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Critical Thinking and the Internet

by Ryan Johnson, Jun 02 2009

So tonight I was helping a friend of mine who wanted to advertise his business on the internet. He’s not computer savvy at all. And little did I know, he had no real idea how the internet really worked with regard to search engines, rankings, keywords, and the like. He is a really smart person, but not in this area.

He wanted to setup a web page to create a web presence there so he could get more customers. Simple enough.

That’s fine, he’s a friend and will be a good client. Little did I know that the internet and all it’s seedy folks had already got their greedy little hooks into him.

I laid out how a person could grow an internet presence into a brand, provide compelling content, demonstrate his experience in his field and even answer common questions that his customers might have and given the right amount of time and effort make a real mark in their area of expertise. His web presence can become a big part of his operation.

He is a very honest and trusting person. He wasn’t born in the US so language can be a bit tough for him sometimes. I can’t fault him for any of the things that he has done, but a bit of critical thinking would have saved him a lot of money and time.

When a person goes out into the big electronic frontier that is the interwebs, it’s easy to see that companies like Google and Yahoo and even the Yellow Pages have a commanding presence. They appear like the solid, trusted foundation upon which everything else is built. When you are a business owner, you get an endless parade of calls from companies, including the aforementioned, hocking their virtual wares.

For my friend these wonderful bastions of commerce and provision realized his internet naiveté and quickly put him on the hit list. After I told him all about how we would create his website, he leaves the room, then comes back in with a pile of papers and says: “So what do I do with all of this?” He produces signup forms, information and executed contracts for several search engine companies, listings, and advertising contracts. Several of which he had signed up for and was paying good money for. He DIDN”T HAVE A WEBSITE!!!!

What followed was a three hour explanation that even though companies like Google are what you use to search the internet, the salesperson selling a line-item listing for Google Maps to his home address (not even a phone number) is pointless! But because he equated Google with the internet, and they seem like a big, good, trustworthy company, he thinks: “My competition is on the web when I search for something right under that Google logo, so I need to do that too!” Add rinse and repeat for, and Yahoo, etc. etc.. These sleazoids were selling him advertising for nothing. You couldn’t even argue that there was ANY value in it because there was no clear link to anything that a consumer could use to contact him at his business (Short of a customer driving to his home and knocking on the door)

Even the Better Business Bureau sent him a letter trying to convince him that he should pay to get listed on a satellite web directory that was to list his business as a “trusted” vendor. This company that has the word TRUST as parts of it’s own brand, uses nefarious tactics to convince people that they are getting the goods. I explained that when someone is looking for you or your service they are going to use search terms that resemble your service or name of your business, NOT the name of a “trusted” directory, that takes a minimum of 5 jumps to hit a page only to get a white pages style listing in some directory.

None of this is news to me of course. I’m in the production industry, Heck I MAKE TV commercials and promotional videos. I convince the consumer that my client’s products are the best, fastest, biggest, most efficient and highest quality all the time. So I’m hardly the one to call out a company for advertising and selling their products.

But when a company clearly sells a service to a customer who clearly doesn’t have a clue what they’re really getting, and couldn’t possibly take any kind of advantage of it, and could never benefit from it in anyway short of the tax expense write-off, this makes me livid!

How could a company in good conscience continue these practices? I guess we can look to Homeopathy and see that clearly, it just doesn’t matter.

I was upset when I saw these, and he was clearly embarrassed. What’s really sad is that it will make him that much more jaded, and my job a bit tougher to convince him that I really DO have his best interests in mind when I present him with options on how best to advertise his business. He will become more skeptical, which is a good thing, but also, I suspect, an equal measure more cynical and untrusting. This leads to one of the roots of the problem with being labeled a skeptic. When one is a skeptic by external factors, we can assume that there’s equal parts cynicism, and lack of trust born from the Big Bad World that’s taken our lunch money and stuck chewing gum in our hair.

In the meantime, we teach, we are patient, and we spend the better part of a Monday evening trying to illuminate the internet to our friend.

22 Responses to “Critical Thinking and the Internet”

  1. Brian M says:

    I understand where people get sucked into these things. All you need is a basic boiler plate website and that money wouldn’t be a total loss. Too many people don’t understand the internet, and contrary to popular belief, its NOT because “we” have not explained it, it is because they simply don’t want to learn it. I give someone a URL, and they automatically enter ‘www’ in front of it. I want to slap them when they do that. Especially when they look dumbfounded when they see ‘http://’… Or when they tell me ‘I use digital signatures; I scanned my signature and paste it on word documents’. These things make security nuts like me want to stop helping people…

    • SicPreFix says:

      I’m not clear on why such things would make you want to stop helping people. The things you mentioned are perfect instances of somewhat specialized knowledge about which people who are less than savvy about the Internet would really need the help of someone who knows what they’re talking about.

