Tip of the Week

High-end SEO is a constantly moving target but for 95% of web sites just getting the basics right would be a huge step forward. Andy Beal just wrote the 7-Minute SEO Guide that explains the three fundamental building blocks of SEO – site structure, on-page optimization and link strategy – in easily accessible form. Recommended for newbies and anyone who has simply not paid attention to SEO until now.

Facebook, Oprah and Acai. Oh my.

The Internet in general and Facebook in particular has been awash in ads promoting Acai- and Resveratrol-based supplements over the last few months, most of which have led into hefty continuity programs with payouts in the $35 – $45 range. Many affiliates and not a few CPA networks have been making big bucks on these offers.

There have been two problems looming though: an increasing number of customer complaints, and the unauthorized use of video clips featuring celebrities on the offer landing pages. Both of these seem to be slowly coming to a head.

First, customer complaints. One of the biggest Acai advertisers has been FWM Laboratories in Florida who promote Acai Elite, among other products. Given the implied endorsements by celebs such as Oprah and Dr Oz, conversion rates are reported as being very respectable. Much moolah has been made.

The bad news is that way back on March 6th, Local 10 News in Miami was already reporting that FWM were under investigation by the Florida state attorney general and that the dumpster behind the FWM office was full of products returned by hundreds of dissatisfied customers from around the country.

But FWM just kept going, pumping out their offers through a variety of networks. Forbes reports that in May, in spite of the local news reports, FWM’s Resveratrol Ultra web site drew 833,000 unique visitors. And while that was happening the Better Business Bureau accumulated almost 3,000 customer complaints. The net result? FWM Laboratories has perhaps the worst corporate Google SERP I’ve ever seen. But so far it seems that no charges have been brought and the directors of FWM are…elusive.

And so for FWM it seems that the Acai-Resveratrol joyride is coming to an end, but the lesson is that any affiliates promoting Acai and Resveratrol offers need to be careful too. Affiliates have typically not been held liable for the excesses of advertisers up until now, but with the FTC looking at introducing new rules in this area, the situation is changing. And so we come to celebrity endorsements.

In addition to the problems that Dr Oz has been having with regard to Resveratrol, Oprah herself made some waves a couple of weeks ago when her attorneys apparently subpoenaed 25 Illinois-based affiliates (membership may be required) who have been running Acai offers on Facebook and using Oprah’s divine image in the process. There is little more than speculation about intentions in these cases and it seems likely that they will end up being little more than cease and desist actions. But it has certainly caught the attention of a number of super-affiliates.

If you’re an affiliate promoting these offers, be careful out there.

In closing, and for those of us who find our entertainment where we can, much pleasure is to be gained on the ComplaintsBoard web site, where complaint after complaint about FWM Laboratories can be seen side-by-side with a big AdSense unit promoting – what else? – Acai-offer after Acai-offer.

I’m sure those ads are converting extremely well. Google’s contextual analysis engine in action is a marvelous thing to behold.

Tip of the Week

For most people who do serious work online, Firefox is the browser of choice. It’s quick, more standards-compliant than Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, and it offers a huge range of plug-ins to extend its capabilities.

The problem has been, how do you find the best ones to use? Well, now the team at Firefox have announced Firefox Add-On Collections, which allows anyone to put together a list of their favorite plug-ins which can then be installed as a group. Collections are themselves listed by popularity or as “Editor’s picks,” and currently include Social Circuit, a collection of 16 add-ons for social-networking, and Web Developer’s Toolbox with 12 add-ons that aid in building online projects.

Get your Facebook Vanity URL Friday Night

One of the irritating aspects of working within Facebook has always been the difficulty of passing on the address of your profile or Fan Page. Strangely enough, users have not found it especially user-friendly to print a nine-digit ID code such as id=123456789 on their business cards. A vanity URL facility has been provided by Twitter and MySpace for some time, and now Facebook has finally decided to open the door a crack.

To make it exciting, they’ve announced that the land-grab will begin at one minute past midnight EDT on Saturday, June 13th, so unless you’re on the West Coast you will have to stay up late. If you are on the West Coast, it will only be 9:01 pm so you’ll have to interrupt your Friday-night drinking. Possibly. Go here at that time to participate in what is sure to be a frustrating experience (if your name is John Smith).

