Friday, September 29, 2006

The Revitalization of Used Cars On-Line, Part 2 of X

OK, I have something embarassing to admit. I have been making a huge PageRank mistake over the past 5 years or so, all because of a superstition.

When I first moved Used Cars On-Line to a dynamic/database driven site, I put everything but the root index under the domain. We used this domain for individual premium ads, so that one could have a classified address with it's own web address (, which was pretty high tech back in 1997. So was the address I gave my dedicated server, and I left the domain hosted at a third party hosting provider. So everything that needed to be driven by the database had to point to

Why didn't I use subdomains (ex: No clue. I don't think I appreciated the negative effect using two domains would have on my PageRank (which is pretty decent, and a 5 currently). Why didn't I move all of over to my dedicated solution? Well, Yahoo was my host (originally Simplenet for the really old school folks out there), and at the time, we were ranked #1 on Yahoo under the search of "used cars". Perhaps believing in a conspiracy, I thought that maybe my high ranking in Yahoo was in part due to the fact that I was local. Perhaps ping times, or just a Yahoo IP or something was helping my rank. After all, MSN is the only major search engine that doesn't show my site in the top 10-20 under the common search terms... could that be because the OS was on was Solaris/Apache?

Fast forward to 2006 and Yahoo makes up only about 10% of the traffic driven to my site. But I still never got around to switching the domain. A real eye opener happened during this redesign when I did a "" query in Google. Only 6 or 7 pages came up, and 3 or 4 of them were not even current. Argh! Google doesn't know that is my site! It must think I'm a link farm! Well I set about changing that right away. Tonight half of the DNS servers out there are showing as one unified site. Hopefully this will increase PageRank. More on the continuing changes that are underway in future posts.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Scamsters Respond

Last week, I revealed a new technique I was using to combat spammer/scammers from contacting my customers. Studying the trends over the week, I added a new addition which actually prevents them from sending any emails once they reach a certain spam threshold. Well, the scammers are not too happy about not being able to send their emails. I got this nice letter from :

you said i have being flagged for scam which is not too good.i am never a scammer and i am preety unhappy at that will you just let me know why on earth will you do such.

Uh oh! Well with that well written english I thought perhaps my filtering scheme was not working well, so I decided to test Mr. Cambell. I sent an email from a random email address I have (which does not have a car for sale and does not mention any details about the car):


Yes my car is still for sale, my final price is $2,000.


Well, what do you know, without even knowing the make or year of my car, and indeed never contacting me about any car, he wrote this nice letter back:

Hello thanks for the name is dr. marcus cambell black and i am a british citizen.i am a car dealer and i was introduce to the internet market by my friend williams.i intend buying your car and ship it here in the uk and i will resell it to people who are in need of it.we basically sell this cars to people who live here in the uk and prefer to ride on the left hand drive car as you have in your country and i am sure you know that here in the uk we ride on the right hand drive.therefore,i will want to know your fanal price and i will want you to give me assuarance that the car is in good condition or better still tell me all about the car and your prefered method of payment.i need this car as fast as possible because i have check it well on the web and i will want you to act fast on it.
thanks for your anticipated cooperation and hope to hear from you soon.
I must confess,i need this car.

Sure you've never scammed Mr. Cambell, sure you havn't. So the scam prevention is working well so far.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Appropriate FoxTrot today:

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Operation Scarlet Letter

The only problem with having multiple projects as an ISV is that some of them will always get the short end of the stick in terms of your attention. Sometimes this is OK, it helps prevent feature bloat, and it lets you devote more time to new ventures. In my case, my oldest project Used Cars On-Line had been on my back burner. The last redesign was 3 years ago, and it still used old ASP. Despite the site having a significant POTENTIAL technology advantage over the competitors (since it's just me in the company!) the tech of the site had lagged behind the times. So I have began a major redesign that I will share over the coming month.

I looked at two of the biggest problems, 1) Usefulness of site to buyers and sellers. I'll get back to this point in another post, but the main point of today's post is the #2 problem. Scamsters.

If you put up a classified ad anywhere on the Internet, you will get bombarded by scams, especially with used cars. You would think the scams are obvious enough that most people are aware of them now, but my audience consists of a very diverse group of people who may not be that tech savvy. I was constantly getting angry emails from people that had been scammed or were wasting their time interacting with scamsters.

A couple of years ago, my solution was to log every IP address, watch for patterns, and then block the IP range at the firewall. I noticed trends like anything from Nigeria was usually a scam, so I blocked entire parts of Africa and Asia. After all, my site is targeted only to US customers. Unfortunately, this STILL didn't solve the problem. The scamsters began using AOL IP's or USA based proxies or satellite providers... so they still got through. And later I found that parts of Australia and Japan have been blocked too!