      Remember, everyone is a newbie at something at some time in their lives. Everyone.

      • Brian M says:

        It makes me want to stop helping people because they just don’t want to learn. They hear a term, and expect it to be a certain way, then get annoyed when you tell them differently. You try and help them, and they get pissy about it. They simply don’t ask, they just do, and think they know what they are doing. Same thing that Ryan was talking about.

      • SicPreFix says:

        Oh, I see. That makes more sense now. I missed the connection between helping someone and the ungrateful return — or lack thereof, as it were.

    • Max says:

      Do you only want to help people who don’t need help?

      • Peter says:

        Do you only want to help people who don’t need help?

        Speaking for myself: yes. I don’t mind helping people learn stuff if they’re willing to do the work…it’s OK to be a newbie; it’s not OK to expect someone else to do your homework. For the former don’t need help – they just get to learn faster if they have it. Many of the latter are stupid (incapable of learning), but the ones that aren’t are even more annoying.

      • slippery slope says:

        NOBODY is “incapable” of learning. Sometimes you need to go to more trouble in order to find the appropriate terminology to use so that the person with whom you are communicating recevives the message you are trying to send. Alot of times when we don’t truly understand a thing, we will pretend that we do in order to not feel silly, or whatever. No matter, if you are the trying to convey a point, then it is you who is responsible for the path of communication. Say it in a way that THEY get…

      • slippery slope says:

        as for getting annoyed, that is YOUR weakness.

      • Roy Edmunds says:

        I agree with this. People, everyone of us, when we come to grips with something new, simply have no idea of how much we don’t know about the subject.
        When we engage someone to help us it is then that our own personalities take the learning process to its conlusion.
        Some people want to learn how to play Bethovens fifth on the black notes in three easy lessons. That is their problem. As a trainer you spot the impatient ones and try to explain to them that the learning process will continue beyond their current comprehension and take them on a journey which they cannot possibly see over until they see it through. Such is life.

  2. Noadi says:

    One of my blogs is about running a business and in general I don’t get into skepticism on it because that’s not it’s focus. However a few weeks ago I felt like I had to do a post on being skeptical of online business offers because I started really noticing how many people were running into problems or falling for scams.

    I realized just how easy it is for someone with a lot of online experience to forget that for many people it’s still very new (in my case I’ve been using the internet since I was in 6th grade). When you have so many people using a new technology for the first time it just opens them up for a lot of trouble whether it’s scams, phishing, or viruses. Best we can do is try to educate as many people as possible and give them the tools they need but technology can be so overwhelming.

  3. jdac says:

    I’m a programmer, and it’s a truism in this field that we cannot communicate with normal, functioning human beings. At least not about what we do. Advanced knowledge is definitely a hindrance, unless you’ve deliberately thought about how you would explain something to a neophyte.

    I just took a class in computer system security, and my final presentation was on web vulnerabilities, specifically Cross-Site Scripting, Clickjacking (UI Redressing), Cross-Site Request Forgeries (XSRF, CSRF or “sea-surf”) and the like. I got an A in the class, but I don’t consider myself knowledgeable on the subject.

    When researching for that presentation the single best resource I had was Robert Hansen (RSnake’s) blog ( But you can’t just point a newbie there like that’s where [s]he should learn about web security. It’s precise and technical, which is precisely the opposite of accessible.

    Regardless, one lesson I learned from reading RSnake’s post is clear to me; you have to consider security (including scam avoidance) FIRST. Really, people should be learning about this stuff before they get on the web. Not that it’s possible.

    I think web service providers could do more than just claim they offer spam and virus protection. Failing that… well, I try to exercise a little stewardship within my social group in terms of computer security and skepticism in general. I’m fairly interested in this stuff anyway (big surprise) so it’s not hard to entice me to talk about it.

    It’s not the best I could do, I’ll bet, but it’s the LEAST I (or any of us) could do.


