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Three organic search opportunities for your local business

October 1, 2021 No Comments

30-second summary:

  • Following pandemic-driven shopping trends, lots of local businesses had to explore online marketing opportunities
  • Google offers a few great ways for a local business to get found through organic search
  • Local 3 Pack is Google’s search element containing top three local businesses based on your search query.
  • To rank in the Local 3 Pack you need to ensure your Google My Business listing is complete and active
  • Third-party local business listings (like Yelp and Tripadvisor) may also drive some organic search visibility so it is a good idea to claim your business there
  • Hyperlocal content may help your business discovered by people who were not even searching to buy a local product or service, so produce relevant content on a regular basis

Local marketing has become even a more trending topic, following the pandemic-driven pandemic.

Lots of local businesses that used to rely on local foot traffic were forced to turn to the Internet to get found by customers.

That digital transformation brought this huge challenge to just about any local business – how to get found online. 

Step 1: Claim your business profile on Google My Business

Google offers huge organic search visibility to local businesses through the so-called Local 3 Pack that shows up on top of organic results when search intent reflects buying (or doing) something locally.

Local 3 pack is Google’s search element that includes three relevant businesses from Google Maps results:

Image source: Screenshot by the author

Ranking your business in the Local 3 Pack is no easy task. It heavily relies on proximity of those businesses to the customer’s current location.

However, there are a few things you can do to improve your local rankings:

  • Make sure you have a detailed (and original) description of your business and what it is you do.
  • Add your website (oftentimes Google would grab text from the associated website and rank a business based on that content). There are also a few great plugins allowing you to embed your local listing onto your website for better visibility.
  • Upload pictures and videos of your office and team
  • Add your products and services (Note: Services are not believed to have a huge (or any) impact on your local rankings but why not add those anyway)
  • Your business categories. Keep those categories as relevant as you can as they can harm your local rankings

Image source: Screenshot by the author

Most importantly: Keep an eye on your Google’s reviews

Business reviews are known to be crucial for your local (and hence Local 3 Pack) rankings, so make sure to keep an eye on your reviews and reply to all of them.

Note that Google may remove your review if they find you have been using manipulative or misleading tactics when getting those reviews, for example:

  • If that review is repeated across other business profiles on other sites (which, by the way, can be quite natural… I’ll be the one to admit that I may leave my favorite business the same review on a few platforms I am registered at. But again, I think we are talking about suspicious patterns here rather than one-on-one cases)
  • If you had a massive influx of reviews overnight
  • If Google suspects that you and your team are reviewing your business pretending to be clients.

While you may notice your competitors implement these manipulative tactics without no obviously negative impact on their rankings, I’d still suggest avoiding these at all costs. 

You can invite your customers to review your business on Google through a short URL that’s specific to your local business (and even note that on your business card). But you are not allowed to request positive (five-star) reviews or segment your customer base to only invite happy customers to review you.

If you have a budget, investing in ads on Google maps is also a great idea. This could bring in more customers and reviews.

Step 2: Claim your business profile everywhere else

While claiming your business is generally a good idea to get better control over your branded content, it also gives you additional organic exposure because those listings may rank in organic search results and bring additional exposure.

Hence, your next step is identifying important local directories (like Trip Advisor and Yelp)and claiming your business everywhere.

Here’s a huge list of those you can consider.

Image source: The Ultimate Free Business Directory List for the USA – Updated 2020 

Just about any local business out there will need to ensure a strong Yelp presence, for example, so that one will always be on top of your list. Yelp marketing is tricky but if you start getting reviews there, there’s a way to display those reviews on your site to boost your conversions.

When putting your business on maps…

  • Make sure your business name and address is consistent across all channels, including the phone number format
  • Complete all available fields and use all available characters! More content generally means higher rankings for your listings!
  • Monitor your listings for reviews, add updates, ensure your info is up-to-date!

Step 3: Develop a hyperlocal content strategy

Similar to how foot traffic works for a local business (passers-by may check a store out of curiosity), a well-planned content marketing strategy can drive customers who never intended to buy anything or didn’t know they needed you.

  • Describe (location-driven) problems your business solves. For instance, a Seattle hairdresser publishes an article on haircuts that work well in the windy or rainy climate.
  • Address some problems that are common in your area. These work best when they are timed to a particular seasonal trend. For instance, a bakery in Albany publishes a checklist of foods to store at home to prepare for a snowstorm.

Here are a few ideas for hyperlocal content:

  • Ideas for local vacations and where your business can be of help
  • Local events and how your brand participates
  • Local partnerships like local charities

Take note of local People Also Ask results because those are great sources of hyperlocal content.

Image source: Screenshot by the author

Generally, answering local questions is a great idea! 

Let’s take a look at this search query: “how far is Central Park from Times Square” 

People searching for this may not necessarily be looking to buy anything but there are still some opportunities here as your content may give them ideas on where to dine or stay.

Image source: Screenshot by the author

The beauty of hyperlocal content marketing is that your clients don’t have to be in the area to find your content: They may be planning a trip to your area and discover your business prior to going. This is something local maps placement won’t be able to help with.

Using semantic search is another good way to come up with hyperlocal content ideas because it will help you identify location-based keywords that are able to generate organic traffic. Here’s how semantic search works:

Image source: Screenshot by the author

Conclusion

Organic search provides quite a few opportunities for local businesses to generate traffic and get found by customers. Keep an eye on your local listings and keep creating hyperlocal content to generate relevant traffic for your local business. Good luck!

Ann Smarty is the Founder of Viral Content Bee, Brand and Community manager at Internet Marketing Ninjas. She can be found on Twitter @seosmarty.

