Search Engine Round-up: Subterfuge, Spam & Swings

February 15, 2011 by  
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So we’re only half way through the second month of the year, and already things are heating up in the search engine battle between Bing and Google.

Firstly, Danny Sullivan broke the story that Google was accusing Bing of copying their search results.

For a full, detailed explanation I suggest you read the story here at Search Engine Land, but the basics are this – Google became suspicious that Bing was copying when the top results for some searches were the same even for misspellings and unusual search terms. So they sprang a trap…(!)

Yes, like something out of a Robert Ludlum novel*, Google manipulated their results for nonsense words such as ‘mbzrxpgjys’ and ‘hiybbprqag’, so that a particular honey pot page would show at the top of the search results. When these exact same pages showed up #1 on Bing too, Google had their confirmation.

(*If instead of writing books about kick-ass spies who look like Matt Damon, Ludlum actually wrote about the rather more dull topic of search engine positioning. Which seems unlikely, frankly.)

Once the story broke, Bing explained their side. Yes, the results were the same, they admitted, but because they were watching their users who have the IE toolbar turned on, and that influences the results people see. They were not copying Google.

Instead Bing turned the tables on Google, claiming the whole thing was an attempt to throw up a smokescreen* to avoid the fact that their search results are plagued with spam.

(*See? That’s totally something Jason Bourne would do.)

Which brings us to the second part of this month’s search engine news – Google’s latest attempt to find a way to block spam, particularly from content farms, such as those of Demand Media.

The plan is for a Chrome plugin which will allow users to block certain sites, while sending Google data about those sites so that they can analyze them and use that information to adjust the rankings accordingly.

Will it work? I’m skeptical. The amount of spam out there is tremendous, dwarfing the number of users who will a) use Chrome, b) also have the extension installed and c) use it regularly. However, I couldn’t be happier that at least Google is trying to do something about this mess.

Finally, the latest search engine stats were just released for January and show a 2% point swing from Google to Bing. A blip or a trend? What do you think?

Social Networks and Search – Two Great Tastes that Taste Great Together

December 14, 2010 by  
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As we come to the very cold end of another year, it seems like 2010 could be remembered as the year that the social web and search began to properly work together.
Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land has a great post with authorative answers from both Bing and Google about how they are integrating social signals from Twitter and Facebook in to their search engine ranking factors.
While you really should read the whole thing, highlights inlcude:
  • Both Bing & Google do use retweets and Facebook posts as a ranking factor
  • They both calculate the authority of the tweeter/poster, and give more/less weight depending
  • Publicly available links on Facebook are tracked by both search engines
This is great stuff, and something we have been anticpating/suspecting for a while now, but it does raise some interesting questions.
For instance, how do they calculate ‘authority’? It’s not likely that it’s simply the sheer number of followers/friends, or the system would be overrun with spammers in no time. More likely it will be a more complex algorithm which takes in to account the ratio of followers to following, the number of times you are mentioned, how active you are, length of time on the network, and so on.
We also don’t know to what extent these social signals affect the rankings. Google has over 200 criteria which go in to ranking a site (PageRank, title tags, alt tags, etc), and these social signals are just one of these many, many different aspects. Don’t expect your site to suddenly jump to #1 because you’ve been retweeted a couple of times.
That said, it is good to have official confirmation of what we have thought for a while, that the social web isn’t in competition with the search side of things, but in fact both should all be considered part of your whole online strategy.

