Can Google Cure Death?

By Carl Weiss

Image representing Larry Page as depicted in C...
Everyone knows that there only two things in life of which we can all be assured: Death and Taxes.   Now one of the billionaires behind the world’s most popular search engine wants to take a crack at eliminating the first of these woes.  That’s right, Larry Page of Google has made it his stated goal to cure death.  With a war chest in the billions, I guess if anyone can take a legitimate crack at the Grim Reaper then he can. 

Not that the search for an alternative to death is new.  Before he died in 210 BC, the first sovereign emperor of China, Zhao Zheng spent much of his time and considerable wealth searching for the elixir of life.  So did the legendary Spanish Explorer Ponce de Leon, who scoured Florida in 1513 for the mythical Fountain of Youth. While both these and other historical notables had an almost obsessive desire to cheat death, none of them had access to modern  medicine, DNA research or medical miracles such as transplantation, bionics or bioprinting that are reshaping the very notion of what it is to be human.  Page on the other hand does have these and other technologies at his disposal.  And he is incorporating them into a new medical technology company called Calico.

Short for “California Life Company,” Calico sounds more like a shelter for cats than a research company.  But when you think about it, cats are supposed to have nine lives.  And so does Page’s latest venture.  Considered the brainchild of Bill Marris, Google Ventures managing partner, he became the catalyst for Calico when he noted that hundreds of companies were focused on curing a variety of medical conditions and diseases.  Yet there were no companies that focused on the root cause of disease or what caused the body to progressively fail over time.  That we understood the mechanisms involved in death, largely due to progressive genetic degradation as the body aged was not an issue.  What was at issue was whether it was possible to not only identify the specific causes of aging, but to develop treatments that would effectively slow, stop or even reverse them.

It was with this stated goal in mind that Arthur Levinson, chairman and ex-CEO of the biotechnology company Genentech was tapped to head Calico.  Currently chair of Apple Computer’s board of directors, Apple CEO Tim Cook gave Levinson and Calico his blessing by recently stating, “"For too many of our friends and family, life has been cut short or the quality of their life is too often lacking. Art is one of the crazy ones who think it doesn’t have to be this way. There is no one better suited to lead this mission and I am excited to see the results."

That other people share the belief that trying to “cure death” is a topic best relegated to the lunatic fringe along with such things as Bigfoot research is obvious.  It didn’t help matters that Larry Page was quoted in a Time Magazine interview as saying, “We think of solving cancer as this huge thing that’ll totally change the world. But when you really take a step back and look at it, yeah, there are many, many tragic cases of cancer, and it’s very, very sad, but in the aggregate, it’s not as big an advance as you might think.”

This caused other journalists to respond in kind, such as Digital Trends Andrew Couts, who wrote, “Okay, so Page doesn’t think curing cancer would be that big of a deal – a notion that I’m certain offended a great many people, researchers and victims alike. For me, however, the fact that the tech world’s elite wants to cure death – and think that they can do it – comes as little surprise: Of course they want to live forever – they’re super successful rich people!”

A clock with a 24-hour dial.But all sarcasm aside, some of the serious questions posed by Calico that need to be addressed are the following:
1.      Is it possible to reprogram or reset the body’s biological clock?
2.      If not, can the next generation of medical technology significantly extend life?
3.      Does bionics represent the ultimate solution?
4.      If it is ultimately possible to truly cheat death, what are the consequences?  

Why Can’t We Live Forever?

To start off with we have to look at the strides in longevity that have been made by mankind over the centuries.  People born in the year 1800 had an average life expectancy of 35, while those born today have a life expectancy of 75-80 years.  So what’s to keep this trend from continuing so that in the year 2200 the average human could live to 150-160 years of age? The reason we live longer than our ancestors has mostly to do with the fact that we have learned how to combat disease, treat life threatening conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer, and that we better understand the nutritional requirements of the human body. 

The problem is that even if we were to cure all disease and through a combination of radical surgical procedures including transplantation and artificial organs, be able to effectively treat all known physical maladies, this would not be sufficient to keep us alive indefinitely.  Like it or not, in each and every one of us is a ticking time bomb that ensures cell death. 

