Sunday, April 08, 2007


10 Things Your Blogger Won't Tell You

1. "Hardly anybody reads me."
If you believe the hype, blogs — those online journals where people write about everything from politics and sports to their personal lives — will soon be the only thing most people read. Indeed, the blogging phenom, which blossomed from modest beginnings almost a decade ago, seems unstoppable: Three years ago there were two million blogs on the web, according to blog search engine Technorati; today there are more than 60 million. But the reality behind the stats is that most blogs get few hits.

The most popular do boast huge followings — tech-news site Engadget, for one, has more readers than most print newspapers and magazines. But beyond the elite few, it drops off significantly — the top 25 blogs account for roughly 10% of blog readership, according to web-traffic measurement firm ComScore. To be fair, most bloggers aren't seeking a big audience. "The pleasure of blogging is in forming a sense of intimacy readers and fellow bloggers can enjoy," says Rachel Bray, whose gets a few hundred hits a day.

So what's the norm? Google CEO Eric Schmidt told a recent gathering of U.K. politicians that the average blog has just one reader: the blogger.

2. "The more companies pay me, the more I like their stuff."
Companies looking for ways to profit from the blogging phenomenon have tried everything from buying ad space on blogs to infiltrating discussion forums with hired PR shills. They've even created fake blogs to hawk their products. In December, Sony went live with, a "blog" by two fictitious teenagers clamoring to get a PlayStation Portable for Christmas. The site, which contained videos and strained attempts at youth slang, was quickly exposed as a fraud. "It was designed to be humorous," says a Sony spokesperson. "It didn't come across as intended."

When such tactics aren't enough, companies will even pay bloggers to praise their products. In 2006, Florida outfit PayPerPost sparked controversy by offering to connect advertisers with bloggers willing to drop a company's name into their daily scribbles for a fee (between $4 and $40 per mention). The practice was quickly denounced as online payola, and in December, the Federal Trade Commission weighed in, ruling that word-of-mouth marketers must disclose their sponsorship. Says PayPerPost CEO Ted Murphy, "We're trying to strike a balance that makes everybody happy."

3. "Did I mention I'm not a real reporter?"
With major newspapers including "The Washington Post" routinely hosting blogs for columnists and reporters, blogging is gaining credibility. But beware: Even those associated with mainstream news outlets aren't subject to the same prepublication safeguards — editing, fact-checking, proofreading — that print publications use. With blogs "we're shifting to this world where we're publishing first and editing later," says Jeff Jarvis, a journalism professor at the City University of New York and author of the blog BuzzMachine.

While more than one-third of bloggers consider their work a form of journalism, their news-gathering consists largely of borrowing content and posting links to traditional news sources, along with some added commentary. What's more, bloggers don't face the same consequences as journalists for getting it wrong: In a recent libel case against a woman who posted a critical letter about two doctors, the California Supreme Court ruled that those who post content from other sources aren't liable for defamation. In other words, bloggers are off the hook so long as they aren't the original author of the mistake.

4. "I might infect your computer with a virus."
Most web surfers know better than to click on a link promising free money or a trip to the Bahamas. But blogs can contain malicious code just like any other site. Social-networking hub MySpace, for example, which hosts about one in 10 blogs online, suffered several high-profile attacks last year. In December hackers altered hundreds of thousands of MySpace user profiles; the doctored pages directed viewers to a scam site that elicited log-in names and passwords. Another tactic involves targeting innocent blogs and inserting malicious links into the reader comment section — one click and your computer could be infected.

Allysa Myers, a virus-research engineer at security-software maker McAfee, says researchers now see such attacks, which first appeared less than a year ago, almost daily. Keeping your operating system, browser and security software updated may help contain the damage, but the responsibility is partly that of web site operators, who need to put proper filters in place so rogue users can't upload bad content. The bottom line for readers: "If you don't know the person doing the linking, don't click on it," Myers says.