Subscribe to the Search Engine Watch newsletter for insights on SEO, the search landscape, search marketing, digital marketing, leadership, podcasts, and more.

Join the conversation with us on LinkedIn and Twitter.

The post Three organic search opportunities for your local business appeared first on Search Engine Watch.

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Twitter Super Follows has generated only around $6K+ in its first two weeks

September 19, 2021 No Comments

Twitter’s creator platform Super Follows is off to an inauspicious start, having contributed to somewhere around $ 6,000 in U.S. iOS revenue in the first two weeks the feature has been live, according to app intelligence data provided by Sensor Tower. And it’s made only around $ 600 or so in Canada. A small portion of that revenue may be attributed to Ticketed Spaces, Twitter’s other in-app purchase offered in the U.S. — but there’s no way for this portion to be calculated by an outside firm.

Twitter first announced its plans to launch Super Follows during its Analyst Day event in February, where the company detailed many of its upcoming initiatives to generate new revenue streams.

Today, Twitter’s business is highly dependent on advertising, and Super Follows is one of the few ways it’s aiming to diversify. The company is also now offering a way for creators to charge for access to their live events with Ticketed Spaces and, outside the U.S., Twitter has begun testing a premium product for power users, called Twitter Blue.

Image Credits: Twitter

But Super Follows, which targets creators, is the effort with the most potential appeal to mainstream users.

It’s also one that is working to capitalize on the growing creator economy, where content creators build a following, then generate revenue directly through subscriptions — decreasing their own dependence on ads or brand deals, as a result. The platforms they use for this business skim a little off the top to help them fund the development of the creator tools. (In Twitter’s case, it’s taking only a 3% cut.)

The feature would seem to make sense for Twitter, a platform that already allows high-profile figures and regular folks to hobnob in the same timeline and have conversations. Super Follows ups that access by letting fans get even closer to their favorite creators — whether those are musicians, artists, comedians, influencers, writers, gamers or other experts, for example. These creators can set a monthly subscription price of $ 2.99, $ 4.99 or $ 9.99 to provide fans with access to bonus, “behind-the-scenes” content of their choosing. These generally come in the form of extra tweets, Q&As and other interactions with subscribers.

Image Credits: Twitter

At launch, Twitter opened up Super Follows to a handful of creators, including the beauty and skincare-focused account @MakeupforWOC; astrology account @TarotByBronx; sports-focused @KingJosiah54; writer @myeshachou; internet personality and podcaster @MichaelaOkla; spiritual healer @kemimarie; music charts tweeter @chartdata; Twitch streamers @FaZeMew, @VelvetIsCake, @MackWood1, @GabeJRuiz and @Saulsrevenge; YouTubers @DoubleH_YT, @LxckTV and @PowerGotNow; and crypto traders @itsALLrisky and @moon_shine15; among others. Twitter says there are fewer than 100 creators in total who have access to Super Follows.

While access on the creation side is limited, the ability to subscribe to creators is not. Any Twitter iOS user in the U.S. or Canada can “Super Follow” any number of the supported creator accounts. In the U.S., Twitter has 37 million monetizable daily active users as of Q2 2021. Of course, only some subset of those will be iOS users.

Still, Twitter could easily count millions upon millions of “potential” customers for its Super Follow platform at launch. Its current revenue indicates that, possibly, only thousands of consumers have done so, given many of the top in-app purchases are for creators offering content at lower price points.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Sensor Tower notes Twitter’s $ 6,000 in U.S. consumer spending on iOS was calculated during the first two weeks of September (September 1-14). Before this period, U.S. iOS users spent only $ 100 from August 25 through 31 — a figure that would indicate user spending on Ticketed Spaces during that time. In other words, the contribution of Tickets Spaces revenue to this total of $ 6,000 in iOS consumer spending is likely quite small.

In Canada, the other market where Super Follow is now available to subscribers, Twitter’s iOS in-app purchase revenue from September 1 through September 14, was a negligible $ 600. (This would also include Twitter Blue subscription revenue, which is being tested in Canada and Australia.)

Worldwide, Twitter users on iOS spent $ 9,000 during that same time, which would include other Ticketed Spaces revenues and tests of its premium service, Twitter Blue. (Twitter’s Tip Jar, a way to pay creators directly, does not work through in-app purchases).

Unlike other Twitter products that developed by watching what users were already doing anyway — like using hashtags or retweeting content — many of Twitter’s newer features are attempts at redefining the use cases for its platform. In a massive rush of product pushes, Twitter has recently launched tools not just for creators, but also for e-commerce, organizing reading materials, subscribing to newsletters, socializing in communities, chatting through audio, fact-checking content, keeping up with trends, conversing more privately and more.

Twitter’s position on the slower start to Super Follows is that it’s still too early to make any determinations. While that’s fair, it’s also worth tracking adoption to see if the new product had seen any rapid, out-of-the-gate traction.

“This is just the start for Super Follows,” a Twitter spokesperson said, reached for comment about Sensor Tower’s figures. “Our main goal is focused on ensuring creators are set up for success and so we’re working closely with a small group of creators in this first iteration to ensure they have the best experience using Super Follows before we roll out more widely.”

The spokesperson also noted Twitter Super Follows had been set up to help creators make more money as it scales.

“With Super Follows, people are eligible to earn up to 97% of revenue after in-app purchase fees until they make $ 50,000 in lifetime earnings. After $ 50,000 in lifetime earnings, they can earn up to 80% of revenue after in-app purchase fees,” they said.

