’d make the process a little more difficult.

Should you find yourself in a similar situation, here’s how it worked.

Step one: Miss a flight. In my case, a line of afternoon thunderstorms shut down the airport in San Antonio as I was heading home from covering the Geoint Symposium conference there. That ensured I’d miss my evening flight from Houston back to National Airport and would instead have to fly home the next morning (my thanks to the helpful SAT United Club agents for getting me a spot on the first flight to DCA when only first-class seats were left).

Step two: Pay for what you need. First I got dinner–I treated myself a little at Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen in terminal E–and then I booked myself a hotel. Knowing I could get that covered, I didn’t stress over my choices and chose the closest decent option Marriott’s app listed, a SpringHill Suites just outside the airport with free shuttle service to and from IAH. Having all these on the same card as my flight simplified things, but that’s also basic business accounting.

Step three: Get documentation. Keeping receipts for dinner and lodging was obvious, but trip-delay coverage also demands verification that you got those bonus hours away from home. At United, this involved sending an e-mail to delayletter@united.com requesting confirmation of my missed connection; two days later, an airline rep e-mailed a PDF outlining what weather did to my itinerary.

Step four: File your claim. After I got home and read One Mile At A Time blogger Ben Schlappig’s recap of exercising his own trip-delay coverage, I opened a claim at the Eclaims site that Chase employs. There, I plugged in the basic details of my travel–original flights, replacement flight, total resulting expenses–and uploaded PDFs of my dinner receipts (I scanned in both the itemized check and signed total), original flight booking receipt, hotel bill and United delay letter.

Step five: Wait for compensation. Nine business days after I submitted the claim, I got an e-mail reporting approval of it. The money should be in my bank account in three to five business days, which means I’ll have it before I need to pay off the credit-card balance.

That made me a satisfied customer… and one wishing I could jump into a time machine to tell myself to exercise this protection right after 2015’s weather-induced IAH overnight instead of waiting until after Chase’s 60-day window to claim my coverage had closed.

First impressions of 1Password

After several years using the same password-manager service–and then paying for its premium version–I’ve spent the last few weeks trying an alternative.

I can credit a sales pitch that included the italicized phrase “completely free” for this departure: 1Password’s offer of a free membership to journalists, in celebration of World Press Freedom Day this May 3. But I was also overdue to spend some time in a password manager besides LastPass.

So far, I’m impressed by the elegance of the interface but a little put off by how persnickety 1Password can be to set up. You don’t just create a username and password, you also have to type in a complex and random secret key to get going.

Having read this Toronto-based firm’s documentation of how this extra step helps ensure that a successful guess of your password still won’t compromise your account, I get where they’re coming from. But I’m not sure I’d recommend it to just anybody, especially not when LastPass’s free version suffices for many casual users.

Further time with 1Password’s Mac, Windows and Android apps has revealed other things I like:

This time has also surfaced one thing I don’t like: an incomplete approach to two-step verification that seems to require choosing between running an authenticator app on your smartphone or employing a weird Yubikey implementation that requires running a separate app instead of just plugging a standard USB security key. That’s no better than LastPass’s inflexible notion of two-step verification.

I’d like to see 1Password improve that and support the WebAuthn standard for security-key confirmation. But I’m prepared to give them some time, based on everything else I’ve seen so far.