5. "I'm revealing company secrets."
When Mark Jen started working at Google in 2005, he was so excited about his new job that the newly minted associate product manager started a blog about it, describing orientation meetings, comparing Google's pay and benefits package with that of his past employer, and recounting a company ski trip. Though Jen revealed nothing earth-shattering, his blog soon drew an audience eager for a peek inside the tight-lipped firm. Two weeks later Jen was fired. He isn't sure just what he wrote that prompted his dismissal, but "was told somebody at the top wanted me gone," Jen says. (Google had no comment on the matter.)

Indeed, companies are only now beginning to realize that employee blogs can be a threat to information security; so far just 7% of firms have policies on personal blogs, according to a survey from the American Management Association and ePolicy Institute. But that doesn't mean you can blog with abandon. "Don't piss off your boss," says Robert Scoble, author of "Naked Conversations: How Blogs Are Changing the Way Businesses Talk With Customers." Ask about your employer's stance on blogs and what subject matter is out of bounds before ever typing a word.

6. "Just because my name's on it doesn't mean I wrote it."
In 2005 New York City mayoral candidate Fernando Ferrer's web log mentioned he'd attended public schools; in fact, Ferrer received most of his education in private Catholic schools. When confronted with the error, his campaign admitted the blog was written by a staffer. Ferrer's predicament was hardly unusual: Politicians, business leaders and other public figures routinely employ ghostwriters to produce books, speeches and, more recently, blogs. One survey conducted by PR consultant David Davis found that only 17% of CEOs who blog do all their own writing.

However common it is, "ghost blogging" remains controversial. "It's a perversion of the real meaning of blogging, which is to put yourself out there," says Debbie Weil, author of "The Corporate Blogging Book." But not everybody agrees the practice is tantamount to lying. Ed Poll, a law firm management consultant and author of LawBiz Blog, thinks ghost blogging is fine. "I don't think anyone who reads a post should care whether the name on it belongs to the writer," Poll says. "If you believe everything you read, then shame on you."

7. "My blog is just a stepping stone to bigger and better things."
In some blogging circles, scorn for the mainstream media, or "MSM," is a virtual religion. Nonetheless, many bloggers have proven eager to join it when the opportunity arises. Melissa Lafsky, author of the popular Opinionistas blog, was stressed and unhappy as a young lawyer in New York City. As a kind of therapy, she began chronicling daily life at her firm, relating tales of tyrannical partners and sleepless, embittered young associates, being careful not to reveal her identity. Her blog soon built a following, gaining mentions in The New York Times and Eventually, a literary agent came calling, and Lafsky quit her job to write professionally. "I'd be getting coffee in some newsroom if not for the Internet," she says.

Indeed, bloggers are using their medium to pursue jobs in all sorts of industries. Seeking a spot at Provo Labs, Utah resident Carolynn Duncan created "Why Provo Labs Wants to Hire Carolynn Duncan," a blog detailing her qualifications to work for the startup incubator. "It was kind of a flippant idea," Duncan admits, but it worked — after approaching a company exec at a community dinner and handing him her business card listing her blog's address, Duncan scored an interview and got the job.

8. "I can control what you see on the Internet."
When search engines like Google calculate their search results — the list you get when you type in specific words — one of the biggest factors in determining order is the number of other sites that link to a given web page. The reasoning goes that it's a good measure of how useful the content of a web site is to readers — and it often works in favor of blogs. "There's no special boost in our algorithm for blogs," according to a Google spokesperson, "but as part of their nature [for example, routinely providing fresh content], people may link to and from blogs more often."

Knowing how to game the system, some bloggers will use the power of links to get ahead on search-result lists. Kansas lawyer Grant Griffiths started the Kansas Family Law Blog in 2005 to promote his practice. By posting two or three times a day, he says, he soon brought his blog near the top of the list for search terms like "Kansas law" and "divorce lawyers." Within 30 days Griffiths started attracting new business and now gets two to three new cases per week because of his high-visibility blog.