  4. Eli says:

    Fourth paragraph from the end (capitalization mine):

    “who clearly doesn’t have a clue what THEIR really getting”

    Should be: THEY’RE

    • slippery slope says:

      another nitpick: people who believe others should be responsible for looking out for them. Due to “discrimination” there has become this mindset that responsibility is not on any individual but instead “them” or “they”. The web servers are not resposible for anything in regard to people being scammed. If people get scammed, it is because they chose to by getting in over their heads. No such thing as a shortcut, with the internet or anything else. We need to re-educate people about the meaning of individual responsibility. One way we could start, would be to arrest the treasonous asshats that made discrimination illegal. Then, culture might follow suit and get responsible…

    • Ryan Johnson says:

      Oops, missed, that, Thanks. Fixed.

  5. Name says:

    Neither Google or Yahoo! have a salesforce for their respective Search Engines and thus do NOT solicit anyone. On top of that, neither company manages advertising campaigns for individuals or businesses. So you couldn’t just got to Google and pay them to put up an ad for your business. You would have to use their AdWords platform and market YOURSELF and even then there are NO CONTRACTS to sign – you can shut the ads down anytime you like.

    So, speaking of skeptics, it sounds like people should be more skeptical of you providing accurate information on your blog. But, hey, don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story – right?!

    • Ryan Johnson says:

      Well, Mr. Name,

      Funny, your name is Name. Apparently anonymity is important, because you are in this case wrong.

      Though I do not hold it in my hand at this point, I did read my friends paperwork and it was clearly an advertising solicitation to his business through Google. It had something to do with his business listing and Google Maps. What reason would I have to make this up? Consider that before just simply stating in so many words, that I’m a liar.

      Regardless, my point is that these salespeople, regardless of who they represent, are only in it for the sale and in this case did not even check to see if he had an actual website that would be promoted, They didn’t take the time to find out, instead opted to simply list his home address, because that’s the only information that they had in their database most likely.

    • Nick Johnson says:

      Google does have a – rather large – sales team for their advertising products (yes, I work for Google, but I’m not speaking for them). They don’t, to the best of my knowledge, cold call – the sales team is there to work with medium to large companies in setting up large campaigns, not to scam small business owners out of cash.

      My best guess is that the letters were from unscrupulous individuals ‘reselling’ standard Google advertising at huge markups – and without permission – all the while doing their best to give the impression they’re legitimate. If that’s the case, I’d love to see a copy of the letters – I’m sure the legal department would too. If it’s not the case, I’d be shocked and disappointed – and I’m sure all my fellow Googlers would like to find out as well.

      Any chance you can post a copy of this stuff?

      • Hey, I would like to be able to search google easier. And I like googles search engine a lot better than yahoo. After I get a search results page, either I am going to click on a link or go to the next page. It gets old having to navigate my mouse down to the tiny buttons at the bottom of the screen to go to the next page. I was wondering if it was possible to make the whole white part of the screen a button to go to the next page. A huge invisible button. Got a few other ideas…

  6. Name says:

    Well, Ryan Johnson,

    Funny, your name is Ryan Johnson. Apparently being frequently incorrect is important to you, because you are in this case wrong.

    Contact Google or Yahoo! yourself and you will find out just how wrong you are. I have worked for many years in the Web Development & Online Marketing world, including many dealings with Google, Yahoo! and others. I know for a fact that they do NOT solicit sales for their Search Engines. I don’t care what logo you saw on a contract – it wasn’t from Google or Yahoo!.

    Regardless, it is your friend’s responsibility to perform his due diligence, not that of the salesperson. If he goes to Wal-Mart and buys $2000 worth of electronics – it’s not the job of the cashier to determine if he’s performed enough research to make an informed decision. I realize it’s very popular in this world today to always blame someone else for your problems, but nobody showed up to his house with a gun and forced him to sign that contract. In fact, nobody showed up AT ALL! He was DUMB enough to sign a contract for something pitched to him OVER THE PHONE!

    Face it – it’s your friend that’s the idiot here (and the one responsible for his own actions). What’s even more pathetic is you running around on the internet demonizing these companies on behalf of your idiot friend. And that, sir, makes YOU an idiot, too.

    You and your friend should try accepting a little responsibility for yourselves every now and then. That’s what happens in the grown-up world.

  7. Jeshua says:

    Help! I promise to listen carefully. Even though i have used computers since i was in college and have been a follower of many sites and blogs online for over a decade, i’m embarrassed to admit i have no idea what the meaning or function of “www” or “http://” is. I only know that sometimes you can’t access a site without them. BTW, i too have considered advertising my business online but am hesitant for the very same reasons that caused so much trouble for your friend.

  8. kabol says:

    why sign contracts with google?

    why give google money?