Oh, one final thing to remember: people have been excited because this also applies to Facebook Fan Pages too, but there’s a but. Your page has to have been live on May 31st and it must have had a minimum of 1,000 fans at that point. Presumably this is to prevent a lot of brand-grabs (like a land-grab only for brands – oh, never mind) but it’s going to lock out a lot of smaller organizations for the time being.

The Smart Grid Gets Real

Utilities around the world are facing a future that demands technology and service to better measure, manage and control distributed resources. Sensus has anticipated that future with real-world solutions that are already at work in millions of households today. As a leading provider of advanced metering and related communications technologies to utilities worldwide, Sensus has been aggressively pushing the boundaries of utility management. Our innovative communication systems enable utilities to intelligently utilize their resources with unprecedented efficiency.

FlexNet Smart Grid Solution

FlexNet is the electric utility industry’s most powerful AMI solution. It meets AMI requirements of today; ubiquity, redundancy, security and demand response, and is smart grid ready. FlexNet is simple; its lean architecture uses a powerful, industry-leading two Watts of radio power to transmit information that maximizes range and minimizes operational costs with low infrastructure requirements. FlexNet insures sustainability, protecting the utility infrastructure investment and uninterrupted delivery.

Every FlexNet endpoint is equipped with the ability to accept downloadable revised code; modulations, protocols, frequency of operation, even data rate can be fully upgraded as future requirements and features are developed. Sensus FlexNet further mitigates risk by using APA™ (All Paths Always) technology; this ultimate form of self-healing ensures critical messages are delivered without re-routing delay.

iCon Smart Meters

The iCon line of solid state smart meters integrates seamlessly with the FlexNet AMI solution. Communication vendors and metrology engineers nationwide consistently find that the advanced family of Sensus meters provides complete functionality, superior reliability, flexible integration capability, industry standards compatibility, and economical value. The modular mechanical, electrical, and software designs, in combination with the advanced sensing capability, predictably deliver the speed, accuracy, and reliability required to meet today’s electric utility needs. With an unsurpassed accuracy exceeding ANSI C12.20 (Class 0.2), the iCon Meter by Sensus is built with a backbone of reliability and precision.

Facebook, Bing and the Economy Bite Google

As the Great Recession bites harder, so the competition for online eyeballs heats up. Within the last couple of days this has been illustrated by two data points: Microsoft’s Bing is off to a pretty good start overtaking Yahoo at one point, and Facebook’s unique visitor numbers are creeping up towards those of Google if one includes Facebook Connect sites.

First Bing. comScore reports that in its first week Bing increased Microsoft’s share of search results pages (SERPs) in the USA by 21%. Now this is from a fairly low base so the increase is from 9.1% to 11.1%, and it’s backed by the massive advertising campaign for the Bing launch so one shouldn’t get carried away. But it is still the first time that Microsoft has taken a bite out of Google so deserves to be noted.

Now Facebook. Compete has just released figures for May showing that US Facebook traffic jumped to 82.9 million unique visitors for the month, plus another 65 million to Facebook Connect sites. There’s a lot of overlap in those visitors so the total for Facebook sites comes out at 113 million. This compares to Compete’s calculation of 135 million uniques for Yahoo and 145 million for Google, with Facebook’s growth curve significantly steeper. As TechCrunch points out, if trends continue, Facebook will overtake Google in uniques by year-end.

For publishers and affiliates, these disruptions in the market mean there are opportunities for PPC arbitrage. Look for ever more Facebook ads – especially those linking to high-payout continuity programs – and, as that advertising marketplace gets more competitive and the easy profits get driven out, watch also for smart buyers to be scouring Bing for opportunity. It knocks loudly for those who care to listen.

The Role of Telecommunications Providers in the Smart Grid

Utilities are facing a host of critical issues over the next 10 years. One of the major approaches to dealing with these challenges is for utilities to become much more "intelligent" through the development of Intelligent Utility Enterprises (IUE) and Smart Grids (SG). The IUE/SG will require ubiquitous communications systems throughout utility service territories, especially as automated metering infrastructure (AMI) becomes a reality. Wireless systems, such as the widespread cellular system AT&T and other public carriers already have, will play a major role in enabling these systems.

These communications must be two-way, all the way from the utility to individual homes. The Smart Grid will be a subset of the intelligent utility, enabling utility executives to make wise decisions to deal with the pending issues. Public carriers are currently positioned to support and provide a wide range of communications technologies and services such as WiFi, satellite and cellular, which it is continuing to develop to meet current and future utility needs.