Bloggers don't just use links to promote themselves; they can also manipulate search results to make their enemies look bad. In a practice known as "Google bombing," a coordinated group of bloggers can boost a site's ranking using negative key words. Such was the case in 2003, when enough bloggers linked to George W. Bush's official White House biography page using the words "miserable failure" to make it No. 1 on the list for a Google search of those words.

9. "Blogging just about ruined my life."
In 2004 Oregon resident Curt Hopkins was getting ready to fly to Minnesota for a job interview at a radio station. But before he got on the plane, the station canceled the meeting. The reason? His blog, Morpheme Tales. Hopkins had made some harsh remarks in it about the Catholic Church a few weeks before the scheduled interview, remarks he suspects sank his chances of getting hired.

Hopkins says he stands by his words, but plenty of people end up regretting a rash posting they didn't expect anyone to read. In a notorious 2006 incident, the entire Northwestern University women's soccer team was suspended for a month after photos of their drinking and risqué hazing rituals were discovered online and publicized by the sports blog

If you want to blog but still value some measure of privacy, try using one of several blog-hosting services — including Vox, WordPress or Google's Blogger — that allow you to limit your audience to a select group of your choosing.

10. "I'm already obsolete."
How long can the blog bonanza last? There are already signs of a slowdown: The growth rate of blogs let up for the first time in third-quarter 2006, and overall daily postings fell to 1.3 million in September from 1.6 million in June, according to Technorati. "There's a certain faddish quality to what's going on," says technology writer Nicholas Carr. "We're probably at or near the peak of popularity of writing blogs."

But that's only a part of the story; indeed, blogs have begun evolving into a multimedia phenomenon. It's now fairly cheap and easy to record video and post it as a video blog, or "vlog." And together with podcasts — audio recordings posted online — the number of video blogs has surged, from 4,000 just a year ago to more than 22,000 today, according to vlog directory Mefeedia.

At its core blogging has always been about showing oneself to the world; with the advent of user-friendly voice and video technology, that idea is becoming more literal every day.

Saturday, April 07, 2007


How Much of Your Car Should You Finance?

Next to buying a home or funding your children's education, buying a car is the most expensive purchase you'll make. And car-related expenses, such as gas, maintenance and insurance, can take a big bite out of your wallet.

Kicking a few tires is only half the battle. Before you begin looking for a new car, you should know your limits and what you should be spending. Experts say you shouldn't spend more than 10 percent of your gross income on car expenses, which includes the cost of the car along with insurance, gas and maintenance.

Once you decide on a price range, you'll want to decide how much you can put down as a down payment and then negotiate the price of your car. Too many buyers accept long financing arrangements in order to minimize their down payment. If they decide to trade the car in the first year or so, they often find that they actually owe more on their car than it's worth. A good rule of thumb is never to finance more than 80 percent of the true cost---the dealer's invoice---of the car. At least 20 percent or more should be paid in cash or the equity of your trade.

Typically, after you negotiate the price of your car, the dealer will send you to their financing department. While it's true that dealers may have less restrictive credit requirements than banks, be wary of cut-rate financing deals that they frequently push. These attractive 3 percent interest rates may apply only to certain models or short-term loans of up to 12 months. Dealers make a lot of money on financing, even when it's done through the manufacturer.

Tip: Always negotiate the price before you reveal that you are thinking about dealer financing. If they know ahead of time that you plan to finance, they will frequently try to confuse the issue by giving you a lower rate on a higher price or a lower price at a higher finance rate.

If you do decide to finance through the car dealer, you can negotiate the interest rate. Dealerships usually have several loan sources, including local banks and the manufacturer's credit company. Each source sets their rates to the dealer.

It is important to investigate other sources for an auto loan (such as your bank or credit union) before you sign on the dotted line. Investigate your financing options and find out from banks or credit unions if they have any special deals right now.

Another possibility is a home equity loan or line of credit. With a home equity loan, you are borrowing against the value of your home. Not only are interest rates lower than those for auto dealer loans, but the interest on home equity loans and lines of credit are usually tax deductible. Proceed with caution, however, as you are putting your most valued asset on the line to purchase a depreciating asset that can be stolen.

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