Bing & Facebook, Sitting in a Tree…

November 15, 2010 by  
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Well it’s all been go, go, go with Facebook recently – the ongoing battle with Google over your contact list, copying Gmail/incorporating email (depending on your bias), opening a new $450 million data center in NC – but for me, one of the most intriguing developments is the Bing search integration.
The announcement, over at the Bing blog, covers all the ins and outs, but the main part that will affect the everyday user are the social features such as enhanced profile searches and sharing your Facebook information while searching Bing.
Firstly, in light of all the privacy criticism, it should be pointed out that these new features are all opt-in. This is what the experts term A Good Thing. Secondly, I think this is a potential first step towards greater personalization of search results and a widening of social search.
Bing is trying to improve search results with information from Facebook ‘likes’. Which makes sense. If I do a search for ‘New York hotels’, for instance, Bing should be able to enhance the standard results with the hotels which any of my Facebook friends have liked. And with no disrespect to Microsoft, I’m much more likely to be influenced by what my friends and family suggest than what Bing does.
Of course Google has been trying to incorporate “results from people in your social circle” for a while now, but with Facebook being far and away the biggest social network (at least in the USA), the potential for Bing is that much greater.
So what do you think? Will Bing be able to steal a march here and claw back some search share? Will you be willing to share your Facebook info with Microsoft? Does the whole thing sounds a bit Big Brother-esque to you? Let us know!

Google Instant – One Month In

October 12, 2010 by  
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I’m sure by now you’ve seen Google Instant, the latest change to the Google search page, which actually updates results as you type in the query, as it has been live for around a month now.

After the initial announcement came the usual flurry of excitement that accompanies every new Google launch. There were the predictable naysayers (from those not involved in SEO) that it meant the death of SEO. Which, by my calculations means SEO has about 42 times as many lives as a cat. The usual suspects, Matt Cutts (of Google) and Danny Sullivan (of Search Engine Land) explain why this is not the case. SEO is still alive and well, much to the chagrin of many a new media expert.

But for me, the bigger change is not so much in the way the search is delivered – Instant is really just an extention of the Search Suggest function – but the increasingly important role of personalization in results.

What this means is that Google is trying to give you more and more the kind of thing they think you will like to see. For instance, John Smith searches for ‘new york hotels’ and clicks on the websites for the Marriott, the Chelsea Hotel, the Hudson Hotel, etc, while Jane Brown searches for ‘new york hotels’ and clicks on the websites for Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz. So Google learns about what each of them prefers, and tries to tailor the results in future to more closely match what John or Jane like.

Similarly, if you search for ‘zoo’ in San Diego, and you may see San Diego zoo as #1, but travel to Jacksonville and you’ll see it change to Jacksonville zoo. Do a lot of gourmet/food searches, and then search for java and you’ll see coffee sites, but if you search for coding and programming things and search for java you’ll see sites about the Java programming language.

We’ve talked before on here about the incredible wealth of data that Google has. And if you think of Google keeping a record of every search you’ve ever made, and multiply that by the billions of other searches done each month, you can see how the picture they build up of the best search results becomes much clearer.

Of course personalization didn’t begin last month, it’s been an ongoing process for a couple of years now, but it is more and more a factor which needs to be taken in to account. There is no longer a top 10 of search results which should really be considered authorative or definititive. Everyone’s search results will be different, and growing more different as Google tweaks and improves, so we can no longer say you are #3 for this phrase or #1 for for that one.

Instead, we suggest measuring the success of the search engine campaigns by looking more closely at the amount and quality of the search engine traffic. How many visitors came from the search engines? How many pages did they look at? How long did they stay on the site? What was the bounce rate? Did they buy/sign up for the newsletter/request more information? And so on, and so on.

One month in, I have to say we’re very happy comparing the results for our clients against the quality of traffic they were receiving this time last year. In almost every case, the important benchmarks have shown an improvement, which is what we would have thought – because of course the flipside of Google improving the relevancy of their search results is better, more qualified people arriving at the websites.

We have always said that in theory SEO should be win-win-win. If you are looking for a Charleston hotel, Google helps you find that hotel and the hotel gets the business. Everyone is happy. Hopefully this latest update to the process proves to be just another step along that same path.

Google Instant – the Bob Dylan version

Orwell vs Social Media

August 3, 2010 by  
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George Orwell“Modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.”
George Orwell – Politics and the English Language

(Opening a blog post with an Orwell quote? Pretentious, moi?! Well, I suppose, perhaps, but stick with me, there’s some swearing coming up.)