When you get right down to the basis of life, be that of a human or a simple bacteria, all revolve around mitosis, the simple act of cell division.  Research has shown that healthy cells are programmed to reproduce for a limited amount of time before they die.  In fact, if you take cells from something old and transplant them into something young, the older cells will still die at their preordained time.  This is why as people age their bones become brittle, their skin wrinkles, the hair thins and the body becomes less able to ward off disease.  We are all in a sense programmed to self-destruct.

The phenomenon known as the Hayflick Limit has been known since 1961 when Dr. Leonard Hayflick, Professor of Medical Biology at Stanford University, first discovered that human cells divide a limited number of times in vitro. Author of the book “How and Why We Age,” first published in 1994, Hayflick demonstrated that during continued mitosis the end of the chromosome called the Telomere progressively degrades.  This means that through repeated division, the enzymes that duplicate DNA produce copy errors that ultimately affects cell replication.  He also showed that when this mechanism broke down it resulted in either cell death or malignancy.  That’s right sports fans, cancer cells while deadly can live forever.

Enter the Methuselah Mice

Of course that didn’t stop other researchers from looking for a way of slowing the process down.  While many have espoused the ingestion of compounds known to halt the production of cell damaging free radicals, others think that telomerase, an enzyme that mends the protective covering on cells could be the answer.  The problem is that to date no studies have yet proven that either of these concepts has been able to significantly increase the lifespan of mammals. 

However, a series of experiments with mice began in 1986 by Roy Walford and Richard Weindruch reported that by restricting their diet by 30 percent that mice could live up to twice as long as those fed a normal diet.   Before you start pulling in your belt and breaking out your Adkins Diet Plan, let me also point out that the same experiment was performed with rhesus monkeys begun in 1987 by the National Institute on Aging, which while reporting health benefits did not demonstrate increased lifespan.


What immortality in essence boils down to is correcting the built-in genetic copy error while preventing immortal cells from replicating uncontrollably into cancer.  When you consider that until recently such things as gene splicing and gene therapy were the stuff of science fiction then it’s entirely possible that eventually it might be possible to program our genes to turn off the self-destruct mechanism.  If that doesn’t work there are other paths to immortality.  

Take entrepreneur and author Ray Kurzweil for instance. 

Described as “the restless genius” by The Wall Street Journal, and “the ultimate thinking machine” by Forbes. Inc. magazine which ranked him #8 among entrepreneurs in the United States, calling him the “rightful heir to Thomas Edison.”  Ray was the principal inventor of the first CCD flatbed scanner, the first omni-font optical character recognition, the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, the first text-to-speech synthesizer, the first music synthesizer capable of recreating the grand piano and other orchestral instruments, and the first commercially marketed large-vocabulary speech recognition.  Ray is the recipient of the $500,000 MIT-Lemelson Prize, the world’s largest for innovation. In 1999, he received the National Medal of Technology, the nation’s highest honor in technology, from President Clinton in a White House ceremony. And in 2002, he was inducted into the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame, established by the U.S. Patent Office.

Among other claims, Ray has also postulated that by 2045, an event known as "the singularity" will occur, allowing humans to fully integrate their psyches with machines. Were that to happen, all any of us who could afford it would have to do to cheat death would be to upload what we call our personality into that of a robot and voila, instant immortality.

So enamored with this concept was he that Russian billionaire Dmitry Itskov has already begun construction of a robotic replica of himself so that once the technology of mind transfer has been worked out he can be the first billionaire on the block to merge with a machine.  Since he is currently 32 years old this will make him only 55 years old in 2045, which gives him a certain amount of wiggle room should the technology take a bit longer to become a reality.

What Happens if We Get it Right?

Just like the Wright Brothers being the first to fly with wings, or Neil Armstrong standing on the surface of the Moon, if mankind puts its mind to a problem then there is a high probability that we can solve most any problem.  The real problem as I see it isn’t a matter of technology.  The problem is more about practicality.  In other words, what happens if we get it right?