So now everything is unblocked. But how to stop the scams? My solution is what I call the "Scarlet Letter" approach. Every initial email to a customer must now go through my system. When that happens, an IP and email used are logged. The header of the email to the customer contains a link to report the buyer as a scammer. If a report is filed, that IP and email are flagged. If either is detected sending an email again, a cookie is set on the scamsters computer, and a warning attaches all emails he sends alerting the customer to be especially careful of a scam. So to get around this scam detection now, a scamster must change their email, their IP, AND clear their cookies between each contact. I think this will be enough to prevent most scamsters from circumventing the system. I'm also going to copy myself on most emails for the time being to see if I can detect enough trends to perhaps add a bayesian filter to help the process. I'll also be flagging scamsters myself.

Anyone see any problems with this approach that I may be missing?

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Yahoo Maps Beta

Wow, I just discovered the Yahoo Maps Beta. Yahoo Maps had always given better directions then Google. For example, one time I mapped a trip from Baltimore to New Orleans, and Google gave a route that took 4 hours longer. Also to get across town it always has me taking this weird collection of highways, where Yahoo gives you the shortest, most direct route. But Yahoo wasn't AJAX, and that's just painful after Google Maps.

Well, not anymore! Not only is their map AJAX now, but it has updated satellite photography (my house is clear, not a blur now!), real time traffic info (looks like a tractor trailer jacknifed near my exit), and all the other features that Google Maps already had. It even starts the map at a location based on my IP! Only weird thing is the zoom control, I prefer the zoom in to be at the top, and the zoom out to be at the bottom.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Web 2.0 Conference too good for me

Alas I did not get an invitation to the Web 2.0 conference, I suppose a GREAT developer would have had connections ;). It looks like I'll probably be going to Refresh 06 instead. Any better conferences going on this fall?

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Regular Ol' Developer

Over at Joel On Software, Joel is again talking about the best way to get Great Developers. Lots of people chime in about how they themselves are great developers, or their tips and tricks for getting great developers. It's articles like this that make me feel a little left out, because I know by Joel's standards I am not a great developer.

Joel goes to the top Comp Sci schools and writes personal letters to the top students in the department. I went to a decent Comp Sci school (U of MD), but was certainly no where near the top of the Comp Sci department. When I went to school I was extremely disappointed with the Computer Science program. C was great, C++ was better, but then we got into binary search trees, discrete math, big O notation, linear algebra, and calculus 3. BORING. I just wanted to know when we'd get around to writing Windows and/or Macintosh programs. You know, the kind REAL people used. Later, of course I realized that Computer Science was supposed to be a science, and there really was no course of study that taught how to make business programs at my college.

Joel says GREAT developers only ever apply for maybe 3-4 jobs ever. Well, this is my 5th IT job, and I plan on working more before all is said and done. And yes, I've actually had to apply for jobs. KC tells me that all the GREAT developers already have connections, or are gotten jobs through other secret channels. Well, I have a lot of connections, but maybe because I live in the DC area, most of my connections work at jobs that sound much worse then anything I've worked in. And of course during my last job search (after the .COM company I worked for went under), there were few positions open ANYWHERE. It's doubtful I'll resort to connections for my next position.

But hey, I'm not GREAT or the BEST and I'm happy with that. I don't believe being a great developer has any impact at all on your success in life, business or development (ok maybe it's worth 15% or so). Take 37Signals for instance. They are hardly developers at all! None went to Harvard and got a special letter from Joel as far as I can tell. But they are perhaps making as much or more money then FogCreek (they have considerably less overhead). I've know a few GREAT developers in real life. They don't make much more then my base salary, and less overall when you add on the mISV stuff. Their jobs are not exciting (to me at least). Sure they are working on the programming for the heart monitor that may save my life one day, or the targeting system for a missle that may blow up China one day, but in the end, it's just a day job they still have to report to with shirt and tie on.

What makes 37signals succeed? Why arn't the great developers rich? What would I be looking for if I were hiring? A couple of things.

2)Ability to learn and adapt quickly
4)Able to handle stress well
6)Be well rounded and fluent in customer service

Joel has these things. That is why FogCreek is sucessful. The high end developers are simply more tools to achieve that end. I don't really know much about any of them, but I'm sure they are creative and learn quickly. But according to Joel, no one has ever quit FogCreek. That shows a lack of ambition to me. How can you graduate right out of school and work for a company without knowing what else is going on out there? If you are a top 10 developer from Yale, shouldn't we have you working on unlocking the genome or something? They are not experienced. They only know of the world of development that Joel provides, which seems fairly unique and specialized.

Because I've had a couple of jobs, my skill set is pretty well rounded. Besides being a programmer, I've been a PC tech, a network engineer, a help desk guy, a lab tech, delivered pizza and even worked in a warehouse. So while a superior developer at work is waiting for the network guys to figure out what's wrong with the server, I can fix it myself. While a great developer is talking condescendingly to an angry client, I can get them to laugh. It's little things like this, being well rounded and ambitious that I put a premium on.

From my experience recruiting, and working at a wide range of jobs, I really believe the best employees are those that meet the six criteria above. Someone may not be the best developer, but if they are creative and ambitious, I'd bet on them to solve a problem as well as one of the GREAT developers (perhaps just not as elegantly).

Well, anyways... that's my random rant on the subject. Hopefully there are other "non-great" developers like myself out there.