I’m not a great writer. I understand that. The vast majority of people writing blogs are not great writers, and that’s perfectly fine. But what really irks me are those blog writers who, rather than attempt to write clearly, deliberately write in that buzzword-heavy, cliche-ridden, business speak that is so prevalent on corporate blogs.

And especially on social media blogs.

In the essay quoted above, Orwell rewrites a well know verse from Ecclesiastes in modern English, so that:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.


Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

The point being that bad writing is not only uglier, but also more vague.

If Steve Rubel writes in AdAge that people “engage with a unit of media” he hasn’t done anything to help clarify what he is trying to say. It has a ring of scientific evaluation, but in fact it divorces the meaning from the words in order to suggest that there is a Great Big Idea hidden behind them. But he actually just means “read a book or watch a movie”.

Language like this doesn’t express new ideas. It can’t. The use of stock-phrases keeps us locked into patterns of thinking like a train unable to move from its tracks. I had someone DM me on Twitter that they were following me “because they found my content compelling”. That wasn’t a phrase they conjured up themselves, it was a phrase they had learned. A bad habit. A cliche designed to suggest a more rigourous thought than simply saying “I like what you say”. The irony* is, it has the opposite effect.

Nothing makes your content less compelling than using words like ‘compelling content’.

(*that is irony, right? Since I learned that Alanis Morissette was all wrong about what irony is I get so confused)

Now I understand that this isn’t a new thought either, but it has been on my mind lately. And then I came across this site yesterday - What the F#&* is My Social Media “Strategy”? (See? I told you there was going to be swearing).

Inspired by ‘What the F#&* Should I Make for Dinner?‘, WTFIMSMS parodies the social media world’s art of saying nothing in as complicated a way as possible, by giving you a random nonsense sentence to sum up your goals. For instance, I just clicked and got:

Activate audience by giving them compelling social experiences, encouraging advocacy

Great stuff! So I thought we could play a wee game here. Which of the following are from WTFIMSMS, and which are from actual Social Media/Marketing professionals. Ready?

“Humanise the brand by driving the audience conversations”

“(Help) to humanize the interaction with our community while maintaining brand identity and growing a centralized community.”

“Convert every one of your store associates into well-informed product experts by providing an interactive, course-based social platform/community that educates, engages, and rewards them, while showing them how they stack up against their co-workers.”

“(create) user-centric approach to social media design, implementation, and strategy that accounts for how different kinds of users engage with social media, and how sites and application design and execution lead to emergent social practices.”

OK, you get the idea. Obviously (?) the first is from WTFIMSMS, while the others are real. You get the point.

I’m sure there is plenty of hypocricy in me writing this. I’m sure there have been times when I’ve been as guilty as the worst offender. I honestly don’t mean to attack anyone in particular here. I just think it’s about time that we all slowed down a little and thought about what we are really trying to say, and how we can best do that.

And if that means quoting Orwell and getting all pretentious up in here, well, then that’s just what I’ll have to do.

Google Now Taking on Facebook

February 9, 2010 by  
Filed under All, social media

“It is our intention to make this a model for how open a social site should be”

Google is previewing their new Buzz feature as I write this:

And they couldn’t be any more clear that this is a direct challenge to Facebook. With the ability to share photos, geo-tag posts, see who’s near you and more.

It’s no secret that Google would love some of the attention that Facebook is getting on the web. Christmas Day 09 actually saw Facebook pass Google as the most visited site in the world.  And while Google’s own Orkut social site has been a terrible flop (outside of Brazil at least), they have been stealthily building all the blocks of a Facebook competitor piece by piece.

In fact, it’s only the tying together of these various strands which is holding them back. Consider these Google products working in conjunction:
Google Profile
Google Chat
Picasa for photos
Youtube for videos
Reader for articles

and you have the basics of a Facebook-like service already.

And it goes without saying that there are other features which can be tied into these, sharing custom maps, reviewing product pages, the FourSquare-like features of the new Google Buzz, NearMeNow on the iPhone/Droid, etc, etc.

So will it work?