Supply and demand reaching critical concern

Utilities face some formidable mountains in the near future and they must climb these in the crosshairs of regulatory, legislative and public scrutiny. Included are such things as a looming, increasing shortage of electricity which may become more critical as global warming concerns begin to compromise the ability to build large generating plants, especially those fueled by coal.

Utilities also have to contend with the growing political strength of an environmental movement that opposes most forms of generation other than those designated as "green energy." Thus, utilities face a political/legislative/regulatory perfect storm, on the one hand reducing their ability to generate electricity by conventional methods and, on the other, requiring levels of reliability they increasingly are finding it impossible to meet.

The Intelligent Utility Enterprise and Smart Grid, with AMI as a subset of the Smart Grid, as potential, partial solutions

The primary solution proposed to date, which utilities can embrace on their own without waiting for regulatory/legislative/ political clarity, is to use technology like IUEs to become much more effective organizations and to substitute intelligence in lieu of manpower with SGs. The Smart Grid evolution also will enable the general public to take part in solving these problems through demand response. A subset of that evolution will be outage management to ensure that outages are anticipated and, except where required by supply shortages, minimized rapidly and effectively.

The IUE/SG, for the first time, will enable utility executives to see exactly what is happening on the grid in real time, so they can make the critical, day-to-day decisions in an environment of increasingly high prices and diminished supply for electricity.

Wireless To Play A Major Role In Required Ubiquitous Communications

Automating the self-operating, self-healing grid – artificial intelligence

The IUE/SG obviously will require enterprise-wide digital communications to enable the rapid transfer of data between one system and another, all the way from smart meters and other in-home gateways to the boardrooms where critical decisions will be made. Already utilities have embraced service-oriented architecture (SOA), as a means of linking everything together. SOA-enabled systems are easily linked over IP, which is capable of operating over traditional wire and fiber optic communications systems, which many utilities have in place, as well as existing cellular wireless systems. Wireless communications are becoming more helpful in linking disparate systems from the home, through the distribution systems, to substations, control rooms and beyond to the enterprise. The ubiquitous utility communications of the future will integrate a wide range of systems, some of them owned by the utilities and others leased and contracted by various carriers.

The Smart Grid is a subset of the entire utility enterprise and is linked to the boardroom by various increasingly intelligent systems throughout.

Utility leadership will need vital information about the operation of the grid all the way into the home, where distributed generation, net billing, demand response reduction of voltage or current will take place. This communications network must be in real time and must provide information to all of what traditionally were called "back office" systems, but which now must be capable of collating information never before received or considered.

The distribution grid itself will have to become much more automated, self-healing, and self-operating through artificial intelligence. Traditional SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) will have to become more capable, and the data it collects will have to be pushed further up into the utility enterprise and to departments that have not previously dealt with real-time data.

The communications infrastructure In the past utilities typically owned much of their communications systems. Most of these systems are aged, and converting them to modern digital systems is difficult and expensive.

Utilities are likely to embrace a wide range of new and existing communications technologies as they grapple with their supply/demand disconnect problem. One of these is IP/MPLS (Internet Protocol/Multi Protocol Label Switching), which already is proven in utility communications networks as well as other industries which require mission critical communications. MPLS is used to make communications more reliable and provide the prioritization to ensure the required latency for specific traffic.

One of the advantages offered by public carriers is that their networks have almost ubiquitous coverage of utility service territories, as well as built-in switching capabilities. They also have been built to communications standards that, while still evolving, help ensure important levels of security and interoperability.

"Cellular network providers are investing billions of dollars in their networks," points out Henry L. Jones II, chief technology officer at SmartSynch, an AMI vendor and author of the article entitled "Want six billion dollars to invest in your AMI network?"

"AT&T alone will be spending 16-17 billion dollars in 2009," Jones notes. "Those investments are spent efficiently in a highly competitive environment to deliver high-speed connectivity anywhere that people live and work. Of course, the primary intent of these funds is to support mobile users with web browsing and e-mail. Communicating with meters is a much simpler proposition, and one can rely on these consumer applications to provide real-world evidence that scalability to system-wide AMI will not be a problem."

Utilities deal in privileged communications with their customers, and their systems are vulnerable to terrorism. As a result, Congress, through the Federal Energy Regulatory Authority (FERC), designated NERC as the agency responsible for ensuring security of all utility facilities, including communications.