 

Correction, 9/16/21: Twitter mDAU was 37 million in the last quarter, not 169 million— the latter was the international figure. This has been updated. 


Social – TechCrunch


Facebook knows Instagram harms teens. Now, its plan to open the app to kids looks worse than ever

September 17, 2021 No Comments

Facebook is in the hot seat again.

The Wall Street Journal published a powerful multi-part series on the company this week, drawing from internal documents on everything from the company’s secretive practice of whitelisting celebrities to its knowledge that Instagram is taking a serious toll on the mental health of teen girls.

The flurry of investigative pieces makes it clear that what Facebook says in public doesn’t always reflect the company’s knowledge on known issues behind the scenes. The revelations still managed to shock even though Facebook has been playing dumb about the various social ills it has sown for years. (Remember when Mark Zuckerberg dismissed the notion that Facebook influenced the 2016 election as “crazy?”) Facebook’s longstanding PR playbook is to hide its dangers, denying knowledge of its darker impacts on society publicly, even as research spells them out internally.

That’s all well and good until someone gets ahold of the internal research.

One of the biggest revelations from the WSJ’s report: The company knows that Instagram poses serious dangers to mental health in teenage girls. An internal research slide from 2019 acknowledged that “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls” — a shocking admission for a company charging ahead with plans to expand to even younger and more vulnerable age groups.

As recently as May, Instagram’s Adam Mosseri dismissed concerns around the app’s negative impact on teens as “quite small.”

But internally, the picture told a different story. According to the WSJ, from 2019 to 2021, the company conducted a thorough deep dive into teen mental health, including online surveys, diary studies, focus groups and large-scale questionnaires.

According to one internal slide, the findings showed that 32% of teenage girls reported that Instagram made them have a worse body image. Of research participants who experienced suicidal thoughts, 13% of British teens and 6% of American teens directly linked their interest in killing themselves to Instagram.

“Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression,” another internal slide stated. “This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.”

Following the WSJ report, Senators Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) announced a probe into Facebook’s lack of transparency around internal research showing that Instagram poses serious and even lethal danger to teens. The Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security will launch the investigation.

“We are in touch with a Facebook whistleblower and will use every resource at our disposal to investigate what Facebook knew and when they knew it – including seeking further documents and pursuing witness testimony,” Senators Blackburn and Blumenthal wrote. “The Wall Street Journal’s blockbuster reporting may only be the tip of the iceberg.”

Blackburn and Blumenthal weren’t the only U.S. lawmakers alarmed by the new report. Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL), and Lori Trahan (D-MA) sent Facebook their own letter demanding that the company walk away from its plan to launch Instagram for kids. “Children and teens are uniquely vulnerable populations online, and these findings paint a clear and devastating picture of Instagram as an app that poses significant threats to young people’s wellbeing,” the lawmakers wrote.

In May, a group of 44 state attorneys general wrote to Instagram to encourage the company to abandon its plans to bring Instagram to kids under the age of 13. “It appears that Facebook is not responding to a need, but instead creating one, as this platform appeals primarily to children who otherwise do not or would not have an Instagram account,” the group of attorneys general wrote. They warned that an Instagram for kids would be “harmful for myriad reasons.”

In April, a collection of the same Democratic lawmakers expressed “serious concerns” about Instagram’s potential impact on the well-being of young users. That same month, a coalition of consumer advocacy organizations also demanded that the company reconsider launching a version of Instagram for kids.

According to the documents obtained by the WSJ, all of those concerns look extremely valid. In spite of extensive internal research and their deeply troubling findings, Facebook has downplayed its knowledge publicly, even as regulators regularly pressed the company for what it really knows.

Instagram’s Mosseri may have made matters worse Thursday when he made a less than flattering analogy between social media platforms and vehicles. “We know that more people die than would otherwise because of car accidents, but by and large, cars create way more value in the world than they destroy,” Mosseri told Peter Kafka on Recode’s media podcast. “And I think social media is similar.”

Mosseri dismissed any comparison between social media and drugs or cigarettes in spite of social media’s well-researched addictive effects, likening social platforms to the auto industry instead. Naturally, the company’s many critics jumped on the car comparison, pointing to their widespread lethality and the fact that the auto industry is heavily regulated — unlike social media.


Social – TechCrunch


The Future SEO: Boardroom edition

September 15, 2021 No Comments

30-second summary:

  • SEO’s dynamic nature and Google’s mysterious algorithm specifics keep the industry on its toes
  • Is it possible to simply spot the inefficiencies of SEO in its infancy and foresee trends?
  • With over 20 years of leadership roles, SEO pioneer Kris Jones taps into his experience to help SEOs derive more strategic value

Pretty much anytime we speak about something’s future, we’re doing something called extrapolating. By definition, extrapolating involves extending existing data or trends to assume the same procedure will continue in the future. It’s a form of the scientific method that we probably use every day in our own lives, quite reasonably, too: the summers will be hot, the downtown traffic will be bad at 9 AM, and the sun will rise tomorrow morning.

But how can we look into the future of something as complex and ever-changing as SEO? As with all cases of hindsight, we are clear on how SEO began and how it has transformed over time.

We see the inefficiencies of SEO in its infancy and how advancing search engines have altered the playing field.

The catch is this: how can we surmise about the future of SEO without having access to all the mysterious algorithm specifics that Google itself holds?

The answer is simple: we have to extrapolate.

I’ve seen SEO from the boardroom perspective for more than 20 years. I’ve seen the old days of keyword stuffing to the semi-modernization of the late 2000s to the absolute beast that Google has become now, in the 2020s.