I think it will. Buzz will start rolling out to Gmail users within the hour, and judging by the buzz (sorry) on Twitter, there’s a huge amount of interest already:

APIs will be available, and public info will be provided as XML feeds. Anything public will indexed immediately by Google’s real time search. There is a lot of stuff here, even speculation about using Google Voice conversations as part of the Buzz. They have put a lot of thought into spam fighting (and I must say, Gmail spam fighting is great for me). Buzz seems to offer a huge amount of potential, especially if you consider the built in user-base Gmail has.

However, with @replies to tag people, the ability to ‘like’ or comment on posts, photos and updates, many may see this as too close to Facebook to be worthwhile.

So, what do you think? Can Google finally make a success of their social strategy, or is it too similar, too late?

Google Takes on Yelp

January 11, 2010 by  
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Google has never shied away from taking on other companies. Since inception, when Google supplied the search results for Yahoo, and then turned around and beat Yahoo at its own game, through the ‘email wars‘ with Yahoo and Microsoft, to taking on Apple with its own phone(s).

And I think we can now add Yelp to the list.

It was widely reported that last month Yelp wallked away from a Google buy out, an almost done deal worth $550+million. Google seems to have responsed to this snub by stepping up the quality of its own local Place Pages.

I’ve mentioned Google Local pages on here before, but as with all things Google, they never stay still for very long. Besides the existing features, such as photos, maps, coupons and hours, Google has introduced their own ranking system, with rankings based on aggregating comments on sites such as TripAdvisor, Kudzu and Igougo.

For instance, here’s the page for one of our clients in Charleston, Circa 1886 restaurant. Under the heading ‘What people are saying about’ you can read the comments, divided up into categories,  service, meal, staff, atmosphere and wine list, alongside a colored bar similar to the PageRank bar:

(click to enlarge)

and selecting one of the topics will show you more details and comments about that aspect.

More worryingly for Yelp, NextStop and others, Google has also released an iPhone/Android app (with good reviews), Near Me Now, which allows users to see what is nearby, and pulls inthe Place Pages data too.

Of course, Google has had its own notable failures too – Paypal is still a lot more popular than Google Checkout, Orkut has quiet some way to go to dethrone Facebook as King of the Internet, and Craigslist/Ebay are still casting a snooty eye over the upstart that is Google Base.

So what do you think? Has Google made a useful product? Is this it for Yelp? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

Twitter to Challenge Google for Search (no, really!)

May 11, 2009 by  
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twitterFinally, some big news about Twitter which doesn’t involve the company being bought by Google Microsoft Yahoo Apple whoever this week. Instead, at a Cnet panel last week Santosh Jayaram, Vice President, Business Operations, mentioned that Twitter will begin crawling the links in tweets, and then indexing those pages.

As Techcrunch rightly points out, this isn’t a matter of Twitter trying to beat Google at their main strength, traditional search, it is instead a brand new paradigm, with the promise of human-influenced, real-time search results.

Little is known about the details but there were comments made about weighting links based on influence (a la Google’s Page Rank system), but no word on how that would be done yet.

One thing is certain though, this finally offers Twitter the chance to prove its real worth. All those big companies sniffing around for the past few weeks weren’t doing so as a result of the buzz around Twitter (despite Oprah‘s growing disinterest after an initial flurry of tweets, the number of new users continues to climb), but for the oodles of data Twitter has unprecedented access to. As with Google’s purchase of Urchin a few years ago, seeing how real people behave online is inherently valuable.

How Will It Work?

Short answer: we’ll have to wait and see. Longer answer: I’m not sure, but I’d like to see something like this. A real-time search engine,which would compliment Google rather than replace it, where real people invisibly influence the search results.

For example, a current Twitter search for ‘obama‘ has thousands upon thousands of results with dozens more each few seconds. Great if you want to know what people are saying, not so useful if you want to discover what exactly they are reacting to, as you have to wade through page after page to see all the links.

Or ‘manny ramirez‘ – you’ll see lots of comments about his drug violation, and many of them also have links. The trouble is that with URL shortening, you can see what looks like 10 different links all going to the same article.