Think about the ramifications of immortality.  Currently there are more than 7 billion people living on planet Earth.  Even taking into consideration such things as accidental death and homicide, if we all woke up tomorrow morning with the realization that we would never die, how long would it be before we all starved to death?  Considering that it currently takes our global population of mere mortals less than 40 years on average to double, this would ensure the fact that within a generation or two we would all face starvation since I don’t know of any technology that would enable us to keep 20 billion people fed and we haven’t yet invented starships capable of interstellar travel.

Of course, like most other technologies, it will in all likelihood take a number of years for the benefits of immortality to reach the masses.  In which case, this means that only the wealthy will be able to afford such a luxury.  This could also prove problematic since this would enable the super-rich to consolidate their power which is usually the way in which most revolutions have been fomented since human civilization began.  

Even for those in possession of immortality, it could prove more of a curse than a gift.  A number of fictional works have been penned over the years about the perils associated with eternal life.  In the Picture of Dorian Gray, the main character barters his soul for eternal youth only to pay the price in depravity and despair down the road as everyone around him ages and dies. 

As usual with human knowledge, wisdom in many cases takes a back seat. If the Wright Brothers had foreseen what would become of their invention, where forty short years later entire cities were being carpet bombed and millions of civilians killed, would they have stuck to building bicycles?  Who knows, but for what it’s worth if it came down to a choice between curing death or taxes, I for one would rather see all of us a little richer rather than a whole lot older.

Carl Weiss is president of WSquared media Group, a digital media agency in Jacksonville, Florida.  He is also co-host of Working the Web to Win which can be heard on Blog Talk Radio every Tuesday at 4 pm Eastern and seen on YouTube.

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The Smartest Guys in the Room

By Carl Weiss

When it comes to revolutionizing the way in which we perceive and operate in the world as we know it, the Internet has without a doubt been one of the most important inventions ever created.  And like many inventions, the web was the result of a lot of labor by a number of talented people.  Some of those people wound up being relegated to footnote status while others went onto become Internet icons.

The Internet was actually an outgrowth of the ARPANET, which was a cold war project designed to safeguard government communications in case of nuclear attack by the Soviet Union.  Developed in the sixties and seventies, the ARPANET program led to t a number of internet protocols such as TCP/IP that formed the foundation for internetworking that we all use today.

wozniak_jobs (Photo credit: Revolweb)
The only problem was that back in the sixties and through much of the seventies, the only people who had access to computers were governments, fortune 500 companies and universities.  Then in 1976 a couple of guys named Steve invented and began selling one of the first practical microcomputers, called the Apple.  The problem back then was that these fledgling computers were not very powerful and they were expensive.  The first Apple sold for $666.66.  This was at a time when many compact cars sold for a couple thousand dollars.

Add to this the fact that their computer didn’t do a lot and it was obvious that they would have to woo a number of software developers.  Some of these included Fred Gibbons, Mitch Kapor and Bill Gates.  While people think of Microsoft as being a mortal enemy of Apple, back then the two were kissing cousins.  It wasn’t until a few years later with the advent of the IBM PC that the lines were drawn in the sand between Apple vs PC and the two wound up in opposing camps.  In the early days not only did every Apple computer come equipped with Gate’s version of Basic, but in a 1983 interview Bill  stated that he expected to generate half of Microsoft’s revenues in 1984 from Macintosh software alone.

While many people don’t instantly recall who Fred Gibbons and Mitch Kapor were back then, their contributions kept Apple’s train on the tracks during the early half of the eighties.  Fred’s company Software Publishing Company created a number of software products, chief among them being Harvard Graphics, which brought on-screen graphics capabilities to early versions of the Apple. 

Mitch Kapor developer of Lotus 1-2-3 was one of the rock stars of software development in the early days of personal computing.  In fact Lotus 1-2-3 became one of microcomputing’s first killer apps which would eventually contribute to the popularity of Apple’s nemesis, the IBM PC.  That doesn’t mean that there weren’t other software developers on the hunt for other killer apps.  In fact, Lotus 1-2-3 was an offshoot of another earlier spreadsheet program called Visicalc. 

Of course, competition among software developers was not the only place where the microcomputer war was heating up.  Back then there were a number of companies trying to muscle in on the hardware game as well.  Chief among them was Tandy Radio Shack whose TRS-80 was a popular brand at the time.   (Although it didn’t help that denigrators of the brand used to refer to it as the Trash Eighty.)  The Commodore 64 was another successful brand, selling some 17 million units sold. 