Given that, where do I think SEO is going in the not-too-distant future? Here are some thoughts on that.

User intent will remain crucial

One aspect of SEO that is essential right now and will become only more vital as time goes on is user intent in search queries.

It’s an antiquated view to think that Google still cares much about exact-match keywords. Maybe 15 to 20 years ago, getting keywords exactly right in your content was a huge deal. Google matched queries to corresponding word strings in content and then served the best of that content to a user.

Today, trying to optimize for exact-match keywords is a futile effort, as Google now understands the intent behind every query, and it’s only going to get better at it as time goes by.

If you recall Google’s BERT update from late 2019, you’ll remember that this was the change that allowed Google to comprehend the context of each search query, or the meaning behind the words themselves. And the latest Multitask Unified Model (MUM) update adds further depth and dimensions to understanding search intent.

No longer does Google look only at the words “family attractions.” It knows that that query references children’s activities, fun activities, and events that are generally lighthearted and innocent.

And all of that came from two words. How did Google do it? Its consistent algorithm updates have allowed it to think like a human.

All of this is to say that user intent has to be part of your keyword and content strategy going forward when you’re doing SEO.

Produce more evergreen content

Sometimes, over the years, I have heard people mention that devising an effective content marketing strategy is difficult because as soon as a topic’s period of relevance is over, that content will never rank again. Use your data to analyze content performance and strike the right balance between content and formats. 

If you don’t know any more about this subject, you might be tempted to believe that. Maybe, at one time, you got a content piece entitled “Top Furniture Brands of 2019” to rank for the featured snippet. That makes sense. The post was probably a long listicle that described the best brands and linked out to the manufacturers’ websites or retail stores that carried those brands.

But maybe, as spring of 2019 transitioned into fall and winter, that post fell way down the rankings and now can’t be found anywhere anymore.

The reason is obvious: you haven’t made the content evergreen. The best furniture brands of 2019 may not be the best brands of 2020 or 2021 or 2022. So, what do you do? You put the work in to make the blog post evergreen by updating it. Go through and change out the best brands, change the content, change the post’s title, and then republish the post.

You can also just plain focus on subjects that will almost never need any updating at all:

  • “Top 20 Christmas cookies to bake this year”
  • “How to train a dog”
  • “10 Steps for Hanging Heavy Objects on the Wall”

Whether it’s 2021 or 2050 or 2100, there are going to be people who have never hung a thing on a wall before and will need some help online.

Whatever your market niche is, do some topic research in Answer the Public, Semrush, or BuzzSumo to find relevant subjects for you. You can also mine the SERPs to see what kinds of content are ranking already for your desired topics. Just remember to mix in plenty of evergreen content with your more timely content posts. Google will reward you for it.

Mobile will remain first

This final point is about mobile-first indexing, but you likely already know about that. It’s certainly no secret that Google is going to rank your website’s mobile version when it crawls your pages. About 60 percent of all searches are now performed on mobile devices, and so Google now prioritizes a site’s mobile web pages over the desktop versions.

As I said, you knew all that.

What some people still may not know is that Google’s new Core Web Vitals should be a major part of your mobile page optimizations.

The Core Web Vitals are primarily a web-dev task. Overall, the three vitals work together to give users positive, seamless experiences when they access a web page.

The vitals are Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS), Largest Contentful Paint (LCP), and First Input Delay (FID).

CLS refers to the amount of moving around that a web page’s content does before it actually loads fully.

If you have a high CLS, that’s bad. It means some elements are appearing before the page loads all the way, which increases the chances of a user clicking on something that then moves elsewhere. That, in turn, means the user will probably click on something unintended.

LCP, meanwhile, is the time it takes for a page’s content to appear. It specifically refers to the amount of time between when you click on a URL and when the majority of that URL’s content appears for you to see.

Finally, FID measures how long it takes users to be able to interact with a web page in any way. These actions could be typing in a field or clicking menu items.

Even if you don’t work in web development, you can see how useful these three measures actually are. They all take user experience into account, which, coincidentally, is why they are part of Google’s larger 2021 Page Experience update.

The Core Web Vitals are essential in and of themselves, but I think my “boardroom” perspective on them is one we can all safely adopt: that they are just examples of more great things to come from Google.

The search engine giant is always thinking of new ways to make users have better, more helpful, and more positive experiences on its platform. As SEOs, we need to be ready to respond so we don’t get left in the dust.

To know the future, look to the past

We know that extrapolation can be taken only so far, but that’s why the past is so vital to understand. It can give us hints at what lies ahead.

What will Google think of next? It’s going to respond to whatever need is out there for improved online search experiences.

Think of 2020, when the pandemic was in its infancy. People needed information, and Google responded. Within months, you could tell whether restaurants were requiring masks indoors, how many virus cases were in your county, and where you could go for more information or help.

What, then, is the future of SEO? It’s going to be whatever the masses need it to become.

Kris Jones is the founder and former CEO of digital marketing and affiliate network Pepperjam, which he sold to eBay Enterprises in 2009. Most recently Kris founded SEO services and software company LSEO.com and has previously invested in numerous successful technology companies. Kris is an experienced public speaker and is the author of one of the best-selling SEO books of all time called, ‘Search-Engine Optimization – Your Visual Blueprint to Effective Internet Marketing’, which has sold nearly 100,000 copies.

Subscribe to the Search Engine Watch newsletter for insights on SEO, the search landscape, search marketing, digital marketing, leadership, podcasts, and more.

Join the conversation with us on LinkedIn and Twitter.

The post The Future SEO: Boardroom edition appeared first on Search Engine Watch.