Wouldn’t it be great to have this page split into two columns, one with comments and another with the most popular linked-to articles/websites?

Of course, it will also become subject to the scourge of the internet – spammers – but that is where the relative influence of the writer comes in.

It’s easy to forget now, but before Google search engines were filled with spam. Yes, it still appears throughout the search results now,even on Google, but nothing like it was back in 1997/8, and that is largely because of Google’s PageRank system. For a detailed mathematical explanation see here, but basically Google used links to a webpage as a way of measuring its popularity,but with the very important caveat that not all links are equal.

If I run a golf course for example, a link from would be far more valuable than a link from your old Geocities page – is a popular site, and in a related field. A similar thing could be done for Twitter search, a link from ESPN columnist and professional RedSox fan Bill Simmons to a Manny Ramirez article would be worth more than one from Oprah, even though she has more followers.

And of course, Twitter search wouldn’t have to be limited to websites either. As with Google’s move towards universal search, it could easily incorporate videos, mp3s, photos, and anything else that people are discussing or linking to.

Something like this could be hugely useful, if implemented correctly. Despite Google’s success, the missing piece in their search has always been a human element. In fact they incorporate the Open Directory Project listings into their search algorithm as a way of helping to inject some personal judgment.

A search engine that shows exactly what is happening around the world right now, as discussed by real people? I can’t wait!

So what do you think? Am I missing the point? Is this another potential ‘Google-killer’ that will die on the vine? Please share your thoughts or comments.

Learn about yourself with Google

April 6, 2009 by  
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googleThere was a meme on Facebook a while back, encouraging people to Google their name plus is, to see the funny results. For instance, Googling “Simon is” (with quotes) brings up:

Simon is an Intergalactic Hardware Visionary (cool!)
Simon is not a metal or a fuel or a food or water (true, I guess)
Simon is a cheese/hamburger worker (um…)
and so on.

So, kind of funny I suppose, but it got me thinking about what Google can *really* tell you about yourself.

Hopefully everyone reading this is aware of reputation management (if not, please contact us ASAP for a consult!). I have Google alerts set up for my name, just to make sure there’s nothing said about me I wouldn’t want my mom to read. A quick search for my name brings up my website, LinkedIn page, Facebook, plus the darned Hacker thing (it’s not real. And if it was, it’s not me, I swear!).

All well and good there.

But there’s plenty more that Google knows about you, from your searching habits.

If you have a Google account, and it’s getting hard to do much on the Internet these days without one, and providing you didn’t opt-out, then Google can show you a *lot* you may not be aware of.

Go to right now. In the top right corner, click on My Account > Web History. You’ll have to sign in – Google does like to create the illusion of privacy at least – but you’ll find a treasure trove of info.

The first thing to notice is the breakdown of all your searches, dating back years. You can view all together, or break it down into the different components – Web, Images, News, etc.

Once you get over the initial shock of just how much Google has been recording quietly in the background, it’s quite interesting to flick through. Almost like reading your old diary – Burns Night 2007 for instance I was searching Yahoo Answers for ‘how do I cook a turnip’. On May 21, 2007 I googled:

‘the name hannah is far too common’

Why? I have absolutely no idea! I am intrigued though. Lots of fun stuff to look back on.

You can also see your trends, and figure out just how much of your life you owe to Google. My searches are fairly consistent during weekdays, but I search a lot more in March (average of 2098 searches) than November (1091 searches). And considering that I would never call myself a morning person, it’s odd that my most active hours are between 8 and 10am.

These trends also show you the phrases you most often search for, the sites you usually click on (Wikipedia, Youtube, IMDB and Amazon, if you’re interested) and lots more.

If you ever had any doubt about why Google is the number one search engine, this should put those to rest. Just thinking about how much they know about me, and multiplying that by the billions of searches they handle every month, well, I’m more surprised they can’t just send me what I need each day in an email, without my having to bother with all the searching at all.

Anyway, check it out. Let me know if you learn anything interesting or unexpected.