The first developers of IBM PC computers negle...
The first developers of IBM PC computers neglected audio capabilities (first IBM model, 1981). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
This is when the titan of computer manufacturing decided to get into the game with a micro of its own.  By 1980 more than 50 microcomputer systems were on the market.  This is when IBM decided it was time to join the fray.  Before 1981, IBM was the dominant player when it came to mainframe computers.  They had never even considered creating a microcomputer.  In fact, so sudden was their entry into this burgeoning market that they did something unprecedented.  Instead of taking the time to create an entirely proprietary product, they instead cobbled together the IBM PC with mostly off-the-shelf technology.  (They didn’t even have an operating system for a PC, which opened the door for Bill Gates whose MS-DOS system quickly became the defacto operating system for the IBM PC along with an eventual swarm of clones.)

So many competitors began to pile on that even those who had enjoyed hegemony during the early going (such as Apple) began to feel the heat.  By 1982, the marketplace had reached critical mass and a shakeout was inevitable.  Not wanting to wind up kicked to the curb, Steve Jobs at Apple decided it was time to reinvent itself by once again looking into the crystal ball to determine where personal computing was headed.  So taking $50 million of the company’s money, Steve assembled a team of the best and brightest at Apple and created what he thought would be the next leap forward in personal computing technology.  Called Lisa, the computer was released in January of 1984 priced between $3,495 and $5,495Even though the system was well ahead of its time, commercially its launch was hailed as a failure, one that would ultimately cost Jobs his job. (The release later that year of the Macintosh, which was both faster and cheaper saved Apple from joining the technological scrap heap wherein many of its competitors wound up.)

Image representing NeXT as depicted in CrunchBase
This failure did not deter Jobs, who along with several other ousted Apple employees went onto start NeXT Computer, Inc. in 1995.  While NeXT only sold around 50,000 units and was ultimately absorbed by Apple for $429 million, several of the concepts developed at NeXT were incorporated into later Apple systems, including parts of the OS X and IOS operating systems.  During his hiatus from Apple, Steve Jobs also dabbled with another company called Pixar, in which even George Lucas had lost faith.  Pixar would later go onto produce a number of animated features some of which would receive Academy awards.  Jobs also clearly had a bead on the NeXT big trend of the 1990’s which he referred to as interpersonal computing that would soon appear with an eerily similar moniker: The Internet. 

The term Internet was actually coined back in 1974 as an abbreviation to the term “internetworking”.  Of course, at that time, the only entities internetworking were military sites and universities.  However, by the 1980’s NASA joined the fray by developing the NASA Science Network which allowed scientists to share data on a global basis.  This eventually coalesced into the NASA Science Internet, which eventually connected more than 20,000 scientists worldwide.  As interest in worldwide networking grew, the technology spawned other early adopters, such as Usenet, UUCPNet, FidoNet, JUNET and NSFNET.   During the late 1980’s the first Internet service providers were formed, starting with the first commercial dialup service in the US called The World.

By the early 1990’s search engines such as Archie and Gopher sprung up, along with the first web browsers, such as ViolaWWW.  While a far cry from the multi-media offerings we have come to know and expect today, these early search engines and browsers offered little more than text-only listings more reminiscent of Craigslist than Google.  That did not mean that there wasn’t market share to be had. 

As the World Wide Web grew, search engines and web directories began to spring up like weeds with such names as WebCrawler, Lycos, HotBot, Excite, Yahoo (founded in 1994) and AltaVista.  Also several new web browsers hit the market, the most notable of which was Netscape, that appeared in 1994.  Clearly a cut above other web browsers, Netscape Navigator was the gold standard for surfing the web in the 1990’s.  In fact the product was such a hit that only 16 months after its inception, the company went public with its stock soaring from $28 to $58 on the opening day.  It also began the feeding frenzy later called the Tech Bubble that would run rampant for the next six years creating a number of billionaires in the process.