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Twitch sues two users for harassing streamers with hate raids

September 14, 2021 No Comments

Twitch filed a lawsuit late last week against two people on its own platform for running automated hate and harassment campaigns.

The harassment, often targeted at Black and LGBTQ streamers, manifests in a unique Twitch phenomenon as a “hate raid.” On Twitch, creators regularly point viewers toward another friendly account after their stream concludes to boost their audiences, a practice known as a “raid.” Hate raids invert that formula, sending swarms of bots to harass streamers who have inadequate tools at their disposal to block the influx of abuse.

The hate raids leverage Twitch’s new tagging system, which many transgender users had requested to make it easier to build community and to discover content that resonates. In May, Twitch added more than 350 new tags to help viewers sort streams by “gender, sexual orientation, race, nationality, ability, mental health, and more.” Accounts spreading abuse now use those tags to target racist, sexist, transphobic and homophobic harassment toward streamers, another unfortunate misuse of a tool explicitly designed to give creators a boost.

In the suit, Twitch described hate raiders as “highly motivated” malicious individuals who improvise new ways to circumvent the platform’s terms of service. Twitch named two users, “CruzzControl” and “CreatineOverdose,” in the suit but the company was unable to obtain their legal names. The users are based in the Netherlands and Austria, respectively, and their activity began in August of this year. Twitch alleges that CruzzControl alone has been linked to 3,000 bot accounts involved in hate raids.

While it’s possible that Twitch won’t be able to identify the real identities of individuals behind the recent harassment campaigns, the lawsuit could act as a deterrent for other accounts directing waves of abuse on the streaming platform.

“While we have identified and banned thousands of accounts over the past weeks, these actors continue to work hard on creative ways to circumvent our improvements, and show no intention of stopping,” the lawsuit reads. “We hope this Complaint will shed light on the identity of the individuals behind these attacks and the tools that they exploit, dissuade them from taking similar behaviors to other services, and help put an end to these vile attacks against members of our community.”

“This Complaint is by no means the only action we’ve taken to address targeted attacks, nor will it be the last,” a Twitch spokesperson told TechCrunch. “Our teams have been working around the clock to update our proactive detection systems, address new behaviors as they emerge, and finalize new proactive, channel-level safety tools that we’ve been developing for months.”

Prior to Twitch’s legal action, some Twitch creators organized #ADayOffTwitch to protest the company’s failure to offer solutions for users targeted by hate raids. People participating in the protest demanded that Twitch take decisive actions toward protecting streamers from hate raids, including letting creators deny incoming raids and screen out chat participants with newly made accounts. They also drew attention to Twitch policies that allow unlimited accounts to be linked to a single email address, a loophole that makes it easy to create and deploy armies of bot accounts.


Social – TechCrunch


WhatsApp will finally let users encrypt their chat backups in the cloud

September 12, 2021 No Comments

WhatsApp said on Friday it will give its two billion users the option to encrypt their chat backups to the cloud, taking a significant step to put a lid on one of the tricky ways private communication between individuals on the app can be compromised.

The Facebook-owned service has end-to-end encrypted chats between users for more than a decade. But users have had no option but to store their chat backup to their cloud — iCloud on iPhones and Google Drive on Android — in an unencrypted format.

Tapping these unencrypted WhatsApp chat backups on Google and Apple servers is one of the widely known ways law enforcement agencies across the globe have for years been able to access WhatsApp chats of suspect individuals.

Now WhatsApp says it is patching this weak link in the system.

“WhatsApp is the first global messaging service at this scale to offer end-to-end encrypted messaging and backups, and getting there was a really hard technical challenge that required an entirely new framework for key storage and cloud storage across operating systems,” said Facebook’s chief executive Mark Zuckerberg in a post announcing the new feature.

Store your own encryption keys

The company said it has devised a system to enable WhatsApp users on Android and iOS to lock their chat backups with encryption keys. WhatsApp says it will offer users two ways to encrypt their cloud backups, and the feature is optional.

In the “coming weeks,” users on WhatsApp will see an option to generate a 64-digit encryption key to lock their chat backups in the cloud. Users can store the encryption key offline or in a password manager of their choice, or they can create a password that backs up their encryption key in a cloud-based “backup key vault” that WhatsApp has developed. The cloud-stored encryption key can’t be used without the user’s password, which isn’t known by WhatsApp.

Image Credits: WhatsApp/supplied

“We know that some will prefer the 64-digit encryption key whereas others want something they can easily remember, so we will be including both options. Once a user sets their backup password, it is not known to us. They can reset it on their original device if they forget it,” WhatsApp said.

“For the 64-digit key, we will notify users multiple times when they sign up for end-to-end encrypted backups that if they lose their 64-digit key, we will not be able to restore their backup and that they should write it down. Before the setup is complete, we’ll ask users to affirm that they’ve saved their password or 64-digit encryption key.”

A WhatsApp spokesperson told TechCrunch that once an encrypted backup is created, previous copies of the backup will be deleted. “This will happen automatically and there is no action that a user will need to take,” the spokesperson added.

Potential regulatory pushback?

The move to introduce this added layer of privacy is significant and one that could have far-reaching implications.

End-to-end encryption remains a thorny topic of discussion as governments continue to lobby for backdoors. Apple was reportedly pressured to not add encryption to iCloud Backups after the FBI complained, and while Google has offered users the ability to encrypt their data stored in Google Drive, the company allegedly didn’t tell governments before it rolled out the feature.

When asked by TechCrunch whether WhatsApp, or its parent firm Facebook, had consulted with government bodies — or if it had received their support — during the development process of this feature, the company declined to discuss any such conversations.