As an example of meeting security needs at a major utility, AT&T is providing redundant communications systems over a wireless WAN for a utility’s 950 substations, according to Andrew Hebert, AT&T Area Vice President, Industry Solutions Mobility Practice. This enables the utility to meet critical infrastructure protection standards and "harden" its SCADA and distribution automation systems by providing redundant communications pathways.

SCADA communication, distributed automation, and even devices providing artificial intelligence reporting are possible with today’s modern communications systems. Latency is important in terms of automatic fault reporting and switching. The communications network must provide the delivery-time performance to this support substation automation as identified in IEEE 1646. Some wireless systems now offer latencies in the 125ms range. Some of the newer systems are designed for no more than 50ms latency.

As AMI becomes more widespread, the utility- side control of millions of in-home and in-business devices will have to be controlled and managed. Meter readings must be collected and routed to meter data management systems. While it is possible to feed all this data directly to some central location, it is likely that this data avalanche will be routed through substations for aggregation and handling and transfer to corporate WANs. As the number of meter points grows – and the number readings taken per hour and the number of in-home control signals increases, bandwidth and latency factors will have to be considered carefully.

Public cellular carriers already have interoperability (e.g., you can call someone on a cell phone although they use a different carrier), and it is likely that there will be more standardization of communications systems going forward. A paradigm shift toward national and international communications interoperability already has occurred – for example, with the global GSM standard on which the AT&T network is based. A similar shift in the communications systems utilities use is necessary and likely to come about in the next few years. It no longer is practical for utilities to have to cobble together communications with varying standards for different portions of their service territory, or different functional purposes.

Earn Commissions off Telephone Sales!

RingRevenue is a new “pay per call” platform designed to track payments to affiliates for sales made to a customer that calls in via phone. Telephone sales have always been a potential source of affiliate commission leakage with the result that most affiliates simply avoid providing any kind of telephone links whatsoever. The problem with this is that many potential customers still feel more secure buying by actually talking to a real person rather than clicking around an anonymous web site. RingRevenue aims to help affiliates and networks monetize that customer.

The platform claims to distinguish itself from other call-tracking solutions by allowing the affiliate network – rather than the advertiser – to manage the allocation of trackable local and toll-free numbers to affiliates via a system set up specifically to suit affiliate marketing. Commission Junction are already signed up as partners with other networks apparently coming on board as we write.

This kind of technology could be very successful if it is well implemented and affiliates feel that it can be trusted. If customers feel they can reassure themselves by speaking to someone, that may add an extra point or two to conversion rates, and that’s going to be an attractive prospect for affiliates struggling to maintain sales in these difficult times.

 – Chris Trayhorn

Helping North American Utilities Transform the Way They Do Business

Utilities are facing a host of challenges ranging from environmental concerns, aging infrastructure and systems, to Smart Grid technology and related program decisions. The future utility will be required to find effective solutions to these challenges, while continuing to meet the increasing expectations of newly empowered consumers. This brings an opportunity to create stronger, more profitable relationships with customers, and to do so more cost effectively.

Since our formation in 1996 as the subsidiary of UK-based United Utilities Plc., Vertex Business Services has grown to serve over 70 North American utilities and retail energy clients, who in turn serve over 23 million end-use customers. Our broad portfolio of Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) and Information Technology (IT) solutions enables our clients to more effectively manage operational costs, improve efficiencies, develop front-line employees, and achieve superior customer experience.

Improving Utility Collection Performances

Utilities can greatly benefit from the debt management practices and experience of industries such as banking and retail that have developed a more sophisticated skill set. Benefits can come from adoption of proven methodologies for managing accounts receivable and managing outsourced agency collections business processes, as well as from the use of appropriate software for these processes. There is also benefit to using analytical tools to evaluate the process of collections and optimizing processes based on metrics collected.

Improve your collection rates and lower outstanding accounts receivable through Vertex’s proven collection services. Our rich heritage results in our ability to implement best practices and provide quality reporting strategies, ironclad credit and collection processes, and innovative training programs.

Handling Demand Response and Efficiency In the Call Center

In the next five to 10 years, utilities will be forced to change more than at any time in their previous history. These changes will be profound, widespread and will affect not only utilities themselves, but virtually all parts of our modern electrified culture. One of the most dramatic changes will be in the traditional relationship between utilities and their customers, especially at the residential level. Passive electricity "rate payers" are about to become very active participants in the relationship with their utility.