Bill Gates
One such billionaire definitely took notice of Netscape in a big way.  Bill Gates at Microsoft knew a good thing when he saw it.  And he knew that Microsoft had to stake a claim on the Internet.  By August of 1995 Microsoft announced the introduction of Internet Explorer 1.0.  While it took Microsoft more than 5 years to gain the upper hand over Netscape, their dominance in the operating system market opened the doors for them to chip away at Netscape’s market share.  So much so that by June of 2006 went dark for good.  That would seem like good news to Bill at Microsoft.  It probably would have been had it not been for one other upstart named Google.

Begun in March of 1996 as a research project by two Stanford students named Larry Page and Sergey Brin, their original idea had not been to design a web browser or search engine for that matter.  What they were out to develop was the world’s first digital library.  In search of a dissertation theme, Page considered exploring the mathematical properties of the Internet by turning its structure into a gigantic graph.  Page’s web crawling software called BackRub began exploring the web autonomously with Page’s own website serving as ground zero.  His research along Brin’s help eventually morphed into an algorithm that the pair named PageRank, which became the nexus for their Google search engine, which was registered on September 15, 1997.

Google Chrome
Google Chrome (Photo credit:
By December 1998, Google had an index of about 60 million pages.  But already a number of Internet gurus were arguing that Google’s search results were superior to those of its competitors.  In March 1999 the company moved to Palo Alto.  In June of that same year they secured $25 million in equity capital from venture capital firms Kleiner Perkins Caulfield and Sequoia Capital.  While Brin and Page were hesitant to take the company public, it was Google’s IPO on August 19, 2004 that shook the pillars of the Internet that would ultimately see Google as not only the dominant search engine online, but it would also enable the company to own the world’s most popular web browser (Chrome), the world’s most popular video portal (YouTube) and the world’s most popular cellphone operating system (Android).

Of course, like a many innovators that came before them, that doesn’t mean that the latest successors to the Internet crown are always omniscient.  Several of Google’s latest tech forays have yet to come to roost, including a computer worn on your face (Google Glass), a pair of mysterious barges berthed in San Francisco Bay and Maine, and communication blimps that are designed to bring the Internet to sub- Saharan Africa.

Not to be outdone, Apple announced a product a year ago that while intriguing has yet to hit the market called the iWatch.  Love them or hate them, one thing you can say about the smartest guys in the room is that they will never leave you bored.  I can’t wait to see what comes NeXT.

Carl Weiss is president of W Squared Media Group, a digital media agency located in Jacksonville, Florida.  He is also co-host of Working the Web To Win that is broadcast on BlogTalkRadio and YouTube every Tuesday at 4 pm Eastern.

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The Iron Fist in a Silk Glove

By Carl Weiss

Extent of Silk Route/Silk Road. Red is land ro...
Extent of Silk Route/Silk Road. Red is land route and the blue is the sea/water route. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In ancient times the route known as the Silk Road was a major source of trade that connected East and West.  Delivering everything from Chinese silk to spices and precious gems, this trade route used everything from camels to fragile wooden boats to create a web of commerce that covered the known world.  Two millennia later, this concept was reborn online in a web portal of the same name.  The chief difference is that while the digital Silk Road did indeed concern itself with connecting a worldwide web of virtual traders, these entrepreneurs did not deal in frankincense and myrrh, but in a cornucopia of contraband that openly advertised everything from cannabis to Cocaine and firearms to forgeries.

Allegedly operated by 29-year old Ross Ulbricht, who went by the moniker Dread Pirate Roberts, this eBay of the underworld plied its trade more or less in the open for some two years until the illicit empire came crashing down after the FBI arrested him on October 1 in San Francisco.   Busted in of all places a public library, the arrest was the culmination of a cyber-sleuthing operation that had taken more than a year and involved the FBI, the ATF, and US Customs.  Among other things, Ulbricht was charged with drug trafficking, money laundering and attempted murder.

By the following day, news of the arrest was making headlines around the world.  By Thursday of the same week, the infamous website had been shut down and a notice was posted by the authorities that notified any interested party that the site had been seized by the Feds.  Also confiscated was a digital wallet that contained thousands of Bitcoins reportedly worth more than four million dollars. During the height of the illegal enterprise, Ulbricht allegedly racked up commissions of $20,000 per day totaling more than $80 million according to authorities.  During the two years that the site operated, it was reported that nearly one million anonymous customers conducted some $1.2 billion in sales through the portal.