“People’s messages are deeply personal and as we live more of our lives online, we believe companies should enhance the security they provide their users. By releasing this feature, we are providing our users with the option to add this additional layer of security for their backups if they’d like to, and we’re excited to give our users a meaningful advancement in the safety of their personal messages,” the company told TechCrunch.

WhatsApp also confirmed that it will be rolling out this optional feature in every market where its app is operational. It’s not uncommon for companies to withhold privacy features for legal and regulatory reasons. Apple’s upcoming encrypted browsing feature, for instance, won’t be made available to users in certain authoritarian regimes, such as China, Belarus, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, Uganda and the Philippines.

At any rate, Friday’s announcement comes days after ProPublica reported that private end-to-end encrypted conversations between two users can be read by human contractors when messages are reported by users.

“Making backups fully encrypted is really hard and it’s particularly hard to make it reliable and simple enough for people to use. No other messaging service at this scale has done this and provided this level of security for people’s messages,” Uzma Barlaskar, product lead for privacy at WhatsApp, told TechCrunch.

“We’ve been working on this problem for many years, and to build this, we had to develop an entirely new framework for key storage and cloud storage that can be used across the world’s largest operating systems and that took time.”


Social – TechCrunch


Twitter introduces a new label that allows the ‘good bots’ to identify themselves

September 10, 2021 No Comments

Twitter today is introducing a new feature that will allow accounts to self-identify as bots by adding a label to their profile. This feature is designed to help people better differentiate between automated accounts — like bots that retweet the news, public service announcements or other updates — from those operated by humans. It’s not, however, designed to help users identify the “bad bots,” which are those that pose as people, often to spread misinformation or spam.

The company has been contemplating labeling bots for years.

In 2018, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was asked during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing whether he believed users had a “right to know” if they were speaking to a bot or a human on Twitter’s platform. He agreed that Twitter should add more context to tweets and was considering identifying bots, to the extent that it could. However, Dorsey also pointed out it would be more difficult to identify bots that were using scripting to give the appearance of being a human, compared with those that were leveraging Twitter’s API.

Last year, the company finally solidified those plans, saying it would later introduce new features that would allow users to be able to distinguish between human-run accounts and those that were automated. When Twitter launched its account verification system in May, it reminded users that it would soon offer other ways to identify different types of accounts beyond the long-coveted blue badge — such as labels for bots.

Image Credits: Twitter

Today, Twitter says its new “Automated Account” label that identifies “good bots” will be made available to over 500 Developer Accounts. This group will test the feature and provide feedback before it’s opened up more broadly to all Twitter developers. As it’s still a test for the time being, the label won’t be required.

However, when Twitter updated its Developer Policy last year, it did ask developers to indicate in their account profile or bio whether the account was a bot, what the account is and who’s behind it. These account labels would allow developers an easier way to comply with that policy rather than having to handwrite this information in their bio.

Twitter tells TechCrunch that based on what it learns during this experiment, it may decide to make adopting the label a requirement for all developers who run automated accounts in the future, once it becomes broadly available.

Image Credits: Twitter

To be clear, Twitter doesn’t have any problem with those who run good bots, as it understands how automation can allow accounts to update people with helpful, relevant or, sometimes, just fun information. The company even celebrated a few of its favorite bots when announcing today’s developer news, including the public service account @earthquakesSF; a bot offering COVID-19 updates, @vax_progress; a bot that offers an ongoing breakdown of the last 100 bills introduced in Congress, @last100bills; an accessibility-focused bot, @AltTxtReminder; and others that just add value in their own way, like @met_drawings, which shares public domain works from The Met’s Drawings & Prints department, or the goofy @EmojiMashupBot, among others.

All these will be a part of the initial test group.

Twitter is also less concerned with how consumers may use automation to update their own accounts, perhaps by using third-party tools like IFTTT to post links or other content.

“You are ultimately responsible for the actions taken with your account, or by applications associated with your account,” Twitter’s policy advises Twitter users. “Before authorizing a third-party application to access or use your account, make sure you’ve thoroughly investigated the application and understand what it will do.” It also adds that Twitter users that adopt automation will still need to adhere to Twitter’s guidelines.

The company has been on a tear lately in terms of rolling out new features. Just this week, it has launched Communities, tests of emoji reactions, support for full-width photos and videos and a way to “soft block” followers, among other things.

Twitter has not said how long the test would run before the Automated Account labels are rolled out more broadly.


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Twitter wants you to tweet to interest-based communities, not just followers

September 8, 2021 No Comments

Twitter is a useful place for following breaking news and keeping up with what the people you’re already interested in are doing, but its relative dearth of discovery features and a lack of organized community spaces make it pretty hard to connect with anyone you aren’t actively seeking out.

The company is thinking about changing that. Twitter is on a tear with new features lately and its latest experiment, called Communities, is designed to make it easier to connect around shared interests. Users will be able to join these new social hubs and tweet directly to other people with shared interests rather than their regular group of followers. Those tweets will still be public, but replies will be limited to other community members.

Communities will be user generated, though Twitter says that will be “limited,” for now, so most people will have to wait a few months before starting their own groups. The earliest Communities will center around popular and generally benign topics on Twitter including “dogs, weather, sneakers, skincare, and astrology.” Twitter’s example images also include cryptocurrency, plants and Black women photographers.

The test begins Wednesday and will show up in a dedicated spot at the bottom of the iOS app or in the side menu on Twitter.com. Twitter says that Android users will be able to read Community tweets too, though “more functionality” is on the way soon — presumably a dedicated app tab and the ability to join and participate in the new groups.