10 Free Items I Can’t Live Without

March 31, 2009 by  
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freeTalking to a client this morning,  I surprised her by admitting that I rarely pay for software. Not that I pirate it, I just have a lot of stuff that comes for free.

I’m not hard-line about it. While I admire the aims of the Free Software movement – I’m not actually against paying for stuff.  I’m writing this on a PC, with a licensed version of Windows XP. I have plenty of commercial software, MS Office, Webposition Gold, Quicken, etc, that I use pretty much daily. I just would prefer not to wherever possible.

So, for the recession-minded among you, here are the 10 free items that I use most often:

#1 with a bullet. I love Firefox. There was much rejocing in the streets with the recent news that FF had overtaken IE6 for the first time. I was astounded. People still use IE6? Why?

I tried Chrome when it came out, and was fairly underwhelmed. Certainly, at the time, there was no reason for me to switch. I love my Add-ons.  I hate working on another computer that doesn’t have Web Developer or Favicon picker or Colorzilla, and so on.

If you’re one of those that hasn’t made the switch yet (about 30% of this site’s users are reading this in Internet Explorer), I urge you to today – you won’t regret it.

I tried Twitterfox, which was ok for a while, but as the number of followers increases, a stronger tool is required to effectively manage Twitter.

Hello Tweetdeck. Customizable colors, ability to sort people into groups, and built in search functionality. Why would I use anything else?

Paint dotNetlogo3
I’ll be honest. I downloaded GIMP, the ‘Open-Source Photoshop’ that everyone raves about, but it’s too complicated for me. The same is true of Photoshop itself. However, the much smaller, much more friendly Paint dotNet works great for my very limited needs. It has layers. It does transparancy. It loads in an instant and is pretty self-explanatory. Next!filezilla

Even though I use Dreamwweaver which has its own FTP client, I still prefer to stick with Filezilla. No frills, but easy to use, stable and does exactly what you need.

Well, assuming that ‘what you need’ is an FTP client, obviously.

Google AdWords Editorgoogle_small
We manage a lot of Google accounts. Each one has a lot of Campaigns and AdGroups. To try and keep everything updated via the web interface would just be a nightmare. The Editor, though, makes things a breeze. Find and replace your ‘25% off’ ad copy with the new special in every ad takes seconds. Setting up Broad, Phrase and Exact matches for keywords, even less.

Whether you look after one account or one hundred, you’ll find life easier with this tool

CutePDF Writercpw_s
I’m not a huge fan of PDFs, but sometimes they’re needed. A client sends me their latest menu as a Word document and asks me to put it on the website – what to do? Click Print, select CutePDF Writer. Job done.

Picasa 3picasa
It took a while for me to jump on board with Picasa. Now I’m hooked.

Brings the power of Google to your stored photos – tagging, editing and organizing made simple. Plus you can share online with one-click. Oh, and the latest version also works with videos.

Ever have a computer die and take all your stuff with it? I have. Hopefully next time I’ll be more prepared, thanks largely to a great big external hard drive, and the free version of Syncback. I don’t have to worry about backing up my work/music/photos/videos as it does it all for me.

If you think this might be something you need, there’s a great How-to here.

All my family are still in the UK. I work with a Flash designer in Italy. One of my best friends lives in Tokyo. I never pay anything to talk to any of them, thanks to Skype.

The video calls on Skype 4.0 are better than ever. It has a chat feature. And it’s coming to the iPhone and Blackberry next month. Join us! You owe it to yourself!

It’s not all work, work, work! Working by myself, without the distractions of co-workers, I have to have some kind of background music. I use Last.FM and Pandora for finding new music, but I’m iTunes through and through.

Like most Apple stuff, it’s intuitive, easy, and looks great. It also doesn’t lock me into Apple. I can buy the ridiculously cheap albums from Amazon and automatically have them show in iTunes. It grabs all my podcasts from everywhere. It manages my Audible account for audio books.

Oh, and it also plays movies and tv shows, so I can catch up on Friday Night Lights from anywhere. Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose, indeed!

So, that’s my free ride. How about you? What am I missing?

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