What was not surprising was that it was possible to conduct the sale of contraband online.  What was surprising was the sheer volume of the operation, combined with a level of sophistication that made it very hard for the authorities to follow the customers of Silk Road or the money that traded hands.  (In fact, all transactions made on the site were conducted using Bitcoins, a so called crypto currency that uses encryption to control transactions.)

What was also surprising were the lengths to which the operator of Silk Road was allegedly prepared to go to keep the portal operating. According to an article in the Guardian, Chillingly, the FBI indictments also claimed Ulbricht had ordered two hits against people whom he thought might expose his clients, one against an "employee" of Silk Road in January 2013 and then against someone, who was in fact an undercover agent, threatening to leak the names of his clientele. In the first hit, police say Ulbricht offered $40,000 for the job, and asked for "proof of death" in the form of a video.”

Also surprised were two of the men who had rented a room in their San Francisco home to Ulbricht.  He had answered a Craigslist ad and identified himself to the other two tenants as Josh, a Texas man who had just moved back to the states from Sydney, Australia.  For a man who was purportedly raking in $20,000 per day, Ulbricht apparently spent very little since his rent was only $1,250 per month and according to his housemates, he almost never went out and made it a habit to eat in.

In fact, many people who read the headlines in the San Francisco Examiner were shocked that Ulbricht had chosen to live and operate in San Francisco. Stranger still was the fact that while he had been running Silk Road he had even granted interviews to journalists.

Quote from the Guardian: "When you start giving interviews like the CEO of an established company, it's just wrong," says Pavel Durov, another 29-year-old technologist who recently visited San Francisco and had been following the story of the Dread Pirate.”

Indeed, the 29-year old Texan acted as though he was CEO of a Silicon Valley startup, rather than one of America’s Most Wanted.  Had he been running his far flung online enterprise from say Rio de Janeiro it would have made prosecution that much more difficult. 

This in itself is almost an irony, considering the fact that every transaction made on Silk Road was so closely guarded.  Using the same technology created by the Department of Defense to hide military communications, Silk Road was able to transmit information using a computer network called TOR. (The Onion Router)  TOR’s job was to encrypt and transmit data using a number of different servers.  This would make it not only exceedingly difficult to collect and decrypt the entire message, but it would also make it nearly impossible to track the identity and location of the networks users.  Indeed, this was Silk Road’s unique selling proposition.  They routinely told prospective clients that no matter what they promoted on the site that neither their activities nor their identities could be traced by law enforcement.

While the FBI hasn’t exactly been forthcoming on how they were able to not only identify the server locations, much less mirror Silk Road’s content in order to zero in on the bad guys, this much is certain.  In the end the Feds used the same kind of underhanded tactics that supported the network in order to bring it down.

From a blog in Online CasinoNews: Nicholas Weaver, a researcher at the International Computer Science Institute in Berkeley, California specializing in network security and underground economics, says his best guess from reading court papers is that feds were able to crack the computer codes used to keep Silk Road operational, after which they could access the servers and grab IDs and addresses. Armed with that info, the G-men could find the physical servers and work with local law enforcement where the servers were located to seize them and then ultimately, the perps as well.”

Of course, it also didn’t hurt that the FBI had put the strong arm on Ulbricht’s right hand man, Curtis Clark Green, who recently confessed to being a member of Silk Road.  Green was also one of the people on whom Ulbricht reportedly put out a contract.  Court documents filed against Ulbricht alleges that he had become aware of an employee’s contact with federal agents and had offered $80,000 to have the employee killed.  While Green’s name was not revealed in the complaint it is implied, since Ulbricht is currently being held at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, while Green was conditionally released.

The real tragedy was not that it took federal agents the better part of two years to put paid to one of the most brazen criminal enterprises to ever hit the Internet.  The real tragedy is that less than one month after Silk Road went dark it is back in business, according to

“Silk Road 2.0 emerged Wednesday alongside a number of other sites offering similar services. The new Silk Road, like the original, offers everything from prescription medication to heroin. The new Silk Road owner also took on the pseudonym of former leader Ross Ulbricht, Dread Pirate Roberts.  According to one former Silk Road user, the site was rebuilt by most of the major players who were heavily involved in day-to-day operations of the former site.”