Communities will be created and maintained by designated moderators, who will have the ability to invite other users to the group via DM and remove content posted within the group. Initially invites will be the only way into a Community, but it sounds like Twitter has some grand plans for discovery features that make it easier for people to find places they might want to hang out.

“Some conversations aren’t for everyone, just the people who want to talk about the thing you want to talk about,” Twitter Staff Product Manager David Regan wrote in a blog post announcing the feature. ” … We want to continue to support public conversation and help people find Communities that match their interests, while also creating a more intimate space for conversation.”

With any user-driven community space on social media — particularly one where algorithmic discovery factors in — moderation is the big concern. Twitter says that anyone will be able to read, report and quote content posted in a Community, so you don’t have to be a member of a community to flag harmful content like you would in a private Facebook group. Twitter says that it is working on “new reporting flows, and bespoke enforcement actions” to proactively identify problem Communities.

The introduction of Communities pairs well with Twitter’s recent efforts to court creator communities. The company rolled out Super Follows, its paid subscription tool, earlier this month and also recently invited some users to sell tickets for audio rooms with Ticketed Spaces. It’s also testing one-time payments with a feature called Tip Jar that’s currently only available for a subset of accounts.

Communities are a pretty big departure for Twitter, which is obviously in the throes of reimagining the platform as a more dynamic place for community building. By carving out substantial space for subcommunities on Twitter, the company seems to be inching in the direction of a platform like Discord or Reddit, where everything revolves around self-moderating interest-based communities. Those platforms grapple with their own moderation headaches, but specific, interest-driven communities invite users to go deep in a way that makes interactions on Twitter look shallow by comparison.

The introduction of Communities is an interesting direction for a prominent social network that’s remained largely unchanged for more than a decade at this point. If the test sticks, Communities could build connective tissue between users and make the social network generally a more dynamic place to hang out — but that’s only possible if Twitter can strike the right balance between encouraging its newly imagined subcommunities to grow and keeping them safe.


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Twitter is testing a new anti-abuse feature called ‘Safety Mode’

September 7, 2021 No Comments

Twitter’s newest test could provide some long-awaited relief for anyone facing harassment on the platform.

The new product test introduces a feature called “Safety Mode” that puts up a temporary line of defense between an account and the waves of toxic invective that Twitter is notorious for. The mode can be enabled from the settings menu, which toggles on an algorithmic screening process that filters out potential abuse that lasts for seven days.

“Our goal is to better protect the individual on the receiving end of Tweets by reducing the prevalence and visibility of harmful remarks,” Twitter Product Lead Jarrod Doherty said.

Image Credits: Twitter

Safe Mode won’t be rolling out broadly — not yet, anyway. The new feature will first be available to what Twitter describes as a “small feedback group” of about 1,000 English language users.

In deciding what to screen out, Twitter’s algorithmic approach assesses a tweet’s content — hateful language, repetitive, unreciprocated mentions — as well as the relationship between an account and the accounts replying. The company notes that accounts you follow or regularly exchange tweets with won’t be subject to the blocking features in Safe Mode.

For anyone in the test group, Safety Mode can be toggled on in the privacy and safety options. Once enabled, an account will stay in the mode for the next seven days. After the seven-day period expires, it can be activated again.

In crafting the new feature, Twitter says it spoke with experts in mental health, online safety and human rights. The partners Twitter consulted with were able to contribute to the initial test group by nominating accounts that might benefit from the feature, and the company hopes to focus on female journalists and marginalized communities in its test of the new product. Twitter says that it will start reaching out to accounts that meet the criteria of the test group — namely accounts that often find themselves on the receiving end of some of the platform’s worst impulses.

Earlier this year, Twitter announced that it was working on developing new anti-abuse features, including an option to let users “unmention” themselves from tagged threads and a way for users to prevent serial harassers from mentioning them moving forward. The company also hinted at a feature like Safety Mode that could give users a way to defuse situations during periods of escalating abuse.

Being “harassed off of Twitter” is, unfortunately, not that uncommon. When hate and abuse get bad enough, people tend to abandon Twitter altogether, taking extended breaks or leaving outright. That’s obviously not great for the company either, and while it’s been slow to offer real solutions to harassment, it’s obviously aware of the problem and working toward some possible solutions.


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Voice chat is coming to Roblox

September 5, 2021 No Comments

As one of the frontrunners in the race to build the metaverse, Roblox is thinking ahead to what virtual worlds really need. And while the platform has had no shortage of growth on its current path — as of July, it boasted 47 million daily active users — it’s looking to chart a course toward deeper, richer virtual experiences that will keep people coming back for years to come.

To that end, Roblox is taking careful but decisive steps toward weaving voice chat into the platform’s core experience. The first move: inviting a group of trusted developers to explore how they can integrate proximity-based audio into the wildly popular experiences that beat at the heart of the platform — from chill, vaporwavey vibe games to pulling off kickflips in a Vans-sponsored skate park.

With spatial audio, users will be able to speak with other people nearby through live voice chat. Roblox sees its new voice product as a natural extension of the way that text chat works now, but instead of text bubbles that pop up over an avatar’s head, visible to anybody around them, players will be able to talk naturally to the other people they bump into.

Say you’re hanging out in a virtual skatepark in Roblox with spatial audio enabled: skaters in the half pipe with you would sound loud and clear, just like they would in real life. But you wouldn’t be able to hear someone walking around on the sidewalk across the street, since they’re too far away. To have a private conversation with a nearby friend, you might peel off and walk toward a store down the block.

“As we think about the future of communication in the metaverse, we think that it needs to be very natural and feel very similar to the way we communicate in the real world,” Roblox Chief Product Officer Manuel Bronstein told TechCrunch in an interview. “But it also can transcend, some of the limitations that physics and space create in the real world.”

Bronstein joined the company in March, leaving Google to help realize Roblox’s particular vision for the metaverse. Prior to hopping over to Roblox, Bronstein worked on product teams at Zynga, Xbox and YouTube — three very different companies that are probably equal parts relevant to his current work.

“If you think about the metaverse as the next incarnation of where you know I could go shopping or I could go to a concert, I could go to school, I think that you need to be relevant to everybody in society and you need to both build the content, the rules, the features that support all of those behaviors,” Bronstein said. “And part of bringing voice to the platform is to ensure that our older audiences have a natural way to communicate.”

Voice chat is very much on the way to Roblox, but that doesn’t mean it will appear overnight — and that’s by design. The company is inviting an initial group of 5,000 developers, all 13 and older, to try out the new spatial voice chat capabilities in a custom-built Roblox community space.

“We’ve put a bunch of neat features in there and places for them to chat and hang out and they’re going to be able to learn from the code that we wrote for that community space… So a few weeks later or a month later they can put that into their experiences and turn it on,” Bronstein said.

Bronstein emphasizes that Roblox will take this process slowly, building new moderation and safety tools in parallel as it goes. The voice rollout will go slowly, starting with the chosen circle of developers and gradually expanding out from there as the company feels confident that it can create a safe enough environment with its moderation tools.

“I think we want to take it slowly and we want to learn as we go through it,” Bronstein said. “We may start, as I mentioned, with the developers. It is likely that right after that, we may go to an audience that is 13+ and park there for a while until we understand exactly if all the pieces are falling into place before deciding if we ever open it to a younger audience.”

To moderate its sprawl of virtual worlds, Roblox uses a blend of automated scanning and a 3,000-person safety team of human reviewers. Like in any social network, players can report, block and mute other players to make their own experiences feel more comfortable. And because half of its player base is under 13, Roblox gives parents options on what kinds of age-appropriate experiences to allow and toggles for things like text chat. If voice chat ever makes its way to younger age groups, parents would be able to disable it altogether.

Roblox’s under-13 crowd comprises a massive chunk of its user base, but a surprising number of older kids and young adults hang out there too. According to the company, 50% of its users are over the age of 13 and it’s seeing the most explosive user growth among 17- to 24-year-olds. Roblox is attracting new users, but its core users are also growing up and the company knows it needs to grow alongside them.

Whether voice chat ever rolls out for younger users or not, Roblox seems well aware that keeping a virtual environment with voice chat feeling safe and friendly is a steep challenge. The company plans to rely on user-initiated reporting as voice rolls out and it’s exploring other tools that could bolster those efforts. The company is looking at a few different tools, including automatically recording a snippet of conversation just prior to a user being reported as a way to capture bad behavior for reviewers. It’s also interested in expanding reputation systems that automatically restrict users who have a certain number of strikes against them.

Much like any social platform, Roblox will likely lean heavily on user reporting, which disproportionately shifts the burden to users on the receiving end of hate and harassment — an unfortunate outcome that no social company has properly dedicated the human resources to solving.

Next on the voice roadmap

Bronstein describes spatial audio as “one component” of Roblox’s vision for natural communication. The next step is integrating a voice chat experience that’s persistent across experiences, letting users who know each other hang out even when they aren’t doing the same thing. For anyone who paid attention to the company’s quiet acquisition of a company called Guilded last month, that won’t come as a surprise. Though Roblox’s work on voice pre-dates the acquisition, Guilded will lay the groundwork for Roblox’s future voice plans.

A Discord competitor, Guilded similarly built out a chat platform for gamers, doubling down on the competitive gaming scene where Discord expanded its horizons beyond gaming. Beyond group voice chat, Guilded gives gamers built-in scheduling and community management tools that ease the hassle of organizing complex online social events, like wrangling 20-some-odd gamers to run raids in World of Warcraft.

“In the near term, Guilded has an amazing road map, we want to just continue with that road map and grow it without any hardcore integration at this point,” Bronstein said.

Into the metaverse

Moderation challenges aside, there’s basically nothing in Roblox’s way. The company went public in March and today it’s worth $ 49 billion, making it easily one of the most valuable companies in gaming. Investors, content creators and tech giants alike are going all-in on the metaverse, and really, it looks like a pretty safe bet.

Metaverse is a buzzy term right now, but it’s more shorthand than empty hype. When people talk about the metaverse, they generally want to evoke a futuristic vision of interconnected virtual worlds — online spaces that we can move through, socialize and shop within (for better or worse, that last part is key). Whether this will all be in virtual reality or not and when is a point of some debate, but really the interconnected part is the bigger challenge. In the app age, software was siloed by design. But to realize the promise of the metaverse, our virtual selves and our virtual stuff will need to be able to move through online worlds fluidly.

A few companies are ahead of the curve on this, and it’s no coincidence that two of the big ones, Roblox and Fortnite-maker Epic — best known for their virtual worlds stocked with custom avatars, in-game economies and a seamless social layer — are elevating user-created content. Those experiences, and the ability to easily hang out with friends while doing stuff in them and elsewhere in virtual space, may wind up being what the metaverse is all about.

Most adults can hardly grasp the appeal of the blocky, suburban worlds that their kids love hanging out in, but Roblox understands something fundamental about where online life is going. Or rather where we’ll all going — into online worlds like Roblox.

 


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