Just like any number of other online portals, as long as there is a marketplace of willing buyers and sellers, there will always be those who are ready, willing and able to set up a venue to facilitate them.  Aside from Silk Road 2.0 there are other sites looking to fill this illicit vacuum, including such portals as Black-market Reloaded and Sheep Marketplace.  (Quoted from

While the Feds were able to put one online operator of black market goods out of operation, the question is whether this act killed the snake, or simply cut it into a many-headed hydra that will come back to life bigger and badder than the original like an iron fist in a silk glove

Carl Weiss is co-host of Working the Web to Win which airs every Tuesday at 4 pm Eastern.

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Run a FREE Contest on Facebook

By hector Cisneros

Facebook logo EspaƱol: Logotipo de Facebook Fr...
If you want to grow your Facebook fan base, this blog is for you. Facebook recently chang
ed its rules on running online contests. Unlike in the past, now you can create a contest without having to purchase additional services or 3rd party apps.  The downside is that there are some pitfalls you have to avoid to keep your account from being suspended. Breaking Facebook's hidden rules can stop you cold. This article will cover what has changed and what to watch out for, as well as providing you with the ins and outs of implementing your contest with and without apps.  If after all that you still want to know more about how to set up and run a free Facebook contest, tune in and turn on this week's episode of Working the Web to Win at 4 PM Eastern on Tuesday November 5.

Out with the Old and In with the New

Prior to August 27th, 2013 Facebook required that you use a third party application if you were going to run any kind of contest on their site. On top of that, you were required to get prior written permission and also were required to have a Facebook marketing rep assigned to help you create, run and manage any contest on the world's most popular social site. Today FB allows businesses to run contests directly on fan pages without purchasing a third party app. However, you have to cross your T’s and dot the I's because if your wording does’t strictly adhere to their guidelines, they will pull your contest and could possibly suspend your account.

We recently ran a contest for one of our clients using the exact wording listed on the Facebook Promotion Guidelines page and had to revise it 4 days into the contest. The Promotional Guidelines pages were missing several poignant details. What it offers are the basic rules, an example, some Best Practices and some frequently asked questions. What it doesn’t tell you is that the example they use is incomplete. The example leaves out the disclaimer Facebook wants you to include in your caption absolving them of any responsibility. It also leaves out that your contest rule details need to also be listed.

Back to Basics
English: The Facebook Man. Facebook is celebra...

1.    What is now considered a promotion on Facebook? Anything that requires an “entry/registration, element  or provides a giveaway or prize.
2.    Facebook removed the requirement that promotions must be administered via an application.
3.    You can now administer your contest by monitoring the Fan Page time line. However it cannot be your personal timeline.
4.    You can collect entries by having a user post on your page, comment on your page, like a post, comment on a post, or have a user message your Fan page directly.  
5.    Accurate tagging of people in photos is required in a photo contest. It’s now OK to ask people to submit names for a new product in exchange for a chance to win a prize. However,  it’s not OK to ask people to tag themselves in pictures of a new product in exchange for a chance to win a prize.
Facebook states that their motivation for this is to make it easier for businesses of any size to run contests on their site. Having said that, they have also made it easier for you to spend money promoting your contest with pay per click promotion tools. Under their best practices section, they list “Amplify your Promotions – Create Promoted Post or ads for your Page post to broaden the reach of your promotion. I won’t disagree that promoting your post will produce greater reach but I am sure that they are trying to get more revenue from the promotions where in the past the app companies were getting the lion’s share of the revenue.  Either way following Facebook’s Best Practices is a must. See these three links for details. Facebook NewsFacebook Advertising Guidelines and Facebook Page Terms. After all the confusion that was created by their original “Facebook’s Promotion Guidelines”, they updated their advertising guidelines  on October 22nd, 2013. 

Pro’s and Con’s
Me and my 542 bestest friends (on Facebook)
Me and my 542 bestest friends (on Facebook) (Photo credit: tychay)
PRO - It’s free. It doesn’t get any less expensive to run a contest that this. Your cost is yo
ur time and your prizes, period.
CON – You have to be a little creative to find a good picture, figure out how you want people to vote and come up with your contest objectives. This will take a little time and you may have to run several contests to figure out what works best for your company. Also if you break any Facebook’s posting rules you can be suspended.
PRO – It's relatively easy to setup and run. You can find lots of examples where you can copy the verbiage from someone else's contest and reword it so that it now fits your contest.
CON – If you make a mistake in your verbiage, Facebook will pull your contest post and send you a stern warning that you have violated their rules. It further says, any other violations can lead to suspension or removal of your account!
PRO – This type of contest can make it simple to manage a short duration contest (less than a couple of weeks). It also works well if you don’t have more than one hundred entries.
CON – You never know how may people will enter. If your contest takes off, it will be much harder to manage.
PRO – You can use Facebook’s insights page to view your basic contest statistics.
CON - Fully understanding what is represented by your contest's statistics will not be so easy, nor will you be able to measure specific statistics for demographics, psychographics and more.
PRO – You can ask participants to message you with their email address to insure they are entered.
CON – There is no automatic way to capture participants email or other information.
PRO – Your rules can be simple and listed either on the photo or as part of the caption.
CON – Make sure you provide rule details, (age limits, time frame, how to retrieve your prize etc..). If your rules are either too complicated or too long, this kind of contest may not work for you.  If you don’t follow Facebook’s rules to the letter, they could pull your contest post, send you a stern warning and/or could suspend your site. 

I started researching this subject in the end of August when Facebook broke the news of the contest changes. I read dozens of articles on top of what Facebook has released. Facebook releases a video with the head of their promotions department explaining the rules. Check out what she had to say about the new rules.

 A couple of good articles that provide additional examples come from the Social media Examiner. The first I would like to mention is “New Facebook Contest and Promotion Rules: What You Need to Know”. The second article I believe is worth reading is “How to Run a Facebook Timeline Promotion: 6 Tips for Success.

Are Applications Dead?

Does the introduction of on-page contest mean that contest apps are done for? Absolutely not! There are many reasons why a company would still use an on-page application. 

·         Facebook approved third party apps allow you to gather additional analytic information about your contest. This can include home many people clicked to view verses the actual number of people that click, posted or like your contest.
      ·         Facebook approved applications allow you to build more elaborate rules and usually include Facebook’s disclaimers built in. If your rules are elaborate, they will be harder to show on a timeline managed contest.
      ·         Facebook approved Apps are generally not confused as spam. 
      ·         Facebook approved Apps generally allow you to maintain your company's brand.
      ·         Facebook approved Apps look more professional than just having a photo/comment contest.
      ·         Facebook approved Apps stay in the same place on the page. Your own page managed contest will most likely move down the time like making it harder for people to find it.
      ·         Facebook approved Apps also can hide the results of the contest as it plays out. This means competitors and participants can only see what you want them to see.
      ·         With some third party Facebook approved Apps, you can require that fans Like your page, allowing you to grow your Fan base. If growth is your goal, this is important.
      ·         Facebook approved Apps allow you to gather email address for those who enter. Non app contest requires you to ask the participants to message you directly. This usually has a lower compliance than an app.
      ·         Facebook approved Apps can provide for opt-in forms allowing you to gather more information about the people entering your contest.
      ·         Facebook approved Apps allow you more choices in how a participant interacts in the contest. Voting can be done via check boxes, uploaded videos, pictures, slideshows and more.
      ·         Facebook approved Apps allow you to incentivise sharing. You can not do this with on page administered contest.
      ·         With a Facebook approved third party application you have more control over the contest. This reduces the risk of cheating, or someone gaming your contest because you forgot to list a specific rule.

The bottom line is that there are many ways a businesses can administer a Facebook contest without incurring a large expense. This article has provided not only the basic rules that are now in place. I have also provided detailed information that explains how to avoid some of the pitfalls that many people fell into when the changes were first launched.

Hector Cisneros is a partner, COO and social media director for WSquared Media Group based in Jacksonville, FL. You can connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, and YouTube. He is also the co-host of Blog Talk Radio’s “Working the Web to Win,” where he and Carl Weiss make Working the Web to Win simple for every business. 
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